|Interview with Robert Lamm and Jimmy Pankow, Chicago
4 March, 1999
After a rehearsal on a sound stage in Burbank, California
© Debbie Kruger
I first met you guys in Sydney 20 years ago, in 1979 at the Boulevard Hotel.
JP: I still have a picture of a bunch of us standing around with members of the rugby team. No, not rugby, cricket!
You guys were so into cricket, and Walt was wearing this t-shirt from Dennis Lillee that said "I'm into cricket balls and all" and I remember the whole thing, it was very cool.
JP: So we meet again!
Yeah, well it's interesting, last time I bumped into Robert at the Whisky
You introduced me to Joy, and you said, "Debbie's interviewed me a couple of times," and I thought, actually I haven't, so it's time I did.
RL: But we've talked. Didn't we do a thing on the phone? Or I did a... an ID?
We've talked a lot. You sent me that fabulous ID for my radio show. I wrote to him, sent him a blank tape, said I've got this radio show in Australia, can you do me an ID? And he went to his studio and you did the whole thing. And that's really cool. So thank you.
RL: You're welcome.
Okay, well I've got a lot of questions, we'll see how we go with you for time.
RL: We have level here?
We have level, we have good level, we have a tape that's going.
JP: Great. All the prerequisites.
And a good microphone. Regarding rehearsals. When you are touring so much, and generally playing the same songs, what is the rehearsal process about for you?
RL: It's usually about if we've added a song to the repertoire that we haven't played for a while we need to become reacquainted with it. And of course if we're doing a new song, like we're doing Jimmy's new single, Jimmy's song from the second Heart of Chicago volume, "Show Me A Sign," that's a song that's beginning to chart now.
You didn't play that one last year?
RL: No. So we had to really learn how to play that. So really, rehearsals are about playing new songs and re-introducing older songs that have been out of the repertoire for a while. And then kind of fine-tuning. 'Cause even with repetitive play, you know, for 20, 25 years of certain songs, sometimes they kind of start to slip away, they kind of drift away from what the original parts were.
JP: They tend to need an edge sharpened. It's basically like sharpening your knives at home. You know, if you use them over and over, you have to keep the edge sharp. So we have to come in here before every tour and pick up the loose ends.
RL: It's really not any more elaborate than that. We tend not to do production rehearsals. Our production has been scaled back so that's it's maximum quality but minimum bells and whistles.
JP: We've trimmed the fat, as it were.
Yeah, I've noticed that. Don Henley has often remarked that he has a high tolerance for repetition, that's one of his favorite quotes, so he doesn't mind doing a song like "Desperado" a zillion times. Is that a factor in your performance longevity, that you don't mind the repetition?
JP: Well, you know Debbie, let's remember an important fact here. The audience comes to hear certain songs. Without that audience, without that fan base, what's the point? We wouldn't have a career. We made the mistake one year of doing a very narcissistic set for ourselves
RL: Twenty-five years ago.
JP: Yeah, we did what we called the jazz set. And we did all the instrumental
All the stuff from VII?
JP: Yeah, you know, all the more obscure music in our catalog. Because it was fun to play, cause we never had a chance to do that live. And the year after that, subsequently our audience, about half our audience showed up.
JP: Because it scared a lot of people away. And so there are songs that you must do, and every night you do them the crowd changes. The crowd is a constantly changing factor. Every night, it's like the first time every night to a large degree because the audience situation is different. It's a different set of people that you're performing that song for. If we were to do that song 80 dates in LA for our friends it'd be rough, because you'd have to make believe you were getting a fresh take on it.
Well I read in an interview that Lee did last year that he said audiences don't want to be educated, they want to be entertained but don't you ever yearn sometimes to just play a few small venues, do some of the early stuff like "Listen" and "Mother" and stuff that you could still do because you're still in the group, and trust maybe that the audiences will trust you? Do you know what I mean? There are a lot of people who come and see you year in year out, and I'm not just talking about the fan club people. There are a lot of people that go back to the Universal or the Greek every year that might trust you if you just stuck two or three of those more interesting more interesting doesn't mean the others aren't but the early stuff that we all long to hear. I don't say you have to do a whole show of it, but, have you ever thought about that?
RL: Yeah, I agree. I do long to do that. And every once in a while we'll pull out, you know, like "Question 67 & 68" and I think it had that
When you did the whole "Ballet" for a couple of years, that was great.
JP: We're going to do it again this year.
RL: Yeah, we'll do that this year. So yes, but within that, I mean, there tends to be, we tend to be a little conservative in the way we structure our shows, because you know the audience that comes has a certain expectation and we don't want to disappoint that. But having said that I still think that there is room in the concert, there's room in the concert to take a chance and either play something that's less familiar or something that's more sensitive, or something that is a little more challenging. My opinion is that there is room for that. But we tend to be a little more conservative.
I wondered if songs like "Just You 'n' Me" and "Saturday in the Park" do still move you and really delight you.
JP: You know one of my again, this is my personal thing one of my MO's, you might say, is to get out there every night and if I can play every note in that song, I don't care if I've played it a million times, if I can make every note count, then before I know it the song is over. Because I'm so absorbed in playing that song perfectly that that becomes a challenge within the song. Instead of just, oh god, we've gotta play this song again, I'm thinking, okay let's see I'm gonna dial in these notes, there's a particular section that gives me trouble, I'm gonna play it perfectly tonight. And so I tend to look at the song as a piece of music, and I'm gonna perform this piece of music flawlessly, as if I were up there for a solo recital.
I'm interested, though, as the two composers who've been there since the start, whether you can still be moved by the original inspiration for the song. And I particularly think of "Just You 'n' Me," and I hope you don't mind me being a bit personal, but I've always been fascinated since your marriage status changed and since that song had such a personal and beautiful conception, which is why it's always been one of my favorite Chicago songs, whether you at some stage disconnected from that, or whether you can still connect to that, or whether just years ago you switched off from the emotional level of that song, long before your first marriage
JP: (Laughing) That's a legitimate question, yeah.
It's just as a fan, as someone who's followed you personally for many years, as soon as I heard about your first marriage being over, my first thought was but that song!
JP: Yeah. Well, she got half of it.
Well that happens, but
JP: It's on tape, too! It's available.
RL: Not to get him off the spot, but I've had you know similar occasions where
Your life has been through many changes, Robert, yeah.
RL: For instance, whenever we play "Beginnings" I always think of the girl that I was with when I wrote "Beginnings" at the beginning. Because for me, when I'm singing one of the songs that I wrote, I always go back to when I wrote it, the moment that I wrote it.
You do? So you walk through Central Park in your mind when you do "Saturday?"
RL: Yeah, all of that. Yeah. But for instance with "Beginnings," as I sing the song I bring myself back and, like anybody else who's hearing the song I mean obviously if you hear the song you're not thinking of the girl that I was thinking of, you're thinking of whatever you're thinking of, whatever it makes you think about and so I let the lyrics bring me back into where I am now, and I think about Joy.
JP: And I agree wholeheartedly with what Robert just said, and to take it a step further, he hit the nail on the head when he said, you know you write a song and you look out into crowd during the song and you see people relating to each other because of what that song represents in their relationship. And you can re-live the feeling that you had when you wrote it by experiencing what they're experiencing. It's really quite delightful. We're very lucky to be able to be so personal with so many, and that is what gives the song coninued life. I mean you can look at any given audience with any given song and you can see two sweethearts going, oh, remember that song, we were standing on a rocky cliff and we heard that song play in the convertible, you know, blah blah blah. And it gives the song added meaning. Regardless of what your status has, how it has changed. But yes, I do flash on the moment that I wrote that song, and how it came about, the fact that we had had an enormous quarrel, and rather than focus on negative energy I went out to the piano and poured emotion into a song instead, it happened quite spontaneously, and the magic of the occasion of writing that song has never quite happened like that since. And it just happened, thank god I was near a piano, and I happened to be at the right place at the right time, and have a fight at the right time, that I could sit down and, you know, transform a negative situation into a positive result. And I do flash on that when we perform the song. But again, it also has meaning for my current love. Because the song is kind of a universal message.
Well on my radio program in Australia I used to play it as a dedication for my dog.
JP: (Laughs) Oh well there you go!
I wanted to share that with you.
RL: Woof woof!
It was always that one and "You're My Best Friend" by Queen, they were my songs for my dog.
JP: Well you know our pets are our best friends, so that's understandable.
Lee has said repeatedly over the years that "Beginnings" is his favorite song to play. He said it in an Australian interview in 1977 and he said it in the interview I read last year. How important is it that your older work not only moves your audiences but moves each other? Are you always checking with each other to keep a song in the set?
RL: I don't know if that's like, if.... I don't know if it's important that we have a discussion about every single song, but I think what happens is that an occasion like this past week when we're putting together the show for this year, if something is just not working, you know, regardless of how much one or two of the guys might like a song, it's generally going to come out of the set and something else is going to go in. So, you know... I think, you know, we've played "Beginnings" probably somewhere around 3600 times.
Is that all?
RL: Yeah. It's probably
JP: That sounds like a low number to me, too.
It sounds like a very little number. Haven't you played it in every set since the first time?
RL: Yeah but you figure we've been playing for 32 years, we play roughly an average of let's say a hundred concerts a year.
RL: It's not that many.
JP: There you go. Our historian.
Thank you. Okay, this one might come out a little convoluted but hopefully you'll see where I'm coming from. As the two central composers of the groups since the beginning, I'm interested to talk with you about the change in focus in composing over the years. You started out as prolific writers and you recorded prolifically. I can't think of any group except the Beatles, who recorded so many albums in such a short space of time taking into account your double sets. And even the rapidity with which you got Hot Streets out after Terry's death, in retrospect, that's I don't think any group would do that today, within six or eight months you've got a brand new album full of original material out. So it's almost like you were all on musical speed in the late '60s and '70s. Until the '90s the albums were coming out regularly, but the original material was less prevalent. So what I want to know is, did the writing output wane as you grew older or are there other factors? Because the use of other composers has baffled me since you started doing it.
RL: Well you're talking to the right people.
That's why I wanted to talk to you two. This is the crux of what I want to write about.
RL: I write more than I I've been writing more in the last ten years than I did in the first ten years. What's happened is that the trust that the management and the record company has in us has gone away. So they basiclaly don't trust what we do. They don't trust us to do, to record the music that we're writing.
JP: To a degree I believe that may be true. But on the other hand I believe that the music business and the nature of how songs are written, produced and why they are written for what has changed remarkably. Back when we were so prolific, or so the impression was, it was largely due to the fact that we could write just about anything we wanted to and it would get on a record, because that was where we were at that point in time. And the album, or the project we were working on, was a chronicle of where we were in terms of our writing and musicality at that given time. Nowadays the music business doesn't focus on music for the sake of music. Nowadays the music business focuses on music for the sake of dollars. And that is pretty much across the board, and nowadays it's become a lot of suits with a certain idea, a certain artist, a certain sound in mind, and you're competing with an image, you're competing with a style. You're not really free to do, for instance, double discs, like we used to do. You can put more than ten songs on a CD. Whether or not that music is going to go on that CD with the same fulfilment to the artist or the same recognition is questionable. Nowadays formats are the thing on radio. Nowadays radio grabs so many songs and they play those songs for so many months, and that's the only songs they will play. And not only that but we became successful to the point of being recognized solely on the basis of one type of song, and that's the power ballad. With the enormous success of "If You Leave Me Now" radio decided that that was Chicago's sound on radio. And I can't tell you how many attempts we made at pushing up-tempo songs to get on records and fans would come up to us and go, 'What happened to you guys? You've been eating too much pabulum. What happened to that, you know, the guts and the soul and the funk that you guys had back when. Now you guys have sold out.' You know, we heard that so many times. And you know, our answer to that was, well, we actually became victims of the success of one type of song that was embraced by mass media as our sound. And no matter how hard we tried to knock that door down and to get another, like a "Make Me Smile" or a "Beginnings" or an up-tempo
"25 or 6 to 4"
JP: A "25 or 6 to 4"! We've been one up-tempo song short for 30 years, man. You know, "25 or 6 to 4" is the encore song, every night, I don't care where we are, when it is, that song has to be the closer of the show, because that is the rock 'n' roll anthem from this band. There ain't any others.
