A Conversation with Christopher Cross
Mike Ragogna: Hey Christopher, how are you, man?
Christopher Cross: Good, man, killer.
MR: Looks like you have a new live album, A Night In Paris--two CDs and a DVD--that was recorded in 2012 in HD, nine cameras and all that. Can you go into the experience of having that big of a production involving one of your concerts?
CC: Well, you know, these days, it's hard to find people who want to put up the money to do this kind of thing because these sorts of projects don't sell so well typically but they're really special for the fans. There is this company in France who has been very supportive of touring in Europe with us. They started a record arm of the company and they wanted to launch it with some sort of product they thought had class and validity, so they asked if we'd do this and we said, "Sure!" We did it at this beautiful old venue in Paris. I think it came out very, very well for just being one night. Typically, things like this, you would shoot multiple nights and then cut things together to come up with a combined performance. The band's real tight and they did a great job of getting everything ready, so we just kind of went for it. It just captures one night of the band on the road in Europe, and it just happens that it's in Paris in this beautiful theater which is a sexy location.
MR: Chris, the recap is you've had many hits, five Grammys, a Golden Globe, and even an Oscar for your studio recordings, and it seems like you've been performing live a lot over the last few years.
CC: Well, I've continued to make records, I've made nine over the years. Most people don't know about them. I released one recently called Doctor Faith in 2011, but the first two records I made for Warners were the big ones that everyone knows about. I've subsequently made records every three years or so and continue to do that, but certainly, playing live has always been a place where you not only make money, but you have a chance to expose your other material to an audience. Commercial radio wouldn't be playing it, and now with the paradigm shifts in the business, it's really hard. "Live" is the one place where you can share all the music with an audience that they may not have heard, and that's really important to an artist, and the reason why I continue to play live is to do that. But again, the change in the industry and the way people are trying to monetize music and the only way to make any real money is playing live.
MR: And it seems like that's where the trend is. Jazz artists have always had to depend on live performances as a way to survive.
CC: Yeah. People say that the internet democratized music, which it did in that it allows people to make records without getting the hallowed record deal, because you have all these home studios and stuff. The problem is marketing yourself. You can use YouTube and all these things, but it's so flooded with music that it's hard to get noticed. I don't think there's a model right now that guarantees any long term success where you create an annuity and have a real life with music. So again, the place to get this music exposed or heard is live. When I play live, I certainly play all the hits and all that, but I play a broad ninety minute set, which is a sampling of my discography through all these years, and people hopefully will go with me saying, "Gosh, I love that song from Rendevous or Every Turn Of The World" or one of those obscure albums and they'll say, "I want to go buy that album." And it's very satisfying to do as well. I love playing live. the older I get, the more I interact with great musicians, so it's satisfying on all kinds of levels. But as a marketing tool, it's one of the only ones you have left.
MR: Yeah, exactly. Plus you have an international audience, so that helps.
CC: La Cigale was probably twenty-two hundred or something, and it sold out and they were very enthusiastic, so I'm very fortunate in that way. The European and foreign audiences tend to be much more loyal than the US audiences. In other words, they appreciate you for what you've done, not what you've done lately, whereas the US tends to be very fickle, like a, "What have you done for us lately?" kind of thing. And they go onto the next phase so quickly, too. They're not quite as studied and devoted as foreign fans are. So with the US, it's hard. The market has really kind of shifted back to a singles market. When I was a kid, it was forty-fives, singles, that you bought. Albums were kind of a new thing and odd and rare. Now it's kind of going back to that because people are downloading singles from iTunes and other places and albums aren't so much the focus anymore. I've got a new album I'm working on now and a real good question is how to market it. One of the proposals or ideas that Bob Lefsetz put forward--he's a big blogger in the industry--was to release two or three songs every couple of months to keep your audience on a steady diet of music as opposed to putting out an entire album that they don't have time to digest.
MR: I think he's right on, unfortunately. But you are of a lineage of artists and producers who know how to put together good albums, not just a collection with two or three good songs and filler. It's like we've become a culture that prefers sketches to finished paintings.
CC: Yeah. Somebody asked me the other night, "Why are there only ten songs on a record?" and I said, "Well that comes from the limitation of the amount of audio you can put on a record. Then record company deals were set on paying for ten songs and they're still that way. With the advent of the CD, people started putting fourteen or sixteen songs on their records because they wanted to have more songs on there. Now with this new record, we'll probably do something where we release three songs at a time and once the album is fully exposed, we'll release it as a product. But initially, we'll probably just release a few songs at a time in the hopes that we can make the longevity of the project longer. Bob used the example of Donald Fagen's newest album Sunken Condos, which I think is fabulous. It sort of came and went because it was released as an album and people kind of missed it because, again, you have to make the commitment in your life that you're going to get that record and sit and listen to it and enjoy it like that whereas it's tough now because you've got Facebook and all. My industry was the first industry to really be destroyed, if you will, or eroded by the internet. "Video Killed The Radio Star" and all that stuff is true. It's certainly now oppressing the movie industry and bookstores. So the model's completely changed. I don't know where it's going to go or if it will ever come back to where music and art in this form is regulated and people can't get it for free and they have to pay for it. I know, for me, I'm glad I had my fifteen minutes when I did.
MR: [laughs] You have more than fifteen minutes, proven within your project, A Night In Paris, where you sing so many highlights, including one of your biggest hits, "Sailing." Were you shocked at how big that record was?
