INTERVIEW WITH TOM KEIFER
Date: August 4, 2015
Interviewer: Greg Troyan of Lipstick
TOM KEIFER’S DEBUT SOLO ALBUM, ‘THE WAY IT GOES’, HAS BEEN WARMLY EMBRACED BY THE HARD ROCK COMMUNITY SINCE ITS RELEASE IN 2013. THE ALBUM HAS BEEN RECEIVING NEARLY UNIVERSAL PRAISE FROM CRITICS AND FANS ALIKE AND IT’S EASY TO SEE WHY. THE ALBUM HAS PLENTY OF ROCKING TUNES THAT WOULD FIT PERFECTLY ON ANY CINDERELLA ALBUM. THE RECORD ALSO SHOWCASES KEIFER’S GROWTH AS A SONGWRITER AND HIS ABILITY TO COMFORTABLY SHIFT BETWEEN CONTEMPORARY POP-ROCK AND CLASSIC HARD-ROCK WITH GRACE AND CLASS. TOM AND HIS EXCELLENT SOLO BAND HAVE BEEN PROMOTING THE ALBUM WITH AN ARRAY OF TOURING AND PROMOTIONAL APPEARANCES SINCE ITS RELEASE IN 2013, AND IT DOESN’T LOOK LIKE THEY’RE SLOWING DOWN ANYTIME SOON. I TALKED WITH TOM KEIFER ABOUT HIS UPCOMING TOUR DATES, HIS SONGWRITING PROCESS, AND HIS PLANS FOR HIS NEXT SOLO ALBUM. THIS IS GREG TROYAN OF LIPSTICK REPORTING FOR SLEAZE ROXX.
Sleaze Roxx: So Tom, you and I are both hard rock guys that decided to relocate to Nashville. What attracted you to move to Nashville? What is it that brought you to music city?
Tom Keifer: The songwriting is what attracted me. The wheels were kinda falling off the whole ’80s rock thing in the mid ’90s, as we’re all quite aware of, with the grunge movement and all, and Cinderella was drifting apart. I started thinking about doing a solo thing, and so I came here and started writing with people. One thing led to another and I ended up buying a house here and never looked back.
Sleaze Roxx: There’s been a lot of comparisons between the current scene in Nashville and the scene on the Sunset Strip in ’80s. What are your thoughts on those comparisons?
Tom Keifer: I wasn’t really a part of the west coast scene. We came from Philadelphia — the east coast. We weren’t a part of that whole scene out there; playing the strip or playing the Whiskey and all that stuff. We played it many years later. I just played the Whiskey last year with my solo band, so we may have played a couple of those clubs while we were on tour but we didn’t come out of that scene. I know that a lot of people moved out there trying to “get signed” or “make it” or whatever you want to call it, but we always just stayed in Phillie. We did our thing from there, sent our demoes, crossed our fingers and hoped for the best [laughs].
Sleaze Roxx: So you never thought about going to LA to quote-unquote “make it”, you decided to just work the hometown scene and build up from there?
Tom Keifer: Yeah, it never seemed like it was neccesary to leave. When you’re looking to get a record deal, it’s about songs and demos and getting them into the right hands. Most of the record companies may be based in New York or Los Angeles, but you don’t neccesarily need to be in that scene to be discovered. We’re obviously living proof of that. It can happen anywhere. At the end of the day, it comes down to your songs and if you have a unique sound and if you can get it into the right hands [laughs]. We were more looking at lawyers and managers that had connections and just stayed in our hometown. We worked on demos and playing live and putting our demo into the hands of different people who would have the ability to put it through the door at a record company.
Sleaze Roxx: The most beautiful and touching moment of your live show is when you bring out your wife to perform with you. The love between the two of you is very present and can be felt from the audience. It reminds me a lot of the relationship I have with my fiancee, and it’s truly touching. Your wife is also a songwriter, so I was hoping you could tell me about the musical relationship the two of you have and how the two of you connect on that level.
Tom Keifer: She’s my best friend and my soul mate. It’s amazing to be able to write songs with that person. We approach songwriting the same way; it’s all about the lyric and starts with the lyric. A really great song, whether it’s a hard rock song or acoustic song or however you produce the song, at the end of the day, you should be able to sit down on a single instrument and be able to play and sing the song and still have a great song. For me, that means the song has to start with a great lyric and a great melody, and my wife Savannah approaches songwriting the same way, and that makes it very easy to work together.
