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The (Second or Third) Popdose Interview with Marshall Crenshaw

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In terms of songwriting ability, Marshall Crenshaw is a god among men. The “Someday Someway” author has penned some of the most indelible pop tunes of the past 30 years, inspiring artists such as Ronnie Spector, the Gin Blossoms, and Bette Midler to cover his songs, and in some instances achieve greater success with them than Crenshaw did himself. This year, Crenshaw is trying something new. Fed up with the record label system after the unpleasant experience surrounding his 2009 album Jaggedland, Crenshaw recently turned to Kickstarter to fund a series of three-song EPs (released only on vinyl, with URLs to download a digital equivalent), each featuring one new song, one cover song, and one new version of a Crenshaw classic. The first EP, I Don’t See You Laughing Now, sports one of the best songs Crenshaw’s written in years, and he covers Jeff Lynne’s pre-ELO band the Move, adding an extra layer of intrigue to the legend of the man who got one of his first breaks while touring with Beatlemania (we even stashed an awesome shot of Crenshaw with his Beatlemania bandmates below). Popdose caught up with Crenshaw to talk about the EPs, and quickly learned an important lesson: leave the phrase ‘power pop’ at the door, if you know what’s good for you.

You should know that it killed me to read the following words in the most recent press release about your new project: “Feeling under-promoted by his last label…” Jesus, again?

All day people have been asking me why I’m doing this, and I say, “My last record company experience was dreadful. They were a bunch of dribbling idiots, and I’m never doing this again.” And I never will.

Has 429 Records had a single hit record, something that made them money?

I don’t think they have, no. I don’t know of one, but I put them completely out of my mind a long time ago.

For what it’s worth, I haven’t seen them spend money on anybody. Why bother releasing records if you’re not going to promote them?

Oh, it was bad. But I’m still walking the earth, alive and well.

Crenshaw EP 1 cover The EPs will have one new track, one cover, and one re-recording of one of your earlier songs. Very smart – indeed, downright shrewd – move on your part.

I guess, yeah. I think so, too. (Pause) Why do you think it’s shrewd?

I think it’s shrewd because the people who follow your type of music are huge lovers of cover tunes. That’s going to be catnip to…I don’t want to say power pop, because I know that’s a dirty word in some circles…

It is.

…but you have to acknowledge that a significant portion of your fanbase comes from that group.

(Disagreeing) Mmmmmmm. I don’t know. I really rankle at that particular term. Nobody ever comes up to me at the end of a gig and says, “Boy, that was great power pop.” Nobody walks up to me with a t-shirt that says ‘Power Pop,’ or anything like that. Sometimes when people write something about me and I see that term in it, man, I wanna punch the person that wrote it. Well, anyway, go ahead.

(Can’t go ahead, too busy laughing)

Well, I’ll just say this: the idea of my stuff being shoved into this narrow little subcategory really bothers me, you know? I just don’t think that categorization does justice to what I do. I never wanted to be put in that slot, ever.

Of course not. No artist wants to be pigeonholed like that. It’s just something that writers do to make things convenient for themselves.

Yeah, the hacky ones.

But If you’re having a quick, rapid-fire conversation with somebody, and someone says, “Well, what do they sound like?,” it’s helpful in that instance. It’s not fair, but it can be helpful.

Yeah, but I just sound like myself. That’s what I sound like. Anyway, go ahead.

I just think it’s shrewd that re-recording one of your earlier tunes is very smart, and the covers, people are going to jump all over those. The one you did [on the first EP] of the Move (“No Time”), I thought was an interesting choice, because the last time you and I spoke, I asked whether you had any designs of doing a Beatle-esque, Imperial Bedroom-type record, and you said you didn’t. And then you turn around and record the Move, whose leader worships the Beatles.

