A Conversation With Jon McLaughlin
Mike Ragogna: Jon, your new album Promising Promises is basically a reworking of Forever If Ever, right?
Jon McLaughlin: I made Forever If Ever last summer, 2011. I was actually in between labels at the time so I made the record, I self-produced it, recorded it at home in Indiana, and put it out independently. It got into the hands of Razor & Tie and they said, "We really love the album, we're big fans of it, and we want to sign you to our label." I signed with them but I didn't want to record a new record with them, so we were stuck with them wanting a new record but I had just put Forever If Ever out. I didn't want to kill it and put anything new out so we decided that what we'd do is take Forever If Ever down and I already had a bunch of new songs. We picked three new songs and put those on, took a couple songs off, put Sara Bareilles on as a duet on "Summer Is Over," did a bunch of repackaging, did a new photo shoot, made a new video, all that kind of stuff. Promising Promises is like a new and improved Forever If Ever.
MR: Nice. And your duet with Sara became a video.
JM: Yeah, we shot a video out in LA for "Summer Is Over" and we shot it all over the place. We drove all over LA getting a bunch of flashback footage of the summer--you have to see the video for this to make sense. Then we ended up going way outside of town and we shot in this compound that had this one amazing-looking tree that has been used for tons of stuff. Skittles uses it for their commercials, I think it was The Lovely Bones tree in that movie. The most famous thing in the video is the tree, actually.
MR: Nice, the star of the video is the tree.
JM: Right. But it was the most fun I've ever had doing a music video, for sure.
MR: Signing with a new label and coming from working the latest project independently, in retrospect, what were some of the hardest elements of being your own promoter, your own label, etc.?
JM: I used to be signed to Island Def Jam. I was signed to them for almost six years. The music business went through a lot of changes during those 5-6 years. The (people) I was working with in 2005 when I was signed looked nothing like the (people) I was working with in 2011 when we decided to part ways. My time when I was independent was actually amazing. I was at a point as an artist where I really knew exactly what I wanted to do. I felt really strongly about the songs I was writing and I really wanted to do it a certain way. Being independent definitely has its pros. One of them was being able to do whatever I wanted to do. It was a little bit scary, though, at the same time, because everything falls on your shoulders. You don't have a label writing the checks, you don't have $100,000 marketing budget to make the video. But honestly I loved it. The thing I loved about Razor & Tie is it doesn't feel like I'm changing the game to sign with a label again. It feels like Razor & Tie is helping me eliminate the con while at the same time keeping all the good aspects of being independent.
MR: Well, there's social media, etc. that are also involved, and that can be challenging for many artists to get their hands around. Were there other challenges being independent?
JM: Typically, it comes down to the promotional side of things, the money thing. If you have endless amounts of cash, you can hire a big time publicist to get you out there. But a label having some money can help you get your space and get your name out there and you can use their connections to get on great TV shows and all that kind of stuff. There's definitely an advantage to that for sure.
MR: Which trackss do you think are going to get the biggest attention, and what's your favorite?
JM: Obviously, "Summer's Over" is probably #1 because of the fact that I was able to get my buddy Sara to sing on it. She just killed it and brings the song a whole new life. That's #1. If I had to pick a favorite, it's tough to pick amongst your songs, but there's a song called "If Only I" on the record.
MR: Mine too.
JM: Yeah that's one of my favorite songs of any song that I've ever written and I think a lot of that has to do with the process that my band and I went through when we recorded it. It was very different, and this gets a little geeky, but the way we recorded it was different. We had multiple drum sets going on at the same time and it's a long builder. It's a very mood-setting kind of song. I'm excited to play that one live because in the right room with the right crowd, it could be a real moment.
MR: And there's "Your Never Know," as in you never know what you have 'til it's gone.
JM: Yeah, very true. That's a song that's pretty straight ahead. We've rehearsed that song one time so far. It's one of those songs that just comes out so easily, we don't have to work at it. I know it's going to change on the road, but it's already feeling really good.
MR: Another one of your new songs is the title track, "Promising Promises."
