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Q&A: William Shatner on His New Prog Rock Album and 'Star Trek'

'Prog rock is the science fiction of music'

WIlliam Shatner
Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic
September 11, 2013 10:00 AM ET

No matter how crazy it sounds, William Shatner's new album Ponder the Mystery – a collection of prog rock songs paired with Shatner's original spoken word poetry – is not a joke. It's actually his fifth album, going all the way back to 1968's infamous The Transformed Man. Created with former Yes guitarist Billy Sherwood, the LP (in stores on October 8th) features guest spots by Rick Wakeman, Vince Gill, Steve Vai, Robby Krieger, Mick Jones and others.  

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We spoke with Shatner about Ponder the Mystery as well as his thoughts on the future of Star Trek and even the upcoming Star Wars movies. 

How did this album come about?
The label came to me and said, "Would you like to do another album?" and I said, "Absolutely." Then they said, "Well, what would you like to do?" In that moment, I had a creative thought. I said, "I'll take that period of time, an hour before sunset, where a guy is at the beach and in despair about his life, and write music that goes through twilight and sunset into the sounds of the night. Gradually, with the beauty of the night and his thinking, he regains the joy of his life." 

That story will not be evident to anybody listening to the album unless they listen really carefully, but it provides inspiration for me to write songs. I took the idea and ran with it. I created these poems that suggest this transformation. Then Billy Sherwood, who the label teamed me up with, took my words and made them into songs. His is a true genius.

Are you a prog rock fan?
I think that prog rock is the science fiction of music. Science fiction speculates on what the future might be and look like and how we'll get there, and yet there's always a central theme of humanity, or there should be. Progressive rock has the same concept of exploration into the parts of the music world that hasn't been explored. 

Did you buy prog rock albums when they came out back in the 1970s?
Yeah. I would listen to the music. . . This has always been a fault of mine. In entertainment, whether it's movies or television or whatever, I'm a great audience, but I don't remember the names of the people I've seen or the groups that I've heard. So yes, progressive rock, I began to discover, was my music.

I imagine that many Star Trek fans also like prog rock.
I agree, and that's the reason I've gone there with Billy.

Were you in the studio when the songs were recorded?
No, I wrote the words. Billy and I then talked either in person or on the phone. I went up to his studio about 50 miles north of Los Angeles on more than one occasion. While he was creating the music, I was like, "Here's what I think. . . " and he was like "Oh. . . " Then the songs went out to the soloists and they recorded in their own studios. 

You didn't just stick to prog artists. You have Vince Gill and Mick Jones in there, too.
Well, I know Vince Gill and I asked him to do it. I'm not technically adept at music, but I'd love to be part of a discussion of where progressive rock ends and country music begins. I'm sure that out there is a continued conversation about whether Dave Koz is progressive rock or jazz. Where are the borders of those definitions? I don't know. 

I'm learning to play the album now as we prepare for the live performances. The more I play it, the more I hear the musical overtones, the more impressed I am about my own album. 

Who will your backing band be for these shows?
Circa. That's Billy Sherwood, Tony Kaye, Rick Tierney and Scott Connor. We have guitar, vocals, keyboard and drums.

You have two guys from Yes. I love Tony Kaye's work with them, as well as David Bowie.
I've gotten to know him and he's a wonderful gentleman.

Are you worried that people won't listen to this and just assume it's a novelty record?
Well, it's up to you to convince them that it's not a novelty record.

Most people know your music from your recordings of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" in the 1960s and just assume it's at least half a joke.
Well, if you take those two songs, which have been parodied so many times, what I was doing there is what I'm trying to do here. The songs have intrinsic meaning. I was trying to do the meaning while the music played. 

In fact, I played a theater with Ben Folds in Los Angeles in front of a few thousand people. I did a half hour of songs from our album Has Been. For an encore, I did "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" with a finger upraises to the crowd, who were laughing and finally got the number. I left them screaming for half an hour, no exaggeration. They wanted us to come back, but we had nothing left to play.

For this, we're doing three club shows in the Los Angeles to try it out, see what we got.  

