A Conversation with Brian Setzer
Mike Ragogna: Brian, let’s talk about your new album, Rockabilly Riot! All Original. It’s all original material and you start it off with the adrenalized “Let’s Shake.” Rockabilly’s really all about the shake, isn’t it?
Brian Setzer: Yeah! [laughs] To me, it seems like nervous energy, you know? It was invented by guys who were just getting back after the war and they were experimenting. Guys from the country were mixing up that kind of music with the blues, there were jazz players who were experimenting with it, it was kind of a mish-mash. It seems like a big ball of energy to me, I guess that’s what’s always attracted me to it.
MR: I’ve been following your music for decades, and my feeling is you discovered that junction point where rockabilly meets swing and dirty boogie.
BS: I saw that it would work because it’s all based on the blues. The blues is the great granddaddy of all this music. That’s where it all comes from. So to me, it was like, “Why wouldn’t it work?” Country, swing, jazz, rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll, it all comes from the blues, so why wouldn’t it work? It wasn’t like I was trying to mix baroque music in there with it. All that music came from the blues. If you like these kinds of music, you take these little pieces that you like and you throw it in. It’s like making a bowl of chili or something, to me. It’s personal taste. Some guys like a little more jazz in their rockabilly, some guys like a little more rock ‘n’ roll. That’s the way you play it. But I always knew that would all work because it was based on the blues.
MR: To me, that’s “Americana.” What’s interesting is that we’ve defined “Americana” as this mid-tempo, kind of rocking, organic-ish, Byrds-influenced music, but it seems like the name “Americana” should’ve been applied to the blues, jazz, gospel, and, of course, rockabilly, that are truly “American” forms of music that sprang from history and culture.
BS: I get what you’re saying, the Americana label is almost folk music, isn’t it?
MR: Yeah, exactly.
BS: Yeah, I’m kind of an anomaly there, I never really fit into anybody’s box. I don’t know how I got those Grammys because I am certain there’s not a rockabilly category. They just kind of squeezed between the cracks somehow.
MR: Yeah, I think you’re right on with that. Okay, so for Rockabilly Riot! All Original, did you sit down and write these songs for the album or were these songs collecting?
BS: You know, I’m a songwriter. I sit down and I write songs. Then I decide what it’s going to be. “Is this going to be a big band record? Should I write some charts behind it? Is this going to be music for other people?” Once I wrote that first song, which was “Vinyl Records”–inspired by my daughter who collects vinyl records now–I was kind of off and running. You need that little spark. It starts a fire. Once a spark starts, you kind of get rolling. After I wrote “Vinyl Records,” I wrote a couple more and I said, “This is a rockabilly record.” Then what you want to do is not repeat too much. You don’t want twelve songs with the same beat in the same key. After you’ve written two or three that might be similar, you want to change gears a little bit. That’s kind of how I look at making a record.
MR: I love how you musically referenced Johnny Horton. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard that done before the way you set it up.
BS: [hums cadence] Yeah, it’s got that Johnny Horton “Battle Of New Orleans” beat, which is really a military drumbeat.
MR: “The Girl With The Blues In Her Eyes” is another off the beaten path song, too. I guess that speaks to your earlier point of having variety on your record.
BS: You know, I came up with that just sitting down. I played a D major chord, which any beginning guitar player can play, but instead of going to A or G, I went to D minor and went, “Oh, that’s different, I’ve never really heard that.” Then I went to the G and the G minor. It sounded really different, but it was a little Beatle-sounding to me, so I thought, “I’ve got to make that fit into the ‘billy side a little more.” I added Paul Franklin on pedal steel and my friend Mike Himelstein wrote the lyrics. He didn’t have that in the title, “The Girl With The Blues In Her Eyes.” It was in the lyrics and I went, “Oh no, Mike, that’s the title. You have to rewrite these lyrics because that’s perfect. That’s the title of the songs.”
MR: Pretty original.
BS: Yeah, I thought that was really kind of different. When you get a spark flying like that, it just starts to roll.
MR: Speaking of rolling, “Nothing Is A Sure Thing” going into “What’s Her Name?” going into “Calamity Jane” practically comes off as a little storyline.
BS: I never thought of it that way! It’s really hard to sequence a record, you know? I guess you could look at it that way.
MR: To me, it was like love sets you up for a fall with “Nothing Is A Sure Thing,” then in “What’s Her Name?” you’re looking for her, and then “Calamity Jane” seems to be the end game.
BS: [laughs] In “What’s Her Name?” I was trying to talk about a guy who really loves a girl and he pretends he’s forgotten about her but he hasn’t. He’s going to go out looking for “What’s Her Name.” For “Calamity Jane,” I was thinking of an old western saloon, really, with that bluegrass call.
MR: The images push the envelope, but musically, it’s all very rockabilly.
BS: It’s all based on rockabilly. It jumps off in different directions, but it’s definitely a rockabilly record.
MR: Let’s talk about the players on Rockabilly Riot! All Original. You have Kevin McKendree, Mark Winchester, Noah Levy… Was this a dream rockabilly band for you?
