Spike-Haired Pianist Richard Kastle Shows How You Can’t Judge an Album by His Jacket
The image of Richard Kastle glaring out from the cover of his new “Streetwise” album, looking tough and anti-Establishment in spiked hair and a sleeveless leather jacket, seems hardly enough to separate him from scores of other leather-clad recording artists, all vying for record buyer attention this year. Except, that is, for a warning label that reads, “Parental Advisory: This album contains classical music, no lyrics whatsoever.”
Further investigation shows track titles by the likes of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Liszt and Gershwin among other compositions written by Kastle himself, a classically trained pianist. The Venice musician’s debut album is also part of a larger scheme by Virgin Records’ new Virgin Variations label to seek out and develop a new and younger audience for classical music.
“I want to break down the barriers that are around classical music, all the snobbery that’s associated with it,” Kastle said recently at Virgin’s Beverly Hills offices, wearing the same leather coat. “I never could accept that. So, I figured if I could break down that barrier, younger people would listen to that kind of music.”
Now 32, Kastle began on the piano at age 8, learning to play by ear Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" after watching the cartoon characters Tom and Jerry perform the same piece on television. Later, as a teen-ager, the Miami-born musician studied for more than three years under Ivan Davis, a pupil of Vladimir Horowitz.
But it was Kastle’s refusal to dress formally for concerts that ultimately got him expelled from the music program at the University of Texas before graduation, he said. During his first performance there, Kastle appeared in old blue jeans, paint-stained sneakers and a torn Jack Daniels T-shirt. Kastle had merely been following a tradition set by the lives of the composers Beethoven and Mozart, who were “radical guys” in their own time, he said.
The student pianist had also learned to enjoy the controversy that inevitably accompanied his performances on campus, he said. “I’d attract the younger people who wouldn’t go, and afterward they’d say, ‘Hey, that Beethoven piece wasn’t bad.’ I kind of broke the barrier.
“So I learned, when I was 17 or 18 in college, that the only way to get my friends to come hear me play was to wear something a little more outrageous,” Kastle said. “And, of course, the professors were just appalled.”
Kastle soon left Texas for Los Angeles and landed a job at a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor in Hollywood, playing classical music by Chopin and others for children. Beyond that job, however, the 21-year-old was not being taken seriously as a classical piano soloist. And he turned to rock music, working on demo tapes of his own up-tempo Texas-flavored rock ballads, hoping to win some record company interest.
“The scary part was me singing,” he said, joking. And he ultimately abandoned rock for his own original form of expression.
“I just got tired of the three-minute song format,” Kastle said. “I prefer the symphony. It’s a little more intellectually stimulating. And if I’m not going to be making any money, I might as well get something out of it.”
About three years ago, Kastle said, he began performing his own compositions in clubs in Venice and Santa Monica, often doing a different show with a different symphony work every month. His music and sometimes aggressive playing style slowly built a following of young, often college-age, listeners.
But the same independence would sometimes work against him, he added, as when he was invited to perform at UCLA’s Royce Hall a year ago. After the invitation, Kastle went to work on some music designed especially for the venue and its difficult acoustics. By the time he finished the “Royce Concerto” and before the contracts were signed, organizers had changed their minds about booking him. He still refuses to change the name of the piece.
Kastle’s demo tape of classical work, meanwhile, was circulating among some record companies after his appearances on several television programs, including “The Pat Sajak Show.” Eventually, the tape got to the desk of Roger Holdredge, head of Virgin Classics and founder of the Virgin Variations label.
The record company executive was interested in the unique approach of the young pianist, his hair sculpted and dyed behind his head in descending purple triangles. Kastle’s album was slated to be the first release on the new label, which Holdredge said was designed “to allow people like Richard Kastle to play with music, to present it through their own eyes.”
“It’s OK to be different,” he added. The Variation label’s classical releases are aimed at a newer crowd of uninitiated listeners. Much of this potential audience, he explained, cannot relate with the musical form’s traditional formality and couldn’t afford the ticket prices to see established classical performers anyway.
“My feeling was that unless we attract younger listeners to classical music, we won’t have any classical audience in 10 years,” Holdredge said.
Right away, Kastle insisted that his first album feature a 45-piece orchestra to record the 25-minute “Royce Concerto.” The record company maintained that Kastle’s first album needed to break even, at least, and offered to guarantee a second release if he recorded shorter works for the first album, split evenly between classics and newer Kastle compositions.
“So I kind of considered the first album like hors d’oeuvres,” he said of the resulting “Streetwise,” which was completed in nine days. “The main course won’t be out until next year.”
Kastle still says he isn’t interested in working within the formal classical music community, which has thus far rejected him. “I don’t want to be in the serious music world,” he said emphatically, “although they do have some nice concert halls.”
Classical pianist Richard Kastle performs April 4 at Cafe Largo, 432 N. Fairfax Ave. For more information, call (213) 852-1073.
THE UNHEARD MUSIC: The brief, if often shattering era of Los Angeles punk rock, new wave and power pop that began in the late 1970s is soon to be unearthed by Frontier Records in an unexpected trio of audio and video releases. Among those is a compilation of tracks originally recorded for Dangerhouse Records, a short-lived independent label that released the first discs by such seminal punk acts as X, the Weirdos and the Randoms until its demise in 1980.
“Dangerhouse Records, Vol. 1" is also the result of a long search by Danny Benair, former drummer for the Three O’Clock and now the catalogue manager for Polygram-Island Publishing, who ultimately found the original tapes.
After countless telephone calls, referrals and a nearly endless stream of rumors, Benair was finally led to Dangerhouse label owners Dave Browne and Pat Garrett, who had both left the state for individual and non-musical pursuits. “But they both had about half of the tapes each,” Benair said. “Whatever one didn’t have, the other seemed to have. It was kind of unusual, but the tapes did survive.”
Benair had originally conducted the search for Rhino Records, which is planning a nine-volume series on punk and power pop from the late 1970s called “Faster and Louder.” Rhino is still to include a few Dangerhouse tracks for the compilation, but Benair approached Frontier owner Lisa Fancher with the opportunity to reissue the bulk of Dangerhouse music.
Attracted by her memories of the label’s music, which she said used “lots of guitars and bum notes,” Fancher agreed to license the long-silenced material for her Sun Valley-based label. Included on “Vol. I,” set for release April 9, are tracks by the Avengers, the Bags, the Deadbeats, the Dils, the Eyes and several others, including an early, rougher rendition by X of its song “Los Angeles.”
“They were unlike anything you could buy from a major label at that time,” Fancher said of the label’s releases. “It was truly independent music.”
Added Frontier publicist Wendy Harte, “It’s definitely a slice from a period that is very near and dear to people who were part of the punk era. It’s an era that came and went very quickly.”
Also set for release in April is the Weirdos’ “Weird World Vol. 1,” collecting rare and unreleased tracks from the early Hollywood punk outfit. And already in release is a video compilation called “Picture Book,” gathering promotional clips over the last decade by such local Frontier artists as the Three O’Clock and the Long Ryders, mixed with tracks by the Young Fresh Fellows and others.