A Conversation with REO Speedwagon's Kevin Cronin
Mike Ragogna: Ladies and gentlemen, lead vocalist of REO Speedwagon, Kevin Cronin.
Kevin Cronin: Hi Mike, how are you doing buddy?
MR: I'm doing very well. Thank you for your time today.
KC: My pleasure, man, we appreciate the support. This is a big year for us--the 30th anniversary of Hi Infidelity, so we're celebrating and we're happy that people are interested in it. It's very cool.
MR: So we're celebrating this breakthrough album, it boasted four hit singles--"Keep On Loving You," "Take It On The Run," "In Your Letter," and "Don't Let Him Go." They all got endless airplay in the '80s, and I hear "Keep On Loving You" to this day. So, let's get into the history of this album.
KC: Well, you know, it was a pretty amazing year for us. When you think of it, we had made ten records, one a year in the '70s, and just barely broke even. Every time we went into the studio, we were on the cliff of getting dropped by the label. It was never easygoing for REO Speedwagon for sure, but we'd play 200 or 250 shows a year and we drove around the country in a beat up 1972 Chevrolet station wagon just to tough it out. In 1981, with the Hi Infidelity record, I guess you could say all of our "rock 'n' roll" dreams came true. Somehow, the stars were lined up and it just happened for us.
MR: It had to feel great finally breaking through.
KC: You know, at the time, we kind of felt like we deserved it. We'd worked for ten years and this was our fate. Finally the rest of the world had caught up with us. But now, from my perspective--at this point I look back and I go, "My God." The chances of that happening, to anybody, is so infinitesimally slim--that the stars would line up like that. We sold, like, 10 million records in one year. It was just crazy. We sold out Madison Square Garden--we sold out the Houston Astrodome and the New Orleans Superdome on consecutive nights. Every dream that I ever had as a kid, and then some, came true. So, it was quite eye-opening, life-changing...everything you can imagine. And then there was the other side of it too, because with that kind of extreme success come other things that no one can expect. So, it was a big year for us. I can't help, as every month goes by this year thinking, "Wow. What was going on exactly 30 years ago now?" It was an action-packed year, to say the least.
MR: That was the beginning of the Reagan years too, I believe.
KC: Yeah, I guess so. And I don't know what effect that had on things. At that point, that really wasn't something I was thinking about. It was all about music, it was all about the band and just playing gigs and writing songs and working hard and just trying to spread the word that this little old band from southern Illinois had something to say. And I'll tell you what, the years leading up to it, we were beloved--all over the Midwest especially. We were the perennial underdog and everyone was rooting for us. Everybody was like, "God! When's REO going to finally get a hit?" Then, of course, the Hi Infidelity record comes along in 1981, and we have all these hits off it, and then everyone's like, "Oh, REO, they sold out. They used to be this pure rock 'n' roll band, and now they're making pop records." So, you can't win. There's always someone who's going to give you a hard time. But, you know, it's all part of what you have to deal with. I don't regret any of it, and here we are, 30 years later, on the road and playing big festivals. People still want to come and see us, and we still do it at a high level. We're having fun.
MR: I remember that "Ridin' The Storm Out" had airplay on virtually every FM station, not just in the Midwest. And with You Can Tune A Piano But You Can't Tuna Fish, people in the Midwest were really rooting for you. I think everyone, including your label, knew it was just a matter of time before you really kicked in.
KC: Yeah, we were kind of knocking on the door there for a while with "Ridin' the Storm Out" and "Roll With The Changes" and "Time For Me To Fly," but we just couldn't quite break through. But then Hi Infidelity came and just knocked the doors in. But I tell ya, we were really lucky that our time happened when it did, because I think in the present day climate of the music industry, there wouldn't be a band that had ten records before they finally had a hit. Nowadays, you better hit it on your first record or you're history. Luckily, the learning process was going on as we were making records and we just kind of honed our craft. When I look back, I realize we were fortunate in that way too, that we had so much support over those years from our fans in the Midwest and Epic Records, who stuck with us and never dropped us and kept giving us another chance even though there were a lot of people who didn't think we deserved it.
MR: Epic Records--along with a couple of other labels A&M during that era--knew they had the talent and they just wanted you to have your hit.
KC: We were very fortunate. Looking back on it now, I realize the phenomenon that happened to us in 1981 was just amazing. There were so many things that had to be in line for that to happen. It's wild--it's amazing that it did happen to us. When I see a new artist who has that big time hit and all of a sudden the success starts rushing in, I always think, "Man, if they were smart, they would sit down with me and have lunch, and I'd say 'Let me just run it by you what's gonna happen to you. Because you're going to go from scrapping your way up, and then all of a sudden you have this success, and then all of a sudden a lot of energy comes your way that is very different from the energy that got you there. Because the energy that gets you there is just the acoustic guitar and the pen and your writing songs, and it's pure, and it's all about the music, and it's all about expressing yourself and getting your feelings out there and writing the most honest songs you can. And then, when that success hits, suddenly everybody from the record company and all the accountants and the attorneys and everyone who means well and is trying to do their job--if you're not careful, that influence can become a bigger influence than it really should.'"
