by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2002 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
During its initial four-year existence, The Bears lived a pop music lifetime. It enjoyed an auspicious, boisterous beginning in 1985 as the next big thing. The buzz was considerable. Sold-out gigs worldwide, two studio albums and multiple media blitzes pointed to a long-term future. But by 1988, disillusion stemming from punctured promises and evaporating support—not to mention a serious dose of bad luck—sealed the band's fate.
Typical music industry shenanigans, some might say. But The Bears were supposed to be different. After all, this was a band with a serious pedigree. It was comprised of guitarist-vocalist Adrian Belew, formerly of King Crimson, Talking Heads and Frank Zappa; and drummer Chris "Deathy" Arduser, guitarist-vocalist Rob Fetters and bassist Bob Nyswonger—three quarters of the Raisins, a popular, renowned act that enjoyed several regional hits across America.
The Bears crafted eclectic, intelligent pop songs full of gorgeous harmonies, inventive lyrics and first-rate musicianship. The Cincinnati, Ohio-based act struck a rare balance between the approachable and artistic. Further, it was a band with a plan. It predicted its willingness to work incessantly and do anything but compromise the music could help it win a global audience. What it couldn't predict was the abrupt end of the early-to-mid-'80s pop renaissance that saw the likes of Laurie Anderson, Joe Jackson and XTC scoring hits with left-of-center material. Nor could it predict its record label going under in the midst of the tour for its second album. And with Belew simultaneously being courted as David Bowie's musical director and by Atlantic Records for a solo deal, the group's dissolution became inevitable—though they all remained the best of friends.
Fast-forward to 2002. The Bears are back with a new CD titled Car Caught Fire. The disc is the result of sporadic sessions taking place over the previous four years. Rather than work as a full-time band, the members fit the sessions in between their many other solo and group commitments.
Arduser, Fetters and Nyswonger spent the intervening years on-and-off in a power-trio known as Psychodots, releasing four acclaimed albums that took The Bears' sound to the next level by infusing it with more edge, satire and maturity. Arduser also launched Graveblankets, a folk-rock outfit. And both he and Fetters began fruitful solo careers. As for Belew, he rejoined a resurrected King Crimson, released several solo albums and guested with luminaries including Tori Amos, Nine Inch Nails and Paul Simon.
The combined influences of the previous 13 years color the new Bears release, but the group's hallmarks remain intact. The melodic, twin-guitar approach; rich, vocal arrangements; and propulsive rhythms are in full evidence, tinged with a little more grit than its '80s incarnation. In addition, Arduser now contributes as a lead singer alongside Belew and Fetters.
The animated quartet took Innerviews through the evolution of the new material, the motivation for the reunion and its perspectives on recent personal and public events.
The new album has a rawer, less-finessed sound compared to the glossy sheen of the first two albums. What accounts for the difference?
CA: Because we have less sheen on us now.
AB: Except for you Deathy with your shirts. [laughs]
BN: The veneer and the patina have worn down.
RF: Perhaps we need some Retin-A.
AB: Is anyone gonna seriously answer the question? [laughs]
RF: Go for it Adrian.
AB: I think it's probably because of the manner in which we made the record. We got together over weekends, chose songs and then recorded them. The idea was to get the early exciting version of the song down and not do too much in the way of production.
BN: If you look at the sound of what's going on these days, it's a lot less slick than it was before. We're kind of in our time a bit, so we made a record that's a little more immediate.
AB: It's a lot more fun to work this way. After picking a song, we'd say "Let's go to the studio and work on it." We'd get it to a point where we thought it had a cool arrangement and start recording. Sometimes we'd have it mostly recorded by the end of the day. Over the course of a long weekend, we'd do two or three songs. It's what I was shooting for because when The Bears worked together originally in the '80s, it seemed like the songs reached certain excitement levels as soon as we discovered them.
The circumstances of making the record dictated that you each bring individual songs to the table. Tell me how you worked together to make them evolve as group-oriented pieces and how the process differed from the '80s incarnation of the band.
