Posts Tagged ‘interview’

Sharon Corr is one of the gorgeous Corr sisters, the violinist of and a vocalist in the Corrs, the great Irish recording act, which has sold over 26 million albums, and toured the world to sellout crowds. The Corrs and U2 are the reigning stars of Irish contemporary music. Sharon has recorded her first solo album and it’s simply wonderful. We had the good fortune to get to know her when we had an extended vacation in Ireland and she was kind to allow us to interview her in July of 2010 in Dublin. She’s charming, great fun, down to earth, and personifies class. As you will read below, Sharon has a full life as a musician, wife and mother. She’s married to the handsome, dashing, successful Irish barrister, Gavin Bonnar.

TM: Why are you doing a solo album?

SC: Because I make music, that’s what I do.  I perform, write, sing, play, and I’ve always wanted to make a solo album.  I’ve been working with the Corrs for about 20 years, and my family, been with them for like 100 years, and we all took a hiatus to have children and stop touring, get off the road and get some normal life going. But in the couple of years that I was having my children, I was very inspired and wrote a lot music, and that spurred me on to make an album.  So it was a very organic, natural process.

TM: Is the music different from what you were doing with the Corrs?

SC: It’s different in that I’ve changed emotionally.  I’m a little more mature.  It’s not drastically different because for me to do so would be for me to deny myself, so what I wrote for the Corrs is what I was naturally inspired to do.  What I write for me is what I’m naturally inspired to do. There’s a similarity as in it’s very melodic and the violin runs the whole way through.  It’s my main instrument.

TM: Is it different instrumentation than what Corrs’ music traditionally has been?

SC: The Corrs’ music is your basic rhythm section, drums, bass, guitar, lead guitar, keyboards, violin.  I’ve got the bodhran on the album, a single drum with a skin on it.  It’s an old Irish drum that I hit with a stick which is actually called a tipper.  It’s sort of fat at either end and makes a beautiful, very ethnically Irish sound.  So, no, the instrumentation isn’t very different from the Corrs.

TM: In terms of songwriting style, do you consider this to be different in the sense that it’s more Celtic, pop, folky?  Are there any strains of styles that are different?

SC: It’s a little rockier, it’s a little heavier.  Violin-wise I wanted to explore my classical side on the album as well.  I was brought up playing classical violin and then switched over to more traditional later on in my teens.   I’ve explored variations on how to play the violin so it would feel more classical one minute, or more bluegrassy, and then the next minute it would be back to traditional Irish.  I’ve wanted to explore myself vocally on this album and violin-wise and stretch myself more.

TM: On the Corrs’ albums, was there violin on most tracks?

SC: On the earlier albums, on every track.  Later albums, there were maybe a couple of tracks without violin on it, but it is a very strong part of our sound.  It is part of the intonation that I suppose identified the Corrs’ music.

TM: Who, besides Charlie Daniels  of “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,”  is both a vocalist and a violinist at the same time?

SC: Alison Krauss, and one of the Dixie Chicks, of course, but it is still a rarity and for that reason it’s very identifiable.

TM: Let’s talk about the songwriting process.  How do you write these songs?

SC: Almost every song on the album was written on piano.  What I basically do is spend a lot of time in and around my piano.  If I’m making a cup of coffee, the piano’s nearby.  Or minding the kids.  I’m coming in and out of the piano all day.  I don’t like to force myself to write.  I like it to be just something I’m continuously doing, because I don’t respond well to a schedule. I like to have it as something that’s part of my organic day.  I’m always writing, and I chose to do it that way because if I ever stop writing, I find it hard to get back on the writing horse, and grapple back what I knew from the last song I wrote, and it takes me awhile.  I find a chord progression on the piano that inspires melody.

TM: Then do you come up with lyrics?

SC: Yes.  Usually the lyric is something I will start singing while I’m messing around on the piano.  I’ll find like a word like “butterflies.” I wrote a song called “Butterflies” – I kept finding butterflies in my life.  Everywhere I looked there was a butterfly.  At Christmastime, there was a butterfly around our table and it wasn’t the time of year, and it was sort of out of sync, so I was inspired to write something about butterflies, and it almost comes out before I think about it, and then I have to discover the lyric around what I’m thinking.

TM: Songwriting comes easy?

SC: Yeah.  I used to find lyrics incredibly difficult. To really touch people, you have to create a lyric that you yourself understand, that you know that perfectly encapsulates the situation, and there are only certain writers that can really do that, that will say something in a way that puts you in the situation where you can touch it, you can feel it, and you can smell it ­– if the lyric is saying something.  You have to feel it.

TM: Are they all songs about love?

SC: No.  “Butterflies” is about that moment before you get on stage, butterflies in your belly. When I took time off to have my children, I missed the road desperately.  I more desperately wanted to have children at that stage of my life, but I missed playing music and what happens before you get on stage.  I was on tour for almost 20 years of my life so that was more my norm than the other … I wanted to get back out on tour and knew the only I could get do so if I created an album that created an interest, so that people would want to buy tickets.

TM: But you do write about love, I presume.

SC: Oh, yes.  A lot of it is love.  “Butterflies” is about love of music.

TM: Have you done any covers or anything traditional?

SC: I have covered the The Corgis’ “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime.”

And I’ve covered “Small Town Boy.”  Sort of flipped it on its head and made it really, very dark.  It was an 80’s gay anthem, and I’ve just tried to focus on the lyric and turned it around. Traditionally, I have done “Mna Na h’Eireann” which is a piece by Sean O’Riada.  It means “Women Of Ireland,” and it’s a hugely famous piece. I did a new arrangement of that with Jeff Beck.

TM: Is that in Gaelic, the song?

SC: The name of the song is in Gaelic but it’s an instrumental, and then there also have been lyrics written to it, maybe over the years.

TM: On the Corrs’ album, the songs say “written by the Corrs.”  Is that really what happened?  All four Corrs get together and write?

SC: All four of us are writers, but we didn’t necessarily all write together en masse at the one time, Caroline and Andrea wrote a lot together.  I wrote a lot on my own.  Jim and Andrea wrote a lot together.  So we were each writing, at least a quarter of the album each, so we just went “The Corrs.”

TM: So it’s one for and all and all for one.

SC: Yeah, but if you picked out the individual songs, they would be different individuals writing.  If we’re in an interview and somebody said, “Okay, who wrote “So Young?,”  well everybody would say, “I did .”

TM: You mean “you?”

SC: Yeah, I did, and then if it was “Queen Of Hollywood,” we would say Andrea wrote it, so…

TM: How about “Breathless?”

SC: “Breathless” was Andrea and Mutt Lange.

TM: There’s no doubt that the Corrs have a tremendous pop aspect to them, but there’s also a folk aspect to them.  When you got signed or started putting out your first music, was it as poppy or as, as near pop as it ultimately became?  Or were you pushed in that direction?

SC: Oh, God, no, no, that was our idea.  Originally, when we started writing together, before we were signed, it was pure pop.  It was very electronic, very pure pop, and then we introduced the traditional Irish because I played the violin so we introduced it into the music.  And then we developed our sound over a couple of years of writing.  We got a record deal ultimately because we chased David Foster into a studio in New York while he was recording Michael Jackson. The edge of the Irish music really appealed to him, he really got that.  The harmonies he loved.  I think we got signed because of that combination.

TM: How did four siblings end up in a group with each other?

SC: I don’t know.  I say our music was our life because it actually was; there was a lot of music in our life.  My parents were both musicians.  My mother had a voice like Karen Carpenter.  My father was a keyboard player, piano player.  They played gigs at the weekends.  Mom was a stay-at-home mom and then a singer at the weekend, and then dad worked in the local electricity supply board and then played at the weekends with Mom.  So it was our lives.

TM: What did your dad do for a living?

SC: He was the head of accounts in ESB.  That’s Electricity Supply Board.  So he was like an accountant.

TM: I take it he encouraged the kids.

SC: Oh, yeah.  My mom and dad found their greatest joy in life was music.  It was where they were most happy.  And I think they found if you can be in the music business, you can have a very special life if you can be in the music business.  Obviously, it’s a very precarious industry, a very difficult industry, but I think they really believed in following their dreams and certainly following their talent.

TM: When the group first began, what were the ages of the kids?

SC: We began in 1990, the oldest is Jim, my brother.

TM: How old was Jim?

SC: I was 20, Jim was 26, Andrea was 16, Caroline was 17.  It sort of fell together.  There was an idea to have a band.  Jim always wanted to have a band with his sisters.  I’m not sure how keen we sisters were actually, but certainly he was into that idea.

TM: What were you doing then?

SC: I was managing a record store.  I was working in a pub.  I had finished school.  I was playing violin

TM: Where were you living?

SC: I was living in Dundalk, our hometown.

TM: And that’s up near the border of Northern Ireland.

SC: Yes, it’s about 15 miles from the border.

TM: What kind of a town is that?

SC: It’s a great town, and for music.  Great traditional sessions, great players, there’s a great orchestra in the town.  It got a bit of a bad rap because a lot of the Troubles (how the Irish refer to the conflicts between the Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland), a lot of guys causing the trouble in the North would cross the border and move to Dundalk just to get away from the police over there, and it got a bit of a bad rap at stages but it was a good town to grow up in.  We were very happy there.

TM: You formed the group with the intentions of getting a record deal?

SC: It was a lot more naïve than that.  We formed a band.  We really liked the implications of forming the band and trying to have a career.  What actually happened was we formed the band almost by mistake because we wanted to audition for the film The Commitments, which was running open auditions in Dublin at the time.  The guy who became our manager was MD on the move and he knew Jim, our brother, because Jim had done some recordings for him, and he said, “You guys, why don’t you audition?”  So that’s when we first got together and started rehearsing some songs together.  The first time we played together was on stage for Alan Parker, auditioning for the movie.  That day, the casting director for that movie, who was a good friend of John Hughes, said out of the blue to him, “You should manage them,” and to us, “You should let him manage you,” and that was it.  It was fate.

TM: Then what happened?  Did it take of quickly?

SC: No, no.  It took us four years to get a record deal.  We had to start writing.  We really started learning our craft, started writing and understanding the whole process of writing, just feeling our way through it and making it up as you go along.  We spent four years doing that.  We pursued a lot of different record companies over the years, none of them were interested, and the same guy who turned down the Cranberries, also turned down us, so we knew it wasn’t that bad.  Eventually we played a gig in Dublin and the then Irish ambassador was Jean Kennedy Smith.  She came to the gig with a friend of ours, Bill Whelan, who composed River Dance, but that was after this.  She then invited us back to the Kennedy Library to play for the World Cup. So we went out there, and John, our manager, obviously thought, “Well, this is a prime time to hit the American record labels.”  So we did.  We went over to L.A. and hit all the labels over there, and were just total fish out of water.  L.A. was just so terrifying to us, and New York was so big and so scary, and we were just these little country bumpkins with our violins and tin whistles.  And it was bizarre but it’s where the chances happen in life when you take yourself completely out of your comfort zone and land yourself in somewhere you don’t understand and you’re just trying to make your way through it.

It was the last day before we were supposed to go home and no record company was interested.  John, our manager, had the wonderful idea of gate crashing the Michael Jackson session in the Hit Factory in New York, because he knew David Foster was producing.  He’d been told by Jason Flom, who was with Atlantic Records at the time, that this guy was their in-house producer and he was amazing:  “You should get to meet him.”  So John didn’t wait for an invite.  We went.  We arrived at the date.  Big burly black guys are minding Michael Jackson.  We said, “We’re here to meet David Foster,” and they thought we had a meeting.  So we arrived, and we looked official, we had all the instruments, so we could have been there – although we looked probably a bit oddly dressed.  David come out and he because he was curious, and we just said, “Can we play for you?”  So we got round a piano in the studio.  Jim played piano, I played violin, Caroline bodhran, and Andrea tin whistle, and we all sang harmony, and three songs that we had written.  Then we played him some pretty well-produced demos, and we were signed the next day.

TM: Are you doing harmonies on this album?

SC: Yeah, and interestingly, I have used some male vocalists for harmonies on this album as well because I wanted to explore the more male sound on the album as well and see how that worked with my voice, because I know my voice with my sisters works amazingly, and I wanted to try it out with other people.

TM: Were you singing lead on Corrs’ product?

SC: I sang lead on one song on one album, but we liked to keep our roles fairly defined, so not a lot.

TM: You write the song, then how do you judge whether it’s record-worthy, whether you want to take it to the recording stage?

SC: I pretty much know straight away.

TM: Do you play for your husband, your producer, for an A&R person?

SC: I play it for my husband and then I tell my producer, “We’ll go into the studio to record another song.”

TM: How do you get your musicians together?  Do you rehearse before you go in or lay it down first in the studio, your basic track?

SC: It depends on the song.  For the initial recordings on the album, I was actually rehearsing for the Isle Of Wight Festival last year and also for Glastonbury.  In rehearsing those, they started to sound so good that we just went, “Okay, we need to start recording these immediately,” because we just knew we had the right five.  Probably the best way to record is to rehearse first.  It depends on the track.  If it’s only me, piano and vocal, well then, obviously, I don’t need to.

TM: When you played Glastonbury and Isle of Wight, were these Sharon Corr performances, or performances with the group?

SC: Sharon Corr, yes.

TM: You’ve been going out and performing individually?

SC: Yeah, I also released a single last year as well,

TM: Those are pretty big gigs to play, aren’t they?

SC: Yeah.

TM: Have you been playing any other places or you just only play for 100,000 plus?

SC(laughs) I was very aware that if I told people I was doing an album, because I didn’t sing lead in the Corrs, they would think I’m doing a violin album, an instrumental album.  I knew I needed to identify myself as singer/songwriter, as a vocalist.  Even though I’ve always been that, the public didn’t know that because they were Corrs albums and seeing me play violin and sing background vocals.  So I knew I had to introduce myself to them as I know me.  How I did that was I took some high profile festivals.  I asked the guys that I know, “Can I play them?”  I did.  I went in with a bang.  I took a big band with me and it was scary for me because I hadn’t played live in a couple of years, but I loved it, and I was exhilarated, and it got my name out there, and people went, “Oh, yeah, Sharon Corr,” and then they just started immediately identifying me as a solo artist.

TM: And how did it go, the shows?

SC: They went great, really well.  I was so sick beforehand, ill with nerves on the Isle Of Wight, because I hadn’t played a live gig in five years, but I wanted to do it more than anything that could pull me back.

TM: And who was the band?

SC: The band is Anthony Drennan, which also played with the Corrs.

Fantastic guitarist, Keith Duffy on bass, Jason Duffy on drums, Gerry O’Connor on mandolin.  I had two backing vocalists with me. I had another guitarist, Conor Brady, so it was a really big band, because I was very aware that because I’d left stage at the height of our success, for me to come on in like an any way small with a tiny band, and “Here’s me and my violin,” was not gonna cut it.  I needed to go on and out there big so people wouldn’t have to start wondering.  They’d just go, “Oh, yeah, that’s Sharon Corr, the solo artist, and she has a big band.”

TM: Did the Corrs intend to go on a hiatus as long as they have?

SC: I don’t know what we intended.  We knew we needed a break; we’d been on the road a very long time.  I certainly knew my biological clock was ticking very loudly and I needed the opportunity to have children.  It was getting late, we had huge success, we had toured the world a couple a times over and it was time to find our own identities and our own lives.

TM: What are the plans now for the Corrs?

SC: I think we’ll do something next year, another album next year.

TM: Then tour again.

SC: We’ll see.  It’s harder to get everybody to agree.  Some people want to tour, some people maybe don’t.  I think we’ll do gigs.  I don’t know if it’ll be in a standard tour.

TM: Did you have children?

SC: I had a boy first, Cathal, we call him “Cal” after the lovely piece Mark Knopfler wrote, “Cal,” and Flori is our second born. He’s four, she’s three.

TM: How’s that been, motherhood?

SC: Frantic.  Certainly a huge eye-opener.  I never realized I was so vulnerable in this world until I had children, so it’s been scary, wonderful, exhilarating, really hard work, harder than touring, and I’m just delighted.  They’re great, terrific little kids and they are my world.

TM: And your husband supports you as a musician, doesn’t he?

SC: He loves it.  He really gets, he gets a huge kick out of it, and I think he could see me when I wasn’t playing that I wasn’t quite myself, that I didn’t feel good, that although I had my children, I wasn’t expressing myself, and I really need to do that.

TM: What is your background in music, how have you been trained?

SC: I started playing piano from probably as soon as I was tall enough to reach the keyboard.  My dad gave me a couple a lessons and then I taught myself, and I then started violin lessons at six.  I was classically trained up until about 15, and then I just wanted to explore it myself, and wasn’t really into the incredible discipline it took to be a top classical musician – and I also wanted to play music as I interpreted it, not as Beethoven wrote.

TM: Did you go to university at all?

SC: I went to college.  I did science for about eight months and then left.  It just was not me.

TM: When did you first realize you could be a professional musician?

SC: I suppose I always thought I could be a professional musician.  I was playing music almost all my life, so I could have always gotten a gig. There was never a time I thought I couldn’t be.

TM: When the Corrs started playing, during that four-year period before you got signed, what kind of gigs were you playing?

SC: We did a couple of small tours.  Went though Ireland where it would be one guy and a dog there and then you’d get the complete opposite at the other end of the country, and all of a sudden they’re totally loving you and then you’re coming offstage shaking because people adore you.  When you were new, a young band and people don’t know you it’s just from gig to gig, touch and go.  We did every gig there is to do.

