Eric Liljestrand remembers his friend and working partner Hal Willner

Courtesy of Eric Liljestrand

Hal and I spent countless hours, days, weeks, months in dark rooms all over creating some of the most original albums and film scores the world will ever hear. A solid third of my career was spent with him. Many of the people I know and love, I met through my association with Hal. I met my wife Gwen during the shooting of Robert Atman’s Kansas City. That’s why I’m in L.A. now. I’ve often said it was that movie that changed my life, but really, it was Hal.

Linda Greenberg, of IPA management [International Production Associates, Inc], introduced me to Hal while I was working with Diamanda Galas. She thought we should know each other. The week before, there had been an New York Times article about Hal. I already knew his work from the Amarcord Nino Rota and Stay Awake (Various Interpretations Of Music From Vintage Disney Films) albums. This was a few days before the Weird Nightmare: [Meditations on] Mingus album was released, and Hal invited me to the release party.

Soon after that, we were both off to Los Angeles to record the score for Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. I’m pretty sure that was our first project together, and hanging out with Hal, Annie Ross, and Altman after a day’s work seems like a dream. That was 1992. More albums and films followed. 

I ended up doing one season on Saturday Night Live with Hal sitting behind me saying “LOUDER!” and Bobby Palladino (who mixed the final output) yelling “YOU’RE KILLING ME!!” over the clear com. During that year, we also made Altman’s Kansas City. It was a rough time for Hal, and frankly I thought we’d lose him then. He seemed to be enjoying going down in flames. I’ll leave out the anecdotes for now. Anyhow, he kept going, and with some ups and downs, got it all back together.

Courtesy of Eric Liljestrand

We made a re-recording of the Lost in the Stars album, called September Songs, Edgar Allan Poe's Closed on Account of Rabies, albums with Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Bob Holman, Terry Southern, The Marquis de Sade, a Gus Van Sant score, a Martin Scorcese score at Abbey Road, U2 and Wim Wenders at U2's Hanover Quay studios. We did a brilliant live Randy Newman tribute concert, and Edgar Allen Poe show for Halloween. I recorded the Harry Smith Project, and got personally ripped in the press for my live mix of The Firesign Theater show.

For eight years (well, Hal was on it for TEN) we built a 6 CD box set of Lenny Bruce titled Let the Buyer Beware, which resulted in a Grammy nomination for both of us. We didn’t win, but five minutes later WON for Bill Frisell’s Unspeakable. What a night.

Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, Lucinda Williams… Somewhere in the middle of all that, he backed out of a TV project and I continued. I made the mistake of trying to imitate him. Nope. I even called the same players. NOPE. Hal was totally original. It was his presence in the room more than anything he said.

Hal was a true nexus, people and paths and music and time all met wherever he was and those relationships continued and branched out. Hal was kind, thoughtful, aggravating, and almost always right. He had an eidetic memory and could pull who played what on which cut of which album out of thin air. He could doze off and still give me spot on notes when I was mixing.  He would give some bewildered player references to Ernie Kovacs and Sun Ra in the same breath, leaving me to translate.  He always ALWAYS gave me more latitude than anyone before or after. Most of our projects had spells of laughter to the point of tears over things no one else in the room caught or understood. I swear I can still smell his damn feet. Really this hasn’t even sunk in yet, and I know I’ve missed some stuff.   

Remember, Hal always ended his liner notes with, “I’ll be seeing you”.

-Eric Liljestrand, April 2020

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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