RF: There's maybe a trust issue that's a little different now. Not that we didn't trust each other before, but I definitely felt more willing to follow directions from the other guys. When someone said "try it this way" it was fine because things were fresh and I didn't have time to consciously think more about what direction it should take. When people came in with song demos, sometimes it was them singing with acoustic guitar, sometimes it might have been a tape or disc with rough drafts of the song.
CA: The first two albums were conceived as a band. We would rehearse the songs for performance generally and then get into the studio. There's already a pattern for the songs in place at that point. It's different from learning the song in the afternoon and recording it a few hours later. You don't have any preconceived notions.
BN: You're more open to whatever because you're trying to make it work. You're hearing it back on tape immediately, instead of playing it in a rehearsal space or onstage for days or weeks.
RF: You're right on the edge of knowing and not knowing the song. You're just going with the flow you get from the other guys.
AB: The beautiful thing about The Bears is that all of this didn't change the chemistry. Everyone in the band has naturally matured as writers and players, but the interaction between us is the same. You can rely on the other guys in the band to come up with something cool. You can make a recording in one day with very few things left unanswered. We could pretty much come up with the definitive version on the spot.
The album was put together over four years. Were there any challenges involved in maintaining consistency throughout the process?
AB: I think there were challenges in the sense that we had to be careful with the choices we made. We recorded more material than is on the record. A few things didn't pan out. We got to a certain point with the record where we had a good overview of it. Everyone had CD-Rs of it and could say "You know, it's kind of missing this" or "It could use another one of Bob's jewels." But it just seemed to flow out naturally. The only disconcerting thing was due to circumstantial things, we didn't get to make the record as quickly as we wanted to. It didn't really hurt anything. It was just a drag. We wanted to try and make it in one year.
RF: Which at that time seemed like a long time to make a record. [laughs]
AB: When I look at my calendar, there's these long periods of time between us doing things. A lot of it's my fault. But when we resume, I'm impressed that we can and nothing has changed. Everyone brings in a new round of songs and we start where we left off.
Chris now has an expanded role in the band as a singer and songwriter. Tell me about that progression.
CA: Back in them '80s, I couldn't sing very well. Even though I sang on my demos, I never felt comfortable doing it on a Bears record. The earlier Bears were centered on the two-part vocals of Rob and Adrian. That was the way it should have been. I always remember when we were tracking "Little Blue River" for the second record. At one point, Adrian suggested I sing it and I didn't have the confidence. But after singing a lot with my own band and Psychodots, I guess I feel a little better about it.
AB: The Psychodots did a similar thing. Rob and Chris would sing all the time. Plus they would do things where Bob sang too. When we originally put The Bears together, the idea was a pretty strong visual and musical concept: two colorful birds out front—Rob and I—doing all the singing, and Bob and Chris in subdued tuxedos in the background playing their asses off. By the time we got to this version of the band, we thought there's no reason for Chris not to sing. He's used to doing it now and it gives us a lot of cool opportunities. On this record, we also tried to spread out the writing more instead of having it one-sided. It was never that one-sided because all four of us write, but we are trying to share it more.
Would you call The Bears a democracy?
AB: I really would. What do you guys think?
RF: Well, of course you would! [laughs] Yes, it's a democracy, but we have leadership. We definitely have a focus. There's a group consciousness that's a higher power in the band. When I write songs, I think about what could be a Bears song and what are obviously not Bears songs. We all write that way and try to bring in…
AB: …the right ingredients.
RF: Yeah, to our particular quartet.
AB: The way the band actually operates during conference calls or in-person is that we joust with each other to come to a decision. It's the old fashioned way of having a band—nobody is running it. I'm in two different bands and I know the difference between the two. [everyone laughs] The Bears begins with friendships and everyone allowing each other to do their parts for the band. So, it kind of runs itself. When it comes to the business part, Rob becomes the secretary doing all the phone calls.
BN: God bless him.
AB: Everyone takes a different role in the band.