JM: Yeah, "Promising Promises" is going to be one of those songs that I know will be playing from here on out. It's one of those songs where we build the set list around it. I can already tell it's going to be a staple and I'm going to have to really practice a lot to make sure I can play that piano solo night after night.
MR: I asked you this last time, but what advice might you have for new artists?
JM: I was thinking when you brought up the whole social media aspect, I think that maybe a couple years ago, I felt like if you were signed to a major label, they should have control over a lot of the aspects, like it's a team effort on all fronts. I don't feel that way anymore. I always have a lot of people telling me good advice, which, if you're signed to a major label, is great. If it's a right fit, that's great. But always be in the mindset that you're independent. I think especially when it comes to your social media and whatever avenue you have to have a direct connection to your fans, you need to hold those cards close to your chest and really always be in control of that. Even though now, when times get busy since I'm signed to a label, they'll help with getting some promotional things out via Facebook and Twitter, I do 99.99% of all the social media stuff because it's just too much of a personal side of you and it needs to be you.
MR: How do you maintain yours? How do you keep up?
JM: There's an ebb and flow a little bit, you have to cut yourself some slack sometimes. You can sometimes feel like it takes a certain personality. I'm not a Perez Hilton and don't have something to say all the time. You really have to view it as an extension of your self. If you want your fans to be connected with you and you connected with your fans, you gotta just let it be organic and treat it as a conversation that's open. I personally think it's the greatest thing in the world, the fact that Twitter and Facebook are there and at any moment, anybody anywhere in the world can send me a message and it literally vibrates on my phone, I think it's awesome. I think it's great. It really serves me well in my career in a tangible way.
MR: What's touring going to be like?
JM: The band will be back together. I did a solo tour last year, which I really like but I'm excited to get the band together and put on a proper show to represent the music live. That's what we're going to do. The record is new, it's coming out in a couple weeks, and I'm excited to see how the songs evolve once we get out and start playing them live. There are a lot of these songs that we've never played before. I know that they're going to change and morph into something different.
1. Promising Promises
2. You Never Know
3. Summer Is Over - with Sara Bareilles
4. The Atmosphere
5. What I Want
6. I'll Follow You
7. Maybe It's Over - with Xenia Martinez
8. If Only I
10. Without You Now
11. My Girl Tonight
12. These Crazy Times
Transcribed by Narayana Windenberger
A Conversation With The dB's Peter Holsapple
Mike Ragogna: Without further ado, ladies and germs, Mr. Peter Holsapple from The ever-lovin' dBs! (claps)
Peter Holsapple: And the crowd went wild! (laughs)
MR: And why wouldn't they! So, your new album is called Falling Off The Sky. Heavens to Murgatroyd.
PH: Well, that's one of the subtitles of one of the songs. I guess it's the last song on the record that it takes it from, but it's a great song, and it's always nice to have something sort of dramatically involved for your title. You can call your record Radio City or #1 Record or something like that, but that's an entirely different kettle of fish. We were just feeling a little self-referential.
MR: Sir, you just opened up a can of fish, a kettle of worms, all of that.
PH: Didn't I, though?
MR: (laughs) All right, let's give everybody a little bit of a history lesson on the dBs first, like, the brief version.
PH: Okay, well, the brief version is we all grew up together in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in the '60s and '70s. We had bands there in a very, very vital combo scene for many years. Chris (Stamey) moved to New York to play bass with Alex Chilton, and little by little, he decided he would start a band. He got Will and Gene up there--that's Will Rigby on drums and Gene Holder on bass. About three months later, after a little time spent in Memphis, I moved up there, and that was the band. We started recording and playing as much as we possibly could. We put out our first album Stands for Decibels in 1981, followed on the heels by Repercussion later that year. Then Chris left the band in '83, I believe, and we soldiered on for a couple more records. We did a record called Like This in 1984 and a record called The Sound of Music in 1987. By 1988, we felt as though we were perhaps beating our heads against an imaginary wall, and in order to not create a problem for our heads, we stopped beating them against the wall, and we grounded to a halt. But Chris and I have worked together for years outside of this, and we thought that some of the songs we had come up with a few years ago would be best served with Will and Gene on board. So we asked them, and they were cool with it, and we took it from there.
