ACE FREHLEY LOOKS BACK IN PRIDE

Aquarian Weekly
4/6/16

BUZZ

James Campion


ACE FREHLEY LOOKS BACK IN PRIDE
Space Ace Hits the Road with New Album of Rock Classics and Talks Guitar Worship, Rock Star Team-ups, Imposters and a KISS Reunion?

Far from the noise of the rock star life; the clamoring fans, the roaring crowds, the constant bickering with ex-bandunnamed mates in the press, a recently minted Rock & Roll Hall of Famer lounges on a couch in his suite high above Manhattan. He sips tea while blithely glancing at a muted TV across the room. This is Ace Frehley at 64; the fret-blistering Space Ace of KISS; the dominant and iconic harlequin outfit of 1970s fame, dressed rather casually in a blue tee shirt and jeans. An ace-of-spades locket, a reminder of his persona, dangles from a silver chain around his neck. He bends an ear to hear my questions and squints to remember the details of his answers, mildly clearing his throat, as if to conjure the wild mystery of his past. This is a genuine rock rebel in repose, a man at peace, but still very much rocking. Big time.

His latest album, Origins Vol. 1, sounding fat, bold and heavy, is due out this week, and he is very proud of it; the songs he’s chosen, beloved covers from classic rock acts, and his guest stars, not the least of which is former brother-in KISSdom, Paul Stanley. He is proud of having conjured it in his private studio in San Diego, where he now calls home, and his engineering and editing of many of the solos and vocal tracks on it.

Mostly, he is proud of his legacy in the pantheon of rock; the lineage of which is profoundly presented on Origins. Perhaps the most influential guitarist of his generation, whose unique shoot-from-the-hip style is often imitated but never duplicated, now pays homage to his heroes; Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and many more.  And although it is difficult for him to wrap his mind around his impact in the wake of such musical giants, what does find its way through resonates. KISS was indeed a major rock spectacle. Its anthemic songs, burlesque imagery, and groundbreaking theatrical concerts turned the whole culture upside down. He was there; designed its logo and was the first to don its make-up – showing up at the annual New York Dolls New Year’s Eve bash in 1972 with silver hair and that striking Spaceman face-paint.

We spoke for nearly an hour about his music, his legacy and his love of the guitar, which took this fellow Bronx boy from a dead-end subsistence to the top of the world.

This is Paul Daniel “Ace” Frehley at 64, unplugged; honest, reflective and charmingly defiant.

 

jc: I’m going to start with something I’m sure you’re bored with talking about, but I have to ask you; why a covers record now?

 

AF: Well, actually it was the record company’s idea. To be honest with you initially I wasn’t that excited about the project, because I had just come off the high of the success of Space Invader, which is all originals except for a cover of “The Joker”. It was almost like, “Okay, I’m going to go through the motions and get this out of the way and then jump into the studio for my next real studio album.” But I gotta tell ya, man, once I started the process and started remembering the groups that influenced me, narrowing down which songs I thought were going to be best for the record, and then started the recording process; I really started getting more excited about it.

Then once I got Slash on “Emerald,” he was the first guest star that recorded, and Paul (Stanley) agreed to do it. I was trying to get a hold of Gene (Simmons) and for some reason Gene didn’t get back to me. But when Paul agreed to do it, I already had Slash in the can and I knew I could count on Lita Ford, because I already spoke to her about it last year, and John 5. I also spoke to Mike McCready a year or two ago and he said he was up for doing a track on my new record. So, all the ducks were in a row.

The last two weeks of the record I went up to L.A. I got John 5 and Lita Ford on the record the same day and that weekend Paul recorded the vocal for “Fire and Water”, while I was doing overdubs, and then he emailed the vocal back to us. I put a guitar solo on and we just mixed it. That was it. The whole process for “Fire and Water” was about four days from beginning to end.

 

How long did it take you to make the record?

 

Well, I started tracking last spring, but I went on tour last year to Australia, New Zealand, and Europe, and then came back and finished the record. Maybe the whole process took six months, leaving out the time I was on the road.

 

I understand you recorded some the tracks in your home studio in San Diego?3dedf7c2-a7ce-438d-917e-4e36d61dad10

 

My place isn’t big enough for drums. We have a two-story townhouse, and I have a really great room with preamps and mikes and stuff. I can do everything there but drums. There’s a studio in San Diego called Signature Sound and that’s where I did a lot of the basic tracks with drums. I tracked the drums and then I flew my engineer in from New York (Alex Salzman), who I like working with since Anomaly, and we did a lot of the overdubs, and then I went up to L.A. to do the remainder of the overdubs. A lot of the solos I engineered, like “Fire and Water”, the intro solo and a lot of the guitars on “Bring It On Home.” What else did I do? I did the solo for “Till The End Of The Day” in my studio alone. I’ve really gotten good at Pro Tools, where I can actually engineer myself. The only drawback is when you are engineering some of the creativity goes out the window, because you’ve got to stay focused on what you’re doing instead of just thinking about creating. I prefer working with an engineer, but when I don’t have one around I can do it myself.

 

The record sounds very heavy and fat. Is that something you guys were going for or you just stumbled on?

 

No, that’s what I was going for. Warren Huart, the guy who also mixed Space Invader, he’s got all that stuff; SSL-board, and he uses old preamps. On some of my vocals he’s actually using real tape delay.

 

So, you did a lot of analog recording then?

 

Well, a lot of it was recorded digitally, but in the mixing and overdubbing process, we used a lot of analog equipment to achieve more of a vintage sound.

 

One thing I’ve read about you over the years, specifically your first solo album when you were still in KISS in the 70s, which I love – it’s the only one I bought – is that you use many different guitars and various amps and effects. Did you do the same thing for this since you were covering different kinds of music from a variety of artists?

 

I use a lot of Les Pauls, but I like doubling Les Pauls with Fenders. I’ve got about a half a dozen Telecasters and a half a dozen Strats that I use, but in conjunction with different amps. I have a couple old Vox amps, a couple old Fender amps, and some old Marshalls. Last year I picked up a 50-watt Marshall I got in a pawnshop outside of Palm Springs. I picked up the head for $900 bucks. (laughs) I stole it! It was from the 70s, so, you know, it’s the combination of all that stuff. Vintage microphones. Vintage preamps. Everything tube. That’s how I achieved that fat sound. But layering Les Pauls and Fenders are really one of my trademarks that I’ve been using since the 70s.

 

When I saw that Mike McCready was joining you, because I know he’s is a big KISS fan, I was reminded of your solo on “She”, which is very reminiscent of Robbie Krieger’s solo on The Doors’ “Five to One,” and then McCready took that solo and used it in Pearl Jam’s “Alive”. It’s a great lineage. You guys ever talk about that?

 

Yeah, we’ve spoken about that. I met Mike several years ago, because my daughter was a big Pearl Jam fan when she was a kid. They took care of us at one of the concerts. Then I found out he was sober. I got sober. So we had that common bond. I ended up jamming with them at Madison Square Garden one night. We did…

 

“Black Diamond”.

 

“Black Diamond.” I jammed with them at Atlantic City at the Borgata Casino. I have a good rapport with him and Eddie (Vedder). I’ve wanted to get him on one of my records for a long time and finally it transpired.

 

I love the way the different vocalists change the style of each track, but you’re the constant throughout the whole record. With Paul, how difficult or how easy was that when you guys first got together? Tell me the whole process there.

 

We actually were never in the same room together. (laughs) Like I said, once me and Paul decided on which song to do, I was up in L.A .doing overdubs with John 5 and Lita and that same weekend Paul recorded the vocals at a different studio. We just emailed him the tracks. He did the vocals, engineered it, and emailed them back to us, and boom. Technology has changed the recording process so much.

In the 70s, we had to carry around these bulky, two-inch thick reels of tape that only held two or three songs depending upon the length of the song. Big tape machines. Every time you wanted to do an edit was with a razor blade. Now with digital editing, it’s a dream. I mean, the sequence of solos that me and Slash did on “Emerald,” we had a dozen passes or more of solos and I pretty much put that together piece by piece; picked the best ones from each performance.

 

I’m sure these are influential songs, but did you realize while recording them where your influences came from?

 

I didn’t connect the dots in that way. It’s just that I thought back to all the groups that influenced me. I really wanted to do a Who song on the record, I just couldn’t get that together.

 

Which one would you have done?

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I couldn’t decide. That was the problem! (laughs) Actually, towards the very end, prior to deciding on “Fire and Water,” Paul was kicking around the idea with me to do “My Generation.” I just wanted to do a song that was a little more obscure, like in the same way with the Hendrix song. I did “Spanish Castle Magic” instead of “Purple Haze” or “Manic Depression” or something off the first album, which everybody is more familiar with. So I kind of went down that road when it came to choice of certain songs, but I’m really happy with the end result. It always amazes me, because some of these songs, it was just so easy to do. It was effortless to me. I’m just amazed after the mixing process how strong they sounded, ‘cause I don’t really pay that much attention to detail when I’m recording. I just go for feel. But I work with some of the best musicians in the world, so that must be the secret. (laughs)

 

It sounds like you gave some real love to the songs, a respect to the origins of them. I’ll take “White Room” for an example. You achieved that signature wah-wah sound; that great (Eric) Clapton wah-wah sound throughout the song and then into the solo. Did you make a concerted effort to pay sonic homage to each song?

 

I had two wah-wahs in one of my boxes and me and my engineer plugged in both of them and they were way too noisy. They were old. The potentiometers were all dirty and it was making a lot of noise, so we ran out to Guitar Center and bought a brand new wah-wah, (laughs) a Vox wah-wah. I only did two or three passes of the solos, and out of those three passes, my engineer pieced together one solo. Everything kind of came together really… I’m still sitting here listening to… I still listen to the album almost every day. I keep hearing things that I didn’t hear from a prior listen.

I improvised all the solos on the record. I didn’t play the other people’s solos, note for note. I stayed pretty true to most of the arrangement. I ended up extending “Emerald” by redoing the second half of the second verse when I came out of the solo, which isn’t in the original arrangement. I actually like my arrangement better. (laughs) It kind of brings the whole song to an end nicely.

I had a lot of fun with the record. Sometimes when you have too many chefs in the kitchen it spoils the stew. I work very streamlined. In most cases, I’m recording with just me and one other person and an engineer. More than three people in a studio is a lot for me. I don’t like it that way. That’s how I did my very first, 1978 solo album with “New York Groove” and that form has always worked for me.

 

The thing I found researching my book (Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon – Backbeat Books, Oct. 2015) was that speaking to Bob Ezrin and a lot of people that worked on Destroyer, and reading your memoir, you’re used to coming in, hearing the track, playing your solo, and bingo! In fact, you used to say you used to figure out solos, get to the studio, and everyone would be saying, “Nah, it’s not really…” and then you’d wing it and that take would be better. It would seem that nothing has changed over all these years.

 

It’s been a long time since I sat down prior to doing a solo and tried to figure it out before I hit the record button. I just empty out my head. It’s a lot easier to do four or five passes and then pick the best parts. Like I said, with digital editing you can pick the front of one pass, the middle of another, and the tail end of a third and piece them together seamlessly, so you really can’t hear the edit.

 

But you have to learn that to play it live.

 

Well, I memorize all my solos once I play live, because a lot of them are pieced together. (laughs) For instance, I’ll tell you what happened with the solo in “Fire and Water.” I did about fifteen passes after I got the lead vocal from Paul. He did a tremendous vocal. I thought it was amazing, one of his best vocal performances, and I wanted to do a really outstanding solo. So I did about fifteen passes of solos and I started trying to piece them together and it just didn’t sound right. So I took a break. I went downstairs and had a snack, went back up in the studio, and I just did one last take from beginning to end and that’s the solo! And that’s a long solo.

Also, the stuff that me and John 5 did at the end of “Spanish Castle Magic” is pretty amazing. John did an amazing solo in the second half of “Parasite.” I doubled the length of the solo. I played the original solo like it is on the first record and John came up with a great solo for the second half.

 

Why did you choose “Parasite” and “Cold Gin?”AceFrehley

 

The record company thought I should do a couple of KISS songs and I figure, “Why not redo the songs that I’ve written but didn’t sing?”

 

Ahhh. That’s what I thought.

 

Gene sang on those. At the time, I didn’t consider myself a lead singer and was really insecure about my lead vocals. I said, “Gene you got to sing this.” And of course Peter sang a couple songs I had written over the years and in the beginning. But once “Shock Me” happened it was like the cat was out of the bag. I’ve been singing them in concert for years. I figure it’s about time I get them on the record.

 

Could you possibly pick a favorite song that you’ve written over the years? One you love to play live?

 

I don’t know. My favorite KISS song is definitely “Deuce.” It was the first KISS song I ever heard. It was before KISS was even KISS. When I went in to audition for the band they played “Deuce” for me and then I ended up playing a solo to it off the top of my head. Pretty much, I think those guys after that one song thought I was the guy. At least that’s what I’ve read in retrospect.

 

What about something you’ve written?

 

Something that I’ve written? I don’t know. So many songs to choose from. One of my favorite solos is the one in “Strange Ways.” I normally do my solos in the control room with the amp in another room, but “Strange Ways” was one of the few solos I stood in front of the stack. I stood in front of the Marshall stack with a tight set of headphones and that’s how I got that natural feedback. There is an intensity on that. The stack was on ten! (laughs) I almost couldn’t hear the track with headphones on, but it’s a pretty radical solo.

 

I have to say, now that I’m sitting across from you, the “100,000 Years” solo is one of the most melodic that you’ve written and you always seem to nail that, every time, even in the reunion tours. Have you played it since KISS? I love it. It’s so beautifully melodic.

 

Thank you so much. I forget about that song. I haven’t played that song in a long time. Maybe we should try doing that live. Maybe my drummer, Scoty should sing it. He sings “Love Gun” and “Detroit Rock City”.

 

Who’s in your touring band?

 

Scot Coogan on the drums. He plays on nine tracks on this record and the other three tracks are played by Matt Starr, who did the drumming on Space Invader. Chris Wyse on bass. I’m playing bass on about four tracks. Richie Scarlet is on rhythm guitar for the tour.

 

The obvious question is will there going be a Volume II?

 

Yeah, it was actually my idea to call it Volume I. (laughs) I just thought it was a great marketing ploy and everyone’s going, “Is there going to be a Volume II? I go, “Maybe.” I have a feeling this is going to be a very successful record, because I think it has mass appeal. You don’t have to be an Ace Frehley fan to get off on some of the songs on this record. If the record does as well as I think it will, I definitely think there is going to be a Volume II, but not before I do another studio record.

 

Originals?

 

All originals, yeah, and then maybe after that, maybe Volume II. That would make sense.

 

I recently read that you would consider playing with KISS again.

 

I’ve always said that. I’ve always said, “Never say never. Leave the door open.” It’s really their call. I think it could be great. It would be a nice way for KISS to go out with a bang. You know, right now it’s really only half of KISS.

 

Right.

 

And everybody knows it. But like I said, the ball is in Paul and Gene’s court, but I would be open to the idea if it was presented to me in the right way. Sure.

 

I’ve been promoting my book now since October, and I’ve done a ton of podcasts and interviews and radio, and you’ve been the one member of the band that everybody gravitates to, perhaps because of your rebellious nature and the fact that you didn’t always buy into some of the more materialist KISS stuff; that you’ve been your own man. Do you realize how much people really love you?Ace_James_1-250

 

I don’t. The other thing that people always say to me, “Do you realize the impact you’ve had on so many guitar players? The influence you’ve had?” It’s just not something I think about. I’m really flattered when people say that to me. But, yeah, I’m kind of like the cool guy. (laughs) Let’s be honest. That’s what everybody said.

But it was never about the money for me either. I always wanted to be respected by my peers and I didn’t want to give up my integrity as a musician in lieu of a show or merchandise or anything. To me it was always the music first, the show second. Invariably with KISS, a lot of times the reviews would talk more about the show than the music. It was frustrating at times, but I think at this juncture I’m respected by my peers. I don’t know if Paul and Gene really are all the time.

 

What are your feelings about two other guys wearing the makeup? I know they can legally do it, but to fans know that’s not Ace Frehley out there.

 

Prior to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction a lot of people thought it was me, believe it or not! (laughs)

 

No shit. I don’t believe that.

 

People that aren’t hardcore fans and people that don’t really pay attention to the inner workings of KISS, a lot of them weren’t even aware of it. They’ve always downplayed Tommy (Thayer). But I think with all the controversy that surrounded the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that they decided not to play with me and Peter, a lot of people got hip to the fact that, “Hey that’s not Ace in the makeup!” I’m telling you, a lot of people didn’t know. I used to get phone calls when KISS played in certain areas and somebody would say, “Hey can you get me tickets? I want to go see you play.” I go, “That’s not me. What are you talking about?” I’m telling you. (laughs) The people that weren’t hardcore fans, casual fans, some of them didn’t know. They thought it might be Ace.

 

Well, does it bug you?

 

I still get checks. (laughs) Unlike Peter, I still do get checks.

 

Well, that’s good.

 

They pay me for the use of the makeup and I get checks for merchandise, but it bothers me. You know what bothers me more; the fact that the fans are upset about it. It’s gotten really silly over the last year or so when Paul or Gene make these ridiculous statements like, “Well, you know, once we can’t perform any more, even we’re going to be replaced.” They’re trying to legitimatize the fact that there are two fake guys in the band by making a statement like that. But let’s face it, those guys making that statement is like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards saying, “Yeah, once we’re gone The Stones are gonna continue with two guys that look like us.” Give me a break. They will try anything to pull the wool over some people’s eyes.

 

But like you said, the true fans know.

 

There is only one real Space Ace.

 

That’s right!

 

Whataya gonna do?

 

Whataya gonna do?” That’s classic Bronx.

 

Go feegya.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THAT METAL SHOW ON THE RUN

Buzz
Aquarian Weekly
3/16/16

THAT METAL SHOW ON THE RUN
Eddie Trunk on The Fate & Fortune of His Beloved Cable Show

There is little debate among fans of That Metal Show. It is great. It is fun. It is geeky and loose and relatable and the hosts, Eddie Trunk, Don Jamieson and Jim Florentine are like buddies hanging at the bar arguing about the best thrash metal band or what guitar solo is the better or what live version of a song outdoes the studio version; important, life-affirming stuff. The interviews with the rock stars are intimate and disarming and have the air of same; hanging out talking hard rock and metal with the passion it deserves.three

This is why when a few months back, June to be exact, it was silenced, there was a hue and cry across the land. Its channel, VH1 Classic, owned by MTV Networks, did not renew its option, due in part to upheaval in upper management and the usual boardroom financial quarrels. The ratings were good. In fact, it far exceeded anything the network aired. It’s frugal, low-tech production, the only original content produced by the network, never wavered.  Yet, after 14 seasons, That Metal Show is no more and fans want to know why and what’s next?

