A Conversation with Genesis' Mike Rutherford
Mike Ragogna: Mike, Genesis' new anthology, R-Kive, is an overview of the musical creativity of not only Genesis but it includes the works of each member of the band as well. How did it come together?
Mike Rutherford: It started, really, with the documentary. Eagle Rock wanted to make a documentary of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and I said, "Well maybe one day, but at the moment there's a much better story to tell." No one quite ties in the fact that actually from this one band you've got the Collins career, the Gabriel career, the Mechanics, everything. Some people don't tie it in. People start at a certain time in someone's career. Some people I meet say, "Did Phil play drums? I didn't know." I met some guy who was surprised that Peter Gabriel was in Genesis. People don't quite tie it in. They say, "You're Mike from the Mechanics?" In a way it's justified doing, I think. Plus you'll see "In The Air Tonight," "Biko," "Living Years," "Invisible Touch," put it side-by-side and it's quite a strong summarizing combination.
Ragogna: The choices made for this package seem like everything could have been considered "Genesis." How were the solo tracks chosen?
Rutherford: The individual tracks were chosen by the individuals. It was their choice. I would've loved to have "Sledgehammer" on it but Pete chose his three songs so we went with what he wanted to put on. Funny enough when you put the solo tracks alongside Genesis they fit closer than I thought in a funny way. In my mind I imagined the tracks to be more different, but they're not.
Ragogna: This also comes off like an audio documentary. Did you listen to this from top to bottom and have any new opinions of Genesis or everyone's careers?
Rutherford: I didn't before it came out. I went for a three hour drive the other day up in Norwich and I played CDs two and three and quite enjoyed it. I wouldn't say I'd listen at home but in the car it was quite good. The timing of things was interesting. I'd forgotten that Steve Hackett's first solo album was before A Trick Of The Tail. You forget these things, you know.
Ragogna: Right. Were there any revelations or what-ifs that came out of listening to resulting anthology?
Rutherford: The choice wasn't very hard, but in a sense, it's all what-ifs. "If that track isn't on, then what of those ones?" It's an option, you have to choose. You could've chosen differently, but I think it's a nice balance in the end.
Ragogna: What about with career decisions? Is there anything that the package really spotlights as far as potential direction or whatever when it comes to combining Genesis material with the solo works?
Rutherford: I think so. It's an interesting overview of our songwriting, which I think is quite nice. It shows how it's changed and developed but remained in a certain framework because it's us, really.
Ragogna: When you're creating, do you have a goal or are you just in the moment of, "I'm feeling this, so I'm writing this."
Rutherford: I see it more now as time goes by. Genesis came out of that generational change in the sixties. There was a huge social change in England in the sixties and pop music came out, the Beatles, the Stones. For the first time young ment wanted to be different from their fathers. I think our parents' generation was stunned by two world wars, they were in shock and tired and then we came along. England is a very old-fashioned country unlike America which is more forward-thinking. England had a lot of old rules and traditions that were due to be changed. I feel the result of the two world wars and the timing meant our generation suddenly kicked in and took a bit of a left turn. The music relates to that, but it's also relevant to the social change, too.
Ragogna: Don't you think "No Son Of Mine" fits in as the other side of the coin in that respect?
Rutherford: Absolutely. I hadn't a clue until you mentioned it, funnily enough, but yeah. We always discuss issues lyrically without banging on the head, which I sort of like in a way.
Ragogna: You've weathered various periods of creativity in the band, you went from the Peter Gabriel years right up through And Then There Were Three and into Abacab until Phil left. Genesis weathered all of these periods and ended up huger than any of you probably imagined. How did you do it?
Rutherford: I think in a way you never look for change. It was sad that Peter left, but when change happens it brings a new beginning and you regenerate and re-find yourself, which in a way over a thirty three or thirty four year career is surely handy. Otherwise if you think about it it would be kind of hard. The solo careers gave us variety and I think we used the distance from each other all the time. Ultimately I always get back to this and it's a bit obvious but you need good songwriting. We were a five-piece, down to a four- and then a three- but the remainder was still good writers. The songwriting has to be good.
Ragogna: So it's all about the song when it comes to Genesis, even from the beginning.
Rutherford: I'll tell you one thing that's interesting, I think it was on CD two you go through a certain period where you go from the Genesis album with "Mama" on it to "Invisible Touch" and "The Living Years" and you get a little rub where we thought we were on. It was always on, but this was really strong. I was impressed by the energy coming off it.