TM: Are you surprised at how successful the Corrs became or have become?  You’ve sold 30 million albums and toured, played stadiums and gotten great reviews besides U2, the biggest band in Ireland.

SC: We’ve outsold U2 in a lot of territories as well, which a lot of people wouldn’t know, but am I surprised?  You’re always going to be surprised because that’s just something that mostly all of the time nobody gets, that sort of success, but we certainly worked for it.  We worked, we worked, we worked.  We sold every album door-to-door…

TM: And did all the promotional activities you had to do.

SC: I was just speaking with a guy from the Times yesterday and he did our bio years ago.  He became a great friend of ours, and he said, “You were the hardest working band in the world.”  And we were.  We sold every record.  That’s the only way you do it.

TM: But you enjoyed it, too, right?

SC: You have to have the talent and the music.  We loved it but it was exhausting.  If you were doing 18 hours of interviews in Taiwan for like six different territories on the one day, that was exhausting, but we always respected the fact that we were getting a chance to do this.  It’s remarkable.  It’s remarkable that anybody experiences that much.

TM: It’s been tremendous fun, hasn’t it?

SC: Incredible, brilliant fun, the laughs I have with my sisters and brother,  talking about old stories and manager and stuff we used to get up to.  Experiences all over the world.

TM: Can you think of any disadvantages to the fact that you were in a band with you family?

SC: It was hard to tell each other just to go get lost, because they’re your family.  They don’t get lost.  They stay with you, and we were at quite a tender age, the days where you’re developing your independence, your sense of yourself, and at that age we got all immersed in a sense of ourselves, of a unit, rather than a sense of our own personal identity, so it was very, very difficult to bring out and form your own identity within, and as, for the sisters, even more difficult because we’re so alike.

TM: That’s one of the reasons probably why taking a break has been good.

SC: Absolutely wonderful.

TM: If not absolutely necessary.

SC:  Oh, totally necessary.  I mean we would have had total burnout and I’m very grateful, and respect getting that chance, because I would have been maybe so immersed in being together too long.

TM: Was there pressure from the outside, the record company, the promoters, the manager to, “No, just stay together.  Do one more tour, one more album?   How can you stop now?”

SC: Absolutely, but we worked with a team.  Our manager got us our record deal.  He worked with us from the really early days, so he was also a parental symbol, he knew us all very emotionally, and that we were jaded, wrecked.  He couldn’t for his own conscience force us to have stayed in that mode, although there would have been many other tours to do. Caroline already had a child at this stage.  He got it.

TM: Are your mom and dad still alive?

SC: No.  My mom passed away in 1999.  My father’s still alive.

TM: Your mom must have been so proud of what happened, right?

SC: Yeah.

TM: She was thrilled, right?  And dad is, was thrilled.  Is still thrilled?

SC: Delighted, yeah.  It gets me every time.   (tears up remembering her mother)

TM: Dad doesn’t work anymore?

SC: Dad took retirement, and many years ago while mom and him could still have a bit of fun.  It was a really beautiful thing because we hit the big time and Mom and Dad had been our inspiration our whole lives. We booked them first class tickets to Australia to come see us in concert and put them up in five-star hotels.  And from where we came from, that was dramatic.  I remember buying her a Donna Karan skirt for Christmas and that was a huge treat. Mum saw the biggest concert we ever did, and the following November she passed away…

TM: What was the biggest concert?

SC: The biggest concert we did on our own right was here in Lansdowne Road and it was 45,000 people.  Other concerts we did were for 100,000 but they were with other bands.  We toured with the Stones which was insane.

TM: You toured with the Stones?

SC: Yeah.  It was fun.

TM: How did the Stones audiences react?

SC: They loved us because they didn’t see us coming. You would never put the Stones with this sorta sweet Irish band, family band, and it worked because the minute we launched into the Irish stuff – and they could see we knew our stuff, so they loved us.

TM: Did you get to meet the Stones?

SC: Yeah, for sure.  We hung out with ‘em .  Very interesting bunch of guys.  (laughs)

TM: Tell me about this concert you played for 45,000 people.

SC: That was 1999.  It was in July.  We were the second Irish band ever to do it.   I think U2 did it and then we did it.  It’s a traditionally a rugby venue called Landsdowne Road.  Our promoter said “You guys can do it.  You can sell it,” and we did and it was phenomenal.  To do a gig that size in a country this size, on your home turf is pretty spectacular.  It’s amazing to get that many people from your own country turning.

TM: That must be one of the great joys of being a musician is to get the recognition and the appreciation from fans, which I take it you get all the time, don’t you?

SC: Yeah.  It’s certainly something I missed while was having my children was getting feedback.   You’re sitting at home on a piano.  You’re getting no feedback except from your husband, which is lovely but I was used to a lot more feedback than that.

TM: When you go to the supermarket, do you get recognized and stopped, or do people leave you be?

SC: They’re pretty cool in Ireland.  Very often you’re hanging out and somebody says, “Are you one of the Corrs, Ma’am?”  I go, “Yeah,” you give an autograph.  But they’re really nice about it.  Ireland is a small country.  They’re used to seeing the likes of Bono and Aiden Quinn and Liam Neeson showing up and down the street and they don’t bother them.  They say, “Hi, how’s it going?  How are ya?”

TM: The story of you and your husband needs to be told from your perspective.

SC: Oh (laughs). Okay.  The Corrs hadn’t released an album yet.  We were about to release an album and we were recording our first video to our first single “Runaway” in the Phoenix Park in Dublin, where the zoo is and where the president lives.  The L.A. girl who was the stylist for the shoot begged us to stay in Dublin that night, and said “Don’t leave me. I’m stuck in Dublin.”  So we booked a room in the Shelbourne Hotel, three of us girls into the one room with a single bed because that’s all we could afford, and we went out with this girl.  Then she decided to go home and she left us because she was tired.

I had just broken up with a guy a couple a weeks before and I was like, “I’ve had enough guys.  I’m not goin’ out with them anymore.”  Same old story and it’s not happening, and so I just was not looking for a man in my life at all, no interest.  And I’m standing in this bar at the Gaiety Theatre, which is a very famous theater in Dublin, and this guy walks up to me and I’m like, “Okay.”  I couldn’t really hear him because the music was very loud so I said, “Well, do you want to go outside and talk,” and that was it.

TM: Didn’t you stay up all night talking to him?

SC: We sat outside on the bench on Stephens Green until 7 in the morning  talking about everything, and it was just one of those nights where you said, “So do I,” about 150 times.

TM: Did you know that night that you were, he was the one?

SC: Yes, I went home to Dundalk the next day and I remember opening the back door and my mother had her head stuck in the oven,  cleaning it, and I went, “Mum, I met the guy I’m gonna marry.”  She just took her head out of the oven and went “Aahh,  really?,” and I said, “Yeah.  We both knew.  It was just instant.    Absolutely.  And I used to say to people, “How do you know?  What are you talking about?  How could you possibly know that that’s the person?” and they could never give me an answer, and I know why, because you just know.

TM: And your mom said something about it, too, when she met him, right?

SC: He arrived up in his morning gear which is what the barristers wear into court, and he’s obviously run out of court in Belfast to come up and see me, and he rides up in his car, he is walking up the driveway, and of course my mum’s got the squinty windows going.  She goes, “Oh, I’d like him for myself.”  (laughter) To which my dad said, “No way!”

TM: Do you go to legal functions then with him sometimes?

SC: The odd time, oh yeah, I do.  Over the years I was permanently on the road so I would always miss the one thing he needed me to go to, which was hard on him.  But, yes, I’ve gone to a few over the years.

TM: Do you like those?

SC: Depends on the people involved.  It’s all about personality.  Everything you do.  I find what he does very interesting.  He’s in libel, and I find his perspective on it very interesting.  Certainly from somebody in the limelight, these guys are just so necessary and can change your whole world when they get it right, so I think it’s a lovely combination that we have.

TM: Jeff Beck is on your record.  How and when did you first become interested in Jeff Beck?

SC: I knew about Jeff Beck my whole life, but I didn’t know him. This last year my manager invited me to see Jeff Beck  play Vicar Street, a small venue in Dublin, about 1,000 people.   The audience was full of guitar guys and it was an amazing gig, and he had Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, and he had a girl called Tal (Wilkenfeld ), a bass prodigy, about 19 and an incredible player.  The gig was mind blowing and I know most of the guys in these venues because I live here. So I said, “Can we go back and meet Jeff?,”  so we went back and it was really refreshing.  He’s so young at heart, very happy and cheery, and goes, “You know a friend of mine, Rod Stewart,” because we sang on a record with Rod Stewart before and we just got talking.  Walking out of the venue with my manager and I said, “Wouldn’t it just be amazing if Jeff could play on the album.”

We knew it was an incredibly long shot because Jeff’s very choosy about what he works on and it’s never about commercial success It’s about a love of what he’s doing.  We knew we’d kind of have to inspire him to get involved, to give him a piece of music that he just wanted to play on.  So we came up with the idea of doing “Mna Na h’Eireann,” the arrangement of it, and we knew when we started working out the arrangement that we were onto something pretty special, and that if he got it and heard it, because the thing is to get the track to the person, he’d want to do it.  It’s hard to get tracks to people but we got it to him eventually and as soon as he heard the track he wanted to play on it. He recorded it in his studio.  I gave him the track, said “You do what you want on this, Jeff,” and he come back with dazzling work.

TM: You put out your own record, didn’t you?

SC: I financed my own record.  I started up my own record company, which is basically just a company that finances your record, which is basically just my money.

TM: What’s the name of the company?

SC: Bobbyjean Records.

TM: What is that from?

SC: Jean’s my mom.  Bobby is my father-in-law.  I put out a single, “It’s Not A Dream,” last year.  I was finding it very difficult to get a record deal.  The credit crisis happened.  I was offered a new record deal the year before and Lehman’s –  Lehman’s Bank – collapsed and then the record deal was un-offered the following week!  So then I was in a limbo.  I was tied to the record company, negotiations went on and on and frustrated me recording, but eventually I got it sorted was able to record and then I just went “Okay.  Forget this.  I’m putting it out.  I need to get myself out there.”  So I put out a single.  I employed independent pluggers in the U.K., and it got great rotation and it got the A-listing on BBC Radio 2 — the highest you can get! It was phenomenal, and I knew the public liked it.  I knew the radio guys liked it, and I thought, “Well, just because you don’t have a record deal at the moment doesn’t mean the public shouldn’t hear your music,” because at the end of the day they’re just bankrolling the project.  That’s what they do.  So I bankrolled it myself.  I did the whole thing myself, and now I’ve just been picked up by a record company.

TM: And it’s a major and there’s gonna be a big push.

SC: Yeah, it’s Warner Bros.  U.K.  And the album is called Dream Of You.

TM: Desert Island Discs.  Name me five CD’s you would take.

SC: Nick Drake, Treasury.  Joni Mitchell, Blue.  It’s really hard! Oh, Paul Weller, Wild Wood.   Jose Gonzalez …and maybe Stanley Road by Weller too.

SC:  Stanley Road, it’s a really great album.  I’m missing other classics, because you know when you ask that question, you go blank.  I would like to take some individual songs. Sarah McLachlan, “Angel.”  Such an amazing song.  And I would take Billy Joel’s “Lullaby.”  I would take “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin.

TM: What are two or three memorable thrills, moments you’ve had in your career?

SC: Playing “Long and Winding Road,” in front of Paul McCartney.  That was tough, and the sound was really difficult. We had nothing in the radio monitors and it got slower and slower because we were tryin’ to catch up with each other. That was a painful, a memorable moment.  Playing for Nelson Mandela and his getting up and dancing to the Irish music.

TM: That was in South Africa?

SC: No, it was actually in Galway, because he got an honorary degree at the University in Galway and we played for him that day.  Meeting the Stones, my gosh, they are just legend, those guys.  That’s ridiculous.  Now you just see those guys walking around you like, “Uuuuh. That’s Keith Richards!”

TM: How scary is it to play in front of a big audience?  And do the other Corrs also have jitters?

SC: They do.  Jim less than all of us, I think.  It’s less scary to play to a 100,000 than it is to 100 people, because when you’re playing to 100,000, it’s a sea of people.   You’re not identifying individual faces, and then you don’t feel like they’re seeing into your soul while you’re playing, so you can act it even if you’re not feeling it.  But when you’re sitting in a club, a small club, and your audience is there, they can see if you’re scared, or they can see if you mess up, because you’re whole face reacts to a wrong note or a lost lyric, and so I find it more scary to play to a small audience.

TM: Why didn’t the Corrs continue with Foster?

SC: Well, we did.  We did two albums with David, and we wanted to do different things.  On the second album we also worked with Glen Ballard and Oliver Lieber, so we had three producers, and then we produced some ourselves.  We worked with Mitchell Froom then.  As you get on and you get your credentials in the music industry you want to explore more, other areas.

TM: Who’s producing the album now?

SC: Billy Farrell, who has worked with the Corrs for years. He’s from here in Dublin and I’ve worked with him forever. He’s worked with the Corrs as well. We understand each other musically incredibly.

TM: Describe the experience of working with David Foster and Mutt Lange.

SC: David has a really big personality.  He is quite cheeky, quite bold.  He’s has this glint in his eye, which is great.  Very, very attractive, very, very fun.  One of the first things you notice about him is his gift.  He’s so unbelievably talented.  He has perfect pitch.  If somebody plays something, he’ll play it immediately on the piano exactly.  He is just perfect.  He was our first real producer and we learned everything from him.

TM: And you cut in L.A.

SC: We cut in L.A.  Yeah, we did, and Jim co-produced the album with him.

TM: You like L.A.

SC: I like L.A. but I didn’t like it then.  It was too much of a shock for me culturally.  I didn’t really know how to negotiate it.  I didn’t understand what the people meant when they said something to you.  The way to approach L.A. is to expect very little, and it’s a city you use for your own ends, and you can meet some great people there, but it’s quite transient.

TM: Mutt Lange, what was it like to work with him?

SC: Incredible.  Mutt is very focused,  probably the most focused person I’ve ever met in my life, like a train running in one direction when he’s doing an album.  I know there’s no sidelines, there’s no nothing else, and he would work 24 hours a day.  He would do a vocal 20 times, 50 times.  He would do background vocals again, again, again and again and then to infinity until he gets exactly what he wants.  His techniques for backing vocals I find very interesting and have used it, taken it with me, some of the techniques.

TM: Where did you cut with him?

SC: Most of “Breathless” was cut in Switzerland in his home there, and some of it, lthe violin, the backing vocals for “Breathless” were all cut in Dublin.  And the other stuff that we did was cut in Dublin.  Mutt always writes with you so that’s his deal.  If he’s workin’ an album, he’s writing the album with you.  He did two songs, we cut half in Dublin, half in Switzerland.

TM: What’s his instrument?  What does he play?

SC: That’s a good question.  I mostly just saw him behind the desk.  I think guitar.  He’s got a beautiful voice.  You can hear his voice on Shania Twain’s records.  Really beautiful.

TM: What do you do in your leisure time?

SC: I don’t have much leisure time.  (laughs) I look after my children.  I read.  I run, and I love dinner and wine.  That’s great.  Socializing is one of the best things you can do.  Friends.  I love friends.

TM: What are the other Corrs doing now?

SC: Caroline has three children, she’s very busy with them.  Jim has one child, a boy, and everybody’s doing a little writing, for maybe gearing up to do something next year.  Andrea got married last year, so she’s in the middle of wedded bliss at the moment and having a real good time.

TM: Do you stay in touch with your siblings?

SC: All the time.

TM: You’re talking on the phone, you’re seeing each other.

SC: Yeah, we’re always talking.  We need each other to talk about every situation.

TM: You were Miss Twitter, U.K. What was that about?

SC: Twitter is only something that came about maybe a year and a half ago, and Gavin (her husband) said to me,“You should get into that,” and I was like “Yeah.  Why?”  and he said, “Steven Fry is doing it”, and (I said,) “Okay, well then it must be cool.”  So I started trying it out and…

TM: Steven Fry?

SC: He’s a very famous comedian/actor.  Friend of Hugh Laurie.  You know Hugh Laurie, House? I got into it.  I was tweeting and then I found all these fans all over the world would come on and start asking me questions, and it was great way of interacting with people in Indonesia and Brazil and in the States and wherever they would come in from.  And it was funny, I started to see the depth of the Corrs’ fan base and then my own fan base emerging from it.  It’s literally 140 characters.  It’s like a text message but it goes out simultaneously to everybody who’s following you.  So then they see it and then they can reply and you can reply to whatever you want.

For me, it’s a brilliant thing just to go, “I’m on radio, BBC Radio 2, in five minutes, tune in.  I’m doing the Wogan show tomorrow night.  I’m doing this or that.”  It’s a great way of sort of self-publicizing, and it’s also a great way of having what you say undiluted.  So it doesn’t go through somebody else’s filter, you know, so I like it.  It’s fun.  People talk a lot of crap on it and that’s great fun too.  Anyway, they had a Twitter competition for Miss Twitter U.K. and my fans kept voting for me.  They would go to sleep for 20 minutes, and then vote again when they could vote, and they just kept voting on rotation, and then I won Miss Twitter U.K.