CC: Well, yeah, but I wasn't in favor of it being a single. We released "Ride Like The Wind" and Mo Ostin, who was chairman of Warner Brothers at the time, suggested "Sailing." I thought he was really off-base, I thought the song was too introspective and personal to be a single. I really fought for something else off of the album, but he's a great record man, one of the greatest of all time, and he insisted that "Sailing" would be a hit. He stood the course and he was right. Some songwriter and artist friends of mine have given me a great compliment by saying "Sailing" is an interesting song to them because it has artistic merit but was also a commercial success, and other writers I know say that's hard to do. So that's been one of the bigger compliments I've received. I'm very humbled by it. But yeah, having a song that other writers and people in the industry would consider a well-written song and yet it was a hit on the radio, typically that's not the case.
MR: When your first album was released, I remember the record was very left field considering what was going on with the pop charts.
CC: I think disco and other forms of music had become the mainstay of radio and I think for my audience, people were tired of that. I don't think they ever really liked it, but they were tired of it anyway and they were longing for something just reminiscent of what they liked in the sixties and seventies. My record came along and it was kind of a return to that sort of sound. Also, I had some pretty big luminaries on my record, like Michael McDonald and Don Henley. So the radio got attracted to it because they said, "Gee, who are all these big names on this record?" and took a listen and then it seemed to strike a chord. So it did very, very well and gave me a huge start. I wasn't expecting that either, I was just hoping to have a marginal success with the album, but I sold fifty thousand. Warner Brothers developed me and I would eventually have a hit on the radio, but all that came much earlier. Initially, Warner Brothers signed me because of my voice. It worked out because they weren't convinced that the songs were that great, they just thought that I had a great voice.
MR: "Ride Like The Wind," another classic you sing on the new album. When the jazz vocal section starts hitting, there are so many left turns that follow.
CC: Yeah, it wasn't supposed to be the first single. The first single was supposed to be "Say You'll Be Mine," off of the first album. It was a song that I wrote purposefully to start with the chorus because Warner Brothers still didn't feel I had a single and I could see things slipping away and they wanted to bring in some outside songs. I had heard Boz Scaggs' song "Camera, Action, Do It Again," and it started with a chorus, but I wrote "Say You'll Be Mine," and eventually, they thought they should release "Ride Like The Wind" because it still had the carry over from the dance era. There have been some cool covers. Freddie Hubbard did one.
MR: On A Night In Paris, you include "Arthur's Theme" that you co-wrote with Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager and Peter Allen. What's the story behind that collaboration?
CC: Well, Orion pictures approached me about doing the score for the film Arthur, which was written by Steven Gordon and going to be directed by him. So I was certainly interested and I'd never done anything like that before. Everything was being thrown at me at that point after the Grammys. So I took it on, I thought it would be fun, but before I got started, Steven Gordon, the director, felt that I was too inexperienced, because I'd never done anything like that and he was a first-time director. There were just too many new ingredients in the soup. They said, respectfully, "Look, we're going to take this and give it to Burt Bacharach because he's done more films and Steven feels more comfortable with that." I wasn't really disappointed, frankly, because I thought, "Yeah, I've never scored a film." So they gave it to Burt and he was working with Carole Sager at the time. They were a songwriting team, so they called me up and Burt said, "Listen, I'm going to do the score but we'll still need a title, would you be interested in writing the title of this?" I had a few ideas so I was thrilled of course to get a call from Burt. So I got together with Burt and Carole and we did some long-distance collaborating with Peter [Allen] and came up with this song. Compared to my catalog, it's very much a Burt Bacharach-sounding thing over what I do. Burt's strength shows through. But for me, it was just a thrill to get to work with him because, like I said, he's a huge influence on me and all writers through his whole career. Harmonically, he's a genius, so it was a lovely experience to kind of do something I've never done like that. So we wrote the song and they were very excited about it and said it could be an Oscar-winning song and I was still reeling from the Grammys, so I didn't even think about it. We had a little cassette when I left Burt's house. Subsquently, Burt and I wrote another song called "A Chance For Heaven" for the L.A. Olympics album. It was a great experience. He's a lovely guy as is Carole and Peter, who I miss very much. It was just a wonderful collaboration and not something that I typically do.
MR: Yeah, what is your writing process?
CC: I'm more comfortable alone, I'm much more of a Joni Mitchell-style of writer. She's my number one hero and my last album Doctor Faith was dedicated to her. I write on guitar. I pretty much start riffs or pieces of songs on guitar. Usually, the melodies come very easily to me and then once I get something kind of formed that have some kind of merit, I'll start to fill up. Starting back in '98, I started to collaborate lyrically. There were moments in my writing that I felt were really strong, but there were moments that didn't seem like complete thoughts, so I started to collaborate with people earlier on, people like Will Jennings, John Bettis and other great lyricists. Eventually, I worked with Rob Meurer, an old, old friend of mine who played in my original band and did some musical theater work. We reconnected in 1988 and started writing together, so we've been doing that ever since. Since 1988, I've quit working as a solo writer. Rob and I write everything together. I guess it's music first and lyrics second, but it's been a great collaboration and we've made five or six albums together, and the new one as well. A lot of the songs on the new one are Rob's, about eight of them, but three or four of them are my own as well. I'm starting to go back to working on my own as well.
MR: One of my favorite collaborations you did with him was a song called "Hunger." Loved that one.
