Addicted To Vinyl Musical thoughts from the open road, with headphones on

29Sep/0928

Bill Champlin: The ATV Interview

Bill Champlin

During my early years as a music fan, I came across albums that would be important mile markers in my continuing musical education. Chicago 17 was an important album that introduced me to the production of David Foster, and perhaps more importantly, the vocals of Peter Cetera and Bill Champlin. Champlin was a recent addition to Chicago, having joined during the songwriting sessions for Chicago 16, the band's first album for their new label, Full Moon/Warner Brothers, after a career length stint recording for Columbia. The winning combination of Foster + Champlin + Chicago led to platinum selling results, and the band's second #1 single with "Hard to Say I'm Sorry."

Chicago 17 delivered even greater results, and remains the best selling album in the Chicago catalog with over six million copies sold to date. Notably, Champlin would grab the spotlight two albums later on Chicago 19, singing lead on three out of the four hit singles from the album, including "Look Away," which put another notch in Chicago's belt of #1 singles.

After I finished exploring the complete Chicago catalog of releases that I had missed prior to Chicago 17 (i.e. their entire 70s output,) it was time to investigate the solo work that Chicago members Robert Lamm, Cetera, and Champlin had done through the years. Of the three, I knew the least about Champlin, and as I would come to discover, Champlin had amassed a formidable catalog of work both solo and with Sons of Champlin, prior to joining Chicago in 1982.

I bought my first Champlin solo disc in the early 90s - while browsing in a local record store, I saw a copy of Burn Down The Night, the latest solo album from Champlin, and his first full-length solo release since Runaway in 1981.  When I got home and started to read the liner notes, I read the following words that continue to inspire me to this day:

To all the musicians who went way deep with us and gave all they had.
Equation:  Good Friends=Good Music
To those who've inspired us.
To those we may touch.
Turn up the Light
Burn down the night.

Bill Champlin was unquestionably a very cool cat - this was clear to me after reading the above in the liner notes.  On a side note,  if there is an argument that still needs to be made as to why liner notes should still be relevant to us as music fans, please re-read the above.  It's these little literary gifts within the liners that help us find that bond as music fans with our favorite artists and bands, hidden within the lyrics and credits of each album that we buy.

The 90s were a prolific time for Champlin, who would release two more solo albums (Through It All and He Started To Sing,) and a live album (Mayday) in addition to doing plenty of session work, and the occasional collaborative project (ex. West Coast All-Stars.) All of this while maintaining a full time "day job" recording and touring with Chicago - one could easily wonder how Champlin found the time for it all, but when you dig into Champlin as a person, you discover an individual that lives and breathes music 24/7.

Bill Champlin - No Place Left To Fall

So it's a bit surprising that it's been over 10 years since Champlin's last solo release, a drought that came to an end recently with the release of No Place Left To Fall, Champlin's latest solo release. No Place Left To Fall proves that some things are worth the wait - the 13 tracks on the album represent in my opinion, Champlin's finest work to date. I own everything that Champlin has put to tape - both solo and with Sons of Champlin, and for my money, No Place Left To Fall is the first album from Champlin that completely hits the mark. It really and truly is "all killer, and no filler."

We had the chance recently to grab some interview time with Champlin to talk about the new album - ATV friend and fellow Champlin/Chicago fan Wendell Neeley connected with Champlin to discuss not only the new project, the upcoming November tour to support the album, and also his work with Chicago through the years. And that's just scratching the surface on a few of the many topics that came up during the conversation with Champlin. What we didn't know though, was that Champlin would announce his departure from Chicago after 28 years, less than a week after this interview was conducted. Champlin's departure from Chicago means more time for recording, more time for touring, and hopefully a tour date for Cleveland - I'm down with all of that!

You've been in the business since the 60s. You've been touring with the band Chicago for 28 years, and of course you have your own band Sons of Champlin, but you're not a household name.

A lot of what I am probably best known for in the 80s and 90s was doing sessions with other musicians. It was right around the time in LA when there was just millions of sessions being done so I ended up doing a lot of background vocals for a million artists that you've never heard of and a few that you have.

Runaway

Well, the first time that I heard of you as a solo artist, was while working at Camelot Records in Lima, OH, and your album Runaway had come out. Of course you joined Chicago shortly after that.

It was weird, I did the Runaway album and the day that it was released, Joe Smith, the guy who had signed me to Elektra Records left the company. Two days later, I got a call from Chicago asking me to join the band.. I went “they're (Elektra Records) going to lose this album, I could see it coming from a million miles away. So I thought I'd better go for the rent, you know what I mean? It was one of those situations, it's like what Lee Ritenour used to call “war stories.”

