Gary James' Interview With
You may remember his hit song "Jeopardy". You may remember seeing him on the same bill as, well, practically everybody! But did you know that he also hosts a morning radio show on Classic Rock KFOX 102.1 / San Francisco 98.5 San Jose? It's the 4th largest radio market in the U.S. and considered the largest Classic Rock Super Station West of the Mississippi. And did you know that he's authored four novels and one book of short stories? And did you know he continues to perform onstage all over the San Francisco area where he enjoys widespread popularity? Well, you know now.
His name is Greg Kihn and Greg spoke to us about all that plus the release of his all digital anthology box set titled "Kihnplete" (Post Beserkley Records).
Q - "Kihnplete". That's pretty clever. You see, that's what's missing from today's CD titles. That play on words.
A - (laughs) Well, we have a horrible reputation of doing terrible puns on the album titles. Here's how it started: The first album was called "Simply Greg Kihn". Then the second album, we called it "Greg Kihn Again". Then, oh God, we created a monster. Matthew Kauffman said "What do you want to call the next one?" I said "How about 'Next Of Kihn'?" And then we were off to the races. We had "Rock Kihn Roll", "Kihntinued", "Kihntagious". You name it. I think we had every Rock pun with the word Kihn..."Kihnsolidation", "Citizen Kihn". I mean it goes on for days. "Kihnplete"? Hey, that's just another brick in the wall as Pink Floyd would say.
Q - It brings all the other album titles together.
A - It sure does. It's prophetic because it's also very complete. It's all of our post Beserkley work. Most people know The Greg Kihn band from the Beserkley era, "The Break-up song", "Jeopardy", remember all those songs, "Reunited". But at the end of that era we signed with E.M.I. We did a couple of albums for E.M.I.. We did a couple of albums for Riot and Sony, so we bounced around after Beserkley. But that was an era we played with a lot of great musicians. We had all this stuff sitting around from the Joe Satriani era, Jimmy Lyon, Greg Douglass, all these great guitar players. I said "let's put all this stuff out." We gathered it all up, digitally re-mastered a lot of it. Found a lot of really great 'live' stuff that I didn't even know we had. We put it out, a three CD set and it's "Kihnplete" man. Totally Kihnplete.
Q - What are going to do to support this CD Anthology? Are you going out on the road?
A - No. I can't go out on the road for extended tours because I do a morning show on KFOX radio in San Francisco. So, every day from five to ten A.M. I gotta be in San Francisco. It really cuts down on the touring. We do play on the weekends and we shoot out for weekend trips. Every Summer we do the "Kihncert", which is a big concert we do at the Shoreline Amphitheatre, where we open for some of the great bands of all time. Last year we had Skynyrd. We had The Who. I think we might have Steve Miller this year. But every year we have fun. Since it's not my primary source of income, I don't have to play. Now I can kind of pick the cherry gigs and that's pretty much what we do. We just do the fun gigs.
Q - So, you're playing all the Classic Rock on this radio station, are you?
A - Man, it's like you're psychic. It's straight ahead Classic Rock. The cool thing about this job is pretty much every band I play, I've either worked with 'em or toured with 'em or opened for 'em or I know something. So, I got all these great stories. If I play a Joan Jett song or an Eddie Money song or a Cheap Trick song or a Doobie Brothers song or Steve Miller, I usually got a couple of stories 'cause I toured with all these people. We were America's opening band back in the '80s and we toured with Journey, Starship, Boz Scaggs. We opened for The Stones. We played with just about every band you can name. When I play a song by a group, I can usually throw in a story or some information about the song that maybe a regular DJ wouldn't know. I mean, you take a lifetime of Rock 'n' Roll and what the hell else could I be qualified to do, Gary? (laughs) I can either flip burgers or do a Classic Rock show. I'll tell you the truth, I love being on a Classic Rock station. KFOX is a great station. It's all the music that I listen to anyway. They give me a lot of freedom there, so it's a really good gig. It allows me to free up my time. I don't have to be like my good friend Eddie Money. He has to go out and play five or six shows a week all the time just to keep that cash flow going. The fact that I have my own independent source of income with KFOX, I don't have to do that. So, I'll get a really nice offer; fly into Red Rocks to do Denver or something like that and boom! I just go.
Q - How did you get this gig as a disc jockey on KFOX?
A - Well, it was fourteen years ago. I was filling in for a seven-to-midnight guy and the guy running the station said "I really like you. I'll offer you a job seven to midnight." At the time it was kind of the end of an era. I was sick of traveling. I had to travel all the time, work all the time. So, I thought what the hell? It's worth a try. So, I started doing it and after a year they offered me the morning show. That was fourteen years ago and I've been doing it all this time.
