From page 39 of Classic Rock Magazine October 2003
Overtly spiritual lyrics, no discernible image, no sordid tabloid stories... How on earth did this band get to be a household name in America? Classic Rock talks to singer Ed Kowalczyk about Iive’s career to date, from their defining multimillion-selling album ‘Throwing Copper’ to nearly losing the plot. Best-kept secret: Jerry Ewing
IVE ARE SOMETHING OF AN ENIGMA. MAYBE NOT TO CLASSIC ROCK and its readers, but to many in the UK Live are that rare breed of band that is difficult to categorise. Live don’t have a high-profile image or a desire to grab the headlines, they simply want to record top-quality rock songs. In a country obsessed by the cult of celebrity, Live’s ambivalence towards TV and radio appearances is difficult to fathom. And despite having built up a respectable following during their 12-year career thanks to some wonderfully uplifting live performances – a 1999 show at London’s Electric Ballroom in Camden specifically sticks in the mind – the band effectively remain strangers to Britain’s mainstream media.
But for Live in the US, a land that most people would far more readily associate with the whole celebrity circus, it has been a completely different story. Breaking through with their second album, 1994’s ‘Throwing Copper’, Live’s left-field edge and lack of discernible image meant they struck a chord with the new generation of rock fans who had become entranced by the showbiz-spurning approach of the grunge bands in the limelight at the time.
That may seem somewhat ironic given the more mainstream style of Live’s music, which is built primarily around traditional rock themes. But the rock world is a strange one that rarely panders to orthodox practices. And Live’s whole career has perhaps been unorthodox. Unorthodox, yet wholly successful.
To repeat: Live are something of an enigma.
Strolling around the foyer of one of London’s more salubrious hotels, the members of Live attract little interest from the other, mostly well-to-do guests.
But, as guitarist Chad Taylor, bassist Patrick Dahlheimer and drummer Chad Gracey mingle with assorted members of their road crew and entourage, one is sure that the joke is very much on the unknowing hotel guests. They would surely be showing considerably more interest if they realised that in about an hour-and- a-half’s time these men will be playing in front of about 90,000 people basking in the sunshine in Hyde Park.
Live are opening for Bon Jovi on a short European tour designed to bolster their profile away from the US. Meanwhile, ‘Birds Of Pray’, Live’s sixth album, is reigniting their standing in the home market.
It’s a far cry from First Aid, the band Taylor, Dahlheimer and Gracey formed while still at school in York, Pennsylvania. First Aid once performed U2’s ‘I Will Follow’ at a talent contest. They may have lost the competition, but the seeds for what Live would become were sown. The choice of that cover song was also a move that would have considerable bearing on the band’s career. Live frontman and lyricist Ed Kowalczyk hadn’t joined First Aid when they first showed their U2 colours, but he was singing for the band a few short weeks afterward.
Apparently, out of all four members of Live, Kowalczyk was the real metalhead at school, hanging around with the stoners and proudly displaying the word ‘Ozzy’ on his knuckles – like Ozzy himself.
“Yeah, It’s true,” Kowalczyk says, toying with his glass as we chat while sitting in the hotel bar, and with a sheepish grin crossing his slim facial features. “I was big into heavy metal when I was a kid. Then when I hit, like ,14 or 15 I got in with a new crowd who were really into The Smiths and Joy Division and U2, and I kind of changed.”
U2 seem to be a constant reference point in Live’s career. Although both Live and U2 trade in uplifting songs and positive lyrical imagery, the main difference has always been that Live have always added a more metallic guitar crunch to their sound – which has no doubt gone a long way to endearing them to America, while possibly hindering their progress here in the UK. One could hardly imagine U2 having become quite so huge here had The Edge decided to employ a far heavier guitar sound.
“Absolutely,” Kowalczyk agrees. “I always thought that ‘Beautiful Day’, off ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’, was about as heavy as U2 ever got. Which, conversely, got them on modern rock radio in the United States.
“But that’s pretty much been the most constant influence throughout the history of Live,” he adds. “I think we bring a heavier guitar sound, at least since ‘Throwing Copper’. That really defined our sound for the next several years.
‘Mental Jewelry’ [Live’s 1991 debut album] is quite a different approach, especially sonically.”
It seems that Live – or First Aid, as they were in the beginning– were typical of your average high-school band, the kind that forms every week in cities all around the world. As such, Live are another piece of evidence supporting the idea that we all have the chance to fulfil our dreams.
