May 29, 2012

An Interview with Neal Doughty of REO Speedwagon

REO Speedwagon is gearing up for a new round of dates as part of the ongoing Midwest Rock ‘N’ Roll Express tour, and founding keyboardist Neal Doughty couldn’t be happier. “The shows have been great,” he says. “The audiences have been great.”

Also great? The band is a bastion of hits—“Ridin’ The Storm Out,” “Take It On The Run,” “Keep On Loving You,” just to name a few—and they’re more than obliged to continue performing them for their fans. “It ain’t easy to get enough money to go to a rock show,” Doughty says. “You don’t want to get there and rip ’em off.”

A lot of bands resist playing their most familiar material, but you guys gladly accommodate what your fans want to hear. 

Well, yeah. They’re who is paying us, for one thing. If you’re going to charge money for people to come see you expecting a bunch of hits and then you just get self-indulgent and try to educate them to some other crazy thing you’re doing, you’re just stealing their money. We’re always, absolutely, playing what people are expecting to hear. The customer is always right, as they say. And we know they want to hear the biggest hits, the ones they can sing along with. Sometimes if we’re touring by ourselves and we have a really long show we’ve been known to throw in one new song, just to see what they think of it. But we do not leave out the ones they want to hear in order to do that.

Some artists see playing the hits as giving into some nostalgia trip.

First of all, we don’t really think of it as just nostalgia, because there are kids, 15-years old, there. To me nostalgia is when you take a form of music that is no longer popular at all — big band or something. For us it’s just a type of music that, to our benefit, has become timeless. … It’s not like, “Let’s put on poodle skirts and white bobby socks and listen to something from the ‘50s.” This is music that’s still on the radio and people still like it. I still hear our band on the radio every day.

And the music is new to the younger fans; they’re not nostalgic for anything.

There are people that are there to relive the first time they fell in love. You can always pick them out, ’cause they’re crying.

People do that at a Paul McCartney concert too. That’s what music does to people. 

Oh, my gosh, yeah. I went to one of his concerts quite a while ago and he played “Yesterday”—wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
In the ’80s, especially, with “Keep On Loving You” and “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” the band got lumped in under that “arena rock” label. Did that rub you guys the wrong way like it did with other bands at the time? 

I don’t think it did. There was only one frustrating thing that came from it, and that’s from that time on radio only wanted that type of power ballad from us. We spent the next the next three records releasing a rocker [as a single] first, trying to get them to play that. They would always call us up and go, “Where’s the ballad? When can we play the ballad?” So, that was a little frustrating in that we couldn’t ever get, from that point on, a big hit that was anything other than a ballad. We already had our classic rock stuff under our belts, and stations are still playing that. You can’t complain about the fact that it was power ballads that put us on the map. We wouldn’t be working today if it were not for those big ballads. So, it’s hard to complain about it. Most of our set is of the turntable hits from the ’70s, and the reason we get to still play those songs is because of the ballads from the ‘80s. 

And it’s not like after you play “Keep On Loving You,” the entire audience leaves. 

Oh, no. And another thing that we find is that a big ballad does not bring down the energy level at all. These aren’t little acoustic folk songs. These are great, big screeching-guitar, big drums, even though the tempo is slower. So they don’t really bring down the energy level at all. They just happen to be a slower tempo. I don’t think we’ve ever had people just show up, hear the hits, and then leave. Our crowd pretty much likes all the stuff we had in the ‘70s. Even though they weren’t No. 1 they got enough airplay on the radio and on classic radio now. People know those as well as they do the ballads. They cheer a little louder when one of the ballads comes up.

Well, people fall in love to those kinds of songs, and associate them with first dates and school proms. Those ballads occupy a different context in people’s lives. 

Yeah, I’ll never forget the song that was playing when I broke up with my high school girlfriend.

What was it?

“Rhythm of the Rain” [by the Cascades]. That was back in the middle ’60s. … It’s no secret we’ve all been around for a while. The important thing is we still feel young and are healthy and taking care of ourselves. And [we’re] high on this thing of still getting to do this. You’re like, “Boy, they just keep showing up. Bless their hearts.” And I’m talking about the audience when I say that.

To what do you attribute the band’s longevity?