It’s just a favorite song of mine for many, many years. I used to marvel at that song when I was a kid. I think it holds up great, and I take it to be a song about the end of the world, which seems like a timely topic. But I know what you’re talking about, and I think that you’re correct that the cover tunes, well, they’re lots of fun for me, and I think they’ll be fun for other people, too.

Have you decided what else you’re going to cover on the next handful of EPs, or are you still deciding?

The next EP is mostly done. I’m not going to say what the cover tune is, because it’s such a crazy, off-the-wall choice that I’d just rather it be a shock when it happens. But I’ve got a really good version of this particular piece, and I have a new song that I’m done with now and we’re just going to start finishing the recording of, and the remake is probably going to be this really pretty version of “Mary Anne” that I did for a movie soundtrack that kind of never got past square one.

Cool. It’s a studio recording of “Mary Anne”?

Yeah, it’s a home recording, but it’s really nice. It’s reimagined…it’s good. It’s different, it’s mostly acoustic. It’s a pretty song anyway, and I think this new version sheds some new light on the song, you might say.

That kind of goes into my next question, which was: I was wondering if you were thinking of doing some of the re-recordings in the studio, but I read the interview you did with Jon Cummings [in early 2012], and you were talking about your first album, and I learned something from that, which is that you weren’t terribly happy with the recordings you made for that record. You had already recorded most of those songs once, and you had to redo them, and you said you felt that it was a compromise. So I was thinking that you probably didn’t want to re-record them a third time.

Marshall_Crenshaw-13 Well, it’s been a long time, and about three years ago…my manager suggested to me, “You should do some re-recordings of your Warner Brothers catalog, because then maybe next time somebody wants to use one of the tunes on a TV soundtrack or movie soundtrack, they can use the version that you own,” is how he put it to me. And I did that, I re-recorded five or six of them, with the idea of trying to make them sound just like the originals, or as best I could. Only two of them came out good; the rest of them, I couldn’t get the right feel, or the right spirit, even though the notes are more or less the same. Really, the whole thing just kind of left me cold in the end except for two, which came out really good. So I’lll probably use those, but on the EPs, the versions of my older songs, they won’t be straight-up copies, or an attempt at a straight-up copy. They’ll all justify themselves, and be interesting and different. I really like the version of “There She Goes Again” that’s on the new EP, with the Bottle Rockets. Like I said before, it’s shed new light on the song.

Talk about playing with the Bottle Rockets. Are you still playing with them?

Yeah.

Have you been able to stump them yet? From what I understand, they can play just about anything.

Stump them…I haven’t tried to. We just really like working together. I’ve always liked them a lot, always been a fan of theirs. You know, it’s a really great rock show, and they really love what they do. It’s turned out to be a really good thing.

You were talking about doing straight-up re-recordings: Squeeze made an entire record of those.

I know, there’s a real crave for that kind of thing lately.

I talked to Glenn Tilbrook about it, and their motivations were very similar to what you were talking about. They knew they were going to have a hard time selling this album to their fans, but they wanted something that they could sell to soundtrack supervisors, and get a chance to make a little extra money that way.

That’s right. That’s probably why everybody who’s doing it is doing it. I don’t know, I just didn’t really like the results when I tried to go down that road, but I did come up with two that are nice, and will probably come out [on an EP].

Listening to your new song – which I like – I noticed something random while listening it, and that’s the absence of a slap-back on the vocal. That’s your thing, isn’t it?

There is tape echo on the vocal. I guess you just aren’t hearing it or something. It’s not a slap-back: I guess it’s just quieter. But yeah, there is [an echo], I used an echo from my Ampex, my trusty Ampex. So it’s there – I guess it’s just not very loud, I guess.

The other thing that I thought was interesting – and again, reading the interview you did with our guy Jon – was that I didn’t realize you had written “For Her Love” before recording the debut album, but you didn’t record it because you thought it was, and I quote, “intensely mediocre.”

