Wednesday, December 30, 2009

20 of the best albums from the 2000s

Here is my top 20 of the decade (in alphabetical order):

1. Arcade Fire/Funeral
2. Arctic Monkeys/Whatever People Say I Am...
3. Coldplay/A Rush of Blood to the Head
4. Rodney Crowell/Houston Kid
5. Franz Ferdinand/Franz Ferdinand
6. Green Day/21st Century Breakdown
7. Interpol/Turn on the Bright Lights
8. Jimmy Eat World/Bleed American (reissued without a title after Sept. 11, 2001)
9. Killers/Hot Fuss
10. Kings of Leon/Only By the Night
11. Muse/Black Holes & Revelations
12. My Morning Jacket/Z
13. Radiohead/In Rainbows
14. R.E.M./Accelerate
15. Bruce Springsteen/Magic
16. Stereophonics/Just Enough Education to Perform
17. Switchfoot/The Beautiful Letdown
18. Travis/The Man Who
19. U2/All That You Can't Leave Behind
20. U2/How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

Bonus Q&A with Cracker's Johnny Hickman

Did road testing songs from "Milk and Honey" live make the studio process go quicker?
It does and it’s a good idea to do because anybody can make a good record these days. A two-year-old could with the state of technology. The real strength of a band is how they play live. So it’s good to road test the songs too. We’ve done that in the past. More so with this record. We recorded a live DVD in Germany of all the songs from a show called “Rockpalast.” The versions on the record are slightly different than that because once we get in the studio, we tweak ‘em in a little farther.

The last record we made, “Greenland,” was made over the course of a couple years because we were busy touring – David was doing shows with Camper and I was doing solo stuff. When you do a record that way, it’s fun to do it strictly in the studio. We had a lot of guests come in and play on that record and it wasn’t as streamlined as this one. We decided to get the four of us together in a room nose to nose and write and record. Usually, the way we’d do it is, David and I would bring in some songs that we either wrote together or separately. This time, we included our bass player and drummer in the process. It was a lot more fun to do that way.

Didn’t you have a disciplined, self-imposed deadline on writing the songs?
We’d go in like you were clocking into a regular job and said, ‘ok, we’re going to start in the morning and not come out until we get at least two new pieces of music.’ Sometimes a piece of music from the first day would meld with a piece of music from the eighth day. It was a pretty visceral and exciting way to work and very fruitful – we really liked working that way. It really just fires you up and playing together as a band in the studio, it’s a very worthwhile method. We’ll use it again. We’ve used it before, but even more so this time, where we really approached it like a job. Just letting songs float around awhile before we showed them to the band…after the sessions, David would go home to work on lyrics and I’d go back to the hotel and try to come up with another guitar melody, chord structure, a title or something. Sometimes, we’d just start with a good title.

What was it like working with David Barbe from Sugar?
It was fantastic. We’ve known David for awhile from his days with Bob Mould and some of the projects he’d worked on, like Drive By Truckers and Jay Farrar. People whose work we liked and were familiar with. He’s been a mainstay in Athens, Georgia for awhile. That’s where our manager lives and we spend a good amount of time down there. So we thought, ‘let’s go down to Athens and record this one.’ We did most of the writing in Virginia at David’s studio there. Took the songs on the road a little bit. When it came time to track at Barbe’s studio in Athens, it was a really great experience. It’s a great college town.

I live in a town like that in Ft. Collins. I think college towns are good because there’s a lot of hungry musicians around and a lot of cross-pollination between genres. It enables you to stay in the middle of it. David and I are both that way – we spend a lot of time with younger musicians. We’re journeymen. We’ve been doing this for 25 years. It’s really exciting for us to spend time and co-exist with younger musicians. I think that’s why David [Lowery] spends most of his time in Athens and I spend most of my time here in Ft. Collins when we’re not on the road. It’s just good for you, like a vitamin.

David has said he felt this album has a time stamp of 1978-83 all over it. Were you guys inspired by the music of your college years while making it?
That’s the time frame – even though I wouldn’t call it a nostalgic album – that has those sonics. Although the lyrical themes are quintessential David Lowery. That’s the music all of us listened to when we all started playing in bands. David and I had fledgling bands in the Inland Empire. We had punk rock bands and an experimental band we were half putting together for fun for parties. The bands that were really influential around then were people like Elvis Costello, the Clash, the Police, X and punk bands like Fear from Los Angeles.

That was some of the music we cut our teeth on just out of our teens. [For this album], it was just something that felt right...Each record has a little of that in there. This one, a little more so. Plus we have Frank Funaro on drums, who played with the Dictators and Joey Ramone. And we have Sal Maida, who played with Sparks, one of the most original pop bands, pre-punk, to come out of the United States. You mix all those things together and we have that kind of rhythm section. They’re really at home with those kinds of rhythms and aggressive beats.

So it was just natural to make these kinds of songs like “Time Machine” or “Hand Me My Inhaler” or the title track, which to me sounds like The Church. Cracker encompasses a lot of different music in what we do. We have right from the start. I remember talking about this with David when we first started to form what was going to become Cracker. We’d been friends for awhile. We talked about the bands we liked the best and like the Clash, Kinks or Rolling Stones – bands that incorporated a lot of styles and made them their own. The Pixies, you heard all kinds of different threads in these. We’ve always liked those kinds of bands.

As much as both of us like a band like The Ramones, I think we’d go a little crazy locked that tightly into one sound. With Cracker, we’ve always given ourselves the freedom. If one of us has been listening to Merle Haggard or Can, that’s going to come out. We’ve never blocked that flow and I think it makes for a more interesting cannon of work. We don’t edit out any of our influences. Yet we don’t wear them on our sleeves [either].