It's so important for an artist to keep their eye on the ball at that time and really realize that it's still about the acoustic guitar and the bic pen and the spiral notebook. All the other trappings are there and it's great--it's wonderful that you're staying in nice hotels now and you're flying in the front of the airplane and not the back of the airplane--all those little comforts that come in are all nice, they're all great. But without that acoustic guitar, that bic pen, and that spiral notebook, nothing happens. It's easy to get polluted when you have a huge amount of success like we did, and we succumbed to it for a while--I'll admit it. Some of the only regrets I have in my career are some of the choices that were made in the couple years right after the Hi Infidelity record. You know, luckily, we pulled it back together, but we had a couple years there where we were a little lost. We kind of lost our focus. But now, with perspective, I get it. I see what happened, and it'll never happen again.
MR: But even during that next period, you still had hits--"Keep The Fire Burning" and "Can't Fight This Feeling," for example.
KC: By the time "Can't Fight This Feeling" came, we had righted the ship. It was just those years--1982 and 1983--where we were definitely floundering, and I knew it, man. I wrote some songs during those years that I knew were piles of poo, and people from the record company were telling me, "Oh, man--dude, that's a #1 smash." I'm thinking to myself, "Wait--I'm not even finished with it yet. (laughs) Don't tell me this is a #1 hit. This is junk, this is not even a real song yet." But people get caught up--they get caught up in the wave, and the bigger that wave gets, the harder it is to get off of it. So, we definitely made some mistakes in those years and we were influenced in ways that...looking back, I wish I would have been stronger, because no one can force you to sing. I could have just said, "Nope. Not ready yet. I'm not ready to go back in the studio yet." And I wish I would have, I wish I would have been a little bit stronger, but I just didn't have the awareness. I didn't have the perspective that I do now. You know, you learn, and it's a little embarrassing when you look back at those things. But then you go, "Hey, I guess that's what got us where we are today, and we're very fortunate." I'm one of the luckiest men in the world and I don't take that for granted, ever.
MR: Are there any stories about going in to the studio and recording Hi Infidelity that you remember most after all these years?
KC: You know, in a couple of weeks, we're releasing this commemorative, 30-year, double CD version of Hi Infidelity, and the second disk, we call "The Crystal Demos." Basically, what happened was we went into this little funky Hollywood studio called Crystal Recording and we were just going to spend three days in there making demos of the songs we had written and rehearsed. The plan was to listen to the demos for about a week or so, and then make the changes to the songs and then go in and record the real record. What happened was, I had this cassette in my car and I drove around listening to it for a week, and just fell in love with it. There was some kind of special magic that happened in that studio and during those sessions that was just undeniable. As it turned out, probably about fifty percent of the performances on the Hi Infidelity record were from that demo tape. But no one knew at that point what was going to happen, and as soon as we went into the studio, I lost the tape. I couldn't find it.
Of course, after the phenomenon of Hi Infidelity, it was like, "Where's that demo? We all want to hear that demo," and no one could find it. There was an epic search of the vaults in New York and Los Angeles and there was no sign of it anywhere. So, we kind of gave up on it, and it was lost for about 28 years. Then about a year and a half ago, our manager was cleaning out his garage and found some boxes that were marked "1980." They were full of outtakes from a Norman Seeff photo session, and he goes, "You wanna check these out, see if anything is in there?" I was like, "Yeah, sure."
So I'm looking through these photographs, and sure enough, I find this little tape box--"Crystal Studios, June 1980"--and I'm like, "Dude, it's the holy grail of REO Speedwagon. I've been waiting to hear these demos ever since." So basically, the second disc of the package is those demos. What it is is a garage band version of the Hi Infidelity record--just two guitars, bass, and drums. No background vocals, no sweetening, no keyboards, just the raw version of all the songs on the record. So, for anyone who's into that type of thing--hearing the evolution of those songs--it's a pretty special little piece. I'm just glad we found it, because it was lost for years. Now, everybody can have a chance to hear what the record sounds like in it's really raw state. It's a lot of fun to listen to.
MR: Kevin, your first record with REO was R.E.O./T.W.O., can you give a quick rundown on how you joined the band?
KC: Well, it was pure luck. It's a story that I like to share because there are an awful lot of people who are probably in the position that I was in right before I joined the band. I was writing songs, and I felt like I had something going on, but I didn't know where to go with it. I'd heard about the Musicians Contact Service in Los Angeles, so I thought, "Well, alright. I'm gonna start the Musicians Referral Service in Chicago." I figured it would be a way that I could find the best musicians to hopefully put a band together myself, and also so I could help people. It was kind of like a dating service for musicians, to help put bands together. So, I went down to my dad's office and wrote up some fliers and hung them in music stores all over Chicago, and after about a month of my phone ringing off the hook, I realized that it wasn't going to work because people would just call up and hype themselves up: "Oh, this guy's the greatest drummer in the world," you know. I had no way of knowing who was real and who was just hyping me. So, after about a month, I was just burnt out on it.
