Written by: Matt Wardlaw
The BoDeans came rolling through Cleveland last fall for a mother of a show that featured legendary drummer Kenny Aronoff behind the kit. At that time, I spoke with longtime BoDeans vocalist/songwriter Kurt Neumann and I was interested to find out what it was that was bringing them through town. As it turns out, the tour had been planned to support a new album that had been pushed back to a 2015 release. I Can't Stop is that new album and you can finally get your hands on it as of April 21st.
With that in mind, I figured that I'd dig out that interview with Kurt, since he talks quite a bit about what fans can expect from the new record. (Which you can get a quick taste of via an initial song stream here.) The band will be back on the road in April for a tour supporting the new release (including a show at the Kent Stage here in the Cleveland area on April 29th).
I was excited to hear that there’s a new BoDeans record in the can, so I’d love to start there and hear whatever you can tell us about that.
The record’s called I Can’t Stop and it should come out in mid-February. It’s a pretty up-tempo record. I’m not one of those artists who makes a real moody record. The last couple that I’ve made have been really up-tempo and I find that they just translate really well to playing live, which you know, our shows are pretty high energy shows, which is why we have Kenny Aronoff drumming. It works out really well -- that way we have fun shows to play and good times. So for now, I keep the records more rockin’ and uptempo. So yeah, it should be out in February and I think it’s my 12th studio record, so it’s pretty cool.
Inspirationally, where were the songs coming from this time around?
I was talking a lot about rock and roll music and the music industry and stuff and where it’s gone and how I’ve spent my life kind of playing rock and roll music. The whole idea of I Can’t Stop is just that -- I’m 52 years old and I’ve played it my whole life and you really can’t stop at this point and say, “You know what, I’m going to be an architect or something instead” and just change your direction.
I mean, you could but this is what I do, you know? It’s kind of coming to terms with, like it or not, the music industry is not in a great, great place right now and I’ve seen it come and things get good and not so good, but whatever it is, the music is still good. What I do each night playing live rock and roll still feels like a great thing and a positive thing to do with my life even though it may not be real great for making a living these days, still it seems like a good positive thing to do. So there’s kind of that recurring theme on the record, I noticed. I don’t do any kind of conscious thing about it, you know, I didn’t set out to do that, but that’s just the way the songs kind of came out.
At the time that American Made came out, that was your third record in three years with the BoDeans. It’s been a very prolific period for the band in recent years. Can you pinpoint why that is?
Well, we had been in a state after we kind of lost our Warner Brothers contract in ‘98, where one of the other members of the band shut the band down so he could do a solo record and then we got into this big legal battle with our ex-manager and it just really was a dark place to be and it just really shut the band down. So when we came out of that in 2004, I just felt like I wanted to put stuff out a lot again and play a lot again and escape from the negative stuff that we had been in. So I was just constantly working and I was constantly in the studio, writing and stuff like that and we put out a lot of stuff to the point that when American Made came out, people were just like, “Slow down -- you’re giving us too much, too quick!” So on this record, I tried to slow it down a little bit and not put it out quite so fast so that people have a little more time to digest the new stuff.
One of the things that was interesting to me about the birthing process of that last album was hearing that you had to sell your truck to finance it. It seems like it would be challenging to keep a band going in the current climate of the music business, as you spoke about a little bit ago and hearing about that move really seems to offer an example of that.
Oh, absolutely. It’s really, really hard and it’s harder than I’ve ever seen in my life in the music industry and I really feel sorry for bands that are just trying to start out right now, because it’s almost impossible for them. They’re not making money in any direction on anything they do, to the point of how do you do any kind of job when there’s absolutely no income coming in for you? I just don’t know they do it.
There’s a slight little sliver of new bands that are lucky enough to have a big enough investment in them, whether it’s their families or a record label, but it’s gotten so very small that there’s just less and less music going around and there’s more people making music than ever, so I just don’t know how the system survives. I wish I had a big enough brain to figure it out, but i don’t! So I do what I’ve always done, which is I concentrate on the music and I try to focus on that and let the rest of the world kind of figure itself out a bit.
Did you have a producer for this new album? I know you worked with one on the last one.
No, again, I just couldn’t afford it. Myself and my other singer/songwriter/guitarist who is in the band now, Sam Hawksley, we were both producing it this time around. Which is a challenge -- I’m trying to give myself some distance from the material and still keep it uptempo and fresh and all of that stuff. But I just didn’t have the money to go and hire a producer and go in the studio for too long and do it the way records used to be made, you know, when I started this. So you figure it out and you do what you can. This one, we’re getting it out ourselves as best we can -- I’m working through Megaforce Records and stuff, but there’s no producer -- no big names.
American Made was the first one that you had a producer on in recent years after producing the previous two albums yourself. What led you back to working with a producer on that last one?
Well, I think it’s a really great thing to have on a record, to have an outside perspective on what you’re doing. I think if you can afford to do it, it’s a great thing to have to find someone who is really good at that process and can really fit in that role. It’s not a simple thing to do -- I wouldn’t advise people just hiring anyone to do it. There’s a few really good people that understand the process and can fill that role of a producer really well and it’s hard to do for yourself, it really is. But sheer economics dictate what you can do in that scenario and so that’s the way it is. I prefer to have someone there and I prefer to go into the studio for a good long while and just play and play and play and get some great stuff, but that’s not always possible. So the last record, that’s why I sold the truck, it’s just like I had wanted a producer for many records before and I had kind of gotten shot down by my old partner on it and so it was a chance to finally do that again and explore that. But it’s expensive.
The last album came after a pretty major shift within the group, so it would seem likely that you probably had an easier time approaching the idea of making a new album this time around now, because you probably have a clearer picture of where things are at and what this group is.
Yeah, well there was a lot of negativity going on for years and though I tried to keep things as positive as I could, you can only do so much. Other people have agendas and things happen and then you can’t stop that. So like I say, when I finally got to American Made, it was a chance to just let things be positive again and find musicians who really like to play together and stuff, which is what the new record is all about too.
Every show we play now and every track we record, it’s really about trying to maintain what I think music is about, which is that positive collective energy, you know, you’re trying to create something great and inspiring to people. That’s the focus for me and that’s the focus that I always wanted but wasn’t always able to get to. Because there are people out there who think they’re more creative under really negative circumstances and that’s not me. That’s not how I function well.
When Sam Llanas departed from the group, how much did you have to reconfigure and perhaps figure out your methods for creating BoDeans records as a songwriter after that? How much did things really change for you?
Not much. I was doing all of the records myself for years, even back in the ‘90s when I was putting together our live records, all of the way up to this latest record, I had always been the guy in the studio doing all of the recording. I mean, a lot of people don’t know it, but I played most of the instruments on most of the BoDeans records in the early years too -- I would always play all of the guitars on all of the records and stuff, whether it was acoustic or electric and basses and some records, I played the drums and everything.
So I was used to that and that was kind of the frustration, is that I found myself doing everything, putting the records together and all of the recording, putting the bands together for touring, going out there and putting all of the setlists together and everything like that, so when Sam left, it wasn’t that big of a change for me at all. I think the change was for people on the outside looking in, but I was still doing all of the work like I always did, so that didn’t change.
The band has worked with T-Bone Burnett several times across its career, at pretty interesting points --- for the first record, the Go Slow Down album and again on Still. Do you think that significantly influenced the path of the songwriting and producing that was happening with the band across the years as the career of the BoDeans progressed?
Oh definitely, yeah. He’s a perfect example, if you can afford it, of someone who will really bring a vision to your record and really help you simplify the whole process of songwriting and recording and stuff like that. He’s very talented at it and being around him and working with him, that rubs off on you and I’ve learned a lot from him from all of the years and times that we’ve worked with him. He’s a great person and you carry that with you and you try to apply it. I try to apply it to every record I make and yes, you still have some of your own visions, but you try to remember the things that you learned.
Overall, when you look back at the music that this band has made, do you feel like the group found its sound pretty early on?
Yeah, you know we’ve been through a lot of transitions, if you go through the records. You know, a lot of people talk about the shake-up a few years ago when Sam left, but I think the bigger shake-up was when our first drummer left after the first record. I think that’s when we had our purest sound.
We were just a three-piece at first and doing this weird kind of rockabilly/alt-country stuff at a time when check tape at 14:05 were playing. It was our thing and it was pure and stuff like that, but as you get signed to labels and as people leave and you go through the process, things change and you try to adapt and you try to make sense of it. But you know, you listen to our first record and our fourth or fifth record and they’re very different. Because that’s the way life is, it would be hard to just be one thing only, but certainly in this one. In the arts, you know, you want to change -- you’d be crucified if you don’t change and then you get crucified if you do change. So you’ve just gotta follow your heart in it.
I spoke with someone earlier this week who called albums a snapshot of the previous 12 months…
Pretty much. Like I was saying earlier, when you’re the guy in the studio playing everything -- even from the first record on, I was playing all of the guitars and stuff, really kind of defining the sound, so I think I have a good understanding of what the BoDeans sound is and what people relate to it and what they like about it, you know? So I’m always conscious of staying within that arena of stuff -- it’s not like I’m going to put together a rap record with just drum machines or something, just because I felt like it that year.
You know, you’ve got to be conscious of what you are and what you do and why people relate to you, but at the same time if you have some other things that you want to try [you can do that], but I try to keep always within that realm of what it’s always been, which is classic Americana songwriting and classic simple songs.
Way back in the day, Mike Campbell almost ended up producing the band. What are your memories of that time period? Why didn’t things work out?
I don’t know. I was a huge fan of him and Tom Petty and the records that they made and we tried and like I say, we lost our drummer and that had a lot to do with it, so when we went out to record, we were reeling without the 16:19 check tape of what we used to be and trying to find what worked. At the time, we had a lot of great songs to record, but we didn’t have the same unit and that might have been the problem, but for whatever reason, it just fell on its face and we had to try to find someone else.
What’s got you out on the road for this current set of tour dates?
Well, originally we thought the new record was going to come out in the fall, but because I actually have to sell my house now, I had to take about a month and a half off to kind of fix up my house to get it up for sale, so that put the release off and that meant that it wasn’t going to come out until February. But we still had these shows scheduled and I didn’t want to just go and reschedule and it’s always such a pleasure to come up here in the fall and play all of these small towns and stuff that we play, so we decided that we’ll just come out and do the run and tell people about the record coming out and maybe come back in the spring or summer again. But that’s why we’re here right now.
BoDeans image credit: Robert Lukmore
Written by: Matt Wardlaw
He also indicated that there are plans to put out expanded reissues of the band's last two albums, Some Other Sucker's Parade and Can You Do Me Good?
For those of you who already picked up the expanded reissues of Waking Hours, Change Everything and Twisted, you'll know that this is good news. Those reissues were packed with nearly all of the appropriate B-sides from the period...and even as somebody who had personally accumulated all of those B-sides, it was nice to have them collected in one place.
October will bring the release of Into The Mirror, the first official live album from Del Amitri -- you can pre-order signed copies (autographed by Justin and Iain) from the band's website.
Currie launched his U.S. solo tour on Sunday with a show in Nashville that was apparently broadcast on the radio (and I'm looking for a copy -- do you have one?).
Speaking of that, if you'd like to go see that Music Box show tonight --- drop me an email here with "Justin Currie Cleveland Concert" in the subject line for your chance to win. This contest will expire not too long after you read this, so move quickly and good luck!
