Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Friends of the Boys: Visiting Jan Van Halen

The home where Eddie and Alex Van Halen grew up in Pasadena, as it looked in 2013. (Photo: Karen Nuremberg Sonner)


Click, snap, clack, pop, clink ...

There's a lot of things that go through a teenager's mind while standing on a doorstep at the house where two burgeoning rocks stars live on the afternoon of their biggest concert to date -- most prevalently, "What in the world are we doing here?"

But the thing I remember most in those nerve-wracking moments between a false-bravado knock and the door opening is the mesmerizing metallic mash-up of a half-dozen locks being manipulated in well-worn sequence on the other side.

Click, snap, clack, pop, clink ...

The date was Oct. 7, 1979 -- 35 years ago today -- and there we were in front of an otherwise nondescript house on Las Lunas Street in Pasadena, California, waiting for the changing of the locks to run its course and the door to finally swing open at the family home of Eddie and Alex Van Halen.

That date is an important one in Van Halen history as it marks the night the four members of the little ol' rock band from Pasadena officially became masters of their Southern California domain, musically speaking -- headlining their first show, a sellout at that, at the L.A. Forum in Inglewood.

Everyone who has ever dreamed of being a rock star has probably pictured the scene in their mind of performing at the preeminent concert venue in their home market. In Southern California in the 1970s, that place was the Forum -- or as it was more commonly referred to, the Fabulous Forum or "The House that Jack (Kent Cooke) Built."

The Forum may primarily have been the home of the Los Angeles Lakers, but the reigning rock bands of the day held court there as well. Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Peter Frampton, Queen and the Eagles all sold out multiple-date runs at the venerable venue during a period when maxing out even one show was a sign that you had made it in the rock world. The prestige of headlining the Forum was certainly not lost on the four members of Van Halen, as they themselves had attended major concerts there as rock fans growing up in SoCal.

So what was it that brought four increasingly timid-by-the-second teenagers -- Curtis Edwards, Bob Sebesta, Mat Yeates and myself -- to the conclusion that visiting the humble Van Halen homestead eight hours or so before the band's impending homecoming coronation was somehow a good idea?

Funny you should ask ...

They Really Got Me

My own evolution as a Van Halen fan has been religiously documented before -- from the slack-jawed amazement of hearing "Eruption" for the first time to the life-changing experience of seeing the "bastard sons of a thousand maniacs" (as they were introduced on stage in the early days) in concert for the first time. That first concert experience -- occurring in Logan, Utah, on March 31, 1979 -- came in the initial week of the Van Halen II tour, the band's first headlining jaunt. The triumphant show at the Forum was just over six months later -- and, fittingly, it marked the tour's closing night.

That intervening half year served to cement my allegiance as a VH lifer -- the band was just different than anything I'd previously heard or seen. I don't suppose my experience is all that different from millions of other fans who -- whether they were struck by Eddie Van Halen's otherworldly guitar wizardry, David Lee Roth's vocal swagger and outsized personality, Michael Anthony's enthusiastic bass thumping and general class act-dom, Alex Van Halen's sheer power and technique behind the drums, or simply wowed by the collective talents of all four in one explosive entity -- flocked to the VH bandwagon in ever-increasing numbers.

So as to not tread too much on past writings, you can read a lot more about that Logan show, not to mention see some pretty fantastic photos from that night in "My Introduction to the Mighty Van Halen." Near the end of that blog post, which was written three and a half years ago, I mentioned our visit to the Van Halen home on the afternoon of their Forum debut, and said, "Ah, but that's a story for another day."

That day, as it turns out, is today.

I've told the story of stopping by the Van Halen home to various friends and acquaintances over the years, and sometimes it has grown in the retelling. I realized this a few years back when, while backstage at a concert, I overheard another one of my friends telling the story to a third party. "Yeah, and then Mr. Van Halen invited them in for a visit," I heard him say.

A few minutes later I pulled my friend aside and said, "You know that didn't really happen like that, right?"

He laughed and said, "You should let me tell the story -- I tell it better than you! The next time I tell it, I will have you sitting on the couch with your feet up on the coffee table while eating chocolate cake!"

Before that happens, I thought it best to get the story in writing and clear up a few minor embellishments I may have made on my own over the years.

Atomic Punks

I grew up in Southern California, but our family moved to Utah in the summer of 1978, right after I graduated high school. Thankfully, I had caught the sonic wave of Van Halen earlier that summer a few months after the release of Van Halen I when the band broke through on L.A. radio.

Jumping forward to the fall of 1979, I was planning a return trip to Los Angeles to visit close friends from my high school years. Looking over the concert schedule, I noticed the Van Halen Forum show and immediately settled on vacation dates surrounding what I knew would be a memorable concert. However, when we attempted to actually get tickets for the show, my friends and I discovered it was already sold out. We then looked into tickets for the San Diego show the night before, it turned out that those were long gone as well.

As I recall, we checked into obtaining tickets through one of the many second-hand ticket agencies -- but they were out of our price range. I kick myself now -- considering that those out-of-range tickets were probably only listed for $25-$30, which, of course, is a comically low amount by today's standards. But it seemed like too much for a 19-year-old on a limited budget at the time.

Sometime in the previous months, a friend, also a VH fan, who worked for a record label in Los Angeles, mentioned having come across the band members' home addresses and phone numbers through inter-label work contacts.

Somehow, in the way only a late-teenage mind can think, the combination of us not having tickets to the Forum show and my having access to the band members' addresses brainstormed into the idea of actually stopping by the Van Halen household in Pasadena, which was maybe 20 minutes away from where we were staying in La Crescenta. With the show being in L.A., and the band having played San Diego that night before, so our thought process figured, there might be a decent shot that Eddie and Alex would be home visiting their family that afternoon. Admittedly it was a harebrained idea, concocted by pie-in-the-sky dreamers who thought maybe, just maybe, there was a small, outside chance that we would be rewarded for our creative enthusiasm with extra tickets to the show or at least come away with a good story to tell.

As it turned out, it was the latter.

One Foot in the Door

So it was that the four of us piled into a car and drove to Pasadena that sunny Sunday afternoon of October 7 with an address and a map. We were in high spirits to begin with, but the closer we got to our intended location, the more the absurdity of our intended mission began to settle in on us like stink on a monkey. (I've always wanted to say that!)

The alley behind the old Van Halen home. (Karen Nuremberg Sonner)
We found the house, located in what appeared to be a quiet working-class neighborhood, and executed a slow drive-by just to check it out. By this time, of course, our previous happy-go-lucky attitude had completely deserted us, giving way to nervous anticipation.

We noticed a back alleyway, and as a further delay tactic we drove around there to check things out from that angle. Counting down the number of houses from the corner, we looked into the back yard and noticed a boat -- which seemed out of place in comparison to the rest of the neighborhood. "That's it!" I confirmed, immediately remembering a Circus magazine interview months earlier where Eddie mentioned that the first big purchase he and Alex really made when the "Van Halen II" album and tour headliner money started rolling in was a boat for their father.

And ... there ... it ... was.

The garage where Eddie and Alex honed their craft. (Karen N. Sonner)
 There was also a small garage/shed structure at the back right corner of the yard. We didn't fully realize it at the time -- I mean, even we could not have projected the band's eventual Hall of Fame trajectory at that point -- but that little structure is somewhat of a musical mecca for hard rock fans, and a Graceland of sorts for guitar aficionados.

It was there where the Van Halen brothers not only honed their chops -- and, I imagine, annoyed a fair share of their neighbors -- with hours of jamming, but also where Eddie had brought his iconic black-and-white-striped red Frankenstein guitar to life six months earlier. Music and technique developed in that humble structure would go on to shake the very foundation of rock, not to mention the walls of arenas and stadiums around the world.

Having put off the inevitable as long as possible, or so we thought, we drove back around to the front and parked several houses up the street. We got out of the car and began a slow walk down the sidewalk toward the Van Halens' home. It was at that point that our nerves entirely left us.

Somewhere in our plodding journey to the front door, there was a short retaining wall/ledge that we all sat down on for several minutes, trying to gain our wits and build up the confidence to actually go through with our mission. We nearly called the whole thing off right then and there, but we finally pep-talked ourselves back into action, stood up and headed on the pathway leading to the door.

You know how there's always those few moments after you knock, especially if you are cold calling and your visit is unexpected, where you listen intently trying to discern any movement inside? I'm sure at that moment we were all hoping to hear nothing but silence throughout the house. That sensation had us on edge, but gave way to near panic when we heard the locks begin turning.

Click, snap, clack, pop, clink ...

We had no idea who would be on the other side of the door, but when it swung open it revealed Jan Van Halen, the VH family patriarch.

We could not have been any more awkward.

"Are Eddie and Alex home?" one of us stammered.

Our immediate impression was that Mr. Van Halen was slightly perturbed -- and believe me, looking back on the whole thing over the years, he had every right to be.

"No," he said bluntly.

Our whole encounter could have ended right there as we were more than ready to immediately slink back to our car, feeling like we'd just been denied entry to see the Wizard of Oz.

But then everything changed with one question and answer.

"Are you friends of the boys?" he asked.

"Of course!" I found myself blurting out with very little thought. I mean, what were we supposed to say? "No, we're just idiot fans who thought we'd stop by your home for a visit on one of the most important days your family will ever see in the hopes we might impress you enough that you'll offer us some extra tickets?"

Whether he believed us or not -- and as unlikely as it seems, he must have -- Mr. Van Halen's whole demeanor changed in an instant. All of a sudden he was warm, friendly and thoroughly engaging.

Details of the rest of our 4- to 5-minute conversation have faded from memory except for one specific exchange, which, to me, really showed the elder Van Halen's personality.

We explained how we thought that with the Forum show being that night, and the band having been on the road for months, that there would have been a good chance that his sons would have been home visiting that afternoon.

"You would think!" he said, letting out a big laugh and shaking his head with exaggerated sarcasm as he went on a playful mini-rant. "The boys never come by here anymore!"

I think that part of the conversation has stayed with me because it proved so painfully poignant. Here was a man who was a professional musician himself, on the cusp of seeing his two sons validated in grand fashion with a sold-out show at the Forum, yet it was obvious that he also missed having them around. His sarcastic overplaying of the comment showed his humor and acceptance of the circumstances, but couldn't completely mask the truthfulness of it either.

After offering our best wishes for that night and bidding farewell, we started back down the path. Following a few moments of relieved silence, one of my friends burst out, "Whoa! Did you see all the gold records on the wall?"

The other two animatedly answered in the affirmative. "Man, that was cool!"

Previously when telling this story, I have always mentioned seeing all the gold records on the wall. But here's the deal. I never saw them. Not a single one. But my other three friends had, so I simply co-opted their eye-witnesses into my own account.

I felt a tad bit cheated. The original "Van Halen" debut was an album that changed my life and forever altered my musical listening habits. How cool would it have been to see the official gold record commemorating it -- not to mention many others apparently -- hanging on the wall of two people who actually created it?

For most of the past 35 years, I have asked myself, "How in the world could I have missed seeing those records?" In my memory, I can still see past Mr. Van Halen and onto the main front room wall. But no gold or platinum records.

It wasn't until I asked my friends for their memories of the visit a year or so ago that I finally figured it out. I had always assumed we shared similar sight lines. That proved to be inaccurate. The gold records, they said, were lining the walls of a hallway to the right, and not those in the front room to the left. The angle of the partially closed door must have blocked that view for me.

It felt good to have some closure on a question that had always bothered me regarding our visit. But I still wish I'd personally seen them.

The view from the street of the gated Roth mansion in 2013. (Karen Nuremberg Sonner)
Somebody Get Me the Doctor

Emboldened by what we viewed as a pretty positive experience at the Van Halen abode, we did the next obvious thing -- and pulled out David Lee Roth's address. His home address was also listed in Pasadena, so we figured why not give it a try since we were already in the area?