Ragogna: To me, there are sister albums such as Duke and Abacab. It seems there was something Genesis was doing that was amalgam of what you all had gone through to that point, like they were the graduation albums.
Rutherford: I agree. Abacab, sonically, was the first time where we sounded like we really did. The band on record had never sounded as good as it had sounded in the practice room. If you walked into our studio and we were rehearsing our songs or recording them you would've gone, "That's a great sound." Go into the control room and it never quite had that power. Then Hugh Padgham came along and suddenly we sounded like we did in the room.
Ragogna: Did that affect the creativity?
Rutherford: Yeah. We had our own studios, too, so we could write and record at the same time. We felt a sort of freedom which was great for us.
Ragogna: You've mentioned how you all brought things from your solo careers back to Genesis. Did it ever get dangerous, where you were feeling a lot more creative independently and wanted to really fly solo for evolution's sake?
Rutherford: No, I think all three of us would say, "Definitely not." I was always very aware, doing solo albums, because we'd do the drum parts and I'd say, "Phil would know what to do now." I had a rough idea, but when you regrouped you appreciated what the others had their confidence of. On all the Genesis albums, the drumming couldn't be better, but on my solo albums sometimes it was good, soemtimes it wasn't quite as good. You enjoyed the variety and the new players and the new cowriters but you'd enjoy going back to Genesis just as much. It made it more enjoyable.
Ragogna: Are there any periods that you personally enjoy best?
Rutherford: There was a run from '85 to '92 when it just all felt strong. Would you realize that in that period we did, I don't know, three or four band albums, we did three or four solo albums, we did seven tours, it was a crazy work time but when it's going down so well, it doesn't feel like hard work.
Ragogna: And you also had all the thematic videos. You had to act as well.
Rutherford: Well, I wouldn't call it acting, but yeah.
Ragogna: [laughs] Appearing in front of the camera is another level of demand.
Rutherford: Looking back, it's funny because some bands take videos very seriously, but we never did, really. We'd have a day off on a tour and say, "We're going to be in Atlanta, let's do a day." It was a little bit second drawer down for us. But we had good directors and when it worked it was good, plus Phil was very good in front of the camera always.
Ragogna: You guys reached pinnacles where it seemed like you said, "Well, we did the best that we could possibly do with this particular paradigm, let's mix it up a little bit." Did that happen? Is that when some people went solo?
Rutherford: Not intentionally, but looking back I think you can see why Peter, for lots of reasons both personal and musical, left the band. I've always said having written virtually all the lyrics it would be hard to go back to working a four-way. He had reached a point where he'd done all he could in the band I think. I can see it better now.
Ragogna: Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill" ended up on the anthology. I heard that song is his creative explanation of why he left. Is that true?
Rutherford: I'm not sure about that, I think it's a more positive message. Looking back it was a funny time for me because suddenly Peter left and the papers said, "Well, that's it for Genesis." Then we came out with "Trick Of The Tail" with Phil singing and it was a big success and the papers said, "What did Gabriel do?" It turns like that, the press. Then, of course, "Solsbury Hill" came out and it was a wonderful time, really.
Ragogna: I didn't mean that in any gossippy way. It's probably my favorite recording of Peter, but my absorption of it was that he was joyfully moving on. Life was coming to put him another position now.
Rutherford: Moving on, yeah. It's also a positive and happy song without being sweet. It's quite hard doing that.
Ragogna: Did you end up reaching a saturation point with Genesis at any point?
Rutherford: No, I think that's why the solo albums helped us. So many bands do solo albums because someone's unhappy or frustrated in the band. In our case, we were having a great time. It was like, "Well this is wonderful but it's been twenty years or more so let's just try something else, we need a bit of variety." It gave us a rest from each other so that come the next album I was always excited about doing it.
Ragogna: Do you have a favorite Genesis album?
Rutherford: Having done my book this last year--It's called Living Years, it's all about me and my father--I listened to all the music while doing the book, and now with R-Kive I know my own songs so much better now. "Supper's Ready" is a favorite to me from the Gabriel era. It's a twenty three minute song. Actually hearing Invisible Touch, because it was such a hit and played everywhere you thought of it much more in terms of hit records. When you hear the song, "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight," our songwriting really worked at that time. It's great stuff.
Ragogna: Looking back at Genesis' many years together, what are your thoughts about it all?