Sleaze Roxx: ‘The Way Life Goes’ was an album that took a long time to record. How were you able to successfully keep the production sounding consistent over that long recording process and make a coherent album?
Tom Keifer: That just comes down to the mix. There’s so much you can do in a mix. Tracks can be recorded in different studios and at different times, but that’s really the art of mixing, mastering and sequencing; picking the order of the songs so that they flow in and out of each other. With any record that I’ve ever been involved with, the mixing was always the hardest thing because that’s where you’re taking all the elements that you’ve recorded, all the emotions, all the energy, and trying to mix it, literally together and get that sound coming out of the speakers that you heard in your head when you were first inspired to write that song. So, not only are you trying to get that feeling and energy out of the speakers, you’ve also get 10, 12, 14 songs that you’re trying to get the right energy for but make them work together too. That’s always a challenge, particularly on the kind of records I’ve been involved in, because it’s not all one thing. All of the records I’ve been involved in have had a lot of dynamics with ballads, acoustic songs, hard-driving songs, mid-tempo songs, songs with a lot of different feels. Trying to make it all work is what mixing, mastering and sequencing is all about, and it’s the art of making that happen.
Sleaze Roxx: So, a common thing I’ve discovered when talking about ’80s hard rock bands with people, is that there is a trend to hate on quote-unquote “hair metal”, but everybody seems to like at least one “hair band”, while at the same time insisting that the band in question isn’t actually a “hair band”, which is therefore why the band is good. I’ve heard this argument about bands like Bon Jovi, Motley Crue, Ratt, the Scorpions and Cinderella, all of whom are considered to be huge parts of the genre. Do you think it’s time that people just admitted that they like the music and stop making excuses for it? What are your thoughts on the people who like one hair metal band, but then claim said band isn’t a hair metal band?
Tom Keifer: I think that every decade has a visual look to it and a style. The ’60s had a look to it. The ’70s had a look to it. The ’80s got lumped together because of MTV, because it was so in-your-face, 24/7. The visual and the image became as important as the music. And not that it wasn’t in the ’60s or the ’70s — the look of the ’70s is what inspired us. The more glam-edged kinda rock like Aerosmith, The Stones, Janis Joplin, Rod Stewart is what I came up on, and I think in the ’80s, we were all trying to take that to another level. The fact that we had the MTV camera in our face 24/7 made everyone really take it over the top [laughs], and not just in rock! The ’80s were a very colorful time, even in the pop world with people like Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Boy George; everything was just so over-the-top in terms of imagery in the ’80s and I think a lot of it had to do with the camera we had in front of our face, 24/7.
There was a lot of emphasis on image, but at the end of the day, a lot of the artists from that era had a unique sound. Def Leppard sounds very different from Cinderella, sounds very different from Poison, sounds very different from Guns N’ Roses, and Tesla. Everyone had a unique sound. At the end of the day, for me, I think the music world would be a much better place if people listened to music with their ears, and not their eyes. I think that all too many times, too much focus is placed on what people look like. Close your eyes and just listen to music and judge it by that, is where I’m with it.
Sleaze Roxx: Looking at the songwriting credits on a Cinderella album, you’re clearly the principial songwriter for the band, with the vast majority of the band’s songs being written solely by you, with a couple of co-writes here and there. What was the songwriting dynamic between yourself and the rest of the band?
Tom Keifer: Everybody brought in ideas and we kicked around some stuff here and there. I did co-write some stuff with Eric [Brittingham]. I just wrote a lot more than everyone else did. We came into the first record with 50 or 60 songs, the majority of which I had written, so that ups my odds of more cuts on the record [laughs]. That’s the only other way I can describe it [laughs]. Eric brought in some great ideas like “Hot and Bothered”, “If You Don’t Like It” and “Love’s Got Me Doin’ Time.” When somebody brought in an idea that was really great, and we felt inspired to contribute to, it was written and it usually made the record. I think I just wrote more stuff to start with.
Sleaze Roxx: So, I’d like to talk about your Cinderella albums for a bit and go album by album with your thoughts on each album, and where you were at musically when you made them. Let’s start at the beginning with ‘Night Songs’.