Written by: Matt Wardlaw
It’s been a good year for Del Amitri fans. The Scottish alternative rock group played a series of highly anticipated reunion shows in support of expanded reissues of three of their finest albums from the ‘90s, Waking Hours, Change Everything and Twisted (with each album adding a second disc of bonus tracks).
Prior to that, frontman Justin Currie had spent a month in Austin, Texas, working with producer Mike McCarthy on songs that would eventually land on the solo album Lower Reaches, which was released first in the U.K. late last year prior to receiving a U.S. release in the early part of 2014. Surrounded by a band of seasoned musicians -- including guitarist David Garza and members of Heartless Bastards, White Denim and Phosphorescent -- Currie knocked out a satisfying set of songs, recording 15 tracks that had been carefully selected from an initial batch of 40.
He wrote the material prior to coming to Austin, renting a cottage where he completely unplugged from the distractions of modern technology, sequestering himself with only an acoustic guitar, piano and what he describes as a “ghetto blaster” (now, there’s a flashback) to record his song ideas.
As you’ll read in our conversation below, McCarthy took his producer title very seriously and put Currie through the paces to capture the songs that you’re now hearing on Lower Reaches, but it was a creative struggle that paid off handsomely.
Currie is on the road for a short run of U.S. tour dates, including a Cleveland date at the Music Box Supper Club, his first appearance in the Cleveland area in nearly 20 years. We caught up with him for a Skype conversation as he was getting ready to leave for the tour to talk about the new album, his songwriting process, Del Amitri and quite a few other subjects.
I don’t know if you know this, but it’s been close to 20 years since you’ve been to Cleveland. That’s pretty incredible.
Yeah, I’m aware it’s been a while. Probably the mid-’90s would be the last time that we were there, maybe.
Yep, I think it was in 1996 at the Odeon, perhaps.
Perhaps. That sounds about right.
Are you at home still?
Yeah, I just had a couple of gigs around Scotland the last couple of months and I’m just kind of getting ready to come over.
Besides the new album that came out earlier this year, which we’ll obviously talk about, what have you been up to the past few months while you’ve been home?
I mean, I’m always writing songs, but I haven’t really made my mind up what the hell I’m going to do next. I’ve done three solo records, I mean, I’ll do another solo record at some point, but I’m not sure if I’m going to do one next year -- it’s kind of up in the air for me, really. I’m trying to think of something more interesting to do than just doing another solo record. [Laughs]
When it came to recording the new album, how did you end up recording it in Austin, Texas?
Well, because the first two solo records that I made, I produced them myself. By the time we got to the third one, my manager said, “Look, I think maybe you should get a producer” and he didn’t really have to talk me into it. I thought it was about time I got out of my comfort zone, basically. I had made a little list of producers in the previous four or five years, which was a grand total of three, because I’d only heard three records that I liked the sound of. [Laughs]
One of them, I couldn’t afford and another of them passed on it and then the other one was Mike McCarthy and he got back to us and said, “Yeah, I’m up for it -- when do you want to start?” So we just told him how much money we had and it all came together very quickly. I had heard the solo record by Craig Finn of the Hold Steady and I really liked that and that was produced by Mike.
The previous two albums, had you recorded those at home?
Mainly. I’d done bits in a studio just around the corner from my house run by a guy named Mark Freegard who used to work with Del Amitri quite a lot in the ‘90s. The first album was nearly done all in the house. I’ve got quite a big room upstairs which I can use and record piano and drums there. The second one, The Great War, was probably mainly done in Mark’s studio, but I mean, it was all done within a few yards of my house. [Laughs]
It seems like these last couple of records especially, you’ve kind of moved back to a lot of stuff that’s more band-oriented in tone.
Yeah, that wasn’t particularly deliberate on Lower Reaches. [With] Lower Reaches, I just handed the whole project to Mike and he was very much the producer. So I didn’t have much of a hand in the arrangements of any of those things -- he got the musicians and that’s what they played and I was perfectly happy with it, so I didn’t really get my hands that dirty in terms of changing what they did.
Whereas the album before, I’d sort of deliberately gone back to a band thing, because I didn’t want to do anything remotely like Del Amitri on the first solo record -- I wanted to sort of draw a line in the sand and do something really different. But the second solo record, I thought “Well, I’ve done that now -- I’ve moved away from the band thing, so it’s probably safe now to go back to it a little bit.” Lower Reaches was really all Mike’s thing. I gave him like 40 songs and he picked 15 and I just kind of did what I was told, which was extremely difficult at first, I have to say.
I was going to ask about that -- after doing the first two on your own, essentially, what were the difficulties that you encountered working back in a producer situation? Certainly, it’s not the first time you’ve done it, but it’s probably the first time you’ve done it that you weren’t in a band situation.
Yeah, that was really different for me, because I didn’t have any allies. I was completely on my own and I was surrounded by Americans who were doing things their own way. You know, it worked, but it was hard for me to relinquish all of that control. I put up a bit of a fight the first couple of weeks and then I just gave up because I didn’t think there was any point in compromising what Mike was trying to do. So I just kept my mouth shut, basically.
It was hard work as well, you know, when you’re producing yourself, you can track a couple of vocals and then go and watch a film -- especially if you’re working in your house. Whereas if you’re in a studio situation with musicians waiting around and a producer ready and waiting [that’s not really an option]. Also, Mike does lots of takes and I don’t -- I mean, I did quite a lot of vocal takes, but I wouldn’t do like 40 vocal takes.
We were doing quite a lot -- he was trying to cut a lot of stuff live and we did end up using quite a lot of the live vocals. That was hard work -- that was like going back to being 18 or 19 again and working with your first producer. But it had to be done, because otherwise I would have made a very similar record to the first two.
If I’m understanding the process for this album correctly, did you go in with Mike and essentially cut the songs somewhat acoustically initially and then did he start to flesh those recordings out with additional musicians?
We spent the first week retooling the songs, going through the songs with a fine-toothed comb, taking things out that were redundant and he had me write a new verse on one song. So that was the first week. We recorded quite a lot of that stuff, but that wasn’t ever going to be the record -- we just recorded that for reference. Then we brought the band in -- all of them sort of knew each other -- they were Austin musicians and they played on the Craig Finn record and they knew each other.
They’d had the demos and then he had me sit down at the piano or the guitar and sing them the version of the song that Mike and I had arrived at in the first week. Then they just played along, so they’d had a bit of prep with the demos and then I’d kind of communicate the songs to them. He was very insistent that I sang the songs live to them, which I think probably was a really good idea. So it was a bit like having your own band in sort of a microcosm, except that you had a producer earlier on in the process and then just the post-writing process.
Normally with Del Amitri, I would write a song and take it to the band and we might do a bit of nip and tuck there and we might cut a chorus out or we might add something in. So I did that with Mike and then I played the songs to the band and then they sort of banged them [out]. That’s pretty much how it worked.
“Every Song’s The Same” is one from this new album that I really like a lot. It seems like you’re someone who is pretty good at not letting a song overstay its welcome -- it’s done when it’s done, even if it’s shorter, like that one is, clocking in at about two and a half minutes. How difficult is it for you to let go of a song and call it finished and resist whatever temptations might exist to tinker further, write more, etc.?
Once a song’s finished, I don’t find it particularly easy rewriting any of it. I would rather just abandon a song if it doesn’t work then try and rewrite it. For example, when Mike asked me to rewrite the last verse for “Every Song’s The Same,” that took me about two and a half weeks just to write three lines. I do find that quite difficult. When I walk away from the piano after spending a couple of days writing something, that’s it. it’s kind of written in stone for me.
As soon as I’ve demoed something, I feel like it now belongs in the sort of public domain so I don’t find that easy. Some people I know rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, people like Leonard Cohen will write 40 verses or something and hone it down. When I start writing a song, it tends to have an inherent length and form and it sort of tells you when it’s finished in a way.
I would think that would be hard. Because certainly if you’ve handed it to him, it probably feels pretty finished in your mind. I think probably you have to be able to see what they’re seeing that’s not finished about the song before you can really start to attack it again and even then it’s still difficult.
Yeah, as soon as I learn a song by heart and play it to somebody else, it’s finished. But the good thing about Mike, especially the first week that we were retooling the songs was that I kind of understood everything that he was saying to me. So even if it went against my instincts or wasn’t within my skillset to do what he was asking me to do, I still went ahead and did it. Because I actually understood where he was coming from. He had really gotten inside the songs.
Some producers will just sort of listen to the surface of a song and they’ll be looking for the hook or they’ll be looking for things that are just kind of catchy or shiny on the surface. He wasn’t about that at all -- he was interested in things just being better and he was really obsessed with how things felt rather than anything else. That’s probably why I hired him. I’m not really good at how things feel at all. I tend to sort of write from the heart but then arrange everything with the head.
He was more into the record feeling good in that kind of physical way. That was quite new for me. So there was a lot of vocal takes that we ended up keeping that we argued and argued and argued over because for me, they just weren’t technically good enough. Eventually, he won a lot of those arguments, because I just thought “You know, I can’t keep being really uptight and holding onto the technical side -- I’ve got to actually trust the producer when he says it feels good.”
Technically, there are a whole lot of things that I would have fixed, but actually, I think at the end of the day that Mike was right not fixing them and just letting things be. If it feels good, then it’s right. That’s a really different attitude to a lot of the way that other producers work. I was brought up with the really technical British production thing where like all of the drums have to be massively in time and the bass has got to be massively in time with the kick drum. All of the vocals have got to be pitched perfectly -- I mean, I’ve spent months and months and months on those things in the past and you don’t necessarily end up making a better record -- you end up making a record that’s technically pristine but some things can be sort of soul dead.
With this album, you definitely left room for things to breathe. It doesn’t seem like you guys deliberated things to death.
No, we didn’t do any overdubs either. There are very few overdubs. I mean, a lot of the guitar solos were done live as they went down. So yeah, there was very little time spent overdubbing. Honestly, it was maybe three days out of the month that we spent actually glueing overdubs on. Whereas in my career in studios, it’s all been about overdubs. You know, you track the drums, you replace the bass, you replace the guitars on the basic tracks and then you start overdubbing like fuck. You can end up with a very layered and interesting record, but you can also end up just strangling the songs.
Thinking about the three Del Amitri albums that were recently reissued, Waking Hours, Change Everything and Twisted, it doesn’t seem like you guys overdid it, but those records definitely sound like you spent the time that you spent making them.
Well, I mean that was the kind of university years -- it was the university of rock. [Laughs] We were on a major label that gave us pretty much unlimited time and unlimited budgets and pretty decent recording studios with great engineers and great producers. That was just us learning how to making records. So for example, Waking Hours has got quite a lot of sort of ‘80s guitar effects going on -- it’s got a lot of overdubs and it’s quite a shiny sort of pop record. By the time we got to Twisted, we were just about managing to make records that were two guitars, bass drums and organ cut live in the studio. Some Other Sucker’s Parade, the album after Twisted, that was all cut live in the studio. So we just learned as we went along and then we finally got to the point that we wanted to be at, which was being a rock band and cutting songs live in the studio. So yeah, it was a long process!
I was talking with my wife last night and she was working on a list of one-hit wonder bands that really weren’t one-hit wonder bands. I threw out Del Amitri and I said “You know, first of all, when ‘Roll To Me’ came out, for anybody who had been listening to the band, it wasn’t really the best representation of what the band was all about.” Also, for those of us who had been fans, we had heard a lot of Del Amitri songs before “Roll To Me.” I can remember when you guys were playing shows as that single was really starting to hit and suddenly you have people showing up at the shows wanting to hear “Roll To Me” and maybe they didn’t know anything else. I was curious to know, when the band went back to make Some Other Sucker’s Parade, what kind of position did that leave you in, making that next record?
