Chicago : 12.14.2002
Tonic photo by Jayne Chu
Tonic, fresh off the release of their new album Head on Straight, were 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.
Musicfrisk.com’s Dave 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.
MF: After 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.
MF: Your 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.
MF: Which 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.
MF: What 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.
MF: Currently, 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.
MF: “If 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.
MF: The 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 as good.
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!
MF: What 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.
MF: Your 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 writing lyrics?
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.”
MF: Radio 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 format days?
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 good.
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. (laughs)
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 at….
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.
MF: Any 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.
MF: Emerson 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 time.
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 better.