The BoDeans came rolling through Cleveland last fall for a mother of a show that featured legendary drummer Kenny Aronoff behind the kit. At that time, I spoke with longtime BoDeans vocalist/songwriter Kurt Neumann and I was interested to find out what it was that was bringing them through town. As it turns out, the tour had been planned to support a new album that had been pushed back to a 2015 release. I Can't Stop is that new album and you can finally get your hands on it as of April 21st.
With that in mind, I figured that I'd dig out that interview with Kurt, since he talks quite a bit about what fans can expect from the new record. (Which you can get a quick taste of via an initial song stream here.) The band will be back on the road in April for a tour supporting the new release (including a show at the Kent Stage here in the Cleveland area on April 29th).
I was excited to hear that there’s a new BoDeans record in the can, so I’d love to start there and hear whatever you can tell us about that.
The record’s called I Can’t Stop and it should come out in mid-February. It’s a pretty up-tempo record. I’m not one of those artists who makes a real moody record. The last couple that I’ve made have been really up-tempo and I find that they just translate really well to playing live, which you know, our shows are pretty high energy shows, which is why we have Kenny Aronoff drumming. It works out really well -- that way we have fun shows to play and good times. So for now, I keep the records more rockin’ and uptempo. So yeah, it should be out in February and I think it’s my 12th studio record, so it’s pretty cool.
Inspirationally, where were the songs coming from this time around?
I was talking a lot about rock and roll music and the music industry and stuff and where it’s gone and how I’ve spent my life kind of playing rock and roll music. The whole idea of I Can’t Stop is just that -- I’m 52 years old and I’ve played it my whole life and you really can’t stop at this point and say, “You know what, I’m going to be an architect or something instead” and just change your direction.
I mean, you could but this is what I do, you know? It’s kind of coming to terms with, like it or not, the music industry is not in a great, great place right now and I’ve seen it come and things get good and not so good, but whatever it is, the music is still good. What I do each night playing live rock and roll still feels like a great thing and a positive thing to do with my life even though it may not be real great for making a living these days, still it seems like a good positive thing to do. So there’s kind of that recurring theme on the record, I noticed. I don’t do any kind of conscious thing about it, you know, I didn’t set out to do that, but that’s just the way the songs kind of came out.
At the time that American Made came out, that was your third record in three years with the BoDeans. It’s been a very prolific period for the band in recent years. Can you pinpoint why that is?
Well, we had been in a state after we kind of lost our Warner Brothers contract in ‘98, where one of the other members of the band shut the band down so he could do a solo record and then we got into this big legal battle with our ex-manager and it just really was a dark place to be and it just really shut the band down. So when we came out of that in 2004, I just felt like I wanted to put stuff out a lot again and play a lot again and escape from the negative stuff that we had been in. So I was just constantly working and I was constantly in the studio, writing and stuff like that and we put out a lot of stuff to the point that when American Made came out, people were just like, “Slow down -- you’re giving us too much, too quick!” So on this record, I tried to slow it down a little bit and not put it out quite so fast so that people have a little more time to digest the new stuff.
One of the things that was interesting to me about the birthing process of that last album was hearing that you had to sell your truck to finance it. It seems like it would be challenging to keep a band going in the current climate of the music business, as you spoke about a little bit ago and hearing about that move really seems to offer an example of that.
Oh, absolutely. It’s really, really hard and it’s harder than I’ve ever seen in my life in the music industry and I really feel sorry for bands that are just trying to start out right now, because it’s almost impossible for them. They’re not making money in any direction on anything they do, to the point of how do you do any kind of job when there’s absolutely no income coming in for you? I just don’t know they do it.
There’s a slight little sliver of new bands that are lucky enough to have a big enough investment in them, whether it’s their families or a record label, but it’s gotten so very small that there’s just less and less music going around and there’s more people making music than ever, so I just don’t know how the system survives. I wish I had a big enough brain to figure it out, but i don’t! So I do what I’ve always done, which is I concentrate on the music and I try to focus on that and let the rest of the world kind of figure itself out a bit.
Did you have a producer for this new album? I know you worked with one on the last one.
No, again, I just couldn’t afford it. Myself and my other singer/songwriter/guitarist who is in the band now, Sam Hawksley, we were both producing it this time around. Which is a challenge -- I’m trying to give myself some distance from the material and still keep it uptempo and fresh and all of that stuff. But I just didn’t have the money to go and hire a producer and go in the studio for too long and do it the way records used to be made, you know, when I started this. So you figure it out and you do what you can. This one, we’re getting it out ourselves as best we can -- I’m working through Megaforce Records and stuff, but there’s no producer -- no big names.
American Made was the first one that you had a producer on in recent years after producing the previous two albums yourself. What led you back to working with a producer on that last one?
Well, I think it’s a really great thing to have on a record, to have an outside perspective on what you’re doing. I think if you can afford to do it, it’s a great thing to have to find someone who is really good at that process and can really fit in that role. It’s not a simple thing to do -- I wouldn’t advise people just hiring anyone to do it. There’s a few really good people that understand the process and can fill that role of a producer really well and it’s hard to do for yourself, it really is. But sheer economics dictate what you can do in that scenario and so that’s the way it is. I prefer to have someone there and I prefer to go into the studio for a good long while and just play and play and play and get some great stuff, but that’s not always possible. So the last record, that’s why I sold the truck, it’s just like I had wanted a producer for many records before and I had kind of gotten shot down by my old partner on it and so it was a chance to finally do that again and explore that. But it’s expensive.
The last album came after a pretty major shift within the group, so it would seem likely that you probably had an easier time approaching the idea of making a new album this time around now, because you probably have a clearer picture of where things are at and what this group is.
Yeah, well there was a lot of negativity going on for years and though I tried to keep things as positive as I could, you can only do so much. Other people have agendas and things happen and then you can’t stop that. So like I say, when I finally got to American Made, it was a chance to just let things be positive again and find musicians who really like to play together and stuff, which is what the new record is all about too.
Every show we play now and every track we record, it’s really about trying to maintain what I think music is about, which is that positive collective energy, you know, you’re trying to create something great and inspiring to people. That’s the focus for me and that’s the focus that I always wanted but wasn’t always able to get to. Because there are people out there who think they’re more creative under really negative circumstances and that’s not me. That’s not how I function well.
When Sam Llanas departed from the group, how much did you have to reconfigure and perhaps figure out your methods for creating BoDeans records as a songwriter after that? How much did things really change for you?
Not much. I was doing all of the records myself for years, even back in the ‘90s when I was putting together our live records, all of the way up to this latest record, I had always been the guy in the studio doing all of the recording. I mean, a lot of people don’t know it, but I played most of the instruments on most of the BoDeans records in the early years too -- I would always play all of the guitars on all of the records and stuff, whether it was acoustic or electric and basses and some records, I played the drums and everything.
So I was used to that and that was kind of the frustration, is that I found myself doing everything, putting the records together and all of the recording, putting the bands together for touring, going out there and putting all of the setlists together and everything like that, so when Sam left, it wasn’t that big of a change for me at all. I think the change was for people on the outside looking in, but I was still doing all of the work like I always did, so that didn’t change.
The band has worked with T-Bone Burnett several times across its career, at pretty interesting points --- for the first record, the Go Slow Down album and again on Still. Do you think that significantly influenced the path of the songwriting and producing that was happening with the band across the years as the career of the BoDeans progressed?
Oh definitely, yeah. He’s a perfect example, if you can afford it, of someone who will really bring a vision to your record and really help you simplify the whole process of songwriting and recording and stuff like that. He’s very talented at it and being around him and working with him, that rubs off on you and I’ve learned a lot from him from all of the years and times that we’ve worked with him. He’s a great person and you carry that with you and you try to apply it. I try to apply it to every record I make and yes, you still have some of your own visions, but you try to remember the things that you learned.
Overall, when you look back at the music that this band has made, do you feel like the group found its sound pretty early on?
Yeah, you know we’ve been through a lot of transitions, if you go through the records. You know, a lot of people talk about the shake-up a few years ago when Sam left, but I think the bigger shake-up was when our first drummer left after the first record. I think that’s when we had our purest sound.
We were just a three-piece at first and doing this weird kind of rockabilly/alt-country stuff at a time when check tape at 14:05 were playing. It was our thing and it was pure and stuff like that, but as you get signed to labels and as people leave and you go through the process, things change and you try to adapt and you try to make sense of it. But you know, you listen to our first record and our fourth or fifth record and they’re very different. Because that’s the way life is, it would be hard to just be one thing only, but certainly in this one. In the arts, you know, you want to change -- you’d be crucified if you don’t change and then you get crucified if you do change. So you’ve just gotta follow your heart in it.
I spoke with someone earlier this week who called albums a snapshot of the previous 12 months…
Pretty much. Like I was saying earlier, when you’re the guy in the studio playing everything -- even from the first record on, I was playing all of the guitars and stuff, really kind of defining the sound, so I think I have a good understanding of what the BoDeans sound is and what people relate to it and what they like about it, you know? So I’m always conscious of staying within that arena of stuff -- it’s not like I’m going to put together a rap record with just drum machines or something, just because I felt like it that year.
You know, you’ve got to be conscious of what you are and what you do and why people relate to you, but at the same time if you have some other things that you want to try [you can do that], but I try to keep always within that realm of what it’s always been, which is classic Americana songwriting and classic simple songs.
Way back in the day, Mike Campbell almost ended up producing the band. What are your memories of that time period? Why didn’t things work out?
I don’t know. I was a huge fan of him and Tom Petty and the records that they made and we tried and like I say, we lost our drummer and that had a lot to do with it, so when we went out to record, we were reeling without the 16:19 check tape of what we used to be and trying to find what worked. At the time, we had a lot of great songs to record, but we didn’t have the same unit and that might have been the problem, but for whatever reason, it just fell on its face and we had to try to find someone else.
What’s got you out on the road for this current set of tour dates?
Well, originally we thought the new record was going to come out in the fall, but because I actually have to sell my house now, I had to take about a month and a half off to kind of fix up my house to get it up for sale, so that put the release off and that meant that it wasn’t going to come out until February. But we still had these shows scheduled and I didn’t want to just go and reschedule and it’s always such a pleasure to come up here in the fall and play all of these small towns and stuff that we play, so we decided that we’ll just come out and do the run and tell people about the record coming out and maybe come back in the spring or summer again. But that’s why we’re here right now.
BoDeans image credit: Robert Luk
It’s been a good year for Del Amitri fans. The Scottish alternative rock group played a series of highly anticipated reunion shows in support of expanded reissues of three of their finest albums from the ‘90s, Waking Hours, Change Everything and Twisted (with each album adding a second disc of bonus tracks).
