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.
Guitarist Marty Friedman: “I Wanted To Be Sure That I Wasn’t Looking Back And Repeating Something I Did Before”
Written by: Matt Wardlaw
Shred is not dead. That’s one thought that comes to mind as you’re listening to Inferno, the brand new album by guitarist Marty Friedman. As Friedman himself tells us during our conversation, it’s been a long time since he’s released an album in this vein and beyond that, he’s been away from the metal community for quite a while, having spent the past 10 years living and working in Japan. So he’s aware that his guitar work might not be front and center in the minds of many at this point.
The former Megadeth guitarist rounds up an intriguing list of guest players and friends on Inferno, including Danko Jones, his former Cacophony conspirator Jason Becker, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Gregg Bissonette and David Davidson of Revocation, just to name a few.
When you title your album something like Inferno, the skeptical music fan usually says “Well then, you’d better be able to back that title up and deliver an album that is worthy.” Have no fear -- you won’t waste a single minute here. Friedman’s Inferno is all of that and then some.
We spoke with Friedman recently from his home in Japan to get the inside scoop on the new album.
I like your comment in the bio for this new album, about how you wanted to go “balls out” when it came to your approach to this record. Before I read that, I was listening to the opening track and title track of this album and I found myself thinking, “Man, he is not messing around on this one.”
[Laughs] Definitely not. It’s kind of my first simultaneous international release in a long time. The record company was pumped even before we started, so I didn’t want to let them down and I didn’t want to let anybody down. I knew if I did my normal amount of work on something that it would be great, but if I just went to the verge of killing myself on the record, it would be fantastic. So that’s what I did!
As you mentioned, it’s been a long time since your last proper solo release here in the States, Music For Speeding in 2003, if I’m correct. You’ve continued to create in that time with your Japanese releases. With this being your first proper American release in a while, did you find yourself writing with a certain purpose or goals, or does it all end up as the same songwriting and creative process?
It usually is the same, but actually you’re right, I did have different goals this time. I was definitely conscious of concerning myself with what I thought the entire world as a whole wanted from me. You know, I could fool myself and tell everybody that they want me to do this exploratory experimental Japanese avant garde thing, but that would just be fooling myself. I was honest with myself and I knew that I think for the most part, people want me to play my ass off and play aggressively, which is fine, and in a metal context, which is also fine. But I also wanted to be sure that I wasn’t looking back and repeating something I did before or getting nostalgic or anything like that. It was of the utmost importance to me to do something new, challenging, modern and totally fresh at the same time. So with those two criteria in mind, that’s how I approached the entire album.
I would imagine that in the past, you’ve probably had people come to you in the past and say “Hey, we’d love to get a record from you that has the classic Marty Friedman sound” that you’re known for. Is it hard for you to approach something like this and not put yourself into that box?
I don’t really think about it too much that way. I pretty much do what I’m up for doing at the time. I kind of always had it in the back of my mind that I was going to do a total ballbusting killer album of this style. I always knew I was going to do it, but the opportunity never arrived and I have just been too busy with my own Japanese activities to pursue it and I knew if I were to pursue it, I would have to go completely in, no half assed doing it in the break of something, during a break of a tour or a break of some kind of television program or something.
I knew I would have to devote real time to it, so I always kind of put it off and put it off until Prosthetic, the record label, they came to me with the idea and it was something I always wanted to do, but I don’t think I would have ever approached it unless I had the enthusiasm of a record company behind me. Because you go and do it and then the thing gets ignored. So I really wanted to make sure that a record company was into it and lo and behold, it was actually their idea and they were the ones that pushed me into doing it, which I was very happy to be pushed into doing.
The guests on this album, many of them who have been influenced by you as a player adds an interesting angle to the album, but nothing feels out of place. It all feels like an album collectively.
Oh, thanks! That’s really important to me, because having guests for the sake of guests is a complete waste of time and the reason why I got into this guest thing is because I remember that Michael Schenker once asked me to do something with him and do an album together. Being a fan of his, I remember the enthusiasm that I felt as we started working on stuff together. I was just so beyond pumped up to do it. I wanted to give other guys that feeling and get that feeling on a record, you know, get it in the grooves and get it on the vinyl and all of that.
So I purposefully set out for people who had their own style, but who have said really nice things about me in the press that might feel the same way I felt about Michael Schenker back then. I really think that I captured everybody’s enthusiasm and all of the guests who joined me were really eager to please me for whatever reason. We’d keep going back and forth working on a demo and every time I would just step it up a few notches, they would go “Oh, well I’ve really got to up my game now!” and by the end of the day, it’s a really nice quality piece of music that’s a collaboration and not just some guest banging out something.