BS: They’re the best guys I could think of. Mark retired, he became a carpenter to raise his daughters. More power to him, I don’t know many guys who could really do that. He came out of the woodwork again down in Nashville. As he says, “I’m tired of playing for the tip jar.” He’s back to playing, so I said, “Mark, you’re in.” Kevin I’ve used before, he’s a rockabilly piano player. That’s his favorite. Jerry Lee Lewis is his idol, but he could also be Oscar Peterson. Then as far as a drummer, I’ve got a local guy. I just love Noah’s feel. It’s kind of swampy, it’s not rock. It’s hard to find a rockabilly drummer. You don’t want a guy that can’t swing, he’s got to be able to swing. Noah’s got that swampy feel I like. My joke is I think the only way you could make a better rockabilly record is if you got Elvis to sing it, because I’m no Elvis. But I think I hold up my end on the guitar.
MR: You do, sir! Brian, to me, you are one of the best guitar players out there. It isn’t you’re your rockabilly either. Look at The Knife Feels Like Justice, which is one of my favorite albums ever.
BS: Oh wow.
MR: I feel that you could’ve gone any musical direction you wanted. But that’s not what you wanted. Brian, do you know what made you follow–actually, create–your particular mélange of rockabilly-plus?
BS: That’s a good question. You’re right, I could’ve grown really long hair and bought a Les Paul and a Marshall and made a lot of money. [laughs] Let’s face it, rockabilly is not on the tip of everyone’s tongue. I’ve got to say, I think it chose me. My first memory of hearing rockabilly records were the ones that my dad brought back from the army. He was drafted like most men of that era and stationed in Korea. His unit had a lot of guys from the south. He didn’t talk about it too much, but he said, “I was stationed with these guys from the south, they were playing this music here and I like it.” He had a Carl Perkins record, a Johnny Cash record and an Elvis record. I said, “Wow, this Carl Perkins guy, wow! Johnny Cash, I’ve never heard of him! Jerry Lee Lewis?” Then when The Beatles came out, I heard them cover the Carl Perkins songs. The Stones did a Chuck Berry song and I went, “Oh!” You don’t want to like the same music your dad likes when you’re a kid, right? But my dad would come in whistling the song and I’d say, “How do you know this song? This is The Beatles! This is The Rolling Stones!” and he’d say, “No, it’s Johnny Cash, it’s Carl Perkins. I don’t know who these English guys are but this is Johnny Cash.” I guess that’s the first experience I had wit hit, at a very young age.”
MR: And that molded you to need to do this.
BS: I just always loved that sound and the simplicity. It paralleled the energy of punk rock except the guys really knew how to play. It just spoke to me. It’s kind of like asking a guy why he likes redheads over brunettes. You really can’t give a solid answer.
MR: When you think about that era, rockabilly does seem to infer the roots of punk, right?
BS: It really does. It parallels it. I’m telling you, our first Stray Cats gig in England, you could draw a line done the middle of the club, punks were on one side and rockabillies were on the other side and they were nudging each other, really elbowing each other like a, “piss off” kind of thing. We had drawn an equal crowd of punks and rockabillies, I’ll tell you that.
MR: Did you share the same vision of music as Slim Jim Phantom and Lee Rocker? Did you all love a similar kind of music?
BS: Well, the guys loved the music, whether they had heard it or not. I could tell you when I was playing in the corner bar with my brother on the drums, Slim Jim would come in and lean on a post. This was 1978 or ’77 and I saw a guy with a pompadour and a cowboy shirt and a pair of jeans and boots. I was saying, “Who’s this guy?” People had long hair and earth shoes on and here comes in this cowboy-looking guy with a fifties haircut. He looked like he stepped off an episode of Gunsmoke. He was just standing there with his legs crossed. One night, my brother didn’t show up, but he goes, “I’ve got my drum set in the car.” He was just waiting, you know?
MR: In those Stray Cats videos, you took on that visual perfectly. I think it happened at a time when new wave was trying to decide what it was–Euro-romantic, punky-pop, etc. So your take on new wave was unique. Do you think that added to why people liked The Stray Cats?
BS: Well, the purists hated it because my hair was too long and I didn’t have my jeans cuffed the proper length. You have that with all sorts of music–blues purists refusing anything past 1946 and so on. A lot of people didn’t like it but I think the reason it resonated and it became a hit was because A, we added something new to it, we wrote rockabilly songs–a lot of the rockabilly style is just the one, four, five blues format. We actually wrote songs. We looked cool, we mixed some genres, we threw some punk in there, we had big, crazy pompadours with lots of grease in them. It resonated with the eighties world. They didn’t care that it came from the fifties originally, we had somehow re-energized it. And I can’t say enough about Dave Edmunds making it sound brand new. We weren’t trying to sound like a fifties record, which a lot of the bands were. They wanted to sound just like a fifties record, we didn’t want that. We wanted to sound brand new. Dave Edmunds really was a big part of that for us.
MR: Speaking of production, you reunited with Peter Collins for Rockabilly Riot: All Original. What was it like getting back together with him and making a totally different album with him?