And that's the real Chicago.
JP: Well, that's not the real Chicago. That's part of the real Chicago. "If You Leave Me Now" is just as much Chicago as "25 or 6 to 4". "Hard To Say I'm Sorry", "You're The Inspiration", those are all Chicago as well. But after the success of that genre of song the "25 or 6 to 4" aspect side of this band got put on the back burner, and every year it gets farther and farther back, and you know we've been fighting tooth and nail to come back. And this song that is now just starting to climb the charts that we rehearsed today is a new song, it's a hip hop type of a song. It may be that first toe to open the door back into you know getting back into up-tempo stuff, some R&B, some funk. Because you know Robert's written a lotta you know, funk type tunes in the last five years. We did an album that has never been released. He even got into a rap type of approach that this band had never done, and it was laughable to these suits, because, "Oh no, no, no, that's not Chicago!" And so we're up against this image thing, and no matter how prolific we are on that side of the coin, in terms of up-tempo songs, it's like they don't trust it, because that's not you know, our manager comes to us and says, "Hey man, that'll never get on the radio. We know programmers, our A&R guy in the office couldn't shop that song no matter what he did." Do you know what I'm trying to say?
JP: It has nothing to do with our lack of being prolific.
RL: The good news is that the next album that we record will be on Chicago Records, and I'm of the opinion that we ought to take some chances, you know, take some chances on that album.
Where is that album at, at the moment? Are you anywhere near starting it?
JP: We haven't even started recording it. We're writing music right now. And again, I'm not here to look a gift horse in the mouth. Perhaps one of the reasons we're still sitting here talking to you or rehearsing for another tour, our 32nd year on the road, is because of the enormous success of that ballad type song.
RL: That is without a doubt.
JP: We wouldn't be here. And perhaps we can, perhaps this continued success and longevity will get us finally to the point, over that hump, where we can start sneaking in some more daring compositions.
I had a question about the whole thing I have felt, for many years, Chicago was misunderstood because of the ballads, but it's got to the point where you've had to become what people were misunderstanding you to be.
JP: We've had to live up to expectations.
But why you can't maybe it's hard to answer you talk about management this way, but obviously they're doing great things for your career
Would it be too difficult to just take control, manage yourselves, or find someone
JP: It would be suicide.
RL: Well, Chicago is a corporation. It's more... the way we exist now is more a corporation than a band. I mean, we are a band, but we're also a corporation.
JP: That again goes back to my point. It's a business now. It's a business, and we have to think like businessmen. It's disgusting!
RL: On one hand we don't have to. But if we don't, then it would be, if we didn't have Chicago Records I think that very likely there wouldn't be any place for us to go with new music.
And yet artists like Dylan, and Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, and Crosby Stills Nash & Young, who are doing a new album now, why don't they have this trouble? They just do what they want to do, and trust that the
RL: No, they've been doing what they do. With the possible exception of Bruce, Dylan sounds like Dylan, Crosby Stills & Nash sounds like Crosby Stills & Nash, who was the other band you mentioned?
Neil Young solo. I mean, he does whatever he wants to do, don't you think he does?
JP: Let me tell you something, speaking of that. I got a call from Graham Nash and Stephen Stills, they wanted Chicago's horn section to be on one cut. The powers that be said... We got to the 11th hour, a couple days before this session was supposed to happen. We had planned it for nine months, our schedules finally worked out so they could be in town when our section came in and did this song, they were all totally excited about the collaboration. I got a call in the 11th hour, and the powers that be said, "No, no no no, we can't have horns on this song, it's not what "
Their powers that be?
JP: So there you go. It happens to all of us.
Isn't it a shame, because back in the '70s you were doing it with the Bee Gees, the Bee Gees were doing it with you, everyone was just
RL: Yeah I mean, that was the nature of
Everyone was just working with each other, and if you look at liner notes on albums you see great people doing sessions for other great people.
RL: That was the... I mean, in the '70s that was the nature of music, you pretty much, it was expected that you would make more artistic decisions and be granted more musical freedom than is allowable now. Especially because we're older bands.
Well, with the new original material that you have recorded on these Heart of Chicago albums you've had significant input from people like Lenny Kravitz, James Newton Howard, Glen Ballard. I don't need to know about how each of these collaborations happened, but in general, how are these collaborations coming about and how much is their sound styling Chicago now, or is it not at all?
RL: Chicago's sound is the brass. Chicago's sound is
JP: Not really. It's a big part of it. But it's, I think it's you, I mean you have a style. Bill has a style. Our sound is the result of the people in this band who have remained relatively intact, especially Robert and the horn section, we go back to day one, and our style is how we play and how we sing and how we approach what we do. That style is recognizable, and true, the horn section is an obvious signature in the music. But stylistically you know, we play a certain way and we approach songs a certain way. When Robert writes a song or I write a song it doesn't really become a Chicago song until thememebrs of the band put in their special touches and the song has life. I mean, I could have given "Just You 'n' Me" to the Bee Gees or somebody and it would have been a different song.
RL: Yeah, I would say, of the people you mentioned Lenny Kravitz probably had the most musical
JP: Personality. Stamp.
RL: Yeah, his style came on, you know, really blended with what we were trying to do more than the rest of the guys. The rest of the guys, you know, whether it was Ballard or James Newton Howard, or even David Foster. And David Foster made the Chicago sound in his image and
I was going to ask about him next, yeah.
RL: But the other guys are really, without giving them their proper credit, were just producers, and they were given a task of bringing the song and the sound of Chicago together in a marketable way for radio.
How do you look back now on that pivotal David Foster period in your career? Because for a lot of us long-time followers of the band it really signalled such a huge change in the sound, in the way the group was going to go from then on. How do you look back on it? 'Cause it's been a long time now.
RL: Well, you know I firmly believe that without David Foster at that time the band probably would have ceased to exist, at least as a mainstream band. It would have taken a lot of struggle, if we hadn't had those hits, for us to find out way. You know, that was like the right guy at the right time both for us and with radio.
JP: Well he was on the rise. You know, when we did Chicago 16 with him he wasn't the famous sought-after person he is now. He was up and coming. But he was hungry. And we were hungry for a jump start, you know, and like Robert said, we were both at the right place at the right time and it worked for whatever. I don't necessarily agree with the fact that if it hadn't been him it wouldn't have been somebody else.
RL: Yeah we have that kind of tenaciousness.
JP: Yeah. And when Terry Kath died, that was the biggest kick in the ass that we ever could have had, just in terms of keeping the ball going.
RL: Well it didn't really happen with Phil [Ramone], and it didn't really happen with Tom Dowd, and I don't know who else we'd worked with before David, but it didn't really happen. We weren't ready for it to happen, and we kind of got by with those albums, but you know, David really created a sound that incorporated the Chicago sound but turned out to be his sound rather than, rather than... His sound using Chicago as an instrument.
JP: Yeah. Right. Right.
So in that respect then the David Foster factor was unique in the broad spectrum of Chicago, because when I thought about this the other day, I thought well, gee then if I go back to the first eleven albums, how much of that was Jimmy Guercio and how much of it was you guys? Because there's been lots of talk about... Because I listen to those albums and what comes to me is this completely self-style, raw, open this-is-who-we-are sound. I'd hate to think it wasn't that.
RL: Yeah, the first eleven albums are Chicago. The first eleven albums are Chicago, and Guercio's genius was that he captured it, and no other producer has captured it.
And allowed you to be yourselves.
JP: Yes. And Jimmy Guercio stayed on the other side of the glass. Jimmy Guercio was kind of the mentor. As great a musician as he was, he was a very talented bass player and composer in his own right, but he let us do our thing. And like Robert said, he was able to capture it incredibly well. David was more... I don't want to be.... I want to say this...
RL: David Foster badly, still to this day, badly wants to be an artist and he'll never be an artist. So what he does is he makes records using artists so that, you know, what he does can shine through using the artists as a synthesizer if you will.
He's done it most recently with the Corrs, particularly, the Irish group. Fabulous records.
RL & JP: Yeah.
But that real slick shiny glossy
JP: Slick! Slick, and this synthisized, you know, I mean it's Foster's keyboards.
RL: That's David.
JP: He is an incredible pianist.
Didn't he play at the Olympics or something?
JP: Yeah, well the Olympic theme is his thing.
RL: He'll play anywhere they let him. He'll go anywhere they'll let him.
JP: You know, and the guy is an amazing talented guy, but it's almost as if he's goin, "Okay you guys go play in traffic, you know, and I'll make this record, and you know, I'll put as much of you guys as I need to get the Chicago sound across, but you know, this line, here I'll tell you guys." Like the horn section, "Okay, here's the line I want you guys to play." (Simulates horn sound). You know I got to the point where I went, "David, don't tell me what to write because that is the magic of what we do, it comes from this brain, not that brain." And it got to the point where we did bump heads quite severely.
But I guess he and Peter didn't bump heads so much, because when I look back on it
JP: Well Peter hated horns. Peter hated the horns.
They were kind of working together and collaborating.
JP: Yeah. I wouldn't be surprised if they were talking about you know Peter leaving the band and doing, you know, a partnership thing long before it happened. Because yeah, they were nurturing something completely separate from what this band was. He was creating a wedge between Peter and the band. But that wedge would have been there anyway because Peter and the horn section in this band never saw eye to eye.
Which is interesting
JP: And then Peter went out and made records with horns on them.
And some of the songs he wrote, the arrangements you did, you kind of think how could this song ever have existed without?
JP: Well look at "The Glory Of Love," the first single he had after he left the band. It's a Chicago production. I mean, come on. Michael Omartian put a Chicago horn section on there. I might as well have written it myself and played it. So I didn't get it, and I'm not patting myself on the back, that's the way it is. So I find it quite ludicrous that all of that went down. It's a lot of gray matter we're talking about here. I don't think
RL: Yeah, David did great records for us at a time when we really needed to do some great records.
And I certainly wasn't looking for a "Let's get at David Foster"; I'm more interested in how other artists affect your sound, and it's clear that David Foster was the one who really did.
But perhaps it was what you needed at the time, maybe it wasn't, but that's what happened.
RL: We needed something.
JP: Yeah, we needed something, and maybe, maybe not.
I don't know if you want to go where I'm going to go now, and if you don't that's fine.
I love the stories about your connection with Jimi Hendrix in the early years, and I've often read about his comments on the band, and particularly his comments about Terry's playing, and how Terry was a better guitar player than he was. And the publicity bio I have refers to Janis Joplin's endorsements, as well. So I sat and I thought, well what would Jimi and Janis think of Chicago now, and for that matter, and this is where you might not want to go, what would Terry think of the group now, and if he were still here, would you still be together doing this, or would you have gone in that direction where your hearts still lie?
RL: Ah, I would say that and this is all speculation, you must understand I would say that Janis Joplin would be probably doing country records and starring in a tv sitcom.
RL: No, I think two things. If Terry, a) if Terry would have sobered up, and he was leaning towards grasping a new technology, all the technology that we're now immersed in, my fantasy is that he probably would have mastered that technology before anybody else in the band, because he really wanted to do that. Because he was already doing crazy things with his little home studio set-up anyway. So my fantasy is that had he not died he would have, the direction that the band would have taken would definitely have been influenced by his still being around, his interest in the technology. And you know, who knows where that would have ended up, but I don't think we would be the band that we are now. I'm not saying that it would have been a better band, I'm saying that it would have been a different band.
Do you both
JP: If Terry was still performing with us?
Do you both still seek Terry out sometimes and just talk to him or think
RL: I dream about him.
Or dream about him?
JP: I think of him quite often.
RL: I dream about him all the time.