MR: And of course, there's been a compilation on you guys every year since you broke up.
PH: Doesn't it seem like it?
MR: Yeah, kind of. So, new album. You guys get together. You've had this new album, and it's been a while in the making. What is the story of this reunion?
PH: Well, we were asked to play a couple shows. First of all, I guess one of the things we wanted to do was something for New Orleans, where I had lived for thirteen years. After Katrina, the city was in a tremendous state of flux and trying to rebuild. The bass player for the dBs after Chris had left, a guy named Beninato, had begun a charity called New Orleans Musicians' Relief Fund (NOMRF), and we recorded a version of "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," the Jimmy Ruffin song, and used it as our charity download. We cut some other songs, and we thought, "Well, you know, we can make a record out of this." So little by little, over the years and with everybody living in different places, we assembled it. It took a while, and it's not an easy process, but we wanted to make it sound as good as we possibly could and as seamless as possible because it's like making a movie. You don't see all the flubbed takes and things like that. You want people to just assume that it started at the beginning and ended at the end and it was all just a process that went straight through. So I think we managed to do that with this record. It took a while because we did record about thirty songs for it, and we had to kind of whittle it down. We had a couple of things come out while people were waiting. We had a single for Record Store Day last year, I think, called "Picture Sleeve," and then we released a song called "Revolution of the Mind" with a couple of videos and solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street Movement. So little by little, a couple of things leaked out, and we've done a couple of gigs, but we've now got this in earnest, and we got a release date of June 12th. We have a record company, Bar/None, so it's looking like it's going to happen the way it's supposed to this time.
MR: Yeah, Bar/None, with Mr. Mark Lipsitz, the head of marketing and owner.
PH: Yes, indeed! I knew Mark from when my band between the dBs and the dBs was a group called the Continental Drifters, and we had several records on Razor & Tie, and Mark was working with us there. So it was great to have him at Bar/None also. He had helped us with the Here and Now record that Chris and I put out a couple years ago. It was a duo.
MR: All right, enough about Mark Lipsitz. This isn't the Mark Lipsitz interview!
PH: Don't tell him it's not! (laughs)
MR: Now we're in trouble. (laughs) So at South by Southwest, there was this Big Star event you participated in.
PH: One of the things that Chris had been putting together for several years was a live rendering of the third Big Star album, Third/Sister Lovers, which, up until then, had not been performed live. So it was not meant as a tribute to Alex (Chilton). Originally, it was going to be one of those things that was going to be taking place while Big Star was playing a show. The involvement with Jody Stephens was great. Mike Mills from R.E.M. was playing with them, and there was a raft of people from North Carolina. But Chris went about getting the original arrangements reconstructed from the originals, which I'm not sure if they were around or if he had them or what happened, but Chris had taken a lot of time to make that happen. And they do it with a lot of guest vocalists. It's been successful. I think he's taking it to London and to Barcelona this summer as well.
We all loved Big Star very much growing up. It was a real milestone band for us. In my way of thinking, Big Star was the group that came along at the right time for me in lieu of The Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker, which were kind of the big deals down in North Carolina at the time, as you might imagine. Big Star was Southern, and they were pop, and they were sounding great, so we just felt like that was a great model for us. It showed that you can do this, you don't have to jam out for thirty minutes on an E chord. You can have something concise and brilliant and beautiful and glimmering the way those records were. So we were very happy about that, and it was like our band for many years. We were so excited to know about that band, and we've tried to be good missionaries about that, to take it to people, and I can't count how many bootleg cassettes and CDs I've copied for people over the years. Not to cut into their royalties, certainly, but just to get more people knowing about the band. I figure it's a better world when you know about Big Star.
MR: And of course, Big Star's first album was a game changer for a lot of bands that heard that for the first time.
PH: Absolutely. I'm a Radio City fan, myself. That's my favorite of the three main Big Star records. In Space is a good record too, without a doubt, but honestly, I think Radio City was the life changer for me.
MR: Yeah, exactly. And you're Peter Holsapple, so you know.
PH: Yeah, my life should change! (laughs)
MR: Listening back to Falling Off The Sky, top to bottom, what are your thoughts now?
