Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Interview -- Sam Bobrick (Playwright, Television Writer, Songwriter)

"Wherever I could, I would do the shows."
~ Sam Bobrick ~

As a successful playwright, Sam Bobrick has written over 40 plays that have been performed on stages all over the world.  That's his first love. And at 85, Sam is still romancing the jones.

But I was first introduced to Sam Bobrick via his eclectic television work.  Shows like "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Get Smart." "Saved By The Bell" and "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," just to name a few.  And any number of variety shows that were so prevalent in the 60s and 70s.  To add a bit of sprinkles to the cupcake, "The Big E" recorded one of his songs after his return from Germany.  And for the final kicker...Sam even held hands for a little while with Mad Magazine.

Sam Bobrick might not be a household name...but he's been in your house!

Sam Bobrick

Casey Chambers:  Of all the tv shows you've written for, and there were many, the classic mainstay around our house is..."The Andy Griffith Show."  How did you begin writing for that series?

Sam Bobrick:  I was originally a writer in New York and I was struggling.  I wanted to write songs, but the music business didn't turn out the way I wanted.  I had the Elvis Presley song and a couple of other songs.  And I was picking up money writing for game shows.  I wrote for "Captain Kangaroo" for awhile...but I just couldn't make a living.

So, I had a very good friend who was an agent at the William Morris office and he brought me to Los Angeles.  I was teamed up with a guy by the name of Billy Idelson who had a commitment with "The Andy Griffith Show."  He needed a partner to write with him...so I did.  And we were very successful.  The very first show we wrote was the one where Barney plays a mannequin.  A dummy.  ("The Shoplifters" S:4-E21, 1964)  And fortunately, it won the Writers Guild Award...so we felt like we were on our way after that.

Casey Chambers:  Oh man, that one's hilarious!  "Little old ladies ought never to clank."  And you hit a home run on your first episode.  How about that?

Sam Bobrick:  Yeah, that was kind of lucky, eh?

"The Andy Griffith Show" (1964)

Casey Chambers:  What does winning an award like that do for a television writer?

Sam Bobrick:  Well, at that time it was a much smaller business.  There were only three networks.  So basically, almost everybody in the comedy business knew everybody.  And everybody in the drama business knew everybody.

Once they hear of you, you just start getting assignments. People would call you.  They didn't have very many staff jobs in those days.  Not on the half hours.  What we did with "Andy Griffith..." was...we would go into Aaron Ruben's office where there'd be maybe three teams of writers and come up with about 12 stories.  Each team would take four and you'd write them.  That's kind of how we did it.  We would pitch shows and do the ones we got assigned to do.

Casey Chambers:  Now, Aaron Ruben...he was the show's producer, right?

Sam Bobrick:  Yeah.  One of the best guys in the world.  He was just a terrific guy.  I was very lucky to work for him.  Aaron was a writer originally.  And it was at Danny Thomas and Shel Leonard.  They would get writers and turn them into producers.  They were one of the first people to do that.  They got Aaron to write the original "Andy Griffith Show" and then they got him to produce it.

He understood writers.  You'd go and pitch a show and he'd get in there with you and try to work out the story.  And the nice thing about working with Aaron was he knew what he wanted.  So when you finished a story and gave it to him, it was 90% there.  And all you did was maybe a little rewrite.  I would say 90% of what we wrote went on the air.

I liked writing the show when Andy and Don (Knotts) worked together.  Everybody on that show was just the way they were on screen and off screen.  I became very good friends with Don Knotts.  In fact, I had lunch with one of Don's wives.  He was married three times.  She had remarried.  Sweet, sweet lady.  Don was just the sweetest guy.  And when he died, at his funeral...the two ex-wives showed up too.  Because he was just a nice guy.

They were all nice on that show.  But we didn't get to see too many of them because the writers hardly went down on the set.  I'd write at home.  I've been fortunate because most of my life, I've been writing at home.  Except when I'd have to produce a show or be on a staff.  Then I'd have to go down to the office or to the lot.

But after Aaron and Don left the show, I just didn't enjoy writing it as much.  So, I went looking for other things.  When Aaron went to produce "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C."...I wrote over there.  But I did a bunch of different half hour shows.

Nowadays, they got so many people on the staff that by the time a writer hands in a script, it is so rewritten that there is very little left.  That's the process now.

Casey Chambers:  You were also a writer for the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."

Sam Bobrick:  I did a lot of variety shows.  When I went on "The Smothers Brothers..." I got teamed up with a guy by the name of  Ron Clark.  We're still very, very good friends.  In fact, he comes over to my house every Tuesday and we sit and compare illnesses. (laughs)

So I started writing variety and I loved variety.  That was the most fun because it was show business.  We'd write sketches.  They'd have an orchestra.  They'd have a studio and an audience.  That was fun.  That was fun writing.  And then there would be specials.  We did so many TV specials.  They had specials for everybody.  But then variety shows kind of dried up.  Now, there's so much stuff on the air.  So much entertainment.  I don't know who's a star anymore.

"59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)" - Simon & Garfunkel / The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967)

Casey Chambers:  There were a lot of musical acts that performed on the Smothers Brothers show.  Were there any in particular that you enjoyed?

Sam Bobrick:  Oh, yeah!  Simon & Garfunkel came on.  I loved them.  When Simon & Garfunkel broke up...ah...I mean I just loved them.

Casey Chambers:  Tell me one of your favorite songs.

Sam Bobrick:  Oh gosh.  Of course, "Bridge Over Troubled Water."  "The Boxer."  But I also liked Carole King.  I liked the Motown music.  I guess I like the more dated singers (laughs)...but I do like all the singers that I grew up with.

Casey Chambers:  If you don't mind, I'd like to jump back to "The Andy Griffith Show."  Did you ever write any episodes that were drawn from some of your own childhood memories?

Sam Bobrick:  Oh sure.  I did.  I did. (laughs)  My favorite one was a thing called, "The Case Of The Punch In The Nose." (S5:E25, 1965)  I grew up in a small town.  And I had an uncle who every time he got mad at someone, he'd punch 'em in the nose.  He punched the dog catcher in the nose.  He punched the neighbor in the nose. (laughs)  So we came up with this idea where Barney discovers an unsolved case.  Someone was punched in the nose but nobody got put away for it.  And so he tries to find out who punched who in the nose.  And he winds up getting the whole town punching everybody. It was kind of fun.

Casey Chambers:  Yeah, that one even had Floyd making a fist! (laughs)

Sam Bobrick:  And then I remember Old Blue the dog...remember?  ("Barney's Bloodhound" S5:E6 - 1964)  I had another uncle that got drunk and brought home a...not a Great Dane but a Saint Bernard.  I don't know where he got it.  We had a little cottage on our property.  And I remember he put the Saint Bernard in the cottage.  And my grandfather went inside to get something and he saw this dog and thought it was a bear. (laughs)  So, Barney finds this dog and just loves the dog.  Called him Old Blue.  And that was kind of an idea that sparked from...getting a strange dog. You never know what you're going to get. (laughs)  My uncle finally took him back to where he belonged.

And then I remember when I was young, every kid sent away to sell seeds.  Flower seeds and stuff.  And you were gonna win a bicycle and you were going to make this and that, ya know?  So, we did one about Opie buying salve and not being able to sell it. ("A Deal Is A Deal" S4:E26, 1964)  And now this is true.  If you didn't send the money in...we very seldom sold anything...you would get letters that seemed like they were from lawyers saying they were going to sue us and blah blah blah.  And that was a little scam they had in the '50s or '40s.  So every kid sold seeds, and God...nobody ever sold any seeds. And it's funny that I'm recalling this.  I guess they say your long term memory comes back when you get older.  I'm not sure what I did yesterday. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  I remember all those episodes.  Good stuff!  You mentioned you were from a small town. Where did you grow up?

Sam Bobrick:  Well, my high school days were spent in Benton Harbor, Michigan.  My grandpa and grandmother had a farm and I would spend most of my young life there.  I originally lived in Chicago.  But my mother and father kept fighting and separating and I kept getting sent to my grandmother.  It was a great town.  It was like the play "Our Town."  Very pleasant, there.