How together were the songs as you started to work with each of these people?
Every single guest is a complete collaboration, with the songwriting and of course all of the lyrics are the guest’s lyrics and the music is the guest and me together. Often cases, the music is written more by the guest than me and my position is more of a co-writer/arranger/guitar player. So I really get these guys working their butts off and I can do the things that I like to do, which is arrange and play guitar solos and produce and co-write. Sometimes I just like the sound of my guitar playing over other people’s music even more than my own, because it’s just a different flavor that for whatever reason makes my playing sound better to my ears.
‘Sociopaths’ is a track that seems like one that might have put you through your paces. Can you talk about developing that one with David Davidson?
David Davidson was a guy that was referred to me by the record company. Actually, a publicist sent me a list of all of these current metal and rock artists who said nice things about me in interviews and stuff. I knew maybe less than half of them and so I started researching all of them and I found David Davidson and his band Revocation blew my mind. They are pretty much exactly what I kind of hoped that Megadeth was going to turn into. Just a real futuristic atomic powered thrash band with really great musicianship and a real current exciting sound that just keeps getting heavier and heavier, but rooted in thrash metal and that’s what I thought Megadeth was. I thought if I would have seen Megadeth turn into something more like that, I might have been challenged to stick around a little bit longer. Anyway, that’s the way I felt when I heard Revocation -- I was like “Wow, this is thrash metal, but it still sounds like 2012” or whenever I heard it. I liked it, so working with him was a big pleasure, especially to find out that he was influenced by me in his playing, which I couldn’t hear, because he’s got such an original unique style of his own, which is fantastic.
Do you find yourself asking somebody like that when they tell you that and you don’t hear it, do you probe deeper and ask them what elements of your playing they took from?
Not really, but I always tell them that I’m flattered, because it’s one thing to be influenced by my playing, but it’s another thing to be influenced and then carve your own identity and carve out your own success with your own playing. That means a lot to me. If someone was a complete clone of mine, I would say “Wow, it’s really nice to have a fan like that,” but when I hear guys who say “Yeah, I was influenced by you and here’s my four albums and this album is this and that and I’ve done this and that” and they’ve got all of these great accomplishments that really have nothing to do with me, that kind of speaks bigger volumes in my book.
Of course I love any fan of mine in any capacity, but that’s the biggest thrill when there’s someone who you wouldn’t necessarily know is a big Marty fan and they turn out to be. Ben Weinman from Dillinger Escape Plan, we did this thing on Fuse TV together and I think his music is absolutely just amazing and it doesn’t remind me of myself at all, but it turns out that he was very much influenced by my playing. So I really like it when guys are influenced by me, but they take their own direction and it’s far away from mine. I don’t know what they got from my playing, but whatever it is, it kind of moves them into a good direction. I get really stoked about that.
I love the stuff that you did with Danko Jones on this record. You guys had some fun.
Yeah, he’s the guy on the album that we’ve been friends for years already, so he wasn’t someone new to me, but we had yet to work together. We’d always threatened each other to do something and this time it worked out just fantastically. It was just a blast.
Another old friend of yours that pops up on this album is Jason Becker. What was the collaborative process like working on ‘Horrors’?
It was very similar to what we’d originally done. We’d both have ideas and put them together and make these crazy epic kind of songs. The only difference now is that he’s creating music with his eyes on a computer and we’ve both grown in extreme levels musically, mainly because of the time, but also because of all of the experiences that we’ve both racked up since then. So it’s really a rare opportunity to hear this kind of growth in a project like Cacophony, to hear it so many years later and we’ve both really been pushing our music to the limits up until now, so it’s a great little peek into what could have been and what actually is.
It’s a really epic piece. I like the way that one unfolds….a lot happens in the nearly seven minutes that the track runs.
Yeah, it’s one of those things that I don’t think we could have even come near something that cool in the Cacophony days. Our minds weren’t deep enough to do that. At that time when we started working together, we didn’t really know what to keep and what to throw away. We kept what we thought was fun to play and what we thought was cool, but we weren’t so efficient in the art of listening back and deciding if it’s really making our hair stand up on end or not. We were just kind of like “This is great, let’s put it out like this.” But with ‘Horrors,’ especially with my arranging, I’m a big listener now, so I listen to a lot of things and just throw away tons of stuff if it’s not mind-blowing. That’s the main difference between then and now, so I don’t think we ever would have been able to come up with something that deep back then.
It’s interesting to me, hearing how this album is sequenced and the way ‘Resin’ moves into ‘Wicked Panacea.’ Do you start to hear stuff like that early on?