Prior to that, frontman Justin Currie had spent a month in Austin, Texas, working with producer Mike McCarthy on songs that would eventually land on the solo album Lower Reaches, which was released first in the U.K. late last year prior to receiving a U.S. release in the early part of 2014. Surrounded by a band of seasoned musicians -- including guitarist David Garza and members of Heartless Bastards, White Denim and Phosphorescent -- Currie knocked out a satisfying set of songs, recording 15 tracks that had been carefully selected from an initial batch of 40.
He wrote the material prior to coming to Austin, renting a cottage where he completely unplugged from the distractions of modern technology, sequestering himself with only an acoustic guitar, piano and what he describes as a “ghetto blaster” (now, there’s a flashback) to record his song ideas.
As you’ll read in our conversation below, McCarthy took his producer title very seriously and put Currie through the paces to capture the songs that you’re now hearing on Lower Reaches, but it was a creative struggle that paid off handsomely.
Currie is on the road for a short run of U.S. tour dates, including a Cleveland date at the Music Box Supper Club, his first appearance in the Cleveland area in nearly 20 years. We caught up with him for a Skype conversation as he was getting ready to leave for the tour to talk about the new album, his songwriting process, Del Amitri and quite a few other subjects.
I don’t know if you know this, but it’s been close to 20 years since you’ve been to Cleveland. That’s pretty incredible.
Yeah, I’m aware it’s been a while. Probably the mid-’90s would be the last time that we were there, maybe.
Yep, I think it was in 1996 at the Odeon, perhaps.
Perhaps. That sounds about right.
Are you at home still?
Yeah, I just had a couple of gigs around Scotland the last couple of months and I’m just kind of getting ready to come over.
Besides the new album that came out earlier this year, which we’ll obviously talk about, what have you been up to the past few months while you’ve been home?
I mean, I’m always writing songs, but I haven’t really made my mind up what the hell I’m going to do next. I’ve done three solo records, I mean, I’ll do another solo record at some point, but I’m not sure if I’m going to do one next year -- it’s kind of up in the air for me, really. I’m trying to think of something more interesting to do than just doing another solo record. [Laughs]
When it came to recording the new album, how did you end up recording it in Austin, Texas?
Well, because the first two solo records that I made, I produced them myself. By the time we got to the third one, my manager said, “Look, I think maybe you should get a producer” and he didn’t really have to talk me into it. I thought it was about time I got out of my comfort zone, basically. I had made a little list of producers in the previous four or five years, which was a grand total of three, because I’d only heard three records that I liked the sound of. [Laughs]
One of them, I couldn’t afford and another of them passed on it and then the other one was Mike McCarthy and he got back to us and said, “Yeah, I’m up for it -- when do you want to start?” So we just told him how much money we had and it all came together very quickly. I had heard the solo record by Craig Finn of the Hold Steady and I really liked that and that was produced by Mike.
The previous two albums, had you recorded those at home?
Mainly. I’d done bits in a studio just around the corner from my house run by a guy named Mark Freegard who used to work with Del Amitri quite a lot in the ‘90s. The first album was nearly done all in the house. I’ve got quite a big room upstairs which I can use and record piano and drums there. The second one, The Great War, was probably mainly done in Mark’s studio, but I mean, it was all done within a few yards of my house. [Laughs]
It seems like these last couple of records especially, you’ve kind of moved back to a lot of stuff that’s more band-oriented in tone.
Yeah, that wasn’t particularly deliberate on Lower Reaches. [With] Lower Reaches, I just handed the whole project to Mike and he was very much the producer. So I didn’t have much of a hand in the arrangements of any of those things -- he got the musicians and that’s what they played and I was perfectly happy with it, so I didn’t really get my hands that dirty in terms of changing what they did.
Whereas the album before, I’d sort of deliberately gone back to a band thing, because I didn’t want to do anything remotely like Del Amitri on the first solo record -- I wanted to sort of draw a line in the sand and do something really different. But the second solo record, I thought “Well, I’ve done that now -- I’ve moved away from the band thing, so it’s probably safe now to go back to it a little bit.” Lower Reaches was really all Mike’s thing. I gave him like 40 songs and he picked 15 and I just kind of did what I was told, which was extremely difficult at first, I have to say.
I was going to ask about that -- after doing the first two on your own, essentially, what were the difficulties that you encountered working back in a producer situation? Certainly, it’s not the first time you’ve done it, but it’s probably the first time you’ve done it that you weren’t in a band situation.
Yeah, that was really different for me, because I didn’t have any allies. I was completely on my own and I was surrounded by Americans who were doing things their own way. You know, it worked, but it was hard for me to relinquish all of that control. I put up a bit of a fight the first couple of weeks and then I just gave up because I didn’t think there was any point in compromising what Mike was trying to do. So I just kept my mouth shut, basically.
It was hard work as well, you know, when you’re producing yourself, you can track a couple of vocals and then go and watch a film -- especially if you’re working in your house. Whereas if you’re in a studio situation with musicians waiting around and a producer ready and waiting [that’s not really an option]. Also, Mike does lots of takes and I don’t -- I mean, I did quite a lot of vocal takes, but I wouldn’t do like 40 vocal takes.
We were doing quite a lot -- he was trying to cut a lot of stuff live and we did end up using quite a lot of the live vocals. That was hard work -- that was like going back to being 18 or 19 again and working with your first producer. But it had to be done, because otherwise I would have made a very similar record to the first two.
If I’m understanding the process for this album correctly, did you go in with Mike and essentially cut the songs somewhat acoustically initially and then did he start to flesh those recordings out with additional musicians?
We spent the first week retooling the songs, going through the songs with a fine-toothed comb, taking things out that were redundant and he had me write a new verse on one song. So that was the first week. We recorded quite a lot of that stuff, but that wasn’t ever going to be the record -- we just recorded that for reference. Then we brought the band in -- all of them sort of knew each other -- they were Austin musicians and they played on the Craig Finn record and they knew each other.
They’d had the demos and then he had me sit down at the piano or the guitar and sing them the version of the song that Mike and I had arrived at in the first week. Then they just played along, so they’d had a bit of prep with the demos and then I’d kind of communicate the songs to them. He was very insistent that I sang the songs live to them, which I think probably was a really good idea. So it was a bit like having your own band in sort of a microcosm, except that you had a producer earlier on in the process and then just the post-writing process.
Normally with Del Amitri, I would write a song and take it to the band and we might do a bit of nip and tuck there and we might cut a chorus out or we might add something in. So I did that with Mike and then I played the songs to the band and then they sort of banged them [out]. That’s pretty much how it worked.
“Every Song’s The Same” is one from this new album that I really like a lot. It seems like you’re someone who is pretty good at not letting a song overstay its welcome -- it’s done when it’s done, even if it’s shorter, like that one is, clocking in at about two and a half minutes. How difficult is it for you to let go of a song and call it finished and resist whatever temptations might exist to tinker further, write more, etc.?
Once a song’s finished, I don’t find it particularly easy rewriting any of it. I would rather just abandon a song if it doesn’t work then try and rewrite it. For example, when Mike asked me to rewrite the last verse for “Every Song’s The Same,” that took me about two and a half weeks just to write three lines. I do find that quite difficult. When I walk away from the piano after spending a couple of days writing something, that’s it. it’s kind of written in stone for me.
As soon as I’ve demoed something, I feel like it now belongs in the sort of public domain so I don’t find that easy. Some people I know rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, people like Leonard Cohen will write 40 verses or something and hone it down. When I start writing a song, it tends to have an inherent length and form and it sort of tells you when it’s finished in a way.
I would think that would be hard. Because certainly if you’ve handed it to him, it probably feels pretty finished in your mind. I think probably you have to be able to see what they’re seeing that’s not finished about the song before you can really start to attack it again and even then it’s still difficult.
Yeah, as soon as I learn a song by heart and play it to somebody else, it’s finished. But the good thing about Mike, especially the first week that we were retooling the songs was that I kind of understood everything that he was saying to me. So even if it went against my instincts or wasn’t within my skillset to do what he was asking me to do, I still went ahead and did it. Because I actually understood where he was coming from. He had really gotten inside the songs.
Some producers will just sort of listen to the surface of a song and they’ll be looking for the hook or they’ll be looking for things that are just kind of catchy or shiny on the surface. He wasn’t about that at all -- he was interested in things just being better and he was really obsessed with how things felt rather than anything else. That’s probably why I hired him. I’m not really good at how things feel at all. I tend to sort of write from the heart but then arrange everything with the head.
He was more into the record feeling good in that kind of physical way. That was quite new for me. So there was a lot of vocal takes that we ended up keeping that we argued and argued and argued over because for me, they just weren’t technically good enough. Eventually, he won a lot of those arguments, because I just thought “You know, I can’t keep being really uptight and holding onto the technical side -- I’ve got to actually trust the producer when he says it feels good.”
Technically, there are a whole lot of things that I would have fixed, but actually, I think at the end of the day that Mike was right not fixing them and just letting things be. If it feels good, then it’s right. That’s a really different attitude to a lot of the way that other producers work. I was brought up with the really technical British production thing where like all of the drums have to be massively in time and the bass has got to be massively in time with the kick drum. All of the vocals have got to be pitched perfectly -- I mean, I’ve spent months and months and months on those things in the past and you don’t necessarily end up making a better record -- you end up making a record that’s technically pristine but some things can be sort of soul dead.
With this album, you definitely left room for things to breathe. It doesn’t seem like you guys deliberated things to death.
No, we didn’t do any overdubs either. There are very few overdubs. I mean, a lot of the guitar solos were done live as they went down. So yeah, there was very little time spent overdubbing. Honestly, it was maybe three days out of the month that we spent actually glueing overdubs on. Whereas in my career in studios, it’s all been about overdubs. You know, you track the drums, you replace the bass, you replace the guitars on the basic tracks and then you start overdubbing like fuck. You can end up with a very layered and interesting record, but you can also end up just strangling the songs.
Thinking about the three Del Amitri albums that were recently reissued, Waking Hours, Change Everything and Twisted, it doesn’t seem like you guys overdid it, but those records definitely sound like you spent the time that you spent making them.
Well, I mean that was the kind of university years -- it was the university of rock. [Laughs] We were on a major label that gave us pretty much unlimited time and unlimited budgets and pretty decent recording studios with great engineers and great producers. That was just us learning how to making records. So for example, Waking Hours has got quite a lot of sort of ‘80s guitar effects going on -- it’s got a lot of overdubs and it’s quite a shiny sort of pop record. By the time we got to Twisted, we were just about managing to make records that were two guitars, bass drums and organ cut live in the studio. Some Other Sucker’s Parade, the album after Twisted, that was all cut live in the studio. So we just learned as we went along and then we finally got to the point that we wanted to be at, which was being a rock band and cutting songs live in the studio. So yeah, it was a long process!