Since much of “Greenland” was dark and understated, we’re you guys raring to rock out again this time?
“Greenland” definitely rocks hard in some places. It’s a little more ethereal and introspective. In a lot of ways, it’s David’s album, lyrically. He was going through a lot of big changes in his life, which is reflected in the songs. It’s a little more of a personal record for him lyrically. I think that’s where his heart and soul were at the time. My job is always to match that musically right with him and go with the flow...We really wanted to strip [this album] down to the basic core band. The way we wrote the songs lend them to that as well. It was like a boxing match – we’d just come in swinging…we’d just keep hammering the riffs back and forth, almost like a basketball, until the songs started taking shape.

One of my favorites is “Time Machine,” which was inspired by you recalling an old punk riot you were involved in, right?
I was slowly thinking about my punk rock experiences in the Inland Empire and Los Angeles back in the day when we’d drive in from Redlands and pick up our friends in Riverside to go into Los Angeles to see X or the Dead Kennedys. There was a particular riot, I think David's sister was there with me and a bunch of friends.

You had Jello Biafra onstage saying, ‘Nazi punks fuck off. Trash your bank if you got real balls.’ In the meantime, some of these goons who had real long hair two months before, were faux punk rockers there to wreak havoc. And they were tearing the place up...Later on, being here in Colorado and the Blasting Room [studio], which is owned in part by Bill Stevenson, he was a member of Black Flag back in the day. He was at that same concert and riot. We got to talking and I thought, ‘what if I could take some punks from today and take them back to show them how the whole thing started?’ And how it got ugly after awhile. What it was really like when it started was there was a bunch of like-minded people, maybe about 12, in the late ‘70s. It sort of imploded as all scenes do eventually.

There’s still good punk rock bands now and the best ones seem to be influenced by the real root sources. I find that oddly comforting even though the music itself isn’t. Just that is was a strong enough genre of music to stay alive through the decades. It’s a perfect format to express dissatisfaction and anger. You can’t think of anything better than a three-minute loud fast song to get the emotions out.

You revisited “Friends” from your solo album and gave it the whole Cracker treatment. When did Patterson Hood from Drive By Truckers enter the picture?
I did that song on my solo album, thinking of it as a duet because David recorded “Reasons to Quit” by Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard for ‘Countrysides.’ A couple years later, I thought I’d come with our take on a buddy song. At the time, David was working with Camper Van Beethoven on ‘New Roman Times’ and I was working on the solo album.

It felt really natural to write. Obviously, there’s a sense of humor in there too. Not too long before I was writing it, I spent a little time hanging out with Drive By Truckers on tour, on the bus, drinking and shooting the breeze. The longer I’ve known those guys, the more I’m reminded that Patterson and Mike Cooley have a relationship like David and I where they’ve been together since they were kids. Still they make it happen. So they inspired it a little bit when I wrote the song. So it was great years later when David said, ‘we should do that with Cracker, but let’s do it as a duet.’ It was a natural to invite Patterson into do it. He has given me a lot of positive strokes over the years. He was a fan of early Cracker, the redneck songs like my “Mr. Wrong.” Tongue firmly planted in cheek...David and I both grew up in the south on military bases. Patterson came in and sang it with so much heart and soul.

How did you get John Doe to do guest vocals on “Shine a Light?”
It has been talked about a few times. When we were in our late teens/early 20s, X was one of the influential bands on us. John’s not much older than us; he just got started in the business really young. He was like a hero to us. We’d go down and see X. I met him in the early days and over the years, kept track of what they were doing. In the mid’90s when we put out ‘Golden Age,’ John came backstage and introduced himself. We were just speechless. To say that he had the record and he and his kids drive around listening to it was immensely flattering and humbling. We felt like a million bucks and ten feet tall – both of us.

Over the years, we’d run into him at Cracker and Camper shows. He played solo at the Campout one year and I came up and duetted on a song with him on a song from ‘Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet.’ He sang a song or two with Camper. We’ve always maintained a little friendship. We had a song with that early X feel, a combination of my surf licks which are a little like Billy Zoom, like sped up surf music, which the way we both seem to write. It ended up being about the Panthers, a cricket team. We thought, ‘let’s get John in here and see how he’d do on a second vocal.’ John came in, sang it down and it worked flawlessly.

What has been your reaction to the overwhelming response to the album and increased radio play this time?
At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself if you’re doing it because you love it and have to. If it was what you were born to do. We just make the music we want and feel eventually some people will catch up to us. We’ve always stayed true to our guns and what we believe in.

Do you think the eclectic nature of the band’s music has contributed to your longevity?
I think it has contributed to our fan base’s devotion to us because they expect that from us. They don’t want to hear a flat album of songs that sound the same…I think once the fans buy the CDs and come to some shows, they understand this band goes pretty wide in its sound. Initially, that’s a bit difficult when you sign to a record label because they don’t quite know how to market you. They want to be able to hang a descriptive name on you. We’re a band that’s kind of tough to do. There are elements of hard rock, noise rock, folk, country, punk, funk, soul – all these things we look as colors to paint with, really. To make music that goes that broad probably takes more balls.

Some people that like “Mr. Wrong” might not get the funkier stuff. People who are into the more esoteric big dark ballads like “Big Dipper,” “Dixie Babylon” or “I Want Everything,” might not understand the sheer terror of “100 Flower Power Maximum.” It still ends up sounding like Cracker. David’s lyrical style and the way we play guitars together have a lot to do with that…bands that have two guitars, there’s a certain way you have to weave them together so they can work. Our band has more of that going on. David for the most part plays rhythm guitar…we’ll swap off who’s playing the melodies and chords. There’s no set pattern or rule book in Cracker, which has always been refreshing…it’s a very liberating way to make music and it’s never changed in the 18 years we’ve been together.