That was one of the earlier things. That’s really the only way I could excuse that ‘Wicked Panacea’ entrance -- it’s just an acoustic guitar, but I knew it would be really cool if it was falling off this big cliff of noise, which the end of ‘Resin’ is. That was one of the earliest things of that whole record, was that transition. I knew I wanted to have a big dramatic drop off, because acoustic guitar by itself is fine, but it would have so much more impact after this big airplane hangar of noise -- it would just mean so much more. There’s two groups that do this great. There’s a group called Mono in Japan that are absolutely the kings of this stuff, the dramatic quick changes and Opeth is really fantastic at that. So that’s my little homage to that type of thing which I really love and it’s quite hard to do. It was a challenge, but that little transition right there is one of my favorite parts of the record.
You referred to this album as being “American-made from the ground up,” right down to recording it here in the U.S. Clearly with technology being what it is, you could have stayed in Japan for the recording process and worked with the other musicians remotely. What made it important for you to take a different approach?
It was kind of [related to] logistics, because I did want guests to come and join me actually in the studio. Danko came down to the studio and Jorgen from Shining came to the studio in L.A. and a lot of the guests and my drummer were in America. Gregg Bissonette came into the studio -- I had guys coming in and out of the studio the whole time. So I kind of wanted to be in a little bit more reachable place for that and I wanted a certain engineer and he was American and he had a great studio. I also wanted to be in the vibe of America for this record.
The only thing I did in Japan was I did some bass tracks here and I did some additional guitars, but everything else was American. I have such a different mindset between Japan and America. It’s kind of hard to explain, but when I’m in America -- you know, I grew up in America, so I feel more like I’m making an American project. I’ve been living in Japan for 10 years, so I feel like I live in Japan, which I do. It’s a completely different feeling and I’m lucky to experience both. This album definitely called for a more American vibe overall.
Moving to Japan like you did, that’s a very interesting transition. I don’t know that you could have seen it playing out the way it has and being as massive as it has been with all of the stuff that you’re wrapped up with.
Yeah, there’s no possible way. I didn’t expect to do as much as I’ve done at all. I just hoped to be in some kind of domestic Japanese music situation. Things have just blown my mind as far as what I expected and what I wound up doing, with things that have opened themselves up to me. But at the same time, there’s a give and take, because it’s been at the cost of cultivating the rest of the world. You know, I work so hard in Japan.
My career is doing fantastic here in Japan, but a big majority of the rest of the world just knows me from the last time I released a platinum album and that would be with Megadeth, a long, long time ago. Which I don’t blame them, I mean, you’d have to learn three or four different languages to find out everything I’ve done in between. [Laughs]. Only my hardest core fans really know what I’ve been up to in Japan, but I think people deserve to get something.
I’ve been very lucky to have fans around the world who have supported me way back in the beginning and even now and a lot of people who’ve probably forgotten about me because I’m out of their radar now that I’m in Japan and I hold nothing against anybody. I just really want them to have access to what I’m doing, because I think people will enjoy it, if for no other reason than that. I think people outside of Japan would enjoy even the things I’m doing in Japan, but it’s really hard to get all of those things available to everybody.
So now that I’m on an American project and it’s a worldwide project, this is my one chance in a long time to allow people to hear what I’m about now and possibly compare it to what they know me from and hopefully hear the insanely vast improvement and the depth that has changed so much since they last heard my playing.
With all of the stuff that you’ve been doing, have you been able to see as a player how that’s all fed back into the kind of record you made with this record as opposed to if you would have made this new record 10 years ago?
Oh God, yes. You hit it right on the button. I’ve been in Japan for 10 years and I’ve done a billion projects -- lots of solo albums here. I listen to the output that I’ve done in the last 10 years and you can not even compare it to the 10 years that I did before as far as depth and intensity and density and growth. It boggles even my mind, first of all, how friggin’ hard I’ve wound up working.
The 10 years prior to that, of course I was doing fantastic things. I was making history with a great band that I loved. It was great. But as far as musical growth and depth and stuff that really turned me on musically, I was moving at a snail’s pace. Ever since I came here, it’s made my mind blow up from stimulation and the result is an album like Inferno, which just came out naturally.
You’ve done so many things since moving to Japan, and part of that has been a ton of TV work. You’ve said that “TV facilitated the ability for me to do exactly what I wanted to do musically without having to compromise.” How did it open the door for you to really do that?