Well, it was quite odd. Because “Roll To Me,” even though it was a really big radio hit, it didn’t really sell very many more records. The touring and doing a bit of television sold a few more albums -- the radio hit was odd, because most people didn’t know who it was. They weren’t particularly aware that that song was by a Scottish band called Del Amitri. So we could have been playing in some nightclub down the road and people would be hearing that song on the radio and they wouldn’t put two and two together and come to see the show, so our audience didn’t really expand very much by virtue of being a Top 10 Billboard [charting band]. It was quite odd.
So by the time we came [back to make our next album], partly because A&M was a pretty decent label in those days, both in the U.K. and the U.S., amazingly, neither the U.S. label nor the British label put us under any pressure on the follow-up record to make another sort of “Roll To Me.” In fact, we were all quite convinced that the first single from Some Other Sucker’s Parade was going to get on the radio, even though it sounded nothing like “Roll To Me” and of course we were proved completely fucking wrong. [Laughs]
In a sense, in terms of American radio, we are a one-hit wonder band, because that was genuinely the big radio hit. The royalty statements that I still get are a testament to that fact. Being played on the radio doesn’t really make you that visible or famous. People can be familiar with a song but not really familiar with a band at all. So we always had an audience that knew the albums and then there was this kind of weird separate audience out there that we never really saw that would recognize that song on the radio. It was quite strange.
What that made me think of on the heels of that, was that with “Always The Last To Know” and “Kiss This Thing Goodbye,” in America, those did chart Top 40.
I hadn’t ever really thought about it, but on the surface, it seems like you had something that least charted on each one of those three records and I wondered if that kind of kept the record companies off your back a little bit from album to album.
I think in the U.S., [that helped] because we had a little bit luck at radio on various formats -- I mean, the formats kept changing. And you know, we really worked it as well -- we would come out for month-long promo tours and we were more than happy to do all of that work, because to be honest, it was just a good laugh. We kind of established a relationship with the regional radio promo guys that we’d go out there and do the dinners and the meet and greets and we’d do all of the radio shows and then go out at night and have a few beers and have a laugh.
I think that just kind of encouraged them to keep on it and [the label] kept spending money. They were spending money getting us over there and driving us around and getting us into those radio stations and all of that sort of stuff. We made a lot of money on those records, especially “Roll To Me,” [and] they made a ton of money, because they were getting played a lot on the radio. I’ve never felt particularly guilty about it, because we really worked our socks off and there was a point when we were on tour that we were doing I would say, between five and eight radio stations a day, singing a couple of songs at every one, maybe doing a bit of television in the big cities and then doing shows every night.
You know, I think that’s something you could only do in your twenties or early thirties. I could not do that now -- I’d have a fucking nervous breakdown. But back then, it was good fun and even the CHR radio thing, which to us seemed like lunacy -- we’d go and do these morning zoo-style shows that were just crazy. But even those things, we sort of enjoyed in quite a perverse way. Because we kind of knew that we were just like a rock band that went on the road and we knew that we didn’t really fit into that sort of light entertainment format.
But it was quite interesting seeing that side of the world -- it was quite an eye-opener in a way seeing that really hard commercial side of the American music business. I found it all quite fascinating. I suppose if we had to do that for 10 years, I think eventually we would have said “Look, no, we’re not doing this.” But at that age and at that time, we put the work in and we had really good fun doing it. You know, it probably paid more dividends for us than it did for the record company. Because the record company, they didn’t sell millions of albums off the back of having those hits.
After the first self-titled album was released, the band later came to America and spent six weeks touring and it sounds like it was an important experience. Did the record deal with A&M come about as a result of that touring? How did that come about?
That was later on. We came back off that American tour, which was really just a last ditch attempt to be professional musicians. With a bit of charity from the audience, we just about got around the States and back again in one piece. But when we came off that trip, we were destitute -- we had absolutely no money left in the bank and we all just went and got full time jobs for about a year. Then we managed to sign a publishing deal in the U.K. which gave us a bit of money to sort of start doing demos.
The material that we were touring in America in 1986, I would still say was sort of part of our “indie band” period in the ‘80s and then America did really change our outlook and it definitely changed the way that we wrote. Iain and I started writing songs separately rather than with the band. The songs that we were writing started to become much more mainstream and much more influenced by Americana, for lack of a better expression. Then suddenly, we made five or six demos that were quite obviously something that should have been on a major label, I think only because the music changed. It changed organically -- we weren’t sort of chasing a marker -- we just changed because America had been an enormous influence on us and the way we were writing changed. That just led us into a completely different world, really.
I’ve heard you talk about how listening to Tom Petty’s Pack Up The Plantation provided an important spark. What was it about that record for you that really inspired you?
Well, we were never a particularly good live band. I think we were a pretty bad live band until the mid-’80s and then going to America made a lot of difference with that. It happens with a lot of British bands, where going to America really forces you to get better, because the audiences are quite demanding and they tell you what they like and they tell you what they don’t like, which they don’t really do so much in the U.K.
So we came back from that and we thought, “You know, we can sort of play now.” You’ve got to have something to aim for, I think. The reason we really liked that record is because [it was] really great quality songwriting [from a] mainstream rock and roll band. They’re not showing off and being virtuoso musicians, they’re being something that’s just pretty solid and pretty unpretentious. We kind of thought, “Why can’t we do that?” You know, that’s a perfectly honorable thing to do something like that.
You don’t need to be subversive and underground and play in a sort of weird madcap way to be proud of what you’re doing. You can actually do things in the mainstream and do them well, which is kind of what Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were doing. So that became something that we kind of aimed for. I doubt we ever really got there -- we probably went off on a slightly odd tangent. But it was just something that we thought it was an honorable record. It wasn’t uncool but it was mainstream.
Del Amitri was known for being a solid live band. So it’s interesting to hear that wasn’t always there. The first time I saw Del Amitri, that was something that was really a shock, hearing you sing those songs, it was like, “Holy shit, he can actually sing like that live!” Because as I think you know, there are singers out there that just aren’t great live singers. So sometimes it falls down right there, because they can’t reproduce it vocally live. You guys had the package.
Well, we’d been playing live since 1980 -- I’d been playing with Del Amitri since 1980. So yeah, we’d done a lot of gigs. But it did take us a long time to get sort of even passably decent. [Laughs] Partly because I’m not a great bass player and playing bass and singing is quite difficult. We had a run of different drummers as well. It wasn’t really until I’d say the mid-’90s when we got a drummer that was really shit-hot and that really helped. That’s another thing -- in the ‘80s, there were really very few decent drummers in the U.K. and sadly, very few in Scotland.
When we went to America, we were quite shocked that we’d go to a bar and you’d see a cover band and they’d have a great drummer. We always thought the reason for that is because a lot of American kids have got basements in their parents’ houses and they can set up a bloody drum kit and they can play. Whereas in Glasgow, for example, you can’t play a drum kit in Glasgow, because everybody lives in tenements and you’ve got neighbors above you and neighbors below you and you just can’t do it. So there are sort of simple practical reasons why there are lots of great drummers in America. All of those things, it took us long time to think [that] actually, we’re okay. In fact, I would say that we never really considered ourselves a particularly great band -- we just did a lot of work and we got better.
For this upcoming solo tour, will it be just you acoustic or will you have somebody playing with you?
I’ve got a guitar player [Stuart Nisbet] that plays a bit of lap steel and a bit of electric guitar and sings backing vocals, so he comes on about a third of the way through and I play a wee bit of piano and guitar. I’ve done tours on my own and to be honest, I don’t really enjoy it. I find it really hard work and there’s kind of nowhere to go. Once you’ve strummed the guitar and plunked away on the piano for an hour, it’s like, you can’t really take it anywhere. And I’m not a great musician -- I can’t play the guitar properly and I can’t play the piano particularly well, so it’s really good for me to have another musician along.
It’s great that you have The Mastersons opening on these tour dates. I think they’re a nice fit -- and some people have asked me whether they would be backing you and I said that I didn’t think that was the case. But it is a nice match -- it’s a good bill.
Yeah, we’ll try and do something together, but I haven’t actually thought of anything yet. But no, technically, they’re opening and then me and Stuart are coming on.
When you look at the three solo albums that you’ve done since Del Amitri, is there a certain line of progression that you can trace?
I don’t think there’s any progression. I think they’re all quite different. I mean, the first two kind of belong together in my mind, because they were done in Glasgow and similar kind of environments and a lot of the same musicians play on both records. Although the first solo record is much more of a solo record than the second two and I played most of the stuff on it myself, whereas the second album, The Great War, I played very little on it, actually. I didn’t play the bass on it and I didn’t play a lot of piano.
I think in the future, I might go back to that real solo sort of thing where it’s really just me with a couple of musicians. But yeah, I think of them all as being quite different. I kind of keep them in my mind visually, because the sleeves sort of represent what they are to me. So the first one’s quite brown and the second one’s quite blue and the last one’s sort of brown on blue. [Laughs]
Are there things that you’re still working to improve on as a songwriter?
I’m sure there are. Yeah, there’s a whole way of writing that I would like to get into that I haven’t been able to get into. I don’t know whether it’s honesty or the appearance of honesty. I was really impressed by that last Sun Kil Moon album which all sounds sort of seemingly autobiographical. I suppose it’s only a matter of whether it is or it isn’t, but it feels like it’s real and it’s like a sort of stream of consciousness and it feels conversational.
To do that within the structure of a song and still rhyme and still scan and still have a tune is quite remarkable, I think. I mean, I’d love to be able to do that. You know, you’re always trying to push….no matter how structured a song is and no matter how carefully put together it is, you’re really trying to achieve the appearance of an effortless conversation between you and the listener and that’s something that I’ve always found quite unattainable, but it’s something you definitely try and pursue, I think.
I think you’ve hit that honesty though. Certainly, if you hear a lyric like “Nobody’s helpless/ Although I’ve never felt this helpless before,” that’s something that everybody can identify with, because everybody’s felt that way.
Yeah, obviously you’re trying to sing from the personal and achieve the universal. Otherwise, there’s no point in doing it at all, really. It’s just a fucking diary. Because songs are constructed -- they don’t just happen spontaneously in the way that conversation happens spontaneously. But if you can make them sound conversational, that can be quite a good thing.
If you can sneak a fair amount of poetry into a song without it sounding like poetry, I think that’s also an achievement. So again, that’s something that I don’t think I’ve done very well and I’d like to try and get better. So yeah, I think that’s a good question, there are definitely things as a writer that I’m trying to improve on, yeah.
This album came out in the U.K. last year and it seems like almost immediately, the Del Amitri reunion tour dates were announced shortly after that. Was that something that was already in motion that you were aware of as you were making the album?
It was pretty much planned. Before the solo album came out, we knew that Del Amitri were going to do gigs at some point and we thought at the time that it was probably actually pretty good if the solo album came out in the autumn and then we did the Del Amitri gigs in the new year. That kind of made sense. The record company doing the solo record, they thought it wouldn’t do it any harm to have the Del Amitri stuff out there.