Rutherford: That's a big question, isn't it? Has our documentary come out in America yet? It's on Showtime and it ties into R-Kive. In that, I say one of the things I'm proud about is that we're still friends. In the documentary, we're together chatting about the past and I think, "Wow, we're still friends." I think that's important.
Ragogna: Mike, do you have any advice for new aritsts?
Rutherford: Yeah, just be patient. Believe in yourself and remember when you're writing songs, it's not how many songs you've got, it's how many good ones. I meet guys who say to me, "I've got a hundred songs," and I say to them, "You've probably got five good ones. The rest you should be throwing away." Discard more than you keep, and be patient.
Ragogna: Did you guys discard more than you kept?
Rutherford: Yeah, lots. After the Peter era we'd improvise and jam and then if something didn't work, that would be out the door and you'd never hear it again.
Ragogna: Are there melodies where you're now like, "Hmm, maybe these needs to be fininshed."
Rutherford: Not me. I always live in the now. Forget the old stuff, you know.
Ragogna: What about Mike & The Mechanics, were you able to achieve what you needed to creatively?
Rutherford: Yeah, it was great. I had a run of periods with the first two albums and then later on I enjoyed writing with Peter Robinson and Chris Neil and Paul Carrack really. It was a little harder because in a sense we never toured much. You'd record and then I wouldn't see them for two years. Basically, I was doing Genesis album and then a year of touring and there wasn't much time left before I was doing another genesis album. The Mechanics stopped about ten years ago really, Paul Young died and then Paul Carrack and I thought the chemistry wasn't quite the same doing tours without him. We started about a three years ago with Andrew Roachford and Tim Howar. We've always had two R&B voices and a rock voice and we started with an album of live work. I thought, "These songs haven't been played live ever, really." I've quite enjoyed that process. I'm doing my first American tour since '89 next year.
Ragogna: When you were writing "The Living Years," considering the subject, it must have been a real passion project.
Rutherford: Yeah, it was. The story, if you don't know, is that I found my father's unpublished memoirs in his trunks in my attic. They're about his life in the royal navy. I used some of his passages in my book. What's interesting is that I learned so much about him, and secondly, I realized our lives aren't rather different. He traveled the road, away from home for years working with a team of different people on the battleships, it's not that different from what I do in a way.
Ragogna: [laughs] Is there anything that you discovered about your father that you hadn't put together until then?
Rutherford: In doing a book, I did a little research with the naval archives and the royal navy. They were very helpful about what he did. The arhcives are incredible. Handwritten reports of him when he was twenty five. It's just strange, reading things about your father's life that you never knew. He worked on the battleships, he was quite a brave man, heavily awarded. I knew only half of it, too.
Ragogna: What is the future for Mike Rutherford and for Genesis?
Rutherford: Genesis has no plans at the moment, as you know. We had a nice time over the last couple months getting close again with Phil and Peter and Steve. It's been nice to reconnect a bit. We're always in touch but life is busy. It's nice seeing Phil in such a good mood. In terms of the interview, watch the documentary on Showtime. It will be informative. It has good information on the band. As far as Mike + The Mechanics, I'm going to try a little month-tour of America next year in February and March, just in the northeast and just see what happens. What we've found in England and Europe is that everybody knows the songs, but they're not quite sure who the band is. We always hear from the crowds, "God, I knew all those songs, I didn't realize it was you!" It's like forty five years ago when I'd go out and play live and prove to people that we were a good band live. Of course, the songs carry you through an awful lot. So we're going to try America and see if the same process works.
Ragogna: I have your import Hits album and to your point, my kid pointed at the guy at the gas pump on the cover and he said, "Is that Mike?"
Rutherford: We're faceless. Everyone knows the songs but not the band. We've gone three years in England now, it's nice, it wasn't sold out the first year but now we're doing well, so I'm going to try America. I don't quite know, we haven't got much history of touring there, so we'll have to see.
Ragogna: The future's wide open?
Rutherford: Yeah, I've got an American tour and English tour and a Europoean tour. And I'm goingt o write some more songs beforehand, actually.
Ragogna: With the goal of getting back into the studio?
Rutherford: Yeah, I'm just not sure on making an album anymore. The amount of work you put in these days with new music on the radio... I'm writing but I'm just not sure. For an artist in my position with The Mechanics, the amount of works it takes is hardly justified.