Part of it is that we’ve never stopped touring. I mean, there hasn’t been a year that we took off as a vacation. I guess [also] parents were playing our albums as their kids were growing up… Classic rock music is called classic rock for a reason. It’s become a permanent genre, almost, like country music or something. There’s a lot of factors. I can’t analyze them all, but I’m glad they all come into play because we feel very lucky to still be able to do this.

(First published at Something Else! Reviews.)

May 26, 2012

Live From New York, It's The Young Things

The Bowery isn’t the mecca for rock ‘n’ roll mayhem anymore, but the rambunctious, punk-spiked spirit of its ‘70s heyday is alive and kicking in the music of The Young Things.

The band is currently recording a full-length effort slated for release later this year. In the meantime, they can most often be found on a stage in some local dive playing songs from their 2009 EP, …Is The Killer, a six-song/15-minute soundtrack to the sort of debaucherous, barely legal good times that can still be had in the city that never sleeps.

“New York City is absolutely fundamental to this band,” says lead guitarist Josh Hammer of the stomping grounds that he, along with vocalist/rhythm guitarist Mike Fleizach, bassist Neil Kumar, and drummer Jon LaPrade, calls home. “The kind of vibe and the energy is something that we could not experience anywhere else.”

And, to hear Hammer explain it, the band’s music is rooted more in truth than fiction.

“Maybe we’ll have practice at 8:00, but [then] we’ll go out, we’ll get some drinks, and hang out with the people we know around the neighborhood, maybe make some new friends,” he says. “It’s a 24-hour lifestyle.”

Behind all the spunk and cocksure swagger, though, are four musicians with some serious chops and a steadfast dedication to their craft—particularly when it comes to songwriting.

“The way it works now is that Mike will write the song,” explains Hammer. “He’ll bring an idea to practice, and he’ll think of it in one direction and say, ‘I was thinking we could take it like this.’ And then all of a sudden me and Neil or Jon and Neil will come up and say, ‘No, we’re going to take it this way. We’re going to cut the speed in half, syncopate the drums and the bass, and totally take it into a different direction.’”

It’s a process that seems ripe for tension, but, Hammer insists, any such moments arise only with the best interest of the music in mind.

“We’ve always committed from the get-go of this band that if somebody wants to take something down the avenue for a walk, we’ll take it down for a walk,” he says. “We’ll spare an hour. There’s no point in saying no. And none of us have gigantic egos—as of yet, at least—that [he’s] going to put their foot down and say, ‘No, this is just the way it’s gonna be.’ Everybody is really good about it, [saying], ‘Let’s give it a go. Let’s try it out. Let’s see how it works. Try it this way. Try it this way.’ And we all know when we got it right.”

Other than a handful of out-of-town performances in recent months—most notably, The Young Things played at this year’s SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas—the band has for the most part kept busy with local gigs while trudging ahead in the recording studio.

No matter where they end up in the future, though, they’ll always have home.

“It’s definitely got its drawbacks,” Hammer concedes. “It’s expensive as fuck, and it’s difficult to get around; everything takes a long time. But in terms of making music and meeting people that you want to meet and shake hands with people that you want to that you idolize, there’s no place like it.”

May 12, 2012

Amanda Mair Charms with Debut Single

Suckers for a catchy pop tune will have a hard time resisting "Sense," the beguiling lead single from 17-year-old Swedish ingénue Amanda Mair. In what sort of sounds like a cross between ELO and ABBA, she sings soft and lissome against a bouncy, head-bobbing rhythm in the verses which gives way to a lush, insatiable melody in the chorus. 

Already a rising star in her native land, Mair is set to charm North America with the release of her eponymous debut album, June 5 on Labrador Records. With "Sense" she makes a fine first impression.

Download "Sense":

May 09, 2012

An Interview with James 'JY' Young of Styx

“I’ll be darn,” guitarist James “JY” Young says with a chuckle when told that Styx garnered praise recently from Rolling Stone, which cited the band’s current Midwest Rock ‘N’ Roll Express tour with REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent as among “The Ten Hottest Summer Package Tours of 2012.” “That’s a turnaround for Rolling Stone in relation to us, but who am I to disagree with them?” says Young, who has been in the band from the beginning.

Truth be told, Styx have never been critical darlings, but throughout a 40-year-career that’s withstood various personnel changes and creative conflicts, the band has sold over 30 million albums and continues to draw sold-out audiences across the country.