RF: It is a democracy in the way that a family is a democracy. It's a lot of shared responsibilities—a lot of things where people are better at doing something than others. In a certain sense, every one of us can be a producer. We all produce music. But I think we all agree that we need one person to take the responsibility. Sometimes there are two or more paths to go down as far as music production. At those points, we trust Adrian to say "Let's do it this way" because a decision has to be made. It's not necessarily a right or wrong decision.
BN: Most of the time, we do have a lot in common as far as what we think the band should sound like. There aren't a lot of arguments in that regard. We limit that among ourselves by having pretty similar tastes and vision.
AB: I agree with Bob—that's really a big part of it. We come from the same backgrounds—musical and otherwise. The band is more like a family than a democracy. I think that's a good word Rob.
Compare the caliber of songwriting and musicianship of the new album to the first two releases.
BN: We've obviously all matured as players. In the older days, I might have been more concerned with getting something out a little flashier or technically impressive. Now, I think we're all better at looking at a song and doing whatever it takes to make it work—playing a subservient role if necessary. It's part of being a mature musician.
RF: One thing I always liked about The Bears is our respect for the song was always paramount. We'd have new ideas and things for the song, but the song was king and we served it. We feel more so now after the gap between records. We're more able to do that. There might be a song or two on the new disc where I don't play guitar. There are songs where Chris knew how to play the guitar part, so he played it. Nobody was counting. We were just trying to get the best tracks we could.
CA: I felt we didn't have so much to prove this time. In my case, I'm younger than everyone in the band. When I started with the band, I just wanted to do good. In the time between the last record and this one, all of us recorded a ton of stuff. I think we're more at ease in the studio.
AB: I think The Bears always had a kind of sound that's recognizably The Bears, even though we break out of that sometimes. We have an identity. It's what we like to sound like. We adhere to that. What really changed in the intervening years is everybody has become better. We made this record just for fun—because we love playing together. That was the purpose. We didn't have a plan and we still don't have much of one. [laughs] We thought "We can do this, so let's do it. It's time. We can afford to and it's not going to be expensive." Another aspect that's changed is the maturity of the writing itself. Everybody brought in their newest things and it shows a higher level of writership. You don't get a song like "Dave" everyday.
How do you look back at the first two records?
AB: I think the first record was really designed a certain way on purpose by four people who were really excited to play together. I think of it as a little jewel—a perfect pop record. The second record has its own little jewels within it, but it didn't have time to develop properly. We were touring and forced to cough that one up quickly. We had a lot more time with the first one. That's a normal situation. I still love the second album too though.
BN: The first record's a lot more focused.
AB: It has an emphatic "here we are!" feel to it. [laughs]
RF: I hear the first one exactly that way. We were pointed in a direction and there was a struggle to get it to that point. We had to go through a lot to write those songs. I remember the songwriting process. It was the first time I had written songs and brought in ideas that were just tossed out.
RF: So many things were tossed out and all of us suffered that. It was a great educational experience for me in relationships and trusting. In retrospect, I'm really glad. I was doing flamboyant things that now would sound really dated. The second record was a little more abstract. What I hear in the second record now is some disillusion. I think the first record had a lot of hope and confidence. In the second one, I hear the confidence being shaken.
AB: That's very true. I can vouch for that because I think we all believed we were onto the big stage during the making of the first one. It didn't quite happen that way. What happened instead is we worked harder and harder and less and less happened. That's the perspective from which the second record was born. So, there's a sense of "Well, hmm. What's happening here? It's not going like we expected." We did have pretty strong expectations. We were pretty cocky. [laughs]
Why do you think the band didn't take off as expected?
BN: The marketplace, for one thing. It was the '80s and we didn't have big hair, wear glossy, ridiculous clothes or get into showboating. We were flamboyant in our own way, but we were coming from a completely different place than what commercial radio was taking on. I think that's a huge part of it.
