Robert Ellis Orrall
Interview by George Light (Part 2 of 3)
PSF: Why did you choose Salem to play at?
REO: That's one of these clubs- there's like a circuit of clubs in the Boston area that if you want to get out and have a good time and play for some people and make some money. There's like this circuit that pays really lots of money and they're nice places to play. That's the smallest stage we'll play on that's the most like bar-oriented place we'll play at on this whole little swing we're going to do. But it's just one of those places. We played there a year ago and had a good time. When "I Couldn't Say No" was a Top 40 hit, we played there. There weren't as many people there last year.
PSF: You have a separate publishing contract. Why is that?
REO: First off, I consider myself a songwriter primarily, although I certainly love performing and everything and making records. But even my records are very song-oriented records. They're not just a groove set down with a drum machine for the record. I got a deal with Warner Bros. after I got the deal with RCA which I'm which is just being kind of renewed now. I'm signed to Warner Brothers in the UK and now I'm gonna be signed directly to the United States. Warner Brothers as a company is a publisher that is really a company that's songwriter-oriented. They put writers together like they might fly me out to LA to work with somebody or fly them over to here to get out of Nashville [foreshadowing of REO's future itinerary]. They put me together with like Willie Wilcox the drummer for Utopia is a really good songwriter he writes a lot of Utopia's songs. They put us together to write because they thought our styles were somewhat similar. We really hit it off and we were writing some really good tunes.
PSF: Have you written for people other than yourself?
REO: Well, that's what all of this is for. It's all for people other than myself. Now the trick is you write the songs then you do them demo and give them to Warner Brothers and its their job to go out and place them. They're very good at that. I mean, we've only been concentrating in this area for about the last six or seven months and there are a lot of things that are on the horizon that look good and what happens is (that) an artist decides they like your song and they put like a hold on it, a publishing hold. And I've had a few of those put on and I found out that having someone put a publishing hold doesn't necessarily mean it's going to show up on their next record. So I'll tell you for instance, last year, I had Dave Edmunds put a publishing hold on a tune for about... oh, eight months or so yeah this country and western kind of hoedown tune and ended up not doing it I cornered him at a gig once and said "Why didn't you do my song? You got me all excited." And he said "Ah, it just didn't work out, we just didn't do it." And that's what happens. Right now I've publishing holds on some things. I won't mention who they are because I don't know if they're going to end up on their record. I spend time writing songs that are totally outside of what I do for myself: a lot of country and western stuff, a lot of ballads. Umm, more funky dance stuff than we do although, some of our is getting pretty funky.
PSF: Like "I Hear A Heartbeat."
REO: Yeah, that song for instance, which I wrote for myself, I wrote as my hit single for this record which RCA obviously did not pick as their single which I thought was crazy. That tune I will try to place with somebody else like maybe you know, there's millions of people. See what happens is, Warner Brothers sends me a casting sheet every couple of weeks and just go down the sheet and see what I have and I recommend to them because they don't my songs as well as I do, see. And it says 'Huey Lewis & The News is looking for material and Barbara Streisand is looking for stuff and...'
PSF: [viewing call sheet] Doug & the Slugs.
REO: Doug & the Slugs. You know them?
PSF: I've heard them before, yeah. I've heard one or two songs
REO: I like them a lot. They've never really hit it but they do well in Canada and that's where they're from so... But anyway, I get a sheet like that and that's like a totally separate career, my songwriting.
PSF: Do you get that from RCA or Warner Bros.?
REO: Warner Brothers.
PSF: Huey Lewis & The News is one of their big acts right now I guess.
REO: Actually, Huey Lewis & The News is on Chrysalis so this isn't people that are actually on Warner Brothers records. These are people that Warner Brothers publishing... What happens is that if you're an artist and you want a song, you'll call up Warner Brothers, Chappell, CBS Songs. Call all the big publishing companies and say 'I'm looking for hits.' And then they'll say, 'OK, we'll see what we can find' and then they put you on a list like that and all their songwriters scramble around and say 'what have I got that Huey Lewis can do' because I know he's gonna sell lots of records.