The Roths and Van Halens were only separated by about 5 miles in distance, but their separate ways were worlds apart. Where the Van Halens lived in a nondescript, regular home, the Roth compound was a huge, mostly unapproachable mansion.

There was a gardener on a nearby part of the sprawling property, so we sent one of our party over to chat him up. That effort was pretty much foiled when it became apparent the gardener only spoke broken English.

"What happened?" we asked when our friend returned to the car.

"I asked him if David Lee Roth was home," he said. "And he said, 'Dr. Roth?'

"And I said, 'No, David Lee Roth.' And he shook his head and said, 'No. Dr. Roth not home.' "

That was that. Besides, we figured if the Van Halen brothers were too busy to stop by their home base on the day of the show, the chances that Roth would be setting up Club Dave at his dad's mansion were slim to shady.

Michael Anthony's home address was listed in Monrovia, which was a bit of a distance away. Based on the intel we had received from our first two stops, we figured he wouldn't be home either. So, we left well enough alone, and recognized our visit with Jan Van Halen as the rare opportunity it was, and the clear highlight of our Sunday-afternoon-on-a-lark adventure.

Heard About It Later

Sometime in February or March of 1994, I was driving home following a late-night shift on the sports desk at the newspaper where I still work. Being completely wound up from deadlines and knowing I'd be unable to sleep for several hours still, I stopped by a 24-hour supermarket to peruse the magazines.

My eyes immediately settled on a magazine cover featuring a dynamic live shot of a young Eddie Van Halen in classic soloing pose with his guitar neck pointing toward the heavens while playing his "Bumblebee" guitar during the VH II tour. It turned out to be a Best of Guitar Player special edition, devoted entirely to Van Halen and included text from several previously unpublished interviews by Jas Obrecht culled from the band's early years.

Arriving home after buying the magazine, I settled into bed and began reading (and reading and reading ... ) the unpublished interviews section. Eighteen pages in, I read something that literally made me sit up in bed with a start.

I read it over and over, continually running the comment and its ramifications through my mind to make sure I wasn't misunderstanding something.

In this previously unpublished interview, from late December 1979, Eddie was talking about two new guitars he'd purchased and the dilemma he faced in where to store them.

"Right now, I'm trying to figure out where to keep them," he said, "because when we played the Forum, my mom and dad came. And when my mom came home, the house got ripped off for about 20 gold and platinum albums."

That's screwed up, he continued, "because playing the Forum is like a dream come true. I've seen everyone play there. It was a hell of an event for me, and I come home and the back door is smashed in and all the records are gone. It's such a drag."

I couldn't believe what I was reading. Were we literally some of the very last people to see those records on the wall before they were stolen? At that point, I had to remind myself that I hadn't actually seen them. (Thanks, self!)

But still ... our experience, I figured, gave us a unique empathy for the personal nature of that loss.

Having stood on the front porch of that home hours before the landmark show and having personally felt a father's excitement and seen the pride in his eyes first-hand -- in a weird way, I, too, felt sucker-punched by the turn of events following that first Forum concert, even though I was learning about it more than 14 years later.

To this day, I still ask myself, "I wonder what happened to those records?"

Postscript: Your Last Loose End

It's cool to me how the events of that day tend to keep on giving as the years go by.

For example, in a Facebook conversation with a high school friend several years ago, she randomly dropped the nugget that her father had sold Eddie and Alex Van Halen a boat for their father.

I'm sure she was surprised when I mentioned having actually seen the boat in person.

Vicki Adams Dorosy said she remembers the day her dad came home saying how impressed he'd been with two young musicians who had stopped into his Sportsmen's Paradise shop in Monrovia wanting to buy an ocean-going fishing boat (a Grady Little) for their father with their first big paycheck -- and then he wondered if any of his kids had ever heard of a band called Van Halen. (They had.)

Jan Van Halen died in 1986 at the age of 66. The minutes we actually spent being entertained by him back in 1979 may have been few indeed, but it provided enough of a window into his personality to say the impression perfectly jibes with the popular stories most Van Halen fans know of him.

Like the time he passed the hat around the audience while his young sons performed but only gave them a portion of the collected funds. When Eddie and Alex asked what happened to the rest of the money, the elder Van Halen responded, "Welcome to the music business!"

I can also see the man who gave Eddie his first shot of vodka and first cigarette at the age of 12 in an effort to help calm his nerves before performing, yet unknowingly turning him on to a pair of vices that would rob him of many prime years of productivity while battling addiction.

But mostly I can see the man who some eight hours or so after we'd met him was reduced to tears sitting at a monitor board at the Forum while watching Eddie perform his extended guitar solo before 18,000 adoring fans.

"He was so proud," Eddie would tell me later when I asked about that night.

Yeah, I would eventually meet Eddie and Alex Van Halen -- some 15 years and 348 days after I'd met their father.

Ah, but that's a story for another day.

Note: This article is dedicated to Curtis Edwards, Bob Sebesta, Mat Yeates, Ted "Theodore" Logan and Bill S. Preston, Esq. -- my fellow excellent adventurers.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Gary Pihl's tenure in Boston is 'More Than a Feeling'

Boston is currently touring the U.S. behind new album "Life, Love and Hope."

When a band has such an iconic back catalog as Boston, one of the biggest challenges it faces is getting fans to become as well versed with its new material.

Turns out, however, it's not just a challenge for the fans.

During my recent interview with Boston guitarist Gary Pihl, he mentioned how founder Tom Scholz even took a lead vocal spin on the band's new album, "Life, Love and Hope." When I asked him which song that was, Pihl momentarily came up empty.

"Oh, shoot! I can't remember the name!" he said.

OK, we're just having a little fun with Pihl here -- no doubt it was just a momentary mind glitch in a busy morning of phone interviews for the longtime Boston guitarist -- but it does serve to illustrate the point that nothing the band does going forward will likely ever overshadow the shock and awe created when its debut album dropped in 1976. It remains one of the greatest rock debut albums of all time.

And, as it turns out, Pihl does have perfect memory when it comes to the very first time he heard Boston. (Pihl was a member of Sammy Hagar's solo band from 1977-85. He became a member of Boston when Hagar joined Van Halen.) Most every music fan has a good story about where they were and what they were doing when they first heard a great new band. Trust us, Pihl's story is better than your's.

Here's our chat with Pihl, who will be performing with Boston on Tuesday at USANA Amphitheatre in Salt Lake City.

DOUG FOX: Well, it looks like you’re about halfway through the big summer tour -- so how’s everything going so far?

GARY PIHL: It’s been going very well. We’re just thrilled to death that people seem to like our new album because we’re playing a couple cuts from “Life, Love and Hope,” and people seem to like ’em. Then when we get to the classic hits, the people are singing along and smiling, so there’s nothing more that we could ask for.

FOX: How are the new songs translating to the stage?

PIHL: They seem to be very well received. Of course, people don’t know them, so they’re not singing along with them yet, but we hope that they will in the future.

FOX: One of them that you've been playing is an instrumental, right?

PIHL: Yeah.

FOX: Well at least they can’t sing along to that, you can’t hold that against them! (laughs)

PIHL: That’s true, yeah. (laughs) They should be playing air guitar for that one!

FOX: But which guitarist would they follow?

PIHL: You've got to bring a buddy so they could play the opposite part, you know? (laughs)

FOX: So I understand that you have, like, four guitarists on stage every night -- what’s it like to divvy up the duties like that and with that many people on the same instrument?

PIHL: You know, it’s great because it sounds just that much more like the records. On the records, of course, Tom will double track them so you have two rhythm guitars and then, of course, often two harmony lead guitars going on at the same time. So it’s nice to be able to really capture that live.

FOX: So, an individual guitarist like yourself, obviously I’m sure you play pretty much the same part every night, but on different tours do you ever take on different parts or do you pretty much stick with the part you've kind of learned over the years?

Tom Scholz (left) and Gary Pihl, the two main guitarists in Boston.
PIHL: Most of the time I’ll stick with the part I know and I've done. But every once in a while we’ll change something up, like, ‘Oh, you do this so that I can be playing this other part.’ Or there may be a keyboard part that needs to be played, so we’ll kind of move things around. Of course, Tom is the real keyboard player in the band, but three of us play keys on a song that you’ll hear there as well.

FOX: Now I know that Boston is a very technical-oriented and extremely perfectionist in nature, obviously stemming from the recordings to begin with, but I know you bring that to the stage as well. But I’m wondering, once you get locked in to everything -- as I imagine you are at this point in the tour -- do you pretty much stay with the same setlist every night or is there still some latitude that you guys change things around every so often?

PIHL: We usually try to stay with the same setlist, but every once in a while we’ll throw something new in just for fun or whatever, just ’cause we can. But as you can imagine, at the beginning of the tour we make a list of all the songs where we say, ‘Well, we've got to play this one, we've got to play that one.’ And then friends, relatives, fans will tell us, ‘Oh don’t forget to play this one, you haven’t done this one for a while, for some number of tours’ or whatever. So we’ll try to put in something that we hadn't played in a long time -- again, trying to figure out, you know, you don’t want to play all the fast ones together or all the slow ones together, so you try to mix and match throughout the set and have it build intensity as the set goes along.

FOX: Is that a fun process to try to piece together a setlist? I know you guys have a great problem in that you have so much material that people want to hear and that you’d love to play -- but do you find that it’s difficult to piece that together?

PIHL: It’s only difficult because we just can’t play them all. You know, we wish we could, but they don’t let us play all night.

FOX: Now, I've been a Boston fan from the very first record -- I know that’s not saying much, I mean, who hasn't? -- but what I was realizing was that despite 38 years of fandom, I've only had the opportunity to see the band twice -- once was the “Don’t Look Back” tour and the other was the 20th anniversary tour in '96. But as I was thinking about that it dawned on me that you were playing guitar both nights, even though the first time you weren't even in Boston yet.

PIHL: That’s right. When I joined Sammy’s band in '77, one of the first things we did was to open up the end of Boston’s first tour as Sammy’s manager knew Boston’s manager, and they liked us and we liked them, and they said, “Hey, you guys should open the entire second tour,” the “Don’t Look Back” tour, which is what we did. So, yeah, I've been on every Boston tour, but the first two I was in the opening act.

FOX: Awesome. At the time of the "Don’t Look Back" tour, Sammy’s band was just starting to get it rolling. I was wondering, as a support band, were there any lessons you learned -- whether it be about music, the business or staging concerts -- from watching a headliner like Boston every night at that point in your career?

PIHL: Absolutely. Sure. Again, we were starting off, although Sammy had certainly had success in Montrose, and the other guys had been in other bands as well, so we had professional experience but not on that scale of a huge tour like that. So it was learning and just a great experience to be on the road with the guys and seeing how it was all put together. And evolve really -- back when we were doing those tours in the late '70s, technology was always improving. You know, the sound systems were getting better and better. Then, of course, wireless guitars and wireless microphones came along so the technology has improved every year since then.

FOX: And Tom’s had a big part in that.

PIHL: That’s right. I think we are the only band in the world that plays the amplifiers that we have built.

FOX: Do you build them new every tour?

PIHL: No, no, it’s mostly the same stuff that we've been using since '87. Tom, of course, had the Rockman company, and that’s where he invented the outfit we’re using. And for the '87 tour, that was "Third Stage," we took out all this gear, and it’s still there working fine. And it’s got THAT sound, so that’s all we need.

FOX: I've always wondered, how did Sammy break the news to you guys that he was joining Van Halen? How did that go down?

