The AppleMatters Interview: Herbie Hancock

by Hadley Stern Mar 11, 2005

Herbie Hancock is jazz. From his early work with his mentor Miles Davis, to his later exploration into electronic sounds, the great American art form, Jazz, has been Hancock’s home base. Hancock has deftly enriched traditional acoustic jazz, electronic jazz, funk, and electronica moving from one form to another with great alacrity. It is not every artist who can release a critically acclaimed acoustic album, Gershwin’s World and a few years later release an electronic album, Future 2 Future to similar accolades.

Through it all Apple technology has helped Herbie Hancock create his music and enrich his life. In this in-depth interview Hancock talks with AppleMatters about Apple II’s, Lisa’s, iPods, Macs and how even if he wasn’t a musician he’d still be a Mac user.

Hadley Stern: What was your first Apple product?

Herbie Hancock: The Apple II plus

And were you using it for music?

(laughter) No. You couldn’t use it for music back then. This is 1979 and the only thing there wasn’t a whole lot of software then. There was a program called Visicalc that had just come out, a spreadsheet program.

So you were using it for finance, calculations?

I was just playing around with it. I saw it, thought it was a neat program. I used my first Apple for other things, like to-do lists, a database program.

When was the first time you used Apple for your music?

There was a digital synthesizer that came out a long time ago called an Alpha Centauri. And I was actually on the board of directors of the company, I was asked to be on board by the president of the company. I first saw the instrument at a convention, an Apple convention. I think at the time the Apple III was already out and maybe the Apple Iic, I’m not sure. I was on the board with Steve Wozniak. So that was exciting because that was the beginning of using an Apple product for music.

When I first got the Apple II plus my tech guy, Brian Bell (who suggested I get it)...his mentor was the one who suggested we should get it…basic was built in and my tech guy began programming the Apple II plus in basic. It was a thing he called Cosmic Keyboards. This was the beginning of my whole relationship with Apple products.

So was the Alpha Centauri the first time you used an Apple in production?

Well, no, Cosmic Keyboard was first. I was first using a digital keyboard made by Emu called a C114, I’m not sure if that’s the right model number. It was a digital keyboard controller with a keypad that you could connect synthesizers to. We connected the Apple II plus to it. I was able to program several instruments with it. Today this is common place, but this was all new back then. This was all happening at the same time as the Alpha Centauri. Alpha Centauri was a keyboard but it had Apple software so it worked.

Was this the kind of thing you would bring into the studio with you?

The Alpha Centauri you could, but it was more of a consumer rather than a professional product. They were hoping to develop it more but what killed them was Yamaha coming out with the DX7. So Alpha Centauri eventually closed shop.

Then the Macintosh came out?

Well, first there was the Lisa.

Did you use the Lisa?

I actually had people developing hardware to work with the Lisa. We knew that the Z8000 chip was coming out which was a 16-bit chip from Zylog. We wanted to be ahead of everybody. I had this guy who made a 16-bit compiler inside of the Apple II which is 8-bit. We got the configuration from Zylog ahead of time. So then it got released, but it got released to the Navy and they didn’t have any chips to spare us. We were actually able to complete the job by getting some chips that were rejects. They worked enough for us to finish for development.

Were you planning on releasing this product or just using it for yourself?

I was gonna use it myself first and then release it afterwards if it came to that. It was a digital patch bay and a digital switcher for keyboards and it was also integrated with the Emu digital keyboard. It was basically a black box.

Did it perform the way you wanted it to?

It didn’t quite work (laughter). There were still bugs in it and I couldn’t afford to finish it up. My funds were limited, I didn’t have any investors. I still have the black box.

Did Apple know what you were doing around the Lisa time

No, we were just kinda buying the product and trying stuff on our own.

When did you first talk with Apple?

I had met Steve Wozniak at the US Festival that he had in LA, years ago. A year later we saw each other again on the board of Alphacentura. But I hadn’t met Steve Jobs till the announcement of the Apple IIC. I had a record, Headhunters, and the Headhunters band played at the launch of the Apple IIC. They had a big thing in San Francisco, I think it was at the Moscone Center. It was something for all Job’s employees and they hired the band to play for that.