PH: I am very proud of this record. I think that the work that was put into it really shows when you play it. I think it does have that seamless quality when you start it and end it the way we did. It covers the bases that a record should have. There are a lot of people out there that think that the concept of an album is antiquated, very 20th century. But we certainly believe that it's okay to have something be a continuous flow from start to end and not necessarily be perceived as, "Oh, it's going to be a bunch of download tracks or a bunch of ring tones" or something like that. Maybe that's the product of our age. We're all in our fifties, you know? We grew up with records and A sides and B sides. So taken with that vision of what a product...God help me for saying a "product." Sorry, the retailer in me just rose up, like Mothra. But you know, it may be an antiquated concept, but I don't think we really care. I think we really felt that it needed to be what it ended up being with all the right songs in the right order. Even sequencing a record is a make or break proposition. A lot of great records start with an anchor and sink to the bottom before you get the chance to hear the rest of the stuff. I think that our sequence turned out really great.
I think that this record fits neatly into the canon of what we've done, and I don't mean between the gun powder and the pellets or cannon ball. It really makes sense. I've said this in a number of interviews, but I think one of the things we were concerned about was what this record is supposed to sound like. Like, what does a record sound like by these guys who haven't recorded together in thirty-one years? What is it supposed to be? We've had a lot of life changes over the years since then--different marriages, divorces, locations, jobs, no jobs, substances, no substances--all of those things sort of figure in. So to have it sound like it would have been directly after Repercussion in 1981 would have been kind of phony on our parts. We had to sort of figure in all of the worlds that had passed with us.
MR: You mentioned alternate bands. What was your time with R.E.M. like?
PH: After the dBs broke up, I got an invitation to come out and sort of be the fifth wheel out there playing keyboards and guitar and whatever they needed, so I toured with them for a year or so. Then we worked on Out Of Time together, and eventually I was joining the Continental Drifters, so I put that on hold and parted from the R.E.M. guys. We're still friends and I'm still proud of everything that they accomplished in their tenure as the supreme rulers of our generation of rock. (laughs)
MR: Now, you were married to Susan Cowsill and made music together.
PH: That's right. Susan and I had the Continental Drifters for about ten years, and we were married for about ten years, and we have a daughter who is getting ready to graduate from high school. Susan is still a very close friend. It was one of those marriages where we were better served with different partners. Her husband Russ Broussard is a great guy. He was the drummer for the Continental Drifters. I'm remarried as well and have a couple more children. We're still fantastic friends, and I'm like you. I'm a huge fan of her singing, without a doubt. I think she's the best female singer going in the country, maybe the world, at this point, and I hope that at some point, the world will catch on. I think it's people like Norma Waterson, who was in her sixties, to put out a solo record. It's a situation where you don't want people to miss out on this, so it's up to us.
It's like the people that used to get dBs records into their college radio station, their own copies, because they weren't getting serviced by European labels, but their records got played, you know? People made mix tapes and got us on there, and it's the same thing with Susan. People should be sitting up on their hind legs and listening to every note she sings because they're all incredibly glorious. And her solo records are splendid, and I'm proud of the work we did together in the Continental Drifters.
MR: Yeah, and by the way, just as a parting word or two on The Cowsills. They had an album called Global. Of course, you're aware of it.
PH: I'm on that!
MR: My favorite song on the album is one called "Some Good Years," which is especially touching considering the band's history.
PH: Bob did a lot of the parts. I'm not sure who all the personnel was on that, but that is a beautiful song, and I agree with you. It's poignant, and it's true to life, and it's everything you would hope for.
MR: Yeah, and the unofficial video that went with that just showing all the footage of them as kids and the shows and all that. It's a very touching song. It was almost like, "Take that, Beach Boys!" No, not really...
PH: They were connected with The Beach Boys. Billy Cowsill was good friends with Brian Wilson, and John Cowsill, I actually just saw this weekend playing drums for the 50th anniversary tour, the 50th reunion when they played in Raleigh. It's the genetic harmony thing... having them all singing. It's a beautiful thing. We really miss Barry Cowsill and Billy Cowsill a lot. Barry was my first intro to the family. I worked with him for several years, and what an incredibly talented guy! And Billy also had a life after The Cowsills with "Blue Northern" and the Blue Shadows, and The Co-Dependents. He did all sorts of wonderful stuff as well.