Well, first of all, my music is not exactly Justin Bieber. It’s not super-commercial and super-mainstream, although I’ve done a lot of songwriting, recording and producing and guitar playing for Top 10 acts here in Japan all of the time, which I love doing because I love popular music, especially in Japan. But Marty Friedman, the solo artist, is definitely not the most commercial thing in the world. It’s a bit eclectic and it’s very intense. There’s a lot to listen to and it can be quite hard to listen to at points, but it is what it is. So I think that had I not been so visible on television, it would be harder for me to get a major label anywhere to release my stuff, especially with all creative freedom in my corner. I mean, nobody really tells me what to do.
I can only attest that to the face familiarity [I have]. They know me from being on TV or being in the media and stuff like that, so it’s kind of almost like a free pass to do what I want, despite the fact that it’s not going to necessarily be the biggest mainstream commercial hit that they’re going to make billions of dollars off of. But I’ve consistently released album after album after album, all on major labels here, and they’ve all done respectably well and gotten me to the next step. I can only say that I’ve been allowed to do that because of doing all kinds of other activities in Japan as well.
I know you’ve been playing some live shows. How much of this record is in the set?
We’ve been playing four songs off of it, which is a lot for a brand new record, but the response has been fantastic. Actually, this record is really what I want to play and represent live. I basically chose the setlist as mostly Inferno stuff and stuff from my previous solo albums that kind of fit into the Inferno vibe. I kept it really heavy and dark and intense and not too light. I only did one ballad in there and the rest of it is just full throttle, balls out ripping kind of stuff.
Did you have to do any sort of conditioning to be able to pull off a set like this?
Not really, if anything I’m an endurance junkie. Endurance is the easiest thing. I’ve never really had a problem with stamina or that kind of thing. For whatever reason, when I’m playing live, I get this jolt of energy and I’m not even the most athletic person at all, but I just go completely ape-shit when I’m playing. So that comes kind of naturally, especially after our first few gigs, it’s just off the hook. It was a very natural thing. My band is really good, so it makes it really easy to play this stuff, although it sounds kind of difficult. I think it would be difficult if it wasn’t my own, but since it’s mine and I spent so many months recording this stuff, I know it only too well. So it was rather easy to put together a setlist.
Who’s in your band on this run?
The guitarist is Takayoshi Ohmura and he’s also in a band called Babymetal and they’re starting to breakout worldwide. The bass player is a guy from Israel named Or Lubianiker and the drummer is a guy named Johan Nunez from Gus G’s band Firewind. Those two guys are relative recent members of my band, but Takayoshi has been playing in my solo band since 2008.
I know you spent a lot of time working on this record. It seems like it might have been a lot to jam creatively into one album. Do you still have additional songs and collaborations that you didn’t get to on this one?
Well, I’ve got a lot of additional songs and collaborations that I threw away to narrow it down to only the stuff that I really liked. I spent a lot of time listening and even if I worked hard on a song and even if it got finished, if it was just a 9.5 in my book, I just said “You know, I’ll just pass on it and wait until I’ve got something that really excites me.” That’s one of the joys of not having a deadline. So yeah, there’s probably an album and a half’s worth of stuff that’s been thrown away and I doubt that I’ll even revisit it. Because I’m one of those guys that if it’s not good now, it’s not going to be good three years later. So just delete it and come up with something new.more
Written by: Matt Wardlaw
I spoke with Richard Marx in early March for a story that ran locally prior to his show here in Cleveland in April. For those of you who are regular readers of the blog, it will come as no surprise that I'm a lifelong Marx fan. Even if I wasn't a fan, just learning that he's a fellow liner notes nerd like I am would have gone a long way.
We talked about his upcoming album, Beautiful Goodbye (which was still untitled at the time of our conversation), which is set for release sometime in June. I've never interviewed Marx before, so I was looking forward to the opportunity to dig into the songwriting that he's done, both for himself and other artists.
It was a good chat and it left me wanting to hear the new album. I'm curious to hear where he's going to go with this one. From hearing "Turn Off The Night," the one new song that he performed during his Cleveland appearance, the initial mojo on this one feels good.
Let’s start at the top --- I saw that you were writing songs with Ringo Starr last week. That’s an experience that probably tops many other experiences for most people.
It’s pretty crazy. I wrote a song with him I guess two albums ago after I did a tour with him, he asked me to write a song with him. I went over to his house and he had a track that he had already played drums on and it was a piece of music that was pretty fleshed out, but it didn’t have a melody or any lyrics. So I started singing a melody and then we started writing lyrics together and we wrote a song that ended up becoming a song called “Mystery Of The Night.” So he called me a couple of weeks ago again and said “Hey, I’m doing a new album -- I know you’re in L.A., do you want to come over and do the same thing?”