I’m afraid so. That was kind of the end of that whole cycle for me. That was the last song in that batch that I wrote. I started really seriously writing, with the idea of creating a body of work for myself, in about 1979. And then “For Her Love,” that was sometime in 1981, I guess. I got to that one said, “That’s it, I’m tapped out.” It was the end of that particular trail.

Was it hard to record that so-called intensely mediocre song with Steve Lillywhite a year or so later?

Well, we had fun with it. You know, the track is nice: I just don’t think the lyrics are all that sharp. The lyrics sputter midway through…I just didn’t nail it. I just didn’t feel anything about it after a while. I got that first line, which is good, about laughing out loud to no one, that’s a good line. But after that, it’s filler. It’s not really about anything or anyone; I’m just trying to piece some words off of this melody. And I’m sorry to say that I have done that from time to time over the years, and those are the ones that don’t stand the test of time, of course, the ones that don’t have any significance to them. They’re just kind of slapped together. I have too many of those kinds of songs, but then, so does everybody that’s written a lot of songs. I don’t care who it is – there’s some duds in anybody’s catalog, you know?

beatlemaniamarshallcrenshawedit Sure. Even the Beatles did “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da.”

Well, I like that one, but…

“For Her Love” is interesting because it was your only 12″ mix as well.

Oh God, yeah, I completely disown that one. That was terrible, I hate that thing.

I found the EP about 10 or so years ago, and it’s weird because they sucked all of the punch out of the drum tracks. You’ve already got this great, built-in drum track that Lillywhite made…you should have let Lillywhite mix it, because his remixes were awesome.

That’s what Steve said! He was really mad about the whole thing, and I said, “Look, I’ve been out here on the road. I’m on tour all the time. This is just some shit that my manager pulled on me. I just let him do it because he wanted to do it.” So there. That’s really how it works. No, I hate that [EP] except for the live version of “Little Sister” which, Doc Pomus was a friend of mine at the time, and that made him really happy that I put that out. But that’s the only thing about [the EP] that I like.

Let’s talk about Kickstarter. The fabulous Will Harris (note: I didn’t actually say ‘the fabulous Will Harris’ in the interview because that would be awkward, but let’s face it: Will Harris is pretty damn fabulous) was talking to Francis Reader of the Trashcan Sinatras, and they’ve run into some unfortunate luck with record labels as well. Will asked Francis if he had thought of going the Kickstarter route, and he said no, and the reason was that he would have felt obligated to release whatever he had recorded, even if it didn’t live up to his own standards. Did you have any thoughts along those lines once you agreed to take the money?

No, not at all. That’s a completely foreign thought to me. No, I wasn’t worried about it at all. I love the way it turned out. It was really a beautiful thing, I would say. I don’t have any fears about whether or not the stuff is going to be decent quality – I’ll just make sure that it is. That’s my job. I try not to do anything that’s a throwaway.

And I’m not implying that.

I love the current [EP], and I think the next one’s gonna be great, I’m pretty sure the third one’s gonna be great. I haven’t figured out the last three [EPs], because I want to have them be of the moment, and I want to wait, get a little ways down the road, before I start thinking about the fourth, fifth, and sixth ones. I know the second one is nice. I’ll just make sure they’re all great – that’s my job.

That makes sense to want to wait until the moment hits, because you don’t want to put this stuff in the can and then let it sit for a while, and then you look at it again and go, “Man, you know, maybe I should go back and change something.”

Yeah. It’s part of what galled me about Jaggedland, which is – it wasn’t anybody’s fault, it just happened – to take forever for me to put all the songs together, and by the time the record was done, some of the tunes were five and six years old, which is weird. So there won’t be any of that this time around.

I listened to the most recent podcast of your radio show, The Bottomless Pit. That was fun.

Which one did you listen to?

It was the one that started off celebrating the Easybeats.

Oh, Vanda and Young? I got a nice note from some people in Australia that heard that one. It was cool to get a thumbs up from somebody in Australia on a Vanda and Young tribute.