“In these troubled times, when you’re looking for a place to go to sort of be reminded of how great it is to be alive in a country like the United States, come on out to a Styx show and leave your troubles at the door,” Young says. “We’re all gonna be surfing away with joy by the end of the night. It’s therapeutic. It’s uplifting. And it’s just a heck of a good time.”

The concert industry can be fickle and unpredictable, but Styx has maintained a steady presence and a steady success on the road.

We have definitely asserted ourselves as a live concert act…. We’re seeing more and more young people in the audience at our shows, under the age of 25, even though the internet seems like it’s killed the record business. A lot of the record executives who used to have great power no longer even have a job. And the whole thing has been turned topsy-turvy as a result of the internet and digital downloading, and the digitization of music to CDs in the very first place. Live concerts really are the only thing that you can’t digitize in a meaningful way. There’s something about the live concert experience, when you’re sitting there with 1,000 or 10,000 or 20,000 people or 50,000 people depending on the venue and they’re all singing along to the songs. There’s an energy there that no matter what kind of stereo system you have at home—5.1, this, that, and the other thing; no matter how great the Blu-ray is—it’s just not the same as being there.

You guys made your name early on with your albums—you performed live then, too, of course, but back then albums were a dominant form of expression—but now since the tide has turned to make the live performance so crucial, you guys clearly have the chops to do that too. A lot of recording artists, once they’re expected to perform live, are lost.

We made albums starting in 1972 and then started performing live [with] that music, but it was a struggle for us for a number of years. I think those years where we had to sort of sell our new music, if you will, or at least perform new music in front of people that had never heard it before [taught us] you have to have stagecraft to bring the songs to life after you’ve recorded them. We did start [out] making records, but we weren’t that successful doing it until we’d made a few. And so we had a chance to learn what not to do before we had our first great record success, so then when we did finally have record success our stage chops were finely tuned and finely honed. The way things were in the ‘70s—in the early half of the ‘70s—there was a chance to develop.

Live concerts were very exciting for the baby boom generation because rock concerts had not been that much of a factor in the ‘60s. Once the post-baby-boom generation came into their economic powers, people wanted to go out and have a good time and rock music was their music of choice. It was the music that spoke to them. And we were there for it and we had a chance to develop without the microscope on us for a while. Then when the microscope did get on us we were ready for the closer examination that we were given.

Much of this has to do with professionalism, of course, but how do you keep the material fresh—some of these songs you play are 35-40 years old now—when you perform it live today?

Each night you’re performing in front of a different audience and you see different faces out there and different reactions, and that sort of pushes you into slightly different directions each night. There is that aspect of performing the same material over and over that it tends to just get better when you do that.

In this day and age we have the ability to put on a spectacular show from the standpoint of great sound and great lights that people can do many magical things [with] that they could never do before; and a video wall behind us that can changeably do things on a regular basis to enhance the songs and create a different energy in the room. When you have all those elements they really need to be coordinated.

The woman who directs our lights every night and the guy who runs our sound and the guy who runs our monitor mix, in particular, it’s good if they know which song is coming next and what’s going to happen in the show; because then the whole production can be tighter. And, honestly, there are times when we like changing it up and do so, but in order to put on a great production that is multimedia everybody’s got to be on the same page and everybody’s got to know when there’s a dramatic stop or a dramatic start. If the timing is off on that it’s like you wasted the moment… In order to put on a great show I think that’s what you need to do. There needs to be structure and consistency.

It must be gratifying to know that Styx has made such an indelible impact not just with music fans, but in pop culture overall.

We are so embedded in pop culture it’s amazing to me the references that surface to our music. I mean, Adam Sandler certainly had a bunch of them. There’s references to our music all over the place; [in] George Clooney’s movie, the latest one he was nominated for the Academy Award for [The Ides of March], there’s one of the female characters walking around with a Styx T-shirt. These kinds of things are stuff you can’t plan for, and just kind of happen. That just shows the impact that we’ve made. I’m astounded and humbled by it.

I’m sure there are people who know Styx songs without realizing they’re even by Styx.