BS: He’s so good. He’s the old school of producers that want you to record direct, not overdub, no three takes. You go in there as a band and make a record. That’s how we did dirty boogie. There’s no splicing guitar solos together. If you make a mistake but the song has that magic, that track has that mistake left on it. Plus he’s such a nice, easygoing guy. It’s really a pleasure. He basically came out of retirement to make the reocrd, he doesn’t make records anymore, he did it just because he wanted to make a great rockabilly record with me.
MR: Nice. You’ve released so much vinyl, CDs and swag through Surfdog. You have quite the love affair with this label, huh.
BS: Well, it’s my manager’s label. I think we moved after Vavoom! when I was on Interscope and all that stuff mattered. I don’t know if it matters anymore. I don’t even know if people buy records…I’m so old school. But I recall asking if we could leave the label because we just couldn’t take the interference about wanting a “hit” record. I wouldn’t know what a “hit” record was if you hit me over the head with a hammer. I don’t know what that is, I just write songs. It became really tough to try and make a record because they had us redoing song after song, mixing it with different styles and things. I think eventually, we just said, “Would you just let us go and let us make our own records?” That’s when Dave Kaplan, who owns Surfdog came in. He just lets me make a record.
MR: I brought it up earlier, but what are your thoughts about The Knife Feels Like Justice these days? I believe it was a really great record that somehow just slipped under the radar.
BS: Man, I think there’s some really good stuff on there. I think I probably sounded too much like what was going on at the time. I moved too far away from rockabilly. I probably should’ve stayed a little closer, but you know, it almost hit. Do you remember AOR and CHR?
MR: Oh yeah.
BS: A lot of people won’t. Album-Oriented Radio and Contemporary Hit Radio. I think it was number one AOR and it came that close to jumping and the record company, EMI, just kind of jumped ship. They said, “Ah, we’ve done all we could.” Looking back on it, musically, I like a lot of it. Some of it I think is kind of overdone, with the big eighties drum sounds. But there’s still some good songs on that record.
MR: Yeah, that title track is great pop-rock, and it had “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” and “Radiation Ranch”…
BS: Oh yeah, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is a good one, isn’t it? [hums]
MR: Ya! I have to ask you my traditional question. What advice do you have for new artists?
BS: You just have to do what you want to do or you won’t be happy, I don’t think. Things come and go so quick, you have to do what you want to do. That’s the first thing. At the risk of sounding like an old guy, it really helps when you bear down on your instrument and learn how to read some music. It just connects the dots for you. I know most people don’t read music, but if you have the patience to try and learn a little bit of reading, you can really connect a lot of the dots. I find that players come to me and ask, “How do you do that? How did you think of that?” I say, “Well, look at it this way. It’s because I learned how to read and write music that those thoughts come into my head.” I think that’s the best advice I could give, really.
MR: It’s unfortunate that nowadays, music education programs in schools have had their budgets slashed or the departments have been completely eliminated.
BS: I know, I know. I’m so lucky, I remember besides band class, we would have music class where they would roll in an old cart with an organ on it and we’d learn “The Erie Canal” song and old American songs I sing today that these little old ladies put their time into. It means so much. I’ll sing an old American folk song or something and my daughters will look at me and go, “What’s that?” I’ll think, “That’s right, you guys don’t have that.” It really is a shame that it’s gone.
MR: I had a similar experience with the little old lady. Or school’s music teacher humped portable organ to every class.
BS: Yeah, God bless those little old ladies, right? I’d say, “I’ve got a mule, her name is Sal, fifteen miles on the Erie Canal,” and my daughters will say, “That’s cool, what is that?” You don’t know “The Erie Canal” song? They don’t! How could they? You’re not going to hear that on Pandora.
MR: [laughs] Is your family going to continue the Setzer music tradition or do they have other goals?
BS: I think the buck stops with me. [laughs] I think I’m the anomaly. My elder daughter is going to college, she’ll be interested in photography and things. The little one is interested in cooking and nutrition. Not just cooking food, but what goes in it. She’s got that thing going. My son is doing his own thing and it’s not musical. I kind of feel like what I’d like to do is just touch someone and say, “Here’s everything I’ve learned,” but it’s not that easy. Probably what I’ll wind up doing is giving some lessons one day, I don’t know if it’ll be over the internet or teaching classes. People have asked me to teach what they call a master class where I go and show people things. That’s probably where I’m going to be headed one day. I wish I could just touch someone who likes my playing on the shoulder and say, “Here’s all I’ve got,” and boom, they’ve got it.
MR: Passing the torch.
BS: Yeah, it would be kind of nice to teach a little bit of it, because people ask me a lot. But I’m not quite ready for it.
MR: Brian, the problem is going to be that nobody is doing what you do, so it’s going to be hard to reach your level of heart-meets-feel-meets-proficiency.
BS: [laughs] Well, I can’t describe what I do, it’s just what comes out. There’ll be more great guitarists coming. There are plenty of great players around. I like to think I’ve got my own style and when people hear me or hear the radio, they say, “Oh, that’s Brian Setzer.” That was always the goal.
MR: Hey, the last time I saw you, you were singing the national anthem at a Yankees game. Are you signed up to do that again?
BS: Oh my God, you saw that?
MR: [laughs] I was the one yelling “Brian!” and you pointed towards me..or at least that’s how I delusionally remember it.