Q - Is there still a San Francisco music scene like there was in the mid to late 1960s?
A - Oh, yeah. And it's really historic. We got our great venues. My band grew up, we cut out teeth on all these great gigs. We played at Winterland, The Cow Palace. These are hallowed grounds. The Fillmore. Now, we have some really great venues. Besides the places like The Fillmore, which still puts on shows, Winterland has been torn down, but The Cow Palace is still going, where The Beatles played. There's a bunch of venues, outdoor sheds like The Shoreline Amphitheatre, where we play every year and The Concord Pavilion. So, there's a real good scene here and there's still young bands comin' up. You gotta have clubs to have young bands comin' up and we still got 'em, man.
Q - Why did you leave Baltimore for San Francisco?
A - Well, some friends of mine, Matthew Kauffman and Allen Mason had moved out to Berkeley. They kept calling me up on the phone saying how great it was. There wasn't a big music scene in Baltimore. I was in a "Folkie". I was a singer / songwriter. I was playing local coffee houses and going up and down the East Coast, just trying to scratch out a living playing as a Folk singer, but it was pretty lean. They said "Hey, you gotta come out here." They were starting Beserkley Records. They said "Hey, we got this band, Earthquake. We're all hanging out here. Why don't you come out, stick around if you want to, and give it a shot. I came out. Allen was working for A&M Records. Basically we started Beserkley 'cause nobody wanted us. We had four acts; Earthquake, Greg Kihn Band, The Rubinoos and Jonathan Richman And The Modern Lovers. So we started Beserkley 'cause no one wanted us and we couldn't get record deals. Beserkley became the first great independent label because even though we were operating out of a kitchen of a house in Berkeley where everybody was living upstairs, basically penniless, we were being distributed by Epic and C.B.S. and Warner Brothers, so it was putting us in the big leagues and we were getting distribution and airplay all over the country. Of course, this was a different era Gary, when FM radio was just being born and they played album cuts all the time.
Q - What do people say to you when they meet you?
A - People come up to me all the time. The first thing out of their mouth inevitably, even if I know 'em or don't know 'em, "Hey, I saw you at..." and fill in the blank. I can be walking down the street in any city pretty much and a guy will come up and go "Man, I saw you back in '83. I saw you at the Park West" or the Agora or The Bogarts or whatever. I guess once you played about the first two or three thousand gigs, you pretty much played everywhere. (laughs)
Q - When you get right down to it, there are not really all that many venues for Rock groups in the United States, are there?
A - You know, when we were coming up, and I'm going to say 1981 was a great example 'cause that's when "The Break-Up Song" came out. It was our first Top Ten hit. That was our seventh album. We'd already had seven albums out. We were getting FM turntable play without hit singles 'cause that's the way it was back in those days. We would book a tour, rent a van pretty much and drive all over, but you could play. Every band did it from The Ramones to Blondie to everybody. In play there was a circuit of clubs. There was The Paradise in Boston, Bogarts in Cincinnati, The Agora in Cleveland, that place in Denver, I can't remember the name. Every town had a major Rock club and you could get local FM airplay and you would play at the club that night. It was like a little self-sustaining economy. This was the days when you could actually do that. So, I mean, the record business in completely changed since then. Those were heady times. That's how groups like me made it. The road to Rock 'n' Roll Heaven is paved by the bleached skulls of guys like me, but I got lucky. We were on our own label, Beserkley Records, distributed by any number of other labels. Nobody ever explained to us that it was impossible to do what we were doing. We just went out there and did it.
Q - Just financially speaking, it would be impossible to do today what you did.
A - Yeah. Seven albums without a hit? Go figure. It's not gonna happen. You want to hear a funny story?
Q - Sure.
A - Eddie Money has been a friend of mine forever. I love the guy. I've known him forever. So, we're sitting around smoking weed at Eddie's place and this was back when our first album came out. He's complaining how he spent a hundred grand on his first album. I handed him a copy of my first album, "Greg Kihn". I go "Hey Ed, check this out. This cost ten grand." He looked at the record and he looks at me and goes "For what, the cover?" (laughs) That's typical Eddie. We were the kings at gettin' there. We would work after hours 'cause we got cheaper rates. We knew how to cut corners. We could make an album, literally make an album for ten grand. I mean, that's pretty good.
Q - With technology being what it is today, you could probably make an album for even less money in a home studio.