Chicago

Chicago was floundering in the late 70s and early 80s – when you were asked to join, what was the focus with you joining the band. Were you hired on as a vocalist/keyboardist? Or were you expected to fill in the guitar position and vocals? What was the premise there?

Right after Terry (Kath) passed away, within a few days I got a call to maybe replace him as their guitarist. The manager could see that the guys were probably going to keep going. He called me about it and I said “look, I do play guitar, but guitar-wise, that's a pair of shoes that I'm never going to fill.”

I didn't realize that they already had Chris Pinnick in line as an on-stage guitar player (a few years later when Champlin finally joined the band.) I do play some guitar with Chicago, but what the gig ended up being to start with, was we did a couple of albums with David Foster. I had been working with David for quite a while. What David brings to the ballgame is this piano stuff, and I kind of had a little bit of an eyeball – although I'm nowhere near the piano player that David is. But I could learn what he played – I couldn't necessarily come up with it, but I could definitely learn what he played. I'd watched his hands long enough to know what his moves are about.

When we started getting hits on that level with Chicago that were David Foster driven, I think my piano playing came more into play. One of the reasons that I probably joined the band is that Peter and I had done some background vocals for a mutual friend of ours on a demo that he was doing. Everybody in the booth, the minute that we sang together said “Whoa, that's a blend, that's a mean sound.” And Peter and I did too, we said “that's a pretty cool blend,” something in our voices blended pretty well together. So we did a couple of years of that. I think a lot of what brought Chicago out of the doldrums - I'd love to take credit for that, but I think a lot of that was David Foster. And even more than that, I think a lot of that was David Foster writing with the guys in the band, mostly Peter.

Moving on to your solo career, what surprises me is what a prolific writer you are – how many solo albums do you have at this point, 8?

7 or 8, I've lost count...I've got a great memory, I just don't remember where I've put it! *laughs*

What is amazing to me – even though you do heavy duty time touring with Chicago, you still have time to work on your solo material, and have a unique element to that material. How do you separate the two?

A lot of my fans, real BC fans have a tendency to call Chicago the “day gig,” and I don't want to say that necessarily. Chicago is a “play the hits” band, and there's only so much room and then there are guys that have been standing in line (to get their material on the project) when there is a new project. I'm usually the last guy to be asked about material, so at some point in the game, I've just been trying to do solo albums to keep from going crazy, because I write pretty much all of the time. I've got probably an album full of stuff now to do the next record.

When you're writing your own stuff, do you ever write music that makes more sense for a Chicago album that gets rejected, so you end up deciding to keep it for yourself?

That's usually what happens. There's a song on the new album called “Never Been Afraid” that I've submitted that everyone says “that's an obvious Chicago song.” I've submitted it once or twice over the years, and that kind of song isn't expected from me. What's expected from me with Chicago is the filler stuff. Why don't you do the R&B stuff so that we can get Jason or Peter or somebody to come up with the real pop stuff. And yes, I write pop music – I've got a couple of Grammy Awards on the wall that say I do. With that band, a lot of times there's a pecking order and I'm kind of at the end of that line. After a while, you don't want to start submitting stuff to somebody who's basically just going to turn it down by the fact that you wrote it. That's one of the reasons why solo albums is good for me, I can get that stuff out of my system.

Peter Cetera shows up on “Never Been Afraid.”

He does some backgrounds on the song. We were going to go a little bit further and then realized people aren't going to listen to the rest of the record, it's going to be all about this, especially with Chicago fans. You can hear him in there, and there's a little bit of that really awesome blend that he and I have always had whenever we sing together. I actually ended up doing that duet with Michael English, who is just an awesome singer. Michael's been in the contemporary Christian scene for years, and I've worked on a couple of his records. I went “I need a little bit of duet action on this song, I'm calling Michael,” and he was over there in like five minutes. We had a really good time doing that.

Obviously with Peter on this album, your relations with him didn't suffer when he left Chicago?