I got a call one day, and it was the typical thing--"Oh yeah, our band is looking for a lead singer and rhythm guitar player. We have a record deal with Epic Records, and we released our first album," and all this hype. I'm sitting there going, "Yeah, right. This is another hype job I'm getting." I'm like, "So, what's the name of the band?" The guy on the other end of the phone is like, "I can't tell you the name of the band because we don't want our singer to hear about it," and I'm like, "Dude, if you can't tell me the name of the band, I'm sorry. I really can't help you." He said, "All right. The name of the band is REO Speedwagon," and I'm like, "Wait, I've heard of those guys. You know what? I think I might have the guy just for you. I got a guy who plays rhythm guitar, sings, is a songwriter...he's at the top of my roster here. I'll introduce you to him." Of course, I was talking about myself. So, I basically recommended myself very highly for the job and ended up getting it. (laughs)
MR: That's a great story. While we're here, what advice do you have for new artists?
KC: Well, for a new artist--that's a little bit different. For a new artist, the biggest advice I could give you is by sharing this story that I have. When I was a young songwriter, the publishing company I was working with in Nashville got me a meeting with Clive Davis. At the time, Clive Davis had just started his new record label, which became Arista Records, and Clive...he was it. He had signed Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He was the god of music. Just to get a meeting with him was unbelievable, I could not believe my good fortune. So, I went in with my little demo tape and Clive put it on and kind of listened through it, and after about ten or fifteen minutes of listening to songs, he just said, "You know, I'm sorry. I just don't think you're ready yet. These songs are just not what I'm looking for. Good luck, but I'm really not interested. I'm going to have to pass on you."
You would think that that would be something that would just crush your spirit. You know, my hopes were so high and I'm getting to meet Clive Davis, and then I get shot down like that. But my attitude was...I swear to God, when I walked out of his office, my thought was that there was something wrong with his tape recorder, that the demo didn't sound as good as it should've. (laughs) And in a nutshell, that's my advice. You have to believe in what you're doing so strongly that no matter what anyone else says, you can't be discouraged, because you're going to be turned down by 99 people, and that 100th person might be the one who gets it. You just have to keep plugging, and you have to just have such an undying belief in what you're doing that no matter what anyone says, you just keep plugging.
And you see that in our music. I mean, that's kind of what REO Speedwagon is all about. We're not the greatest musicians in the world, we're not the flashiest dressers in the world...we're kind of, you know, just your average guys who live in the neighborhood. But we've got something, and we feel like it's something that people can relate to and that people react to. People have been reacting to my songs ever since I was twelve years old, and so I don't care if Clive Davis doesn't get it or not. It's, like, I'm not going stop, and that's my advice for young artists--don't let yourself be thrown off track by other people's opinions. You've just got to believe.
MR: Kevin, you might say that your advice is "Keep On Loving What You Do."
KC: (laughs) Yeah.
MR: Kevin, there's so much more I'd love to talk with you about, but I really appreciate your time and especially sharing the story behind Hi Fidelity. All the best in the future, sir.
KC: Well, thank you. It's really nice to talk to you, you're a good interviewer. It makes it easy for me when someone knows what they're doing. Anytime you want to do a follow up thing, just let me know. I'd be happy to talk to you again.
MR: (laughs) No, you're a good interviewee, but thanks Kevin.
KC: Give my best to Arianna--I am a fan. I'm a Bill Maher kind of guy--I was actually on Politically Incorrect once, which is my claim to fame, but I really do like Arianna. I think she's got the right outlook on things. I'm happy for her success as well.
MR: Kevin, that's a whole 'nother interview for you, isn't it, a political one. That's great. We have to do this again, thanks man.
KC: I would love that. We will certainly talk again. Thank you.
1. Don't Let Him Go
2. Keep On Loving You
3. Follow My Heart
4. In Your Letter
5. Take It On The Run
6. Tough Guys
7. Out Of Season
8. Shakin' It Loose
9. Someone Tonight
10. I Wish You Were There
1. Someone Tonight (Previously Unreleased Live Studio Demo)
2. Tough Guys (Previously Unreleased Live Studio Demo)
3. In Your Letter (Previously Unreleased Live Studio Demo)
4. Follow My Heart (Previously Unreleased Live Studio Demo)
5. Take It On The Run (Previously Unreleased Live Studio Demo)
6. Don't Let Him Go (Previously Unreleased Live Studio Demo)
7. Keep On Loving You (Previously Unreleased Live Studio Demo)
8. Shakin' It Loose (Previously Unreleased Live Studio Demo)
9. I Wish You Were There (Previously Unreleased Live Studio Demo)
Transcribed by Claire Wellin
A Conversation with Graham Colton
Mike Ragogna: Graham, how are you today?
