A Conversation with Joe Bonamassa
Mike Ragogna: Joe, what's the Different Shades Of Blue story?
Joe Bonamassa: I wrote it in Nashville and we recorded in Vegas. I took the year off from recording last year because I wanted to write a whole record. That was really important. It's been a while since I did that kind of thing, so I had a good fundraiser in Nashville. Out here in LA, sometimes it's like everybody's looking to make beats. I don't "make beats," I play blues. A beat goes along with the blues, but I don't know how to make a beat. Why would you make a beat and not a song?
MR: What do you think of the results?
JB: Well, it's always a luxury to have too many songs. At the end of the day, I wanted to have stuff that was deeper, really concentrating more on melodies. A lot of times with this kind of music, it's like, "When's the solo?" Everything's two verses and a solo. It's important to concentrate on the tunes. That really helps widen the audience. I've seen that happen a million times.
MR: Was there anything you took away from your co-writing experience? Maybe new methods of approaching the creation of a song?
JB: Yeah, they're lyric-writing dudes in the way they put words together and their song structure. There's really an artistry and a craft to it. I knew that, I'm just not Dylan. I just don't have a lot of songs in me.
MR: Did it stir up anything in terms of how to approach music from a deeper level with Joe Bonomassa?
JB: Yeah, next time I go to write songs I think it's going to be a lot deeper for me. I learned a lot about songwriting just by hanging around those cats.
MR: Are co-writes going to become a more frequent approach in the future?
JB: Not really. All of my stuff is made to-order. If I'm going to make a record, then I'm going to write it. I don't write at home. I love to tour.
MR: What about working with other artists?
JB: I've been asked by several artists to produce them and I think, "I don't want that responsibility." What are you, crazy? I could ruin the guy's life! No way. No way.
MR: Did you approach recording any differently this time around?
JB: No. We used a horn band, but we only recorded four-piece.
MR: You're pretty comfortable with that set up.
JB: Yeah, we've always been comfortable with a three or four piece. But we just got done playing a big gig at Red Rocks with a nine-piece band that was killing.
MR: I think you'd be pleasantly surprised to hear how often your name comes up when I ask artists which contemporaries they love. In fact, I might as well ask everyone, "What do you think about Joe Bonamassa?"
JB: [laughs] I'm a weird cat in that regard. There's no middle ground with me. People either love it or they can't stand the sight of me, which is great. At least I'm not vanilla.
MR: I haven't personally heard that perspective from anyone yet.
JB: You can go on any internet forum and there's plenty of un-love for Joe B, I'll tell you that.
MR: Joe, did you use any new technology or approaches on this album?
JB: I think as a singer, every time I record an album, I get a little more confident. Obviously I'm a guitar player who sings, not a singer who plays, that's a big distinction, but every time we do one of these records I become more confident as a singer. Singing is something I've worked really hard on.
MR: And your environment is very supportive.
JB: I always have Kevin Shirley, Anton Fig plays drums on the record, Carmine Rojas plays the bass, this time Reese Wynans plays keyboards, those kind of guys are a really great support cast.
MR: I think you're still a rising star at this point. Do you feel that's what's going on at all?
JB: The wacky thing about it, we saw this at Red Rocks--ninety-seven hundred people paid to see the blues. We basically did a tribute to Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. I could've said, "What a great night this was for me," but when I walked off stage, I said, "What a great night for the blues," because here's a proof of concept. Ninety-seven hundred people paid to hear blues music again. If there's a kid in the audience who wants a career, I always say, "If this bozo could pull if off, anybody can!" It really comes down to that point where you just go, "There is an audience." Any time they try to write off the blues, it finds its way back into people's hearts, which is great. I was really excited because the audience didn't know what they were coming to hear, they only knew it was a show about Muddy Waters. There's a lot of exciting young guitar players who are now twenty years old who get in the van and go out and work hard and build their audience and brick by brick, there's going to be a big scene again. I like that.
MR: Nice. What do you think of the state of blues these days?
