Chasing Good Songs: Rick Springfield On His New Music & The 30th Anniversary Of “Living In Oz”
If Armageddon is indeed lurking anywhere around the corner, at least there will be a soundtrack thanks to Rick Springfield’s newest album Songs For The End Of The World.
Better still, Songs is a quality listen for your final trip into the great beyond, the latest in a string of solid albums that Springfield has put out in the past decade. At a time when many of Springfield’s peers are slowing down and either putting out no new music or recording sporadically, the Australian-born rocker keeps on charging ahead with seemingly limitless energy for a man who officially is 63 years young.
Part of that is because Springfield wants to continue to make sure that people are aware that although he is well known for his successful acting career (and the related ‘80s teenage heartthrob status that came with that) and other side trips, it’s music that is always first and foremost in his heart.
He’s still working to define how people view Rick Springfield, the artist. Even after selling more than 25 million albums and scoring 17 Top 40 hits, Springfield has plenty of things left to say and remains driven to write and record new music. He says “I’d like to continue changing people’s minds about me.” As it happens, he’s getting a bit of visual assistance on that last part.
In addition to putting his own thoughts down in his 2010 autobiography, the New York Times bestseller Late, Late at Night, Springfield has been featured in two high profile documentaries this year.
First, Springfield was front and center as a key participant in Sound City, Dave Grohl’s cinematic love letter to the legendary California recording studio of the same name, sharing his memories of recording there while also collaborating with Grohl and the other members of the Foo Fighters on a frenetic new rocker “The Man That Never Was.”
Additionally, the close-knit relationship that Springfield has maintained with his loyal fanbase for over three decades is the subject of An Affair of the Heart. The new documentary, lensed with the support and blessing of Springfield himself, will make its television debut on May 15th via EPIX with secondary viewing options available via online subscription. (We’ve seen it and however you choose to watch it, don’t miss it. It’s really good!)
We caught up with Rick as he was about to launch the latest leg of his Tour For The End Of The World (including a May 25th stop in Cleveland, OH at the Marc’s Great American Rib Cook-Off & Music Festival) to converse about the new record and assorted career highlights, with some timely discussion about the 30th anniversary of Springfield’s Living in Oz album.
As you’ll read below, we tried really hard to get him to commit to putting the Oz album track “Me & Johnny” into the setlist. How did that work out? Well, you’ll just have to read along with us to find out…..
Listening to your new album, I started to look back at the rest of your catalog and I think that album by album, you’re one of the more consistent songwriters I’ve heard. From Working Class Dog and Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet forward, there really isn’t a dud album in the catalog. Tao was a bit of a left turn for me the first time that I heard it, but after a few more listens, I got it.[Laughs] I hear that. Well, that’s good to hear. I’m a writer first, so that’s kind of what I focus on.
Is there an album in your catalog that you wish you could get a do-over on when you look back at it now?
No, they all had performances and the kind of development that I like to hear. Rock of Life, I would have made less digital, I think and also Tao, I would have made less sequence-y and more guitar-based. I think that was what [caught some people off guard], although Tao was actually my biggest record so far in Europe. It wasn’t one of the biggest ones here and I think it was because it was so outside the box from what everyone was expecting from me [because of the] synths and clean guitars when I had been known for fuzz and the guitar/bass/drums thing. But in its place, I like to hear all of the sounds, because they remind me of a time in my life.
What do you think made that record so big in Europe? Was it just the singles?
“Celebrate Youth” was a real big song over there. It was a thing where the whole new club scene and that whole dance vibe started in European clubs, so I think the resurgence of it after thankfully disco died, started in the European clubs. So I think they were more open to playing that. It got a lot of play over here in America, I mean, it was like #1 added when the single was first released, but I think the club thing hadn’t fully hit here yet.
The last album came out in 2008 and you toured those songs pretty hard. What finally brought the big push that got you back into the studio for this one?
Just having enough of the right songs. Because there’s no need for a deadline and there’s no record company saying that “hey, we need the record by December,” [so] I just wait until I think I’ve got enough good songs, is basically what it is. [Also] when there’s time to carve some time into my schedule [for recording], because it’s pretty full-on for months [at a time], night and day 24/7 when I record, so it’s gotta be pretty clear.
You’ve been really prolific over the past decade, what keeps you engaged artistically in the process of writing songs? Obviously, it’s still something that’s very important to you.
Yeah, I still love music. I still listen to a lot of the new stuff and I’m still inspired by a lot of the new stuff. When I feel like I’ve written something good, it’s the most exciting thing for me. It’s like getting a new girlfriend, it’s like everything great about that. So I guess there’s still a real charge to me to write.