I was talking with my wife last night and she was working on a list of one-hit wonder bands that really weren’t one-hit wonder bands. I threw out Del Amitri and I said “You know, first of all, when ‘Roll To Me’ came out, for anybody who had been listening to the band, it wasn’t really the best representation of what the band was all about.” Also, for those of us who had been fans, we had heard a lot of Del Amitri songs before “Roll To Me.” I can remember when you guys were playing shows as that single was really starting to hit and suddenly you have people showing up at the shows wanting to hear “Roll To Me” and maybe they didn’t know anything else. I was curious to know, when the band went back to make Some Other Sucker’s Parade, what kind of position did that leave you in, making that next record?
Well, it was quite odd. Because “Roll To Me,” even though it was a really big radio hit, it didn’t really sell very many more records. The touring and doing a bit of television sold a few more albums -- the radio hit was odd, because most people didn’t know who it was. They weren’t particularly aware that that song was by a Scottish band called Del Amitri. So we could have been playing in some nightclub down the road and people would be hearing that song on the radio and they wouldn’t put two and two together and come to see the show, so our audience didn’t really expand very much by virtue of being a Top 10 Billboard [charting band]. It was quite odd.
So by the time we came [back to make our next album], partly because A&M was a pretty decent label in those days, both in the U.K. and the U.S., amazingly, neither the U.S. label nor the British label put us under any pressure on the follow-up record to make another sort of “Roll To Me.” In fact, we were all quite convinced that the first single from Some Other Sucker’s Parade was going to get on the radio, even though it sounded nothing like “Roll To Me” and of course we were proved completely fucking wrong. [Laughs]
In a sense, in terms of American radio, we are a one-hit wonder band, because that was genuinely the big radio hit. The royalty statements that I still get are a testament to that fact. Being played on the radio doesn’t really make you that visible or famous. People can be familiar with a song but not really familiar with a band at all. So we always had an audience that knew the albums and then there was this kind of weird separate audience out there that we never really saw that would recognize that song on the radio. It was quite strange.
What that made me think of on the heels of that, was that with “Always The Last To Know” and “Kiss This Thing Goodbye,” in America, those did chart Top 40.
I hadn’t ever really thought about it, but on the surface, it seems like you had something that least charted on each one of those three records and I wondered if that kind of kept the record companies off your back a little bit from album to album.
I think in the U.S., [that helped] because we had a little bit luck at radio on various formats -- I mean, the formats kept changing. And you know, we really worked it as well -- we would come out for month-long promo tours and we were more than happy to do all of that work, because to be honest, it was just a good laugh. We kind of established a relationship with the regional radio promo guys that we’d go out there and do the dinners and the meet and greets and we’d do all of the radio shows and then go out at night and have a few beers and have a laugh.
I think that just kind of encouraged them to keep on it and [the label] kept spending money. They were spending money getting us over there and driving us around and getting us into those radio stations and all of that sort of stuff. We made a lot of money on those records, especially “Roll To Me,” [and] they made a ton of money, because they were getting played a lot on the radio. I’ve never felt particularly guilty about it, because we really worked our socks off and there was a point when we were on tour that we were doing I would say, between five and eight radio stations a day, singing a couple of songs at every one, maybe doing a bit of television in the big cities and then doing shows every night.
You know, I think that’s something you could only do in your twenties or early thirties. I could not do that now -- I’d have a fucking nervous breakdown. But back then, it was good fun and even the CHR radio thing, which to us seemed like lunacy -- we’d go and do these morning zoo-style shows that were just crazy. But even those things, we sort of enjoyed in quite a perverse way. Because we kind of knew that we were just like a rock band that went on the road and we knew that we didn’t really fit into that sort of light entertainment format.
But it was quite interesting seeing that side of the world -- it was quite an eye-opener in a way seeing that really hard commercial side of the American music business. I found it all quite fascinating. I suppose if we had to do that for 10 years, I think eventually we would have said “Look, no, we’re not doing this.” But at that age and at that time, we put the work in and we had really good fun doing it. You know, it probably paid more dividends for us than it did for the record company. Because the record company, they didn’t sell millions of albums off the back of having those hits.
After the first self-titled album was released, the band later came to America and spent six weeks touring and it sounds like it was an important experience. Did the record deal with A&M come about as a result of that touring? How did that come about?
That was later on. We came back off that American tour, which was really just a last ditch attempt to be professional musicians. With a bit of charity from the audience, we just about got around the States and back again in one piece. But when we came off that trip, we were destitute -- we had absolutely no money left in the bank and we all just went and got full time jobs for about a year. Then we managed to sign a publishing deal in the U.K. which gave us a bit of money to sort of start doing demos.
The material that we were touring in America in 1986, I would still say was sort of part of our “indie band” period in the ‘80s and then America did really change our outlook and it definitely changed the way that we wrote. Iain and I started writing songs separately rather than with the band. The songs that we were writing started to become much more mainstream and much more influenced by Americana, for lack of a better expression. Then suddenly, we made five or six demos that were quite obviously something that should have been on a major label, I think only because the music changed. It changed organically -- we weren’t sort of chasing a marker -- we just changed because America had been an enormous influence on us and the way we were writing changed. That just led us into a completely different world, really.
I’ve heard you talk about how listening to Tom Petty’s Pack Up The Plantation provided an important spark. What was it about that record for you that really inspired you?
Well, we were never a particularly good live band. I think we were a pretty bad live band until the mid-’80s and then going to America made a lot of difference with that. It happens with a lot of British bands, where going to America really forces you to get better, because the audiences are quite demanding and they tell you what they like and they tell you what they don’t like, which they don’t really do so much in the U.K.
So we came back from that and we thought, “You know, we can sort of play now.” You’ve got to have something to aim for, I think. The reason we really liked that record is because [it was] really great quality songwriting [from a] mainstream rock and roll band. They’re not showing off and being virtuoso musicians, they’re being something that’s just pretty solid and pretty unpretentious. We kind of thought, “Why can’t we do that?” You know, that’s a perfectly honorable thing to do something like that.
You don’t need to be subversive and underground and play in a sort of weird madcap way to be proud of what you’re doing. You can actually do things in the mainstream and do them well, which is kind of what Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were doing. So that became something that we kind of aimed for. I doubt we ever really got there -- we probably went off on a slightly odd tangent. But it was just something that we thought it was an honorable record. It wasn’t uncool but it was mainstream.
Del Amitri was known for being a solid live band. So it’s interesting to hear that wasn’t always there. The first time I saw Del Amitri, that was something that was really a shock, hearing you sing those songs, it was like, “Holy shit, he can actually sing like that live!” Because as I think you know, there are singers out there that just aren’t great live singers. So sometimes it falls down right there, because they can’t reproduce it vocally live. You guys had the package.
Well, we’d been playing live since 1980 -- I’d been playing with Del Amitri since 1980. So yeah, we’d done a lot of gigs. But it did take us a long time to get sort of even passably decent. [Laughs] Partly because I’m not a great bass player and playing bass and singing is quite difficult. We had a run of different drummers as well. It wasn’t really until I’d say the mid-’90s when we got a drummer that was really shit-hot and that really helped. That’s another thing -- in the ‘80s, there were really very few decent drummers in the U.K. and sadly, very few in Scotland.
When we went to America, we were quite shocked that we’d go to a bar and you’d see a cover band and they’d have a great drummer. We always thought the reason for that is because a lot of American kids have got basements in their parents’ houses and they can set up a bloody drum kit and they can play. Whereas in Glasgow, for example, you can’t play a drum kit in Glasgow, because everybody lives in tenements and you’ve got neighbors above you and neighbors below you and you just can’t do it. So there are sort of simple practical reasons why there are lots of great drummers in America. All of those things, it took us long time to think [that] actually, we’re okay. In fact, I would say that we never really considered ourselves a particularly great band -- we just did a lot of work and we got better.
For this upcoming solo tour, will it be just you acoustic or will you have somebody playing with you?
I’ve got a guitar player [Stuart Nisbet] that plays a bit of lap steel and a bit of electric guitar and sings backing vocals, so he comes on about a third of the way through and I play a wee bit of piano and guitar. I’ve done tours on my own and to be honest, I don’t really enjoy it. I find it really hard work and there’s kind of nowhere to go. Once you’ve strummed the guitar and plunked away on the piano for an hour, it’s like, you can’t really take it anywhere. And I’m not a great musician -- I can’t play the guitar properly and I can’t play the piano particularly well, so it’s really good for me to have another musician along.
It’s great that you have The Mastersons opening on these tour dates. I think they’re a nice fit -- and some people have asked me whether they would be backing you and I said that I didn’t think that was the case. But it is a nice match -- it’s a good bill.
Yeah, we’ll try and do something together, but I haven’t actually thought of anything yet. But no, technically, they’re opening and then me and Stuart are coming on.
When you look at the three solo albums that you’ve done since Del Amitri, is there a certain line of progression that you can trace?
I don’t think there’s any progression. I think they’re all quite different. I mean, the first two kind of belong together in my mind, because they were done in Glasgow and similar kind of environments and a lot of the same musicians play on both records. Although the first solo record is much more of a solo record than the second two and I played most of the stuff on it myself, whereas the second album, The Great War, I played very little on it, actually. I didn’t play the bass on it and I didn’t play a lot of piano.
I think in the future, I might go back to that real solo sort of thing where it’s really just me with a couple of musicians. But yeah, I think of them all as being quite different. I kind of keep them in my mind visually, because the sleeves sort of represent what they are to me. So the first one’s quite brown and the second one’s quite blue and the last one’s sort of brown on blue. [Laughs]
Are there things that you’re still working to improve on as a songwriter?
I’m sure there are. Yeah, there’s a whole way of writing that I would like to get into that I haven’t been able to get into. I don’t know whether it’s honesty or the appearance of honesty. I was really impressed by that last Sun Kil Moon album which all sounds sort of seemingly autobiographical. I suppose it’s only a matter of whether it is or it isn’t, but it feels like it’s real and it’s like a sort of stream of consciousness and it feels conversational.
To do that within the structure of a song and still rhyme and still scan and still have a tune is quite remarkable, I think. I mean, I’d love to be able to do that. You know, you’re always trying to push….no matter how structured a song is and no matter how carefully put together it is, you’re really trying to achieve the appearance of an effortless conversation between you and the listener and that’s something that I’ve always found quite unattainable, but it’s something you definitely try and pursue, I think.
I think you’ve hit that honesty though. Certainly, if you hear a lyric like “Nobody’s helpless/ Although I’ve never felt this helpless before,” that’s something that everybody can identify with, because everybody’s felt that way.