So I went over last week and we wrote this new song. But then just this morning he called me and said “Do you have time to write another song? I love the song we wrote and it was so easy. Do you have time to write another one?” and I said “Dude, I’ll make time!” Then he said “You know, why don’t we just do something from scratch -- whatever you think would be good for me to sing.” So he sort of gave me carte blanche to come up with some ideas for him. So next week we’re going to sit down and [work on it]. I’ve got to tell you, aside from being Ringo, the Beatle, he’s just such a lovely man. He’s such a great hang and it’s time well spent because he’s a blast and he’s fun.
It seems like once you do one of those All-Starr Band tours, if you play your cards right, you’re in the family from that point forward.
Pretty much. One of the things that happens is that once you know him and certainly once you’ve toured with him, if you just happen to go see him play somewhere, you have to get up at the end of the show and sing “With A Little Help From My Friends.” It’s a law that is written somewhere -- I’m not sure where, but trust me, it’s written somewhere. He doesn’t discard people.
If you treat him the way he treats you, which is with respect -- and he is, for everything that he embodies and what he’s experienced in his career, I don’t know of a more respectful musician. He’s such a fan of other people and he’s so good at giving other people props. He’s a good human. He could be Ringo Starr from the Beatles and not be that great of a guy and I wouldn’t want to work with him just because of who he is, but he’s a really cool guy.
You’ve done a lot of writing and co-writing with folks in recent years. It seems like there might be an additional level of intimidation that might creep into the process for some people, because you’re writing with Ringo Starr. Yet it would also seem like you maybe had a bit of benefit going into it, since you had toured with him of maybe having a comfort zone that some people don’t have.
Yeah, I definitely did have that. He and I, we’re social friends -- we’ve had quite a few dinners together and we talk on the phone every once in a while just to check in with each other and we’re friends. So I definitely have a comfort level with him as a person, which makes the co-writing process that much less uncomfortable. When you sit down in a room with somebody and you’re going to just sort of throw ideas out there that might suck or might be brilliant, there’s a trust that needs to happen and sometimes that definitely has to take time to develop.
You know, there’s certain people that I’ve written hit songs with and when we get back together to write again, it’s just as uncomfortable as the first time. You don’t ever get past a certain level of discomfort with certain people. It doesn’t mean you don’t produce great stuff, it just means that it’s a different kind of dynamic. And then there are people who I couldn’t be more comfortable around, but maybe I haven’t written a hit song with.
I look at every co-writing venture as a place for me to learn something. That includes writing with young writers like Jason Wade and Chris Daughtry, those guys who will tell me “Well, you’re the veteran -- I’m going to defer to you now” and I said “No, no -- there’s no such thing -- just because I’ve written x number of hit songs doesn’t mean that I’m going to be the guy that carries the ball over the touchdown line on this song. It might be you!”
I spoke with your buddy Matt Scannell about the latest Vertical Horizon album and he was telling me how you came in and as he put it, rescued things by helping him get the vocals where they needed to be with that record. I guess I’m curious if you’ve ever had somebody do the reverse and come in to rescue you with your own situation.
I don’t know that I’ve ever been rescued. I’ve certainly had….you know, look -- more importantly, Matt Scannell is somebody who has come into my life and rescued me personally and that’s way more important than musically. I don’t know that there’s a songwriter...I’ve really only had bout of [writer’s block] and I was very young. It was my father who pulled me out of it -- he was my ultimate mentor. He just simply said “Writer’s block is bulls--t” and he said “You either write songs or you don’t write songs and if you’re going to use an excuse like ‘I’ve got writer’s block,’ then there’s really nothing to talk about -- you must not want to be a songwriter that bad.”
It was tough love and it was the greatest f--king thing that ever happened to me, because I never experienced it again. He just reminded me that there’s always something to write. You may not write a particularly good song day, but you can write something. It’s a choice. So I put writer’s block way behind me when I was a teenager. So I don’t know that there’s ever been a mentor or somebody that kind of came in and kickstarted my creative thing again. I don’t know that there’s that. But like I said, more importantly, there have been a couple of people and Matt Scannell is certainly at the top of the list, [of] people who came in at certain pivotal moments of my life and pulled me out of the wreckage and were incredibly helpful, kind and loving friends to me.
At least from the outside, it seems like you two met up at a time when both of you were looking to do some new things creatively.
Yeah, well I was already kind of in a place where I felt like my artist career was something that would be somewhere between a hobby and not a good thing. I felt like I had a really great turn at that for 10 years with hits and I’d experienced all of the bucket list things I’d signed up for when I was young. I felt like you know, it’s not my turn anymore -- it’s other people’s turn -- so I’m going to write and produce and do all of that and still make tons of music, which I did and I have done. But I’m not going to really pursue the performing thing.