BS: Oh, my gosh, I do recall that! See, one summer, I just got it under my craw that I wanted to sing the national anthem. I think I did it at about five or six stadiums. It was a hoot. They always let me bring my guitar on and I’d do my doo-wop version of the national anthem. I think it was kind of a passing thing. If they asked me again locally, I suppose I could do it.
MR: Come on, it’s time already!
BS: No, it’s not time for that yet. [laughs] I still have a lot of rockin’ left, I’ve still got touring, but I think the next thing will be teaching. I think I’d rather watch the baseball game.
MR: Okay, ’til then, we’ll have to just imagine a rockabilly national anthem.
BS: You’ve got it, my man.
MR: I was just about to ask you what you’re doing in the future. You sort of just covered it, but what else do you want to get done?
BS: I won’t know until it hits me over the head. I can’t say, “Well, my next record is going to be a bossanova record. It has to hit me, so I don’t know. In my spare time, I just do really dumb guy things. I love my dogs–I guess that’s not dumb. I like to go to ball games. I’m trying to keep sort of fit. I’ve got my daughters who are college age. In my spare time, I’m not going to fashion model events or unique parties or anything like that. I’ve never liked any of that kind of stuff, so I just kind of do what everybody else does.
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Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with The Empty Hearts’ Elliot Easton
Mike Ragogna: Elliot, after listening to the new project, I would argue that your new group should be called The Whole Hearts, not The Empty Hearts.
Elliot Easton: [laughs] Well, our hearts are full as far as making the music. And you’ll have to ask Steven Van Zandt about the name, he came up with it.
MR: What’s the story behind this group?
EE: Basically, it comes from a friendship between Andy Babiuk, bass player, and Steven. Andy was previously in a band called The Chesterfield Kings that was on Little Steven’s Underground Garage label. They appeared on an episode of Sopranos, they’ve been friends for quite a while. Andy has done some music consultation work for David Chase for Not Fade Away and things like that. So they’re pals. Steven is just one of those guys that likes to come up with cool band names. When it came time for a name, he gave us a list and said, “Why don’t you pick one of these?” We went through his list and we liked The Empty Hearts. It came about like most things, through friends.
MR: Speaking of friends, Empty Hearts is a merging of talent from The Cars, Blondie, Romantics, The Chesterfield Kings…
EE: Yeah, yeah. To us, it’s very natural, we’re all friends, we all have admired each others’ work through the years, it’s a great situation, it’s a nice, fresh beginning. It’s just been really pleasurable, it’s been fun. That’s really what it’s all about. Hopefully that comes through in the grooves, not that there’s grooves anymore, but you know what I mean.
MR: The virtual groove.
EE: The grooves in the rhythm.
MR: What was the studio experience like and how did it progress from all these talents coming together?
EE: Andy just had this idea, “Wouldn’t it be fun to have a band with friends?” Maybe he’d come to some kind of a crossroads with his band and wanted to just have fun playing music again and we all felt similarly. He just called me. It seemed like an off the wall thing, a little dubious that it would actually happen. He said, “I’ve got this idea for a band, Clem [Burke] would play drums and Wally [Palmar] would be singing, what do you think about playing guitar in it?” At that point, it didn’t cost me anything to say yes because I didn’t know if it was going to happen or not, so I said, “Yeah, sure, if you get it together count me in,” ’cause I wasn’t doing much. Andy is quite a guy, he did get it together, he’s a really hard worker and a great organizer and he put the thing together and got everybody on board. We went up to Rochester New York where his studio is, he’s got a warehouse kind of studio set up. Two of us live in LA, Clem and I, two of us live out of town, Wally in the Detroit area and Andy in Rochester. For writing the songs, Andy and Wally got together a bit on their own, and they came out to California and we rented a rehearsal place. I showed them some ideas and some songs that I had incubating for a while, we recorded that stuff informally, Wally went away and worked on the lyrics and stuff like that, it was a very organic process, we just jammed on ideas and hammered some songs together, then we went up to Rochester and the great Ed Stasium engineered and produced it. People who don’t know his work would certainly have heard it, he did most of the Ramones records.
I first worked with Ed in the mid-eighties on the Lights Out record from Peter Wolf, J. Geils’ lead singer. It’s great to have him around. We all go back like thirty years or more. Then we got the bright idea, since we don’t have a keyboard player of getting Ian McLagan from The Faces and The Small Faces and The Rolling Stones to play keyboards. So he was up for the idea, he came up to Rochester and played Hammond organ and Wurlitzer electric piano, real rock ‘n’ roll keyboards and that was a great little addition to the sound. It’s just kind of taken on a life of its own, moving forward in one direction, all of us. And here I am talking to you, it’s very exciting. Musicians are notorious for discussing things that never come to fruition over a couple of drinks, “Hey man, let’s do something together” and then the next day it’s all forgotten–probably like in most business, you know what I mean? “We’ve got to do something together, we’ve got to collaborate,” whatever, and then the next morning it’s like, “What? Did that conversation really exist?” So it was really great to actually see this thing follow through to fruition and have a really nice record done, have it coming out in August, it’s great. It’s really fun.
MR: I see that Empty Hearts has a track called “Fill An Empty Heart,” I’m guessing a play on the group name. All this Empty Heart-edness!