There’s some interesting sounds on this record, like “Our Ship’s Sinking,” that one sounds to me at times like it could be a Fall Out Boy song.[Laughs] Yeah, we listen to a lot of stuff and I don’t know if it’s Fall Out Boy — it may be more like we were listening to Skrillex a lot when we were doing that so we could do something with the guitars that’s actually never been done where we chop it up and make weird sounds out of it. It’s all guitar on there by the way, too. So that was kind of I think more dubstep-inspired than Fall Out Boy. But you know, I listen to a lot of the new things and that’s what’s exciting to me is hearing new approaches. With 12 notes, there’s still some great original stuff coming out and it blows my mind.
I’m happy to see that you’re playing a good portion of this record live on the current tour. ‘Wide Awake’ seems tailor-made for its position as the setlist opener.
Yeah, it’s a great one to open with, because of the lyrics and also it’s one of the most uptempo songs on the whole album. That’s similar in feel and vibe to “The Man That Never Was,” the one I did with the Foo Fighters. It’s got that manic feel to it.
Similarly, the last three albums have been really energetic in tone. Has there been particular driver that has been really setting the tone for the material that you’ve been writing in recent years?
I think because I’ve been touring so much. I wrote the album Living in Oz — it was a big step away for me from the straight pop sound that I’d had on the previous two albums. It’s much more kind of “arena rock” sounding, a lot of the stuff and that was because I was touring a lot and I wrote it on the road. I think that is the same reason that these records have had so much energy because our show is very high energy and it’s easy to play new stuff if it fits in with what you’re already doing, with the same kind of vibe. So even the slower songs [on the new album], songs like “You and Me” and “Gabriel,” we still jam pretty hard on them at some point.
You mentioned the Living in Oz album and with this year marking the 30th anniversary for the release of that one, can you share some memories about the process of making it? What was at stake going into creating that one?
Living in Oz was a big one for me, because Keith Olsen had been at the helm [previously]. He did “Jessie’s Girl” and “I’ve Done Everything For You” and I produced the rest of Working Class Dog. But when “Jessie’s Girl” was so big, he stepped in and said “hey, I’d really like to do all of the next record” and he was still one of the hottest producers around, so it seemed like a good move for me, even though I’d always been totally hands-on myself with the recording process. I’ve always demoed stuff and I’ve always laid stuff out as I want to hear it and we’d use that as a template. But I was traveling so much because of General Hospital and because of the touring that I couldn’t physically be in the studio as much as I wanted to with Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet, but it still turned out to be a great record, I think.
But it’s very much more “Keith” than I would have liked initially. I wanted it to be a lot more guitar-based and so when I took over the reins completely with Living in Oz, it was a big step. Keith wanted to do that record and there were a couple of songs that were really dear to me that he didn’t get, so I said “well, I’m just going to do it myself.” So I remember the first vocal track we cut was “Affair of the Heart” and I was so anxious and nervous about it that I completely blew my voice out trying to sing the song and so we had to come in the next night and re-sing it. It was a very tense time. It was the third album and the second one kind of rides on the strength of the first one, so the third one is the one that says “will I be here tomorrow or is this pretty much it?” So there was a lot riding on that record for me.
That album had a couple of big hits, but it almost seems like album-wise, that album is a little bit overlooked in your catalog. Do you feel that way about that one?
Yeah, I do. But it comes back to me pretty much as much as any record does, as a whole album. Because I think the sound still stands up today. I had just discovered ambient drums by mistake — we were in Studio A….have you seen the Sound City documentary?
Well, that’s the only album that I did completely in Studio A. The others were kind of piecemealed from Studio B, Studio A and Keith Olsen’s studio Goodnight L.A. previously. But Living in Oz was the only album that I did which was completely done in Studio A and it was such a great drum room that I heard the ambient drum sound as my engineer Bill [Drescher] was pushing the faders up, I said “what’s that?” So we started using really ambient drums and the guitar sounds were great and I remember recording some of the songs going “wow, these are so loud, I don’t know if our audience is going to get it.” Which in retrospect seems kind of silly, because they seem [like] pretty straight ahead rock songs, but there was a couple of times where I thought I was maybe going overboard. So there are a lot of great memories and we recorded through the board that Dave Grohl bought and it’s really part of the whole history of that board.
It seems like you have a good amount of affection for that album because it seems like the title track is usually in the setlist.
