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
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
Life is full of happy accidents -- I was in the midst of setting up an interview with Gary Wright via his publicist and mentioned to him that former Mr. Mister vocalist Richard Page (Wright's current tour mate) had a new solo album out.
Wright relayed to his publicist that Richard was willing to speak with me if I had interest in talking to him. Interest? You'd better believe that I was interested.
As the lead vocalist/bassist for '80s pop/rock quartet Mr. Mister, Page found incredible (although short-lived) success when the band released their second album Welcome To The Real World, an album that went straight to number one, lodging two number one singles, “Broken Wings” and “Kyrie” in its wake. Go On..., the follow-up to Real World, failed to match the success of their previous album, and the band's follow-up release Pull was shelved and never officially released (although we've got some news on that one that will make you smile).
After a period of recording silence, Page made his return in 1994 as the vocalist for producer Patrick Leonard's Third Matinee project, an excellent yet sadly ignored follow-up to Leonard's previous Toy Matinee release. Page made his official solo debut two years later with the release of Shelter Me, an album that showcased the continued lyrical growth that had been previously displayed on the Third Matinee album Meanwhile (and musically, his solo releases have evolved from the sound that many were familiar with on the Mr. Mister albums, embracing a more jazzy/adult contemporary vibe). Another recording break would follow, with Page focusing in on songwriting and enjoying life with his family.
As a younger guy in my mid-30s (unlike my Jurassic ol' pal Bear), it's always a bit of a rock and roll history lesson any time that I get the opportunity to talk to a classic artist like Gary Wright. The rock and roll resume of Wright is mind numbing to read and even more awe-inspiring to hear about in person from Wright himself. I spoke with Gary on the night before Ringo Starr's annual All-Starr Band tour played in Cleveland at Nautica Stage. The artists on the Ringo tour enjoy quite a posh experience, touring with a former Beatle, flying from gig to gig on his private plane.
The idea of the Ringo tour itself is quite genius – Ringo gets a band of seasoned professionals, each with their own successful singles, and the mix of Beatles, Ringo and classic rock material congeals into an evening of music that is good clean fun (along with plenty of peace and love, of course). Wright recently released Connected, his first pop music album in 20 years, just in time for the Ringo tour. Now that the tour has come to a close, Wright will be in Chicago this weekend for the 34th annual BeatleFest, and he'll use the occasion to perform “To Discover Yourself” (a digital bonus track on Connected co-written with longtime friend George Harrison) for the first time. I spent a good amount of time talking with Wright about that Harrison connection, the new album and his impressive career.
What did you end up doing with your day off?
I went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
What did you think?
It was good. It seemed like when they edited everything together, it was done so fast that it was almost distracting. I would have liked to have seen a little bit more of the meat of some of the great artists, you know, Sly and the Family Stone and all that. They just had such tiny little tidbits in the films that they showed. It was well done, but I would have liked to see a little bit more of the performances of those people.
As an artist, how long has it been since you've been in Cleveland?
You know, I'm not sure. I know I played here a lot in the '70s with Spooky Tooth and my Dream Weaver album and touring with Yes, Frampton and Fleetwood Mac. As of late, I'm not sure – maybe around 2005?
I know you did a solo show back in April in NYC – Have you been doing a lot of shows in the past few years, playing your own material?
Uh, a fair amount, yeah. I've been doing some things with other artists. I went out with Christopher Cross, Al Stewart, Ambrosia and Edgar Winter. I've done several package shows like that. Last April, I did about 9 shows on the east coast and I'll do more of those in October and November.
The new album is being billed as your first pop album in 20 years. What brought you back to the idea of doing another album in that genre?
Just my desire to make a pop album and do it in the spirit of simplicity with simple production and not having too many things play on it. That's my roots – my roots are R&B and I've always felt that that's the way my music should be. It's a combination of R&B and ethereal space music.
It's timeless – it sounds like a Gary Wright album.
Oh, thank you!
You produced this album – did you record it at home?
Yes, I did.
This is your second go-around with Ringo's band, and as I understand it, this album started coming together before the last tour in 2008.
That's right. I started writing it before the tour.
Listening to "No One Does It Better" – that's a track that has quite a bit going on. How long does it take you to put together a track like that.
I wrote that in the studio, all of the music anyway. I finished the lyrics up when I went on a holiday to Colorado. All in all, maybe three weeks to a month. If you add up all of the time that I spent writing the lyrics, the production and the vocals.
You've got some cool special guests on this new album – you've got Ringo and Joe Walsh on the first single “Satisfied.” You've got some history with Ringo.
Yeah – I had worked with Ringo before on George Harrison's earlier albums and I also played keyboards on [Ringo's] “Back Off Boogaloo” and “It Don't Come Easy.” I had written a song with him on his new album Y Not called “Peace Train.” During the session I said “I've got a song that I want to play for you, Ringo.” I played him “Satisfied” and he liked it and I said “do you want to play drums on it,” and he said “sure.” I did the session at his studio and he put electronic drums on it that he played. Then, I asked Joe if he would want to play a solo and he agreed and I went up to his studio and he he laid his solo down. And then Skunk Baxter also came over to my place and put a rhythm guitar part down.