Unfortunately, like with all the small towns, it went south.  When the car business went bad, I guess.  But, Michigan was a great state at one time.  All the roads were nice because they were making cars in Detroit.  All the roads had to be nice.  But then, times change.  They were starting to send all the things that had to be manufactured to other countries.  The work in little towns dried up.

In Benton Harbor...a lot of big name factories around there closed.  And maybe about 15 years after I left, it became kind of run down.  The whole town of Benton Harbor just seemed to collapse.  It was sad.

Casey Chambers:  Where did you go when you left?

Sam Bobrick:  Well, after high school, I went to college for a year.  I didn't like it so I joined the Air Force for various reasons.  When I came out...I finished college.  I don't know how old I was when I went to New York, but I spent five or six years in New York before I came out here.  So, I kind of knew both worlds. The small town and the big town.

Casey Chambers:  I'd like to ask about the song you wrote that was recorded by Elvis back in 1960...."The Girl Of My Best Friend."  What a cool, cool feather.

"The Girl Of My Best Friend" - Elvis / "Elvis Is Back" (1960)

Sam Bobrick:  Sure.  That was when I was writing in New York.  I wrote the song with Beverly Ross.  Beverly had written a bunch of songs for Bill Haley.  She made it when she was very, very young.  And we met at a party.  She said, 'Why don't we write a song together?'  And just like that.  I said, 'Okay.'  It was the first song we wrote...and after that...we never wrote anything good. (laughs)  I still had to make a living and was writing game shows and radio shows at the time.  And that didn't make much money.  But, wherever I could, I would do the shows.

Casey Chambers:  So how did Elvis get ahold of that song?

"Elvis Is Back!" (1960)

Sam Bobrick:  Beverly had a deal with Hill & Range.  That was a publishing house.  She just took the song in there and they liked it.  So, they brought it down to Elvis.  And that's how it got done.  I didn't know Elvis recorded it until it came out.  Beverly called me and said, 'We have a song on the new Elvis album!"  On his "Elvis Is Back!" album, I think it was called.  And I thought to myself, this is it.  I'm going to write songs for the rest of my life.  But I just couldn't make a living.  It was very, very tough.  And I obviously wasn't that good.  I did a couple of those "Mad Magazine" albums but didn't make any money from that.  So, I had to go back to writing, which I'm very glad I did.  But I liked Elvis.  I thought he was great.  When I was in the Air Force, I was young and we'd go out dancing to "Hound Dog" and all those songs.  "Blue Suede Shoes."  I liked Elvis a lot.  I like him even more now.

Casey Chambers:  It's a fantastic song.  I hadn't heard it until I picked up the album.  But it was released as a single in Europe and became a really big hit.

Sam Bobrick:  Yeah, it was like #1 in Europe.  And I don't know why they didn't release it here. I just have no idea why.  It was later covered by Ral Donner (1961) and it made the charts again.

Casey Chambers:  One of the songs you did for the Mad Magazine albums was "It's A Gas." (1963)  The song was perfect for Mad.  Dr. Demento gave it some exposure, for sure.  And it still gets airplay.

"It's A Gas" - Mad / "Fink Along With Mad" (1963)

Sam Bobrick:  Yeah, Howard Stern plays it on his show. "Fink Along With Mad" (1963) was a fun album.  I was writing with Norman Blagman at the time. We didn't record it for Mad.  What happened was, we had an idea to write comedy songs.  Wild parodies.  And we showed them to RCA, but they were afraid to release it.  Then we brought it over to Mad, and they loved it.  But they later sold it to another company that just couldn't handle it and then they kind of faded out.  They're collector's items now, I understand.  We didn't make hardly any money from that.  It sold very, very few.  And I don't know why.  It was a funny album at the time.

"Fink Along With Mad" - Mad (1963)

Casey Chambers:  You've been involved in music, television, and theater and you worked it out.  And that's pretty badass.  Your career reminds me of a line from a film, "You improvise. You adapt. You overcome."  Well done.

Sam Bobrick:  Yeah, I have had a long career, and in fact, I still write plays now.  But everything changes.  On Broadway, you really don't find American comedies.   Most everything now is musicals.  Most of the plays on Broadway come from Europe where people have already seen them.  But I just got notified yesterday that a couple of my plays are in Russia now.  And they're big hits.

But you never know where your plays are going to end up. I've written a number of plays.  About 40 of them.  A couple of dozen were published.  And some of the ones that weren't published still get produced.  And it's kind of like a mom and pop business.  I get produced mostly in community theatres. And when someone goes to see a show produced in a small town, I never know how it turns out.  I never know it's playing there.  But I just love playwriting. It's a purer business.  This is what I wrote. Here it is.

Casey Chambers:  Well, we've only scratched the surface, but I've taken up way too much of your time.  I'd like to thank you very much Mr. Bobrick for all the entertainment you've given us throughout the years.  It's been an honor speaking with you.

Sam Bobrick:  No problem at all, Casey.  It was great. And good luck to you.

Good stuff.

Casey Chambers

Monday, July 10, 2017

Interview -- Penelope Spheeris (Director)

"My life has just 
been a run of crazy comedians..."
~ Penelope Spheeris ~

When discussing director Penelope Spheeris, I hesitate to suggest she has led a charmed and magical life, only because that might imply that her acclaimed work in film has been more a gift from the good luck fairies and less from the good old fashioned sweat of hard work.  And that would simply be a falsehood.  An untruth.  And while she is indeed charming, her accomplishments are nothing less than well-earned.  Someone once said, 'you make your own luck.'  And that's exactly what Penelope has done.

She burned the late-night candle earning her Masters Degree at UCLA...and then kept her ears open and her eyes peeled for any opportunity she could grab.  She walked on the wire and absolutely dared anyone to tell her she couldn't do it.  She was fearless.

She rattled windows with her amazing documentaries about the music culture.  She smacked us around a bit with films about alienation and desperation.  And she coddled us with light-hearted comedies.  Penelope is a complete badass. (More about that later.)  She sticks her chin out and picks up her feet.  And because of this bravado, while on her lengthy film-making journey, she might've helped remove a few more barriers making it possible for other girls who desire to point the camera to dream, too.  Go get you some.

Penelope Spheeris Interview  --  July 2017
Penelope Spheeris  (Director)

Casey Chambers:  You were making music videos when people didn't even know what music videos were.  How did you get started doing that?

Penelope Spheeris:  I was just graduating from UCLA and a friend of mine at CBS Records, Peter Philbin, called me up and he goes...'How would you like to make a music video?'  And I said, 'What is that?' (laughs)  And he said, 'We figured out that we don't really need to send a band around the world anymore.  We could just shoot a video and show the whole world that way by sending a little piece of film around.'  And this was in the early '70s, so it wasn't even called a video at that point.  We were shooting 16mm film.  But that's how I got started.  I shot my first music video at The Troubadour in Los Angeles and I shot my last music video at Paramount on a soundstage doing "Bohemian Rhapsody" with "Wayne's World."

Casey Chambers:  Do you recall the very first video you shot at The Troubadour?

Penelope Spheeris:  Her name was Chi Coltrane.  She was a beautiful young blond girl with a piano and she sang a song.  She was related somehow to John Coltrane.  And yeah, I don't think anybody ever really...but after that, I worked with CBS on a lot of other acts.  And with Warner Brothers Records.  And Casablanca, etc.

Casey Chambers:  Were there any artists you especially enjoyed shooting videos for?

"Dr. Funkenstein" - Parliament Funkadelic / Promo Film-Music

Penelope Spheeris:  Well, one of the most memorable times was in 1974 when Adam Summers at Warner Brothers Records put me on a plane to New York and I filmed Funkadelic.  I filmed George Clinton coming out of the Mothership doing "Dr. Funkenstein." (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  That'll never go out of style.

Penelope Spheeris: Yeah, it was great.  I shot a lot of what they called...sales presentations.  They had these centers in different areas of the country where the sales reps for Warner Brothers Records were.  So I would shoot a half hour or an hour reel to introduce the new product.  I did Fleetwood Mac and Curtis Mayfield.  The Staple Singers.  I mean, there was so many of these things I did.

