The Popdose Interview: Tom Keifer

Written by Music, Popdose Interviews

Now that Metallica and Guns & Roses are fine upstanding members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, it’s high time to induct the party brigade. While dozens of glam metal bands scored hit singles that have aged much better than their hairlines, there were a few bands who also released some incredible full-length albums before Nirvana came along and ruined the fun for everybody. Motley Crüe and Poison are shoo-ins for eventual induction (at the rate the Hall is going, by 2057) but I’d like to also nominate the baddest of the bunch: Cinderella.

Cinderella’s rise was much like their namesake heroine. They were discovered by a handsome prince, Jon Bon Jovi, in a Philly bar. Soon after the band opened Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet tour and released their debut, Night Songs, they were multi-platinum rock royalty. The big shocker was album #2, Long Cold Winter. Instead of going pop (adding synths and dance beats to their sound), Tom Keifer and the band dove deep into the blues. The songs were stronger, the hits were bigger and ‘Don’t Know What You Got (Til It’s Gone)‘ became a classic.

Two more solid albums followed, Heartbreak Station and 1994’s Still Climbing. But by then, radio had moved on to grunge, Eurodance and bad 90’s R&B and Cinderella moved onto the nostalgia circuit where they still pack 20,000-seat arenas to this day.

The only thing dampening the happy ending is some new music. While fans have been buzzing about a legendary fifth Cinderella album that may or may not be locked in the vaults, lead singer Tom Keifer overcame a multitude of vocal chord problems and steadily worked on a solo record over the course of the past decade. The result, The Way Life Goes, honors the sound that made Cinderella famous — but instead of sounding like a fifth band album, the lack of filler (the usual audio cyanide for solo records) and wide variety of influences (blues, rock, pop and country) make this record feel more like a hit-packed debut or a Greatest Hits: Volume 2.

POPDOSE caught up with Tom Keifer on the eve of the second leg of his solo tour just as his new single, ‘Cold Day In Hell’, catches fire at rock radio.

POPDOSE: Besides having a new band behind you, how does this tour feel different than a Cinderella show?

TOM KEIFER: We’ve had a really great time on the road this year. The show was unique in a sense. Obviously I have a new band, so it’s great to play new music and mix in some classics. In the middle of the show, there’s a sit-down acoustic set with a Storytellers vibe where I tell how some of the Cinderella songs came about and some of these new songs as well. It was kind of a cool break in the middle of the hard-pounding rock. The fans really liked it; we were having a good time, so we’re looking forward to more.

I heard you got soaked during a recent show at the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

It was cool — the rain started right on the line from ‘Don’t Know What You Got (Til It’s Gone)’ that says “Falls Like Rain.” Almost on cue — those effects are kind of expensive so we got lucky that night that it happened naturally. But the crowd hung in there man, it was a downpour and they stayed. It was a really great show; we had a lot of fun up there.

Cinderella still plays the big sheds, what was it like mixing in some club dates on this tour?

We were playing smaller more intimate venues on purpose because we started out way in front of the release of the record. The set leaned heavily on new material, so it was a way to let the fans preview the album. That was the game plan for the first leg, so now we’re looking into new opportunities. We’re actually supporting Halestorm on in September. So we’re mixing it up.

That will introduce you to a new generation of metal fans.

Halestorm’s a kick ass band, I like a lot of their stuff so I’m excited to play with them.

Tom Keifer Album CoverThere’s a pent-up demand for a new Cinderella album, building close to 20 years now — what inspired you to make your first solo record instead?

The idea for a solo record came to me in the mid-90’s when the band was drifting apart; we lost our deal with Mercury and the whole grunge thing in Seattle was happening, so I started writing songs but it kept getting put onto the back burner. Cinderella actually got back together in ‘98 and we started to work on the new record. We went out on tour so the solo thing got pushed back again.

Then the (Cinderella) record we were working on when we got back together went way south, we lost that record deal, it ended up in the courts and got real ugly. We had re-record restrictions due to that deal so I was back in the same situation. We’re drifting apart again, everyone was starting to do their own projects and that’s when I came back to the idea of doing my own record. This was right around 2003 when I started to record and produce it.