Some of those people from the baby boom generation, they don’t really know Styx that well; they’re not really die-hard music fans. They’ll come out to a show and say, “I knew every one of those songs you played.” They just didn’t somehow attach them to us. So that’s kind of the beauty of us continuing to perform 120 shows a year. There’s a whole audience of people out there that actually know our music and just aren’t aware that it’s us doing it. It seems kind of crazy at this late date, but everybody’s got a different agenda for their daily lives…

Music is such a universal force that has the power to calm, to soothe, to inspire, and in the best cases to heal. And it just finds its way into people’s lives in different ways, unexpected ways. That’s the beauty of us continuing to perform, which is something I love to do.

How was the ambition Styx had as an emerging band any different or similar from what the band strives for now?

For me it was just something that appeared—on the surface anyway—as a job that you didn’t really have to work at. It was a career in the avoidance of work. That’s what it meant to be a rock star: You didn’t really have to work. But the reality is to succeed and to continue to succeed over a span of a number of decades as we have requires tremendous amounts of work and utter and total focus. 

And some days it’s a very frustrating career. You have to travel from one end of the country to the other—sometimes in the span of 48 hours. I’ve gone back and forth from the East Coast to the West Coast back to the East Coast, and that will kill an ordinary human. It definitely takes its toll on you, but that’s what it takes, in a way, to continue to succeed in this business, particularly now. I don’t know what anybody else in this band could possibly think of to do at this late date as far as another career goes. Eventually this becomes the only thing that you can earn a decent living at because it’s the only thing that you really know. 

May 08, 2012

An Interview with Eric Hutchinson

“I love it here,” Eric Hutchinson raves about living in Manhattan, his home for the past five years and, he says, a primary influence on the making of his latest LP, Moving Up Living Down (Warner Brothers Records). “I’d write songs all day in my little studio in New York and I’d go out at night and eat, drink, and soak up some inspiration.”

Much like the urban energies and nightlife diversions it draws from, the album emanates no shortage of uplifting rhythms and effervescent pop, folk, and R&B distinctions. As a follow-up to his debut, Sounds Like This, which topped the Billboard Heatseekers chart upon its release in 2007 and has sold over a quarter of a million copies to date, it’s solid and soulful. 

On paper you come across as a singer/songwriter and people generally have a preconceived notion about what that suggests: perhaps a guitarist, a folk musician. But you’ve got a lot of R&B and pop influences coming through this new music. 

Yeah, I mean, Stevie Wonder's a singer/songwriter. Paul Simon’s a singer/songwriter. The Beatles are singer/songwriters. I have a ton of different influences that I love. There are some songs on the album that are a little more traditional—like “Breakdown More,” [which] is an older song—that come closer to the singer/songwriter mold you’re talking about. I consider myself a soul singer, really, who writes songs.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what kinds of songs I want to sing with the crowd. I used to do slower songs, more shy, quiet stuff. That wasn’t very fun for me. And it wasn’t fun for the audience… This time around I really thought about what songs do I feel like are missing from my set. What do I want to sing with crowds? What do I want to lead people through? So I think that pushed some of where the music went. 

You came to live performance rather late, didn’t you? 

Sort of. I came to touring a little later than some people, but when I first started playing with my guitar teacher I was about 15 or 16. And he said to me, “Look, you can practice this stuff in your room, but music’s meant to be shared. So why don’t we go out to some open mics and you can play some songs?” That was the first time I got going in front of people, and it was really an addictive feeling to get up there. I was just doing covers and stuff like that, but it was, “This is what it’s like to sing in front of people and to worry about what they think of you and worry about the music.” 

There is a big difference between being a recording artist and an entertainer. 

It’s disappointing when you love somebody and you go see them live and it’s not the same feeling. I try really hard to follow that feeling I had when I wrote the song and when I recorded it. I open that bottle every night and just tap into it for the live show. 

Part of it is just your disposition, but you seem very composed and modest in an industry that frankly doesn’t encourage either. 

I’ve just learned a lot. The thing in the end that I’ve learned is that I can’t do this just because I want to be famous or rich or something. That stuff doesn’t keep you warm at night when nobody cares. In the end I still do this because I love making the music. Sometimes there are some perks involved. Sometimes there’s some embarrassment involved. But in the end I feel it’s a privilege to be able to get to do what I do.

For more information on Eric Hutchinson, please visit the artist's official website.

(First published at Blogcritics.)