What's ahead for the band?
We plan to keep touring this album into 2010. David has talked about a solo album. Nothing is set in stone. We plan to go to Spain, where we have an ardent fan base. We actually have more fans per capita there than we do here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

An interview with Cracker

A version of my story originally appeared in the North County Times. Cracker appears with Camper Van Beethoven at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach on Tuesday. Photo courtesy

The military helped fuel Cracker’s resurgence in popularity via YouTube. In the music video clip for “Yalla Yalla” (loosely translated as “let’s go” in Arabic), a rousing rave up that opens the band’s ninth studio album “Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey,” young American servicemen are seen rocking out while engaging in various duties on base.

According to guitarist/vocalist Johnny Hickman, it has been viewed “as much as some of our big radio songs.” The inspiration came after frontman David Lowery overheard some male soldiers chatting at an Atlanta airport, “rubbed shoulders with them and did a little research into their slang” about fighting in the Middle East.

Many people in uniform have voiced their approval online. “They identify with the humor,” explained Hickman, from his home in Ft. Collins, Colo. “It’s not necessarily a pro or anti-war song and doesn’t really take a stance. The [end] winds up with all this machismo…It’s very tongue and cheek and silly, but there’s also a darkness because these soldiers are in a place where their lives are in danger.”

Cracker recently gauged the troops’ reaction to the music (Hickman bowed out due to family obligations) during a concert tour of Iraq. “I totally support the soldiers and their efforts. It felt good knowing my music was being played over there.”

Unlike some acts who shun the old material, Hickman said Cracker has no qualms about performing such sarcastic ‘90s rock hits as “Happy Birthday to Me,” “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now),” “Low,” “Eurotrash Girl” and “Get Off This.”

“We feel it’s a bit self-indulgent [to omit them]. We’re fully aware that this might be some people’s first Cracker show and those might be the only songs they’re familiar with.”

Without a doubt, “Sunrise” is one the rootsy band’s strongest efforts since 1992’s self-titled debut and the gold-selling follow up, “Kerosene Hat.” The album has spawned Cracker’s best reviews, sales and radio airplay in several years (“Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out with Me” went top 20 at the AAA format). “When you’ve been doing this as long as we have…you never really know what’s going to happen in this business,” Hickman noted.

Produced by ex-Sugar bassist David Barbe (Drive-By Truckers, Son Volt) in Athens, Ga., “Sunrise” has a raucous rock vibe that brings to mind the late ‘70s/early ‘80s period when Lowery and Hickman met as teenagers in Redlands.

Recalling their fledgling bands in the IE and early influences like Elvis Costello, the Clash, Police, X and Fear, the guitarist said “we liked the ones that had a similar sense of irony and humor as us. That thread has always run through our music and songwriting. It’s not forced, it just comes naturally.”

After releasing the frequently ethereal and introspective “Greenland” three years ago, Cracker felt like “a coiled spring, ready to jump,” said Hickman. “It must have been time in our cycle for this type of music, which never really left, to come back to us…There’s always been a little punk rock and experimental edge to what Cracker’s done from the beginning.”

X’s John Doe does backing vocals on the ominous, surf guitar-driven “We All Shine a Light,” where more Middle Eastern references abound; Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz and David Immergluck guest on the poignant, romantic “Darling One,” co-written by The Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs.

The full throttle “Time Machine” melds perfectly with its subject matter: a 1983 riot at a Dead Kennedys show in LA. One day Hickman reminisced about the event with former Black Flag member Bill Stevenson and wondered what it would be like if today’s punkers went back to the past and experienced all the ugliness.

“Tear gas started flying in through the windows, the cops came in swinging at anybody and I took a couple billy club hits,” he recalled. “It was really a changing point for me as far as my view of punk rock.” Rough experiences aside, “I’m really glad punk has stayed alive.”

Diehard Cracker enthusiasts that prefer the group’s twangier side, should enjoy the laid back “Friends,” a duet between Lowery and Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers. Originally appearing on Hickman’s 2005 solo album “Palmhenge,” Lowery decided the tune deserved the full Cracker treatment. “It had a universal feel to me about a loving, but slightly dysfunctional friendship, like the time when you go bail your buddy out of jail.”

“We’d never call ourselves a country band by any stretch of the imagination, but that’s part of our bloodstream…It was such a joy and a feather in my cap to sit back and watch two icons of alt-rock/roots music singing a song I wrote.”

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A little more Q&A with Saosin

Didn’t the band do some recording on the road last year using a mobile studio?
We tried. What happened was we finished music for the record and got offered – it’s like the story of our lives – we keep putting off going into the studio because we keep getting offered these great tours. We had all the music done and we’re like ‘oh cool.’ We have the gear and the ear to be able to record on the road, so we’ll bring our little mobile studio in the back of the bus and finish the vocals [there]. Of course, you know, we’re out with Underoath. They’re really good friends of ours. All we ended up doing was hanging out. It’s like, ‘dude, let’s go on a bike ride.’ Very bad execution on our part.

With all the changes in the music business over the past few years and the way consumers purchase music now, do you foresee a time when Saosin only releases EPs instead of full albums?
Dude I don’t know. I would actually love that. Even from the very beginning of the band we probably had enough material to put out a full record, but I was like, ‘I don’t really believe in all 10 of these songs. Let’s put the five best ones out.’ It’s a tough call. If that’s the way it goes, I probably won’t have a problem with it. Just last night, we were coming back from a performance and in the car. A new Slipknot song came on the radio. Our guitarist said, ‘that Stone Sour song is cool.’ Our tour manager is the only one that’s listened to the [SS] record. He said, ‘this isn’t [SS], it’s actually Slipknot.’…being that most people only identify with the singles as far as that’s what they think your band is all about. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad to have, instead of nine songs that nobody listens to – now you only have four.

