By Jeb Wright
Classic Rock Revisited
BOSTON is back! Finally, after another decade of waiting Tom Scholz has emerged from his home studio with a collection of tunes that he is ready to unleash upon the world. BOSTON fans will be thrilled to know that not only do a few of the songs harkens back to the BOSTON glory days of the 1970s, Scholz even used the same equipment to record them as he did the now classic songs of yesteryear.
In typical Tom fashion, however, "Life, Love & Hope" is much more than a trip down memory lane. Where the song "Heaven on Earth" would sound at home on "Don't Look Back" there are other songs that will cause the usual BOSTON backlash from people who do not want the talented muse to stretch out, artistically. "Sail Away" has a neat rap section in it and a helicopter and tackles political issues. There are five different lead vocalists, including the late Brad Delp and even Tom, himself, on a tune.
Never content to rest on his laurels, Scholz is a man who knows what he wants when it comes to both music and life. He is not afraid to stick his neck out on the line. And he has done so again with "Life, Love & Hope." In the interview that follows, Scholz opens up about his songwriting process, his fading need to create new musical technology and how a child's voice was just perfect for one of his new songs.
Jeb: It makes me happy to talk to you about a new BOSTON album!
Tom: Me too…and surprised. Who would have thought?
Jeb: In all honestly, you do subscribe to the quality over quantity theory.
Tom: I am I stickler for doing it right.
Jeb: The gear heads out there will love to hear that used classic BOSTON gear on this album. I will warn you I am not a gear guy…I have a Gibson and a Marshall…
Tom: That's a good start [laughter]. I used the same gear that I have been using and, in fact, I actually have my Marshall head from the first album and a few of the tours and I used it on a few of songs. I have the same equipment and the same instruments. If you look around my studio it is hard to find anything that is not thirty years old.
Jeb: Some would be surprised that you are not keeping us with technology.
Tom: The only reason there was a Rockman amplifier and the other equipment I designed and built 25 years ago was because there were limitations with working with tube amps on stage and there were limitations when we practiced and I needed a solution. It had been bothering me for years. That is the only reason I got involved up to that point. Once I had that in my pocket, so to speak, and I had the solution, then I wasn't the least bit interested anymore. When they started having switchable digital devices that sound like this, or that, I just didn't care about that. I had great sounds that worked very well for me.
The newer stuff that was built after the Rockman was developed was unusable onstage. One of the most important things for me was that I needed equipment that could be switched from one sound to another instantly and seamlessly. The newer stuff that came out after that was microprocessed and was slow as molasses. It took forever to change and you couldn't do it on a beat so it was unusable. They say necessity is the mother of invention and the only time I get involved in trying to do something new is if I really need it. I don't really need another great sounding amp as I've got a couple of them.
Jeb: Did you have to blow the cobwebs off of the equipment?
Tom: No, it is the same stuff that I have used all along. It takes effort to keep it all operational. I look over and I see the 24-track tape deck that is 35 years old and it really gets beaten up. I put more wear and tear on that than any ten sessions would do with a tape deck. I'm sure that the designers of that never figured that anyone would be so brutal with that. It is still going strong after tens of thousands of plays of various songs and it sounds great. To me, the moment I turn the studio on and pick up an instrument and start to play it sounds like I am home. Well, I am home because I literally live over the studio but it is a very comfortable feeling. When I record on this analog gear and tape and I run it back then it sounds exactly like I did it. I can't tell the difference from when I am monitoring off of tape or I am monitoring off the source…it's exactly the same.
Jeb: How do you balance a creative effort with that pain in the ass perfectionist that you are?
Tom: Part of being my own harshest critic is an artistic one. I am always very aware that what I am doing may be heard by lots of people. Plenty of people are going to put down their hard earned cash to buy a copy of it, or buy a ticket to hear it live. I would hate the thought that something that I was involved with wasn't the absolute best that I could do. I am always driven by that same thing.
Maybe I shouldn't even keep it to listeners, or people paying for it, because I sort of feel that way about everything that I do. I don't know where that comes from. I suppose that maybe that came from my parents. I am not sure if I should congratulate them, or blame them, but it is the way that I am. Anything I get involved in I just try to do the best I can with it. My limitations are always time and energy. When I get burnt and I just can't…then I stop. If I think I have something that is special and that if I change anything that I am going to lose what I've got, then I stop and that is when I am done. That is when I know I have done the best that I can do.
Jeb: When do you know a song is good?
Tom: I have no idea if anybody else is going to like it, first of all. I work on these things almost entirely alone and there is rarely anyone else in the studio with me. I don't have any idea whether anybody else thinks something I am working on is worth hearing or not. Nobody hears it but me. My dog might react to it, or my wife might hear a bit of a piece of it and give me feedback, but that's it. Frankly, it is almost better that way because it gives me the freedom to do something that I think it cool and something that is worthy of having my name on and something that I would want to listen to again. When I have something that I want to hear over and over again then that is when I decide I am done.