The show’s brainchild and founder, Eddie Trunk comes clean in this exclusive interview with the Aquarian, and since Eddie was kind enough to read, rave about, my new book, Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon and interview me for his Sirius XM coast-to-coast radio show this past October, I have drawn the assignment to get the scoop.

What happened? What’s happening?

Here are the highlights of our discussion on the matter and the latest from the That Metal Show front lines.

 

james campion: First off, how did this all go down?

 

Eddie Trunk: For fourteen seasons, every time we’d finish one the network has about ninety days to let us know if they plan to pick up the option to do another season. The ninety days lapsed in April and they said that there were some changes going on at the network, at many levels; executives that were big champions of the show and were responsible for getting them on the air were either dismissed or quit.

We were told that the show initially was going to be moved to another network with the same company. There were a lot of things we were originally told and then each time another phone call came it was basically, “We’re not going to do that. We’re not going to do that.” And then they basically just released us completely from our deals. It’s just restructuring. It’s nothing personal.

 

jc: Do you, Don, and Jim have your own production company? How did you work all that with VH1 Classic and how are you guys moving forward?

 

ET: VH1 produced and owns every episode of That Metal Show including the name.

 

However, what happened is our producer, Jeff Baumgardner, who produced every episode and worked for VH1, as part of his exit out of the network he was able to make a deal to get the name of the show. So he now actually controls the name of the show and it’s under his world now. So we have the ability, because Jeff is in our corner, very much wanting to continue to do the show, we have the ability to continue doing the show exactly how it was and use the name and all the same features. It’s just that when that’s done the network that decides to pick it up would have to make a deal with VH1 for it. But there is a deal in place, so it’s very easy to do. So we can continue the show. We can continue it under the name That Metal Show. It’s just some paper work that needs to be done for that to happen, but VH1 has given us their blessings to continue to look for a new home for the show and to allow it to still be called That Metal Show.

 

jc: So where are we now with all this?

 

ET: Well, my agent, Adam Leibner is representing me and also helping to place the show. He was a huge fan of the show for many years long before he represented me and he is in the process now of talking to various parties to see what the options are. And at this point we don’t know. It’s a very slow moving process and I understand that’s frustrating for the fans. Frustrating for us as well. I would love to bounce right back and be right back on, but it’s not that simple. And the TV landscape is extremely convoluted right now, because you have all the over the air networks but then you also have the emergence of Netflix and Amazon and all these streaming services, apps, and all these different things in the media world today. So every single avenue is being explored and weighed and discussed to see what’s out there and what makes the most sense.

 

jc: Is there something you would prefer that would allow you to do the things you didn’t have the budget to do or you would even attempt to do to expand the show, to have bands play or have more production value or whatever?

 

ET: Absolutely. How realistic it is, I don’t know, but I always have lofty goals and I always am looking to make everything I’m doing bigger and better and have more opportunities at every level no matter what I do. I would certainly love to record more episodes a year than we have. I’d love to include band performances. And I would certainly love to broaden it out. People may find this pretty hard to believe, but I never ever, ever, wanted the name “metal” in the name of the show. And that’s not because of the fact that, I mean, God my whole reputation is in that genre, so it’s nothing to do with that. It’s just that I wanted it to be a little broader based. I thought it would be important to lure in other sort of acts that might be alienated by that name and still keep it a rock show.getty

So we would like to take some chances and do some different things. We’d like to make it bigger and better. It’s just a question of finding a dance partner that’s up for that and wants to do it. And listen, the flipside of that could very well be where we have to go a little leaner and meaner.  We have to even strip some things away maybe depending on what the opportunity presented to us is. So, again, we are listening to everything and everybody and taking it all in. It’s being digested and I’ve got a guy that I trust to process all this and go through it and see what’s going to make the most sense. We just simply don’t know right now. Truly anything can happen. We just have to let the process play out.

 

jc: What’s your preference for how this plays out?

 

ET: My dream would be to be on HBO. The reason why I say that is because I would also love to be uncensored. I think that dealing with the people that we talk to, the stories and stuff that we could get that we wouldn’t have to censor would be incredible. Or obviously my dream would be to be on a network, but that’s a pretty lofty thing. But again I don’t rule out anything. Nobody does. It’s just a question of where is there traction? Where is there interest? It’s funny, James, because, and I get this from a fan’s standpoint because they’ve lived with this show for so long and they love it and it’s ingrained in them, and I greatly appreciate that; but the huge amount of fans that I hear from, they all say the same thing, “Well, just take it here.” “Just take it there.” “Just put it on there.” Like I can do that! (Laughs)

There’s going to be a very sizable audience that when we do announce a new home is going to immediately come there. And we hope that that’s a powerful enough thing to get some interest from a network, but I gotta be honest with you, man, I’ve always been a guy that I never get too high and I never get too low. So nothing would surprise me that could happen here. And, of course, I hope for all the best stuff, but I’m prepared for anything and I’m hoping it all works out. If it doesn’t, I’ll do something else. I’ll do something new. I developed this. I’ll develop something new hopefully.

 

jc: So you guys are keeping all options open.

 

ET: Sure. There’s a ton of those networks that are merging. And somebody just told me the other day there’s a channel called Esquire, which I didn’t even know I had that’s on my cable system. And there’s a bunch of these channels that people honestly don’t even know about that are out there. And it’s kind of like, “Ok wow. That could actually work. That could be a fit. What’s involved in making that happen?” And again there’s so many of them. A lot of people have said, “Access TV!” Well, sure. That would be a logical place, but they have to want to do the show. And listen, doing That Metal Show is not cheap. It’s cheap by big network standards, but the way we were doing it, it’s an investment. They have to feel that it works for them. We’re going to explore everything. Also, the other thing I run into is people yell out networks that they get on their cable systems. For everybody that’s yelling at me, “Access TV!” there is just everybody else, the next person that says, “Well I don’t get that channel, so don’t go there.” (Laughs)

jc: So, what can fans do that read this? Also, I’m sure a lot of the guys, the acts and some of the rock stars you’ve gotten to know that have been on the show probably want to be in your corner and write emails and make phone calls and back you. What do fans do en masse to get That Metal Show back on the air?

 

ET: Well, there really isn’t one at the moment. There is a couple of fan ones that have been set up. I know, Tim Louie at the Aquarian had one going for a while. I don’t know how many signatures at last count, which is all wonderful and really very flattering and really very nice. And it is certainly, certainly appreciated, but I’d be lying, and I just don’t want to waste anybody’s time to tell them that there is something we can do like that now. There isn’t really anything like that to do just yet that is really going to mean something in the big picture here. There may very well come a time that we do need that and I’ll be the first to let everybody know when, where, and how to help. But as it stands right now we really are still just in this exploring phase and I’ve seen a lot people email networks and I know that Netflix in particularly, Access TV, because those are two that come up all the time, have been tagged on tweets and what have you. That’s all great! And it’s appreciated. I don’t know how much it means to the networks. I don’t know what it means. I don’t know if it gets to anybody there. But it certainly can’t hurt, as long as it’s done in a respectful way.

 

jc: I’ve come to learn since my KISS book came out, that these bands have a strong cult following, as does your show.  Metal Heads do not fool around.

 

ET: Well, thanks, man. And you know we appreciate that and we’ve heard that from a lot of people, and again, I can’t stress enough; our one-hundred percent goal is to absolutely get it back on. And there is nobody anywhere that’s deviating right now from the plan of saying “Ok. What’s out there? How can we do this? What’s the best home? Where can we bring it?” It’s just going to take a little time. I know that everybody expected and wanted a quick answer and a quick bounce back, but we don’t have that just yet. It’s a process and it has all got to play out. And again I hope that it truly does. In the meantime, I would tell everybody that for fun, I mean, the show is still on VH1 Classic. They repeat episodes constantly throughout the week.

 

jc: You guys still do road shows and appearances, right?group

 

ET: Yeah. It’s very important for people to know what we do on the road is certainly not a taping of the TV show. But for years now we have been going out together, the three of us, and we go out to clubs and we tell stories, behind the scenes stories, and Don and Jim do standup, and I do some Q & A, and we do some live “Stump the Trunk.” And we just have fun with the audience in a bar setting. People come out, obviously they have some drinks, we give away prizes, and we have a good time. There are no cameras. Sometimes there are no guests. It’s just really us.

Another thing, people have said, “Hey just go do the show on the road.” That’s a little more involved then you would think. Again, it comes down to money. You’re talking crews and sets and hiring guests and musicians. That’s a big operation that again we don’t have that sort of funding available.

So we do kind of a lean and mean road show. We get out there, we have fun, we thank the people that have supported the show and it’s something that we’ll keep doing with or without the show on a new network. The three of us are all still great friends. We have a good time out there together. We’ll see where it goes. But I can’t stress enough my thanks to everybody for their support through this whole thing. And also, of course, that we hear ya’ and it isn’t as easy as saying, “Go here.”

 

jc: It’s an exciting time. Something will come of it. I just have a good feeling about it.

 

ET: You never know. And again; I don’t get too high, I don’t get too low. I just kind of let the process play out and nothing usually ever surprises me. So we’ll hope for the best and who knows, maybe somewhere in the not too distant future we’ll be doing an interview talking about a bigger, better new home.

 

 

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MUSIC FROM THE ELDER: Explaining the KISS Album Everyone Hates

ROCK Magazine
2/18/16
James Campion

MUSIC FROM THE ELDER: Explaining the KISS Album Everyone Hates

KISS hates it. The fans hate it. The band’s late manager and its label hated it. Everyone hates Music from The Elder.

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Time, almost 34 years now, has healed some of the wounds. You can find a loyal geeky contingent online and in the darker regions of KISS-dom that sing its praises. It even received nostalgic cheers from fans a decade after its release when the band would deign to play a song or two from it at KISS Conventions. There is even a British film-maker who is attempting to decipher its concept for a movie and an upcoming book from Tim McPhate and KISS historian non-parallel, Julian Gill called Odyssey, which will dissect every corner of it. But the general consensus is that KISS’s 1981 concept album was a monumental disaster and by far the band’s worst.

Guitarist and founder, Paul Stanley has called it “the biggest misstep of our careers” while his partner Gene Simmons described it as “pompous.” Former founding member, Ace Frehley, who thought it “offensive”, once threw a tape of it out of the window of his car while speeding down the Major Deegan Expressway. “It’s an abomination,” says its producer and mastermind, Bob Ezrin.

So why did KISS conceive, record, and release an album that was originally part of a trilogy, conjure a major theatrical tour, and consider an accompanying feature film for a project almost no one had much faith in and almost immediately disowned as if the entire episode was some kind of sophistic mirage?

Many a rock act has suffered the “whoops” moment, starting with a bevy of crappy Elvis movies to the mighty Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour television show fiasco to U2’s almost inconceivable Pop Mart Tour and, of course, Madonna’s Sex book, Garth Brooks becoming someone else, and a Bob Dylan Christmas album. But none could seriously compare with the story of Music from The Elder, which confuses the hell out of just about anyone coming in contact with it to this day.

This is an attempt – try and stick with me here – to explain it, not excuse or defend it, necessarily, just explain it. And for that we must go back to the final dark days of KISSmania, when the walls were closing in on our heroes…

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It is March of 1981 and KISS is fading. Fast. The theatrical, image-driven, merchandising colossal band that once ruled the better part of the 1970s has endured faltering record sales, dwindling concert attendance, especially in the U.S., and depending on which party is consulted, the expulsion or defection of a founding member, drummer Peter Criss. The band’s original label, Casablanca Records, which had bet broadly and benefitted spectacularly on KISS’s success, came apart at the seams with the death of disco, a fad that it had wagered its considerable funds would last. It would be absorbed by Polygram Records, which boots its founder, Neil Bogart and negotiates a lavish contract with the band that it would hardly recoup in record sales. Aucoin Management, led by innovative marketing genius, Bill Aucoin, who guided KISS into the rock stratosphere, was also in dire straits. He had failed at every turn to duplicate his band’s once-in-a-lifetime meteoric rise with another act – he famously passed up one of the biggest bands on the planet, Van Halen for something called Piper in 1977.

Fading…

All around pop culture, signs of shifting fortunes are closing in. For perhaps the first time since the late 1960s’ hard rock is disappearing from the charts. The concussive rise of Punk, and its kinder and gentler cousin, New Wave in the late ‘70s has reset the agenda, torching the recent past. The latter is still going strong with hit albums by the Cars, Blondie, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, the Pretenders, all competing mightily with the English New Romantic sound as it sweeps across America in the form of Duran Duran, Adam and the Ants, and Spandau Ballet. With the advent of MTV the following summer these acts and many more will usher in a new age.

Fading…

KISS is becoming a dinosaur; the make-up, costumes, theatrics, and the relentless merchandising that had attracted fans of all ages, now mostly children, has rendered the band somewhat of a joke. It didn’t help matters when in May of 1980 KISS releases Unmasked with its comic book self-mockery of the more infantile side of the band’s image on its cover – there is actually a frame of a kid announcing “I still say they stink!” – to its unbelievably soft single, “Shandi” accompanied by a video of what looks like a middling imposter of the once mighty KISS vamping poorly through a foggy lens.

Fading…

KISS is lost. Its image has taken all the hits it could withstand. Its music was never particularly experimental or groundbreaking, but is now failing to at least be fun. And when a band makes no bones from its outset that its only aim is fame and riches and suddenly both are rapidly going down the tubes, then what?

KISS is unsure of what that answer could be, but the band, its management and its label know one thing; this has happened before. Sort of. And when it did, in that fateful spring of 1975 with the band at a creative, financial and career-defining crossroad, KISS turned to Robert Alan Ezrin to pull them from the abyss.

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Long before selling out stadiums, seducing millions of dollars from merchandising, earning several platinum albums, and even starring in a hit television show and a popular Marvel comic book, KISS was a struggling rock oddity looking for footing in a rock world that had mostly ignored it. Paul Stanley (Star Child), Gene Simmons (Demon), Ace Frehley (Spaceman) and Peter Criss (Cat Man) had recorded three less than stellar efforts (KISS, Hotter Than Hell, Dressed To Kill) with little to no recognition or sales. The label and management were at odds on royalty payments and touring costs, and beneath a torrent of lawsuits the desperate result was to record a live album to salvage what was left of the record contract and regroup.

That regrouping included the recruiting of Bob Ezrin, who was riding high as the 26 years-old wunderkind who “created” the Alice Cooper group’s signature cinematic sound; producing, co-writing and conceiving the themes for each outlandish Cooper show and managing to also top the charts slowly but surely with Love It To Death, Killer, School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies, the final one cresting at #1 in the U.S and U.K. Soon Alice would go solo and Ezrin would work his magic to unleash the innovative album, film, and tour, Welcome to My Nightmare.

Always one to grab onto talent with a definably odd charm, Ezrin was intrigued by KISS as early as 1974, something he shared with David McGee of Rolling Stone in 1976; “I could hear a rumble from the street, and I’ve always had a very good sense of that. I knew KISS was having a profound effect on people already and they weren’t even home yet. No airplay. No singles. No real big headlining tours.”

Ezrin met with the band in the spring of 1975 and broke down its issues; “I told them, ‘You’re super heroes of rock with a singular power and that’s it. There’s no depth to you!’ I just wanted there to be layers. I didn’t want to peel off the make-up and costume and find that there was nothing there.”

With the band yearning for direction and a legitimate producer, Paul, Gene, Ace and Peter willingly sublimated themselves to the will of Master Ezrin, who pushed them through a “boot camp” for weeks of music theory, song structure, signature composing, and relentless rehearsing. “We absolutely pulled out a blackboard and started introducing them to the very basics of music theory, just enough so we were speaking the same language,” recalls Ezrin.

Stanley concurs in his 2014 memoir, Face The Music, “For a bunch of guys who thought they were hot shit, it was initially jarring to go into a studio with somebody who treated us like children.”

Heading to New York City’s famed Record Plant, then the state of the art recording facility on the planet, the band spent a month cutting what would become its sonic manifesto, Destroyer, with its booming drum sounds, wall of guitars, backwards tracks, choirs, orchestra, calliope, and a one-minute and twenty-eight second radio-drama opening. It spawned one of the first ever power-ballads with the band’s biggest hit “Beth” and, with the ensuing unexpected popularity of Alive! that autumn, would catapult KISS into a world-wide phenomenon; crossing cultural and economic barriers rarely traversed by mere rock bands.

I spent hours speaking with the now legendary Bob Ezrin for my new book, Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon, and throughout our many discussions, we always returned to how much Bob had “altered” KISS’s “sound” with Destroyer. However, Bob would have none of it: “KISS have proven that there’s no such thing as a KISS sound. They’re an incredibly versatile group with a KISS attitude and a KISS style of lyric writing since the band is comprised of characters.

Ezrin never accepted KISS as being a two-dimensional act, appealing only to those “15 year-old pimply boys”, as he described them. With Destroyer, Ezrin added a pathos to the KISS ethos, and a third dimension of vulnerability, teen angst and critical character development that assisted in taking the band into new audience territories, expanding the act into something transcending rock into pop culture and transforming them into icons. This was the mission of KISS from the band’s origins, but it took a few months with Bob Ezrin to realize it five years earlier, and there appeared no better time than to hand themselves over to him once more.

Turns out when Ezrin is chosen to lead the new project, he has not seen anyone inside the KISS camp since the release of Destroyer, when Bill Aucoin, taking a lead from his panicked charges that the album was too much a departure and began hearing from the press and fans that the “experiment” had eradicated the band’s hard rock credibility, sent the young producer a letter officially stating that he had missed the mark in getting the elusive “KISS sound”. Ezrin was shocked, dismayed and pissed off, telling his protégé, Jack Douglas, whom the band had already contacted to perhaps remix Destroyer and quickly record a back-up without him, to tell everyone associated with KISS to “…go fuck themselves!”

KISS indeed would follow up Destroyer by going in the completely opposite direction and rode the crest of Destroyer’s massive success with Rock and Roll Over, Love Gun, Alive II, Double Platinum, and Dynasty without him. And even though none of them hinted at the amazing aural imagery of Destroyer or the musical vastness provided by a classical trained and professionally astute artist like Bob Ezrin, there looked to be no end to this gravy train, until, of course, there was.

The way the KISS inner sanctum figure it now there are two ways the band could go at this crucial juncture; the same old route back to the cock rock, floor-on-the-floor assault of the early days, which is quite obviously out-of-touch with a ravaged rock landscape, or completely torch the thing and pass the smoldering ruins over to Ezrin for another “experiment” that could provide the band an end-around to all of its troubles.

Music from The Elder is the result.

Released in early November of 1981, the new KISS album was not only a complete departure from whatever the band had attempted before, including Destroyer, it appeared to many in the business, and more pressingly fans, despite the recognizable KISS logo, to not even be a KISS album. There were no photos of their famous painted faces on the cover, only a single hand reaching for an ancient knocker on a giant door. The gatefold image opened to a medieval setting of candles and a long wooden table. The music was also a curious mélange that separated the band from its glorious past; Paul Stanley singing falsetto, Gene Simmons crooning, an orchestra, wonderfully overwrought as a backdrop on Destroyer, now dominated the sound. Even the album’s title whispered bewilderment; if this is music from…, then what exactly is The Elder?