“I saw this tape of us around the time when we were 17,” Kowalczyk laughs, warming to this theme. “We jumped up onstage in the school cafeteria to play this benefit dance thing. We played five of our own songs and even then, in the late 80s, I look back on it and think: ‘Wow, we were really cool’. I don’t think we knew how cool we were. I’m sure people like Alanis Morissette look back and go: ‘Damn, I used to sing dance music’. I look back on our early stuff and we were always a rock band, going for that left-of-centre approach to sound and structure. If you go back a little further than that it gets a whole lot cheesier – but we were safely hidden away in the garage at that point.” From those humble beginnings, things moved along apace for the four-piece: a name change to Public Affection; a self-financed album in 1989 (‘The Death Of A Dictionary’, on their own Action Front label); and finally a year-and-a-half-long residency at New York’s legendary CBGBs club under their present-day name, Live.
“We played about once a month at CBGBs, showcasing. Hilly Crystal [CBGBs owner and booking agent] was such a huge help to us,” Kowalczyk recalls with a smile. “Our original manager, Peter Friedman [who sadly died in 1998], somehow got us paid. Sunday and Monday night were audition nights; there’d be like nine bands and nobody got any money. Somehow Peter got us bucks for gas and a spare tyre for our car. CBGBs at that point was starting to come back around again. It had the best sound system in New York City and it was the natural place to go to bring people to hear you.”
Slogging away for a year and a half seems like such a long time. Certainly, many bands would have given up well before that.
“It was a long time back then,” the singer says. “But a year and a half goes by real quick nowadays. Back then it was real do or die. We had university and whatever our parents wanted us to do hanging over our heads; we had to get a deal or – God knows. Right before we actually got the deal from [Radioactive Records’] Gary Kurfist we did think about giving it up, but then we got the contract. At the time, we were ready to take a break from the showcase scene and get back to basics. Not to fuck it off, but to go back to playing the local scene. And as soon as we decided we were gonna do that, the next week we got a deal.” No sooner had Live signed on the dotted line, they were in the studio with Jerry Harrison, guitarist with Talking Heads, working on their ‘Mental Jewelry’ debut.
Getting Harrison to produce “was down to the Gary Kurfist connection, because he was Talking Heads’ manager,” Kowalczyk says. “We’d done that self- financed album and a couple of those songs made it onto ‘Mental Jewelry’. That record was really fun and strange. We were trying to find out who we were going to be. It was kind of new wave, kind of rock, it didn’t really know where it was at.” It must be said that ‘Mental Jewelry’ is not this writer’s favourite Live album.
Nor, it seems, is it too many others’.
“Me neither,” Kowalczyk says in agreement. “We were writing most of those songs when we were 18 years old. We were still trying to figure out how to do it, to work out how to make records and what we were going to be. The years between ‘Mental Jewelry’ and ‘Throwing Copper’ were, for me personally, real defining years of young adulthood and moving into a direction of real confidence.
And also of becoming a songwriter. The rest, of course, is history as far as the band’s concerned.” Perhaps one reason for ‘Mental Jewelry’ not being widely regarded as one of Live’s better records, music aside, is the lyrics. While Kowalczyk has always maintained an overtly spiritual approach (another U2 connection), an over- reliance on the thoughts of Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti seemed too much, too soon for such a young band.
“It was a point in my life when I was simultaneously becoming interested in those kind of philosophies as well as becoming the singer and songwriter in the band,” Kowalczyk explains. “The two things kind of merged in my life as deep interests. And the beautiful thing about being in a band that had a blank slate, as we hadn’t defined ourselves at the time, was that I could fill that with whatever I wanted. Another benefit of growing up together was that we really didn’t have any idea of what it was going to be like in the future. And that’s remained with me ever since. I actually think ‘Birds Of Pray’ is the most down-to-earth, human, lyrical approach that I’ve done in a long time.” ‘Mental Jewelry’ may not have wowed the critics, but it did enough to set Live out on their chosen road. An early tour in the company of Big Audio Dynamite, Blind Melon and Public Image must have proved an eye opener for the band.
“Totally,” Kowalczyk laughs. “I was 19 years old, couldn’t even drink yet, and I’m on the road with John Lydon, hanging out, sitting in bars together, thinking, ‘what the fuck, this guy’s completely off his head’. And these were his later years!”
ETWEEN THE RELEASE OF ‘MENTAL JEWELRY’ AND 1994’S
B‘Throwing Copper’, Live spent three years learning the ropes. It was a startling study in growing up. In place of the heavy mysticism and strange, unconventional sound of the debut record, the follow-up was full of huge, uplifting melodies, crashing guitars and directly appealing songs.
