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

30Nov/102

The ATV Interview: Behind The Wall with Kipp Lennon of Venice

About a month ago, I spent some time talking with vocalist Kipp Lennon of Venice, the California based band of brothers and cousins (and longtime ATV favorites).  Three out of the four Lennons (Kipp, Pat and Mark) are currently on the road touring as backing vocalists for the  Roger Waters tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of the classic Pink Floyd album The Wall.

In a two part interview, I spoke with Kipp about the tour and also spent some time digging into a lot of Venice stuff.  You can check out the first part of the interview here (plus some additional "outtakes") focusing in on the Waters side in a piece for the Riverfront Times.  Here's the rest of the interview with some more Waters tidbits and plenty of Venice chat.

Venice will play a sold out homecoming Christmas Show in Santa Monica this Saturday during a day off from the Waters tour.  A newly released DVD featuring a full live show from 1990 (!!!) will be available at the merch stand that night (or if you're far away like me, you can pre-order a copy).  Enjoy this conversation with Kipp!

Let's talk about how you came to be involved with one of the year's biggest tours. As I understand it, there was a mutual love of the Beach Boys involved.

We just found this out ourselves - when Roger wrote the original Wall album as far as background vocals, he wanted a departure from their usual thing. They usually have women sing on a lot of that stuff or just David Gilmour. On this album, he wanted it to have a feel like Beach Boys vocals over Pink Floyd music. And you can kind of hear it in things like "Goodbye Blue Sky," "The Show Must Go On" and a few things, there's almost a doo-wop kind of vibe in a lot of the music on The Wall as well that people wouldn't necessarily pick up on, considering all of the themes in it. But in fact, there's a lot of doo-wop/street singing kind of stuff in the whole show. When Roger called Jon Joyce, who is one of the original singers from the original album and tour, and from the revival show in Berlin in 1990, he called Jon and said "I'm putting the band back together and we're going to do this tour. Jon said "well, the original background vocalists that you hired are all retired now, but I know a band that's perfect, because they're brothers and cousins and they sing like the Beach Boys."

So he basically contacted us and it was just complete coincidence, we happened to be doing a Beach Boys medley in our show at the time a year ago, in our acoustic show. So we just sent him a Youtube link along with some other Venice stuff with harmonies on it. Roger told Jon that he was interested and that he'd like to hear more, so then we went through the process when we finished our tour of downloading karaoke versions of Pink Floyd songs and adding our background vocals to them. I think we even recreated one of them, "The Thin Ice," I think we just did with an acoustic guitar. It was kind of a fluke and it was just like "hey what the heck, maybe he's interested!" We weren't sitting there biting our nails waiting for him to call back, it was more like "well,that would be interesting if it happens, but you know these things are so huge and you never know, there's probably a million singers that he's listening to." We just kept sending him stuff and it was kind of fun to recreate these songs and whatever, but we just kept forging on with our Venice stuff.

In fact, we had a new album that we were getting ready to do that we had set up with Universal [Records] in the Netherlands with Radio 2 there. It was a really big deal where they were going to be hooking us up with the Metropol, the national orchestra of Holland and we were going to do a tribute album of West Coast music. We were putting together this incredible song list of everything from CSN and the Beach Boys to a little bit of Eagles, Dan Fogelberg and just a bunch of different things. It was really cool and we were really fired up about it but then all of the sudden we got word from Roger that he wanted to come out and meet us. It was like "oh, okay, I guess this must be getting a little bit closer." So he flew out from New York and Jon brought him over to Michael's [Lennon] house on our street, just in the middle of the neighborhood. Which was really trippy. Like I said in my blog, it's just like having Pete Townshend just walk in your front door and then you sing him a song from Tommy. [laughs] It's really weird. We're singing "Goodbye Blue Sky" to the guy who wrote it and we just met him thirty seconds before that, he's so iconic and everything, so it was really trippy.