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Gene Simmons, a huge fan of comic books, horror films and sci-fi, had whipped off a short story/screenplay for a concept he developed around a single line scribbled in his notebook; “When the earth was young, they were already old.” It was to be a classic tale of good versus evil told over several worlds, not unlike the wildly popular Star Wars, which had just released a box office record-smashing sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. There is a council of elders called the Order of the Rose in search of a “chosen one”, ala Luke Skywalker and the Jedi Knights, trained by a mentor, Morpheus, ala Obi Wan Kenobi, to fight the evil villain, Mr. Blackwell ala Darth Vader, evoking a medieval to futuristic mash up of myth and mystery. It was anything but fleshed out, but evokes something in the cinematically motivated Ezrin, who puts the kibosh on a series of demos KISS had recently been working on to return the band to its harder edge.

In fact, earlier in the year the KISS newsletter had informed the disillusioned fan base that the band’s new material was “hard and heavy from start to finish” with “straight ahead rock and roll that will knock your socks off.” And so they were. Demos from the period with new drummer, Eric Carr, with his massive double-bass kit and tank-division style, had begun to breathe life back into the band. Although pictured on the cover of Unmasked, original drummer, Peter Criss had not played a single lick, as he had only played on one song, his own, “Dirty Livin’” on Dynasty. Session drummers filled in, as did players for Simmons on bass and Frehley on guitar for a few songs on Unmasked, which helps to explain the record’s poor attempt at flimsy pop and New Wave rip-offs. The new KISS demos sounded more like KISS, because members of the band were actually performing them.

But manager Bill Aucoin believed strongly that doing the same old thing was no tonic to the band’s decreasing popularity and had other ideas. He told KISS biographers, David Leaf and Ken Sharp in 1996, “I had a meeting with Bob (Ezrin) and said, ‘How about some sort of album that can tell a story?’ Bob’s very bright and we got into this mythological thing and it got way out of line.”

This one statement subtly encapsulates the aura surrounding KISS that Aucoin himself had built from day-one; against all odds and against all reason, this is the biggest band in the world and it will do whatever it wants without consequence. As much as Ezrin was a strong and lasting musical influence on KISS, Aucoin was its father figure. It was he who had developed a grab-bag glam rock outfit into a roaring image and stage machine. His word was sacrosanct in the KISS inner sanctum.

This singular notion of invincibility manifested in several ways, not the least of which was the notoriously wild spending on shows and costumes, and with greater fame and fortune it expanded to cars, houses, drugs, women, and the usual rock excesses; by 1980 they were all far from dealing in anything close to reality. “We were delusional,” Paul Stanley recalls. “We were at a point, individually and as a band when we were becoming complacent and very comfortable in our success. I think we got caught up in the Emperor’s new clothes.” Gene Simmons, a man armed with a monstrous ego even when he was a pauper, had gone completely Hollywood, dating Diana Ross (after a stint with Cher on his arm), and flirting with the movie business. “I blame me,” said Simmons in the same account. “I really believed in the vision. ‘Yeah, I am great!’ I take full responsibility for pushing it (The Elder). I wanted credibility, which is really stupid if you think about it. If you’ve got everything else, who cares?” Ace Frehely, a party animal from the day he joined the band in ’73, was now a full blown addict; coke, pills, and a spectacular run of uninterrupted alcohol abuse. His only ally in the band, Peter Criss, was gone, so he was outvoted routinely by Stanley and Simmons, and although he loved Eric Carr as a drummer, he knew he was merely nothing more than a hired musician and could offer no real fulcrum against the tide of the band he now decided was losing its edge.

Bob Ezrin, as is his wont, ignores the wining and over analysis and enthusiastically runs with the idea of a KISS concept album filled with fantasy. He is coming off the massive critical and commercial success of Pink Floyd’s conceptual opus, The Wall, in which he went deep into the terrifying psyche of its composer, Roger Waters; coming to grips with his past, his disassociation with stardom, and his constant battles within his band. Throughout the sessions that trudged on for months, Pink Floyd was splintering – original keyboardist Richard Wright was summarily sacked by Waters during its recording – and it is something of a miracle that such a seminal piece of rock art could emerge from this swirling turmoil. Ezrin takes charge of KISS in the same manner and forges ahead undaunted.

And so KISS, now summoned to Ezrin’s home country of Canada, abandons all of its earlier “returning to hard rock” ideas and in May of 1981 begin to embrace Simmons’s fantastical story of youth overcoming the evils of the universe one song at a time.

Well, at least half of KISS embraces it.

Ace Frehley is certain that this is not the band he signed up for and quickly rekindles his well-practiced “I’m out of here!” routine he had begun as early as 1976. As with the Destroyer sessions when he was replaced on several tunes by brilliant studio guitarist, Dick Wagner, Frehley rarely shows up. As Ezrin works out songs with Stanley in his home studio and fleshes out snippets of song ideas with Simmons, Frehley decides that he would hole up in his Connecticut home in his newly erected basement studio, Ace in the Hole, to work on his tracks separately.

For his part, Eric Carr is merely a bystander. Barely in the band a year, Carr started out powering the KISS sound back to its ‘70s rock roots, but with the fits and starts of trying to transition into the 1980s’ with struggles to keep up appearances as one of the top bands in the world, he is cast adrift in the “new concept project’ shuffle and is ordered to play in styles that he has hardly considered, much less conquered. Ezrin, who had driven former drummer, Peter Criss to near madness meticulously pushing him to play exact parts to click tracks during the making of Destroyer quickly tires of Carr’s inability to master the new material and eventually replaces him with studio drummer, Alan Schwartzberg.

Still Stanley, Simmons and Ezrin press on with vigor. It’s this triumvirate that poured their hearts and souls into Destroyer five years earlier when Frehley and Criss wilted under the pressure. Ezrin believes this was something of a cultural, almost familial connection he parlayed into this new challenge.

“You cannot diminish the kind of kindred sense of connection between Paul, Gene, had myself” Ezrin told me in 2013. “The three of us growing up in Jewish households with that same sort of Eastern European ethic of trying to push the kid to be great and putting an emphasis on education and the arts; having to take piano lessons, learn to dance, doing all this stuff we had to do as kids, we had kind of a common ground. So when we all got together we felt like long-lost cousins in a way.”

The “cousins” start the painstaking process of creating The Elder story by taking segments of songs already fleshed out, along with newly penned pieces, and attaching them to Simmons’s vague plotline. These include an old pre-KISS Gene Simmons tune from a 1970 demo tape called “Eskimo Sun”, reworked as “Only You”, a character back-story for the theme’s protagonist. A new Stanley/Ezrin composition, “Just A Boy” describes the young man’s reticence to take up the mantle of champion. Stanley’s “Every Little Bit of Your Heart” or in some bootleg circles titled “I Want You Only” slowly becomes, with embellishments from Simmons and Ezrin, the central ballad of the piece, “A World Without Heroes”, which provides the youthful hero to imagine an apathetic future with nothing to fight for and no one in which to fight.

Years later, Ezrin told reporter Chris Alexander; “At the time we were all looking for bigger and better things… we thought it would be the beginning of many projects to come out under the name Elder. Paul and Gene were very into it, and put everything in it. They both had to step out of their personas, and was really daring for them to do that. They were attracted to the classic rock, almost Beatle-esque style of the album – they were seduced by that.”

And as he did with Destroyer in January of 1976, Ezrin once again brings in outside material and writers. A key song to the plot ends up being a souring ballad called “Odyssey” written by a music-business veteran of nearly thirty years, Tony Powers. The New York based singer-songwriter-actor had pioneered the short-form video storyline later used by Michael Jackson to great effect during the height of music videos with a 1981 trilogy that included the song. It caught the eye and ear of Paul Stanley, who cornered Powers in an Upper West Side café in NYC and asked him if KISS could use it as a key theme for the piece. Another veteran of the New York music scene, Lou Reed, with whom Ezrin had worked in 1973, producing his dark concept album, Berlin, is brought in to add lyrical and theatrical flourishes (it is Reed who scribbles the title “World Without Heroes” on a pad in the studio, which prompts Simmons to move the song in that direction). These include the villain theme, “Mr. Blackwell” in which Reed wields his now famous use of tense-shifting/first-person to third-person storytelling to unveil a truly demonic presence.

However much fleshing-out the story of The Elder would thematically and musically take KISS outside its bubble, there is something strange happening that had not occurred since the Destroyer sessions of late 1975, early ’76; the members of KISS are indeed writing together. There would even be time for Eric Carr to contribute, as he did with a riff for the rocking “Under The Rose”, which introduces the listeners to the world of council and “Escape From The Island”, a thunderous instrumental conceived from a Carr/Frehley jam with Ezrin on bass, marking the first time since “Beth” that neither Stanley nor Simmons appear on a KISS track. And for the first time since Destroyer’s Stax-laden “Shout It Out Loud”, an attempt to recapture the verse-trading that worked to perfection on the band’s signature tune, “Rock and Roll All Nite”, Simmons and Stanley contributed the penultimate track of the album with “I”.

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All of this “creative output” took an insane amount of time to get down; seven months all-told, of which most of it was to everyone’s memory spent jacking around and messing with sound effects and over-orchestrating in four different studios (Ace in The Whole, A & R, Record Plant, Ezrin Farm Studio & Sounds Interchange) in four cities and two countries, with a co-producer (Brian Christiansen) and seven documented engineers. Ezrin, the master of ceremonies, now comes clean about his serious drug problem throughout, which prevented him ceasing the over-indulgence, which pleased Simmons, since this was his story they were telling. He had designs on a feature film and a sequel to accompany the massively planned tour and all of it stemming from this simple tried-and-true idea of the power of good triumphing over evil; Biblical, Grecian, Shakespearean. But it is ultimately the power of these two men’s intimidating egos that looms large over the proceedings and lends another air of fantasy to what is being created; in their rather skewed estimation, a masterpiece.

“They wanted to make a record to combat the criticism of the last couple of records,” Ezrin recalled. “I had just done The Wall, so The Elder was a victim of The Wall and our mutual desire was to do something ‘different’.” The key ingredient to connecting the storytelling in The Wall and The Elder was a series of sessions adding extended narration to the music, furthering the album’s cinematic grandeur. “The idea of the narration was supposed to bridge some of the songs together, with some orchestral and choir underscoring,” recalled engineer Kevin Doyle to KISS FAQ’s Tim McPhate. “In keeping with the idea of The Elder as a goal of being a seamless concept idea, almost kind of like Dark Side of the Moon where side A is not really a bunch of songs, it’s one continuous play with no ending.” Canadian-based actors Robert Christie, Chris Makepeace and Antony Parr, (Makepeace and Parr having made it on the album as the final voices of the Council Elder and Morpheus) are brought in, as well as the services of the American Symphony Orchestra and the St. Roberts Choir. “It was antithetical to what KISS was about,” Ezrin continues. KISS was never pretentious or precious, and never took themselves seriously. They were always about fun, sex and power, and always were, in effect, horror cartoon characters, so to suddenly make a concept album, which had something of ‘consequence’, was an idea anti-KISS. It was a flawed concept from the beginning.”

“You should never go for respect,” Simmons told his biographers in retrospect. “On the day that critics and your mom like the same music that you do, it’s over.”

Although not a motivating factor at its origins, perhaps beyond the illusions of manager, Bill Aucoin, who is also battling his own mounting drug issues, building the mystique that Music From The Elder is a conceptual masterpiece seems to grow with the months sunken deep in the project. The band, specifically Simmons and Stanley, fueled by Ezrin’s Herculean creativity, believe that if they had lost credibility by selling out to merchandizing and appealing to children with the KISS Meets The Phantom TV movie produced by children’s cartoon mavens, Hanna-Barbara and being turned into superheroes by Marvel Comics, then it is time to seduce the critics, who had not only ignored KISS for most of its existence, but had been openly hostile.

Thus, the first ten minutes of the original track listing of Music from The Elder is filled with Broadway-style, sing-song tomfoolery and an opening instrumental, “Fanfare”, written and arranged by Ezrin and Stanley and played with medieval-period instruments, followed by the flowery falsetto of “Just a Boy” (originally adorned with Bach-style “Toccata & Fuge” organ), and the epic piano-drenched Powers’ ballad, “Odyssey”. This ethereal beginning gives way to Simmons’s psychedelic phrasing of “Only You”, the lyrical changes from the 1970 demo of “Eskimo Sun” hardly echoing hard rock or KISS, nor does “Under The Rose”, replete with Genesis-esque keyboards and a chorus of monk chants. Not until Frehley’s only full contribution at the end of side one, “Dark Light” does this represent anything close to a KISS album.

Upon hearing the mixes, which also take an extended time to complete, Polygram freaks; completely dismissing it as trippy claptrap and begins hacking up the track list with no attention paid to the oddly formed storyline, slapping “The Oath” the heaviest number by far, but the eighth in the plotline, at the beginning of the record, followed quizzically by “Fanfare”, clearly an overture, then “Just a Boy” with “Dark Light” shoved in to keep up hard-rock appearances.

None of this deters the KISS camp from bringing to Polygram the curious but intriguing gatefold cover designed by their trusty Art/Creative Director Dennis Woloch, who had put together every KISS album after and including the breakthrough, Alive!. “The whole visual concept came out of my head,” Woloch says today. “I didn’t even listen to the album to tell you the truth. I don’t know what they were singing about.”

Woloch commissions New York photographer, David Spindel to photograph a pre-teen boy reaching for the ancient knocker in the middle of a prop-door he builds, but the band rejects it. Strangely, they believe this is too eclectic and confusing. Paul Stanley volunteers his hand for a reshoot. “I hated the whole idea,” concludes Woloch. “Not a concept album, per se, this concept; it just seemed so cliché and over done; wizards and ‘seeking the truth’. But they’re still doin’ it; The Hobbit and Star Wars, all that stuff.”

To complete the transformation, all the members of KISS shear their hair and reveal new, streamlined consumes with 80s pastel colors, then appear on the ABC Saturday Night Live rip-off, Fridays to perform “World Without Heroes”, “The Oath” and “I”, but with the album getting lambasted by confused and outraged fans, summarily bag the entire thing and return to rock form the following year with Creatures of the Night. Just like that, the entire enterprise, months of work and planning, disappears without a trace. It is almost as if The Elder or for that matter, the Music from…never existed. No tour. No film. No sequel. Nothing.

A side note of some irony is that Rolling Stone magazine, which had mocked KISS for a decade, gives Music from The Elder a rousing review. Go figure.

IN RETROSPECT…download

It was the KISS album that should not have happened, well…

Looking back, Gene Simmons has said more than once that Music from The Elder is a good album, just not a good KISS album. And maybe he has a point there. Maybe after years of being KISS, the band needed to be something else – hell, the Beatles did it with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Perhaps KISS just needed to blow off steam and dive completely into the self-indulgent deep end and swim in the conceptual waters with Bob Ezrin in order to reach the other side with a renewed spirit.

“Without all the ups and downs and following trends and taking chances, KISS would not have as interesting a career,” Michigan DJ, Steve Ponchaud told me recently. “All their albums would sound the same like AC/DC.”

Perhaps it was simply hubris that created Music from The Elder, but that would be an unfair final analysis, for wasn’t it a sense of unremitting pride that lifted KISS from queer notoriety to one of the biggest bands in the world?

“Regardless of its lack of commercial success or the artistic validation they had sought, Music from The Elder remains a critical part in the band’s recorded output and should never be shunned,” says Julian Gil. “Its failure set the stage for wholesale change and reinvention that would drive the band for the rest of the decade; and only through that abject failure could the passion continue to be discovered.”

After all, KISS survived the album everyone hates to literally reinvent itself without the iconic make-up, ingratiating its image into the 1980s hair-band craze, then later in the ‘90s when reuniting the original members and breaking concert attendance records all over the world. This “return” to the tried-and-true rock roots that bore them may have finally been the correct business, if not artistic, move, but truth be told none of it would be this interesting again.

“Believe me, I understand when it’s your career on the line and you do something very brave and very different and put your nuts on the line you hope that the world accepts and appreciates what you do,” says Bob Ezrin today about his work with KISS on both Destroyer and Music From The Elder. “But then there’s always that little voice in the back of your head that says, (sings) ‘Do you love me?’”

In the end, the album everyone hates may indeed be the last KISS album of merit.

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Detroit Free Press Interview With James Campion – Transcript

Interview – Transcript  

James Campion, author of Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon
Brian McCollum /Detroit Free Press – October, 20, 2015

Brian McCollum: Hey, James. Really great to speak with you. Just read the book and enjoyed it. It was personally resonant to me because not only do I write about music in Detroit, but I’m from Charlotte and I worked at the Observer. You wrote about your time spent researching this mystery behind the song “Detroit Rock City” and working with people from that paper like Marie David. I’m not positive… when would this have been, when you were dealing with her?KogGoOL-50

 

James Campion: Last year.  2013 into… I pushed it as far as I can go – I think I sent the final version of the manuscript in February, so I want to say through last holidays into the beginning of 2015, yeah.

 

Did you ever meet her? I may have known her. Is she young? Because I was at the Observer in the early 90s, so it’s been awhile.

 

She did not sound too young, but I did not meet her and I’m bad at guessing ages even when I am in the same room with someone. We spoke mainly on the phone and through email. The only people I met were the people at the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh, they were very nice. I flew down there last October. My parents live there. They’ve been down there since the 80s. I stayed with them for a couple of days and they drove me over to the state building at the capitol and I spent probably a whole afternoon and another morning going through microfiche and any other archived material from 1975 trying to find some semblance of a story that might have… my hope was to find the actual story that Paul Stanley might have been reading on an accident he cites as the inspiration for his song, “Detroit Rock City”, that was the dream. I thought for sure I’d stumble across this thing, “Teen dies on the way to KISS concert,” and Paul goes, “Oh, I’m gonna’ write this song,” They’ll have the name in the article and that will be a great ending to my book, which became Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon. But it eluded me, and I was able to… as you said, you read it… I pulled up about six or eight names that it could have been based on age and proximity to those concerts, the dates – a couple of people that worked for the band helped me by saying “It wasn’t ‘75 it was ‘74.” I went back in… it was quite a run. Everybody was so helpful, Marie specifically, she went back in twice for me and got me everything relevant.

 

Gosh, where to even start?  It’s a complicated… it almost seems it became this obsessive quest for you in a sense to track down this teeny nugget of information that’s kind of been lost to time in a lot of ways. Let me start with this… What is your sense of how well known this anecdote was in the first place? I guess the KISS die-hards would know this, this idea that “Detroit Rock City” was actually inspired by an incident somewhere down South. Did you get a sense of fairly conventional wisdom?  Because it was news to my editor. 