Yeah, obviously you’re trying to sing from the personal and achieve the universal. Otherwise, there’s no point in doing it at all, really. It’s just a fucking diary. Because songs are constructed -- they don’t just happen spontaneously in the way that conversation happens spontaneously. But if you can make them sound conversational, that can be quite a good thing.
If you can sneak a fair amount of poetry into a song without it sounding like poetry, I think that’s also an achievement. So again, that’s something that I don’t think I’ve done very well and I’d like to try and get better. So yeah, I think that’s a good question, there are definitely things as a writer that I’m trying to improve on, yeah.
This album came out in the U.K. last year and it seems like almost immediately, the Del Amitri reunion tour dates were announced shortly after that. Was that something that was already in motion that you were aware of as you were making the album?
It was pretty much planned. Before the solo album came out, we knew that Del Amitri were going to do gigs at some point and we thought at the time that it was probably actually pretty good if the solo album came out in the autumn and then we did the Del Amitri gigs in the new year. That kind of made sense. The record company doing the solo record, they thought it wouldn’t do it any harm to have the Del Amitri stuff out there.
The band had good pockets of touring success here in the States, markets like Chicago and places like that. But from what I’ve heard you say, it seems like the idea of a U.S. tour with Del Amitri, even a really small one, seems unlikely. Is that really the case?
I mean, we just couldn’t possibly fund it. We couldn’t get the fees in the States to cover even doing one gig, let alone a run of gigs. It’s just so expensive to get bands over to the States now. I mean, just your visas alone. We did look at it and we just couldn’t [make it work] at all. In the ‘90s, our tours in the U.S. were all heavily underwritten and supported by the record company until I would say, around ‘96 or ‘97 [when] we managed to just about cover our costs.
By that point, we bought our own equipment in the U.S., which we would just put in the bays of the bus and we’d just honed everything down to a really small setup. But again, that was when we had records on the radio and all of that kind of stuff. Sadly, it’s not something that we can do as much as we’d love to.
I know there’s a double live album on the way. Was that show filmed as well?
Well, we did, yeah. We’re not going to release the film of it commercially -- we didn’t film it for commercial reasons, we just filmed it as a kind of document. So we will throw up a few clips on Youtube, but the main thing is the live album. So there will be some video footage out there, but we’re not going to sell it.
When is that live album coming out?
Imminently. I believe it’s the next few weeks. I mean, I’ve very little to do with it, much to my shame. [Laughs] I’ve just let [guitarist] Iain [Harvie] look after it, which he’s done extremely capably. I think it’s the next few weeks from what I hear.
[A few days after this interview was completed, the band announced the live album's release date officially. You can pre-order signed copies here.]
Do you guys feel like there’s unfinished business there? Would you want to do another Del Amitri record?
I would, but again, I just don’t think we could get funding to do it. We would need a bit of money to record the damn thing, just to rehearse it and record it, you know, pulling five people together, all of them in different cities and all of that sort of stuff. It’s just not really feasible. I mean, there’s a whole lot of stuff that we’ve written that’s sitting in the can [that has been] demoed, and some stuff that’s been mastered.
But we’re still really unsure what to do with all of that stuff. We’ll put the live album out and see what happens. But we live in such a strange time, where music is essentially free. I think eventually what may happen is we will just end up posting all of the stuff that’s there online for nothing. Because I don’t think there’s any value in it.
Have you ever thought about doing a Kickstarter or PledgeMusic campaign to accomplish something?
That’s not for me at all. I mean, I would rather make a record for no money than make records with money that comes from the audience, because audiences have expectations. The very fact the audience puts money upfront means that they like what you’ve done before. Which means that you’re kind of beholden to the audience to do again what you did before.
So I couldn’t take X amount of thousands of dollars from the audience and go and make a reggae album or Metal Machine Music or something -- I just couldn’t do that. So I think that’s quite limiting, because you would feel an obligation to the audience to give them what they expected. You don’t have that with a record company. With a record company, you’re in partnership with a commercial organization that is trying to get you to achieve the maximum that you can achieve artistically with an eye on the commercial side.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a record company make arguments from a commercial perspective while the artist makes arguments from a creative perspective. I do think there’s slightly dodgy about an audience who have liked what you did before, giving you money and presumably expecting you to make more of the same. It’s just not the kind of model for me. I understand why people do it -- I think if you’ve got a great idea and you’re really doing something from scratch, fine. But if you’ve already got an audience and you’re asking for money from that audience upfront, I think it’s a very limiting thing.
The reason I brought that up is because you mentioned what a weird place the industry is in and I think that part of that weird place is that bands and musicians and people are wrestling with the question, asking themselves, “Is it okay to run campaigns like that? Is it siphoning money out of our fans and is that right?” There seems to be two school of thoughts, and one is that side where they are questioning whether it’s right and then the other side, where it’s like, “Well, these are people that are fans of ours and they’re just pre-ordering our new record.” I’m generally okay with that second point, because if I’m a fan of the band and the artist and I’m going to buy their new record anyway, I’m okay with putting out the money upfront to do that. But I can totally understand your position and how that would put you in an odd place, creatively feeling like you would have to deliver something that falls in line with what they grew to love about you in the first place.
Yeah, I think that’s always going to be in the back of the creator’s mind, you know, the people that make the music. Also, it’s a strange model where people can’t get their money back if they don’t like the product. I think that’s quite odd. Whereas if you’ve got a record company there, the record company puts a single out to test the waters so that the fans can hear something new from that record and see whether they like it or not. I think paying upfront for something you haven’t heard yet is kind of dodgy. [Laughs]
I mean in a way, because what it is, it’s an investment that you don’t really get paid back on. If that record went onto generate lots and lots of publishing money by virtue of the fact that it got picked up by a big movie or it was played a lot on the radio, shouldn’t the fans get some of that money back? Because they’ve actually invested in the product in the first place. The whole thing seems a bit crazy. But of course, at the end of the day, it is always the audience that pays. So with the old model, the audience paid because CDs were very expensive and that was the only way you could access albums -- you couldn’t really listen to albums on the radio, so you would have to go and buy a CD, which used to cost 20 bucks or whatever. So all of that money was swimming around in the recorded music industry, which then got invested in young artists. But the money was all coming directly from the fans and it’s still coming from the fans.
Because what’s happened is that because the money’s gone out of the recorded music industry and it’s gone into the live music industry, because that’s where all of the money is now and ticket prices have gone through the bloody roof. I mean, in this country, ticket prices are crazy. It’s the audience that pays, that’s where the money comes from. So you’re right, in a way, what’s the argument against fans of an artist paying the artist directly to make the record? Well, there isn’t an argument against that -- it’s funny, you’re kind of cutting out the middleman. It’s just with the middleman, fans can pay and get their money back. They can take the record back to the shop and go, “Look, I don’t like this -- this doesn’t sound like the last album!” [Laughs]
I don’t know, it’s really kind of crazy to me. I would feel a lot better about it if it was partly an investment and everybody got paid back with [a certain] percentage of whatever the sales are or the earlier you get in and the more you put up, the more you get out of it. That would be a much more interesting model, or say, I want to raise 10 thousand dollars to make an album, so whoever pledges the most amount of money in the quickest amount of time will get X percentage of the profits. I mean, that would make sense.
Earlier this year, you told me that there’s no existing recording of “Drowned On Dry Land.” I’m really surprised that Del Amitri didn’t record that one. I’ve got a somewhat rough recording of that song as it was performed on Vin Scelsa’s Idiot’s Delight and the band played it live at least a few times in that era while touring. I wondered what it was about that song, because obviously it seems like you were invested enough in that song that the public heard it live.
Well, we tried to arrange it with the band quite a lot and it just never worked. Partly, because it’s a bit long -- it’s got six verses and the middle eight, which is a bit long and we could never find a style in which we could set it. We tried to kind of go down a Tom Waits avenue at one point, which just didn’t work. It’s just weird -- it’s a very linear thing and it is just one of those things that it just works well at a quiet moment at a concert and it comes across well. It just always died a bit on tape whenever we tried to record it and arrange it. Some songs are just like that, they just come alive in a room in front of people and they just die on tape and there’s no real rhyme or reason for why that’s the case.
I know you also played “Medicine” in that same era before it made it to a record. Was that common for the band to air material that hadn’t been recorded like that?
If we were touring an album for long enough, we would start testing new material. I don’t think we would ever...we would rarely do more than two new things. That was a way of just getting stuff tight and arranged. I’ll tell you the funny thing about that was, on the second A&M album, Change Everything, there were four songs that we played quite a lot live in 1990 that ended up on Change Everything and they ended up being by far, the hardest things to record.
Because the newer songs, we were recording them to the tape machine, which is kind of what you want to do in the studio. Whereas, the ones that we played on the road, we just played them as we played them to an audience and they’re completely different things -- the studio obviously is a different environment. So the performances were sort of too big and too slick and kind of weird. They ended up being much more problematic. We always thought, wouldn’t it be brilliant to actually write a whole record, tour the record before you actually record the damn thing and then go and record it live, but actually I’m not sure if that theory holds any water, because the studio is a completely different environment -- it has completely different demands.
Promo picture used with permission courtesy of Compass Records
For fans of ‘80s pop music, the current Retro Futura tour is a dream bill, featuring a lineup of Katrina (from Katrina and the Waves), China Crisis, Midge Ure of Ultravox fame, Howard Jones and Thompson Twins frontman Tom Bailey. I had the chance to see the tour when it came through Cleveland last week (at the Performance Arts Center at the Masonic Auditorium) and it’s probably the best genre package tour I’ve ever seen. It was a thrill to see Howard Jones touring with a level of production that you usually only get to see if you’re seeing one of his shows in the U.K.
Beyond that, when you consider that it’s been 27 years since Tom Bailey has sung any of the Thompson Twins hits live, it was a real treat to hear him revisit that catalog. He sounded great and the nine song set (which ran about 45 minutes) was perfectly chosen -- a great mix of the hits you would expect and even a couple of album tracks. From the reception to Bailey's set, it was very clear that the audience was very happy to get a chance to finally hear those songs live.
The 45 minute running time of Bailey's set was certainly a good enough teaser that made me hope his current touring with Retro Futura will lead to an eventual headlining run (with a longer set) in the very near future. I bought an advance copy of a new collection of Thompson Twins remixes and rarities which will be released in September and listening to that set certainly brought back a lot of memories and generated thoughts regarding additional songs that I'd love to hear him play live.
There’s about a week’s worth of tour dates left on the Retro Futura run, so check out the upcoming tour dates and get out there to check out a show! You didn’t have to twist my arm very hard to get me to go and check out the show -- I’m a longtime HoJo fan and knowing that Bailey had “If You Were Here” in the setlist, well, that’s a moment that I wasn’t about to miss.