Do you and Chris still produce young bands in your home garage studio in OC?Yeah. I mixed a record for Drop Dead Gorgeous and am in the middle of mixing a cool folk/punk band.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Interview with Saosin's Beau Burchell

(Saosin performs Saturday at SOMA in San Diego and Sunday at House of Blues Anaheim. Photo by Sean Stiegemeier/courtesy of Virgin Records)

A smashed clock face adorns the cover of Saosin’s impressive sophomore effort "In Search of Solid Ground." The image could represent frustration over music biz politics or the time elapsed since the aggressive alt-rock band’s eponymous 2006 major label bow.

Guitarists Beau Burchell and Justin Shekoski first joined forces six years ago in Newport Beach, CA and recorded an instrumental demo with singer Anthony Green, which became the "Translating the Name" EP.

Green left Saosin (the moniker which means “small heart” in Chinese, comes from a 15th century proverb) soon after to form Circa Survive. San Diego vocalist Cove Reber took his place, alongside bassist Chris Sorenson and drummer Alex Rodriguez. Stints on the Warped, Taste of Chaos and Projekt Revolution tours elevated Saosin’s profile, prompting the hard-hitting debut to move more than 300,000 copies and spawn a top 30 modern rock radio hit (“Voices”).

Burchell, 31, has a home recording studio in Orange County, where he spent the better part of this decade mixing, engineering or producing The Higher, The Bronx, Reel Big Fish, The Bled, Envy on the Coast, Underoath, Drop Dead Gorgeous and the Saw VI soundtrack, among others. We caught up with him via phone from a tour stop in Salt Lake City.

Does the band have any new tricks up its sleeve on the current tour?

Dude, we had the guy that does all the light shows for Nine Inch Nails design our show and we have his protégé out running the show for us. It’s rad. Basically, what we’re going for is [people becoming] deaf and blind [laughs].

How has the new material been going over in concert?
I’ve been checking out the message boards on our web site – we always try to keep pretty close with our fans – and a lot of people are [surprised by how powerful] ‘The Alarming Sound of a Still Small Voice’ is live compared to the record.

During tours this past summer and fall, a handful of Saosin followers were invited along with the band on fun excursions. One city would be go karting; another, laser tag. Can you tell me about it?
That was awesome. We had all these crazy fan events. We’d go to a radio station to do an interview and acoustic performances. Then the DJ would announce something like, ‘the band is going to be over at Jim’s Hot Dog Stand doing an acoustic performance and the first 15 people there get free hot dogs.’ Sometimes, there’d be a second event. One day, we showed up to a performance and the first 10 people there got to go paint balling with us. And people that called into the radio station got ringside seats at WWE Wrestling. It was all these really bizarre things.

I’ll bet the fans were excited.
Yeah, they were. The really cool thing about it was we limited it so we actually got to hang out. The fans were a little more comfortable than at a concert, where you do a meet ‘n’ greet and the only thing that comes out of their mouths is, ‘oh my God. I can’t believe I’m here.’ They can’t even really speak. At these things, it was a [more relaxed] environment.

You and Chris oversaw much of the new album at Hurley Studios in O.C., with a web cam set up so fans could watch the progress online. How did that work out?
Whenever you’re around your closest friends and people you live with, there’s no filter on your mouth…so it was kind of hard to joke around. When we’d give each other sarcastic compliments like ‘yeah Cove, that’s a real cool vocal line; sounds like Creed.’ We had to limit those responses to super huge bands that wouldn’t be offended.

After completing music for more than a dozen tracks, the band forged ahead with other producers including Butch Walker (Weezer, All American Rejects) and John Feldmann (The Used). Why did you solicit outside assistance?
On the last record, we figured out that we really don’t need help when it comes to doing the music and arrangements. What we do need is a referee to decide which vocal idea is going to be best for the song. Chris, Cove and I write a lot of the vocal [lines] and it’s a shared responsibility...I was a huge, longtime Butch Walker fan, going back to Marvelous 3. For me, working with him was awesome. John Feldmann was actually a fan of ours since the beginning. He offered to produce our first record when we only had one EP out. It was cool being able to work with both of them. The remaining songs we self-produced just because we were able to come to an agreement on them.

Besides the occasional screamo elements, some songs feature string arrangements and programming, which is a sonic step forward for Saosin.
We don’t really limit ourselves. For instance, when we came in with that eight minute piano jam ‘Fireflies (Light Messengers),’ there was no rule like, ‘dude, we can’t have a song that long and slow.’

What was the mindset behind making that one? Did you want to do an epic tune a la “November Rain” by Guns ‘N Roses to close the album on a mind blowing note?
Chris came in with the basic piano riff and Cove put some vocals to it. We heard it and thought, ‘how do we make this into a four-minute song? The chorus alone is a minute long’…we’ve never had a long song before. We’ve always had these super quick, pop-oriented ones. We just decided to go for it. Luckily, the label heard it and didn’t make any changes, so that was sweet.

The melodic “It’s All Over Now” really shows how much Cove has grown as a vocalist.
Yeah. I think overall that song’s a monster. One thing that we really wanted to do on this record was showcase his vocal ability. I didn’t go for the typically aggressive Saosin mix. I wanted to get his voice out front, let people hear it and connect with that. Even the way we tracked the vocals [was different]. On our last record, there was too much vocal layering and auto-tuning. He sounds like a computer. We wanted to keep it natural for this record. If he didn’t hit a note, he had to sing it again.

Saosin has a previously unreleased song (“Move Slow”) included on the NCIS Soundtrack, Vol. 2. What was its origin?
That was actually a really cool story. It didn’t make our record because we couldn’t decide what vocal we wanted to use. Classic Saosin. For whatever reason, somebody over at ‘NCIS’ heard the demo version and didn’t realize it was a demo. They said, ‘we love the song and we’re scripting it into an episode. Can we put it on the soundtrack and get a mastered version?’…we were in Boston on the promo tour and had some gear we needed to record. We set up shop in a Howard Johnson’s. We turned all the mattresses on their sides and made a little vocal booth. Cove recorded the vocals that night. I flew home Saturday morning, finished mixing and mastering the song and handed it in by Monday. We were able to get it done. We thought, ‘man, we are so blessed.’ Almost any other band would be screwed in that situation.