 

Yes it is. Let’s put it this way; KISS fans are nuts. I just did a podcast with a great gentlemen who does all of this KISS FAQ sites since the late ‘90s and has several books he has self-published. (Julian Gill), and we just did a podcast for an hour and he asked me the greatest minutiae questions, and I enjoyed it but you’d be amazed at the details these people absorb. I read everything that was ever written about KISS. There’s not as much as you would think, considering KISS’s popularity and impact on pop culture, even today, which was one of the motivations to do the book in the first place, but it hasn’t stopped KISS fans from filling the Internet with tons of minutia about the band and its history. When signed on with my publisher, Backbeat Books, they thought dissecting KISS and their seminal album, Destroyer was a great idea, because most KISS books are just about the makeup and merchandising, the salacious stuff. There are a couple of books where more is covered. The first place OI saw the quote was in Ken Sharp and David Leaf’s authorized biography of KISS, called Behind The Mask in 1996 when the band got back together for the reunion tour. There’s an entire quote there where Paul says, “I got the idea from this story that I heard… about a KISS fan driving to the show and loses his life… he was driving to someplace where people are celebrating life and he loses it, and that really affected me.”  Something like that. I’m paraphrasing, of course. The actual quote is in my book as well. He mentions Charlotte specifically. I should say I interviewed Paul in 2006 and he told me that it was down South. I interviewed him for an unrelated thing, a solo album he was doing then in 2006, but I was always fascinated by Destroyer and that song so I asked about it.

And then if you go online and really dig deep, like on Facebook and other places, there are people actually arguing about where it was… Ashville or Fayetteville North Carolina, Charlotte, towns around there – there is one place the woman was swearing to me, I can’t remember the town now… I wish I had the book in front of me…that the accident occurred in Fayetteville Then people from Detroit started saying no, because it’s “Detroit Rock City”, after all, why didn’t he just write “Charlotte Rock City”? Well, Charlotte is not really a rock city, per se… I think Paul really wanted to have a tribute to Detroit, because of what Detroit meant to bands like KISS and Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent. The Big 8 that used to broadcast out of Canada that really dominated Michigan and that whole area there… to Ohio, etc, and how bands really… raw bands…were accepted unequivocally, and what Cream Magazine did for those bands. I think there is something iconic, the fact they recorded their best material for Alive at Cobo Hall, all of that stuff led Paul to write about Detroit, but the incident apparently happened in the South.

Then, finally, author Jeff Suhs, who wrote a book about KISS back in the ‘90s (KISS Alive Forever) as well, he had gotten some key info from KISS’s 1974 road manager (Peter “Moose” Oreckinto when he and I were going back and forth, because I tried to get everybody’s input. Moose told Suhs he remembers hearing, not reading, about someone dying going to a concert either in Charlotte or one of the three or four cities they were in down South, so…

 

This was your interview with the road manager?

 

It was actually my discussion with Jeff Suhs, the author who had gotten that information from the road manager, the only thing the road manager said – and I was going to quote him, but this is toward the very end when the manuscript had to be in – “Look, I don’t remember anything about it, I just know I heard it. I heard about it at that point in the tour when we were down South, that someone had died driving to the concert.”small_shout

 

Right. Is he deceased now himself, the road manager?

 

No, he’s still alive. This was a recent discussion, late last year, early 2015.

 

Yeah, which again I’ve read, your book is just so packed with details you almost need a road map.

 

It’s a detective story, yeah.

 

Quite a mission you went on. Okay, back to my original question. It sounds like this is kind of a known thing among the real die-hard, “trainspotter” type KISS fans, but it’s not something the average joe rock fan in Detroit is going to know about, this idea that the song was inspired by someone else.

 

Right, or that it was inspired by a real event, because it comes on very much… I mean the record opens up with the announcement on the radio they did with the binaural recording with the radio announcing that a young man died on the way to a concert or whatever, and you hear the guy get in the car and start it up and plays “Rock and Roll All Nite” and he’s singing along on the way to the concert, and then the song starts and all of the lyrics there. It features that great middle section that Bob Ezrin ended up writing for the band that sounds almost like an aria. It’s a great rock song, but it’s also a beautiful sort of operatic melancholy tribute to no matter how young you are or how invincible you feel by rock music, there is always mortality involved, you know? And that kind of song is replete in rock history, whether it’s “Leader of the Pack” or “Wreck on the Highway”…many of them.

 

Yeah, Jan and Dean… Yeah. Absolutely. What was “The First Kiss”, right? The song Pearl Jam remade a few years back.  Yeah absolutely.

 

I should say this, producer Bob Ezrin admitted to me a mistake in the lyrics. The original lyric is “I’m speeding down 95” or something. They meant to say 75, since 95 is in New York and New Jersey, going up the East Coast and they were all New Yorkers. They ended up changing it on the lyrics sheet to “We’re doing 95,” which means the driver is going 95 mph. But they meant speeding down 95, when they meant 75. So that was an interesting little tidbit I learned from interviewing Bob Ezrin for the book, that they had to end up changing that in the lyrics sheet because they got the geography wrong.

 

Right, right. Yeah, I didn’t know that either actually. When I read that in your book, I was sitting there scratching my head like, “Well how has my brain always heard this?”  I had never even picked up on that, that they might have meant 75 here. Maybe I just, all these years, interpreted it as the speed and not the highway. But yeah, really interesting. So yeah, to dig into the story, you had gotten wind of this, or you knew of Paul Stanley’s story here, this brief backstory of the genesis of the song, which sent you… I mean why did you feel it was so important to dig up, to try and find this original incident down South? What really drove you?

 

It was twofold.  The first is that I’m writing a 300-plus page book on a single album, and that album’s initial song, which aside from the hit “Beth” and I guess “Shout It Out Loud”, is one of the top three songs, certainly on the album, as far as popularity in the KISS canon goes. But also it was my favorite KISS song. It was my favorite rock song, one of my favorite rock songs of the 70s. I love the opening, I love the car crash at the end, I love the middle section with the guitar solos and the harmonies; so it’s always been sort of interesting to me and I’ve always wanted to know its origins… and then when I found out it was a true story, I thought to myself, “Would any journalist or author worth his salt ignore this?” I mean, three years of my life, 300-plus pages, come on! Find out who this kid is. People talk about it as if it’s a thing, but they’ve never had a name. There was some point, I think I write about it in the afterword, I was almost convinced for about a week that Paul Stanley made it up. Because Gene and Paul make stuff up all the time, that’s the KISS thing right? Make it up, it’s a cool story. But it really did, I’m convinced it really did happen. But there was no report, and even if there was a report I’d think to myself, “In 1974, would anyone really give a shit if KISS was playing a concert in the South or really anywhere?” I mean, if someone died on the way to an Elvis Presley concert, sure. Yeah, I get that. A Paul McCartney concert, maybe, but KISS was still kind of coming up, so even if this person died going there I don’t know if that would have been put in the police report or the newspaper report that they were on the way to a concert, much less a KISS concert, so that kind of made me keep going.

The second part of it is that I really think I was always intrigued by the song and the album, enough to embark on this project, for sure. I just wanted to know. I was in the final weeks of getting the manuscript done and I said, “You know, let me just go full bore as a detective…” And once people started to help me, they got excited. People in the archives departments of all these newspapers and the people at the state archives in Raleigh were rummaging… “Let us try this. What about that?” It was great! Different police guys were saying, “Well we wouldn’t have reports of that, but why don’t you try this?” So almost everybody I talked to was kind of excited by the whole search, so that kept me going, kept me motivated.

 

You’d also made the point in the book… You said you did have that one moment you were convinced Paul had just made it up, and then you realized why make up… If you’re going to make it up, say it was in Detroit to begin with? Why throw Charlotte into the mix? It’s almost random. He’s writing a song about Detroit. If you’re going to invent an anecdote, just say it happened in Detroit.Stanley

 

I went to Israel in 1996 to do research for a book I was working on around the historical Jesus (Trailing Jesus), from the standpoint of a journalist going there and trying to figure out when these incidents could have happened and how… it was always an interest of mine, like Destroyer.  One of the things I noticed, that a lot of the Jesus scholarly approaches, people outside the canonical biblical stuff, they would say there were certain sayings attributed to Jesus that makes no sense, in another words if you’re going to make up a figure that’s supposed to represent God or be the Messiah, why would he ever say “Love your enemy?” That makes no sense. If you’re going to write something, and as a writer, I understand the argument that such a statement would be considered completely antithetical to the concepts of Christianity or First Century Judaism… so biblical scholars consider that statement an authentic piece of evidence to the historical Jesus, something not made up for the purposes of starting a religion or creating a myth. And that’s how I feel about Paul’s use of Detroit as opposed to mentioning being inspired by events happening in the South. I think that was the touchstone for me. Why would Paul say Charlotte? Why not say Detroit? It’s so much cooler. It’s a great rock town. It’s a car town.  Everything about it just begs to put the song in Detroit, which he in fact did!  Right there, I said to myself, “That must have happened, or at least he thinks it happened.” But then when the road manager kind of confirmed it through this writer Jeff Suhs, he just said “Here’s a little tidbit, I just talked to Moose and he says, it was ‘74. I don’t remember if it was a guy or a girl or a car accident or a motorcycle, I don’t remember what arena we were at, but I do remember hearing about it and me and Paul talking about it very briefly, and how Paul was affected by it.”  Of course you would be, it reminded me of the stampede in Cincinnati at The Who concert, those guys were forever changed by that.

 

And the story that these guys were hearing was that it was an accident after the concert, right? The kid or kids on their way home from the show.

 

Yeah, I believe that’s true. That’s as far as I got. The song portends or eulogizes or whatever word you want to use… legendizes… the idea that the kid is speeding on the way to “the midnight show”, smoking and drinking and driving fast, singing along to the songs of the band he is going to see, very romantic in a doomed sense, which again, was perfect for ‘70s music, because that was that period where the ‘60s had kind of died and this whole peace and love and we’re gonna change the world with rock music… this was a new era to find out what that was all about; “How we can reveal the realities of life” through song. And not that KISS dealt with that much, which is one of the reasons I love that song too, and how the album Destroyer changed what KISS was about. Because normally they would just write about sex and drinking or whatever, yet here was a situation where they were writing about mortality and about how a lot of their fans think they’re invincible, but, as we know, they’re not, none of us are, and that’s always hovering over the idea of being a rebellious character. I was always fascinated by that kind of theme to the song, you know?

 

You know, certainly, simply because of the title alone of course, it’s been kind of adopted as something of an anthem here in Detroit. The phrase “Detroit Rock City” has really entered the lexicon as a nickname. Maybe not quite on par with Motown, but it’s something you hear pretty regularly and in a lot of different contexts up here. 

 

Right. I read a book called Detroit Rock City last year that I reviewed it for The Aquarian, where I’m a contributing editor here in Jersey. I think the guy’s name is Steve Miller, I don’t think it’s the same Steve Miller…

 

Yeah, no relation.

 

Right, fantastic book. And it was something important that I wanted to read, having written a book about KISS in the ‘70s and rock music and I quote Lester Bangs in the book and how much Cream magazine meant to the band, everything Detroit was about. So yeah. I mean it truly is the rock city, it’s where rock and roll became rock, that heavy MC-5; it’s where Alice Cooper went; it’s where KISS had to go when people were just booing them off stages. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, obviously, working in Detroit and writing about music, but it’s a huge part of the pantheon and an undercurrent to my book. Obviously it’s an excellent subject for a song and it has survived all of these years. It’s funny, when I was finishing up the book and I was writing the final chapter, it was last year, and the opening night of the NFL season was Giants – Lions, and as they came out of the break they were playing “Detroit Rock City” so it was still very much relevant.

 

Of course, it became transmogrified into a film version (Detroit Rock City), Detroit is like the Emerald City of… guys on their journey to get here…

 

And it’s well-earned. It’s one of those things that’s well earned and not just thrown on for effect or tourism. Detroit is the rock city of America.  It is also famous, obviously in the ‘60s, for Motown, and what that meant… but there is something… there’s a real serious… I’ve often said many times that England is given credit on a glamour or pop culture sense for punk music, but punk music was invented in The Bowery in Manhattan, and so was hip-hop in the Bronx, and disco in many ways in Hollywood, but also in New York. Hard rock, American hard rock… if it wasn’t invented in Detroit, it certainly gave it a place to gestate and explode. Even bands like Black Sabbath would go there for a respite, to really get a feel for where they were in the American idiom. They weren’t accepted that way in New York or Los Angeles, but they certainly were in Detroit, so that’s an earned moniker, Detroit Rock City, for sure.

 

Of course, when it was all said and done, your quest did not turn up… the story does not have a nice-pat ending. You got this handful of names, candidates I guess, of accident victims who could have been the story they heard. How confident are you that one of these names is the story really was the story they wound up hearing?NC_article_crop

 

Well, they’re the only ones I can honestly tell you… the only ones that were in print over any of those periods and ones that ended up in Shout It Out Loud.  I went through every KISS concert in those areas for that period of time, and those are the only accidents on record. It’s interesting because over the Thanksgiving weekend in ‘74 that they were in that swath of shows in the South that there was a spate of accidents. There were a lot. It became a story, almost in every paper, there was an eight-piece story about how an extended amount of accidents for some reason during that holiday.

This is why I’m so glad you’re doing this article, and I just mentioned this on the podcast (KISS FAQ with Julian Gil) and I was telling Julian, “If someone out there, because I know they are out there” – ‘My cousin… my friend knew a guy…’”  I tried the Internet, I tried to go on the blogs for KISS, I asked, I threw it out there to the fandom, got all of these different things… “I don’t know the name, but it was a guy, he was 25, and he was coming from…”, but nobody really gave me an actual name or place, so I couldn’t put much of those back-and-forths in the book… but I got the feeling that it’s out there and somebody knows it and they are fairly confident of it. So it would be great if you put this thing out and it made its way around the Internet and somebody saw it and said, “Wait a minute, I’ve got it!” And we can corroborate and we can see if it is true. I was going to get… I just wanted to make certain so I don’t leave you without being certain, because I want to grab the book right now…

I think the town that kept coming up is Fayetteville, North Carolina. Okay.  Here it is. Yes. That’s the one. If you type that into Google or you go on Facebook, you’ll find people that mention Fayetteville faithfully. I was told during my search, and I don’t remember who told me… I think it was… You have to remember it was 40 years ago now, next year it will be 40 years since Destroyer came out… that somewhere in the ‘90s, when it was the 30th anniversary of the thing… whatever the hell it was, the 20th… Fayetteville was really the epicenter for this rumor… there was a huge swell… there was a record store there that had a picture of the kid, or a name, or RIP, or something… of course it’s gone now. Fayetteville was the one place everything sort of comes back to. Outside of Paul’s Charlotte comment, which remember, he only says Charlotte once, he said that in Behind the Mask… He told me, “the South.” I thought it was ‘75 during the Dressed to Kill tour, and I really exhausted myself there, until I got that tidbit from Moose, through Jeff Suhs, who was not with the band in ‘75, he had injured himself and was not able to… he blew part of his hand off with their crude pyrotechnics and was unable to continue… and so he would not have been with the band after that initial ‘74 tour. In my mind, it would have had to have been then, and Fayetteville seems to be the place that everybody…

 

Yeah I mean especially with what you just said about the 20th anniversary stuff, you would think… Here’s a possible lead I can chase. I actually dated a girl in Fayetteville who I’m still very close to… who grew up there during that time period and was very much part of the teenage rock and roll world there. So I’ll pick her brain, actually, and see if she can put some feelers out.  She may at least know somebody who knows.  I’ll try that route, actually, after we hang up. 

 

Oh that would be great. I hope you don’t mind, I’ve been taking…

 

I may get roped into this as much as you were, if I’m not careful. My own obsessive tendencies will have me hooked on this detective history.

 

Well that’s why we’re journalists, or like to write about stuff.  This is eminently fascinating, it does have a sort of American pop culture aspect to it, it is 40 years ago now, plus KISS has a lot of mysteries behind it where they just make up stories for fun. That was the hardest part about writing the book was getting through all of the treacle and the impenetrable KISS facade.  That’s one of the reasons why… even though I really attempted to get their quotes down, you know, Peter and Ace were writing memoirs and I got a lot of deflection from Paul and Gene, but I decided to just quote them from the period to keep them in the period, and I interviewed all of the people around the making of the album because their perspectives were very sober, they seemed very excited to talk about it.  Mainly because they’re not inundated all of the time talking about KISS, this was a chance for them to come out of the shadows of this hug thing called KIS, you know?

I just wanted to let you know for the last ten minutes or so I have been taping what you and I were talking about because you’ve excited me to try and go back in and rediscover some of this stuff, so by talking to you it’s almost like I’m remembering some of the things, and so it will just be for me to review, if you don’t mind.

 

Yeah sure, no problem. Yeah, you’re right. A lot of the band’s mythology is just

stuff these guys have just made up. Gene and Paul are such great marketing brains. And they know how to sort of have fun with the press, and I’m sure a lot of stuff… Yeah as you said, going back to those contemporaries, you know the stuff they would have said at that time I would think should be fairly reliable, you would assume.

 

Because for the most part they were still nobodies.

 

Right, exactly, that’s what I mean. What motivation would they really have had to… fake it in that particular way?

 

There’s still bravado there, but it was almost a desperate bravado. Now you get this stuff from them about the early days “We knew it was good.” No, they didn’t! They were scared shitless, and they ran to Bob Ezrin and said, “Please help us, our studio albums are awful, they sound like shit, it takes us two weeks to record them, we had to record a live album but 75% of it isn’t even live.” And this is the argument I make in the book, and I know it’s dangerous because KISS fans are very possessive, but I’m very hard on them with the early stuff because I think it’s true, I don’t think they really reached their potential until Destroyer. And unfortunately they never repeated what they did on that record. They went back to recording balls-out songs about sex and everything after that… But on Destroyer you’ve got everything from Greek mythology to sadomasochism to torch songs to beseeching, you’ve got introspection on death. This stuff is not in any other KISS record.destroyer_cover

 

Did you try and get the guys in the band for this?

 

Yeah, like I’ve mentioned they cold-shouldered me. When I was working on the book furiously, I was deep in it, talking to the engineers and designers and talking to the guy who painted the cover, Ken Kelly… I kept sending out feelers. I know some people who work for Ace Frehley, he was writing his memoir at the time I was working on the book, now I understand they tell me he’s writing another one… Peter Criss, who lives about 30 miles from me, was writing his memoir and he was going through the breast cancer thing… Gene and Paul are just… unless they’re promoting something or they own it or they can make money on it, they just don’t want to know.  And I understand that. I’m working on a Warren Zevon thing right now, because I love Warren and I think he deserves a book, and I’m working on that with the same publisher (Backbeat Books), and I’m getting a lot of blowback from people around the family and I’m thinking, “What am I doing exactly?”  I’m trying to give him his just desserts. They want to get him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  The guy’s been dead for 12 years, he hasn’t been famous for about 30… It’s the strangest thing when people sort of hold you off. I understand I’m kind of making some money I guess you could say, or whatever, off of the legacy of KISS, but you’re not allowed to write history books about rock music? It’s crazy. Without everybody having their hands in your pockets… So they kind of stonewalled me here and there. I was discussing this with a good friend of mine who works for Rutgers University, he works in the archives department, he’s a library scientist and he went to school for history. He said “Look, if you’re going to be a real historian, and this sounds like a history book, you can’t be talking to people 40 years after the fact, they don’t remember. They say things, they make it up, the fish is always bigger that they caught, you know.  You gotta’ go back to the magazine articles and the interviews and you gotta’ get their comments then because that will take the person back.”  And he was right, because I really do think that’s the best part of the book.