Matt was coming off of a pretty rough experience with his label and that [Vertical Horizon] album Go and that’s when he and I became friends. I think it was just sort of serendipitous that I kind of wandered into his life at the time that I did, because he was pretty down and he said to me “You know, you started calling me at a time when my phone wasn’t ringing,” so he knew that where I was coming from was a place of friendship and admiration for what he did. I believe that with everybody, you get put in people’s paths for a reason. Sometimes you never know what the reason is. I know that in my case with Matt, I now I have a brother that I never knew I had.
I know you’ve been working on a new album. What can you tell us about that?
Well, it’s the first time I’ve consciously made a new collection of songs in a long time in a real focused way. It’s probably [been] close to 10 years [since] I sat down and said “I want to put a real consistent album together.” The music is still me, because it’s my voice and my voice is the thread, but I think that musically it’s a departure. I listen to a lot of kinds of music, but in the last couple of years, I’ve been really fascinated with a lot of EDM and a lot of music by DJs like Morgan Page and Deadmaus.
So I’ve listened to a lot of that music and trance music and there’s something so hypnotic and sensual about that music and it definitely inspired a lot of the music on this record, even if it isn’t necessarily a clone of any of those kinds of songs. There are definitely a couple of tracks that are clearly influenced by EDM and then there’s just other stuff that’s sort of influenced by other music that I’ve listened to from Sade to world music -- all kinds of stuff. There’s really not a lot of straight down the middle pop stuff on this record and I’m excited about it because it sounds different to me and if I make a record where I think I’m breaking new ground for myself artistically, I’ve got to start there. I can never ever predict what my fanbase is going to react to. I’ve never written a song in my life that I thought was a hit when I wrote it.
Luckily, I’ve been happily surprised many times, but I’ve never had that experience that I hear about where people go “Man, I knew that song was a hit” -- so I write songs that appeal to me. I write songs to get things off my chest and I write songs just to express musically and creatively whatever I’m wanting to say at that time. The rest of it is a complete crapshoot. The good news is that I don’t know that I’ve been more excited about a record or pleased with a record in a long time. It doesn’t mean that more than 11 people will buy it. [Laughs] But I really love the record. I’m really excited for people to hear it.
Who have you been writing with on this record?
I wrote one with Matt Scannell. I wrote with David Hodges for the first time and that was really, really fun. He’s a really talented guy. The majority of it I wrote by myself. I’m actually recording the last song tomorrow that I wrote with Walter Afanasieff -- and again, that’s a guy that I’ve known and we have mutual friends and we’ve circled each other for years, but we just never got together to write until a couple of weeks ago. The song came out great, so we’re going to go in his studio tomorrow and cut it and it will be a real quick process. Then I’ll be mixing for the next couple of weeks and the record will be done.
The writing and the co-writing that you do with other folks, does that tie back to your own music at all when you’re writing?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, if nothing else sometimes it lights the fuse. I’ve had experiences where I haven’t written any songs for a couple of weeks and I’ll go to Nashville and sit with a couple of co-writers and write two or three songs over a couple of days and then I’ll come home and I’ll write five songs by myself. Because it just warms up the muscle and it lights the fuse and then you’re in that zone. So yeah, that happens a lot.
You spoke about this a bit earlier, but I’d like to talk a bit more about that period when you made made the transition from being a hitmaker of your own as a songwriter to focusing more on writing songs for others that became huge hits. I thought that was really interesting when you made that transition at that time and it was smart. But that’s a hell of a leap.
Yeah, it was a hell of a leap and look, if I’m going to be really honest with you, on one hand I think it was one of the smartest things I could have done. Because I essentially reinvented myself as a writer/producer for hire and potentially extended my musical career by any number of years, because I’m still doing it -- I’m still co-writing with people. I think that had I not done that at the time, I might have...I mean I could have maybe always ultimately done it, but I felt like the timing was what it needed to be.
But also, looking back on it now, I think part of it was that my kids were young and I wanted to be around. I didn’t want to be on the road touring and promoting constantly. I wanted to have the experience of taking my kids to school almost every day, picking them up and having dinner with them every night and just sort of having that kind of existence, which I had very little experience with up to that point. So again, I’m grateful for that, because I built the relationship that now exists with me and my three sons, which is incredible.
