by Erika Ray
The story of how Billy and I became friends is long and ridiculous, so I’ll save you from the ramble. Just know two things: I’ve known him for around 16 years and when I think of music, I think of Billy. He is a vat of musical knowledge. He has concrete opinions and isn’t able to hide his disgust if you talk about the merits of a Britney Spears song. He tries because he hates confrontation so he doesn’t openly berate you, but you know you’ve disappointed him. I can relate because I have very firm opinions on photography styles. It’s hard to bite your tongue when something so different from your core is presented. It’s difficult to squelch your anger when someone has taken a bad turn with your passion. But it’s absolutely impossible to squash your enthusiasm, so I decided to ask him some music questions.
How come there aren’t more bands with female lead singers? Or all female bands?
You know, it’s the same thing with politics, literature, film, corporate America, etc: loud, boring white guys with a huge sense of entitlement try to control everything and eventually women and people of color say, “Jesus H, you are so boring Pat Boone/Ronald Reagan/James Cameron/Donald Trump, I am going to take the mic now and add some flavor to this party!”
I will say that it seems like it’s better than it was ten years ago. From mega stars like Katy Perry and Rihanna to indie-poppers like Hospitality, Vivian Girls and Tegan & Sara, women are much more prevalent in rock. That’s definitely a good thing. True ROCK is sweaty and aggressive – I’m talking about AC/DC and Fugazi and James Brown, the Godfather of Soul! And today, I think that it’s much more acceptable for women to get sweaty and aggressive. This ain’t the Grand Ole Opry. Shit, this ain’t TRL. Girls are rocking. If I have a daughter some day, I will immediately hand her a guitar. A guitar is empowering. It’s like a sword – except no one is gonna call a kid with a guitar a D&D dork.
Please explain your Van Halen love. Because I honestly don’t get it. But I want to understand.
This answer will be long. My love is strong.
I was seven years old the first time I really listened to them in 1983. A friend of the family, who was much older than me, gave me the cassette Diver Down – which is universally lauded as their worst record with David Lee Roth. It’s mostly covers – Pretty Woman, Dancing In The Streets, etc – that the band released on the fly to keep the record label off their backs. The song “Big Bad Bill is Sweet William Now,” which is an old-timey cover written in the 1920s with a clarinet solo, featuring Dave at his vaudeville-best (a perfect precursor to “Just a Gigolo”), totally floored me – especially since Sweet William was one of my mother’s nicknames for me. I instantly became a fanatic and had a grade school buddy’s dad, Rick Cunningham, dub all of the early Van Halen records to blank Maxell cassettes for me. By the time 1984 came out, my 8-year-old life was dedicated to Van Halen (and a little bit of Huey Lewis). The “Panama” and “Hot For Teacher” videos took me over the top. I actually wore through three versions of 1984. The tapes just stopped playing from overuse. I would pour through the lyrics and credits with each listen. I drew the VH logo on everything – my bike, dust on cars in parking lots, bathroom stalls. The band was larger than life. The music was so huge and fun. And the records were so short (always 8-9 songs) and easy to digest because one minute they were playing blistering heavy metal like “Atomic Punks” and a few songs later, a mostly acoustic gasser like “Ice Cream Man,” cheeky and fun. Eddie played the guitar like a goddamn alien who was mad at earth and Dave referred to himself in third person as the most incredible performer in the world – and he was! I would record six hour segments of Mtv with our VCR, then fast forward through the tapes, looking for their videos or news clips.
I had no idea that most of the songs were metaphors for humping on coke. But you show me an 8-year-old boy in 1984 who didn’t love Van Halen, and I’ll tell you he was a sad fucker. Because that band is built for 8-16 year old boys – aggression, sick humor, huge solos, sing-a-long choruses to pump your fists, too. They were my first love and the reason why I play guitar in front of people, today – even though my music obviously sounds nothing like Van Halen. And honestly, a good portion of my sense of humor was built from that band. I still love them, no doubt, because of the nostalgic warmth it brings to my heart: 8 was a great age. Looking back, they had a ton of impostors, but no one even came close to matching their power – Van Halen had bombast AND substance. They never took themselves too seriously, even though they were incredible musicians. I would name my second son Van Halen Peake if my wife wasn’t such a fun hater.