I think the guys that he grew up with may have issues, and I don't particularly have any issues with Peter. I never wanted to get involved with “hey, you're not supposed to like that person,” that kind of crap. I always looked at that as childish and kind of high school. I've always gotten along with Peter pretty well – we've had a moment here and there, but we played together for three years, and it was a pretty intense three years. 16 had really caught some air, and 17 really caught some air, so we were on the road a lot together. I think he's one of the major voices of our time. I remember years before I saw these guys or knew how great of a singer Cetera was, I was driving along right by the Oakland auditorium and two songs came on, one after the other. One was “Living For The Love of You” by the Isley Brothers and the other was “If You Leave Me Now” by Chicago. Here's maybe the two best tenors on the Earth, and I don't know the names of either of them. Because they were under a band name. I know that one of them is probably named Isley, I just don't know what his first name is. Obviously, I dug in and found out it was Ronnie Isley and Peter Cetera. I just listen to it and I don't particularly like the team thing – hey we're on this team and you're on that team and we're all in competition. Baloney. I think we're all together. I always look at all of these musicians I know as being part of a big piece of pie, and it was someone else that cut them into slices. For the most part, we're all born and raised in the same pie plate.

Regarding the solo tour that you just announced,

We're going to get two shows in San Juan Capistrano and San Diego, and then we're going to aim up and do some stuff around the Bay Area, and then head up in to Oregon and Washington. It should be kind of fun, and I'm using the guys that I used on the Mayday album, and this band's really going to be about singing, because all of these guys are not only great players, but they're awesome singers. I guess I could have flown the vocals (in) that I put on the record, but I've always looked at that as being kind of cheap and tawdry. That sounds like an awful lot of Bill up there. On a record it's one thing, but live it's another thing. The guys that I've got playing for me are all from a group called Santa Fe and the Fat City Horns based out of Las Vegas. I've known Jerry, the guitar player for years. These guys are the top of the food chain, as good as it gets.

When was the last time you did a solo tour in the U.S.?

Never. I've done plenty of Sons gigs over the years. I worked several years solo in Europe in Scandanavia and Japan. That's why the clubs here are going “Who are you? We know the Sons, but who are you?” They might not be offering me much, but they are hiring me, so if I can figure out a way to get people into the building, that will settle things up a little bit.

Talking a bit about your recording method, your stacked background vocals are legendary – has this gotten easier in the age of Pro-Tools, or do you still prefer to do things in analog?

I think Pro-Tools, it's so much easier to go to the next track and hit the down arrow, and boom you're there. A friend of mine said Pro-Tools, really what it is is like a multi-track tape recorder without having to have three guys carry it in the door. If you think of it as a sound destination, this is where it ends up, which is the same thing as a tape recorder. I try to use Pro-Tools as a tape machine, more so than a trickster. A lot of people play all kinds of tricks with them. I don't use tuners that much – occasionally if I want to keep a performance and something's a little out of tune, I'll fix a note here and there. That's using it as a tool, that's not using it as a crutch.

Anyone who has seen your live performances with Chicago knows that you don't need a studio to cover up anything at all.

I try to. You know, it's weird, I've been using in-ear monitors for the first time ever in the past year. I'm realizing that I've got to be really careful with these, because it's really easy to sing out of tune and think that you're in tune.

Wow.

I finally went with in-ear monitors, more than anything maybe just to keep my gig. I was doing cans, and then occasionally I'd put up a wedge. These guys, especially a band with horn players, they don't want any sound on the stage at all. Our bass player (Jason Scheff) uses a POD, he doesn't even use an amplifier. It's all going through the cans or house anyway.

For years, I didn't want to have a sound source that close to my ear drums. And everybody says to me “well, you know they've got limiters to keep you from hurting,” and I said yeah, I've got limiters at home – they broke! Almost blew my speakers. Well, blowing speakers is one thing, blowing your eardrums out is another thing altogether. I was very scared of them. Finally, they've improved them so much since I first tried them, that I decided to go with these things. I have to play some major games to try to keep myself in tune with these things – I take one of them almost all of the way out so I can hear a little bit. A lot of people tune inside their head, I learned to tune outside, hear the note coming out of my mouth. As a player, you want to hear them a little bit louder to get some groove, and that's where your pitch goes right out the window. So I have to remind myself to go down about three cents.

You've got the new CD No Place Left To Fall, which came out first as a digital download about a year ago. What do you think about dual-release dates, putting something out digitally first, and then physically later. Do you experience a loss of sales with illegal downloading?

There's a certain new kind of listener that likes downloads, so we released it first on Rhapsody, Itunes and Amazon about a year ago. There's a lot of older people that grew up on liner notes...

Like myself.

I've had a joke lately – can you see two teenage kids sitting around talking to each other, “I wonder who's going to play bass on the next Lady GaGa album?” I don't think they care!  *Laughs*

I think we're in the last generation that cared about that kind of stuff.