A - Yeah, that's true, because back in the day there were tricks. Remember studio tricks, how you mic the drums? How you'd mic the guitars? People had little tricks. That's what we would talk to people about. We were playing with Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers when their first hit came out. We did a tour together. I said "Tom, how do you get that f___ing great sound on the Rickenbacker?" I had a Rickenbacker 320, exactly like McGuinn. He had the same guitar, or was it the 360? I think it was the 320. It was the blonde twelve string Rickenbacker. I said "How do you get that twangy sound? I've been trying to get that sound for years." I thought it was a Rickenbacker through a Fender Bassman turned up. That was my goofy take on it, right? He said "No, no man. You gotta run it direct and put tons of compression on it. That's what McGuinn did on 'Tambourine Man'." The next time I was in the studio, I said "let me run this direct with a bunch of compression on it" and God, he was right! There was the sound. There were little tricks you would learn. One group would tell another. That became the backbone of your knowledge when you went into the studio. All the producers had little tricks, how to make the drums sound big, how to make the guitars sound cool. Everybody had tricks.
Q - I'm surprised they would give up these secrets.
A - Well, you had to get 'em drunk first. (laughs)
Q - How did life change for you when "Jeopardy" became such a big hit?
A - Well, pretty much everything changed. See, "The Break-Up Song" was our seventh album. It was our ninth album that "Jeopardy" was off of. I believe that "Kihntagious" was the name of that album. We'd already had a couple of Top Ten hits with "The Break-Up Song" and other stuff. What I remember is writing it and thinking "this sounds like a hit record." We had written it real quick, in fifteen minutes. Then I remember showing the band in rehearsal "Jeopardy" and everybody said "That sounds like a hit." I remember it took the band maybe one or two minutes just to figure out and play it perfectly the first time. Then we went into the studio, like about a week later, nailed it in like the second take. I remember playing it 'live' before we recorded it once, at The Park West in Chicago and the crowd liked it. "Here's a song I just wrote. I think it's gonna be our next hit." I played it and everybody said "Yeah, that sounds good." I remember always thinking "Jeopardy" was gonna be a hit. That's never happened before. It was just there. I remember the first time we rehearsed it, it just sounded good! It sounded exactly like it sounded on the record 'cause we went in like a week later and it was as fresh as a daisy. Then when I started getting big, fat, juicy checks from ASCAP, man, talk about a life changer. It was like, what do you want to buy first?
Q - And then you got lucky again when Weird Al Yankovic came along and re-did "Jeopardy".
A - It was like having a second hit and he just sent me money. Oh, it was great. I didn't have to play the gigs. He did. When they parody your songs, you get half the copyright money. Half! For basically doing nothing. It was wonderful. I still get checks to this day from Weird Al.
Q - So, I guess it's fair to say you liked his parody of your song.
A - Oh, I loved it. As a matter of fact, I made a cameo in his video and if you look at the video for "I Lost On Jeopardy"; I got to meet Don Pardo. That was the coolest part. He (Weird Al) gets thrown out of the back door of the TV station and lands in an M.G. and I'm drivin' it. It's cool. I turn around and I wink and I drive off. It's like the end of the "Jeopardy" video. Both of those videos were staples in the early days of MTV. Everything was 'live'. That was one of the first concept videos. That's why it got so much airplay.
Q - And each artist had their own unique video.
A - In our day, we considered those videos art. And now it's just marketing. There's no magic there. It's just marketing and how many people can you reach.
Q - With the same tried and true formula of putting some half-naked girls on the screen, dancing and shaking.
A - Well, that's basically what it's deteriorated to. Then again, look at our society, everything is kind of down to the lowest denominator these days. I'm lucky that I'm still alive and kickin' and still doin' decent work, what I consider to be decent work. So, it's a tough gig out there, man. Things have changed.
Q - And not necessarily for the better.
A - Well, you know what? We can still listen to the music. We'll always have our music. Right?
Q - Right.
A - And the memories of all those great bands we saw in our time, I mean that stuff is gonna live forever. It'll never be repeated. You look at the worst music of my generation is better than the best music of this generation. So, go figure, man.
Q - How awful it is that kids today have to go back in time to listen to the greats. They don't have anything.
A - Yup. There's no Beatles. There's no Dylan. There's no Stones. There's really nothing.
Q - You were inducted into the San Jose Rock Hall Of Fame in 2007. What's it gonna take to get you into the Cleveland Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame?
A - Hey, I don't know, man. Who's voting on this shit? I noticed that The Talking Heads are in there. The Ramones are in there. I'd like to put a vote in right now for me and my buddies. I think Joan Jett oughta be in there. I think The Doobie Brothers oughta be in there. I think Journey oughta be in there. These are all people that I know. I see 'em every year. Steve Miller. There's a lot of people. Why are they not in there? Why do they go for this artsy-fartsy thing? I mean, OK, I think The Talking Heads oughta be in there and I think The Ramones oughta be in there. Hell, I also think Eddie Money should be in there. So, if Eddie gets in, maybe I'll get in. I got a better shot at getting in more as a DJ and a writer and a novelist than I do as a Rock star.