JB: I think it's really what the artists make it at this point. There's some exciting stuff that comes out. I very much like what Derek and Susan are doing. I very much like what Gary Clark Jr.'s doing. There's a scene again! Not that those shows will ever book me, but I saw Gary on The Tonight Show. I'm like, "Wow, that's awesome." Blues on The Tonight Show. Or Letterman! To me, that's encouraging. Every ten years, blues gets a kick in the ass. Just when they're about to write us off and put us at the Kennedy center honors, honoring the great works of John Philip Sousa and the entire genre that is the blues for a half hour, these cats like Gary and Derek and Susan and a few others figure out a way to make it relevant again. I think it's actually in a really healthy state at the moment.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
JB: You have to be yourself, and you have to find your own path through it all. I can sit here with an artist and explain every day that I've had for the last fifteen years, but that's not necessarily going to work out for them, if they just copy every day that I had. You have to blaze your own path. You have to know your strengths and most importantly you have to know your weaknesses. You play to your strengths and you try to create diversionary tactics and smokescreens to at least divert from your weaknesses until you can address stuff to the point where they become strengths. And you've got to have this blind belief in yourself, that you will be successful, there's no Plan B. You're not going to stop going out there and doing it until you reach at least where you're stable enough to make a decent living at it. That's pretty much my advice. You have to be really strong-willed and not fear failure. You will fail, but you've got to pick yourself up and dust yourself off and go for it again.
MR: Is this the advice you'd have given yourself?
JB: Yeah! I failed at a bunch of stuff we've tried, but you pick yourself up and you go, "Okay, whatever, let's be smart about it and carry on."
MR: What are you up to other than the new album?
JB: I'm going to New Zealand on Tuesday. We're touring New Zealand, Australia and Europe. I come back, got another twenty days off at Casa 'Mossa and then I head out for five weeks on the US tour and then we end up somewhere in Florida I think in the middle of December.
MR: And of course, you have lots of signature guitars by this point.
JB: Yeah, I've got a bunch of signature stuff from Gibson. They did a 335 and six or seven variations of Les Pauls.
MR: Are you designing a new one in the near future?
JB: Well, we just did that Skinnerburst replica. It's a replica of one of my original '59 Les Pauls. Those sold out really quick, that was good. I think they want to do these BonaBird things--not to get overly geeky--maybe sometime next year. It's kind of a hybrid Les Paul/Firebird thing that I came up with on a whim because I'm kooky like that.
MR: You said you took a year off last year, but with all the releases that came out, you wouldn't know it.
JB: We made a bunch of DVDs last year, something like twelve DVDs.
MR: I did honestly seem like once a month, a new project was released!
JB: We did the whole Tour De Force thing with four shows in London and then we did the Beth Hart DVD, the Rock Candy Funk Party DVD... It was the year of the DVD.
MR: How did you come out of the Beth Hart experience? You gave her a lot of support.
JB: Oh, it was great, we had a great tour, she's wonderful, I love her husband Scott, too. They're such a great group to work with and we put together a world-class group for her. It's always been my dream to put a world-class band around her and basically start at eight, have her walk out on stage and just do her thing with an incredibly great support cast. It was really a wonderful experience and I hope we get to do it again eventually.
MR: Her latest release was pretty strong.
JB: Yeah, her solo career has really taken off due to the strength of the records that we made together. She's starting to get some more notoriety on her own, I think she's made two solo albums in the interim and I think right now she's concentrating on solidifying her stake in her solo career, which is obviously what you want to do. The whole thing with the Beth Hart situation--unlike the Black Country Communion situation--is that we do it when it feels right and when it makes sense for everybody, so nobody's chomping at the bit to do anything. If we reconvene next year or the year after, eh, great. We're still young and we're not going anywhere.
MR: What else? There has to be something more!
JB: Just to remind people that the album's coming out on the twenty-third. I'll be in Australia, so I'll be clicking iTunes one after another trying to get the tally up there. I think if we go number one on the blues charts--king of the anthill--I think just by de facto that I release something every other weekend, I think I'll set the all time number one record. I think I'm tied with B. B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughn right now. I think this will set the record. Not to say that we're going to go number one, there's no guarantee of that. But I'll be somewhere in Australia buying iTunes copies by the dozen. I missed a number one record in the UK last time by eighty copies. Number one on the pop charts. I'm like, "Man, if I knew that I would've bought 80 copies!" I'd buy 81!
MR: Would you be surprised if you hit Top Ten in the US?
JB: Who knows? Golly. My records used to go tin or copper on a good day, so I have no idea.
