Posted February 2020
If one hears the phrase, “side deal”, it can conjure up different images. It could mean stepping aside formal, “main” deal negotiations to craft an alternative deal (as is often the case in politics). It could mean a relationship “on the side”.
In the case of Charlie Colin (formerly of Train), Stan Frazier (Sugar Ray), and brothers, Joel and Scott Owen (PawnShop Kings), their “side deal” was a fun little band they’d put together amongst themselves to play the occasional gig while not working with their aforementioned respective main bands.
The four have known each other for many years so getting together for those occasional gigs was an easy no brainer. Add to that mix the encouragement and participation of the legendary Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (of Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan fame), viola! A great side deal became a great main deal named, well, The Side Deal.
I was recently offered the phenomenal opportunity to chat with all four of the band members shortly after their arrival at the Sundance Film Festival. After they were settled into their hotel rooms, they called me to chat about the band and its forthcoming CD. Before the call, I was given a copy of one of the songs, “Ghost”, from that album. Phenomenal. Absolutely amazing. Stay tuned for that one!
After introductions were made and some small talk shared, we got down to business by asking Joel and Scott Owen about at least some of their past having been somewhat rooted in my home state of Tennessee. Joel answered.
“We grew up in Orange County. We all grew up in the same hometown of Newport Beach. However, my brother and I have a lot of roots through Memphis. So, we spent our whole life coming to Tennessee. Our mom grew up in Memphis. Our grandpa was a farmer just over the bridge in Arkansas. Once we started playing music, Nashville became like a kind of a second home to us there for a few years.”
I just had to ask what the whole story was behind the band’s name. Charlie Colin responded by saying, “Well, I think it's safe to say that all of us had spent a lot of time with our respective bands prior to this and everybody was immersed in a number of projects. And so, what happened is we all grew up in Southern California. We all moved away and had careers and lives and we all seemed to move back and we got reconnected. That kind of was a really cool coincidence.
“We were asked to do things because we have people who knew our old songs . . . and Train and all the songs were hits. And so, we were asked to do some charity shows and stuff. So, we kind of got together to do these things once in a while. And the thing was, it was magic. And I think it's also safe to say that all of us know that bands are . . . there's a true cliché, but there's so much sacrifice involved and they can be painful, like any great family or anything that's valuable.
“I don't think any of us were like, ‘Yeah, let's start a band, all of a sudden!’, you know? But then it became to where I know, for me, after we played a show or two, it was just a fallout; it would be almost like a depression afterward because we just got along so well; the way we sang together was something I hadn't experienced and it seemed that we would instantly connect with these audiences where it wouldn't just be a cool event. It would be like people would say, ‘Hey, that was surprisingly meaningful!’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, me too!’ We felt the same way. I know at one point - I mean, I know we all thought this, but at one point I said, ‘I think we have to, unfortunately; we have to organize this. We have to make this a band. I think I have to - I want to do this.’ And so, we did it basically because, when I went to sleep at night, I thought, ‘If I don't do this, I'm going to regret it.’ And so, we took the plunge.”
Joel then chimed in.
“The real big losers in that was, of course, was our wives. They're, like, (mimicking a voice dripping with sarcasm), 'Awesome.'
“Then, the genesis of the name that happened actually was kind of an ironic story, because each one of us, I think at different times in our previous bands, had some kind of funny business with somebody in the previous band doing some kind of shady operating at some point.” Stan Frazier added:
“We commonly referred to it as a ‘side deal’. We bonded over that like, you know, 'You experienced that, too? Oh, my gosh! Your manager stole from you and your bandmates were not above the board? Wow! That's weird!'
“So, we were just we're toying around with a few names, but we were calling it just ‘Side Deal’ in the beginning. And then a friend of ours said, ‘You should call it, The Side Deal. It sounds a little more like it's a thing.’ That's the whole reason behind the name: The Side Deal. So, there you have it.”
Colin then concluded by saying, “We also have a lot of friends - because we've all toured for years and years and years - and so we have friends in other great bands that we actually really love and admire and, so, a lot of guys started sitting in here with us. We had side guys popping in and out. It was kind of a revolving door of talent coming through it. So, we were kind of like this for sure - the core of the band - but we have friends that when we're in certain towns, they're sitting with us.
“One of the producers that we work with is Jerry Harrison. He was the guitarist and keyboardist in the Talking Heads. And he wrote ‘’Roadrunner with Lou Reed and White Light Way and whatever. And, so, he will come. And when we record him, if we have a show coming up around that time, he'll sit in with us and then we'll play some of his songs.