Graham Colton: Doing great, Mike.
MR: Good to hear. Pacific Coast Eyes is your third album?
GC: That's a fantastic question because it depends on how you define it. (laughs) But, yes, I believe this is my third full-length album.
MR: Does that number include the self-made album that got you all of your initial attention?
GC: I guess not. Maybe I should include that. I also have a bunch of EPs that are home studio demo sort of things. In this day and age, it's not just about the 11 or 12 song albums anymore. So, this is the third full-length album with a lot of stuff in between.
MR: Now, you've done something very interesting with Pacific Coast Eyes in that you've chosen to market it yourself, moving on from your major record deal. Can you tell us more about that?
GC: Well, I think there're a lot of reasons why I chose to do that. In all fairness, I had a great run with the monumental music company that is Universal Records. I had some great opportunities there and wouldn't have changed anything. However, as I was signed in 2002 and that was the tail end of the, well, let's call it "old music business" and at the forefront of the "new music business," it was a very interesting roller coaster ride over the course of two albums.
When I first signed, I already had songs on the internet and was lucky enough to go on tour with my heroes--bands like Counting Crows, The Wallflowers, and Better Than Ezra really took me under their wings. That was really the life-blood of what I did, and quite honestly, we sold the majority of our albums out of our van. All of this was happening right around the time that iTunes was being unveiled and there was such a scene for college rock and acoustic music. That was also right around the time when John Mayer was coming out and I did a lot of touring with him. So, it definitely seemed like there was a shift from my first to my second album, though it's kind of hard to define what that was.
Like I said, it's just been a whirlwind. But for this new record I chose to part ways with Universal because I think that it was probably not in their best interest to make another album with me. I had a record deal which was signed in 2002 and that was a very different era in the music industry than it is now, you know? Then when it came time to look for another label, I got impatient and realized that all of the songs were ready now and I have people that want to hear them. I believe in myself and I don't think I need major marketing, I just need people to listen.
MR: Wouldn't you say, though, that Universal Records provided you with some opportunities beyond your means as a self-promoted artist? Was it because of that affiliation that your song "Best Days" become the closing song for American Idol?
GC: Well, it's interesting. Most of my biggest opportunities happened through happen-stance and didn't really happen through someone at the record company pushing a button, and I mean that with all due respect. If that were the case, I would be totally honest and say that I was given the gas pedal through major marketing, but that just wasn't the case. American Idol happened through a friend of mine who knew the producers of the show and sent the song over. Then Ruben Studdard, the former winner, was slated to sing a Kenny Loggins song and we sent ours over because we thought it would be a nice song for the show, but they told us that they were already in the midst of getting the rights to the Kenny Loggins song. A little while later, we came to find out that they had a bit of a disagreement and Ruben said that he wasn't recording the song. So, I was sitting in my living room watching the show, having already been told that they weren't going to use my song, and lo and behold, my song came on. (laughs) So, thank you to Ruben for having that disagreement, I guess. (laughs) It was good fortune for me.
MR: That's a great story. Now, tell us more about your new album.
GC: Well, the title song "Pacific Coast Eyes" was the last song that I wrote for the album and, strangely enough, tipped the whole album into more of this breezy, warm California vibe. This is one of the first songs that I've ever written about characters that I've never met before. One character in particular I had in my head was this girl who drives from Oklahoma to the Pacific Coast. I just wanted to have a bit more fun with this album. I was definitely in a place where I felt free and, kind of, open I guess. This song just kinda came out. I wrote this in my rental car and sang the lyrics into my cell phone..I didn't even have my guitar with me.
MR: That's a great way to write. Can you tell us a little bit about your musical background?
GC: Well, there was always music in my house growing up. My dad used to play, and still does, in a '60s and '70s cover band in Oklahoma, so I was always around what I consider really cool music. And in High School, I started playing guitar and went to play at a Mexican restaurant on Saturdays when I was free. Oddly enough, I used to play mostly Counting Crows and The Wallflowers and Better Than Ezra tunes. Luckily, later in my career, I became friends with and got to tour with all those guys. The biggest thing, though, was in high school, I paid a guy $50 to record a bunch of my own songs and I think one of my buddies put them on Napster. Then, by the time I got to Dallas for college, I set up a little website for my gigs around the city. Then I started getting emails from kids around the country asking how they could buy my album and when was I coming to town. That was certainly an eye opener for me. After that I got asked to go on tour with the Counting Crows, which was my sophomore year in college, and I told my parents and college professors I had to take a semester off to go on tour and here we are.
MR: I particularly connected with the song "Love Comes Back Around," can you talk a little bit about that song?