 

Oh I agree, absolutely. And sorry to hear that about the Warren Zevon people.  It’s weird sometimes, after these celebrity deaths. The family dynamics get really bizarre and people get really possessive and protective and God knows what agendas each…

 

…family member…

 

…and sibling and daughter and whoever had, so…

 

Yeah, I didn’t expect that from them, so far. But I’m just beginning and I’m hearing it from people close to them, so I don’t know. I hold out hope for the project. I got to know Zevon’s ex-wife after she wrote the book about him a couple of years after he died and she was always very friendly.  Anyway, I don’t want to get into that project, but there is a bit of the overly protective when it comes to celebrity profiles or histories… And I’ve said, I’ll send you the essays I’m working on, and the research I’ve done, I’ve had a couple of his really close friends, his stage managers contact me… It’s still happening, so I don’t want to completely whitewash it… but I’m always stunned when it comes to that. You would think you would want more stuff out there. I understand if they think it’s shit… But the other thing is that I had no interest during the writing of this book of getting the approval of KISS, none at all.  I did not want to kiss any of their asses, no pun intended. I tried to write a history book. I tried to write the best I could about this album I loved. I thought it was underrated and needed a plug, and then I got caught up in it and I realized how fascinating it was.  It’s so cool we’re talking about this particular story, because I was hoping, really, a dark macabre part of me was hoping that somebody would write about this or it would get it out in the ether and I would get the answers I need. I don’t even care if it didn’t make it into the book. Of course, I was torn… “Watch, a week after the book goes to press, someone calls me with proof!” I don’t even care anymore, I just want to know.

 

 Right. And there’s always the chance of a second edition or whatever, or a re-print, or whatever they call it in the publishing world. 

 

Well, I guess if you throw something against the wall… This is not the same thing in any way, shape, or form… I’m always amazed when there’s a missing person… especially a kid, God forbid, or something, and the parents get on TV, and I think to myself, “If my kid was missing, I wouldn’t be able to get out of a room, you’d have to peel me off the ground with a shovel.”  But I understand the reason they go out there is because once it’s out there, now you’ve got thousands and thousands of people on the case, people who are looking and wondering and seeing who looks suspicious… so to have articles, to have the book out there and have people go, “Wait a minute, this guy’s wrong, it was this.” Good. Good. I hope that happens. I want to get to the bottom of this, for no other reason but it’s just haunted me, it really has.

 

Was it frustrating… sorry my computer is screwing up again… there we go… temporary glitch… Was it kind of disappointing, you said it was toward the end of the manuscript, this final rush to get this name; was it disappointing to not have nailed it down, or do you feel it made the book better in some sense to leave the mystery still dangling… just speaking as a writer, was it frustrating?

 

Yeah. I’ll go with the latter, because it sounds better. Sure, it’s nice to have the mystery still floating around, and I’m sure it was nice to at least put some names out there. I think I was right to do it. I battled with it because I don’t want these poor people who died, and I know it was a long time ago, to be some sort of afterthought in some rock song, or in some book, just to get people talking. But I also thought if Paul was going to write a tribute to someone, I think he genuinely wanted to write a tribute to one of the fans, a fan who died, then I think if he could have put the name in there, if he could have remembered it, I think he would have. I asked a couple of people who knew Paul, and they told me this. Because I said, let me at least get Paul back, because I interviewed him years before, and they said, “He doesn’t know any name.  And he probably didn’t read about it. He heard it and was inspired to write this tribute.” It was one of those things… any songwriter, floats in, you go, “Holy shit, that happened? I gotta write about it.” To his credit, he did a really nice job of it, and Bob Ezrin made it into a true rock aria. But to me, as a writer, I was, and I say I use the word haunted… I am haunted by the name and that moment, because I can’t get out of my mind in a weird sort of way… because I do dig drama and as an avid reader I do look back and say, “I can imagine this kid in a car driving, maybe having a joint, maybe he was distracted, maybe he was in a fight with his girlfriend, maybe he was just tired driving 60 miles to see his favorite band and he rolls the car…”  And there but for the grace of God go I, you know? How many times have I had one too many or drove too rapidly or was screwing around, distracted and BAM!

I lost a friend of mine in high school, Sheldon Broner, and wrote a piece about him years ago for some compendium (In Our Own Words). They asked me to write about my generation, which is kind of a lost… I was born in ’62, so I’m at the butt end of the Boomers, but I’m not really a Boomer, because to me a Boomer would be somebody who got naked at Woodstock or protested the Vietnam War, I was seven years old in ‘69, six years old that summer, so I don’t really fit there and I’m not really a Gen-X’er, so I’m kind of in the middle… I remember the Toure book about Prince (I Would Die For You), and he named the generation, I can’t remember what he said… So there’s a part of me that kind of feels like it’s a tribute to Sheldon in a way because when I wrote about him it was all about him dying in 1979 and… look at all of the things he’s missed! And even when I wrote that piece in 1998 or ‘99, it was towards the end of the millennium… we didn’t even have half of what we have now. Tweeting, smart phones, social media… the world is completely different, never mind how different it was in the ‘80s and all of the stuff he missed. So I kind of feel that way, this kid who died on the way to the KISS concert was my age or a little older, and he never got a chance to live his life, so all of that stuff haunts me in a way and I would have liked to at least get the name out there so it kind of finished Paul’s work in a way, in an artistic sense.

 

I get what you’re saying about that sensitivity of… the battle of do I do it, do I publish these names or not? But you know, it was a long a time ago, and frankly whoever this actual individual was… they were a KISS fan. I can’t imagine they would have a problem with being the guy who inspired one of the band’s big songs.kiss1976

 

Right. But if you have six or eight or twelve names, because it’s almost like… you know, when they were trying to figure out who the Boston Strangler was, there were several names. Even to this day, for instance Jack the Ripper: There are history books that they say “This guy was Jack the Ripper.”  What if he’s not Jack the Ripper? Then it’s horrible, it’s in a book! So if I had the one name, yeah, but the fact that I put names in there that might have been Joe Schmo going to get a carton of milk and he finds himself in a KISS book… maybe he would be flattered or humbled to be in any kind of book… but then there’s another part of me that feels… Am I exploiting that?  It’s a small part of it because I think in the end journalism kind of wills out… You’re writing a book and you need to get to the bottom of it and I feel like that was a big part of what made that album, certainly that song mystical, so how could I not at least try?

 

Right. Yeah, and those kinds of things are just a gut call, you really have to think… “Alright, it has been four decades.” If you were talking about people who died five years ago, it just feels different, you know what I mean? And that’s just the reality of it, for better or worse, you know.

 

Right. You can joke about the Kennedy assassination now, but you couldn’t do it in 1965.

 

Yeah, same school of thought I guess. So, I’m just kind of scrolling through to see if there are any quick questions to snag you on.

 

And you can e-mail me too, you have me e-mail if something pops up tomorrow when you’re working on the piece or whatever.

 

Yeah, why don’t we reconnect, let me kind of absorb what I’ve got here so far and figure out when we’re gonna run the story, I’m guessing maybe this Sunday, so I will keep you posted. But yeah I definitely plan on touching base with you again. I also like this idea of this story also serving as this callout… “Hey, if you have any clues or leads, we’re all ears!” And I’ll call my ex this afternoon and actually see what she might know. She’s actually… she herself has lived in Charlotte now for 15-20 years. But she grew up in Fayetteville and she still has family there, friends, and was certainly around in the ‘70s during that time period. So yeah, let me see what she might know.

 

I’ll tell you this though, that’s what I’m saying.  I’m willing to go on record that Fayetteville is the ground zero of this story. At this point, I would be shocked if it’s not. I believe they either played the day after or the day before, so that makes sense if they’re in Charlotte and Paul Stanley reads or hears, “Hey man, last night, after the gig I heard some guy died.”  He says Charlotte because maybe he heard about it in Charlotte because the day before it’s Fayetteville and then… the only mentions anywhere, and the story I heard about that mysterious record store that used to have that RIP or a picture of the kid… it might have just been some guy they were making fun of and just threw it up there… my point is that it definitely happened. There was some scuttle about it, I got it third person, I didn’t get it first-hand, and it was four decades ago and all that other stuff, but I would say Fayetteville was our ground zero for this story.

 

Okay, very interesting.  And you’re right, you can totally see how… especially back in those days, we were talking to people on pay phones. There’s no Internet, you don’t have the cable television station to turn on in your hotel room… Everything is just kind of second and third hand info that’s getting passed along and it’s very easy to see how he would get Charlotte into his head even if it were the show the next night or whatever.

 

I looked at newspaper reports the weeks after. My other thought was… Okay, there’s no way you would report on an accident and know right away that the kid was on his way or back or to a concert.  Whatever concert!  But there may be a story weeks later that they do an investigation and the family says “You know, he was on his way to a concert.” Even if I got that I would have assumed it was a KISS concert.  I would have, simply because of the dates that I had of their shows, I had all of the dates of every show they played, and the times, and how far the accidents were from the places. And as you know, it is convoluted, but that’s the way it kind of happened to me, I tried to trace how many miles, when the person would have had to leave, when the accident happened… so all of that stuff, I kind of became a macabre detective in that sense to try to piece this together. And it all kind of had to connect together. If there was any mention of a concert, or even on his way to a show, or was coming back. That’s why I included names of some of the ones that there were friends in the car, because very rarely does a person go alone to a concert, especially young kids. So, if I noticed there was an accident with two or three young kids… which were quite a few… I tried to include it as long as it was within a certain amount of miles… because I’ve driven an hour and a half to two hours to see a concert when I was a kid. Hell, I did it, so if people say, “Why would they…?” Of course you would. Especially KISS fans! And especially KISS fans then. They were real die-hards at the very beginning, people who just thought that was the coolest thing ever, these guys with their faces painted blowing fire out of their mouths! They didn’t sell a damn record, but people did kill themselves to go see them, no pun intended.

 

Yeah. I think in addition to Detroit picking up on KISS pretty early on, I’ve always had this sense that they built a Southern base pretty quickly as well in the early days. The South, or at least certain parts of the South, jumped on the KISS thing sooner than other markets. 

 

Yes. Excellent point, I forgot about that. I have a Facebook page for the book, Shout It Out Loud Facebook page. So I’ve been getting “likes” over the few months leading up to it, posting interview clips I did and some interviews I did with people interviewing me, or audio clips of me interviewing Bob Ezrin or whomever, and I would say most of the people from the South and the mid-West.  What KISS did was they were the one band that went everywhere. They didn’t care. Their first tour they called the Star of David tour because they would drive to one town and then a completely out of the way and then back again… it made no sense, they would just go wherever anybody would have them. It’s a real grassroots… enviable thing. It wasn’t the best business model, but they did it.  What are those places? Places like Fayetteville, who the hell plays Fayetteville, North Carolina?  But they did it regularly. That’s why it was so vexing, they did it three times on three different tours and I had to keep looking, so people really dug them down there, absolutely.

But I would say Detroit, more than any other place… all of the guys in KISS, everybody, and Bob Ezrin who had camped out in Detroit because of his work with Alice Cooper… unequivocally everybody agrees that that was the place that embraced KISS because they embraced all that kind of ballsy, no holds barred, we’re gonna give you everything we got for an hour and a half – two hours, burning the place down rock… they really were attracted to that. And that’s what Lester Bangs… To quote a great Lester Bangs piece he wrote about heavy metal or heavy rock, and he was equating it to the “rattly clankings” of those people working in the assembly lines building these cars… and they just related to this heavy, literally heavy metal, rock, this is before the term was coined officially… And that makes perfect sense to me, and KISS would always go there as a haven… whenever they were booed or kicked off of a tour or having problems connecting with other places… I would definitely say the South and Detroit were the two regions they would always find solace.

 

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SYRIA & THE MIDDLE EAST EITHER/OR THEORY

Aquarian Weekly

10/7/15

REALITY CHECK

 

James Campion

 

SYRIA & THE MIDDLE EAST EITHER/OR THEORY

 

The party will soon be over for ISIS. This half-cocked theological throw-back had a shelf life anyway, and it has certainly gone on longer than most sane people could have predicted. But this is the beginning of the end; the autumn of 2015. Mark it down. Countries with more at stake than the United States are now finally getting involved. This was only a matter of time, and many factors are in play.

article-2229812-15DB1A07000005DC-881_634x418
The most important of these is the Middle East Either/Or Theory. Although well-documented in the annals of Western history since WWI, this “theory” has gone unnamed except for this space. We have written extensively about how things have gone “either/or” in the region with whatever “country” England decided to stake-out and name for purposes of stealing its resources, namely oil: Either you get a dictator in charge you can prop-up and pay-off to do your bidding and keep the peace or you get chaos. Secular democracies are a pipe dream made up by hippies and people on Twitter. The Either/Or Theory is immutable, something deranged simpletons like Dick Cheney failed to grasp at our eventual peril and bankruptcy.

The Either/Or Theory however has not escaped Russian President Vladimir Putin. He’s going with Either and he’s doing it in Syria.

Russia’s latest “involvement” in Syria has been ongoing since Putin stepped in to order fellow dictator Bashar al-Assad to halt his use of chemical weapons against rebel forces in 2013. This prevented the U.S. from having to police another civil war thanks to President Barack Obama’s asinine Bushian “red-line” bullshit in 2012. Putin could not have us messing with his dictator, and temporarily put the kibosh on Assad’s trampling of international law. Things have not changed much on the ground since. Lots of slaughter, refugees and other civil war stuff.

But make no mistake, Syria is Russia’s problem. Russia made it, supports it, and needs it to be an Either rather than an Or.  It is Russia’s ally and Russia’s neighboring headache. Look at it as one Black Sea away, not unlike the few miles of Atlantic Ocean was our issue with Cuba.
For all his bluster, Putin has been consistent about the Middle East since the 2003 Iraq War, something he was vehemently against since it put the United States military in his backyard trying to for all intents in purposes build a democratic alliance through force. Putin enjoyed Saddam Hussein’s regime and its oil and its stability against Iran and most of the lunacy of the theocratic world so close to home. We fucked that up for him. And now, at least according to his self-aggrandizing, cowboy Reaganesque “We are the world’s policemen” speech at the U.N. this past week, he will not let Syria go the same way.

This is bad news for ISIS.

But it is also bad news for Russia. More on that later.

On top of plummeting oil prices, which has crippled Russia for the past year due to the fact that the 80 percent of the country’s flimsy economic solvency depends on it, Putin was also motivated by Turkey’s all-in to destroy ISIS after one of its ubiquitous suicide bombers killed 32 people in a Turkish town bordering Syria on July 20. More stressing for Putin is Turkey, which refused to allow the U.S. air space to conduct military operations since before the aforementioned 2003 Iraq War, immediately reversed its position, placing another strong U.S. military presence too close for comfort. Remember, one of the key negotiations during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis between JFK and Khrushchev was America’s removal of warheads in Turkey, something then U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy covertly agreed to and then reneged.

This is all good for the U.S., which all along needed Russia and Iran to get involved in this thing for their own self interest and to avoid sending U.S troops into another unwinnable quagmire.

Obama’s ass-covering insistence that Assad be removed is tired Cold War silliness.  He needs to stop that nonsense and embrace these new events that will certainly kick ISIS out of Syria and stomp the current Or chaos in Iraq, where it will tumble into some other kind of conflict like all wars in Iraq. And this will be accomplished without U.S kids dying. Win-win. Half of Obama’s rhetoric, nah, let’s say all of that rhetoric is aimed at appeasing Saudi Arabia, which is also tiring. The Saudis have been waging a fight against Iran on the boarder there for a year now and the never-ending intertwining interests between us and that quasi-dictatorship masquerading as some kind of weird theocratic democracy is sad and pathetic and it should have no bearing on the destruction of a murdering clan disrupting things for too long.

And that brings us to Obama’s finest hour, the controversial Iran Deal, which is only controversial because people with little to no knowledge of the Either/Or Theory, basically the same idiots who screwed up Iraq in the first place, make stuff up about it. The Iran Deal has changed everything for ISIS and put some Either into the raging Or around there.

You think it is a coincidence that Putin has gotten all “world’s police” to stop the spread of terrorism the week after the U.S. Senate blocked any lane for the politically motivated and largely ignorant legislative branch of our government to halt the Iran Deal, thus putting us in a position to share intelligence and use Iran’s monumental struggle against ISIS, a Sunni-inspired insurrection, to our advantage. Read the transcript of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the U.N the same day Obama and Putin presented their face-saving malarkey. This is a man who is embracing being a player on the world stage, instead of some state-sanctioned terrorist organization. For a long time now Iran has been moving away from the piddling PLO/Hamas type nation to one that needs to have a voice in the Or stuff going on next door.

This is all good for the U.S., which all along needed Russia and Iran to get involved in this thing for their own self interest and to avoid sending U.S troops into another unwinnable quagmire.

And not that anyone outside of Russia cares, but all of this is not a good move for Putin. Assad is on his last legs and it may be almost impossible to keep a legitimate government working in Syria past the winter. Russia now owns this country lock, stock and smoking barrel. It is a broke country, as is Iran, truth be told, and it is getting involved in something that could drag on for many years. Putin is well aware of how things went for his Soviet Union in the 1980s in Afghanistan. That was the beginning of the end for that particular experiment and my guess is that it will likely be a bad move here.

But ultimately it is a worse move for ISIS, which has bitten far more off than it can chew and will become a road apple for whatever international shenanigans will keep the air-tight Middle East Either/Or Theory in practice.

 

 

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COUNTING CROWS: NEXT STOP, AMERICA

8/27/15

Aquarian Weekly

Buzz Feature

 

COUNTING CROWS: NEXT STOP, AMERICA

Lead singer Adam Duritz Talks Evolution of Live Performance, Spodify, Bands Assholes Like, and the Inspiration of R.E.M and RUN-D.M.C.