“At a Side Deal show, you can see us playing some old Train; some old Sugar Ray stuff; some old talking head stuff. But it’s someone on the stage who wrote the song. So that's why it's not cheesy.
“Also, we had other things on the side, too. And then this became for me - I was, like, ‘Well, this is actually my main thing.’ It's funny, this is The Side Deal. Now it's like what I want to do with all my time.
As I mentioned earlier, I heard the band’s song, Ghost. I love it. When I asked what the story was behind the song, Scott was the one who spoke up.
“Hey, man, we're Southern California raised. All of us love the ocean and it’s super inspirational. At this point in our lives, any time we can get out there and surf, we're gonna do it. I was out surfing one day and got an idea for a riff and got the ideas for the beginning of the lyrics and it started to come pretty quick. I jumped out of the water and raced back to my car to try to get my phone before I forgot it. I sent a really rudimentary version of it to Charlie and he heard it and flipped. So, we all started to develop the song. It was our first kind of like - I mean, we had written a couple of songs together as a band, but that was the first one that we took to the finish line and it ended up being the one that everybody responded to the most, whether it be live or recording or whatever. So that's the first one we released. We're really excited about it. It's been really cool. The writing process has been collaborative because we all tend to really bring a strength that is unique and specific out of the four of us. We kind of look to each other to round out the edges of the songs. It's really a pretty unique experience for us as collaborators.”
Charlie added: You know, Scott and Joel. started - amongst other projects they started the Pawnshop Kings and made a bunch of great recordings with that band. I heard that and I was floored. And then also, Stan is the drummer and also plays guitar and, I think it's safe to say, the main hook writer and the guy of Sugar Ray. So, it's a really eclectic band. I love it.
“When Scott wrote that riff - I just want to say it's funny because I called him (and said), ‘Man. It feels like you wrote that about and for me.’ And I said, ‘But I know you didn't.’ I mean, I know what's going on and I think everybody's going to feel like that. I think that the cool thing about the writing in this band is that we're at this spot in our lives where we're writing about real motifs. And even though the songs are like a blast, I was put in this great mood, but we're talking about addiction and lost friendship and then redemption and loyalty, which is, you know, tough stuff. And, then like stuff like 'we used to party like it would last'. It was because Grandmaster Flash and we're thinking about Soft White Lines in that way. And, so, then when it goes into stuff like that. Where I'm in recovery, it's stuff like that really means something to me. So, we do touch upon these heavy subjects and some of that's intentional. But it's kind of cool to be in a role where people can put themselves in these songs, even though it's just wonderful to listen to it. You know, it gets my heart beating. there's some depth to that.”
It goes without saying that there's going to be comparisons to all the guys’ other bands and their musical past. I asked what their thoughts were in response to that. Frazier answered first.
“You know, it's funny. I was expecting a lot more of that at this stage of the game. But, personally, I really haven't gotten a lot of comparisons. I think what we're doing is – we were talking about it on the way up here in the car. It's like we're still developing our sound and we're trying to figure it out. I mean, we're a vocal-based band for sure with a lot of roots and different sorts of genres. But I feel like I haven't got one, 'Hey, that sounds like Sugar Ray!' Not one! And I definitely think that's a positive thing in a lot of ways because we're really trying to do our own thing here. That stuff might creep in in some places, but I'm sure I haven't heard any of the comparisons, which is refreshing to me.”
Joel added, “One thing I have heard people say is they go, 'Whoa, Train and Sugar Ray and Pawnshop Kings. Like, what the heck is that going to sound like?' And we say, 'Modern-day Eagles.' But then we all come in the same way. We have these strengths in writing. We have these strengths of playing and sonic sensibilities. And as Stan just mentioned, we're still figuring out what it does sound like. But it has been so exciting to hear these things come out because I think about, personally, I think about Train, Sugar Ray, and Pawnshop Kings - what the heck is this going to sound like? Charlie talks about the motifs, the themes were singing about. There's a depth to the music and the melodies that we're writing. And it's, for us, it's just really overwhelming to kind of watch this thing and feel this thing and experience this thing take shape.”
Hearing the guys talk, I thought that it all sounded as though their musical collaboration is a much more fluid and natural process than they might have experienced in the past. I asked if my perceptions were accurate. Joel answered first, comically:
“I'll say, for me, personally. I've just been writing with only my brother for a long time, so there's nothing fluid about that.”