It was much later on that I joined this thing called AppleMasters. Apple had that program for a few years and they dropped it about a year ago.

It was an interesting program, do you know why they dropped it?

There was some flak about who Apple was designating as AppleMasters they were saying, oh, we need to get Eminem and Britney Spears but they were getting James Woods, Gregory Hines, and me, and Kathleen Kennedy and Gus Van Zant, Jennifer Jason Leigh and I mean they didn’t pay us anything. For example we were invited to Sundance one year because Apple was doing something with Canon but also because Macs were used for film editing. Anyway, James Woods, Kathleen Kenned, Gus Van Zant and I. We had a great time. Apple paid for everything but they didn’t pay us a salary. We had to speak at an event they had there. We had a great time. Maybe they gave us some product. Sometimes if I did something for Apple I’d get a laptop or something.

When you first used a Macintosh did you recognize or think it was a big leap from the Apple II and the Lisa?

Oh well let me tell you first that the Mac technology was in the Lisa first. This was a GUI—the first one—completely different. What happened was Apple was having a convention in, I think, Acapulco for their sales representatives world wide and they were going to announce it in house first to their sales force. A friend of mine who I knew was connected with a particular recording studio, called me up and said look, Apple is doing this announcement in Acapulco and they want me to write the music for this presentation but he said I know you are interested in Apple. Basically he said if you work on this thing with me you can get this new expensive product. So he said I can’t talk about it on the phone if you do it you’ve got to sign a non-disclosure and all that. So I agreed to it and then he showed me some of the footage that he had to write the music to and it blew my mind! It just knocked me out, I’d never seen anything like that. Who had seen anything like that? Nobody. The interesting thing is they got that technology from Alan Kay, right?

Yes, from Xerox.

Before 1979, around that time I knew a guy who was a Zen Buddhist, I’m a Buddhist by the way, but not a Zen Buddhist, in San Francisco. He was actually the Roshi. The reason I met this guy was because a girl who used to live in my building when I lived in New York became a Zen Buddhist and became the best friend of this Roshi’s wife. And this friend of mine invited me to come to this Zen center in San Francisco when I was visiting there. And I said sure. I was actually playing in the Bay Area and I stayed at the Zen center for a few nights. On a day off this guy said they were doing a few things down there at Xerox and I know someone there, wanna go visit? So I said sure. So I went and that’s when I met Alan Kay and saw what they were doing. I got the tour.

You got the same tour Steve Jobs got. That’s amazing.

You are right. But it was hard to believe it (the GUI) was possible. You know what Alan Kay said then? He said one day you’ll see kids go to school with a notebook and they’ll open it up and on one side will be a screen and on the other side will be a keyboard. I said you’re out of your fucking mind (laughter). And he said, you’ll be able to do everything on it. You’ll be able to draw, and paint, and color, and make music. He had separate modules doing that but I think there were using the same computer technology. They put together their own computer to do it. They each had separate departments. One guy was doing the paint stuff, another guy the music stuff. At that time they had brushes that had different designs to them already. They had about ten different brush shapes to them. It was a whole different new idea.

It’s incredible how far we’ve come.

And in such a short time.

Are you still using Macs to make music today?

Oh yeah, and I’ve got Logic, Digital Performer, and QB, on my Macs.

Are you using OS X now?

I was using it before other musicians were using it.

Do you like it?

I hate OS 9 (laughter). I hate going back to that.

It feels weird going back, did it used to crash on you a lot?

Oh yeah. And then the whole computer would go down. It’s so great to have multi-tasking.  Oh, by the way, if I remember correctly the Lisa could do multi-tasking, that was kind of late development for Macs I can’t wait for Panther now.

Are all your music programs OS X now?

Yeah, you know the program Finale. Well in a couple of months they will have their OS X version finally. Well, you know I switched to Sibelius. I said to heck with Finale, Sibelius works pretty much as well as Finale. So I switched (laughs!)

Do you use the computer in your live shows?