Casey Chambers:  In the '70s, you began making short films with Albert Brooks for SNL.  How did you begin collaborating with him?

Penelope Spheeris:  Well, I was at UCLA and there was a sign on the bulletin board.  You know, there was no social media back then so you'd put a sign up on a post.  And it said that these two guys needed a transcriber to transcribe some tapes 'cause they were doing a movie on Jimi Hendrix.  And the movie turned out to be called, "Jimi Hendrix."  Those guys were Gary Weis and John Head.

Gary and John were really good friends with Lorne Michaels.  And I would always be hanging out with Lorne.  Now, this was before "Saturday Night Live."  And I actually heard him say, 'I think I'm gonna go try to start a late night, Saturday night, kind of thing in New York.  Maybe live or something.'  And then, he went and did it.

Lorne asked me to go to New York with him to work on the show.  John and Gary did, but I didn't.  I had a young daughter and I wanted to keep her in school here.  And she was four at the time.  She's 47 now so that was 43 years ago.  It was right before the show started.  Right before "Saturday Night Live" started.  He said, 'When you're out in California if I have anything to do out there, will you help me with it?'  And then one day, he called me and said, 'I found this really funny guy, but he doesn't know how to make movies.  Penelope, can you show him how to make movies?' (laughs)  I had just graduated from UCLA with a Master's in film and I was pretty good technically...so...I taught Albert Brooks how to make movies.
Penelope Spheeris

Casey Chambers:  And you guys went on to make a number of shorts together for SNL.  You walked him through the process.

Penelope Spheeris:  I was officially the producer.   He was officially the writer/director.  And to be honest, back then, women really... it would've been very audacious to say that you want to even dream about being a director, okay?  So, I just thought...well, I'm here to serve so he can do what he needs to do to create his art.  So our relationship was such that...ya know...I put together the crews and I got the equipment.  And he and Harry Shearer and Monica Johnson worked on the shorts for "Saturday Night Live."  He had his writing buddies, and I put all the production together for them.  I technically showed him how to make movies.

Casey Chambers:  Funny can be pretty hard to get right on film, but you seem to have had a pretty good eye for it right outta the gate.

Penelope Spheeris:  Well, Albert is a genius.  And before I worked with Albert, I worked with Richard Pryor.  And then Lorne put me together with Lily Tomlin.  And after that, I got together with Danny Devito.  And it just goes on and on.  I don't know why I ended up with all these comedians.  Mike Myers.  David Spade.  Rob Schneider.  Oh my God, the list goes on and on.  My life has just been a run of crazy comedians, but it's been fun. (laughs)

I didn't set out to be a comedy director.  If I would have had my druthers, I would have been a more serious, dramatic director.  I think I would rather have spent my entire life doing films like, "Suburbia" or "The Boys Next Door" which I did with Charlie Sheen.  More serious movies.  People always ask me why I did so many different kinds of genres.  And my answer is, I just took whatever job I could get.  When they start offering you these huge salaries to do these goofball comedies...and I couldn't get the other ones made...I took the money.  I hate to say it, but what was I gonna do?

Casey Chambers:  You're going to take it, of course.  (laughs)  But whatever genre you dip your toe in, you seem to have a certain knack for capturing the right...something...with everyone in your films.

"Dudes" Trailer (1987)

Penelope Spheeris:  Some actors are just awesome to work with.  I just did an interview with Jon Cryer a couple of days ago for this film we did in 1987 called, "Dudes."  And "Dudes" never really got a release because it was just too weird back then.  It was a punk rock western, ya know?  But now it's getting a release, thank God.  Finally!  30 years later.  But Jon came down, and as I sat there speaking with him, it reminded me that some actors are just indescribably wonderful.  Like Jon Cryer.  Jon Cryer is the most cooperative and giving.  He's just awesome.  I don't really take credit for bringing out their talents.  They either have it or they don't.  There are certain actors that I feel like I could never work with again.  And I can't say who that is because they sue people.  But it's all about the actor.  The actors are the ones that really make the show, I think.

Casey Chambers:  A punk rock western.  I'm there.    Now, I'm sure you've been peppered about this, but it's the 25th anniversary of your most successful film..."Wayne's World." (1992)  You nailed it!  "Excellent!"  How did that project play?

Penelope Spheeris:  When I worked with Lorne on "Saturday Night Live," I was always trying to write and direct some short films like the ones I was producing for Albert.  And Lorne...he would never approve them.  He said, 'Well, just write me something really funny, Penelope, and then, of course, you can do it.'  But I would write and write and write and turn them in and nothing would ever happen.

So, I think when it came time for "Wayne's World," maybe Lorne went, 'Ya know, I didn't give her a chance back then, when I said I would.  So I'm gonna give her a chance right now.'  That's one reason I got the job.  And the other reason was that I had just done "The Decline of Western Civilization Part II" about heavy metal.  And Wayne and Garth thought they were headbangers.  They were under that impression. (laughs)

"The Decline Of Western Civilization" Collection

Casey Chambers:  Yeah, that was right in the vicinity of your wheelhouse.  And they wanted something out quick, right?

Penelope Spheeris:  Well, it took 34 days to make and it was a tight schedule because back in those days, which was 1990, $14 million was very low budget...'let's just give this guy a chance'...kind of money.  But there wasn't enough time.  I mean, there wasn't enough money to have more time and that's why it was made so fast.

Casey Chambers: That must have been a big bucket of pressure and stress.

Penelope Spheeris:  Yeah, and after having worked with Albert for so long I had developed all of these kinds of neurotic hypochondriac kind of weird things, ya know? (laughs)  I don't think I've ever told anybody this before, but I remember working on "Wayne's World" and I was like, 'What's going on here?  I can't swallow right.  I must have cancer.  I must have...' (laughs)  Because Albert is a terrible hypochondriac.  And being around him, you just get so neurotic. (laughs)  The stress was bad, but then it was also so much fun.  So it was cool.

Casey Chambers:  Were you already a fan of the sketches on SNL?

Penelope Spheeris:  Yeah, I thought they were funny.  I was like Paramount though.  'How do we make this into a movie?'  They were real nervous about it.  It's hard to explain.  And I don't think anyone ever can explain how come that movie did what it did and lasted as long as it did.  It was kind of...some kind of cosmic magical moment where the right chemistry, the right people came together, at the right time.  It's weird.  I don't know how it happened.  Nobody knows.

Headbanging in "Wayne's World" (1992)

Casey Chambers:  "Wayne's World" has so many silly, funny moments, but the "Bohemian Rhapsody" scene will no doubt be forever imprinted into our minds.  Whose idea was it to incorporate that song into the film?

Penelope Spheeris:  I'm gonna have to give that one to Mike (Myers) 'cause it was in the script when I arrived.  There was a lot of script changes as we went along, but I have to give credit to Mike 'cause he was the one that wanted that song.  Most of the other music, I chose.  But yeah, "Bohemian..." was his.  He didn't really want to do the headbanging scene though 'cause he felt that it wasn't funny. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  And the headbanging is probably the most iconic scene from the movie.

Penelope Spheeris:  I know.  It's like, 'Hey Mike, it's not funny while you're doing it, but when people are watching you, it's funny.' (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  Every teenager in America has been in that same car with Wayne and Garth!

Penelope Spheeris:  That's right!  Exactly!  It was just like...total teenage exuberant fun, ya know?

Casey Chambers:  Seeing Rob Lowe venture into the comedy waters was a surprise.  And you really made it work.

Penelope Spheeris:  Yeah, Rob had just come off of some bad publicity.  It was Lorne's idea to work with Rob and to cast him in that role.  And I said, 'Really?  You want to put Rob Lowe in here?  Look at what he's been in the news for, ya know?'  And he goes, 'Oh, it's over, Penelope.  We'll get him cheap.' (laughs)  And Rob was great.