So we sang for him and he then he said "well, you know I love it," and he played us a bunch of footage from original tour that nobody had seen. He has hours and hours of footage that never turned into anything and he was showing us how the show works and you'll be standing here and you'll be doing that and here's where you'll do this. We kept looking at each other like, "is he saying...like do we have this gig or what?" Finally, we said "well, we've got a lot of stuff coming up, this album that we've already booked and we'd hate to push it but if you feel like there's a good chance we're doing this, then we kind of need to know." And he said "well, as far as I'm concerned, it's 95 percent that you've got it, but what I'd like to do is bring James Guthrie [original engineer and co-producer of The Wall] to LA. We'll bring him to LA and you guys can sing on a few more tracks, just to make sure you can cover everything." So we spent the day at a studio with James Guthrie, who's a really good dude. It turns out that he was only 24 or something when he did the album, so he's still really young. So [with Guthrie] hanging out with us, it was great and we had a ball.

It was so trippy to be singing on, he had the original tracks of the original album, not even the live album, so we would go to do a background vocal on it and we'd say "how does this part go?" He'd say "well, let's listen to what David [Gilmour] did," and then he'd put it on and we're listening to soloed vocals of just David Gilmour on these iconic songs and it was like being an archaeologist. It was like, you've got to be kidding me - we kept looking at each other like we were contest winners or something. My face hurt by the end of the night from just laughing! We're doing "Don't Leave Me Now" and we're listening to all of these vocals that Roger and David Gilmour did and it's just ridiculous.

We did that for a whole day and then it turns out that after a while that Roger says that he'd really like to use us, but what he really needs to be sure that there is, is a true bass part. Which none of us in Venice [really do], Michael and Mark trade off singing the low parts and they are low parts compared to the normal range, but they aren't bass parts. Jon Joyce had sung all of the original real bass parts on the original project and Roger felt more comfortable having Jon get on board and Jon originally said he didn't want to do the tour, but Roger kind of convinced him. Which meant that only three of us were going to be going, not [all] four of us in Venice. So that's when we had to decide who was going to go and who was not going to go. Throughout the evening of a regular Venice show, Pat sings most of the high parts, but Michael sings a lot of the high parts on [Venice songs] like "The Family Tree," "Think Again" and a lot of the songs. Originally, we were thinking maybe Michael should go - he's got kids. Pat's an incredible cabinet maker and he's always had more than enough work.

So we were thinking, "maybe it's a good thing, you know, Michael's always the last one to leave the studio, ever since we started the band." So if we had to flip a coin, we might as well just have Michael go and we were set for that. We had a lot of rehearsals but after about a month of rehearsing, Michael was the first to admit that he just wasn't cut out for singing high parts for a whole evening like that. He's really a songwriter/producer/engineer/background singer kind of guy, but more like a band type singer, not professional background singing.

Although it's a lot of simple things as far as difficulty in singing them, it's a lot of stuff, a lot of long breaths and a lot of really high stuff. So at the 11th hour it was really obvious to all of us that it was just too hard for Michael, it was like running on a sprained ankle after a while to have to hit some of these notes. He was the first to admit it and then it was a matter of Jon saying "well, maybe we could bring in some other guys." I said "well, at least we should give Pat a shot, I think Pat could nail this." Jon said "well, we don't want to upset him again if he doesn't get this - he's already lost the tour once." We thought it was worth it, so I called Pat and by then Pat had so much work set up, of course that's the way it works! [laughs] But he had a completely different attitude about it, like "yeah, okay whatever - if they pick me, they pick me, if not, I'm happy." So he came and he ended up absolutely nailing it and we were all thrilled. Obviously, I would never wish this on Michael, but I'm also thrilled that I can do a world tour with my brother.

It would be a tough situation because you and Mark both have a decent amount of experience with prior background vocal work.

Exactly. With all humility, our employment in this was never in doubt, because we're singing the main background parts. Because we're lead singers, we have that strong mid-range kind of vocals that they need for these iconic songs. So we're used to doing over the years, a lot of session work in LA, a lot of background work and stuff. It's just a different kind of singing and even for Pat, it's been interesting for him to learn how to do it this way. So yeah, we brought a little bit more experience as far as session work with what we were doing, so it was a little bit easier.

I know that you've done some prior touring with artists like David Crosby. I would imagine that this tour is more extensive than anything you've done before.