 

The current Counting Crows tour, which appears to move seamlessly from the last Counting Crows tour, and the one before that, has been promoting the band’s last record, the ethereal and infections, Somewhere Under Wonderland for nearly a year through Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Europe, finally beginning the leg of its U.S. jaunt late summer into autumn…and on and on. More than most, the Counting Crows is a touring band. It caravans entire families and friends across thousands of miles in order to make each night a special occasion. Its lead singer and principle songwriter, Adam Duritz calls it an economic necessity, but in the same breath believes it to be vital to the creative process. “Truthfully, I think a lot of my creativity is satisfied by playing every night,” he tells me. “I don’t necessarily feel the need to write.” With each performance, the songs take on new meaning and subtle and not so subtle changes – expressive, as well as musical.Layout 1

Back home, just beyond the literary and cultural beacon, Washington Square Park, the center of New York’s Greenwich Village, Duritz is gearing up for U.S audiences. Fresh off another successful Outlaw Road Show, this time in Nashville, a three-day, thirty-two band review in which he is co-founder and host (with friend and blogger Ryan Spalding), and gleeful front-row fan, he says without hesitation, “It’s my favorite thing I do, it’s more fun than anything else.”

Random conversations with Duritz has been one of the highlights of my career; whether discussing songwriting, performing, the struggle to achieve, as well the more challenging struggle to handle, fame or just bandying about goofy pop culture and literary minutia. He is a man of various tastes, but an admitted lunatic about music; cherishing its history, absorbed in its influences, and never daring to take for granted his place in it. Devouring any subject I throw at him, he is never guarded, and yet he chooses to share his thoughts carefully. Duritz is, after all, a word man. He provides context to the shifting moods of his band, a perfect six-piece amalgam of equally voracious music freaks that instinctually understand how to serve his songs, build upon them, and then restructure them for fun and art.

The Counting Crows may tour a lot, but they are never to be missed. Maybe that’s why they tour a lot. Performances are always a new and intriguing expression and to be there to witness it is a joy. They are the eternal live act – in and out of the studio – and Adam Duritz is their clarion.

 

When we last spoke early last August, Somewhere Under Wonderland had yet to come out, but you mentioned having played the songs live for awhile, and you were really jazzed about their reception. You’ve been touring this whole past year; Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, so how have they evolved and how do you feel about how they’re coming across on the tour?

 

They’re coming across great. The only thing that’s weird is that we still haven’t really played America yet since the record came out. We did like a week and a half in the Midwest around Christmas last year, because we had to play a couple of little festival shows… but it’s weird we’ve been touring for so long on this record, including a whole summer playing America before the record came out. It’s easy to forget because we’ve been to Europe twice, we’ve been to Australia, New Zealand, we’ve been all the way across Canada…Vancouver to Newfoundland, places I’ve never even been before in Canada… but we haven’t played America. We’re all looking forward to that.

The songs have caught on great, but we thought that when we wrote them too. We thought they’d be great live, we thought some of them were immediately great live. We played “Palisades Park” the entire summer, and it worked when nobody knew it. So it certainly started working when people did know it, it became very powerful. I had a lot of trouble over the summer with “Scarecrow”. It took me awhile to get really good at “Scarecrow”, and “Earthquake Driver”, they got really good eventually. I had trouble finding my way inside them as far as live songs, but that came eventually. It takes a little bit of figuring out how to get your head around things you’re doing live.

 

What do you mean by getting “inside a song”? 

 

Well… you want to be present while singing it… you don’t want to be doing a copy of a version you did before, you want to be singing it as you are there… and I have no problem on songs like “Palisades Park”, which theoretically could be harder, or “God of Ocean Tides, or most of the stuff on the record like “Dislocation”. I knew where to go with it.  I think because “Scarecrow” and “Earthquake Driver” were so strong melodically and rhythmically as they were written I sailed through recording them on the record. I think a lot of that was because when I was singing them on the record that’s the first time I was really singing it, and I was very present in it. When I got on the road with the songs the particular melody and rhythm is so strong in those songs…was so strong in my head…that it felt like I was covering my own song for awhile there. I couldn’t find a way to really… put myself into it, to really feel it while I was singing it. It took me awhile to find my way into those songs. I want to be present singing stuff and I want to sing it like it’s happening right now, whether it’s “Mr. Jones” or ‘Scarecrow”, and sometimes that can be harder the stronger a song is melodically, especially if it’s melody and rhythm like those two are, you get really locked into what you’re doing and it can be hard to express yourself because you get locked into singing a certain thing a certain way.  It took me awhile to open up those two songs, those were the two I had the most trouble with on the record. But they turned out great. Since then “Scarecrow” has been the second song of the set most nights.

 

Are there songs now you’re singing that you prefer the versions you’re doing now to the recorded version, they’ve become this other thing entirely?

 

Sure. Well… I mean from the first album there are certainly songs which I prefer now.  Most albums I don’t really think about preference. We were so young on that first album, there were some songs which I think are great songs that we didn’t really nail in the studio as much as I hoped. They just didn’t get a chance to grow as much. I think “Anna Begins” is better now. I think “Murder of One” is better now. I’m not really sure about that because honestly I haven’t listened to that album in so long… the version on the record is a timeless document and I really wanted it to be one and for the most part it is, which doesn’t mean I’m going to sing it the same way every night. I’m still discovering things every day.  It’s not so much that I prefer the live versions to the other versions, that’s just today’s version. I’ve learned more since then… you know? Yeah, I don’t know if I would say preference is the right word, except for some of the songs on the first album where I definitely prefer them more now.

A lot of our recording takes place live. We get in there, we’re playing in a room together. We’ll work until we kind of get the form of the song we want.  And someone will nail something. It could be a bass part, a guitar part, a drum part… and everyone will go over their parts, but often we’ll just keep a lot for what you already have. It’s not like you’re laying down a drum track and then you’re laying down a bass track, we’re playing all together. Even if the drums are the first thing to go down, it’s a drum track that was played with everyone. So largely when people go back to look at their parts they’re leaving a lot of their parts in there from what was done live. We tend to play live a lot. I think there’s all kinds of interactions going on while we’re playing on the record. We’ll go back and fix things and hone things and develop things… but sometimes the thing you did while you were all playing together is the one.

 

A lot of bands take time off, they’ll write, they’ll get together, they’ll record an album, they’ll tour the album, they’ll break, rinse and repeat.  You guys did a lot of touring even without a record, you did the covers record, you toured even more, you did the whole combination tour where you toured with other bands… then you put this record out and you’re touring it everywhere. 

 

Well… we kind of have to tour. I mean, there’s no other way to earn money. And now the only way to promote your band is tour. Radio promotion doesn’t exist half the time nowadays, so we tour. This is our job. I don’t think there is a structure to it other than make records when you want to make records, tour when you want to tour.  We’re just trying to work and survive generally.

 

I’m glad you mentioned that. I know you’ve run labels and you’ve been in bands and you’ve worked in other bands… I’m just curious what your thought is about the way music is disseminated now… forget about iTunes but even like Spotify, I know a lot of artists are against it, they don’t get compensated fairly for that. It’s very hard for an album to stick now… singles come out and you have your few moments and then another thing comes out… How do you personally feel about how music is disseminated and how it’s affected your profession?

 

Well, there wasn’t a really good mode before, and there’s not a really good mode now. It’s just a different version.  Look, the way it worked before, it was terrible for ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the bands. It barely worked for anyone. The record companies were terrible and they succeeded enough to make some bands really famous, but they failed with an uncountable number of bands. Their methods were so dumb it, they just didn’t work. Most of them bribed radio stations and that worked for awhile, because there was so much money being made, but the last ten to fifteen years the income from record sales is gone, and that’s a lot of money…gone. We’re barely getting paid by Spotify. I understand why someone like Taylor Swift doesn’t want her music on there. She’s famous and she’s selling more than anybody, and she doesn’t need them on there. So she doesn’t. I get that. I don’t blame her for that at all. For us it’s probably good to be on there. I’m glad they’re paying. I don’t think we’re getting paid fairly, but whatever.

It’s not a new thing that record companies are paying bands unfairly. They’re not as concerned with paying bands as they are with getting paid. They’re overly concerned with getting paid. But there’s another side to this, which is that it used to be too expensive and nearly impossible for a band to make records, and it was incredibly impossible to distribute them. It was so expensive to get your records distributed. More than that, if you’re shipping physical CDs on trucks to record stores across America, and if you’re an unknown band, the best you can hope for is they’ll take one or two. And even if they love it, and they tell their customers to buy it, now all of their copies are gone. Now there’s this album they love, they love to sell it to people, but now they don’t have any. And that’s not good. Now it’s cheap to make records, you can do it on your computer. It’s really easy to distribute things because you just upload them onto Bandcamp. That has made a huge difference for musicians but even more-so for fans.  That enables bands to stay together without getting signed by a major label, I have friends that have made seven or eight albums and have never been signed. They’ve had time to get really good. And their bands are stunning. That would have been impossible years ago, because you couldn’t have survived together for that long. It’s still really brutal, but it is at least possible now, where it was impossible then.

So as a music fan, there is a world of great music out there you can listen to and it’s a great time to be someone who likes music. It’s not as clear what you should like, so you have to go look for it, which is hard work and it’s a lazy world… but it’s all out there. There’s so much great music being made nowadays. Like I said, for me I’ve lost seventy percent of my income. That’s brutal. But I’m not so blind that I can’t see that it’s so better for most people. It’s not better for me, but it’s better for everybody else and I’m not the only person in this world. The truth is, as well as being a musician, I am a music fan. As a music fan, it’s better because there’s so much out there that wasn’t out there before.

It’s harder to make millions and millions of dollars, almost impossible nowadays. But it is possible to make music and survive and that’s kind of cool. I don’t know if I can give you a yes or no answer whether it’s better or worse now, because it was terrible then and it’s terrible now, but it’s also better now in some ways. Like I said, not for me as a musician, but as a music fan, it is better. I don’t want to tell you that the record business is shit now, because it’s not, it’s just the record company business has kind of gone to shit.  But it was always shitty, it’s just shitty for them too as well as for musicians. It used to just be really shitty for musicians. Now it’s shitty for record companies too. Welcome to the club. I don’t have a lot of sympathy.

Duritz_2015

 

Do you recall what inspired you to write songs?

 

I can very much remember my freshman fall term in college. I read Carolyn Forché’s book, The Country Between Us, which is a book of poetry. She was a huge influence on my writing. These three things happened that term in college; I remember reading that, I got my first R.E.M record, and I wrote my first song. I think that there was something about the impressionistic nature of the early R.E.M, that first EP, Chronic Town that really hit me that it was all about expressing whatever I felt like…even though I didn’t write anything like it, that it sort of made it okay to write. I remember that was sort of a big deal at the time. I was pretty hugely affected by the Run-D.M.C. records. There’s something about Run-D.M.C. and R.E.M. I’ve always loved them together in a weird way. There’s a way in which the vocals and the instruments flow in and out of each other on the R.E.M records, you don’t even need to know what words he’s singing. Run-D.M.C. is the first stuff I really remember that there could be more than one rapper in a band. They generally said their verse and it passed to the next guy. With Run-D.M.C., they were so interwoven… that was when they started doubling each-other’s words and popping in and out of each-other very quickly. The interaction was much faster the way it is in jazz or the way those R.E.M records were, it was really woven all together. I remember thinking that the DJ and the two rappers were just flying around each other on that record. It was exhilarating, the speed at which they bounced in and out… it wasn’t like “This is my verse – this is your verse…” It was like they were in and out of each-other’s sentences, finishing each other’s sentences; it really made me think about what a band is like in a way.

I know people compared us to The Band at times, but it may have been even more Run-D.M.C. than The Band that influenced me in that way; the way they aggressively moved in and out of each-other’s music. I was really blown away by that, the speed and the pace of it. For me, that translated into what a lot of people see us doing with the interaction on stage and with each other – improvisations you might associate with The Band or Van Morrison, but in my head a lot of it came from Run-D.M.C. too.

 

Your songs are very interpretive, that’s one of the reasons I’ve come to you and really enjoyed speaking to you about them, but in almost all of them there’s a connection between you and the fans that is unique. Counting Crows songs are extremely relatable on a personal level. 

 

Well, I think I had it in the beginning, and I have it now, but there are also periods in the middle where everything I did was shit on, because that’s what happens. We really do love to discover music and we love to be the ones to discover it. Especially me or you, music geeks, we love knowing music other people don’t know, and we love showing it to them. But inevitably you gamble on the success like we did, then as a fan you find yourself having to share the band you like with the dipshit across the office, who you don’t like. And he was always listening to absolute crap music, and now he’s a Counting Crows fan too. Now it’s not fun to be a Counting Crows fan anymore, because I’m not sharing them with that asshole. So for a few years everyone hates you, because that’s human nature. It just fucking happens. I’m not bitter about that, that’s life. I understand what it’s like to discover cool music and I also remember when my band got co-opted by all the dipshits across the hall, who I don’t like. So I can’t really rage too much about the fact that it happened to me. It only happened because we had so much success. It was a little brutal at times.

 

Okay, then, have you been affected, negatively or positively, by your fame? And how has that informed or detracted from your writing?

 

None of that affects how you write songs. You’re in your bedroom at one point… writing about yourself and you really wanted to open up about how you felt.  And then people listen to it. I don’t know… it doesn’t change for me what I wanted to say, I still wanted to talk about how I felt. You’re really just writing to yourself. It’s very tertiary…peripheral that everyone else listens to it. It’s great for your career and earning money, it’s wonderful. But it doesn’t have a lot to do with what you’re doing; especially because during the period when you’re doing it, because when you’re writing and recording, none of those people are around. There is no feedback at that time. So it seems a lot like when you were younger and no one was listening to your music. At some point you do go back to that room and write, and that’s the same as it is now.

When we went in to record our first album, before anyone had ever heard of us, you’re in there recording by yourself.  And when you record now, when everyone in the world knows who we are, you’re in there recording by yourself. The response comes so far after the fact that I can see how people do let it get in their head, but it’s easy to not let it get in your head because you’re not really facing it everyday. You’re not getting feedback as you’re writing or recording, at least outside the band. But that’s always been the same. People worry about that stuff too much. We were always really independent. We never had to bounce songs off our labels. We had that creative control from the beginning. We were always sheltered from that.

 

And you’re finally getting to play these more or less new songs for your home audience.

 

Yeah, it kind of reminds you how big the world is. People wonder why there’s time between albums for bands. It’s because it takes time to get around the world and play it for everybody. So much time, in fact, that it’s been a year and we haven’t played it at home yet. We’re getting to that now. It’s kind of nice, because you might be getting kind of burned out at this point in the record, but it’s great to be coming to America for the first time now. It’s exciting.

 

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RECALLING THE ETERNAL WAVE – A Brief Conversation with the Legendary Brian Wilson

Aquarian Weekly

7/1/15
BUZZ Feature

James Campion

 

RECALLING THE ETERNAL WAVE
A Brief Conversation with the Legendary Brian Wilson

 

You know the old showbiz axiom about luminaries needing no introduction? Okay, so here’s one of those.

There is no need for anyone to wax poetic about Brian Wilson, musician composer, arranger, producer, hit-maker, icon. For over half a century there has been Brian Wilson. In one way or the other he has influenced the cultural and artistic landscape of the American experience. He was the heart, soul and musical and philosophical engine of the Beach Boys. His songs created the great California myth of what I once called “the sun-drenched hymn to hedonism.” Pretty good resume. He has survived well-documented traumatic hardships from childhood to his years of fame and fortune and the inevitable 1960s cliché fallout of drugs and madness and break-downs, both mentally and physically.wilson_380

Much of this is covered in the new biopic about Wilson, Love & Mercy. The film features two actors, Paul Dano and John Cusak, portraying Wilson as a young man at the height of his musical powers while unraveling from mental illness, and the middle-aged overly-medicated period when he was being manipulated and exploited by the tyrannical Dr. Eugene Landy, played sinisterly by Paul Giamatti. While Wilson did add his expertise and memories to the filming, which he commented was “very factual, accurate, stimulating,” he ultimately found it hard to watch. I saw it weeks after speaking to Wilson and was very moved. The studio sequences recording his two masterpieces, Pet Sounds and Smile truly capture the mood and the significance of the times and add to Wilson’s already legendary status, while his ascent from the abyss is truly inspiration.

Seeing Love & Mercy and reading about Wilson’s harrowing but prolific journey, which takes another step with his recently released album, No Pier Pressure, it would be easy to say that Brian Wilson is the shell of the man who broke molds and conquered the zeitgeist, but that would be short-sighted. What you get from speaking with Brian Wilson today is the real guy, the guy who would never let it all crack his resolve or bend his personality into something he couldn’t recognize. He is by any credible definition of the word, a genius. He is cloaked in it like armor. It precedes him. It defines him.

He speaks in certifiable tones, but with a sweet disposition that is at first alarming and then as comforting as one of his spectacularly arranged five-part harmonies. There is no hesitation in his expression, therefore he doesn’t self-edit for effect. This is a raw psyche; the echoes of a man who brought some important stuff back from the darkness and the light and placed some high stakes in all those strikingly beautiful songs.

What follows here is about fifteen minutes over the phone from Los Angeles of the musings of a living legend, and I don’t think I’m being maudlin or coy or ironic when stating this. In the pantheon of rock and roll, especially during its most experimental, influential and lucrative period, there is Dylan, Lennon and McCartney and Brian Wilson. This is a person you hope to get two minutes with. I got fifteen. And so I asked him things I always wanted to ask Brian Wilson. It was rapid fire and it was thrilling His answers, although appearing in print as curt and often dismissive of detail, in person –hearing his cracked, sing-song voice coming over the phone line – are surprisingly effusive and to the point.

This is a man who has answered countless questions. How could you even begin to put a number on it? People want to know how the genius works, where it comes from, how it goes from the head and the heart to the canvas or the page or the recording. These are the things you think about when gaining access to the artist who has provided the world indisputable greatness. And this is what I think about when Brian Wilson is uttered in my presence. I put it to him and waited breathlessly for the key to the kingdom, so to speak. And I think this discussion, of which I send to press virtually word-for-word, is my few minutes getting to the bottom of genius. I hope I asked the questions you would ask of Brian Wilson. And I hope his answers are enough. They have to be.

 

Brian Wilson: Hi, James!

 

james campion: Mr. Wilson, how are you, sir?

 

BW: Very good.

 

jc: Excellent. I know we have a short amount of time, so I’ll get right to it. I know you’ve probably been asked this a billion times, but I have to do it. I’m a huge fan and you are one of the great composers of the latter half of the twentieth century, so everyone always wants to know where do the songs come from? What is your process? Take me through the Brian Wilson method of writing a song.

 

BW: Well, I go to a studio…there’s a studio I go to and there’s a piano there. I play chords on the piano, and then after awhile a melody starts to come. And after the melody is done, the lyrics start happening.

 

jc: And that’s basically it.

 

BW: Yeah. Basically, yes.

 

jc: When you first started writing songs, which I assume was when you were a teenager or even before that…

 

BW: Well, I started playing piano when I was like…I don’t know…twelve or fourteen? And when I was nineteen I wrote “Surfer Girl”, the first song I ever wrote, and then from there I was a self-taught musician.

 

jc: And do you write basically the same as you did when you were nineteen? Have you changed the process at all through the years?

 

BW: Oh, no, I changed a lot. I’ve changed the process a lot.

 

jc: How so?

 

BW: Well, I used to write more rock and roll type songs, thanks to Chuck Berry.