TM: And what kind of a ceremony was there when you were awarded…

SC: There was none. (laughter) I’m disappointed.  I’m still waiting on my crown.

Cindy Johnson (my wife):  Can I ask a couple?  Cal and Flori, are they musical?

SC: Funny, I was driving the car yesterday and I was singing the ABC’s to Cal and Flori, and Cal started to sing and I could hear that he was almost in the right  pitch   and then pitching to the next note quite well, so I can see it’s coming.  Flori, yeah, for sure.  They love music.  She starts crying.  I covered “Danny Boy” as well.  That’s one of the tunes I did on the record and, not vocally, I did it instrumentally, and she cried.  She doesn’t want me to play it because it’s a sad song.  So I know she’s very musically in touch

CJ: And you encourage them as you were encouraged?

SC: Big time.  I want it to be a very organic thing for them.  There’s a piano, a violin, guitars in the house.  So they will just be part of their everyday thing.  I want them to start messing around, and then I’m not gonna get them formal lessons for quite awhile, and I may teach them myself up to a certain point.  But most of all, I just want them to enjoy music because I think it’s the greatest therapy in life.  I want them to have that, what I had.

CJ: Do you have any other plans for other writing?  Like a book, or a musical?

SC: I toyed with different ideas over the years.  I’ve been quite attracted to doing maybe scoring for movies, maybe the incidental work on movies, but that takes an awful lot of time, and for the moment I’d probably just rather pitch a song for a movie. But I have written an awful lot of instrumentals over the years and I did write a piece called “Rebel Heart” for a BBC series called Rebel Heart and it was nominated for a Grammy, which was really cool.  So I love writing instrumental music.  It’s always been part of what I do.

TM: Will you ever do a bluegrass album?

SC: I don’t know, I’m not trained in bluegrass, so for the purists, they’d probably go, “What the hell’s she at?  That’s not bluegrass,” but I’m very interested in all forms of music.

TM: Maybe a straight, straight Celtic Irish roots album you might do someday?

SC: I could, but you know what I’d probably more likely do is a country album.

The funny thing is is because it’s just that I know my voice suits it, because every time I sing like a country song, people go, “Well you sing country music.”  I sang “Jolene” recently, and what a great song.  The lyrics are phenomenal.  She (Dolly Parton)  is some writer, that woman.  She is incredible.  So I sang that recently and everybody was going, “You should do a country album,” and I’ve always kind of known that about me that there’s something country going on inside me.

CJ: Two more things.  Now you’re going to Spain.  Can you talk about that?

SC: I’m shooting a video in Spain for the single, in the Alhambra palace, which is an old Moorish palace  And they’ve never done anything like this before in the Alhambra, and it actually made me worried that they agreed because I thought, “This is just too good to be true,” because I’ve waited a long time on a record deal.  I’ve waited a long time on getting things done, and now things are happening, I’m almost a little scared.  But I spoke to a guy in the record company months ago, just happened to be talking about my favorite spot in the world, which is the Alhambra in Andalusia in Granada, and I said, “I always wanted to launch a record there,” like they would ever do that.  And he said, “You never know.  Let’s look into it.”  So they have agreed that I can shoot a videoI’m absolutely stunned.  I mean it’s so beautiful and it’s so spiritual, and mystical, and such an incredible place, and the history is enormous.

CJ: Advice to new artists?

SC: Write, write, write, write, write, write.  Keep writing and write more.  Try to control your own music.  Try to write it yourself because it’s very hard to make money from records nowadays, and at least if you can get songs published, you can make some money, but stay true to yourself.  Be very open to every idea that’s pitched out to you, because it could be just the one that tips you like John Hughes saying to us, “Let’s just go to the Hit Factory.”

TM: Your fans.  All race, creeds, colors and ages, right?

SC: Yes.  It’s a beautiful thing, and I think we were most surprised when we hit Japan. Because it was our first experience in Asia and the Japanese audience just responding like crazy to traditional Irish music was a huge thrill. They are so quiet while we’re playing.  So respectful, and then we started to pick it up as, “They don’t really like the show, do they?  They’re not enjoying it, and actually it was like the quieter they were, the more they were enjoying it.  But I remember when the Irish stuff came on, they went nuts.

CJ: A dream team of who to work with in the future. Just one name.  Someone you’d like to sing with.

SC: Oh, to sing with.  Oh my gosh.  Robert Plant.  I’ve met Robert.  He’s a cool guy.  I’d love to sing with him.

TM: People that you’ve been excited to meet as other than the Stones and Jeff Beck.  Any other musicians?

SC: I was very, very excited to meet Neil Finn.

TM: Sure.

SC: Because their album Woodface..that would definitely be a Desert Island  Disc for me, you know, something you never tire listening to.  Desert Island Disc without a doubt.  I just think he’s an incredible songwriter I love him, and the reason we worked on In Blue with Mitchell Froom was because he had worked with Crowded House on Woodface.  I did meet Neil Finn and I actually wasn’t really able to speak  because I was too star-struck.  It was, it was embarrassing, because all the guys were looking at me, “He’s your favorite.  Will you get on with it.”  And I was like, huh?

For more information about Sharon Corr, visit her website at


Bill Knoedelseder burst on the Los Angeles scene as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times where he built a reputation as a fearless, intrepid investigative reporter, especially in regard to the entertainment industry. His first book, Stiffed, A True Story of MCA, the Music Business and the Mafia, remains a highly regarded classic. His last book on the “comedy wars” of the late 1970’s is a delicious read. We met up with him over a delicious cheese repast in June, 2010.

TREVOR: Why did you write I’m Dying Up Here?

WK:  It was a story that I covered when I was just starting out at the L.A. Times.  The core incident was a story I covered thirty years ago when I was a cub reporter at the Times, and it remained really close to my heart over the years because it was a very affecting story. I had just arrived in Los Angeles so I was a new Angelino, and my editor called me into his office and  said that the thought that there was something happening in the comedy scene in L.A. that had the feeling of Greenwich Village in the early 60’s, and he thought something was really gonna happen.  There were all these young people arriving in town and they were gonna change things.  He wanted to know if I would be interested in covering that as a beat. I had always loved stand up comics and comedy, I’d grown up watching Johnny Carson and all the comics on there.  So it was like “Oh, my God.”  I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

When I took the assignment to take on the beat, what I quickly found out was that all the funniest people of my generation were leaving their homes all across America and moving to Los Angeles because Johnny Carson had just moved the show to Los Angeles.  Back then there were no videotapes that you could send around.  There was no cable television.  If you wanted to get on the Carson show, you had to be performing in a place where the Carson scouts actually went after work.  There was only one place.  You had to be on stage at the Comedy Store, so that’s why they all started appearing at the Comedy Store, and after a couple years of this invisible migration of funny people, I realized that there were a couple hundred of them, young people, 25 years old, college educated, the funniest people of my generation, all living in cheap apartments all around the Comedy Store. There was this very finite, wonderful world going on.  It was Paris in the 20’s for young stand up comics, and it was amazing.  I had a front row seat to the stage performances and the hi-jinks that were going on.  The staying up all night long, partying and making each other laugh.

In the middle of this good time, this Camelot story, something dramatic and in fact tragic happened.  That is the main plot point of the book.  Thirty years later, I’m reading in the L.A. Times … I’ve gone on, in my career, done other things, and I saw that one of the comics who was involved in this incident and very involved in the scene back then, who had been David Letterman’s best friend at the time, died, George Miller, and it said there was gonna be a public service for him at the Laugh Factory.  So I thought, “I wonder if all those guys will come back?,” because he was really popular, he was Dave’s best friend.  So I went, and sure enough, a lot of them did, and when they got up to eulogize their friend, to a person, everyone who got up, all their reminiscences were about this four-year period, 1975 to 1979, when the incident happened, and it was clearly the time of their life.  That’s what they looked back on.  This was the greatest time.  It never got any better than that.  I walked out of that thing on a Sunday afternoon and I thought, “Geez, I just gotta write a book about this because it’s a better story now than when it happened, because they didn’t really appreciate what was going on, the bullets were flying.

TREVOR: How long did it take you to write it?

WK: When I finally got rid of all the other jobs I had to do and actually wrote it, it probably took less than a year to write, but given that I was doing it in part time, it took a few years.

TREVOR: Who did you interview?

WK: Everyone, Letterman, Leno, Richard Lewis. Robin Williams didn’t talk, that’s okay.  I interviewed them all at the time, “back in the day.”  I knew them.

TREVOR: What do you mean, Robin Williams didn’t talk?

WK: I couldn’t get an interview with him. I never got through.  It didn’t matter.  He wasn’t the key to the story.  He was the biggest, hottest young act in town at the time, but I didn’t really expect to get much from Robin anyway because he performs in an interview.  You wouldn’t get a lot of reflection I don’t think.  I knew who the main players were in the story who were actually the movers and shakers in the strike which is what took place.  These comics worked at the Comedy Store, between ’75 and ’79 actually ’72 and ‘79 and they worked for free.

That was the deal.  You worked for free in exchange for being seen by the professionals and your career will break from there.  But the woman who was running the Store got rich, and she wasn’t paying the people who were bringing in the customers, so they went on strike and that’s the gist of the story, but most people don’t even know that that happened.  They’re not aware that there ever was a strike by comics.  “What are you talkin’ about?”   In fact it was an historic event that didn’t get a whole lot of coverage, and I’m not sure why.

TREVOR: The other place in town was the Improvisation.  When did that start?

WK: That started in, in late ’76 or ’77, but it was not as big a success or as big a draw as the Comedy Store was, so it’s not the place they chose to strike.

TREVOR: Was Budd Freedman paying?

WK: No. If the Comedy Store didn’t pay, nobody paid.  If you went to clubs around the country, they paid, but not the showcase clubs. There was one in New York, the Improv — Freedman had pioneered the concept of the showcase club where performers didn’t get paid.  In the beginning it made sense for everybody because it did work in the beginning.  He didn’t make any money.  He was broke.  He had this little club where all the actors and people who would perform, so they would all come in and do stuff for free because you’re an actor in New York, you go in and play the piano and perform, and comics.  It was a great idea when it started, and he wasn’t making millions.  He was barely getting by, so no one really ever said, “Hey, how come you’re not paying us?”

Mitzi Shore turned it into a really big viable retail comedy establishment, and started making a lot of money, and they started resenting it.  And it’s okay not to pay people for their work as long as they don’t mind, and the minute they mind and say, “Hey, wait a minute,” then you’re talking slavery.  You couldn’t go anywhere else. There wasn’t any other club.  Or, if there was a club, the Tonight Show guys weren’t sitting there watching you and putting you on for that, so you were captive.  You had to either perform for free or not have a career.

TREVOR: So what actually happened?

WK: They asked her, they started talking about it.  They had some seditious meetings where they discussed it and they went to Mitzi Shore, the owner, with a select group of comics and asked to be paid and she said, “No,” and they asked again, and she said, “No,” and they kept trying to come up with formulas for her paying.  Her idea was, “This is a workshop.  This is a college.  I’m not your employer.  I’m just giving you the opportunity,” and that wasn’t her vision of how it worked.  After a while, you can’t just keep threatening, “You gotta pay us,” they were forced to go on strike.  That’s how they saw it, so they did.  They formed a quasi-union, threw up a picket line and shut the place down for six weeks.

TREVOR: Did they really shut it down?

WK: Yeah. You could go in if you wanted to cross the picket line, but there were only a half a dozen comics that were working and they weren’t the best ones.

TREVOR: Did the audience stay away?

WK: Oh, yeah, they killed her business, and what really hurt was when the Teamsters backed the picket line so they wouldn’t deliver the liquor across the line.  They would just put it on the sidewalk, so they’d have to lug it in themselves. She had a dozen loyalists who were like in the bunker, but they had put the lines up 24 hours a day for six weeks, and she finally capitulated.  She buckled and agreed to pay them, and there was celebration for a while until they realized that it was a Pyrrhic victory because she, in starting up her operations again, excluded a lot of them from the stage, and they thought it was retaliatory and even though the contract she signed with the Comedians For Compensation, which was the group that was formed, said that there’d be no retaliation.  It was hard to prove what was retaliation.  She just didn’t put some people back on the stage.  It wasn’t Letterman and Leno because she wasn’t about to do that because they were big draws here in town.  They weren’t stars nationally but she picked some of the strike leaders. One of them was Richard Lewis’s best friend; they’d been friends since back in New York.  His name was Steve Lubetkin.

He’d been struggling, never made it big, been out here for a couple years, and he’d been a favorite of Mitzi’s for awhile, and he was just about to break through, he thought, when the strike came and he sided with the strikers, and after the strike was settled, she didn’t put him back on again.  He was convinced his career was over, and had a weird idea — he had some emotional problems, too which was evident in the end — that if he did this certain thing it would help bring about fairness.  So he went up on the top floor of the Continental Hyatt House right next to the Comedy Store 6 o’clock on a Friday evening, June 1st, 1979, and jumped, dove actually, and died, right on the ramp to the parking lot right there as  you are coming into the Comedy Store while they’re all getting ready to go on.  If you say to everybody who was present back then, all the comics who were my age and around that, “What was the first line of Steve Lubekin’s suicide note?,” they’ll be able to repeat it for you.  It said, “My name is Steve Lubekin.  I used to work at the Comedy Store,” and then it said goodbye to a bunch of people.  That was such a horrific thing to happen.  No one ever figured that something like that would happen.

A lot of the people, like Letterman and Richard Lewis, never went back to the Comedy Store.  They just couldn’t bring themselves to go back in and perform.  I think Letterman went back a couple times, but it was the proverbial car crash on prom night or graduation night.  It was like “Oh, God, geez – this isn’t about being funny, somebody died, “Steve killed himself.  We weren’t paying attention.”

TREVOR: Did the Comedy Store ever regain its cachet?

WK: It did in a way.  Actually it had even better years.  It made more money. The free comedy disappeared just in time for the huge comedy boom of the 1980’s where they realized that comedy is really cheap.  You just need a microphone and some chairs and a comic, somebody who’s funny.  It doesn’t cost, not like making a record, certainly not like making a movie.  From five comedy clubs between New York and L.A., all of a sudden there were nine in Los Angeles and then a 100 around the country or 200.  It was huge!  There were 12, 13 Improv franchises all over the place, and people made good money.

Had Mitzi been able to force the no pay thing it might, that might not have been as lucrative — not all of them — but Letterman, Leno, they all became fabulously wealthy, had big careers, lived huge lives, and there was a circuit where all kinds of people — you would never know their name — made a good living for the next ten years traveling around, working in these comedy clubs.  They worked 200 nights a year and made 50, 60, 70, 80,000 dollars.  You’d never know who they were but they were they’re out there and that’s what a comedy career was if you didn’t go really to the top.

TREVOR: Where’s the Comedy Store at now?

WK: It’s gone down now.

TREVOR: She passed away?

WK: No, she’s still alive.  She’s got Parkinson’s or something, she’s not physically well.  She’s aged.  The years were not kind but it’s still running.  It’s a shadow of its former self, but after this period that I wrote about, Jim Carrey, Sam Kinison, Rosanne Barr, and Jerry Seinfeld, although he didn’t really like the Comedy Store, passed through there and were born there.   Sam Kinison was the last major star to be born at the Comedy Store. You still go there on the weekends, but it doesn’t represent what it used to represent.  It used to be Mecca.  It used to be the place.  She had a monopoly.

TREVOR: Is the Improv in better shape?

WK: It might be because it’s more of a restaurant hangout, it always was.  Some people preferred the atmosphere at the Improv because it was more of a place where you could hang out at the bar, whereas at the Comedy Store, if you wanted to hang out, you had to hang out in the parking lot because they didn’t have a bar there; it was in the back, you couldn’t sit at the bar.  There was no place to hang out and talk.  It was a show.  You were at a table.  It was a different, different sort of feel all together.  I always preferred the Improv as a place to go.

TREVOR: Can you generalize about comics? One hears sometimes that they’re all miserable people.

WK: There is that.  They bring a lot of baggage. They’re really saying “Love me!”  They’re not playing somebody else.  They were sort of a tortured lot, not the happiest bunch of people.  Once I got to be known as “The Guy” on the comedy beat, I’d get calls all the time, I’d get calls in the middle of the night.  The night that Steve Lubekin died I fielded lots of calls.  After the whole thing was over, after he died and I did the story about him and the funeral, and the strike was over — I’d been on the beat for a year, a year and a half — I remember going to  Irv Letovsky, the Calendar editor, and saying, “It’s time for me to get off this beat.  Can I get something a little lighter than this?” I went to organized crime and it was kind of a relief, so they are sort of a sad lot in a lot of ways.

TREVOR: Was it hard to write the book?

WK: No, it was an easy one to write.  The other one here was much harder, and the other one before that was harder, and the new one’ll probably be hardest but this one was easy because I knew this story. I lived the story.  I had the notes from thirty years ago. The beauty was I know what they thought at 27, I had talked to them and I could talk to them at 57. It was very rich because when it was all going on, they’d tell you certain things.  Like I said, the bullets were going on.  They knew what was going on then, but they had no perspective on what this meant to their life, because you couldn’t know.  Thirty years later they look back and they know what it meant to their life, because they know how it changed the way they looked at things and how they behaved, and it was a much better story.

TREVOR: So how many victims were there who didn’t work again, dozens?