Oh yeah, much, much more. I toured with a few people over the years - David Crosby, Sergio Mendes and a few different people here and there. But it was always a couple of gigs here and a couple of gigs there, it was never a proper tour like this. And in fact, even everybody I know who's ever done tours, rarely have they done ones that are this extensive. The only people that I know who've gone on these kind [of tours] are my friends who used to do Michael Jackson tours where you literally leave home for months and months at a time. It's a different animal altogether, so it's new even for me.

How do you know Jon Joyce?

I know Jon from when I first started doing session work in LA in the early '80s. I met him around '81 or '82, I think. He was always like a big brother to me. By then, he was already well established in the scene and so he would recommend me to people and we did everything from jingles to people's album dates to singing on films. In fact, we were background singers, not on camera, but on the audio part of ['80s television show] Solid Gold for a really long time. So we've always been buddies and so when he thought of us [for the Roger Waters gig], it was really cool because we've always wanted to do something like this together.

How do you prepare for a trek like this tour to be away for an extended period of time?

There's kind of no way to prepare, really. You just go. It's like you're an astronaut all of the sudden, you're just gone. Thank God for Skype, cell phones, email and everything, because you can still stay in touch with everybody at home. I literally do homework with my kids on Skype. So it's not like it's 1975 and we're doing this - you can be a little more hands on still. Emotionally, it's bizarre to get the golden ticket like this and be part of this unprecedented tour in a way. At the level that it is, it's just madness - you never would expect to get a tour like this realistically in anybody's lifetime. It's five star everything, private jets everywhere and sold out arenas, ready to go. The audience is full of people that are emotionally invested in what you're doing. You're not just walking out and doing a couple of hits - this is a show that people have been waiting 30 years for. It's a dream gig, really.

For the Roger Waters fans that you're encountering on this tour that are unfamiliar with your band, what's the quick elevator pitch that you give them in regards to what Venice is all about?

I just tell people to check out our website, Itunes or whatever. There's been a lot of that already and it's still very early on in the tour, the power of the internet is amazing. I wouldn't say that the Venice sound is similar to Pink Floyd, but our influences certainly come from the same classic rock era where they were the kings. Many Floyd fans also like bands like CSNY, The Eagles, Steely Dan,Fleetwood Mac or The Beach Boys. All of those artists influenced what we do, so you've got to figure that there's a good crossover of fans where our music would fit right in on their Ipod. So that's basically what I say is that we come from the same sensibilities, we might not be the same kind of music but our type of music would be on the same stations that they listen to. So there's a good chance that there's people that would really dig what we're doing. We don't get a lot of interaction with fans because we leave the venues so quickly. As the audience is clapping, we're already leaving because otherwise you literally have to stay in the venue for an hour and a half in every town because of traffic. So that's interesting as well.

Venice couldn't be more opposite than that - we always stay around wherever we're playing and meet people for an hour. So there's not that payoff of meeting people who just saw the show, but now we're starting to meet people on the street or wherever, that saw it. That's been remarkable for all of us, the show is all different age groups, teenagers and people in their 60s and 70s are all coming up and saying "this is the best show I've ever seen." And it really is in some ways, there's nothing to compare it to. Even the guys in this band who toured and did Dark Side of the Moon a couple of years ago, which was amazing, they said it's just nothing like this response that we're getting. It's through the roof, the reviews and everything, because it's so ambitious and massive and such a surprise to people who expected to just see this big white wall, puppets and the lights. It's so much more than that. It's so much more than that, even to us.

When we first had our rehearsal and Roger sat us down and showed it all to us without us being up on stage. It's all to a click track - it has to be, there's no room for errors. The crew, all of these guys that move all the bricks and everything, they had weeks and weeks of practicing, assembling and disassembling the wall, by listening to this click track and playing the original live album so that they knew exactly where to do everything. So that by the time we get there, we play in the exactly same spot as the original live album and everything works. So they played the original live album for us so that we could watch it once, so that we know what's going on. Because we literally can't see anything the whole night, we just see flickering lights. It is so powerful and such a pleasure to be part of something that is so state of the art.

Talking about Venice, there's so much musical history in your family lineage. For the four members of Venice, what was it that drew you together to make music?