Where do you start with the writing process these days – do you start on guitar, or where does it start for you.
A lot of times I'll just write a song on an acoustic guitar and then I'll take it into the studio and I'll put it together in the context of all of my keyboards and the rhythms that I come up with. Other times I'll get a drum groove going and get a thing happening and that will inspire me to write a song. It's different every time. It's never the same.
I was surprised to hear that you wrote "Dream Weaver" on an acoustic guitar. Back then, how did it get to the point where the guitars exited the mix? It was unique for the time period to have an album that was all keyboards without a guitar prominently in the mix.
That's true, and I hadn't planned it that way but actually when I started writing the songs, I started to fill in the spaces with a Clavinet or a Rhodes and the other keyboards that I have. And then I thought “this sounds really cool just as it is, I'm not going to add any guitars to it.” So I did it, and it worked to my advantage because radio jumped all over it saying “this has no guitars on it,” so it was kind of cool.
Back when you were touring heavily in the '70s and '80s, what was your keyboard rig like?
Well, I had four Mini-Moogs, a Poly-Moog and an Oberheim polyphonic synthesizer. The other two keyboard players – there was a keyboard bass player, Steve Porcaro, he played keyboard bass on a Moog. I had another keyboard player who had a Hammond organ, a Fender Rhodes and another Oberheim. And then drums and two background vocalists.
I think that Ringo's concept for the All-Starr tour is brilliant, taking out people that are great musicians, but they also come armed with hit records. And I think that this year's lineup is particularly great.
Yeah, it is and it really works well – they're a great band. It's actually a very entertaining show, it's really well done, I think.
Watching some of the Youtube stuff from this tour, it seems like you all really spent a lot of time making sure that you have the proper sounds and samples to make each song sound faithful to the original. How long did you have to spend rounding stuff up on your end?
It took a while. I definitely wanted to zero in on getting the stuff to sound exactly like it did on the record.
If you buy the digital edition of this new album, there are a couple of George Harrison-related bonus tracks. George obviously was a longtime friend of yours. What's the history on these two tracks?
“To Discover Yourself” was written by George and I back in 1971. “Never Give Up,” he came over to my house and played a solo around '88 or '89 in that time period. They are available on the website on the digital edition. I'm coming out with another thing that's really cool – it's the new album on a USB drive which is encased in a little pendant with the Ohm symbol written on it. It's an Ohm necklace and you pull it apart and it's a little flash drive that comes out. It's got the entire album including all of the bonus material. It has video interviews of me talking about George Harrison, the All-Starr band, the making of Dream Weaver and Connected. It has extra photos, a video of George and I together – he sang on one of the songs that I did, “Don't Try To Own Me.” And it has the original "Dream Weaver" demo on acoustic guitar plus five other tracks. The URL of the website is www.thedreamweaver.com.
Your archives must be pretty well organized to be able to dig out a song that was written in 1971.
Well, I had all of the lyrics and I remembered the song quite well. I never forget songs that I write. I actually recorded that on the day that George passed away.
How did you come to know George originally?
I was invited to play on his first session for All Things Must Pass, which was “Isn't It A Pity.” Klaus Voorman called me up – Klaus was a friend of George's and played bass on most of the album. He asked me if I wanted to come and play keyboards, [because] George needed another keyboard player. I went to the sessions and I met George and we immediately hit it off. I wound up playing on the rest of the album and I played on his subsequent albums and we wrote songs together. We became really good friends.
The first time that I ever heard “Love Is Alive” came via Joe Cocker's version on his Night Calls album.
[laughs] Here's something funny – as we arrived today at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that's what was playing. I don't think they planned it, and in fact, I asked the guy when we walked in if they had done that on purpose. [laughs]
This far into your career, what keeps you engaged in making new material. What's your goal?
Well, my goal is to get it out to as many people all over the world as I can, to promote it by doing tours and interviews like I'm doing now, and get more fans. I think it's important.
When you're not recording and touring, what are you up to generally? Do you still do any session work?
Not really. Occasionally, I'll do some stuff like that if it's for Ringo or other friends of mine. Sometimes I will write with other people on certain projects. I actually was supposed to get together and write with someone from the Black Eyed Peas, but then the Ringo tour came up and I ran out of time. So I will do those kind of projects from time to time. I'm going to write a book next year, so I think that's going to take a bunch of my time.
That's one reason that I was interested to talk to you, because of all of the really cool things you've done over the years. I'm sure you have no shortage of stories for that book.
[laughs] No, I don't!
I look at "Dream Weaver" as the gift that keeps on giving. Obviously it was in Wayne's World, and now this year, it's in Toy Story 3.
That's right, and it was in The People vs. Larry Flynt. It just keeps reinventing itself.
Were you familiar with Wayne's World at the time Warner Brothers approached you?
I had seen it a couple of times on TV, the version that they did when Madonna was there. I thought they were funny, and then when I saw the film, I thought it was hilarious. I like those guys.
I can imagine that certain artists that were not familiar with the film might not have been so keen on having their music included in the movie, because they wouldn't want to risk being a punchline. For those that bought in, it was obviously a great move.