Jeb: Was there any effort to evoke the sound of BOSTON past? Take "Heaven on Earth" as that could have been on any BOSTON album.
Tom: I will take that as a compliment. No, I didn't make a conscious effort. I don't start out the session by putting on the first BOSTON album and then thinking, "All right, I need to write songs and arrange things this way." I don't do that. I just work on ideas that I have. I sort of just do what I like. The only measuring stick I have to go by is to create the music the way I want to hear it. It may sound a little egocentric, or like a bad idea, but that is what got me the chance to make the first BOSTON album to start with.
I tried it the other way. I tried going to normal studios and having an engineer and other musicians and it didn't work at all. I tried to do it live with bands and I tried to teach them how to play the songs I wrote and I never got what I was looking for. I got what I was happy with after I stepped away from all of that and was by myself. I was free to go where I wanted to go, mentally, with the music. That is when, all of a sudden, it started getting some attention. That is when I got the chance to do a deal. When I got my first deal with Epic Records and they said that I had to record the album with a real producer in a real studio I said no. It was done secretly in my basement just the same way I did the demos and I don't think they ever figured that out. It is just the way I do things and it works for me.
With "Heaven on Earth" it turns out that it sounds very much in the style of the original BOSTON album, but it just happened that way. It was not an intentional thing. I think it happened on a few of these songs. On the other hand, I took some pretty big chances with this album and went out on a limb and experimented with some things. I think you have to do that. I don't think you can keep on trying to repeat the same thing, over and over. By definition, if you do that then it is not art.
Jeb: Then that little thread that ties all of the BOSTON sound, from every album, together, is Tom Scholz.
Tom: For one album, I get off on one tangent, or another, but for whatever reason, I don't know, maybe I am getting old and I am going back to my roots. I have no idea. It just ended up that a few of the songs on this record have what people would call the classic BOSTON sound. I am not one of these writers or artists that don't like their old stuff or won't play their big single or whatever. I am very proud of the BOSTON album and I love "More Than a Feeling." I am excited that some people think some of the new songs remind them of the early BOSTON music that I did.
Jeb: There are moments, however, that are very different. You have many different vocalists on this album. Who does that? You are even one of them.
Tom: There is no shortage of singers on this album. I did do a lead vocal and people are just going to have to put up with it. I don't by any means consider myself to be in the same league with any of the other singers on this album. That particular song, "Love Got Away" is a very personal song and it is basically autobiographical and the only way I could get that feeling and the emotional reaction that I was looking for with that song was if I sang it myself. In this case it is more important that the emotional aspect be highlighted over any technical excellence of the vocals. I am sorry. For over thirty years I have had other people sing my songs and I have to show it to them and I have to listen to them so this time you are going to have to listen to me [laughter].
Jeb: Tom, it doesn't suck.
Tom: I will take that as a compliment too.
Jeb: Maybe it is your personality and maybe it was by plan but you're not the rock star type. Did it make you nervous to sing lead?
Tom: No, but I am not comfortable singing lead to any music. Of course I do it. I always make a rough vocal copy to show someone else how to sing my song. This was just a matter in this particular case where I thought that I have been doing this a long time. I have shown other people how I think a song should be sung and this time I just deduced this is the way it's going to be. I am going to do it. I don't care that the vocals on this song may not be the best sounding ever but I want them to have some feeling. I was happy with that part of it. No, I don't plan on being the lead singer of BOSTON!
Jeb: Brad Delp is on this album which was a surprise.
Tom: We had started work right after "Corporate America" was finished. There would have been more but that is what we had completed at the time. I was glad that he had sung on "Didn't Mean to fall in Love." After "Corporate America,", that song in particular, which is the only song that I didn't write in its entirety, a verse of that was written by Curly Smith and a friend of his and I just love it. I have been waiting for years for the chance to expose more people to that song as I think it is a great song. Thankfully, Brad sang that song.
Jeb: "Sail Away" does not fit the classic BOSTON mold but that is one of my favorite songs on the album.
Tom: It is hard for me to pick a favorite but that one I like. Who would have ever though there would be a rap against some heavy helicopter sound on a BOSTON album? It was what was called for regarding the subject of the song. I love that song. I like the seriousness of it and the heaviness of it. The "sail away" part comes along and gives you a ray of hope that there is a better world out there.
Jeb: Was that inspired by Hurricane Katrina?
Tom: It was. Well, not by the hurricane but by the horrible reaction of our government agencies and the people who were responsible and expected to respond. They treated the poor segment of our population horribly. I think there was a racial element to it as well. Looking back on it more than ten years later it is still not right. Most of the things that have been done to try to make it right have been done by volunteers who sacrificed their own time and money to try to help. These people were just written off and they were shuffled off to the Superdome and left there and they just shut the doors. The whole thing is a horrible commentary to some degree on the human race and the terrible way that people can be treated by those who are expected to be in a position of responsibility.