The band had good pockets of touring success here in the States, markets like Chicago and places like that. But from what I’ve heard you say, it seems like the idea of a U.S. tour with Del Amitri, even a really small one, seems unlikely. Is that really the case?
I mean, we just couldn’t possibly fund it. We couldn’t get the fees in the States to cover even doing one gig, let alone a run of gigs. It’s just so expensive to get bands over to the States now. I mean, just your visas alone. We did look at it and we just couldn’t [make it work] at all. In the ‘90s, our tours in the U.S. were all heavily underwritten and supported by the record company until I would say, around ‘96 or ‘97 [when] we managed to just about cover our costs.
By that point, we bought our own equipment in the U.S., which we would just put in the bays of the bus and we’d just honed everything down to a really small setup. But again, that was when we had records on the radio and all of that kind of stuff. Sadly, it’s not something that we can do as much as we’d love to.
I know there’s a double live album on the way. Was that show filmed as well?
Well, we did, yeah. We’re not going to release the film of it commercially -- we didn’t film it for commercial reasons, we just filmed it as a kind of document. So we will throw up a few clips on Youtube, but the main thing is the live album. So there will be some video footage out there, but we’re not going to sell it.
When is that live album coming out?
Imminently. I believe it’s the next few weeks. I mean, I’ve very little to do with it, much to my shame. [Laughs] I’ve just let [guitarist] Iain [Harvie] look after it, which he’s done extremely capably. I think it’s the next few weeks from what I hear.
[A few days after this interview was completed, the band announced the live album's release date officially. You can pre-order signed copies here.]
Do you guys feel like there’s unfinished business there? Would you want to do another Del Amitri record?
I would, but again, I just don’t think we could get funding to do it. We would need a bit of money to record the damn thing, just to rehearse it and record it, you know, pulling five people together, all of them in different cities and all of that sort of stuff. It’s just not really feasible. I mean, there’s a whole lot of stuff that we’ve written that’s sitting in the can [that has been] demoed, and some stuff that’s been mastered.
But we’re still really unsure what to do with all of that stuff. We’ll put the live album out and see what happens. But we live in such a strange time, where music is essentially free. I think eventually what may happen is we will just end up posting all of the stuff that’s there online for nothing. Because I don’t think there’s any value in it.
Have you ever thought about doing a Kickstarter or PledgeMusic campaign to accomplish something?
That’s not for me at all. I mean, I would rather make a record for no money than make records with money that comes from the audience, because audiences have expectations. The very fact the audience puts money upfront means that they like what you’ve done before. Which means that you’re kind of beholden to the audience to do again what you did before.
So I couldn’t take X amount of thousands of dollars from the audience and go and make a reggae album or Metal Machine Music or something -- I just couldn’t do that. So I think that’s quite limiting, because you would feel an obligation to the audience to give them what they expected. You don’t have that with a record company. With a record company, you’re in partnership with a commercial organization that is trying to get you to achieve the maximum that you can achieve artistically with an eye on the commercial side.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a record company make arguments from a commercial perspective while the artist makes arguments from a creative perspective. I do think there’s slightly dodgy about an audience who have liked what you did before, giving you money and presumably expecting you to make more of the same. It’s just not the kind of model for me. I understand why people do it -- I think if you’ve got a great idea and you’re really doing something from scratch, fine. But if you’ve already got an audience and you’re asking for money from that audience upfront, I think it’s a very limiting thing.
The reason I brought that up is because you mentioned what a weird place the industry is in and I think that part of that weird place is that bands and musicians and people are wrestling with the question, asking themselves, “Is it okay to run campaigns like that? Is it siphoning money out of our fans and is that right?” There seems to be two school of thoughts, and one is that side where they are questioning whether it’s right and then the other side, where it’s like, “Well, these are people that are fans of ours and they’re just pre-ordering our new record.” I’m generally okay with that second point, because if I’m a fan of the band and the artist and I’m going to buy their new record anyway, I’m okay with putting out the money upfront to do that. But I can totally understand your position and how that would put you in an odd place, creatively feeling like you would have to deliver something that falls in line with what they grew to love about you in the first place.
Yeah, I think that’s always going to be in the back of the creator’s mind, you know, the people that make the music. Also, it’s a strange model where people can’t get their money back if they don’t like the product. I think that’s quite odd. Whereas if you’ve got a record company there, the record company puts a single out to test the waters so that the fans can hear something new from that record and see whether they like it or not. I think paying upfront for something you haven’t heard yet is kind of dodgy. [Laughs]
I mean in a way, because what it is, it’s an investment that you don’t really get paid back on. If that record went onto generate lots and lots of publishing money by virtue of the fact that it got picked up by a big movie or it was played a lot on the radio, shouldn’t the fans get some of that money back? Because they’ve actually invested in the product in the first place. The whole thing seems a bit crazy. But of course, at the end of the day, it is always the audience that pays. So with the old model, the audience paid because CDs were very expensive and that was the only way you could access albums -- you couldn’t really listen to albums on the radio, so you would have to go and buy a CD, which used to cost 20 bucks or whatever. So all of that money was swimming around in the recorded music industry, which then got invested in young artists. But the money was all coming directly from the fans and it’s still coming from the fans.
Because what’s happened is that because the money’s gone out of the recorded music industry and it’s gone into the live music industry, because that’s where all of the money is now and ticket prices have gone through the bloody roof. I mean, in this country, ticket prices are crazy. It’s the audience that pays, that’s where the money comes from. So you’re right, in a way, what’s the argument against fans of an artist paying the artist directly to make the record? Well, there isn’t an argument against that -- it’s funny, you’re kind of cutting out the middleman. It’s just with the middleman, fans can pay and get their money back. They can take the record back to the shop and go, “Look, I don’t like this -- this doesn’t sound like the last album!” [Laughs]
I don’t know, it’s really kind of crazy to me. I would feel a lot better about it if it was partly an investment and everybody got paid back with [a certain] percentage of whatever the sales are or the earlier you get in and the more you put up, the more you get out of it. That would be a much more interesting model, or say, I want to raise 10 thousand dollars to make an album, so whoever pledges the most amount of money in the quickest amount of time will get X percentage of the profits. I mean, that would make sense.
Earlier this year, you told me that there’s no existing recording of “Drowned On Dry Land.” I’m really surprised that Del Amitri didn’t record that one. I’ve got a somewhat rough recording of that song as it was performed on Vin Scelsa’s Idiot’s Delight and the band played it live at least a few times in that era while touring. I wondered what it was about that song, because obviously it seems like you were invested enough in that song that the public heard it live.
Well, we tried to arrange it with the band quite a lot and it just never worked. Partly, because it’s a bit long -- it’s got six verses and the middle eight, which is a bit long and we could never find a style in which we could set it. We tried to kind of go down a Tom Waits avenue at one point, which just didn’t work. It’s just weird -- it’s a very linear thing and it is just one of those things that it just works well at a quiet moment at a concert and it comes across well. It just always died a bit on tape whenever we tried to record it and arrange it. Some songs are just like that, they just come alive in a room in front of people and they just die on tape and there’s no real rhyme or reason for why that’s the case.
I know you also played “Medicine” in that same era before it made it to a record. Was that common for the band to air material that hadn’t been recorded like that?
If we were touring an album for long enough, we would start testing new material. I don’t think we would ever...we would rarely do more than two new things. That was a way of just getting stuff tight and arranged. I’ll tell you the funny thing about that was, on the second A&M album, Change Everything, there were four songs that we played quite a lot live in 1990 that ended up on Change Everything and they ended up being by far, the hardest things to record.
Because the newer songs, we were recording them to the tape machine, which is kind of what you want to do in the studio. Whereas, the ones that we played on the road, we just played them as we played them to an audience and they’re completely different things -- the studio obviously is a different environment. So the performances were sort of too big and too slick and kind of weird. They ended up being much more problematic. We always thought, wouldn’t it be brilliant to actually write a whole record, tour the record before you actually record the damn thing and then go and record it live, but actually I’m not sure if that theory holds any water, because the studio is a completely different environment -- it has completely different demands.
Promo picture used with permission courtesy of Compass Recordsmore
Written by: Matt Wardlaw
It's hard to believe, but this year marks the 20th anniversary of the band Wilco. They've recently announced plans to celebrate the anniversary with a pair of releases, including the first-ever best of compilation from the group and also a collection of rarities that they say, "We're pretty sure you're gonna love."
They're also on the road playing a few shows to celebrate the milestone and as if that wasn't enough, frontman and creative mastermind Jeff Tweedy will release his solo debut under the banner of Tweedy on September 23rd.
Here's a sampling from the Tweedy album, a tune called "Summer Noon."
Wilco was in town this past Thursday (September 4th) for a rare Cleveland area show at the Akron Civic Theatre. It was Wilco's first area appearance since their show at the Lakewood Civic Auditorium in February of 2008. Their return was long overdue and it was great to have them back!
Our good friend Amy Weiser was there with her camera to capture scenes from a great night of music in Akron. Check out the gallery of photos below!
Written by: Matt Wardlaw
For fans of ‘80s pop music, the current Retro Futura tour is a dream bill, featuring a lineup of Katrina (from Katrina and the Waves), China Crisis, Midge Ure of Ultravox fame, Howard Jones and Thompson Twins frontman Tom Bailey. I had the chance to see the tour when it came through Cleveland last week (at the Performance Arts Center at the Masonic Auditorium) and it’s probably the best genre package tour I’ve ever seen. It was a thrill to see Howard Jones touring with a level of production that you usually only get to see if you’re seeing one of his shows in the U.K.
Beyond that, when you consider that it’s been 27 years since Tom Bailey has sung any of the Thompson Twins hits live, it was a real treat to hear him revisit that catalog. He sounded great and the nine song set (which ran about 45 minutes) was perfectly chosen -- a great mix of the hits you would expect and even a couple of album tracks. From the reception to Bailey's set, it was very clear that the audience was very happy to get a chance to finally hear those songs live.
The 45 minute running time of Bailey's set was certainly a good enough teaser that made me hope his current touring with Retro Futura will lead to an eventual headlining run (with a longer set) in the very near future. I bought an advance copy of a new collection of Thompson Twins remixes and rarities which will be released in September and listening to that set certainly brought back a lot of memories and generated thoughts regarding additional songs that I'd love to hear him play live.
There’s about a week’s worth of tour dates left on the Retro Futura run, so check out the upcoming tour dates and get out there to check out a show! You didn’t have to twist my arm very hard to get me to go and check out the show -- I’m a longtime HoJo fan and knowing that Bailey had “If You Were Here” in the setlist, well, that’s a moment that I wasn’t about to miss.
I spoke with both Bailey and Jones in the weeks leading up to the Cleveland show -- a large part of my conversation with Bailey was unfortunately lost due to a troublesome phone connection, but here’s the full chat with Howard Jones for your enjoyment.
How did you get involved in this Retro Futura tour? It’s a great lineup of folks.
Actually, we were asked last year to try it out with Andy Bell and we had a string of dates mainly on the West Coast. It went really well and we had a really great time, so we were thinking of who we could do it with this year. Because you know, it’s like trying to get the right combination of people. It was suggested that Tom Bailey be involved and I know Tom from the ‘80s. So we went for an Indian meal in London and I persuaded him after 20 years to come back out on the road. [Laughs] I know he’s really excited about it and he can’t wait to play these shows.
It’s just staggering to think that he hasn’t toured those songs in more than 20 years. That’s unbelievable with the catalog that he has.