A friend of mine told me a funny story about a gig you did at the Gravity Lounge in Charlottesville. You wanted some percussion, and you asked the audience if anyone had a bottle of pills. And that is the night that my friend Stephanie served as a member of your backing band.

Oh, nice! Yeah, that’s great. Every once in a while, somebody has something, you know? What’s that place in Evanston, the Space, I think? There’s this nice joint, I played there a few years ago, and I appealed to the audience for possible rhythic assistance, and somebody had two of those eggs with the beads inside. The guy had a functioning sense of rhythm, and it was really good.

Her only regret is that she didn’t think to ask you to autograph the bottle.

[Laughs] I would have done it. Nobody’s ever asked me to autograph a bottle of pills…yet.

That is kind of a funny thing to say. “Would you sign my pills?”

That would be great.

Have you ever thought about writing a book, and documenting all of this stuff that you’ve done and gone through?

No. I did work on a book project once, and you probably know about that. I worked on a book called “Hollywood Rock.”

I was thinking memoir or autobiography.

You know, I haven’t. I never thought about that, but I’ll tell you what, I read a good one in the last couple of years: Peter Case. I really like Peter Case, I know him personally. I haven’t seen him in a couple of years, but we used to be pals, and he wrote an autobiography called As Far as You Can Get Without a Passport, and it’s really great. His life has been a saga, and he’s a really great writer. I guess if you want to read something like that, you can read Peter’s book. I don’t really have any inclination.

I was just thinking, of all the stuff that you’ve experienced, both good and bad, there’s a good life story in that.

It does amaze me sometimes, the things I’ve done and the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been, and yada yada, and it’s cool. I’m mostly pleased with my life, mostly proud of it. Maybe later in life I’ll think about writing a book, but meanwhile you can read Peter’s. It’s great.

I’m sure he appreciates the endorsement.

Yeah, in fact I’ve got a radio show in the can about Peter, where I play about 40 minutes of his music.

You’re talking about being “mostly” pleased with your life. I hope you realize that there are very few people who have accomplished the kind of stuff that you’ve accomplished, in terms of getting to the level that you’ve gotten. Okay, fine, you weren’t a superstar, but most people aren’t. You’ve still managed to carve out a career for yourself, and especially now, that’s downright impossible. And you did it! Pat yourself on the back, man.

Well, okay. I mean, you’re right, I think I’m worthy. But of course there is luck in there, too. But I love doing what I do, so it’s good that I’m able to do what I want to do.

Exactly. Some friends of mine and I were talking about Donnie Iris. He’s selling insurance.

Okay. Well, I’m not gonna knock him…

I’m not, either. What I’m saying is that it is very hard to stay in the game, and you’re still in the game. So, well done.

Yeah, I am. Go figure.

Are you going out on the road soon?

Yeah, we have some shows in January, the Bottle Rockets and I. And then in late February, I’m going to tour out west with Dave Alvin. Dave Alvin and I have the same birthday, we were both born November 11, 1953.

Same year?

I believe it’s the same year. I know for a fact that we were both born on November 11, but I think we were born in the same year also. (Note: Alvin was born in 1955.) I don’t know if we’re going to call it the Same Birthday Tour or not, but I think we should. There’s also Mose Allison, who was born on November 11, but I don’t think we’re going to get him to sign up with us. Andy Partridge from XTC, his birthday is also on November 11. (Note: Crenshaw and Partridge were in fact born on the exact same day.) But anyway, Dave and I are going to do a bunch of shows down in southern California all the way up to Vancouver and points in between, so that’s going to be really nice.

If you ever talk to Andy Partridge, whatever you do, don’t call him a wanker.

Oh. Okay.

You’ve been very generous with your time. Thank you again for talking with us, and I hope this goes well. I really like the look of the EP. It was really nice to have a piece of vinyl in my hands, even though my turntable is boxed up somewhere.

Well, you should drag it out and turn it on. Anyway, thank you, it was nice talking to you.