PIHL: You know, he gathered us together one day and said, “Ah, you know, I hate to say this, guys, but I've got an offer I can’t refuse.” He said, “Van Halen, obviously had lost David Lee Roth and so they were looking for a singer and so they asked me to do it. How can I turn that down?” Of course, (we told him), "You've got to do it, that’s going to be great for your career.” And of course at the time we had no idea what we were going to do, we couldn't go on as the Sammy Hagar band without Sammy. But we certainly wished him well, and he tried to help us get other gigs and all that. Luckily in my case, because I had been on those tours with Boston, I got the call from Tom to work with Boston. I was lucky -- I wasn't out of work for a day. I mean, how lucky is that? But he tried to put the other guys together with the record label and other artists, and it didn't quite happen exactly like that, although our keyboard player actually went on to play with David Lee Roth of all things.

FOX: Who was that?

PIHL: That was Jesse Harms. He played with Roth there for a while on David Lee Roth’s solo album. And then Jesse also went on to play with ...

FOX: He played with Sammy again later didn't he?

PIHL: Yes he did. Once Sammy left Van Halen then he brought back David Lauser on drums and Jesse Harms on keys. We all keep in touch. Sammy, what you see is what you get. He’s a friendly guy, always in a good mood, fun to work with and so once you’re in, you’re friends for life.

FOX: Yeah, I think I saw you on some of those birthday bash videos, too.

PIHL: Yes, I've been down there several times, so, again, he’s a great guy. I've always enjoyed working with him.

FOX: Yeah, I can think of a few examples of major bands plucking replacement members off of groups that opened for them previously -- but your's has to be one of the best stories without being out of work for a single day.

PIHL: Yeah, how lucky can a guy get, you know?

FOX: That first Boston record is so iconic -- it’s one of those debuts that when it comes out and you hear it on the radio it really makes you sit up and take notice that, hey, there’s a new sound or something really exciting is going on. I was wondering if you could remember the very first Boston song that you heard and what your feelings were about it?

PIHL: I can tell you exactly where I was. I was driving down the street in my hometown, (and) I pulled up to a stoplight. So I stop at the light, and there’s a car in front of me. So the guy in the car in front of me jumps out, runs back to me -- and I see that it’s somebody I know, so he must have recognized my car -- he runs back and goes, “Hey, turn on the radio, you've got to listen to this. This is Boston! Turn this on quick!” So I turn on the radio and sure enough here’s “More Than a Feeling.” It’s like, “Wow! What is that sound?” So, yeah, I’ll always remember where I was when I heard the first Boston cut.

FOX: Wow, that’s an amazing story. What town were you in at that time?

PIHL: That was Petaluma, California. It’s just north of San Francisco. The Bay Area is where I met Sammy shortly after that and the rest is history.

FOX: Well, did you grow up there?

PIHL: No, I’m originally from Illinois, born in the suburbs of Chicago, but moved to California. My parents got divorced, my mom moved to California, my dad moved to New Jersey. And I was 12, and they said, “You can choose, whatever parent you want to live with.” I said, “I’m going to California. Sorry, Dad!” So from here I’m a young teenager going to high school in band, my Mom comes home from work one day and says, “Oh, I work with this woman” -- my mom’s a secretary and she said, “I work with this woman in the office and she just moved out here from New Jersey and her son plays guitar, too.” And I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, everybody’s son plays guitar.” And she said, “But he’s a little older than you, and he stayed in New Jersey, he’s got a band.” You know, blah, blah, blah. And so years later, my mom says, “Well, geez, didn’t Adele’s son do well?” And I said, “Adele? Oh, yeah, the woman that you used to work with.” And she said, “Yeah, Adele Springsteen!”

FOX: No way!

PIHL: So I tell this to my dad and he goes, “Well, I work with J. Geils’ father.” What are the odds of that, you know? (laughs)

FOX: That is amazing. So, you've been in the band 29 years now, right?

PIHL: Yes.

FOX: I was wondering what does a member of Boston not named Tom Scholz do between albums and tours?

PIHL: (laughs) Actually, I’m in another band called December People and it's guys from other classic rock bands like me and we get together in the Holidays and play traditional holiday music, but in the style of classic rock bands. So we’ll do “Joy to the World” as if The Who were doing it. At the start of it, it sounds like “Pinball Wizard,” but instead of “Pinball Wizard” we’re singing “Joy to the World.” And every show we do is a benefit for a local food bank. That’s the reason we do it, you know? And so, obviously, that’s a labor of love for us all and we really appreciate the chance to give something back to the community.

FOX: Now, your role may be bigger than others’, from what I've heard at least, do you actually work with Tom in the studio, you know, when he’s working on things like that? How does that actually work, with the songwriting in the band? I know it’s mainly Tom, but ...

PIHL: Yes, it’s really mostly Tom, although, any number of us will have strong ideas that we’ll present to him, and sometimes he’ll use them, or sometimes he’ll use part of one or rearrange the rest of it or whatever. But he’s the real creative genius behind the whole thing.

FOX: Right, but you are involved to some extent in between time -- you don’t just all show up at the end and have to learn everything that you've never had anything to do with?

PIHL: Right, yes. Tom plays most of the parts, but there’s usually guitar playing where he’ll say, “Here, play this part.” So I’ll do that. So we’re all on there and obviously the singers are definitely there, although on this new album, “Life, Love and Hope,” Tom actually sings the lead on a song.

FOX: Right. Which one was that again?

PIHL: Oh, shoot! I can’t remember the name!

FOX: Was it “Love Got Away”

PIHL: Yes, that’s it.

FOX: Well, I’m pretty sure that the last time you were scheduled in the Salt Lake City area, the “Corporate America” tour, Tom ended up injuring his back the night before so our show got canceled. So just take it easy between then and now, OK?

PIHL: Yeah, I’ll tell him to stay off the roller blades!

FOX: Thank you, Gary. I've really loved talking with you. You have some great stories that I had no idea about.

PIHL: Thanks. And I’m really looking forward to the show and if you can make it, stop by so I can shake your hand, so I can meet you in person.

FOX: Well, I would love to do so, and I definitely plan to be there.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Don Felder: This Eagle has landed

Don Felder is on tour this summer with Styx and Foreigner on the "Soundtrack of Summer" tour.

I suppose one could talk with former Eagles guitarist Don Felder and not bring up his role in creating one of the most iconic songs in rock history. But why would you want to miss out on that?

"Hotel California" holds a special place in my own personal memory as it was the very first song that I ever saw the Eagles perform live. I was a relatively new Eagles fan when I saw them on Oct. 22, 1976, as part of a three-night stand at the Forum in Los Angeles. So when I heard the cool opening song -- I could tell from the chorus, and a neon sign blinking behind the stage, that it was called "Hotel California" -- I simply assumed it was an album cut I was unfamiliar with. It wasn't until a month and a half later, when the "Hotel California" album was officially released, that I recognized my error.

What was not in error during my first introduction to that song, however, was the impression that it was indeed something special. It remains a classic concert-opening song to this day. As Felder said during our interview, " It’s like walking out on stage and just punching somebody right in the chin. 'Boooom!' You know?"

Felder is no longer in the Eagles, of course, following a well-publicized acrimonious split in 2001. But the guitarist is fronting his own band now and touring behind his 2012 solo album "Road to Forever."

This summer Felder is playing the opening slot on the "Soundtrack of Summer" tour with Styx and Foreigner, which comes to USANA Amphitheatre on Wednesday. For this tour, "Hotel California" is getting some extra love and attention -- as Felder is joined by Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw in a rousing set-closing rendition of the classic tune.

This interview took place in March, before the start of the tour. After a few minutes of chit-chat -- in which Felder mentioned how he was blessed with the "gift of gab," an assessment which definitely proved true in the course of our discussion -- we got down to business.

DOUG FOX: I’ve got to say, it’s an honor to talk to the guitarist who wrote one of the greatest concert-opening songs of all time. And who knew that “Mexican Bolero” would become such a hit?

DON FELDER: (laughs) Certainly not me!

FOX: The first time that I saw the Eagles, I was living in L.A. at the time in October of ‘76, and it was only my third concert ever, and of course you came out and opened with “Hotel California” -- looking back, I think one of the things I find most interesting about that is that was before the album came out, before the song was released, and nobody had heard that, but just the fact that you played it at that point, and especially since you opened the show with it and it went over so well, to me looking back at it now, I’m like, “Man, that showed a tremendous amount of confidence in that song." Did you guys know what you had when you first wrote it?

FELDER: You know, I don’t think any artist ever really knows. I mean, you can write a song, you can record it in the studio, you can put it out, distribute it, promote it -- you just don’t know what’s going to resonate with audiences until you see the results of your work. I think my studio wall is covered with ideas that I’ve splattered up to see what’s going to stick to the wall, you know? And to me, I think I wrote 16 or 17 song ideas for what was going to become the “Hotel California” record, and one of them became “Victim of Love” and another one became “Hotel California.” And at the time it was just on the cassette of, like, 16 or 17 other song ideas. Don (Henley) heard it and said, “I like that thing that sounds kind of like a Mexican reggae or bolero, you know. That was the only thing that was on that reel that sounded like that. Imagine the difference between hearing the track to “Hotel California” and the track to “Victim of Love,” it’s opposite ends of the spectrum really. So we started working on the lyrics, and he and Glenn kind of ran off into their own world. Mostly I think Don came up with a large part of those lyrics, he’s a brilliant lyricist and an English-lit major and has the way of writing lyrics as little flashcards, or postcards, that show you a little picture, and another little picture and another little picture until you finally hit the chorus and you go, “Oh, I see what the story’s about!” And he’s just a genius lyricist, in my opinion. So he came in with the lyrics pretty much finished, with a few corrections here and there they made as were going through it. When we finished recording it in the studio, the record company had been pounding on our door to get this record -- they wanted to put it out and follow up “One of These Nights,” which was the biggest success that the Eagles had had to that time for an album. And so, finally, when we finished it, we had it all mixed and sequenced on two-track, we invited them over, played the record for them and after “Hotel California,” Henley stopped, turned around and said, “That’s going to be our single.” And I don’t know if you know, I don’t know how old you are, but the format for AM radio in the ‘70s, was that it had to be 3 minutes and 30 seconds long or less. You had to either have it be a rock song, a dance song or a drippy ballad. The introduction had to be under 30 seconds so the disc jockey didn’t have to talk so long before the singing started. And “Hotel California” was exactly wrong on all formats. It was six and a half minutes long, the introduction was a minute, you couldn’t dance to it, it stops in the middle, it breaks down with no drums and it’s got this two-minute guitar solo on the end of it. It’s completely wrong for AM radio. So when Don said, “That’s going to be our next single,” I said, “You know, I think that’s wrong. That’s like an FM track, I don’t think that should be on AM radio. I think that’s not the right call.” And he said, “Nope, that’s what we’re going to do.” And I went, “OK, but I told you so.” And I’ve never been so happy to have been so wrong in my life. He was right. He heard something in that that he believed in, so good for him.

FOX: That’s another thing that made it interesting for me because you were playing it in shows before it was ever released on radio. Like you said, you never really know how something will be received by the public until you put it out there. So when you started playing it in the shows, that was essentially your first reactions to the songs publicly.

FELDER: It was. It truly was. Yeah, we had actually, I think ... was that the “Hotel California” show at the Forum?

FOX: Yes, there were three of them.

FELDER: Yeah. We had done that that whole tour. In fact, some of the video that was in “The History of the Eagles” was shot on the road ...

FOX: In Washington?

FELDER: Washington or Philadelphia or somewhere back East.

FOX: I think it was Washington.

FELDER: Yeah, thank you. And we had made that into a video that was pre-MTV and sent it to Japan, and sent it to Europe and Australia so they could run that on television as kind of a commercial for the record, so it could sponsor and promote record sales because we weren’t going to get there for like a year, year and a half by the time we toured the United States and Canada, finally you go to Europe and finally you go to Japan and finally you go to Australia, you know, we wanted them to be able to kind of see what it was. So that’s where that footage came from. So, you know, we were kind of on board with that song once we started doing it live and seeing how well people responded to it. It was really a good opener. It’s like walking out on stage and just punching somebody right in the chin. “Boooom!” You know?