CC: Thank you very much, that's one of our favorites, too, and it's interesting. It's one of those obscure songs that no one hears, but when we play it live, people hear it, and I always get a great reaction to it. So that's a perfect example of a song that we feel is every bit as good as anything we've ever done and yet it's almost completely unnoticed as far as the world goes.
MR: For now, maybe.
CC: Maybe somebody will cover it, you never know. But I think it's funny, you try to grow as an artist and get better at the craft and I think most of the writers I know, Joni and people like that, will say it gets harder and harder so the demands on themselves get harder, but you try to grow and get more sophisticated and have something to say. In "Hunger," there's a line that says, "You're the jones in my vein," talking about a woman and I had some fans write in during that time who were sorry to hear I was a drug addict.
MR: [laughs] Gotta love people's reinterpretations. But then again, that's what an artist often likes to have happen, right, to have the listener apply whatever they want to a song?
CC: I've been getting more active on Facebook because on this new record, I don't have a record deal, and of course, those things are going out of existence. I might do some crowd funding, Kickstarter and stuff to try to recoup some of the money on this record. I posted a picture the other day just for the fans, an old picture of Dudley Moore and I standing together, a really sweet picture, and someone wrote in and said, "Oh, I love Davey Jones!"
MR: [laughs] By the way, before we leave the movie territory I just want to say another one of my favorite songs by you is "Loving Strangers" from Nothing In Common.
CC: I love the fact that I worked on that with Pat Leonard and John Bettis, and I love the fact that it was Jackie Gleason's last movie and one of Tom Hanks' first movies. It was a lovely film to be associated with.
MR: And of course, there's your Oscar that I mentioned earlier. An Oscar, man!
CC: Interestingly, I think I'm one of the only people who's not a member of the Academy who has won an Oscar. I have an Oscar and I won it for Arthur, but I only have two movie credits, Nothing In Common for "Loving Strangers," and Arthur. You're supposed to have three credits. So I need one more credit, and then I need to be sponsored and then I can become a member of the Academy.
MR: You hear that all you music directors reading this right now? Come on already!
CC: [laughs] Well, I've looked at some things over the years, but when you're blessed to have been connected with two beautiful movies like Nothing In Common and Arthur, the bar's set pretty high, and you want something that's a quality work to be associated with and unfortunately, I haven't been approached with anything that I felt was of that standard.
MR: Chris, I have to ask you, what is your advice for new artists?
CC: Oh, you know, I think the same advice for the way I'm living my life right now. You make records and write songs and all this because it's what we do. This new record I'm doing, I'm self-financing it, actually taking quite a bit of money out of my daily funds to make it, but I'm not skimping on the quality. It's got real strings and great players. So one could ask, "Why are you doing this?" when Doctor Faith and the last few records haven't sold really anything to speak of. It's cause it's what we do. I think when you look at artists like Tom Waits and Randy Newman and artists of this caliber, sort of the writer's writers, they were not always heralded and rewarded with huge monetary success. Clearly they're cult icons and they have a lot of fans, but they just continue doing good music. Same with Joni. Initially, everyone was all abuzz about Clouds and Blue but then her later work was where she really opened as a flower and showed her complete beauty and gift, and yet that music goes overlooked and undiscovered for the most part, like all the stuff she did with Jaco and all that. But she continued to do it. You just do what you do because you love to do it and if you are fortunate to have some success with it, that's great. But the reason you do this should be because it's a labor of love and you want to do it. I think you find some way to either make money or make money some other way and just do it. It's a wonderful way to spend your life. My son is a jazz guitarist and we're dealing with that right now. Does he want to just go get a job, does he want to go to music school and teach? I keep telling him, "You want to do what you enjoy." You just don't want to get up every day and go to a job that you don't really like. At the end of your life, you'll look back and it's kind of a dark road.
MR: That's beautiful that your kid's in the family business.
CC: Yeah, my older son's actually in the restaurant business, he's thirty-seven, Justin. But my middle son, Rain, is just turning twenty-four and he's a jazz guitarist. My daughter Madison's at NYU; she's studying acting in theatre and film at the school of arts. Justin was older so he was born before the success, but he certainly lived in it. Rain and Madison were in the thick of it so they really had no choice, I suppose. Recently, Rob and I wrote this song with Tina Fey, it's sort of a long story, but it was for Tina Fey for her 30 Rock character. It's a song called, "Miss Lemon," because of her character Liz Lemon. It's really cool because my daughter is in acting, so my daughter got to meet her, and Tina is such her idol because she's been breaking a lot of glass ceilings as a female in the industry and is so brilliant and such a role model to my daughter. So those are the times that things cross over that are pretty fun.
MR: By the way, I noticed your musician lineup for A Night In Paris included Richie Garcia, who is a pretty soulful cat.
CC: Yeah, it's Richie "Gajate" Garcia! That was his father's name, so he uses it and he always corrects you. "It's Richie 'Gajate' Garcia!" and Roland "Gajate" Garcia, his son, has played with Stevie Wonder now. But you're right, Richie is one of the most soulful, gentle, kind men I know. He's such a wonderful person and such a great heart and really inspiring cat in music overall, and of course, an amazing percussionist, drummer and teacher. But more than anything, his family is a beautiful family, and he's just an inspiring cat to know. I was at a gig once and a percussionist said, "I heard you played with Richie Garcia" and I said, "Yes," and he said, "Yeah, he's pretty much God." Richie said he told his wife Mary, "Christopher says I'm God," and she said, "Can God go take out the trash?" He's unbelievable. He truly is.