GC: Well, a friend of mine had recently lost her mother and I found myself wanting to offer something to the family, but I didn't really know what to say. I spent a little time with the family before the funeral and they were really inspiring to me because they were all about celebrating that this person is still with them in spirit. I just feel really moved about writing how, in any relationship ending, whether it be by death or a break-up, those people leave a lasting impression on our lives. I first recorded that song on an EP that later became the Twenty Something EP, which was really a precursor to the album. That song has now pretty much taken on a life of it's own. It's been adopted for a film that will be coming out in 2012 called The United States Of Autism. That's one of the greatest rewards as a songwriter - to watch these creations come to life and connect with people and go on to great things. And I've been very fortunate in the past few years to have a bunch of songs go out and be connected to some amazing causes and projects that have really moved people. So, that's been really exciting.
MR: Nice. Alright, I'm going to throw song titles at you, and I'd love to hear the stories behind them as well. How about "Graceland"?
GC: That song is very important to me, and I definitely feel like it was a big step for me as an artist. This is another song in which I never actually met the characters that I wrote about. A friend of mine came over to my house and we were just chatting, not really thinking about writing a song, and he was telling me about a couple of his friends who were planning on packing up their car and going to Graceland in Memphis. I started to inquire about their journey and apparently, that was where they had their first, sort of, magical trip together. The relationship had since gone a bit sour and they thought that if they went back, they could rekindle things. I thought to myself that it was such an interesting and quirky story that I fell in love with it. So, I immediately knew that we had to write this song, and the song came out in about 15 minutes and has since become very personal to me. I think I see myself in the story, you know? I mean, I write about relationships, love, and loss a lot. This was just a fun way to write about these characters because I saw all of the pictures in my head. I just thought it was a really interesting and unique story.
MR: Do you find yourself writing more in the first person or as an outsider looking in?
GC: Usually, it's been first person, but now, as I'm growing as a songwriter, it's become more of an interesting process. Now, I definitely want to follow what I'm feeling because recently, I have gravitated toward not having it be first person all the time. I've always felt that in order for something to be 100% honest and truthful, I had to be in the story, you know? I have to draw from direct personal experience. But with this album, there's a lot more of me just being inspired by someone else's story, and, in a way, I kind of get in the middle of their story somehow.
MR: One of your songs, "Twenty Something" is the story of, sort of, waking up and realizing that you've grown older and have reached the next point in your life which is, I think, something everyone goes through. Can you share a little about your journey up to this point in your life and how reaching this point has affected your life?
GC: That's a great question. I found myself in the spot of having had all of this good fortune and, after my second major album came out with Universal, I felt as though the rug had kind of been pulled out from under me, and I didn't really know what to do and I found myself a little afraid, but kind of excited about the future. I was having these thoughts that I wasn't quite where I wanted to be yet, but I was well on my way. I feel like a lot of twenty somethings nowadays feel that same way. What I try to do in a lot of my songs is really boil things down to what I really want to say...sometimes it's not poetic or cool, but it's truthful. This song was one where I had the lyric before I had the music because of my experiences.
MR: You also wrote a song on this album called "Cigarette" with Kevin Griffin of Better Than Ezra.
GC: Yeah, Kevin and I have actually written a bunch of songs together. The start of this song was actually written about five years ago. At the time it was written, it just didn't seem right. A lot of bands don't believe in going back to a song because they think the song loses something if it wasn't written in the present and I disagree. I think certain songs you have to live with, and when it's right, you'll know. This song just felt right to me because it's kind of the opposite of a song like "Twenty Something." I mean, it still deals with topics like the girl leaving, but this song is more light, and it was more about the recording and the way it sounded as opposed to me trying to make some sort of grand statement. On this whole album, I wanted it to feel lighter and real and honest, and I didn't want every song to have to feel heavy. So, that song was more about getting the guys in the band together and playing a three and a half minute rock song, you know? And I hope that comes through in the song. It's the sort of song that may not be everyone's favorite, but it's still a lot of fun to play live. I don't know, it just felt right for the record.
MR: Okay, "Waiting For Love."
GC: This was another song that was more about a feeling as opposed to the pressure that I felt being with a label to create a hit song. Though I do like writing catchy songs, this one came from a place of just wanting the song to feel good throughout. Maybe it will turn out to be a big radio hit, who knows. (laughs) We'll see.
MR: Nice. Graham, how did you get your band together?
GC: Well, I've got a great Oklahoma-based music community. There's a studio near my hometown called Blackwatch Studios, and they've really made a name for themselves primarily because my guitar player, Jared Evans, and my piano and bass player, Chad Copeland, have brought in some incredible acts. They are just making really great records. I recorded half of my album there and half in Los Angeles, but they've really become a pivotal piece of the puzzle for how I write my new songs and arrange them, along with my Producer Tommy Walter. It's nice because sometimes, you really just want to be a part of a band, and it's nice for me to have both. Whenever I'm out playing shows, I hope that people don't get the sense that it's just me playing with a backup group of guys, you know? I always want it to feel like a group.