Ragogna: Well, there are labels that have surprised me, like Frontiers, that are somehow able to put groups like Journey on the road.
Rutherford: I'm going to do some writing but for now I'm quite enjoying it and people who are going to live shows now are quite enjoying it.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
JERRY JOSEPH & THE JACKMORMONS BRING "RADIO CAB"
According to Jerry Joseph...
"The accompanying video was shot by our friend Ramble West at the Surf Sanctuary outside of Las Palmas Dos, Nicaragua for the forthcoming live DVD, Nicaragua. Loosely, it was a 50th birthday event. I'm not a rock star, but sometimes we can rally funds from friends and fans for a film or a party, and we were able to begin making this stuff work, we just need to be able to get local sound systems and penicillin. This has led to shows in Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Nepal, Lebanon, Israel and most exotically, Virginia City, Montana. We hope to do a lot more of this type of thing and we'll go anywhere. The idea is to play places that take some work getting to; we are not a cruise package, you need a map or GPS and local phrase translation book and probably need to leave your no gluten vegan dietary needs behind. Recently I went to Kabul Afghanistan to teach guitar at Rock School Kabul where my good friends Humayun Zadran and Robin Ryczek are bringing music to kids that really want and need it. I also performed a couple shows at their venue called weirdly, The Venue. I know how to play the guitar as opposed to administer medicine..and tho I'm frightened by many things, conflict zones seem to be ok with me. So we raised 40 to 50 thousand dollars to bring musical equipment and ourselves to Kabul. The question now is, how the hell do we do more of that?! Lots of cool ideas on the table, but for today, it's Milwaukee!"
For More Information: http://www.cosmosexschool.com
A Conversation with Kasim Sulton
Mike Ragogna: Kasim, "Clocks All Stopped" from your new album 3 sounds like this group called Utopia that featured Todd Rundgren, Roger Powell, this guy Kasim...oh, hold on...
Kasim Sulton: I often get confused with the other guy named Kasim Sulton...oh, wait...there IS no other guy named Kasim Sulton!
MR: Yeah, I deserved that. So. You still like those guys?
KS: "Like" isn't the best way to describe my feelings towards Todd, Roger and Willie [John "Willie" Wilcox]. "Owe my career to" is more appropriate. Yes, I still like them. Very much. They gave me my first real break. Took a chance on a greenhorn. Its certainly paid off for me.
MR: Okay, enough about them, onward with 3. "Fell In Love For The Last Time"'s subject matter seems so serious yet the recording feels so delirious. So which is it? And was that infectious classic rock approach meant to signal something about the direction of the album?
KS: I think it's serilerious? Tossing lyrical ideas around and someone says, "Imagine you see someone and you just KNOW you could fall in love with them." Then someone else says, "Right, like you found the love of your life and you'll never have to fall in love again!" Then another guy says, "You just Fell In Love For The Last Time!" Oddly enough, thats exactly the way it happened. Myself, Phil Thornalley and Jon Green started the song just like that. I like the big, bold tracks. A huge chorus. Lots of bells and whistles. Also, singing, "Wo-oh-oh," in a chorus is so much easier than having to write words. I don't think the song signals a direction so much as it serves as a request for your attention.
MR: So did you fall in love for the last time because of the events of "Fade Away" in which you kind of blow a relationship to pieces--shreds I tell you--but then you somehow get another chance?
KS: Actually, it was the other way round. Had it made, screwed it up--shredded it I tell you--and somehow got it back. The proverbial second last chance. There is rarely, if ever, a third.
MR: Okay, no more softballs, Mr. Sulton! Prepare thee! "The Traveler" deals--I think--with your being a hired hand for studios and tours. What is your favorite experience as a sideman and what is your least favorite, you know, naming names and revealing all the dirt...every last speck! Leave nothing out. Or, you know, just reflect a little about being a sideman.
KS: Never really liked the "sideman" moniker, although I guess thats a good description. People can make that the best job in the world or...the worst. Some people make you feel indispensable and some make you feel superfluous. I have been yelled at by the most talentless creatures to ever hold a microphone and praised by the most successful players around. Names? If you promise to cover my legal fees we can discuss it further. Often, these days when I'm asked by someone unfamiliar with me what I do for a living, I reply "I travel." Because when you really boil it down, I'll travel 30 hours in any given week to work for two hours. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE what I do and am blessed to have a career that spans three decades but...the traveling can be tedious. Yes, "The Traveler" is entirely about my feelings on that subject.