AB: I agree with that. I think it's also to do with the reality of the music business that we've all discovered from our long-term careers. If somebody with money decides you can make them more money, then something happens. But if no-one gets on board, you're left to your own devices, which is pretty much where we were. We were with a tiny record label. It was very much of an uphill battle. I think the fans—people who got to see The Bears—really enjoyed the band. As usual, it's hard to get that to happen universally unless you get the machinery behind you. We were hoping we'd attract the big machinery and felt confident we had the music and everything else ready to go. Our performances were pretty exciting. We felt ready to cough up the goods if somebody would put the machinery behind it. In a way, we modeled ourselves after the Police—not that we dyed our hair blonde or anything. But just in the way they went from nowhere to big time in a few years. We felt we could do that.
Was there any A&R interference in the creation of the first two records?
AB: Oh no, they gave us plenty of rope to hang ourselves with. [everyone laughs]
BN: The first record was something we already conceived before the actual proper making of it. In fact, making the record was actually a formality. We had already recorded those songs. We ended up using some of those tracks and redoing a few. So, the record was shaped long before any A&R was involved.
AB: One of the interesting stories that went along with that time was a certain record label—I won't mention its name, but it's Epic [everyone laughs]—sort of gave us the go ahead. They said "Yes, we're into this and we're really going for it." Then they strung us out for a year. We finally realized what they actually wanted us to do was some of their own writers' songs when they sent us a pathetic, horrifying piece of crap called "Stuck inside this moment."
BN: That's the one. [laughs]
AB: They suggested to us—The Bears who are four guys that write songs as a living—that we use this guy's song because they owned the song. So, we were excited when we put this song on during rehearsal and listened to it thinking "Well, this is the future of The Bears." [very sarcastically] And lo and behold, it was a horrible piece of crap. I don't know how anyone that heard The Bears could have thought for one second that we should do the song. But it became clear at that moment that Epic was entirely the wrong record label for us and that they were still on the track that said "If we get these guys doing songs we own then we'll make more money." So, it soured that relationship.
CA: Needless to say, we never learned the song.
RF: I've rewritten the lyrics to "Stuck inside this moment!" It goes "Stuck inside this moment/Like a dog without a bone/Lost in the twilight zone." [everyone laughs]
AB: It was a gem, wasn't it boys?
BN: I managed to totally forget about that song Adrian. I'm kinda sorry you made me remember it.
CA: I'm happy about it! [laughs]
AB: I dig that one out every now and then and look at it because that's really what happened you know. There were no serious players in the '80s who wanted to take the band on. I went to people I knew—a few people in the record business—and it was patiently explained to me "Well, to do this, it costs at least $500,000 to get the band off the ground and we're kind of broke. Disco wiped us out." [laughs] So, we're going to place all the blame on the music business itself and none of it on us. We coughed up a good record.
The new album was initially released independently by the band. Now, you're shopping it to various labels. How is that process going?
RF: Well, we've got many big yawns. I can give you a list of the major labels that have declined us by not even bothering to answer the question. But it's not like we were trying to get signed. There have been some labels that said "We'd like to hear it" and then they're strangely quiet. We just started working with a person who's trying to schlep our music to some other labels he thinks would be appropriate—whatever that means. As the band's secretary, I'm amazed that just by selling this thing on the Internet and getting some isolated airplay on independent radio stations around the country like we are now that we're very close to having this baby paid for—which means we've made more money with this record than with the first two.
AB: I agree with Rob. We're not doing this haphazardly, but we don't have a businessperson on the phone everyday trying to get somebody to do something. We've been mainly doing it by word of mouth. We thought "At some point, somebody will get it or they wouldn't." If they didn’t, we'd be doing this, which is basically independent on our own. It's a learning process for us. We're trying to figure this out at our ripe old ages—how do you put out your own record? It's not a new experience—everyone in the band already does it, but there's still stuff to figure out. I suppose I can see the situation from a record executive's viewpoint. "Why should I sign these guys who've been around and are strong? I can just get a bunch of weakling guys who don't know anything, take them for a great big, huge loss, have one hit, make lots of money and ruin their careers." As you can see, I have a lot of contempt for the industry. [everyone laughs]
RF: There's nothing good about the music business at all—except occasionally the music.