What’s on the horizon in 2010?
In January, we start a world tour…we’re going to South America and Africa for the first time. I’m super stoked.

You have a massive fan base in Asia, right?
Japan is really big for us, as well as Jakarta [Indonesia]. That was actually our biggest show ever when we headlined to 6,000 people. We’re almost like Korn over there.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bonus Q&A with Timothy B. Schmit

Here's more from my insightful interview with Schmit:

Before doing the four previous solo shows this past October, you’d mentioned being apprehensive about playing small venues where everyone is so close. Have you acclimated to the situation now?
Yeah, I’m doing better. I’m still a little more nervous than doing an Eagles show. But that’s ok. A few years ago, I did a couple songs at a charity show for my friend Tony LaRussa, the Cardinals baseball manager. He was in the wings with me and asked, ‘are you nervous?’ I said ‘yes.’ He said, ‘good. I tell all my players that it’s good to be nervous. It’s the right kind of feeling.’

When was the last time you played anywhere solo?
My fifth solo show ever was last night. Back when there were more record stores, after my last record came out, I’d do like five songs at an in-store [appearance]. I’ve never really done it until now. In some ways, it’s kind of cool because there’s this new energy happening with my career. It’s exciting to have this happen at this stage of the game.

In the past, you’ve tended to collaborate on lyrics, but these songs were written only by you. Did that tend to make them more personal in nature?
Definitely. I wasn’t bouncing ideas off anybody else, just myself. I would turn off the light at night, then have to turn it back on to write something down.

“White Boy From Sacramento” is one of the most autobiographical songs on the album. Were you aiming to tell your story but also poke a little fun at yourself as well?
Yeah, I’m definitely poking fun at myself, but everything in that song is totally true. It’s a real life thing and was fun to do.

Did your teenage son Ben ask to play guitar and drums on that song?
I believe I asked if he was up to playing some drums. He really liked that idea. He was pretty young. That track [came early on] and is probably four years old. I actually didn’t know if it was going to work out. But I had to tell him I was just trying it - if I doesn’t work out, not to be discouraged. I told him the story about when I used to sing for Steely Dan now and then. They called me in many times and I’ve been fortunate enough to be on three of their albums. One time, I sang on a song and it just wasn’t the right texture. It wasn’t like I did a bad job. That was fine and I totally understood. I told my son that story just in case, but it all worked out. He did a really great job and we kept it.

Would you consider this album a return to your early folk/rock roots?
Yeah. I started every song with acoustic guitar. My process would be – I’d cut guitar track acoustically and before anything else, I would sing the lead and fix how I wanted it. Then I went to everything else.

Did you have a wish list of possible guests or were many people friends and acquaintances?
A little of both...I didn’t know Keb’ Mo’ at all until he walked into the studio. He turned out to be a sweet guy, so we’re pretty friendly now...I actually didn’t use a couple people who were definitely interested [but] they couldn’t make it to my house. I was that strong about not wanting [exchange files from other studios]. In some ways, I missed out with a couple people I might’ve had on the album. Maybe next time.

Is the stark ballad “Ella Jean” a love letter to your wife?

It is. She was out of town for a week or two and it stretched on and on because she was involved in an art project. I was home with our teenage son. I was working out of the house and said, ‘go enjoy yourself and come back.’ It turned out to be about five weeks. During that time, I decided to write her a song for when she got back. I didn’t originally intend it for the album, I was really writing it for her.

I'll bet the scenery outside your home studio is a great source of inspiration for writing songs...
It’s beautiful where I live. On the last song “A Good Day,” when I sing “the creek outside is an open book,” I was thinking of when you walk outside my house to a trail, you can walk a short way to a really beautiful creek. It’s definitely an inspiration.

Since you played a variety of instruments on the album, do you think that will change people’s perception of you as just a bassist/vocalist?
I have no idea. I’ve never written a song on the bass. I’ve always written on guitar. But I don’t get the opportunity to play guitar in the situations I’m in. I’m always the singing bass player.

As a kid, wasn’t your first instrument the violin?
Yes, you’ve really done your homework, haven’t you? I played it when I was really young and got disenchanted with it. It’s really difficult. My brother had been playing trombone in the school band. He quit and it was sitting in the closet, so I picked it up and started playing in the school band [too]. Early in high school, I stopped and got interested in strumming instruments. My friends used to dabble in folk music and had banjos and ukuleles sitting around. My friends and I learned songs on those.

You were a big fan of Kingston Trio back then. Is that when you first started working on harmony vocals?
I’d say that’s exactly when I started doing that. We started learning their songs and all these other folk songs of that era. Then we started playing little church events and high school things. That’s when my friends and I really started learning how to sing. By mid-high school, we were interested in playing electric instruments because there were a lot of surf bands around town. That looked like fun so we found a drummer, borrowed some instruments and amps and learned a bunch of surf songs. At that time, everybody wanted to play lead guitar, so we used to switch between lead/rhythm/bass. It didn’t take too long to figure out who should play what. That’s when I really started paying bass a lot.

Is “Compassion” on the new album sort of a tribute to The Beach Boys with that lush vocal section in the middle?
I didn’t think of that, but I guess it’s reminiscent of them. I’ve always been a big fan. I’ve been fortunate enough to do some singing with them on a project here and there.