MR: Can you tell us a little about your connection to Adam Duritz?
GC: There really isn't a grand story there. Now that I know Adam personally, I know that he has always been a guy who likes to search for new music and nurture and develop talent. He had his own record company for a while, and he actually may have his own production company now. Counting Crows and Better Than Ezra really were like big brothers to me and they still are.
MR: Graham, what advice do you have for new artists?
GC: Well, now, I think there's more opportunity out there to be heard than ever before, and I have to take my own advice and say that the key is just getting stuff out there. Regardless of how it gets out there and how it sounds, if it's good, people will hear it. That's certainly what I try to live by, even with my own material. I also feel that in this day and age, people want transparency--everything doesn't have to be perfect. In fact, now is the perfect time for things not to be so perfect. I think people really want that. So, I would say for anyone starting out that there's a big world out there with the internet making things so easy, use it to your advantage.
MR: And you've been doing that, haven't you?
GC: Yeah, I really have. You certainly want to do it in the right way, you know? But as long as you put the music first, I don't think you can go wrong with putting as much stuff out there as possible and letting people form their own opinions about it. I really want my work to be about quality over quantity. I've been very, very fortunate.
MR: Great. You'll also be touring for the remainder of this summer to promote this album. Where will you be playing?
GC: I'm going to be everywhere starting in the Fall. (laughs) I just finished up some time in the Midwest and California, then I'll take August off. But September through Christmas, I will be out and about. So, people should check out my website (www.grahamcolton.com) and Facebook and Twitter because I am really active on both of those sites. I really do have a great time interacting with my fans, and those are the best ways to find out what's going on with me, quite literally, minute to minute. (laughs) When I'm on the road I come across a lot of fun things and I like to talk about them and share pictures.
MR: Fantastic. Graham, thank you so much for taking the time to chat about all things Graham Colton.
GC: Thanks so much for having me, man. This is the kind of thing that really keeps me going. I just want to encourage people to do what they love, and if they're lucky, people like you will find them and keep them going. It's even more inspiring to me when I get to do interviews like this, so thank you so much for having me.
MR: Thanks so much, Graham. All the best.
1. Love Comes Back Around
2. Waiting For Love
3. Pacific Coast Eyes
6. Twenty Something
7. Everything You Are
8. There Comes A Time
9. You're On Your Way
11. Our Story
12. A Day Too Late
Transcribed by Evan Tyrone Martin
The Box Story is back with its first pro ball video, check it:
A Conversation with David Berkeley
Mike Ragogna: David!
David Berkeley: Hello there.
MR: Dude, what the heck have you been up to?
DB: Most recently, I've been working with a couple of DJs doing an odd departure from my normal folk singer-songwriter world--collaborating on dance tracks. I've been writing vocals and singing melodies over long, extended drum and bass and synth songs. On this last tour that I did, I actually got to do my debut performance of one of these songs at a big dance club in New York. The show began at 2:00 am, which, for me, is at least twelve hours after I'm used to performing. It was a pretty intense experience, it was one of the first times that people have been sort of in a frantic drug-crazed dance while I'm singing as opposed to, say, sitting down and brooding. It was pretty exhilarating, actually.
MR: Is this something you're going to find yourself doing in the future, maybe even for the next album?
DB: (laughs) I don't know...if so I need to have a new name for it, but it's definitely something that is operating from a different side of my brain. It's been really fun, and just kind of an interesting exercise for me because a lot of the art of songwriting that I've tried to craft, those rules are getting thrown out of the window for this. Not that there aren't rules for this, there are different rules, so I'm trying to learn that language. It's a very different process from how I normally write songs.
MR: You've also approached your latest album differently. Not only is Some Kind Of Cure an audio album, but you also have a book, 140 Goats And A Guitar: The Stories Behind Some Kind of Cure.
DB: When I write songs, I tend to write them out of experiences and stories that happen to me. Then I kind of fictionalize them or change them and find different ways to approach my real life experience. I enjoy telling stories as I perform in concert, and I thought it might be an interesting exercise to try to actually write the stories that led to or inspired the songs. They're not all anecdotal stories--some are descriptions of events or things like that. So, I wrote 13 short pieces--stories, essays, whatever you want to call them--that inspired the 13 songs on the album. The book gives you the music, and the concept is that the reader would kind of move through the book and the record together, alternating between story and then song. I think that for people who are interested in the craft of songwriting, it's kind of neat to pull back the veil and kind of play with the relationship between real life and art. You get to kind of experience my world with me and listen to the song that arose out of it. You can sort of see how things have to change or how things happened to change for me as I kind of worked from the real life experience and put it into something that is hopefully more poetic.
MR: What's the story behind "Parachute"?