It all comes from being centered up.  It all comes from being grounded and not trying to be funny.  I think the minute you try to be funny, you're not funny.  If you're serious about it in a ridiculous situation, then it's funny.  People tell me they have sets where all the crew is laughing their ass off.  Everybody's having such a great time.  And the movie's not funny.  I'm like, 'Yeah, it doesn't work that way.'  In real life, if you're shooting it, and all the crew's standing around, and nobody's laughing...you're getting some comedy. (laughs)

"Wayne's World" Movie Review  -  Siskel & Ebert

Casey Chambers:  Since I'm throwing names out...Chris Farley made his movie debut in this picture, too.

Penelope Spheeris:  Yeah, Lorne called and said he had found another funny guy, but that he was really shy.  And he thinks he's gonna have a great career ahead of him.  So Chris came out and I just had to take a lot of time with him and be real gentle with him because he was very nervous about doing the part.  It was just a tiny little part. He did make it his own though.  He did add some elements to it that I think was really funny. (laughs)  He was doing all those weird hand movements and everything.

Casey Chambers:  Was he much the same way when you worked with him again on your film, "Black Sheep?" (1996)

Penelope Spheeris:  Yeah, he was.  I just look at Chris like...there are certain people that are just too delicate and sensitive and fragile for this world.  It's the only way I can describe it.  He was a really sweet guy.  My mom used to say things like, 'There's not a bad bone in his body.'  And that's the way I felt about Chris.  He's just a good dude, ya know?

Casey Chambers:  Lovely guy.  Some directors are known to make cameos in their pictures.  Did you ever try doing that?

Penelope Spheeris:  You mean, put myself in my own movie?  You know, I'm so careful with all of the scenes.  I even said the other day to Dan Roebuck...Dan had just directed a film that he was also in himself....I said, 'I don't understand how you guys can do that.'  Because it's two different mindsets, ya know?  I can't be on camera and direct a scene.  There's no way.  So no, I don't do that.  I don't think I do that.  I mean, I might have walked through a scene accidentally once. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  Well that certainly wouldn't have been as clever as Hitchcock, but it would've been just as amusing. (laughs)  Who or what inspired you to become an artist?

Penelope Spheeris:  I think artists come from different places really.  But one theory I heard lately, which I think is really interesting, is that when people have a really traumatic incident in their life at an early age, it makes them want to excel to greatness.  Okay, so this is a concept I heard which I really...kind of embrace.  If you look, there are a lot of people who...and I'm not saying I've excelled to greatness...I'm just saying that what inspired me to be an artist I think is...my father got murdered when I was seven years old.

And when something like that happens to a child, you're so unprepared for it psychologically.  I think that it just makes you different.  It makes you look at the world differently.  And I think it might even prompt a person to try to achieve greatness.  To say...'Oh, I can do this because that happened.'  And I think that's what happened to me.  You didn't expect that answer now did you, Casey? (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  No, I didn't. Thank you so much for sharing and trusting me to hear it.  You make a good point, too.   We had mentioned "Black Sheep" earlier.  I know it's been 20 years since the shoot, but do you have a favorite scene or two from that movie?  It was hilarious.

Chris Farley in "Black Sheep" (1996)

Penelope Spheeris:  Oh, thank you.  I think I really like the scene where Chris is rolling down the hill.  Because he did most of it himself...and I couldn't talk him out of it.

Casey Chambers:  He was doing his own stunts?

Penelope Spheeris:  A lot of it, yeah.  And let's see, what else?  I also really like the scene where they accidentally get loaded in the car with the nitrous oxide in the back.   Yeah, those scenes are always fun where people are stoned and they didn't mean to be. (laughs)  I don't know why.

Casey Chambers:  Oh yeah, that was great. (laughs) David Spade is on the...'Roo-ads.'

Penelope Spheeris:  'The roo-ads!' (laughs)  Me and my daughter always say that.  'Ya turn left on the roo-ad.'

Casey Chambers:  Funny stuff.  Well, what does Penelope Spheeris have looming in the near future?

Penelope Spheeris:  I'm gonna be going to this music/film festival in Chicago that they're having and they are going to honor me up there.  So that's kind of cool.  This one is called "CIMMfest."  Chicago International Music and Movie Festival."  And they are giving me the "Baadasssss Award." (laughs)

"The Decline Of Western Civilization" Trailer (1981)

Casey Chambers:  Alright!  How deserving!

Penelope Spheeris:  Yeah, they're going to show all of my "Decline..." movies.  They showed "Wayne's World" a couple of weeks ago.  And I heard it was packed.  So, yeah, there you go.

Casey Chambers:  Those "Decline..." documentaries are legend.  Congratulations.  Getting a badass award is...pretty badass.

Penelope Spheeris:  Thank you. (laughs)  I think they just...ya know...when they start doing this stuff it just means, 'Oh, you're gonna die pretty soon, we better give her something quick!' (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  No way. (laughs)  They only do these things because they love you.  Well, this has been great.  Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me this morning.  It's been a real honor.  Party on, Penelope.

Penelope Spheeris:  Oh, you too, Casey.  Thank you.

Good stuff.

Casey Chambers

Monday, June 26, 2017

Interview -- Art Alexakis (Everclear)

"I will buy you
a new life.
Yes I will."
~ Everclear ~

In 1997, Art Alexakis, along with his band Everclear, laid the album..."So Much For The Afterglow" on us.
The music was hard, crunchy and catchy.  And for many spinners of the disc, it gave them a feeling of almost absolution.

Melodic lyrics about all-too-familiar personal pains and doubts were delivered with exciting staccato guitar churns...and it felt like a good cleansing.  The songs helped wash away a bit of the crud and the crap and the confusing tangles of life that can be so hard to shake off.
More than anything though, the music gave reassurance that we were not alone in the struggle.  And maybe that helped us see a small break in the clouds.  And for some, that was all we needed to see.

Am I using too much hyperbole?  I don't know.  Maybe.  I'm not declaring this the best album from the 90s.  Hell, I'm not even sure this is Everclear's best album of the 90s!  All I'm trying to say is...I feel a whole lot better when I play it.  Get you some!

Art Alexakis Interview  --  June 2017
Art Alexakis (vocals, guitar)

Casey Chambers:  I'd like to begin with a bit of a curve by asking about the song Everclear recorded for the "Detroit Rock City" soundtrack in 1999.  How did you become involved and how did you decide what song you were going to contribute?

Art Alexakis:  Well, we had already done a couple of shows with Kiss, so I had gotten to know Gene and Paul.  And Gene wanted Everclear to do a song for the soundtrack.  They were leaving it up to us to pick it.  And I wasn't sure I was gonna do it.

I was living up in Portland at the time and it had been raining like hell, as per usual.  But I was in L.A. for something to do with business and was driving a convertible.  I never get convertibles, but that was all they had.  And it was a sunny day.  I'm driving around and what comes on the radio but "The Boys Are Back In Town."  I've always been a huge fan of Thin Lizzy.  Saw them back in '76 at the Santa Monica Civic.  Saw them a couple of times.  Big fan.

And that song came on the radio and I'm like...'Oh my God!  This song!  We need to do this!'  And I could hear in my head how we would do it, right?  'Cause my whole thing with covers is...it's got to keep the integrity of the song and what made the song great in the first place, but it also has to sound like whoever's doing the cover.  In my case, Everclear, of course.  So, I had an idea how I'd do it.

So, I got on the phone the next week with my management and Gene with his management.  And Gene was trying to get me to do it for next to nothing.  For like, free. (laughs)  I remember being on the beach with my family in Hawaii and Gene was haranguing me to do this soundtrack for nothing.  I'm like...'no, that's just not gonna happen.' (laughs)  Gene says, 'Artie, c'mon.  Artie, this is gonna do wonders for your career.  C'mon!'  I'm like...'Gene, it's not gonna happen.  Ya know, what do you care?  It's not coming out of your pocket.  It's coming out of the record company that's putting out the soundtrack that's connected to the movie.  I mean, really?  No,  I'm not doing it for free.' (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  You're killing me! (laughs)

Art Alexakis:  They had wanted us to tour with them in '96 when we were at the height of doing "Sparkle And Fade."  We were planning to headline a tour, which we ultimately did, where we were making thousands of dollars.  But Gene offered us to open up for Kiss through North America.  And I'm like, 'You know what, man?  I'll do it.  I'll do it for a fraction of what we're making.  I need this much.'  Which would've been like five grand a show. And at the time, we were making four or five times that.  Which is really...I mean, we hadn't played for five grand in a long time.  Or even since.  'Then I'll be able to pay for my crew.  I'll be able to pay for the bus.  The hotels.  No problem.  I'll do 20 dates.'  And he wouldn't do it.