For more information: http://bit.ly/DSOBPREORDER
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
IN CASE YOU DIDN'T KNOW...
Speaking of Gary Clark Jr., his new live album arrives tomorrow, September 23rd.
Next Door Neighbor Blues
When My Train Pulls In
Don't Owe You A Thing
Three O' Clock Blues
Things Are Changin'
Ain't Messin' 'Round
If Trouble Was Money
Third Stone From The Sun / If You Love me Like You Say
Please Come Home
Blak and Blu
When The Sun Goes Down
A Conversation with Survivor's Jim Peterik
Mike Ragogna: Jim, your latest book, Through The Eye Of The Tiger, isn't just about your time with Survivor, it's also about your personal life and observations.
Jim Peterik: Actually I'm a huge fan of rock 'n' roll and a huge fan of rock 'n' roll biographies and autobiographies. I eat those things like potato chips. One comes out and it's eaten in a day and a half. My latest one is the Bruce Springsteen book by Peter Ames Carlin. I eat these up. They always bring me inspiration, especially heroes like Springsteen. Keith Richards still has the best autobiography out there. So I go, "Why not?" Why not write my story? I think there's enough stories behind me to make an interesting book. Certainly stories ahead of me. When I'm 85 I might do the second book. But I thought it was time. It's nice to kind of put your life in perspective for the writer. One of my biggest fears was that I wasn't going to have enough conflict in my life to be interesting. I'm reading about the Mötley Crüe people, a train wreck of drugs, the whole bit--I didn't really have that--so I'm going, "What is going to sustain the interest in this?" As I was writing, I was really shocked by how much conflict there really was in my life and how much pain there really was. A lot of it was just glossed over because I talk about a creative cocoon that I go into, no matter what's going on if I have a guitar and a notebook I'm writing a song. I realized I was sheltered from a lot of that pain. As I was writing, it really all came out. It was really cathartic.
MR: When you go into your story, I think some people wouldn't know about your days with Ides Of March or that you were behind so many hits as a songwriter with other bands. It seems like there are two train tracks running next to each other and you're riding on both of them.
JP: Right, and it's a big conflict. As I say in the book, one of the biggest conflicts is that I was perceived as a traitor within the ranks of Survivor because I was writing with 38 Special. I grew up in a different ethic with the Ides Of March. With Ides Of March whatever the individual was doing was good for the whole. That's what I was used to. But the band, especially Frankie, was like, "You're giving away songs!" not really realizing that the songs could not have been written with Survivor. They were a different breed bred by the southern rock mentalities Jeff Carlisi and Don Barnes. That was a very difficult juncture. I think the bottom line, though, Michael, is that I always felt like a songwriter first. It's later on when I got the offer to go on the road with The Beach Boys. As much as I love writing with Brian and that whole thing, I couldn't see going out there and playing "Fun, Fun, Fun" two hundred dates a year. It just wouldn't fit my mission plan. Songwriting is extremely important to me.
MR: Okay, Survivor's "Eye Of The Tiger," keeps popping up in the culture, and you have more than one of those as a professional songwriter. Why do you think your songs are resonating with the public?
JP: There's something in the DNA of a big hit like that. For me, it was "Vehicle" and "Eye Of The Tiger." There's a certain amount of that DNA in "The Search Is Over" and "Hold On Loosely." If I could clone that, I'd be doing it every day. It's intangible. When I co-wrote "Eye Of The Tiger," I thought it was going to be big because we had a fifty million dollar video called Rocky III to go with it. But I had no idea that we'd be talking here, Michael, in 2014, and the little kids are still loving it and it's still everywhere. It's probably as big as ever. I think it's a universal spirit. My lyrics have always been positive. I very rarely write about doom and gloom, and if there is there's usually a light on at the end of the tunnel. But with "Eye Of The Tiger," I put everything I knew as a thirty-one year-old rock 'n' roller into that lyric. I wanted every word to count. I labored over those lyrics. It seemed like a long time, it was actually a week and a half. But every word had to count and Stallone made sure every word counted and at the end of the day every word counted. It was just a thrill to know that--when you go to the mailbox and you pick up a check, that's great, but to me the ultimate royalty is having people come up to you and tell you what a song meant to them at some juncture in their life or even now. That's the real royalty.
