Tonic : Interview : Chicago : 12.14.2002
by Dave Dalka
From Left: Dan Lavery, Emerson Hart, and Jeff Russo.
Tonic photo by Jayne Chu
Tonic, fresh off the release
of their new album Head on Straight, were recently in Chicago to play
an acoustic set in Nordstrom's lingerie department. The group recently
received two GRAMMY® Nominations for the 45th annual Grammy awards:
Best Rock Performance By A Duo or Group With Vocal for "Take Me
As I Am" and Best Rock Album for Head On Straight. In addition
to their lingerie gig, Tonic performed a Christmas show for a local
radio station which also featured Alanis Morrisette. In between both
of these uniquely different sets, I was able to conduct this rather
rare interview with all three members present at once. I found the three
of them, as well as their tour manager, to be extremely friendly and
courteous; two traits that are very often lost arts by many bands and
the people that work with them.
Dalka: Emerson, you recently moved from Los Angeles to Nashville.
How has being based in different places changed the way you work together
and operate with Dan and Jeff?
Emerson Hart of Tonic: Well, I moved
from Los Angeles about two years ago to Nashville. It was a real good
move for me, I needed to get out of LA for a while and kind of get focused
on song writing again. As far as how it affects the band, it's been
pretty good, the guys fly down when it's their turn, it's kind of like
having custody with a child. They fly down sometimes, and a lot of this
last record wrote in Nashville in my basement and then we did the demos
pretty much in Los Angeles on their turf. It kind of worked out real
well; it's not been that big of a deal.
your last album, Sugar, you signed a new manager, Irving Azoff. In fact, he
is the first person you guys thank on this album, adding "he's helped
me as an artist." Can you expand a little bit upon that?
EH: Well, I think when you bring a manager like Irving Azoff to the table,
his reputation precedes him. He manages the Eagles and he's been in the some
of the biggest rock and roll blessings and catastrophes at the same time he's
been around in history. So, bringing him to Tonic, it really helped us just
kind of take our career to the next step I think. Also his team, Jim Lewi
and Rob Bordan from Tour Together have really helped us a lot as well. I think
he's really a great guy to have on your side.
new album was produced by Bob Rock, who has produced harder albums such as
Metallica's celebrated self-titled album. Why did you choose him, and how
did he make the recording experience different from your previous albums?
Dan Lavery of Tonic: The last record
we recorded ourselves. We produced it ourselves. Bob was one producer
on a very short list of producers whose records we really liked. His
great reputation and experience in the studio kind of allowed him to
be more in control, keep everything focused, keep us focused and enabled
us to make an album very quickly basically, we were done in less than
two months. It was pretty awesome; his sonic abilities speak for themselves.
track got finished first and last and were there any tracks that did not get
included in the album that we might see down the road?
Jeff Russo of Tonic: "Take
Me as I Am" was the first track. The last song was either "Let
Me Go" or "Irish".
EH: I think everything made it to the plate. We walked in with the record
we wanted to make. There were probably only one or two extras and they just
didn't fly. You might hear them down the road, it depends.
MF: Emerson has
been quoted as saying that the lyrics on this Tonic album are very personal.
The title track's chorus on your new album sums up the album's theme:
"I'm keeping my head on straight, so you can trust me again."
Who or what didn't or still doesn't trust you as a group or individually?
EH: Who doesn't trust us as a group?
MF: Yeah, that's what the vocal says…
EH: For me lyrically, it's kind of a song to the music. A lot of the songs
lyrically for me always have two meanings and that is just the way it is there
are always two sides to a coin. I had problems with music for a little while,
keeping my head on straight, keeping focused on Tonic, keeping focused on
making the music we want to make and don't let the industry get you down.
So, the music you can trust in it again.
are your plans as far as touring and making a video go?
JR: We might make a video for the next single. We don't know, we kind of always
wait to see with how a song does. Our touring plans, it looks like in February
we are going to go out to do a tour of the Midwest and Southeast just acoustically.
It's going to be just an acoustic tour for about six weeks, kind of ramping
up to a full tour maybe in the summer of 2003.
there is no drummer that is an official member of the band. What is the story
behind that? It's kind of interesting and unique.
EH: We started out as a four piece and then our original drummer left the
band for family and personal reasons. Since then, we decided that it's easier
for us to run as a unit as three. For some reason, it's just kind of easier
to make decisions. So, since then we have been using studio drummers and session
guys to go on the road with us. It's just been somehow easier that way. We've
never really kind of walked into a situation where we met somebody and were
like "Wow, this is the guy who is the next member of Tonic." But
we've played with some really great people, Joey Waronker, played all over
the record on this last record and played on one song on "Sugar".
He is one of the best drummers in the world to play with. Kevin Murphy, who
plays with us now live, is another great drummer. So, we've been pretty lucky,
to play with some great, great guys.
You Could Only See" was the most played song on Rock Radio in 1997, that's
pretty heady stuff if you think about it over the years. Why do think this
song was so successful?