While you were doing tons of session work in the ‘80s and ‘90s, did you ever get flabbergasted when asked to work on someone’s record you idolized?
Oh, yeah! That happened to me constantly. I would never have dreamed of meeting any of these people and to be called by [late Beach Boy] Carl Wilson to sing on his solo record, which he reciprocated by singing on my first one, was like dream stuff. I remember hanging out and later singing with [The Byrds] Roger McGuinn. When I was in high school and seeing them on TV, I would’ve never dreamed for a second I’d be talking with these guys, let alone singing with them. That’s happened in many cases.

What was it like touring with Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band?

Imagine playing the bass and turning around and seeing Ringo on drums. Pretty great.

Is it true when you were touring with Jimmy Buffett, you coined the term ‘parrotheads.’?
I did. We were driving into some venue in the summer. It was an outdoor one where you have to drive where people are parked far away and walk in. They saw that Buffett was driving and I was in the car with him. I said, ‘you ought to give them the papal wave.’ He was acknowledging people here and there. He said, ‘these fans are kind of like deadheads.’ I said, ‘no, these are your own parrotheads.’ He took it and ran.

A couple years removed from The Eagles’ album ‘Long Road Out of Eden,’ are you satisfied with how your lead vocal songs - “Do Something” and “I Don’t Want to Hear Anymore” – came out?
Yeah. I’ve always been a fan of [“I Don’t Want” and "Love Will Keep Us Alive" writer] Paul Carrack [from Squeeze, Mike+The Mechanics]. I was writing a lot of songs during the recording of that album. Most of them weren’t flying with the other guys, so I asked Paul if had another one in his pocket. He had part of that one. Everybody heard it and said, ‘yeah, finish that.’ I’m good with that. He really taught me a lot about singing with the twists and turns he does with his voice. Those are things I wouldn’t go for, but I really studied what he did and was able to do that song.

“Do Something,” I was at Henley’s home studio in a bedroom. I was sitting on the bed strumming some chords over and over. He walked over and said ‘I have a chorus that would be great with this.’ That’s how that started. For the first time since “I Can’t Tell You Why,” Don and I sat down and wrote a song together. Steuart Smith added some bridge parts as well later on.

The Eagles seem to have more fun onstage these days than in the late '70s or even the mid-'90s.
I think that’s the reason why we all originally got into it. Recently, I met these teenage girls who have a band and asked me all kinds of questions. They mainly wanted some advice. I said, ‘don’t forget what it’s like now you’re having fun. No matter how hairy your career gets and the roller coaster ride, just remember the reason you started doing it.'

Did you enjoy the Poco reunion at Stagecoach last spring?
I had put off going back and playing with them for the longest time. I’m not sure why. I just wanted to move forward. My friend Richie Furay said all the main players from Poco are going to be there. Even George Grantham, who suffered a stroke five years ago and was finally up to singing again. I said, 'if George can make it, I can.' It was ok. It was short and sweet.

Interview with the Eagles' Timothy B. Schmit

A version of my interview with Schmit originally appeared in the North County Times in San Diego County. He plays on Thursday at the Troubadour in West Hollywood and Monday at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach. Photo courtesy of Scoop Marketing.

Despite the benefits of modern recording technology, some musicians still prefer to take an old school approach. Case in point: “Expando,” Timothy B. Schmit’s first album in eight years.

“I wanted to keep it as organic as possible,” said the singer/bassist while en route to a Seattle gig on I-5. “I didn’t want it to be too polished. You can fix all kinds of things these days very easily [on programs like ProTools], but I did as little of that as possible.”

Schmit – who makes his San Diego area concert debut as a solo artist on Monday with longtime Eagles collaborator Jack Tempchin (“Already Gone,” “Peaceful Easy Feeling”) - initially came to prominence during the early Seventies as a member of Poco. He joined the Eagles in 1977.

The lanky, long-haired vocalist took the spotlight on “I Can’t Tell You Why,” a top 10 single from 1979’s platinum-plus selling release “The Long Run.”

After the band’s split, Schmit went solo, had a song on the “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” soundtrack garner Adult Contemporary airplay (“So Much in Love”) and notched a top 40 pop hit in 1987 (“Boys Night Out”). His heavenly high tenor continued to be a hot commodity, gracing tunes by CSN, Boz Scaggs, Toto, Sheena Easton, Richard Marx and dozens more. Fun fact: as part of Jimmy Buffett’s touring band, Schmit coined the term parrotheads.

In the ‘90s, an Eagles MTV “Unplugged” special spawned the live “Hell Freezes Over” reunion album. Schmit sang lead on its No. 1 AC radio hit “Love Will Keep Us Alive,” toured with them and Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band.

Schmit fans headed to the SoCal shows this week can look forward to a few tunes from both acts. Most of the set list is culled from “Expando” though.

“I really want people to hear the album,” stated Schmit, 62. “I finally started to play live with this because I think it’s a true reflection of what I do.”

The laid back “Expando” marks a return to the musician’s early folk/rock roots. Crafted sporadically over the past four years between Eagles recording sessions and tours, it was done at his rural home studio on preserved land in L.A.’s West Valley. “I live a little bit off the beaten track, so I would always feed everybody who came over.”

Schmit produced, penned the autobiographical lyrics and played various instruments - from mandolin and ukulele to electric guitar, piano and harmonica. All guest artists “came through my studio door,” he said. “I didn’t send [computer] files away or anything. Everybody was right there working with me.”

Among the contributors: Graham Nash, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, The Band’s Garth Hudson, Keb’ Mo’ and Van Dyke Parks. Blind Boys of Alabama elevate the inspirational “Secular Praise,” while Dwight Yoakam and Kid Rock supply backing vocals to the country-meets-cabaret jazz of “Downtime.”

Some were old friends like Nash; Schmit sought out others himself. “I kept bumping into Kid Rock [around town in L.A.] and we finally exchanged numbers.”