Because his spirit, I mean, any fan who's been there since then, his spirit is still there and when you listen to the old albums, it's sometimes I get very teary when I listen to those first three albums particularly, and it just washes over me, and always on my radio program in Australia, I would play a lot of that early stuff and I would teach my listeners, I would say, "This is the Chicago a lot of us remember." And I would play "Listen" and I would play a lot of his stuff, just doing my little bit to say hey, they're not just a ballad band, there's this, and there was this great man. And I thought you guys particularly, and Lee and Walt, must go to him sometimes.
JP: Well I am convinced that he is just smiling ear to ear in the fact that we're such a bunch of tenacious bastards, we're down here, man, we're not letting go, we're going to do this until we get it right, that's the way we like to say it. And I think he's proud of us. But you know, Debbie, this is rock and roll, it's music. It's not a cure for cancer. It's not a new wheel. This is entertainment. And granted, it gives life a quality that otherwise it wouldn't have, just like beautiful flowers do, and things in nature that give extra meaning to life. And it's great to be a part of a career and an endeavor that's perhaps given lots of people happiness and a place to go when life gets them down. And I think Terry was a great inspiration to us when he was alive. And I still, as you have alluded to, think his spirit exists within this band, and we think of him quite often with great fondness, and I hope he does the same I hope he's having fun.
He's got a lot of company up there. He's just got Dusty now!
JP: Oh yeah. I hope they're saving us a place in the section, you know. But, you know, who's to say? I mean, who's really to say? It's anybody's guess.
Sure, and I knew it was kind of a weird one, but
JP: Yeah, I mean, Jimi Hendrix might be the next, he might be who Quincy Jones is now. I mean, you know, Quincy Jones was a jazz trumpet player, man, you know, he was in the back room smoking tea, you know, he was just a jazz cat, and he turned into this enormously talented visible powerful production figure, okay?
RL: A guy with a vision.
JP: A guy with a vision.
RL: I think Terry, I think Terry very easily could have been somebody like that.
Producing and working with a lot of other artists as well.
Thank you for that. The ups and downs of Chicago really have been the stuff of true drama, and I guess many people are wondering why there hasn't been a VH1 "Behind The Music" yet.
JP: There's been a lot of things here.
Or a book. Having watched the band go through these changes since Terry's death, what I've noticed, at least until Dawayne's departure, was a tendency to always be I've seen a lot of interviews that you did always be really upbeat about whatever the current situation was. So Donnie Dacus made you feel alive again, and then later on you read, well he never really fitted into the group. It's almost like after about ten years you tell the truth. So I'm wondering, with a lot of these situations were you trying to convince yourselves that it was great. did you really believe it was great, was it just great PR? Like you've often said, "This is the best lineup that we've ever had." And I think now you really, with Keith, you've really got a really great lineup.
But a lot of the times, were you kidding yourselves or did you belive it at the time and then it just didn't work out?
RL: I think we're all very optimistic, we're all optimistic, we're all very optimistic people and I think that
JP: Yeah. We all wanna believe that.
RL: in the case of Donnie and Chris Pinnick and Dawayne Bailey, we really, we would not have allowed those guys into the band if we didn't really think at the time that it was gonna work out really great. And I personally was just full of optimism. And you know it's not a matter of telling the truth ten years later, it's the value of hindsight ten years later. You can see things a lot more easily for what they were, a little bit later down the line.
Okay. It seems that every member who left the group either disappeared into a kind of oblivion, or, say in Danny's case he just wanted to go, I think, and lead a more quiet life, or in the case of Peter, had a solo career that was probably disappointing to him compared to Chicago's profile. Which says something about the power of the group as a united force. And I was wondering with all the things you've said about how prolifically you still write and the frustration you feel, is it that amazing force that the band has that keeps you guys in the band still today? The fact that if you leave you might not have that again.
RL: You answer first, I'll be right back.
JP: I don't think, again, you know, regardless of whatever frustration we might have, I mean, don't get me wrong, I enjoy writing songs. The fact that I can't write another "25 or 6 to 4" and get it on the radio is not gonna ruin my day.
It'd be funny if you wrote another one you didn't write that one.
JP: No, well you know what I mean. (Laughs)
Sorry. Trying to be a smart ass.
JP: No, no, no, no. I think we're very lucky people. Okay? Maybe, the fact that we've been around so many years, you know, you begin to appreciate it more. And I don't know how many more years we're gonna want to do this. Frankly, I don't know if I'm gonna want to be on the road a hundred days when I'm 60 years old. I don't think I will. I have a new wife, and a baby in the oven
JP: and I'm gonna do it again.
JP: Thank you. And this time I wanna be home for that child.
Was that a big problem the first time?
JP: Are you kidding me? Okay, baby's born, see you hon, I'm going back on the road. I mean, you know, yeah, I missed, I missed everything. I mean, we were busy. So we paid our dues. And we're not going to be doing this many more years, frankly.
Yeah, I've heard that. Five, maybe?
JP: I'm not saying this is the last tour. 'Cause there's no end in sight right now. But no, there's other things. I wanna write maybe I wanna write a symphony, maybe I want to conduct the symphony orchestra, maybe I wanna
I'd love you to write something with more movements, like you did in the early days.
JP: Well, like the "Ballet" was, a ballet was about as far as I could go with a rock 'n' roll band, you know, and do it live.
Well you did other ones like that back then.
JP: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I'm talking about going back to school and writing for 50, 60, 70, 80 pieces. You know. It's not too late to even fun with that. And maybe have it performed long after I'm gone, who cares. Just to fulfil myself. But let's get away from me. I think we're very lucky individuals to be a part of this. And this has been a great vehicle for whatever we've wanted to do. Chicago has allowed us to expand as individual writers. I mean, I write stuff, I'm actually as we speak getting into a situation where I can write for television, write for other artists, sell songs outside of this, you know, songs that this band wouldn't want to or couldn't do. Because, that limits what we do. I mean, Robert maybe wants to write for Broadway show. I mean, there's other scenarios for our writing, and that's what I'd like to do, collaborate in different fields, that would challenge me. And Chicago has been a wonderful, I mean, platform to do what we do. We're very lucky that we've had such a great springboard to write what we write and have such a successful vehicle to present our songs with. But there are other ways of presenting songs and there are other things to write songs for.
[To Robert] And you? With regards staying in the band all this time when you know, you've obviously got other things you want to do. You are doing other things. I'm still waiting to find out about the project with Gerry and Carl, and whether that
RL: Yeah, actually, I was talking with Gerry just the other day, and I'm going to present the album to Chicago Records and see if they want to.... And this is my new album. [Pulls In My Head CD from his bag.]
I was going to ask you about that. Have you got any others?
JP: And then I wrote...
Have you got any others in there?
RL: (Laughs) No, no just that one.
What's happening with that one?
RL: Chicago Records.
JP: Yeah. When?
RL: Maybe June. June 1st, something like that.
Great. That's a lot quicker than between the first and the second one.
RL: Oh! Yeah!
JP: And there again, we can do our own thing and still
RL: Chicago Records is like, for me, it's one of the greatest things that I mean, I think we're just beginning to see what we can the Christmas album really showed us a lot what we could do on our own. You know, it's not, you know, at first it was just a way to reissue the back catalog. But now with the success of the Christmas album, you know, we'll do the next Chicago album just for Chicago Records and you know, it's a real record. It's a real record company,
And who'll distribute that? Warner?
JP: Well, not necessarily, no. Independent.
But what keeps you in the band? Because you have these frustrations with management, and the record business.
JP: You'd have it with any band or even if you were a solo artist.
RL: In any business you'd have it.
Is it just because you love it? That's what I'm trying to get to.
JP: We love it. We love it.
RL: I'm very grateful.
JP: And that's why we're still here, Debbie, okay?
I got that.
JP: Okay? That is the answer. We love this. How many people can say they make a good living doing something that they look forward to doing?
Well, and it shows on stage. I've never seen a band that loves being together on stage as much as you guys. Ever.
JP: We hear that quite a bit. And that's not an act.
JP: You're damn right. I'm having a great time.
It's fabulous. Okay, I wanted to ask you something about the changing sound of the horns. I'm not musically educated, so I only know what I hear. But the horns sound entirely different now, on record to me, to how they sounded in those first albums, and until how they sounded right up until David Foster, really. Now they sound sort of smoother and more integrated. On stage it's a different thing, it's still the brassy thing. But on record they're there, but they're just a part of something.
And is that because you've been told, arrange it this way so that it'll sound good for radio?
JP: Again. Again. I can't tell you how many times I've been in the control booth with a producer, and with, you know, members of the band. You know. "The horns, the horns are too loud, they're conflicting with the vocals." I don't write horns to conflict with vocals. I write horns as an extension of the vocals. In the old days, however, in the old days I used to write horns very harmonically. "Questions 67 & 68" is probably a very good example of how I used to approach horns. I had no rests. We played from the first bar of the song to the last bar of the song, which is not musical any more. I mean, we got away with that then, I guess. And the horns were playing all the time and the horns were always choral [simulates horn line].
Well I sing the horns, in those albums, I sing the horn lines. I can't sing the horn lines on this stuff.
JP: Yeah, well the horns were
RL: Are you talking about the texture of the horns or the note they're playing?
That too. The texture, yeah.
JP: Okay. Jimmy Guercio had the horns more up in the track than producers
RL: Also, you're only doing two, or maybe three tracks of horns, right?
JP: We're doubling.
RL: You're doing A, B and C.
JP: No, no, no.
RL: A with C and B with C, right?
JP: No. No, we're doing stereo section A, B, C and A, B, C and then combining the two tracks. So we're doubling. We're doing one section and then we're doing another section, and then combining into two tracks in stereo. And Guercio used to triple, quite often. He'd have three sections. He'd have a section here, a section here and one in the middle. And the one in the middle was me playing pedals, that's why it sounded like Count Basie, it sounded like a big band.
So it was a production thing, not the playing or the instruments themselves.
JP: It was production. These other guys, they had no idea how to set up the mikes, they had no clue as to what a horn section was. And James Newton Howard and this can go on the damn record James Newton Howard, I worked with him, and he sent me a rough mix, and I said, "Hey, James, the horns are buried. You can't even hear them." "Oh well that's just a rough mix, don't worry about it, I know your level, blah blah blah." And I said, "Not only that, but the tenor's too hot in the mix, it doesn't sound, it doesn't have that round Chicago, you know, fat Chicago characteristic to it." "Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, I know." And then I got the final mix. No change. You know, this is "Here In My Heart."
Yeah, that's the song I listened to that brought this question up.
JP: You hear the horns in the intro, and then, whoop, they're gone. You can hear, what the hell is that, is that horns there? And then we have the little three-bar interlude in the bridge, and then, oh there's horns, and then, whoop, they're gone. And that son-of-a-bitch YOU HEAR THAT, MAN? YOU LYING SACK OF SHIT!!!
How do you really feel about this, though?
JP: [Right into the microphone] I'm only kidding, James. Ah, no, I will never work with a guy that strokes me, okay? I don't want to be louder than everything. But don't fuck with me, I've been doing this 30 years, I know what this section should sound like. And I could produce a great song for this band, but, you know, these guys, I'm tired of working with guys that were fuckin' playing in a sandbox when I was doing this.
RL: Now you sound like an old fart.
JP: I am, goddammit! I'm not an old fart, I'm an experienced artist, and don't be telling me how to do my job when you don't fucking know it!
So obviously you guys could produce an album for Chicago that would be the way you want it to sound. Is it simply that the management won't let you?
RL: I think we could. I think we could.
Are you doing that for 26? Is that going to happen?
RL: No, we won't do it.
Because of management?
RL: No, I think we need a referee.
JP: Yes. Yeah. There are so many talented people, you know. He'd want to do his song his way, I'd want to do mine my way.
RL: I mean, a producer will say, give me an idea for a section, he'll get eight ideas in 30 seconds.
I guess that's what happens with Crosby Stills & Nash but there are only three of them, so a David Crosby song sounds like a Crosby song, and Nash, and
RL: This is worse.
