If VH-1’s much-hyped Behind The Music series is to be believed, greed, excess and tragedy are the ingredients of pop music success. Looks like Rob Fetters won’t be appearing on the show anytime soon. The motives behind his music have little in common with those proffered by the self-proclaimed television music authority. After nearly two decades as a professional musician, the Cincinatti-based singer-guitarist’s raison d’être remains consistent: the simple joy of writing, recording and performing for his own amusement.
It’s a simple enough concept, but one Fetters’ friends and family have had difficulty accepting. And that’s understandable. With most of the public engulfed by a media tidal wave emphasizing tall tales of drama and trauma, honesty in the arts is now a concept often considered dubious or just plain boring. It’s a topic Fetters approaches with bemusement in this openhearted conversation with Innerviews.
Fetters is best known for his integral role in three endearingly quirky power-pop bands during the ‘80s and ‘90s: The Raisins, The Bears and Psychodots. Combining playful and intelligent lyrics, superb musicianship and inventive arrangements, each act received its share of regional acclaim, with brief flourishes in the national spotlight. The groups shared line-ups featuring combinations of Fetters, guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew, drummer/vocalist Chris Arduser and bassist Bob Nyswonger. Psychodots continue as a part-time entity and The Bears are threatening to come out of hibernation, but Fetters’ emphasis now resides on his solo career.
Fetters’ self-released debut Lefty Loose – Righty Tight is an album that could motivate passionate debate in both music magazines and psychotherapy journals. Is it an album proclaiming the joy of defeat or the feat that is joy? It serves as an open-ended, enigmatic look into his psyche and circumstances. Throughout, he poses other questions to himself and listeners including: What does success really mean? Do I have to answer to anyone but myself? What’s the price of compromise?
It’s weighty subject matter indeed. But while Lefty Loose – Righty Tight may be an intelligent release, it’s not overtly intellectual. All listeners require is an appreciation of carefully crafted songs steeped in irony, hilarity and fun. Like all his previous band releases, this is accessible music that’s unafraid to take offbeat detours. The songs combine an XTC-meets-The-Beatles-meets-Talking-Heads sensibility with a hint of inspired, Zappa-esque lunacy.
A description of Fetters’ music is incomplete without mentioning his guitarwork. From raging wailing to intricate acoustic picking, he’s able to deliver like few players can. And most importantly, his chops never come at the expense of an evolved melodic sensibility.
Although Fetters is an artist committed to honesty in his craft, he’s also committed to feeding his young family of five. He’s unapologetic and unashamed of having a day job. Luckily for him, it’s one that contributes significantly to his musical evolution. He’s employed as a composer and producer at Sound Images, a renowned commercial music studio in Cincinnati that specializes in post-scoring television ads. The apparent contradiction of following his heart versus working for the man isn’t lost on Fetters either. But more on that later. We began our conversation by addressing the most obvious question.
How autobiographical are Left Loose – Righty Tight’s lyrics?
I don't know if they are totally. I take liberties and artistic license to pull a rhyme out of my head, but it definitely deals with some things career-wise that I had to come to grips with. It’s funny, when I sent a copy to one of my sisters, she was really upset and thought I was suicidal or something. But the reality is that I couldn’t have made it if I was really unhappy. I had got through a very unhappy part of my life and the songs kinda reflect that. If I’m sitting in the middle of hell, I usually don't write a song about it that’s any good. What I write about is "Gee, that was an interesting trip and I survived." [laughs]
What was "the trip" you were on?
I think the fact is that I’ve struggled as a songwriter—one who gets paid for it. Most of what I do is pure pleasure—playing guitar, writing songs, playing in a band and just being a musician to me are things I always wanted to do since I was 12 or 13 and that in itself I’m very grateful for. The fact that fame and fortune don’t necessarily come from being a musician is what you have to deal with. Lefty Loose – Righty Tighty deals with that.
So, this is the album of an enlightened man, not a defeated man?
