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Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal

Posted January, 2013

 

Bumblefoot1photo by AlwaysAcousticPhoto by Always AcousticGuns N’ Roses.  The band name conjures up images of many of the stereotypes of bad boy rock and roll.  Some of those images might be deserved. I don’t know. I’ve never been around when any of the reported bad stuff supposedly happened.  I know that, a) I’ve seen the band twice in a one year period and they’re consummate performers and professionals; and, b) I’ve now interviewed two members of the band and they’ve both been incredible to chat with.

My first interview was in November of last year with band keyboardist, Dizzy Reed, via an amazingly clear phone connection to his hotel room in Paraguay.  The second interview was recently – again by phone – with one of the band’s three guitarist, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal.

Okay. I’ll stop right here and, for you uninitiated and unwashed readers, I’ll answer the question that is bouncing around your mind: What is a “bumblefoot” and why is Mr. Thal called that?  Bumblefoot was the name of Ron Thal’s first album, The Adventures of Bumblefoot which he came up with while helping his then-girlfriend study for veterinary school. Click here for why she might have been studying that term. 

Now, back to my chat with Mr. Thal.

Where was I?  Oh, yeah!  After tracking down how to get in touch with Ron, he was gracious enough to grant me a phone interview.  Originally slated to take place at his home, snow storm Euclid had him snowbound in the southeast after Christmas.  Having recently completed a world-wide tour – as well as a residency at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas – with Guns N’ Roses, Thal was enjoying some down time with his wife and in-laws when he broke away to call me. He said, “This exactly why I wanted your number because I never know where the hell I’m gonna end up.”

An unexpected – but pleasant – surprise came in the form of Bumblefoot explaining how he and his wife met.

“I’m from Brooklyn and she’s from Queens. We met twenty-two years ago and been together ever since. It was actually a blind date. People tried to set us up for six months and we wanted no part of it. Then, finally, it was, like, ‘Alright, yeah, we’ll get together’ and we were just bent on hating each other just to prove everybody wrong. Then, she tried to get rid of me by asking me questions about science and parallels between matter and anti-matter and the asymmetry of the universe. I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh! She has a brain!’ and we started talking and, yeah, there you go!  Twenty-two years later we’re having breakfast in North Carolina.”

When Ron learned that I grew up in Phoenix, his voice lit up even more. “Oh, man! I love Phoenix! You know that Musical Instrument Museum that they just opened up a few years ago? Man! It is incredible! You can spend the whole day there!  You put on a set of headphones and they have all these displays of every single type of instrument from every period in time.  It’ll have African tribal instruments and ones that they use for rituals and for certain ceremonies and ones that they use for all different things. It’s just incredible! They had one of John Lennon’s pianos there. They had all kinds of stuff there.  You could easily spend an whole day in there.” We continued to talk about different things about Arizona and Texas – almost like two old school mates catching up on news about the old homestead. 

After we settled into our chat, I asked him what he was doing on his valuable time off besides talking to boneheaded interviewers like me.

“I’ve been laying down a bunch of riffs and guitar solos for a bunch of different albums and songs for (Arizona artist) Christy Paige, Tony Harnell (of the Norwegian band, TNT). He’s an incredible singer and I’ve been a fan of his for almost thirty years now – for about as long as he’s been putting out music. Someone gave me a copy of his first album when I was fourteen and I was just blown away. Then twenty years ago we were going to put a band together when TNT was kind of on the rocks but it didn’t happen. Then twenty years later – it was last year, we met up at NAMM and started chatting. He was doing some New York acoustic shows and I went to see them. They were some of the best shows I’ve ever seen. We started working together doing acoustic stuff. We’re working on putting out an acoustic album. We’ll see what happens from there.”

Since one doesn’t usually associate acoustic guitar work with Bumblefoot, I asked him if it was a challenge for him to work on that kind of music.

“No, I like it. For me, diversity and stepping out of the usual and not getting locked into any kind of comfort zone – I prefer that. I like to keep it fresh. I’m definitely enjoying the acoustic stuff.”

After such a monster storm-trooper of a GNR tour, I wondered if it was hard for Thal to come down from it or is he just SO ready to be home that he doesn’t know what to do first.

“The hardest part of starting a tour or ending a tour is the transition from being home to being on the road. You get off tour. You don’t have a day sheet slipped under your door. You don’t know what to do with your time. You don’t know what to do with all this freedom to do anything because, when you’re on tour, you’re kind of limited as to what you can do. But, when you’re home, for me, I can do anything. Because of that, I just don’t know what to do with myself. There’s been time when, as soon as I got home – before even unpacking, I just started tearing up the ceiling and putting in recessed lighting for three days. This time, I immediately went right into the studio and started blasting out stuff. If find that that’s the best thing to do is just right back into some kind of work that you would normally be doing at home and that gets you right back into it where you don’t have time to get all weird about the transition.

“That’s the toughest part. When you leave to go on tour, you feel like you pressed a giant pause button on your life and you Photo by Jarmo LuukkonenPhoto by Jarmo Luukkonenhave all the stuff waiting for you. Finally, it hits you when you’re on the plane, ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do so I might as well wipe my hands of it all and think about what I need to do here which is put on a good show. Then, when you’re on the plane ride back, it’s like you’ve taken your finger off of that pause button and it’s like, ‘Alright! I’ve got to get to the doctor! I’ve got to get new contact lenses! I’ve got to renew the box at the post office!’ The list comes into play of everything you need to do – all the little stuff. You start planning it out. ‘Alright, I’ve gotta do this, this, this, and this and tomorrow this, this, and this.’ And you slowly get back to normal life.”

As for how Mrs. Thal handles him during those times, he said, “She’s been watching me do this for so long, she gets it. She comes on tour a lot, too, and she knows how weird it is to get off the road and come back home. She’s experienced the transition, as well. For me, I could be gone for three months and for her, she could come out for a couple of weeks or a couple of days and then go home and then do it again. She’ll pick and choose where she wants to go. Like, ‘Ah! I’ve never been to India!  Let’s go to India!’ And we work it out.

“That’s the whole thing that really helps us is not separating the two lives where you have your touring life and your home life; when you can put the two together; where you can make that leap and combine the two lives into one; it actually winds up being better. It’s actually good like that with Guns. A lot of times we have family members joining on the tour and it really is like one big family now. It’s always like that. It’s one thing I’m happy about is that, in the Guns world, family is treated like everybody’s family.”

When I comment that many people may find that description of life on the road with Guns N’ Roses as quite different from the image of trashing hotel rooms and such, Thal said, “There’s a lot of everything. There’s trashed hotel rooms, sometimes, but it’s usually for a good reason! Ha! Ha!  One time, they were testing the smoke alarms every morning starting at eight in the morning and sometimes going on until one in the afternoon. Picture three mornings of that when you’re working at night. Finally, by the third morning, one of our guys went out and found the guy in the hallway testing everything and pretty much told him that he was going to kill him if he makes one more sound. He was so mad that he just kicked around some things in his room.

“There’s been times when – it’s usually just the sleep deprivation when you really need to sleep because you’re on the opposite schedule than the rest of the world. Guns shows start late and go on for three hours and by the time you get out of there and get back to bed, the sun is coming up and you don’t want, two hours later, the phone ringing saying, ‘This is room service. Do you want us to come in?’ And I’m like, ‘The “Do Not Disturb” sign, it applies to not just the door but to the phone. “Do Not Disturb” means do not disturb by any means. I’m trying to sleep!’ Then, two hours later, they call and say, ‘I was just calling to make sure you want us to not call.’ It’s that kind of stuff. Those are the things that have you ripping the phone out of the wall and sticking it in the toilet and then going back to bed. I think that half the times people destroy a hotel room, it’s not for fun, it’s because they’re trying to sleep and the hotel won’t let them! So, that happens. Yeah. Oh, and my wife was there when that happened so all the crazy room-trashing now happens with family!”