Both Yoakam and Rock emphasized they weren’t harmony singers. “I said, ‘I have a long history with that. Let’s work together and do it.’ They worked really hard - everybody did - to make sure I was happy.”

Hudson’s organ work on “Friday Night” was the result of a happy accident. Last year, Parks was adding accordion to the track and discovered through an acquaintance that Hudson would be in the area to receive a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.

“He told Van Dyke, ‘Garth likes to work [when he’s in town], does he know anyone that’s interested?’ My jaw just dropped. I was like, ‘Me! I’m interested!’ A couple nights later, he came over and we put him on that track. I’m a huge fan of The Band.”

Early next year, Schmit heads to Europe to promote the new album before he has to “put on my Eagles hat again for a little spring touring run” (the band plays the Hollywood Bowl, April 16-17 and 20). So far, he is pleased with the reception to the solo album and tour.

“I’m happy with what’s going on with my musical life. The solo thing is [quite] different than the Eagles and it’s all really good. I wouldn’t trade it; I’m really fortunate.”

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees 2010

The Hall of Fame inductees were announced today and it's quite a varied - if somewhat narrow - crop, with all but one starting out their career in the '70s. That means bands who released their first album in the '80s (1984 was the cut off) were shut out. There's such a backlog of artists that I wish they could pick more than five a year.

I have no problem with ABBA being in there. Rap, R&B and soul and other dance/pop acts have gotten in (Madonna springs to mind), so why not?

It's too bad The Stooges couldn't have been inducted before guitarist Ron Ashton died earlier this year. They are a seminal act in rock and Iggy will surely tear things up at the ceremony in fine fashion.

Reggae is under-represented and Jimmy Cliff is one of the genre's legends (and hey, he's still alive!), so props are due.

I'm a big Genesis fan and they are long overdue. Those early albums in the '70s with Peter Gabriel are classics (I dig the Phil Collins era more though).

And the Hollies put out some memorable British invasion pop in the '60s and early '70s, so they satisfy that particular oldies slot.

There's going to be a lot of grumbling over KISS and Red Hot Chili Peppers being passed over again.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Bonus Q&A with Foreigner's Mick Jones

What can fans look forward to on this tour?
It will be primarily the classics, obviously, with a sprinkling of the new stuff. Probably two or three of the new tracks which we’ve already been playing live and they’ve been meeting with a lot of success. They really stand up quite well.

Were the diehard fans quick to accept Kelly as the new singer?
I think so, yeah. There are always some holdouts who quite rightly probably [are attached to the earlier albums]. But I think once, generally, I’ve witnessed it – once they’ve seen the show and heard Kelly’s delivery onstage – definitely are won over.

Was it a delicate balance trying to bridge the past and present Foreigner sounds while recording?
It sort of drifted in and out of my mind. I was trying not to be too affected by that. It was always a challenge in the earlier years to avoid that sophomore jinx. We were able to get through that effectively. I had to approach this [one] with an open mind and they ideas started to come. I originated a good deal of the basis of songs and then throw them into the middle. We would work really hard on them, coming up with new parts and we developed a good writing team. I thought it was important Kelly be involved so he could bring meaning to the songs and sing them with confidence.

How did you end up collaborating with Marti Frederiksen of Aerosmith and Buckcherry reknown?
Marti and I had worked together over the years. We both knew we shared similar tastes in music. He’s an extremely hard worker and really dedicated. I felt I needed that comfort zone almost to really be able to present some of the ideas on a creative level and definitely on the sound level too.

Is it true the title track “Can’t Slow Down” was written with NASCAR in mind?
We did the first of a couple shows early last spring [at the Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway] as we really just writing the songs for the album. We had such a great reception at that show and quite an impressive few days. We got to go around the track a few times and experience that thrill. It sort of came out of thin air. It really felt right – that title. It was a good song as far as presenting the idea that we’re not slowing down, we’re full steam ahead.

The band was also in SoCal recently to perform at the Fontana Speedway. Are you a car racing fan?
I used to be – still am – into Formula One racing. There’s a slightly different vibe in that. I must say when I first went round the track [last spring] it was [mind-blowing]. I had absolutely no idea it was that challenging. Some of these drivers are small and quite frail looking. To go around that track 2 or 300 times is beyond me.

“Too Late” sounds like it could’ve gone on one of the earlier albums. Was that the vibe you were after?
This is sort of a re-release of that song. It was featured on the “No End in Sight” compilation last year. We thought we’d give it another shot on this album and introduce it to the new audience we’ve gathered. Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of comments about that really sounding like the old days...We just threw a lot of ideas in there and there was no such thing as a bad idea. Some were ridiculously silly and some were crazy [laughs]. We all managed like a committee to figure out what we wanted to do.

Do any of the song lyrics stand out personally for you since you co-wrote them all?
“In Pieces” is a powerful blend of a slower song with a powerful vibe. You know I found my life in pieces several times [laughs], so. “When it Comes to Love,” the first single, has done quite well at [Adult rock] radio. That has more of a current meaning for me. It’s about another breakup and the reflection of how it could’ve been. “Lonely” - I love everything about it. I tried the make the album – the underlying thing of it was I always thought that Foreigner albums were very listenable from top to bottom. That was one of the underlying factors of ending up with the choice of songs on there.

Looking back, after the 1977 debut album was a big success and that continued with the other albums, did you think, ‘hey, we’ve got a winning formula here?’
People often ask about that, but there wasn’t really a formula. I knew what I liked. My direction was the result of playing with a few bands in the early ‘70s. I had quite varying influences. I was very much into soul music of the ‘60s. I guess it was incorporating that. To me, the vocal delivery was very important. With Lou, we developed a very soulful partnership. We were into similar kinds of music.