The most they offered was $500. Now, who you gonna get for $500 bucks?  You're gonna get a cover band, that's what you're gonna get.  But they got somebody, 'cause the record company paid for it.  And whoever it was, went into debt because record companies don't give you anything for free.  If they pay for it, it's coming out of your royalties.

But anyway, back to the soundtrack. We did finally record it.  We tried mixing it with Andy Wallace who had mixed our album "So Much For The Afterglow", but it just didn't come out right.  Then I mixed it with Neal Avron, who was my main recording guy back then, and it came out pretty good.

"The Boys Are Back In Town" - Everclear / "Detroit Rock City" Soundtrack (1999)

Casey Chambers:  Yeah, it's a nailed cover.  Since we both dig Thin Lizzy, do you have a favorite song?

Art Alexakis:  One of my favorite rock songs of all time is "Cowboy Song."  It's definitely in my top 50.  Could be in my top 20.  I love the dueling guitar leads.  I just love Phil Lynott's vocals.  Their songwriting and rhyme for the time were just great.  And yet they were always considered a mid-level band, ya know?

Casey Chambers:  In America, for sure.

Art Alexakis:  For sure.  Nowhere else, but in America.  But I mean, they were great.  "Jailbreak" is just a great album.  But I go deep.  I like "Johnny The Fox."  I like "Renegade."  My favorite record from them is probably "Black Rose," if you want to go deep.

Do you know what's a trip?  The label that put that soundtrack out was Island Records before they got all swallowed up by Def Jam.  And I met with the president of Island Records about doing that song  He was an Irish guy and he told me he had been a roadie for them back in the day and knew Phil since they were in high school.

He had worked his way up through the music business. From road crew to tour manager...like that.  And after listening to the song, he said, 'Phil would have loved the vocal on this.'  And that just meant the world to me right there, ya know?   'Cause when you do a cover, you wanna do it with respect to the song.  You want to do it in your own cadence.  In your own voice.  But you also want to capture the voice of the spirit and vibe of the song, too.   I'm glad you like it.  I love that song.  We're talking about breaking it out and bringing it back into the set.  We haven't played it in awhile.

Casey Chambers:  Yeah, that'd be a great one to hear.  It's the 20th anniversary of Everclear's 3rd album..."So Much For The Afterglow." (1997)  I'd like to ask you about the title track.  It's a killer surprise!  Summer harmonies leading into a crashing wake-up call.

Art Alexakis:  The Beach Boy thing, yeah.

Casey Chambers:  Was that the idea you had for the song going in?

Art Alexakis:  Not really.  When we first made the album in the fall of '96...and I've since stopped using working titles 'cause they never stick...I was calling it "Pure White Evil."  And I wanted it to be really heavy songs.  And really mellow.  Really heavy, really mellow.  It was just me thinking too much.

And I wrote and recorded 15 or 16 songs.  I went and mixed them in New York and then played them for my A&R guy.  And he listens to it twice and he's like, 'Well you know, man, I'm not telling you what to do 'cause you know I can't.  You have creative control.'  That was part of my deal when I signed.  'You can do what you want.  We'll put it out and we'll work it as hard as we can.  But I'm telling you this, as your friend.  This is not a great album.  It's good, but it's not great.  And you can do better.  This is not the album you want to make.  I guarantee it.  You don't want to make this album.'  And that just kind of kicked my ass, ya know?

"So Much For The Afterglow" (1997)

So I spent two or three weeks in New York just walking around the city.  I went and saw "Jerry Maguire" like 10 times.  I don't know why.  There was a song in it.  I wasn't sure who it was.  I think it was Bruce Springsteen.  It was!  It was called, "Secret Garden."  And I wrote a song called, "Song From An American Movie" 'cause that song just made me really emotional.  It made me miss my family.  But while I was there, I was writing songs in my hotel room.

And I wrote about three or four more songs.  One of the songs was "So Much For The Afterglow."  It was just that feeling of...'Okay, well this is what it feels like when you're up high and you get your ass kicked a little bit and how do I put this into a relationship type song?'  I was writing down copious notes in notebooks.  I hope I still have those notebooks somewhere, 'cause it has the notes of what I would do for each song to make them better.

It came off as kind of a punk rock song, ya know?  It just started with my vocal going... 'This is a song about...' and it kicks in, right?  But it just didn't fit anywhere on the record.  I thought it'd be a really strong album opener.  And I'm really big into album openers.  Some of my favorite songs..."Rocks Off" on "Exile On Mainstreet."  "Debaser" on The Pixies'..."Doolittle."  I mean, I could give you a list.  I've made mixes for people of just album openers that are just great.

Casey Chambers:  That'd be a really interesting mix to compile.  Note to self.

Art Alexakis:  They just set the tone and get your heart going.  That's what I felt.  As a matter of fact, I've got a show on Sirius XM, and I think I'm gonna do a whole show about album opening songs.

Anyway, so I wanted some sort of intro.  I could do strings.  I could do this.  And then I'm thinking...what about a cool Beach Boys...just a little ripoff.  But not really, it's just a doo-wop thing which they ripped from the doo-wop bands of the '50s. (laughs)

"So Much For The Afterglow" - Everclear (1997)

So I wrote and sang all the parts.  All the harmonies.  I went into a studio in Hollywood and recorded that all in one day.  And this was before ProTools.  Before Auto-Tune.  There was none of that going on.  So every note had to be perfect. Had to just be perfect.  And we quadrupled every track.  I did all the parts myself and then I had the boys double me.  Triple and quadruple me on all the other tracks.  There was like 20 or 30 tracks there.  And that's the way it came out.

Casey Chambers:  It's a great way to kick things off.

Art Alexakis:  And it just goes to show, my A&R guy who was right half the time, was like, 'This is a horrible way to start the record.  People are gonna think it's going to sound a certain way and turn it off.  And then it goes down this punk rock thing which is too typical for you.  It's just a horrible way to start the record.'

But then all these positive reviews of the album came out saying, 'What a great way to start the album.' (laughs)  So I sent about four clippings of those to him and just said, 'Love Art, fuck you.' (laughs)  But it was good natured.  It was good natured.

Casey Chambers:  (laughs) I read that the song..."One Hit Wonder"...initially took a bit of slap and tickle from some record people, too.

Art Alexakis:  Yeah, same thing.  Same guy. (laughs) He's saying, 'Man you're just setting yourself up for failure.'  That was a song I wrote in New York as well.  So obviously, I was pissed off in New York.  There was a lot of 'fuck you's' going on.

The critics, and especially in Portland, were always talking shit.  'Oh, they're just a one hit wonder.  The sophomore slump is gonna get them.'  This and that.  This and that.  And so, I wrote "One Hit Wonder."  It was just kind of a 'fuck you' to them.  And if the record wasn't successful, I guess it would have made me look stupid. I was going out on a limb, but at that point, I didn't really care.  I didn't really care about the success.  I just wanted the record to be great.

"One Hit Wonder" - Everclear / The Late Show with David Letterman 

When I turned in the record, I go, 'This is the best record I can make.'  And my A&R guy agreed.  He said, 'I don't know if this is the best record you can make, but this is a great record.  You did it.  You did what you had to do.'  We had a really good relationship.  We didn't always agree. We'd cuss at each other.  Call each other names.  Hang up the phone, and then we'd work it out.  But that's how an A&R relationship is supposed to be.  They're supposed to be honest and tell you what they think.  Sometimes they're right.  Sometimes they're not.  But it's like any relationship. (laughs)  It worked out well.  We've been playing that song every night, 'cause we've been playing the whole album and it's been fun to play.

