Tom Scholz turns a hobby into platinum
By: Michael A. Lerner
Most rock stars have a weakness for ostentation. When their albums hit the Top 10, and the millions start pouring in, they do things like buy Rolls Royces and Caribbean islands. Not Boston's Tom Scholz. When Scholz found out that his band's last album had gone platinum the very day it was released, he and his manager, Jeff Dorenfeld, tore off to their favorite soda joint in northeastern Massachusetts and bought chocolate malts. "It was really great news," said Dorenfeld about "Third Stage." "Tom thought we'd go out and celebrate." An MIT graduate with a degree in engineering, Scholz, 39, heads his own multi-million-dollar high-tech company: Scholz Research & Development. Despite three phenomenally successful albums, he and his family still live in the small suburban house outside Boston he bought while he worked at Polaroid; he drives a beat up Datsun pocked with rust holes. Although he wrote most of the songs, played most of the instruments and recorded and produced his albums all in his tiny basement, he doesn't consider himself musician first and foremost. "Above all, I'm an engineer." He says. "Music started out as a hobby, and I really try to keep it that way."
It has been eight years since Boston's last album. Despite a near-total absence of publicity, no video clip and not even a cover photo of the band on the album jacket, "Third Stage" has been the top album in the nation for the last four weeks, selling more than 4 million copies so far. It is the first album ever to go gold in compact disc. A single, "Amanda," has also topped the charts. As a result of all the airplay, the band's previous two albums are having strong resurgence. "Boston isn't a success. It's a phenomenon." says Liz Heller of MCA, Boston's label.
Hard-pop sound: The phenomenon proves that musically the 1970s are not over. Boston has remained true to its original hard-pop sound. The album's high-pitched histrionic vocals by Brad Delp, its relatively simple ballads and progressions resonate with the heavily textured guitar sound and overlapping harmonies that have become Boston's trademark. Technically, the album is straight out of the 1970s. While most bands today record on digital equipment and use synthesizers, Scholz obstinately sticks to analog recording. "Digital almost automatically means microprocessors, and they're very complicated circuits. They're undependable and always limited by the programmer," he explains. "One of the things I learned in school is: a good engineer does things the easiest, laziest way."
Lazy is not the best way to describe Scholz and his recording style. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Scholz won himself a full scholarship to MIT, graduating with a 4.8 out of 5.0 grade-point average. While working as an engineer at Polaroid, where he helped invent audio to go with the instant-movies system, Scholz produced his first album. "I used to record from 12a.m. to 8a.m. Those were the only hours I could afford. It made for some pretty tired mornings," he recalls. After recording a series of demos, he got a record contract with Epic and in 1976 came out with Boston's first album. It has sold 9 million copies to date and remains the most successful group debut album in history.
At that point Scholz quit Polaroid to devote himself full time to music. His second album, "Don't Look Back," took two years to record; he still looks on it as unfinished. In 1980 Scholz launched SR&D. "I started it so I'd have some place to work, so that the music wouldn't be a job," he says. It financed his third album. Scholz and his team of five engineers developed the Rockman, a paperback-size mini-amplifier that makes any guitar sound like it's plugged into the finest equipment in the business. "We had 8,000 orders before one Rockman ever left the factory," he says. This year SR&D expects to do about $6 million in business.
It took six years; to produce "Third Stage." "When I first started working on the project, I'd put in 50 to 60 hours a week," Scholz says. "During the last two years I really had to drive myself to go down to the basement and finish it." He got an inkling of success two years ago, when a boot-leg version of the album's first single, "Amanda," got massive airplay. '"Amanda' was the No.1 phone request around the country. It was great publicity," says manager Dorenfeld.
Vast sums: "Third Stage" is Scholz's most personal album; it carries a message. The third stage or life, says Scholz, is what comes after childhood and adulthood. "It is what I consider most important in maturing into what a human being ought to be," Scholz says. "Let's put it this way, what it's not about is trying to decide when you can buy a new BMW." Scholz lives by his philosophy. He is a vegetarian. Though he won't talk about figures, he has donated vast sums of money to such organizations as Greenpeace and the Fund for Animals." What I'm really interested in is not how all this can change my life, but how I can use the money to change the things I care about," he says.
Before the next album, he means to take a break--his first in six years. His hobby is flying--he's an instrument-approved pilot and he builds radio-controlled model airplanes. "Of all my possessions, this is No 1 in my book," he says, pointing to a sleek two-foot-long plane he designed. How fast does it fly? "I've never timed it, but over 100 mph." His other passion is basketball. An ardent Celtics fan, the 6 foot 5 Scholz plays regularly with local high school and college kids. For his 40th birthday he and his wife are heading to Florida so he can shoot some hoops on a court he played on 20 years ago. "My whole interest in the game is the slam-dunk," he says. As the record charts show, that particular interest also helps in making music.