 

jc: (laughs) Right. You’ve often spoken in the past about capturing sounds on tape that you hear in your head; harmonies, various instrumentation, is there any song that you wrote and recorded that you think came out perfectly, that was exactly how you heard it in your head?

 

BW: Yeah, “California Girls”; some of it I heard in my head and some of it I heard in the studio.

 

jc: So when you listen to that record, even today, you say to yourself, “That is exactly how I pictured it.”

 

BW: Yeah, when it was done I said, “Hey, guys, that sounds exactly how I wanted it to sound like!”

 

jc:  And that never happened again?

 

BW: It happened again with “Good Vibrations”.

 

jc:  Those are the two, huh?

 

BW: Yes.

 

jc: Some pretty good songs, there. I know you’re a big fan of Phil Spector’s sound, and I know you were a Beatles fan, did you ever listen to a song and say, “Wow, not only do I wish I wrote that, but that is really a perfect record”?

 

BW: Yeah, “Let It Be” by Paul McCartney and The Beatles. That’s something where I said, “Boy, I wish I could have written something like that!’

 

jc: (laughs) Well you certainly did in many, many ways. Here’s something I was always interested in asking you. I think it was in your 1990 autobiography, Wouldn’t It Be Nice; you had revealed in that book that you had discovered at some point that placing certain bass lines and notes under a specific chord or specific melodies over other chord progressions would evoke an emotion in listeners; get them to feel melancholy or feel joy or spark memories in them…

 

BW: Well, Pet Sounds was my ballad album; “Caroline No” and “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” were, I think, a very sweet, feminine theme to get across. Those songs were the feminine side of me.

 

jc: I remember as a kid listening to Pet Sounds and getting very emotional, and not because of the lyrics or any particular connection to the themes. I was a kid, yet, I could not escape feeling something mature when listening to that record. It was as if you got across with music these mature themes of love, loss, anxiety, nostalgia. Still, to this day it moves me. Was that something you planned or did it come together in the writing?

 

BW: It actually came together in the writing. Very fast.

 

jc:  That is generally considered your greatest work. Do you think it is?

 

BW: It has to be one of the best albums I ever produced, yeah.

 

jc:  When you heard the Smile stuff that Capitol put out a couple of years ago from the original Beach Boys sessions, much of it unfinished, do you think it captures what you were trying to do with Smile or was it your version that came out about ten years ago?
(Note: Smile was the great and mysterious unfinished opus for Wilson that eventually caused mental exhaustion and his eventual retreat from the mainstream that would cause his reduced role in the Beach Boys)

 

BW: Which version do I prefer?

 

jc: Yeah.

 

BW:  The 2004 version.

 

jc: Your version.

 

BW: Yeah.

 

jc: Did you have anything to do with Capitol’s choice of material or were you surprised that they released it?

 

BW: I was surprised they put it out, yeah.

 

jc: Were you disappointed in how it sounded?

 

BW: A little bit, yeah.

 

jc: Is it because it was unfinished business, it took you back to that time and you said, “Damn it, I wish I had the chance to finish that album the way I originally planned it!”

 

BW: Right! Right on!

 

jc: (laughs) I figured. Just from reading about you and your work on that record and how much it meant to you, the first time I saw it out, I thought, “I wonder what Brian thinks of all this?” You have a new record out, correct?

 

BW:  Yes.

 

jc: Can you tell me about the process of working with this new material and what you may have discovered when writing and recording it?

 

BW: Well, I wrote a couple of the songs back in 1998 that I use on the album and the rest I wrote in 2014.

 

jc:  So it’s been a couple of years in the making?

 

BW: Yes.

 

jc: How do you find performing now? I know that it was something you didn’t really enjoy during the Beach Boys years, but over the past two decades you seem to be playing more and more. Do you enjoy it more now?

 

BW: Some of it. I enjoy some of it, but some of it is a lot of hard work and some of it is an easy-going kind of thing, you know?

jc:  I sure do. You’re known for so many great songs. My favorite is “God Only Knows”. You mentioned that you agree that Pet Sounds is one of if not your finest collected work; do you have any fond memories of writing and recording “God Only Knows”? Do you think that’s something truly special that you nailed there?

 

BW: I worked with my friend, Tony Asher. I started writing a melody and he immediately came up with (sings) “I may not always love you…” and it was a very spontaneous writing session.

 

jc:  I bet its one of those incidents when you think, “Where the hell does this come from?”

 

BW: Right. I said, “What the fuck?”

 

jc:  (laughs)

 

BW: Yeah. Yeah.

 

jc:  That song has been used in so many films and it never fails to move people. Did you ever see it used with visuals, in whatever capacity, and agree that it works on that level?

 

BW: Most of it works, although I’m not really sure where it ended up, whether television programs or movies or whatever, but I do know that whenever they do use it I hear, “Good job.”

 

jc:  (laughs) What part of your legacy do you enjoy the most? What is the talent you are most proud of – the songwriting, the producing, arranging, your building the Beach Boys into this iconic piece of Americana? How do you want to be remembered?

 

BW: Well, to tell you the truth my singing means more to me than anything.

 

jc: Sure. I’m sorry I didn’t even bring that one up. Of course, the singing. Would you say that’s also the most fun you had working with the Beach Boys in the studio, getting all those wonderful vocal harmonies together?

 

BW: Yeah, that was the fun part! The hard part was producing. That was the hardest part of it for me. Producing was rough, but singing always came very naturally, effortlessly. You know…an artist expresses.

“Don’t take drugs, write songs on the natch.”

jc: And that is your most cherished expression as an artist, your singing.

 

BW: Right. Right.

 

jc: There’s a film out right now about the famed Wrecking Crew, a working studio session band that played on so many hits of the 1960s, including a lot of the Beach Boys stuff. Can you talk about working with those kind of top musicians in the field and producing the incredible records you did with them?

 

BW: I worked with some of the more well-known musicians in Los Angeles like Hal Blaine (drummer), Carol Kaye (bassist), John Randy (keyboardist), Steve Douglas (saxophonist), and so many others. They worked with other producers around L.A., but we did some great work together.

 

jc:  Is there a song you heard when you were a kid that turned you on, influenced you more than the others?

 

BW: Well, “Rhapsody in Blue” comes to mind. I think “Rhapsody in Blue”. That was the song that got to my heart the most.

 

jc:  Do you listen to any music of today that moves you, influences you? Who are the great songwriters today?

 

BW: Well, I listen to a lot of 80s music. There’s so many artists from the 80s, Rod Stewart, Billy Idol, Blondie, just a lot of groups I like. I listen to 80s music all the time.

 

jc:  In all the years you’ve collaborated with quite a few lyricists and songwriters, is there anybody that you wish you could work with that you haven’t?

 

BW: Paul McCartney.

 

jc:  I can’t believe you two guys haven’t written a song together; after all the years. You guys respected each other’s talents so much, influenced each other to greater works, the Beatles pushing the Beach Boys and vice versa. It’s hard to believe there is no Wilson/McCartney composition?

 

BW: Are you kidding? I haven’t had the chance!

 

jc:  Somebody has to get that going.

 

BW: Yuuuup.

 

jc: Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson that would be something.

 

BW: That would be a trip.

 

jc: (laughs) Sure would. What is the one thing, you would say, a songwriter today needs to focus on? What is your advice for the kid now cobbling songs together and starting a band?

 

BW: I would have to say…okay…okay…I would say don’t take drugs, write songs on the natch.

 

jc:  Got it.

 

BW: Don’t take drugs, write songs on the natch.

 

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DAN BERN – TRANSITIONS

Aquarian Weekly
4/20/15

BUZZ Feature

James Campion


DAN BERN – TRANSITIONS
New Record Hoody and Tour Marks Uncharted Territory for Singer-Songwriter

It was winter and it was late and Dan Bern was on the phone, calling from somewhere south of El Paso, Texas in his van heading to another gig. This one would be about 400 miles away. He had a few boxes of his new CD, Hoody bounding around in the back and a new Bluetooth unit installed in the old girl, and I am sure there was some coffee involved. He was in the mood to talk.hoody

These late-night chats are nothing new for us. Sometimes they come earlier. Sometimes we’re actually in the same vicinity, the same city, and even amazingly in the same room, but it’s the late-night ones from the road where he gets contemplative and digs deep into his songwriting and his plans and shares tales from these never-ending tours, blessedly separated by occasional spurts at home with the family.

We talked about the new record and his upcoming shows this spring – one of which will take place in NYC on April 23 at the Highline Ballroom.

Here’s part of it…

jc: Hoody features a mature, established style of writing. The vocals are really polished and it seems like a new step for you. I know that you don’t necessarily write for a record, you pick the songs you like the best. But was there a specific idea of what kind of songs you felt worked best with this collection?

Dan Bern: Well they were just kind of the new batch and because of that it felt pretty much of a piece. The previous one took such a long time, Drifter, and I felt when I made it or when I released it, it almost felt, and this has happened before, like I’m already kind of past it. It’s the byproduct of time, like the stars where you see the light later, you know?  By the time it’s out I’m already on to something else. With this one, because we were all able to get in there and basically play at the same time, it still took a long time to finish it, with people going away and people disbursing, trying to get this guy or that guy to complete something, but it was the current crop and it felt like there was some excitement with these songs and with this group of people playing it.

jc: Did you record it live? . 

DB:  Yes, there’s this little studio here where we all live in Echo Park called Pehrspace.  It’s nothing special at all. They do punk shows there after hours; a very cement kind of building, sort of industrial, which I like. I’ve always liked places like that. It was big enough that we could all set up and play at the same time, so I think every vocal of mine was cut live with the band. I may have tried a couple again, but I was like, “I am not going too better ones than those.” I was singing while we were all playing, just kind of locked in.

jc:  Have you ever done it like that before?

DB:  Yeah, I’ve probably done that before. I remember when I was doing the Breathe record, it was the same thing. I was very confident that there was no way that I was going to beat those vocals that I had sung when the thing was being played and I never really could. Anyway, on this one it all pretty much tumbled out. I think Greg Prestopino did a great job, taking what we did and mixing it, putting a touch here and there. I have known Greg forever but we never really worked together and it was a very interesting collaboration. I think we got it as good we were going to get it.

jc: Who are the musicians on Hoody?

DB:  The core of it was Common Rotation, but it’s changed a lot since we did Drifter, for one thing Adam Busch was always like the utility man. He played a little of this, a little that kind of thing. For a lot of this stuff he moved over to the drums, which he had never done with us. I’ve been doing these shows with just me and him and that seemed to work with these songs. Jon Flaugher is a phenomenal bass player. We had two other drummers that were there on different days, Tripp Beam and George Sluppick, who are both top notch drummers.

jc: Do I hear lap steel and that kind of stuff going on in this record? I also hear banjo and I assumed that was Jordan Katz.

Dan:  Yeah, and that’s Eric Kufs that you hear on steel guitar. The real great electric guitar playing is Eben Grace, who has been playing with me since way back in the IJBC days. He’s always been my favorite guitar player.

This stuff is now not the stuff I’m working on to try to complete, it’s like for better or worse, whatever anybody might think about it, it sort of has a string around it right now. Now I’m trying to synthesize some of these songs into a bigger batch of songs that can rub against other things.

jc:  Let’s get back to the actual structure and the writing of the record. When you completed Drifter you said that you felt as though you were putting a lid on the early Dan Bern character, so would you say that this is the first record where, if there’s such a thing as the Dan Bern character from the first eight, nine albums, he’s absent? And if so, did you approach the writing to put that part of your career to bed?

DB:  It kind of feels like a further progression from where we were at Drifter, the logical next step. We’re better as a band. I am trying to become better as a performer and more aware of the audience and connecting better. I mean, just musically my thing has always been tied to old folk and blues, tied to country and British invasion rock n’ roll. Those are my things. I always had a foot in some of that, but after this record it feels like it’s really pretty synthesized, it’s all kind of come together.

jc:  Can you expound on your feelings about your professional and personal transitions that you have gone through and how they’ve informed your work over the years? For instance, can you specifically listen to a record like New American Language or the first record or Drifter and say, “I know where my head space was at then” and how each have been signposts for your career?

DB:  For sure, it’s going to be different for somebody else than how it is for me. It’s my diary, really. For anybody else it’s what they make of it. For me, yeah, they’re little sign posts. It’s funny, I’ve been playing these songs for some time now and now that the record’s out it’s already shifted for me a little bit. This stuff is now not the stuff I’m working on to try to complete, it’s like for better or worse, whatever anybody might think about it, it sort of has a string around it right now. Now I’m trying to synthesize some of these songs into a bigger batch of songs that can rub against other things.

jc: The songs on Hoody are almost all less than three minutes. There are no sweeping ten-verse epics on here, or anything deeply political. A lot of the songs are so meticulously structured you can almost say they are pop-style songs. Was that something that you specifically paid attention to, were you like, “Okay, I am going to try to write songs in quick two verses and get to the point?”   

DB:  It wasn’t intentional, but it was intentional in a way when I wrote them, I suppose. I was working a lot with a bunch of people and we were always trying to trim the fat – you don’t need a second verse, jump straight to the bridge – that kind of thing; just stream line. So that probably also spilled into the stuff I was writing.

jc: What is the main difference between singular and collaborative songwriting for you?

Well, it’s like the difference between doubles and singles in tennis; it sort of opens things up. There’s times when I’m paired with a real melodic guy…or girl, and they know chords I’ve never even heard. In that case, I might be the lyrics guy. And other times there’s somebody who’s a wordsmith and I become the music guy. And then sometimes you’re working line by line together, going chord for chord. It’s really fluid and different every time. You learn to be patient, wait for someone to come up with something that would be better than what I could have thought of. You’re using different muscles than you would by writing by yourself. It’s difficult to write by yourself all the time; nobody to run things by; but if there’s more than one other person involved, things could get derailed sometimes too.danbern-380

jc:  Does almost anything inspire you to write a song?

DB:  Last night I played this brand new theater in Cortez and I was supposed to go on at eight and it was seven-thirty and it suddenly dawned on me this is a nice occasion to have a new song and I should write one about the experience. So, instead of lamenting that I should have had a song prepared, I thought, well I have some time, so I wrote a song about it. I opened the set with it and it killed, it just set the tone. Then I recorded it for the local radio station. It’s nice when it works like that.

jc: Okay, so take me through the process; you’re sitting there you have a half hour to go before you’re going to do a show and then you decide you want to write this song. Do you start with a title or do you write about the theater, do you write about the experience, where do you go?

DB:  It’s all those things. They’re sort of bouncing around. The theater was called the Sunflower and I was the first one to play there and I just made a little joke, a reference to the sunflower being like a girl. And I started singing this thing, “I’m not yours, there will be others, that’s true, but sunflower, I was your first, that’s true too.”  So I was like, “Okay, I like that, let’s start with that.” I wrote a quick verse about just what the sky looked like coming into town, which worked with me being her first. Basically I’m popping her cherry. (laughs) But, it’s all sweet, you know?

jc: I really dug how you just whipped off a verse or two about my novel when I saw you at Mexicali Blues a few months back. I know you’re always reading something or commenting on pop culture, making references to TV and news and sports figures. In that case, are you always formulating songs?

DB: I guess I am; it could be a lot of different things, like you can reference the book or the work or you can reference a character or a place or a thing that’s in the book that sparks something. You can use a character for a model in your own verse. You can take one word and trip off that word and like twenty minutes later you have this whole other thing and then go back to the book again. I suppose people write haiku, short little poems or any sort of musical, literary forms, and you can make a quick sketch too, and you can also really work on a song or a piece of music, but at the same time this stuff is really mercurial. It’s like catching lightening in a bottle; the electrical impulses in our brain, you know? There’s electricity, they move at the speed of light, they move really fast and you can’t always know where these things come from. It’s like when you meet a lot of people in a short amount of time and you’re moving around too and then you’re trying to remember who said something. Maybe you’re at a convention or something and you just met a hundred people and then you try and remember a conversation you had, who it was with and what was said or what the context was. Who knows? But at that point, you’re going to use it for something.

You can use a character for a model in your own verse. You can take one word and trip off that word and like twenty minutes later you have this whole other thing and then go back to the book again. I suppose people write haiku, short little poems or any sort of musical, literary forms, and you can make a quick sketch too, and you can also really work on a song or a piece of music, but at the same time this stuff is really mercurial.

jc: So it ends up in your subconscious and you rummage through that when writing a song?

DB: Yeah, yeah, and you have the most control, more than anybody else, about what your feeding yourself; what your reading, what you’re watching, who you’re hanging out with, how much you stare at your phone versus looking at a tree.

jc: And of course over the past few years since having your daughter, Lulu, you have written and released a ton of children’s songs and you recently wrote the theme song for an animated series, Stinky & Dirty. So I assume having something that profound happen to you has influenced your writing greatly.

DB: It’s true. Recently I’ve begun to realize how insufficient this road thing, driving five, six hundred miles a day to a gig. And I feel like I have all these things – the baseball record and the Everett Ruess album, the kid’s stuff, Theme Park (monthly online show on stageit.com in which Bern plays themed song cycles) and my song workshops – so to drive all this way to play “Black Tornado”, “Hoody” and “Marilyn Monroe” and that’s it I feel like I’m leaving a lot on the table. So I was thinking maybe I could work something out with a local promoter or a theater and come and stay in a town for a long weekend and bring some band mates and Fridays stop at the school and play for the kids and Friday nights for the first half do the Everett Ruess show, then intermission, then do the baseball songs. Then on Saturday do another kid’s show and that evening do the big blowout, rock and roll show. On Sundays I could do a live Theme Park at a small venue and then a workshop. I can hit people on a lot of different levels.

jc: Like “Weekends with Bernstein”!    

DB: Yeah, you know, you could bring the kids like a carnival or a circus stop. I kind of feel like I’m short-changing my audience by being one-dimensional when I have all these other things to offer, you know? Anyway, I’ve been doing a lot of driving around and that’s what I’ve been thinking about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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NICK HOWARD & THE STRANGE BUT REWARDING JOURNEY OF SONG

4/8/15

Aquarian Weekly 

Buzz Piece

 

NICK HOWARD & THE STRANGE BUT REWARDING  JOURNEY OF SONG

 

By James Campion

For the past hour I have listened to Nick Howard tell his story, and it is whiz bang of a tale; coming to New York City as a cheeky 22 year-old musician from Brighton, England with literally nothing but a song and a dream. Settled in a back booth at Pete’s Tavern, the 32 year-old  /songwriter relives a decade filled with playing clubs and pick-up gigs here and there around town, waiting tables after long days in some dead-end office dirge, recalling his trips back across the pond to swing around Europe making a name for himself. Releasing EP’s and eventually three albums of original material ranging from folk to soft rock to stabs at pop, getting some of his songs on TV shows like Beverly Hills 90210, before an uber-weird turn of events in 2010 landed him on a German version of The Voice (to which he had six weeks to sort of kind of learn the language). And, don’t you know, he goes and wins the damn thing. It earns him a record deal and a car (which he sells to make another record), he blows up with a #1 single that he wrote about Hurricane Sandy called “Unbreakable”, and things start moving for him in Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Then…well, he comes back here and goes back to opening for other acts.