We were making music our whole lives and we just happened to be a combination that clicked. There were lots of other combinations, my brother Pat was also in a band with my other brothers and Michael and I were in a high school band before we ever even asked Mark or Pat to join us. It's what we did and it's what everybody [in the family] did. Michael and Mark's older brothers also played in bands and you get together for family stuff and there's tons of combinations. Even our nieces and nephews have or have had bands together. It's just part of what our family is, it's like being part of a family that plays sports or whatever, which is also what our family is like, it's how we are. Venice happened to be because Michael and I were in high school at the same time and he was in a cover band and he wanted to know if I wanted to join him and then I joined him and we started doing Zeppelin, Frampton, Stones and stuff in the mid '70s.

And then we asked Marky to join because his voice hadn't even changed yet so we knew he could sing really high, so he could do all of the high parts, like on Boston songs. We were just playing parties and dances and Gazzari's up on the Sunset Strip. We were literally playing like three sets a night on a Thursday night and then going to school on Friday morning, and then playing Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday night and then going to school on Monday morning, winding up beer covered cords at 4 in the morning , going home and sleeping for two hours and then [waking up] going to high school! It was quite the education, let me tell you, [laughs] being up there on the Sunset Strip in '77 or '78, the tail end of the first long hair era and the beginning of new wave and we were right in the middle of it - I wouldn't trade it for anything, that experience really taught us a lot about a lot of things, as opposed to just being instantly thrown onto a big stage. We earned it and we learned how to play, sing and write by doing all of these cover songs for so long.

It took a long time from that point to the time that you eventually put out your first major label release in 1990. What was happening during those years in between?

Well, it's interesting, a lot of people go through that stage where they're trying to find their voice and sound. They're struggling and playing in bars and getting their mom and friends to come see their shows and all of that kind of stuff. Luckily or unluckily, I'm not sure exactly which, we fortunately for the most part always really had a really big following, because we always put on a good show, even when we were trying to figure out what our voice was and even when some of our albums were far too new wave and some were trying to rock a little too hard. At the time, it's no different than if you look at pictures of yourself from high school and your early 20s trying to figure out what your style is and you just cringe at some of the photos and then some of the photos you think "oh, there I am."

It's the same with Venice, you can hear our harmonies throughout all these different eras. When we were playing at all of the clubs around town, we always had a big following. And then we would write some more, try and get a record deal and then we wouldn't get a record deal and we'd be frustrated. We were always encouraged by having support from fans. So although it may seem like we were in a black hole for the first 10 or 15 years of our band, we were still doing a lot of fun gigs, writing a lot and meeting people. Eventually, in '88 we met a guy who was the manager of Stevie Nicks, a guy named Glen Parrish. He actually saw me sitting in with somebody else, it's so weird of how the domino effect of what you do in your life [plays out]. I just happened to have nothing to do on a Tuesday night and a friend of mine was singing over in the marina. Do you remember a singer named Kenny James that was on Star Search?

Yeah, absolutely.

Great singer. He and I had become friends and he said "why don't you come down" and I was like "yeah sure." So I went down and sat in with him and did a couple of songs. Stevie [Nicks] and Glen Parrish happened to be there, it was just one of those stupid things. From that, he said "let me come see your band" and then he came and saw the band and he brought Stevie. And then everything just took off - he managed us and that's when we got our first deal. But even then, we never really hit the big time. We got our first deal, but it was a subsidiary label of Atlantic, it wasn't actually Atlantic.

[And it's at this point that my recorder ran out of juice (arrrgh!), something that I noticed a minute later, quickly switching to an alternate recorder.  During the missing part of the conversation, Kipp segued from talking about their lack of initial success to the surprise success they would find several years later in Holland.]

We were in this guy's living room playing these songs, a real unplugged kind of thing. Literally within weeks, they put that on the air [on television] and we were in millions of living rooms all over Holland for an hour. Who would ever get that kind of exposure in the U.S.? You just wouldn't. By the next time we came back, we were playing in a room full of 600 people singing every word and we all looked at each other like "oh my god, this is something, this is a whole another thing!" Now it's been 12 years that we've been going there and we've just built it up to the point where people say we're superstars there, but we're not, we just do really well. We can go play usually about 900 to 1500 people a night in theaters and clubs, everybody knows all of the words and they all show up whether we have hit singles or anything, they're fans of the band, not just a song. That means they're supporters of what we do and they support our vibe and it's like one big traveling party.