Then next three GNR specific questions I asked Bumblefoot were the same three that I asked Dizzy Reed. I started off by saying that, from the outside looking in, people view GNR as a rolling thunderstorm of chaos, confusion and confrontation.  What does it look like to him from his vantage point?

“A rolling thunderstorm of chaos, confrontation and . . . yeah.  They’ve got it exactly right. That’s exactly what it is”, Thal said in an obvious joking tone. “If people only knew how much, they wouldn’t believe it. They used to say that Guns N’ Roses was the most dangerous band in the world. If anything, it might be more dangerous. We just hide it better. I mean, the things that go on as far as the volatility and the fragility of making this beast run is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s definitely a runaway train. Actually, it’s more like a runaway planet!  That’s what it is. Picture a planet that leaves its orbit and it’s just shooting through space, smashing anything in its path. I think it’s more like that. But, yes, as far as chaos and rage and all of that stuff, oh yeah, plenty of that.”

What does Thal think is the most misrepresented, misunderstood or most unknown “thing” about GNR is?

“That we are not wrestling characters that are good guys and bad guys when it comes to the past and the present versions or different members of the different chapters of the story of Guns N’ Roses. People are surprised to know that Izzy (Stradlin) came out and jammed on a couple of songs with us for some of these shows. And Duff (McKagan) did. Things like that. It’s not all this past versus present, one versus the other. It’s all part of the same story. Guns N’ Roses is like this big book filled with so many chapters that are so unique and a story within themselves but they’re all part of the same book, part of the same history. It’s all part of the same life span of the twenty-five year life of the band. It’s a continuing story.

“People tend to look at it like, ‘That’s not Guns N’ Roses’. Well, in a sense, a butterfly isn’t a caterpillar but it’s the same life, the same creature. It just goes through changes. It started off as one thing but slowly morphed into another.  That just happens – whether people die or quit, technology change, music styles change, or whatever happens.

“It’s the same band but you have to look at it like one is the child, one is the adult, one is the gray haired wise dude. It’s the same life and the child isn’t the same person that he is when he is going to be fifty. But it’s the same life and the sum of the same experiences in the end.  People say, ‘Well, it’s not the same band.’ You’re right, it’s not the same band. Different people. Different sound. Different world. Different century. Different everything. But it’s part of the same story and if you want to not acknowledge any aspect of that story, you’re just missing out on a lot of it you might enjoy if you let yourself.

“Every life has its peak, its part that someone is going to favor. That’s fine. Appreciate and enjoy the whole story. There’s a lot to it. It’s very interesting and I’ll even say that there’s been no band in the history of rock that has a story as crazy as Guns N’ Roses is. So, enjoy it! Why fight it? Enjoy it!”

On a slightly different note, I asked Thal what he thought is the most misrepresented, misunderstood or most unknown “thing” about Axl?

“I think that, a lot of times, if he’s late on stage or if he’s not going to show up to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or if an album is taking too long to come out – that kind of stuff – I think a lot of times people think it’s because he doesn’t care about his fans. They just take it that way. But the truth is I think, from what I see, he cares so much that it almost gets in the way. I would say he cares too much. That’s what people don’t realize about him. They take it the wrong way. They think that if he’s stalling on something that it’s that he doesn’t care but it’s actually because he cares so much that he’s so concerned about doing the wrong thing. He’s trying to feel out what the right thing is to do. That’s one thing I noticed about him: that he cares maybe too much. That’s my perspective if I were to put it into my own words.”

I couldn’t resist asking Ron if Guns N’ Roses are going to be touring again in 2013.

“Yes. In March we have a bunch of shows in Australia. I’m hoping that we can do more after that. It’s looking like it will be three or four weeks but I’m hoping that we can expand on it. It would be great if we could work out something in New Zealand or the Philippines or Malaysia, Thailand, China – anywhere we can do.”

Bumblefoot3Bringing the conversation back around to what’s on his plate right now, Mr. Thal said, “Most of the time, I’m looking at fonts. I’m a putting out my own line of hot sauces that’s going to be out next month. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for years and I’m finally making it happen. The hardest part is designing the labels for the bottles, choosing between thousands of fonts for the right one to use for the name of this or the name of that. So, I’ve been spending most of my time designing the bottles for the hot sauces. In either Dallas or Austin – and right around NAMM – there’s a little chili or hot sauce festival and I’m seeing if I can find a way to jump out of NAMM just for the day to Texas for that.

“I’m very excited about the hot sauces. You’re going to like these. These really get up there. One is called “BumbleF**KED”. That one, it has ginger and lime and six million Scoville units of heat and it has ginseng and caffeine so it’s almost an energy shot mixed with a super ridiculous, pain-junky level hot heat. Then, I have one called “Bumblicious” which is made with a cherry bourbon and it’s mild and it’s just delicious. I just can’t wait to share these with everybody.”

Bumblefoot has worked on a ton of different kinds of projects so I asked him what kinds of projects that he hasn’t worked on yet that is on his bucket list to do.

“I find all these things just happen unexpectedly and unplanned. My paths cross with people that I didn’t think to meet and things like that just happen. I don’t know, it’s almost like I don’t really plan anything anymore. I just go the way the wind blows and just roll with whatever happens. Things tend to always happen. But let me think.” Then, once again with that joking lilt to his voice, he added, “Hmmm, gee, it sure would be nice to put out some music with Axl on some Guns music. That would be kinda nice.”  Then, getting back into a more serious tone, said, “We’ve spoken a lot about it. It’s just a question of – I wouldn’t even say the planets aligning; That’s a little extreme as far as a metaphor – but I think we just need to have nothing else going on to where we can just focus on making new music and putting it out. There’s such strong people in the band. Dizzy is a great singer and songwriter. DJ – a great songwriter. Pitman is a great singer and songwriter. Frank is a great drummer. Tommy, he’s a great singer and songwriter. Richard, he’s a great player, songwriter. We have all the parts of the machine there. All we have to do is assemble that machine and hit the on switch.

“We’ve been doing a lot of touring. It’s great and it’s made us tight and it’s made us solid. It’s made us to the point where we can jam and just sort of read each other’s minds and know where we’re going to go without having to look at each other. Now, I would love to put out music. It doesn’t even have to be an album. Let’s just put out songs.  Put a song then hit the road and play that song. Then put out another song and hit the road and play that song, too. If we did that for each leg of the touring over the last few years, we would’ve had an album finished by now song by song.

“That’s how I look at it: that, these days, putting out an album is too big of a bite to bite off. It’s not necessary. You can keep a constant simmer going by putting out a song and then a song and then a song, putting out music throughout the year rather than waiting two or three years and putting out fourteen songs at once. Albums are nice as far as having a piece of merch that you can hold in your hand but they’re no longer the source of the music.

“Now, with the technology, you don’t just put out the song. What I did, I put out the song but I put it out in options of high res format, if you want .wav, if you want 320 MP3, FLAC, whatever you want. Here’s the instrumental version if you don’t want vocal. Here’s the recording stems if you want to do your own mix. I’ve had people do it where they want to keep the drums and bass and play their own guitar and vocals over it and stuck it on YouTube. I’ve done transcriptions with backing tracks. You can take each song and do more with it if you just focus on the song, I find.

