Interview by: Mike Farley
here for Mike's review of
Warren Zanes' latest album
It’s not very often I get to interview a rock musician who also teaches at the University level and has a Ph.D. Warren Zanes is both and it made for a very interesting conversation. Be sure to check out his new CD,
Memory Girls, and his live show when he comes to a concert venue near you. Or heck, maybe he teaches you art history right now!
Mike Farley: Where are you from originally?
Warren Zanes: New Hampshire
MF: How old were you when you picked up your first instrument?
WZ: I played the four-string ukulele banjo when I was in first grade. My mother was good about encouraging us to play music, to draw, to read, to make up stories, all of the healthy, arts-oriented activities. The banjo was her idea. And, I have to say, I did a nice version of "Skip to My Lou." I remember performing the song for my class and, because of the performance, getting a little extra attention from a girl named Jill Carlson. Jill was a beautiful creature and made first grade a nice place to be. So, I made a connection between performance and the mating instinct, an instinct which, of course, had only revealed itself in the most rudimentary, nascent form.
MF: You were 17 when you joined the Del Fuegos. What was it like touring with them at such a young age?
WZ: Dangerous and divine both. I skipped over a certain period of youth that I would have liked to enjoy. But the trade was a fair one. I got to see the world, eat good food, meet some of my heroes, and live the debauched life that I'd dreamed of when looking at and listening to Stones albums for hours at a time. I don't think I'd want it for my own kid, but I sure wanted it for myself then! However, much of band life is one-dimensional, [but] that one dimension is a pretty fine one.
MF: How did you wind up with the Del Fuegos? Was it a band you put together or did you audition and get chosen?
WZ: If there was an audition, it had been going on for years. Which is to say, my brother asked me to join the band because of all he knew about me from our years growing up together -- I was trouble in a way that just might prove fruitful. Right before he asked me to join the Del Fuegos, Dan had gone to see the Blasters play in Boston. The Blasters are a legendary rock and roll band from L.A. who hung around with X and Los Lobos and, to be sure, the Blasters played like those were exactly the right bands to hang with. They were fronted by two brothers, Phil and Dave Alvin, both big personalities. Seeing them play was pretty intoxicating stuff. Dan thought maybe a chemistry of that kind, two brothers with big grins and a lot of impulses, would serve the Del Fuegos well. I think he was correct in his assessment. My brother and I have the same sense of humor and the same twisted past so, as friends, we still have a lot to talk about.
MF: Your story is an interesting one. You taught at the University level and just got your Ph.D., and then got signed to Dualtone. When you were earning all your degrees was there a burning still inside you to be doing music full-time? And are you happier now than a few years ago?
WZ: I've always been writing songs, so the biggest satisfaction that music has to offer, which, if you ask me, is songwriting, has always been available to me. And I've always practiced it. I've made a lot of albums that nobody knows anything about -- they were never released, just made to satisfy me before I put them on a shelf and got back to my academic work. That said, it's great to be on stage now, using songs as a means of communication. In effect, I spent years talking to myself, not using songs to communicate with others (which can still be quite entertaining, really), and, at last, decided to start talking to others before I was mistaken for a madman. It's best to share songs, but one doesn't have to share them publicly in order to be able to enjoy what songwriting has to offer -- of course, this goes for any creative act, painting or writing or what have you.
Am I happier now? Yes, but the reasons for this are many, and that I'm making music again is only one of the reasons.
MF: Who are your songwriting and performing influences? How would you describe your music to people who haven't heard it yet?
WZ: I love Frank Sinatra. He often sings like he has something he must say -- sings with a kind of commitment to the song that's inspiring. I love Randy Newman. He writes songs that no one else is going to write. And he writes like a short story writer, making character-centered songs. Oddly enough, few people have done that in pop music. I love Joni Mitchell and Prince because they both cut out their own territory and cultivated it with absolute confidence and assurance, arriving at styles that are truly individual and at the same time infectious. Joe Pernice of the Pernice Brothers was born to write pop songs that chase down beauty and darkness equally. I could go on. That's just a few. I mean, gosh, how about that Ron Sexsmith? He's a songwriting giant. Or Liz Phair? A natural! I describe my music as organic pop rock. It's pop, but it's still the kind that a band plays in the studio. I love the sound of a band locking in, finding the groove and finding the song and delivering them both.
MF: Your new record is called Memory Girls and has instantly jumped into heavy rotation in my personal CD player. What are the plans for radio and touring?