JP: There are six principals in this entity. So that could get a little messy. But you know, I mean, as far as James Newton Howard, I don't hate the guy, but I don't appreciate the fact that, you know, I'm working with this man, and I found it rather, more than a little insulting that the guy would stroke me and tell me this is just a rough mix and then for posterity, forever on disc, and for the rest of the world to hear, is a horn section that sounds like shit. I mean, it's not mixed properly. That's not the way a real horn section is mixed. And so then people like yourself come up to me and go, "Man, I miss the horns, why do you guys do that?" It's because of people like that.
Okay, that answers the question.
RL: That's clear.
JP: I'm glad that's clear.
I want to talk to you about your relationship with your fans. You mentioned this right at the beginning. I've met a lot of bands and artist who've been around 25 or 30 years, both as a fan and a journalist. I've had people like Don Henley say to me, when I said, could you do an ID for my radio show, "My dear, after 30 years in the business, we don't do that any more." You know.
JP: "My dear." [Laughs]
"My dear." Yes. And even when I first met you in Sydney 20 years ago, and you were still a young band in those days, I guess, I was so struck by the fact that you guys I really remember this clearly you asked me questions about me. Where do you live? Do you go to school? What are you interested in doing? It was like you wanted to know, who are our fans in Australia?
JP: I miss playing there.
[To Robert] You said you'd be back. 20 years ago. I'll talk to you about that in a sec.
RL: Send us the check and we'll come.
I'll bring you guys out. One of the things I'm thinking of doing when I go back is trying to bring out artists that I know people still want to see. The thing is, you've said you wouldn't be here today but for your fans. Maybe that says it all, but I wondered if you could comment more on your relationship with them. Because you've got a lot of time for your fans, you do that meet-and-greet every year in Vegas, and that's exhausting.
JP: It is, man.
And you're always friendly and polite, even if you don't have time. Is this just cause you're just all nice guys, or is it a philosophy that you have in the band, this is the way we will treat our fans, and anyone who doesn't, you know, has to answer to us?
RL: Yeah, it's not anything we're dying to do. I think the philosophy of the band is let's be polite to our fans, they deserve at least that. Me personally, having said that, you know, I appreciate the fans, I respect the fans, and as I've said before, the real rabid fans, like the fan club fans, I don't understand their zealousness
RL: Obsessiveness, you know. But I respect it. And, I don't think I really want to know each one of my fans individually, I just don't want to.
JP: I kind of agree with all of the above.
Yeah, I've read you say that before. And I can understand. You want the distance, you want the fourth wall.
RL: I want the, whatever the fantasy is, the illusion, to remain. I don't want to break that down. I don't want to go hang out with them, go out drinking with them.
That's fair enough.
JP: Yeah, and I guess any artist worth his weight in salt or whatever has that kind of fan base.
But not many of them are as outgoing and as giving as you guys are.
RL: Well thank you.
I just wanted to give you that. 'Cause I've met all of my favorite artists, I've met them. And Henley was the most disappointing, but all the Eagles are like that, they just, they're incredibly arrogant.
JP: They're too cool for school.
They came to Australia and they each travelled in their own van and they're walking down the streets of Double Bay, which is this suburb in Sydney, kind of like Beverly Hills, and no-one else knew who they were, but they all had security guys. And it's like
JP: Who cares? Life's too short.
So I went to their press conference, and yeah, I kind of got that kind of response. And it really made me think of you guys, and what you [looking at Robert] had done for me, and it's just really important that you get the feedback from us that it's really appreciated and that it is part of the experience of seeing you play and hearing your records, knowing that you actually care about who's listening on the other end.
JP: Well, like I said, and I meant it, without an audience that liked what we did, what's the point?
Given that, this gets to the Australian thing, I'm really interested to hear your opinion on the band's decreasing international profile. Because as someone who was trying to follow the band from Australia in the pre-internet days, it seemed that as the 1980s progressed, your popularity in the domestic US market kept increasing, with more number one hits and platinum-selling albums, and at some stage there was a decision made to focus less on foreign markets, other than perhaps Japan. Was it in fact a deliberate decision on the band's part, was it record company thing, or was it just the way things unconsciously panned out? Because I want to know how you feel about the fan base outside the US who aren't been catered to?
RL: It was Howard Kaufman's decision way back when to mine the gold domestically and let the foreign markets follow however they might. And I think, and he would probably agree, and I've told this to him before, that I've always believed that he was short sighted, now, because now it really is a global market, and there are places that we could be appearing regularly and we could be having record sales regularly, and we don't have them. About the only place that we go with any regularity is Asia, is Japan, and you know, so we do have a market there, we do have fans there, our records do get released there and are promoted there and have some success there. So now it's a matter of, if we wanted to re-open, like, Australia, South America, Europe, and other places where there never were markets where there are now, it would be, there would be kind of a, there would be a cost factor to do that, and I think the majority of the band doesn't want to do that, doesn't want to invest the time and energy, and the money, that it would take to re-open those markets, because it would take probably a three to five year program to do that.
So obviously if somebody said, "Hey, come out to Australia, we'll offer you this much money"
RL: We would go if it was enough money.
JP: Yeah, I mean, as Robert said, it's very expensive to operate this band, because it's a big band.
RL: Other big bands go and other big bands have been able to go over there and tour, but what Howard has been unwilling to do and the majority of the guys in the band have been unwilling to do is to go to the foreign markets and break even, or even have it cost money, the first time. And that's, you know, and that's what's not happened.
'Cause when you came in '79 to Australia you were playing outdoor stadiums and playing to between 20 and 30,000 people in each city, and I guess had you, had you come back around the time of 16 because that was a big hit in Australia you could have continued and I don't think it would have come to this. But yeah, it's either up to a promoter to invest the money, be willing to maybe break even, and bring you out and discover what the market is there, or you just let them go, and obviously you've had to let them go, but it's
RL: I think it was a mistake, and Howard knows how I feel.
If I'm there, there are other people there. And I know there are fans in Europe and England who are going, why don't you come?
RL: Yeah, and South America.
But that also answers for me, I guess, what the rationale is behind this annual huge tour, it's mining this huge pot of gold, and doing Caesar's, and knowing that there's the market there, that it's going to bring in a good income, that the fans love it.
JP: Yeah, but this huge pot of gold is just keeping food on the table. It's not like we're raking in millions and millions of dollars.
RL: Well we make a very good living and we're, we make a very good living.
Well guys like you have got royalties, obviously, coming in.
JP: Yeah. And I don't want to sit here and tell you it's all about money. I'd love to play in other countries, I really would.
RL: It is all about money, as far as
JP: Well I'd like to think that you know we could go other places, but the reason we can't is because it costs a lot of money to ship the gear, and there's a lotta, we've got to cut the pie six ways.
RL: Whenever we've tried to even start to talk about it, all I've ever heard are reasons why we can't do it, or why it's hard to do it, or why we might lose money, or why there's too much gear. You know, I've always heard reasons why it would be hard to do it, rather than here's a way to do it, and here are the pros and cons.
JP: We were really close to coming to Australia last year, as a matter of fact.
You were going to do something with Little River Band, I heard.
JP: Well, we had a tentative Japan/Australia tour, and the yen went down so far that Japan backed out and then it no longer It made sense to do Japan and then go to Australia. But Japan was basically going to pay for the overages on that trip to make it worth going to Australia no matter what.
I wonder who the promoter was.
JP: Yeah. It was very disappointing, because it was really close to happening.
RL: Yeah, it was two nights in Melbourne and one night in Sydney, or the other way around.
This is a general question, but I just wanted to ask each of you, looking back on the 32 years, is there one thing that stands out, either musically, or just an experience that being in the group has given you that you'll always look back and say, "That happened because I was in Chicago, and that was the best thing that ever happened in my life or one of the best things."
RL: There's not only one. There's dozens, there are dozens. For me.
JP: It's been one hell of a ride. I mean, one hell of a ride. I don't know if there's any trombone players that have enjoyed what I have. I mean, trombone is not a common instrument, especially in pop. So I'm one of a kind. And it's because I was in the right place at the right time and I'm still having fun. So I feel very fortunate.
RL: Yeah, there have been so many of those moments in my life, experiences that I've had, that I know I would not have had, had I not been in Chicago.
Other than the Stones, you are the only grop that have stayed together consistently this long, aren't you? Without breaking up, without stopping touring.
JP: Yeah. I mean, The Who got together when
They're not still together, really.
JP: Yeah. And then the Beach Boys (laughs), god rest
RL: Mike? You mean Mike?
RL: There's Mike
RL: And then there's Al. But they're not together.
JP: And Bruce Johnston.
But really after Brian stopped playing with them it was never the same band. But this is a band where four core members, who really are a big part of the sound, are still there.
RL: For me, that whole thing is like, it's like the epitome of the stupid rock band, you know. Like the stupid rock band guys who like they don't want to ride in the same car, they don't want to share a dressing room, and it just goes downhill from there. It's like they have one hit, and the four guys in the band don't want to ride in the same limo, and they all get different managers, you know. That's the prototype for the stupid rock band. And the Beach Boys have fallen prey to that a long time ago, you know, it just got stupider and stupider. And individually nice guys. Individually lovely guys, you know.
So the fact that you all really like each other is
RL: We're not stupid, let's put it that way. We may be dumb, but we're not stupid.
JP: Yeah. And we agree to disagree. All of us have opinions. We're not, "You have to think like I do." We're not of that mind. I mean, Robert is an individual, I'm an individual, and we have beefs, trust me, we have conflicts. But we talk. We settle differences before they become out of hand.
Well and everything you guys have been through, it either tears a group apart or it brings you together, and obviously right from when Terry died, it was like, you made that decision you were going to go on.
RL: Believe me, that was a far more critical situation than anybody leaving the band.
JP: And you talk about, you know, this album that we want. Maybe perhaps we're staying together to make that record that we've been wanting to make for so many years and haven't been able to. You know, who knows? I know that there are things left that we want to do before we hang up our cleats (?) so, whatever that is.
So the tour this year won't be to promote 26, but maybe next year.
RL: No, the tour this year is about "Show Me A Sign," possibly re-releasing some of the Big Band stuff on Chicago Records.
Do you think that there have been enough Greatest Hits packages now?
RL: No, I think there could be another one!
JP: I think that there have been enough Greatest Hits for a couple lifetimes.
What about The Soul of Chicago Volumes I and II?
RL: The Soul of Chicago exactly. Thank you. I have to run, unfortunately.
No, you've been very generous with your time. Lovely to see you again.
JP: I think if we released another Greatest Hits then people would start wondering, hey, these guys may be over.
RL: They're already wondering, believe me, Jimmy.
RL: If you go to Virgin Records, it's like there's Chicago IX, Chicago 15, Take Me Back, If You Leave Me Now, then there's the Greatest Warner Bros package, and then there's the two Heart of Chicago albums.
JP: Time for an original album.
JP: You know what was a great album was the Night & Day album.
Loved it. Played it to death.
JP: Yeah, well Chicago Records is planning to buy it from Giant, we're going to try to re-release it, change the artwork, take the words "Big Band" off of it and just throw it out there. Because that was one, I mean, I was really proud of that. And you want to hear some brass, that's some of the best work I've done.
Do you ever listen to your old stuff? Do you listen to VII?
JP: Yeah. Yeah. And sometimes I go, man, boy we actually used to do that shit!
That's one of my favorite driving albums.
JP: I have a video tape of a gig we did at Orchestra Hall in Chicago, and it was videotaped by a company for promotional for CBS. And we were doing "Devil's Suite" into "Elegy" and you know, these 15 year old kids, I mean we're going [acts psychedelic crazy] and these kids are going [also psychedelic crazy]. I mean we were just
Did you get a toilet flush on the stage?
JP: Yeah, I mean, it was everything but. And we were doing all of this shit, "Now That You've Gone" [simulates Terry's guitar] and we were just getting in their face,a nd these kids were going nuts and it was instrumental stuff. And I mean, those days are gone, those days are gone, because if you tried to do that now...