I think there was enlightenment in there. I know there is that one song "Career Move" on the record. When I was recording that, I did a lot of the music on my own. But when I did the vocals, I did it with an engineer and he said "Jesus, Fetters, where are you going with this?" [laughs] I said "It’s about the death of the wrong desires—giving up satisfying other people. Giving up trying to control something that I absolutely can’t control and instead realizing ‘Gee, I can take this thing by the horns and live my life according my terms—life's terms—and really be happy.’" Took him awhile to get it. But back to my sister, she thought I was horribly despondent when she heard the record and I said "I put the lyrics in there, so read them all." She called back like two hours later and said "Oh, I see. You're fine." [laughs] So, I guess it can hit you a couple of different ways.
I pegged three themes that come up throughout the record. The first is the idea of realizing the "American dream" and/or the "Hollywood dream."
I’ve got a lot of friends in the arts—photographers, graphic artists and dozens of musicians. Sometimes, I would feel worse about not being a huge rock star for them. They would come up to me and say "You deserve this, you deserve that" and I felt I don’t deserve anything other than the joy I’m having. I think they’re sometimes perplexed, especially the people I know in the real world—real adults working for a mutual funds or software company and finally making some big bucks. I’d have dinner with them and I think they felt guilty about their success because they look at me as being a struggling musician. I never really felt like a struggling musician. I knew what I was doing was hard and I certainly watched a lot of people melt down. But just because something is hard doesn’t make it bad or unpleasant. It’s challenging and fun. To me, success is also friends that I trust and love. And as I’ve grown up, success to me now is "Gee, I’ve got a bunch of kids and are they happy? Do my kids like me? Do I like them?" [laughs] Those are the things that define life success to me.
What about the "Hollywood dream" references?
I think of Hollywood as showbiz—as being a performing musician. I use that as an allegory. I've just always been into Hollywood mythology and it’s probably fascinating to everyone how a movie star lives. It goes back to the classic thing—a veneer. You see their lives onscreen, it looks fabulous and wonderful, but then you read their biographies—I've just read a slew—and it’s unbelievable the torture that some of these people have lived through. But I also have to say that I’ve read Hollywood biographies that are just hilarious and great like David Niven’s. I think he really enjoyed his life and movie stardom. So, I just think the Hollywood dream is a fantasy and I’ve always been kind of drawn to it like "Oh, if I get rich and famous, everything will be okay." But life’s not that simple. I know I'm a Midwesterner, but I have a lot of relatives who live in California. Throughout my life I’ve gone out there and it’s just another world. It’s great, but I’m sorry it eats people alive. I never stay long enough to be eaten. I go back to the cornfields. [laughs]
The next theme is the fact that you’re content with the place you’re at.
Yeah. Just saying that is uncomfortable. It has to do with where we're at in history, technologically speaking. We’re in a wonderful time when for a few thousand bucks, a person can buy recording equipment and make a record in their own house. Lefty Loose was mostly recorded in the breakfast nook of an arts and crafts bungalow in Cincinnati. I had a little living room with A-DAT digital recorders and good processing, as well as a couple of vintage pieces to make things sound good when they hit digital tape. That in itself is so wonderful. I’m able to make songs whenever I want and put them on tape and release them on a CD. It’s really cheap and there’s a whole lot of people doing it that absolutely suck, but that doesn’t bother me. If they’re having fun, it’s okay. Making a record 15 or 20 years ago was so hard. You had to either put up a bunch of money and go in a real recording studio or sign a whole lot of rights away and be under the scrutiny of a whole bunch of people and quickly make a record. If you’re good at it, that kind of pressure can bring out the best in you. But sometimes, it’s better to just be left alone and allowed to blossom. Only recently has the average Joe been able to do that. The Beatles were doing it which is why they created great music in the '60s. They pulled off the road and wrote and created in the studio and had unlimited time.
With Lefty Loose, some of those songs are second or third takes. I might have done a huge, full-blown recording and said "This sucks. It’s too bombastic and big" and just started over and it didn’t really cost anything except for a few dollars of tape and the time I spent. But I don’t think you’re ever wasting time because you learn as you go. This all reminds me of my mom before she had a bunch of kids. She was a commercial artist and painted as a hobby. I always saw the great satisfaction she got when she’d whip out her watercolors and paint a picture. It’d be really good and she’d have it matted and framed and we’d have it in the house. She was happy. She didn’t care if she sold it or not. She wanted to give it to one of her kids or sisters or something. I almost feel that some point about my records. If I did have enough money I would give them away. With Lefty, I thought that I might just press it up and just have them put a phone number on the website and say "Call here if you want one." [laughs] "Just send a self-addressed stamped box and I’ll put one in the mail for you." To me, that would be the ultimate subversion of the recording industry. It would be radical. I don’t think I’m the first person who has thought of it, but I’d love to do it. I couldn’t do it though because I used some people on the album who expected to get some money back.