EE: [laughs] Yeah, as far as the line or the title “Fill An Empty Heart,” that was something Wally came up with. Maybe it was inspired by the band name. I can’t remember the sequence because he wrote lyrics on his own, but I just think it’s a cool name, I don’t think Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers are out to break anybody’s heart. I don’t know that The Empty Hearts really feel that their hearts are empty. It’s just a name. [laughs]
MR: Yeah, I’ve beaten that joke into the ground, sorry.
EE: [laughs] Well, that’s what fans like to do, isn’t it?
MR: Exactly! [laughs] This is pretty much a party record. Do you think that’s indicative of how good of a time you guys were having in the studio or maybe how creatively you guys were bouncing ideas off each other?
EE: I think both. I think it’s indicative of how we were having a great time. We’ve been having a great time every time we get together whether it’s to be in the studio or to write a song or to do a photo session, we’re always laughing and having a good time with it. That’s the whole point of the thing, to enjoy making music and have a good time making music. As I said before, I do think it comes through in the music that we were enjoying ourselves. That’s not contrived, that’s just the sound of four guys having a blast.
MR: Elliot, in my opinion, The Cars left a nice musical legacy. Remember when people used certain albums to test stereo systems? I can remember The Cars’ first album being a test record during that era.
EE: That’s very nice, thank you. I’m really proud of the work we accomplished. That first record took all of twenty-one days to make. It took twelve days to record in England and nine days to mix, just a song a day and we were done in three weeks. That was winter of ’77. It’s pretty amazing. It’s great to have been a part of that.
MR: Although you first broke hugely in the seventies, The Cars is one of the iconic groups that comes up when one talks about music of the eighties.
EE: Yeah, for better or for worse, I guess, huh? [laughs] It’s a much-maligned decade. I don’t know why. I think the seventies were a lot lamer, but we always joke… My wife and I were talking about the eighties and the shoulder pads and the clothes and the funny hair, some of those bands were just “haircut bands.”
MR: Yeah, especially a lot of the Europop dance groups. Elliot, you were part of Creedence Clearwater Revisited, how did that come together?
EE: Like so many things in this business, it just comes through friends. I had a buddy who worked at Atlantic Records who knew Stu Cook from Creedence. We discovered that Stu lived five minutes away from me out here in Calabasas at the time, so we got together and had some lunch. On Stu and Doug [Clifford’s] fiftieth birthday they got together and had a little party together and they decided they wanted to play music again. I’d been hanging out with Stu and he knew that I was a big fan and had played those songs in high school and stuff like that, so he said, “How about Elliot?” I was their first choice of guitar. In fact, we auditioned singers at my home studio here in southern California. I ended up doing that for eleven years. I’ve done a lot of fun things. I’ve played with Brian Wilson on his first solo record and I did some shows with him. I did a little touring with Hall & Oates back in the nineties, a lot of session stuff, I just try to keep busy.
MR: Yeah including The New Cars, which I enjoyed as a kind of Todd Rundgrens’ Utopia meets The Cars.
EE: Well thank you! That was a very enjoyable project. It was like Greg [Hawkes] and I from The Cars and Todd [Rundgren] and Prairie [Prince] and Kasim [Sulton]. Greg used to call it “Autopia,” because it was half Utopia, half Cars.
MR: You were also part of the No Cats project with Lee Rocker.
EE: Oh yeah! That’s right!
MR: Yes, sir, you’ve played on quite a few projects.
EE: A bunch of sessions over the years, it’s true.
MR: And you released that solo album Change No Change. Why no follow up to that?
EE: Well, again, I wasn’t trying to have a solo career or anything like that, it was just something that naturally grew out. I started getting together regularly with a friend of mine, Jules Shear. We found we enjoyed writing songs together, he’d come over my house with his acoustic guitar and I’d show him some ideas and he’d help me flesh them out, he’s such a great songwriter, we ended up writing a batch of songs and then he was like, “What are we going to do with these songs?” They weren’t purpose-written for an Elliot Easton solo record or anything like that, we were just writing songs for the joy of it. I said, “What are we going to do with these?” and he said, “Why don’t you sing them?” I don’t remember exactly what I said but I’m sure I thought to myself, “I’m not a lead singer!” And I’m not! I wouldn’t mind hearing those songs sung by a good singer.
MR: Dude, they’re perfectly fine, don’t you think?
EE: They’re okay. It was an enjoyable thing to do, but to be perfectly honest I think self-awareness is important. It’s important to know your abilities and it’s also important to know your limitations. I think they both define who you are as a person and an artist or whatever. To be completely honest about it, I’ve always found for myself that I really shine in a supportive role. I enjoy it more, I’ve never really sought out to be center stage, that’s not necessarily my thing, but what I love to do is to take a piece of music or be part of creating a piece of music and give it that lift that sends it over the top, whether it’s those solos that people seem to like from Cars records or whatever it may be. I think that’s my little gift, just being able to come up with hooks and solos and cool parts and take a great song and make it into a great record, which are two different things, really.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
EE: Very good question. How would I answer that… For one thing, I’d say save your money. I’m not trying to be funny or facetious. There’s a feeling that you can lapse into when you achieve this great success and it’s thinking that it’s going to last forever. Nothing does. It doesn’t matter if you’re Nick Cave or The Cars or whoever. I would advise a young musician to think about the future and to write music. Don’t get involved in drugs if you can possibly avoid it. Drugs and alcohol are kind of a dead end. It stifles creativity and shortens your life and adds misery to it. Those are some of the big ones. And above all, have fun, because if you’re not having fun, then you’re doing it wrong.