Casey Chambers:  I recently watched a clip of Everclear performing "One Hit Wonder" on David Letterman's show.  What was that experience like?

Art Alexakis:  Oh, that was the 3rd time I'd been on his show.  So, it was interesting.  Paul's always great.  David was a big fan, but we never got to talk to David.  No one did.  When David would walk to the stage...security would not let you be in the hallway.  I guess he just doesn't want people to look at him from behind.

Casey Chambers:  Was that just a Letterman thing or was that the typical talk show way?

Art Alexakis:  No.  It was just with him.  No one else.  Conan would come backstage and hang out with us and talk to us.  And Jay would always pop into the room.  Always.  Every time.  Just to say, 'Hey guys, how's it going?  What's going on?  You guys okay?  Everything good?  Thanks for being on the show again.'  He wouldn't hang out, but he'd come in just for a few minutes.  It was always really respectful.  Very cool.  Thoughtful.  And Dave's not... not... thoughtful.  It's just...he's his own thing.  And I always accepted that.  Plus, we were born on the same day.  We were both born on April 12.  Me, him, and Claire Danes.  I don't know what that means. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  Slice me a piece of cake. (laughs)  Let me ask you about the song, "Everything To Everyone."  I really dig that strange keyboard thing you have going on.

"Everything To Everyone" - Everclear / "So Much For The Afterglow" (1997)

Art Alexakis:  Yeah, well when I was doing my copious notes, I felt that that song needed a kind of droning...a melodic drone to go through the song.  I thought it would be a cool intro, as well, if I could get the sound right.  I tried synthesizers.  I tried guitars.  And then I was playing a Wurlitzer in the studio and I had the engineer run it through a SansAmp, which is kind of a distortion.  A light distortion.  And through a Chorus and an Octaver, which splits it into a high and low.  Then I did it in three different keys.  Complimentary keys.  And I just sat there for three or four hours and recorded this intro until it sounded right.  And I put it on the song.

Casey Chambers:  It's amazing the details that get fleshed out in the making of a song.  Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't ask about your iconic gem, "I Will Buy You A New Life."

Art Alexakis:  Ya know, it's funny.  Right before Christmas, we went into a studio not far from my house in Portland to do some vocals, add some guitars and other things.  Record a couple of covers.  And while I was up there, I had this idea in my head.  I wrote down all the words, picked up a guitar and pretty much finished the song in an hour.  It's a very personal song.

When I got to the studio the next day, we were pretty much wrapping up, I showed it to the guys.  We worked it out for about an hour and then recorded it.  I did the vocal that night, and the next afternoon we were doing backup vocals.

We had already asked Rami Jaffee, (The Wallflowers, The Foo Fighters) to come out to do "Normal Like You." I had wanted a Farfisa kind of sound on it, so he brought his Vox organ with him.  And while Rami was there, he asked if we had anything else for him to do.  I looked at Neal Avron and told him I'd really like to put some organ on this.  He goes, 'Yeah, that'd be awesome!'

So I played the song for Rami and he's like, 'Yeah, I can get a B3 sound out of this.'  We hooked it up to a Leslie and he got that cool sound and put the organ on it. And it sounded great.

But even at this point, even after mixing it, it still didn't have the intro with that bell sound.  And I go, 'It's almost like a toy kind of piano thing I hear in my head, but I can't get it.'  He goes, 'Okay well let's break for lunch.'  And he leaves and he brings back this kid's toy piano.  One of these little Playschool things.  And he puts it through a SansAmp...just a couple effects...and it came out perfect!  Ya know that was exactly what I wanted.  So that's how that came about.  And that was also in my notes I made while I was in New York.  But it was just finding the bell sound.  It just took some screwing around.

"I Will Buy You A New Life" - Everclear / "Woodstock 99"

Casey Chambers:  "So Much For The Afterglow" is such a special album.  There's almost a spiritual connection between the album and Everclear fans.  It means something.

Art Alexakis:  It really does.  I always knew people really connected with that record.  Of course, they did or it wouldn't have sold three million records.  But I didn't know, until I started this tour, what a catharsis this album has been for a lot of people and how personal it was.  It's been very intense.  I'll have grown men, women too, but especially grown men, come in line and they'll tell me stories with tears in their eyes.  They're about to break down.

Apparently, this record made it easier for some people to get through high school, which is really a miserable time for everybody.  If you're having a good time in high school, the rest of your life is probably going to suck. (laughs)  I'm telling my daughter now, 'Have fun.  Concentrate on the fun times.  You're going to feel weird.  People are gonna be weird.  Little things that are really little things...you're going to think are huge at the time.  Just remind yourself.  Your daddy told you it was going to be okay.  It's gonna get better.  I promise.' (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  No doubt. No doubt. (laughs)  Well, I'd like to thank you again, Art, for all the great music you have given us.  And for hanging out with me this morning.  It's been a pleasure.

Art Alexakis:  Well, my pleasure too, Casey.  It's been great.

"I Will Buy You A New Life" - Everclear / "So Much For The Afterglow" (1997)

Good stuff.

Go visit...
The Art Alexakis Show on Sirius Radio

Casey Chambers
Follow Me On FACEBOOK.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Horsehead Five: Another List of Favorite Story Songs

Story songs can be a tough sell.  They're like a juggling elephant.  You believe it when you see it.  Or in this case...hear it.  One too many forced or telegraphed rhymes and the listener will bail.

A story song requires a bit more commitment from the listener.  It has to maintain a comfortable balance of words and melody in the telling...without forfeiting the point of the tale.  Plus, and this is a biggie for me, the song must ring with a modicum of truth.  And I don't mean the song has to be truthful.  It just needs to sound believable.  Sincerity never hurts.  I mean, Jim Stafford's "Wildwood Weed" may not be literal truth, but we believe it.

Finding that sweet spot is tricky.  And can be risky time spent in the studio.  The replay value for a story song decreases much faster.  The majority, but for the treasured ones, is played a few times and then quickly relegated to the blue moon bin.

But when a story song captures the genie, the listener will give it up.  They will tune in, appreciating the effort the singer and songwriter take keeping their balance on the beam.  Because look...it's just hard.

I'm going to skip the giants like "The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald" or "Taxi" or any number of Dylan and Springsteen tunes.  On this mini-trip, I'm just gonna mention a few other songs that scratch my itch.  (part 1)

"The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia" - Vicki Lawrence (1973)

"...little sister don't miss when she aims her gun."

By the time the first five notes reach your ears, the table of tension has been set.  A little southern-noir crime of passion.

"Randall Knife" - Guy Clark / "Better Days" (1983)
"When we got back to the house, they asked me what I wanted.
Not the lawbooks. Not the watch. I need the things he's haunted."

I think our memories are filled up less with grand fireworks and more of the perplexing minutiae of life.

"John Wayne Gacy, Jr." - Sufjan Stevens / Illinois (2005)

"And in my best behavior 
I am really just like him.
Look beneath the floor boards 
for the secrets I have hid."

Sometimes a feather is more frightening than a hammer.
Sufjan's ethereal voice singing about such a dark and sad character creates a conflict of emotions that is truly disturbing.

"The Road Goes On Forever" - Joe Ely / Love and Danger (1993)

"Sonny's playin' 8-ball at the joint where Sherry works
When some drunken outta towner put his hand up Sherry's skirt.
Sonny took his pool cue laid the drunk out on the floor
Stuffed a dollar in her tip jar and walked on out the door."

Joe Ely didn't write this, but I like his version.  By the time Ely finishes the song, you're out of breath with a head-shaking...'ain't that the shit'...feeling.

"Operator" - Jim Croce / You Don't Mess Around With Jim (1972)

"She's living in L.A. with my best old ex-friend Ray.
a guy she said she knew well and sometimes hated."

It's a dark night, but I can see a lonely man in a dimly lit, beat-up phone booth on the corner of Anywhere, USA.
Like Adele, this is Jim’s way of saying, "...don't forget me, I beg."

"The Ballad of Curtis Loew" - Lynyrd Skynyrd / "Second Helping" (1974)

"He used to own an old dobro, used to play it across his knee.  
I'd give old Curt my money, he'd play all day for me."

