Gary James' Interview With Martha Davis Of
The Motels are best know for a couple of early 1980s hits, "Only The Lonely" and "Suddenly Last Summer". Singing lead on those songs is Motels member Martha Davis.
Martha Davis spoke with us about the history of The Motels.
Q - Martha, The Motels were supposed to have released some new recorded product in either the Summer of 2014 or early 2015. Has that happened yet?
A - It hasn't yet. We're still working on it. It's a matter of getting time. Since my band is in L.A. and I'm up here in Oregon, we basically see each other when we're gigging. So we're doing the thing you can do now-a-days which is not so much get the band to go into the studio and pay enormous amounts of money, but we can all sort of work on things individually and then we get together. For example, a dear friend of mine who was a Motels alumni, and there's many of them, has a big loft downtown where he has like wood floors and that's in L.A. Apparently he gets a really good drum sound and he's an old friend. I went over to see his place. He's like, "Martha, if you take these two cats I'll record your drums for free." So I took the two cats (laughs) and we recorded our drums there. That's the way I roll.
Q - Are you still on Capitol Records?
A - No. I don't even think Capitol Records has a deal with Capitol Records anymore. It's Universal now. I haven't been with Capitol since '89.
Q - So, your new material is something you'll be releasing on your own label?
A - There's many ways to work it now-a-days. You can get a distributor. There's a lot of different angles. Because the record companies have been sort of mean to us artists, and not the best place to work, a lot of people have decided to do it on their own. In 2007, I released three albums all at once. I kind of just put 'em on the Internet and they just kind of promptly disappeared. You still have to do the old fashioned marketing and promotion and all that stuff, which without the deep pockets of the big labels that's a little bit harder. If you can get your Social Media skills together, which I haven't but my new manager is very good at that and he also has a company that he works with, you can kind of do something. It's really now-a-days so much about placement and getting something in a movie or in a commercial. It's a whole different layout.
Q - You're in a different category. You have a name.
A - It helps, but with all the Social Media and Internet comes a very short attention span theatre. If you're not in their face literally, you're forgotten. I know when my manager took over and got the Social Media thing going, and I've been touring every year forever, I stopped maybe one year from '89 to '90 because I just sort of needed a break, but since then I've been gigging every year. I always do. Always have. After he got the Social Media in place all these people were like, "We're glad you're back! You're awesome!" I'm like, "But I've been here the whole time" and I just realized that now-a-days you have to become virtual to become real. You just can't go out and do what you used to do. You have to really put it in people's faces. Interesting.
Q - You're really popular in Australia and New Zealand, aren't you?
A - Yeah. They were the first ones to actually pick up on The Motels back in '79. I remember going there in '79 and we were playing a show and launched into "Total Control". I had no idea that it was like a big hit there. People were pulling out the cigarette lighters and swaying. I had no idea. They have been a loyal and wonderful audience ever since then. It's been a great fan base. We were just there last year (2014). It was fantastic. It was wonderful. So, it's a good place.
Q - When you have a hit record is it easier to keep a band together or harder?
A - That's a tricky question because historically speaking of The Motels that was really much a band. I really wanted a band. I didn't want it to be Martha Davis And The Motels. I didn't put my pictures on the albums. I wanted it to be a band. Once we started having the success, and granted I write most of the stuff and I'm the front person, that kind of separates you anyway. But I kind of fought for the guys to have an equal share. Then as it went on, the record company itself was really, "You're the thing and the guys aren't as important." Things started coming up more and more and it just put a great deal of stress on the band. You can't help for it to hurt your feelings as much as I tried to make it otherwise. Everybody was kind of getting mad. It's the job of the lead singer, I don't care if you're male or female, you're the one that has to go out and do the interviews. You're the one that has to do the photo sessions, which I'd gladly share in that. (laughs) But for the other people it just seems like they're being diminished somehow. It's hard.
Q - By asking to interview you, I'm probably guilty of overlooking one of the other band members. But in my mind you're the voice of The Motels.