So the legendary Sony record does exist! Any chance we’ll ever hear it?

I’ll honor the settlement agreement. Obviously a record was never released so there you have it.

Are you still legally allowed to record as Cinderella?

There was a period of time when we couldn’t — which was about the time we all started doing our own thing — we poured a lot of energy into it — just like we poured a ton of energy into our Mercury deal and it wasn’t fun to lose that either — so its not for lack of desire on our part, we just want to make sure it’s the right situation.

That’s part of the reason I decided to produce my record independently of a label. I didn’t want anyone being involved in the creative process. No legal bullshit. No budget restrictions. No deadlines. No release date. I just didn’t want to hear about it. The idea always was to take the finished product to a label to release it.

We’ve been recording The Way Life Goes since 2003, so we were very careful whose hands we were putting it into. We found a great label with Merovee records. They really believe in the album and have done a great job with it.

The album has a really fresh and cohesive sound. I’m amazed some of the vocals and guitar parts are close to a decade old.

We started in 2003 and recorded a couple of tracks at a time over 10 years. There was a lot of scrapping tracks and starting over. We’d say to ourselves, “That’s good, it can be better, fucking burn that, let’s do it again.”

I’ve read about your years of vocal cord setbacks and surgeries — I was surprised the record starts out with one of your trademark wails.

That scream was recorded well after I was diagnosed with Paresis, the paralysis of my vocal cord, in 1991. Between now and then, I’ve had many battles, surgeries and voice teachers. It was the long demise and rebuilding of my voice. I still do vocal exercises for hours every day.

Savannah and Tom Keifer (photo courtesy of Anthony Norkus Photography)

Savannah and Tom Keifer (photo courtesy of Anthony Norkus Photography)

What’s it like writing with your wife Savannah?

She’s an incredible writer. She was in Nashville long before I was, working as a staff writer on Music Row. She had an artist production deal and produced demos for the companies. Savannah approaches songwriting the way I do which is why it works. She lets the inspiration come to her — as I do. I don’t force things. It starts with the lyric, so you know what you’re writing about. We’ve written some great songs together — a lot of it’s casual around the house with me sitting at the kitchen table with an acoustic guitar while we make dinner. Like, “hey check this idea out.” It’s happened everywhere in every way you can imagine.

Does she join you on stage in the new show?

She wrote on the record, co-produced it and sang backgrounds on some of the songs. One of the songs in particular, ‘Ask Me Yesterday’, is a simple two-part harmony between the two of us. In the acoustic set, she comes out and sings with me. There’s an acoustic version of ‘Don’t Know What You Got (Til It’s Gone)’ that was on the VH1 “Stripped” unplugged records. She was on that recording; so she sings it with me live as well. It’s a special moment to have her out there and sing those songs acoustic. The fans really seem to like it and like her a lot.

So with your wife and child in tow, touring these days is probably a lot different than the Night Songs era.

Ever since Jayden was born he’s come out with us. It’s really cool. He’s in school now — so he was able to come for a lot of it on his winter break. To a kid, the tour bus is like a playground, the greatest thing ever.

Cinderella never made the raunchy headlines Motley Crüe got during their decade of decadence. Were your tours equally off the rails?

No matter what rock band you talk about, bottom line, they’re a rock band. We tried to put our music forward and our personal issues in the background, and that’s the way we’ve always rolled. We’re not headline grabbers; we’ve just been about the music.

Long Cold WinterLong Cold Winter was such a dramatic and refreshing shift from the glam metal sound, did everyone in the band agree it was the best move to make to avoid the sophomore slump?

Everyone was pretty much in agreement — there’s always discussions about everything — Night Songs to Long Cold Winter to Heartbreak Station — there was a lot of growth in production and instrumentation, presentation, packaging, production and the mix. On the first record, the production was pretty basic, Lyrically and melodically it was more roots blues oriented The guitar riffs were around the blues scale, all lyrics about real life things: ‘Nobody’s Fool’ was about falling out of love; ‘Shake Me’ was about sex. My writing was inspired by the blues and by rock artists who were inspired by the blues. In the rawest, simplest form, that was Night Songs.