PSF: Switching gears and going back in time a bit, is there anybody in your band whose been with you since you started? I know it sounds like you've been through quite a bit of permutations.
REO: Kook and Donnie have been there since the start.
PSF: And Kook.
REO: Kook is the lead guitar player.
PSF: He was on your right at the concert?
REO: Yeah. Donnie was on my left; he's the bass player.
PSF: Was the triangular thing a bass?
REO: Yeah, that's a newfangled bass. Very, very hip modern bass.
PSF: Kind of sitar-ish almost.
REO: Well, they sound like they're what you're hearing a lot on most records now. A lot of people (are) playing those basses, a Steinberger bass. [In all likelihood the famous L-series] And then David, my drummer, he came along a little after. He's been with the band for like 4 years so it's not like... I mean, he's been a pretty main staple. And my keyboard player is new. So I brought my old keyboard player up on stage on the last song last night. He's been on the road with Orion the Hunter
PSF: Orion, yeah, I heard you mention that.
REO: Yeah, so the poor guy... I felt really bad. He said last night 'can I come back in the band now, I'm home.' So he had went on this (other) tour and now he's done and now we're playing (without him) and now he's bumming out. So maybe we'll just have him come up and play with us more often. Eddie Gringas' my keyboard player now. It's funny 'cuz Eddie's new to the band but he actually played on the first record. Played Hammond on there as a guest.
PSF: Are most of these people then local? RE: Yeah. David's from Somerville.
PSF: How does one go about putting together a band?
REO: Mine is not the way to do it. Most people put ads in the paper, put ads up at Wurlitzer's and stuff like that looking for... ‘we're interested in these kind of musical styles, blah blah blah.’ I just called up my friends from high school. Said ‘what are you doing?’ And Donnie and Kook said nothing much. They had just quit a band. Like a show band. So I said ‘let's do it.’
PSF: These people you knew, had you played together with them in high school?
REO: No, I just knew that they were good. Both of them had real real good reputations. Kook was playing in jazz fusion bands, opening for Miles Davis when he was like 15.
PSF: When you first started say you had cut Fixation, what kind of bars were you playing at then?
REO: Well, we were playing any place that we could play. And we were actually playing before we got the record deal. We were playing any place that we could play for free or for $25 or whatever. Bands don't seem as willing to do that anymore. They go out and think it's just going to happen. They release (a record) before they even play in a bar and they release a single, make a video with some friends that have video equipment and they just make this big splash.
PSF: What were some of the less pleasant places you played?
REO: Ah well, we did play places once in a while that we just didn't fit into that were much more suited for country and western bands or something. I remember once we opened for a lot of bands and not always got treated very well. We made a credo in our band way back then that we'd always treat our opening acts with respect and make sure that we would try to get them a sound check unless we ran into technical problems or something and that we'd never trash our dressing rooms or anything. As a matter of fact, when we were on the road last year with The Kinks and U2 and Greg Kihn the three little legs touring legs we did we actually made it a point to clean up the dressing room and even in a couple of instances put a roller coat of paint in a couple of dressing rooms.
PSF: What was it like opening for say the Kinks or U2?
REO: It was a ball. All those bands it really went a very logical procession. We started opening for Greg Kihn who went to #1 while we were on the road with him.
PSF: With "Jeopardy"?
REO: With “Jeopardy.” And he came back stage the very first night we played with them and said "We're all knocked out by you guys. You guys are really good. We like playing with you" and we said, "well, we're doing about ten dates together," and he said "Really? That's great!"
PSF: So when you're touring, the lead groups don't necessarily know who's going to be opening for them?
REO: Oh no no no, we don't. I don't even know who is opening for us next Thursday, Friday Saturday. Just some band is there and you go "Hi how you doin'?" Generally though, they don't really have much to do with you. They don't like to talk and they treat you lousy, but we had really good experiences. Greg was great; U2 the second night we played with U2, Bono came up to me and said, "Robert, you getting everything you need and are you OK?" Because they had really checked us out before they let us open for them, they wanted to make sure that we were not going to be sexist and not going to be racist and not going to stand against any of the things they stood for. And they really thought that we stood for the same things that they stood for. Like the message songs that we did like "Senseless" and "Facts and Figures" and stuff.