DB: "Parachute" is actually the funniest story, I think, in the book. The song is set on a road, driving back from Massachusetts. A car breaks down with a guy and a girl in it, and the breakdown of the car is sort of a metaphor for them sort of breaking down emotionally as a couple. Ultimately, in the song, things work out and the quasi-crisis that happens with the breakdown on the road turns into a thing that holds the couple together. A lot of my songs deal with themes like that. In fact, the title "Some Kind of Cure" is about finding cures to things that are troubling us or alienating us. It's about trying to find some hope and light through difficulty. In this case, it's this anecdote about a car breaking down.
The story that inspired this song is that I have this habit of pushing a tank of gas well beyond where one should push a tank of gas, and I tell several stories--two stories, actually, in this piece--about times when I've run out of gas. The primary one is a story about running out of gas with my pregnant wife on a highway on the border of Georgia and Tennessee and the awful experience that came out of that as we had to hike across a field, which turned into a swamp, to try and get fuel to fill up our empty gas tank. Then I tell one further story about running out of gas with my trumpet player and kind of make fun of myself a bunch. It was a real situation--and not a fun situation--that as I kind of worked into the space of a song turned into something that's much more romantic and less muddy and painful and potentially divorce-provoking.
MR: (laughs) David, everyone always thinks they can make that gas stretch out longer.
DB: Oh, fully. I started the story by kind of explaining my philosophy of why that's a valid thing to do, and then, of course, undermining my whole philosophy by telling you how many times I've run out of gas. (laughs) Depending on the angle you can look at that gas gauge, it can look way above empty if you want it to.
MR: What's the story behind the title track, "Some Kind Of Cure"?
DB: I wrote a lot of this album while living on the island of Corsica, which is a small island in the Mediterranean. My wife and I and our then one-year-old son Jackson lived there for a year. "Some Kind Of Cure" is actually the only song on the album that mentions Corsica by name. It starts with the ringing of the bell that was in our little village of Tralonca--we heard these bells all the time on the island. It actually has a little bit of Corsican singing buried in the mix as well that I recorded while I was there. This song is a good kind of representation of the overall theme of the record, like I talked about a little bit. It tries to provoke a bit of alienation and longing for home and kind of a displacement feeling, which we felt a lot while living there. Ultimately, it hopes to find some kind of cure that can get you through that.
MR: "Jackson" as in Jackson Browne?
DB: No, "Jackson" as in my grandfather, but Jackson Brown is a good extra reference for that.
MR: So, how do you write, what's your process?
DB: If you listen to my songs, one might think that lyrics come first for me. I tend to spend a lot of time on lyrics and I care greatly about them, but despite the fact that I consider myself more of a writer than a guitarist--or more of a singer than a guitarist--I actually write the melodies first most of the time, or at least things start with something on the guitar. Ideally, as I'm kind of working through that, I'm playing with some lyrics and always have ideas and things in my head that are affecting me emotionally. So, hopefully, what is actually fueling the guitar things that I'm playing with are coming out of something that I'm feeling. I sort of know what it's about, but it helps me to find a poetic pattern or some kind of a rhythm or a rhyme scheme that helps narrow the feel a little bit for me. Once I've kind of developed that flow of words, then I can try and shape the themes into something that makes sense as a song. I work really long and hard on my songs--I don't write very quickly although sometimes, things come almost intact and those are great ones.
The song "Homesick" is one of those that actually came quite quickly. I wrote it when we were living in Corsica and it also has a pretty funny-sounding story that is in the book--140 Goats And A Guitar, which actually is the book's title. I'm not going to say a ton about it right now, but the story does involve a goat initially. It's a good indication of how I write songs and how the book came to be. There was an initial founding story for that song, which, if you read it, is an awkward and painful encounter with a goat, and yet the song is not humorous and doesn't mention goats at all. So, in the book, I tell the story of the goat, which is what led me to kind of get in the space to fuel the emotion behind the song. But then I kind of go into what went on in my head and heart over the next months as I was coming up with the actual song. I think that's one thing that separates an essayist and a songwriter--or at least my kind of songwriter. If I was just going to be a humorist, I would just write the story of the goat and that would be great. That was fun to do in the book.
But as a songwriter--unless I was a comic songwriter--that, for me, didn't make a good song. What made a good song for me was finding something deeper in these emotions that were below it and behind it. For me, what that was was this incredible contrast between the beauty that I was feeling in Corsica and this real sense of displacement and alienation that I felt living far from home, which was enhanced by being a father and feeling protective and wanting my son to be okay and not always having the ability to make him okay. So, what "Homesick" ends up being about is that. I took something that was painful and kind of humorous and funny and it led down that road.
MR: How did it feel to have Some Kind Of Cure singled out by Yahoo, which placed your album at #19 on the list of "Albums That Should Be In Every Home" for the first half of 2011?
DB: Yeah, that's obviously great. It's hard to pay a lot of attention to that stuff because just as many people pan you and tell you that it's one of the 25 records that should never enter anyone's home. (laughs) You try to do what you do and you hope that people like it. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. But yeah, that was a nice surprise for sure.