FOX: Exactly! As somebody who has gone to a ton of concerts, I’m a big fan of how bands open their shows. It’s really an art, and it's got to be an art to come up with a song that fits that moment so perfectly.

FELDER: Well, I don’t know that it was ever written with the intent that it be an opening song in the show. Usually people save their biggest hits for the last song in the set or an encore or something later. But we just said, “We broke the rules on AM radio, let’s break the rules for this song, let’s just go out and do it first.” Even now, when I go out and do my live show, I usually start with “Hotel California.” Everybody gets up and stands up and applauds it, and it just gets a really great reaction. As a matter of fact, I think one of the nicest things that really struck me, I did this show a couple years ago for the United Nations in New York. There were about 450 people there, either presidents or dignitaries, secretaries of state from all over the world at this show -- and about half of them didn’t even speak English. I went out and did “Hotel California” and got a standing ovation for that song from literally representatives from the whole world, and it kind of dawned on me the global impact that song has had. You know, you go, “OK, write this song, we make a record, we put it out, we go on tour” and you hear people say, “Oh, I was down in Mexico at this bar and I heard them playing ‘Hotel California’ ” -- but until that moment I didn’t really realize how widespread that song had become. And, you know, it was a really pleasant surprise.

FOX: Well, I’ve got to ask, do you still have that cassette, the original copy?

FELDER: I do. As a matter of fact, I transferred it to digital about six, seven months ago. I was digging back through a bunch of my old cassettes, 'cause like I said, I’d written all these tracks ... like the song “Heavy Metal” was actually a song I wrote for “The Long Run” record that never got finished. And so when I got invited to look at the movie of “Heavy Metal,” I went, “Oh, I’ve got this great guitar track, it all these harmony guitars on it and stuff, and I said, “I bet if I just re-wrote the lyrics for “Heavy Metal” on top of this track, it would work. I went in the studio, re-recorded the whole thing, and put it out, and it was, like, one of those kind of appropriate tracks that goes with the video and it did really well. So I was just looking back through and listening to a bunch of my cassettes before they completely degenerate, and at the same time I was transferring them into Pro-Tools in a digital format, but there it was. It was the original demo for “Hotel California,” and it was remarkably similar to the final end product.

FOX: That’s amazing.


FOX: Now how did your involvement with Styx and Foreigner come about for the "Soundtrack of Summer" tour?

FELDER: You know, I had worked with Styx, I guess one of the first times was an Alice Cooper benefit in Phoenix. Every year he had a thing thing called Christmas Pudding where he raises money for this foundation where they built an after-school educational program to keep kids off the streets and they teach them music and dance and help with their homework, all that stuff. Alice is an amazing guy when it comes to that kind of work. So every year he has this fundraiser and I got invited over to sit in and play a couple of songs at the Dodge Theater there in Phoenix, I guess it’s like a 5,000-seat hall or something. Styx was on the bill, and I said “Well, I don’t have a band.” Alice said, “I bet these guys would work with you.” So I sat down with (Styx guitarist) Tommy (Shaw) and showed him the harmony on “Hotel California,” and we did a quick soundcheck rehearsal, and that night we did like, “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Hotel California,” two or three songs with Styx backing me up -- which was just unbelievable. It was like, “You know, you guys are really good! If you ever need a gig let me know.” (laughs) And Tommy and I became fast friends after that. I put together a benefit show here in L.A. for the Soweto Center for the Performing Arts, which was for the victims of Katrina. I guess that was about eight or nine years ago. I called Tommy who was doing the Shaw/Blades thing, had those guys come, Alice came over and sang with his band. Gilby Clarke was on the show. Dennis Quaid and his band were on the show. David Foster and some of his people were on the show. Just put together a really great show of different rock and roll bands, and raised a bunch of money for the victims of Katrina, and then, “Hey, Tommy, that was kind of fun, let’s go grab a dinner.” And the next thing I know, when he’s in town we’re going out and doing stuff, and seeing them play and going to dinner. And then when I was writing for the “Road to Forever,” I had two songs that I'd written lyrics for that were OK, I just wasn’t really knocked out by the lyrics that I’d written, and so I called Tommy just on the wild chance that he may be off the road with Styx, because they do like 150 shows a year, they’re just nonstop, and he just happened to be in town. I said, “Hey, would you just come over and listen to these lyrics that I’ve written and give me your opinion, just kind of put a different ear on it.” He said, “Oh, those are great, that’s fine.” I said, “What would you do with some of these lyrics?” So he and I sat down and we started re-writing some of the lyrics and we set up a mike and sang the choruses for them. It sounded great, and the next thing I know those lyrics are going on the record and Tommy’s vocals are going on the record. You know, we actually wrote, in three days, we wrote three songs. We wrote another song, “Heal Me,” together, and we wrote “Wash Away” and the third song, which sounded remarkably like Crosby, Stills and Nash -- and Tommy was writing it for “The Great Divide” and it was too kind of Southern California instead of country for his record, he wanted more honest country-bluegrass stuff on his record. Anyway, I may use that with his blessing on my next record. It’s a great song, and maybe I’ll get Crosby, Stills and Nash to sing it with me, so we’ll see.

FOX: So do you have plans for a new record right away?

FELDER: I am constantly in the process when I’m driving down the freeway in L.A. singing into my iPhone or sitting on an airplane flying somewhere writing lyrics with headphones on listening to a track with this great lyric program, a songwriter’s program called MasterWriter, where you can put a track, an mp3, into this program, you can play it and write lyrics on top of it, back it up, you know, it’s kind of all controlled from one little thing. It’s created by a guy named Barry DeVorzon, up in Santa Barbara, who’s a great string composer and songwriter himself -- and he wanted to be able to get audio and text and rhyming dictionaries into one program, so it’s a blessing really for a songwriter to be able to have that program. There’s Gary DeVorzon’s ad. (laughs) Anyway, I’m constantly working, whether it’s on the road, even if I’m watching television, I’ll sit with an electric guitar and just kind of tinker around as I’m watching it. But if I hear a score in the background, if I hear something going on in the background, whether it’s an orchestral part, I’ll rewind it on my DVR and I’ll sit and try to figure it out and work it out. So, I’m constantly working, I have all these odds and ends in bits and pieces of lyrics and guitar licks and tracks and stuff. In August I plan on trying to take a couple of weeks and sit down with that task, sort through them and start building the demos for these song ideas. Last record, “Road to Forever,” I had 27 song ideas pretty much finished. I culled it down to 16, went into the studio and recorded those 16 songs, finished them and produced them, and then just before we went to final mastering of the manufacturing the CDs and the artwork, I get a call from the management company and they say, “Well, iTunes wants an exclusive single. Oh, and Amazon needs an exclusive song, and, oh wait, Japan wants an exclusive song, and Europe and Australia want an exclusive song, too.” So I had to pull four songs off the original release of “Road to Forever” and only put out 12 songs. And so I said, “Here’s four great songs that no one ever heard.” So this spring I decided that we should repackage that, put all the songs back on that are no longer exclusive songs and then release it again. So we re-released that, and that was the reasoning in doing that. And the lesson I’ve learned from that is instead of doing 16, I need to record 20 or 25 songs for all these exclusive, promotional things as well. I think you want to have at least 16 songs on a CD, you know?

FOX: That’s something you never had to worry about back in the old days.

FELDER: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, I think my first solo record had eight songs on it. Yeah, if they’d have pulled four off for exclusive promotions, there’d only be four songs on it.

FOX: You’d have an EP.

FELDER: (laughs)

FOX: So, I’ve been wearing out your new album for the past week and a half, and it is the extended version so I have all those songs on there ...

FELDER: Oh, good.

FOX: And I’ve got to say, and maybe you’ll shake your head at this a bit, but I don’t know what I expected going in, but I was amazed at how much it reminded me of the Eagles. I think because a few members of your former band are so prominently recognized, you know, as the main songwriters and get the credit for that, but as I was listening to this, it kind of became clear to me that your “Fingers” print was all over those main Eagles records, even if it’s not credited in the songwriting per se.

FELDER: Well, you know, typically songwriting credits go lyrics and music. And that’s typically the way I worked with those guys in the past. I would write music beds. I would write complete introductions, a couple verses, chorus, bridge, you know, the song structure -- give them these music beds to write and in some instances, like “Victim of Love,” actually the melody. I had different lyrics on it, but I had written the melody, you can even hear the melody in the guitar introduction that’s on the track, right? And those two guys were primarily known for lyrics and vocals. Don Henley can’t really play piano, can’t really play guitar, he needs somebody to provide him the music bed. (former Eagles guitarist) Bernie (Leadon) told me that as soon as I joined the band. He said, “You want to write with these guys, provide the music beds to sing on top of.” That’s how “Witchy Woman” happened, that was a Bernie Leadon track, and Henley liked it and wrote the lyrics on it and sang it. So I went, “OK, that’s my job. I’ll just keep feeding music beds to these guys.” Although I had my own melodies and lyrics, I withheld those until I was asked, “You have a melody for this?” And I’d sing 'em or show 'em the melody. And I think the songs I didn’t actually write the musical changes for, I didn’t get writers credit, but you’re right, there’s a heavy footprint, a ‘Fingers’ print as you called it, on a lot of those records that were partially my sound and my guitar arrangement -- that sort of stamp or signature stuff that was really so obviously missing from their last record that was put out. It changed, pretty much entirely, the sound of that band -- except for the lead vocals. I mean, you still recognize Don Henley’s voice. He’s got an incredible vocal in my opinion. He’s got probably one of the best rock and roll voices alive today. And very recognizable harmonies and that sort of stuff. But, you know, it shifted into something else, which is fine with me. Many people have told me that about ‘Road to Forever,’ that it sounds like an Eagles record, and I did not go out intending to make a record that sounded like an Eagles record -- it’s just what I sound like. (laughs)

FOX: Yeah, that was the point I was trying to get to. (laughs) And it’s my bad for maybe not realizing that before, but hearing this work for the first time, that’s the overwhelming thought I got was, “Oh, yeah, this makes sense.”

FELDER: Well, yeah, I mean Joe has got such a unique fingerprint, sound and style and way of playing and writing, you recognize Joe Walsh solo stuff more so than you recognize Joe Walsh in the Eagles stuff. You know what I mean? “Life in the Fast Lane” is probably the most successful Joe Walsh kind of Eagles song that he had a big footprint in. Other than that, you don’t hear a lot of Joe Walsh sound in the Eagles, you know what I mean?

FOX: Yeah.

FELDER: Sadly. To me I think it’s their loss ’cause Joe is such a talented guitarist and can do so much with their records, but for some reason he doesn’t.

FOX: So many songs on “Road to Forever” seem personal in nature, how cathartic was it to work through all that writing and get the whole project done?

FELDER: Well, a lot of the ideas and original concepts for those songs came out of the period that I was writing my autobiography -- when I was going back and reflecting on my entire life and experiences. Breaking up and divorcing from my wife of 29 years, and falling in love with her in the first place and breaking up and going through the trauma with the Eagles, just all of my life experiences. As a matter of fact, I think as an artist, most good art comes from real-life experiences that are reflected either in film, music, songwriting, art, painting, sculpture -- some way that people, other humans that have shared that same experience can see, recognize and resonate with. To me, that’s what an artist’s task is, to share those thoughts and insights in life and life’s experiences. So when I was writing this book -- I’m not a great writer, you know, I can write text and lay it out pretty well, I’m fairly literate that way, but emotionally it was a better release for me to go into the studio and write music. It’s just what I do. So I take all of those ideas and feelings and thoughts and express them in the initial songwriting and try to capture those feelings that I was dealing with and going through and recalling. So then you’ve got to make the decision, well, how personal of a record, how personal of a book do you want to publish. And for me, I’ve got nothing to hide. I’ve been who I am and experienced what I have in this world, and it should be for anyone that cares to take a look at it or hear it or read it or what not. I don’t pull any punches. I just lay it out there as I see it, and as I felt it. I think there’s a certain amount of bravery for an artist to do that, but, you know, if you’re timid and shy, you’re in the wrong business. (laughs) It’s not for the weak of heart or the faint of heart. I just laid it all out there, both in my book and in songwriting. It’s what I do now. I have no fear when it comes to being judged or ridiculed for something I’ve experienced. How can you fear that -- because it’s the truth of what happened?