WZ: First, thank you. I worked hard on this record and feel good about it -- it means something to have people getting it. I just finished up a three-week tour with the Wallflowers and some other dates with Patty Griffin, both of which were a gas -- these are artists I really like. I'll be doing more touring, some opening spots and some headliners, as the year unfolds. I'll cover the States and then do Europe. As far as radio goes, I'm an AAA artist who both loves that format and wishes there were more AAA stations. But radio is going well for me -- any readers out there who want to give me a boost, call your local station and request a song by me, either "Where We Began" or "First on the Moon" or any other. Radio is ultimately about an album or song finding a vocal audience that's willing to let the stations know they like it. So help a brother out!
MF: You were inspired to write the songs from Memory Girls from a breakup. Is this when you feel your best material comes out? And this will make you feel better...check out the ladies on our site and let me know who your favorite is.
WZ: Geez, I like all the Bullz-Eye girls. I'll take one of each. Where do I pick them up? But the real question, which has to do with whether bad shit inspires songs, is this: yes. Fortunately, bad shit is not the only thing that inspires songs. It's just that when happy stuff comes along, you're probably just too busy enjoying it to write about it. When you're miserable, you're probably at home feeling sorry for yourself or not fit for company -- great time to write tunes!
MF: Our site is also very sports-oriented. Are you a sports fan and if so, which teams?
WZ: As a young man of 17, I qualified for the Nationals as a bicycle racer. I was sponsored by Jim Henson, the Muppets creator. I wore jerseys with Muppets on them, went to races, ate food like a wild animal, had a resting pulse of 38 beats a minute, and thought I'd be a bicycle racer forever. Next thing I knew I was smoking cigarettes and playing in a rock band. So, my interest in sports is a melancholy love for bicycle racing, which feels like an interest that I sacrificed when the music bug got me. Lance Armstrong is something to watch, a real inspiration.
MF: Where would you like to be five years from now, career-wise?
WZ: I'd like to be doing all the things I do now: write songs, write essays and books, and teach some university classes. If I can keep doing all of this, I'm one lucky cat.
MF: You mentioned you are still teaching. What school and what courses? Do your students know about your other career?
WZ: I earned my Ph.D. last spring, adding that degree to three others. I've taught at a few different universities, including the University of Rochester, Manhattan's The School of Visual Arts, and the Rochester Institute of Technology. My classes have ranged from general art history classes to history of photography classes to cultural theory classes. Teaching, like playing in clubs, leaves lots of room for digression in front of an audience. My students are generally oblivious to my other career, and I like to keep it that way. Sometimes I can't, of course. But I need authority in front of a class, and this often means that I need to appear like an ambassador from another generation: older, to put it simply. When my students realize that I might listen to music they listen to, or that I might know a little something, first hand, about their recreational activities, there's no way that that knowledge can come to any good. The classroom is about an intellectual conversation and an intellectual relationship -- we have fun, but it's definitely within the bounds of decorum. All I really need to do is throw on a tweed jacket and they'll never imagine that I just got off the road from a three-week tour with the Wallflowers.
MF: Best thing about being on the road?
WZ: Having a good show in front of a good crowd that's there for the music.
MF: Worst thing about being on the road?
WZ: Just the reverse.
MF: If you could meet one person, dead or alive, who would it be?
WZ: I'd like to meet the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee. He writes beautiful books that have moral centers that are deeply complex. And morals are not interesting if they are not complex. And given the level of his seriousness, I wonder whether he sometimes gets the urge to play miniature golf. Perhaps the two of us would hit a few balls.
MF: What are five of your all-time favorite songs?
WZ: The question is too difficult. But I'll throw out a few of my favorites: Tom Petty's “Insider,” Bob Dylan's entire Desire album, Frank Sinatra's version of “Nancy (With a Laughing Face),” Randy Newman's “Louisiana,” Joni Mitchell's Ladies of the Canyon album, Dusty Springfield's “Breakfast in Bed.”
MF: You had an all-star cast help you out on the record...Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, Billy Conway, Kenny Vaughn. What was it like working with them?
WZ: A privilege. They're pros. To see a song be taken care of by the likes of these folks is a great experience for a songwriter.
MF: Anything you'd like to add for your fans and potential fans?
WZ: Send me an e-mail. Tell me what you think of the record. I love to get feedback.
Check out Warren’s website at http://www.warrenzanes.com/!