MR: "Watching The World Go By" kind of deals with similar subject matter to "The Traveler" although it seems more reflective. Do you believe that might have been the case? Do you feel that work kept you from having a fuller life and might it be possible it was also the other perspective, that music gave you a full life?
KS: Ah...regrets. Hard not to have at least a few during the course of one's life. I've missed some important things over the years. Weddings, Father/Daughter dances, graduations and the like. But as Vito Corleone said, "This is the business we have chosen." Having said all that, I have lived an extremely full life--SO FAR. Been around the world a few times. Celebrated my 21st birthday while on tour in Japan. Have performed in front of, oh I'd guess no less than a few million people over the years. Recorded and played on over 130 records, one of them the third biggest selling record in the history of recorded music. So I think I've led a pretty interesting life. "Watching The World Go By" is somewhat reflective. It's just the difference between waking up and being utterly overwhelmed by the day to day stuff and the days you wake up and think, things will ultimately be ok.
MR: During your years with Todd and the Utopia gang, you all grew at your craft. As a musician, what was your role in the band and what contributions would you say you made to it?
KS: When I joined Utopia, it was still somewhat of a prog-rock jam band. Long extended songs, solo after solo, time changes, key changes. I came from a different background. More pop oriented. I like to think I had something to do with the direction the band took after I signed on. Both Roger Powell and Willie Wilcox (keyboards and drums respectively) came from the Jazz and Fusion world while Todd Rundgren was not only a brilliant musician, songwriter and producer, his river had more branches than all of us put together. I think I brought a flavor to the band that ultimately led to more accessible music. Songs and styles that appealed to a much broader audience. Maybe closer to the work Todd did as a solo artist. That's not to say the band would have remained in one specific genre had I not been there, just that my contribution[s] tended to lean more towards the three and a half minute pop song.
MR: For the three people on the planet who still don't know--see what I did there--how did you and Todd meet and how did Utopia form?
KS: Utopia was formed well before I came on board. Early '70s I believe. The original line up was Todd, Tony Sales and Hunt Sales. I just saw a picture of them at a show in which they were all wearing something that looked like welder masks. Can you say...Daft Punk? After that was the big band. Todd, Moogy Klingman (Piano), Kevin Ellman (Drums), John Siegler (Bass), Jean Eves LaBatt (Synthesizer), Ralph Schukett (Organ), Roger Powell (Keyboards) and Willie Wilcox (Drums). Then it was scaled down to a four piece, Todd, Roger,Willie and John Siegler. I replaced John Siegler who went off to find fame and fortune writing Pokeman music. In 1976, I was playing piano with NYC winger/poetress, Cherry Vanilla. She traveled in some pretty eclectic circles and knew everyone in the NYC music scene. She introduced me to Michael Kaman who was a friend of Roger Powell. So when John Siegler left the band, Roger called Michael to see if he might have any recommendations for a replacement. I heard about it through a friend and called Michael. He called Roger and the next day, I borrowed 20 dollars from my uncle and took an Adirondack Trailways bus up to Woodstock where the band was based. Todd was mopeding across India at the time but was due back in a day. I did some playing with Roger and Willie. We went over the material that Todd would probably want to try with me. Then Todd came home. He wasn't very warm and fuzzy to me. He didn't think I was the right choice because I simply had no experience touring or recording with a national act. Roger and Willie insisted he give me a chance. Todd relented and, I proved my worth within a few months. I will say that he didn't make that first year easy for me. He didn't start saying "hello" to me until 1977.
MR: When you work on solo projects, what's the method like? I'm imagining it's a different creative process than when you're working with others.
KS: I tend to work very slowly. I like taking my time and exploring options before I commit to any idea. Jim Steinman once told me, "A decision means the end of all possibilities." While I believe there is a saturation point, a place of diminishing return, I look at the writing/recording process much like sculpting. Take a little off. Put a little on. Step back and look and then fine tune. When I'm co-writing, things tend to go much faster. Songs get written quicker because the ideas are coming from more than one person. It's also easier not to get stuck trying to find the right chord change, melody or lyric.
MR: Have you yet figured out what makes you creative and if you did, can you sell me the formu...no, can you tell us what it is?
KS: I guess it's the same thing that makes someone want to be a good doctor or a good teacher. I think we're all born with some innate ability to be good at some specific thing in life. I knew I was going to be a musician at a very early age. My passion for it allowed me to concentrate on making it up the ladder rung by rung--still climbing by the way. There's no need to try and capture that creativeness because we all possess it in one form or another.