I spoke with both Bailey and Jones in the weeks leading up to the Cleveland show -- a large part of my conversation with Bailey was unfortunately lost due to a troublesome phone connection, but here’s the full chat with Howard Jones for your enjoyment.
How did you get involved in this Retro Futura tour? It’s a great lineup of folks.
Actually, we were asked last year to try it out with Andy Bell and we had a string of dates mainly on the West Coast. It went really well and we had a really great time, so we were thinking of who we could do it with this year. Because you know, it’s like trying to get the right combination of people. It was suggested that Tom Bailey be involved and I know Tom from the ‘80s. So we went for an Indian meal in London and I persuaded him after 20 years to come back out on the road. [Laughs] I know he’s really excited about it and he can’t wait to play these shows.
It’s just staggering to think that he hasn’t toured those songs in more than 20 years. That’s unbelievable with the catalog that he has.
Yes, that’s right. Exactly. You know, I’ve always been a big fan, so it’s great to have Tom back out there again.
Can you recall the first time that you crossed paths with Tom and the Thompson Twins.
Um. Ooh, no, I can’t. I’m sure it was one of the TV shows here in the U.K. But I also was rehearsing the band for the One To One tour in Dublin, Ireland and we went to see Tom and Alannah at their mansion in Auckland. So I remember that occasion very well.
You have managed to maintain a career over the years, continuing to record albums and play shows, touring internationally. But it’s important to note that you made the transition from being a major label artist around the time of the In The Running album to being an indie artist in the mid ’90s. Now, as the music business continues to in a sense, crash and burn, if you’re in a band it’s almost an automatic that you’re probably better off taking the indie route. But it wasn’t a normal thing at the time that you did it. How easy was it for you to make that transition at the time?
Well you know, it was kind of a natural thing for me. My major label, which was Warner Brothers, didn’t want to continue with me. They didn’t want to re-sign me and I’d done five albums for them. So it was really like “Okay, what am I going to do, because I still want to do this. I love making records and I love touring.” So I formed my own label and started booking my own shows and never looked back really.
Then I really sort of embraced the internet as a way to communicate with the fans around the world and to really look after them and develop that relationship. So it was kind of a natural thing for me, actually. I mean, it’s always a struggle to keep going and coming up with new ideas and try and make everything work. [Laughs] You know, [finding a balance between] being ambitious and at the same time, not bankrupting yourself. I’m always juggling that. But you know, it leads to an exciting life.
When you released the Working In The Backroom album, was that kind of your way of testing the waters a little bit?
Yes, it was. I did that album in about six weeks and it was like “I can’t sit around being depressed -- I really must get on. So that was a flurry of activity and Working In The Backroom was done and I toured with it and started to sell it on the road and that sort of independent idea was born.
You did an acoustic tour in the early ‘90s that resulted in the fantastic album Live Acoustic America. Obviously, you’ve done a variety of acoustic gigs since then, but at that time, it had to be a bit daunting to go out there with just a piano and a percussionist, right?
Yes, it was. Because it was a really completely different direction from what people had known me for. However, piano is my first instrument. I’ve been playing it since I was seven and I went to music college and really, I’m very, very at home at the piano. So in a way, it was quite natural for me even though people might have thought “What’s he doing?” [Laughs] Interestingly enough, people really love those shows and I still remember them really fondly. It was great.
Technology seems like it has really caught up. It’s gotta be great for you these days being able to replace what would have been a huge rig to travel with, with a MacBook flying in a lot of the audio. I had the chance to see you play in Dayton, Ohio a few years ago doing your electric set and it really was amazing to watch how you were able to recreate the sound of your songs with such a minimal setup.
It is exciting that the technology has caught up with your imagination and your dreams, really. I think you saw it there and I’ve made it even more compact now as I run all of the synths through Mainstage, which is on my MacBook Air. The most exciting part of it is that I’ve always been an advocate of mobile keyboards, right from the early days when I strapped a Moog Prodigy around my neck. [Laughs] Now, it means my mobile keyboard for starters is completely wireless and it also allows me to access any sound and spread it across the keyboard and so that’s really liberating now. Because I was never able to that before. That’s a recent thing that’s really great.
Who’s going to be in your band for this tour? I’m guessing Robbie will be there and you’ll have a drummer as well, right?
Yes, that’s right. Robbie’s now running Ableton and doing all of the live processing and putting stuff on my voice and you know, he manipulates all of the sound and the sequencers. Jonathan Atkinson is doing the electronic drum kit, which we’ve kind of developed over the years and that’s become quite formidable now. So yeah, it’s always moving forward and developing and always on the edge of breaking down. [Laughs]
But this stuff probably breaks down less than your gear did in the ‘80s.
[Laughs] It was a regular occurrence then. I still get stuff happening, because you know, when you push it, you’re always pushing to do something that’s a bit new. We did a festival on the weekend and I had like five minutes where I had to cover while they rebooted the Mac. [Laughs] I did five minutes of choral work with the audience. It was fun, but inside I was panicking. But we got the computer running again -- it was fine.
With your 30th anniversary shows last year, you took an interesting approach, writing new songs to play at the gigs, without as you said in your words, worrying if it was going to be heard on a CD and things like that. That’s an interesting exercise. While things have certainly changed a lot, there was a time when it was really hard for an artist to let go of the fact that a song and songs needed to be attached to an album before they could be out there. What got you thinking in that direction with the songs you were writing at that point?
You know, it came from the thinking that really, we have to be realistic. People aren’t so keen on buying albums. If they do download a track, it may be one track -- it won’t be a whole album. Certainly, people who grew up with me, they probably are not going out there buying huge amounts of music. But what they do do is they want to go out and see live shows and they want to really enjoy that.
So I thought, “Well, I’ll go write something that is about that experience and imagine myself in the audience and what I want to see.” I was thinking that on a big scale, you want to see great visuals and you want it to be cinematic and dramatic. So I wrote a whole suite of pieces that really followed that thinking. I also included all of the things that I loved, which I like contemporary dance and ballet and I thought “How can I weave that into my work,” so that’s what I did.
I didn’t know how people would take it, but they went mad. Honestly, I’ve never heard such a reaction to new work ever in my life. So I thought, “Well, this must be the key then for the future.” So I’m really hoping to take that on the road next year and at least play in London again. But my ambition is to take it around.
I saw a reference to you working on some choral material on your Facebook. so I’m guessing you’ve continued to write since those anniversary shows. What’s the long-term plans for this material. Is there an album or is it going to be more for a show like you’re talking about next year?
It’s based on the idea of a show, but we are going to release the music, because people have been absolutely clamoring for it. It will be a DVD of the filmed show which comes with a CD of the music, so that will be the release. So it’s really an audio/visual release -- I don’t even know if you’d call it an album. So yeah, I’ve changed my thinking about that and I’m going to probably base writing in the future around the live experience.
One of the things that we did for the show, which is called Engage, I wanted the audience to be very involved. So they had parts to sing and they had things to do during the show holding up visuals on apps that they could download and [they could] have colored gloves and wear fluorescent makeup. I mean, it was a whole thing that the audience were invited to take part in. I think that was maybe the most successful part of it, because people felt so involved.
That’s got to be exciting for you too. You hear so much about crowdsourcing and it’s like you’re crowdsourcing input on your music and obviously as a creative type, you can then change and mold that music based on what you’re getting back.
Yes, that’s right. I think people when they go to a gig, if they’ve got a role to play, it’s that much more exciting when you arrive at the thing and you know you’ve got stuff to do at a certain time and there’s countdowns on the screens for when you do things. [Laughs] I mean, it just makes it so much more engaging and that was the whole idea of the Engage project.
It’s the 30th anniversary of your Human’s Lib album. What are your memories when you look back at that time period?
Obviously, it was very exciting. I never dreamed that I could get that far. I just wanted to make records and do some gigs. But it went a lot further than that. It was just a whirlwind of stuff. When that first single was released, my life changed forever. I’m so grateful that it did and I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to continue to do what I do for all of this time and still be excited about it.
I’ve heard you tell stories in concert about how your perception of some of your songs has changed, specifically lyrics that perhaps you no longer agree with. Songs are in a sense, a time capsule and you’ve accumulated an interesting collection of them. How easy is it for you to maintain the connection with those songs as a songwriter and as an artist.
Well, you know I regularly go back through my catalog and review things. When I do my own shows, I will bring some new songs into the set and sometimes I kind of bring them into another song so there’s a kind of medley going on. So I’m constantly trying to keep on top of all of the songs that I’ve written. Sometimes you find that as you get older, they actually mean more to you and you can actually sing them better because you’ve developed as a musician and you can actually give them more power than you did when you wrote it.
How long of a set will you get on this tour and will it be mainly hits or will there be some new material?
Well, it’s 45 minutes and I have had a lot of hits in America, so people really don’t like it if I don’t play them. [Laughs] But I’ve got a slot each night where I’m going to play something that is not a hit, like I’ll put in “The Prisoner.” I’m also thinking of putting in a brand new track from the Engage set, which is called “The Human Touch.” I probably won’t play it every night, but I’ll alternate that sometimes. It’s a very, very electronic but really cool track that I think people will like.
Final question: You got to tour with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band -- what was it like working with Ringo?
It was great working with Ringo! He’s such a lovely man. He was a great influence on me -- he said “Look, I really want to live a long time,” so he was really meticulous about his health and what he ate and you know, no drinking and [he was focused on] healthy exercise and a really healthy diet. So I found that to be a very good inspiration. He’s a lovely man -- I’ve got nothing but good things to say, and he is such the best drummer ever! People don’t realize it! I mean, Ringo, it’s just heavenly to jam with him. It really is. He’s great.
Image credit: Duncan McGlynn / HowardJones.com
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.
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!
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”
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.
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 permission
I’ve got all of this life experience and my work has benefited from it. As a person, I’ve benefited from it, so I don’t have any regrets and fortunately, I never got a chip on my shoulder. There’s too much of that going around. So it’s been a really interesting ride, you know?
Singer/songwriter Willie Nile has a cabinet of stories about things that should have been great and could have made him the next big thing, but due to one circumstance or another, it didn’t happen.
But even after walking away from the business side of music twice out of frustration, Nile kept himself engaged in the basic craft of just being a songwriter. He kept writing songs and on the tail end of the ‘90s, he reemerged as an independent artist, a path which has brought him his greatest success in a story that now spans nearly four decades.
His new album American Ride (which hits stores on 6/25) is his third studio release since 2009 and as he tells us during the course of the conversation, he’s already got a full album’s worth of songs written and ready to go for a follow-up. But first, there’s the matter of promoting and spreading the message of the new one worldwide and there are certainly plenty of stories to tell about his latest recorded adventure.