“For me, it’s not so much about the money because it all, in the end, it all kind of ends up the same way, anyway. I don’t even worry about the money. The money is secondary to getting people what they want. That’s really the primary focus of why you do what you do and you never want to lose sight of that. If you’re going to make a living off it, that’s because people are helping you because you’ve giving them something they enjoy. I’m doing enough things in a variety of places where I can put food on the table. I’m not trying to nickel and dime the people that care about what I do. I’m just putting it out there whenever I can put it out there and put it out in a way that people like it. There are people that still want CDs because they want that thing in their hand. They should have that, as well. At this point, I think the CD has become like a piece of merch and that’s even why people like it is because they want it as something that they can hold in their hand. It’s not even for the music because they can get the music a million different ways now.”

I’m always curious who commands an artist’s attention so I Ron who is on his radar these days.

“My favorite new band that I’ve heard – and it’s been a long time since I’ve heard a band that I just completely love – is a band out of New Jersey and I swear to you that I’m not biased but the guitar player used to be a student of mine and he’s a friend of mine. He grew up into this incredible genius of a musician. He has a band called Thank You Scientist. It’s drums, bass, guitar, vocals, two horn players and a violin. Just picture Dream Theater mixed with Incubus, mixed with maybe Dave Matthews with a melodic and having a violin in there . . . with Frank Zappa. It appeals to you intellectually. It appeals to you on this primal, melodic, emotional level. It’s fantastic stuff and the guys are impeccable live. They are absolutely my new favorite band.”

At one point in our chat, Thal shared his thoughts about what up and coming musicians should be doing as they’re building their careers.

“Musicians need to look at themselves as small business owners – that they’re the president of a small company. They need to do things like, when they’re young, they need to take out IRAs and retirement accounts and prepare for when they’re old because nobody’s going to take care of them. Nobody’s going to do this for them. They need to do this for themselves. They need to plan for their entire life. That’s one thing I think musicians need to do so when they’re young, they’re twenty, definitely take out some Roth IRAs or something that’s not for the purposes of sheltering your current taxes and changing your income bracket but something that is going to build a nice nest egg for you 40 – 50 years later.”

I knew that Ron was incredibly active in helping various charities so I asked him to tell me about some of what he’s been working on in that area of his life.

“I get involved with a lot of different groups. When I was in Dubai, I visited the autism center there and they’re in need of a bigger building. The number of children every year that are affected by autism is growing so quickly and exponentially and is reaching the point that, now, one out of eighty kids have it. They’re thinking that by next year it will be one out of fifty-five. It’s not just children – it’s not just about teaching the kids how to be more functional – it’s about teaching families how to understand and help the kids. Everybody needs to learn and there are people who are experts and can teach that. There’s a school in Dubai where they’re doing great work there and having great success. I visited the school with a local band out there that I am friends with – a band called Point of View – we did a couple of acoustic songs for the kids and spoke with them there. I’d love to do a fundraiser over there and help them get a bigger building to be able to accommodate the amount of families that really need to be there. That’s something I want to try and do.

“Right here in our home, as well, there is a good friend of mine, Ralph Rosa, guitar player and he was diagnosed fifteen years ago with multiple sclerosis. He decided that he wanted to get involved in funding research. He went through all of the paperwork, the bureaucracy, and managed to start a non-profit organization where all of his family and friends volunteered our time. We did concerts. We did little dinner comedy shows and all kinds of events where we raised money for research and the money went – all of it – right to the labs. There’s a lot of things out there. The world needs help and, you know, you can’t save the world but if each of us maybe takes a brief moment to stop and help a little bit – what we can, however we can . . . it doesn’t hurt to help!”

Concluding his thoughts on this, Thal mentioned how you can help him help others.

“One thing that I’m doing is any autographed merch – whether it’s a signed photo or a signed CD that someone gets from my merch store – I donate five dollars of it towards charities.”

In conducting my research on Bumblefoot, his biography on his website where he doesn’t mince any words about being the odd guy out while he was growing up and used that to fuel his creativity. No doubt that has contributed to his study of music and made him the kind of musician that he’s become. I asked him what kind of advice and encouragement he would give if he saw a pre-teen or teenaged Ron right now.

“I would say don’t overthink because thinking too much is the enemy. We tend to start creating bloated scenarios that are based on our own fears and you can think yourself right out of something good in life. Don’t overthink.

“Don’t care too much. It’s our natural tendency to care as much as we can but there is a limit. It’s like overeating – don’t over care. Care just enough to be positive and be productive and to be helpful but not to the point to where you feel that you’re crucifying yourself.

“Keep your body healthy. No matter how much time you’re spending sitting down with your guitar, take a break and run around the room and keep your body healthy. That will keep your mind healthy. That will keep your world good. A healthy body is so important. You don’t realize it until it’s not there and, then, nothing else matters. So definitely stay healthy physically.

“Stay in school!  No matter how much you think you’re smarter than it, you’re not! Staying in school has nothing to do with education, it has to do with discipline. Stay in just so the discipline of doing something you don’t want to do and finding the good in it that you can benefit from. So definitely see it through no matter how much you don’t like it and uncomfortable you feel there and how out of place and how wrong it seems to be there. Whatever it is and whatever you’re telling yourself, stop telling yourself that crap and see it through.

“I give myself the same thing that I tell everyone – three major things in getting ahead in life: Don’t be late!  Be on time and being on time means being early; getting there fifteen minutes early, waiting five minutes and calling the person saying I’m ten minutes away and then walking five minutes later. Be on time which means be early and be ready.

“Number two: Be over-prepared. For example: say you’re doing a session of some kind. You’re supposed to lay a guitar part. The bassist doesn’t show up. Well, guess what? You learned the bass part, too, you tell them, ‘Hey, I can lay down that bass part if you need. I learned it just to be safe. You’re going to be the most valued player in the room and they’re going to greatly appreciate that.

“The other thing is, be cool, be mellow. Going back to that same situation, everyone is freaking out. They don’t know what to do and panic is contagious. If you are this mellow, rock voice of reason person that doesn’t contribute to all of that tension and go, ‘It’s cool, man, I’ll take care of that. It’s all good,’ they’re going to value you so much. They’re always going to want you in the room with them and they’re going to want you back and want you in their lives.”

Summarizing like the excellent teacher that he is, Ron closed by saying, “So, those three things: Be on time, be prepared and be cool.”

Guitars. Do you mind if I ask how many you own? In your mind, is there a “holy grail” of guitars that you either own or would like to own?

“I’m not sure. It’s not as many as I should own. It’s not that many. If there’s a guitar I like, that’ll be my guitar for, like, thirteen years. I’ll play it straight. I used to take my guitars and modify them and keep on playing them.  I think, maybe at the most twenty and a majority of those are probably on the road in a guitar vault waiting to be shipped to Australia in March.  I have the Vigier double neck and a backup of that.  I have three single necks from them. I have my ’89 Les Paul which is a reissue of the ’59.  I have my Swiss cheese guitar. I have a replica that Vigier made of my Swiss cheese guitar. I have all of the other weird guitars. I have my flying foot guitar.  It’s probably twenty guitars or under. I still have pretty much every guitar that I’ve had since I was a kid. I don’t sell guitars or get rid of them. I just get them because I like them and want to keep them and want to have them.