WK: A lot of them didn’t succeed, but I’m not sure it’s because Mitzi Shore didn’t put them on.  The strike proved that she wasn’t all powerful, that after the strike, you could make it without going on at the Comedy Store.   I don’t think Lubetkin’s suicide didn’t affect anything other than it marked the end of all their innocence.

TREVOR: In a way they had nothing to lose because they weren’t getting paid anyway.

WK: Exactly, right.

TREVOR: What’s your take on Mitzi Shore?

WK: She was at the right place at the right time.  Very smart woman.  Had a really good idea.  She was very driven, she really made her way in a man’s world that’s for sure.  A lot of admirable things about her, but she really had a controlling side where she wanted to be completely acknowledged that … she actually said to me one time: “Richard Pryor, he got his big break for ‘Lady Sings The Blues’ from right after performing on my stage,” making the point that if not for her and this little club, Hollywood would have never noticed Richard Pryor’s talent?  Come on.  It’s just a place.  Richard Pryor was not going to be denied because that club wasn’t there.  But she had it in her mind that she was responsible.

TREVOR: Did she give you an interview for the book?

WK: Yeah.

TREVOR: Is she bitter?

WK: Yeah, she’s never gotten over it, because she feels like a mother betrayed.  They turned on her.  They didn’t appreciate what, what she was doing for them and they went out on their own, but again, the reason the story was so rich is what Mitzi said back at the time.  She said, “Look, you guys, if you make this about money it’s not gonna work out for you because it’s not about money.  Don’t make this about money.”  In truth it shouldn’t have been about money in a way, because what they’ll tell you now is, and I think you’ll hear the same thing, if you went and interviewed, Dylan and Ian Tyson and all the people who were in Greenwich Village, the singer/songwriters, that whole thing in ’64, ’63, they will all tell you, “Yeah, we went on.  We had hits, we became more comfortable, we bought our ranches, but it never got any better than when we were poor and trying to find our voices and knocking around and hanging out in each other’s apartments and trying to impress each other with our songs and feeding off one another, and nobody had any money.  That was the best it ever got.”  They wouldn’t wanna stay there forever but they remember that as when they became who and what they are.

So she was right about that.  She was wrong in the sense that she tried to control them and make sure that, that all whatever they got, she got a piece of it because that’s not how it works.  If you talk to Mitzi, you realize that that she gained this reputation as this big comedy expert, but I sat and talked to Mitzi and, and I said to her, “Okay, you’re the person that an entire generation of funny people had to come in front of you and perform their hearts out to get on their stage,” and so we went through naming the people, and Mitzi really couldn’t talk about that comedy and humor.  She could talk about the Store.  She could talk about the club that she owned.  That’s what she saw.  That was her thing.  She was a shopkeeper in a way.  I mean brilliant and really captured something, and knew how to do it, but …

TREVOR: But she also booked the talent.

WK: Oh, she knew what was funny.  She knew what made her laugh, and she also knew what made comics tick because she had been married to one.  She knew the life.  Her idea of painting the whole place black and having just a spotlight on comics so when you walked in the room that’s all you saw is actually a pretty good idea.  Before that you’d walk in, you’d see the audience, you’d see the bar, you’d see everything else, but you go into the Comedy Store and, man, there was a spotlight and there’s a comic.  That’s all you see.  The tables are painted black.  The table cloths, everything’s black.  The outside of the building is black.  So that was kind of genius.  She was a tough personality, boy. I remember when I interviewed her, she’s (imitates shaking) but she was all there.  She was very gracious. My articles probably hurt her over the years, as there was some tough coverage, but there she was.

I told her, “That’s the last line of the book,” when she said it.  I asked her, after all this time, thirty years, “You’ve seen all these people,” and she really alienated all these people.  They never came back and honored Mitzi every year like they could have.  “Is there anything that you had to do it over again, you would do differently?”  And she said, “Nothing.  Absolutely nothing,” she said. “The Comedy Store was the light.  And if they couldn’t see that the Store was the light, then fuck ‘em.”  This is coming out of this little 80-year-old woman.  “Well fuck ‘em!”  Thirty years later and I thought “Whoa, okay, that’s where she is!”

They’ve all gotten past their anger at her and they realize that they, like Letterman said, “wouldn’t be where I am without that woman.”  He broke with her.  He went on strike with them and supported the strike and broke her heart and broke her spirit when Dave went over to the other side.  It was a dramatic scene.  Dave hadn’t sided for a couple weeks and he hadn’t showed up because he was preparing for his first guest host performance on the Tonight Show.   It was the night of the Oscars, and the reason he was, he was picked as guest host is that was Carson was doing the Oscars.  So Dave was on and Tom Dreesen was on the show, his other best friend with George.  And after the show, David made a commitment to go walk on the picket line for the first time.

All the comics knew that Dave was subbing for Carson that night.  It was a big deal.  It meant a lot.  They all knew exactly what that meant, it was such hope.  “This is all good for all of us.”  Nobody had ever really come from where they work out of nowhere.  David had only been on the show twice.  Six months before he was a complete unknown.  Now he was absolutely sitting in for Johnny Carson.  Nobody knew who he was but he was on the show.  They were so excited.  After the show, Dave came back with Tom and all the picket lines are out there, picketers are out in front of the club, and Dave drove an old red truck.  He pulled up in the truck and as he came down the ramp to join them, they all cheered and started doing the Tonight Show Theme.  “Da, da, da, da, da,” As he came down, of course Mitzi is watching out the window and she sees Dave and that’s when she knew it was all over.  You lose Letterman, because he was the biggest deal there at the time. I think that’s when she realized that she’s not gonna win this.

TREVOR: Were there any well-known comedians who crossed the line?

WK: The only one who’s really well known now who made it in a big way was Gary Shandling.  He crossed and they bear a grudge to him this day.  A lot of them won’t talk to him because of it, thirty years later.

TREVOR: Did you talk to Shandling about it?

WK: He wouldn’t talk, but I know his story.

TREVOR: Why didn’t he?

WK: He had been trying to get on the stage for a long time.  He didn’t share in their struggling experience.  He wasn’t part of that because he had been a very successful writer, was making a lot of money, but he wanted to be a performer, so he was trying to break in, and he wasn’t part of their thing.  He was living in a different Hollywood.  He wasn’t a struggling comic living in a shitty place like the rest of them, and he grew up in a family that owned manufacturing stuff and it was definitely not a union family.  His whole upbringing was that unions were the problem so he wasn’t about to join a union. Everybody who didn’t join had, came to it with their own stuff, their own education.  Yakov Smirnoff didn’t join either.  He’d just come from the Soviet Union, and Mitzi was his patron.  He was living free rent, he had a job and he had just come to this country from Russia, so he was very grateful for her support and he wasn’t about to go do that. August Hamilton was having an affair with her.  He was in love with her.  He wasn’t about to go against her. When you’re 27 years old and you’ve never been involved in that, you don’t really realize that if you go against your brothers in a strike, that’s always going to be bad for you.  They’re never gonna get over that, that’s one thing you don’t ever do.  Unless you just don’t give a shit.

TREVOR: Did you feel that you missed anything in writing the book because you couldn’t get to somebody or you’re pretty happy with the way it turned out?

WK: I would have like to have gotten more from Gary Shandling and maybe Robin, but I did get the perspective of the strike breaker from Mike Binder, who was another guy who went on to pretty good success. He’s now quite a good film director, and he crossed, he was like a kid.  He was 18 years old at the time, and Mitzi was his surrogate mom, and he felt he owed her, so he crossed the picket line.  He functioned as Jay Leno’s little brother, and Leno was very active in the strike, so the night Mike crossed the picket line — and they hung out together all the time — Leno said, “I’m not talking to you anymore.  Don’t come by my house.  We’re done.”  It broke his heart, it broke both their hearts actually.  When I talked to Binder thirty years later, he still felt bad. He’s in recovery, so he had gone to Tom Dreesen and met him someplace and made his amends to the leader of the strike, saying, “I was wrong.  I was just a kid.  I was going out and get fucked up every night.  I was loaded all the time, I shoulda been with you guys.  I shouldn’t have done that.”  And Dreesen forgave him.  And if Dreesen forgave him then everybody forgave him.  But not so with Shandling.

TREVOR: Did he reconcile with Leno?

WK: When I talked to him, he hadn’t.  So many years had passed.  What are you gonna do?  Pick it up after thirty years?

TREVOR: What’s the reaction been to the book by the people who were involved in it?

WK: I haven’t had a bad reaction at all.  Some people thought I was unfair to a character in there.  I can’t remember his name now.  He was one of the Mitzi’s guys, but when I talked to him, the guy was a complete asshole so that was the only one. No one really took dispute, even the people who were on the other side of the strike.  The Comedy Store has been really supportive. I think because it draws attention to the Comedy Store.  The people who run the Comedy Store now say, “That’s really what it was.”  They don’t really necessarily think that Mitzi did the right thing, and they do recognize that that those were the glory days of the Comedy Store and I got it right.  It’s accurate.  There’s just no doubt about it.  I know that I really captured the feel of it.  If you lived through it, you’ll recognize it all.

TREVOR: It was well-reviewed?

WK:  Yes, except for, except for the Los Angeles Times, (laughs), who have never given a book of mine a good review.  I don’t know what that is.  They assigned some freelancer to it and basically, he complained, after telling the whole story of the book as if he was telling the story, which means he used everything in the book for his own review. Then he took issue with the book and he did what reviewers do – “If I’d written the book, here’s how it would have been much better.”  He criticized the book because it didn’t have more about Saturday Night Live, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, and Steve Martin.

Saturday Night is not standup comedy.  It was in New York.  Woody Allen never worked the club scene in L.A., nor did Steve Martin, except for a little bit, and Bill Cosby wasn’t part of the story.  He missed the whole story. The story is about Los Angeles club scene in the 1970’s, and he was criticizing the book because it didn’t have stuff from the 60’s.

TREVOR: What’s happening with the book now?

WK: Sold the film rights to Jim Carrey.  I’m told that he wants to produce it as a film.  Independent, outside the studio system film using his own money.

TREVOR: Is it out in paperback yet?

WK: It’s just coming out at the end of July (2010).  And Carrey, I don’t think he’s planning on being in it because I don’t think there’s a role in there for him since he went through the Comedy Store some years later and he was he was waiting in the wings when this all took place.  He knows the scene so I’m sure he felt an affinity for the material.

TREVOR: You published in 1993, Stiffed, A True Story Of MCA, the Music Business, and the Mafia. What is that book about?

WK: How the music business operated, or was operating at its absolute peak at the period of time that I was writing about, and it was a case history of mob infiltration of the music business, how it happens classically, and the way the record industry at the time treated its artists in terms of their royalties and things like that.  I just happened just completely stumble into this bizarre story that I tried to figure out, “What the heck is goin’ on here?”  And it turned out to be just an accidental thing that turned into the biggest scandal that had been in the music business up until that point.

TREVOR: You were working at the L.A. Times then?

WK: I was working at the L.A. Times and I was doing a story on what they call cutouts, which is the underbelly of the business.  It’s what happens with the actual vinyl albums back in the time after they’ve been sitting on a shelf for a long time and they were back in the warehouses and they hadn’t sold em.  What do they do with them?  I would go to the bins, because I was a record collector, find all these records on sale for 99 cents, when there was one over there for, $4.99 or $10.99, or whatever it was, and I wanted to know how that happened.  In doing so, I ended up talking to a guy who was the most notorious, convicted counterfeiter.  He’d been to prison for counterfeiting.  One of the few people that that had ever happened to, and I had gone to talk to him in his warehouse in Philadelphia to get tales of the underbelly of the record business, and he told me, “You ought a look into this deal I just got in.”  Then he says “There’s a guy named Sal Pisello, who’s a Mafia guy for sure, who’s in the middle of this deal at MCA and he shouldn’t be there.  You should check into that.”  He said which I took to be “Pacello.” He mispronounced the name.  It was “Pisello.” So I went back to Los Angeles and I started trying to find out through all my law enforcement sources, who’s Salvatore Pisello?  Nobody knew him.  Nobody knew anything at all.  A couple months passed.  Maybe a month I guess, and then unbeknownst to me, the organized crime strike force was about to prosecute the guy that he was actually talking about who’s name was Piscello, and there was some sort of report that was put in, in terms of the filings that laid out all his dealings, and there it was, that he was involved in some sort of deal at MCA and it was like a public record. We had people at the court at the L.A. Times, they would pull all these things when they were filed, so I looked at it and I went “Oh, my God. Here’s the guy that John was talking about and he was in the middle of this deal.  One thing led to another and this was a guy who shouldn’t be involved with MCA Records.  No good explanation for why this guy who was a Gambino family soldier from the East Coast who’s got all kinds of suspicions of being a heroin trafficker and all this stuff, would be having meetings in the executive suite at MCA Records.  So I set out to try and figure out what that was all about, and it produced probably forty or fifty stories over the next couple years, and it ended up four or five grand jury investigations and eventually twenty Mafia guys got indicted and convicted, but nobody at MCA was ever touched — the people who let him in the door and, and did business with him, the record company guys.  It was only the Italians that went down and that was bizarre, too, but that’s because they had friends in high places, MCA did.  And they got the investigation into MCA shut down and got the prosecutor fired.

TREVOR: Were you ever threatened in writing that book?

WK:  No.  Not by the Mafia. I only got nervous the day that I answered my front door and I was served a subpoena to testify by Morris Levy who was the Jewish godfather, the mob’s man in the record business, and he wanted me to, after the story broke, he wanted me to identify a confidential FBI source, so they subpoenaed me to testify in court.  I never did testify.  I wouldn’t have, it’s one of those things where it would have been my opportunity to go to jail in Newark, which I wasn’t looking forward to, but it never happened.  But, that story never dies.  I still hear about this and that.

“It’s really FBI, or there was the CIA involvement,” endless speculation about what that was all about, and I don’t know if the mystery will ever be solved. I don’t know what’s true but I know that a day or two after all the mobsters go indicted, I received a letter in the mail at the L.A. Times.  It was postmarked the day that everybody got indicted, and it was like six sentences, six clear statements explaining how it all worked. We had never been able to figure out why this all happened.  All these things that didn’t seem connected.  It just seemed all so crazy.  It didn’t seem like it made any sense.  But if this was an acetate overlay and you put it over all those questions, it connected every dot, and made everything absolutely understandable. The L.A. Times put that letter in a safe and I never saw it again.

TREVOR: Did MCA try and stop your…

WK: Stop the book from coming out?  No.  They tried to get me fired at the L.A. Times.  By the time the book came out, I was long gone from the L.A. Times.

TREVOR: How did they try and get you fired?

WK:  Just constantly complaining that I was being unfair, “You’re just repeating the same stuff over and over again,” constant pressure on my bosses, constantly meeting with them, so that it got harder and harder for me to get news stories in the paper.  Not that I was never told “No.” They just made it more difficult for…

TREVOR: What was the reaction to your book from the public and, generally?

WK:  The book was really well reviewed.  The sales were not huge.  It’s a very complicated story.   You really got to wan to know about the record business, because I was obsessed with (wanting) to explain to people how the record business really operates.  It’s a lot to ask of them. Hitmen was a much simpler story, much more anecdotal.  He sold, I don’t know, ten times what I sold.  He also had a better title…

TREVOR: Frederick Dannen (author of Hitmen).

WK:  Yeah.  His book went through the roof…

TREVOR: Nobody wanted to pick up the movie rights for Stiffed?

WK: Well, (laughs) actually somebody did.  Not then, but there’s a script written right now.  They’re trying’ to make a movie of it right now.  Whether they ever will, but they’ve paid me several times now on the option, so I’ve been making money on it the last couple years.  Not enough to retire on but…

TREVOR: What are you working on now?

WK: A book, the working title is Bitter Brew and it’s about the rise and fall of Anheuser Busch and the family that founded it and ran it until two years ago when it passed into the hands of some Brazilian billionaires.

TREVOR: Why are you saying that it’s fallen?

WK: Because it’s now not American owned.  It’s the last of the great family dynasties in American commerce.  As Anheuser Busch went, so did America.  This is a company that came into existence three days after Lincoln was inaugurated and passed into foreign hands the week that Obama was elected.  And in between is the story of America.  Everything that this company went through is American.  This is a company that was founded by immigrants who came here from Germany and made into a colossus.  They turned this country into a beer-drinking country.  It hadn’t been before.  They didn’t drink beer.  The Germans brought it in, and these guys are the most successful.  The company weathered two world wars, a depression, and prohibition, and survived and blossomed and provided amazing lives for a lot of people.  It became, it was the backbone of St. Louis.  During all of prohibition, they didn’t lay off any employees.  They kept people working, and so it’s this great saga.  At the same time the family stories are just outrageous.  They were so rich, and all the stuff that goes with that.  Untimely deaths, scandal, sex, murders, shootings, but then after all that, after operating in three centuries, in the end they’re undone by globalization and the case I’ll make is moral degradation.  So it’s a story of America.  It’s what’s happened to us.  And you can tell it through a beer company that everybody understands.  This is what we are, this is where we were, this is all about opportunity and excellence and, and then blowing it.  And that’s what happened.

TREVOR: You’re getting cooperation from family members?

WK: Some, not all, but enough. I know the story, I know what it is and I grew up in St. Louis so I was steeped in the Anheuser Busch lore.  You can’t not know about Anheuser Busch.  It’s like living in the neighborhood of the Rockefellers.

TREVOR: When do you think the book will come out?