‘Throwing Copper’, from the slow-building yet emphatic opener ‘The Dam At Otter Creek’, through the crashing chorus of ‘I Alone’, to the biting ‘Shit Towne’ and ‘Lightning Crashes’ – the latter written in memory of a classmate killed in a road accident – sounded like a completely different band. It sold by the bucketload and it shot Live into the stratosphere.
“I think it’s ten million now,” Kowalczyk muses. “It’s sold a lot, I don’t know quite how many. It still holds the record in Billboard magazine for the longest debut to No.1 – 52 weeks from hitting the charts to getting to the top slot. But also the music business was a lot different then, and it’s changed dramatically. They [the record-buying public] don’t have the attention span of two weeks, let alone a year.
We got to put out two or three singles, and got to go on a club tour with Vic Chesnutt in the summer of 1994 to the summer of 1995 playing arenas. It was pretty amazing.”
➳ Although Live’s sound was more mainstream than anything coming out of Seattle when ‘Throwing Copper’ was released, the lack of ‘hair band’ image – or indeed any image – actually helped their path to success.
“Oh, definitely,” Kowalczyk agrees. “It was an interesting time. If ‘Mental Jewelry’ did anything it set us up as a band that didn’t have that normal pop approach. Although we weren’t there yet, we were doing something different, saying all these wild things about spirituality and stuff. And people were like, okay, what’s next? “I always tell this story that I only owned like five records when we made ‘Mental Jewelry’,” he continues. “I hadn’t really cut my teeth to any depth about the history of rock’n’roll. But I had two friends who were kind of like my guitar- rock tutors and I found out about bands such as Hüsker Dü and Dinosaur Jr. And that coincided with the explosion in Seattle. I really decided the guitar was a means to give us more dynamics and more dimension, so that’s really what those early years were all about.” Looking at the albums Live have recorded since 1994, it’s easy to see ‘Throwing Copper’ as a statement of intent.
“We kind of defined the album art form for ourselves with ‘Throwing Copper’ and kept it there,” Kowalczyk agrees. “Whenever we write a bunch of songs, we always know which song is going to open the record and which song is going to close it.”
Still, the band maintain that despite being assured at the time that they had recorded a fine album with ‘Throwing Copper’, they had absolutely no idea of the monster they had created.
“No, not commercially,” Kowalczyk says. “We knew that artistically we had taken a giant leap forward, a transformation beyond what I could ever imagine. I think we thought we’d go out on the road and see what happened. But we weren’t prepared for what did happen.” Many people find the sudden arrival of success’s rich trappings difficult to handle. And that was very much the case with Live.
“The three or four years after that [the success of ‘Throwing Copper’] was probably a time of integration. It took us time to become accustomed to being a really popular rock band. It really did
take some considerable time. I think [third album] ‘Secret Samadhi’ was a real rebound from all of that.” Despite selling some four million copies, ‘Secret Samadhi’, released 1997, is often seen as a failure. But that view is questionable. The album may be darker than ‘Throwing Copper’ – perhaps something that came about due to the enormous success the band were trying to deal with at the time. But ‘Secret Samadhi’ scored at least two direct hits: ‘Lakini’s Juice’ and especially ‘Rattlesnake’, the outstanding opening track – a guitar-driven, hook-laden, mid-tempo rocker that set the mood for the entire record.
“I love that song,” Kowalczyk enthuses.
But you don’t play it live any more!
“We did on the ‘Secret Samadhi’ tour though,” he counters. “There’s some great songs on there. But it took at least three or four years, to ‘The Distance To Here’ [released in 1999], for us to start to re-emerge. My confidence and happiness started to return. You start from nowhere and you’ve got loads of confidence, and then you discover that all your friends are millions of people who’re picking apart everything you do. It took me most of the late 90s to deal with that. You need to have a thick skin to deal with the realities, having a few bucks extra and what that entails. Another reason why we’ve been a band so long is because we’ve been together since we were so young and could see it through with each other.” IVE’S COMMERCIAL SUCCESS HAS ALWAYS BEEN PUT DOWN TO Lthat multimillion-selling second album, ‘Throwing Copper’. Which makes that record something of a double-edged sword: a great, unexpected success, but also the benchmark by which anything else Live do will always be measured. Of course, ‘Secret Samadhi’ and its more ebullient follow-up, ‘The Distance To Here’, can hardly be deemed failures. Yet that is how history currently portrays them.
“A friend of mine, Ken, calls that the calculus of pain,” Kowalczyk laughs. “It somehow doesn’t measure up. Even ‘V’, which was our least-selling album, sold a million copies. But we had our first No.1 single with that record and some amazing artistic successes for me personally; there were real touring highlights.