“There’s only one guitar that I’m thinking of getting rid of which is one of my very first fretless guitars – a single neck fretless and it’s one of the first fretless’ that Vigier made and it’s the one I use for all of my recordings and on the first tours with Guns N’ Roses. What I did is on the last tour I had Axl and the band sign it, Izzy signed it and I want to auction it off at some point for Hurricane Relief from Sandy.”

As for what he considers to be the holy grail of guitars, Bumblefoot said, “I think that the flying foot guitar – which probably only a fan of Monty Python could appreciate – and the double-neck fretted fretless. That’s all I really need.”

When you’ve stepped off the tour bus of life and onto the stage of that great gig in the sky, how do you want to be remembered and what do you hope your legacy is?

“I hope that after all is said & done, that I've made a positive impact on people's lives.  Whether it's from the music itself or through actions I'd taken as a musician or from exchanges on a personal level.  I hope to have earned people's respect musically.  That's all I want, is to hopefully be a musician that people respect and are inspired by.  That'd be just fine.”

Normally, I would end an interview piece with the quote to that question. However, I have to add that, at the end of our call, the battery on the phone I was using died suddenly and threw the phone line into a lengthy, inexplicable reboot process.  Ron tried repeatedly to call me back in order to make sure that I got everything I needed for the interview.  How cool is that?  It shows that not only is Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal is an immensely talented and prolific guitarist, a highly intelligent conversationalist, but a class act who truly cares about others. 

Terry Stewart

Posted January, 2010

 

TerryStewartTerry Stewart, CEO,The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Courtesy of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame & Museum.I’m of the humble opinion really screwed up when they made the movie, “Night At The Museum” back in 2006.  They just plain got it all wrong.  Instead of casting Ben Stiller in the starring role, they should have cast me.  And, instead setting it in the Museum of Natural History, it should have taken place at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Stick with me here because there’s sound logic to my thinking.

See, through a lot of my life, I’ve had a fantasy of rummaging through the attics and warehouses of such stars as Elvis Presley, Gene Simmons, or name your favorite Rolling Stone.  To be able and go through their items that are tied to major events in their lives would be both awe inspiring and surreal.

I’ve had the privilege of touring Graceland twice but, for some reason, the staff wouldn’t let me go up into the attic.  For my diverse viewing pleasure, I’ve visited many of the Hard Rock Cafés in the U.S. and Bahamas and stared in wonder at the many artifacts and memorabilia that once belonged to some of my favorite rock stars.

Next on my Rock and Roll Bucket List is to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame located in the city of Rock’s birth, Cleveland, Ohio.  It is there that one can see an endless array of guitars, clothing, cars, and a mind boggling collection of iconic memorabilia from the royalty of Rock and Roll.

If one loves Rock and Roll, then the Hall would be considered one of the holy shrines of the genre that must be visited and to which one pays homage.  Not one to just want to merely put a check mark next to the Hall’s entry on my bucket list, I wanted to delve into the behind the scenes mechanizations of the Hall.

Why?  Because not only am I a fan of classic rock music, I’m a business nerd and, while I will gaze in amazement at David Bowie’s red, thigh high platform boots, I will wonder what the arrangements were to get them there.  I’ll ask myself questions like:  What are the insurance arrangements to have this stuff in the Hall?  How are the artifacts verified and certified?  Boring stuff like that.

So that I can satisfy my geekiness ahead of time and enjoy my visit to the Hall when I do go there, I thought it might be a good idea to have a chat with the CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Terry Stewart.  I originally contacted Mr. Stewart for comment while writing the interview I conducted with Wild Cherry’s Rob Parissi.  At that time, Terry was kind enough to commit to being interviewed at a later date so that I could pick his encyclopedic mind about the Hall.

When we recently chatted by phone, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I guess that I had it in my mind that I would have to deal with some stuffed shirt without a sense of humor.  Was I ever wrong!  It became immediately clear why Terry Stewart and Rob Parissi are friends.  Stewart’s sense of humor and love for his work came through clearly during the small talk at the beginning of our conversation. 

After chatting about his home state of Alabama, Rob Parissi and other items of mutual interest, I inquired about what a visitor to the Hall would see if they were to visit there today.

“Well, they’ll see our normal, permanent exhibits which are on seven floors and 150,000 square feet of space. These permanent exhibits are pretty much the history of rock and roll. And we have a number of special exhibits.  We have the Motown 50ith Anniversary exhibit right now.  We always have a photography special exhibit such as George Kalinsky, the photographer for the (Madison Square) Garden. 

“And then we have the Woodstock 40th anniversary exhibit as well as a giant Bruce Springsteen exhibit.  But, you know, the average stay is four to five hours so there’s more to see and do in a day if you really immerse yourself in it.”

I was curious if there were a lot of repeat visitors to the Rock Hall.

“Yeah, we have visitors that come a lot but about 90% of our attendance is outside the region.  Those people are coming from 50 states and 100 countries.  They aren’t really big, repeat people.  It’s really a lot of first time visitors.”

While covering the subject of Hall visitors, the conversation migrated to the recent announcement that the Hall Annex in New York City was going to be closed.  I asked him about all the talk of taking the Annex on the road as a travelling exhibit.

“Our partners are looking at ways that make sense financially to move it to another town or to take it on the road.  That’s in their hands to come back to us with an opportunity that makes sense.”

Here’s hoping for a decision that places the Annex, or at ,least a tour stop, here in the Dallas area!

With responsibilities such as Stewart’s, I asked him if there was any Hall business that kept him awake at night.

“Well, surprisingly enough, no.  We’re in the best shape, financially that we’ve been in ten years.  We don’t have a big operating reserve that we should have.  But we’re in better shape than we have been.  So, I wouldn’t say that I’m staying awake at night.  I’m always concerned since we really are based on how much money we generate each year.  Every January 1st we start over again.”

The business geek comes roaring out of me when we start talking about the business end of the Hall.  In addition to the revenue from admission fees, they also have a tremendous store, both physical and online, where one can pick up items such as mugs, clothing, books and pins. 

As for those last two categories, I tried to appeal to Stewart’s generous side and tell him that I could go broke on my low budget (queue up the violins!) buying the great books and pins offered by the store. 

His response?  “Feel free too!”

Putting my business geek propeller hat back on, I asked Terry about how else the Hall is supported.

“Well, we also have our philanthropy.  We have about 75% 78% of our business earned through the door and the store.  Then the other 25% is membership, individual donations, corporate donations, grant foundations, and government funding.  So it’s a wide mix of money that makes up the rest of that mix.”

Knowing that many of Boomerocity’s global readers and their companies might be interested in helping the Hall with a contribution, I asked Mr. Stewart how they might donate.  He doesn’t hesitate even one nanosecond to answer.

“They can do it online or they can do it in person.  There are MANY ways we can take your money! We’ve got levels all the way up to Platinum, Chairman’s Club and all of that.  Membership runs up to $500 and after that you’re in the Donor’s Circle as far as different designations go.

“We don’t have a lot of programs or shows but we do the American Music Masters in the fall, which is a big deal. We have our induction ceremonies (to be held March 15th at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City) and our gala in May.  There are a lot of events here where you can separate yourself from your dollars and do some good with it.”

Ah!  He brought up the induction ceremony!  Probably the only real criticism that I’ve ever heard with regards to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is every year when the inductees are announced.  This year was no exception.  While some of the names left me scratching my head, I keep my thoughts and opinions to myself.  However, I did want to know how he handled the question that had to be thrown at him at least a couple of million times.