MR: That’s beautiful, that’s really a great answer. And speaking of having fun, are you still loving your Tikibird?
EE: My Gibson? Oh yeah, it’s a blast. I love that guitar! I’ll be playing it a lot with The Empty Hearts. I’ve been very blessed in my life, I was one of those kids that used to write away to guitar companies for catalogs. I still am, but even at ten, eleven, twelve years old I was so guitar crazy. You just can’t imagine how nuts I was over guitars. I was one of those guys who used to bring catalogs to school and hide them behind my textbooks. I knew every model. If you would’ve told me back then that I’d have five or six different signature models through the years and guitar companies would approach me to design guitars for them I would’ve just laughed you out of the room. At this point I’ve done two for Gibson, a Martin acoustic, a Gretsch and a Kramer in the eighties. I’ve had like five signature model guitars. It’s an honor to have the signature model guitar, but in a more philosophical way I just feel so blessed to be considered a part of the guitar community and the musical community and to have my opinion valued by people like that who think that I would be able to contribute something to the world of guitars beyond just playing music is really flattering. It’s a great payoff to all of my misspent youth staring at catalogs and memorizing specs. I could’ve told you every bit of copy in the 1966 Gibson catalog. Every serial number. I was just crazed for that stuff. To this day, when the Brown truck comes and a new guitar gets delivered to the door, it’s like Christmas. I haven’t become jaded about that or anything. I still love it.
MR: Beautiful. Will The Empty Hearts be touring to support the album?
EE: Oh yes, we’ll absolutely be touring. It’s kind of toured around from what it used to be. In the eighties we used to make records and then we’d tour to promote the record, but I think it’s flip-flopped now. You want to tour so you can make a record. But definitely one of the main goals of the band has been all along to get out there and play live. Once the record comes out in August I expect we’ll be getting out as much as possible. It’s definitely one of our goals.
MR: What’s the future hold for you, you know, since you could be teaming up with literally anyone at literally any time.
EE: [laughs] My tastes are pretty eclectic, I think I’ve got a pretty deep well to draw from in terms of influences and stuff like that. I don’t know… A year or two ago, I had a mid-century crisis, so I did The Tiki Gods. That was exotica, lounge, Les Baxter sort of stuff. I wouldn’t consider myself a jazz musician but I enjoy tackling most other forms. I like to play a bit of jazz, I just don’t consider myself a jazz musician.
MR: Is there something you want to conquer that you haven’t attempted yet?
EE: Well, I’m kind of doing it. It’s great to be in a band where both my playing ability and my writing ability is welcomed and we’re all writing songs together. It’s a nice collective, I would say this is one of those moments where I am achieving something I would love to achieve. I’m just kind of enjoying this one right now. I never know what the future will bring though.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with The Psycho Sisters’ Vicki Peterson and Susan Cowsill
Mike Ragogna: Finally, after twenty-two years in the making, The Psycho Sisters’ album Up On The Chair Beatrice is released. So was there at least a teensy respite between when the recording started and finished?
Susan Cowsill: Well, about two of those twenty-two years. We actually started this process in the Spring of 2012. [laughs]
MR: So what is this twenty-two years stuff? Is that when you were starting to create the material for this?
Vicki Peterson: Yes, it was. We started writing it twenty-two years ago, and did a couple of demo-type recordings. We recorded a forty-five, which actually exists out there in the world and we did do one session with Kevin Salem recording a few of these songs for fun, with no thought of releasing that or anything.
MR: How far back does your friendship go? What’s the origin story of said Psycho Sisters?
VP: I’ll give you the quick chronology. We met in 1978, but really became lifelong friends around 1988.
SC: Wasn’t it ’85? My mom was dying.
VP: No, it was after that.
SC: Huh. I believe her, she’s the smart one.
VP: It was around when we were making that last Bangles record.
SC: Right, I remember now. But the “in the making” thing is that we fully intended every single day of every single year to make the record. We wrote all these songs and every day we said, “We’ve got to make this record,” and every day we didn’t, so that’s in the making, isn’t it?
VP: That’s totally in the making.
MR: That’s pretty cool. But both of you have been working with your other groups and affiliations. Do you think those projects got in the way of finishing this record?
SC: Well, sure. Life gets in the way of life, every minute. You can quote me on that. We’re best friends and we’re sisters and it leads to this, “Oh, we’ll just do it later,” kind of thing.
VP: I’m the kind of person who would fret about, “We’re never going to make the Psycho record are we. It’s just never going to happen, we’ll never do it,” and Susan would say, “It’ll happen when it’s supposed to happen.” She was very Zen about it and I think in the end she’s absolutely right.
SC: She’s the smart one, I’m the Zen one.
VP: That being said, nothing does happen until you decide that it’s going to happen. It really wasn’t until V and I both said, “Hey. Let’s get ‘er done.”
