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.