“Well, it has to be a standard response because I get asked so often.  The fact is that we have a very disciplined, methodical process that we go through to induct performers.  There are 35 members on the nominating committee and 600 who vote.  And the realities are when somebody doesn’t get in, they simply didn’t get enough votes.  That never satisfies anybody but that is the case. 

“When you don’t have the support on the committee, you won’t get on the ballot.  If you get on the ballot, you have to get the votes from the 600.  BUT, the three other categories, non-performer, early influence and side men, are all done by committee.  I tell people that I think that the people that are worthy will get in.  They may not necessarily get in when they want to or when their fans want them to get in.  As soon as they get passed over for a year or two, people go, ‘Oh, my god . . .’”

Many huge names in the rock world have visited the Hall of Fame.  What have their reactions been?

“Oh!  The ones who come here love it!  There’s no issue about that.  They all love it.  They love music.  They love the history of this music.  When they come here and see how we treat it, they’re incredibly endorsing.  I don’t know that we ever had anybody here that didn’t think it was fabulous or inductees that came through.  I’m sure that there are some nit picks, nits and picks that they would like to change but then who wouldn’t?”

What is planned for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the near and long term?

Well, we just moved in to our new library and archive building.  We won’t open it until next fall.  So a lot of my focus right now is on finishing the capital campaign to pay for the library and to pay for the redesign of the museum because they’re redesigning about 30% - 40% of it.  That’ll take place over the next two years. 

“The library is up, staffed are moved in but it won’t be open to the public until next fall and to have enough material to open it up so that people can enjoy it.  There’ll be digital audio and video as well as hard copies of magazines, periodicals and books in the lending library.

On the short term, those are the two things that I’m going to focus on.”

How about three to five years out?

Well, we’re trying to find a way to finance a connector between us and the Science Museum which is next door.  They have a garage that’s highly unutilized and we have no garage.  So, if we can connect and keep it enclosed to get to the garage, we think that it will be very helpful to them and very satisfying to us.  That’s probably our biggest project.

After that, there may be space behind it in the hill to build enough flexible space to take care of the space that the Science Center and I need.  We need a temporary exhibit hall and we also need some classrooms.  They need classrooms, too, so maybe we can use the same classrooms.”

Is it just me or are you guys also struck by how ironic it is that rock and roll and science are looking at how they can be partners in education?  Who would have ever thunk it?

I’ll close this piece with a plea and a bit of advice to the legions of Boomerocity readers that are around this fertile green planet of ours: 

First, if you or your business is looking for a good cause in the area of cultural preservation to support, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should be at the top of your list.  As Mr. Stewart told us, you can support the Hall without ever having to show up (but you’ll definitely want to visit!).  If you’re feeling generous and want to make an online donation, you can click here to make it happen.  Or, if you want something besides a warm fuzzy feeling about your contribution, you can purchase your choice of some great items from the Hall’s online store here.

Secondly, don’t assume that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame road show will, a) happen and, b) or, if it does, that it will come to a city, town or village near year.  Book a flight and hotel reservations to, and in , the great city of Cleveland, Ohio, and plan on spending a day – no, make that two days – at the incredible Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Tell ‘em, that Boomerocity sent you.

And, while you’re at it, buy a poor guy a book or pin from there, will ya?

Kim Simmonds

Posted August, 2012

 

kimsimmonds 1As the story goes, a thirteen year old Kim Simmonds secretly ordered a guitar through a mail order company.  The guitar had to be assembled, which the young Welsh man immediately did.  He began listing to various rock ‘n roll and blues bands and started imitating their sound on his cheap guitar. 

That was in 1961.  Four years later, young Kim started a band called Savoy Brown.  One year later, the band was one of the first British blues bands to record.  In the forty-seven years since the band formed, it has enjoyed a roster of musicians that has included three of the four original members of Foghat as well as members of Black Sabbath, Fleetwood Mac, U.F.O., Robert Cray and other great acts.

Over the years, the band also has had the distinction of jamming with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and opened for such acts as Cream and went on to have bands such as KISS, Jethro Tull and AC/DC open for them.

Kim Simmonds has single handedly managed to keep Savoy Brown alive and rockin’ to this very day.  he band enjoys quite an active tour schedule as well as Kim hitting off on  his own solo shows.  In fact, Simmonds is part of this summer’s Rock N’ Blues Fest, joining Johnny Winter, Edgar Winter, Rick Derringer, and Mountain’s Leslie West for what promises to be a memorable and historic tour.

With that tour coming up, I had the privilege of calling Kim at his home in upstate New York to discuss the tour as well as his view of the current state of the blues and the music business.  Immediately gracious, I knew that I was in for a real treat speaking with such an iconic blues man – especially one with such a classy accent!

With the aforementioned stellar line up for the Rock ‘n’Blues Fest Tour, I asked Simmonds if he had ever worked with any of those gentlemen before.

“Interesting. Let me think.  Years ago, when Leslie was starting out, I invited him up on stage to jam with Savoy Brown and I think that he remembers that as a pivotal point for him.  That was on Long Island. In the last few years, I guested on one of Leslie’s albums and we’ve done lots of dates together over the years.

“Rick Derringer, we’ve done dates together – all the artists!  The Winter brothers, we’ve done dates together from the sixties on.  Leslie’s probably the only one that I’ve actually played with, so to speak. But all the artists I’ve done shows with throughout their respective careers so I’m very familiar with them as artists. I’m a fan of music, as well, and follow everybody.”

As for how each show is going to be staged and staffed, band wise, Kim shared, “We’re going to share Edgar Winter’s band. From what I gather, they’re going to be like the ‘house band’. I’ll go on and do my piece, which will be a selection of Savoy Brown classics and I’m sure that everybody will do a selection of their hits.”

When I asked if they were going to do their own blues work or blues covers, Simmonds said, “To tell the truth, I find it a little tiresome when I see artists do blues covers that we’re all familiar with – unless you can do them in a fresh way. I enjoy the challenge of a classic blues tune and doing it in a fresh way but there’s so much Savoy Brown material.  The reason that I’m doing it is that I’m hoping, perhaps, to play to people who are not particularly familiar with me.

“If you come to a Savoy Brown show and see me play, I’ll take a lot of chances because I’m playing to an audience that know who I am.  If I go out on a limb, they understand that. But, in an audience like this, I’m hoping to play to some fresh faces but they’re not ready to be taking out on that limb. So, I’ll just try to pitch it right down the middle, I guess.

“I’ll do some improvisation, there’s no doubt about that. But, I’ll often play acoustic stuff, for instance, in a Savoy Brown show. I’ll improvise with an acoustic.  That can be challenging, even for my fans. I just think that this kind of tour, where I have a limited amount of time and exposure, I better make sure that I play songs that are readily identifiable with me.”

I couldn’t chat with one of the statesmen of the blues without asking his learned opinion about the state of the blues today from his vantage point.

“It’s very important when you play, period – whether you’re playing blues or any kind of music – that the music is the most important thing and that the audience is the most important thing. If you put yourself as the most important thing, then you’re not doing the music any service – especially with blues. It’s a very small genre. It’s the music that’s the important thing. On top of that, you’ve got to try to break through and have hits with what you’re doing.

“One thing Savoy Brown did in the sixties – and I think it was very important and I think that I can speak like this even though it’s not acknowledged in the mainstream – I know for certain that Savoy Brown had a huge impact on people with blues because we had hits. People said, ‘What is this song?’ Perhaps we covered a Muddy Waters song. Who is McKinley Morganfield?  Lots and lots of people have said that, through Savoy Brown, they discovered McKinley Morganfield was Muddy Waters. When we came over here, all we were interested in doing was saying, ‘Hey! There’s such a guy as B.B. King playing!’  In the sixties that wasn’t common knowledge. The music we were playing was certainly more important than us. And, then,  we had hits playing the music. They weren’t number one hits, of course, but they were hits. Suddenly, people were hearing on FM radio these songs that were really, essentially, blues songs. There was blues guitar and blues vocals.