The other major theme is the use of God and religion in several songs.
I believe in God. I’m not a church-going person. I don’t darken the door of any church. I just don’t. [laughs] But I have a lot of friends who are very spiritual and in my family there have been some people too. My grandfather was a wonderfully spiritual person and it’s not just what they say, but the way they live their lives. I’ve become convinced that God is acting in their lives and they’re in tune with it and I can do the same. I can go there and it’s a good place to go—a good thing to believe in. I’ve got a cynical, jaundiced view of religion per se, but I know people who adhere to religious beliefs and they’re wonderful people. It seems it’s the noisy assholes that ruin it. I probably shouldn’t pay attention to them, but sometimes I probably do. So, yeah, I kind of live my life as though I’m not the boss or leader of the band. The real boss is God.
Any particular God?
I'm a Christian who believes Jesus was a very enlightened human being. I have no idea whether everything in the bible is factual or made up. I don’t think Jesus is the only way to God. I think other people can find God through any number of means. A fundamentalist Christian would jump on this—this is what they do when I talk to them about it. They say "You’re going for the convenient parts of Jesus that you like." But Apostle John said "God is love and to know love is to know God." I believe that with my kids, when you’re in tune with your child and see this amazing thing—a birth—it gives you an amazing perspective of what love is and how powerful it is and if that’s God then I believe in God. But the idea that God is someone who curses you and sends you to hell—I don’t buy it and that’s just my own personal belief. I don’t personally believe the devil is tromping around earth controlling things. I believe it’s people’s pride, ego and self-centeredness that’s kind of tromping.
There’s a line in "Career Move" that mentions "the lies you admitted to." What were they?
I do some inside spiritual work with some people—friends I know. One of the things we do in an organized fashion is make an inventory of lies and crimes we’ve committed, whether they’re crimes like breaking in a house or being dishonest in our lives. It’s a confessional and you only do it with one person you trust. If you have a secret, they’ll keep the secret. The idea of doing a confession is very old, but I had never done that in my whole life. I never really told anyone the whole truth about me and when I did that with a person, it really freed me up. I had no idea this stuff was subconsciously eating at me. So, I did a complete, organized confession and left nothing out. It was just a great experience and it has been part of my development as an adult human being. I did it for the first time in 1989 and I do it from time-to-time when things just come up. I’ve learned that I think things that are really rotten and when you do that, you think you’re getting away with it, but what it’s really doing is corrupting your spirit. It’s a kind of a crippling effect to walk around with a resentment about somebody—to walk around not forgiving somebody for some harm you perceive they’ve done to you.
We spoke when you toured with Adrian Belew in support of his Inner Revolution release. You said the Psychodots were on the verge getting signed to Epic Records. You then told me "But we’re used to things not happening" and they didn’t. That experience is also reflected on the record.
I think a lot of musicians do bitterly complain about this or that, but the fact is sometimes things don’t work out the way you planned. I thought on this record I would just say it. I would just say what I’d say to my wife, rather than try to be somebody that I wasn’t or say "Hey, let’s look at it from the sunny side of the street." [laughs] It happened to rhyme in that song "Salamander" ["Then you’ll know just how I feel/I can’t buy a record deal"] which literally started from where I lived. My son and I were in the backyard rooting around as we like to do and we picked up a rock and there was just a bunch of little red salamanders there. It was cold and they were kinda sleepy and we just started talking about them and that was a pretty mundane happenstance that turned into a minute–and-a-half song.
What sort of reaction has your band and solo material generated from major label A&R departments?
Well, it's always been interesting. I've never personally taken a record into a record company and said "Listen to this Mister! Give me a deal!" We've always made records independently and if they start getting some airplay locally, some people start saying "Hey, this is really good" and hand it off to a manager or representative and it goes to A&R departments at record companies. In my life, I’ve received dozens—I don't know if it’s a hundred yet— of rejections and I stopped reading them a long time ago. My business representative Stan Hertzman shopped Lefty Loose last fall and spring. The rejections were pretty interesting because usually, you just get a rejection and with Lefty, they listened to it and felt compelled to write letters and a lot of them went "I really like or love this record…" and they'd name a song or two and then they'd say "but we don't know how to sell this record, so we're not going to sign you." I thought that was kind of nice.