Do you think the band’s soulful rock sound helped you stand apart from the pack?
I like to think that. We were sort of different in that way, a little more soulful than some of the other bands out there. I really wanted to develop grooves and the songs tended to have that. Maybe it was not quite as brash as some of the other bands. I think the strength, a lot of the time, was in the writing. As far as a formula, we just did what was currently going through our minds. Just worked very hard at it.

During the ‘60s, when you were working in France with Johnny Hallyday, you played in a band that opened for the Beatles in Paris. What was that like?
It was probably one of the [most] outstanding experiences of my life. The Beatles kind of took me under their wing for a week or so. It was almost like living ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. They were already fairly big in England then and just about to head to the States. It was my first real glimpse into the insanity of success in music. It really affected me. I had it in the back of my mind – ‘my god, maybe at some point I can have a taste of this.’ It definitely had a huge effect on me.

And then several years later, you contributed to George Harrison’s solo album.
I’ve been lucky to work with a number of people like Van Halen, Billy Joel, even Ozzy [laughs]

Foreigner interview with Mick Jones

My interview with Foreigner originally appeared in the North County Times in San Diego County. The band plays on Tuesday at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach and Wednesday at Nokia Theatre/LA Live for the KLOS Mark & Brian Christmas Show. Photo courtesy of Rhino Records.

For Mick Jones, the latest Foreigner lineup feels like the first time around.

“I think this is the best one since way back in the beginning, by far,” said the group’s founding guitarist, in a phone interview from New York City. “The energy level and the musicianship is fantastic in the current band. It really inspired me to really get back into playing again.”

That’s high praise, considering the original incarnation fronted by Lou Gramm was among the biggest rock acts of the late 1970s and 80s, with five consecutive multi-million-selling albums and such top 10 hits as “I Want to Know What Love Is,” “Waiting For a Girl Like You,” “Urgent,” “Double Vision,” “Hot Blooded” and “Cold As Ice.”

Gramm went solo at the end of the Eighties before returning a few years later. The singer suffered a brain tumor and left Foreigner once again in 2002 (these days, he leads a namesake Christian rock band). Jones – also a successful producer whose credits include Van Halen, Billy Joel and others – took some time off.

Friend and drummer Jason Bonham strongly encouraged Jones to start fresh.

“He sort of talked me into it,” admitted the veteran Englishman, who got his music biz start in the ‘60s with Nero & the Gladiators and French rock sensation Johnny Hallyday.

“At the time, I didn’t know what my plans were for the future. Then I heard some reports that Lou was [performing several Foreigner] songs and quite frankly, they weren’t that great. I felt my responsibility was to go out and present these songs in the way they deserve.”

Assembling the revamped Foreigner began with Bonham initially taking over the rhythm seat and ex-Dokken bassist Jeff Pilson. But the key was finding lead singer Kelly Hansen (formerly of ‘80s hard rock band Hurricane).

He bears a striking vocal resemblance to Gramm, but Jones said that wasn’t a prerequisite.

“More than anything, I felt Kelly understood the songs. That was a big element in the whole thing. He was able to deliver them in a very convincing way.”

Now Foreigner is attracting a younger and more diverse audience thanks to frequent appearances at NASCAR events and the Guitar Hero videogame series. Even Mariah Carey had a minor chart hit this year with her cover of "I Want to Know What Love Is."

“Kids at the shows know the lyrics; it’s wild looking out there some nights and wondering what year it is,” said Jones, 64, with a laugh.

Following the fruitful lead of fellow classic rock radio staples the Eagles, Journey AC/DC and others, Foreigner recently released “Can’t Slow Down” (its first studio disc since 1995’s “Mr. Moonlight”) exclusively through WalMart.

So far, Jones is happy with the alliance. “Can’t Slow Down” debuted at No. 29 on the Billboard 200 – the group’s highest charting in two decades. First single “When it Comes to Love” just reached the top 20 on the publication’s Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks chart.

“It’s still early days, but we’ve sold a substantial amount of albums. For heritage artists, I think it’s definitely one of the only ways to get music out there and distributed properly. [WalMart has] put everything behind it and been great to work with.”

The three-disc, bargain priced collection features the new material, 10 original hits remixed and a concert DVD from last summer’s European tour.

“As far as the remixes go, over the years, whenever different versions of the [old] albums got remastered, they lost some quality. We went right back to the original tapes as the basis. It was like taking the cotton wool off the tracks; just clarifying, bringing the dynamics out and making them exciting again.”

Co-produced by Marti Frederiksen (Buckcherry, Aerosmith), the solid “Can’t Slow Down” manages to sound fresh, while retaining Foreigner’s trademark aesthetic. “It was very important for me to keep the identity and integrity of the band. I think we’ve been able to do that.”

Seething, horn-laden rocker “Too Late” - Bonham’s lone studio contribution and a holdover from last year’s “No End in Sight” retrospective - seems like a prime outtake from the Seventies. “A few songs are really reminiscent of the earlier [material]. That’s sort of unintentional. The creative process was pretty spontaneous.”

Other standouts include the soulful wrenching ballad “In Pieces,” orchestrated “Living in a Dream” and “Fool For You Anyway,” a tune that first appeared on Foreigner’s eponymous 1977 debut. Jones’ stepson Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse, Kaiser Chiefs) produced the fine retro soul remake.

“We’d been toying with the idea for a few years. Mark grew up in my house since age 6 and was influenced in his early years by what was going on with me – the writing and studio process, even the touring aspect. He chose that song as one of his favorites that we’d ever done. I just gave him the reigns. I’ve been into a lot of the stuff he’s done lately. He’s proven himself in his own right.”

When Jones first embarked on his self-described “new adventure” in 2004, he wanted Foreigner to be vital again. “It took us a little while, but I really think the timing is right and I’m quite proud of what we’ve achieved. It’s an ongoing venture…I’m looking at this album as the first of more to come.”