WK: I’ve got to turn it in a year from now in June 2011, so probably Spring of 2012 would be my guess.

TREVOR: Have you written any other books?

WK:  I wrote a book called In Eddie’s Name that came out in 2000 that was about a murder that took place in Philadelphia in 1994, and it was a teenager who was beaten to death by a gang of teenagers with baseball bats on the steps of a church where he’d been an alter boy, so it was like this horrific murder that took place, but it became something other than a murder story.  It was really a story about the family that went through this and and it became this big crazy cause célèbre in Philadelphia because as I found out when I was working on it, he wouldn’t have died had there not been an utter failure of the Philadelphia 911 system that night, because people were calling in about this band of kids that were marauding all over the place.  But the 911 operators were hanging up on them ’cause they didn’t know enough to say, “Man with a gun.”  Because they, if you said, “man with a gun” the cops would have showed up.  Because they didn’t have guns, they didn’t show.  They just had baseball bats and they were beating people to death so the kid died. It became a big national story because I sued the city.  I was running a  television news show, Enquiring News Tonight, which was in partnership with the Philadelphia Enquirer, and I was new to Philadelphia, and we were talking about the crime one night in an editorial meeting and I said, “It said in the paper that some nun called in the 911 thing, let’s get the 911 tapes.”  Everyone in the room looked at me and said, “What do you mean, get the 911 tapes? Those aren’t public record.”  I said, “What do you mean, those aren’t public record?  In Los Angeles they are. Are you kidding me?  They charge every citizen here a dollar a month for the 911 system.  How can they not be…?”   “Oh, the police consider that investigation,”   And I said, “Well, then lets fucking sue them and we will win.”  We did and won and they had to release the tapes, and it showed exactly what happened, and they played them on every newscast, because it was appalling.  Hanging up on people.  Not taking the calls. It was a good, very gut-wrenching book.

For more information about Bill Knoedelseder go to:

You can’t help but like Steve Young, the low-key, self-effacing, singer-songwriter who’s been seriously been making tasty, thoughtful rootsy music since the early 1960’s. I sat with him in April, 2010, while on the Roots on the Rails expedition from Los Angeles to Portland and back, after having seen him perform four sets. He’s a very accomplished guitarist, a fine singer, a great interpreter of songs, and he writes superb ones, which is why the Eagles cut “Seven Bridges Road,” one of their staples in concert, and Waylon Jennings made famous “Lonesome, Ornery and Mean.” I subsequently bought three of his cd’s, and can enthusiastically recommend his work. Steve is a class act, highly regarded by his fellow performers. Go see him live if you get the chance.

TREVOR: How’d you get into playing music?

STEVE: I couldn’t do anything else and I always wanted to be a musician from when I was a tiny kid, and I told people I would be.  Of course, they didn’t believe that. And they thought it was a pretty bad idea, too …

TREVOR: This was in Montgomery, Alabama?

STEVE: The nearest thing I had to a home town was Gadsen, Alabama, but I was actually born in Noonan, Georgia.  That’s still far from Atlanta. My family was unsettled and would move around, and I would sometimes live with my grandmother.  She lived in Gadsden, but all these people originally were from Georgia.  But, you know, I was fortunate in the music of that time and that place was very rich and real, more real, than it is today, you know.  So it had a lot of influence on me.

TREVOR: Mom and dad, they didn’t want you to play?

STEVE: Oh, no.  Nobody did.  Their idea of security would be to become a mailman.

TREVOR: When did you get a guitar?

STEVE: I couldn’t get one.  They were too poor, and a guitar to me was like an astral dream as a kid.  It was a magical thing and I really wanted one, but I could not get one.  I even sold seed.  I took the ad in the back of comic books and sold seeds door to door to get this pictured guitar, and they said it was made out of cardboard. (laughs)  When I was about 14 my mom became convinced enough that she bought me a real guitar.  It was a Gibson ES 125.  Little thin body electric.   Simple guitar.  And from there I really started to learn, or how to play.

TREVOR: Did somebody teach you?  Did you take lessons?

STEVE: There was a guy that helped me get some fundamentals and he believed that I was a real musician, and he went out of his way to help me, but other than that, I was mostly self-taught.  That’s one reason my playing is kind of eccentric.  And I would watch and listen, and I heard, and the street singers, whom I loved.

TREVOR: What were you playing, folk music tunes?

STEVE: I would play different things, some folk, some gospel because my grandmother wanted to hear some of that, blues,  country, and also at that time the hit parade was on, and the top 10, whatever, the standard type coming out of that era of the big bands. So it was a wide variety of music that I heard, and really liked all of it.  And then when I was a teenager I saw flamenco guitarists.  That had a big influence on me, because I didn’t even know what flamenco was.

TREVOR: That was Montoya?

STEVE: Carlos Montoya.  And the sounds that he could get out of one guitar just blew me away.  I was just a kid in high school.  He played at a community college in Beaumont, Texas, which is a terrible place near the Louisiana border.  I was just obsessed with guitar, and I learned the basics of what I know between 14 and 17.

TREVOR: When did you decide to try and make a career of it?

STEVE: I never thought in terms of career.  I just saw it in terms of being able to play and sing and doing what you wanted to, and being a free guy.  I never had ambitions to be a star or anything like that.  I wanted to do my own thing and do it my way, and people could take it or leave it, which was a pretty arrogant attitude.  I mean it’s a tough enough business to try to…

TREVOR: I take it you never really had any other job other than music?

STEVE: No, I tried to have other jobs.  I did have some.  I couldn’t hold them very long.  You know, the people would say “Ah he’s,” whatever, “He can’t do this,” or else I just couldn’t, or I would just bail on them, and getting’ up and going in, and doing the whole thing.  I think the longest I ever held a job was about six months.  One time I was a mailman in L.A, the worst mailman they ever had.  But I’d made a high score on the tests and they thought I’d be a good mailman.  (laughs)  I told them I would never play music again.  I quit.

TREVOR:  Did you have recording agreements?

STEVE:  My introduction to the recording world… There were two guys in Gadsen, Alabama named Richard and Jim, and they did this Appalachiany, folky, whatever, weird bag, mixture, and they had comedy.  They were really trying to make it, whereas I was just kind of a wandering bum, but they wanted me to open shows and to play guitar behind them and they really appreciated what I did, and put up with me.  In Montgomery, I was always getting in trouble about local politics and the junior Klansmen were pissed off at me, and Montgomery was getting’ pretty intense and one day they said “Hey, we got a contract with Capitol Records in Hollywood, California.  Do you wanna go?  And I said “Yeah, let’s go.”  That was 1963.

We went to Capitol Records and we did an album.  They did their album and the producer really like me and he wanted to produce me, but I was just too crazy.  I was drunk all the time. I know they secretly recorded me in the old Capitol studio singing a song.  As I’m playing it back on these huge speakers, I said “Hell that sounds good.  Who is that?”  They said, “It’s you, you fool.”  (laughs) I would get in sessions.  I was doing session work.  I’d go down to the Musician’s Union, and get what to me was a lot of money.  But I didn’t know what to make of L.A. or California, and I said “Well, I’m gonna go back home, but when I went back it was more miserable than ever.  So being in California did something to me,  in a way that still goes.

TREVOR: So you, how did you make your career?

STEVE: It was tough because, because I was uncertain and there was nothing really that commercial or ever has been in a way about what I did, or do.  So I would try to do gigs, and a lot of them were miserable and just didn’t work, but I finally made a record for A&M.  It came out and nobody got it, but a few people got it.  I was invited to the Newport Folk Festival in ’69 by Jim Rooney because he got it.  So there was a little sparkle of…

TREVOR: Who’s Jim Rooney?

STEVE: He’s a musician who now lives in Ireland, but he was instrumental in the old folk world.  He either ran or started Café Lena in the Northeast, which was a famous old folk club. I played the folk festival.

TREVOR: And it went over well?

STEVE: I was stirred up, very conflicted personally, looking back.  So when I would present myself, it wasn’t clear what I was doing.  It created problems and it went on like that for years, and finally I wanted to stop dealing with the whole music thing, and I opened a little guitar store with a friend, in San Anselmo, California.  I did that for a couple years and then I couldn’t take it anymore, and finally Joan Baez cut “Seven Bridges Road.”  That was my first significant event.  Over the years I became more respected, slowly but surely people heard things and liked them.

TREVOR: What are some other cuts that were successful?

STEVE:  “Lonesome, Ornery And Mean” was my next most successful cut, which Waylon Jennings did.  It’s still a song that even today is loved by a lot of young people, apparently.  So it all worked out in a pretty good way because I don’t require a great deal. So, between getting some royalties and doing some gigs that I really wanna do,  I can make a living, I have made a living, but it was a lot of hard times in between there, just struggling and trying to find some kind of footing somewhere doing something.

TREVOR: So, these days right now you’re happy?  You enjoy it?

STEVE: Oh, yeah, because I do it pretty much on my terms when I wanna do it, and I’m very lucky in spite of me.  I’ve had a wee bit of success, and, because I’m the worst self-promoter in the world.  I really don’t care about a “career.”  The thing that bores me the most is Steve Young promo.

TREVOR: How many albums have you made?

STEVE: There must be about 11, and I’m well overdue.  I need to make some more.  I’ve become too much of a perfectionist now.  I have to come off that.  I got a lot of good ideas I need to finish, and just go ahead and record them and accept that nothing is perfect.

TREVOR: How many songs have you written in the last year?

STEVE: I’ve finally finished a couple.  They must be 100 or more songs that are almost there.  If I would just do the final work.  I get distracted with all these other little things and somehow I’m just not finishing them.

TREVOR: Do you play music every day?

STEVE: No, not necessarily every day.  I go in spells, and I got a bunch of recording gear and I try to understand how to work it, and it’s more difficult than I thought. I like to fool with the stuff and I go up in my little studio and once you get into it, you may stay there hours doing it.

TREVOR: Give me a couple high points that have been thrilling for you as a musician.

STEVE: When Waylon Jennings did “Lonesome, Ornery & Mean.” Everybody else was thrilled when the Eagles did “Seven Bridges Road,” and I really appreciate them doing it, and it certainly has helped me be who I am and be kind of free.  The little things that thrill me now are not really very significant in terms of big career or anything. For example, I have a memory of playing one time at a place where they treat alcoholics, which I am one, drug addict/alcoholic; I just don’t use or drink anymore. I did a song I wrote about alcoholism.  There’s a bunch of old black guys there, and they gave me standing ovation and that was a thrill.

TREVOR: You live in Nashville.  Why?

STEVE: I was living in the San Francisco Bay area and … oddly, it’s crazy, I’d forgotten about some of my great differences with the South, and I went back and it was a shock.   I went through a divorce there.  My son had been born in San Francisco; he was just about two or three years at that time, and out of the necessity in about ’81, I bought this house in this old neighborhood when they were cheap, and then I would go away other places and rent it out to some friends.  Over the years, I just got rooted there, and it’s a place that I know in a sense, but if I had a lot of money, I would probably really buy a place in California.   Or keep this house and then have another house.  I really, I did a lot of years of commuting back and forth.  I had an apartment in L.A. in Echo Park.

TREVOR: How many gigs do you do a year?

STEVE: It depends on what I want to do.  A lot of times I do gigs in order to get somewhere.  If I want to go from Nashville to L.A., I’ll go to Texas first probably and do several gigs.  Texas is the most supportive state for what I do.  I’ve got a guesthouse where I can stay and hang out.  So I’ll go down to Austin and look around, and then I like to go from San Antonio to El Paso on the back roads.  You go through Del Rio and Langtry.

TREVOR: You’re driving yourself?

STEVE: Yeah.  That’s what I love to do.

TREVOR: What kind of car do you drive?

STEVE: Toyota Camry.

TREVOR: Is it lonely being out there?

STEVE: Oh, yeah.  You get lonely, but I’m a loner.  I need friends, I need people, but I’m essentially a loner person as far as big family commitments go.

TREVOR: What do you do for fun?

STEVE: I look at good old movies, good old music.  Try to record it.  Try to play and write some.  Go to the gym and work out.  That’s about it.  That’s about as fun as it gets.

TREVOR: Is there anybody contemporary you’re listening to or a fan of?

STEVE: Contemporary?  What the real meaning of contemporary?  Would Dave Alvin be contemporary?


STEVE: Well, well I can appreciate very much Dave Alvin, Tom Russell, people like that.  I’m serious.  But most of the young folk people?  I don’t get it.

TREVOR: It’s, uh, Sunday morning, and you’re going to put on some music.  What will you play?

STEVE: I’d probably play some Blind Willie Johnson or Elvis’ Sun Sessions, or something old probably.  The past fascinates me, and a lot has been lost and will never return.  It’s like the modern country, so-called country, it has no roots, no soul.  The old guys that produced this stuff worked out in the fields, and I know what it was, because I was there at the tail end of it.  I was there when Elvis came on the scene.  People don’t understand, and certainly young people think he was some fat, burned out old guy, a joke.  Well, before that, he was something for real.

TREVOR: Tell me the three best shows you’ve ever seen.

STEVE: Carlos Montoya, then I would have to say, and I’m not just saying this because they’re here now, it would have to be probably some of the shows I’ve seen Tom Russell and Dave Alvin do.  I’ve seen Waylon do some good shows, and I say this kind of reluctantly, David Allen Coe with his band.  It was comical in a way; he put down his band at one show they did then on the stage they slowly came together and became friends again.

TREVOR: Okay, you’ve just been on Roots On The Rails for four day, what’s your take on this?

STEVE: This is my second train trip, and only now do I get why these people are addicted to this.  There’s a magical camaraderie, and even though being on this train is a form of suffering in a way, it’s a wonderful suffering, an escape from the folks’ real world,  to this wondrous, friendly, creative, appreciative little bubble.  So it’s really a great thing, and now I see why as some of these people have told me, “One reason we come back is because of the other people.”

TREVOR: The fans are respectful.

STEVE: Very respectful and they’re very supportive and accepting.  It always worries me a little bit.  I had a conversation with somebody here about, “Don’t think because some songwriter writes a great song, that he’s a wonderful person. That’s a big mistake.”  I’ve seen a lot of musicians play that, and I don’t want to do that because I have a saying that most artists are failures as human beings.

For more on Steve Young, go to:

Lanky, handsome Thad Beckman has a solo career as an accomplished guitarist, songwriter, and singer and he’s the accompanist for the Americana adventurer, raconteur, singer-songwriter, Tom Russell (see his interview), for whom he does a terrific job. Thad’s solo act is likewise entertaining and compelling: he clearly knows and loves what he is doing.

Thad is very pleasant company, easy going, easy to talk to, easy to be with. He’s based in Portland, Oregon and roots aficionados will appreciate his quality writing, playing and singing. I interviewed him rolling along the rails in Southern Oregon on the Roots on the Rails train in April 2010.

TREVOR: You’ve got four albums out now.  What are the names?

TB:  “Carry Me Back” I did in 1998 in Austin.  Then I did “Beckman” recorded in Northern California in 2003.  Then “Blues Gone By,” a solo blues thing, 2006 — in Portland. Then “Me Talking to Me,” which I did couple years ago. 1998.

TREVOR: And they’re on your own label?

TB:  Thadzooks Records. I sell them on CD Baby, at shows, and I’m on I-Tunes.

TREVOR: When did you become a professional musician?

TB:  1980, September.

TREVOR: What did you do before that?

TB: I roamed and traveled.  From ’71 through 75, I was in the Air Force, and that’s when I started getting back into playing music.  I studied classical music, started playing classical guitar, and then I got out and I took music classes for a year.  Then I rambled around a bit.  I was married, got a divorce, played gigs here and there but nothing steady and did this and that for let’s four years.  I was on the East Coast and I thought it was time to do something — make a stand.  I’d gone to college, taken a zillion different classes in many different things.

TREVOR: Did you get a degree?

TB:  No.  I went for literature, did music, took a business law class, just looking for something that might strike me, and music was the only thing that really interested me.

TREVOR: You’ve been playing since when?

TB: When I was 12.

TREVOR:  Were you in bands?

TB:  Yeah.

TREVOR:  Rock and roll?

TB:  Almost immediately.  In ’65, ’66, ’67, we started playing together.  There were three or four of us in Catholic grade school and then we made a band and played church socials, and played “Paint It Black.”  Stuff like that.  We were kids.  In high school I was actually in a good band.  We played every weekend all the way through high school. Then I quit.  I sold everything I had and quit playing for five years and I started up when I was 22.

TREVOR: Why did you quit playing?

TB: Part of it was I didn’t really take music seriously and myself seriously as a player.  Music was a more than a hobby, but it wasn’t something I thought I considered seriously.  Then the drug thing really hit in the 60’s, and I didn’t like what it did to our band.  We had a good band, but drugs entered into it and things changed in a way I didn’t like, and I got fed up with the scene.

TREVOR: So how did you become a professional musician?

TB:  By playing professional gigs.  I worked up a repertoire.   I got to the point where I could do four hours of music because that’s what you needed back then. On the Coast of Oregon I had played one summer; they hired me to play three nights a week. It was fun, that was in ’79, ’78, and I thought, “I think I’ll really do this.”  I went back to the Coast, the same club hired me indefinitely three nights a week, and I did that for two years.

TREVOR:  And what were you doing, covers?