Do you ever think about just getting a few of you down to the Baked Potato and just doing something?
JP: Oh I do that. I do that. I did that last year, I went down and jammed, and I went up to Monty's in Woodland Hills and sat in. But you know it's a different world now, Debbie, it's a different world. Turn on the radio and I would like you to tell me how many of the songs that you hear on the radio that all the parts on that song are played by musicians in the studio. I bet you you can't fill one hand. 'Cause it's all sampled, it's all electronic, it's all [whispers] bullshit. I mean, realy music, man, people go, "What's that?" And it's coming back now, in clubs. It's coming back, live music is coming back, and I like seeing that 'cause it's giving players work. For a promoter, or for a producer or a record company, it's so much cheaper to hire one guy to write the song, and we'll hire a programmer, and you two guys, you are the artist.
You know what? If you did go to Australia, you would have the freedom with your set, because a lot of those power ballads have't even been hits down there. You could really go back to some of that earlier stuff and improvise more, and play more new stuff.
JP: Right, we could test the musical horizons. That'd be fun.
JP: I know.
Jimmy, thank you so much.
JP: Hey, it was a pleasure. Nice to see you.
© Debbie Kruger
Phone interview with Jimmy Pankow
27 April 1999
© Debbie Kruger
I don't know if David explained that I needed to talk some more about specifically the songwriting aspect.
Right, the mechanics of songwriting.
Yeah, because after I did the interview, another magazine, Performing Songwriter, came to me and said they wanted something, and they looked at what I had and said that's great but
They want to get into the meat of songwriting.
Yeah, and I didn't ask what you wrote "Just You 'n' Me" about, because everybody knows that, and they said, yeah, but we want it in his words. So, I've got a list of questions on this topic for you and we'll plow through them.
When you're writing, what comes first for you? Is it the lyrics, the melody, or in fact do you start with a horn line in your head and go from there?
Okay, well typically, typically and that's a key word I'll start with a germ of an idea, which is usually a harmonic progression of chords with a groove. And that chord progression with a groove, that harmonic progression with its groove will inspire a, you know, a feeling. And that feeling, that emotion will in turn inspire a lyrical train of thought. The emotion, it's kind of a step-by-step process which typically takes place. The harmonic progression will inspire a groove, or the other way around, a groove will come up and the groove will inspire a harmonic progression. But what I'm trying to say is, first a musical, what I call a germ will germinate the musical idea. The musical idea will influence an emotion which will be probably inspiring a lyrical direction. So that's basically the way it happens.
"Just You 'n' Me" was the one exception in my many years of writing songs, that kind of all the elements of that song happened simultaneously. It was, the inspiration of that song and the output that created that song was the result of intense emotion. We had had a very emotional disagreement and rather than punch walls or release negative energy, I ran out and sat at the keyboard and this whole kind of lyric and feel and chord progression all just poured out basically simultaneously and resulted in that song. But that was the only time it happened that way.
It's pretty amazing to sort of, rather than sit down and go, "You're a bitch," to sort of go, "You are my love and my life."
Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. Instead of dwelling on the negative, all this passion that had built up as a result of this argument, this fight, this spat, whatever you want to call it, it basically went the other way, and all of this passion inspired an emotional thing coming from a place of love and passion rather than from negative thought.
Whose idea was it to put it on the wedding invitation?
Umm, it was mine.
And you were talking the other time about how you'll look in an audience and you'll see how that song affects people today, and that that as much as anything is what inspires you when you perform it. Do you think love can still be that sweet and simple? Do you think those sentiments can still apply?
I think the best love is the simplest love. Anything in its purest form is the simplest common denominator. Whether it's love... pure hate is the same way. It doesn't need to be complicated. Anything that complicates emotion only confuses that. Emotion is a straightforward thing. You don't have to think about why you love something. You love it, and it's a feeling that you cannot contest. And a song that comes from that place is, in my view, best said in an uncomplicated sort of way. Because I think the song should be a reflection of the uncomplicated inspiration that created the song in the first place, and I think true love is a very uncomplicated thing. Just like true hate is a very uncomplicated thing. True misery, any pure emotion, any, I think emotion is the basis of the soul of who we are. You know, our soul, our emotion is tied together very closely. And I think it's the essence of who we are. And that essence is a very simple, uncomplicated but very profound thing. In its simplicity lies its profundity.
Which is why, I guess, songs like "Just You 'n' Me" and "Beginnings" are still the most popular.
Well, I'll give you an example, which may or may not be agreeable to you. But the love song from the movie Titanic was, I mean, it was no secret, when that song was released in concert with that movie I knew, immediately, okay, here's the song of the year. Record of the year, you know, Grammy, boom, it's a shoe-in. And it was easy because that song was as simple as it can be... [sings the melody of "My Heart Will Go On"]... I mean, very simple, but yet in its simplicity it drove the point home. And "Just You 'n' Me" is a very simple song. I think one of the most beautiful love songs ever written was "God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys.
There again, utter simplicity. "Color My World" utterly simple. You know, songs, I could name many many more, it seems that the songs that become standards are songs that you can hum, songs that are instantly relatable. You know, the more you complicate the mix, I think, the more that gets in the way, I think the more it tends to dilute the work, you know, the art. That's only my opinion when it comes to a love song. Now you go to different other kinds of songs, it all depends on what vehicle you're talking about and which direction you're talking about. In terms of a beautiful love song that has maximum effect, I think simplicity has beauty.
Tell me about how you work writing the horn arrangements with the other composers in the group, and particularly I think of the early days when the horns were so prominent on the records. Would another writer such as Robert bring a melody to you and say, look, flesh this out, or would they actually know how they want the horns to sound and just need you to do the technical, or would they just give you a big blank in the middle of the song and say, here, write something there?
Basically, well there wasn't a big blank in the middle of the song, you just contradicted yourself actually, because the horns were prevalent, they were in the song from the beginning to the end. And that's still the way we work, but music has changed, we have changed, we have evolved, and partially due to the producers that we were unfortunately because of time frame or whatever, consensus, we were forced to work with, not necessarily did I agree with the choice of producer, but the producer along with the record company, they didn't hear a lot of horns. We've even heard things as preposterous as, "If you get rid of the horn section we'll sign you to a contract." You know, I mean, we've been fighting the perception of what pop music should be, and it doesn't agree necessarily with my perception of what pop music is, and it doesn't necessarily agree with my perception of what the role of our brass in our music is. I've always wanted to approach the brass as an equally important lead voice that is interwoven throughout a song, not as frosting on a cake, but as an integral part of the arrangement.
Yeah. So in that case how would you work with say Robert on a song like "Free" where it's all horns?
Sometimes, usually again, the word "typical" is key here. Typically, I would just take the song and do my thing, and that's the way I've always done it. Composers of various songs have been more prepared than other, in some instances than others, where they would... for instance, there are exceptions to that "typical." Robert Lamm basically sketched out most of the horn parts on "Beginnings," which I still love to play, and which he is still capable of doing, but hasn't, but has stopped doing. He wrote the horns to "Saturday In The Park." He wrote the horns to a couple other things that he composed, and I kind of just embellished on the harmonics and the voicing. He'd write the lines out. But generally speaking I have been responsible for just taking a song devoid of all arrangement, and creating the horn arrangements.
'Cause I found it unusual that with songs like that, for instance if "Free" was written that way where you really created and the song "Free" is all about the horns, really and yet you don't get a co-writing credit on a song like that.
I don't agree with that. The song "Free" is just, it's a kind of song that's up-tempo and frenetic and grooving, and the horns just become a different participant in that type of song. It's not an instrumental lead. "I just want to be free" is the lyric theme in that song, and the lyric of that song is still the predominant character in that song. But the horn riffs are probably more crucial to a song like that in terms of generating the velocity and the excitement that that song requires. There is one small ensemble in that song, as exists in most of our songs, where the horns have an opportunity to step out and do a little instrumental passage
[Both JP and DK start singing the horn lines from "Free" simultaneously.]
Right, you know it, you know it well, it's obviously a favorite song of yours.
Well, anything that I can sing the horns.
Yeah. [Laughs] Well, you know, that song again, it's not an instrumental piece, it's a vocal piece, and just like most of our songs it does have an instrumental section in it. And Robert wrote the instrumental section and most of the brass on that song as well. For whatever reasons Robert has no longer really attempted to write as much brass as he used to. I'd like to see him continue with his arranging, because it was interesting. He did, on the Christmas album, arrange the songs that he wrote to a degree actually we sat together on the songs that he arranged on the Christmas album and I kind of filled in his blanks and voiced things, but he essentially came up with the horn sketches on "I'm Dreaming of a White" or was it "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" and "Felice Navidad." Actually "Felice Navidad" was all my work, and the other two were basically his sketches that I voiced, with the exception of a few things.
I like the use of the word "sketches".
Yeah, it's just a line, that he might hum, that the horns could possibly be seen as playing. And then what I do is I fine-tune that line and custom fit it to compliment the vocal, and then I voice it. It's almost like a fitting for a suit of clothes, you go in for a first fitting, which is kind of a rough cut, and you get the basic look of the article of clothing, then your second fitting is fine-tuning, a tuck here, push out here, you know, so Robert kind of did the first fitting, and I went in and did the second fitting, and then completed the garment. [Laughs]
'Cause I did find, when I got III, which was some time in the late '70s, it took me a while to get it, and when I got the album and really got into it, I found that the songs I was connecting with were songs like "Mother" and "Lowdown" and "Free," where there were these amazing horn lines that I could just totally lose myself in, so that's kind of why I have such a fascination with how you work with the other writers on those songs.
Let me ask you about the "Ballet," and also "Searchin'" and "Mongo." I have heard different reports and read different things as to which of those pieces was written between two beds in a Holiday Inn on a Fender Rhodes.
Yeah, most of the "Ballet."
'Cause at one point Lee said in an interview that you'd done "Searchin'" and "Mongo" between two beds in a Holiday Inn.
No, I don't believe that that was the case. You know that goes back so far. I know that we were on the road about 360 days a year back in those days, in the first and second album, so much of the work, much of the composition on the second album in particular, was written on the road. And I remember writing much of the "Ballet" on the road.
Now was there a girl from Buchannon?
A girl from Buchannon. That was my first true love and she enrolled as a student at the University of West Virginia, in Buchannon West Virginia, and so that was a piece with her in mind.
Why a Ballet? Did you actually envision dancers?
It was, the "Ballet" is actually, from the inception of that I had intended to number each movement, by number and Latin description of the tempo and feel, like Andante Cantabile was the title of "Color My World" and it was Movement II, which comes out of the Overture, which is "Make Me Smile." And it was originally written in movements and I envisioned it as perhaps a piece that because of its rhythmic quality, in my imagination, it was likened to a piece that could be performed to dance.
So you did see dancers possibly?
Well I called it a Ballet because I envisioned it as something lyrical and something rhythmic, and something possibly portrayable in dance, in classical dance, so I entitled it a Ballet.
Did you ever offer it to any dance companies?
No, I had no interest in doing that at that point. What my interest was was, I had been incredibly interested in Bach and Mozart at that point in my life, I was listening to a lot of classics, and the Bach in particular influenced the arpeggiated approach to... I had been listening to the Brandenberg Concertos quite extensively, and one night very late I sat up, I had fallen asleep on the couch listening to Bach, and I sat up in the middle of the night and this arpeggio was running through my head. And thank god there was a piano in the room, and I jumped off the couch and went to the piano, it was in the middle of the night, and I sat at the piano and this F major 7 arpeggio sequence started coming out on the piano and I turned on a little tape recorder and I just started on F major and went through this cycle of arpeggios that wound up once again on F major, and I wound up with this little capsule of a song which was not necessarily intended to be a complete song form but just this kind of round. And I woke Walter up and said, "Hey, Walt." He said, "What the hell are you waking me up at four in the morning for?" I said, "Get your flute and try this for me, would you?" And he came out and took his flute out and I hummed this melody and wrote this simple melody down, he played this melody, I said, "What do you think, Walt?" He said, "Well, I think this is going to make me famous." I quote. [Laughs] And you know I was, of course, "Really? You really think this is okay?" And he said, "Man, this is really incredible. It's very bizarre, you know." And I said, "Well, thanks Walt. You can go back to sleep." And with that, I was up the rest of the night finishing this thing.