Over the past couple of years I’ve been doing acoustic Jazz but before that I had a record called Future to Future. When we toured with that we had two keyboard players. We both had PowerBooks and we also were running the graphics program that is included with iTunes. We were using the graphics because it seems to respond to the music and it’s fascinating to play and you have this graphic thing automatically and you don’t have to do anyt. It’s in sync with what is happening with the music, and it looks beautiful.

It’s like a visualization of your music.

Right. And we were using that in the background. But it’s also kind of independent; it had its own thing happening. But we also went out with surround sound and we were using a Mac for?.first of all we had two engineers?one did the regular front of house stereo stuff and the other engineer handled the surround speakers’the side speaker and rear speakers and he was using a Mac for that. And on stage we were using software synthesizers from eMagic that were in the Mac. I was using a Rhode sound that was in the Mac and a clavinet sound and some other sounds’that was what we were using Macs for and it worked out perfectly.

So what are your latest music projects?

I’ve been working acoustically for the past couple of years. That’s my home base, where I go back to. But we are just putting together preliminary ideas about who could be involved in an electric project. I won’t even call it an electric project its going to be a combination of things?I’m more interested in combinations of things now than separating things. I like combining different avenues.

Has the whole explosion of electronic music caught you by surprise?

Well the Future to Future thing is in that kind of area of electronica. It’s in explosion everywhere but in the United States. It’s here but it’s very much underground. But in Germany, and in France. Huge. Not huge like the biggest pop stars but it’s the cutting edge stuff that the general population is aware of.

I notice you have some music up on the iTunes store but it’s mostly your back catalogue. Do you have any control over that or is just something done with the record label and Apple?

No, I have no say in that. They own my performances and they can do what they want, they don’t need my permission.

Are you happy that your music is for sale digitally?

I’m happy my music is for sale on the iTunes music store. The iTunes music store is wonderful. I remember the first day it became available I went and I sat and I said, ?let me see how this works.” And it’s so easy to do, it’s like nothing. And once I get my credit card in there?I’m not that worried about the invasion of my privacy?I haven’t been messed with before. So now I just click on something and it downloads and I don’t have to worry about it. But you can wind up spending a lot of money (laughs).

Do you own an iPod?

Yeah, I own three iPods!

What do you think of them?

I think they are great. I actually gave one to my daughter.

Has it changed at all the way you listen to music?

No. Not for me, for a lot of people it might. I actually don’t use it that much. When I’m on the plane, for example, if I want to hear?.I always take my PowerBook so everything is there?and I can do more things than just listen to music?but I don’t always listen to music, but a lot of time I’m watching movies, on a plane.

At what point does the computer come into your creative process? Is it in composing? Is it in production?

Let me preface this first by saying this. There is an assumption by everybody that the reason I have a computer is for music and that’s what I use it for. That’s totally wrong. I would have had a computer if it never did music. And I don’t even think about using them for music only that’s just one of the many things it does. I have everything on there. It’s my address book, I’ve got graphics software, I’ve got Photoshop, Illustrator, and I’ve got Final Cut Pro. I just bought DVD Studio Pro.

So the Mac is a tool you use for music but it’s a tool you also use for life?

Absolutely. I can’t go anyplace without my computer. I’m always tinkering with stuff. I’m always searching the net. You know what my homepage is? Version tracker (laughs)‘that’s what the browser starts up with.

So you are a real techno geek?

Yeah a techno geek.

Are you like that with instruments as well?

Yes. See, I was an engineering major for my first two years in college. Because I’ve always been interested in science as well as music. But the music thing kinda won out. When synthesizers came along and computers came along I naturally gravitated towards them. I’m a curious kind of guy, I’m always curious about how things work.

Have you gotten into any of the Unix underpinnings of OS X?

Yes. Just little things. I had to install firmware for my Ecrix tape backup system. It usually is just there and it does what it does but I was having some problems with it. We called the company and found out that we were four firmware upgrades behind. So I asked how was I supposed to know that? And they said you have to look at our site. Well who’s gonna tell me to look at their site? Am I gonna look at it everyday! Anyway I downloaded the firmware update which did solve the problem’something that makes it more compatible for OS X. I had to install it using the terminal, but the instructions were there.