Yeah, actually we just kicked it out, just for the sake of a couple of the new songs, but I do love that one and “Alyson” seems to be a lot of musicians’ favorite song. A lot of the musicians that I know, that’s one that they pull up a lot, so I rotate those two.
I’m surprised that “Souls” doesn’t pop in there much anymore.
We just decided to start doing that one again! [Laughs] That’s funny that you should say that. We just decided to start doing it again. You know, you get sick of them and we hadn’t done “Alyson” for a couple of years and I said “well, let’s do that.” You get fresh energy when you drop things and throw them back into the set — they come back with a whole new energy. So I think that’s a good thing to rotate them. I’m going to look into rotating more stuff too, now that we have video screens behind us too. So we’ll start pulling some songs out and replacing them with some other things and just have a couple of revolving sets.
Well, if you find a way to rotate in “Me & Johnny,” that would be a cool deep cut.[Laughs] Oh, that’s great.
Talking about Sound City, it was cool to see you get included in that documentary, because it seems like that was always an important part of your story, was your time at Sound City. That’s the first time that I read about the studio was in the liner notes for that Living in Oz record.
Yeah and I think actually the first mention was on Working Class Dog, where I said something like “God Bless Sound City, God Bless Van Nuys.” It was my home away from home for a long time. It was quite a few peoples’ home away from home.
You talked about the drums and some of the other sounds that you were able to capture there. What else did you love about working in that room?
Well, Joe Gottfried, the owner of the studio, was my manager. He allowed us a lot of free time in there. Working Class Dog cost us 60 thousand dollars to record, because we would go in [there] in-between other acts — the higher paying acts, when somebody cancelled or in the early hours of the morning. So it was really a great opportunity for me to hone my sound and not have to worry so much about the budget. I mixed my crappy four track demos on that Neve board, which was kind of like putting a Ferrari engine in a Volkswagen.
Beyond what we see on screen, what was the collaborative process like, working with Dave Grohl on “The Man That Never Was.”
It was great. He was on the road and we were emailing and talking about different approaches and when we went in there, the band was…you know, you’re stepping into someone else’s territory, so it’s always a little bit nerve-wracking. But they were always great — they were really welcoming and a couple of them were fans, so it made it really easy. And in the end we were just a bunch of kids in a garage cranking up our amps and jamming. That’s basically what you do and you go “oh, I like this” and “ I like it like that” and then you pull pieces out that you like. We had the lucky thing of it being a studio so that we could record them and then listen back and go “that works” or “that doesn’t work” and make a song from there.
So were you really able to stop at just one song, working with Dave? It seems like that collaboration would go beyond that.
Yeah, I’d be sitting there playing and we’d be noodling and I’d play a couple of things and Dave would pick up on it and we’d just mess around with it, [but] he knew it was a completely different song. He was under a deadline, so everyone had a day to do the basic track and then I took it away and did the vocals and lyrics with [Springfield bassist] Matt Bissonette, who wrote the last two albums with me. I recorded that in my studio and I took that stuff back to him and said “what do you think of this” and he said “sounds great, come in and let’s sing it.” So it was all pretty fast, but I think that can be really good or that can be really bad depending on the combination of people and what the song is. I think for this, it was great. We did the basic track in about four hours and then the song was finished that next day.
I think there are some folks who would love to see a Rick Springfield tour backed by the Foo Fighters, based on seeing you guys tear through songs “Love Is Alright Tonite” and stuff like that.
Yeah, we had a blast doing that. Actually, I saw Taylor Hawkins at a benefit the other night at the Whisky that we did for MS. We went by and played and he was going “we all want to do more Sound City gigs!” [Laughs]
You’ve had an interesting career rebirth on many different levels over the past 20 years, which is something that is well-illustrated by the new Affair of the Heart documentary. There are certainly others from your musical generation that are still making new music, but very few that have seen the process actually produce results. Starting with the Karma album, you really built the machine back up again and you’re releasing new music that the fans actually care about. What do you think made it all work?
Oh, I think it’s just persistence and wanting to do [things] the best I can and supporting it. I think my career so far has been divided…it’s funny that you should mention Karma, because I think the starting point of the beginning of the second part of my life was that album. Because I’d kind of given it all away before then and really hadn’t thought I’d ever record or tour again. Karma was kind of the rebirth of all of that for me and showed me that I still had something to say and that I was still writing good songs. Basically, a lot of it is that you’re always concerned that the last song that you wrote is the last good song you’ll ever write. I know there are a lot of writers who say that. It’s a big fear. So that’s really what I focus on is the next project.