Interview Date: 08/17/2009
Run Date: 09/07/2009
Talking with Marshall Crenshaw is like being invited to the rock ‘n roll grown-up table. After minding your manners at the kid’s table for years, you finally get the chance to show your elders how much you’ve learned about music…only to realize just how little you know. The man is an encyclopedia of rock, which makes sense when you consider that he played John Lennon on the stage, Buddy Holly in the movies, and wrote the instructions for fictional rocker Dewey Cox on how to walk hard. On the eve of a series of shows on both sides of the pond in support of his new album Jaggedland, Crenshaw spoke with Bullz-Eye about how he never wanted to be an arena guy, and offers his two cents on some of the cover versions of his songs. He also explained why he inadvertently terrified his interviewer at a concert six years ago, but that story is off the record.
Marshall Crenshaw: You were expecting me, right?
Bullz-Eye: I am expecting you. How are you doing?
MC: I’m good. I just got home. I was at the Y. I feel refreshed and invigorated.
BE: Excellent. Well, I’ll try not to bring you down from your high, then.
MC: (Laughs) Oh, okay. Where are you?
BE: I live in Ohio.
MC: Oh, okay. 77…you just never know anymore with these area codes.
BE: I got the cell phone when I lived in Chicago, but I now live in Ohio.
MC: Oh, see, so that makes it even more complicated.
BE: Well, let’s get started. I would just like to state that there should be a law that forbids you from taking six years between albums.
MC: I know, it’s funny, isn’t it? But that’s how long it took, I guess. My friend Don Dixon said everybody should do a record every four years, and no sooner than that. I don’t know where he got that from, but I guess that’s just what his body clock tells him. Anyway, yeah, I know, six years is a long time. But it was worth it, you know? It was worth taking the extra time and the extra care, I think.
BE: The list of session musicians you have backing you up on this album is ridiculous. What was it like getting Jim Keltner, Greg Leisz and Wayne Kramer on the same album?
MC: Well Greg has played on all my records since 1991. So that was pretty easy, it was just a matter of, like it always is, of calling him and asking him and him saying “Great,” you know? So that was normal. Wayne, I have known him for ages. We’ve played together a little bit before but, you know, I never had him on a record. I wanted to have him play on my first album. I just met him around that time and I had his phone number. I remember being in the office at the Record Plant and talking to him on the phone, listening to him explain that he was on the road with Johnny Thunders and couldn’t come and do a session for me. Anyway, and then Jim…the first guy to come on board, really, was Jerry Boys, the engineer and co-producer on most of the record. And he’s done lots of work with Jim, so I just thought, “Let’s take a shot at this,” and you know, it was just like…it was just an instant ‘yes’ from Mr. Keltner. And it was great. Every musician I know digs Jim Keltner. He’s just got such a great style. I was just so glad when he came into the picture. I’m a huge fan.
BE: There were two songs I wanted to ask you about on this new record in particular: “Gasoline Baby” and “I Looked So Good,” the bonus track. Did you have a blues itch that you had to scratch?
MC: Is that what those are?
BE: Well, they’ve got that same chord sequence that I associate with traditional blues.
MC: Oh, yeah. That’s true. “Gasoline Baby,” I just remembered something the other day about that song. I ran into – this is about three years ago, I think – I ran into the bass player for the Violent Femmes, Brian (Ritchie). And he told me they were going to make a record, but they didn’t want to write any of the songs themselves. They just didn’t feel like it. So they were going to ask people that they knew to write songs for them, in their style. I think that’s when I started thinking of that song “Gasoline Baby,” but I didn’t really write it. I think I was driving, and it just started playing in my mind, you know. And it’s really just a song about gasoline and constantly burning gasoline. But it’s just a goof. To me, it reminds me of Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger, or “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen. I feel like I finally wrote something on that level of quality, you know? Which is a real accomplishment, in my mind. But again, I didn’t really write it, it just sort of was there in my head. And the same thing with “I Looked So Good.” I was just walking down the street one night in New York City. I was on my way to this place, the Bowery Ballroom. I was going to sit in with this group called the Fab Faux. Have you ever heard of them?