MR: He's a lovely guy. My story that I'll throw in, going back to Joni Mitchell, is that I worked with her at Universal for a couple of projects. I did a box set with her on her Geffen material and also on The Beginning Of Survival, a collection of her political and socially conscious works. And I agree with you about the later material. Sure, there's Court And Spark and Blue and Hejira, I think Night Ride Home is a masterpiece, and I also feel that albums like The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Dog Eat Dog went way out on a limb during the Reagan years when nobody was brave enough to say the things she was saying such as on "Tax Free" and the title track.
CC: Yeah, and Michael MacDonald sang on that record. I think she, and of course being married to Larry [Klein], he pushed her to explore because he was a jazz musician and younger. I haven't seen her in a while, but there's a wonderful new interview out with her actually at her home. She's seventy and she's incredibly articulate and just wonderful to watch. It's quite long but I think Joni's the original. Like I said, my last album was dedicated to her for lifetime inspiration because lyrical, musically, harmonically, she's the one I've kind of followed. Some people say, "Yeah, you followed her all the way, you're more obscure now as well." I think it really turned a corner in her music being more sophisticated and more brilliant, and yet people lost interest. Joni got frustrated with that because she didn't understand how all of these ingenues were out in the world crediting her as being an influence and yet their music was not really of the same ilk...and that's an understatement. She's the original and yet people were missing all of this amazing music. It frustrated her to the point where she stopped playing. She doesn't play anymore, she just paints and lives her life.
MR: Yeah, I miss her making albums and her as well. Well, Chris, we should probably wrap up here, what do you think? I do appreciate your time, sir.
CC: Hey, man, it's been a pleasure.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Jonny Lang
Mike Ragogna: Hey Jonny, the new album is titled Fight For My Soul. Was it truly a fight for your soul?
Jonny Lang: Some days. Making this record was. The title of the record is not necessarily autobiographical, but at times over the last five or ten years, so many different changes of life have happened to me, so it could explain me at times. But really, I think it just kind of conveys the sentiment of some of the songs on the record and certainly the title track "Fight For My Soul." I figured it would be a fitting name for the record.
MR: This is your first studio album since 2006's Turn Around?
MR: Dude, what took you so long?
JL: [laughs] Man, well, children. Having children was really the whole reason, which started about six years ago. So I took a shot at trying to make a follow-up to Turn Around. I had one little block in the studio when I recorded some stuff, but I was never able to follow-up on it because we had our twins, and then we just kept having children after that. I don't know what happened. We have four now and over the last year or two, I've kind of had a bit more time to break away and finish the record. Yeah, man I could've done it, I just didn't want to spend even more time away from the family and always on the road playing concerts. If I was to come home and say, "See you later, I'm leaving again to make a record!" I just couldn't do that.
MR: So when daddy sang the kids to sleep, it was with blues lullabies?
JL: [laughs] No. I don't know if they had that many lullabies. It was mostly, "Daddy, rub my back," "Okay, okay."
MR: [laughs] You're allegedly thirty-two years old but you have the voice of a sixty year-old black man. Which is it?
JL: [laughs] Maybe both. I don't know, man. People have been saying that now for a while, and I don't hear it, but cool. I'll take it. It's better than the voice of a thirty two year-old white man.
MR: [laughs] What guitars are you playing these days? What's tickling your fancy fingers?
JL: I'm still stuck in my ways. I like the Telecaster I've been playing for years, except over the... I don't even know how to gauge time anymore. Maybe over the last five or seven years, I've been playing a Les Paul as well. I love that guitar too, so I go back and forth on those two. But yeah, nothing too exciting. No Ibanez with a handle and seven strings or anything like that.
MR: Now, this album took you a few years, you've been working for about three years on it with Tommy Sims. What was it like hanging with him in the studio?
JL: If you are going to create music, there is not a better person on Earth to do it with than Tommy Sims. He was born to create. He's unbelievable and it was so much fun. I've been wanting to make a record with him since the day I heard his music, which was when I was maybe seventeen or eighteen years old and I heard his solo record. I've known him for years now and I got to know him shortly after I first heard him and I've gotten to write with him and hang with him and become friends with him over that period of time. But I didn't make a record, so this was a dream come true for me.
MR: What about the material on Fight For My Soul? What was the creative process?
JL: It's amazing, man. For most of these songs, I had the music and melody laying around and when you play something like that for him, he just instantly gift wraps it. He just instantly knows what needs to happen. Obviously, art is a little subjective and you can do a number of things. But he just locks into the heart and soul of what he knows you're trying to do, and then he does it and fills in the blanks. He's amazing. It's awesome.
MR: That's the beauty of having a truly great producer. They hear what you're doing, they know what you're doing, and then they try to facilitate as opposed to trying to rebuild or reframe what you're doing.
JL: Yeah, he has no pride in the whole process, he just wants to make a great record for you. It's very cool.
MR: So "Blew Up (The House)" is the first single on the album. What caused the explosion?
JL: That song was brought almost entirely by Tommy. He's so funny, man. One day, he came walking in and he was like, "Man, I wish we could do something kind of more upbeat, like a rock song. I came up with this idea," and when he says he's got an idea, really, he's got the whole song written. I may have added a bridge and some lyrics in there, but that's Tommy's song. Anyway, I loved it because it's basically about this guy who has nothing left. Short of removing himself from this existence, he's just got to start over again. He's basically got to metaphorically blow up the house and start all over again. So he's not really blowing up the house, although this guy was in such a state, he probably would have done it.