FOX: Concerts, of course, are great anytime ... but do you find there’s a different vibe or a little different energy to be playing outside in the summertime as opposed to an indoor show at a different time of year?

FELDER: Well, to preface this answer, I’ve done a lot of outdoor summer festivals over the last 10 years. It’s not like my first rodeo whether it’s with the Eagles or with my solo band myself. I think there’s a difference in the scale or magnitude of the setting. Personally, I think those outdoor venues are great if you want to go and just have a party. If you want to go and sit and listen to stuff in a more acoustically tuned, higher-controlled environment, you need to be indoors. Indoors doesn’t mean in a hockey rink. It doesn’t mean a place that is primarily set up for sports or basketball or something. Most of those buildings don’t sound good. Some of them have addressed those issues lately, but they build them so they’re loud and stuff for the fans so they get a lot of energy and noise during the game, but it’s the wrong environment for music. So I think it depends on what you want to do. I love the outdoor festivals because they’re always like a big party. Everybody’s dancing, rocking and having a great time and just having fun. I like the indoor venues as well because everybody’s more comfortable, there’s usually seats -- and a lawn if you’re doing a shed or something like that -- and the acoustics are usually much better because the facility has been designed for audio live performances (rather) than a hockey rink or something like that. So I think they both have their pros and cons. If you want to see an act in an intimate setting then you should go to an indoor venue. If you want to go and rock ’n’ roll and have fun and be outside, then you should go to an outdoor festival.

FOX: I know we’re running out of time, but just one more question. So, in summary, what was it like, as you look back, being in one of the greatest bands ever? I’m just wondering, did you ever really enjoy it or were you kind of always looking over your shoulder?

FELDER: From the day I started playing music when I was 10, till today, I’ve loved playing music. Absolutely, it’s the most fulfilling, rewarding thing in my life. I’ve put up with starving on the streets of New York, literally not able to have more than 60 cents in my pockets to get on the train to go down and get a plate of yellow rice and black beans to fill my belly for a couple of days so that I could continue playing. I wound up moving from Boston to California in a beat-up old Volvo car with a U-Haul trailer on the back and I managed to save $600 working in the studios, playing music on the holidays and during dinner hour, and then playing in a live cover band at night until 2 in the morning and back in the studio at 9 o’clock, to get the money together to move out here. It’s not about the success, it’s about how much you love what you do. And I think whatever the conditions I would have to put up with, whether it’s the difficult times in a huge band or difficult times in a small band, starving, or driving across country with the whole world ahead  of me, you know, kind of on that wing-and-a-prayer kind of lifestyle -- it’s all done because I love playing music. And to this day, I still feel that way. I’ll put up with the best and the worst to be able to do it. Does that answer your question?

FOX: Perfectly! Thank you so much for your time.

FELDER: All right, Doug. Take care.

To read the newspaper story that came from this interview, which includes quotes by Tommy Shaw regarding the thrill of playing "Hotel California" with Felder every night on the "Soundtrack of Summer" tour, click HERE.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Fight fire with 'Pyromania': Def Leppard guitarist Vivian Campbell dishes on upcoming tour with Kiss

Def Leppard kicks off a national co-headlining tour with Kiss on Monday in Salt Lake City.

When it comes to sheer spectacles, British rockers Def Leppard recognize that trying to outdo Kiss on their national co-headlining tour -- which kicks off Monday at USANA Amphitheatre in West Valley City -- would be about as wise as taking a Bic lighter to a flamethrower fight.

Kiss recently made news with an acrimonious induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the makeup-clad rockers have made headlines throughout their career for over-the-top live theatrics, costumes and pyrotechnics that have certainly overshadowed the band's music to some degree.

"We proudly spit fire," said Kiss bassist Gene Simmons in a press conference that announced this summer's tour pairing with Def Leppard. "We proudly fly through the air. We proudly blow stuff up."

So when the lads in Def Leppard agreed to join forces and tour with Kiss, they recognized right off that trying to match their American compatriots fireball with fireball would be futile.

"I mean our show is, you know, pretty high-energy music and we've always had a bit of a production value to our show," said Def Leppard guitarist Vivian Campbell in a phone interview from his Los Angeles home on Friday, "but even at our strongest, we couldn't compete with that so we've decided not to bother."

Campbell -- who before joining Def Leppard in 1992 was well known for his work with Ronnie James Dio and Whitesnake -- was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma last year. He is still battling the disease with a new high-tech chemo treatment, and plans to receive a stem-cell transplant after the tour ends in September.

Through it all, Campbell has maintained his sense of humor -- "At least I have health insurance," he joked -- and said he considers being on stage the best form of therapy he could imagine.

"There's nothing worse than sitting around the house concentrating on the negative," he said. "I've always enjoyed my work, and I've always felt very fortunate to be able to do what I love. I am well up for the summer tour indeed."

Monday's show is set to begin at 7 p.m. with an opening set by Kobra and the Lotus. Def Leppard and then Kiss will close out the evening.

This story and a portion of my interview with Campbell is running today in the Daily Herald -- but here is the full interview.

Vivian Campbell, left, and Phil Collen are responsible for Def Leppard's layered two-guitar sound.
VIVIAN CAMPBELL: Hey, Doug, how's it going?

DOUG FOX: Hey, Vivian, how are you doing today?

CAMPBELL: I am very well thank you.

DF: It's a pleasure to talk with you again. ... Where are you calling from today, where am I reaching you?

CAMPBELL: I am at home in Los Angeles.

DF: What part of L.A. do you live? I grew up in La Crescenta. Anywhere around there.

CAMPBELL: I'm kind of familiar with the La Canada area because one of my daughters went to school out there for a couple years. La Crescenta not so much. I actually live in the Hollywood/Los Feliz area. I hate this city. I can't wait to leave it. The only reason I'm here now is because of my kids, you know? I never intended to stay in L.A. It's one of those things you kind of just fall into it and before you know it you're married and have children -- then you're screwed, you can't leave.

DF: Well, how long have you lived there?

CAMPBELL: I came over here in 1982, late 1982 with Ronnie Dio to do the album "Holy Diver." I auditioned in London for Dio, they flew me here, and I came over in October of '82, and we started writing and recording that record. I was sort of homeless for a few years during the Dio years. I lived in various L.A. apartments and such, but mostly we were on the road. And I kind of still consider my parental home outside of Belfast to be the main base, and eventually I met my wife here, and she's from L.A. -- we're divorced now, but at the time, her family was here and born and raised in L.A., so I ended up just kind of living here, you know? So from about '85 or '86 onwards I was a resident. I've had more than enough, and I can't wait to leave. I do like California, though, but L.A. ...

DF: No, I fully understand the feeling. I really love when I get the chance to go back and visit, but I'm always reminded about how I probably wouldn't like to live there right now.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, ultimately I'd love to go up to Santa Barbara or something like that. Have the best of California, but leave L.A. behind.

DF: Well, I understand that. Hey, well allow me to extend an early Utah welcome to you. This will be like the sixth time in eight years that you'll be playing at USANA Amphitheatre ...

Joe Elliott performs at USANA Amphitheatre in 2012.
CAMPBELL: Yeah, and it's not the first time we've started there either. When we toured with Poison I remember we flew out there and we had a couple days in Salt Lake rehearsing before the first show.

DF: I was thinking, any more appearances in the years to come, they should just grant you some timeshare rights to that place.

CAMPBELL: They probably should've. They should name it after us. Def Leppard Stadium or Arena, whatever it's called.

DF: On your live album ("Mirrorball: Live and More"), didn't you record part of it there.

CAMPBELL: We did. Yeah, a fair amount of it was from USANA.

DF: Well this tour is just 10 days away now, are you into full rehearsals yet or anything?

CAMPBELL: We actually now, I mean, when I first joined Def Leppard 22 years ago, we rehearsed for two months. I kid you not. Like five days a week, six days a week and intense long days for two months. It was mind-numbing. And ever since then, we're like, "OK, we don't need to rehearse quite as long" and cut it back to a few weeks. And in recent years it's been, "Well, how much rehearsal do we really need?" Now we're down to a few days. And then part of that also is 'cause we're touring with Kiss this summer so we're up against a big, big show, and we're very fortunate that we have a lot of hits. So we're concentrating on the hits, we're not going too obscure on this tour, you know? We'll have a couple of floaters in the set each night to mix it up here and there, but for the most part we've got to focus on the big songs. And, you know, we've been playing those songs for so long now, it's like, "Why do we even need to rehearse?" So we actually start next Monday and we're going to rehearse about four days here in L.A. and we'll get the night before the show, I guess, or something like that, we're flying out to Salt Lake a couple days early. We'll get a run-through on the stage with the full production.

DF: On the night before?


DF: I'll have to camp around the arena then and see what I can hear. (laughs)

CAMPBELL: Indeed. You may not like it. (laughs)

DF: I think I will. You guys have had these pairings before, and it's certainly the nature of the summer touring season, but I don't believe you've ever been the band scheduled to go on first in these packages ...

CAMPBELL: That's a first for us. It kind of made sense, though, it is a co-billing thing and both bands are playing about 75 minutes each. But, you know, Kiss are such a spectacle, there's no way that we would be able to out-do that spectacle in terms of production. I mean, I've never seen so much pyro and circus tricks in my life as in a Kiss show. You know, they fly through the air and there's flames going off like every eight bars or something, I don't know. We don't do that kind of thing. I mean our show is, you know, pretty high-energy music and we've always had a bit of a production value to our show -- but even at our strongest, we couldn't compete with that so we've decided not to bother. The other thing we realized is, when we actually go on it's gonna be dusk, it's not going to be quite dark when we start our show. So when you look at both bands, I couldn't imagine seeing Kiss in daylight.

DF: That makes sense.

Vivian Campbell joined Def Leppard in 1992.
CAMPBELL: So it kind of made sense for us to be the band to be on first. And it will be a different experience for us because we'll actually get to bed earlier. So we'll be able to do our show and roll on to the next city while Kiss is on stage.

DF: So the way the show is set up like that, does it offer a different kind of challenge for you going in, any kind of a different mindset?

CAMPBELL: Well, only because of what I said earlier, a lot of these shows are going to be going on in dusk, it's not going to be full darkness, so we've had to think about how we're going to present the start of our show, and still make it look like somewhat of a spectacle. So we've got a little something planned. I haven't seen it yet, I hope it's going to work. We've got to, obviously, rely a lot on our music. I mean, I know that kind of sounds redundant, we're musicians and we should be relying on our music, but a live show is usually a spectacle, you know? And like I said, there's no way we can outdo Kiss when it comes to the spectacular. Our real strength of the band is our music, it always has been. We've got great songs, and we're a great, great live band. I've said this before and a lot of people always take it the wrong way, like I'm blowing smoke up my own (butt), but we're actually a really exceptionally good live band. People actually think that we mime, we're that good. Especially in the vocal department, we do pride ourselves in the fact that we're very precise about that, being able to replicate this big, big, big studio production in a live environment. So that's our strength, and that's what we'll rely upon. We actually do perform the songs. There's nothing canned about our performance. It's all real.

DF: Yeah, I think you're hitting that right on the head because of all the times I've seen you, that actual aspect of it really stands out. It's fantastic live.