Tom Keifer: That was written over a number of years when we were still banging around in clubs. I was playing for a number of years doing covers, and I wanted to get out of that because I wanted to make records. I was thinking about why my heroes got to make records, and that was obviously because they had their own songs. So, I pulled out of the club scene and really got into writing songs and putting together Cinderella. Eventually, we would get together and play out a couple times a month in the Philadelphia area at the few clubs in the area that would let you play originals. We were all original from the get-go; we never played any covers and would play out a couple times a month. We all worked day jobs and focused on writing music and doing demos at night. That’s how it started. It was a deliberate pull out of the cover club scene, and just sitting down with a 4-track recorder and writing songs because I didn’t want to keep playing other people’s music. I was trying to follow in the footsteps of the people I grew up on. I woke up one day and thought, “How come The Stones get to make their own records?” and then the next thought was, “Because they have their own songs.” It was like, Bingo! Start writing songs [laughs]. And I didn’t know what I was doing. I just started writing, and a few good things fell out, I guess.
Sleaze Roxx: What was it like going into the studio to record that first album? Were you nervous at all about entering the studio for the first time?
Tom Keifer: We were excited, more than anything. It’s hard to describe. We were excited to get the opportunity to do that. I don’t remember feeling nervous about it. We were young and green and clueless and just thought we were gonna go in and nail everything, and then we got in there with a seasoned, veteran producer like Andy Johns, and then we ended learning that we didn’t know everything [laughs]. It’s a very different process to just set up in a club and just bang the songs out and have that energy and adrenalline and the crowd, because it’s very easy to play the songs then, but it’s very different when the red light’s recording and you’re in this sterile environment of a studio and trying to capture that same thing and we very quickly learned that the process was a learning curve that we didn’t know a whole lot about. Fortunately, we had a really great teacher to teach us about that.
Sleaze Roxx: Let’s talk ‘Long Cold Winter’.
Tom Keifer: That was all written on the road. I had what we called a “Port-A-Studio”, as it was referred to in the ’80s, and looking back on it, it was not nearly as portable as the studios today [laughs]. It was a giant road-case that opened up and speakers popped out of it, and there were racks of gear popping out of it, you would maybe get an 8-track recording on cassette out of it if you were lucky.
Sleaze Roxx: [laughs]
Tom Keifer: So, I would roll that into the hotel and just sit and write. That was the first time I really left Philadelphia and being on tour was really inspiring. Everything that was going on just inspired a lot of music. All of those ‘Long Cold Winter’ songs were written on the road.
Sleaze Roxx: Was ‘Heartbreak Station’ pretty much the same process of writing on the road?
Tom Keifer: Yeah, because I was well aware of the fact the record company was going to be right up our ass to have another record, and I didn’t want to wait until we got off the road to do that. I wanted to focus on that on the road, so that I could come off the road and be prepared for that. I didn’t want to write the album in a hurry because I knew they’d be coming at us for another record right away. That’s how I approached it on the road. Instead of being the guy and going out partying, I was the guy hanging out in the hotel room with the guitar writing songs for the next record.
Sleaze Roxx: And what about ‘Still Climbing?’
Tom Keifer: A lot of that was written on the road, and some at home, because there was a big space between that and ‘Heartbreak Station’. We actually had some time to work on that album.
Tom Keifer: Another Tom Keifer solo album.
Sleaze Roxx: When do you plan to start recording the next Tom Keifer solo album and how long do you plan on continuing to promote the current album?
Tom Keifer: Well, the current album, as you know, took many years to make it, so we’re not in any hurry to go home. The live aspect with the solo band has been building each year. We’ve been out for a couple years, our dates are picking up and the energy just keeps growing out there. If you look at our tour schedule now through the end of the year, it’s gotten pretty heavy. The demand there is building, so we’re not in any hurry to go home. The record took ten years to make, and it’s taken us a couple years to really establish this solo band, and that’s starting to happen. We’re planning on touring into next year, probably through next summer, and hopefully while that’s all going on, some songs will start to pop out of nowhere [laughs] and maybe we’ll get some demos and recordings down and maybe when we’re done touring next year we’ll follow it up with a solo record. I started to feel inspired again last year and wrote a few things, and that energy is starting to flow again. I just needed a little break after working on this record for so long.
Sleaze Roxx: Understood. And one final question before I let you go. What advice do you have out there for the young kids in bands out there?
Tom Keifer: Be yourself. Don’t chase trends. Just do what you do. If you find what is authentically and uniquely you and develop that and do it the best that you can, eventually, you’ll be the trend.