Yes, that’s right. Exactly. You know, I’ve always been a big fan, so it’s great to have Tom back out there again.
Can you recall the first time that you crossed paths with Tom and the Thompson Twins.
Um. Ooh, no, I can’t. I’m sure it was one of the TV shows here in the U.K. But I also was rehearsing the band for the One To One tour in Dublin, Ireland and we went to see Tom and Alannah at their mansion in Auckland. So I remember that occasion very well.
You have managed to maintain a career over the years, continuing to record albums and play shows, touring internationally. But it’s important to note that you made the transition from being a major label artist around the time of the In The Running album to being an indie artist in the mid ’90s. Now, as the music business continues to in a sense, crash and burn, if you’re in a band it’s almost an automatic that you’re probably better off taking the indie route. But it wasn’t a normal thing at the time that you did it. How easy was it for you to make that transition at the time?
Well you know, it was kind of a natural thing for me. My major label, which was Warner Brothers, didn’t want to continue with me. They didn’t want to re-sign me and I’d done five albums for them. So it was really like “Okay, what am I going to do, because I still want to do this. I love making records and I love touring.” So I formed my own label and started booking my own shows and never looked back really.
Then I really sort of embraced the internet as a way to communicate with the fans around the world and to really look after them and develop that relationship. So it was kind of a natural thing for me, actually. I mean, it’s always a struggle to keep going and coming up with new ideas and try and make everything work. [Laughs] You know, [finding a balance between] being ambitious and at the same time, not bankrupting yourself. I’m always juggling that. But you know, it leads to an exciting life.
When you released the Working In The Backroom album, was that kind of your way of testing the waters a little bit?
Yes, it was. I did that album in about six weeks and it was like “I can’t sit around being depressed -- I really must get on. So that was a flurry of activity and Working In The Backroom was done and I toured with it and started to sell it on the road and that sort of independent idea was born.
You did an acoustic tour in the early ‘90s that resulted in the fantastic album Live Acoustic America. Obviously, you’ve done a variety of acoustic gigs since then, but at that time, it had to be a bit daunting to go out there with just a piano and a percussionist, right?
Yes, it was. Because it was a really completely different direction from what people had known me for. However, piano is my first instrument. I’ve been playing it since I was seven and I went to music college and really, I’m very, very at home at the piano. So in a way, it was quite natural for me even though people might have thought “What’s he doing?” [Laughs] Interestingly enough, people really love those shows and I still remember them really fondly. It was great.
Technology seems like it has really caught up. It’s gotta be great for you these days being able to replace what would have been a huge rig to travel with, with a MacBook flying in a lot of the audio. I had the chance to see you play in Dayton, Ohio a few years ago doing your electric set and it really was amazing to watch how you were able to recreate the sound of your songs with such a minimal setup.
It is exciting that the technology has caught up with your imagination and your dreams, really. I think you saw it there and I’ve made it even more compact now as I run all of the synths through Mainstage, which is on my MacBook Air. The most exciting part of it is that I’ve always been an advocate of mobile keyboards, right from the early days when I strapped a Moog Prodigy around my neck. [Laughs] Now, it means my mobile keyboard for starters is completely wireless and it also allows me to access any sound and spread it across the keyboard and so that’s really liberating now. Because I was never able to that before. That’s a recent thing that’s really great.
Who’s going to be in your band for this tour? I’m guessing Robbie will be there and you’ll have a drummer as well, right?
Yes, that’s right. Robbie’s now running Ableton and doing all of the live processing and putting stuff on my voice and you know, he manipulates all of the sound and the sequencers. Jonathan Atkinson is doing the electronic drum kit, which we’ve kind of developed over the years and that’s become quite formidable now. So yeah, it’s always moving forward and developing and always on the edge of breaking down. [Laughs]
But this stuff probably breaks down less than your gear did in the ‘80s.
[Laughs] It was a regular occurrence then. I still get stuff happening, because you know, when you push it, you’re always pushing to do something that’s a bit new. We did a festival on the weekend and I had like five minutes where I had to cover while they rebooted the Mac. [Laughs] I did five minutes of choral work with the audience. It was fun, but inside I was panicking. But we got the computer running again -- it was fine.
With your 30th anniversary shows last year, you took an interesting approach, writing new songs to play at the gigs, without as you said in your words, worrying if it was going to be heard on a CD and things like that. That’s an interesting exercise. While things have certainly changed a lot, there was a time when it was really hard for an artist to let go of the fact that a song and songs needed to be attached to an album before they could be out there. What got you thinking in that direction with the songs you were writing at that point?
You know, it came from the thinking that really, we have to be realistic. People aren’t so keen on buying albums. If they do download a track, it may be one track -- it won’t be a whole album. Certainly, people who grew up with me, they probably are not going out there buying huge amounts of music. But what they do do is they want to go out and see live shows and they want to really enjoy that.
So I thought, “Well, I’ll go write something that is about that experience and imagine myself in the audience and what I want to see.” I was thinking that on a big scale, you want to see great visuals and you want it to be cinematic and dramatic. So I wrote a whole suite of pieces that really followed that thinking. I also included all of the things that I loved, which I like contemporary dance and ballet and I thought “How can I weave that into my work,” so that’s what I did.
I didn’t know how people would take it, but they went mad. Honestly, I’ve never heard such a reaction to new work ever in my life. So I thought, “Well, this must be the key then for the future.” So I’m really hoping to take that on the road next year and at least play in London again. But my ambition is to take it around.
I saw a reference to you working on some choral material on your Facebook. so I’m guessing you’ve continued to write since those anniversary shows. What’s the long-term plans for this material. Is there an album or is it going to be more for a show like you’re talking about next year?
It’s based on the idea of a show, but we are going to release the music, because people have been absolutely clamoring for it. It will be a DVD of the filmed show which comes with a CD of the music, so that will be the release. So it’s really an audio/visual release -- I don’t even know if you’d call it an album. So yeah, I’ve changed my thinking about that and I’m going to probably base writing in the future around the live experience.
One of the things that we did for the show, which is called Engage, I wanted the audience to be very involved. So they had parts to sing and they had things to do during the show holding up visuals on apps that they could download and [they could] have colored gloves and wear fluorescent makeup. I mean, it was a whole thing that the audience were invited to take part in. I think that was maybe the most successful part of it, because people felt so involved.
That’s got to be exciting for you too. You hear so much about crowdsourcing and it’s like you’re crowdsourcing input on your music and obviously as a creative type, you can then change and mold that music based on what you’re getting back.
Yes, that’s right. I think people when they go to a gig, if they’ve got a role to play, it’s that much more exciting when you arrive at the thing and you know you’ve got stuff to do at a certain time and there’s countdowns on the screens for when you do things. [Laughs] I mean, it just makes it so much more engaging and that was the whole idea of the Engage project.
It’s the 30th anniversary of your Human’s Lib album. What are your memories when you look back at that time period?
Obviously, it was very exciting. I never dreamed that I could get that far. I just wanted to make records and do some gigs. But it went a lot further than that. It was just a whirlwind of stuff. When that first single was released, my life changed forever. I’m so grateful that it did and I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to continue to do what I do for all of this time and still be excited about it.
I’ve heard you tell stories in concert about how your perception of some of your songs has changed, specifically lyrics that perhaps you no longer agree with. Songs are in a sense, a time capsule and you’ve accumulated an interesting collection of them. How easy is it for you to maintain the connection with those songs as a songwriter and as an artist.
Well, you know I regularly go back through my catalog and review things. When I do my own shows, I will bring some new songs into the set and sometimes I kind of bring them into another song so there’s a kind of medley going on. So I’m constantly trying to keep on top of all of the songs that I’ve written. Sometimes you find that as you get older, they actually mean more to you and you can actually sing them better because you’ve developed as a musician and you can actually give them more power than you did when you wrote it.
How long of a set will you get on this tour and will it be mainly hits or will there be some new material?
Well, it’s 45 minutes and I have had a lot of hits in America, so people really don’t like it if I don’t play them. [Laughs] But I’ve got a slot each night where I’m going to play something that is not a hit, like I’ll put in “The Prisoner.” I’m also thinking of putting in a brand new track from the Engage set, which is called “The Human Touch.” I probably won’t play it every night, but I’ll alternate that sometimes. It’s a very, very electronic but really cool track that I think people will like.
Final question: You got to tour with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band -- what was it like working with Ringo?
It was great working with Ringo! He’s such a lovely man. He was a great influence on me -- he said “Look, I really want to live a long time,” so he was really meticulous about his health and what he ate and you know, no drinking and [he was focused on] healthy exercise and a really healthy diet. So I found that to be a very good inspiration. He’s a lovely man -- I’ve got nothing but good things to say, and he is such the best drummer ever! People don’t realize it! I mean, Ringo, it’s just heavenly to jam with him. It really is. He’s great.
Image credit: Duncan McGlynn / HowardJones.commore
Written by: Matt Wardlaw
For the past few years, Matthew Sweet has been celebrating his classic ‘90s release Girlfriend with a series of full album performances. The shows which initially came about to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the album’s release proved that Girlfriend remains one of the more well-crafted releases from the decade. It holds up well, which as you probably know, is not something that always is the case when you’re listening back to albums past.
It’s fun to look back, but now Sweet is beginning to take steps towards writing and recording his next album which is slated to be released in early 2015. He’s using Kickstarter to fund the project and fans will have access to a number of incentives if they pledge, including things like the opportunity to own a piece of Sweet’s own custom 3-D printed art. He’ll make the demos for the album available as one of the additional incentives and there are lots of other options, including the chance to have Matthew either write a song for you and/or record and produce a song for you.
One Sweet fan has already pledged 10 grand to secure a “live house party” with Matthew and his band -- so as you might be able to tell, he’s having some fun with the campaign.
In his notes about the project, he says “I'm going to write all new songs and make demos for the album, focusing on a strong clear delivery, energetic and heartfelt from rock to melancholy and back again.”
Presently, he’s on the road with his longtime roadmates Ric Menck, Paul Chastain and Dennis Taylor for a series of summer dates being billed as the “Matthew Sweet Rock Show.” The shows which started earlier this month and are scheduled to wrap up in early August, will feature a wide selection of material from across Sweet’s career, including cuts from fan favorite albums like Girlfriend, 100% Fun and Altered Beast, all of the way up through his latest album Modern Art, which was released in 2011.
We caught up with Matthew at home in Omaha for a brief conversation to talk about the upcoming album, the current tour which will bring him to the Beachland Ballroom on July 23rd, and unexpectedly, J.J. Abrams.
It’s exciting to hear about this new album and the Kickstarter campaign.
I planned to do a Kickstarter for a while and just hadn’t done it yet, but I finally got one off the ground and my idea with it is that I would try to maybe go back to the past and approach it more like I would have long ago. You know, it’s been a long time since I’ve made demos for things, because I can record at home, I’ll just be writing while I’m recording still. I thought this time it might be cool to write all of the songs first, make demos of them and then take what goes on the album out of those demos. I thought it would be an interesting thing to make those demos available as well. I want it to be a whole project where I write it all, I demo it all, I record it all and then it goes to the fans. So I don’t know, I guess for my own guidance, I put those rules in place.
From your perspective, what do you accomplish for yourself by going back to doing it that way.
I don’t know, it’s just very song-oriented, where songs can fly on their own without being dressed up any certain way. I think it’s a good way to know what [kind of] material a song is, but it’s also just fresh for me to go back and approach it that way where it doesn’t have to be a record yet.