A - Well, like I said, that's the responsibility that comes with it. It's not all fun and games. It's a lot more work, but that's what you sign up for when you do it.
Q - You've had this same line-up in The Motels for ten plus years, have you?
A - Yes.
Q - There's probably only one member who has been in the group longer than ten years and that would be Marty (Jourard) ?
A - Yes.
Q - Was there any objection on his part when you decided to change the name from The Motels to Martha Davis And The Motels?
A - No objection on his part and actually I want to go back to just being The Motels. It was kind of like what happened when I made my point about not making myself separate from things when I did go solo. Nobody knew me. I kind of shot myself in the foot because they say, "The Motels, yeah," and not connect Martha Davis. I fought really hard not to make me separate. (laughs) When I wanted to go solo combined with the fact that Capitol Records right when I released my solo album in '89 or whenever that was, was exactly when they transitioned to CDs and in doing so they actually deleted all of my older product. I don't know of they melted it down or what they did with it. They figured The Motels are no longer in existence, so we don't need these Motels things. Usually when you go to buy a solo record they surround it with the history, so you could get the picture of, "Oh, she's from The Motels." But there was nothing left. It's kind of like I'd just as soon go back to The Motels because I like it better because it's geographically more pleasing to me, because there's a lot of things that don't have anything to do with me. I just like the name better. If people haven't figured out who I am by now, they probably won't. They're probably not interested.
Q - If we still had Top 40 radio people would've or could've made the connection.
A - Yeah.
Q - Or even MTV when they showed music videos.
A - I know. Hopefully we can do that through other means and just go back to the beautiful, simplified Motels because it's a great word. There's many things you can do with it, play around with it. When you start doing Martha Davis And The Motels it just gets clunky to me.
Q - You could've been a band called The Hotels. Of course it probably wouldn't have sounded as good.
A - (laughs)
Q - But, who named the group The Motels?
A - Well, it's a funny story because back in the original, original band which was before the Marty band that was signed to Capitol, it was a band from Berkeley, California with myself, Dean Chamberlain, Chuck Wada, Lisa Brenneis and we moved down to L.A. to make it overnight which of course doesn't happen. We were originally called The Warfield Foxes and then for a brief second Dean came up with this name of The Angels Of Mercy. I was like, "I just think that we should be tending to the poor or serving soup if we're going to be called The Angels Of Mercy." We're driving to our first gig in L.A. which was at Barney's Beanery which is just a famous little grub house. It wasn't known for music. They were stepping out on a limb and decided they'd have some music. So, we're going down Santa Monica Boulevard to go to the show and Santa Monica used to be where all the motels were in Hollywood. It's no longer that way. Dean looks up and sees a motel sign and says, "How about The Motels?" And I'm like, "Yes!" We went into the show and they were like, "The Angels?" And we're like, "No, no. The Motels." (laughs) When that band broke up, Dean's story is, because we used to be boyfriend / girlfriend, that I was taking a bubble bath and that at one point I was saying my pictures were all over the posters and I wanted to keep the name. He said at one point I just splashed my hands down and bubbles went everywhere and he said, "Okay, you can have it!" (laughs)
Q - Didn't David Lee Roth used to go to Barney's Beanery.
A - He may have. It was a late night place. If you're going to Rock 'n' Roll you can go over to the Beanery and chow down. I think we got paid in tokens for hamburgers.
Q - Were you loud?
A - Yeah. We were pretty loud.
Q - Did famous people come in to see who you were?
A - No. Nobody knew who we were.
Q - Did you know who they were?
A - I wasn't paying attention. I was probably too nervous. (laughs) I don't remember seeing any famous people. It's kind of a catch all for all kinds of people. Maybe some nights there were some famous people there, but I don't remember. We were playing there on a Tuesday night or something crazy.
Q - It took you roughly fourteen months from the time you landed in Los Angeles to the time you got a record deal. Were you able to survive playing clubs or did you have to do something else?