Yes, even special thanks and who plays what kind of instrument – who's playing Yamaha keyboards, and who's playing Korg keyboards. To a lot of people, that's interesting, and to other people that's useless information. I have a tendency to look at everything, break out a magnifying glass and look who's playing on what. Also, with this album release there is an hour long making-of DVD that talks about the songs, talks about the players, how we put it together, and generally where we were going with it. And there's actually a bit of Sons live footage on it as well.

You've made good use of Youtube – what are your thoughts on Youtube? Is it a good tool to promote a new release for you?

I think that Youtube is pretty cool. Anything to promote the release at this point in the game. The hardest thing to do is getting the word out, if you're not under 12 years old. What I've always said, when the Beatles were coming out, Hendrix, and different people like that, they'd get an artist and they'd wrap a sales campaign around the artist. And now they seem to wrap the artist around the sales campaign.

Speaking of kids, your son Will is very active musically as well. He's already got a couple of albums out on his own, that's got to make you proud.

Oh, he's a monster! He's a Berkeley grad and can go anywhere from playing, writing, programming, singing, engineering, unbelievable pop and R&B stuff. And then he can turn around on the piano and play Bill Evans. I have one jazz-ish tune on the album and I had Will play piano on the basic.

Did he always have an interest in following in your footsteps?

No, I don't think he was following in anyone's footsteps, he's just got that music in his bones. Once I hooked him up with a really good teacher, Terry Trotter, who's a great piano teacher, and got him involved in all of this other stuff, he passed me up like I was standing still, which of course I was.

Do you think that musical talent is hereditary?

I think so. My mother was a songwriter.

And your wife..

My wife Tamara is an awesome songwriter. She co-wrote the title tune on this album, and sang all over this record. There's one song on there called “Tuggin' On Your Sleeve,” that I wrote with Will and Michael Caruso, and we did it kind of as a trio. I sang a verse, Will sang a verse, bridge, and a chorus, and Tamara sang a verse. We just threw it around a little bit.

You've been living in Nashville – what's going on there that makes Nashville such a draw for a songwriter?

When I worked in San Francisco, everybody was at everybody else's house, writing songs all of the time. And then that kind of stopped, I found myself moving to LA where everybody was at everybody else's house, writing songs all of the time. That stopped, and now I'm in Nashville, where everybody is at everybody else's house, writing songs all of the time. Even that's starting to go away. For me, Nashville is living in the country and staying away from town. For Will, it's been great, it's been working good for him – he's been working both Nashville and LA and kicking butt. I don't think I'm that much of a Nashville guy – I'm not that much of a networker, and I'm not that much of a guy that's going to go hang out with stars and all of that crap. It just doesn't appeal to me.

As I'm sure you are aware, FM commercial radio isn't the powerhouse that it used to be...

There's very little business when you think about it. All of the downloading has really hurt the record business. What's hurt the record business more than anything else is a bunch of lawyers telling musicians what to play. I think that musicians have been listening to these business guys, who have no ears. I could see it coming the minute video started – Uh oh, here we go, now we've got to have pretty people. So now they've got a bunch of actors with record deals, and the producers are making the records. I saw Paris Hilton one time talking to Leno or somebody, and she said “I've just made an album,” and he said “really, what's it like?” She said “I don't know, I just heard it yesterday!” Things are changing, and everybody is doing everything they can to come up with different models of promotion. There's a lot of different ways to do it, and here I am talking to you. I think it's kind of like the original rock and roll when I first started, going after one station at a time, one newspaper at a time, talking to people one by one, rather than the big full run. Justin Timberlake still gets it. I think most of the really “big artists” there's so much paparazzi and it's just celebrity for celebrity's sake. That's nice clothes that you're wearing, but can you sing? Do you have anything to say? You hear albums that have three good songs on it, and the rest are obvious fillers, and I think it's one of the reasons that album sales are down. What I am trying to do, is do what we did in the era that I grew up in, and try to make interesting albums that you play from top to bottom. I think that's really important.

Bill Champlin's No Place Left To Fall is available now in record stores and online.  Catch Bill on the road this fall - click here for a list of tour dates to find out if Bill is coming to your area!

Visit Bill's official website

  • Kevin

    A major talent who seems like a good guy. That's refreshing nowadays in light of the behavior and attitudes of many classic-rock era stars.

    Great job of getting the interview here. Also impressed with the Camelot Music reference.

  • Kevin

    A major talent who seems like a good guy. That's refreshing nowadays in light of the behavior and attitudes of many classic-rock era stars.

    Great job of getting the interview here. Also impressed with the Camelot Music reference.

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