MC: It’s Will Lee from the Letterman show, and Jimmy Vivino from Conan. And they have a Beatles tribute band, and they are really huge. They play in New York and they sell out the Beacon Theatre in New York. You know, they are really big on the east coast and other places; east and west coast, I guess. Anyway, I was just walking down the street on my way to go and play with them and I don’t know why, it wasn’t even like a conscious thing, I just started singing that song in my head or it just started playing in my head. I don’t know, it’s just a silly song, you know? It was just adrenaline or something.
BE: When did you have that conversation with the bass player from the Violent Femmes? Because he’s not even talking to the other guys in the band now, is he?
MC: Yeah, this was a while ago. This was at least four years ago. So yeah, I don’t know the exact date, but it was a while ago. I never sent them the song, either. I just remembered the other day that that is how and when it might have started.
BE: I think it’s a funny idea though, the Violent Femmes just saying, “I don’t feel like writing…”
MC: (Laughs) I know! I think so, too.
BE: You mentioned Jerry Boys, and I was going to ask you about him, obviously. I read that it was his work on the Ry Cooder album that attracted you, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt that he also recorded the Beatles.
MC: You know what? I found that out fast, because I have that book, there is a book called “The Beatles Recording Sessions.”
BE: Oh, the Mark Lewisohn book? I have that.
MC: Yeah, I have that book, and when it came out I just read it and read it and read it, like it was the Bible. So I had seen his name in there but I didn’t make the connection when I bought Mambo Sinuendo, and just proceeded to fall in love with it. Then I went on to his website and I went, “Oh yeah, right.” But that’s only just the beginning of the story with him. I mean, God, you’ve got to really give it up for guys who are…you know, just have that deep of a well of experience and have done that much really high-quality work.
BE: When I had gotten “The Beatles Recording Sessions” book, the only thing that I knew he had done at that point was the Everything but the Girl album (Idlewild). And I thought, “No, that can’t be the same guy.”
MC: Yeah, there is that, and then there’s “Hocus Pocus” by Focus. There’s all kinds of stuff like that on his résumé, and you went, “Really?” And from all kinds of different eras and different genres, lots of world music. All of the Buena Vista Social Club records. But to me, the outstanding one in that batch is Mambo Sinuendo. That is like the rock and roll record of the bunch, it’s just a great guitar sound, really capturing… that room that they recorded that album in is real magical. If you listen to old Benny Moré records or Pérez Prado records from Havana, you hear that room on those records, and then you hear it again on the Buena Vista records. Anyhow, Jerry did this other record I really love, the two Mermaid Avenue albums, Billy Bragg & Wilco. Those records just have this really cool atmosphere to them, sonically. The last couple records I did, and even on this one too, a lot of the engineering is just me trying to put the microphone in the right spot. And twisting knobs that I don’t really know what they do, I just kind of twist them until it works. But [Boys] is somebody who has dedicated his life to his craft and is great at it, you know?
BE: Did you ever have designs of making an Imperial Bedroom-type record with a Geoff Emerick or an Alan Parsons?
MC: No, none of those guys ever crossed my mind. I mean, with all due respect, and so on and so forth. And again, the record that really made me think of Jerry Boys is a record where everybody just sat in the room and played at the same time, you know, Mambo Sinuendo. There are some tracks that are really heavily crafted and edited and stuff like that, but mostly it’s just guys in a room, and the sound of the room. That was what I dug about that record.
BE: Have you ever reached a point where you thought to yourself, “Screw the solo career, I’m going to write songs for Disney artists,” or “I’m going to write songs for up and coming country singers”?
MC: Yeah, I have. Sure, of course. I mean, I have even done the first one. I did a project for Disney Television Animation. I worked on it for about half a year, wrote about a half-dozen songs for an animated sequel to “101 Dalmatians.” It’s been sort of an oddball, patchwork sort of a résumé with me, really. The main thing is my records and my songs, that’s really what it’s about. But I’ve taken lots of side trips. I was in “La Bamba.” One of my songs right now, “You're My Favorite Waste of Time,” is in a breakfast cereal commercial in Europe.
BE: That makes sense, since it was a big hit for Owen Paul in the UK.
MC: Yeah, you know about that.