Fan-funded by a PledgeMusic campaign, American Ride is arguably Nile’s finest album to date, co-produced by longtime associate Stewart Lerman with songwriting collaborations featuring Mike Peters of the Alarm and also Eric Bazilian of the Hooters among others. With a running time of barely 40 minutes, it is tightly constructed in a way that as soon as it concludes, you find yourself wanting to hear it all over again.
Nile steps out this week for a short run of shows which will bring him to Cleveland on Saturday, June 22nd for a date at The Winchester. We had the opportunity to converse with Willie to get a preview of what lies ahead.
I think your journey to get to where you are today, it’s pretty inspiring that you were able to walk away for your own purposes that you knew made the most sense at the time and eventually put it back together and enjoy what you’re doing now. Because as you know, there’s a lot of folks that don’t have that second or third chance to take another run at it and you’ve certainly had a good run.
I’m having a great run right now. I’ll write songs no matter what I am. If I was a plumber in Alaska, I would just get home from work and probably write some songs. It’s just what I like to do. I really like it and I’ve gotten so much nice great feedback from people like Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Lucinda Williams, Ian Hunter, Graham Parker, Jim Jarmusch --- there are so many people that have been supportive, giving me quotes. Bono gave me a quote for the new album. I sent him a copy of the album back in February and I asked him if he had time to listen and if he could give me a quote to help get the word out. Sure enough, I get an email from Bono and his quote was in there. He’s a busy guy and [it means a lot] that he would take the time -- he’s a fan, you know? I met him a number of times and he’s always been very nice. He gave me this amazing quote about the album. In the press releases, they abbreviate it, but I like the full thing that he wrote -- it’s poetry.
He wrote “It’s a ride alright: on foot, on horseback, with the occasional roller coaster thrown in. There are a few Americas here to discover. The mythic, the magic, the very real. One of the great guides to unraveling the mystery that is the troubled beauty of America -- Bono.” When I read that, I went “man.”
My journey, it’s part persistence, part stubbornness, part too dumb to do anything else, but I always believed. I always thought there was something [and] that I could make a contribution and have fun doing it. I love doing it -- I would be making music anyway, but I walked away -- twice I walked away when I thought “eh, this business is shit.” But then when I started putting out my own records in 1999, [with] Beautiful Wreck of the World, that put me back on the map. It made money, it was fun and I was proud of it.
2006, I put out Streets of New York and that really put me back on the map and since then I’ve put out House of a Thousand Guitars in 2009 and The Innocent Ones in 2010. House of a Thousand Guitars got great, great press and it did really well and [it was released] on my own label. The Innocent Ones, David Fricke at Rolling Stone had it on his top ten best albums of the year and that was amazing and that was just me -- there was no money behind it. The one song on it, “One Guitar,” USA Today, every Tuesday they’d have their top 11 songs in the country and it was number one on USA Today. I remember seeing that and thinking “you know what, this is nuts.”
We didn’t take one advertisement out anywhere. I hired a publicist and a radio guy, but it was not a big operation to say the least. So I’ve been inspired for a long, long time and nothing that I’ve come across has quelled that. There have been times when you get down, no question about it. But I still feel the same passion and the same fire. I’m enjoying the hell out of this. It’s so much fun. I get to make records the way I want -- [and] I always was able to do that.
I was on Arista and Columbia and the major labels -- they never interfered -- I was able to make the records I wanted to make and so I’m grateful for that. You keep learning. I’m still learning and normally with music, many people as they get older, their writing pales [to what they used to do] and in my case it seems to be the other way around. It seems to be getting better, so whatever. It’s a great day and I’m enjoying it.
I’ve already got another record written to follow up American Ride. I think when I go in, I have a pretty good sense of what the collection is going to be like and it’s going to be really strong. I’ve been putting out a bunch of strong records and that’s really been my [focus]. I just want to make little masterpieces and have them be uplifting and not downers for people. Life is tough enough as it is. I write about all kinds of stuff about people living, dying....you know, "The Innocent Ones" is a song about the innocent victims of man and humanity around the world and yet it’s an uplifting, foot stomping, fist raising anthem, so it can be done. I believe that music can inspire and anybody who comes to one of my shows clearly sees that and leaves going “damn, why have I never heard of you?” [It happens] again and again.
I spent a month in Europe from the middle of April through the middle of May, three weeks in the UK and 10 days in Spain and it was just amazing. From the BBC to a two page spread in the London Times -- the people were coming out and there’s great, huge support from the audiences now, because I go there a lot. I’m in Europe four months a year and I’ve developed a really good following over there, which is so much fun. I’m looking to build that here in the States as well. We’re looking to branch out more from the east coast and play other cities and start building it.
I spent an hour signing CDs in Madrid [and] I’m signing this guy’s CD and he said “it’s for Ramon, he was a huge fan of yours -- he died six months ago” and tears were coming down his face. So I put my hand on his shoulder and said “it’s alright -- I’ll make it out for him and I wish he could be here. Maybe he is here. Keep the faith and stay strong.” I gave him a big hug and then he said [something] and so many people have [also] said this, “these shows make me feel so much better.” People do it all of the time, [saying things like] “I haven’t been out in months -- someone died and I just haven’t wanted to do anything, but this is the best I’ve felt in some time.”
I’m not out there preaching anything -- I’m just out there playing music that means something to me and it seems to be connecting, which is why I’m really encouraged. The record business may be in shambles, but the music’s not, you know? There’s great music being made by many people. Things always change. I kind of wish they would teach that in early grade school that “you know what, things change and it’s okay,” so that it’s not a big shock. Things change and they’ll continue to change. So these are my glory days -- I’m having a great time and I’m having a lot of success. I get Bono to email me this beautiful, beautiful sentiment -- a quote about the album, you know? I’m lucky....I’m really lucky.
People say to me, “do you ever get disillusioned that you’re not as rich as this guy or as famous as that guy” and I say “well, no.” I’ve really enjoyed my anonymity, [because] I’ve been able to grow as an artist and as a person without the nonsense of fame. Fame is nothing. That really will not get you to a place that is good to get to. Fame didn’t do a lot for Michael Jackson [and] fame didn’t do a lot for Whitney Houston and it’s a shame, but fame is ridiculous. I’m in it for the music. I’d love to be stinkin’ rich -- make no mistake, because I could do good stuff with it. But maybe that’s why I’ve kept my edge all of these years. But I’m having a great time -- I’m a lucky guy, I really am. We’re making music. Anybody who comes to the show and doesn’t get blown away, I’ll give them their money back. I’ll come right out after the show and I’ll give your money back -- it’s so much fun.
My band -- my guys, they’re a killer band. If anybody goes to WillieNile.com, there’s a clip of [Bruce] Springsteen joining us for my song “One Guitar” and you can just see the fun we’re having. We play for the right reasons. We get up there and we play -- we’re not showing off and we’re not looking to be big shots or be idols -- fuck that! That’s nonsense! We’re playing music that we love and we’re rockin’ and we appreciate it -- we have a great time. So I’m excited about it and as charged up as ever. I’ve always been pretty enthusiastic, but never more than now. There’s real reason to be encouraged -- the last few records that I’ve made have just really resonated with people.
That’s why we did the PledgeMusic thing. You know, we made some money to pay for the album and help promote it in four days. Four days! I was shocked. And then we got to over 300 percent of what we were looking for and it’s all being used -- it’s not going in my pocket, it’s for promoting the record [which] I paid for with my own money, you know, I took money out of savings and paid for it -- it came out great. I’m so happy with it. I got to where I always wanted to be. I wanted to be able to go in and make great records and write great songs and I couldn’t be happier with what we’re doing. I’m psyched.
I think that one thing that sticks out about this album and the past few albums that you’ve done is that you’re still constructing albums that are collections that hang together as “albums” as opposed to “here’s some songs.” There’s a real feeling of connection with each one of these records that you’re making.
Thank you. I grew up with albums, you know? In the early days, it was singles and stuff, but once the Beatles hit, they were [putting out] collections that I thought were great. I wouldn’t put a song on there if I didn’t really feel it was something special. I wouldn’t walk on a stage if I didn’t think it was going to be special. It’s not about me when I walk up there -- it’s about the songs. I’m there to sing the songs -- they’re the ones who are the focus and I love the way they hang together. This new one, American Ride, you can listen top to bottom and it takes left turns and right turns. There’s different moods and it totally rocks at least to my sensibilities. Thanks for saying that -- I love when the collection really feels like it hangs together. That’s fun.
It’s a really tight collection of songs, with 12 songs in 40 minutes. Did you record more than that?
Only one more. When I go in I don’t have 25 songs and pick from them -- I just pretty much know and I wasn’t sure how long it was going to be, so I recorded one extra song. [But] I loved how it came out and I thought “this feels right” so I left it as is [without the extra song].
It turns out now that because we have a really good record company [Loud & Proud] putting it out -- because of the noise that the PledgeMusic campaign made -- people pay attention to that, [and the fact] that we did so well so quickly.
So the label is putting it out and they’re going to put out a special edition the same day that they put out the regular one and there’s three bonus tracks, so “Occupy” is the first bonus track and then there’s a song called “The Motel Life” that’s just a song that I wrote and recorded in my apartment. I’m not an engineer -- it’s a live take and it started as a demo, but it came out sounding real. We [also] re-recorded “One Guitar” to close it out, because my manager said “people don’t know this song -- a lot of people do, but there’s a ton of people that don’t. With this new label, they could maybe help introduce it to more people.” So we went in and we tweaked it a bit and it came out really, really good. So yeah, I only had 13 songs when I went in.
“One Guitar” seems like that has kind of become another one of your signature songs. What did you want to achieve when you went into record version 2.0 of this song?
Well, the band had been playing it...and the reason I thought to do it, what occurred to me once he mentioned it -- I wasn’t going to do it. But the band had been playing it really great. When you record something, usually the band is learning the song for the first time. In this instance, we’d been playing the song for the past year and it’s [developed] a life of it’s own -- it’s really powerful and we sped it up just a little bit. We recut it and it just rocks more. Right before we went in, I [also] thought “well, maybe I’ll put a little guitar thing at the beginning.” So because the band was playing the lights out of it -- it has a life of it’s own -- I go through airports and people come up to me [singing it]. It was fun to record and like the whole album, it really got recorded quickly. We went in just a couple of months ago actually in April just before I went to Europe and we spent one day, set it up and in a few takes, boom!, there it was. It came out quick -- I just wanted it to be alive and feel electric and it does.
When did this new album really start to take shape for you?
Well, about a year and half ago or two years ago, I wrote “American Ride.” I wrote it in about 45 minutes and I really liked it. I wrote it for a project that Mike Peters of the Alarm -- I was about to tour with them and he had a side project where he sometimes tours with a drummer, Slim Jim [Phantom] from the Stray Cats and Captain Sensible, the bass player of the Damned and I guess the other chair is a revolving chair of different people. So they were making a record and he was interested in having me take the fourth chair and I said “that sounds like fun -- I’d be interested in that” and he said “well, write something” and so I wrote something.