Colin then added: “There were a couple of good years out of the fifteen that I was with my old band. I mean, those couple of years were really happy, but I was going to say, like, when it was really working and the original band was together, I was like aware of something. And I remember that. I haven't thought that since with these guys. Scott started coming over to my house sometimes before we actually needed a band and we had so much material that it was ridiculous. And then, every time we had a practice, we would write two or three ideas that I thought were better than the ones we had before. I thought, ‘You know, it felt so natural that I didn't want to overreact. But it's like, that's magic. It doesn't happen forever. I think this band is so prolific, it's ridiculous. But I also thought, if that's happening, let's take advantage of it because who knows how long that will be? But it seems to just be getting started.”
I then asked if it is a lot different recording as The Side Deal compared to recording with their previous bands. Scott led off with the answer.
“I would say we're more excited about this than we have than about anything that we can really remember. And I think the recording process often falls in line with that. I mean, Stan has produced quite a bit. We've all made a lot of records. So, at this point, it's exciting to be in the studio together because I feel like, for the most part, that fluid nature that we kind of collaborate within the genesis of the songs happens in the studio as well, because we continue to, basically, come up with ideas that we unanimously enjoy. And then it's a matter of choosing the one that we think is the best. It’s not, 'No, not yours, mine this time' or whatever. It's pretty unique. I've never experienced anything like it.” Then, he jokingly added, ‘I mean, to Joel's point, it's just been him and me, it's really hard...”
Charlie then added, "It’s just that this is one of the things I know that maybe this is unique, here. Maybe it isn't. But at this point in our careers, we all play - like sometimes we'll write on different instruments. Live, we kind of figure out a way that we play certain things, that we have consistency there. But in the studio, it's like we're passing guitars around. Somebody will jump, you know, Scott will play the piano but Joel came up with it. It's like it doesn't really matter. And it's like I've never had - it's not that nobody cares because I used to be so concerned about my parts. But, like, we joke around and I'll look at Scott and I'll go, 'We're a great guitar player', because, between the two of us, we'll work on a part for a little while and come up with something that we wouldn't have come up with alone. And that's, like, cheesy. It sounds corny because it's so nice. That just doesn't happen.
“I remember my other band, there's an inherent kind of, let's say, that is so, you know, counterproductive and unnecessary. At this point, there's just absolutely none of that . . . as long as these guys know that I'm the boss. Ha! Ha!”
With all this phenomenal camaraderie that is fostering amazing songwriting collaboration, I had to ask when The Side Deal’s debut album will be coming out. Scott said:
“The record is due to come out in the spring. We're finishing up the songs and we want them all to be at the same caliber. We want everything we put out to be excellent. Different producers, different situations that we've already found ourselves in, that we're realizing different strengths come out. We have an intrinsic kind of unanimous vote. Like, when it happens, we all know it. That's what we're going to fully put the music out. But there is a tentative plan to put it out in the late spring.”
What else on the band’s radar for the next year or two? Stan said:
“You know, all the things that we do leading up until that, we're getting ready to do some corporate shows and we've got a few like hometown gigs kind of in the works. But we plan to get out there and we'd like to do some opening slots for some bigger acts to get in front of some real eyeballs. And so, yeah, we're putting the team together with a booking agent and we just got a manager and a business manager. There's no real need to rush that stuff until we get to a body of work finished to where we feel like it's worthy to listen to. So, the next couple of months are really big for us.”
Colin then added: As I mentioned before, we're working on the record, we had little pockets of regions where we had a demand so we would play shows there and they would sell out and we did great. We felt like it was time to take it to that next level.
“But one other thing that I wanted to mention is that we really do have some really interesting people involved. And I was thinking because you said yours is a boomer magazine that, for example, an old friend of mine - and now he's kind of a part of this band - is Skunk Baxter. We do a song fairly well with him. We flew to Washington, did some shows with him. He comes in town, sits in with us. We get to do his Steely Dan stuff. I've known him since I was a 19-year old. He, basically, got my first band signed. He was like a mentor. At the same time, we're surrounding ourselves with kind of these people that have - I don't know, there's no way they can teach us what they know unless we just do it with them.”
Clearly, The Side Deal is poised to be a big deal in the music business. Join me in following them at their website, thesidedeal.com, where you can also connect with them on social media.