When was the first time that you realized music was more than just some stuff you heard on the radio? When was it more for you than it was for most people?
Well, speaking of Van Halen, when I fell down the stairs in 1985 while imitating David and Eddie high kicks and landed knee first on a belt buckle, I probably knew I was a bit crazy.
But I really sucked at guitar in grade school because I never practiced. My teacher wouldn’t teach me anything cool beyond an occasional Beatle’s song and my dad wouldn’t let me own an electric guitar. So by 7th or 8th grade, I stopped playing and dug deep into sports – basketball, football and soccer. It wasn’t until college that I started playing again in my dorm room for friends and eventually played an open mic night at Easy Street Cafe in 1997. That changed everything. I was playing these 3-chord, mellow dramatic, sad bastard college songs that I wrote and people seemed to dig it. That’s when I decided I needed a band.
What makes you really angry or upset about music today?
The lack of mistakes. When you listen to a Beatles record, you can hear Ringo hamfisting snare hits. Every time an acoustic guitar shows up on a Led Zeppelin record, I swear to god it’s out of tune. They were totally wasted on LSD and relied completely on microphone placement when engineering the albums! It’s comforting. And organic. No machines!
Modern pop music is so sterile – perfected by overdubs and auto-tuners and musicians who play their instruments like robots. It lacks authenticity. Nothing is organic. Regarding modern indie, don’t get me started on the flurry of foot-stomping, faux-jamboree folk music from spoiled suburbanites driving their parents Subarus. PUKE.
What makes you really excited about music today?
I’m glad that the thieving, major record labels are sinking like the anchors that they have always been and that independent artists have the resources to pave their own way. Miranda Sound was at its peak when the labels were still holding on and the notion of using the web for DIY self-promo and distribution was in its infancy. I feel like if we would’ve been ten years younger, and hit our stride today, we might have been able to make a living playing music. Regardless, we didn’t take enough chances – so it’s a moot point. I’m rambling. In summary, “ha ha, the fat old white guys at Sony and Warner Brothers are going broke! Ha ha!”
What’s the one song you remember singing or swaying with Five that smacked you in the heart? You didn’t expect it, but it hurt. For example with my boys it was Johnny Cash’s “You Are my Sunshine” and Renne & Jeremy’s “Three Little Birds”
When my son, Five, was about 5 days old, I was sitting on the couch and he was crashed on my belly and we were listening to Nada Surf’s Weight is a Gift. When “Always Love” came on, I fell apart. Boogers were running down my nose and dripping on his clothes. It’s more about the tone and instrumentation of the music on that song, and I honestly don’t pay attention to lyrics as much as you’d expect, but the first lines are: To make a mountain of / your life is just a choice / but I never learned enough / to listen to the voice that told me / Always Love, hate will get you every time – which, on paper, is some naive, hippy bullshit. But in the context of the chord changes, it’s gorgeous and so true. I hope he’s a happy kid who will roll with the punches and not sweat the small stuff.
Is there any country song you’d admit to liking? And don’t give me an Alt-County song (I’m on to you) . I’m talking Country country.
I love the Dixie Chicks. Love them! I think I’ve caught myself enjoying a Taylor Swift song before. I hope she inspires little girls to rock. For the most part, I’d sincerely rather get mauled by a grizzly bear than listen to Brad Paisley or Tim McGraw or especially Toby Queef. I wish bad things on that dude and his red Solo cup. Oh yeah, I love “Islands In The Stream” by Dolly and Kenny – and not ironically, I will sing the shit out of that song at a karaoke bar with anyone.
If you’re in Columbus this weekend, good for you! It’s one of our greatest weekends for music and fun: Comfest. Billy and the rest of Bicentennial Bear play on Sunday. Can’t be in Columbus? No worries. Head to Bicentennial Bear’s site, download some tunes, get outside, pour a drink and act like you’re at Comfest. It probably smells better…