BE: Yes. And I just recently heard Bette Midler’s cover of the song, which I can’t say I share the same enthusiasm for.
MC: I was delighted when she recorded it…anyway, what was I saying? Oh, the Nashville thing. Yeah, I had a publisher and a good friend who used to constantly encourage me to go to Nashville. And I did try it, I went there and dabbled in it a little bit, I just could never get that motivated, you know? For better or for worse, the thing I really love is record-making. I just think it’s a great art form. When it comes to the idea of making a record and creating a body of songs for a record, that’s when I really get motivated, you know? But the Nashville thing just sort of never felt like the right direction for me. But who knows. I’ll try it again, maybe, I don’t know. It just depends on the opportunity. I co-wrote that hit song with the Gin Blossoms, right?
BE: Yes. (Note: He’s referring to “Til I Hear It from You,” from the soundtrack to “Empire Records.”)
MC: That was an opportunity that just sort of fell in my lap. I was lucky with that one, you know, it just happened. I think one of the guys in the band…they were all big fans of my stuff, and I heard from Jesse Valenzuela, right when they were on the charts all the time and on the radio. It was just a really fortunate thing. And we’re good friends and everything. But I mean, I do that kind of stuff when it comes along, but I don’t really chase after it so much.
BE: I really liked that last Gin Blossoms album that they put out a few years ago.
MC: Oh, they are good, I like them, too.
BE: How did you get recruited to contribute the title track to “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”?
MC: Another left-field deal. Let’s see, I remember that I got three emails about it simultaneously. One was from a guy that I had spoken to on the phone once, but I didn’t know him. It was a guy named Jake Guralnick, who manages bands, and was a friend of a friend or two. And so I kind of knew of him but…anyway, I got an email from him and one from somebody else and one from somebody else. Jake had been on the phone with a music supervisor, a guy named Tom Wolfe, and my name came up; that was it, you know. I guess Tom was talking to Jake about maybe having Nick Lowe get involved, because Jake manages Nick. That was it. My name came up, they contacted me, I just said, “Yeah, great.” They sent me the script and I read it, I just laughed all the way through it. I thought it was…on paper it just looked hilarious. I really dug it and I just started to get ideas right away. So it took me about 40 minutes to write that song.
MC: Which is crazy, because some of the songs on Jaggedland took years to write. I mean, not constantly pounding away at it, but just over the course of a long stretch of time. But “Walk Hard,” I wrote the words, I was watching my daughter take a horseback riding lesson, and I had all the words by the time she was done.
BE: And then the song doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, while three songs from “Enchanted” did. How did you feel about that?
MC: Well, I was bummed. Right away, as soon as the film was released, there was a Golden Globe nomination. That was great. I was hugely excited about that. And there was a lot of whispering about, you know, they tried to get an Oscar nomination for the song. But I think what happened, seriously, is that the film just didn’t set the world on fire at the box office. That was a giant shock to everybody, to everybody involved. Although, at the premiere, I got a vibe from the director [Jake Kasdan] like he was terrified. And lo and behold…you know. But anyway, I think that’s why it didn’t get an Oscar nomination, seriously. I think if it had been a hit, then it would have gotten a nomination. You know how those things work.
BE: When you last spoke with us a few years back, Wounded Bird Records had just reissued the back half of your Warner Bros. catalog, but they never sent you copies of your albums.
MC: Yeah, that’s right.
BE: I have two follow-up questions to that: one, did they ever send you the CDs, and two, have you seen a penny from those reissues?
MC: Number one, no, but I already had them anyway. Yeah, I guess I have seen a penny, you know what I mean? I get a Warner Bros. royalty statement twice a year. I don’t always read it in detail but…they used to go to an office, and I never even saw them. That was up until about 10 or 12 years ago. When they started coming to my mailbox, when I started looking at them, there was an unearned balance, and there still is, but now it’s about half of what it was when I first started getting the statements. So the stuff steadily does sell, you know. I’m glad to say that people see…there is some level of interest still in the records. I’m not that interested in them, myself. I never play my Warner Bros. records.
MC: I don’t listen to them. But some of them are nice, I think. Some of them might even be great.