"But we don’t know how to sell this record?" What does that mean anyway? I’ve never understood that part of those letters.
Oh, I have no idea. It's really weird. I really don't know what they're talking about. I know how to sell it at a local level in Cincinnati.
It’s ridiculous. After all, how do they sell a Beck or a Björk?
[laughs] I don't know. But I’m glad they do. It's a weird thing and the other thing I can only say is it hasn't happened yet. Nothing would surprise me at this point. Maybe something will happen and if it did it might be really great, but I don't know. For the last two years, I've been pretty much a full-time commercial music composer. I do music for advertising, post-scoring for commercials and I really like it. It’s fun and it can be subversive in its own way. I can rip-off my own stuff and use it in there and actually get paid for it. It’s given me a whole lot of freedom. I get paid fairly well for it and I can support my family. I don’t have to think "I’m gonna die if I don’t get a record deal or I don’t get the gig." It’s given me some freedom in that area and it’s interesting that I think "God, if someone picked up Lefty Loose – Righty Tight and said ‘Okay, we want to put you on the road for awhile and promote this thing,’" it’s possible that I could be a cantankerous musician and say "Gee, I don’t know if I want to do that right now." [laughs] A lot of it has to do with the fact that I have four small children and I think they need a dad around a lot. It’s interesting. I don’t stay awake at night thinking "What if?" because there’s enough going on in my life.
Have you ever considered the lack of national fame as a blessing in disguise in that it enabled you to be a better father?
Yeah, I am so lucky. My whole life I’ve had to travel to perform and make money and now I can stay in one spot. Every now and then, like when we’re working on this new Bears record, I have to be away in Nashville, but not more than a day or three, maybe four at the most. To be a dad, you have to be present. There are things you can do like write letters and make phone calls. My Dad was an insurance salesman and he worked so many nights and I didn’t really know him. I really wanted to know him. He was a great dad and I have no complaints about him, but I think it would have been nice if we could have spent more time together. Then again, maybe I was a brat and he didn’t want to spend time with me. [laughs]
One of the album’s more entertaining moments is "Retrofit Your Infrastructure." Its lyrics caught me off guard.
[laughs] I got "Retrofit Your Infrastructure" from a company in San Diego that I read about that had a solution to bridge failure during earthquakes. They have a composite method of wrapping bridge columns. I think my uncle had some info on this and bought stock in the company a few years ago because he lives in Northridge. They’re building things so maybe your house won’t collapse on you next time during a tremor or a 7.5 Richter scale earthquake. They call that process "retrofitting the infrastructure" of a highway or a building. I just thought "Yeah! It almost sounds sexual. I’d like to retrofit your infrastructure." [laughs] It definitely sounds like "I wanna fuck with your brain." That just stuck in my head and I was playing this song that sounded like it was from the hills of Kentucky and the lyrics just came to me. A lot of people think it’s a very weird, bizarre song. It’s nice to play live because it has a big musical set up which goes for awhile and suddenly this lyric appears out of nowhere.
Let’s discuss your jingle work at Sound Images. How do you reconcile…
…the utter prostitution of doing something like that? [laughs] Here’s the thing. I’m a competent musician, so I’ve been called in to do a lot of studio session work which is great because it helps make the ends meet. If someone asks me play on a session, I do it and sometimes it was very unpleasant and sometimes it was fun, but I would always get a paycheck out of it. I kind of slid into it in a weird way. I always thought I would hate to do this for a living, but I became friends with a commercial composer in town doing a lot of national commercial work. He’s a classically trained pianist with a huge knowledge of synthesizers and computer technology that goes into doing modern commercial music. I knew nothing about sequencing. I used guitar synth for many years, but didn’t know how it worked. I was interested in what he was doing and he showed me the technology. I’m a technophobe and if I don’t know how to turn on a computer, I don’t want to go near it—I might break it or something like that. So, I was playing around with his stuff and he said "I cant break this computer. Just play around with this sequencer." I did it and I loved it and it was really just fun. The first day he let me loose on it, I wrote most of the music for "My Life In Advertising." I just said "Oh, this is creepy here. I’ll do this and I’ll and that and I’ll add a little orchestral percussion here and see how ugly I can make it sound." I was just playing and having a blast.