By Long Cold Winter, we cleared out the processing and mixing and added acoustic instruments, piano, guitars even some horns. It was growth. It was natural. When we made the first record we were green, we didn’t know what we were doing. By the time we got to Heartbreak Station, I was wishing the first record sounded like this. I really loved how we progressed. Heartbreak Station is the rawest and driest. Not slick at all.

Heartbreak StationSlick was the sound of the times so it was a learning process. When we made Night Songs, it sounded better than anything we had done on our own. We didn’t question if it was too slick — it sounded better than our demos, so we were cool with it

Long Cold Winter is one of my favorite rock records of all time. I don’t lump it in with a particular era. That said, most of the big metal hits of the day have aged incredibly well. They’re still used in commercials, movies and TV shows and new generations know them by heart. Do you think the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will recognize bands like yours?

If they did, it would be great. We’d be honored if that happened.

In the meantime, bands like Def Leppard are re-recording their catalogs to get control of their masters. Would you ever re-record the early stuff to take advantage of what you’ve learned on latter records?

The only re-records we did were on that VH1 Classic set. ‘Shake Me’, ‘Nobody’s Fool’ and ‘Don’t Know What You Got (Til It’s Gone)’. All three were quite different in their approach. ‘Shake Me’ was done in a Delta Blues/Robert Johnson style. ‘Nobody’s Fool’ was recorded acoustic — super bare bones, right in your face like I’m sitting in the room with you. ‘Don’t Know…’ had fiddle, percussion and was produced like a country song. They came out really well.

I’m not a fan of sound-a-likes just to get around owning the master. With Cinderella, we put a lot of time into making those records. Andy Johns was involved, some talented engineers and producers too — so the idea of re-recording to get a little money without Andy Johns and without taking the time and care we did initially just doesn’t sit well with me. Remixing an album like Night Songs, to make it sound more like what we originally had in mind, well that’s a different story.

Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, the Clash — they’re emptying the closets for rarities filled Deluxe re-issues. Are there any lost gems in the Cinderella vaults?

We have a lot of songs, but not a lot of tracks. We never really over cut when we were working with Andy Johns or Gary Lyons (engineer) and John Jansen (producer) on Heartbreak Station. We were selective about what tracks we went in to do, be it 10, 12, whatever there were. We made sure they were strong, put focus into making those right. Cinderella is a band who never over cuts tracks. No tracks in the vault, but a lot of songs laying around. Maybe a possibility those songs will be brushed off and recorded properly.

How do you like living in Nashville. Besides country music, Jack White, the Black Keys, Dave Stewart — everyone’s down there.

I love it. I moved here in ‘97, it’s been nothing but an inspiration. The songwriters, musicians, state of the art studios, great engineers, everywhere you turn, it’s all about music here. I can’t say enough about it. It’s been an inspiration and a kick in the ass — when you see other talented people and you hear a demo they wrote yesterday you go “wow — that song’s amazing, I ready to give up it’s so good!” And then that competitive spirit kicks in, you say, “I’m gonna learn something from that.”

2013 was a big year for you, what’s in store for the year ahead?

We’re still going on tour for the solo record, one day at a time. The label is dedicated and supporting it. Cinderella is still a real entity — so we’ll tour again and make new music when we find the right situation with the right label.

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Tom Keifer Album CoverThe Way Life Goes is currently available on CD, vinyl, iTunes and Amazon MP3.

The set (I give it a solid four out of five stars) combines some of Keifer’s finest rockers (‘Solid Ground’, ‘Cold Day in Hell’ and ‘Ain’t That a Bitch’) with beautiful ballads (‘A Different Light’, the duet ‘Ask Me Yesterday’ and ‘Thick and Thin’), plenty of swagger and plenty of surprises. Essential music for fans of Cinderella and a great starting point for young fans before they dive back into the catalog.

… I listened to ‘Mood Elevator’ a dozen times thinking he was singing ‘Moon Elevator’ and I swear both versions work.

Connect with Tom Keifer online and on facebook — follow him on twitter.