Before it was Jeff Lynne's recording studio, the barn-like structure on his property in Beverly Hills housed a previous owner's collection of vintage pinball machines.
"The guy was just mad for them," said the British musician best known for masterminding Electric Light Orchestra, as he stood in the airy, wood-floored space on a recent afternoon. "Had them all the way around, like it was an arcade."
Lynne, who prefers recording at home over working in any of the high-end studios in Los Angeles, filled the room with different stuff, including guitar amplifiers, a grand piano and a blown-up reproduction of the cover of his 1990 solo album, "Armchair Theatre."
But the way this 67-year-old talks about making music suggests he thinks about it in the same way the other man might've viewed those pinball machines: as a retiree's diversion, something undertaken primarily to keep himself amused.
"My songs have been very successful, so I kind of don't have to do anything, really," Lynne said, referring to meticulously arranged, addictively melodic hits such as "Evil Woman," "Strange Magic" and "Mr. Blue Sky," which established ELO as a radio fixture in the late '70s and continue to turn up in movies and commercials. "I do this because I just really love making up tunes."
Even so, the outside world keeps listening. At February's Grammy Awards, ELO's performance of "Mr. Blue Sky" with the British singer
And now there's a surprisingly strong new ELO album, the band's first in more than a decade, on which Lynne sounds freshly rejuvenated, his songwriting and production skills back at the level that made him a reluctant rock star and later led to collaborations with legends such as George Harrison and Roy Orbison. Due Nov. 13, "Alone in the Universe" — which features Lynne playing nearly every instrument — seems poised to shift the spotlight back to a vaguely mysterious figure who says he's happiest tinkering away in his private studio.
"I guess that means I haven't been wasting my time," he said with a chuckle, though it was clear that the prospect of wasted time could hardly trouble him any less.
Seated behind a large mixing board in a gear-stuffed control room, his eyes hidden as always behind his signature aviator shades, Lynne acknowledged he's not entirely indifferent to praise. In fact, it was the warm reception ELO got last year at a concert at London's Hyde Park — the group's first big show since it broke up in 1986 — that persuaded him to accelerate work on the follow-up to "Zoom," a so-so comeback attempt from 2001 that failed to inspire widespread interest.
"I was going to make an album anyway," he clarified. "But, I mean, 50,000 people all going mad and singing along with every song — that was pretty nice."
You can hear traces of ELO's trademark sound throughout "Alone in the Universe," in the shimmering guitars and movie-score strings and elaborate vocal harmonies. Yet Lynne says his songwriting was crucially shaped by his experience making "Long Wave," a small-batch 2012 solo record featuring his loving renditions of standards like "At Last" and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered."
"Learning those songs was a bit like going to university," he said. "I had to sit and play them hundreds of times to get the chord changes and the bass parts and everything." And that, he added, led him to try different things with his own songs. "They're a little bit more adventurous; they go to places I haven't been before."
In a sense, Lynne's internalizing those classic structures is in keeping with his reputation as an expert copycat, a skilled craftsman capable of creating pristine knockoffs of styles pioneered by the Beatles and Chuck Berry, among others. (There's no doubting that the surviving Beatles themselves were responding to Lynne's obvious devotion when they hired him in the mid-'90s to produce "Real Love" and "Free as a Bird," two ostensibly new Beatles songs using archived vocals by John Lennon.)
But the copycat role doesn't quite allow for the vivid emotion Lynne brings to "Alone in the Universe." Singing in his still-pliant voice about romantic longing and his fascination with outer space, Lynne makes the crisp, clever music feel like his, not someone else's. More impressively, he keeps the nostalgia at a minimum, even in "When I Was a Boy," a reminiscence of his childhood in Birmingham in which he describes music as an escape from a life he might have spent working as a milkman.
Perhaps that shouldn't come as a surprise: After all, Lynne, unlike many rockers, happily adapted to disco (in his case, on ELO's 1979 album, "Discovery") back when it was threatening to put guitar bands out of business. And today if you want to hear ELO's biggest songs on
In person, Lynne was no more sentimental about the good old days. When a plaque was pointed out on the studio wall congratulating the producer for 8 million copies sold of the Beatles' "Anthology," he didn't appear especially bothered by the idea that such a sales figure is unlikely to be matched in the age of digital streaming. New technologies excite him more than old revenue streams.
Or some new technologies do, anyway. One exception to Lynne's embrace of the current moment is his avowed distaste for social media, which most pop stars (even many his age) use to maintain their fans' loyalty. Lynne doesn't get it, saying his talent is creating music, not tweeting or Instagramming. Of course, that's an easy position to hold when you're generally uninterested, as Lynne insists he is, in being a public figure.
"Yeah, I don't want to be one of those," he said with a laugh.
But if Lynne has no qualms about forever being the least visible member of the Traveling Wilburys — the late-'80s supergroup that briefly joined him with Harrison, Orbison, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty — he seems to be thinking at least a little about his musical legacy. In 2012, he took part in a documentary called "Mr. Blue Sky" tracing the long arc of his career (while mostly avoiding his personal life).
And for the first time in the group's history, the new Electric Light Orchestra album is billed to Jeff Lynne's ELO, the same name he's planning to perform under in a handful of rare concerts tentatively planned for this year and next.
As with Twitter, Lynne is unsparing about his lack of enthusiasm for the road. "I hated it when we were playing arenas," he said. "You wake up at 9 o'clock, have a horrible hot dog at the airport for breakfast, then do three flights to get where you're going. As soon as I was able to stop, I said, 'That's it.'"
Still, given the success of the Hyde Park gig, he's willing to play some shows if it buys him some more time in the place he loves most.
"It's the detail that makes the music whatever it is," he said, gesturing toward several racks laden with equipment and instruments. "That's why I can't ever stop in here, adding bits to my songs.
"I'll probably have another listen to the new record and go, 'Ah, what else could I have done?'"