Maybe I wasn’t totally conscious of it at the time, but there was also a sense of just feeling like “f--k it.” You know, I finally put out a record that didn’t do anywhere what the other records had done -- in 1997 I put out this CD called Flesh & Bone. I felt like the writing was on the wall that it was going to be a tough climb to get back to where I was a couple of years before. So looking back now, really what I could have done, I could have done exactly what I ended up doing, plus hired a new producer, co-written with a bunch of different people and just done what people do to reignite their careers. Instead of that, I kind of went “f--k it, I don’t care.”
It was easier for me to sort of just dive into the writing and producing for other people because there was a lot less ego risk with that. So you know, I think looking back now, I think it cost me in terms of my career as an artist, because I had to completely rebuild my touring base and I had stayed behind the scenes for a dozen years or so and you have to remind people -- it’s a whole another generation. So in some cases you have to remind people and in [others], you have to completely introduce yourself to the first time to people. So I did some artistic damage by making that decision, but I just don’t really look back at stuff like that and second-guess it. It felt right at the time and I just try to put one foot in front of the other.
It seems like it ended up being a smart move for you at the time. But also it seems like doing all of that writing probably kept the fuel going that kept you writing songs and recording for yourself.
Yeah, I wouldn’t argue that. I think there were great benefits to my decision, both creatively and personally for sure. But there were detriments too and you have to accept the bad with the good. I own it all, so it’s fine with me. But I also think writing and producing all of these other artists, one of the first things that is so different about all of that is that it’s not genre-specific. It’s all over the map, so I’ve got all of these country records that I did, pop records, hard rock records, jazz records, pop classical crossover records and pretty much everything except polka is covered in my resume. I know that the diversity of that music informs what I write for myself now.
Because I’m a student of music still and the stuff that I’ve learned from the other people I’ve collaborated with -- even I’ve been really in the driver’s seat, it informs what I’m writing now. It also raises the question, “What do I want to do musically that I haven’t done?” Where are some places I can go that are interesting to me that I think I would not make a fool of myself doing. So that’s really what this new album is. It’s like doing a little bit of collaborating and really studying a lot of EDM music and listening to it in my car constantly and on planes, that’s a place that I really wanted to go and explore and still maintain the craft of songwriting that I count on and that I feel like I’m known for.
How have things changed for you with social media being a part of the equation now?
There’s no barriers anymore. If I’m sitting having a coffee, I’m fair game to have that picture of me doing that -- no matter how I look or how I feel or who I’m with or anything -- I’m fair game to have that tweeted to the world. Look, it’s not a burden for me -- that stuff is so rare for me. But I can’t imagine what it’s like for the current cultural celebrities. -- I can’t even imagine what that’s like.
There was the well-publicized thing where you went and met up with the Chicago-area critic that had called you "shameless." You invited him out to talk about things face to face -- had you ever done something like that before?
Not like that. Years ago, there were people that I would call up if I felt that they were taking a cheap shot or they were just being flat out dishonest in their writing. I definitely did that and then I tried to stop doing that. Because I just found that my life was too good to be worrying about s--t like that. I pretty much ignore….I don’t even notice a lot of it, but because this was in my hometown, there were some people. They didn’t mean to stir s--t up, but they said “Did you see what this asshole wrote?” And I was like wow, this guy went 100 miles out of his way to not just insult me about something that I had nothing to do with in his original article, but he used the word that just set me off, which was “shameless.”
I don’t know, man, when I look back on it now, I think “Well, why did I even care?” But what I explained to the guy and the reason that I was there, I said “You know, this is the town where my kids live and this is the town where my mother lives.” If you wrote in your blog that Richard Marx is the least talented person on the face of the earth and every note that he writes and sings is utter s--t, you would never hear from me, because I could give a f--k. But when you say something that’s a personal character insult, like I’m shameless, and you’ve never met me and you don’t know anybody who knows me -- I want you to say that to my face. So I said to him, “Do you have the balls to say that to my face?” He went “Yeah” and I went “Okay, great.” So we met up at a bar and he apologized and I took his apology.
I think the guy….I mean, everybody in Chicago who even knows who he is, nobody thinks much of him and he’s a pretty inconsequential guy and I actually feel sorry for him. The more I know about him as a person, I’m glad I’m walking in my shoes and not his, let’s put it that way. But I feel like in retrospect it was probably dumb, but in the moment, you know, I’m a man and I felt like I’m going to deal with this like a man and not like a celebrity. I just said “Dude, you know, if you’re going to say something like that about me in the town where I live, then I want to see if you’ll say it to my face.” And he didn’t -- he wouldn’t.
Going back to the social media topic for a moment, something that sticks out to me about it is that it’s nonstop and there’s a sense of entitlement and lots of other things. So I can’t imagine, as you said yourself, people who are current hit-makers today like Lady Gaga or whoever you want to mention, it’s just a nonstop storm that goes far beyond anything that you had to deal with back in the day. It’s all been magnified so much.