And, you know, I think basically what I, whether it was conscious or not, I had written a piece in college which was a brass quintet, and I had never since written any kind of classical music. I was really excited by the possibilities that this vehicle, Chicago, presented to me, because of the brass and because of the musicianship, and variety of influences that each guy brought into this entity. I could basically go any direction I wanted, and this "Ballet" was kind of my attempt to take the band into a kind of a classical realm, and marry classical music with this pop phenomenon that we were part of. So the "Ballet" was for all intents and purposes the first Tommy or... Just as The Who created this rock opera called Tommy which was obviously more extensive a piece and was indeed set to theatrics, the "Ballet" was kind of a mini capsulized version of something of that nature. And it was really, really kind of a bunch of little mini movements sewn together by transitory vehicles to form one complete piece which I titled "The Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon."
There was a nice balance on the other side, if you like, or one of the other sides of that album, which was Terry's movement, the "A.M. Mourning / P.M. Mourning" one
Which was really getting into the classical. And then again their were more movements on the third album. Do you think the "Ballet" let everyone feel they could move in that direction, or was everyone working that way anyway?
Everybody was just doing their thing. See, the difference between, you must understand as well as any serious musicologist, that the late '60s/early '70s was a period of great fertility. We were very very fortunate to come onto the scene on the threshold of that renaissance. I think it started probably with the Beatles, all of a sudden pop music was in the throes of this incredible renaissance, where we were allowed to write and perform musical pieces as far as we could possibly be inspired, and not only perform it but radio would play it in its entirety and it would be recorded in its entirety. And those days are gone forever. We were so fortunate to have arrived in the midst of this fertile era, you know, the sky was the limit. We could virtually do anything we wanted to do and get away with it and not only get away with it but have it received with incredible enthusiasm.
And now it's about economics and politics, you know, playlists are formulated and it's dealing with predictable artists who are in many cases paying top dollar for chart position. I mean, A&R guys and independents go to great lengths and expense to break an artist who essentially is an ad for a package, representing a considerable investment to a record company. And music videos are infomercials; I mean they're vehicles meant to create an image for an artist, which translates to big bucks for the suits. Today's artists have to tailor their approach to economics of the business if they want to reach the masses. And Chicago has consequently had to play by a new set of rules. Because Chicago is viable because we have remained evolutionary and flexible. What you hear on radio in terms of our music is only a small slice of the picture.
Yeah, and we did discuss this at length
You know, and this is part of Chicago's music that radio has embraced as our sound. In concert audiences hear the whole spectrum and the meat and potatoes that never gets on the air because it doesn't fit the format. So you know it wasn't that we were more creative in those days, it was that, you know, if we approached records and writing like we did in those days, we'd be a garage band. You know. And as much as Robert and I would love to do that, I mean, Robert talked about going to Europe and doing clubs, and you talked about, you know, being innovational again and playing music that is experimental and challenges our chops. Honey, I'm 52 years old. I don't want to start over as a bar band again.
It's not reality. It's not reality.
No, I got it, I got it, when we talked about it.
You know, and gosh, ideally in my fantasies, I'd love, you know this is a very ponderous big machine here that we have, with a big support crew. I'd love to be Duke Ellington, and play 10 gigs a year and play anything we want, and be adulated for our creative endeavors and our "legend." I'd love, that's the fantasy that all of us would have. To go to Albert Hall in London and play all of the shit that we haven't been able to play because we've had to maintain a viable career. You know? I mean, there's reality, and then there's what we'd really like to do. [Laughs]. You know what I mean?
Yes I do.
But we're getting away from the point perhaps. Which is songwriting.
Well I just want to ask you about one more of the earlier songs, and then I'll ask you about your latest one. I was interested in the inspiration behind "Searchin' So Long" and "Mongo," and how you made that transition from the one into the other. 'Cause obviously the riff follows, it's at the basis of "Mongonucleosis" as well.
Oh that was just kind of a, that was almost a joke, that was fun, that was hey, I want to do this. It has nothing to do with anything. [Laughs]. I mean it really doesn't.
You mean "Mongo"?
Yeah. I had mononucleosis when I was a kid, and I had been listening to some Mongo Santa Maria records. And I combined Mongo Santa Maria with mononucleosis, and I came up with "Mongonucleosis." Which is a totally it's like "Supercalafragalisticexpialadocious." It means nothing. You know, people are going, "Man, what does that mean in Latin, man?" Nothing!! [Laughs]
What are the words, on the original recording? It sounds to me like "Stick your chest out." But I know it's not that.
What, "Que be jesa"?
Is that what it is?
It's "Que be jesa." And basically it's loosely translated, it's a slang term. Terry Kath's girlfriend at the time, Camille Ortiz, was of Puerto Rican descent, and she was up at Caribou with us when we were recording this tune. And I said, "Camille, is there a term in Spanish that equates with, hey let's party, let's get it on?" And she said, "Yeah, yeah, que be jesa!"
Do you know how to spell that?
I know it's pronounced [sings] "Que be je-sa."
At least I know it's not "Stick that chest out."
I know that "Que" is asking the question, you know, can you dig it? That's what it means. "Que" is q-u-e and in Spanish it means "what." And "be jesa" means "what's happening." Can you dig it, what's happening? And then there's another variation of that phrase and I can't remember what that is.
"Searchin' So Long", was that inspired by any particular person or thing going on?
Oh, yeah. "Searchin' So Long" is a search for my own identity. And I was, it was called self-exploration, you know, and I was influenced by a particular emotion at that time. I was curious about who I was, what had gotten me to this point, you know, how I was feeling, where I was going. And so I, it's a song about self-examination and just kind of reflection on self, on one's self. Self-reflection.
Do you miss the percussion? You had a lot of percussion on VII, and you had Laudir playing with you for some years.
Is that something you miss in the same way that you miss the prominence of the horns because of these dickhead producers?
Um, not so much. Percussion was never an integral part of this band. When we started this band we didn't have a percussionist. With a horn section is a melodic infusion, an integral melodic part of the band. Percussion is indeed more frosting on the cake than integral. Laudir was an incredible percussionist. It has nothing to do with his ability or his percussionship, his musicianship. He was an incredible player. He came out of Sergio Mendez. And the guy was incredible. We wound up... at first we experimented with using percussion in the studio, about that time. And we liked the way the percussion held the tempos together so much that we decided to keep the percussion aspect part of the band. Danny was beginning, at that stage of the game, Danny's playing was starting to become... umm... undependable. Terry Kath in particular felt the need for a percussionist to keep the grooves, the tempo steady.
Right. I didn't realise things were like that with Danny so early on.
Well... not as noticeably. But we felt that when we had the percussion there was a lot less apprehension and the rest of the rhythm section could kinda lay back and groove and not be, not divide their attention between, are the tempos gonna rush or lag, or can I just concentrate on my parts here, and be comfortable. And the percussion allowed them more ably to do that. And it wasn't, it didn't become a real problem until later. But it was more Terry's desire to bring the percussion into the band because of undependable tempos. I don't know if that, you know, wherever Danny is, I'd hate for him to be insulted, although
He's in Sunshine, Colorado.
Yeah. Right. You know, but Danny's playing probably started to deteriorate at that point.
It's interesting, because he was writing a lot at that point, too. He started writing.
Yeah, uh huh. He wasn't perhaps, even then, he wasn't spending enough time on the drums.
And now you've got one of the most amazingly dependable drummers in the world.
Yes we do. And believe me, it's a joy.
Okay, tell me about "Show Me A Sign." Is there any particular inspiration for that? How did it come about? You wrote that with somebody, yeah?
With Greg O'Connor. Greg O'Connor is a composer, arranger, who I've developed a writing relationship with over the last couple years, who I continue to write with. We just wrote another new song that we're going to record next month for a candidate for the live album which is being recorded this spring. But anyway, yeah, Greg and I co-wrote "Show Me A Sign" and it's basically a, it's kind of a question mark about a relationship, you know, whether this relationship has what it takes to endure, or whether it was just a passing fancy. And, you know, it's a universal question that people make. It's just kind of a hip hop approach to a, once again, the viability of a relationship.
Did it end up sounding the way you wanted it to on record?
I think Roy Bittan did a good job on it. It's a little, it's a little less funky than I would have, than the demo. If you had heard, the demo was a little more soulful, a little more R&B.
So it was maybe muted a little in the final mix?
The keyboard is not the way I would have liked it, the keyboard was a little [sings] "ding ding ding ding," and the bell tone's high up, kinda, I heard more of a mid-range funk keyboard thing. But you know, songs aren't always the same thing. Lenny Kravitz speaking of taking a left turn Lenny Kravitz on "The Only One" on the first Heart of Chicago, that song is completely a different animal than the demo. It's Lenny Kravitz's signature, and it's fresh and it's '90s, but it's not what Greg and I heard, you know, the demo was quite a bit different from that, the demo was more, again, I think, straight ahead R&B. But, you know, you have to trust a producer, and I think "Show Me A Sign" is definitely going in the right direction. Whatever we can sneak by the record company to get more up-tempo songs back on radio, you know. I have material here that, you know, I'd love to record at some point, we're talking about a studio album next spring. And Greg and I have developed into a very competent writing team, and we have some stuff that's a lot more funky but yet commercial, but challenging musically, that we'd like to see the band moving toward. But we fill in each other's blanks very well. He's very schooled in terms of orchestrating, and classically trained, and he's a young guy with his finger on the pulse of the industry and the powers that be. And you marry that with my experience, and my ability to hear things just from, having heard them for so many years, and the experience with the new edge, it's a good combination, and we seem to work well together. We're just beginning to tap, you know, this relationship that we've started about a year ago.
This is a hard one, but do you have a favorite song that you have written?
That I have written?
Yeah of your catalog, that you have written for the group, is there a favorite that you just love more than any of the others.
I'll leave that to the listeners.
What about a favorite album? Is VII your favorite album? 'Cause we talked about that one.
I don't have a favorite album. I think that the first album will always be important to me because it's the first endeavor. You know. The first anything is always an important event. The first of any successful endeavor that lasts for any meaningful length of time, and it all started with that one. And that one is still compared to. That one is still, you know, held up for comparison. You know, Chicago Transit Authority is a magical record. I mean, I can remember most of the excitement and the spontaneity that went into making that first, the raw, you know, experience of never having been in a studio. You go in there and, it was quite a remarkable thing. And how many times, whatever the art, is the sequel ever as good as the original? You know. I mean we've done 23 sequels. I mean, it's not the same as a picture, but, I don't know if there's any one album that is my favorite. There are songs on various albums that I've considered favorite songs on each package. But, gosh, with the enormity of the catalog and the, you know, and the amount of material after this many years, it's difficult to pinpoint.
I'm proud of the "Ballet" because of its structure and the approach I took on that. I wish I could do more work like that, you know, but... ahhh... We tried to get a little more outside on Sisyphus, but the suits weren't ready for it, like I said. It was not productive in terms of career. And we have no control over that. You and I would love to listen to stuff like that. I'd love to take a year off and make a record that we've wanted to make, and play some gigs that we wanted to play, and kind of take creative license and throw caution to the wind. Do it for the sake of the art. But you can't pay the rent that way. So I don't know. [Laughs] I don't know what to tell you. You know, perhaps I can do that on my own. I still have a yearning to investigate and challenge my compositional skills. I perhaps may even go back to school and learn some advance composition so I can better
Yeah, you mentioned that.
Yeah I mentioned that.
And writing for, you know, 70 or 80 pieces.
Yeah! Yeah. You know, doing some film work and stretching out. Greg and I have talked about doing that, maybe forming a company and doing that as a sideline, maybe as another career. I mean, I don't know if I'll ever be a John Williams or whatever, or even attempt to get close to that, but I know there's more in me. A lot more in me before I hang up my cleats.