MR: What's the full story of how Sylvester Stallone asked you to write that song?
JP: It's an amazing story, really. You can't make these up: I've pulled my Scirocco into the driveway with groceries or something in my hand, I'm hearing the answering machine, it's my sister, it's my buddy Steve, and then, "Hey, yo, Jim, give me a call, it's Sylvester Stallone. That's a nice answering machine you got there." I go to myself, "Yeah, right, who's putting me on here?" I never spoke to the man. He was a hero of mine already. My wife and I were huge fans of the first Rocky and to hear his voice, I'm going, "Karen, is that somebody putting me on?" and she listens and she says, "No, that sounds like Stallone to me." So I call him back and he answers, "Yeah, yo," that's how he answers the phone. I said, "Is this Sylvester Stallone?" and he says, "Yeah, call me Sly." I go, "This is Jim Peterik," and he says, "I know who you are. I like your band." He had heard "Poor Man's Son" from the Premonition album and his good pal Tony Scotti, head of Scotti Brothers Records said, "We've got this new band called Survivor, I want you to hear it."
Stallone was looking for a title track, so Tony played him a couple of songs from that album and from "Poor Man's Son" he heard what he wanted to hear. He heard that street sound, Dave Bickler's wonderful rasp and the drums that are very punchy, Marc Droubay was just John Bonham only from California. Just an amazing drummer. Sly said, "I want that sound." When he called me he said, "I want that sound, I want something with a pulse. Can you help me out?" and I remember saying, "Is the Pope catholic? Of course I can." The rest is really history. He sent us the rough cut of the movie and I call Frankie very excitedly, I say, "Meet me tomorrow at ten AM." I rented a Betamax Pro and we watched that montage. They have what's called temporary music, as you know, and underneath the montage scene where Mister T is rising up and Stallone's getting kind of soft they had "Another One Bites The Dust" by Queen. It worked like a charm, "Bam, bam, bam, another one bites the dust." I said, "Frankie, how can we beat this?" So I called Stallone and I said, "Sly, this is perfect, what do you need us for?" and he says, "Oh, we can't the publishing rights." So I thank Freddie Mercury every day, but it was a high bar he set.
I had my Les Paul around my neck, we turned the sound down on the movie and I started playing that sixteenth note figure, "digga digga digga digga" and I see the punches thrown and I hit some slashes on the guitar, "bomp, bomp bomp bomp," trying to coordinate the punches with the guitar. We had that much, but then we couldn't go any further because he had only sent us the first three minutes. We begged him to send us the whole movie which he finally did and that's when we heard the phrase, "Rocky, you're losing the eye of the tiger," from Burgess Meredith, his trainer. I said, "Frankie, we've got to write this song and we've got to call it 'Eye Of The Tiger'." That's when the lyrics started flowing. Frankie started the whole ball rolling with the lyrical phrase, "Back on the street, doing time, taking chances." I loved the way that sounded so I said, "How about this? Rising up, back on the street, did my time, took my chances." From that point on it all just opened up and became what it is.
MR: And you're also associated with Heavy Metal because you wrote the title track.
JP: Right! There's a great character in this business named John Kalodner. He was an A&R man from Atlantic who signed Aerosmith, you see him in the "Pump" video. This guy was my mentor. He signed Survivor to Scotti's Atlantic and he really believed in me as a songwriter and he started putting me together with all of these artists he worked with. The first one was Henry Paul of The Outlaws and I wrote two albums worth of material with Henry and then later with Blackhawk and then he said, "I just signed Sammy Hagar." I loved Sammy Hagar from his Montrose days. I said, "Where do I go? Tell me when." He said, "Go to San Francisco."
Sammy picks me up in his red Ferrari with his blond hair blowing in the breeze. This was the classic American rocker, Sammy Hagar. I went down in his basement, he has a beautiful ranch house overlooking Mill Valley and all the redwoods, it was just wonderful. We were really cranked up on well-ground Kona coffee and we were just in the moment. My manager Eddy Leffler said "they're looking for a title song for the sci-fi animation Heavy Metal, they want to write it, so give me a focus and that's all I need. Give me script, give me a focus and I'll write it." That's all we needed to hear, we each got our guitars out and we just started playing. I don't know who came up with that riff or if we came up with it together but it was a massive rock 'n' roll riff.