That makes a lot of sense and I think as we’ve heard from some of your demos in the past, certainly there are songs that have changed from where they started as demos compared to how they ended up on the album versions. I guess if you’re just recording straight to the final versions for the album, maybe that evolution doesn’t happen in the same way.
I think that’s probably true. But my main focus is just thinking about the songs, I guess. In terms of how they transform, they kind of do that on their own. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something that I plan, like “Let’s make it from the demo and let’s change it to this.” It just kind of naturally happens.
On the flip side of things, you’ve now done three volumes of covers with Susanna Hoffs. How much do you find the experience of making those albums really feeding back into your own new music when you get down to making albums?
You know, I don’t know. I don’t know how much I exactly do. It’s something that’s an interesting exercise, because I listen to those old records and kind of think, “What’s everybody playing on it?” and stuff, but I’ve never felt exactly how that transfers over, other than I do tons of engineering and playing on those records. [Laughs] It’s probably good for me, chops-wise. But that’s a hard question for me to answer. I don’t know exactly how, but it can’t be bad hearing lots of great songs.
For sure. I read an interview that you did last year where you said that you don’t listen to new music when you’re writing. Beyond that, are you drawn to musical discovery at all as it relates to new music? Does that stuff still interest you?
Honestly, not a lot. If things get to me, it’s usually through other people or through reading about them. It’s kind of not just when I’m writing music. I would say that since I became a recording artist many years ago, listening to other music has been different for me. I think way, way back, if I listened to other stuff, it made me feel so bad about how terrible I was, that I just had to be in my own world without it. [Laughs]
Now, I think it’s just more that I enjoy silence when I’m not working on music. So I will tend to not really play a lot of music in the car or anything. But I do go through periods where I will. I’ll get into it just for inspiration and it is fun to hear cool records. It’s weird, it’s almost like that part of me kind of separate, like the part of me that enjoys music and can be a fan is a little bit outside of the guy who writes songs for some reason. [Laughs] I don’t know if that makes sense.
It does! When you listen to those records that you’ve done with Susanna, it’s clear that those records come from a place where both of you guys are definitely fans. So hearing you talk about that is interesting, because it doesn’t seem like it bothers you to have that ability to be a music fan taken away.
It would bother me if I didn’t make music a lot, I think. I would probably play a lot more music and be drawn to it more. I mean, I don’t want to sound like I’m not interested or don’t care. I mean, I hear things that are cool or whatever and I have a general idea of stuff. It’s also just such a different time with the internet, there’s just so much more than there used to be. [Laughs]
There’s a lot to explore and I think that because of the time that it is, this sort of post-music business era for most artists, I think it’s probably a really fertile time for great music and art. I think that it will just take longer to catalog and categorize everything that’s happening now, because there’s just so much of it. It’s harder for people probably to break through, but I bet there are a lot of interesting things.
You’re right, with the internet, there’s an overload of stuff. It’s quite a contrast to growing up years back, where you would buy an album as a kid and spend a month or more listening to that album. I think that time is long gone at this point.
Yeah, now the attention span is very limited. People just don’t have as much focus because there’s so much else available to them and going on. If you’re young now, it’s probably hard to really understand how much we didn’t know about anything before the internet, in terms of the way it made music more mysterious and made the experience of escaping with an album -- that’s how you got into your own world and away from other people and your parents and stuff.
Or it’s the way that you bonded with your friends in listening to things together. It was a really cool thing then and there’s an amazing amount of stuff that got created and made during all of those years, but still compared to now, I think things are easier to discern before the internet.
The current Kickstarter that you’re doing for your new album is pretty cool. One part of it is the opportunity to own some of your 3-D printed art. I think that many folks are aware at this point that you’ve done some pottery stuff in recent years. How did you get into the 3-D printing stuff?
My old friend Lloyd Cole decided he wanted to make a record in Los Angeles and have Fred Maher play drums on it and myself play bass. He was longtime friends with J.J. Abrams who created Lost and he has this company called Bad Robot and he directs the new Star Trek movies and he’s doing that Star Wars movie they’re filming right now where Harrison Ford broke his ankle or whatever! He has his production company office in Santa Monica and there he has a recording studio and they also have an in-house art department and stuff.
It’s not the greater place where they do all of the stuff for the movies, but it’s more like his own little space. In their art department there, they had a great big 3-D printer and they were showing me how they printed phasers for the Star Trek movies and they could change what size they were and everything and then the art department would paint them. I had brought some pottery in to give to a couple of people and when I met J.J. and we were talking about 3-D printing, I started wondering if I could somehow 3-D print prototypes for my pottery. Ultimately, I wanted to try to make bronze casted items, so he set me up with a guy who worked there who helped me learn about the 3-D printing and learn a little bit about how I would create things in software.
I got a MakerBot printer and eventually they came out with a little scanner and I started scanning pieces of my pottery. Originally, I didn’t think of the actual printed pieces as being the art, but I started taking some and painting them with metallic paints that will rust or get patinas when you spray various things on them. I started thinking “These are really cool on their own,” so I decided those could be a less-expensive reward on the Kickstarter. But you know, it’s just me getting my hobbies into things and trying to explore some other mediums besides just pottery, although I do plan to keep making pottery as well.
Let’s talk about your current tour. You are someone who often seems to hit the road with a new album to promote, but this time is a little bit different. What was it that got you back out on the road for this current run of tour dates?
Well, you know, I’ve been touring a lot the last few years, which has been really good. We played the whole Girlfriend album a lot in 2011 and 2012. I think in 2013, we might have played our last couple of all-Girlfriend shows. So we’re just kind of working our way out of that and we had the tour planned for this summer as a “Let’s go out and do a tour” kind of thing and it happened to coincide with the Kickstarter.
It took me so long -- I really would have run the Kickstarter earlier this year if I’d had it a little more together. But it took me until now, so it just sort of weirdly coincided with the tour, because I’ll be able to go out and talk about it to people I know are fans. It’s going really well. I think we’re almost three-quarters of the way to the goal, so I am hopeful that it will fund, but we still have to get more people to come on and donate. It’s pretty amazing, it’s only 230 people who have raised three-quarter’s worth of the money. So it’s pretty cool that when you band together, how you can raise the funds to do these sort of things with not that huge a group of people.
Absolutely. Going back to what you were saying about the Girlfriend dates, that show was probably one of my favorite full-album shows that I’ve seen various folks do.
Oh, that’s awesome!
That album has held up really well, it would seem. Did it feel that way to you when you went out and did those shows?
Yeah, for sure! You know, people have asked me a lot over the years, “Do you get so sick of playing ‘Girlfriend’” or whatever. I never really felt that way about it. It was a very personal effort for me when I made it and it feels that way to me still and I guess I didn’t know what to expect it would be like going through the whole album. It was such a trip back in time, but it really just felt normal to me and people just enjoyed it so much. It was fun to see them relive it as well. I love playing those songs and so it’s kind of cool that we still are a little bit Girlfriend-heavy, because we have a couple of extra songs that we didn’t used to play that we really like playing from it. So I’m still working my way out of only doing Girlfriend.
I think it’s fun for folks for a lot of reasons. For me, I missed seeing the original Girlfriend tour, so it was great to have a second shot.
Yeah, sure! Those shows are so fun also, because everybody there really knows it. So it’s like a real experience.
I want to ask one more question about Girlfriend and that is, what was the reaction like when you handed in the Altered Beast album on the heels of that one?
You know, handing it in, it was okay. I was very near the label where I recorded it and they were pretty involved in that they got to come a lot and hear everything a lot. It was a difficult situation, because I really didn’t want to make Girlfriend II that was just the same. I wanted to kind of explore and try some other things and I think also the experience of having Girlfriend be really successful caused a sort of split in my personality that I didn’t understand how to make whole at the time of Altered Beast. [Laughs] So I really felt like it was two people. There was sort of this weird, evil, sarcastic edgy person and then there was the more normal, heartfelt, loving person. For some reason, I just felt them separating at that time.
So I think of Altered Beast as being a little bit crazy. I think when it came out, there was a general feeling, a sort-of “Not as good as Girlfriend” feeling, but the fans that I’ve met over the years and now, I think they really like Altered Beast. Looking back, I’m glad I made a record that was really free-form of how I was feeling at the time rather than trying to carefully create something that “worked.” So I have really good feelings about it. I’m sure it became a gold record at some point. I don’t have a gold record for that, but it sold over 400 thousand records at the time, so it was still pretty successful and luckily, I guess label-wise, I made 100% Fun next and that did well as well, better than Altered Beast. So even though it’s sandwiched between those really successful records, it did pretty well for the record that it is.more
Written by: Matt Wardlaw
It's Tuesday afternoon and I'm minutes away from phoning Matthew Sweet for an interview when I happen to hit Twitter on my phone and see a breaking story that Hank LoConti, longtime owner of the Cleveland Agora has just passed away at age 85.
The news hit me like a ton of bricks because Hank was always a guy who was so full of life that it was hard to imagine that he could actually be gone. He was someone that when you met him, you would be surprised to find out how old he was, because he always looked at least a decade younger than he actually was. And yet he had been sick, battling lymphoma for some time, which I was not aware of.
There are plenty of great stories and tributes that have popped up in the past day offering a proper remembrance of LoConti and what it was that he was all about. For me as a music fan who ended up living in Cleveland, it's hard to even begin to collect the thoughts of all of the many different ways that the Cleveland Agora has made an impact in my life. There were plenty of shows, of course, with my first visit to the Agora happening in November of 1992 to see the Spin Doctors. Say what you will about the Spin Doctors, they were a hell of a band beyond the radio singles and their live performances during that time period were great.
My next trip to the Agora was a free show (!!!) with Brian May of Queen who played a headlining gig at the venue supporting his first solo album Back To The Light. Having missed out on the chance to see Queen back in the day, it was huge getting a chance to see Brian play guitar in such an up close setting, with Cozy Powell on drums, to boot.
As my concert attendance really started to ramp up in 1993, I would spend a lot of time at the Agora starting the following year, first with a gig from Joe Satriani, then Sarah McLachlan (Fumbling Towards Ecstasy Tour), Rollins Band with Therapy, Pretenders (a special "small hall" hometown gig on the Last Of The Independents tour that quickly sold out), Joe Cocker (right after he played Woodstock 94), Crowded House (Together Alone tour, with Sheryl Crow opening), The Smithereens and so many more.
1994 was really the beginning of my music collection coming to life in front of my eyes (something which I was reminded of recently when talking with Journey's Neal Schon, when he talked about his feeling that the reason that today's kids want to see their favorite bands live is that "they don't quite believe that it's real unless they're looking at it.") and I had been to enough gigs by that point to know that if I had the chance to see one of my favorite bands play a club like the Agora, that was where it was really at -- with the chance to get up close and personal with some of the bands that I had spent a lot of time listening to by that point.
There was an experience that came with seeing a show at a true rock club like the Agora that you just didn't get in the same way by attending an arena gig. Sure, I had seen some amazing shows at Richfield Coliseum in that same time period (Peter Gabriel, Aerosmith, Eric Clapton), but having a chance to compare the two, there was no question that the more intimate gigs were better, which is why it was such a thrill to get a chance to see bands and artists like Pretenders, Joe Cocker and Brian May -- folks who I knew had usually been playing bigger places prior to that -- in a place the size of the Cleveland Agora.