CAMPBELL: It's a bit of a back-handed compliment when people ask me, "C'mon, you're running vocals, hard-drives and such," and I go, "No, that's us, we're singing live." That fact that people would think that, we've got to take it as a compliment, even though it is frustrating after the years to keep on having to say, "Nope, nope, that's us. We're really live."

DF: It's kind of a product of a day where a lot of bands, you know, the younger bands that do go out and incorporate all those aspects you're talking about.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, it's kind of frightening. I mean, I'm actually hard-pressed to think of a band that doesn't do that nowadays. Not just younger bands, but a lot of our contemporaries as well. It's just an easy way to take a lot of the load off. "You know the singer doesn't feel so good tonight, just push up the Pro Tools." But once you go there it's a slippery slope. So we've made a pact between the five of us to never do that.

DF: That's awesome, that's good to know. So, do you know, in past tours you've made really good use of your stage design, and you have the ramp that goes out into the front rows that you've used really well for solos and acoustic sets and things like that. Are you able to keep something like that on a tour like this?

CAMPBELL: No ego ramp on this tour. We've actually done that for the last five or six tours, so it was time to try and shake it up a little bit. We were relying, like a lot of bands, I mean, we've relied heavily on video content to keep the show interesting as well. We've always tried to come up with some different content for each tour that we've done and this tour is no different. I've yet to actually see the stage. We did discuss with our production crew about how we were going to present this year's show and how we were going to start the show -- I've got a picture in my mind of how it's going to be, but I haven't seen it, and I actually won't see it until the 21st when we fly out to Salt Lake.

DF: You talked about this earlier about it being the tour-opening show, I wonder if there's any extra juice or adrenaline to the fact that it's the tour opener?

CAMPBELL: There is, yeah. It's always nervy for us that first show, you know? And that never changes. After about a week or so, it becomes so routine and it gets such a different feeling. But the first night is always really edgy. Even though we've been doing it for decades that never, ever changes. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, I guess we'll let the audience decide. But there's definitely a lot more tension with the band, and even with the crew. There's a lot of fingers crossed and a lot of trying to remember, I think. Even though we're playing familiar songs, you know, they may not be in the same order -- but after about a week of doing it, it's kind of ingrained. You know what 90, 95 percent of the set is. I know in my mind what the next song coming up is. You know, you feel kind of mentally prepared. Whereas I find the first two or three shows on a tour, I'm always kind of looking at the set list, and I'm thinking, "OK, what do I need to remember about that song?"

DF: Speaking as an audience member, I can say that we love it when the band is a little bit on edge because you get the feeling that you never know what you're going to see and what's going to happen.

CAMPBELL: What catastrophe's about to happen? (laughs)

DF: Not in a catastrophe sense even, but just you don't know what's going to happen.

CAMPBELL: Well that'll definitely be, on the 23rd, the case for sure.

DF: I know that you've been through a health scare over the past year, and I understand that you're in remission, I'm just wondering if you wouldn't mind giving me an update on how everything is going?

CAMPBELL: Actually, the remission was a little bit premature. It came right back. I don't know if the cancer came back or it never totally went away, you know, but the initial scan I did last fall after doing my chemo, the scan came back clean. But there was something about it the oncologist was unclear about and didn't feel good about, so I was referred to another specialist. I suppose one of the advantages about being in this city that I dislike so much is that there's a lot of great medical facilities here. There's a place called City of Hope just outside of L.A., and there's a specific oncologist there who's probably the leading oncologist with regards to Hodgkins in the U.S., and he sent me to him. He had a look at my scans and, you know, everyone was a little bit apprehensive, and he said, 'Well, for now you appear to be in remission." I kind of took that ball and I ran with it, and unfortunately it turned out to be premature. So the followup scan that I did a couple months later showed that there was definitely some growth coming back. I ended up having a couple of biopsies -- I did a needle biopsy in January and that showed that I was fine, but my oncologist said, and he was right, that needle biopsies are notoriously uncertain, and he suggested I do a surgical biopsy. So I went to Dublin and started to record with the band, we started work on a new record, and as soon as I got back from that, I did another surgical biopsy and that showed that the cancer had definitely come back. I'm actually doing this new high-tech chemo treatment, I'm about halfway through it already, and it's really kind of easy going. It's the first new drug that's been discovered for Hodgkin's since 1977 and they made this discovery in 2011, and it's actually being pioneered here at City of Hope, so I'm part of this research clinical trial that's going on. It's very, very benign chemo, actually it just targets -- I don't know how it works, obviously I'm not a medical person, but somehow or other it just manages to target the cancer cells. It's not like old-school, carpet-bomb chemo where it kills all the fast-growing cells, so I haven't experienced any hair loss or any issues with my skin or nails or anything this time around, which is good. And assuming that works, I'm going to have to continue a couple of treatments, actually, over the course of the tour, so that's awkward to work around, but not impossible. Assuming that it all works and I actually get to a perceived remission stage by August, then as soon as the tour is over in early September I'm going to get a stem-cell transplant, which I can't say I'm looking forward to, but I've been told if I don't do that, the cancer's going to just keep coming back every couple years. And every time it's a little bit more resistant. It is what it is. It could be worse -- but at least I have health insurance. (laughs)

DF: Well I certainly wish you the best and I hope that being on stage might be the best therapy.
CAMPBELL: It absolutely is. And when I was going through the chemo last year and the band said to me, "We've been offered these shows, can you do them? Do you want to do them? Or we can get someone to cover for you?" I said, "(Bleep) that (bleep)! I'm not having someone else do my job. It actually was very, very therapeutic for me to go and get on stage and do that. And the same is true this year. There's nothing worse than sitting around the house concentrating on the negative. I've always enjoyed my work, and I've always felt very fortunate to be able to do what I love. I am well up for the summer tour indeed.

DF: And I was going to ask you about the World Cup since I know you're a big soccer fan.

CAMPBELL: I actually just started Tivo-ing it. I just paused the Mexico-Cameroon game, so I've got it all set to record. It's going to be hard to actually rehearse next week because we're all going to be wanting to watch futbol.

DF: Thank you very much for your time. I wish you the best of luck, and I look forward to seeing you in Salt Lake.

CAMPBELL: Nice to talk again, Doug. Good luck, Doug. Goodbye.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Styx's Lawrence Gowan: This Interview's Got No Title (Just Words and a Tune)

Master of his domain: Lawrence Gowan, he of the spinning keyboard, performs in 2012. (Daily Herald photo)

Peyton and Eli Manning may have bragged about having football on their phone in a popular DIRECTV commercial, but I recently enjoyed a "Lawrence Gowan does 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road' solo concert" on my phone.

This spur-of-the-moment, one-off performance, as it were, stemmed from a discussion the Styx keyboardist/vocalist and I had engaged in last fall, leading up to the 40th anniversary of the original release of that seminal Elton John album. I had reached out to Gowan in the hopes of enlisting his participation in a little exercise I was undertaking that would rank the 17 individual songs on the double album from top to bottom.

While time commitments kept him from supplying his own full rankings, he did quickly fire off his top three choices ("Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and "Harmony," in that order, for those scoring at home) and offer some of his own personal views on the album -- which, coincidentally, just so happened to play a big impact on his musical destiny, steering him away from guitar and toward an ever-revolving career in keyboards. It was obvious from the depth and breadth of his immediate analysis that the album was indeed one with which he held a special connection. (Incidentally, you can take the "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" ranking challenge HERE.)

So it was that when we began our current interview, coinciding with a pair of local Styx shows on Feb. 8 in Wendover and tonight in Richfield, Gowan playfully jumped into a couple songs from the album with the traveling keyboard in his hotel room from Spokane, Wash. It wasn't exactly "In Kilt Tonight," but it was indeed a rare treat.

The interview started with him tinkling the ivories to the title track and closed with some strains from "Bennie and the Jets." In between, we touched on several subjects that I hope swerve far away from the same tired handful of questions that always seem to dog the man who took over for Styx co-founder Dennis DeYoung.

Well, see for yourself ...

LAWRENCE GOWAN: Well, how've you been?

DOUG FOX: Good, it's great to talk with you again.

GOWAN: Well, you too, Doug.

DF: Where are you calling from today?

GOWAN: I’m in Spokane, Washington. Not far from you. I have a quick little song I want to play you before we go any further. You ready? (The somewhat muffled keyboard strains of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” come through the phone.) "When are you gonna come down, when are you going to land?" (laughs). Did you hear that? 

DF: I could! But can you do the intro to "Love Lies Bleeding"?

GOWAN: OK, let’s turn it up a little bit here and see if you can hear this. (Plays near the beginning of "Love Lies Bleeding.) "The roses in the window box are tilted to one side. Everything about this house was born to grow and die." ... I haven’t played it in a while ... "A year ago to this very day ... if I don't change the pace, I can't face another day. And love lies bleeding in my hands. It kills me to think of you with another man. I was playing rock 'n' roll and you were just a fan, but my guitar couldn't hold you so I split the band. Love lies bleeding in my hands." ... That actually comes back pretty quick! 

DF: I was going to say, is that all spur of the moment -- I bet you haven’t done that for a long time?
GOWAN: Well, there were a couple of (screwed) up chords but ... That was a very ... I wanted to talk to you in depth about it, but I had so many interviews last year, Doug. I’ve been doing so many of them now. 

DF: I’ve noticed that, yeah.

GOWAN: I’ve been doing a lot of them, so I just didn’t have time to really give that ("Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" ranking) the proper attention that it deserves because that was, as I said to you before, that was a pivotal record for me. For me, it was “Close to the Edge” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” that made me really decide to put the guitar aside, to put the guitar down and say, “OK, I want to be a piano player.” It was really those two records. And actually a couple of The Guess Who records as well. But those culminated in me saying, “No, I really want to be a piano player.” That and the fact that the band I was in in high school, I was in a couple bands, but the one that I played piano in got booked a lot more. (laughs) The universe tries to tell you something! 

DF: When I first asked you about that, and you jumped in with the analysis you did right off the bat, I’m like, “OK,” like you said, “this is obviously a pivotal album for you, too.” What was so fun for me was to actually sit down and try and rank them, because so many songs — it’s like, if you asked me to pick my next five favorite songs, you know, you can kind of do that, but when you’re trying to pick between one or two that were right close to each other, it was almost impossible. But it was fun. So I figured you’d have fun doing that.

GOWAN: Yeah, absolutely. It was fantastic. I listened to it over and over. Songs that weren’t the singles like “Danny Bailey” or “Social Disease” or “Harmony” for sure ... 

DF: Or  “Grey Seal” ...

GOWAN: “Grey Seal” — oh. I do remember that. 

DF: That’s got a great keyboard opening.

GOWAN: Oh, let me see ... now you’ve got me (starts playing the keyboard opening to "Grey Seal" flawlessly) ... I remember this because it’s in D ... (sings) "Why’s it never light on my lawn." (He plays it three times as if trying to remember the next part.) 

DF: "Why does it rain and never say good day to the newborn?"

GOWAN: Yeah, fantastic! You know something? I think about a month ago, I heard a band doing a cover of that -- but they left out, they didn’t use the chorus at all. They didn’t do, “Tell me Grey Seal, how does it feel to be so wise.” They just did the verses. And I don’t know what band it was. It was in the airport, and I heard it on the speakers, and I was like, “That’s not Elton.” All of a sudden I was like, “Where’s the chorus?” But anyway ... 

DF: It’s amazing to me that you could just launch right into that and play it perfectly.