BE: The one album that I never hear you talk about is Mary Jean & 9 Others, which is arguably my favorite album of yours.
MC: Oh, that’s nice. Well, you know, it’s cool, I like that one, too. I particularly like the playing and I guess what you would call the musical textures, all the lyric guitar parts, the arrangements and the structures of the songs I like. Some of the lyrics are kind of throwaway to me. I just couldn’t really focus that well during those years. Couldn’t think clearly all the time, you know. But again, I’m not knocking the stuff. I know that I worked hard on it, and when it plays it’s beautiful, I know that.
BE: And you worked with David Kershenbaum for your final album with Warner Bros. I can’t help but think that they looked at his success with Tracy Chapman and thought they could replicate that with you.
MC: I think he approached me, is what happened. I ran into him somewhere and he just sort of said, “Hey, yadda, yadda, yadda. Let’s do a record sometime,” or “I would love to do a record with you,” or something like that. I think that’s how that happened. I mean as you can imagine, some of those Warner Bros. albums were made under a lot of duress, you know. Hopefully you can’t tell, but it was really just an awkward situation. I just begged them to let me off the label after my second album and they wouldn’t. I remember sitting in an office with myself and Lenny (Waronker) and Mo (Ostin) and the guy who was my manager at the time, he was just sort of in the corner somewhere. And I just laid out my case to them, “Guys, why don’t we just like walk away, and ‘Thanks, it’s been great’?” And they said, “No, we really believe in you,” and all this crap. So I just had to go on from there, it was really hard to do. But I had some fun…again, I love to make records. I just tried to learn whatever I could learn as I went along. But it was really hard to do.
BE: That’s really funny, because that would never happen now. If a band released a huge record and then the next one didn’t quite sell as much, the label would probably just drop them.
MC: I know, it was a much different time back then. But part of it was they didn’t want me to go someplace else and be successful, because that would make them look bad. It was their egos, and the prestige of the company, and so on and so forth. That’s really what they were protecting, you know?
BE: Well, they did have a reputation of being very artist-friendly, and dissing Marshall Crenshaw would have contradicted that.
MC: You know what, there was some truth to that, too. Because I did have good friends there and my A&R person, she really always believed in me. And she was a great friend of mine, and I wanted to please her. But a really bad precedent was set after my first album, and then I just could never recover from that. Again, I’m proud of what I have managed to accomplish.
BE: I never understood the controversy behind the sound of Field Day. I personally think “Hold It” is one of the coolest things you’ve ever done.
MC: Yeah, we really had fun…it was late at night and I think that was the last thing we did. In fact, we had to finish the record that day, because Steve [Lillywhite, the producer] was leaving, and I was leaving. I actually left the studio and went to the airport to go and do something else. I wrote the lyrics while I was doing the vocal, which is really…I mean, it’s not the way I like to do things, but that’s the way it went. But when we mixed the album we were really…the whole record was like that. We were just experimenting and having fun. I was telling Steve, “I really love this radio station in New York, WLIB, it’s all Caribbean music and they play lots of dub reggae and all this great stuff. So why don’t we fool around with some of that.” And he knew what it was about, so we just did it. In the end it was a salute to Mikey Dread, or something like that.
BE: I saw you do an acoustic show with Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze. Now how did that come about?
MC: Oh, you saw that show at the Park West?
BE: Yeah, was that just a one-off thing?
MC: Yeah, it was.
BE: Wow, lucky me. How did that come together?
MC: I don’t know. I guess somebody just thought of it and asked us if we’d do it, and we said yeah. That was pretty much it, pretty straightforward. But yeah, that was my last time at the Park West. I always loved that joint. We used to sell it out all the time, two nights. For a while, we were on a circuit that I really loved. I guess it was mostly like 1,000 seaters, you know, we played that place; we played First Avenue in Minneapolis.
BE: That’s a great venue.
MC: A couple of theaters in various towns. I was really satisfied with that. I never really wanted to be like an arena rock act, you know? I never aspired to that. Maybe that’s another problem.
BE: I would say you’re probably one of the few. I think most of the bands that get into music…they just want to make lots of money.