My friend moved to Los Angeles and the company [in Cincinnati] needed a replacement. They started getting resumes from all over North America from great musicians willing to move to Cincinnati to have a full-time composer job. I told the guy there "I think I’d like to have a shot at this" and the first thing to come out of his mouth was "This isn’t really what you want to do." I said "What’s to stop me from writing songs? What I’ll do is come to work and pick up a guitar and if you tell me to write something, I’ll write it and if fall on my face, I fall on my face." So, I took a crash course on the computer and synth technology and did a couple of post-scores where you do a commercial and it has time code on the commercial and your music software has time code too, so you lock into it. During my first post-score, I thought "My God, this is like doing a movie!" And it really is. It’s like scoring a movie, only it’s 30 seconds long which is perfect for me because I have a very short attention span. I don’t really want to work on something 90 minutes long. I like pop songs that are three minutes long. I like things that happen succinctly. It was just so much fun to write music that hit points in the picture. It’s like a puzzle. You have no idea what you’re going to come up with that’s gonna work, but somehow it does work. I just loved it and I haven’t stopped loving it.
What sorts of personalities do you encounter when working in advertising?
I thought I was gonna get a lot of stuffed suits that didn’t know anything about music telling me what to do. Sometimes I get that, but more often it’s creative directors—very artsy people working in the commercial world. Some of the film directors are first rate and do very cool work. On the other hand, I think people in advertising will tell you "We’re the cutting edge… blah, blah, blah." They’re very quick to pat themselves on the back about how innovative they are. But almost always in my experience we are borrowing from where real pop music is. You’ll hear something great in advertising but it’s because "Oh, we want you to sound a little like Garbage" and you’ll go "Okay. Yeah, alright." But it’s very educational and the fact that it’s so interesting makes it fun. I’m learning about technology and on Lefty Loose, there are a lot of sequenced things I used— stuff The Bears, Raisins and Psychodots never used. I used sampled loops and things that two years ago I didn’t know how to do. It’s fun. I guess that’s how I reconcile it. It’s fun to write music on demand and get paid for it. It just opens up a huge realm of creativity I never used before. I was always worried about writing songs with lyrics that actually meant something. It seems so ridiculous to me that I could actually be paid to do some of the music that I do. Right now, I’m working on some music for a sea lions show at Sea World. [laughs] They flew me to San Diego to meet the stars and get the idea of what it’s like backstage so I could make music that’s very flexible for walruses, otters and sea lions. I’ll be working on the otter theme and the walrus theme and you know somehow I’ll try to get some cellos in there—just a bit of John Lennon, just a tiny bit.
What are some of the more prominent ads you’ve worked on?
I haven’t done a whole lot of national ones. I did a couple of Starkist Tuna commercials, one for Totes gloves and I’m working on stuff for Millstone coffee and Sea World. I’ve done a slew for Cincinnati Bell and I do a bunch of stuff for ABC—some promotions for The Drew Carey Show and Dharma and Greg. I got a whole lot of work at ABC because one of the promo producers there was a Raisins fan and they used "Fear Is Never Boring" behind a commercial as backing music. It wasn’t like they built the spot around the music. It wasn’t like seeing a Nike commercial using "Revolution" and gagging. It was just music in the background like they had the radio on or something. They had to pay a royalty and I wrote the guy a letter and said "Thanks" and kinda became friends over the phone and they tossed us more work.
What does music for a typical national ad cost?
It is all over the place. I’m sure there are ones that go up to maybe $50,000. Most of the national stuff I do—I don’t get all this money mind you—the music budget is maybe $15,000-20,000 and that covers all the creative stuff and studio. It gets eaten up somehow. There is big money in it if they use a song like "Everyday People" by Sly Stone for Toyota—millions I would guess. Same for that awful "Like A Rock" by Bob Seger. [used in a car ad]
The rumor is the Psychodots broke up. Yet, you’re still gigging occasionally and there’s a new record out. Are you in denial?