MR: And of course, with "Breakin' In," you're breaking into somebody house because you blew up your own.
JL: [laughs] Exactly! There's a theme here. See? We blow up, we break in, we remodel.
MR: Which are your favorite songs on the album and what are the stories behind them.
JL: Okay. The song "Seasons" is sort of the songs I'm most proud of on the record, because this is a song I had kind of sitting around. I played it for Tommy once, and I don't really know why I played it for him. I didn't want it to be on the record, but he was like, "Oh, man, that's got to be on the record," and I was like, "No, man, this is way too different. It's not going to go with anything," and he was like, "It will. Let's do it." So he basically made me do it, but I'm glad he did because, yeah, it is different. But I got to do really what I wanted to do and what I've been wanting to do for all these years is a little bit more intricate arrangements for the songs and have some stuff in there so you can listen to it five or six times and still not quite hear everything. That song is basically an anti-holiday song. Well, not "anti", but instead of "Happy, happy, joy, joy, it's holiday time," it's, "Wow, as the years keep going, why does this keep getting worse? What happened to when I was a kid? Where'd all that go?" In "Fight For My Soul," the track, the first verse is about a little girl, so no, that's not about me, but the second verse is a little autobiographical. The inspiration of the song was just my personal struggle with drugs and trying to stay away from them and fight through that whole part of my life.
MR: How do you think you've done? It sounds like you've gotten your life where you want it to be. Did you win the fight?
JL: Well, sometimes, it continues to be a fight. There are still times, a little bit more few and far between, but it's a monkey that never quite leaves your back for some people. It's always right there going, "You know what would make this all better right now, don't you?" But I can give him the "Shoo, monkey, get out of here," whereas before it was like, "Get the crowbar! Get him off of there!" I feel like I'm relatively together.
MR: Do you feel like family life has contributed to you being able to refocus?
JL: Yeah, it saved my life, I'm pretty sure, although, my wife's had to put up with quite a lot from me. Thank God for her because left to my own devices, not having anyone like a partner in this along the way to bail me out of certain times in my life, it would've been much more difficult if not impossible. So I'm glad I went down this road.
MR: Can I throw something at you from Couchpotatoanalystland? You were signed and had immediate success when you were sixteen years old. You also had a reputation of being one of the great players when you were sixteen years old. The child star syndrome seems to happen because a lot of times, it can be difficult to get a grip on what the world is like based on that kind of a reality. Do you think that played into any of your challenges?
JL: Oh, totally. I mean, that IS the reason, basically. You're going to do this stuff anyway when you're growing up, right? Or being on the road and it's right there whenever you want it with a little bow on it and it's ready for you to consume. Whatever you want out there, it's there, and it's free, so that doesn't help. If you're sneaking out to parties and then you've got school the next day, everybody does that, but when it's there every single day, it's a lot different. It's harder to fight off, and yeah, the whole reality of it. I was just having the time of my life being able to do what I loved and all of that. You kind of think you're invincible when you're younger, "I've got all the time in the world, nothing can hurt me." All of that plays into it.
MR: Jonny, I have a traditional question and I asked you this last time, but what advice do you have for new artists?
JL: I'll offer some blanket advice. Everyone has their own journey, but I think--and I've said this before--just remember at any given point along your journey where you're sort of questioning what you're about to do, just remember why you're out here in the first place, why you're doing what you're doing, and sort of try to let that guide the ship a little bit because the things that you encounter out here, the distractions, which are many, they don't serve to support your love for what you do. They serve to completely destroy you. You've just got to remember why it is you're doing what you're doing in the first place. Is it to tempt yourself into going down a road that's going to destroy you or is it because you love what you're doing? I don't know, just try to keep in a frame of mind that's going to allow you to make the right choices.
MR: How freaked out do you get when the kids play with your Grammy?
JL: [laughs] Well, I'll tell you what. They didn't have a chance to. We had this little Christmas party at our house one year, and we just had some friends over and apparently some friends of friends showed up and the next day, the old Grammy wasn't there anymore.
JL: Yeah, that was years ago now. But they sent a new one which you have to pay for, of course.
MR: How much does a replacement Grammy go for these days?
JL: Oh boy, I don't know. I'm embarrassed to say, actually.
MR: Oy, that kind of sucks! I hope whoever stole it is reading this right now and feeling horribly guilty!
JL: Yeah, right, and eating Fruity Pebbles out of it or something.
JL: It's horrible. What are you going to do with it? That's like stealing somebody's underwear. What are you going to do with that? It's funny. But yeah, it got stolen, so now I keep mine in an undisclosed location.
MR: You're going to be touring for the album, right?
JL: Yeah, yeah, starting right now.
MR: And I imagine since you had such a great experience making this Fight For My Soul, you probably won't be taking as long making the next one.
JL: Nope! It's not going to be another seven years if I have anything to say about it anyway. I don't plan on having any more children.
MR: [laughs] That's great, Jonny, and a nice place to land this. I appreciate your time, you're always fun to talk to. All the best and have a great year.
JL: Yeah, man, I appreciate it. Thank you very much.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Recording Artist & Chef Tommy Keene
Mike Ragogna: Hi Tommy. It's interview time!
Tommy Keene: Hey, how are you doing?
MR: I'm doing well, how are you, sir?
TK: I'm pretty good, I'm having my second cup of tea.
MR: Are you a tea guy instead of a coffee guy?