MC: Well, that’s okay, but it was really records with me, you know? That’s really where my head was at, and it still is. Like I’ve said maybe six or seven times, while we’ve been speaking, I just really dig records. I just think it’s a great art form, you know? A good record can just really take you on a trip.
BE: Not to bring everything back to the Beatles again, but are you curious to play “The Beatles: Rock Band” when it comes out?
MC: No, I don’t play video games. Not at all. Actually no, I have no interest in it whatsoever.
BE: How do you feel about them in terms of being able to promote back catalog material?
MC: That’s all good. I have a ten-year-old son, and he went through a couple years of really loving “Guitar Hero.” And he picked up a lot of his musical taste from “Guitar Hero,” like, he really loves Rush and Ozzy Osbourne and that kind of stuff. I’ve said to him once or twice, “Dino, when I was your age, I was never interested in music that was 20 years old or music that my parents listened to. I would run in the other direction from it most of the time.” At least that’s when I was a child, you know? That’s how I felt. But kids in his age group, they love classic rock, and it’s because of video games. To me, that stuff…I don’t know if it’s really worthy of longevity. Of course a lot of it is, I don’t want to say that. Some of it, to me, is just crap. But it’s just personal taste, you know, I’m not knocking it. Anything that gets people interested in music is good. I wish somebody would come out with like a “Count Basie Rock” video game. Maybe I would get one of those.
BE: Where you can be a conductor?
MC: Like swing bands instead of rock bands. How about that?
BE: You know, they’ve got “DJ Hero” coming out, why not “Swing Band”?
MC: What’s that again?
BE: They’ve got a “DJ Hero” coming out.
MC: “DJ Hero”?
BE: Yeah, where you can work a turntable instead of a guitar.
MC: Sure, why not? It’s all good, you know? It’s all good.
BE: What do you have lined up? Any touring plans?
MC: Well I’ve got a lot of dates coming up, beginning of September and going through October. There’s something in the U.K. at the end of October also. Which is great, I’m really anxious to get over there.
BE: I suppose you have to play “You're My Favorite Waste of Time” when you go over there, right?
MC: I don’t know, that’s a good question. I may pretend like I don’t know the song or something. I’ll say, “What do you mean? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Because I never liked that Owen Paul record. I mean, I love that he recorded it, but…
BE: Well, it’s very much of its time.
MC: Yeah, I was really shocked when I heard it the first time. I mean, you know what [my version] is like, right?
BE: Oh, yeah.
MC: My version is just like real…I mean it’s a really good rock and roll track, my version.
BE: I love the sound of the drum on that, that big, cavernous Dum, Dum, Dum.
MC: Yeah, that’s actually a field drum that I have. But anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, The tour dates mostly so far are east coast and Midwest. I just got a gig in New York City on the 4th of November at the City Winery, that’s a good place. There’s a great festival out in San Francisco that we’re going to play called the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Which is like, everybody who is good is on this thing. I’m just so anxious to get there and see all the acts.
BE: Who else are you playing with?
MC: You would have to look. I remember Neko Case is on the bill. I think the Flatlanders are on the bill. I love those guys. I forget, there’s like 100 acts, you know? Los Lobos, maybe. You’ll have to check it out. It’s all over the map, really.
BE: [Looking through lineup online] Yeah, you’re not kidding. I’m looking at the lineup right now. Marianne Faithfull, Okkervil River…
MC: Marianne Faithfull, how cool is that?
BE: Very cool. Richie Havens is playing?
MC: Yeah, Richie Havens is great, too.
BE: Billy Bragg, Old 97’s. Wow. That’s going to be awesome.
MC: If you really look carefully in there, you’ll see MC Hammer, also.
BE: (Laughing) I see Robyn Hitchcock. Yeah, you’re right, there’s MC Hammer, right after Gillian Welch. That’s funny.
MC: Yeah, so I’m really looking forward to that. And let’s see, so far only about seven or eight of these gigs are going to be band gigs, where I have a band with me. But it’s a really good band. A lot of it is going to be solo, but that’s all right with me.
BE: Well, best of luck with the record. It was great talking to you, and have fun gigging.MC: Thank you, I enjoyed it, too. I’ll see you around.