When I was on a tour bus with him, I didn’t have a guitar, so I showed him the lyrics and told him what the music was and he said he had an idea. So he went in the other room and changed a couple of chords and I really liked it. It just worked. Also, I wrote “Life on Bleecker Street” -- I live in New York, where I’ve lived on and off for 40 years -- and Bleecker Street is outside my window. I know it like the back of my hand and so I had this song I really dug and I thought that “American Ride” and “Life on Bleecker Street” could be the core of an album. So that’s really where it started.
It was never written as a concept piece, it was just a collection of songs that fit together. There are some themes that echo a journey, like “The Crossing,” initially that song was written about the Irish coming across the ocean to America, but when I was writing it I thought of any travelers, coming from China, Africa, Eastern Europe or wherever, for a better life. Also, I had my own ancestors in mind, which is of Irish descent, but it’s also a personal journey, you know, getting over a broken heart, getting over a personal bridge and climbing your own mountain. I think [the album] means all of those things and it ends with “No Place LIke Home,” so there’s themes in there, but I didn’t conceive it when I was working on it as a concept album.
That title track is a good example of some of the nostalgic imagery that’s triggered really by the feeling of many of these songs and the things that you’re writing about, the mentions of like Elvis Presley and Reverend Green. As you alluded to, there are really some cool visuals on this albums that are generated by the songs and the lyrics within the songs.
Thank you. Our country’s rich....a conversation that’s fun to have is “what can we bring up that could only come from this country?” You know, what’s particular to our country? And it could be any country. Like in England, there’s things that only could have come from here. But in our case, living in this country, things like jazz, Louis Armstrong, Woody Guthrie, Babe Ruth, Abe Lincoln, Delta blues -- things that are just particular to this country. There’s lots of them -- Elvis Presley...I mean, what planet did he come from? He came from this country and a mixture of styles. His grandmother was a full blooded Cherokee Indian.
There’s a lot of magic still in this country and I still believe in the dream that is this country, of a place where people can live and follow their dreams and not be tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs. That’s a great thing, you know? [When] I grew up, Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, they were heroes of mine. Bobby Kennedy used to say that we’re good people and we’re compassionate people and we can do better. I believe that. Let’s help each other. Woody Guthrie was great at that and Pete Seeger, [Bob] Dylan and Bruce -- there’s a good line of people who have made the most of music and helped make it a better world in some small way. “One Guitar” is one of those songs [for me] as is “The Innocent Ones.”
A song like “People Who Died,” the great Jim Carroll masterpiece, is one of the great hidden treasures in rock and roll, I think. I played it a couple of years ago at a St. Patrick’s Day thing. Jim had just died and they were honoring people who had passed in the previous year and they asked me to sing “People Who Died” and I was happy to do that -- I always loved that song. It to me has all of the things that a great rock and roll song has. It’s totally fun and rockin’ with some really deep edgy....it had some real meat on its bones. It’s kind of unique -- one of the great songs of rock and roll. After doing it at that St. Paddy’s Day event, I thought “I want to do this at my shows,” so we started doing it.
The guitarist who is playing with me is a buddy and was going to Europe [with me] and said “do you think that we should maybe not do that because it’s such a heavy subject” and I said “you know, I know what you mean, but there’s something about it that offers a bit of redemption.” You’re standing at the abyss and yet you’re looking into the abyss with a smile and you’re dancing and it’s like you know what? Let’s honor our friends who are gone and let’s raise hell. That’s rock and roll for me, it’s something meaningful and it’s a whale of a party song. I’m so happy I put that on the record and I love the version that we did. It just rocks. I think Jim would be happy if he heard it.
There’s a lot of rockin’ material on this album, as you’ve mentioned. But specifically, there’s also a great rockabilly feel to “Say Hey.”
I like that there’s different things happening. That song, “Say Hey,” I just wrote that on guitar one day, I think on the road. I came up with the lick and then wrote it pretty effortlessly. I always loved rockabilly. Rockabilly will always be good and it just has a different character and then at the end of it, the last verse says “what do you say when the world blows up/ I say hey/ who do you call when you’ve had enough/ I call hey/ What do you think about the rights of men/ I think hey/What do you say we do all we can/ I say hey.” I’m just tickled with the way things are going. Songs are coming to me all of the time and I’m digging them.
I’ve been able to learn over all of these years and I’m still learning, [whether I’m] writing, in the studio [or] onstage. I never toured, you know in the ‘80s when I came out, I’d never had a high school band. I was a poet in college and high school. I was writing songs by the time I was in college, but I never played publicly. I moved to New York and I had no band experience. I was signed as an acoustic [artist] playing solo, because I couldn’t afford a band and literally rehearsed for about four or five days before making the first record and the next thing you know I’m opening up for the Who across the U.S. and I was a shadow of a kid and what a riot. I thought, “oh this is a piece of cake!” [Laughs]
The Who are one of the greatest bands ever and I got to play with them and see them play night after night and it was wonderful. I’m still friends with Roger [Daltrey] and Pete [Townshend] to this day. Roger came out to see me in the UK last year and I saw Pete when he was doing his book reading and I love them. I made two records in ‘80 and ‘81 and toured with the Who and [besides that] did a little touring in those two years -- not much, [only] a few weeks and then walked away and didn’t play again until I did a benefit show for a writer in ‘87.
This writer in Norway, I never met him, Torre Olsen, he was apparently the godfather of writers in Norway and he was a big champion of mine back in the day. I got a call from someone and they called me up and invited me over to play and I went. They got me signed to Columbia, [because of the performance which was filmed]. So I rarely played in the ‘80s and not a lot in the ‘90s besides going to Europe just a little bit here and there and the next decade, I started going there on a regular basis and played a little bit more but not a ton. Now in the past three or four years, I’ve been playing [an amount of shows] like I never did. I never burned out on the road, you know and [as a result], I’m enjoying it now more than ever.
This new album, was there any of this stuff that had been hanging around in your chest of songs or was it all pretty fresh?
It’s all pretty fresh. I think “The Crossing” was in a drawer. That’s one that was written some years back. The rest of it is all brand new. “The Crossing” was always a song that I loved. I wrote that with my good friend Frankie Lee, a great songwriter. I’m a piano player -- that’s my main instrument and when I sat at the piano, I’d play it very often and I thought “this might fit on this record” and it fit. It does fit really well within American Ride.
That one was written some years ago, but the rest are all new. Two of them were just written -- we had been recording and a couple of months later I wrote “If I Ever See The Light” and “She’s Got My Heart” and so we went and [also] recorded those and I thought they would fit [ on the album] and I liked them a lot.
You mentioned that you’ve got almost another album’s worth of material written on the heels of this one. Finishing up this album, where did the songwriting process take you from that point, as far as how it relates to what we’re hearing on this new album?
I think that I’m just on a serious roll writing -- I totally have it written. By the time I record it, I’ll write more and they’ll all really solidly fit together. It’s an assortment of things and maybe it’s a little bit greasier. The subject matter is wide-ranging and the palette is pretty rockin’. I’ve just been writing up a storm and it’s just a continuation really of what I’ve been writing, I mean from Streets of New York and House of a Thousand Guitars to The Innocent Ones and American Ride and it’s picking up.
I’ve been writing more and more and it’s just observations, things I see in life and the things I feel, past, present and future. It feels like a continuous thing, just rolling out. I’m not sure what I’m going to call it -- I don’t’ know that yet. Once I get around to recording, [I’ll figure that out]. I’m busy now touring and supporting American Ride and will be for some time and [then] let’s see if we’ve got the money to make it. It’s a pisser. [Laughs]
With this current streak of productivity, is there any part of that which relates to you looking at your discography? It’s not necessarily deep as far as number of albums. Are you trying to make up for that now?
I don’t know. I waited, like I walked away from the business twice, actually, after the Columbia Records [deal]. It was just the wrong place at the wrong time and the record [1991's Places I Have Never Been] has Richard Thompson, Roger McGuinn, Loudon Wainwright, Robbie McIntosh, etc. It’s a really good record and it was just the wrong place. I knew that could happen and that it was more common than not. The guy who signed me, my champion there, was on the way out when that record came out so it didn’t really have a chance and I understood that. It’s the way it goes and you continue on.
So I just went back to writing and I wasn’t sure what I was doing. Waiting for major record companies was the mistake that I made. Once I realized that there was this whole other kind of world out there, some friends said you should really put something out yourself -- that’s what people are doing now and it works. And does it ever -- it’s complete freedom and I’m enjoying immensely what I’m doing and what I’ve learned and what I’m still learning.
So yeah, I don’t think I’m trying to make up for lost time I think it’s just that I was so comfortable with the craft of recording that they’re just flowing out of me. There’s so much life experience added to that and studio and writing experience, I just feel like I have more to say these days maybe. But I love it...I could go next week and record this record, you know? I could put out a few years. So I’m very grateful that I’ve had this opportunity and that I didn’t give up and I stayed with it. It’s really rewarding.
The other day I got an email from my manager that I had won an Independent Music Award for a song of social action, which was “One Guitar.” I don’t measure success by awards or by records sold - there’s quantity and quality. I’d love to sell millions of CDs so that I could make more records and afford to do that and live comfortably, but the work will never change. I will always be driven and inspired and enjoy the work.
It seems like your head’s always been in the right place, just listening to the records that you do put out. Obviously, you’re more concerned about the quality of the actual album as opposed to the number of albums. The quantity becomes irrelevant if the content is spotty and you’ve always been able to keep it focused where it needs to be.
I think that I’m a perfectionist of sorts and I want it to be strong. I don’t want to put anything that I don’t think is really good out there, I want it to be as high quality as it can be. That’s why I’m enjoying this so much is because I feel the quality is pretty strong these days and with what I’m writing now, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be changing anytime soon. So I’m chomping at the bit to keep making records. Not as a reaction to having put so few out. Sometimes less is more.
Totally. Your buddy Bruce is legendary for not being afraid to scrap an entire album if he doesn’t believe in it. Have you ever gone down that road where you’ve scrapped an entire album of material?
No. But I respect him for that. If it’s not good and you have the luxury of being able to do that, that’s a great luxury to have. It’s tough for artists. I remember Doc Pomus, a friend of mine and the great legendary hall of fame songwriter, you know, “Save The Last Dance For Me” and “This Magic Moment,” he wrote songs for Elvis Presley. I knew him and used to go see him play all of the time in the Village and in ‘78 when I got signed, he said to me “go to Europe, Willie, they know how to treat a songwriter.” I’m just enjoying the heck out of it and people make me feel like I’m doing a good thing. They’re very, very supportive and enthusiastic, big time, as evidenced by the Pledge thing.