A - The Berkeley band moved down to L.A. in '75. So that band broke up in '77, '78. There was a couple of years when I was desperately trying to put a new band together. I was dirt poor. I had nothing. I did work for a little bit at the Bonaventure Hotel selling t-shirts. It was bleak. I had two little girls. It was definitely very, very difficult. (laughs)
Q - Did the clubs have that Pay To Play policy?
A - Not yet. But it still was like you'd play for $25. (laughs)
Q - You're talking for each member or the band?
A - For the band. I remember them giving us a dollar for you, a dollar for you. (laughs)
Q - That's terrible! I never realized it was that bad.
A - Yeah, well money went further back then. I was thinking about this the other day, unless you're Lady Gaga or U2, the people that just go play clubs and I can't say this across the board 'cause some venues are absolutely fantastic and wonderful and treat you very, very nicely, but a lot of times there's not a lot of respect involved. It's kind of like you're there to try and pull in people. You gotta have a pretty tough skin to do this business.
Q - And it's got to be tougher if you're a woman.
A - I used to get asked that all the time in the '80s because that was the question. Women In Rock. I never sort of bought into that. It's harder if you don't got the goods. If you can write a good song, if you can perform it well, if you have all the stuff it takes, and it takes a lot, and a band that really works. There's so many aspects to it, but I don't think you can say that's not necessarily harder for women if the talent is there, when you see the Joni Mitchells, Patti Smith, people that are true artists. You're just going to get it. People are just going to get it. It doesn't matter what sex they are.
Q - Was Capitol Records behind The Motels from the very beginning?
A - We were so lucky to be at sort of the tail end of when a record company was a record company, when they had a thing called Artist Development. That meant that you didn't just get an artist and if they didn't get a hit, you got rid of them. "Only The Lonely" came out on "All For One", which was the fourth album we made for them and there was no success. In fact, the album right before that one, they rejected, but they stuck with us that whole time. There was the success in Australia, but as much as we had big success there, it's not a huge market. It wasn't like they were making bank because of Australia. We hadn't done anything in a financial way to impress them I don't think, but they were music guys. They were old school record men who saw something they believed in and they stuck with it. We were very sad to lose Carter, my first producer, who was instrumental in getting me signed to Capitol. He died a few years back. Then the lawyer who signed me to Capitol just died a year ago. He got killed by a police cruiser. He was riding his bicycle and a sheriff hit and killed him. So, we're losing some of the old school guys, but these guys were seriously music oriented. Don Zimmerman, who was the President of Capitol (Records) when I was there and still a dear friend, he started out stocking record bins and he worked his way up and he just loved music. It's not really the same climate anymore. It was a great, amazing company. There's very few record companies left. There's just conglomerates eating everything up.
Q - Capitol Records rejected your third album, "Apocalypso" for being "Too weird" and "Not commercial enough." What does that mean?
A - (laughs)
Q - I could say a lot of music being produced today is "too weird."
A - (laughs) That album was produced primarily; Val Garay was the producer of it. The person who really produced that album was Tim McGovern who was my boyfriend at the time and my guitar player. We got one of those synth guitars early on and he was all over that thing. The songs were kind of weird. I loved that album and so glad it finally came out. (laughs) I like weird. My problem is that when the "All For One" album came out, I felt it was too middle of the road and yet now you're having success. It's like the double edge sword. It's like artistically I was craving more but financially it felt pretty good. (laughs)
Q - Did you write that song "Only The Lonely"?
A - Yes.
Q - How long did it take you to write that?
A - That song was instant. That was like I picked up my guitar and it was sitting there and I went, "Okay. Thank you," which is often the case with the songs. For whatever reason I don't question. I've been writing songs since I was fifteen. I've been playing guitar and making up melodies since I was eight. I'm always astounded by this beautiful thing that happens. It's kind like if you just get out of your own way and let this whatever it is, wonderful creative energy or force happen. I am a writer. That's what I am more than anything else. The singing thing is kind of a happy accident. But I've written hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of songs. I've written musicals, Country And Western. I've done a Jazz album. I write. That's what I do. I picked up my guitar for "Only The Lonely" and it was kind like I just started playing it. It just came out, words and everything.