MR: Let's move on to "George Square."
DB: So, maybe two thirds of the record is set in Corsica--one might not know that from all of the songs--but I wrote the vast majority there. Several other songs were written other places. "Parachute" was written in America and "George Square" was written in Scotland. George Square is a place in Glasgow, it's a big open square in the center of town. I've been through Glasgow a bunch and I get affected a lot by seeing new places and by traveling. Glasgow's always kind of hit me in a weird way. It's a beautiful city, but it's also kind of a frightening city. There are a lot of drunks around and it's a hard city...it rains a lot. It can be a place that can be not so fun to be if you're in the middle of a long, grueling tour and far from home. That song tells the story of a girl that I saw wandering across the square and she had this kind of sad beauty about her. I just kind of made up a narrative about her being lost and what she might be looking for. So, that's what led that one.
MR: Then there's the beautiful "Soldier's Song."
DB: You know, being a songwriter is an odd place to be to write songs about things that you don't always know about or experience. As we've been seemingly in perpetual states of war for about a decade or so, I've kind of wrestled with writing war songs and whether I had any right to do so. I don't write a lot of political songs, but I found myself feeling an intense guilt about the fact that I was sitting in one park or another apartment with my guitar while people relatively the same age--and a not lot younger than me--were in far worse circumstances, and not with a guitar at all. Regardless of my politics and what one might think about whether a war is right or wrong, I felt like there weren't that many songs that kind of sympathized and tried to empathize with the plight of a soldier. There was so much discourse. I've lived in mostly places that are blue states where most of the time, people criticize the war efforts. Whether or not I sympathize with those arguments, I still felt like there was a voice that wasn't really being heard. So, this song is an attempt to just kind of capture the emotion and the fear and the experience--to as great an extent as I can--of a soldier fighting and being afraid to die. So, that's what it is.
MR: David, what advice would you have for new artists at this point?
DB: Go and do it. (laughs) I think that you have to really believe in what you're doing and try to be true to what it is that inspires you to want to make music. And just do the best you can to follow that voice and not any other voice. That doesn't get any easier as you do it for a long time, but it's, I think, the only way you can keep your integrity and make art that's valuable and keep your sanity.
MR: The keeping your sanity part's got to be hard.
DB: (laughs) For sure. And don't get sort of tricked into thinking that it's like, an easy road or all just glory. For a few it happens that way, I assume or I imagine, but it's a hard path. The potential applause or praise you get is a very small part of the journey. You have to try to be doing it for the right reasons. If you're doing it for the thrill of being onstage and getting people to kind of adore you, then you're asking for trouble at some point or another. But if you're doing it because you love to create things out of places and spaces that you feel and think, and if you see the importance of that, and if you need to do that--if you need to express these things and that's where you get your fulfillment--then perhaps it's a safer path.
MR: You've got a have a lot of touring on your schedule.
DB: I do, I tour a lot. I'm a father now--twice over--and it's kind of a joke in my band that the moment that I'm offstage I'm either on the phone or having some sort of a chat with my kids. Actually, most of this year, I was on the road, and I've been reading the entire Lemony Snicket series to my son over the phone or over chats. It's an attempt for me to keep things okay at home as I'm away, and it's not always an easy thing to do.
MR: Let's end by talking about "Independence."
DB: It's set on the fifth of July, which, as we're talking is a relevant date. It came out of this morning on the fifth of July a few years ago when I was walking at a really painfully early hour with my son who couldn't sleep past 5:00am at that time, and seeing all of these spent fireworks all over the ground in Brooklyn. I was just kind of thinking about the day after a victory--the day after independence, the day after celebration--and that kind of coming down and hung over waking-up, thinking about what the new day now brings and all the responsibility that that comes with. So, that's the backdrop for that one.
MR: David, I think we've covered a heck of a lot of territory.
DB: By the way, I wanted to mention how I love your station, solar-powered KRUU-FM. I've been through your town a few times and I really dig being out there.
MR: Apparently, we like you too. You keep coming back! (laughs)
DB: My good friend Tim Britton just modified a great little amp for me and sent it over here, so I'm playing through a bit of their field all the time.
MR: That's really sweet, I'll mention that to him and thanks David, I'm very grateful for your time.
DB: It's my pleasure, Mike. Thank you so much for taking the time yourself. And hello Fairfield!
MR: (laughs) All the best, man.
1. George Square
3. The Blood and the Wine
5. Steel Mill
6. Hope for Better Days
7. Some Kind of Cure
9. Soldier's Song
12. All Those Ashes
13. Winter Winds
Transcribed by Claire Wellin
BLOGGING FROM THE BEAUTY SHOP
Yeah, they played. They kicked ass. Any questions?
1. Long, Hard Road
3. Home For The Holidays
5. Call Me In The Morning
7. Just Another City
8. Save The Nightly (Too Young)
10. Spent Time
11. Ghost In The Valley