TK: Yeah, there's a long story to that. I used to be a coffee guy but when we were making that record Songs From The Film at a studio in Montserrat, George Martin's studio, I caught this stomach bug, which was pretty bad for about twelve days and the A&R guy got it too, but he chickened out and flew back to L.A. The woman who ran the studio told me instead of coffee to drink tea. She was British, obviously, because it was binding. So I started drinking tea instead of coffee and I never went back. Coffee's just a little rougher on your system, I think.
MR: Yeah, I think so, too. You don't want to know me on coffee.
TK: Yeah, it's kind of a weirder buzz.
MR: So Tommy Keene, there's a lot of Excitement At Your Feet, so to speak, with this new album, your tenth one.
TK: Well actually it feels like a lot more.
MR: Well, you have Keene Brothers stuff, too.
TK: Yeah, and I have live albums and compilations and re-releases. It seems to me more like eighteen releases instead of ten and I always think, "Is that all I've done?" There were a lot of spaces in my career where for one reason or another, I did not put out an album, and it had nothing to do with me, so the songs had built up. Just because I had written fifteen or twenty song, it felt like I had put out a record when in actuality, I didn't. But ten's a good number. I guess it's still only nine original albums, because this is a covers record. So it seems to me that it should be more than that, but for circumstances beyond my control.
MR: Usually, when an artist records a covers album, the listener can be bludgeoned by the obvious. But these songs were mostly obscure, how did you choose them?
TK: When I figured out that this was what I wanted to do, I basically just went through my entire record collection. There were some obvious songs I wanted to cover for a long time, but I just looked for songs that I thought I could pull off vocally and if I could make them believable while not going too far into mimicry while still making them Tommy Keene songs. The first song, "Have You Seen My Baby?" was off a Flamin' Groovies record that I got at some point in the seventies. I got it after it came out. I wasn't aware of them until some musicians I jammed with as a teenager turned me on to the record. I was living in Bethesda, Maryland, and in '78, I joined this band called The Razz, which was the biggest band in town. That's kind of a story in itself. I was playing in another band and we opened for them and at one point, just as it seemed they were taking off, their guitar player quit, and he was also the main songwriter musically and the lead singer with the lyrics. I eventually got the gig and joined the band, but they had this great selection of obscure cover songs that they really made their own and mine as well for a long time. I got "Our Car Club" from them, which was a very obscure Beach Boys car song. I recorded that in Montserrat and it came out on the re-release of Songs From The Film. They did the song, "Have You Seen My Baby?" which is a Randy Newman song, so it's basically a cover of a cover, and this is the Flamin' Groovies interpreting it. It's just a great, simple rock 'n' roll song and it just immediately sprung to mind for an equally great album opener.
MR: Yeah, it really kicks off the record well.
TK: The way a rock 'n' roll album should. You put it on and bam, yes, and you want to start jumping around the room.
MR: You have a personal connection to the Guided By Voices song, "Choking Tara," because of the old group member. Did you do that song just because you love the song, or was it also a little nod to the fraternity that was?
TK: [laughs] When I started thinking about the selection, I thought of all the bands I really love and, of course, Guided By Voices came to mind. That's a tricky one because Bob [Pollard] has written and released so many songs. You're talking about my tenth record, he's on his ninety-sixth or something. When I was playing with him, we were mostly touring to support the double album, his first solo record proper after he broke up GBV in '04, but we were also doing a handful of Guided By Voices songs which would fluctuate. In the middle of that tour, I got him to do, with the band, "Choking Tara," because I'd always loved the song, and it's from my favorite GBV album, Mag Earwhig! The version that came out on the album is him doing the acoustic guitar. On one of their box sets is a full band version called "Creamy Version," which, when I heard the song, I always thought, "God, I'd love to hear this with a band" and eventually I did, and then I got him to play the song with the Robert Pollard Band live. It's just one of my favorite Pollard songs. It's funny, because I've been doing a lot of interviews and people have been saying, "How did you choose that one?" because GBV is a band where no one can agree on their favorite song, or even their Top Ten because there are so many. I had a lot of, "Why didn't you do this? This is the song you should do!" literally suggesting ten or twenty songs. Everyone has their favorites, I guess.
MR: You also did the Television song, "Guiding Light," which was an interesting choice.
MR: Television, Big Star, Echo & The Bunnymen and Mink DeVille...you have your finger on sophisticated alternative music. These acts all helped that genre explode, and I feel like you had your finger on the pulse.
TK: Yeah, man, I have a history with cherry-picking interesting covers. I've put covers on a bunch of my records, which a lot of people don't do. I think it's the case that I usually put a sole cover song on every record mainly for the reason that it's the type of song that I find extremely difficult to write and I think that particular song in that situation might give the album a little bit of a break or variety. Other times, getting back to the type of songs that I find difficult to write, a great example is Alex Chilton's "Hey! Little Child," which we put on that first EP that sort of got national attention. The song "Hey! LIttle Child," is not a great song. At the time, I remember people saying, "Well if you're going to cover a Big Star song, why don't you do 'September Girls' or 'What's Going On?' or 'Daisy Glaze' or 'Feel?'" Well that wasn't really the point. The point is it's just such a simple song with a great beat, it's similar to, say, "Satisfaction," by The Stones and it worked incredibly well in the live setting, and people liked it immediately just because of that infectious marching tempo. Once we saw the reaction to that we decided to record it and hence it ended up on that first EP.
MR: And you also nailed Lou Reed's "Kill Your Sons."