Q - In terms of time, fifteen minutes? Twenty minutes? Half an hour?
A - Fifteen minutes. The song is only three minutes, so if you fuss with it a little bit... (laughs)
Q - Which you do and then you take it into the studio and someone else fusses with it.
A - The funny thing about that is, that song was on the "Apocalyso" album that they said had no hits on it. And then it re-appeared on the "All For One" album and became the hit. "All For One" took a damn year to make that album. So, what took me a blink of an eye to create is just this long, drawn out process. Let me tell you, we're taking a long time making this album because we're not working on it all the time. If me and the band were in a studio for a couple of weeks, we could finish an album. We would, and it would be good. This idea of taking a year to make something is just to me it's not only exasperating and very expensive, but you can ruin the art that way I think when you just fuss over things. There 's an immediacy and beauty to what naturally and spontaneously happens. That's why I love David Bowie so much. You can hear in his recordings, there may be some glitches in it. There may be stuff that's a little off, but it's the capturing of the performance that's so wonderful. People that spend ten years making a record, I just don't understand that. (laughs) This Jazz album that I made a couple of years back with Marty, which has not come out yet but will come out, I just decided I'd had enough. I'd written so many of these kinds of standard sounding songs that I wanted to make a Jazz standard sort of album, but they're not standards 'cause nobody's heard 'em 'cause I wrote 'em. I brought Marty down from Seattle. I sat there and played him all my chords 'cause I can't read. He transposed it. Made charts. The drummer I met once, but I never played with him. The upright bass player I never even met. We went into the studio and in two days 'live' we recorded this album. It's really beautiful. And that's the way they used to do it all the time in the old days. They'd make an album in two days.
Q - That's what The Beatles did in the very beginning of their career. They actually recorded an entire album in twelve hours!
A - That is such a wonderful way to do it. There's an immediacy. There's an energy. There's a thing. I love that. I value that much more than something that is so slick and so polished and everything is perfect on it. I don't want to hear it. That's not what music is. It comes from a place of your soul speaking. It's not a perfect thing. It's a beautiful thing.
Q - We'll never go back to the old days of recording, not with all the technology that exists today.
A - Well, now that your entire audience believes that. Everything is recorded to a grid. Every beat is exactly on. If you sing a little bit off, you can pitch-correct it and you're fine. Because everyone's ears are trained to listen to music that way, they don't want to hear anything that's off. In the old days when you were recording a song there's a natural tendency, it's a natural thing when you get to the chorus, because that's usually the high point of the song, you kind of speed up a little bit. In the old days producers used to actually incorporate that in if they're sitting there with a stop watch to check the time. They'd say let's bump it up a couple of BPMs (Beats Per Minute) in the chorus to get that feel, but now everyone wants everything to be the same. We've lost a lot. We have.
Q - After "Only The Lonely" became a hit, did the record company say to you, "Give us another record like that"?
A - Of course they did! Of course they wanted more of the same. We're building an empire. And thank God it didn't work out. I'm so, so happy that I didn't get more and more successful. That's a trap you don't want to fall into because as you get busy and get successful you're already busy enough where you're losing sight of the real world. Now you've got a manager and a business manager and this and that. You're not paying bills. You're not having a normal life. If that continues on long enough I just think you end up so atrophied and so damaged as a person. I think a lot of the tragedies we see with very successful people are part of that. Just removal from reality. I got to taste it and smell it and walk around it and look at it and I'm back to being just good 'ole me. I am very happy that that happened. I'm very glad that I didn't just have some meteoric rise where I didn't have a chance to come back down to earth because now I can tell the difference between real success and what makes you happy and what all that other stuff is, which is ridiculous.