AB: Yeah, the music business is the part most musicians are not happy about. Some things have turned around over the last decade that give the artist the chance to purvey their own music in their own way. It's harder. You can make a lot less money, but maybe you can make the same money too. [laughs] It's rewarding in that you don't feel like you're being raped anymore.
Most of you are family men these days. How does that temper your priorities as musicians?
AB: All of us do put family first which is a necessity when you have one. Between me and Rob, we've got pretty big families. [laughs]
CA: I don't have kids, but I have a really neurotic dog. I'm married though. I finally settled down.
BN: I've got a couple of kids and they're older at this point. When they were young and I had to tour, I'd leave home for awhile, but when I was home, I was with my kids all the time. I never felt my kids were suffering. I think there's no mindset that we do whatever it takes to make it big in this business. Everyone realizes we have lives and personal priorities. Everybody's respectful of that. That's why we can still do The Bears at this point in time.
AB: I had children when we started as The Bears in the '80s. Everyone in and around the band and crew got an eyeful and earful of what having a family and working means. It never alters much. You go out and do the work and when you come back, fortunately you're able to be with your family more than the average dad.
RF: Adrian was the first person I watched closely with a family. He was an example of a working musician with a lot of kids. Having children just adds depth and width to your life. I feel more in touch with the big fat soul of mankind by having kids. Yeah, it's more responsibility, financially and otherwise, but the rewards outweigh any of the adult stuff you have to go through. It certainly makes it harder for us to just go out on the road and not make money which is what a lot of young bands do. It's what we used to do when we didn't have kids. We used to live in motels, eat nothing but Cheez Whiz and crackers, and rely on the kindness of strangers.
AB: You realize you can't do that forever. There's nothing worse than an aging old rock star who still thinks he's sexy and is trying to party down. The word "responsibility" keeps coming up. We were never irresponsible people. Rock bands are notorious for being that way. We had our moments when we were wacky, crazy and had tons of fun—there are lots of great memories. But it was never irresponsible because we knew underneath it all, we gotta be real here. Having a family means you can't afford to get yourself into a really bad position.
Describe the circumstances of the break-up of The Bears in 1988.
AB: It was motivated by several things. It was a sad experience in a way. The Bears got to a point where there was no support. The label actually folded while we were on tour for the second record—not a good sign. [laughs] At the same time, I had written this song called "Oh Daddy!" which I thought was a novelty song, but for some reason it attracted all the bigwigs at Atlantic Records. They thought "Here's a hit song we can do something with." It just switched gears without my meaning it to or wanting it to.
You need to understand that I had to go with what was there to do. On one hand, I had The Bears which were doing nothing due to circumstances. I don't mean there was anything wrong between ourselves spiritually and musically, but suddenly we were back to zero with no real support system. On the other hand, I had my first major record deal being offered to me by Atlantic Records. I did what I felt I had to do at that point. I don't regret any of it, but I wished it had worked out differently for The Bears. I wished I could have my cake and eaten it too. I wish The Bears could have continued. I wish the solo career could have been like Neil Young's where he has a little bit of both things. Sometimes you have to make these choices.
How difficult was Adrian's decision to exit The Bears for the rest of you?
BN: When we did the last Bears tour which ran six-to-eight weeks, the question became "Are we going to make any money on this thing?" Afterwards, Rob, Chris and I started talking about playing as a trio in Cincinnati. We thought we could do better without all the expenses of a higher profile tour and at least continue playing our music that way. It was a little painful to see the dream getting shelved though.
CA: I missed my drum roadie.
BN: Yeah, we were a little spoiled because it was a different level of performing. We went back to schlepping our own equipment around and all that, but the good thing is we always remained friends with Adrian. We always understood he did what he had to do.
BN: So, we said we'll continue performing in a new format. That was a cool thing.