MR: On 3, what's the most daring step you took creatively? What was the most surprising result of all the recordings? Do you think the process has satisfied you enough so that you'll be moving on to becoming a roofer or politician?
KS: I didn't compromise. I didn't settle. I wasn't done with any aspect of the record until I was completely satisfied. I asked the other musicians who played on the record to redo things that in the past, I might have said thanks and moved on. On this record, if I thought something like a guitar part, or a bass part, a lead vocal, a background vocal part wasn't exactly the way I wanted it, I kept working until it was right. I do have a roof on my house but I'd never try fixing it. I'm also into this thing called honesty these days so that kind of rules out being a politician.
MR: Considering your awesome career, what advice do you have for new artists and come on, let it rip, none of these two or three baby sentence answers. Young musicians need this stuff!
KS: Look, if you think you'd like to try your hand at making a career in music, go for it. Making a living by being an artist is probably one of the hardest things to do. Music, like most art, is subjective. Where one person sees brilliance, another might see complete dreck. I know that I like what I create, otherwise why bother? So it's just a matter of finding like minded people and getting them to pony up their time, belief and money. Confidence is a must have trait. Stick-to-it-ivness is indispensable. Yet, at the same time, you need to be honest enough with yourself to know when it's time to stop banging your head against a wall. Just don't pull a 'Kardashian' and think you're gonna be famous for doing nothing.
MR: After touring with Meat Loaf, did it become obvious that "Objects In The Rear View Mirror..." is the best song of his career? Which reminds me, what is your favorite song you ever created...might it be, I don't know, "Fade Away"?
KS: I'm afraid I'm going to have to respectfully disagree. It's a very god song but certainly, in my opinion, not one of his best. If you'd had said "Paradise By The Dashboard Light" or "Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad" or "I Would Do Anything For Love ..." I might agree. Any song that can span a generation is, in my opinion, a great song. Couples still have their wedding band play "Paradise..." so they can act it out on the dance floor at the reception dinner. I'm not sure I have any one favorite song that I've written. They are all special to me in one way or another. Some because of the chord changes, some for the lyric and some because, well...I just think it's a good song. "Fade Away" was the last song written and recorded on 3. I wasn't even sure I was going to include it because it was taking so long to finish. I was already about two and a half years past my self imposed deadline. I'm glad I persisted. It's a really good and meaningful song. One of my all time favorites is "Set me Free" from Utopia's Adventures In Utopia record. It was the single from that record and the only Utopia song to reach Billboards Top 20. I wrote and sang that one.
MR: That's my favorite Utopia album, Adventures In Utopia. Love every song on that. Hey last question. Why are you such a freakin' awesome musician?
KS: Probably the same reason you're such an awesome journalist. Seriously, the questions you asked were really good. I've had to answer some truly inane questions over the years. Also, you didn't ask me what my favorite color is.
MR: It's green, everyone knows that, duh. Okay, last last question. What does the future look like for your music and your personal life?
KS: You mean second last question? I'm in a great place both musically and personally. It's been an interesting journey. Life has thrown me a bunch of curve balls over the years. Some I've dodged, some hit me smack in the head. However, I'm still here and I've just made the best record of my life. I'm gonna keep making music as long as there are people that want to hear it...I'd probably do it even if it's only to please myself. I love what I do and I get a tremendous amount of joy from it. You know that saying, "If you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life." It really is true.
A Conversation with Sallie Ford
Mike Ragogna: Sallie, your album Slap Back seems to evoke many iconic rockers such as Joan Jett, Pat Benatar and Heart. How influential were these artists to you and who are some of your other influences?
SF: When I first started writing the songs for this record I was listening to a lot of The Monks and Skeeter Davis. Those are both very different, but I love that era of music from the 60's. Skeeter Davis had pop songs with honest lyrics and amazing vocal layers. The Monks were raw and were ahead of their time, almost like punk before punk. I wanted to bring both those sounds to the music I was making. I also wanted to play surfy guitar licks, like The Ventures and The Surfaris.