There’s no comparison. Look, even back in the heyday when I was the most well-known and visible, I lived a very quiet life. First of all, I didn’t court that. You know a lot of people, let’s face it, when people say “poor this person or poor that person, they can’t go anywhere,” well, guess what? Most of the time? The people that we’re talking about that I don’t need to name -- it’s their publicists who are telling the paparazzi where to go. It’s their machine that’s feeding that beast. You can’t really have it both ways -- you can’t be the victim of something that you did not [engineer], so you just sort of check out of it and you don’t embrace it and you don’t court it. I think for the most part, they kind of leave you alone.
I get approached sometimes if I’m coming out of a restaurant or whatever, but I don’t have anything to say and I’m never going to engage. Aside from that guy in Chicago, which is a totally different thing, I think it’s just a matter of understanding that this is toothpaste that’s not going back into the tube and just know that we live in a culture now where if you’re in the public eye, every public move you make is fair game.
You’re playing an acoustic show, right? Is it just you?
It’s just me. I started doing this a couple of years. I’ve seen other acoustic shows and I’ve heard about other acoustic shows and I’m not knocking anybody who does an acoustic show, but I will say that anybody that is concerned that it is a serious singer/songwriter show where I sit and talk about craft or motivation or what was going through my mind..there’s none of that s--t! It’s as if you came over to my house and we’re just hanging out. The only thing is I wish that I could drink with them. I wish everybody had a drink and we could just sit around and clink glasses and I would say “Okay, so you’re not going to believe the story about this song” or “You’re not going to believe what happened when I was writing this song or making this record.”
Because I’ve got crazy ass stories about making music, collaborating with people and just s--t that’s happened to me. So it’s really just a hang with me and the audience. I can’t really do that with the band, because it’s four guys standing around waiting for me to shut up so I can sing the next song. At a solo acoustic show, I can take my time and if people yell out a song, if I remember it, I’ll do it. It’s just such a fun hang and that’s really my motivation every night. Because if it’s just replicating the music, why get in your car and come and see me. But if I feel like I’m going to send you home feeling like you hung out with me for a couple of hours, then that’s my mission.
Will you play any of the new stuff?
Yeah, but only a couple, because I know what people want to hear. Honestly, if I go see Foo Fighters, sure play a couple of new songs, but I need to hear the shit that I love and the reason I came. The bulk of my show are the songs that I wrote for myself and other people that you know. But I do definitely play two or three new songs out of the setlist. Mainly because I’m really excited to get reaction and also because I’m a songwriter first and foremost, so I want to show off and say “Hey, look what I did -- look, Mom and Dad, look what I made!” I played one new song [recently] and it got arguably the biggest ovation of the night, so sometimes when that happens, when I play a song that no one’s ever heard before and they freak out, it’s almost as good as sex -- it’s amazing.
Photo via RichardMarx.com -- used with permissionmore
Written by: Matt Wardlaw
Bruce Springsteen announced the release of High Hopes today, a new studio album which will be released in typical Bruce fashion (at least in recent years) in less than two months on January 14th. You can read up on details regarding the new release here.
Folks who pre-order the album via Amazon can get a bonus DVD featuring a full album performance of the Born In The USA album, captured on the recent Wrecking Ball tour. According to the listing, this bonus is exclusive to Amazon.
Written by: Matt Wardlaw
It's Sunday evening and you're a little bit bummed that the weekend is drawing towards its conclusion, right?
Here's a brand new album from Dan Baird & Homemade Sin to help soften the blow a bit.
The new album is called Circus Life and you can either snag the physical disc here or grab the newly released Amazon MP3 download for instant gratification. Like everything that Baird releases, the arrival of this one has been highly anticipated in my world. From a quick scan, it sounds like Dan Baird, so that might be all that you need to know.zero
Written by: Matt Wardlaw
Eric Johnson has quietly been releasing new music in recent months via a series of single downloads. His latest offering, while not available as a download just yet, previews a new collaboration with Christopher Cross.
Johnson and Cross will perform together at the All ATX benefit concert on September 24th, benefiting the HAAM (Health Alliance For Austin Musicians) as part of a lineup that will also feature Quiet Company and Will Johnson (Monsters of Folk), Charlie and Will Sexton and others. The above track will be eventually available on a compilation album that will bring additional benefit to HAAM.
The roots between Johnson and Cross run more than 30 years deep -- the Austin guitarist can be found on the Grammy Award winning debut by Cross, a multi-platinum album that sold more than five million copies in the United States alone.zero