Yeah. [laughs] That record [Official Bootleg] was recorded to DAT from stereo mics two years ago at a show by some fans and they wanted to share it with other people. Dots fans are really nice. They don’t want to rip us off in any way, so they wanted to see if it was okay to do it. I think what they wanted to do was charge $5 or $10 apiece for production to press these things up. Stan Hertzman, the president of Strugglebaby Recording Company, heard the tape and said "Hey, why don’t we just put it out and call it an official bootleg?" It has warts and all, but it was a pretty good performance and that’s why it came out. The ‘Dots just stopped slugging it out every weekend and everyone had other things going on. So we all pursued our own things, but every now and then we like to play together. Chris [Arduser] and I play together in the studio fairly frequently. And over the last year, the three of us have been going down to Nashville to work on the new Bears record with Adrian [Belew].
Why not use board DATs instead of audience DATs for the official bootleg?
We have lots of tapes but the people determined that record come out the way it did. It was really the fans—they really like this rough sounding stuff. These are gems for them. They are much happier with an imperfect performance from us than a perfect one. You’d have to ask them why, but if they have a complaint about our recorded stuff, it’s that we try to get everything right. They like it when we screw up. [laughs] It’s a great joy in their life when I forget the lyrics to a song I have written. They think that’s hilarious. Me? I want to crawl under a rock.
Why did you feel the band ran its course as a full time entity?
We made three CDs and there were still a lot of things going on. I started working full time at this new career and I couldn’t play every weekend. I had to have some time with the kids and I think at that point we had done a lot of work and we had to stop playing with each other. A whole lot of bands will go through long periods of time without seeing each other and no-one says "They’ve broken up." The Stones must have gone two or three years at a time without working and no-one said "They’ve broken up." They just said "We’re not touring." I love these guys. [Arduser and Nyswonger] We’re not feuding at all. We all had other things we wanted to do for awhile. There is only so much energy you have. Chris has since released three CDs with his band The Graveblankets. He’s busily churning those out and Bob is playing in a couple of other bands, plus we’re doing this Bears thing. So, I dunno. The fact is we were playing really well, but the ‘Dots weren’t really drawing a whole lot of people. We weren’t drawing zero people though.
What was the turnout like before the band stopped?
I think when we said "Hey, we’re gonna stop doing this" it galvanized people. They came out to see us, but there were some nights when we would play to like 50 people and I think it annoyed us, although we’ve had some great gigs when there has been nobody there. Some of the best gigs we ever had were during snowstorms when all we’re doing is playing for fun.
I’m surprised that local legends like the Psychodots could draw so few people.
I don’t even know what it’s like to be a local legend because I feel in this town I’m so familiar to a lot of people. A whole lot of people just say hi and start talking to me about some gig. It’s so natural. It’s no big deal. They’re not getting down on their knees and praising me or anything like that. They just talk to me like a normal human being. If they are just in awe or anything like that, I try to put that to rest pretty quickly.
What was the impetus for The Bears reunion?
When The Bears stopped playing, there wasn’t any acrimony. Adrian [Belew] made a solo record [1989’s Mr. Music Head] and it turned out he had a hit single on it. He toured with a couple of his friends that were older friends than we were—Mike Hodges and Rick Fox. In the middle of that tour, David Bowie saw them and said "I want you guys to be my backing band for my tour" and they said "Oooooh, okay, we’ll do that!" [laughs] That happened and kinda helped stop the Bears in their tracks. We weren’t going on a world tour or anything. We were a band without a label that needed to do a whole lotta work to even get back on one. At that point, Chris and Bob and I started playing and writing songs together because we didn’t have anything else to do. So, everyone survived that transition and we all remained friends.
How frustrating was the break-up for you?
It was pretty frustrating for me. I was pretty depressed about it, but I think I wrote some really good songs coming out of it for the first Psychodots record. "Master of Disaster" was going to be a really good east meets west Bears song. You just move on. Yeah, It was bad, but it wasn’t bad like someone in the band got hit by a bus. It just meant we couldn’t play as The Bears anymore. Adrian at that time with his young family desperately needed to have some income too. The Bears were doing okay, but he needed to make a big mortgage payment and stuff like that, so when he had an opportunity to make a bunch of money I couldn’t fault him. But we always stayed in touch and called each other from time to time. I am an Adrian Belew fan. I love his guitar playing and I think the reason we started playing again was I went through a period where I hadn’t written any songs for six months—not a single song. I felt like I needed some kinda catalyst and he said the same thing—"I haven’t written any songs." I said "Why don’t we spend a weekend and write some songs?" So, I went down to his house and we wrote "Try," "The Blame Game" and others in just a couple of days. He has A-DATs and a nice studio in his house and we recorded the basic tracks. I took those tracks home and that’s how they found their way onto my record. It was so much fun to do and so effortless that Adrian later said "Why don’t we just try to do a Bears record?" Again, what’s happening is that to do a Bears record now is so much easier than it was ten years ago. Now, we don’t need to go into someone’s expensive studio. Adrian has a studio, I have a little ADAT studio, and I work in a bigger studio. We can do most of this recording without getting a recording tab and do it at our own pace. It might be three years before we have a record out. Every time we have a free weekend we can get together to write a song or two and record them.
How does the new Bears material compare to the old stuff?
It sounds like The Bears. [laughs] There’s something that happens. The difference I would say is that we have more Chris Arduser songs and Chris is singing. The Bears used to be a two-man vocal band. The Bears are now definitely a three-part harmony band and it’s neat.
Is the group searching for a label or planning on going indie?
I think we’ll put it out on our own. I think there’ll be a Japanese release of it too whenever it’s done. But everything can change. There’ll be some way we get it out and I hope we do some gigs. I imagine we’ll play a few.
You spoke earlier about your admiration for Belew the guitarist. What’s your opinion of Belew the drummer?
I love the way he plays drums. He’s very swingy—a very loose, swingy drummer. As far as the stuff he’s worked on with me on Lefty Loose—he’s supported the songs. He’s really in tune. He’s not trying to make a statement like "Hey, I’m a mighty drummer." He plays to the song. He’s got that kind of Ringo sensibility which is really great.
While playing with The Bears, and supporting Belew on his Inner Revolution and Here tours, did you ever feel you were standing in his shadow onstage?
I think I probably am you know. Obviously, Adrian is a rock star guitarist more than I am. I think it’s pretty hard to be 50/50 in anything. That’s something I can easily live with. He’s a great guitar player and if I can play in a band with him and hold my own, that means I’m a good guitar player too. [laughs] I don’t think you get better as a musician by playing with lesser people. Adrian can also sing like a bird. My vocal range is much more limited, but sometimes when we’re singing harmonies, I feel like I’m Ginger Rogers and he’s Fred Astaire. Fred was the best dancer, but Ginger looked pretty damn good dancing with him. [laughs] It’s a wonderful experience to play with a guitar player that is just state-of-the-art balls-out fantastic and Adrian is. He plays like no-one else and that’s a really cool thing. If someone perceives I’m standing in the shadow, it doesn’t bug me. He’s such a nice guy. This is a guy I could gig with whole night and never get a solo or spotlight. But he’s always been very insistent that I do and he’ll actually physically step back into the darkness so I’ll get my shot. That’s a pretty generous thing.
How did you first hook up with Belew?
The Raisins played in Nashville a lot where Adrian was living and he saw us play. He was a Raisins fan and we met that way. I had no idea who he was or what he was. He was just some guy we talked to at gigs. It came up that he was a guitar player and we had some things in common. I remember he was recording something in Cincinnati and needed a flanger, so I lent him mine and it just went from there. His star kinda rose and early on, he was into recording techniques—something I aspired to. That’s why he started producing us. He knew more about the process.
How have your guitar skills evolved since your days with The Raisins?
I think I was more bombastic and I can still do that bombast, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become a better rhythm guitarist and I think it’s wider. There’s so much to learn about playing guitar. I use many more alternate tunings and am more open to learning from other guitar players—especially those who aren’t wildly technically proficient but sound great. Musical chops don’t impress me like they used to. I care if people are communicating with their instrument.
What’s coming up for you during the rest of 1999?
Well, I’ve moved into an old Victorian house that needs a lot of paint and trimwork. I’m raising my family and I want to run the first Cincinnati marathon in May. I want to stay on this technological learning curve because things change so fast and it’s so much fun if you’re not afraid of it. I want to finish this Bears record by spring. I want to start working on my next record and possibly finish it by the end of 1999. And before the year 2000, I want to find a cure for leukemia, cancer and asthma.