“One thing we’re lacking today is, a) people having a tendency to be more focused on themselves and not enough on the music and, also, we are not getting breakthrough artists having hits – getting into the charts. And that was the case through the fifties.  Jimmy Reed would have R&B hits.  The artists would have hits.  Some of them would cross over into the pop charts.

“I’m hoping that we would have some younger artists who are able to do this – to focus on the music, put themselves aside, and try to develop songs that will really grow the music. The only way to broaden out is for artist – and I would presume up and coming artists – and I don’t me to commercialize or sell out or anything like that – I mean really focus in and really get things so that your appeal is broad. Nowadays, I think it’s quite obvious that people aren’t having hits with blues songs so, therefore, the music is not broadening. And, throughout the years there’s been people who were playing blues and were having hits. The last that I can think of off the top of my head – and I wouldn’t say that they were a solid blues band – but Blues Traveler had some hits there. You had this harmonica driven band and it was rootsy and so forth.

“So, what I’d like to see is some of the younger blues artists break through.  I think we need that and I’m really crossing my fingers that some of them will cross over and reinvigorate the music.  It doesn’t matter how good of a guitar player you are; it doesn’t how good of a singer you are; can you put it into a musical form?  Can you put it into a song that will resonate with people? Guitar playing doesn’t necessarily resonate with a lot of people. It does but it only resonates if it’s within the context of music that resonates with them.”

Then, putting a nice bow on his view about the blues, Simmonds concluded, “There’s no doubt about it, it’s a genre that will never go out of fashion. I still love to hear blues guitar, blues singing. It’s soulful where a lot of music isn’t soulful. And I think it’s an antidote to music that gets too syrupy and sugary. So the blues definitely has a place. But it’s very important that we all realize that it’s the music and not ourselves and that we all realize that we’ve got to try further the music and that it’s not necessarily about furthering ourselves.”

With a career that spans seven decades, I asked the blues icon what saw as the biggest changes, positive and negative, in the music business.

“I think the most negative is the technology that has – while it’s very, very good and makes our life better as musicians, it also can be counter-productive. I would take guitar effects away from every blues guitar player. I don’t understand why a blues guitar or a jazz guitar player or a roots guitar player – and I talk about guitar players because I’m a guitar player – why do you need effects? It’s all about transposing your feelings through an instrument. Blues is a very, very direct, plain, simple music. The more you complicate it and the more you let technology take over – and believe me, I’m talking as someone who has made all the mistakes! – it’s a dead end.  I think a lot of blues and roots artists are in it for that reason.

“I’ve seen a lot of them who are terrific musicians but will be playing with too many effects and letting that get into the way. It destroys your personality. It’s like that in all genres. Like in movies, we all know the movies we watch ten years later and somehow it’s all terribly dated. It has too many effects that pertain to that particular period. The great thing about blues, it had no effects!  You can play a Howlin’ Wolf song now, it sounds AMAZING! Amazing!  It’s like, wow! And it’s because it had no effects – and don’t forget that there were effects around in the past – and they had none of those effects.

“So, one of the failings is the way that technology has dominated the music scene. I don’t know how you deal with that. Can you take a little bit of it and leave the rest? One would like to think so, but it’s such beguiling, technological world we live in. We see everybody with a telephone and all the modern conveniences. That’s seeped into music. And that’s fine for certain kinds of music but I wouldn’t think that it would be appropriate for blues and roots music.

“What’s the ‘ups’ of the music business?  The ups are that the world really hasn’t changed at all.  People still pick up a guitar, pick up an amp, go into a garage with three other people and start making a band. That hasn’t changed since Presley came around. So that’s the good thing. People are still doing exactly the same with the same instruments and the same equipment that people did fifty years ago.”

And what would Kim do to fix the music business if he were made the music czar?

With just the slightest of hesitation, Kim replied, “I would take foot pedals away from every guitar player!  I’d ban them! Of course, there’d be little speakeasy’s with the technology in them!”

What haven’t you done or accomplished yet that you would still like to do?  You’ve jammed with some of the biggest names in music history. Is there anyone who you haven’t jammed with who you wish to?

“Yeah, I think that I’ve so satisfied myself in the fact that I’ve met my heroes. I’ve played with my heroes. I missed the opportunity to play with some of them. I think if you asked me who I would like to jam with, there are some people have now passed away. I wish I had taken the opportunity when I had it to introduce myself. Perhaps I was too shy or intimidated and I let an opportunity go by.  Sometimes, you don’t really understand who’s really important to you until you get older.  Sometimes YOU think you’re the most important thing and as you get older you realize that you’re far from being the most important thing.

“The most important thing are the people who’ve influenced you and, sometimes, you bury those.  Sometimes, you don’t want to admit, perhaps, that somebody was a big influence on you because you think that it’s not cool to say that. But the older you get, you go, ‘Man! This person was so important to me. I had the opportunity and I didn’t take it!’

“So, there are some regrets like that.  One of my regrets is with the guitar player, Billy Butler, who played with Bill Doggett and was a huge influence on me. I have a story where I jammed with Charles Brown in New York City and I borrowed the guitar player’s guitar and played with Charles Brown and had a good time. I came off stage and sat the guitar down and looked over and the guitar player looked like he might not have been in the best of moods.  Normally, I would go up and say, ‘Thank you for letting me use your guitar.’

“Well, I felt a bit intimidated so I didn’t.  Of course, it was Billy Butler and it was my opportunity there to say hi and converse with who I think is one of the greatest guitar players ever.  I didn’t. So, there’s a regret there.

After you’ve stepped off the tour bus of life for the final time and walked up to that great stage in the sky, how do you want to be remembered and what do you hope your legacy will be?

“Well, I think I would simply like to be remembered as one of the architects of the British blues movement of the sixties. Hopefully, I’d like to think that I was one of the finest exponents of it.  But, you know, that’s for others to decide.  But, simply that, really. I’d like to be remembered for the contributions I’ve made to British blues and the blues scene from the British standpoint. And the band!  More than me, I’ve used the band to try and create the music that is really special to people.”

Chad Smith

Posted August, 2012

 

BombasticMeatbatsColor1Ed Roth, Jeff Kollman, Kevin Chown & Chad SmithAs I wrote in my review of Chad Smith’s Bombastic Meatbats’, Live Meat and Potatoes, I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I absolutely love that album.  I meant it then and I still feel the same way now.  So, I was quite stoked when the opportunity arose to interview the band’s co-founder and drummer (that is, when he’s not beating the skins for his main gig, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, Red Hot Chili Peppers, or for the super group, Chickenfoot), Chad Smith.

The Bombastic Meatbats were formed as sort of a fluke. While doing some work with Glenn Hughes, Smith formed the band along with Jeff Kollman (guitarist for Cosmosquad), much in demand arranger/songwriter/keyboardist, Ed Roth, and bassist Kevin Chown (Uncle Kracker, Tarja Turunen). What resulted was a great rock/jazz/fusion/whatever-you-want-to-call-it band that is delighting audiences everywhere they’re heard.  But more about that in a moment.

Smith rang me up recently from his SoCal home to discuss Live Meat and Potatoes and the music business in general.  But before cutting to that chase, though, I had to ask a very obvious question:  How in the world did Chad and the boys come up with the band’s name?