MR: Finally, after everything that’s gone into it, the time devoted to it, how do you view this Psycho Sisters project in the end?
VP: I think it’s a very happy completed circle of something that has existed for a long time. I think Susan has said before that these songs deserved their day. That’s one of the reasons we didn’t just say, “Oh forget all that, let’s just write all new stuff.” We really decided, “No, these songs existed for a reason, we’ve never given them a chance to be heard. I also believed firmly that the first time you hear a piece of music, it’s brand new. It’s brand new to the listener. We didn’t shape these songs in any particular way sonically, we didn’t say, “Okay, we want these songs to sound as if they’re twenty years old.” Some people react to it and say, “Wow, it sounds like the nineties,” and I’m not quite sure what that means.
SC: [laughs] I don’t either! I’ve been reading that, too.
VP: But that being said, that might just be an implied thing because we’re acknowledging the fact that that’s when they were written and created originally.
SC: The truth of the matter is that they are. I wonder if people didn’t know it took twenty-two years.
VP: Yeah, that’s what I’m wondering; if they all thought this was completely brand new material would they still all have that resonance? But to us it’s a beautiful thing to say, “Okay, we have done this.” It’s as if you were working on a novel for twelve years and you finally get to a point where you say, “Okay, I’m ready to have this read by the world.”
SC: For me, it’s interesting because through the years as an artist you’re creating content and whether you want to or not it’s just one of the evil aspects of being an artist is this little creature lives in your head and says, “Is this viable? Is anybody going to want to hear this? What is the point of this?” I really put a big mute button on that guy because he bugs me. I don’t think art is something we should judge. It’s like judging somebody’s emotions. That being said, these songs aren’t rocket science, they aren’t going to save the planet, but they are where we were at that time. Preserving an emotion and a moment in time and like Vick said I said, giving it its due. So when I’m listening to it I say, “I remember that,” and “Oh wow, how cute,” or “Aw, how sad, poor her.” It’s like looking at a scrapbook.
VP: A scrapbook of former relationships as well, because many of these stories are based on people we used to date.
SC: Oh God, some of them are dead!
VP: Oh, yeah, there’s that too. Some of them are dead! [laughs] Oh, well.
MR: Are there a couple of stories on this record that are particularly endearing to you?
VP: We’re both still laughing.
SC: Wait! I want to know what you’re laughing about. What story are you laughing about?
VP: Oh God, there are several. Here’s a safe one. It’s the song “Heather Says.” The reason that is a favorite of mine is that this song goes back to when both Susan and I were eleven years old. Susan was recording this song, I was at home trying to figure it out on guitar. For my little fingers and my little brain at that time it was a mindbender. I couldn’t wrap my head around where those changes were going.
SC: It was pretty sophisticated.
VP: It was confusing to me. It was one of those songs that I always wanted to master and I think all these years later I can finally play this bloody thing without making a mistake. It’s also this funny thing where when that was recorded in 1971 it was a familiar story to any young girl, the schoolyard bully, the person who commanded attention and obedience from her classmates. Now it’s much, much more topical because the whole idea of bullying young children is much more discussed and not something that is just dealt with on an individual basis. We talk about it now.
MR: I have a kid, and I had to have him switch schools to keep him away from bullies. But in the beginning, I admit that I was one of those people who said, “Oh, it’s just one of those things that kids have to go through.” It’s so out of hand now.
VP: It is so out of hand. Maybe it’s gotten worse, but at least we’re paying attention now.
SC: I think it probably always has been going on, just like any less-than-charming aspect of a human being that’s been going on forever but now we’re more educated, aware of it, and look for solutions to it. That’s a lot heavier than what I was going to say! [laughs]
VP: What were you going to say?
SC: Oh, no, no, no, I wouldn’t want to sully this conversation!
MR: [laughs] Susan, what is your favorite song?
SC: I always find “Timberline” to be a rather amusing story.
VP: Ooh, “Timberline,” that is a good one.
SC: It is a good one. Really “Timberline” never even existed until one afternoon when I was in this bad relationship. I needed to get out of the house I was in because the person I was with just wasn’t cool and I needed to get out immediately. Vicki had just come out of a relationship where she had a wonderful fiancé–I say “wonderful” now but he was a pain in the ass. But I loved him. His name was Bobby and unfortunately, Bobby passed away from which cancer, Vicki?
SC: He had Leukemia and he had passed away recently and I was in a pickle at my house because I was staying with this person that I shouldn’t have been in a relationship with. I called Vick and I said, “I’ve got to get out of here and I have to have a story,” because he liked her. I don’t know whose idea it was but we concocted that Vicki was ready to spread the ashes of her fiancé and I had to run immediately to be with her, we have to go up to Big Bear like now. That was all a lie. We took him with us, just to make it half true, did we not?
VP: We did.
SC: We took the box with us. We drove up to Big Bear and we stayed in a cabin–was it called Timberline?
VP: No, no, we made that up.
SC: Okay, cool. We did go to Big Bear, we did keep the ashes of her fiancé in the car with us because we’re both catholic and we stayed in a cabin up there, just chilled our heels and I did a little bit of thinking about what I should do about this relationship/non-relationship. In the process, we wrote “Timberline.”