MR: Peter, what have we not talked about?
PH: Don't forget 17 years with Hootie & The Blowfish!
MR: Do you have a quick story?
PH: Well, all I will tell you is this. You know, there have been people that have taken swipes at my street credibility for working with a popular rock band like Hootie and the Blowfish, but I will tell you that a lot of those people just haven't really listened past the songs they've heard on the radio and the fact that they got inundated with the first record. Over the years, these guys have put out wonderful records, and they're very talented musicians, and they're incredibly generous and loving people. They do a lot of charity work. They do a regular thing every year where they donate money to the music programs in the public schools around Charleston. It's really remarkable. They may not be everybody's favorite cup of tea, but they certainly have been nothing but extraordinary people to me and to my family.
MR: Peter, what advice might you have for new artists?
PH: Be true to your muse. Rah Rah! (laughs) Suddenly I heard The Beach Boys' song in the background, so I was getting ready to do the cheerleading part. (laughs) But I guess one thing is if you're a songwriter, don't be afraid to have some bad songs because you have to sort of plum the pipes. I've had numerous situations where I'm thinking, "Gosh, this could be my last song. I haven't written a song in a long time, and this is the first song, and gosh, it's not very good, is it..." And the next song will be great, and the next song will be great after that. Be constantly vigilant and make sure that you're writing what you like. Be true to your muse. Believe in what you're receiving. I like to think of that as the Tom Petty thing like, I'm just a receiver, I'm a radio antenna just kind of pulling it in from the ether. I tend to think that as well. I would say persistence is great to have. It's not all fun and games out in the rock 'n' roll world. It's a lot of--what's the word--sacrifice, I guess. Stability. I never thought I would actually be kind of envious of some of my friends that had nice jobs all their lives, but you know, sometimes when the plumber costs $600 and you wonder where that's going to come from, it's not the sustainable rock 'n' roll income that you'd hope for. I always wanted to buy a house for my parents like Ringo did, and I never really got around to that. Unfortunately, I never got the money together to do it. So be grateful for everything that you get. Be sweet to the people that love your music. Don't be mean to them. Don't put people on pedestals too much. That's a few things that I'd say. It's all going to be in my book one day, right? (laughs)
MR: (laughs) What's the title?
PH: My book is called I'll Never Do That Again. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) Thank you! Peter, any words of wisdom?
PH: Well the only thing I'd add in is please go out and buy the record when it comes out! It's a really good record. It'll up the quality of your record collection. We're really proud of it. We're going to try to do as many dates as we possibly can to promote it, but even if we don't get to your neck of the woods, we hope everybody owns a copy. Actually, we're suggesting that people buy two because there's always somebody that'll need to hear this, and I think that there's enough good stuff on this record that warrants that kind of behavior.
MR: You shameless marketer!
PH: Aren't I, though?
MR: And of course, don't forget to say hi to Mark Lipsitz next time you talk with him.
PH: Oh, I'll tell him all about this.
MR: (laughs) Seriously, he's one of my favorite people on the planet.
PH: He's a good guy. He's a very inventive thinker, and we appreciate people like that. Over the years, we've been very fortunate to have certain people at record companies that have really gone the extra mile to kind of think of an interesting thing to do with us because we're not the most marketable band, I guess. I don't know. I tend to think the music is, but maybe the personalities are not quite as cartoon-like as they need to be for people to be able to identify us. But yeah, there have always been people like Mark around who've made our job a lot easier. So we're grateful for that.
MR: And of course you'll be playing some more dates with the other guys at some point?
PH: This is true.
1. That Time Is Gone
2. Before We Were Born
3. The Wonder Of Love
4. Write Back
5. Far Away And Long Ago
6. Send Me Something Real
7. World To Cry
8. The Adventures Of Albatross And Doggerel
9. I Didn't Mean To Say That
11. She Won't Drive In The Rain Anymore
12. Remember (Falling Off The Sky)
Transcribed by Kyle Pongan