“Well, we’re serious about our music but we have a real loose sense of humor and inside jokes.  But instrumental music sometimes has this stereotype of being ‘serious’, musicians only, lots of notes, and no sense of humor. We are serious about our music but everything else is just the personalities of our group. The combination of us together is kinda goofy – starting from the top – the Meatbats!

“I don’t know how we came up with it but it’s just part of the fun we like to have.  I think the live CD picks up on that.  We really like to stretch out and have fun with the audience and make them feel connected.  It can be a little intimidating when there’s no singing – nothing to connect to that way. So, we just like to have fun with it.

“Music is supposed to be fun, for goodness sakes! At least, that’s what I think. I don’t know what other people think but I’m going to play music!  I’m not working music – I’m playing it! To me, I always want it to be fun. Lots of times there’s work involved but, when you’re performing in front of a crowd and you’re entertaining, you present  your art the way you want to and that’s what we do.”

Back to how the band formed, I asked Chad to fill me in a little more on that story.

Myself, Jeff Kollman – the guitar player - and Ed Roth, the keyboard player – Glenn was a solo artist after Deep Purple – and, years ago now – he just needed a band to do some gigs here and there and we would play with him. I played on some of his records and helped him produce them.  We’re really good friends and he’s a great musician.  We were just his band.  When you’re waiting around for the singer to show up – sometimes that happens.  They’re not always on time. Maybe it’s because they don’t have any gear to bring.  They don’t have to set up.  So, we would just jam on this funk – whatever it is, whatever we do – and it was just fun and we really sounded good.

“One of us – maybe it was me – said, ‘Man! We need to come up with some songs, record ‘em and make records!’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, okay!’  That was really it.  And we do!  Next thing you know, a couple of records, a live album, playing gigs, and having fun with your fans. That’s what it’s all about!”

And has the legendary bassist/vocalist ever returned the favor by playing any Bombastic gigs?

“He has! You know, tonight we’re playing down in San Pedro which is down by Long Beach and Glenn lives down there. I’m going to call ‘im up and see what he’s doing. I think he might be in the studio. I think he’s playing with some other people but we’ll be in his neck of the woods.  But, yeah, he comes in.  We don’t have a vocalist very often but he does come in and he’s played a couple of times with us. It’s always fun!”

Most bands don’t come out with a live album until well into their existence.  I asked Smith if it wasn’t a bit of a bold step to release a live CD as a third project.  Before I could even finish the question, Smith was already chuckling.

“Yeah, I guess, but our songs are, like, seven minutes long. We really stretch them out and we have musical conversations. We take risks. It’s a lot of improvising. Therein lies where the jazz part of it is.  I don’t really think of it as jazz. I just think of it as improvising and playing off each other and listening.  Those are really important things. For me, with any music that I like to play with other human beings you’re interacting with, you have to use dynamics and listen and have musical conversations. So, we do that.  It’s not just a jam band or some jazz situation where you just play the head and there’ll be solos. We have song structure.

“But, yeah, two records – I don’t know, I just felt that we were playing really good and we had been working and had just done the second record. I was going to go – I think – on a Chickenfoot tour and we were playing a lot at that point.  I said, ‘Let’s record!’ We were doing two shows at the club we were always playing at in L.A. – The Baked Potato – and I think most of the album is from the first night. But, yeah, why not? I think we excel live. I really do.”

I was curious what Bombastic Meatbats does for Smith, musically, that he doesn’t get from the Chili Peppers or Chickenfoot.

 “It keeps my chops up.  I do a little more playing, I suppose – a little bit more. When you’re in an instrumental band you don’t have to worry about stepping on the singer. You get to play a lot. I mean, I play a lot in the other bands, too, but a little bit more in this one just because the nature of the music. It’s really up to you. You can’t just sit back there, keeping the beat. You have to make it interesting all the time.

“But, yeah, any musical situation I’m in, I want to have fun and play with people who want to take chances and want to take musical risks and are dedicated to music but also want to have fun. I want to have fun playing music.  That’s the criteria for me and Meatbats certainly meets all of those things. They’re great guys and we’re friends. We get to do whatever we want. I mean, we’re not competing with the Lady Gaga’s and Rhianna’s and Katy Perry’s.  We have a little niche and that’s cool. It’s great to have that outlet for musical expression. I’m so grateful that people support live music and come out and see us.”

As for where Chad Smith’s Bombastic Meatbats play live, it’s, for the most part, in southern California although he says that, “We have played in other places. We’ve never done a tour. We went to play in Japan and did a ten day tour there. In the states, trying to find venues for this kind of music is difficult – to make money to pay for travel, airplanes, hotels and stuff.  We’ve played in New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, California and a couple of other places but no tours.  Maybe, who knows?”

When asked what is planned next with the Meatbats after the activity over the latest album dies down, Chad said, “We’ll probably have to wait until after I get done in April with the Chili Peppers and then we’ll write some more songs. We’ll get back down into the Tiki Room here in my house and come up with some new songs and come out with another record, I think.” And then, with a small sliver of humor, added, “Maybe well do another live album again!” 

When I asked Chad how he would like to be remembered and what he hopes his legacy will be after he’s left planet earth, after softly chuckling and giving the question some serious thought, Smith said, “That’s a good question. When we were inducted into the Hall of Fame in April, I got a little bit of that then because you’re looking back on your career. It was really cool and we were really honored.”

Then, Smith’s tone of voice turned very serious as he started talking about what is really important to him.

“A friend of mine who played bass with Elton John just killed himself a couple of days ago – Bob Burch. All of us – a lot of my friends – are from Detroit. I’m from Michigan. I played with him. I know him. It freaked me out, man.  Just crazy! Young guy, family, kid, what was he thinking to do that?  I mean, anybody but when it’s somebody you know, it really hits home, you know?

“I just want to be present and I want to be kind.  I want to be loving. I want to be a good father. I want to be a good husband. I want to be a good person and continue to do that. It really doesn’t have anything to do with music. Music is what I do. I know that the music that I play touches a lot of people, as humbly as I can say that. We’re very fortunate and I’m very fortunate to play music that people really connect with.  I’m really happy for that.  It blows me away when people come up to me, ‘Oh, your music changed my life – your drumming. I started a band because of I saw you play’ or whatever it was. That’s unbelievable.

“But, more importantly, I just want to be a good example for my family and friends who know me and can have a good influence on them.  They can look back and go, ‘You know, my dad was a hard working musician, doing what he loved. He was good to me. He was kind. He gave me a good map.’ That’s, hopefully, what I can do.”

Derek Sherinian

Posted September, 2011

 

derekcurrent2As a teenager growing up in Phoenix in the seventies, it seemed that music was alive everywhere and boundaries were being both explored and exploited.  Rock and roll was no longer relegated to three or four piece bands that were made up of a drummer, bass player and one or two guitar players and/or a vocalist.

Keyboards – and by that I mean the new fangled synthesizers that were sweeping the entertainment industry – were beginning to make their presence known in the music business and on our stereos.  Keyboard-heavy bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, and Deep Purple commanded our attention and filled our ears with incredible, intricate sounds that seemed to permeate every cell of our mushy brains.  The keyboard wizardry of Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, and Jon Lord, respectively, took the tickling of the ivories to a whole new, mind blowing level.

In the new millennia, an artist who has the same kind of keyboard genius pulsing through his veins and is of the same superior level of talent and creativity is one Derek Sherinian.  Beginning his affair with the piano at the age of five and, after three semesters of attending the Berklee School of Music on a scholarship, Derek found himself playing the keys with the legendary Buddy Miles, learning the ways of the road and sharpening his performance skills.