Q - Kiss isn't even a member of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
A - They're not, and that's ridiculous. So, my message to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame is fire whoever is on your committee for inductees and put me in charge. I'll whip that place in shape in one year. Not only will I tell you who's gettin' in, I'll tell you who's gettin' out.
Q - You're throwing some people out, are you?
A - Throwin' 'em out. Throwin' out Madonna. Throwin' out Michael Jackson. This is Rock 'n' Roll. C'mon. You got a Pop Museum somewhere, don't you? You got something like this in Vegas. Put these people in it. But this is Rock 'n' Roll. It's supposed to be The Rock 'n' Roll Museum, the Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame. It's Chuck Berry. It's not Michael Jackson. But see, they don't have any passion. The people that choose the stuff I guess are academics. They go by who are the critic's darlings. It's crap. I say Rock 'n' Roll is all of these things. You gotta love it all, man. Back in the day, Kiss was kind of a crass act, right? Your sister went to the Kiss concerts, right? But you went 'cause you thought it was kind of cool. But over the years you thought hey, Kiss is a great band. They're making' some great music. There's no reason they should not be in The Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame.
Q - Agreed. I was a Kiss fan from day one.
A - Hey, I gotta a story of you: I was playing in Nashville in 1978 and Kiss was playing at the big, whatever the big arena there was. We went backstage and we got to meet Kiss. It was a real kick. We were hangin' out. The next night we were playing at a club in Nashville. So, we invited those guys to show up. I forgot all about it. The next night, who shows up? Gene Simmons. Except now he's not in his make-up. He's in his street clothes. Guess who was there? Roy Orbison was there. And so rather than me and Gene... Gene and I were both awe-struck by meeting Roy Orbison. We're tripping on meeting Roy Orbison rather than meeting Gene Simmons. He was a great guy. He gave me one bit of advice: "Hey, you talk too much. Talk less. Play more." They were great and I love Kiss. There's no question about it. They should be in The Hall Of Fame. If they're in The Hall Of Fame, shouldn't Journey be in there?
Q - They were a big act.
A - Yeah. I toured with them. We did a ton of gigs with those guys.
Q - You got this radio gig going on. You still play out, and you found the time to write. Where does the time come from?
A - Oh, you know, I got a little time in-between efforts. You know, it's fun. I enjoy writing at night. It's good for my brain. It's kind of like therapeutic for me. I get weird ideas. I'm totally into the creative process of writing, whether I'm writing a song, or writing a music script, or writing a novel or a short story. It doesn't matter. It's the same creative spark and I just love it. That's what I'm addicted to. I'm addicted to that spark. I just wrote a pilot for a TV series called 45 RPM. It's about the Mafia in the music business in the '60s. It's kind of like The Sopranos meets Rock 'n' Roll. We've got interest from a couple of different networks to actually make this thing into an actual TV series like The Sopranos. A Rock 'n' Roll Sopranos. I couldn't trust anybody else to write it. They said "Are you gonna write all twelve episodes?" I'd only written four. I go "I guess we could hire some writers." But then again, I don't trust anybody to do it. If it's about music, if it has anything to do with my music and my generation, I gotta do it. I don't trust anybody else.
Q - That concept, did you ever see that go on? Did you ever experience it? From my perspective, the Mafia is interested in sure winners. The music business is too fickle.
A - One of my oldest friends in the world is Kenny Laguna. You probably know that name. Joan Jett's manager. He was in The Shondells. Tommy James And The Shondells. I got the idea from him telling war stories about Morris Levy and Roulette Records, which was mob owned label, and how they would strong-arm people and intimidate people. It gave me the initial idea to 45 RPM because it was kind of based on the stories I would hear from Kenny Laguna about Morris Levy. That was the Brill Building. We're talking pre-Beatles here. '62, '63. There was some Mafia pressure there. Morris Levy I guess was the main guy, but there were a bunch of labels that had ties with the mob. I think it was more of they were just giving them bank. It was more of an investment thing.
Q - Or laundering money.
A - Yeah. And also they bootlegged. If there was a hit record by Dion, their unscrupulous record pressers would bootleg it and sell it to stores for like half the price they would buy it for the real ones. You didn't know when you bought it, if it was a real one or a boot.
Q - I never heard that one before.
A - Yeah. That was a mob thing too, the early bootleg scene. I'll tell you, we'll leave that for a whole other interview. If the show ever gets made, we'll do another interview and talk about it.
Q - You got a deal!
A - There's probably a book in there too somewhere.
Greg Kihn's website: GregKihn.com
© Gary James. All rights reserved.