Life aboard the Speedwagon

Thursday, September 13, 2007

It's been a long, strange trip (forgive the corny Dead reference) for the members of REO Speedwagon. The band started out 36 years ago with a style that could be described best as hard rock, before venturing into the ballad days of the '80s, then dropping largely out of the picture during the '90s. Now the Speedwagon is rumbling on again. The band released a new studio album this year, "Find Your Own Way Home", and launched a tour in support. On Sept. 14 the Speedwagon will venture into Cape to play the SEMO District Fair. Singer, guitarist and principal songwriter Kevin Cronin recently phoned in to talk to OFF about the changes the band has seen over the years and why he's excited about playing our little fair.

OFF: There are a lot of people excited about the band coming to play our fair.

KEVIN CRONIN: Well, you're right in the heart of REO Speedwagon territory there. We planted our flag in Cape Girardeau years and years ago. We peed on a tree right there and we claimed it.

It's the whole St. Louis, Missouri-ish area. We got our start in Southern Illinois, Champaign, Illinois, so St. Louis is the major city that really accepted us and started playing our music, and KSHE was the first radio station that really kind of embraced us. So that whole area of the country ... we consider that hometown gigs in that area.

OFF: I've always read that you're a Midwestern band at heart.

KC: Obviously people know our music all over the world, we've been very fortunate in that way, but there's something about when you come back to the part of the world where you got your start ... it's almost like the hometown baseball team, it's an intangible, but you just feel it. People know the songs a little bit better, they're just a little bit more familiar with the band. It's just a great feeling ... especially in smaller towns in the Midwest, when REO comes to town it's a big deal in those towns.

I live in Los Angeles right now ... so you can't swing a cat without bumping into a celebrity around here, so it's not that big a deal. But when we come to the smaller towns in the Midwest, people get really excited ... so that's a good feeling for us just because our music means so much to the people in the Midwest. We love what we do and we give it ll we've got every night, but we're human, and when the audience has just got that little extra intangible thing going on, we feel it and we feed on it ... There's just nothing like it.

OFF: So what have you guys been doing to support the new album?

KC: We did about five weeks ... in an SUV with a couple of acoustic guitars, driving around the Midwest, going to radio stations with the new CD, the old fashioned way, knocking on doors, going into the studio, playing the acoustic guitars and pretty much singing for our supper.

We met a lot of people, we really brought it back to our roots in the Midwest. Literally, I think we went to like, in a month we visited, I think 73 different radio stations.

You don't do that unless you feel pretty strongly and pretty proud of a new album. At this point in the game ... to be sitting here in 2007 and to have the feeling inside of the band, and also have that feeling reinforced from critics and friends and other people in the business that this is one of the best, if not the best, REO Speedwagon record ever, it's a pretty rewarding feeling to think that we could be possibly doing our best work at this stage in the game.

And why not? There's the old conventional wisdom that people reach their artistic and intellectual and sexual peak right at age 30, and I'll tell you, in the case of our band, artistically I think we're just hitting our peak, intellectually I'm learning more about the world around me, about my own makeup, about how to be a better friend, a better father, a better husband and sexually I'm as horny as ever. So I don't see us having reached our peak and heading downhill yet.

OFF: How did you get the name of the album?

KC: I'll tell you what it's not: people have said it sounds like you went out on a date with a girl and as you got to know her, you didn't like her, so you stopped the car and told her to get out and find her own way home. That really wasn't where it came from.

Really the emotional centerpiece of the CD is the second cut, which is called "Find Your Own Way Home". One of the things about this record ... that we're kind of proud of as a band, is that, in this day and age of cherry-picking songs for your iPod, when I grew up you went in and bought the new Who album or the new Crosby, Stills and Nash album ... nowadays people download one or two cuts and that's it. In a way I can't blame people because artists got a little lazy there for a while and they were putting out records that had 10, 12 songs and maybe one or two of them were any good and the rest of them didn't make the grade.