I started the lyric with "Headbangers in leather, sparks flying in the dead of the night," and he says, "it all comes together when they shoot out the lights, fifty thousand watts of power and it's pushing overload, the beast is ready to devour all the metal it can hold." Forget about it! An hour later we were just so stoked on ourselves. He had this little TEAC four-track cassette recorder, it had multitrack capability so we got a drum groove and we layered the things on it--we had a demo that sounded a lot like the record by tequila time at eight o' clock that night. We played it for Eddie Luffler and he says, "You guys really did it, man." I was on stage with Sammy last summer in Northerly Island, I came on stage for "Heavy Metal," and that song always brings down the house.
MR: You also had a lot to do with the commercial success of 38 Special.
JP: Well, thank you. I really think I had something to do with it. I think it's a matter of combining my pop sensibilities with their southern sensibilities. It was a kind of combination that didn't really exist. The pop-ness, almost The Cars-ness of "Hold On Loosely" but with the southern undercurrent that those amazing guitar players brought to things. Their first hit was "Rocking Into The Night," a real brief story about that is that was supposed to be on the first Survivor album, the one with Kim Bassinger on the cover. At the end of the album our producer Ron Nevison said, "I really don't think this fits you guys." We were crushed because it was a big, loud song, it was a really huge song live. Anyway he gave a cassette of the song to John Kalodner, John Kalodner gave it to Mark Spector, 38 was in the process of cutting their second album and they heard it and they cut it and it became their first top ten. When it was time to make the second album Kalodner put us together and he sent Don and Jeff to Chicago and we sat around my kitchen counter in La Grange, Illinois, and the first song we wrote was "Hold On Loosely."
There was just this immediate chemistry between us. It was Don Barnes' title and the initial riff was by Jeff Carlisi and I was the guy who connected the dots and made it all work as a song. The message of the song, I think, is what I really brought to the party. A title is a title, but what does it mean? In my own relationship with my future wife way back when I was going too quick for her, I was suffocating her basically. So when Don says, "Hold On Loosely" I said, "Yeah, but don't let go." It's a fine line between holding on and holding on too tight. So that informed the whole lyric of that song.
MR: There's a story in the book about you walking Janis Joplin home one night because she needed to, well, "hold on tightly."
JP: [laughs] Yeah, yeah! That was a sweet moment for me. We had opened up for Janis in Calgary, we played a great set, ended with "Vehicle" as always. I did notice her watching, which is really stokeful, to have one of my idols watching. They took the stage, and this was during the period where they had their amazing brass section. She's singing all the great songs with the brass section. She was no longer with Big Brother, it was this professional, amazing band. She's swigging the Southern Comfort between numbers and getting more and more happy. By the end of the set she was pretty well pickled. We hung out backstage a little bit and she started walking very unsteady. I knew where the hotel was and she said, "Where am I? Where's my hotel?" I said, "Well, you're staying at the same hotel as I am, the Holiday Inn, let's go," and she took my arm. Her gait was very shaky but she looked at me with that smile and those granny glasses and I'll never forget how sweet it was. I deposited her at her door and wished her a good night's sleep. It's something I'll never forget.
MR: You also had a cool moment with Jerry Garcia where you guys just kind of hung out together.
JP: Yep! Same deli trays. They were amazing. They were in their prime in 1970, 1971. Jerry was just a good old boy. We loved hanging out with him. Here I am, a nineteen year-old kid from Berwyn and we're hobnobbing with The Grateful Dead. I look at it now and it's just surreal.
MR: What did Jerry think of the Ides Of March?
JP: He loved the Ides. I would see him watching the Ides, "Vehicle" was a particular favorite of his, we had an extended version of "Wooden Ships" and "Eleanor Rigby" that he really liked because it was kind of his ballpark as far as the jam goes. I think he respected us.
MR: And there was also your time on tour with Led Zeppelin.