TK: That's the same thing! I thought it was such a great Lou Reed song in the vein of his best, "Sweet Jane" and such, and I said one night before a show back in the first Tommy Keene group in probably 1985, "Let's learn this, it's so simple," and we did it and it went over really well. The A&R guy from Geffen saw a show where we played that song and he said, "That's great, that has to go on the record." So that ended up on Songs From The Film, which was my major label debut album and I don't think I would've thought of that or put it on the record. So in hindsight, that was one of the only astute things they suggested. But just to clarify, when people do cover songs--I remember there was one by Def Leppard that my brother really loved--and the songs are so obvious, like "Do the Badfinger song," of course they'll do "No Matter What," that, to me, was just a little too ridiculous. "Let's do a Beatles song, what will we cover? 'She Loves You,' 'Strawberry Fields,'" I think it's more interesting to take a deep cut and this record is pretty much all deep cuts.
MR: You also do "Nowhere Near."
TK: That actually started this whole thing off.
TK: Yeah, last Summer, I recorded that song here at home and a friend of mine heard it, a writer actually, and he said, "You always do good covers, why don't you do a whole album of covers?" A light bulb went off, because I was writing these songs but I had no definitive project in mind, I didn't know what I was going to do. Back to that original A&R guy, he always said, when he got to know me--he was a year younger than me, believe it or not--he said, "You have such a history of music, when you were a little kid, you saw all these great live bands." I saw The Who and The Dave Clark Five and Buffalo Springfield and The Lovin' Spoonful and Led Zeppelin, on and on and on. He said, "You should do your Pin Ups," you know, Bowie's cover record. And he was serious! So it's always been in the back of my mind to do this type of record, but when my friend suggested it last Summer, I thought, "Wow, maybe now's a good time," because it's just a little bit different, it is a bit of a gimmick to get people to listen to me, I think. If somebody wandered into a record shop and saw a record that said, "Featuring songs by Roxy Music," who are a very, very big band, they might say, "Oh, I've never heard of this guy, but I love them." It was sort of a hook to get more people interested in me.
MR: Tommy, what advice do you have for new artists?
TK: Hmm. Don't be too hasty making decisions that you might think are completely obvious choices. When you're younger, things are going so fast and it's really difficult sometimes to take in all these things that people are telling you to do--everybody from managers to record label people to band members. There were times in the past when I made a couple bad decisions when I felt pressured into going a certain way, and in my heart, I knew I was doing the wrong thing but I just ceded to people. Believe it or not, being agreeable, sometimes labels you as being difficult. I would say to just be true to yourself and don't let anyone influence your opinions too much, even if they're people in power or who you think have the power to do what you want for your career. They're just as much doing a guessing game as you are. There's no set manual for being a rock 'n' roll singer. Maybe this isn't advice to people, this is something I wish I would've taken more seriously as far as standing up for myself, I think. Stand up for yourself.
MR: Yeah! That sounds like good advice.
TK: Don't be influenced too much by people who you think are in complete control of your career. Even though they pretty much are and they seem to be, you just have to stand your ground and really, when it comes down to it, say, "This is how I feel and this is what I want to do," and then, you'll be labeled as "difficult." [laughs] You can't win, is what I'm saying. Everybody always blames stuff on the artist. Everyone passes the buck, it's never the manager's fault. The record company's never at fault, they just say, "Oh, well, the record didn't sell, what were we supposed to do?" It's funny because, back to this A&R guy who signed me, he came up to me at one point after the record was out with this illuminating, brilliant observation, which at the time, I just thought, "Maybe you're right." He said, "The record business is like politics. People vote with their money," i.e. they buy your record and that's the way it works. Well, yes, per se, but what he didn't take into account is that the candidate with the most money and the most promotion to get his name and views and his platform out there has the best chance of getting the most votes or selling the most records. So that little adage came back to slap him in the face. The more you promote a band, the more people get exposed to it, the more people are going to buy the record. So in the end, his analogy really didn't work because they get behind certain acts that they think are an easy sell, like Guns N' Roses and such, and I was a more difficult sell and they pretty much gave up too soon.
MR: On the other hand, considering your two-disc anthology and the fact that your work has been compiled more than a couple of times, your music seems to have "value" with labels and is appreciated by many, many people. Plus you were out there fighting in the indie world before indie really asserted itself as the popular way to go as opposed to having major label propping.
TK: Yeah, there's something to be said for longevity. There were bands during that time who sold a little bit more and have gotten a bit more action going, but people don't even remember them. So yeah, I'm very proud of my body of work. I think there are some really good records in there.
MR: I have a silly question to ask you. Record labels have gone into a dance phase that they can't seem to get out of now. Do you think indie rock may be their way out once again?
TK: What do you mean the way out?
MR: Well, we're currently get caught in a wave of dance pop. Do you think that at some point, when the airwaves get over saturated with certain acts and no one wants to hear whoever anymore, that indie and punk, who have traditionally change up the scene, will shake things up in an underground way again?