PSF: "Kids with Guns."
REO: "Kids with Guns." I like writing songs about things because you can only go so far writing about relationships and stuff like that.
PSF: Not to harp on this, but just out of interest, what's the kind of weirdest experience you had early on in a bar? What was the strangest thing that ever happened to you...
REO: I don't know the strangest thing, but when I think of bad experiences at the beginning, one really comes to mind. We opened for Molly Hatchett.
PSF: Ooohhh, a famous Jacksonville, Florida band
REO: In a college up in the north, they had like a crew of 24 and three tractor trailers and a huge stage.
PSF: And 3 lead guitars.
REO: The funny thing is that the college had billed it as Molly Hatchett, but they had us billed really big too because we were getting so much airplay on the college radio station. So we thought that we were getting paid a lot of money. This was when Fixation was out. This is good, but we went to set up our equipment, they were letting the people in like in 10 minutes and we were scrambling to get everything set up. And my drummer sat down at his drums and they had set up these big tables in the gym for their crew to eat their food. They had a huge dinner for their crew, Molly Hatchett's crew. My drummer started hitting his drums boom boom boom boom, getting the sound right and these guys started yelling, "Shut Up" and he was like "Hi how ya doin'? We're doing sound check." Boom boom boom next thing you know he was getting pelted with food on the stage. And poor Dave just flipped out and got up and walked of the stage. That was it; we just didn't get a sound check. Because you have no control in those situations. You might have a really good road manager who'd go up and say, "Hey you guys cut it out," but heh what good's it gonna do. You have to have some degree off you have to have some degree of mentality out there to deal with in the first place, and it just wasn't happening with these guys. On the other hand, in just a crazy experience, the first time we ever played The Orpheum Theater, we just walked out on stage. We didn't have a sound check at all.
PSF: Where you opening for anybody?
REO: We were opening for U2 and David Johansen and then we were the first band.
PSF: How long ago was this?
REO: It was back when Fixation  was out. Things have been much better since like Special Pain  came out and "I Couldn't Say No" and all that stuff. We've been headlining a lot and we've been opening for bands that are intelligent and nice. But we walked out on stage and our sound man... it takes a little while for him to get going. It’s a different guy now. There was a 24 channel board all the faders were set at zero and there was no indication as to which fader was for which instrument. And they announced us: "Please welcome... Robert Ellis Orrall!" He had to just take his arms and push everything up like this. You know at sound checks it can take an hour and a half to set everything up perfectly. And that's where he had to start from. He had to quickly scramble and get it together. Pushed everything up to the same place. We laughed when we found out about that after the show. We laughed, I mean, at the thought of him out there going...
PSF: How'd the show go?
REO: Went great. More people still say, "I saw you at The Orpheum when you opened for U2."
PSF: From the conversation that somebody at the Indy had with you when we were setting up, we discovered that you were married. How long have you been married? And does that does that kind of impinge on your music making? There's this impression of rock stars as kinda being wild bachelor types and from what you're saying you don't really sound fit eh …
REO: First off, I've always looked at rock and roll as being like any other job. It's what I do for a living. I mean when you go home from the newspaper or when a lawyer goes home from from a day at court, he doesn't go out and party all night and you know knock back three racks of beer and drink vodka and trash hotel rooms. There's no reason why we should do it either in this business. For one thing, you just don't last very long if you keep that up except for... there are exceptions to the rule.
PSF: We don't need to get into that.
REO: Right, but I've always looked at it as being what I do and I do enjoy letting loose on stage certainly. And just letting everything go. It's great 'cuz it's my release. But when I come home, I like to go out to dinner, go out to movies and we have a close circle of friends I like to get together with. I don't even really like to go out to clubs much.
See the last part of the Orrall interview
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