JP: That was amazing. People ask me, "What was the high point of your career?" I'm not saying it was high point in terms of anything but my own self esteem and memory, that was when we opened for them in Winnipeg. We had the night of our lives. There was a shitty PA, the gig was supposed to be outdoors and it started storming. Last minute they brought it into the hockey arena. They didn't have a PA so all the local bands contributed speaker cabinets and power amps. The thing was held together by bad wiring. It was the worst! But the Ides Of March, we're kids from Berwyn, we didn't care. We went out there like troopers and we did the set of our lives. Zeppelin comes up there and they're pissed off, they didn't do a great set, they were out of tune, they didn't talk to the crowd; that was our night. Afterwards they were nice enough to invite us to a party at their penthouse suite at the hotel, and that's the story in the book where we stood at the door and Robert Plant comes to the door in his briefs and we see the mayhem going on--we'd never seen an orgy before, we didn't know this stuff existed. You had the half-naked groupies and Bonzo was in the bathtub with a gal. We made the tour and we were like, "What's going on here?" It was not our scene. Instead of joining in, I look at Larry and Larry looks at Mike and we go, "We're out of here." We made our polite exit and went to Dunkin Donuts across the street and got into our comfort zone.
MR: You and your wife Karen have avoided a lot of the traps that a more decadent lifestyle might have thrown at you.
JP: Right. We met in '68 at The Turtles concert on April ninth, because we were both huge fans of The Turtles. We ended up meeting in line and sitting together and falling in love to "Happy Together." She was like no other person I'd ever met, and she felt the same way about me. We always knew this was special, even when we broke up about a year later for about a year, we knew that somehow we'd get back together. I was praying for that. Of course that's when I wrote "Vehicle" to win her back, and it worked. The song went number one and guess who starts calling me again for dates. Nothing succeeds like success, right? She realized that this was her soul mate. I think realizing the specialness in each other is really what kept us together through many many months of separation in the '80s. I always say I deduct ten years from our marriage because of my road life in the eighties. I was just never home. She was an independent gal. She wasn't like a Yoko Ono appendage, she had her own life and her own career. I think that saved us, too, because she wasn't dependent on me for her self-esteem.
MR: You're coming up on a fiftieth anniversary with Ides of March. You still play with them and this is the band you started at fifteen.
JP: If Karen is the number one blessing, Ides Of March is number one. They're tied. The effect is that we realize how lucky we are. The original four guys--we call it the Berwyn Beatles--that got together in the basement of Larry's house in 1964 are still fast friends and still making great music. Mike Borch, Jim Peterik, Larry Millas and Bob Bergland. October Sixteenth is going to be the anniversary of fifty years. We have a big concert at College of Dupage on the 27th of September, it's going to be pretty much a compendium of our whole career, our first independent single called "Like It Or Lump It" all the way to three brand new songs, "Last Band Standing," "Who I Am" and another song, and then a DVD from House Of Blues that we cut in July, it's kind of like a deluxe set that's coming out in January. We're very thankful.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
JP: To me, it's do it because you love it. This ain't the gravy train no more. It's not the days when you can make a lot of money easy in this business. It kind of separates the true talents from the wannabes. The wannabes shouldn't even apply. Play music because you love it, play for your friends, but don't expect to grab the brass ring. It's back to the work ethic of playing out, going out on the road, selling your merchandise yourself. It's like the self-made man concept. Don't expect to be rescued by Sony Records; it's not going to happen. And if it does it's very, very rare. It will happen for a few, but if you're not committed to your career, just do it as a hobby. They always say, "Follow your dream." That's a wonderful American concept, but I always say, "Follow your dream as long as your dream follows your gift." If you can't do anything but music, do music. If you're scattered or if you have multiple goals, it's not going to work. You've got to be a hundred percent committed. Start writing great songs. I always tell the individuals that. A great song is still irrefutable. It's the coin of the realm. It really is. I'm a songwriter above and beyond anything else. If you write a great song it's almost irresistible. The universe will find a way to hear it.
MR: Beautiful. I imagine since you wrote this book before Jimi Jamison passed away, there might have been something you would've said to him in it.
JP: I had been close to Jimi for quite a while. I left Survivor in '96 but then I started doing these things called Jim Peterik's World Stage, which in a broad sense is kind of like the Ringo Starr Revue only I also introduce new groups and groups I'm mentoring. But that's when I started calling Jimi and saying, "Can you come out and do this show?" He became almost a regular on the World Stage shows. We always remained close. In 2009 I got a chance to produce his Crossroads Moment record. For me it was a dream come true. The biggest regret I had about leaving Survivor was not being able to write for Jimi. Not only was he a beautiful person, but he had a voice from heaven. He was the kind of guy that would improve any song that I taught him. It's a rare gift where every word that came out of his mouth, you believe he wrote it, you believe he lived it. That's really rare.