Have you ever had a Windows machine?

Yeah. I have 3 of them. One of them actually is inside a mixing counsel that I have.

And how do you like using them versus using OS X?

I don’t like them. It’s so hard for me to figure out stuff on them. Actually I like windows XP?. it’s really nice and its a fine looking interface?its just hard to find things. On the Mac we can find things in seconds?you can’t do that on a Windows machine. It takes several minutes something. You never know?it’s because I’m really not a PC guy.

In the music business is it split between PC users and Mac users?

Most people use Macs. You know I think I had a lot to do with it. I was one of the first people to have a computer in the music industry. I was always turning people on to Apple products and Macs. Always. I converted a ton of people from PCs. I remember this one guy, he used to work for my manager and he was saying something and he ended it with, ‘the industry standard, the PC.? I went, what industry standard! Industry standard my ass! This was years ago. It wasn’t a standard. You could pretty much say the PC is a standard now, for certain industries. Not for the film industry, not for music. Not for the arts really. Certain businesses?lawyers have to have a PC. My attorney has a PC in his office but he’s got a Mac at home. Most of the people I deal with in business they have PC’s at their office but Macs at home.

Why do you think Mac’s attract the creative side of people?

I think that it’s part of the characteristic of Apple itself. They take chances and they are the most innovative of computer companies. I mean, Bill Gates doesn’t take any chances. I mean he makes consumer machines and that’s fine. And yes he makes pro stuff, yes, but he’s interested in the tried and true. So Apple is valuable to him because Apple will come up with new stuff and he doesn’t have to do that?he just copies everything. He doesn’t have to do the R and D?I like the whole way Apple does things. That whole think different concept. It fits me to a T. I like the people, I like the philosophy. I met Steve Jobs a few times, he knows who I am but I don’t get to see him that often. He is always very nice to me. He rescued that company.

The scary thing is to think of Apple without him.

Yeah, right. Good thing he’s still young! All of those other guys screwed Apple up. They didn’t have the vision. Steve Jobs is an artist. He is an artist about business. He’s got Pixar?how cool is that! He developed the NEXT machine which is kind of what we have with OS X now. (laughs). Darwin, and all that. The fact that what we have now is a UNIX machine is a brilliant idea. Here is a thing that is time-tested but thoroughly manipulatible. It all makes a lot of sense.

Does anything frustrate you about Apple?

Yes. When you upgrade to a new machine, the only thing that saves you is Carbon Copy Cloner. But that’s only good if you are moving one machine to another if the operating system the same?but like suppose with Panther but you’ve got a machine with Jaguar with it’they don’t make it seamless. They really need to come out with something that makes upgrading a seamless transition.

Have you got your hands on the new G5 yet?

I’m sitting waiting for the goddamm machine to show up now! I means it’s supposed to show up today. It looks great. I got the dual 2 gigahertz one.

Does Apple Matter?

Absolutely! It’s an oasis in this sea of money-grabbing, money-getting, money-focused businesses in the technology world. At that level, I’m sure there are some small companies that are compatible with Apple. If Apple didn’t exist we would have nothing to focus on some of the best things the human being has to offer. And every human being is creative. That’s not something that’s limited to just artists. Creativity is part of being human?and Macs appeal to the creative side of the human being. And Apple’the whole philosophy appeals to the creative side. You remember when the Macs were first announced?and Chiat Day had that big super bowl ad? I mean, you can’t get any better than that. That shit was wonderful?it was a woman in the ad too. They were smart enough to figure that out. I love that. I always want to be associated with pioneers. I can breath with that. I hope they never change that?keep that philosophy, that spirit.


  • Umm… thanks for the info mazar…

    What a terrific interview. I havn’t heard much of Herbie since the release of his Possibilities album in 2005 so it’s good to hear what he’s up to.

    Nice one. cannabis seed

    Full Change had this to say on Nov 04, 2011 Posts: 5
  • Page 2 of 2 pages  <  1 2
You need log in, or register, in order to comment