People often forget how good this song is.  I don't care if it's true or not.  I'm seeing lots of barefeet running up the holler, eyes peeled for tossed-off bottles of orange crush in the weeds.  Play it and sing it like you mean it and they will come.

"Highway 17" - Rodney Crowell / The Houston Kid (2001)

"He made his mistake out on Airline Drive, you know those North Houston cops are quick.
They blew a hole in J.D. the size of Dallas and put a lump on my head with the brunt of a nightstick."

Rodney sells the story to the nines. Sings it like he lived it. I can see, smell, taste and feel everything nasty about these characters. Perfect!

Well, that's it.  On another day, I could easily have listed another batch of favorites.  And I will.

Good stuff.

Casey Chambers

Monday, June 12, 2017

Interview -- Frank Marino (Mahogany Rush)

"From a land where dragons stood,
a young boy dared what no man could."
~ Mahogany Rush ~

At a time when classic rock fans practically pull their hair out waiting to hear something/anything apart from the same overplayed radio songs...I give you Mahogany Rush.  During the '70s, Mahogany Rush, led by Frank Marino... recorded a surprising number of wonderful amp-blowing albums.  Each one filled with jams and burners and crankers begging for a radio spin. Yet his music has been almost virtually ignored.  It is what it is, I guess, but I don't get it.

Frank Marino was only 16 when he recorded his first Mahogany Rush album..."Maxoom"...in 1972.  He was a hard-blues, psych-rock guitarist with a young man's heart and an old man's soul.  His music immediately awakened similarities to the better parts of Hendrix, while unleashing his own blistering guitar style.  He wailed and burned and cranked and thrashed his way through the '70s and '80s with a boundless speaker-exploding, car-starting energy.  If you missed out on any of these albums the first time around...Go out and get you some.

Frank Marino Interview  --  June 2017
Frank Marino (vocals, guitars) 

Casey Chambers:  I'd like to start off by asking about the song..."Strange Dreams"...the classic opener from your 2nd solo album "Juggernaut." (1982)  It's a little different from most of your earlier stuff.  How did that song emerge?

Frank Marino:  Well, believe it or not, in a dream. (laughs)  I mean it's just one of those things.  But pretty much all the songs come together the same way.  I get an idea...sometimes in my sleep.  And I'll think, 'Hey, that's a pretty cool number,' and get up...put it together and do it.

Most of the tunes are done pretty quickly.  What ends up taking most of the time is getting the lyrics together.  Because I usually complete the songs as instrumentals first.  Then I'll sit there and look at it and say, 'Okay, this is what the melody will be doing.  What exactly do I want it to say and how do I make the words fit?'  It's really not a tricky process.  But that's how it's always worked for almost 50 years.

Casey Chambers:  The song "Strange Dreams" is a great "only-car-on-the-road" night driving song.  It's road crankage, and it also throws a hypnotic zen in the air. Would you take me through a little bit of your studio process?

Frank Marino:  I'm pretty much a stickler when I record tunes, in that, I control much of how they're going to go down.  A lot of guys don't like to do that.  They may say, 'Gee, I've got these chords.  What do you think you should play to it?'  But I will pretty much already have an idea.  I was a drummer, as well as a guitar player, so I always hear songs in their total.

I'll get into the studio and lay down the main structure for it with the guys.  And then I'll sit around and look at what techniques I can use to get the song to go in the direction I want it to go.  I build electronic gear, too, so I'm either going to use a certain type of gear that I've built or maybe a certain type of distortion or pedal.

In the case of "Strange Dreams," quite honestly, it's one of the few tracks that I did where I used keyboards.  Ya know, I thought...Moog synthesizer would sound really cool playing the bassline.  And because I had the Moog out, I thought, 'Well, why don't I develop a spacey kind of keyboard line that goes with it?'  I did that by overdubbing a couple of notes with the Moog.  It's really a process of listening to the song as you're recording and letting the song suggest what you need to do next.

Musicians will understand this, because many times they'll be in the studio recording and they'll turn around and go, 'Hey, why don't we put a tambourine or a cowbell on this?'  And that's sort of how a song speaks to musicians.  While they're recording them.  That's the symbiosis that happens between the artist and their work.  I think you have to let the song speak to you and tell you what you should be doing.

Casey Chambers:  And it was great hearing the song get some radio love.

"Strange Dreams"  - Frank Marino / "Juggernaut" (1982)

Frank Marino:  Actually, it was a #1! (laughs)  It was a #1 hit for awhile.  Yeah, it was the only time I ever had that kind of success with a song.

Casey Chambers:  You had already built up a fine catalog of wall-shaking Mahogany Rush albums by that point.  With plenty of good songs to taste.  Any idea that "Strange Dreams" was going to be the one?

Frank Marino:  Absolutely not.  And I'll tell you why.  Because if you notice...anyone who really knows all the work I've done, will say, 'Isn't it funny that he's known as being a guitar player, and yet there's really no guitar solo in that song?'  It's the only song I've ever recorded that does not have a guitar solo in it. (laughs)  But it's the one song that really, really reached radio...and they played it a lot!  'Cause radio ordinarily wouldn't play my stuff.

Casey Chambers:  I know!  It's a guitar-shred conspiracy! (laughs)

Frank Marino:  It's unbelievable!  There's not a single other tune anywhere where there's not a guitar solo.  A long solo or even a short solo.  And "Strange Dreams" just has none.  I mean zero solo.  So, I thought...'That's amazing.  I leave out the one thing that I've always done and that's how I get the hit record.' (laughs)  But yeah, it was totally a surprise.  Totally a surprise.

Casey Chambers:  And that song was the lead-off track.  How difficult is it deciding what the opening track is going to be on an album?

Frank Marino:  Well, I have a method that I've always used.  Now, remember CDs are different because they're not two sided.  But with albums, you have two beginnings and two endings.  So I needed to find two opening tracks and two ending tracks.  And that's basically the system that I would use.

I would first take a look at all the tunes.  And just by feel...I would get the number down to two or three.  And then I'd think about which ones would make you want to play the record over again.  And those will be the ending tracks.  So, out of the 9, 10, twelve tracks I've done for an album, I've pretty much grouped certain ones to be possible candidates to open and to close the album.  And by the way, some of those candidates could be both.

"Juggernaut" / Frank Marino (1982)

Once I've done that, they're like bookends and I can eliminate those from the pile.  Then the next thing I would do is look at the songs as a musician.  I would think, 'Well...if that song is in the key of G, or the key of let's say E, I don't want that second song to be in the key of E.'  So that limits me as to what I can use to follow that tune.  And I work through the songs that way.

I work backwards from the end making sure the keys don't match up.  And I work forwards from the beginning making sure they don't match up.  And I basically juggle things around until I get something that flows really nice.  That's sort of the method that I've used as a producer of the albums that I did.  Whether I was producing my own albums or others.

Casey Chambers:  I'd never thought about the energy involved in getting the sequencing just right, but I absolutely get it.  And appreciate it when it's done right.

Frank Marino:  Yeah, because you've got to understand that when you're listening to a record, you want every song to make you want to hear the next one, right?  And one thing you don't want to do is have too many songs in a row that are either the same rhythm...or the same key.  And because you have that limitation, it actually helps you structure the album in a way that works out well.  It's the very limitations you have that helps you.

And what I would do, and a lot of guys can try this, I'd literally take a bunch of business cards.  You know, typical business cards.  And I'd turn the cards over to the blank side and write the name of a track in the middle of each card.  On the left side, I'd write the key it starts in.  And on the right side, I'd write the key that it ends in...'cause sometimes songs change key in the middle.   And then at the bottom, I'd write a little comment.  A little two-word description...like, is it a slow ballad?  Is it hard rock?

Now, all these cards can be laid out on the table and you can put asterisks on the ones that could be openers.  You put double asterisks on the ones that could be closers.  You can flip the cards around on the table and start putting this in the middle of that.  Move this over to here.  'Uh-oh, I have two Gs in a row.  I'm gonna have to move this one over to here.'  Sort of like a puzzle.  And you start to see the layout and can do it pretty fast that way.  For producers who are out there doing records for people, that's a very helpful procedure.