MR: So you have the Ides Of March concerts and the deluxe set coming out in January.
JP: We do, and also the book premiere and signing in New York City at The Cutting Room on the 30th of September. There's a lot of effort being put behind the book and the Ides Of March fiftieth and various groups that I'm producing for Frontiers. He's very much like a great tenor singer, like the ones I work with. We're putting out a tribute disc to Fergie Frederiksen and Jimi Jamison which I'm working on right now, I wrote a brand new song for Jimi called "Heaven Passes The Torch" which I'm just finishing now. As sad as the Jimi thing was, I always try to put my feelings and emotions into a song. I sent the song to Amy Jamison, his daughter and she cried and said, "This would make Jimi so proud," and that made my day.
MR: It all comes down to the song.
JP: It really does. That's what attracted me to rock 'n' roll. Of course it's the emotion. When you hear "Heartbreak Hotel" when you're four years old, it's the emotion of it, but there's still a great song behind it, and it's the story. I'm drawn to songs. My heroes were Burt Bacharach and Hal David and Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Those are my heroes.
MR: Brill Building heroes, cool. I imagine Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil make the cut too.
JP: Oh man, yeah. And of course, Lennon and McCartney and Jagger and Richards. Come on!
MR: Is there something that you still want to do? Something that all your success has gotten in the way of?
JP: A week off would be good.
JP: But seriously I would love to write a play based around my songs. That's something definitely on the horizon. It would probably basically be my book in play form. The kid from Berwyn that had a dream and didn't stop until he got there. It would have the songs that were my biggest in the score and some new stuff. I'm talking to a few people now about that.
MR: By the way, what is your Brian Wilson story?
JP: Brian Wilson could be our last one because, you talk about dreams come true, to me when we were growing up it was the Beatles and the Beach Boys and they were at a par. That's how much we liked the Beach Boys. In '99 when I got the chance to write with Brian for his Imagination album of course I jumped at it. We wrote two really nice songs, "Your Imagination" and "Dream Angel." I appeared on Letterman with him and it was just a thrill. I was given the offer to tour with them and I took a pass because my own songs are still more important than anyone else's. I couldn't see doing "Fun, Fun, Fun" across the country every night. It's not in my mission statement. A little bit later we were at an Italian restaurant and we were talking about radio and how great songs used to sound through the AM radio coming through your oval speaker on your Plymouth Valiant and I said, "Man, that was the best sound of all," and Brian said, "Yeah, that's why God made the radio." Of course, I wrote that down. He didn't realize how brilliant it was, or maybe he did, but that's when we wrote that song and it became the title of their Beach Boys comeback album in 2012, and the second song called "Isn't It Time?"
I've heard a lot of stories about a lot of people--David Pack of Ambrosia was going down the highway and heard, "That's Why God Made The Radio" and had to stop and pull over. That was one of these moments, it's the last story in my book, where they're performing it at the Chicago theater and I'm with my son Colin, his wife, and my wife Karen and they come on and do "That's Why God Made The Radio" and it sounded like a million bucks. There must have been fifteen people on stage, like they do, and it sounded like the bells of heaven and Colin turns to me and says, "Dad, that's got to be a pretty cool moment for you, right?" and I go, "Yeah, it really is." That's how the book ends. That was a high point. Now Brian's putting a solo album out on Capitol, it's coming out in January I believe, it's called No Pier Pressure and I wrote a song for it called "Sail Away." Again it was myself, Brian Wilson, Joe Thomas the producer and Larry Millas of the Ides. It's kind of like "Sloop John B" in the nautical field, so it's continuing. I still pinch myself with the Brian Wilson thing.
MR: And it's a full circle, because Brian was one of your influences and now you get to have some participation in his life in a significant way.
JP: That's exactly the feeling. It's surreal.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Sondre Lerche
Mike Ragogna: Sondre, you're known for creating some of the lushest recordings in the singer-songwriter field. Your new album Please continues that tradition. At this point in your career, how do you envision Sondre Lerche's mission as a creative artist?