Do you see yourself as a musician? How would you characterize what you do?
I see myself as an actor with a love of music. The spoken word is musical, the rhythm of the words and the musicality of the words is what makes music. The spoken word should not be any different than the extended notes of music. The fact that I don't extend the notes. . . my joshing line is that extending a note is highly overrated.  

It's interesting that both Star Trek and progressive rock weren't really appreciated by the critics of the time, and were both reappraised in later years.
Well, you know snarky old critics. They don't like to get out of their comfort zones, and some artists want to get out of their comfort zones. I am teaching my granddaughter to ride horses in a progressive rock way. By that I mean, it's one thing for someone to ride a horse, go off in the park and walk around, waiting for the horse to canter. It's another thing to communicate with the horse and push yourself to the edge of your ability and progress, by pushing yourself. So I am teaching my granddaughter to get out of her comfort zone and be progressive by communicating with the horse. That's life and that's music. 

Are you thinking about making any more television shows in the future?
I wait for the right thing to come along. I have been making a lot of documentaries as of late.

You're making one about Star Trek: The Next Generation, right?
That'll be the ninth documentary that I will have made. We are editing it now and calling it Wacky Doodle. All of the writers in the documentary said the show was all wacky doodle, so that's what I'm calling it. It's about the shenanigans that went on in the first two years of making Star Trek: The Next Generation. I did The Captains, which also got wonderful notices. And I've made other documentaries involving science fiction.

It's a shame that hasn't been a Star Trek TV show for the past few years.
That's because they're making the movies.

They could do both.
I suppose. That idea has been bandied about. I'm sure something will come along soon.

Did you mind they didn't include you in the past movies?
Well, I said to [Leonard] Nimoy, "You know you're old when you go back in time and you'ee still old." I don't know how they'd handle the aged captains. 

Do you regret killing off Captain Kirk?
Well, it wasn't my choice. Although, I wrote a series of books where the character goes on, followed by autobiographical things that happened to me, I foisted on the fictional character. 

Do you think the new Star Wars movies are going to be good?
Yes. J.J. is a wonderful director.

Do you think they should give big roles to Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher?
In my opinion, it drags you back to the old ones, whereas I would think he wants to go onto the new ones, but that may be a limit of my imagination.

Right. People are really curious to see whether they're going to get cameos or big roles.
I can't imagine how you can do Harrison Ford as a cameo. Who is he?

He'll be Han Solo in his seventies.
Well, that ties you back to earth. The passage of time now. Their time might be different. I wrote a song about that on my new album. 

I think people assume you have beef with J.J. Abrams because he put Nimoy in the movies and not you.
No, no. We were kidding around. That was all for publicity. He's a great guy.

I saw that the Priceline stock is near a thousand dollars a share.
Isn't that unbelievable?

Do you still have it?
I don't have what I had before. I sold much of it for pennies. It's gone from pennies to hundreds of dollars and back down to pennies. There's a thing called a lock-up with a new stock; the people can't sell it for a year or a year-and-a-half. So since the public knew that, by a year it went down.

How do you have so much energy at your age? Most people in their eighties aren't nearly as active as you.
I am lucky to be in good health. I ride a lot of horses. I went riding in the 100-degree heat this morning. I pity the people who retire. What does it mean to retire? Did they not like their work and at the age of 65 decided to get out of there? What a waste of a life.

I am thoroughly enjoying my life and my work right now. I am blissful. 

How often do you go to the fan conventions these days?
I still go to the odd one. It's a convention of oddities.

Are the new movies bringing in new fans?
Yes, I think so. I think there's been a resurgence of interest in Star Trek, and also the conventions themselves are opening up and calling themselves Comic Cons. They involve a lot of shows, and I go to the occasional one.

It's funny to think of how much they're grown since the first ones in the 1970s.
I was on tour with a one-man show, which I did on Broadway and a tour. All that material came from the conventions.

That's incredible. You know, I've also loved your interviews on Howard Stern. I think you're one of his best guests.
I admire him. I have an identification with him. He is a great guy.

He'll talk to a single guest for well over an hour. Very few other people do that.
Yes, he's after the exploitation, which is what the audience wants to hear. But after he's done that, he's a great interviewer.

You've always been so willing to make fun of your image, even back years and years ago. Many of your peers take themselves so seriously, but you've never really seemed to care.
It's only an image.

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