To cut to the chase, Hank LoConti was the guy who was driving all of this. He was the man behind the Cleveland Agora, a rock institution that had been around for a long time at that point -- I didn't know the specifics at that time, but when you walked into that place, you could tell that it was a building that had a lot of history. As folks will be quick to point out, the current Cleveland Agora at 5000 Euclid Avenue is not the original location -- which burned down in the mid-'80s, but the Euclid Avenue location, was certainly a worthy successor to the original, housed in a building that had its own important history.
Over the years, I started to unpack the history of the original building as a fan, listening to the various famous concert broadcasts that had been done by WMMS, most of which were from the '70s and '80s. Everybody's got their personal favorite list and many of them can tell you stories about being at the gigs -- since I moved here in 1989, I missed out on that part of things, but the tapes that were left behind certainly tell plenty of great stories. There is of course, the famous Springsteen Agora gig from 1978, a special broadcast celebrating the 10th anniversary of WMMS.
Elvis Costello's 1977 performance is another favorite and when I saw Costello just a few weeks ago, playing a solo show here in town, he had fond memories of playing the Agora, calling it a "smoke-filled den of sin," adding that "sometimes you find true love in a place like that." Costello isn't alone in his memories -- it's a frequent occurrence to hear the legacy acts offer their memories of their first gigs in Cleveland at the Agora -- while performing at Gund Arena on the All You Can't Leave Behind tour in May of 2001, Bono offered his own recollections of an early U2 gig at the Agora.
Bryan Adams played a show at the Agora in 1982 and he would be back for another gig barely a year later in 1983. Both shows were broadcast by WMMS (with the 1982 gig getting a national broadcast via the King Biscuit Flower Hour) and it's interesting to compare the two performances and hear how much Adams had progressed in such a short amount of time. The 1983 performance, which was mixed by Bob Clearmountain, is an unbelievable show from Adams that sounds like a professional live album -- it would make great bonus material for an expanded reissue of the Cuts Like A Knife album someday.
The Police, AC/DC, Bon Jovi....nearly anybody you might want to name off, they all played the Agora at some point. Thankfully, there are so many of those concert memories that have been preserved because they were broadcast.
The Agora is approaching its 50th anniversary and I'm happy that after some rough years, the venue seems to be back on solid ground or at the very least, in a better place. They're back booking a regular schedule of shows again and the shows seem to be doing well. As someone who grew up with the Agora at a time that they had a consistent schedule of shows that made it possible for you to go see live music at the club on nearly any night of the week (and with so much great variety to choose from in those days, too), it means a lot to see the Agora alive again.
As the years went by, I had the chance on a number of occasions to stop and talk with Hank. The first time, I had been sent to the Agora to pick something up. Not knowing Hank, I figured it would be a quick stop to grab what I was supposed to pick up and then I'd be on my way. I ended up being there for a couple of hours, sitting in Hank's office, hearing amazing stories of past Agora shows. That would be the case every time that I stopped by.
He was a walking piece of Cleveland musical history, one of several key leaders who helped to build the Cleveland concert scene as we know it today and he has continuously been one of the people working tirelessly through the years to help maintain it, never afraid to fight for necessary changes. He certainly leaves behind one hell of a legacy. I have no doubt that we'll continue to see that legacy grow in the years to come and hopefully part of that will come in the form of proper releases on audio and video for some of the shows that he was really proud of.more
Written by: Matt Wardlaw
I had the chance to speak with Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen for this week's issue of Scene. The band is in town Thursday night for a show at the Hard Rock Live. Check out Rick's thoughts on pizza and more right here.
In that same issue, you'll also find a conversation with Rachel Bolan of Skid Row. The '80s metal dudes keep on rollin' and they'll be at the Cleveland Agora on Thursday night as well.
So if you were looking for something to do Thursday evening, you've now got a couple of options!
Written by: Matt Wardlaw
I got a chance to speak with Journey guitarist Neal Schon for a piece that ran in this week's edition of the Cleveland Scene prior to their upcoming show here in the area on Tuesday evening with Steve Miller Band and Tower of Power.
As is often the case, writing that story sent me to the music stacks to pull out some Journey. I was going to Buffalo to see Blue Rodeo and wanted to load in some tunes for the car. It's funny, for a long time, there wasn't really a lot of live Journey available officially beyond the well known (and for many people, the essential) Captured double live album which was released in 1981.
What I really wanted was a proper live album that covered more of the later material from Journey that came after Captured, you know, albums like Escape, Frontiers...they sold a few copies of those albums and had several hits, right?
Journey filled that request in 1998 with the appropriately titled Greatest Hits Live, which even though it was compiled from a couple of different shows, had a track listing that had the expected hits, but also went a little bit deeper with tunes like "After The Fall," "Still They Ride" the title track to "Escape" and "Line of Fire." It was a good starter package that still works great if you're looking for a single CD that has a lot of their best tunes from across the years.
Released in 2005, Live in Houston 1981: The Escape Tour brought a famous Journey gig home to consumers, available on both DVD and CD (marking the first time that a Journey performance from that era had been officially released on DVD, unless you count the semi-official release of Frontiers and Beyond, which was available very briefly for a minute from the official Journey website in the early '00s). For reasons that aren't quite clear, the CD has a live version of "The Party's Over (Hopelessly in Love) while the DVD does not, which could be quite simple to explain -- maybe it just wasn't filmed. First shown on MTV in the early '80s, the Houston show had only circulated on bootleg prior to the official release.
I couldn't find my CDs for either of those releases when I went hunting for them, so instead, I grabbed a couple of bootlegs. One of them was a show recorded in Norman, Oklahoma for Westwood One in 1983. The other one was a 1979 show from the Evolution tour, captured in Chicago for the syndicated Studio Jam series.
Listening to both shows back to back as I drove to Buffalo, it was interesting to hear the differences between the Gregg Rolie era of Journey and the Jonathan Cain era of the group. Cain gets a lot of criticism for his alleged role in turning Journey into a ballad band, but that wasn't really what stuck out to me, listening to the shows. Instead, it was interesting to note how Perry's role changed in the group between the two shows. During the 1979 performance, Rolie still had a commanding presence vocally in the Journey lineup, but it was hard to miss the charisma that Perry brought each and every time he took the microphone, especially for the songs he sang the lead vocals on.
Journey as heard during the Norman, Oklahoma performance is a different story -- Perry has very clearly taken the reins of the group and even if it wasn't necessarily Perry's band behind the scenes, it was without question, a hell of a partnership. The songwriting that he, Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain were engaged in produced quite a powerful batch of material that gave Perry and the members of Journey a lot of firepower to work with onstage.
Even now, more than 30 years later, Schon realizes why the power of Journey still endures. It comes down to the usual things that are most important for a band that wants to build a legacy (even if you might not realize that's what you're doing at the time). It's all about hard work and good songs, as he shared during the interview.
“I think on the Journey level [that’s] why we’re still prominent and out there,” he says. “I think it’s because we basically work our butts off and we tour every year. And we continually play the music and have new audiences come in all the time, we’re claiming younger fans. And also I think mainly, I think we just got it right, you know we wrote a lot of really great songs, the three of us; myself, Steve Perry, and Jonathan Cain. And it was like we just got some things right and I think that’s why it’s etched in stone.”
Journey soldiers on with Arnel Pineda at the helm in place of Perry these days and together, they present a concert experience that is arguably as close to seeing the band with Perry in his prime as you're ever going to get. While Perry himself has recently returned to the stage for the first time in nearly 20 years, performing a handful of guest appearances singing Journey songs while backed by the band eels, it doesn't seem likely that he and Journey will reunite again.
And that's okay with me -- in my mind, there's room for both. Let Journey continue to do what they do and let Perry make whatever sort of music he might want to make on his own terms. I enjoy both. I like to watch Neal Schon play guitar and I enjoy hearing Perry sing -- so even if that doesn't happen on the same stage, it's all good. And although Perry's vocal abilities appear to have diminished from what he was capable of "back in the day," it would be fun to see him play some shows.
But as always, who knows what's up ahead?one
Written by: Matt Wardlaw
Earlier this year I had a chance to speak with Robert Lamm, founding member of Chicago, the legendary "rock and roll band with horns." The veteran keyboardist/vocalist is always an engaging chat and on this particular occasion, there was plenty to talk about. The band had just performed on the Grammy Awards, melding the old school with the new during their performance with Robin Thicke. They had also just put the finishing touches on Now, their 36th release (which happens to be in stores now as you're reading this). According to Lamm, they've already got another album on the schedule, which means potentially we might hear a lot of new music from Chicago this year.
The band is unbelievably in their 47th year of touring and once again, they're on the road, playing summer dates with REO Speedwagon. During a recent area appearance (prior to the tour with REO), the band performed for more than two and a half hours and showed that they've still got plenty of gas left in the tank.
As you'll read in our conversation with Lamm, there's a lot that they still want to do before they hang up their rock and roll shoes.
It looks like you’re in Canada.
I am in Canada.
How are things going? Is everything good?
Yeah, we started around a week ago and we’ll continue until around mid-March. We traveled first all of the way east to Prince Edward Island, which is pretty far east, and Nova Scotia and all of that.
Has the band had a good Canadian following over the years?
I think that like many of the international markets, I think that that to some degree we neglected them during the ‘80s and ‘90s and it really wasn’t until I sort of threw down the mantle about 10 years ago and I just said to everybody “Listen, if we’re not going to try to maintain a global audience, because it’s a global world now -- because we’re all connected, then I’m not interested in just staying in North America.” So then we started traveling quite a bit internationally and it’s been great. Not only in Canada, but Europe and Asia. There’s a lot of audiences there that missed us and they showed up.
I was going to ask if that touring had taken you anywhere that you hadn’t been, even this far into your career.
Well actually, Prince Edward Island is one place we’ve never been! [Laughs] There’s been a few places. We recently played in Moscow a few months ago and that was fantastic and we’ll probably be returning. Eastern Europe for so many years, it was easier for the mega-tours, you know, the Lady Gagas of the moment, to play those markets. Of course, before the ‘80s, Eastern Europe especially was pretty much shut down. Except for I think, bands from the U.K. who were established and bands like Abba who had the international thing. They had easier access because they were closer and it wasn’t as expensive to take a whole tour there. But that’s all changed and so we play everywhere now.
You obviously know what a big deal it used to be to go to a place like Russia. These days, what kind of challenges do you encounter going there to play a show.
You know, really, not much in Russia per se. It’s getting the visas to be able to go. Russia is very careful about who they let in, even now. We were fast tracked, but it was still a lot of paperwork and red tape to do it and I’m sure that’s true for everybody who wants to play there. There are other places that require lengthy in advance visas, places in Asia like Singapore, Thailand, Korea and Japan. They want to know who you are and why you’re coming and how long are you going to stay and when are you going to get out. That kind of stuff. But it’s the normal thing, anything to do with the business end of the music business.
The band had its share of critics, something that you famously addressed with the song “Critic’s Choice.” It seems like the band and their legacy has been critically re-appraised in a favorable way in recent years -- does it feel that way to you?
Yes, it does. There’s a lot of reasons for that. The critics that are doing the critical re-appraising are not necessarily the critics of 25 or 30 years ago who began to turn on the band as we became very, very successful. I think it has to do with somewhat of an appreciation for a band being able to play live and certainly even someone who was born in the late ‘80s or ‘90s, they hear our music all of the time.