But it seems ridiculous to measure things like that because I’m happy with every record I’ve done.”
Live did seem to drop off the radar somewhat with ‘V’, though. Time and a place – in particular September 11, 2001, the date of the terrorist attacks in the US – played a major part.
“The record came out September 18, 2001,” Kowalczyk recalls. “People weren’t even going out to buy milk, let alone records. It was a very strange time to be promoting an album. People weren’t going to concerts and things. We supported Jane’s Addiction to promote that record, and that tour wasn’t going very well.
“I think at the end of the year we felt we could handle it,” he insists. “I was about to become a parent, so we went to Australia, came back and took a year to write ‘Birds Of Pray’, and then another six months to make it. And I think we sounds like a really confident, rested band.
“The one thing that ‘V’ did for us was that it ended people’s expectations of Live,” Kowalczyk adds. “We knew we had our fans and we were established, so we’d kind of gone full circle. We’d seen the ups and the downs and now we felt like we had a clean slate. So [for ‘Birds Of Pray’] we just decided to get in a room, turn the guitar amps up and really have a kind of extraneous approach.
“I was writing songs that had really straightforward, direct lyrics,” he reveals.
“They didn’t need a whole load of experimenting on. We got a real workhorse producer, went in and really crafted the sounds. And, lo and behold, ‘Heaven’ [opening track on ‘Birds Of Pray’] is one of the fastest-rising singles we’ve had out of the box in America. So we’ve seen all the different angles.” So it seems that, as with ‘Throwing Copper’, Live have once more benefited from good timing with ‘Birds Of Pray’. They have most certainly rediscovered the hungry bite of a band eager to rock – and therefore the Bon Jovi support dates couldn’t have come at a better time.
“Right. That’s what’s been going on,” Kowalczyk confirms. “So far, we’ve done about 12 shows with Bon Jovi. It starts out with the audience looking at us like, what’s going on? But by the end of the show they’re fans. It’s definitely working.
It’s challenging, too. We’re all getting off on it because we know what we gotta do when we get up there. It’s a real kind of sink-or-swim situation – and we’ve been swimming. And it’s fun. I do enjoy it.” Ironically, Live’s non-image has almost become their image, even if Kowalczyk’s shaved head is the easiest visual reference point.
“Yes,” he agrees. “We cut our teeth on bands that didn’t care about what they looked like. I didn’t know what Michael Stipe looked like until I was 21and I had already been listening to REM for five
years. But these were the bands we were into, where music was the absolute focus, so we never really cared about that. Even when ‘Throwing Copper’ was doing what it was doing, it was still not real cool to care about that. With the whole Seattle thing, if you looked up from your shoes and smiled you were just a dork and you might as well have just gone home.
“Things have lightened up since then,” Kowalczyk continues. “But it never really dawned on us to bother about image that much. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been around for 12 years making records. I remember when ‘Lightning Crashes’ was a massive hit and all over MTV our manager said: ‘Go home, make a new record’. Radio put out ‘All Over You’ on their own, it wasn’t a single we chose. They just started playing it because they needed something else to play.
“We’ve always looked at our career as one where we’ll be around for, like, 20 years,” he considers. “We’ve never looked at it any other way. We’ve been blessed to have people around us who have helped us make really good decisions about what you do or don’t do, and how much you milk things and when it’s time to quit and when it’s time to go away.” Does Kowalczyk think Live would get a deal these days, if they were just starting out?
“I’d say we were meant to have a deal at some point,” Kowalczyk believes. “We’d have created our own record company if necessary. These days there’s just like two or three record companies, basically. They’re all under these huge umbrellas with a shrinking profit margin. That’s incredible to me, that they sell millions of CDs for 20 dollars apiece and somehow they don’t have any money to spend on bands. My brother’s coming up at the moment and it’s very hard for him.” But things are not so difficult for Ed Kowalczyk and his friends. As ‘Birds Of Pray’ gathers momentum in the US, the summer is likely to see them reclaiming glory on their home turf before they return to Europe to consolidate the good work done on the Bon Jovi jaunt. It’s clear that Live are enjoying themselves.
“Yeah, I think it took us a while to figure that out,” Kowalczyk grins enthusiastically. “When we started everyone was so serious, with the weight of the world on their shoulders, but now I think we’ve found a way to deal with it and enjoy it. And it’s become a smaller world for us rather than a bigger one.” Live are, I point out as we shake hands and say our goodbyes, a rock band after all. And it’s supposed to be fun. Like going to school with ‘Ozzy’ scrawled across your knuckles, one might say.
“Exactly,” Kowalczyk laughs. “We’re having a blast.” ■