Can you spell that word, cleats? You said that last time and I
It is that.
Those are sports shoes with steel spikes on them.
Oh, okay [laughing]. I thought, this must be a part of a trombone.
No, there's an old saying in professional baseball, when a pitcher hangs up his cleats, you know, he retires from the game. It's a sports euphemism.
I appreciate you explaining that, because of course we're not into baseball in Australia.
One last question. What elements or qualities do you think Bill and Jason brought into the group and continue to bring into the group, songwriting-wise, to enhance its musicality? Because they obviously came in after you guys had written this whole body of work, and they've been writing for the group now for a number of years.
Ummm.... well obviously they brought in their own perspectives. They both have a formidable track record in terms of their ability to write songs and their work in the industry. Especially Bill. Bill's been floating in and out of studios for as long as this band has been together. And even before he joined this band he was busy with the Sons, his own endeavor, and writing and arranging, and you know, they brought in, I think their input has most definitely broadened the horizon and the scope of how we look at music, and their musicianship and their approach to songwriting has definitely embellished what the band has done in the past. They've both been an asset to the band. I mean, you know, we miss Terry Kath. Terry Kath was a monstrous talent, an enormous talent, who had great vision, regardless, in spite of the fact that he was basically self-taught. He was probably one of the most naturally gifted people I've ever had the joy of working with. And, this music flowed from him freely, just, just quite phenomenally, and it would be amazing to imagine where the band might be today if Terry had remained alive. In the short time he was with us he created so much of an influence and a direction and a character within this band. And, you know, those kind of shoes are very difficult if not impossible to fill. When Terry left he took a part of the band with him that will never be the same. But Bill came into the picture and added his own form of magic to what we do.
Which is kind of R&B influenced as well.
Well, yeah. In a different kind of a way, Terry was this kind of earthy funky proponent in the band. His input was very direct and very honest and almost guttural in its approach. And Bill kind of approaches that in his own way. But Bill is a much more schooled musician, and, um, I think the band has benefited greatly from Bill's input. And, you know, continues to. I mean, you know, he's a new guy, he's been in the band almost 18 years. He's been in the band quite a bit longer than Terry was. You know, as well as Jason.
I went to see Jason the other night with his new band Badge, and it was all R&B and blues, particularly, and it was really interesting to see that side of him. I went specifically because I wanted to see what he did when he wasn't playing with Chicago.
Right. Uh huh.
Because I wanted to appreciate him in other ways.
'Cause it's taken me a long time to, you know, accept the "new" quote/unquote members of the group. So before I leave the country I wanted to go and see what else Jason does. And I'm really glad I did, because he was great, and he was singing a storm.
***[tape turn over]
[Has somehow got on to the subject of "25 or 6 to 4"]***
..... and it was burned in public, the CD was burned in public, and program directors across the country condemned the band for defiling a rock 'n' roll anthem. You know, come on. Come on. There have been remakes of many songs over the years, and if anybody had the authority to do a remake, it's the composer of the original. We thought, and David Foster agreed, that it would be really a great song to do a remake of. And frankly, I think the remade version was quite interesting. And the video that accompanied it won awards up the butt. It was a very hi-tech industrial video, that put the feel of the song which was also that [simulates sound of synthesizers in "25 or 6 to 4"], it was very industrial, very innovative in terms of the old version. And it was canned.
And this band, for whatever reason I don't know what the reasons are actually but this band has, you know, we try to do something that we feel proud about in many instances and it is basically squashed or ridiculed. And you know we could continue to do that and go, fuck you, we're going to do it anyway, but you know, there's a lot of people in this band that'd really love to be able to feed their families. You know, and you know what else the problem is? We haven't maybe hit on, and you know I'm not crying sour grapes, and this has been a wonderful incredible, I mean a miraculous career. I mean, we're on our 33rd touring season this year and... Rod Stewart can do anything he damn well pleases 'cause he cuts the pie one way. Billy Joel can do anything he damn well pleases, Elton John can do anything. You know, have you noticed that most of the notorious artists of our day, and in days past, were solo artists? You won't see many bands on the cover of Rolling Stone. You'll see Jewel, you'll see, oh you might see, you know, Michael Stipe or a member of a band, but you won't see a conglomerate. Today it's the day of image, and Chicago has always been a faceless band, that has to cut the pie many ways. If this was James if this was my band, I could afford to do any kind of fucking kinda album I wanted, because if it didn't sell I wouldn't give a shit, because I'd be so rich it wouldn't matter if I did my own thing. The income that I didn't have to split up among many mouths would allow me to live and do exactly what I wanted to do creatively.
But see again, to be realistic here, we have to remember that Chicago can't afford to stick its creative neck out at the expense of members of this unit being able to live. You know, I mean, Elton John can do his charities and he can do... well, Elton John is an artist that is incredibly known for who he is and what he does, but you know, I can't think of an artist perhaps I'm digging a hole here I can't think of an artist that... Sting! There's a good example. Sting can go down to the Bahamas and do an incredible jazz album, okay? With the Marsalis brothers and you name it. And who cares if it sells 5,000 units. Sting is the man, you know. He's not paying each one of those guys an extra share. You know, he's the guy. He can put a band together and do that. I'd love to be able to do stuff like that. Now Sting gets a lot of respect, okay, for being daring. And I'm one of the guys that lines up behind him, because I love his work, I've always loved his work. And I envy him, because he can afford to be creative. Because his nut is not split so many ways. D'you know? I'm not complaining, I'm just telling you what the reality is here.
In my world I'd love to do things that are daring. Now whether or not I could get an agent to sell 'em to anybody remains to be seen. In the old days I had this wonderful climate of fertility to write anything I wanted, like a 13-minute piece called the "Ballet" and see it received with enthusiasm. I could no longer take that 13 minutes of a record today with a self indulgent piece than the man on the moon. You know, I just can't. Unless it was my label. Well, guess what? Chicago has a record label now. Maybe we can start being a little more daring because we are the record company. [Laughs] Whether or not we can remains to be seen. I'm not singing sour grapes to you.
No, I'm not hearing sour grapes.
It's the reality. I mean, it's not gonna stop me from writing great stuff. I mean, Greg and I intend to sell songs. I'm gonna start writing songs for all kinds of people. That's why Jason has his own thing happening, and what's another beautiful thing about what Chicago does is it allows members the freedom to do their own thing, you know, under the umbrella of Chicago. And it's great that Jason has that outlet. It's great that Bill and Robert, myself, and all of the writers in the band have different outlets. Because whatever it is, whatever isn't appropriate for Chicago is certainly possibly appropriate for another artist.
Great. Thank you.
You're welcome. You wind me up and I go!
I love it. You're so generous, and I appreciate it so much. When's your baby due?
He is due...
He! It's a boy! And he is due soon, actually the first week of July, but we're hoping he's early. Because I leave for the road the last week of June and we're gonna be on the east coast and I'm gonna be real far away. And I'm gonna have a sub standing by and we have the Doobie Brothers thing and the live recording, and so I have a lot of important commitments out there starting in June, and the sooner this baby pops the sooner I'll be off the hook. Because you know, I can't miss the live recording, I can't have a sub for that. And you know I'd really love to be there for the opening Doobie dates, too, because they're gonna, the kick off for the summer. So we'll see.
Well good luck!
Jeannie and I are just hoping for a healthy baby, you know, and that's an exciting thing.
Well, I'm really happy for you.
And I hope that I see you again before long. I'm moving back to Australia now but I'm hoping to come back briefly in September so I might catch you at the Greek.
Well I hope so, I hope so. Yeah, we're looking forward to being back in LA. You know, again, another thing that'd really be cool, that we can't do, is take a year off, just take a year off. One thing that's kind of you know, I would hate to tell this to management, who work so hard at booking this band one thing I'd love to do is take a year off, because everybody knows, hey man, we don't need to go see Chicago, they'll be back next year, same time, same fuckin' station, just like clockwork. I'd like to go, "Hey, this is the last fuckin' gig, people! We're not gonna do this for five years. Maybe never. This is the last one!" I'd LOVE to be able to do that. The Stones do it, you know, they can afford it. Mick Jagger can go, "Hey man, let's do a world tour, we'll make 200 million fuckin' dollars, and then we'll take five years off, and when Keith Richards pisses it all away, we'll do it again. In five years." You know? I mean, they can do that. And I'd love to take a couple years off. But our management says, "No, man! They'll forget!"
Yeah, your management have a particular attitude about
They want to keep us working, you know. They want to keep our career viable. And you know, we can't afford to take a year off. And I don't know if that's true or not. But I'd love to be less predictable.
I don't know, I didn't see or hear much about you guys for 10 years, and it didn't stop me coming back, so
I know. Well one of the reasons you didn't hear anything about us
Well I was in Australia.
for 10 years is because there was nothing to report. It was the same old same old same old.
No, well, I was in Australia where your profile had completely diminished.
Right. Well we haven't been back there.
You know, when I finally came back here in 1990 and saw you guys at the Universal three nights in a row and Tris was on drums, and I was like, "Holy Shit! I've gotta find out what's going on here!"
Yeah. Well, you know just about the time Peter left the band, and all that, maybe that would have been the time to come back to Australia.
Yeah, well I knew Peter had left, that was big news. But beyond that... You know, and I got the records, the records were coming out. But I had always kept a very close watch on the group, and it was very hard to do that from Australia when the record company wasn't behind you down there and the profile wasn't there.
So since I started coming back to the States in 1990, and obviously living here for the last year, I've managed to get as close as one can get.
Well you know we almost came to Australia last year.
Yeah, I know, you told me.
And then the yen went through the basement and Japan couldn't afford to bring us over, and at that point it didn't make any sense to just do Australia.
You know, it's a drag that it's so far away and it's so hard to get a tour going through there. I'd love to play there again. Danny fucked our totally ruined our chances at reviving our career in the UK. Last time we were there. I mean, people were walking out.
[Sings really slowly, dragging] "Children play....... in the park...... they don't know....." [Simulates snoring sound]
So that was early 1990, so he must have left
He didn't leave, he was kicked the fuck out! Right after that tour. You know.
I mean, we had waited 12 years to be asked back there, since Terry Kath rest in peace [laughs] went "Fuck you England!!" on the top of the London Hilton.
[Laughing] I didn't know that!
Oh, man! Yeah, well, Terry Kath was very unhappy. He was not a happy camper, because Jimmy Page and Ten Years After and Eric Clapton, and all these English The Yardbirds all these English guitar players and Hendrix were getting all this acclaim. And Terry Kath was a truck driver in Gary Glitter clothes that was, you know, "Who the fuck is this peasant from the United States?" He was getting completely blown off and put down, and he was one of the most incredible guitar players of his time. So we had a press conference in England. And Terry Kath waited for the whole band to pose with every medium in Europe and Asia on the roof of that Hilton, and when 400 photographers got ready to shoot the picture, he gave the finger to the whole bunch of them and went, "Fuck you England, you motherfuckin' teabag faggot motherfuckers!!" And that was the last time we worked in the United Kingdom. [Laughs]
[Also laughing] Okay. Oh, dear.
I didn't know that story.
And it took all those years til the early '90s to be invited back, because most of those people had either died or retired, and the new blood in the business went, "Hey man, Chicago, man, they're still workin', man, they're really happenin' in the States! Let's ask them back here, they haven't been here for years." We went over there and we took Ron Nevison, our producer at the time, with us. I saw him with his head in his hands and... where was that?
Hammersmith. You played there, I moved there, I actually lived there for two years, and I moved to London the day you were playing there, and I saw in the paper, and I thought, oh my god, I just arrived on the plane, I can't go.
Hammersmith Odeon, two nights. And people were walking out in droves.
Oh my god.