The younger generation doesn’t really care who you are, where you came from or any of that other stuff. They just want to hear that song. Everybody is on random play, whether it’s internet radio, streaming or whatever. So I think there’s a lot of reasons for this new appraisal of Chicago. I think that there’s an open-mindedness that we all have now for music, wherever it comes from and whatever vintage it is.
You’ve been predominantly an album kind of guy, just as Chicago has been, up to this point, an album-based band. As a songwriter, have you had to adjust your thought process as far as how you write? Some songwriters work off of themes and those themes develop into albums, but here, you’re working in pieces.
Yeah, are you aware of the new songs?
Sure, that was actually what I was referencing.
Well, what has shifted is rather than chasing radio-friendly songs as we did in the ‘80s with a lot of success, I think that now to a certain degree, music and the business of music and the listening to music is kind of like the Wild West. All of the old rules and all of the old models are meaningless. So for me as a songwriter, what it’s allowed me to do is to write songs -- I’m not adjusting my writing at all, I’m actually kind of loosening it up, if anything. So I’m able to do a song like “Naked In The Garden of Allah” and there’s a number of other songs [like that] actually that are stylistically or [genre-wise] kind of all over the map and that’s kind of who I’ve always been. So now I don’t feel as restrained as I once did.
My perception of some of these new songs that you’ve been writing, it seems like some of this stuff in the recent past might have wound up being solo work for you and now they fit as Chicago songs. It’s cool to see that shift.
You’re very perceptive. And the fact that Lee Loughnane, who doesn’t really write a lot, felt the freedom and the urge to write a song like “America,” I think that’s a really great indication. Because other than Lee and the other guys in the rhythm section, in the last 20 years, there’s been a lack of interest in recording and even exploring new songs. But now that’s completely changed. So everybody’s on board.
What I’ve been telling the audiences every night is that for most of our career, 90 percent of all of the songs that we’ve recorded came from within the band. That trend or tendency is what’s occurring now. There’s a lot of great stuff coming from within the band that will find their way not only onto a new album that we hope to release this summer, but within six months, there will be another new album.
Knowing that all of this is leading towards an album, as you’re working on the songs, do they start to gel collectively and feel like an album, even though you’re releasing it in pieces?
Yeah and actually we’re going to stop doing that. [Laughs] We’re not going to be doing that anymore because now there’s a delivery date that will require us to deliver a 10 or 12 song album by May 1st at the very latest and then six months after that, another album. It’s sort of an arrangement that we’ve made with a company that has new appreciation for Chicago.
The initial intent, you’re right, was to just release songs one at a time. We thought “Why not?” But now, we’re seeing that there is the pressure of a finish date, which is sometimes good so that you don’t just spend forever making final decisions. Because in the end, when you do any kind of project, regardless or whether it’s a painting or a piece of music, at some point you have to stop working on it and say “Okay, I’m done.” That’s part of the creative process is knowing when you’re done.
How did you arrive at the idea of putting out two albums within six months of each other? What’s driving that besides having the material?
I’ll go back to my Wild West comment and that is, because we can. Really, if you consider the very early years of Chicago, we were doing an album roughly every nine months. So it’s not that it is undoable, it’s just that it hasn’t been part of the formula for so long. We figure as long as we can and as long as there are songs and everybody has great energy, why not do it?
What do you think triggered the change that got the band back to writing? I know you’re always writing yourself.
Yeah, I always write myself. I’m a slow writer -- it just seems like I’m prolific. [Laughs] I’m a slow writer just because I’ve never stopped. I’m not exactly sure what it was. I’ve never really considered myself a leader. I’ve considered myself kind of a contrarian and a loner in the context of this very large group. So I guess the attitude in the band is that “Well, if Robert wants to do it, let’s do it.” That kind of thing. But I’m not really sure. You’d have to talk to a half-dozen guys in the band.
It’s interesting to hear you say that about being a leader, because I think there are a lot of folks that when you look at this band in the ‘70s, you were considered a leading voice of the group. So it’s interesting to hear you say that you feel or felt that way.
Actually, Lee Loughnane has always been in terms of the company structure, he’s been the president of our little corporation for almost the entire time we’ve been together. He has actually stepped up in terms of getting a handle on the technology that we use, not only in live performance, but also assembling the gear that we travel with to record. It’s just something that he got interested in. He got interested in technology and computers pretty early on.
So at some point, he taught himself by sheer grit, the most prevalent software, both recording and sequencing software. Because when we play with an orchestra, which we’re doing more and more, for the orchestra’s sake, we need to have some sort of reference they can hear, whether it’s a click track or just a count off. The only way to do that is to use the technology and use software that lets everybody play together. So he’s kind of mastered that stuff.
He’s also the guy who looks over the booking contracts for each gig, because somebody has to do it -- you can’t just let somebody in the office do it. So he’s kind of been the behind-the-scenes COO of the corporation for lack of a better term. So in many ways, he is a leader of an area that’s required for a band like Chicago to survive.
What are some of the songs that you have in the mix for these upcoming albums that you’re excited about?
I’m excited about all of them. I think the third single was “Crazy Happy.” That’s something that Jason and I sketched out maybe 10 or 15 years ago and we just sort of put it aside. A friend of mine said “Hey, what about that song ‘Crazy Happy,’ what are you going to do with that?” It was somebody who was interested in either arranging it or adding to it as a co-writer. I started listening to it again and I got a hold of Jason and I said “Jason, do you remember that song, blah blah blah,” and one thing led to another and I just kind of sat down with it again and restructured it and it sort of came to life.
So some of the songs are ideas that never got developed. Believe me, I have painstakingly gone through all of my old sketches. I’m telling you, like boxes of cassette tapes that you can barely hear because the tape is so old, trying to see if there’s anything in there that I missed. [There’s] stuff that I’m sure that no one ever wants to hear, so I’ve tossed a lot of stuff away, but I have found a couple of ideas on which to build and sort of bring into the 21st century. What that does is it presents new ideas and I continue to be curious about other styles of music and music of other contemporary cultures. A lot of that is finding its way into the new songs.
There’s a song that I started working on when I was doing my album The Bossa Project. I was just sort of stuck on it and right about two or three years ago when Lou came into the band, I started working with him. He’s an amazing musician and an amazing writer. He and I put together something that I always thought of as kind of Brazilian and when we finished it, I sent it to a couple of my Brazilian friends and they said “That’s a great tune,” but they never said “Oh, how Brazilian of you” or “That’s really modern bossa nova,” which is how I was thinking about it, but it’s really not that. It’s just where that influence started for this song. So like I say, I’m all over the map with the new songs.
Which song is that one?
It’s called “Watching All The Colours In My Head.”
That’s a very Robert Lamm song title, as is “Naked In The Garden Of Allah.”
The Chicago Transit Authority album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame this year. It seems like it was a really good time creatively to be in a band, because similar to how things are now for Chicago, there were really no limits or boundaries to what you could do, did it feel that way at the time for you?
Yes. Added to the fact that we were young and naive and had all of this energy…
It was a double album debut!
Yeah, exactly! [Laughs] That took a lot of courage on the part of the record company, Columbia, and Jim Guercio, who believed in us and really thought that it was worth capturing that energy. So yeah, there was a similarity in that time to what it is now. I mean, there’s some great music happening now and great bands. I happen to love a band called Deerhoof and Kings of Leon. I don’t know if you know the band Little Dragon.
Yeah, I’ve heard them.
I’ve been listening to those bands, they’ve been around now for at least five years or more. So I find the whole scene very encouraging and you’re right, it’s not unlike the sort of post-Woodstock world.
The notes that I have here say that this year was the first time that Chicago had performed on the Grammy Awards. How is that even possible?
Yes. There was one year when we were nominated for Best New Artist. Then many years later, there was a Grammy that we won for Best Performance By A Group, but we were on tour in Europe. So we won a Grammy, but we accepted it over the phone live on television and that was pretty much it.
The collaboration with Robin Thicke seemed like it was pretty cool. How much work did you have to put into that?
Just a couple of rehearsals. You know, he’s a very good musician. He’s already got quite a large body of work as a producer and he knows his way around a studio and he knows his way around a microphone. So really, we just sort of did a lot of communicating back and forth between him, Lee Loughnane and myself and Ken Ehrlich, who is the producer of the Grammy show who had the idea of pairing us together.
We also had communicated on the internet and then scheduled a rehearsal. We met less than a week before the Grammys and we spent a few hours rehearsing. We were also in the midst of doing performances with the Chicago Symphony, so we went and did those and came back and did a dress rehearsal on the morning of the Grammys to refine the whole thing and then we just did the show. He’s good, we’re good and we’re able to perform live.
Obviously on a show like that, with a lot of the high production values of the performers, there’s a lot of singing to tape going on, but I think the thing that the actual live audience for the Grammys loved was the fact that we were playing live. Robin Thicke and Chicago performing live and we got a lot of kudos for that.
That’s something that to you credit as a band, for people who haven’t seen this band in a few years or many years, the band still packs a heck of a punch live.
Thank you, we try. [Laughs]
The band had to kind of revamp itself in the ‘80s and you had a lot of success although it seems like there were pros and cons to that. What was that time period like for you?
It was a little confusing and disorienting. It’s kind of like being lost in the woods and coming upon a stranger who seems to know his way out of the woods and so you sort of decide to follow him. When you come out of the woods, you’re not where you thought you were going to be, but you’re glad to be out of the woods.
I loved some of the stuff that you yourself had on the 18 album --- how did you come to collaborate with James Newton Howard and Steve Lukather on “Over and Over?”
James and I were racquetball pals. [Laughs] He was kind of going through a thing in his life where he hadn’t quite found the film score thing yet. I was trying to write and trying to figure out how to collaborate with people, because it was a fairly foreign thing at the time to me. So he had this little piece that he had done with Lukather, because James and the Toto guys are all sort of out of that same Westcoast rock thing. So he just kind of sent me that piece of music and I kind of massaged it a little bit and I wrote the lyrics. It was a very cool thing. I’ve never been in the same room other than a party or something like that with Lukather. [Laughs] I mean, I’ve known Luke forever, but we’ve never actually sat down and tried to write a song together in the same room. That’s happening more and more now. You know, everybody just writes over the internet now, sending files back and forth.
Chicago also was one of the early groups to successfully replace a prominent lead vocalist in the days before you could just go and find your next singer on Youtube. Did the band audition a lot of people?
We did. We [also] auditioned a lot of guitarists after Terry Kath died and that was impossible. Then when Cetera left, we tried a lot of tenors and a lot of the tenors we heard were not the right...I mean, they were all really good, but they didn’t sound right. They didn’t have the right sound for the band until we got a demo tape of a song that Jason wrote and sang on. We brought him in and he fit very well, plus the fact that he could play bass.
Similar to what you guys are doing now, I think that as much as you had to adjust during the ‘80s, you did get to do some interesting sound experimentation. Like some of the sounds that you got on a track like “We Can Stop The Hurtin’” or let’s say, “Niagara Falls” from the 18 record, you got some really interesting sounds in places in that decade.
Well, thank you. You know, the ‘80s records sound so shrill. Because we were all sort of discovering digital instruments and software, really in its infancy. A few people were able to tame it and I’m not sure that we did, but we sure fooled around with it. [Laughs] A couple of the things turned out okay, but you know, whenever you hear a digital delay on a snare drum that’s the loudest thing on the track, you know you’re listening to a song from the ‘80s -- not just Chicago, but any artist who was recording then.
Yeah, I think drummers in the ‘80s could take lots of sick days.