It's really like a reunion every time we have a show there - everyone comes back and they're happy to see us and we've been releasing albums and DVDs ever since. It's not like we struck it rich over there, but emotionally we kind of did. We get to live that kind of life and keep pursuing what we're doing. So it hasn't been smash hits and all of that, but it's been success on different levels.

It certainly has been a nice unexpected pocket of success for your band to come across.

It's funny, I remember talking with a friend of mine who's a really successful classic rock artist kind of guy. At one point he was asking how it was going and I was saying this and that and "I wish we could get this break or that break," and he said "you know, I know from where you're sitting it might seem like I have what you dreamed of having, but people at my level, there are many of them that would trade half of what they have, just to be doing what you guys are doing. Because you get to release and album and 10 or 20 thousand people are waiting for it to come out. You get to go do your tours, you get to have that feeling and you get to do all of that stuff. But, you can go to Disneyland with your kids, you can hang out and you don't have 100 people counting on your money to come in so that they can still live the life they're accustomed to."

He said "there's a lot that comes with being on that next level where everybody's expecting you to write another hit and record labels are throwing money at you," and he said "you guys are just flying under the radar and having a ball and enjoying playing music and having a good time." Which is very true. Doing a tour like this, I realize that by some definition this is the height of things and it really is, it's a blast. It's crazy. We take off from one town and I turn around and look at Pat and say "we are so screwed, man! How are we ever going to go back?" How are you going to keep them on "the farm," you know? So there's a little element of that, but at the same time, all of us miss doing our Venice shows and the immediacy and personal aspect of doing a Venice show and communing with the audience. But it will always be there - we're going to come back to it - I don't exactly know when, but we're going to keep writing and trying to stay on top of it. For now, we've just got the tiger by the tail and we're enjoying it.

Going back to the first album for a minute, I bought that record after hearing Born and Raised and at the time, the two albums really seemed worlds apart. But now all of these years later, I really can hear more connections and see the evolution between the two albums.

Exactly. And what happened was, to a lot of our tastes, we really liked the first album. If I were to say what I don't like about the first album, it's that we were maybe trying a little bit too hard to fit in with the rock era that was happening at the time. I still really like the songwriting - some of the songs, you know, whatever it's fine, they're not going to all be my favorites. But "People Laugh,"Hideaway Hill," "Ball & Chain," "All My Life," "Sacrifice The Fool," and "Change In The Season," there's a lot of really good songs that I still really like and we still do them in our show. But that doesn't mean that I put the record on and I listen to it, because it's a little bombastic, it's just trying too hard.

For me, I don't love listening to it for that reason, but there's parts of it that are just fantastic. I really love "People Laugh" and sonically things like "Hideaway Hill" are just great. To me, it doesn't feel like that big of a departure but we definitely had that reaction from a lot of people when Born and Raised came out. I think what happened was we went to the era of the Garage Demos right after our first album where we really built up a following in LA but we couldn't get a record deal, so we put out these demos ourselves. And then Scotty [drummer Scott Crago] got offered the Eagles gig and he went with our blessing, obviously that's a golden ticket right there and Venice wasn't really doing anything other than local gigs. We were writing and stuff and Scotty was our roommate at the time and we were really, really close. And then Mark Harris, our bass player, got offered of tours with some people and he wanted to go off and try that. Our keyboard player Monroe Jones went back to Nashville where he was from and he's now become [a big producer], he won a Grammy award, he's produced a lot of Christian rock records and a lot of country stuff, so he's done really well for himself.