TB: All covers.  Willie Nelson stuff, Kristofferson, John Prine, Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, the songwriters.   I got turned on to Mississippi John Hurt somewhere in there, which pulled me over, and then I started learning how to play the guitar more seriously.

TREVOR: How did you learn, did you teach yourself?

TB:  Pretty much.  In Portland, Oregon, there was a guy named Gary Nichols, a tremendous talent. You would just go, “If I had half your talent,” but he had a real hard time performing.  He was very nervous about it, but he was doing shows with Leo Kottke, and was Portland’s answer to him, except he was (also) a great singer. He lived on the Coast, was married, had gotten into construction work, had an alcohol problem, and he and his wife split up. He was a great picker, so I moved in with him, and we jammed all the time and I learned a ton watching this guy play.  I was surrounded by players who were better than me and I just played all the time.

TREVOR:  You’re accompanying Tom Russell; how did that happen?

TB: Tom and I have a mutual friend who lives in El Paso whom I went to visit  two years ago, and I saw Tom play.  I gave him a card at the end of the show and said, “Hey, if you ever need a guitar player, look me up.”  I’d never been a side guy, and I remember walking away from that table going, “Christ, what would I do if he called me?”   Nine months later, I was back in El Paso and so was Tom, and his guitar player, Michael, needed to take a break as his dad was ill.  Tom invited me over to the house, we played for a couple of hours and hit it off.  I went home, studied his music for three hours a day for a month, started working with him, he liked it and hired me full time.

TREVOR: What do you do in the interim?

TB:  I do my own shows.  I teach three days a week up in Portland when I’m in town.  Then I’ve got my own little tours I still do.

TREVOR: Do you enjoy being a sideman?

TB:  I do. As a musician, it’s a whole different approach to playing. I’m used to playing solo, and you know I do a lot of finger picking, and then you do it all yourself.  You approach the thing completely differently, and, as a musician, I very much enjoy it because I’ve had to learn a ton and it’s been a lot of fun to explore a different avenue in music.

TREVOR: He’s a good person to travel with I take it.

TB: Absolutely.  We joke.  He said, “You came along at a good time because,” these first tours I started on, the hotels were better, the gigs were better, the food was better, he’s really got it down.  The traveling is all very simple.

TREVOR: Is he demanding?

TB: No, other than he expects me to play well every night, but that’s not demanding.

TREVOR: Do shows always go well?

TB: The only time I’ve had a bad show, and it wasn’t our … not that there’s a fault thing, it wasn’t because of the music.  It was just a venue, the people, the situation wasn’t well organized, but again, not his fault or mine.  We haven’t had a bad musical show.  He’s as steady as a rock, he may get tired, his voice may get tired, but his story telling is always spot on and he varies it every night. He’s always cracking me up, he’s got that entertainment aspect of it down.

TREVOR:  My wife and I found you as a performer to be very engaging. Does that come easy?  Did you teach yourself?

TB:  That actually came from playing different venues, different shows, and finally just relaxing.  I used to get uptight and I would have everything I was going to say planned out in my stories, and that was okay, but a lot of times I would be stiff, and then finally I  said, “Just be yourself.”  You hear that all the time.  I just relaxed, telling stories that basically are true, and I have things I draw on, and there’s a natural ham element to it.

TREVOR: Do you write a lot?

TB: I write in spurts.  I’ve got maybe 12 or 13 or 14 good ideas in songs.  Then I get up every day and I write for hour and hour and a half, and I work on a tune or two until I finish it, and that process doesn’t stop at that hour and a half.  I don’t have the mental muscle to write much beyond that because I also practice every day so, but that (writing) continues through the day.  Those songs will cycle through my brain and if something hits me I’ll write it down.  I’m processing the material all the time.  I did my last album in 2008 and I didn’t write a song again until three months ago, and now I’m writing every day again.

TREVOR: Do you co-write ever?

TB: I can’t.  I’ve tried it. I’m not interested in it.

TREVOR: Do you produce all your records solo?

TB: No.  The first one I did, “Carry Me Back,” was produced by Merel Bregante, he drummed with Loggins and Messina.  Great drummer, good producer.  He lives in Austin now.  He and David Heath and I co-produced it.  The rest of them I produced myself.

TREVOR: And who’s the band?

TB: In Austin I use the best guys.  I had Gene Elders on the fiddle and Floyd Domino on piano on “Carry Me Back” on board.  Denny Bixby is on bass, Rodney Crowell’s guy, on “Me Talking to Me.”  On the latter, Bryce Shelton isn’t really famous, he’s just a great drummer.  I try to draw in the best players I can find.

TREVOR:  What’s the music scene like in Portland?

TB: It’s active.  There are a lot of clubs happening.  There used to be a real strong blues scene.  Portland was a good blues town, best in the Northwest, and in the 80’s it was a great jazz town.  Unfortunately, that’s not true anymore.  There’s a real strong indie rock thing in Portland.

TREVOR: How would you categorize the kind of music you do?

TB:  It’s roots-based singer/songwriter.

TREVOR: With a heavy influence in blues.

TB: For sure.  On the last album, there are two distinct country things on it.  There’s a little bit of funk on it.

TREVOR: What do you enjoy and dislike about being a professional musician?

TB: It’s constantly creative in a way that I get to do what I like to do.  I play the music that I like to play.  I’m not in a cover band, I’m not a side guy all the time. What I don’t like about it is there’s not a lot of money involved.  (laughs)

TREVOR: Unless you get a hit.

TB: If you get a hit, you can squeak by, but there are guys in Portland, tremendous players, playing for 75 bucks a night.  You can’t live on that.  And that’s the market, it’s just the way it is.  Everything went up.  We’re making the same money we made in 1980.

TREVOR: Give me your perceptions, feelings about “Roots On The Rails,” what we’re in the middle of now.

TB: This is sort of a fantasyland to me.  I love it.  I did the one in the Southwest, which is very different than this, because we didn’t stay on the train.  They’re narrow gauge so you, they bus to towns and then the group gets on a specific train for the day and it chugs through the mountains at 20 miles an hour, and it’s great, (with these) steam plumes.   There’s a lot more people on a boat cruise.  This is cool because you get 50 people, and at the end of four days you all know each other, and I haven’t really had a bad experience with anybody on either one of these trips.  Everybody’s very respectful.  You got Steve Young sitting watching all these people at an open mike.  You wouldn’t find that in a town.  That we’ve got a place to go to have some privacy is great … Look at this!  (laughs at extraordinary sights out the window).

Trevor: What music are you listening to now, anything contemporary?

TB: Before I came on this trip I listened to a lot of Dave Alvin, Steve Young because we’re doing shows with them.   I haven’t listened to a lot of contemporary music.  I’m not hearing any great writers.  We’ve talked about that a ton.  Great music, great production but…

TOM RUSSELL (joins in):  Sonically everything’s become pretty interesting.  There’s no songwriters.  It’s a dead art. It’s all over. Except for a few people.

TB: Yeah.  (laughs)

TR: It’s mysterious, an alchemy that’s been lost.

TB: Yeah.

TREVOR: Let’s talk about heroes and influences.  Hank Williams, Mississippi John Hurt?

TB: Yeah, all the blues guys.  All the Delta guys.   All the old country guys up into the 70’s.  Merle, Buck Owens, George Jones, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters huge, Howlin’ Wolfe, and all the players associated with them.  All the guys in Chicago.  Jimmy Rodgers, Willie Big Eyes Smith.  All the guys that were the support players.  Tremendous musicians.  Hubert Sumlin, incredibly inventive guitar player with Howlin’ Wolf.  He’s still alive and a very nice man.  I got to meet him.  A lot of people who are my heroes in my music world are people that are close to me.  Victor Guschob is a painter in Portland who lives a reclusive life, who turned me on to electric blues and he had a tremendous feel and love for it. My sister and my mother were extremely influential getting me to play music and to not quit.  Those kinds of heroes are not the great players that I’ve listened to, but without them I wouldn’t be here.

For more on Thad Beckman, go to his website:

Photo by Tom Ruddock

I’ve known Brian Ray for 35 years as I used to work with his sister, Jean. I always found him to be a very personable fellow. I ran into him a few years ago and we had a nice chat; I was thrilled to then learn and impressed that he was in Paul McCartney’s band. Brian was nice enough to sit for this interview in April 2010 at the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, one of the best stores in the nation (and I’m not kidding), for the best in all things fromage, wine, and other delicacies. It’s owned by Norbert Wabnig, my dear friend, and a huge McCartney fan, who joins in the conversation later on as we savored an exquisite meal.

I’m particularly fond of this interview because it gives hope to all musicians. Stay with your craft, do your best, keep it together and it will turn out all right, just as it did for Brian Ray.

TM: What do you currently do as a musician?

BR: My day job is that I play guitar and bass for Paul McCartney in his touring band and on several of his recordings, and have done so for eight years now.

TM: Where did you grow up?

BR: I was born and raised in Glendale, the gateway to Burbank, and now reside in Santa Monica, California.

TM: How did you get into playing music?

BR:  I was lucky enough to have a half-sister, Jean, who was 15 years my elder and in love with music herself.  She was a senior in high school, homecoming queen when I was 3 or 4 years old.  She would baby sit me and play for me Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Rick Nelson, Everly Brothers, and show me pictures of these people with their girlfriends, and they’d be fawning over these early rockers, and something about that moment just caught my imagination.  At four years old I knew what I wanted to do when I got older, and I have a very vivid memory of looking at Elvis, and looking at his image, his taste in clothes, and what he did to his hair.  All this stuff was apparent to me at four years old, and then I heard the music and it was done.  I had this sense from an early age what was the real stuff and what was the counterfeit stuff in pop music, and it just caught my imagination.  I knew then and there what I wanted to do.

TM: When did you get your first guitar?

BR: My first guitar was a $5 nylon string guitar from Tijuana, and it was given to me by Jean, my half-sister.

TM: Did she teach you some chords?

BR:  No.  What happened is, my brother, who hadn’t really displayed much interest in guitar at all, but he was the eldest of four kids, was given a beautiful, brand new 1962 Gibson guitar, and lessons as well.  When he would come home from his lessons I would ask him to show me what he had learned.

TM: How old were you?

BR: I was 8, something like that.  He would show me what he’d learned.  I would take what he’d learned, practice the hell out of it, and by the next lesson he had, I’d be ahead of him, and he lost interest.  I passed him up.  I kept going.  Never got lessons, I just kept going.

TM: Did you play in bands in, in junior high and…

BR:  I was performing before I could tune a guitar to be honest with you.  I was doing show and tell in the fourth grade or fifth grade, fourth grade, and mimicking records that I loved.  In front of the class I would do lip syncs of Beach Boys and other classics.

TM: Did your parents encourage or discourage you from music?

BR:  My parents were great, very encouraging to me.  I don’t think they thought it through to the degree that I might choose it to be my career path, but among my friends, we all knew that I had no plans to do anything else.  From the age of four I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up.  So it was just a matter of getting better at the craft and dedicating myself to it.  I was already dedicated, but it was a matter of applying myself then.

TM: I take it you were into the Beatles when you were a kid.

BR: Absolutely.  I loved the Beatles and I saw them the first time they appeared on Ed Sullivan, just like so many people of our age.  Sunday night, probably 8 p.m., if I’m not mistaken, cross-legged on the floor, four feet from the screen, knowing full well that I was about to be blown away.  I just had this great expectation, because we had heard “Please Please Me” on the radio, which was my first memory of them.  And there they come and changed my life.  But even before the Beatles, I was a big R&B fan, and early rock and roll fan.

So the Beatles spoke to me in a few ways, because they were younger, they were a band, they had a similar look to each other, and they were doing something new and rare.  They were playing original music as a band, all from the same town, and they were all joking around on TV as if they all knew some inside joke, and I wanted to be in on that joke, and I wanted to be in a band, and it made me want that, you know.  Radio had given me an impression of music that I couldn’t shake, but seeing the Beatles live solidified the dream to me.

TM: When did you start playing in bands?

BR: My first guitar playing on stage was with my sister Jean, funny enough.  She was in a folk rock duo called Jim and Jean, and both of their albums are out on Collector’s Choice right now, really great stuff.  Some of Dylan’s players are in the band.  So when they split up, she continued with her solo career and I played the Troubadour, the Ashgrove, which is now the Improv, and all these different shows.  The Icehouse.   By the time I was 17, I was playing on stage with her quite a bit, and all the while I had bands in junior high and high school as well, forming bands and covering other people’s songs, writing our own songs, and rearranging other people’s songs at a very early age.

At 17 years old, I would take songs I loved and rearrange them for our band, or I would take bits of famous songs and string them together in a medley set to a blues song.  The strangest things — I was using West Side Story songs like “America” and setting them to a blues shuffle.  We’d do this great breakdown as a band and go into that melody.  I just loved playing with music.

TM: Did you go to college at all?

BR: No, I did not.

TM: You went straight into show biz?

BR: I was really lucky in that after touring with Jean, my sister, my next professional job was with Bobby Boris Pickett doing the “Monster Mash.”  That was a blast.  We would do Six Flags Over Texas and these amusement parks and these scary Halloween shows and in full zombie makeup and the whole bit.  He had had a whole bunch of songs, and we’d do a couple covers and “twist” songs.

TM: What was Bobby Boris Pickett like?

BR: He was hilarious.  He’s a comedy writer.  We lost him about a year and a half ago, but he was a fabulous guy, very gentle, very funny, very affable and very kicked back.  Really good guy.

TM: Did you stay in touch with him after all these years?

BR: He came to one of my last gigs in my last lineup at the Viper Room.  I had no idea he was suffering from cancer, he was just there in full spirit backing me up and being such a sweet guy and I find out after he passed away that he was suffering a long time before I saw him at that show.  So, anyway, I loved that guy.

TM: Did he make a pretty living as being Bobby Boris Pickett?

BR: Sure he did. It’s a huge song.  We got contracted to play a backyard benefit show for a guy named Phil Kaufman, the legendary old pal road manager of Gram Parsons and for the Rolling Stones, Flying Burrito Brothers, and Gram Parsons old best friend as well.  They had a tipsy vow they made to each other that they loved each other and that whichever one of them went first, the other would take the body out to Joshua Tree and dispose of it in the way that two brothers would want — have a bunch of drinks and incinerate it there in Joshua Tree, and Phil Kaufman took that very seriously and when Gram OD’s, Phil Kaufman did just that.

There we were in the San Fernando Valley playing a show for Phil Kaufman to raise money to pay off his bail or his fine for grand theft of a coffin, and guess who we were? — “Bobby Boris Pickett and The Crypt Kicker Five.”  Kinda crazy story.

We played there along with The Modern Lovers, Dr. Demento and some other people who joined in that day.  This is all documented in Phil’s book, Road Mangler Deluxe.  Phil took to me for some reason.  He’d just lost his best friend.  He hung out, he was helping teach me how to drink.  Drink like a man.  (laughs)  Drink like a cowboy, which meant Jack Daniels, of course.  Anyway, he asked me to stay over because then the next morning he was going up to a rehearsal for a rhythm and blues singer named Etta James, who he had just taken me to see at the Troubadour, and he said that in the morning Etta would begin rehearsals and the guitar player couldn’t make it, could I just come along and bring my guitar, and, “You never know,” maybe I could sit in.  I said, “Sure, you kidding me?”  So there I was in the back of his green equipment truck with my old Les Paul, tooling up the road to Hollywood Hills, and inside there was Etta James, and she didn’t say much.  We started playing, I started jamming along, very insecure.  I might have just turned 19.  I had white blond hair down to my chest.  I was skinny as a rail and white as a ghost and I was jamming along with Etta James, big blues mama.  At the end of rehearsal – I was keeping up okay, I guess – she goes, “I like that white boy,” and she asked me to go play a gig with her in Long Beach the next night.  That was the beginning of what turned into 14 years together.

TM: 14 years!

BR: As her musical director and guitar player.  We would go out to shows and I would put together a band, and the promoter would get musicians in the various towns…

TM: So it would probably be just you and her most of the time on the road?

BR: And her husband, and her son sometimes.

TM: So what was that experience like?

BR: Oh, it was ridiculous.  It was so fun, adventurous, crazy, dramatic — her husband was a jerk.  They were both recovering addicts.  There was probably more going on than I ever realized, and there were times when her husband would take off with my money.  So the biggest show of my young life at 19 was the Montreux Jazz Festival… and in the band was John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin and Rick Wakemen from Yes on keyboard.  These great horn players like David Fathead Newman, Tony Poindexter, these legends.  There I was and Sam, her husband, stole my $350 bucks!  I never got paid for the show, but it doesn’t matter; to me it’s just a wonderful memory and a great story with a little bit of drama on top.

TM: What was her biggest hit?

BR:  “At Last.”

BR:  And then also, “I’ve Got to Go Blind.”  Two huge records.

TM: Who wrote “At Last?”

BR:  I don’t remember who wrote that (It was Mack Gordon and Harry Warren in 1941 for the film musical “Sun Valley Serenade”), but she wrote “I’ve Got to Go Blind.”

TM: And she always put on a good show?

BR: Oh, my God.  She’s one of those rare performers who can literally make you laugh and cry within eight bars.  Reach in, take a hold of your heart, grab it, show it to you, and then put it back in your chest and pat you on the back.  You know, just a rare, rare performer where her insides were just right there on her sleeve, right there in her voice.  She’s very connected to herself.

TM: And did you record with her as well?