GOWAN: It’s seminal in my formation of playing. Those two albums, it was Elton and (Rick) Wakeman at that time that suddenly changed my mind, and then later Keith Emerson and Tony Banks, and even last night I was listening to some Robert Lamm, that choppy way of playing the piano I thought was really cool. Maybe one day in the future we’ll get into that. In fact, I just remembered, in December there was a guy in Toronto, I did a charity show with Saga, and there was a guy there who I’ve known for years, who asked if I would consider doing a concert of just “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” play it with a band, yeah. I had to dismiss it, because I would love to, but I’ve got about 130 Styx shows I’ve got to do in 2014, but maybe we’ll talk about it in another year or so. 

DF: That would be a great idea.

GOWAN: Yeah, now that I think about it, that could be kind of a cool thing. I don’t see Elton himself doing that, although he should. But the songs are very high, they’re very vocally challenging, you know? Other than Candle in the Wind, it’s in the top of his register, with "Sister Can’t Twist" ... Anyway, we’re going down this hole for three hours if we get started. (laughs) 

DF: One more question, because as you were singing "Love Lies Bleeding" I was reminded of this, and I wonder if you’ve noticed. This is something, I’ve never interviewed Elton, but if I ever did, this is one thing I would ask him, is, originally that lyric is “I can’t face another day,” but somewhere along the way he’s changed it to, “I can’t last another day.” And that’s how he’s done it ever since “Here and There,” you know the live album? And I’ve always wanted to know, “What made you change that? Because I’ve always loved 'face' and I wonder why you changed it to 'last’?”

GOWAN: Probably either he’s forgotten and nobody has the guts to tell him, which I would put my money on that, but you never know why a guy would do something like that. 

DF: It’s just one of those curiosities I have.

GOWAN: I know. It’s because fans like us, we know the minutia of it because it’s possibly even more meaningful to us than it is to him, 

DF: Right.

GOWAN: So that’s the dilemma. 

DF: Well, like you said, I could discuss this for hours, that would be a blast. ... I’ve just been sitting here now, for some strange reason, running “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” songs through my head.

GOWAN: Ah, that’s a good one.
Lawrence Gowan on "The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight" tour in 2010. (Courtesy photo)
DF: And I was sitting here thinking, “This is what I love about my job” — not only do I now have you singing “Yellow Brick Road” on tape, but previously I have Jack Blades singing “Madman Across the Water” songs on tape, because we were discussing that album because it was a favorite of both him and Tommy (Shaw).

GOWAN: Yeah, Madman’s a great album. Yeah. Great song. 

DF: And I’ve noticed that you’ve been getting “Tiny Dancer” into your (in-concert) song lyric test recently.

GOWAN: I have. Actually last night I played, what was it last night, it was “Rocket Man.” I try to revolve it a little bit. You kind of have to go with the most widely spread songs that people know the choruses of when I’m doing the College of Rock Knowledge. 

DF: Because if you ever did, “The roses in the window box are tilted to one side,” there’d at least be some of us that would jump in on that.

GOWAN: There would definitely be some of you, and some of you may be scratching at your head. I think it all just comes down to how much it’s made it into the popular culture, you know?. I mean, that album of course at the time was, almost everyone knows, it’s “Bennie and the Jets,” and “Candle in the Wind” from that album, and I play “Saturday Night’s (Alright for Fightin’)” -- usually on a Saturday. So now that you’ve said that -- I’d better put that in tonight.
DF: And Saturday is when you’ll be in Wendover.

GOWAN: Oh, Wendover’s a Saturday night? I’d better remember that next week.  

DF: OK, well let’s jump in here. So, I’m not sure if you’ll be able to contain your excitement, but you’ve got two Utah shows coming up in the next 10 days ...
GOWAN: I love coming to Utah. I love Salt Lake City. It’s one of the most beautiful places, both on the ground and from the air. I love when we fly in there, especially around Salt Lake City. It just looks like another planet, Salt Lake itself and that surrounding area. I don’t recall anywhere else on Earth I’ve ever seen that is like it. 

DF: You’ve played Wendover quite a few times already, but then two days later you’re playing in a town called Richfield, about two hours south of us. So when you play smaller towns like that, what do you do during the day? I know you like to get out and circulate among the people, but do you get recognized often? What do you like to do, how do you work that?

GOWAN: Particularly if it’s a town we haven’t played before or haven’t played in the last 12 or 15 years. No, I like to be out and walk as much of the town as I can and just absorb something about my surroundings before the show. The show always goes better if I’ve done that during the day. It’s not possible all days on the road because obviously some nights we arrive just a couple hours before showtime, but if the opportunity is there, that is something I always try to take advantage of, and I think it really helps me — remember I’m the one foreign guy in this band, and America is still an exotic place to me! (laughs) So I like picking up on some local colloquialism or something like that. It just makes me feel like I’ve connected to the place in a weird way. To me, it’s as simple as going to a coffee show and just hearing a couple of local people talk, it just gives me a better feeling about the whole day.  

DF: So let’s discuss some relatively current news. It was just recently announced that you will be heavily participating in the new Carnival Live Concert Series.

GOWAN: I just heard that myself. 

DF: In fact, I think you’ll be doing the very first show. Is this the next wave of concert experiences for you guys?

GOWAN: And you definitely mean that when you say “wave” right? 

DF: Yeah, that was on purpose. (laughs)

GOWAN: I know that Foxy mind of yours. (laughs) Yeah, it’s funny, we did that about five years ago, because I think our stipulation was that we would play the concert when the ship is docked. And that worked out great because the venue on board was exactly capable, it was as if you were in any theater anywhere in the world, because it was that large and sounded great, and the staff was tremendous. But I think that’s the way we’re approaching it is that we’re doing it when the ship is in harbor and so we come onboard for a day and basically do it exactly as if we were doing a gig. For people who are traveling, who are on that ship, I think that’s a pretty great thing to be able to see Styx or Yes or Kiss, or some great band. But as far as staying on the ship, I don’t think that’s part of it for us anyway. 

DF: From what I’ve read, I believe you’re correct on that. But there are some, I think you do back-to-back shows, there’s one in Los Angeles it seems like, you have shows on back-to-back days but on two different ships. Like one ship may be just leaving, and one ship may be getting back in, I don’t know the particulars but it seemed kind of that way.

GOWAN: It’s better for the bands, and it’s great for the audience obviously. They come into port and get to see one of their favorite bands. 

DF: So, what’s the latest on “Dr. Starlight”?

GOWAN: The latest is I hesitate to talk too much about it, because it’s a solo thing I’m working on. And it has a history because before I’d made any records, it was the most popular, and in some cases the most controversial, thing that I ever put on stage with my first band, and it was in the era when Styx was on top of the world, and I was really just starting and trying to do something very in that progressive rock school. So it’s been an ongoing thing between Styx-intensive tours, that’s what I’ve been working on. It’s definitely been a fun thing. I’ve got great players on it. I’ve got back with Jerry Marotta and Tony Levin, and we spent some time in Woodstock, New York, recording, and the majority of it’s being done in Toronto, and it really is fantastic. We’ve got some great art work and all kinds of good things. I’m very proud of it, and one day I hope that Doug Fox holds a copy of it in his hand. 

DF: Well, I hope so. I’ve been a fan of the Dr. Starlight and Watchmaker Facebook pages.

GOWAN: Yeah I brought those up basically for any old Rhinegold fans that remember it. It’s because my inner space geek needs a place to express himself, you know? So anytime someone sends me something particularly directed at space or any old pictures of Rhinegold performing that little rock opera, yeah, it was a way to kind of put a few people on, on that level and just tell them that this is what I’m hacking away at when I’m off the road from Styx. 

DF: I just wanted you to know that I hadn’t forgotten about it and was curious how it was coming along.

GOWAN: That’s fantastic. You know, you’re one of the first people that ever asked me about it about three or four years ago, and it kind of stunned me. 

DF: That was fun.

GOWAN: It stuns me because, yeah, Todd (Sucherman) knew about it, and Todd actually plays on it as well. It’s coming along really well, and one day I hope you get a chance to review it. And when you do, please be kind. (laughs) 

DF: Well, I look forward to it. Hey, are we ever going to get to hear “Criminal Mind” again in the Lower 48?

GOWAN: I certainly hope so. We played it quite a lot last year because we played a good number of shows in Canada, and people, in Canada anyway, have really embraced the Styx version of the song. It happens quite often that when I’m shaking people’s hands at the end of the night, they yell out, “You should play ‘A Criminal Mind.’ ” You know, the only problem with that is that there are these monster Styx songs that are waiting in the wings to be played and, quite frankly, as much as I love ‘A Criminal Mind,’ I also love when we play “One With Everything,” you know? That was a group-writing adventure that I think has really stayed with a good number of the newer followers of the band. So I love it just as much when we play that song, maybe even more. But I do hope we play “A Criminal Mind” again somewhere here and that people take note that it was a song and a hit long before it was a TV show. (laughs) 

DF: I know you were thrilled when one of the first things that happened when you joined the band was that they wanted to play “Criminal Mind.” What was that process like for you — taking one of your solo songs and giving it the Styx treatment, with the rocked-up guitars and also, I thought Todd’s drumming was stellar on that? 

GOWAN: Well, speaking of Todd, he plays that song two ways — he plays it the Styx way and at my solo shows he’s played it the Jerry Marotta way. And that’s the version most people are familiar with in Canada. One thing I learned early on playing with Styx is that everyone is going to carve out their own part to it anyway. So I was surprised even at first when Tommy brought out the mandolin, and then J.Y. wanted to do that key change in the middle for the guitar solo, transitioning from G minor down to E minor. So great things happen if you kind of sit back and let everybody — this is a band that’s powerful enough that if you just sit back and wait, everyone will carve out their own take on it, and it will rise up and have a life of its own. So I loved watching that happen and I really enjoy playing our version as much as the solo version. So that’s how I feel. 

DF: Burning question here — do you still have the Polaroid camera? And where is it?

GOWAN: I have the Polaroid camera. The Polaroid film, however, is in short supply. However, I have been told that it is back in commission. My only real excuse is that I’m having so much fun doing my Go-Pro at the end of shows. In fact, I just posted a video, Doug, before I got on the phone with you. ... The Go-Pro is fantastic, and then all of the people, particularly up front in the show, obviously, get a chance to see themselves a day or two later, to remind themselves of what kind of time they had a couple nights ago — if they’re having trouble remembering. So I really like doing that. Just for the pure analog joy of it I should bring back the Polaroid at some point. 

DF: Good, I was just wondering about that. As one of the lead singers in a band, I know it’s important that you find a connection with the lyrics in some way, you know, what you’re singing, that you have some kind of inner connection with that to really help it come out right. I know this probably has an ebb and flow over time depending on what’s going in your life or whatever, but I’m curious, especially in your case when most of these lyrics you weren’t there, you know, when they were written, but is there a lyric right now that you are singing every night that is really resonating with you or connecting with you right now.

GOWAN: Absolutely. Let’s start from when I joined the band, because when I joined, it was never brought up to me to try to emulate or in any way replicate the sound of the original recordings of the songs, but rather, I remember the time I sang “Lady” or “Grand Illusion,” J.Y. said, “I like the way you’re singing these songs. It’s a different take on them, but they work for me.” And that’s part of how I got into the band. And since that time, particularly when we did “Regeneration,” it’s funny when we did our current lineup version of “Come Sail Away,” I mean, I hear the original version and I hear someone who is very much a young man who, to my ears, sounds very hopeful and optimistic about the future. And when I hear my version, the version with me on it, I hear more of my melancholy Irish side, sounding like someone who’s continuing on the voyage but has had to leave a lot of things behind in order to do this. I just hear the inflection that way, anyway. So that’s my own little interpretation. So when I do that song, that’s how the words strike me, that the journey is bittersweet. There are tremendous moments of triumph and there are tremendous moments of sadness at having to leave things behind in order for the voyage to continue. So that’s just my own kind of overly dramatic way of looking at that one particular song. Lately, what do I really enjoy singing? I think “Pieces of Eight” is a tremendous song that I enjoy singing. You know, I’m not all that materialistic a person to begin with — I have my weaknesses, you know when it comes to Steinways and Mellotrons, and things like that. (laughs) I think we found that we started playing that right around the time the economy was faltering and I could relate to it in that way. And now that things seem to be looking more hopeful, it’s fun that I can relate to it in another way as well. Somehow it obviously affects people’s lives but you can’t necessarily allow it to affect your overall happiness. You somehow have to manage your way through despite the economic peaks or valleys. And I find that to be a point of the song to sing, and it grabs me that way. And the fun song recently, you know, the last couple years, has been singing “I’m OK.” And I have to say, in the last year, since we’ve put “Rockin’ the Paradise” into the encore, that’s just a joy. That’s a physical challenge to be able to run around that much and singing that song at that point in the night. But it really does feel like I’m in the “Paradise Theatre” every single night — I’m not joking about that. The audience converts the place into a “Paradise Theatre.” That’s my own interpretation anyway. So, yeah, those would be the ones. 