Sherinian then went on to work with the likes of Alice Cooper (who called him “the Caligula of the Keyboards”), KISS, Yngwie Malmsteen and Dream Theater.  He’s currently the keyboard maestro for the super group, Black Country Communion (with guitar great, Joe Bonamassa, bassist, Glenn Hughes, and Jason Bonham on drums) as well as for Billy Idol.

When he wasn’t working with these rock power houses, he produced an incredible body of solo work over the years with albums such as his first release in 1999, Planet X, which was followed by Inertia two years later.  In 2003, he released Black Utopia and Mythology the following year.  Between then and now, he produced Blood of the Snake  and Molecular Heinosity.  These albums still stand very well on their own and are a definite must for the discriminating listener who loves exceptional music.

On the 27th of this month, Derek releases Oceana and it is his best work yet.  Co-written with his good friend and drummer, Simon Phillips, the project also enjoys some great musical muscle from friends like Joe Bonamassa, Steve Lukather, Tony MacAlpine, Tony Franklin, Steve Stevens, Doug Aldrich and Jimmy Johnson.

I got to chat about Oceana with Sherinian recently.  Despite the fact that he was enduring a gauntlet of interviews, Derek didn’t act at all tired from the grueling chat-fest schedule. In fact, he sounded enthusiastic to be talking about his new album.

I started off the interview by asking Derek how he would describe Oceana to any of his fans or fans of the various bands and artists he has worked with, or are currently working with.

“I think Oceana is the most melodic and the most grooving of my solo records – and the most focused. I’ve always been very adventurous with the genres and styles of my past records. I’d say that Oceana has the most emphasis on the strong melodies. It’s less heavy metal and less progressive than its predecessors. I really think it’s my best work to date. I know that’s a cliché that artists will say but Simon Phillips and I really but a lot of time and care into the composition, the playing, the production and the choice of players.  We’re very happy with the outcome. The record’s getting rave reviews all around the world so we’re very excited about it.”

I asked Sherinian if he and Simon wrote all the parts for the various artists to play who appeared on Oceana or did they listen to the song and come up with their own magic, he said, “Well, all the songs that I wrote with Simon where it was just the two of us, we brought Steve Lukather in to play guitar because we always hear his guitar – it’s just always there in our minds. He always comes in and exceeds our expectations.

“Then, the other songs where I co-wrote – I did two songs with Steve Stevens  where we came up with the stuff and then put everyone else behind what we wrote.  One song I wrote with Joe Bonamassa and the other with Doug Aldrich – it basically works out that, if I write with a guitar player, that’s who winds up playing on the record.

In this day and age where albums are often made by way of e-mailing tracks back and forth between artists who then add their track in at a studio more convenient to them, I asked Derek if there was much in the way of face time in the studio with the other artists or were they e-mailing tracks back and forth?

“Oh, no, there was no e-mailing.  Everyone came into Simon’s studio – all the guitar players and we tracked everyone. It was great! The cool thing about living in Los Angeles is that you have the best musicians in the world within a five mile radius from my house. They’re all here.

 “The album took four and half months from the first day of writing to the mastering. It usually takes three to six months depending on everyone’s schedule because everyone’s busy in their own band or making their own records. It’s a challenge to coordinate and schedule everyone to come in.”

I figured the toughest part of making an album would be sweating over the finer points of engineering the album, finding a producer one could trust or work well with, or trying to nail down the precise sound one was looking for.  When I asked Sherinian what he thought the toughest part of producing an album was, his answer surprised me.

“The toughest part is coming up with names for these instrumental songs with no lyrics and then naming the album. That really is the toughest part. That really is the hardest part and the biggest struggle.”

Musical geniuses all derive inspiration for their music in endless ways.  Derek said that, “I get inspired by whoever I’m collaborating with. I do write some songs by myself but I get much more enjoyment by going into a room with nothing with someone else and then yanking something from nothing and watching it evolve – the feedback, the back and forth. That, to me, is exciting and I get inspired by working with people that I really respect.”

I followed up that question by asking if he has a particular person or audience in mind as he crafts his music.

“I don’t know. I all just comes down to just closing your mind off and letting your hands move and let your ears rule what’s going on. It all just works out how it’s supposed to.”

I found it interesting that Sherinian co-wrote Oceana with a drummer (Simon Phillips) instead of, say, a guitar player.  I asked him why that was.

“Well, Simon and I first started working together on my Inertia record in 2001. For one thing, Simon is my favorite drummer. I love his choice of beats and groove.  But he’s also very melodic. He’s very capable of going on a keyboard and writing and comes up with great ideas. We just have a connection when we write – a chemistry and it always flows very nicely and we always come up with great stuff together.”

As mentioned earlier, the “Caligula of the keyboards” has worked with some great people throughout your career.  When I asked Sherinian who he hasn’t worked with but hasn’t yet, his answer appeared to be very much at the forefront of his mind.

“I haven’t worked with Jeff Beck yet. He’s on my list and it’s going to happen at some time. I don’t know when but it’s destined to happen. That’s on my bucket list. I’d like to play on his record or, more, I’d him playing on my record with me and Simon writing and playing – or tour with him – in any capacity would be great. But I think that would be the best if he agreed to play on one of my records and have Simon co-write and produce.

“It would also be great to get Edward Van Halen to come in play on one of my solo records. I got a chance to play with him live in 2006 at a private party. That was very cool but it would be nice to write a killer instrumental with him and have him come in and track it.”

With someone who is as intricate in their playing guitar as he is on keyboard, I asked if creating music with a Lukather, Stevens or Bonamassa proved to be more challenging or more synergistic.

“It doesn’t matter. I’ll go in and do something with someone like Tony MacAlpine, who has amazing chops. I just blend. I’m very chameleonic but at the same time I keep my signature sound with whoever I’m playing with. So, it doesn’t matter.”

As for tour plans in support of Oceana, Derek shared that, “there’s talk of us doing some stuff in Europe next year. We’re trying to put that all together. Just stay tuned to my website, DerekSherinian.com for updates on that.”

Sherinians said that, as for plans for the next year, five years, beyond, “I know that next year I’m going to do some more stuff with Black Country Communion – another record.  At the end of this month I start rehearsing with Billy Idol. We’re going to do a short run.  Beyond that, it’s just broad strokes. I just try to stay musical and creative and surround myself with the best players in the world and keep moving forward.

“I would love to get to a place where I sell enough records that I can go tour my solo stuff around the world so that I don’t have to do anything else. That would be an awesome place to be, career-wise, and I’m not there yet.  That’s what I’m working on.”

As our call was wrapping up, my final question to the keyboard genius was the one I often ask at the close of an interview these days: How do you want to be remembered and what would you like to have accomplished when you’ve gone to the great keyboard in the sky?

“I want to be remembered as one of the greats and I want to be known that influenced a whole legion of young – not just keyboard players but musicians. I want to be known as someone that was the architect of metal fusion through my albums, my legacy of who I’ve played with. I just want to leave a mark.”

No doubt, Derek Sherinian will be around for a very long time and will build just such a legacy.  You can pre-order/order Oceana or Derek’s other great solo work by clicking on the icons on the right side of this page.  Every serious rock music library should have these albums.

Also, as he mentioned, you can keep up with his solo tour schedule as well as with Black Country Communion, Billy Idol and others buy visiting www.dereksherinian.com.