VP: We also brought the Ouija board.
SC: Yeah, we brought the Ouija board because we had some recent dead people.
VP: We talked to them!
SC: We did! In fact a lot of the lines of “Timberline” are from the Ouija board. So yeah, “Timberline” came out of absolute desperation. I think we stayed longer than we said we would and I told him, “We’re writing, we’re being creative, it’s helping her move through grief.” It was all a pile of s**t.
VP: It was one of the first songs that we wrote together, as well.
SC: That’s true.
MR: Susan, you had another family member pass recently. Are you okay?
SC: Yes, I’m very okay.
VP: We’re putting a big pause in the brothers going.
SC: There’s been a twenty-five year moratorium declared by my brother Bob.
VP: Thank you, I appreciate that.
SC: No problem. Richard did just pass on July 8th, but yeah, I’m okay. The alternative is to not be okay and I find that tends to be a waste of energy and rude to the universe and God, to remain in a perpetual state of “not okay.” I’m certainly allowing myself, in the time that it is, to be as sad as I am, but I’m certainly going to be okay, and Richard was okay. Richard felt he had done everything that he needed to do and he was ready to rock. That being said, our age group says we should all be around hanging out with each other and we’re not. I can’t control the universe and what it does, so the only thing I’m in control of is myself. That’s all any of us has. We’re all okay, in fact I’m fairly glad for him because he was in a rough spot.
MR: I was lucky enough to see all of The Cowsills–well, your mom had already passed–but I saw you guys at the El Rey in 1999 or 2000. Shirley Jones was there as the substitute mom, I guess.
VP: She’s the other mom.
SC: That was the last time we were all together.
MR: Wow. So speaking of family, Vicki and Susan truly are close sisters-in-law, psycho or otherwise, huh.
VP: We truly are. I can say that for our name… We absolutely own it, live up to it, nurture it, and it gets more authentic every day.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
SC: Run away! [laughs]
VP: I don’t know that there’s any advice I can give because I think most young artists who are coming up today who really want to do this thing have every tool at their command to take it as far as they can. There’s so much available now that wasn’t available when Susan and I were first starting this, either individually or in different groups, because there’s so many different ways to get your music out there. That being said, it’s in some ways more complicated and difficult because of the fact that everybody can get their music and there are no gatekeepers anymore, there are very few to filter things through. I say if you really want to do this, put your heart and soul and energy every day into it and figure out what you really want to do and who you really want to reach and then just go for it. But it ain’t easy, baby.
SC: I agree with everything my sister just said, but I would add to it that I concur, we are in a different time, we have eight hundred thousand more options but we also have that many more people on the planet and creative, beautiful, artistically-talented, should-be-heard young people. It’s a bigger, bigger world, making it harder to be individualized and heard in that way so do everything she said but bottom line? Do it because you love it. That’s what you’re really going to end up with the most gratification from is making the music because you have to, you need to, it’s what you love, it’s how you feel yourself and how you express yourself. Do it because of that first. Then you’ve got a shot at the rest of it following. If you’re doing it just to get famous or rich or noticed or whatever those things are, you’ll never be satisfied, even if you get that. It’s a heart moment. You’ve got to love what you do. It’s a long road.
MR: Futuristic social media and technology aside, are the basics of that what you would have told both of yourselves way back when, also?
VP: The lesson I keep thinking to tell younger Vicki is, “Really trust your instincts.” It’s something I went along with for a long, long time and a few times disregarded to my own detriment, I believe. I think listening to your instincts, and that includes what Susan was saying about following your heart and doing things because you love them, that is your truest path and that’s what will get you where you need to go, whether that means you’re top of the pops or not. It may not be, but it’s going to be where you’re supposed to go.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
INTRODUCING DOUG SEEGERS
photo courtesy Rounder Records
According to Doug Seegers…
“Maikng this record was a dream come true for me. We made it in 3 days and I was worried at first that I would not have much input. But everyone listened to what I had to say and allowed me to make the record that really represented my vision.”
According to Will Kimbrough…
“Doug is the real deal. Over and over, he sat down at the microphone and casually blew us all away with his songs, his voice, his guitar. The artists who is totally prepared and confident and knows exactly what he wants in the studio is rare enough. To learn Doug’s story makes it like some sort of miracle. But it’s no fluke; Doug’s simply played and sung every day, whether it was on the street or in a fancy studio. He has to do it. He’s the real deal.”
“POP UR HEART OUT” WITH SALME DAHLSTROM’S REMIX BY SPEKRFREKS
photo credit: Bryce Prevatt
According to Salme Dahlstrom…
“I play all of the instruments, program, produce, edit and mix it all myself,” Salme Dahlstrom says of her creative process. “Except for a couple of guest vocalists, I did that too, the singing, that is!”
According to Salme Dahlstrom’s peeps…
“The Wall Street Journal recently dubbed Dahlstrom a ‘music licensing queen’ when, like Moby before her, she managed to license every track from her 2008 album The Acid Cowgirl Audio Trade to various major companies and television programs. At the time, she was not only just getting noticed, she was just getting started.”
Entertainment – The Huffington Post
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