I also knew I didn't wanna make music that was just retro. I wanted to write from a more straightforward direction and sing that way too. There are a lot of double vocals--meaning I sang the parts twice and we layered them--and I am now addicted to that sound, cause it's reminiscent of The Ramones and also gives the vocals some depth. As I was writing the record, I was sharing songs with my friend and producer, Chris Funk. One day I admitted that I kinda wished that I could start over and write more classic rock songs, like Heart. He said I could still incorporate those sounds and encouraged me to keep writing songs for the record and not over think it. Up until I was in the studio, I kept writing songs and once I was in the studio, Funk helped us to build a fluid "sound."
MR: What's your own musical history, like instruments, instruction,
first performance, all that stuff!
SF: I started playing music and singing at a young age. I took violin lessons for 7 years and a few years of piano, guitar and singing lessons. I performed a lot with my violin and I also did a lot of musical theater. I quit music when I was 16 cause I wanted to escape the classical music world and do something wild and rebellious. I watched tons of "R" rated movies, dyed my hair crazy colors & listened to punk rock. I started to get into other art forms like photography, painting & filmmaking, but I never felt like I could fully express myself the way I wanted to. I got back into music when I went to college briefly at UNCA and met a girl that inspired me to start singing again. After traveling in Europe, I moved to Portland and that's when I started writing music and singing. My first show was in the basement of my first house in SE Portland.
MR: What's the story behind Slap Back? How were the songs written and recordings created?
SF: I have never been able to write a concept record, but my songs are pulled from my life. All the songs are about relationships: friendships, love, breakup. There are also some songs about letting go and just being impulsive--but again, that's good relationship advice, haha. I wrote the songs by myself first, then shared them with my producer and band. We worked out most of the songs beforehand and then we were in the studio! We recorded at our drummers studio called Destination Universe! It took about a month of recording on and off.
MR: Were there any surprises during the process, like an obvious jump in the quality of the writing or some personal revelations or maybe discoveries about the people in your subject matter?
SF: While I was writing, I recorded demos on my tascam 4-track cassette recorder. Some of the songs weren't done, but I found that making demos early on, on the cassette recorder helped me finish the songs quicker and build a sound and style for all the songs. One of the first demos I recorded ended up on the record. It's the first intro song that's like a mini-song and it's just vocals. I'm stoked that it ended up on there!
MR: Are there any songs on Slap Back that you would say most represent your creative space right now?
SF: "Dive in" is a song with a good lyric mantra for me. Some of the lyrics that hold very true to me creatively--and with everything else in my life as well--are, "I wanna scream and shout. I wanna let it out. I wanna jump right in. I wanna make it count," "I wanna dive right in. I don't care about mistakes. I wanna take a chance, cause that is what it takes," "I want it to hurt, cause when it hurts, it hurts so good." This record is a jump in a different direction. The songs still have a retro, classic feel, but have experimental/psychedelic sounds that layer on top.
MR: "Coulda Been" seems to be the story of the love that almost was. Was this a particular relationship you had? Might it also be a metaphor regarding ideals or precious things we want from life that we get so close to achieving but just miss for whatever reasons? Too heavy?
SF: The lyrics of "Coulda Been" are pretty straight forward, just about relationship games that people have in the beginning parts of a romance. I have two sisters and many girlfriends that have vented about their love lives to me for years and of course I've experienced the same things, but wrote the song after I felt like I was done with all the games. I guess it could be about life's power games as well.
MR: Are your recordings and live performances two different brands of rocking or are you trying to achieve the same thing with both outlets?
SF: They are different. In the studio it's more about building a rocking sound and it ends up being bigger as you add more sounds. Whereas live, there is more pressure to really put physical energy into it in order to rock. I like to gauge how crazy the audience is and if they get there, that gives me energy. It's nice to play louder music though, cause it fills a bar and I end up dancing naturally.
MR: Ultimately, what are your expectations of your music?
SF: At this point I haven't gone to school and I've put all my time into building what I have. I just wanna have fun, but still make a living doing it. It would be cool if this record gets us some new fans though!
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
SF: I always just focused on the music and the business stuff happened for me. I'm very lucky, but I think that the music is the most important part and if it's good, the fans and business people will come to you. Also, don't be afraid to be DIY for atleast a few years and own it.
MR: What's next for Sallie Ford following the Slap Back?
SF: Going on a US and Canada tour in November and December. I'm hoping we will go back to Europe next year!!
MR: What's the one thing you wish people knew about you that they still don't?
SF: I did post this on my social media stuff, but I'm still proud to reveal that my great great-great-grandmother was a tattooed lady in the circus around 1900. Pretty badass.