The tempos Danny was getting up at eight in the morning with his old lady, looking at castles, driving himself all day long, and we've got on stage, and I mean... [sighs] Jason had his back to the audience because he had to look at Danny and move him with the bass. I mean it was utterly frustrating, embarrassing. We sucked! We sucked. We sounded so tired, so bad, and the next day Danny gets up at six in the morning and does it all over again. We had a meeting in the hotel room that night after the second show, and said, this has gotta stop. And we haven't been invited back since, nor will we maybe ever be invited back. They gave us a second chance and we pissed it away.
I see. Wow. But you didn't piss anyone off in Australia.
Well, we haven't been there enough to piss anybody off!!
20 years [laughing].
Yeah, well you know with the current ensemble we have now, man, it'd be a gas to go down there, cause we could kick some butt.
Yeah, well, I would like to see that.
So maybe a Japan/Australia tour is still a possibility. We'll see.
Well if I don't see you there I'll see you back here before long I'm sure.
You take good care.
Thank you so much.
Hey. Pleasure. Hey, it was a pleasure talking to you. I hope I provided you with some inside scoops.
© Debbie Kruger
Phone interview with Robert Lamm
5 May 1999
Los Angeles (RL) to Hawaii (DK)
© Debbie Kruger
Listen, I really appreciate you doing this extra bit for me; I need to ask you some specific songwriting-type questions.
That's alright. Fine.
First I wanted to ask you about the writing process and whether it's changed over the years. I want to know what usually comes first is it the melody or the lyric and, as I say, whether that's changed over all the years?
Umm... If it's between melody and lyrics, the melody usually comes first. I do keep a notebook of lyric ideas, so as... 'Cause actually what comes together first is the harmonic structure of the changes and the rhythm pattern, to which I try to write a melody, and then I go to my lyric notebook and try to see if there's anything in it that either sparks an idea or actually fits.
Right. And if not, then you'll go with the melody first, complete that, and then write a lyric to accompany it?
Okay. And has that changed over the years or is that the way you've always done it?
It has changed because I think, you know, in this day of writing fairly complete song arrangements with sequencers and computers and that sort of thing, and using drum loops, I think all that has changed the process. Whereas before I would just sit down at a piano and play, and often just kind of sing a melody with some, with some, ad lib the words off the top of my head and then just kind of see where that would take me. So it was, I think it was a much more sort of organic process for me. And it's one that I would consider using again, it's just that in this day and age of computers right now I'm kind of caught up in the possibilities of that.
I spoke to Jimmy last week and he said in the earlier days you also used to sketch the horn section in a song but you don't do that any more, you just tend to just write the song and he'll add the horn later. Is there any reason for the shift there?
Who me? Or all of us?
Well I asked specifically about you because I was also going to be talking about you, but I did ask him generally how he did the horn arrangements, whether it was an after thing, whether it was the composer would bring an outline to him, and he talked specifically about you and he said you did used to sketch them in more than any of the others but now you don't.
Yeah. Uhh... and I have to confess that that's been more sheer laziness on my part than anything else. Although, you know, for instance on some of the arrangements I did on the Christmas album and the Big Band album, I did, because it was more of an arranging task, I did concentrate on composing many of the horn lines. And it's just, for me it's not very, it's not the easiest thing for me. I can do it and as I say I'm just kind of lazy about it.
Right. Because I was really interested going back to some of the really early stuff, with a song like "Free," and Jimmy and I had quite a discussion about it and I said really the horn melodies make that song. And he was saying, no, no, no, it's the vocal and it's the chorus. And I was interested in how you and he worked on that together and he said that you pretty much sketched the whole thing.
Yeah. Yeah, I did.
And I guess, what, now because the horns don't extend throughout a song in the way that they used to, that it's easier for you to just write a song and then give it to him to embellish?
Exactly. Although, you know many times, or more and more as my...uh... Jimmy is really kind of defined his style of arranging for Chicago and the last couple of things I gave him with a horn line, he kind of didn't, he didn't agree with my ideas, you know. You know, he said, his comment was, "Well, this is not what we do." So I kinda had, it was kind of an issue between us. And I said, "Well, you know, maybe it's not what you do, but Chicago is more than what you do." So...
Right. So it's an ever-changing process.
I think it has to be, and I think that that's healthy, just proves that our hearts are still beating.
I want to ask you about a few of the old songs and the way you wrote them. This is not so much because I need to know, because I kind of know, but more so that it's in your words for the purposes of this story.
With "Beginnings," did you consciously write a lyric without rhyme, and was there a reason for that?
Yes, I consciously wrote that without rhyme, and the reason was to see if I could do it. And, I must confess that at that point I was reading, I was reading contemporary poetry, and I noticed that, I noticed that for some of the poetry I was reading that you know, this wasn't the poetry I was reading in high school. It was a little freer, so I thought, well, I wonder if I could do that for a song.
Any specific poet that comes to mind?
I can't think of any now. I mean, right now, actually right now I'm reading a guy named Gerald Stern, who does that, so that would be... And I'm finding that terrifically inspiring and I may do something like that again.
How old were you when you wrote "Beginnings"? Do you remember?
It must have been in my early 20s.
What does it say to you about the strength of those emotions and the power of a good love song, that it can still resonate for you in your relationship with Joy, as you said to me when we last spoke, and also for so many people another generation or two down the line?
Well you know I think that as, as a subject matter, as many times as songwriters have described what it is to be in love or to fall out of love, you know, it's just such a, it's just a human and abstract and all-consuming experience that we continue to write about I mean, there's nothing like falling in love. I mean, you know, all, of all the range of emotions that humans are capable of and of all the actions that we, that we do to each other [laughs] you know, everything from making war to whatever, I think that the act of falling in love, or the feeling of falling in love is, it's brand new every time. And I don't think there's anything like that.
That's definitely what I think "Beginnings" conveys, is the newness of love, the freshness of it.
And Jimmy and I had a lengthy discussion about a similar theme with "Just You 'n' Me" and I asked him if love could be that simple, and he said well, yes it can, and that's what draws us to it, but of course then we complicate it.
With "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is" and "25 or 6 to 4," both had all those rumors about them being underground drug songs, but actually they were both inspired by very simple situations. Can you just tell me those stories briefly?
Well, I've always been kind of intrigued with the idea of time, and how we attempt to keep track of it, and you know, I talk in other songs about crossing over into other dimensions, even temporarily, on any given day. But "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is" is just kind of recounting an experience I had when I was a teenager, where I asked somebody what time it was and he said. "Does anybody really know what time it is?"
This was outside a movie theater?
Outside a movie theater. So that kind of inspired that song, and I kind of went with that idea, and kind of fleshed out the rest of the song, and kind of made into a larger subject than what time it was at that particular moment. And "25 or 6 to 4" is really a song about just writing a song, and a reference to time.
And this song was written up in that house overlooking a freeway?
No, no, no, it was written up in the Hollywood Hills above Sunset; I was living in a house with some other people and I could look out kind of across the city and see flashing lights against the sky.
Which of course lead a lot of people to think it was a song about hallucinogenics.
You know, Debbie, I just spent two hours on the phone with a professor of music I think Jimmy did the same, talked to the same gentleman who really had very profound and impeccably reasoned theories about what not only did songs mean but why certain lines were sung over certain combinations of notes. And it all made perfect sense but I had to break it to him that it's not planned.
What would be one of the most bizarre theories that someone has brought to you about one of your songs?
Well, actually, you know, the whole sort of druggie... I wrote one song about drugs, and that's "Fancy Colors."
"Fancy Colors" is about an acid trip. But that's about it, you know.
Your songs to me always seem to me about very basic daily situations and how you perceive them, whether it's "Saturday in the Park" or "Another Rainy Day in New York City" or "Beginnings."
Well, again, you're talking about the early songs, and fortunately or unfortunately you haven't heard my latest songs
I'm looking forward to hearing them.
They're far deeper. Well actually, you know, the Beckley-Lamm-Wilson album is probably being released in the next 6-10 weeks.
Really? And In My Head also?
In My Head will be released probably in the first week of July. I mean, there's a song on the Trio album that I wrote called "Feel The Spirit" which is, you know, it's about Terry. It's about Terry Kath. And, you know, it was a gut-wrenching experience for me to write that song, very cathartic. And you know much, you know I'm much happier with my, what power of lyric writing I've accumulated over the years, versus something like "Beginnings" or "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is."
So what are some of the themes that you've been working on lately? Because I was going to ask you about New York as an inspiration, LA as an inspiration on a lot of the songs on the sixth album, but you know, that's all obvious stuff. So what are some of the themes on this album now?
Well I think... [long pause] ... well, obviously, when my last marriage ended and my kind of dissatisfaction with my life in California, you know, with everything about it, and moving, and moving of everything kind of to New York. That was really a huge upheaval for me and it really caused me to really examine not only myself but the world around me. So I, you know, there are a couple of songs, one is "Sleeping in the Middle of The Bed" obviously. If you, there's been tapes of that circulating around. That's some serious lyric writing, I think. Seriously good lyric writing.
Was that on Stone of Sysiphus or is that on your upcoming album?
I think I have a tape of Stone somewhere in the archives back in Australia
The one on In My Head is a completely different arrangement and, it's very different. And there's another song called "Will People Ever Change" which is really kind of a socio-political song. Uhhh.... I can't even think of any songs now. I've just come back from running, so
You talk to a professor for two hours, then you go for a run, and then you have to think of all this stuff again!
Somebody wanted me to ask you if "Jesse" on the last solo album was a premonition about Jesse Ventura.
No, it was Jesse Jackson.
So it was still political.
Have there been any inspirations from the political arena lately that might show up in your writing?
Well, as I mentioned this song "Will People Ever Change" is, kind of talks about how we go through all this, you know, the election process and we elect another guy, and it's just another face and another name but everything's the same. I haven't written anything about Clinton or anything about what's going on in Yugoslavia. I think that philosophically I've kind of moved on, I've moved kind of beyond the, what I, I mean, what I consider, as far as someone who's removed from the actual physical pain of those things, being a little more philosophic and seeing it just as a smaller part of a larger problem.
So less specific and more philosophical.
Do you have a favorite song that you've written over the years?
Why do you guys always ask that question?
Because the editors ask me to. I would never ask you a question like that. I would never ask you about the inspiration for "25 or 6 to 4" because I know the answer to that. Jimmy's response was, Jimmy was a bit insulted; he said "I'll let the listener decide."
Yeah. I can't think of one, and usually it's whatever I've just been working on that I am most in love with at any given moment.
So is it the classic thing where they're like your children?
Ahh, well... I love my children more than my songs.
You've got children of different ages; do they inspire you? I mean, your eldest daughter is, what, in her 20s now?
Yeah, well there's a song on the new album called "Sacha."
I always loved the fact that on the 10th album your little publishing company was Little Sacha Songs. And I didn't even know that you had a daughter called Sacha, I just assumed you may have a child called Sacha at the time.
She must be, I mean, it must be fascinating I know you don't see as much of her is she in Colorado?
Yeah, yeah. I talk to her every week, and, you know, I see her every, sometimes once a month I'll travel there to see her or she'll come here. We're very close. And I've written a song actually I've written one song for each of my kids.
All bearing their names?
No [laughs]. No. You know, the working titles obviously do. You know, a good friend of mine, Phil Galdston who is the producer of the Beckley-Lamm-Wilson album, wrote a great song with Carl Wilson for his children, for Phil's own kids, called "I Wish for You," which to me is the ultimate song you could write for your offspring. So, you know, at the moment I'm a little intimidated by the quality of that song.
Is this album coming out on Chicago Records like you said?
Yes, actually the Beckley-Lamm-Wilson album is on Chicago Records. The Robert Lamm album is on Mystic.
Mystic. Mystic Music and Entertainment Corporation. Distributed by WEA. Debbie, I have to run, unfortunately. I hope you got what you needed.
I did, thank you. It's been such a pleasure to have these conversations with you.
Maybe we'll do it again.
I hope so.
Okay, have a great time in aloha land.
© Debbie Kruger
No part of these interviews may be reproduced or transmitted in any form
without prior written permission.