BR:  Yeah.  First record I did with her is way out of print but it was called Etta Is Better Than Evah. And that was my title by the way.  (laughs)  That was in 1976, recorded for Chess Platinum records in Fort Lee, New Jersey.  I was 20 years old, 21.  And then I did another with, with her in 1977 that is available called Deep In The Night, and that was produced by the great Jerry Wexler for Warner Bros.

TM: It must have been a thrill to work with him.

BR: Oh, my God, yeah.  A very cool guy.

TM: You traveled all over the world with her.

BR:  I sure did.

TM: And that, that must have been a great experience.

BR: Yeah, sure.  Going to London and Germany and Switzerland when you’re 19 years old is monumental.  It was huge.

TM: Is Etta still alive?

BR: She is, and recovering from some setbacks health-wise, but she was recording and playing live as recently as 8 months ago.  So she’s still around.

TM: How come you left working with her?

BR: I had gotten lucky after doing a bunch of records with some various artists and being a session guy, and I had gone into songwriting, and I had played with various artists like Nicolette Larson, and Reggie Knighton, a band called Crackin’ on Warner Bros., and Laura Branigan.  I decided that I wanted to start concentrating more on songwriting, so I found a writing partner and we wrote as if it was our job, 9 to 5 every day, five days a week. From that came a very big song that we wrote for and got over to Smokey Robinson in 1987 called “One Heartbeat” from the album of the same name. It was a hit on three formats, and it’s now nearly 3 million airplays.  So I had thought I had it all going on in about 1988-89, rolling in royalties and I wanted to write more and do my own band thing.  I’d been with her for 14 years by the time ’88 rolled around, and her husband and her  manager were starting to change the way they were gonna do things.  They wanted me to be the band leader but they didn’t want to let me do the hiring and the firing of the band, so it was a strange, stressful kind of position, and I just decided to move on.

Oh, but man, did I miss her and, oh, I tried to get back in the band.  That was big drama years later where I really wanted to be back in but she had moved on — but we’re very close now.

TM: Where does she live?

BR: She’s out in Riverside.

TM: Have you played with her since you left the band?

BR: Sure have, I sat in with her a number of times at the House of Blues.  She was really kind to offer her vocals to a song of mine on my first record called Mondo Magneto. It’s a song called “Soft Machine.”  The unmistakable Etta James.  There she is.

TM: So then you did the songwriting thing for awhile.  What happened with that?  Where did you go?

BR: I wasn’t able to create another smash, but we kept working away at it.  I did put my own band together.  We played around.  A band called Charm School and then I did a solo band for awhile and then I started playing with Rita Coolidge.  I had stopped drinking in that time, around ’88.  I think that was part of my decision as well to leave, because sometimes it was a little bit dangerous for a guy who’s newly sober around Etta’s camp.

TM: And what was the name of your partner that you wrote with?

BR: Steve Le Gassick.

TM: What happened to him?

BR: He still makes some music.  His wife’s got a great cosmetics business and he helps with that.  They travel quite a bit.  He’s got a band and they do WAVE-style soft jazz.

TM: Playing with Rita Coolidge, was that good?

BR: Oh, it’s great.  I mean to play with a woman who had been out with Joe Cocker and Leon Russell and Clapton and all that stuff.  It was a big thrill for me.  And finally, they are recognizing publicly that Rita Coolidge actually wrote that end bit of “Leila” where the piano breaks down to that lovely piano thing.  That was Rita Coolidge’s riff, and their keyboardist, maybe Bobby Whitlock, started playing it.  Stuck it in the song and never had credit for it.  Heard a DJ say it the other day.  Good for her.

TM: How long did you play with Rita?

BR: Four or five from ’91 through ’95.

TM: And then you went where?

BR: Then I went to France and auditioned to play with a cool artist named Mylene Farmer.  She was like a Madonna of France with a very reedy thin voice, an Enya-type voice but singing provocative deep lyrics with a very flashy show, and doing big arenas.  I was just lucky to get the audition. In the band, the drummer who also won the audition out of many auditioning drummers, was Abe Laboreal, Jr., who would soon figure into my life in a big way.  Then, after Mylene Farmer, I got another French artist gig with a guy named Johnny Hallyday, the French Elvis, who’s still kicking and a remarkable performer.

I became his guitar player.  I would go between Mylene and Johnny back and forth, because they’d use some of the same crew guys, just go back and forth between those artists and had a wonderful time together, all of us.  Touring in France.  Nice times.

TM: So you learned to speak French?

BR: Uh peu.  Un petit peu.  Abe Laboreal, Jr. also won the audition to play with Johnny Hallyday, so Abe and I went back and forth between these two completely polar opposite artists and in doing so became best of friends.

TM: Give us the scene, what’s it like being his guitar player?  Was it fun, was it hard, was it unusual, was it weird?

BR: It was the first time I’ve been with an act who was about to do a 3-hour show  and we were playing at the Stade De France, the big football stadium, soccer stadium in the middle of Paris, and a brand new stadium.  We were the second music act to come in there, and it held 85,000 people.  And he was going do it for three nights!  The Stones come in there and they played for maybe one night.  He’s a big deal over there.  I was very, very excited.  I’d warmed up to the French experience by playing Mylene Farmer just before that, but in arenas, more like 12 to 17,000 people per.  They pushed me forward and got me into some crazy rocking clothes and gave me a lot to play a lot of emphasis, and it was just a total blast.  He’s a real rocker.  He’s a fun guy.  Nice guy to work with.  It was very demanding of you musically.  They also had an 86-piece orchestra and 200 choral singers arriving, coming up from a hydraulic lift in the middle of the show.  Is that insane?

TM: Do you read music?

BR: I don’t.  I read charts, but as far as reading notation, no.  I but I read chord charts and make my own charts when I hear a song, or just play by ear.

TM: How long did you play with Hallyday?

BR: Johnny was from ’98 through 2001.

TM: And then the next job was what?

BR: Next big thing after Johnny was Paul.

TM: We’re about 2001, how did you actually hear about the gig?

BR: Abe had left the Johnny Hallyday tour before our last leg. Got a new drummer.  I was unhappy and I was calling Abe, “Man, oh, dude, I miss you so much.  You get me outta here.”  And he’s like, “Oh, I’ve been with K.D. Lang,” and says, “You’re not gonna believe what I just got,” and I said “What?”  “I got a call from Paul McCartney.  I’m doing his upcoming record.”  I went, “Oh, my God.  I’m gonna run back to town just to shake your hand.  Don’t wash your hand.”

I come back to town and he tells me all about it and they’re gonna be touring in a couple of months, and I said, “Okay, so you have Rusty on guitar, you on drums, Wix on keyboards and Paul, but who’s gonna play bass when Paul moves to piano, and guitar when Paul’s on bass?  And he goes, “Well we’re looking for a guitar player who plays a little bass,” and I put my right hand in the air and said, “I’d love a shot at that.”

TM: That was one of the things that astonishes me when I saw the show, how much bass you did play and how well. How did you get into bass if you spent so much of your career focusing on guitar?

BR: The big secret is I didn’t.  I put my hand up in the air knowing that I would have to run home and woodshed and beaver away at it until I was good enough to be that guy.  And I had played bass on my demos and stuff like that.  Maybe on a demo or two for other people.  I had a bass.  I was more of a bass owner than a bass player.  I always thought that guitar players who played bass basically sucked and so I guess my objective would have been just to do the best I could to honor Paul’s amazing bass parts which are among the best ever recorded ever, and not blow it, and not play like a guitar player when I play bass.  And so that required just simplicity and I did just that.  I got the first job with Paul was one song for the Super Bowl, the pre-National Anthem song right before the 2002 game, and I flew out to New Orleans to meet Paul for the first time.  Did this one song.  I thought that was gonna be it and I’d never see Paul again and Paul comes back to the hotel after I had already said goodbye to him and he comes back to the hotel bar and he’s getting ready to now go to bed after telling some stories, and he’s giving everyone a hug goodnight. We’d played one song.  He comes up to me and he says, “Okay, Brian, welcome aboard, stick with Abe and Rusty and they’ll show you the ropes.  See ya in five weeks for rehearsals.”

I turned to Abe and I said “Did he just say what I think he said?,”  and he goes “Yeah, Dude.”  You know how Abe talks.

That was the beginning.  I ran home and got the right bass, got a guitar, got an acoustic guitar, put them in stands in front of me, got two amps, mike stand standing up, a stack of CDs and CD player all within my reach and I just woodshedded for five weeks straight.  Just immersed myself in Beatles, Wings and solo stuff, and I must have learned 70 songs just all on my own, not knowing what the set list would be, I just worked, and worked, and worked, and worked.  The first week I thought, “I’m not good enough.  This might suck, but I’m gonna do it anyway.”  The second week I go, “Aw, it’s better.”  The third week I had Abe come over and he said, “Oh, it sounds great!,” and by the fifth week I was ready, and I went and got the job.

TM: So then you went out for rehearsals, and what were they like?

BR: By then I’d been woodshedding for five weeks and I was pretty prepared, and we fortunately had five days to rehearse as a band before Paul showed up.  So by day five of those five days, we were sounding pretty good and we knew 45 songs.

TM: You play rhythm and lead?

BR: Rhythm and lead, and acoustic and 12-string, and bass.

TM: And you switch off with Rusty Anderson.  How did he get the job?

BR: He came at the same time Abe did for the record called Driving Rain, produced by David Kahne.

TM: How did Paul know to call Abe and Rusty?

BR: He didn’t, but David Kahne did.

TM: So then you rehearsed with McCartney for how long before that tour?

BR: We rehearsed for five days before he got there and then six days with him, and then we went on tour.

TM: Wat were those rehearsals like?

BR: Insane.  I mean to hear that voice come out of those monitors on those songs.  There we are playing “Hello, Goodbye” and he’s asking me, “Brian, what’s the chords at the end?”  Aiiiee, I can’t even talk.  You’re just in that Nirvana and just feel so blessed and it’s really surreal, and otherworldly.  I did not accept that I was gonna go on tour with Paul McCartney until the end of the first day of that six days together where we finally played together, and he comes in at the end of that day and he says, “Okay, guys, sounds good.  I’ll see ya tomorrow.”  And it wasn’t until then that I really owned that, “Hey, I think I’m goin’ on tour with Paul.

TM: So let’s now rate McCartney as a musician, it’s so softball but…

BR: You’re right, it’s a softball; anyone who doesn’t know should come and see him play live because he is from another planet, basically, for one thing, because he sings better than anybody and he sings more dynamically than anybody, he’s got more range than anybody, plus he plays great guitar, great lead guitar, really great on piano, he’s a great drummer.  On a bunch of Beatles’ tracks he played drums, and then he’s this amazing songwriter and arranger, and he’s self-taught.

TM: Have you come reached an opinion as to whether or not it’s innate talent or because he’s been such a hard working musician all along, or both?

BR: It’s both, but you can’t have one without the other.  You can’t have the kind of genius that he displays without great innate talent, and he’s just born with a bunch of magic.  Sorry, there’s no other way to say it. You can’t do all those things self-taught at that level and explain it any other way.  His dad was a piano player and he liked show tunes and vaudeville, and you hear that come out in Paul’s writing, but he wasn’t the singer Paul was and he wasn’t the guitar player or the drummer … He was just gifted.  It was a gift.

TM: Why is he performing so much now? He clearly doesn’t need the money.

BR: That’s a good question.  I don’t even know to answer it except to say that what he tells me is it’s fun.  Fun you can’t buy, and he’s not an ostentatious guy anyway.  So he’s not out there trying to buy fun.  He’s a simpler, cool guy, his houses aren’t giant.  His life isn’t giant.  He doesn’t have a butler.  He has a very simple, groovy life.

TM: Where does he spend his time?

BR: He’s usually in London or in New York.

TM: Is he here in L.A. at all?

BR: Sometimes, when we come here to work.

TM: I know he has a house, but he doesn’t spend much time here.

BR: No, I think he’s got a place that he uses sometimes but he’s not here a lot.

TM: So what’s it like on the road? Do you travel with him?

BR: Yes, we do.

TM: Do you have a private jet or…

BR: Private jet.  Chartered.  He doesn’t own.  He charters.

TM: How many people are on that private jet?

BR: Well usually it’s the band, Paul, mostly, most of the time Nancy, his girlfriend, and maybe four other people.  A core group, maybe 15 at the most.

TM: And then you’re touring all around the world, right?

BR: We’ll hub out from the city and go to various cities and be back in bed by 3 or 4 in the morning after partying together, and do it again in a day or two.

TM: How many months working?

BR: Paul doesn’t work at this time right now more than six weeks straight.  The most we’ve ever gone out together was I think 12 weeks with rehearsals included.  But he’s into shorter stints right now, which suits us fine.

TM: The band is all based in L.A.

BR: Except for Wicks, the keyboard player.

TM: Where’s he based?

BR: He’s in London as well.  English guy. Paul “Wicks” Wickens, his nickname is Wix.

TM: Do you, Abe and Rusty look at each other and say, “Can you believe this?”

BR: Yeah, ’cause we’re all old friends.  It’s a funny thing, I played with Abe for 6 years by the time we got together with Paul.  Rusty I’d known since 1989.  He was my neighbor, and a buddy, and we used to trade guitars and borrow each other’s gear, and play on each other’s demos, but we were never in a band together.  And Abe and Rusty knew each other, but the three of us never played together, so you had this awareness of each other.  It just happens to be a really good chemistry and we get along with each other.

TM: Is it fun on the road?

BR: Oh, yeah.  It’s great.  We’re gifted with liking and appreciating each other, and after 8 years that’s saying a lot.

TM: And he treats you all with respect and decency and…

BR: Great guy. He’s funnier than hell.  He likes a good time.  Treats you good.  Makes sure you’re happy.  He’s not too demanding or tough on you but he wants the stuff done right.

TM: What is the experience of actually playing on stage and playing these songs night after night to the adoring crowd that you find?

BR: What the audience who comes to a show doesn’t understand, and maybe could never understand, is that for us they’re our show.  We stand up there playing these songs that we know are gonna strike chords within them, but watching that happen is quite another thing than just knowing this might happen.  Watching their faces light up and you see these memories just flash by on their faces and they tear up and they cry and they shout, and you see these giant emotions.  It must be really something for Paul knowing that he wrote those songs and that he’s had that effect on people.

A guy who quite literally, one of a handful of people who changed the world in the ‘60’s, you know, I mean he was at the head in the top of the cultural revolution in the ‘60’s.  He and Dylan and John… and Kennedy.

NW: (Norbert, sitting with us) Just an observation…the generational gap that he’s managed to bridge.  Abe gave us some wonderful tickets and on this side was Ozzie Osborne, who was totally in awe of McCartney… and sitting behind us were the Jonas Brothers.  And they were totally in awe.  You could tell.  It was amazing.

BR: It is amazing that he’s traveled the time and the distance in the generations and stayed relevant.  It’s a strange phenomenon and no one else can really say that.  Do you see that kind of spread at a Stones show?  No, you see great fans, but you don’t see that same sort of emotional hit.  You see a physicality and a party memory hit, but you don’t see that deep visceral… life resonance going on.

NW: McCartney manages at the same time being very casual and very open, very professional when it comes to the music.  He’s really true to the music.  Just to use the Stones as an example.  The last time I saw them, they’re really sloppy and maybe they take it for granted or they’re just not as professional as …

BR: They’re not as reverential toward, towards their own music and their own records.

TM: I was astonished at the quality of the musicianship overall and the ability of five guys in the band to recreate so honestly and correctly and fully the music on a wide variety of the records.  I take it that he and the band are all sticklers to do that.

BR: We could be even more like the record if we were asked to or if we chose to, and the truth is is that Paul was smart enough and lucky enough to get the guys together that adored his music as much as we do and respect what each of our instruments did in our songs that were hooky to us, and pay attention to those little funny details, and when we’re all doing that at the same time, it’s not karaoke, but it is louder and bigger perhaps than some of the records, but it is in the spirit of … I think that’s the point.  Geez, we’re just actually having fun playing.  We’re not being reined in to play the exact same thing at the exact moment all the time.

TM: A friend of mine said that the band has been longer with Paul than any other band and it’s the best band he ever had.

BR: That’s awfully kind.  He’s had some amazing players.  If people say that it’s amazing, but to hear Paul in an interview recently say, when asked, “Of all of these great players who have come across your threshold over the years, who among them, here or not, would you want to put a band together with?  Be with again?”  And he goes, “Oh, really just the band I have right now.”  Wow, it just took my breath away.  He’s got a lot of choices in this, and great players that have come and gone, but it’s kind of him. He doesn’t say things like, “We’re better than the Beatles.”  He won’t go there; that’s the best band ever but he’s really kind to us as well.  More to the press than to us directly.

TM: On a personal level, it’s been great for your life, hasn’t it?  In terms of achieving what you wanted to do as a musician from Glendale?

BR: What I wanted to do when I was 4 years old, somehow, someway, I got to do it, and it’s a good thing, because I was not prepared to be able to do much else, and I’d never had a desire to do anything else.  This is what I wanted to be good at and it’s just what I put my energy towards.

TM: You’re single?

BR: Right now I’m single.  Just out of a relationship that ended in November and enjoying my life right now…

TM: And did you do another record since the one you talked about?

BR: Just finished it and it’s going to be released this summer, 2010.

TM: Do you have a name for?

BR: The title is This Way Up.  It’s a follow up to my ’06 album called Mondo Magneto.