DF: That’s cool insight, I enjoy that. Because a lot of that, I think, the audience kind of absorbs it without really necessarily thinking about it or realizing it. So it’s interesting to get your thoughts on that and see how that all comes together.

GOWAN: I enjoy doing other people’s material, I always have. My latest live recording I put out, that “Gowan: In Kilt Tonight,” at the end of the show I did “Somebody to Love” by Freddie Mercury and Queen. And I love doing that one as well. I have a different way of approaching it, or a different way of interpreting those lyrics than Freddie Mercury would have had. Listen, there’s been times in my life when one of my biggest songs in Canada is a song called “Strange Animal,” and I’ve heard some misinterpretations of that lyric that I think are better than what the actual song is written about. So I always keep that in mind and think this is part of the way that I can personalize and bring into the moment some of these great Styx songs that were obviously such a strong factor in the band’s history before I joined. 

DF: I love talking with musicians about how they open a concert because to me that’s really a magical moment.

GOWAN: It is. 

DF: You know, the lights go out, there’s this surge of energy that goes through the crowd — and those moments in the dark before the band actually starts playing. To me that’s kind of a magical time. There’s almost nothing better. And you guys do one of the best jobs at opening because you have that pre-video that plays and it gets to the end and it crescendos up to the top and then there’s that pause. And about 90 percent of the time, I’d say, what happens is you get to play the first live notes of any Styx show — and you get to launch into one of the coolest organ riffs that’s ever been written. What’s that like for you? Are you ever tempted to hold that pause out longer and not start right away? You always start right on cue, but are you ever tempted to hold it out? (laughs)

GOWAN: I am tempted to hold it out, quite honestly, yes. ... It is one of the coolest riffs to open a show with — you’re talking about “Blue Collar Man,” I presume, the organ riff? 

DF: Yes.

GOWAN: So part of me wants to allow that little extended pause before launching into it, and the other part of me is kind of eager to get going with it. And then I’m responsible to the other four musicians on stage to not trip them up and have them go, “Hey, what the hell is going on over there?” So I launch into it in the expected fashion. 

DF: As long as you think about it, that’s good enough for me.

GOWAN: It does strike me, every night. A little surge of electricity runs through my body and it’s not always the static that sometimes comes banging from the mic. It’s a very charged moment, it really is.  

Styx guitarists James "J.Y." Young and Tommy Shaw at the Covey Center in 2012. (Daily Herald photo)

DF: I guess this next question comes from, it's kind of inspired from when you last played here at the Covey Center (in Provo) at the end of 2012, and it was James Young's birthday ...

DF: We were talking to him after the show, and we brought up the solo at the end of "Queen of Spades." And he said something like, "You know, it was kind of running through my mind. I think I want to play a little Hendrix right here. Should I or shouldn't I?" And he's like, "Why not, it's my birthday -- so I did!" And so I'm wondering, in the course of a show, I mean, you guys are so dialed in musically as a live band, but from night to night, where do you find moments of spontaneity in the show itself, whether it be in the music or the presentation of it? Are there those moments every night? Do you look for them? Do they happen naturally? How does that work?
GOWAN: Yes, absolutely. We do look for them and they do happen naturally and they're not always necessarily obvious to the audience, but those moments are part of what make us enjoy the fact that ... when you're asked, "How can you play the same song nearly 2,000 times and still get something out of it," it's for two reasons. One, each time is another opportunity to try to get it right. You're in different circumstances in front of different people, and it's a different day, and the song means something different on that day if you're open to reflecting on that. But within the song, and it can be just within a few bars -- I'll give you the perfect example. About two weeks ago, (well) Tommy plays a tremendous solo every night in "Crystal Ball." But one night, who knows why, there was something absolutely, almost other-worldly about how he played that solo. You know, what happened and how the amps fed back a little bit on that night, and how the sustain worked and how the vibratos were in there -- but it made me take notice right away and go, immediately after the show, I said, "That solo in 'Crystal Ball' … " I mentioned it to him right after the show, and sure enough, within a minute or so, Libby Ray, our lighting director, she comes backstage a few times just to give us a few notes, and she immediately said, "That 'Crystal Ball' solo tonight was absolutely off the chart, it was outstanding." And it's funny, she noticed it from the back of the house. OK, so she's at the back of the house with the headphones on, calling spot cues and stuff, and she noticed it. And I noticed it standing 3 feet from him, you know what I mean? So, it's those things that I can't quite tell you what it is, because we're not playing jazz up there, we're very faithful to the records, you know? But there are marginal opportunities that spark the performance every single night, and they come along every single night -- and I happen to be in a band that takes note of that, and that's very rare. That's very, very rare. It's one of the things that I love about being part of this is that each guy on stage gets that. They see an opportunity, they're not just playing the notes and going through it because they know the song. They're looking for opportunities within the song to elevate it to a level it's never, perhaps, been before. 

 DF: That's cool. Do you remember what town that was in? 

GOWAN: I do not. (laughs) 

DF: I'd like to go to YouTube and look it up. (laughs) 

GOWAN: I know. I wish I could give you one. I'll tell you one and I'm sure it would be one of three other ones. (laughs) 

DF: It's a mystery then. OK, you touched on it briefly there when you mentioned that you get asked about playing the same song night after night. I'd like to switch things around and put you in the interviewer's chair for a minute. What questions would you like to come up with, that you could answer, rather than the same several that you always get. Can we turn the tables around a little bit?.
GOWAN: You can turn the tables entirely. ... Doug Fox, I'm going to ask you this. When you were a teenager, OK, and I'm assuming you went to a lot of concerts, right? 

DF: Yes. 

GOWAN: When was the moment, in what concert, when was the moment that you realized, "I have to be connected to music in some way for the rest of my life? I cannot just let this be mere entertainment, it has to be something that I'm connected to every day for the rest of my life." Where was that moment? And what concert? 

DF: Well, I can tell you, the first thing that jumps to mind, and it's funny how much it ties back into where we started this conversation, but it was my very first concert, Elton John at Dodger Stadium. 

GOWAN: Oh, wow! You were at that show? 

DF: Yeah, that was my very first concert ever. 

GOWAN: Oh my ... you started off small! (laughs) 

DF: Yeah. (laughs) The thing was, being that that was the first show, when I started going to other shows, I started expecting the same thing. For example, Elton played for three hours and played three separate encores type of a thing. My very second show only lasted like an hour and a half. I'm like, "What the heck, what's going on here? I'd planned a three-hour evening!" And here's the thing I take away, where I kind of knew -- looking back later, I didn't necessarily know at the time, and that was your question – but as I look back on it I realize that was a seminal moment in my concert life that kind of led to all this. But for whatever reason, I took a notebook to the concert and wrote down every song. And I'd never been to a concert, I didn't know if you did this or didn't do this -- it's just I felt the need or the urge that I needed to document what was happening so I could remember it later.

Gowan checks out my notebook from the Dodger Stadium show.
GOWAN: That's great. That is very common. Usually in your life -- I remember a good friend of mine, that actually was my lawyer for a number of years, he said, that you'll notice that you wind up being something you did as a kid, as an adolescent, that seemed completely of no immediate value, something that just didn't seem to make sense at the time but you just did it anyway. That's probably what you'll wind up doing for the rest of your life. Isn't that amazing? 

DF: Yeah. And then, of course, the first time seeing Van Halen was a giant moment for me. 

GOWAN: Ah, really? 

DF: Yeah, but I'm wondering what question would you like to answer that you don't ever really get asked? 

GOWAN: Oh, I see, you want it coming from that angle as well? 

DF: I liked your angle, it threw me for a bit of a loop. I like that. (laughs) 

GOWAN: What don't I get asked that I should be asked more? ... Let me think now ... 

DF: While you're thinking, let me just kind of explain what gave me this idea. Because I read a lot of the interviews that you do, over the Internet, and as you mentioned earlier, you're doing a lot more of them right now, and I kind of cringe at some of the questions ... and it's not like they're bad questions, but they're questions that have been answered over and over. Just from your standpoint, I imagine, hey, it's got to be tough to answer these same ones -- replacing your predecessor, whether Styx has a new album coming out, what it's like to play the same songs every night. You know, those type of things. And so I just wondered, what are the questions going through your mind, "Man, I wish I could talk about this, but nobody asks me about that"? 

GOWAN: Well, I always like to try to make the point, and regardless of the question, and sometimes the questions are very obtuse in how they're presented, but the point I've been trying to make, particularly in these interviews I've been doing the last four or five years ... one of the things that I love about being in the band, one of the many things I love about being in Styx is that I can feel that this band is the culmination of everyone who has ever been a member of it. They're very astute people, musically speaking, and also within the music business. And I think that, you know, there have been 10 people who have ever walked the planet who've been a member of Styx. And I see the band today as being a culmination of all that combined effort, even though there are only six remaining members, including Chuck (Panozzo)  in the gigs that he can make it. There are six remaining members, but I think in each era of the band, the band has found a way to be at the top of their game. And I think that's exactly where we are today. And that's the point that I'd like to see made more often, particularly when you see TV specials about the band or people try to bring up some of the ancient history and the past animosity that may have existed. There's something bigger here. And what's bigger is the band is great today and has always found a way to be great in the past. It's the culmination of all that that makes the band what it is today. And I kind of felt that when I saw the Rolling Stones last year. I think I felt it really profoundly when I realized, Brian Jones was the original guitar player and it was his band. (laughs) Right? So he's not a forgotten man. He's someone who's part of the legacy of what this band was. As was Mick Taylor. As was Billy Preston. As was Nicky Hopkins. Oh my ... Ian Stewart ... such a fantastic part of the Rolling Stones has been the great piano players they've had along the way as well. And now it's Chuck Leavell. So I see that as part of what makes a band great and able to withstand so many changes is the fact that within every era they found a way to have the right person in that place. So that's not necessarily a question, but it's a point that I'd love people to hear more succinctly like that. 

DF: And now they will. 

GOWAN: There you go. 

DF: And I was thinking, I'd be remiss when I was talking about big concert moments if I didn't mention the first Styx show I saw, which was the "Pieces of Eight" tour, so they opened with "Great White Hope." 

GOWAN: Right. 

DF: But they also played "Midnight Ride" in there. And that was a moment I've never forgotten and I keep hoping for again. 

GOWAN: Well, I love that one because I get to play guitar on it. 

DF: In fact, I was going to say, if you have the guitar there, you should play part of that one. 

GOWAN: Sorry, you get the piano version of it. (Plays part of “Midnight Ride” on keyboard in the background.) It's just not the same is it? (laughs) 

DF: No, but that's cool.
GOWAN: (Starts playing piano parts to "Bennie and the Jets" ... )
DF: I'm just going to let you hang up, because I'm going to keep listening to your playing!
GOWAN: Well, Doug Fox, shake it loose. ... Talk to you later!
DF: Goodbye.
GOWAN: Bye. 

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