But suddenly when the smoke cleared, there was just the four Lennons standing there and it was like "are we gonna quit or are we going to keep doing this?" And then it was like "you know what, Venice can be just the four of us and maybe it will be easier to make decisions and maybe we can surround ourselves with whatever musicians are available at the time and we can go back to the basics." So part of why Born and Raised sounds so broken down is that it was intentional, we were like "let's go back to harmonies and make it feel like we're sitting in a living room playing with a cool band for everybody." So it was very intentional that it wasn't big like the first album and yet the songwriting was big, in a way. And it was sort of the best of the Garage Demos mixed with whatever songs we had written in that era, recreating those and I think that people especially in Holland, because that's where people first heard us, and me included, that's still my favorite Venice album. The mood when you put on that first song of Born and Raised and you hear "That's The Way It Is," and it almost sounds like a surf movie soundtrack or something. Philosophically, it just really got us back to our basics.

I know that for me personally, I certainly wasn't hearing anything like that at the time that the album came out, so it was a very unique and refreshing discovery. And the album had come to me randomly in the mail at the radio station where I was working at that time and after hearing it, I had to find out more about the band.

That's kind of what happened with a lot of the DJs at that time. You know how it is, it's the age old thing, when you don't try is when you do your best. And all of the sudden, we weren't trying to please anybody, we weren't trying to kowtow to anybody, we just said "this is the album we want to make," and Vanguard said "great, we'd love for you to make that album." So suddenly we go away to our house up in the hills down near San Diego that we call Hideaway Hill and we recorded the whole album up there. I mean we were literally in swim trunks and barefoot, [and we'd] do a vocal and then jump in the pool and then come back out. And that album sounds like that because we were free to do whatever we wanted to do. And of course, that's when you get more success, because DJs and whoever, they could feel that. There was something about it that was very...it wasn't trying too hard to sell anything and it was very California and it was very natural.

So we went back and forth across the U.S. promoting it, meeting DJs and stuff. Eventually they had the same reaction that you had, a lot of the ones that we met. It's kinda like "wow, that was kind of cool to hear that coming out of my speakers!" Even though we never really got any big hits off of it, we got enough airplay that they kept wanting us to come back and then we released the Spin Art album and it was the same kind of thing. Because Spin Art is basically sort of Born and Raised part two, maybe a little bit more studio, a little bit more electric - I don't love how that one's produced either, how we produced that. But still, some of the songs have stuck with us a long time - "End of the World," "Family Tree," "The Man You Think I Am" and stuff, they've become staples of the Venice stuff.

It's really interesting how we had that extra incentive as soon as we got that [success]. When we were writing Born and Raised, we were just doing it for ourselves. When we were writing Spin Art we were now thinking "oh and we've got all of those people in Holland now that are waiting for it to come out." There's something about that extra little bit that lights that little fire under you to have an incentive of "wow, people are listening" and it's really inspiring.

To talk about where you are now as a band, people have really held on to the songs and energy from that first album, so it was really great to hear you reach back to your "rock" roots with the Electric live album. Having heard other live releases from the band through the years, it really seems like you finally captured the live sound of the band with Electric.

Entirely. I've really been excited about that because it's been a frustration to not really grab that sound. People always end up saying "wow, you guys are good, but live you're even better." We constantly would hear that and it was a blessing and a curse. To finally capture that, I think, like that "All My Life' medley is so great on the live album. I'm really happy to hand something to somebody and say "okay, this is a lot more like what we're like live. So yeah, it's pretty cool. I just wish that we could do that on a new studio album and get a little bit more of that energy.

I know that's certainly a struggle for many bands and artists because it's hard to bottle that in the studio.

Yeah, I mean look at Frampton. That Frampton Comes Alive album was like the bible to me when I was that age, it's so fucking good. And yet he never could get it together in the studio, it never felt like that, I think.

You mentioned the project that you had to put on the shelf because of the Waters tour and also, I know that when I saw you this past summer in Springfield, you played some new material. What are the thoughts and plans towards the next Venice release?

You know, it's all up in the air right now, it depends on how long we're going to be gone with Roger. We're home for a few months and then we're out and then we're home and then we're out. And whether we want to pursue finishing that project that we put on hold with Universal, with the orchestra or whether we just want to do a straight ahead album. In which case, we've got to keep writing and demoing things, so it's all up in the air right now.

Visit the official Venice website at www.venicecentral.com - big thanks to Matt Levitz for his help in arranging this interview with Kipp!

Photos and album covers in the above interview are sourced from the official Venice website and used with permission.