It’s been a while since you’ve been to Cleveland for a show. I think a lot of folks are excited that you’re coming back to town for this gig.
Well hopefully people come out. I haven’t played there much and I don’t think I get any radio play there, so I don’t know how they would know about me. But if people come out, I promise them they won’t be sorry if they come out to the show. Come join the party because we’re throwing a big party and it’s going to be fun, no matter how many people are there. We give everything we’ve got and I think people will have a blast. The thing I hear more often than not is that people come up to me and say “you know, some people told me I should see you -- I never heard of you and man, this is great.” They buy a bunch of CDs and we’re making friends every place we play.
Cleveland’s a rock and roll city and there’s a great history of rockin’. I grew up in Buffalo, so it’s not far. I’d come in there to see baseball games when I was a kid. I didn’t drive, but I’d travel with a buddy to the old Stadium and I’m looking forward to it. It’s a place that I should be going to a regular basis and I’m hoping that if enough people come back, that they’ll want to have us back. Because we don’t leave any stone unturned. We don’t leave anything in the dressing room. We bring it. I’m proud of the band -- they’re great musicians. So come on out and see some roof rattling and some wall shaking music.
Willie Nile plays The Winchester on Saturday, June 22nd. Visit The Winchester's website for ticket details. Don't forget to pick up Willie's new album American Ride, which will be available at Saturday's show!
How's your falsetto voice holding up these days? Because if you're like me, it's very likely that you'll be singing the chorus of Dan Hartman's "I Can Dream About You" as soon as you start reading this interview. And of course, the next logical step after that is to listen to "I Can Dream About You" about 80 times or so.
Here - let me help you out with that piece of things:
I picked up a huge trunk full of music magazines from the '70s and '80s last night from a friend, who is back in Cleveland, helping to clean out his old family home. Within those magazines was an issue of Modern Recording & Music from June of 1985.
Reading this interview, which was conducted by Jimmy Guterman, I decided to see if I could find a good program that would let me scan to text (which I did - it's called FreeOCR, for the interested tech heads out there.)
I found this to be a really interesting read, no matter whether you're a fan of the song or not, it's just an interesting snapshot look at one man's perspective on making records, circa 1985.
I'm jealous of Jimmy, who had the chance to use what might possibly be one of the best opening interview questions ever. "How did 'I Can Dream About You' happen?"
More recently, Jimmy wrote a book which will be of interest to fellow Bruce Springsteen nuts, called Runaway American Dream.
Here's the interview - enjoy!
Nineteen eighty four was a year of many rock n‘ roll comebacks. Tina Turner and John Fogerty got all the headlines (and rightly so), but they weren't the only artists who returned to the spotlight last year after a long absence. Of those less-celebrated, the most unlikely return may be Dan Hartman's. Hartman's public career started with the Edgar Winter Group(for whom he wrote “Free Ride") and led to a checkered solo career as an artist (the 1979 disco smash “Instant Replay"), writer (for Diana Ross), and producer (Plasmatics).
Hartman's return to the charts with “I Can Dream About You,” one of the few listenable songs from last summers Streets of Fire soundtrack, places Hartman ?rmly in the center of the pop zeitgest. With co-producer Jimmy lovine and new songwriting collaborator Charlie Midnight, Hartman's new LP has spawned two dancefloor hits (the aforementioned title track and “We Are the Young”). I Can Dream About You has its share of obvious moments, but it is still an effective show-case for this self-proclaimed “studio rat's" skills. Modern Recording and Music sat down with Hartman in late March at New York's Top Cat Studios, where he was rehearsing for his first tour in the past decade.
Modern Recording & Music: How did “I Can Dream About You” happen?
Dan Hartman: Jimmy (Iovine)and I have known each other foryears. He worked on the Edgar Winter Group’s Shock Treatment album as assistant engineer for Shelly Yakus, and we stayed in touch over the years. One time I was in California and he was producing Stevie Nicks’ Wild Heart in the same studio I was working in. I saw him in the hallway and he told me he was working on the Streets of Fire soundtrack and he’d like me to submit something. I had a tape of “I Can Dream About You” sitting around the studio as a demo. I sent it to him and he loved it. The version on the record is mostly my demo version, even though the original demo was much more electronic-sounding. The electronic drums at the beginning are there for the whole track. Jimmy added a real drummer, a real bass player, and a real guitar player. He gave it a more human rock element to complement my electronic dance element. It's got the best of both worlds.
MR&M: Why has it been ten years and why now?
DH: The ‘now’ question is easy. I'm making music I’m excited about that can be played live. I never stopped making music because I have the studio in my house, but I didn’t have the means to play them live. I was doing a lot of dance music that I couldn't play live and honor it as an art form. What I’m doing now can be played live with a rough rock n‘ roll band. The two kinds of music that are prevalent today, rock and dance music, have finally come together. That’s where I am—rhythmic dance rock n’ roll.
MR&M: What's your approach to synthesizers?
DH: I prefer synthesizers without a sequencer. I don’t like the sequencer to play the part. I like to play it live-it feels better.
MR&M: Do you think you'll be working with Jimmy Iovine in the future?
DH: I don't know. People change between albums. When it comes time for the next album, I don’t know if he'll have the time. There are so many variables. When the next album comes up, there’ll probably be more steps I want to take. It's difficult to produce yourself. You have to keep a wide enough perspective and you have to be ruthless and cut and edit. Sometimes you get confused and need an outside ear. I recognize that. Some artists don't recognize that and come out without something sounding weird because of it.
MR&M: How do you hear “Instant Replay” almost a decade down the road?
DH: I'm successful at communicating When I‘m in the studio messing around, I don't think, “This sounds commercial." I just turn the music up to 10 and have a party. My natural inclination is what lifts me off the floor. With your own studio, you can either get real lazy or become a workaholic. When I play “Instant Replay" now, I listen to something that at the time communicated in the best way I knew how. It incorporated the trend of the time with real communication. I did that song because I was in love and I was elated. I did the whole thing in one week as a gift. It reflected the times.
A lot of my rock friends said at the time, “That‘s a hip record." If you listen to the disco records of that time, “Instant Replay" had more of a rock edge. I just put together a new version that we'll be doing on this tour. It will reflect the sounds of the Eighties now, instead of sounding like 1978 disco. I‘m still proud of the original. The vocal performance is great and it achieves a feeling. That's the most important thing. The song communicates.
MR&M: With “Instant Replay," you were a rarity, a white man with a disco hit in the midst of the racist ‘Disco Su--s’ movement." With the new album. you seem to be making a conscious effort to integrate stereotypical “black” and “white” styles.
DH: That's right. It's not so much a conscious effort as the consciousness of my focus. On “I Can Dream About You," the idea was to establish myself as a vocalist. I want to make mainstream records—I don’t want people to miss my message. I don't want to be too weird. I want to be heard—I want to communicate. I'm a rock n’ roller, but I also love rhythm n’ blues and soul. I love the spirit, the passion, and the sexuality of R&B much more than headbanger rock n’ roll—even though some of my favorite albums are Pyromania and For Those About To Rock. They’re headbanger albums,but they also have soul.
Two years ago. I fired everybody around me. I fired my manager, my lawyer, everybody. I got away from everything. I wanted to carry forth a concept of dance rock n‘ roll and the people around me wanted to do the same stuff again. I wanted to do a Big Bam Boom. They weren’t behind me. so I quit and disappeared for eighteen months. I lived my life. Along theway, I was writing. “I Can Dream About You" is what I was trying for. It’s crossover, black, white, rock,dance, and has a great vocal. It’s everything. Remember, it looks like black people do “I Can Dream About You" in the video. People saw the picture sleeve and said “Huh? He's white. This can't be Dan Hartman.” If they like the music, that's all that matters.
MR&M: How is getting ready for a tour different from preparing to record?
DH: I don’t actually get ready for records. I just do ‘em. It’s day to day; I live in it. For the tour. it's been easy and fun for the band to master tracks that are mostly just me on the album.
MR&M: How has producing or engineering other peoples work affected your own records?
DH: When I do somebody else's record, I'm a totally different person. I feel more of a responsibility to make sure nothing's messed up. Like my own work, I try to go for the magic, the essence of that artist. But I am more careful.
MR&M: You've said you want to play mostly small venues on this tour. Can you make money doing that?
DH: No. I'm not going out to lose money—who wants to bleed?—but I don't think it's all about money. I don't necessarily want to make money on the road. I've been lucky to make money from my records. When I go out on the road, I pay my band all the money. I don't make any money. My manager gets his cut, the expenses get paid. and I come back with the same amount I left with.
MR&M: But you do get to play in front of people.
DH: Yeah. that's it. The thing is to translate the studio excitement onstage. You've got to live what you're doing onstage. It's got to be raw energy. It doesn't have to be perfect. If it was. it would be boring.
MR&M: What inspires you?
MR&M: That's a great motivator, but anything else?
DH: I'm inspired because people are starting to hear me. I want to be heard. When no one's listening, I'm not real motivated. I'm motivated by listening to Chaka Khan. She's the Jimi Hendrix of our age. She'll sing and sometimes it sounds like Hendrix's guitar. It's the same essence of freedom he had in his solos. She's a major vocal influence and inspiration. I love Foreigner, Vangelis,Robert Palmer. Lotsa stuff.
MR&M: “I Can Dream About You" became a hit mostly because it fit snugly in the current dance/rock sound that's all over CHR. Was that calculated or accidental?
DH: It was luck. I do not consider these things when I'm recording. I just do what I want to do.
MR&M: Do you and Charlie have a writing method?
DH: I met Charlie eighteen months ago when I cut myself loose of the corporate leeches. I met him through some people at CBS and tried some songs together. Those songs had a real uniqueness. When we write a song, we have a reason. I like songs that have no reason at all, but they don't wear very well. If you want to say something and mean something you'd better have something strong to say that'll reach people. We usually start with a title. discuss it. He'll go off somewhere and come up with the lyric and I can read his lyric and hear the music. I don't fight it—I just get it down on tape.
MR&M: What kind of music canwe expect from you and Charlie next?
DH: We're discussing topics. We want to get strange, but still communicate. It'll be weird.
MR&M: What do you consider weird?
DH: When you get into the areas of eroticism, politics, and belligerency, you have to be careful. Some of it will get out. Both Charlie and I have slanted minds. If “Relax” or “Sugar Walls" can be hits, there is a place for that kind of stuff, too. It's fun and interesting to write about that. Or with politics: Third World people own the bomb. That's probably where the nuclear war will start. They have nothing to lose. You can write about that. It'll be just another record from a romantic cynic.