Yeah, I think so too.
Prior to your musical career, you studied psychology – was that plan B in case the music thing didn't work out?
No, no. I actually hadn't even considered doing music. At that time, I wanted to go be a doctor. I studied a year of medicine and then I did some post-graduate work in psychology in Germany. And then I decided I really didn't want to be an academic or a doctor. That's when I really got back into music. I'd always played music when I was in college and in high school on the weekends with various bands, because I loved music so much that I enjoyed playing it.
What instrument did you start out with?
Keyboards, piano and then organ.
Was Spooky Tooth your first involvement with a band?
Yes, it was.
It's really amazing the number of projects that spawned from that group.
That's right – Foreigner, Humble Pie, Mott The Hoople, my own career...
What's next for you after the Ringo tour wraps up?
I'll probably start another album in the next year or so, and I'll be touring a lot, so I have plenty on my plate.
Visit Gary Wright's official website for more information about Connected and his upcoming activities
Having my own music blog has really magnified one of the things that I love most about life - the musical journeys that you take, and are introduced to, by friends.
A couple of weeks ago, I was catching up on the massive stack of blogs in my Google Reader.....which really makes me think about how hard it is to believe that I used to be satisfied with my Rolling Stone subscription every two weeks, plus visits to the library to read Billboard, Spin, Creem, Musician, Stereo Review, Consumer Reports, and a few other magazines.
My insanely artistically talented Reese's Pieces and music lovin' friend Rachael had a post on her blog about The Last Waltz, Martin Scorcese's legendary concert film about The Band.
Below is the trailer for The Last Waltz. If you haven't seen it, rent it, buy it, borrow it (from me or elsewhere) I don't care. Just watch it! The most star-studded stage evvver.
I was embarrassed to admit that I hadn't ever seen The Last Waltz. One look at the trailer, and at the guest list, and I knew that I had to acquire a copy immediately.
I went out to the record store and snagged a used DVD of the 2002 special edition, and after watching it, I immediately wanted to own the 4-CD box set (purchase) issued by Warner/Rhino in conjunction with the 2002 DVD reissue. One of the reasons that I hadn't ever seen The Last Waltz, was because I wasn't a fan of The Band. The Band were just a little bit before my time, and though I've learned quite a bit through the years about the members individually, my knowledge about the collective group was still limited.
Levon Helm might not be the biggest fan of The Last Waltz, but there's no reason that he shouldn't be proud of it. Watching the DVD (and you've GOT to start with the DVD,) I was instantly converted to full-fan status, and I imagine that I'll be taking a similar musical trip like Rachael, to pick up additional albums from the catalog.
I don't want to spoil your own personal viewing experience with The Last Waltz, but I will share with you one of the tracks that had the most impact with me personally, The Last Waltz version of "It Makes No Difference."
As I dug around for more info on The Last Waltz, I was interested to see that some fans swear by the original soundboard tapes of the performance. Personally, I really enjoyed the Scorsese view of the performance - the video quality of the footage from 1976 is stunning, as is the soundtrack.
The Band - It Makes No Difference (original soundboard recording)
If you're lame like me, and haven't seen The Last Waltz, check it out - I'm guessing that you'll be similarly blown away like I was.
As a film, The Last Waltz was a triumph -- one of the first (and still one of the few) rock concert documentaries that was directed by a filmmaker who understood both the look and the sound of rock & roll, and executed with enough technical craft to capture all the nooks and crannies of a great live show. But as an album, The Last Waltz soundtrack had to compete with the Band's earlier live album, Rock of Ages, with which it bears a certain superficial resemblance -- both found the group trying to create something grander than the standard-issue live double, and both featured the group beefed up by additional musicians. While Rock of Ages found the Band swinging along with the help of a horn section arranged by Allen Toussaint, The Last Waltz boasts a horn section (using Toussaint's earlier arrangements on a few cuts) and more than a baker's dozen guest stars, ranging from old cohorts Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan to contemporaries Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Van Morrison. The Band are in fine if not exceptional form here; on most cuts, they don't sound quite as fiery as they did on Rock of Ages, though their performances are never less than expert, and the high points are dazzling, especially an impassioned version of "It Makes No Difference" and blazing readings of "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" (Levon Helm has made no secret that he felt breaking up the Band was a bad idea, and here it sounds if he was determined to prove how much they still had to offer). Ultimately, it's the Band's "special guests" who really make this set stand out -- Muddy Waters' ferocious version of "Mannish Boy" would have been a wonder from a man half his age, Van Morrison sounds positively joyous on "Caravan," Neil Young and Joni Mitchell do well for their Canadian brethren, and Bob Dylan's closing set finds him in admirably loose and rollicking form. (One question remains -- what exactly is Neil Diamond doing here?) And while the closing studio-recorded "Last Waltz Suite" sounds like padding, the contributions from Emmylou Harris and the Staple Singers are beautiful indeed. It could be argued that you're better off watching The Last Waltz on video than listening to it on CD, but either way it's a show well worth checking out.
Purchase The Last Waltz box set (remastered/expanded 4-CD set) - CD