What we're doing, we're trying to really ... to reinvigorate the whole idea of the LP as an art form. All the songs on this record came from a very compact amount of time, when there was a lot going on in our band and a lot going on in our lives and the songs on this record are a reflection of a story, when you put all these songs together, that's how you get the whole story.

"Find Your Own Way Home" really, this song is about the challenge of keeping a long-term relationship. Anybody can have fun with someone else for a few months ... the honeymoon is a great period in a relationship.

To me, the world is based on, people need to stick together. There came a time when I think we started breaking up relationships too flippantly. For a while there, it was like, you stayed together no matter what. People got together and had children and they just stayed together and they never even questioned it. Then the '60s came along and it became a freer way of living, do whatever feels good, and if the relationship doesn't feel good anymore, then end it ... If there's some horrific behavior going on in a relationship then obviously, changes have to be made. But I also think that just because someone pisses me off one day that doesn't mean you have to give up on the whole family.

Our record is really about all the different sides of love, not just the romantic, candle-lit side but also the muddy underbelly as well. When you listen to the whole record it's an optimistic outlook on the future of relationships. I think that's what the world needs more of, a little more commitment, a little more sticking in there when the times get tough.

OFF: What is your live show like these days? Will we hear "157 Riverside Avenue"?

KC: If they're nice to us they will (laughing).

"157 Riverside Avenue" in particular, if we play that song, it's the last song we do, because by the end of that song, I'm drained, anything I've got left when we play that song is left on stage at that one.

There's four or five songs off the new record that we like to play every night, then we have what we call our "core songs" ... if we don't play a song like "Time For Me To Fly" for example, there will be an angry mob outside the tour bus, which we'd like to avoid at all costs.

And then there's the songs that we call the audibles ... the analogy being a football team, where you walk up to the line of scrimmage and you take a look at the defense and you decide what play you're going to call. There's the set list and then there's the audibles, and that's really kind of the fun of it, because everybody's gotta be on their toes, from the crew to the sound guys, the light guys, everybody in the band ...

It really does depend on what area of the country we're in. And during the day I like to get out, I like to get out and walk around the town. I'll go to the gym or I'll take a walk through the downtown section of a small town just to get a vibe and sit down in a restaurant, talk to people, sometimes people know who they're talking to, sometimes I'm wearing a baseball cap and I'm just a guy taking a walk. So I'll kind of try to catch a vibe on the town ... based on the gut instincts I get from whatever city we're playing, that'll go into the songs that I'll audible that night, too.

The most important thing is that we entertain the audience, they're paying their hard-earned money to come and hear us play. But we also have to keep ourselves into it ... and the audience ends up the ultimate winner on that one. I think that's why we're still doing that after all these years ... it's like a marriage, you gotta keep it interesting. You can't make love in the same position every night, you gotta call some audibles in bed, too.

OFF: One of the most famous facts about the band is its liquid lineup over the years. Some bands with a lot of personnel changes try to cover up that fact, but you guys even have a graphic of your Web site listing all the members and the years they were with the band. Why haven't you tried to downplay the lineup changes?

KC: We're not into hiding things. Our thing is that we tell it like it is. Every song on this record is the truth, it all happened to one of us. You may not find out what exact occurrence happened to what particular person in the band to protect the innocent and the guilt, as the case may be, but we're proud of everything that we've done. There's no sense in hiding things, people know, why pretend something that isn't there.

To me, art is about laying it out there and letting people know who you are and giving people a context for the songs so that they can understand them better. We've been together for a long time. One of the things that's maybe unique about our band is everybody on that list on our Web site, I've still got their phone numbers. In fact I owe Gratzer (Alan, 1971-1989) a phone call right now, we've played phone tag for the last couple of months. Everyone who's been in or out of the band, it was a mutual decision for everybody to come and go. Even if there was a little tension at the moment ... you always look back and you go, yeah, that kind of made sense.

Basically, the spirit of REO Speedwagon is larger than the sum of all its parts, and that's how we've looked at it.

Kevin Cronin was interviewed by OFF editor Matt Sanders.

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