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“After winning The Voice, I felt a bit ridiculous,” quips Howard, fully embracing the bizarre details of his recent past. “You’re playing little clubs in downtown New York for like six years and then you’re suddenly making appearances in shopping malls and headlining a tour with all the other contestants. But I’ll tell you, I was playing to a couple hundred people a show before The Voice, and then over a thousand afterwards.”

He laughs at the memory, sipping tea in that disarmingly cordial, British kind of Paul McCartney way. But then he suddenly grows quiet. After a moment of contemplation, he says with some measure of seriousness, “I wouldn’t say this year is my last chance to make a mark in the U.S., but it’s definitely my best chance.” It is almost as if everything Howard has told me leads up to what he describes as the next crucial step to his incredible story; an upcoming American tour.

And maybe “almost” is understating it a little.

“Most people that have seen me play in the last year would have seen me play solo, so the biggest difference is I am going to have my band. I only have 25 to 30 minutes as an opener to showcase Nick Howard, and now I’ll have an hour. Hopefully those people that are coming have listened to my music and can connect with the songs. It’s definitely going to be another side of me in a more dynamic, musical experience. Now people are finally going to get to hear and see what I’m about.”

This is Nick Howard on the precipice of something big. All that stuff about sleeping on sofas and busing tables and winning German cars, all of it leads to this tour. It is the culmination of our blithely tossing around ten years of his life, learning to work as a composer and plying his trade with and without bands. It all comes down to April 9 when he will, of course, kick the whole thing off at the Rockwood Music Hall in his adopted town.

“The Rockwood is a critical songwriter spot,” Howard effuses, beginning to percolate with excitement over the prospect of kicking off the tour of his life in this little Lower East Side room of maybe 150 people; all eyes upon him, all of them knowing this is an audition of sorts, a precursor for what is to come; an auspicious milieu for someone clutching at the next rung of success.

“I look at the states like I looked at Europe in 2010, 2011,” says Howard. “For me, it’s a blank canvas and I want to build something the way I built it in Europe, pre-Voice, and that is this tour. It’s building blocks; maybe do some radio campaigning and all the rest of it, but for me its touring and live performing, that’s the biggest thing, because without the fans you really have nothing going on, you know? I don’t care who you are, if you don’t have fans you go away very, very quickly. Having toured with Eric (Hutchinson) and Tyrone (Wells) last year, tickets are selling pretty well. So we are off to a good start and it’s going to be about padding that.”

“I’m all about just going for it with love songs. Just tell it how it is.”

I decided to meet up with Howard after seeing his solo performance opening for the aforementioned pop songsmith, Eric Hutchinson last October at the Highline Ballroom. It was easy to hear right away how these infectious songs could be bound for bigger productions, as a more than distracting sign pronouncing NICK in lights hung above him. It was an interesting dichotomy of humble opening act trying to win hearts and minds playing his songs in the most direct way possible while unabashedly being heralded by this bombastic exclamation.

One particular number stood out, a shamelessly transparent love song with a rousing refrain called “Super Love” from his latest album, Living In Stereo. The room seemed to come alive when he hit the chorus and belted to the rafters as open an expression of raw emotion as one could hope to hear in those environs. But the crowd ate it up, proving that Howard is indeed beginning to reach his core audience; those who ignore the shackles of cool irony for the naked joy of song for song’s sake.

“The love song is the one thing that everyone in the world understands and you don’t even need to understand the language,” says Howard, proudly. “I was singing in European countries where people have broken English and they still know what I am singing about because love is beyond words. ‘Super Love’ is just that. It wrote itself. I wrote it with a friend of mine in L.A. (Justin Gray, whose resume includes working with Mariah Carey, John Legend, David Bisbal, Luis Fonsi, Joss Stone, and Amy Winehouse), and it didn’t take us very long. You just go for it, you write a love song. I am not one who is fazed by lyrics being cheesy. I don’t care about that.”

When pressed about toeing the invisible musical line of being openly expressive and professionally manipulative, Howard is defiant. “I mean the song is called ‘Super Love’,” he laughs. “I remember when we made it obvious that this song is not going to be like Megadeth, and I loved that and I embraced it. I think people want to hear that stuff. I’ve had people who have emailed me having heard that song and they have played it as their first dance at their wedding or walking down the aisle and that justifies it, ya know? If someone can’t express how they feel about someone, at least through a song they might be able to. I’m all about just going for it with love songs. Just tell it how it is.”

And telling it ‘how it is’ translates to how Howard prefers to connect to this growing audience.

“I like presenting my songs both ways,” he says, ordering up another tea. “I really like the intimacy of the solo show where you can talk about what you are singing about in the lyrics and you really have people’s attention, but I also love rocking out with a full band. You can do so many more things with a full band that you can’t do solo and vice versa, so I think a nice healthy balance of the two is the best and that’s kind of what I try to do.”

“I really like the intimacy of the solo show where you can talk about what you are singing about in the lyrics and you really have people’s attention, but I also love rocking out with a full band.

Howard gets fidgety when he talks about performing. It is painfully obvious this has been his sanctuary through good times and bad; the stage – his comfort zone, where he can do what he loves, what he has always loved, sharing his talents with people.

“I was really, really young when I got a video of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker and I just watched it until the VHS ran out,” recalls Howard, as if it was happening for the first time. “It was the entertainment thing that really struck me, the effect you can have on other people just from singing and dancing. Then I started playing guitar at seven when I heard The Beatles and then when I was a teenager I was lucky enough to be in the UK when Brit Pop came about, Oasis and Blur, these great bands. That’s when I started writing and never stopped.”

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Howard embraces songwriting as much as the showmanship bug he encountered at age seven. He composes on guitar and what he derisively calls “songwriter piano”, and his methods vary from working off clever titles that pop into his head or the gathering of random melodies that he snatches from the either and blathers into a mobile recorder. He’s recently picked up the discipline of co-writing, which he admits allows him to get out of his head and share experiences that bring to light more universal themes.

“I find it easier if someone says, ‘Write a song about this today.’  Okay, so now I have something I have to focus on; it has to be about this subject,” explains Howard. “So I try and do that to myself sometimes. I’ll say, ‘Nick, write a song about this today.’ If I just sit there and try to see what the song is than that can work…but it can take a long time. You might spend two years writing a song to see what it’s about. I heard Chris Martin say he has no idea what ‘Yellow’ is about and it’s Coldplay’s biggest hit! Yet he has no idea what the meaning of it is. Sometimes songs are just a reflection of your subconscious or whatever it is.”

Howard’s anxious enthusiasm to bust out in the U.S. is amplified by the fact that he is an independent artist, as are so many of the new and quite frankly established ones nowadays; the record label route becoming less and less an imperative and more and more hampering. “I went through a year on a big label and I played maybe 150 concerts and they didn’t come to one of them,” he sighs. “How can you sell a product that you have never seen?”

And there is the always-enticing creative control allowed by technology and democratized distribution channels. “I think if you can create something by yourself you are in such a better space than just signing to a major label, then it’s always yours,” Howard says with vigor. “With a major label, you’re giving away a lot for a small chance at success. At that point it doesn’t really belong to you anyway. If I want to go play a show tomorrow in Germany, then I can book that in a second. If I want to record a song on ITunes, I can do that in a day. The goal for me for so long was to get on a label, on Sony or Warner. I got there and I was like; ‘Are you listening to me?’ They didn’t even know me.”

Howard has since incorporated (Satellite Music) and runs his own label, which he describes as fully functional, from hiring studio musicians, choosing touring bands, public relations, you name it. And it all culminates – performance, business and music – on his first U.S. headlining tour.

For all intents and purposes these career-defining concerts will feature music from 2014’s Living In Stereo, by his own admission his first collection of pure pop songs that range from hummable ditties, go-for-it ballads, and genre-shifting dancables, all of it acting as a playground for his impeccably emotive vocals. Although deep down Howard considers himself a singer/songwriter in the traditional sense, and his previous work reflects this, the new material is a concerted effort to combine his love of performance with the music. “I was actually thinking about the live show when I wrote and recorded these songs,” he says. “I was trying to make an album that can be a show.”

This makes sense, since Living In Stereo unfurls as if a Nick Howard concert libretto, moving listeners around his many affections for different genres, from his obvious comfortable zone in the romantic ballad “No Ordinary Angel”, the new single, to the upbeat showstopper “Dancing As One” or the playful, “Life Is Great (& I Love Everyone)”and the oddly funk-laden “Laser Beam”, and the aforementioned crowd-boosting “Super Love”.  It also effectively reveals Howard’s penchant to take somber themes with stinging lyrics and place them in a toe-tapping whistler like “You Can’t Break A Broken Heart”.

“I like writing like that because I always think that songwriting is often trying to make something good out of something bad; trying to turn a bad situation into something good,” says Howard. “I think by doing that you can actually deal with something easier by putting a positive spin or flair. So yeah, ‘Can’t Be Friends’ is about having to un-friend your ex on Facebook and stop them from stalking, but it’s got this fun little cowboy, Nashville thing going on behind it. It’s so silly that you kind of have to address that with music. So it’s got this sort of whistling melody in it, which again is a sad idea that your heart’s broken, but by putting a little whistle in there and just making it kind of funny it makes the whole idea of it easier to deal with. I think that is what song writing is, therapy.  So you can achieve the role of therapy with music, even if the lyrics are really dark.”

Howard gives you the whole package, musically and lyrically. Watching him play his unapologetically effusive songs, it’s obvious he cannot hold back, and his appreciation for what the audience expects from him, his relentless pursuit of song as a connecting lifeline between artist and listener, is palpable in the performance. The release of Live in Stereo, a strong representation of his recent European swing, is a fine example of what you can expect when you see him play. Less live album than celebration of fan and performer, it underlines a man and his music perfectly.

But trust me, if you catch Nick Howard on this tour, and you surely should, leave the ironic cool at home and bring the whistling, sing-song, silly part of yourself and just let it go.

After all, this is how he’s completed the journey from that 22 year-old wide-eyed dreamer to the cusp of international stardom; one song at a time.

 

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SURPRISE, IT’S GINA ROYALE!

SURPRISE, IT’S GINA ROYALE!
Teenage Singer/Songwriter Sneaks Up on 2015

Gina Royale is recording her first EP of original material. All of 17, the petite, soft-spoken budding singer-songwriter moves about the studio as if it is her bedroom; petting a lazy dog, giggling at the occasional quip, and half-listening as the producer adjusts the levels on what will soon be a drum track for “Tightrope”, a highly stylized mid-tempo slice of pop/rock. You would never guess this is the composer of a track everyone, including her dad, is working hard to realize. And that’s the way Royale likes it.

“I want to surprise people,” she whispers to me later, a wry grin creasing her alabaster, be-freckled face.

gina_bwSurprise people” is exactly what she did a few weeks before I stopped in to see her record at Boonton, New Jersey’s Audio Pilot Studio. She surprised me, for sure. I was asked to emcee an event for a close friend, who had survived cancer – a party/benefit in West Milford boasting a line-up of local bands, food and fun. It was a lazy late-summer day, and the music thus far had been entertaining if not mostly forgettable. Royale’s dad, Andy Rajeckas, a pianist, was set to play instrumentals as the guests partook of the catering.

“My daughter’s going to sing a couple of her songs,” Rajeckas leaned over to inform me seconds before I was supposed to announce him. “Her name is Gina Royale.”

And so I did, condescendingly prompting the audience to give it up for the young, adorably quiet girl for which her daddy ceded his modest stage time. She sat at the keyboard, mumbled something into the microphone, and began to softly play. I probably made it four to five feet off the stage when the voice hit me; bluesy, honest, arrestingly emotive. I turned; half expecting to see if someone else had wrested the mic from this kid. Nope. Royale was kicking ass.

Her set was maybe five songs, all of her own material, save for a very moving rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine”, which in her hands appeared far more meaningful than I’d heard since the ex-Beatle was gunned down in NYC 34 years ago. Throughout, I could not take my eyes from her, not for dynamic or seductive reasons; it was the voice, and the flow of the songs that seemed achingly mature for someone you might cast in High School Musical.

She received applause, but nothing like what I experienced while working my way through the crowd, such as it was. People were stunned that what they had heard wasn’t a CD or wondered how we suckered an obvious recording artist to play at this thing.

My effusive praise made it to Royale’s dad, who for all intents and purposes is her acting manager. And why not? Wouldn’t a manager make sure his client got on a bill wherein she would debut free of expectation and…well…surprise people? And, of course, her manager/dad told me all about her upcoming recording date and here we are.

I am sitting in a typically ragged studio-type couch watching intently as Royale runs down another number that will appear on the EP, “T-Shirt”, a song she describes as an experiment in taking an innocuous item and placing undo import, as in the t-shirt of a boy possessed by a smitten girl; a charming metaphor for an adolescent heart. “I usually start with the title of the song,” Royale explains, as if describing the building an engine. “I find a unique title and then work out the chorus and find a rhythm to go along with that, work out some lyrics, build a chorus, build whatever comes right before the chorus, and then the rest of the song…in that order.”

Royale’s drummer, Josh Grigsby, on loan from a local band called the Karma Killers, the dad, who added keyboards to the tracks, and producer/studio proprietor, Rob Freeman, who also plays guitars and bass on the project, surround her. I can just about make out that innocently proportioned face, those piercing green eyes, and the obligatory wisp of blonde locks, as she begins to unveil the song – half heartbreak, part defiance, all playfulness. It is already, even without accompaniment, a stellar pop vehicle. Doubtless, anyone would be happy having this as a potential hit. It’s quick to the hook, turns around with panache, and is fueled by the voice that turned a few benefit-goers heads only weeks before.

“I want to hear my songs on the radio,” Royale says later. And although it is an obvious statement millions of dreamers might utter in their spare time, this is a young lady who truly means it. “I want people to enjoy my music. It’s not that I am straying away from my own style just so more people will like it, I love pop music.”

“I want people to enjoy my music. It’s not that I am straying away from my own style just so more people will like it, I love pop music.”

Royale began absorbing music at an early age, beginning on flute and saxophone, then enduring the inevitable piano lessons any daughter of a musician would be expected to, but it was hearing Taylor Swift’s Red at age 14 that made her think in terms of composing. “When that record first came out, I thought the lyrics were so amazing and beautiful and deep and I wanted to write songs like that,” she says. Studying vocals from a classically trained perspective provided her a foundation, but it was one that she fought, as more and more classic pop music began to enter her transom; The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, John Mayer would all work as undercurrents to her craft.

And it is indeed a craft for Royale, whose approach to songwriting echoes the Brill Building era of hit song assembly lines, ala Carol King, Irving Mills, Neil Sadaka, et al. To better underscore this workman like demeanor, she attended a songwriting camp last year at William Paterson University and literally worked at developing her technique of playing with chord progressions, honing melodies, and finding the elusive bridge. “It’s a strategy,” she smiles.

And that strategy will lead her this coming autumn or perhaps even January of 2016 to a college with a heavy emphasis on music. “I want to study contemporary vocals in college, but it’s hard to find a major like that,” says Royale. “Thirty schools in the country have it. The majority of them are in California, but I’m looking at Berklee College of Music in Boston. They are specifically a contemporary music school in general, so their vocal program is only contemporary. I’m also looking at the New School for Jazz Contemporary Music in New York City, The University of the Arts in Philly, and William Paterson University here in New Jersey, which also happens to have that major.”

Even in the quest for high education, Royale remains pragmatic to the core: “My reach school is Berklee, but being more realistic, it would be William Paterson, which is affordable. It’s easier to get into and it’s a university, so I can still have something to back me up if music falls through.”

And one wonders with all this strategy, schooling and purpose, if perhaps something of spontaneous combustion might be missing from all this songwriting equation. Yet, Royale is not totally unaware of this. “If I didn’t have that influence, I would probably do a long emotional rant on the piano,” she answers matter-of-factly. “I am not a depressing person, but I like to write depressing songs or like songs about heartbreak. I can always draw more emotion from that, and although not that many sad things have happened to me, I feel like I can describe more emotions that way. Every time I try to write a happy song it ends up being dumb and cheesy. My goal is I want to have a radio-appeal song, but I don’t want it to be cheesy. I still want it to be unique on its own.”gina_color

Lyrically, Royale combines universal pop tropes of love and loss and yearning with honest experiences from her own teenage life, as in the betrayal of a friend and the infinite coming-of-age battle between integrity and popularity. This is evident in “I Don’t Need You”, the third song on the EP Royale is calling Heir, a clever play on the double-meaning between her moniker and being the offspring of a musician: “I don’t wanna take your calls/I don’t wanna hear your voice/And I don’t wanna kiss your lips/I don’t need you boy” is something of a feminine call to arms for all young girls caught in a bad-boy grip.

This sense of renewed independence, whether autobiographical or melodramatic, is a theme Royale feels comfortable with, as in another original composition she brings up during our conversation that is not included on Heir, “Courage”, fueled with the kind of righteous indignation that could only be roused by growing up.

“Last year I was supposed to sing ‘Respect’ by Aretha Franklin as part of this Memorial Day Veterans tribute,” recalls Royale about the origin of the song. “I was so excited; I knew my part and everything, and the day before the show I was kicked out by this girl who was in charge of it, all because her best friend wanted my part. The next day the girl wouldn’t even talk to me, because she felt so terrible. One of my favorite lyrics from that song, and I always hope she’ll hear them, is when I mention her going to James Madison University in Virginia; ‘Your sly tongue won’t take you very far/Take it out to Virginia and see where you are.’”

Perhaps Heir’s most infectious song is “Hello Heartbreak”, wherein Royale defiantly sings a torrid verse of impenetrable fury: “You had all the traits of a crook/Wanted more than what you could have/You have no idea what you took/And I don’t know, I don’t know if I’ll steal it back,” the final line is repeated three times to drive the rancor deeper. It attacks from the opening verse and refuses to let up. It may also be Royale’s most effective Taylor Swift homage, using a bouncy melody to express torment, which is only part of its allure, which hits home when you could swear you’ve been singing the thing your whole life.

Not to say that Royale is overtly derivative, but the arrangement of the songs on Heir reflect a modernity that you would expect from youth, and, quite frankly, what you need to hear from youth, as if heralding a new order or at least reminding you that being young is still as much a weirdly explosive amalgam of exhilaration, confusion and angst as you remember it to be.

But to hear Royale say it, and as she performs it, she is happy sneaking up on everyone.

“I want to be that kid, who, you know, most people don’t expect that I can even sing,” she says smiling, as if it is all transpired in her head already. “In school, I am a hermit. I don’t talk to anyone. I have like three friends. It’s not that I’m shy. I just don’t like anyone in my school. People never assume I sing, and then when I do, I’m this short, tiny girl and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, you can actually really sing! You can really hit high notes!’ I want to surprise people.”

 

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