"Child of the Novelty" / Mahogany Rush (1974)

Casey Chambers:  What a great share. Thank you.  In 1974, your band...Mahogany Rush...released their second album...."Child Of The Novelty."  This was my introduction to your music and the album will always hold a special place.  And the title track is an especially moving piece.  It follows your classic stormbringer "Talkin' 'Bout A Feelin" and knocks me out every time.

Frank Marino:  Well, look, I don't know if you know much about my history, but when I started doing music early, early on, I was very much associated with Jimi Hendrix.  He had just recently died and I was doing that kind of music.  I was pretty much one of the only people doing that kind of music.  And from a fan's point of view it worked out great.  But I was like anathema to the press.  They really hated me.  People in the industry...all they did was say, 'What a clone. What a copy.  What a this or what a that.'  It was very, very hard on me.

"Talkin' 'Bout A Feelin'" / Mahogany Rush (1974)

I was only 16 when I did my first album ("Maxoom" - 1972) and this stuff was constantly following me around.  So when I did my second album, I was becoming a little tongue in cheek about it all.  There's songs on "Child Of The Novelty" and even on "Strange Universe" (1975) that refers to this ridiculous media thing that was going on around me at the time and "Child Of The Novelty" is kind of that.  It's kind of talking about myself.

And how the press were all talking...not the public, mind you...about what a real "novelty" this kid was.  That this kid was doing this, ya know?  And "He took them by surprise."  That's what the line is.  That's really what it's about.  And there are other songs too, like..."Makin' My Wave" and "Talkin' 'Bout A Feelin."  Those are all really tongue in cheek "digs" if you want to put it that way...at the writers at the time who were saying all these things like, 'He's the reincarnation of Jimi Hendrix.  He saw spirits.'  And all kinds of nonsense that I had nothing to do with...and that they invented to sell papers.

If you listen to some of the lyrics on those very, very early tunes I did, what you heard is a 16 or 17-year-old kid just basically trying to find a way to tell these people to leave him alone.  When I was 19 or 20, it didn't bother me anymore.  But just imagine when you were 16.  If you tried to do something that you were having fun with and everyone was calling you names. (laughs)  It would just kind of make you mad.  So those songs were my only way to sort of talk back at what they were doing at the time.  That's what you have there.

"Child of the Novelty" / Mahogany Rush (1974)

Casey Chambers:  With the number of music sources today, it would've been much harder to gang up. I mean, what did you have back then...Rolling Stone and Creem...and that's about it, right?

Frank Marino:  Well, when I did my very, very first album, I wrote a song called, "Buddy" which was about Hendrix 'cause he had just died.  And I literally said, 'Dedicated to Jimi Hendrix' on the album.  That was, in hindsight, a terrible mistake because that gave them fodder to use. And they piled on.

I remember one article in Creem or Circus magazine and the headline was..."The Band The Critics Love To Hate."  That was actually the headline. (laughs)  And that followed me for all of the '70s.  When I did "Roadhouse Blues"...a cover of a Doors tune in the late '70s, the headline was, "Frank Marino Robs Fresh Graves."

Casey Chambers:  That's just brutal!

Frank Marino:  Plus, I was a religious kid which didn't help.  I didn't do drugs anymore.  And I didn't drink.  And I didn't go to parties.  I didn't do all that stuff that was expected of rock and roll stars in the '70s.  So, here was this sort of John-Boy Walton playing psychedelic guitar and talking about Jesus.  That didn't endear me to some of the media. (laughs)  I've made my career mostly by going directly to fans and playing live.  We played a lot of schools, a lot of colleges and whatever we could.  A lot of outdoor shows.  And that's how we developed our following.

Casey Chambers:  I'm glad you continue to embrace your influences. Your name often comes up when discussing rock's underrated guitarists.  Who were a few guitarists you got in to growing up and who were some you felt were underrated?

"Strange Universe" / Mahogany Rush (1975)

Frank Marino:  When I was growing up, I liked a lot of guitar players.  But I didn't like them just because they were guitar players, I liked their music.  I liked Quicksilver (Messenger Service) which had John Cipollina.  I liked the music of Santana.  I liked Hendrix.  I liked Johnny Winter.  I liked Duane Allman.  But it's not like I liked them and went, 'Wow!  They're great guitar players!'  I just liked that music.  Later on though, when I became a guitar player myself, it was, in fact, their music I first tried playing.

In the rock and roll world, no one was really going crazy over guitarists until much, much later in the '70s when they started to have magazines like Guitar Player and Guitar World.  Then you started seeing what technical guitar players were doing.

But if you look at those magazines, you'll notice that they pretty much focus on the same six or eight guys.  And over and over again, they talk about these same people.  I think to answer your question, it's really everybody else they didn't focus on who were underrated. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  Truth! (laughs) Lastly, I'd like to ask about playing California Jam II in '78.

Frank Marino:  I always tell people that it was one of the worst experiences of my life. (laughs)  Not because of the gig.  The gig was great...when I finally got to play at 1:00 in the morning.  It was really great.  But the time I spent from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m...look, I'm very much a holdover from the Woodstock generation.  I like music to be music.  Backstage at Cal Jam, the whole day was all about lights, camera, action!  It became more about what the lights look like.  Or what the personalities look like.  Or what wild clothes everyone was going to wear.  It was almost like a TV show or something, ya know?  And I thought we'd lost something.  It didn't feel like rock and roll.  So I didn't really like it.  But, once I got on stage... man, I was home.  Then it was okay.

I used to look at the crowds screaming and cheering for things and thinking sometimes they can't even hear the music...but they're screaming and cheering.  It's almost like a form of cheap psychiatry or something.  Pay your eight bucks and go stand on a chair and scream your head off.  Like going to the train yards and screaming at the trains.

Casey Chambers:  Concert psychiatry ain't cheap anymore! (laughs)

Cal Jam II  / "Purple Haze" - Mahogany Rush (1978)

Frank Marino:  (laughs)  Like, wow, man!  I waited a long, long time.  I thought Cal Jam would be like Woodstock and it was anything but Woodstock.  You know in "The Wizard Of Oz" when they say, "this isn't Kansas?"  Like, all of a sudden things have changed?  That's sort of the feeling I had.  And as the '70s slowly wore on, I was becoming less and less enamoured with being in the music business. And consequently, in 1982 or '83...I just walked away from major labels and said I'm never going to do this again.  And I never did. (laughs)

But man, I enjoyed watching most all of the acts. In fact, I've always watched the other acts at every show I've ever played.  And I loved seeing Santana.  And Dave Mason.  I liked a lot of the acts.  Don't get me wrong. They were fine.  I'm just saying, the way the whole thing was being promoted...the Entertainment Tonight there and stuff like that.  All of a sudden, the '70s were morphing into this thing that was almost anything, but the music.

One of the things that used to make my managers very mad...and I first saw it happening with the record company people and the management people.   When I wasn't headlining, I would finish my act and then go out into the crowd to watch the other bands.  And people inside the industry and even from other bands were telling me, ''You shouldn't do that.  Don't do that.  People will think you're just like them.  And they won't look up to you.'  And I'm like...'Okay.  So what?  I am just like them.'  It didn't make any sense to me.

"Maxoom" / Mahogany Rush (1972 - debut album)

Because look, let's face it.  Getting in a limousine and getting out of a limousine...you're not curing cancer.  We're just musicians playing music and making people have fun.  No need to take ourselves too seriously.  And I don't.  And I never did.  I always did everything exactly the way I wanted. It's almost like a Grateful Dead thing with us.  We have these fans who have been with us since the beginning.  We've grown old together.  And their kids are liking us now.  So, it doesn't have to be big.  It just has to be real.

Casey Chambers:  Well Frank, thank you for taking the time to hang with me today.  I think I'll grab one of your CDs and go for a drive.

Frank Marino:  Well listen, it was my pleasure.

Go visit...
Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush Website

Good stuff.

Casey Chambers