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Bob Dylan Talks Proper Album Length, ‘American Pie’ and Switching From Guitar to Piano in Extensive New Interview

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With the March 31 arrival of his new three-CD collection of standards, Triplicate, just around the corner, Bob Dylan sat for a rare — and wide-ranging — interview with author and TV exec Bill Flanagan touching on everything from Dylan’s childhood to the making of the new LP.

Posted at Dylan’s official site, the interview is well worth a read in full for any fan — not just because Dylan so rarely has conversations on the record these days, but because it seemed to find him in a fairly loquacious mood, offering expansive answers on a variety of interesting subjects.

Dylan and Flanagan led off talking about the length of the Triplicate collection, which adds another three albums’ worth of standards covers to the ongoing tour through the great American songbook Dylan started with Shadows in the Night and continued with Fallen Angels. Saying he realized “there was more to it than I thought,” Dylan offered a few thoughts regarding the new set’s specific length — right down to his decision to make each disc 10 tracks and 32 minutes long.

“It’s the number of completion. It’s a lucky number and it’s symbolic of light,” mused Dylan. “As far as the 32 minutes, that’s about the limit to the number of minutes on a long-playing record where the sound is most powerful, 15 minutes to a side. My records were always overloaded on both sides. Too many minutes to be recorded or mastered properly. My songs were too long and didn’t fit the audio format of an LP. The sound was thin and you would have to turn your record player up to nine or 10 to hear it well. So these CDs to me represent the LPs that I should have been making.”

Much of the discussion involves Sinatra’s thoughts on or interactions with various celebrities, like Frank Sinatra and George Harrison (he reveals he stood up the latter at a scheduled studio session). The subject of Don McLean‘s “American Pie” even came up, with Dylan brushing off McLean’s presumed characterization of Dylan as “the Jester” in the lyrics.

“Don McLean, ‘American Pie,’ what a song that is. A jester? Sure, the jester writes songs like ‘Masters of War,’ ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,’ ‘It’s Alright, Ma’ – some jester,” shrugged Dylan. “I have to think he’s talking about somebody else. Ask him.”

Dylan also offered his reasons for switching largely to piano during his concerts in recent years, easing some fans’ fears that he’d migrated away from the guitar due to health concerns. Instead, he said he simply prefers the way his band sounds when he’s at the keyboard.

“The chemistry is better when I’m at the piano,” said Dylan. “It changes the dynamics of the band if I play the guitar. Maybe it’s just too tedious to go back and forth from one to the other. I’m strictly a rhythm player anyway. I’m not a solo player, and when the piano gets locked in with the steel guitar, it’s like big band orchestrated riffs. That doesn’t happen when I’m playing guitar. When I play guitar, it’s a different band.”

While waiting for its March 31 release, check out selections from Dylan’s Triplicate early courtesy of NPR.

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