RF: The way I look at it now is I wonder how Adrian lasted as long as he did in The Bears—especially now that I have a family of my own and realize the responsibilities that came down on him. "Oh Daddy!" was a perfect song reflecting what was going on. On Rise and Shine, there were some songs that had to do with heart-wrenching choices. Adrian wrote some pretty deep stuff for that record whereas I was writing "Aches and Pains." [laughs] I think Adrian was going through some more adult things and was being more of an adult than I was. I had nobody to look at but myself when The Bears broke up. The big change helped me grow up. It wrought some changes in my life that at the time were very painful. I felt kind of humiliated. Nobody said anything cruel to me. I just personally felt like I had blown a chance. Now, I think it's done nothing but good for me. We all remained friends through it and I was very happy to see Adrian have some success. I was very happy to get tickets to a David Bowie show and go backstage and get a free sandwich.
AB: [laughs] It was painful, but look at us now. We're here again and we remained friends. That's the deepest expression right there—your long-term friendships are the most valuable things. They speak volumes. I hate the whole thing that went on and I've always probably shouldered a bit of guilt for it. But it wasn't entirely me. It was circumstantial. It wasn't a decision I wanted to have happen by any means.
CA: The space between the first two records and the new one allowed all of us to do different stuff and make our own records so that when we got back together, the band benefited.
RF: By the time we made the new record, none of us had any personal axes to grind or things we had to prove. I don't know if it was a want or a need, but we made this record for the right reason which is to make music we love with people we love. To me, that's the ultimate thing heterosexual men can do with each other. [laughs]
AB: That's absolutely true. I had a great time making this record. Even though it was made over a long period, I always looked forward to the getting back together periods. There's always something special there. I always used to talk about The Bears during interviews in the '80s with the friendship and chemistry angle and it's true. It's interesting to me that we sound a certain way even though we don't attempt to do that anymore. We just do. When we get together, we just sound like The Bears.
Is the intent to have The Bears continue as a long-term entity?
RF: As the secretary of the band, it sure feels like an ongoing entity. We all have different occupations and day jobs. Adrian's day job is arguably the coolest because he's in King Crimson.
BN: I have a night job.
RF: Bob's job is really cool too because he sells houses. Mine's kind of shamefully cool because I'm a commercial music composer. I make music for advertising and do post-scoring for commercials.
CA: I don't have a day job. I just play music. Occasionally, I do sessions during the day.
RF: We all have other responsibilities that keep our lives afloat. The plan for The Bears is to do some promotion for the record and some concerts. If the record has legs, I think we'll become more active.
CA: By the time we did the last session for the song "Life in a Nutshell," it felt like "Okay, let's make another record." I hope we do. I felt we really hit our stride.
AB: Hopefully there will be plenty of things to do in the future. I'd like to see that happen. We do have a lot of personal responsibilities we have to take into account. I think doing it the way we're doing it with in-house recording and bare bones touring is the way to go. We can continue on and do as much as we realistically can. We discuss the band's activities once a week. We're getting focused on what The Bears can do in the short-term. In the long-term, who knows? If the record makes an impact and an audience develops or someone takes an interest and puts money behind it, the sky's the limit.
Making another record is a no-brainer. You've got these guys who can do this and have a rare chemistry and means to do it. It's one of the reasons I spent considerable time and money getting my own studio situation together. I wanted to be able to make music that doesn't necessarily even have funding—but it's still music that needs to be made. So, I think we can take The Bears as far as we want to. It's actually a little like King Crimson. You have to take it in little steps. With King Crimson, it's not bona fide, certified that we can do anything we want. We have to measure our time and responsibilities for other things. Then we come to a conclusion and say "We can do this." With The Bears, it's the same thing. Don't rush it. Don't get disheartened. Let things flow out.
Give me an update on all of your non-Bears solo activities.
CA: I just released Hostage, my first solo CD. The album came about inadvertently. I had a publishing deal in Nashville for a short time and needed to submit sonically good song demos—in other words, the four-track cassette recorder I still use at home was not cutting it. I started cranking out fairly elaborate versions that featured me playing and singing everything. When the publishing deal ended, I realized I almost had an LP's worth of tunes. Ever since hearing and loving Pete Townsend's Who Came First and Todd Rundgren's Something/Anything in 1971, I always wanted to do my own one-man-band record. So a few more tunes were finished and presto: here it is.
