Gary James' Interview With Neal Shulman Of
Aztec Two Step
It was only by chance that Rox Fowler and Neal Shulman met. That chance meeting led to performances on David Letterman, King Biscuit Flower Hour and World Cake Live. There was even a 1999 documentary about them on PBS titled "No Hit Wonder". We are talking about Aztec Two Step. Neal Shulman spoke with us about Aztec Two Step's history.
Q - I see you're booked into January, 2016. You guys must love the road!
A - Well, it's what we do. It's funny because I've just been reading about South By Southwest, this one particular panel there where it says the era of musicians generating income from record sales is largely over. Now, we're at a time in our career where we're not selling a lot of records anyway, so it's a little bit beside the point, but it is pretty common. The road is kind of what it's all about. And frankly, for me personally I've always related more to the 'live' shows than the recording.
Q - Is there money to be made on the road without having some kind of recorded product out?
A - The answer is, and it's going to be different for everybody, for us there is. We made it work. We play a lot of shows. We have our long-time bassist with us and a lot of shows, not all, we have our road manager with us. We're making it work. I'm not buying an island in the Caribbean, but we're paying the rent and all the rest of it.
Q - Somebody in the group has a sense of humor to be included in a documentary called "No Hit Wonder".
A - Right.
Q - Have you tried writing songs that would get commercial air play?
A - Oh, absolutely. I think if you go back to the beginning of our career we came to be Aztec Two Step with a repertoire of songs, many of which Rex wrote and which the various record companies in our early days, that is Elektra and RCA, they believed they could have been hit records or they probably wouldn't have signed us because even if you go back, and it seems like a long time now, I mean our first record came out in '72. Through the '70s we recorded additional records for RCA. They honestly want hit records. It's nice to sell some records, but it's all I heard from day one from producers and everybody involved that had any insight into the bigger picture and it was like get a hit record and it changes the game. Every band that ever has a release has some story that may be the same or may be different of why it didn't happen. It's a given. Not all of the bands that get signed and put out records get hits. We did gain enough traction to get a career that's lasted 44 years. That's pretty good!
Q - How much promotion did these labels give you?
A - It's really hard to quantify that. I was so young at the time and you're in another era. You're coming out of a very sort of alternate lifestyle, hippie era where you kind of don't trust anyone over 30 type of thing and so I think it's a mixed bag. We had some good promotion. We had some records that stuck, but they sometimes would get significant play in some regions on some stations, but we didn't really put it all together. We didn't really know whose doorstep to lay that at or whether that was just the way it was meant to be.
Q - Did you get radio air play?
A - Oh, yes. Sure. That's why in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany there were stations that played our record. And in Maine, Vermont, Connecticut and in other places. I think our career is so vibrant in the Northeast because it was the combination of air play and 'live' appearances. When you find out that one isolated station in Colorado is playing your record and your kind of young and maybe you don't really have the experience or nobody's managing you that has that big picture, you don't really know what to do with that. But even if you know what to do with it, it's inherently hard to go play that date, go play that market whereas if you want to play in Syracuse and you live in New York City, you get in your car and you drive to Syracuse. It can be done.
Q - Do you tour internationally?
A - Very little. Almost none. I can't say that I wholly understand why that is. I think that maybe possibly we fell into the trap of when you are developing in an area and you are vibrant in an area the temptation to keep playing that area and not develop and reach out to new areas. Those can be managerial decisions that in hindsight we may or may not have done differently. Other than going to Japan one time and Canada, we never have played internationally. We've never played in Europe. I'm very doubtful at this juncture that we will.
Q - Well, you never know.
A - You never do know. I do know that if you talk about this idea of going someplace where you really don't have an audience it really is frustrating. You're coming from a place where your fans are coming out to see you and there's this quality of appreciation and you're making money and to support yourself and be able to be on the road and then to travel someplace and to promote yourself and have a small turnout it begins to feel like wasted effort. Now decades later, those opportunities are different when you're a new band anyway and we are not a newer band anymore.
Q - You met Rex at an open mic night. Was it in the back of your mind that you would like to be a part of a recording / touring act or was this purely accidental?
A - No. I think I can speak for both of us when I say this was what we wanted to do professionally. We wanted to tour and record and that's why we were there, looking for opportunities.
Q - You've been on the same bill as Joan Jett, Bon Jovi and The Beach Boys. How did Aztec Two Step go over with their audiences?
A - It's funny because Joan Jett and Bon Jovi were both the same benefit concert, post 9-11, and there were a lot of people on that bill. That was in Red Bank, New Jersey, an area that was very hard hit on 9-11. A lot of people commute from Red Bank by ferry to lower Manhattan to work in the financial district. It's also very close to where Bruce Springsteen lives and so there is that Count Bassie Red Bank Theatre in New Jersey. So, there was a benefit, a series of benefit concerts there. But yeah, we played with The Beach Boys at Nassau Coliseum. We toured for a half dozen dates in the Pacific Northwest with Neil Sedaka. It was fine. It really was fine. Maybe it was just a little more relaxed in those days in terms of the audience. We played with a lot, a lot of people. The only person where it really didn't work was Bette Midler, and that was early on for her at a really good club in Philadelphia, in the Philadelphia area. And our manager said, "Don't take this gig." We should have listened, but we never turned anything down. It wasn't the end of the world.
Q - What happened there? She didn't like you or her audience didn't like you?
A - Her audience didn't like (us). We were extraneous. We were absolutely extraneous to the point where they said, "Look, don't even bother to finish out this gig. The audience is here to see Bette." But all the other ones, opening for Springsteen in the early days, playing with Heart and The Beach Boys were all good experiences. We don't have much in common with Neil Sedaka really. We're kind of from another era and another style. I think it's been a fun thing to be, if I have to say what we do, I'd say we're a Folk / Rock duo. It's been fun to play with people who aren't all exactly like us, who all aren't Folk or acoustic artists. It's been fun to open for comedians and to play with artists that are Pop or Rock. It's been good.
Q - Did you tour with Jim Croce? Did you get to sit down and speak with him?
A - It's funny. I was thinking about that the other day. We appeared, toured probably is a little bit of an overstatement, which we need to be careful about in the post Brian Williams era. We played a very significant gig with him as we were getting started and he was on the rise. That was at a club whose name escapes me, but was a very significant club in Chicago. It was not one night, it was like a week. I think my partner Rex may have got to spend more time with Jim Croce. We talked about this the other day. And also his guitar player. He performed as a duo as well. His guitar player's name kind of escapes me (Maury Muehleisen). They were both killed in that plane crash. It's very sad. It was great to hear Jim Croce, but I don't remember connecting with him personally that much. I think I was too busy trying to meet waitresses at the club. They had a lure that Jim Croce just didn't seem to have. After the show I was trying to talk with the waitresses.
Q - No one knew what was going to happen with Jim Croce's career.
A - Yeah, but it was fun to hear him play, to really be up close and hear him play. I think we had a very sort of cordial week together.
Q - Do you have recorded product you sell at your shows these days?
A - Yes. We have almost everything we've ever recorded. We've even put together a 'live' and rare compilation we've put together. Some of our stuff was earlier releases from major labels. Some of it is more from the era of self-release and some of it are things that we compiled over the years.