You contrast that to what happened a few years later in La Jolla, which was terrible. People lost their homes and I understand how bad that is but the government was Johnny on the Spot for all of these people who lost their million dollar plush houses. They were right on that one, but when it came to the poor people who were struggling hand to mouth, and they lost their home, or their apartment, or their whatever, it was not done correctly. This song was my commentary on that entire situation. My hope was that it would at least leave you with a glimmer of hope with the thought of sailing away to a better place in your mind, as well as maybe in the real actual physical world.
Jeb: I think that song would make a great video.
Tom: I do too. Fortunately I am not a video maker as I am sure that would take even longer than making an album.
Jeb: Another one of my favorite moments on the album is the instrumental "Last Day of School."
Tom: It is a happy song, so it started out as just a piano piece. On the rare occasion when I played it for someone they thought I was plying something from Bach of Schubert or someone. I would say, "No, that's actually Scholz." Finally, I thought maybe I should record it. I just played it for fun. It was a challenging piece to play, physically, on the piano. I decided that I would make it a keyboard piece. I recorded the piano track, and a drum track. I decided to put in a little bit of background power guitar in a couple of places and before I knew it the guitar completely dominated the piece. It turned into a guitar piece with a barely audible piano that you can barely hear in the background. I am actually playing with the idea of making the piano track available so that you can hear what is going on back there as it was really hard to play [laughter].
Jeb: You played that at Boston Symphony Hall.
Tom: The song was debuted publically on the symphony hall pipe organ at a performance of the Boston Pops, which was quite an experience. I was invited to play at this show, which was the 150th anniversary of MIT. When I got the invite I thought, "Ya know…maybe I will get a chance to play that giant pipe organ." When I was actually there on stage I was a little terrified that I had to play that giant pipe organ.
Jeb: Did you at least get a rehearsal?
Tom: I got a few hours one afternoon at the console of the pipe organ. Symphony Hall is a busy place even when there is no performance…it is never empty. They set me up at the console and they had a guy show me the basic operation of the thing because there are few million stops on it, and I had no idea how it was set up, or what does what. He showed me the basics and I start fooling around with it.
I start playing and I quickly realized that this is a huge pipe organ and if you hit a high note there is a little bit of a delay coming back to you. If you hit a low note there is a huge long delay. You are sitting there waiting for the note that you played to come back to you. I was playing "Foreplay" with the Boston Pops and I was playing "Last Day of School" solo. I realized that by the time the notes were coming out from the pipes I was two or three notes further down the line. I thought, "I am playing in a nightmare. How could anyone possible do this?" The guy that had showed me how to run it was an organ teacher and he said, "Here is what I do. Watch the conductor. His arms come up and then, when his arms come down, everybody plays. I play when his arms go up!"
Jeb: "Someday" is a great song. This song is about bullying.
Tom: This song is a call to people to pull together and to do something about the way the world is. There is a tiny small element of society that wants to torment somebody else. There is a gigantic majority that is decent human beings who do not think this is okay. "Someday" is my song about standing up against that sort of behavior.
Jeb: Jude Nejmanowsk is listed as a special guest on the album.
Tom: I needed a child's voice for the middle segment. Jude is a brilliant little kid. He is not as little now as I met him a few years ago. He did a school report on me a few years ago as one of these talks that you do in class. He video taped it and sent me a copy. He is a brilliant little guy—not because he picked me to do the report on. He writes like an adult and he thinks and talks like an adult and the things he does are amazing.
I ended up meeting him a couple of times. He is a bit of a musician. He plays a bit of guitar and he sings. I called him and asked him if he would like to fly to Boston and sing on the new BOSTON album. His cousin brought him out and he came to the studio and he was a pro. He put on the headphones and it was like he had done it his entire life.
My original thought was that I would track him a bunch of times. When kids sing they are a little off key, but when you put them together then it sounds cute. He had not heard the part before and he was learning it as I tracked him. I had all of the tracks that I needed to have that big combination where it would sound like a roomful of kids all singing a little bit off, but still sounding like kids. I realized when I got done that he was too good to do that to. I just couldn't do it. I picked out one of his last takes and put it up by itself.
I caught him just at the right moment because his voice has changed. He does not quite have the choirboy sound anymore. He is just a great kid. When someone comes in to work on vocals for one of my songs I never know what is going to happen. I think I have an idea of how it will work but you just never know whether something is going to work or not. Jude came in and sang and I knew from the first note it was going to work.
Jeb: Last one: The title track, "Life, Love & Hope." Where did you come up with that?
Tom: It is very simple where this came from. We all get caught up in our day-to-day garbage of parking tickets and cell phones and trouble at work and all of the things we agonize over and complain about. You lose sight of the really important things. Every now and then something happens in your life and you remember that none of that stuff really matters. This is sort of my gentle reminder about what is important.
It became obvious to me that it should be the title of the album. It is an optimistic song. There are the things that you should really focus on. My whole objective for BOSTON albums from day one is that I hope that the listener will be in a better mood and feel better about things after they listen to the album than before they put it on. I feel the same way about this album, so that is why I named it that and that is what I want people to focus on. I wanted it to be an optimistic viewpoint. It just had to be the name of the album.