TK: I think indie right now is at its highest point ever except for the Nirvana wave in the early nineties. I mean, they were an indie band, and they got picked up and their record unbelievably changed the ways of the whole record business for ten years. But I don't think it had that much to do with that band, I think they were pretty overrated; I just think they were at the right place at the right time. They had the right sound to shake things up and they had this radio mix that people liked and it sounded good on the radio. Look at Arcade Fire. They won the Grammy a couple of years ago. No one's selling records like they did ten or twenty years ago, but I think that's pretty much the representation of indie rock right there--a Canadian band that did well on the indie rock level, and the next thing you know, they're selling a million records and they're winning the Grammys. I think indie rock is bigger than ever, because I look at all these bands on Saturday Night Live and a lot of them, to my knowledge, aren't even on major labels. But then a lot of people are posing as indie rock, like Mumford and Sons has sort of a homegrown, DIY spin to it, but I don't know if that's true. I don't know much about them, but they are sort of this folky a la natural act rather than a big, polished rock band or dance music. But as far as the dance thing, there is always some form of popular music that is abhorrent. There's heavy metal, disco, Saturday Night Fever, really bad hard rock, really bad dance, Madonna, Britney Spears, Ke$ha--who was the gal in the late eighties...Debbie Gibson. They sell tons and tons of records, but everyone hates it. Well, not everyone hates it, obviously, but there's always that monster that magazines and writers can't ignore because they're selling so many records, but anyone that knows their ass from their elbow knows it's completely crap. Even going back to pre-Beatles, you had Fabian and crap like that, so that's always there. It's a phenomenon. It's an enigma. It's for the lowest common denominator. McDonald's is always right there, seriously, but what about that mom and pop Italian restaurant down the street that has twelve tables that is amazing? You've got your McDonald's, but then you've got your smaller, quality run of distinguished organizations. It's me against Ke$ha.
MR: [laughs] I was just thinking that sometimes indie and punk come to the rescue as far as injecting interesting opportunities for change on a grand scale. The masses engage quality music for a while, and then they're distracted again by the dumb, shiny toy.
TK: Right. I really wish I had been a punk artist a la The Ramones or something, because punk rock and heavy metal will never die. They always keep coming back, and in fact, they don't go away. The kind of music I do, which is pretty much melodic rock 'n' roll, has been in vogue maybe three times in the last sixty years. If my music was punk rock and I got the same accolades as I do, I'd be selling out clubs. Look at Social Distortion or bands like that. Or look at these heavy metal bands. It's a life style that gets handed down to people's kids, along with the t-shirts and the branding and the devil horn fingers in the air or the punk rock haircuts. It's more of a social phenomenon, I guess. It's a cultural thing, whereas the kind of music I do and love has no identifiable branding. It's never been really in vogue except for a few little places in musical history. Punk rock is like, "Oh, look, my little five year-old has a punk rock haircut, how cute! Let's take him to see some new band that plays loud guitars and goes 'Hey, hey, hey!'" a la Green Day or something.
MR: Don't forget those tiny leather jackets.
TK: And a CBGB's lunch box.
MR: [laughs] All right, is there anything about Tommy Keene that nobody knows about yet?
TK: I'm a really good cook.
MR: Ah! What are your specialties?
TK: Well, since it's Summer--though I live California, so it's always fairly warm out--I've moved out to the grill, and my latest thing, which is nothing groundbreaking but a lot of people have never had before, is pizza on the grill. I make my own dough, and if you get it to the right consistency and lay it as thin as possible on the grill, then the underside firms and cooks and then you can just flip it over with a spatula and then you put the sauce and the cheese and all the toppings on, and you can close the grill and it's done in about seven minutes. The crust is amazing, it tastes like real pizzeria wood-fired pizza.
MR: Wow! So the next step for you is Keene's Grilled Pizzas?
TK: People say I should open a restaurant. That's a tough scene, because I basically make foods that I like that don't really go across the whole spectrum of what most people eat. I do a lot of soups, I do a lot of pasta, a lot of fun things. But maybe I should do a cookbook. I know Lydia Lunch did, I kind of perused that the other day. That had a lot of commentary about, "You've done too many drugs, so you should eat kale chips." Okay, thanks, Lydia.
MR: [laughs] All right, Tommy. Please keep us all updated as far as any new music and that cookbook.
TK: I will! Try and get something going for me on that.
MR: I think you're onto something! At least the recipe for Keene's Grilled Pizza! If you have something like that, bring it, babe.
TK: Oh, okay.
MR: Unless you want to keep that as the Keene Family secret.
TK: I'll go through my recipe box and come up with something interesting, a signature dish.
MR: This is getting me hungry, let's stop here. Tommy! It's been really great talking with you.
TK: It's been great talking to you, too.
MR: Thank you so much for the time and all the best with the new fun record.
TK: Okay, well thank you.
Tommy Keene's Baked Penne with Green Chilies, Cheddar Cheese and Olives
1 and 1/2 tablespoons Olive Oil
5 Scallions, green parts only, chopped
3 tablespoons flour
1 and 1/2 cups milk
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 and 1/2 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
1 small can (about 4 to 6 oz.) mild green chilies, drained.
8 oz. Penne
20 green olives chopped with pimentos
1 cup low fat cottage cheese
1. Warm Olive Oil in skillet over medium heat, add scallions and saute till soft
2. Add flour and stir for one minute, slowly add milk, raise heat until boiling and whisk mixture till it thickens forming a roux. Stir for two minutes
3. Add wine and continue whisking/stirring until mixture is fairly thick
4. Meanwhile boil Penne in salted water for about 8 minutes, drain and add to roux along with cheddar cheese and chili's. Mix thoroughly adding salt and pepper to liking
5. Grease an 8 x 11 glass casserole dish and add pasta mixture
6. Spread cottage cheese evenly over top and then sprinkle with chopped green olives
7. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes until bubbling
8. Allow to cool five minutes before serving.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne