John Thomas Griffith of Cowboy Mouth: Back in the 80s the Red Rockers were on tour with (I think) the Go-Go's. We played what was then the Opryland USA theme park outside of Nashville. They had cut a big circle of the original floor of the old Ryman Auditorium stage and inlaid it into the stage of new Grand Ole Opry. And the mic was right there in the middle of the circle.
I remember calling my mom after the concert on a payphone backstage. I just said, "Mom…" I was kind of tearing up. Because I knew she would be super proud of that. I grew up on the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. I called her and told her, "Guess what I just did? I just played the Grand Ole Opry."
When you're standing in that circle… I don't want to be weird about it, but you do feel a magic. There is something poignant about being in that little circle and all the people that have stood there before you. That's a lot of weight. I'm so grateful that I got that opportunity to stand there in the circle.
Cris Cohen: You've talked repeatedly about the importance of knowing what not to play. How do you teach the absence of something, of "not hitting this rack tom at this moment" kind of thing?
Sandy Gennaro: It comes from the song. Everything I teach in my lessons is geared towards song performance. And part of song performance is playing what you need to play, or not playing what you do not need to play. In other words, if there is space in the original song, you leave that space there. Space does not exist for you to fill it on the drums.
When I audition to play a song live, I try to play exactly what's on the record, and not any more. I'd rather be asked to play more than play too busy and be asked to play less. That's the kiss of death for anybody in an audition, to show all of his drummer chops. You play what you need to play, and less is more.
Don't ever make it necessary for an artist to say, "Don't play so much." Play what's needed for the song and respect the song. It's not about you as a drummer. You're not playing in a cocoon. You're playing on stage with three, four, or five other people. You’re a team and part of that teamwork is to support the vocal, the person on the microphone. Cyndi Lauper always said to me, "Don't ever play anything that's going to step on my vocal." She was a great teacher when it came to songs.
I listened to that. I listened to Tom Dowd when he told me, "If the feel does not fit the song, no matter how well executed it is, it's not worth the paper it's written on. Save it for your clinics. Save it for your drum solo."
If it doesn't fit the song, don't play it.
Cris Cohen: One thing that jumped out at me was the opening of the title track, "Prison of Life." There's that line, "It takes reason to understand pain." You could write a whole dissertation on that line alone. Do lyrics like that just come to you or does that take effort to find a way to express so much in so few words?
Guitar Gabby of The TxLips: Things like that kind of just come to me. Growing up I didn't intentionally get into philosophy. But when I got to my undergrad, I was required to take a philosophy class. I was like, "I really don't want to take that." But I had one teacher who made the world of philosophy make so much sense to me. From that point, I continued reading different types of philosophy and trying to figure out a way to apply that to how I look at life, how I look at the world around me. Then I started integrating some of that reasoning into my music in a simple way that could connect with somebody who may not be into philosophy or be into Nietzsche. By this point, it's become natural, because I read so much philosophy and try to figure out a way to integrate it into how I look at the world around me.
Cris Cohen: The song “Beneath The Zenith,” when was that crafted? I know it is not about our current situation. But when it has lyrics like, “There is no cure for our disease,” that really jumps out at you in the time of a pandemic. I think it speaks to the fact that songs can fit different times and in different ways. How long ago did you write that song?
John Easdale of Dramarama: That is probably one of the more recent songs that I wrote, but it certainly had nothing to do with actual illness. It was more about our addiction to screens, advertising, and technology.
Cris Cohen: How do you personally balance that? Because you said in one interview that there is a good side, in that music fans are not limited to a very narrow channel where a few tastemakers decide who gets to hear what. But “Beneath The Zenith” talks about the difficulties and challenges to this new heavy-on-tech life. As a musician, as an artist, where does that put you in terms of pro or con?
John Easdale: I will be honest with you. I think it has a lot to do with being older, and looking back and thinking, "Oh, it was better in the old days." I remember when gas was less than $1 a gallon. We only had seven channels. Like that Dana Carvey Saturday Night Live character. “And we liked it that way.” We used to have a record and we had to put a needle on it, and that was good enough. So, there is that side to it.
But the availability of everything and the choices out there makes it the best of all possible worlds in a sense. I personally question some of the things that are out there, but that is just me. There are things that are available that… maybe it would be better if they were not so easily procured. I often think of how hard it was for me as a young man to have to sneak around and try to find my father's Playboy books that showed half a nipple or something. It blew my mind. Whereas a 13-year-old boy now, what he can see by looking on the internet, that would really blow a person's mind, so to speak.
The other part that I find daunting and kind of sad in a way is that, because of the number of choices and what is available, it kind of dilutes what breaks through into the mainstream or into people's lives. There used to be 100 bands, each with a record that sold one million copies. Now there are one million bands selling 100 records each.
You used to have to wait until a movie came on television before there were VHS, DVD, and now streaming. Now you can watch any movie you want, anytime you want. You can hear any song you want, anytime you want. And I think there is something to be said for that. It is great and it is wonderful. But at the same time, too much is too much.
And again, that is just me as an old man looking back on it.
Also, for my generation, everybody listened to rock and roll. It was what everybody did, and it was what everybody cared about. Now, because of the choices out there, I don't think it is as important to everybody as it was when I was growing up.
Cris Cohen: I don't know. I want to think music is still, in general, important to people. But yes, it is diluted, as you said.
John Easdale: Yes. And again, it is wonderful to have those choices. But it is sad to me to see rock and roll go on to the back burner, so to speak. Music, I think, is important to everybody. And it is one of the last connections we have to magic in our lives.
John Papa Gros: When Hurricane Katrina blasted through Louisiana, the Gulf Coast, our levees failed, our city got flooded, it got destroyed. So many people were out there asking, "Why do we need to put money back into New Orleans? It's just going to flood again. Why do we need to have New Orleans?" It was at that point that my life changed. I no longer was a musician trying to make a living playing New Orleans music — I became a cultural ambassador showing why New Orleans is important to the rest of the world. From Europe to Japan and all across the States, my mission was and is to showcase how important New Orleans is, how important our food is, how influential our culture is, how we use our music and our food to celebrate life. That hasn't changed in hundreds of years, and there's a good reason for that. It's because we do it really well (laughs). New Orleans is the city I love, and I'll always go to bat for her.
Cris Cohen: You have a very subtle touch with the guitar. Is that just your personality coming through? Was it a conscious choice, your particular approach to the guitar?
John Hall: I would like to say it's totally my own choice. But, you know, I'm not the shreddiest guy in the world. I've played some pretty complicated leads. Some of the early Orleans stuff was, I think, pretty athletic lead playing by me and my partner Larry Hoppen. But I really think of the guitar as a melodic instrument. And I try to play like a singer would sing or play it like a sax player would play. I've always found that one develops a more interesting style -- to my ear -- by imitating other instruments. Just listening to guitar players, you'll wind up playing kind of the same notes that everybody else plays. But I've done a lot of listening to everybody from Michael Brecker and David Sanborn and to Junior Walker. Playing Junior Walker sax licks on the guitar is a very cool thing. I mean, look, I don't play like John Coltrane, but I listened to him. And I think everything that I listened to it comes out in my music. I try to do what I do best. And what I do best is not shredding. It's playing melodic leads.
Cris Cohen: You have been recording songs, but with people in multiple locations, because of the pandemic. While I understand the challenges in that, I'm curious, have there been any advantages to that?
John Hall: There are disadvantages and advantages. I still prefer and will probably always prefer playing music with other people in the same room. But being able to record with somebody in another state, or another country even, will continue to be an advantage because it eliminates the travel needs. Somebody who is very busy can actually record… well, the new Orleans Christmas album. There’s a song “I Wish I Could Have Been There” that Bill Payne of Little Feet played keyboard on. He has played on all kinds of great records, with everybody from the Doobie Brothers, who he is currently on tour with, to Leftover Salmon. He's an amazing player. I sent him the track for the song. He recorded his piano at home, sent it back to me, and we mixed it in the studio here. And it sounds great. So those things now are possible and will continue to be done by recording artists, musicians, producers.
John Pierce (on writing the Huey Lewis & The News song "While We're Young"): This is the truth. Every day, I will at least attempt to write something for the band. Every day. So my batting average is like one for about 7,300. I don't know. It's not a great percentage. But I had this idea… I remember I was in San Francisco. We had a corporate show and I was on my way to the gig. And some guy was just yelling at somebody, “Come on! While we're young!” And I thought, wait a minute. “While We're Young.” That would be good for an aging rock band. And so I played with it and found a little piece of music. I played it in the car and tried to sing, to get something going. Ultimately, Huey invited me down to play a little golf. We played golf, had a couple of cocktails, and then I felt secure enough to play Huey my idea. Which is scary by the way. Because you really want him to like it. And he got it, the hook. He understood it. Then he came up with this separate verse concept. For him, it was a very different type of melody.
Cris Cohen: What makes for a good solo?
Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds: You have just got to phrase it and draw people in. You don't do that by playing a zillion miles an hour for a whole solo, for five verses. If you can't get it done in one verse, you can't get it done. It's that simple. You don't ever take more than two verses, ever. Unless you're playing an instrumental. Don't ever take more than two verses on a solo. You're telling a story, you're phrasing it. And you're getting the sound. In order to get the sound, you have to really back off of the instrument. That's where you're going to get your optimum sound. And then when you do, you're accomplishing a couple different things. You're getting the optimum sound, and you still have headroom to get a different sound if you hit it harder. And when you back off of it, you're able to execute things that you're not able to execute if you're blowing your face off all the time.