Sondre Lerche: My mission is inevitably a bit selfish. I always trust that if I'm into something, others out ther might be into it too. I need to be fully motivated by what I make, in order to defend spending so much time on spreading it. Not to mention all the traveling. So I try to follow my own curiosity, first and foremost.
MR: How does Please add to the Sondre Lerche story?
SL: It's the first record where I haven't been fully in control over the recording, or even, my own life. It's a bold, liberating addition, and hopefully it appeals in equal parts to people's hips as their hearts.
MR: Are there any songs on the album that best reflect you as an artist at this moment and what are there any stories you can share about the songs and their creation?
SL: Well, it's the first record I've done that thematically comes out of one experience. The emotions are multiple, as they always are, but it it's a record that comes out of the end of a marriage. Stylistically, I think "Crickets" has an economy that I'd like to explore more. On this record, I recorded one song at a time, without thinking much about making a record. I also collaborated with many different producers and players, so it's a record where I intentionally wanted to make room for surprises. Kjetil Møster's sax solo at the end of "Logging Off" was a major surprise; that killed me. The way Kato Ådland mixed "At Times We Live Alone." Steve Marion's amazing guitar work on "At A Loss For Words." Violinist Tim Fain's wild string arrangement on "Lucky Guy." I was energized as much by my band and all the contributors, as I was by the songs and my current situation.
MR: What are the main ways you've grown as an artist since your debut album Faces Down?
SL: To me, it's hard to completely separate the artist and the person. When I wrote Faces Down, I was sixteen. Now I'm almost twice that age, so needles to say, I've changed in the ways anyone changes at that age. It's not really different for artists, except we make music that sometimes identifies or reveals some of the changes. My early records seem to be more about an idealized state, how I would want my world to be, perhaps when I grow up. My recent work seems more concerned with figuring out how things actually are, which can be hard enough.
MR: What do you feel the most passionate about at this time in your life, especially things beyond music?
SL: I spent my entire teens just staying in and writing songs, so I've gotten quite passionate about having fun and enjoying myself and others lately.
MR: How has living in Williamsburg affected your perspectives and creativity?
SL: It's so hard to say. I moved here in 2005, life changes regardless of where you go I feel. But I definitely enjoy disappearing into the vast cluster of creative forces, pretensions and ambitions that exists here. It's both inspiring and intimidating. It keeps me on my toes, maybe more than staying in Norway would? We'll never know.
MR: Do you miss living in Europe?
SL: I get to go back so often I hardly get the chance to miss it. Going next week and then doing a three-week tour there, so I'll get my fix!
MR: What is your advice for new artists?
SL: Spend more time on your songwriting. Don't jump on trends. It looks stupid.
MR: Any shot "Locust Girl" will be revisited on a future release?
SL: Not unless I hit a sever writer's block sometime. When I was fifteen, I thought for sure that would be my first single, but then I wrote "You Know So Well," "No One's Gonna Come," "Sleep On Needles," and so on, and realized that there's always a better song ahead of you. You have to believe.
MR: What should we know about Sondre Lerche that we don't already know?
SL: You already know too much. I can't think of anything more worth telling. Is this where people say they make a mean lasagna? Well, I don't.
MR: [laughs] Beyond Please, do you have any plans for the future?
SL: For the first time in my life I have no plans. I love it.
JOHN VELGHE'S "BEATEN BY PRETENDERS"
According to John Velghe...
"Many years ago, I met Alejandro Escovedo and we became friends thanks to Matt Kesler and Jim Strahm, owners of the Midwestern Music Company. Over the years, we both spent a lot of time at Midwestern Music bonding over music and guitars. It was one of those iconic community institutions where musicians got together, played, drank, bought guitars and amps and told stories. Our friend Jim passed away in 2000 but Matt continued Jim's legacy through the store.
"Back in August, Midwestern Music closed down after twenty-five years in business. We were scouting for a location to shoot the video for 'Beaten by Pretenders' and we swung by Midwestern to see Matt after his last day in business. He was packing up gear; guitar cases, accessories, and amps and moving it all to its future home. It seemed like the perfect vibe to shoot a video for this song and Matt, always willing to offer a hand to a fellow musician, obliged us one last favor and let us use the shop and some of their gear for the video. What you see is what you get--some guys playing rock n roll amid the detritus of one of its institutions. The place we all come together, becomes the place we make one last memory."