I also have a band called the Graveblankets and Bob plays in that band, wondefully. We've put out four CDs and with each release, there's a little more interest. The current one called Where it Hurts got reviewed in a national magazine called Performing Songwriter. Through that, I've got a lot more sales and am having airplay in Belgium of all places. Independent-minded radio stations around the country are also asking for the record. I'm also working on a new Graveblankets record. In addition, I also play in a rhythm and blues and rock band called Bluebirds at night. That's how I make mah money. I do recording sessions as well. Cincinnati has a great singer-songwriter scene and sometimes they need players with a little muscle to do sessions. Luckily, we're here to do them.
BN: I play with a fun trio here in Cincinnati called Bucket. The other guys in the band are former Raisins drummer Bam Powell, who plays an interesting percussion array that consists of frying pans, saw blades, tin cans and a five-gallon plastic bucket for a kick drum; and singer-songwriter Lee Rolfes on acoustic and electric guitar. He lives in Nashville and commutes for gigs. I play Fender fretless bass and upright in the band. Everybody sings. We do each other's songs and a handful of covers. It's a lot of fun—kind of a primitive, rootsy band. We recently began recording at my place with the intent of having something to release sometime in the summer of 2002. I'm also lucky that I've been asked to do session work for a lot of people that I respect and like. That's been a broadening thing too. It's fun dipping into different musical styles. To me, music is fun. When music stops being fun, I don't want to do it anymore. My day job as a realtor also keeps me pretty busy.
AB: Hey Bob, you asked me in an email about taking "Last chance gas" and doing something with it. I say go for it if everyone else is cool with it. It's an instrumental piece from the recent Bears sessions that we didn't finish.
CA: Fine with me.
BN: I’d love to.
AB: Okey dokey.
RF: I recently produced a new disc for a local Cincinnati singer named Lucky Spaulding. We completed six songs for the release. I'm also playing with Psychodots occasionally and I have a bunch of songs I'm writing and creating simple demos for. I can either make a new solo CD or maybe schlep these to one of the combos I'm in like my friends here. So, original pop music is part of my life. The other part that pays the bills is doing music for advertising. Recently, there has been something on ABC television. I was asked to do a version of a 1958 song called "Lollipop" for them. I can't believe they pay me to do things like that. For some reason, U.S. Bank also got me to do some bombastic Copland-esque music for them. And I found that I could do it. I guess I've listened to enough Copland. [laughs] So, it's a wide-ranging smorgasbord of stuff I get asked to do for the advertising world. It's still fun. I guess when they say I can't do it anymore, it won't be fun.
AB: Not too long ago, I discovered a fun new area to work in that's refocusing my solo writing. It's new to me, but old to everyone else. I turn on a beatbox or keyboard that can play itself and make up things to go along with it. It's a really simple approach, but it's a neat little vein I've somehow tapped into pretty strongly. I don't know what I'll come up with. It doesn't fit The Bears or Crimson, so I guess it's left to me to do something with it. I'm also making a very serious effort to do a lot of writing for the next Crimson record.
At this point in our lives, my wife Martha and I are trying to refocus everything musically and business-wise, so we can really make the most of everything we do and have at our disposal. We're excited about the different possibilities and the records that may come out in the future. We're trying to devise an Internet business strategy that works and all of those kinds of things artists have to do now if they're not a big mega-hit. All of these things take time and are slowly evolving. There's a certain amount of time we spend on The Bears. It's not a lot, but it's about trying to keep everything rolling and balanced. I think it's working pretty well. I've got my hands in a bunch of different jars at the moment, but they're all good things.
How did last April's Cincinnati race riots and the terrorist attacks of September 11 affect your personal and artistic mindsets?
CA: I was affected the same way a lot of musicians were after the events in New York City and Washington. I had previously written a song about a relationship called "Everything has Changed in an Instant." I ended up finishing it with a different focus on the lyrics. I don't know if it's a good or bad song, but I felt like I had to say something about the events, if only to myself.