TM: The plans are to continue touring indefinitely with Paul?

BR: Yeah, Paul hasn’t said a word about slowing down.  In fact, more dates just keep coming in, so I’m happy.  He doesn’t talk about stopping or retiring or anything like that.  I think he mentioned it once.  He says, “Well, we’re never really hired, so I don’t think I need to retire.”  Something like that.  Some clever little thing.

TM: Do you wanna ask any questions?

NW: I wanted to compliment you on “Hey, Jude,” where Paul goes in the front and gets the audience to go… Nice bass line.

BR: Thank you so much.  That’s really nice of you.  Do you wanna hear the story behind that?  Very interesting story.  Check this out. We do that break down in the “Na, na, na, na, na.  Hey Jude.”   Then he asked the girls to sing.  He asked the boys to sing and then the girls to sing again. Now everyone together, and out of nowhere, in Chicago, and this is documented on our first live DVD called, “Back In The U.S.,” I just was struck by Abe’s playing that night, a little rhythm behind the “na, na’s.”  He’s the only thing that’s playing and it’s just the audience singing and Abe playing drums, and as usually, big drums.  And he’s playing this really chilled R&B beat, and Abe’s always inspired me, so I decided right then and there for some reason to just start playing a bass line along with him.  And I started playing boom, be, be, be, boo, boo, boo, bi, di, pi. Boom, pi, bi, boo, be… a boogaloo bass line from the days of old, and then I stopped it and started it, like a remix record or a dub record.  And I saw Paul kind of turn over to me like, “What in the hell’s goin’ on?”  and I just kept doing it, and on the bus on the way out Paul said, “I really liked that.  That’s really great.  So here’s what we do.  Let me ask the boys to sing, then I’ll ask the girls to sing, and I say ‘Everybody sing,’ then you start that bass line.”  The funny thing is that now four years later, we’re all in Las Vegas to see the LOVE show. The Beatles’  Cirque De Soleil show ends with “Hey, Jude.”  There at the end of “Hey, Jude” is the cast getting everyone to clap along and there’s the Beatles version of “Hey, Jude,” playing loud and there’s a breakdown, and all of a sudden, there’s a boogaloo bass line that was never there before, never any of us had heard on the record.  I turned around and go, “Wait a second.  How in the hell did my bass part end up in LOVE?”  So I ask George Martin’s son, Giles Martin, who did the LOVE soundtrack, “What’s the deal with the bass?”  And he goes, “Well, in listening to the original record, they went on for three minutes on the tag, and we’re listening down to the tag, and Paul starts playing this boogaloo bass line.” Isn’t that weird?  Somehow he sent forward 40 years, a little bass idea and I picked up on it.

NW: That’s amazing.  By the way, did you do the bass line on “That Was Me?”

BR:No, that’s Paul on that one.

MV:  That’s Paul?

BR:   Ba, do, do, do, do, do, do…  Yeah, it’s great, isn’t it?  He’s such a master bass player.

TM: You’ve recorded with him?

BR:   We’ve done a number of live records of course. But we also did Memory Almost Full and Little Bit Of Chaos And Creation.

TM: I saw the U.S.S.R. show on television… That must have been fun?

TM: Aw, yeah.  Pretty amazing to play for that crowd who was basically starving for a real Beatle, and they’d been so infatuated with the Beatles.  While they were having one of their toughest times in their long history in the ‘60’s, and everything was prohibited, it was illegal to own a Beatles record in the ‘60’s in Russia.  So they’d trade ‘em on the black market.  They’d have people in other countries cut Beatles records onto X-ray film and you’d go and buy what they call “bones,” which are X-rays.  There’s some guy’s broken ankle.  You’d drop the needle down on it and “Please, Please Me,” so they were starving to see Paul McCartney by the time we showed up there.

TM: So you’ve met a lot of interesting people in the last eight years?

BR: Whooo.  Yeah.  I got to meet Gorbachev.  Here are these guys, these world leaders, shaping relations with the West, talk about being a Beatles’ fan, but not being able to talk, not being able to tell anybody.

TM: Give me a couple other interesting people you’ve met.

BR: Bill Clinton is pretty interesting.

TM: He wanted to meet McCartney?

BR: Yeah.  Brian Wilson, amazing, interesting guy.  The Royal Family.  “The Queen’s Jubilee,” so meeting Prince Charles.  I didn’t meet the Queen but she stood right in front of me and smiled.  (laughs)  I guess that’s like meeting the Queen.

TM: Thanks, Brian.

BR:  My pleasure.

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In addition to being a great person, Bernie Becker is known as one of the top recording and mastering engineers in the world. He is the sound engineer, in the studio, and live concerts, for Neil Diamond. He also does the mastering for Trevor McShane. Here’s our visit with him at his beautiful, modern studio, Bernie Becker Mastering, in Pasadena, California.

TREVOR:            What is mastering?

BERNIE:            We take the tracks that have been recorded and mixed, the final songs and we’ll put them the sequence if one may not exist to that point, then we’ll look at the level of each song, and the EQ (equalization) of each song, and fit all the final pieces together to make it one cohesive product from top to bottom.

TREVOR:            Why isn’t that done at the recording studio?

BERNIE:            For the same reason that you can’t basically mix when you’re recording.  You need to concentrate on recording.  It’s like trying to record a song while you’re writing it.  In your mind you think “I could do all this at once,” but in reality you got to do one thing at a time.  You write the song, then you play the song, then you gotta record it, and the guy recording the song is trying to get each individual instrument or vocal performance to its own optimum level.   Concentrating on one thing at a time is  what recording is about.  Then you consider how each track fits together in one mix, and then in mastering, you consider how all the songs fit together in one package.

TREVOR:            Most recording studios don’t have the ability to do mastering.

BERNIE:            It’s more commonplace nowadays, but previous to recent computer technology, it was always usually a separate place. We tried for years to have a place where, and we did several projects where people would record downstairs, do a live performance, we’d do a live mix of that in the studio, and then we’d send that into the mastering room.  It was a one-step process from a live performance to a finished CD.  People have done that in varying degrees for years, but, especially today people wanna go back and fix things.  They wanna punch a vocal or they wanna fix a mistake.  We’ve become so engrossed in making sure that every little thing is perfect, and that’s the nice thing about your project, that it doesn’t have that glossed over, over-produced, over vocal tune, over time-corrected thing.  Part of the problem with some music today is that it’s overdone.

TREVOR:            How important is mastering?

BERNIE:            Mastering came originally from getting things onto a disc, onto a record to where it could actually physically play back properly, so it was more of a QC (quality control) process at one time — so a record wouldn’t break your speakers or your needle when you played it back.  As CD’s came into the picture, it became a lot more about designing the sound past the mix.  In the old days, when you were mastering for a record you would use an equalizer to take out things that might literally cause the needle to skip or the needle to break.  Nowadays, you’re much more of a creative consultant to take all the things that maybe haven’t been put together under normal recording studio circumstances, or many different circumstances. A lot of people used to go to a certain studio to get a certain sound, and maybe there’s 10 different songs and 10 different mixes, so then mastering becomes much more of like trying to fit the pieces together.

TREVOR:            How often do you actually pick the order of the songs?

BERNIE:            I’d say 30% of the time.

TREVOR:            And do they, do the clients usually go with it?

BERNIE:            Out of the 30%, I’d say about 30% of the time.  Everybody has their favorites, but a lot of the time people who are micromanaging sometimes lose sight of what’s supposed to be happening.

TREVOR:            Why are you in the mastering business?

BERNIE:            Well, number one, I like people and I love music, and through the years of doing different things — live sound, recording, mixing and mastering —- I came to the conclusion that that most of the fighting is over with by the time that you get to the mastering, or if there were other personnel problems, most of the time that’s dealt with by the time…

TREVOR:            You usually don’t have the producer in the studio, or the artist with you when you’re mastering do you?

BERNIE:            It gets rarer and rarer but in the old days, usually the engineer would come and the producer, and sometimes the artist.  Now a lot of times people send stuff on FTP sites instead of showing up for a session.

TREVOR:            What’s FTP?

BERNIE:            Where we can just send finished files on the Internet.

TREVOR:            How long does it take to master or work on any given song?

BERNIE:            Usually anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour on a song.  Usually you can get through a whole CD in about 6 to 8 hours, but it just depends on how complex it is, how many songs there are, if they’ve all been done in one place.

TREVOR:            How many mastering labs are there in Southern California?

BERNIE:            Three or four on the level that we have; on the next level, a B level, there’s probably 10.

TREVOR:            Who are your clients?

BERNIE:            About 70% are independent artists that are signed to their own label or have their own production company, and 30% are record label people. The guy that I do a lot for is Neil Diamond.  He’s signed to Sony; last year (2009) we did six different projects for him.

TREVOR:            Let’s talk about your involvement with Neil Diamond.  What is it?  How long have you had it?  What do you do for him?

BERNIE:            Well, I’ve worked for him for 20 years and I haven’t gotten any older during that time, but a lotta the other guys I work with have — just kidding.  I started out just to go to his studio to fix the tape recorder and to finish some wiring that another engineer didn’t finish, and then he ended up wanted to record some demos and the demos ended up becoming the first album that I did with him which was called “Lovescape,” and that was in 1989-1990.  He had a really nice studio.  It used to be owned by United Artist Records, and it was Liberty Jazz before that, and it had never been updated to the 70’s or the 80’s.

So when we did that, he was always happy to write songs there.  He likes to write songs there; he thought of it as more of a songwriting tool than a recording studio, but maybe having somebody like me around helped because he’s got a band with 12 or 13 people, so you can fit them all in there and cut a complete record almost all at once. That’s what we started doing.  Then I went on the road with him and did some live work, live recording, and that turned into doing some live sound for him and then I worked for a few other people, like Donna Summers, where I did the same thing, going on the road and working in the studio, and just trying to be an all-around guy. That’s part of what mastering is to me, too: you’re looking at things from all the different perspectives.

When recording first started, mastering is where people started.  It was the bottom of the line, because you had to know the least, because you, you had to properly mix something to have it mastered.  So after you mastered for a little while, then you went to mixing.  After you learned how to properly mix something, then the high end of the job was the recording engineer, so you worked your way up to that. Today some people do it all but not well, some people do all well, and the computer in general, has given everybody the ability to try different things that they couldn’t do before.

TREVOR:            Let’s go back to Neil, is he easy to work with?

BERNIE:            Yeah.  He’s a good artist, he’s very focused, and over the years he’s developed a way that works for him.

One of the first sessions that I ever did was for Thelma Houston and it was funny because we spent about maybe an hour trying to get a sound that she was happy with in the headphones, and then when we got her happy in the headphones, she says “Don’t tell me that the sound that I have right now is exactly what you had for me when I walked in.”  And I said, “Okay, I won’t tell you, but it is.”  And she replied, “That always happens to me. I should just be quiet and sing for an hour until I get comfortable.”

Then it dawned on me that you have to listen to the artists and try to find out what they want and balance that with what you know is right as an engineer because sooner or later, you have to go to the fundamentals. Somebody like Neil Diamond who has made a lot of recordings is a “fundamentals” kind of guy.  He grew up making records that were not multi-track records but starting out in mono where everybody performed together and  branched out from there.  It’s fun to work with somebody like that as opposed to somebody who grew up in the multi-track age where they’re unfamiliar with the fundamentals of how you get things right to begin with.

TREVOR:            What do you think of Trevor McShane’s work? You’ve mastered all of his albums.  You did “First Love, Last Love.”  You did “Dizzy.”  You did the Michael Jarrett album where Trevor wrote the lyrics.  You’ve done now “Contemporary Retro.”  Today we’re picking up the mastering of “Organic Soul,” and, you haven’t heard it yet, but we’re dropping off “Adventures in Modern Recording.”

BERNIE:            I’ve been able to work on, on all those projects so far and I’ve definitely seen a developmental process, and that excites me the most probably about working on Trevor McShane is that there’s always, even in the infancy stages of your first record (First Love, Last Love), is that there’s very much a connection of the artist and the music that’s happening.  In my opinion, that’s what people pick up and why they like music in the beginning, because it’s an emotional connection.  If the artist can’t produce that emotional connection, regardless of the song, even thought the song’s super-important, and regardless of the recording technology being used, or misused — if the artist can make an emotional connection with the song — and hopefully the song is great — that’s a sign of a good artist.  Trevor McShane is an above-average artist certainly because he’s able to connect with songs, whether he’s written them or not.

A lot of artists today don’t emotionally connect with a song.  They can technically perform it — sing high notes for example.  You have a genuineness.  Trevor McShane has a genuine quality to his approach, which is authentic from the beginning.  We’ve seen a lot of development in the vocal recording techniques that you guys have used to get a sound, and your performance certainly has, has grown a lot, but there’s that unique, genuine quality even on your very first CD, where you’re connecting with the song, you’re performing it, and that comes across.  There’s nothing in the recording that, that hinders that or hinders the listener from enjoying that perspective, and I think that’s the thing that people get.

TREVOR:            Do you listen to the music when you’re outside of the studio?

BERNIE:            Yeah.  All the time.

TREVOR:            Do you ever listen to Trevor…

BERNIE:            Yeah.

TREVOR:            …outside of the studio?

BERNIE:            Yeah.  I do… as a consumer.  Most people don’t know about who produces something, or who records something.  They just listen to it, and are either going to like it or not, and when the artist has that, that genuine emotion, that people pick up on that.

TREVOR:            You work in all genres, right?

BERNIE:            Yeah.

TREVOR:            From classical to jazz to…

BERNIE:            To rap, to everything. My favorite is singers/songwriters.

TREVOR:            Let’s limit to the singer/songwriter category.  How much of the time do you think to yourself “This is good. This is great. It’s not cutting it.”  How often do they make the grade?

BERNIE:            When I first started trying to be an engineer, I concentrated on good engineering skills and left the music secondary. Then you realize that that alone doesn’t make it, because I made a lot of really great sounding recordings of terrible music, terrible orchestras, terrible performances.  It’s fun from an engineering standpoint, because you’re just concentrating on the sound, and then three months later you go back and listen and go “This is terrible.”

As to singer/songwriters, if the genuine, emotional connection is there, even if the material could be not great and the artist is maybe not a great performer, I still enjoy that, and that’s why I enjoy that genre.  About 70% or 80% of the time, that connection is there,  and that makes it happen for me.   If you go beyond that, where the song is good and the singing is good, then you’re looking at maybe 10% or 5% where you think, “Hey, this is amazing.  People should hear this.”

TREVOR:            Let’s talk about Barry Keenan (who works with Trevor on much of his music as a producer, musician, and co-songwriter) and how you got to know him, and your relationship with him.

BERNIE:            That would have been 20 years or so.  Barry had a friend who was an engineer that worked at my studio in Van Nuys, Colin, who was a bass player in a band called “The Invisible Poet Kings,” which sparked my interest with just the name of the band.  Then I saw an album cover which sparked my interest more because I’m thinking, “The Invisible Poet Kings,” that’s a great name what, what’s this all about?  Then I heard a song which sounded like maybe 1000 tracks mixed together.  There was a lot of instrumentation and a lot of singing, it was really well done, and I found out through Colin that Barry was a recording engineer and he had had his own studio, and he booked some time at the studio.  Now it is commonplace for people to walk in and have 60, 70, 80 tracks. Back 20 years ago we had two 24-track machines, so that’s 48 tracks, and we had, I think three P-88’s, and Barry was making use of all of ‘em.  So there were 10 MIDI’s.  He brought all his MIDI instruments and he hooked up and he had everything playing live and it just sounded like an orchestra.  It was very interesting; I’d never seen anybody take that much information and mix it down into something that people could enjoy.

I like working with him because he’s in a small group of people I personally know who have navigated technology and haven’t given up any of the fundamentals of making good, recorded music.  Some new engineers have that talent, that knack, but it’s harder to find because you didn’t grow up recording real people.  Barry has a musical way about him because he’s a musician, and he has the technical way about him because he’s an engineer.  He’s been able to come at it from both sides of the glass, per se, and then take that foundation and hop, skip and jump across technology.  We all struggled with the sound of digital, but now we’re at a point where it’s not so much that we’re struggling with. We’re just trying to get the most out of it that we can, and Barry can do that.

TREVOR:            You know him as songwriter and performer as well.

BERNIE:            Which is great because he brings all those qualities, all those high qualities to his, his engineering and production, because he’s got it together.

TREVOR:            Another aspect I always say is that a great producer can engineer, knows music, and arguably can be a diplomat to get along with people and get everybody else to get along with each other. Would you say that Barry can do that?

BERNIE:            Yeah.  He can get along with, with a lot of different people, in a lot of different circumstances because I’ve seen him do that.  (laughs) He’s a good politician, but he’s always trying to make good music … and get people together.  When I first started in this industry, my first introduction to producers was that they would go out and stand in the room with the band, stand right by the singer and get them to emote.  They were almost used car salesmen in a way.  They were right there selling the whole thing.  Even if the singer wasn’t good, or the band wasn’t good. Some of these guys came from Atlantic Records.  They had track records.  I was amazed at what a producer did, and sometimes they didn’t come in the control room very much.  As things changed, the producer was in the control room more, along with the engineer, and then because of technology, the producer and the engineer, and sometimes the musicians all became this one person. You have to have talent and you have to have experience, and he’s got all that.

Bernie Becker in his recording studio