EH: I don't know, I mean you could say that about any hit song. Sometimes,
it just strikes a chord. I think that song, at that time, people wanted to
hear it and they wanted to believe in that. They wanted to "feel that
stuff". I know "feel that stuff" is probably a stupid thing
to say but it's really that simple. I think some people just attach themselves
to a song.
JR: That particular song has a very universal theme, a very universal appeal.
song still receives a good amount of airplay. Is the extreme focus on this
song sometimes frustrating? I mean, you have many current songs that are just
EH: No, I mean, I guess you could look at it that way, but it's a song that
really helped us move our career. I know I have the utmost respect for the
song. And if that is what people need to identify with us, that's OK. The
problem runs into when you can't connect the dots. That's the problem. We're
one of the bands that came up and we had a string of hits and a lot of people
didn't know it was the same band. They don't know that "If You Can Only
See" is the same band that is "You Wanted More" is the same
band that is "Take Me as I Am". That is the only problem sometimes
with that song, but other than that, bring it on, it's a blessing!
are your influences and inspirations that made you decide to become musicians
and songwriters? And have these changed over time?
DL: Led Zeppelin, Beatles, a lot of what is considered "classic rock"
is probably the main influence among the three of us I would say pretty safely.
It's funny, you go along and appreciate and discover more music, whether it's
new or old, or just something you just never got into whether it's the 80's
or the 70's or the 60's or something brand new, you are always gathering and
learning something from it. I think that I personally still hold those same
original influences dearest and I go back and listen to what I missed the
first fifty times I listened to it.
JR: He pretty much covered it. I think that we are all really influenced by
a good song. Any really good song is going to be influential.
EH: Yeah, the Cure wrote some great songs, the Smiths wrote some great songs,
we go from a song not so much from a band thing.
songs frequently have sad, emotional themes, yet somehow are happy and uplifting.
Many bands can only do one or the other. How do you work to achieve this when
JR: I think we are all bi-polar. (laughs)
EH: I don't think I really think about it. As dark as it may seem, there is
always light at the end of the tunnel. It's kind of like a failsafe or kill
switch, a governor on a rental car, I can only go so far before I'm about
to blow my head off and then I realize, "It's not that bad."
today is much more "silo-driven" in terms of genres than when your
first album came out five years ago. If you had complete control over this,
would you rather be considered Alternative or Rock or something else? Or would
you want to remove these labels altogether and have radio return to it's looser
JR: I would lose all the labels, definitely. Radio was great in the 70's,
when FM radio was all about, you'd hear Aerosmith and Zeppelin on the same
station you would hear the Eagles and anybody else who did like popular songs
back then even if they were a little lighter than heavier and boy did it sound
EH: It did. But, ya know, radio is constantly changing and that is the nature
of it. That is just the way it goes. It goes up and down and in and out. I
think it's actually going to head back the other way, it's got to, it's gone
to the extreme right now. It's probably going to swing back around. There's
a lot of college radio out there. There are people out there that still put
on a record because they smoked pot to it the night before and they love it.
I mean that happens, but it's just in smaller markets. We don't give up hope
just yet that there are some ghosts in the machine that will come out.
MF: When you are finished playing this
evening, you will have had three performances in less than 24 hours? Is that
a record? What is the strangest tour experience you've had other than playing
in lingerie department at Nordstrom's?
All (in unison): No!
DL: That (playing in the lingerie department) ranks though, I got to say.
EH: Top 10! (laughs)
JR: Definitely playing in a war zone, when we went to Kosovo and Bosnia! It
was one of the strangest experiences but also one of the most incredible experiences
we ever had. Flying around in a Chinook Helicopter to bases and getting shot
EH: Not because of the music (everyone laughs)
JR: …playing for the men and women who serve our country the way they
do was an incredible experience.
others stand out?
JR: We did an around the world tour in 13 days! We went from LA to Frankfort,
Frankfort to Berlin, Berlin to Hamburg back to Frankfort, to Singapore, then
to Melbourne, Sydney, Gold Coast, Sydney and then San Francisco, all in 13
days. Didn't we? (everyone laughs)
EH: I was just thinking about the length of time, it seemed so much longer.
has said, "We're not about image. We stake our entire career on the strength
of our songs." This implies some bands don't do the same thing. If you
could change one thing about the music industry what would it be? Play God
for a minute.
EH: If I could change it, I think I would probably just let everybody be able
to be what they want to be. Have everybody be able to be on stage at the same
JR: It's a big show.
EH: Yeah, it's a big show, but there is a plenty of room. I think I would
take away the labels and I have everybody focus on writing songs. Know your
craft. There's a lot of bands out there, and I don't like bashing on bands
in general, but I'm going to do it generally. A lot of them don't know their
instrument, they don't take time to write songs, and they focus too much on
their image. And that's just wasting everybody's time. Do you want a kid to
look up at you and see that you're a fake? You want to strive to do something
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Dedicated to Anne Kranowski, the biggest Tonic fan I know!