In the smaller picture, I'm just happy that I can work as a musician in Cincinnati. When the city was shut down, I couldn't work. I lost all kinds of money. I'm a journeyman kind of musician just trying to make a living. It was strange to think the actions of so few affected the entire city.
RF: I think all of us had songs that were semi-finished after September 11. I had a song called "Zero" and it was about a relationship. The song suddenly seemed very trivial. I've heard every writer on NPR say the same thing. Some people just stopped writing for awhile. I changed the focus of that song, but later, I thought "I'm going to change it back and talk about two people and not take on the world."
As for being a person living in Cincinnati and knowing what the streets were like before the riots, I can actually say that things have become more civilized since. More strangers of different races are saying hello to each other on the street in downtown Cincinnati where I work.
What I've done in my life to cope with these events is to get some perspective by reading a lot of history books lately. These eyewitness to history-type books show that the barbarism of what happened is nothing new. This stuff has been going on for a long time. This knowledge doesn't diminish the magnitude and horror of it all, but it makes you realize that this has happened before and the world has gone on.
Prior to September 11, I had already written the song "As You Are" which kind of sums things up for me as far as any of that hate stuff. I don't know about heaven and hell or any of that stuff, but I think that anything you don't deal with in this life is something you will eventually deal with and face later. That could be totally untrue, but it helps me keep my sanity.
BN: Getting back to Cincinnati, when that stuff was going on, I felt like I was watching something from a different state. I live in a neighborhood that's 58 percent African-American. My neighbors and I get along fine. So, it was a really painful thing to see. It's just a situation where there's a lot economic despair in the inner city and it finally came out. It was unfortunate, but I think some good things are coming out as a result—just the fact that people are more aware of things and talking more. There's more of an awareness of the needs in the area and some programs are beginning that may improve the living conditions for a lot of people. It's not going to be a miracle overnight, but people need a little ray of hope.
As far as world events, there's a lot of pain going on. My job as a musician is to give people something positive to look at and help them forget the ugly side of life. What we can all do is lead by example. I don't consider what we do just entertainment. I think there's a message in many of our songs that's kind of uplifting. Sometimes our songs reflect despair too, but as long as they reflect human beings communicating with one another, that's a positive thing.
AB: I live in Nashville, but I grew up and lived in Cincinnati. I feel that I know the city better than any other city. It still feels like my hometown. It was pretty strange for me to watch those events unfold. I couldn't grasp them. They felt closer to home for me than September 11. With September 11, I pretty much knew very quickly that it was going to change a lot of things. What it's changed artistically is perspectives on what's important and what's not. I agree with Rob in that rather than trying to make some big global proclamation in my songwriting, I should just go back to being more personal.
Right before September 11, I was writing haiku poetry and attempting to put that into my songs. So, instead of singing three verses and a chorus, I'd just have three lines and sing them over and over in different ways. That's something I was thinking about doing. One song I wrote was called "One Day You Wake-Up and Didn't Know You Were Asleep." It's a pretty simple sentiment and that's how I felt about things. I feel like I was a little asleep until those things happened.
Strangely, I think these events shook me up in a good way. I started doing more work—maybe that's what happens when you feel overwhelmed and unable to comment otherwise. But there was a long, strange period when it seemed like the whole world stopped. No-one was doing anything. For instance, I went out and did a benefit concert and no-one showed up. I realized "No, people don't want to be entertained right now. There's a different mood in the world and country because of this." Personally, I found myself not being as interested in the mundane things I used to be interested in. I can't sit through a football game anymore and I love football. I just can't focus on it. I feel like I have to get up and do something.
You attempt to share your thoughts with other people—that's what artists do. Hopefully, that has some healing factor to it—assuming you're being true to yourself and not just trying to be a star or something. Talking about these issues isn't new for The Bears. Even in the '80s, I felt the band was trying to say humanitarian things. You had songs like "Robobo's Beef" and "Trust" which really were about terrorism and war and all the things we abhor. We speak out about these things in our songs. It's part of our character.