Friday, August 15, 2014

Cheetah Chrome: The Cream Interview 2014

Posted By on Fri, Aug 15, 2014 at 3:40 PM

The Dead Boys and their earlier incarnation, Rocket From the Tombs, are always thought of as New York City bands, even though they came to the Bowery from Cleveland just as the world was beginning to recognize the place as a hub for original artists. Now, we like to think of co-founder and guitarist Cheetah Chrome as a Music City local, since he's been living here with his family for going on 18 years. He's stayed busy with a wide variety of projects, including a group called The Batusis with New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, a brief Rocket From the Tombs reunion and working as the head of A&R and a staff producer at Plowboy Records, a local label that's home to Bobby Bare, Paul Burch, J.D. Wilkes and the Dirt Daubers and other notable not-watered-down Americana acts.

Last fall, Chrome released his debut record of solo material, a seven-song EP appropriately titled Solo. It includes tracks recorded in 1996, from sessions in Woodstock, New York, with Dead Boys producer Genya Ravan at the controls and Nashville punk group LAMF as the backing band, as well as tracks from an aborted Batusis full-length helmed by drummer-producer Ken Coomer (of Wilco and Clockhammer fame).

A couple weeks back, Chrome announced his first solo show in Nashville since 2002. The show starts 7 p.m. Saturday at The Basement. Tickets are $7, and the bill includes Chet Weise and Poni Silver's psych-blues band Kings of the F**King Sea opening and young punks Sexx performing after. (Sadly, a death in the family forced The Dead Deads to drop off the bill.) We got an opportunity to chat with Cheetah Chrome on the phone about Solo, Plowboy and more — read that after the jump.

Some of the songs on Solo were recorded in 1996 and the rest were from sessions in 2011. Were they all written around the same time?

The stuff from Woodstock we did inside of a week back in 1996, and they sat in a warehouse at Hilly’s [Kristal, late owner of CBGB] — or maybe in the basement of CBGB, I don’t know where they were — until 2007, when he died. His daughter called me up and said, “I found these. Do you want them?” We recorded the other stuff when we were trying to do a full-length Batusis record. … I listened to the two together and thought it might be nice to get some of that out. Ken Coomer and I mixed the tapes and I mastered them all the same, so they would be consistent. We didn’t really change much about the Woodstock tapes. I think we tweaked one vocal and maybe one guitar. It was like we’d worked on it for 20 years! [laughs]

How did Hilly wind up with the tapes?

Hilly was the executive producer, and he paid for the studio time. We were talking about shopping it, but once we got about halfway through, he wanted to put it out on CBGB Records, which was kind of the kiss of death — CBGB itself was great, but the record company had never done anything! I said, “Hilly, c’mon, let’s shop this to a major or somebody else,” and he said, “Oh, I think we’ll put it out on CBGB, and then I can sell it to a major,” and it was like, “Oh God, I don’t want to mess with this.” And so we decided to let them sit, just forget about it. A year later, we patched things up [with Hilly], but the tapes never got mentioned.

Aside from a consistent sound, the songs have a similar flavor — you write about very personal subjects, but your songs always touch something universal. Is that by design?

Nah, whatever comes out comes out, pretty much. I don’t have any kind of a set writing routine. I’ll be just playing and something’ll come. I’ll demo it, and use the demo to write lyrics.

What do you feel like it’s important to write about today? Are you doing much writing?

Right now, I’m pretty tied up with the label and doing some shows. We’ve got a couple pretty exciting things going on with Plowboy — next year’s going to be a good year. Nothing I can talk about right now, but it’s all in the works and keeping us busy. I’m doing this show at The Basement, and then next week I’m playing guitar with Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’ for four shows in the Midwest. Then I’ll be in New York in September, and then another four days in Texas.

Sounds like a busy run! Back when The Batusis played out in 2010, you explained to my colleague Adam Gold that you found inconsistent crowds frustrating, and that’s why you haven’t played here solo since 2002. What changed your mind?

Yeah, one show it’d be [an audience of] 200, and the next it’d be 30, so I thought, “Maybe if I just do it once in a while.” … The EP is out, and I’ve been playing around a lot. I hadn’t done it in a long time, and thought, “Why not do one at The Basement while I’m in the mood and it’s easy?”

In that same interview, you mentioned that you don’t see many local acts, and that the ones you did see were deliberately playing under their ability to try and sound “punk.” Have you gotten to see any of the young rock bands that have been forming here in the last few years?

Not as much as I would like to. You’d think with me in A&R, I’d be getting out and seeing bands all the time, but they somehow keep coming to us; we keep tripping over them! I haven’t gone out to see bands every night for a week to see if there were any I liked. Hopefully I’ll be able to do that next year — find somebody unknown. That’s a part of the job I look forward to doing. There’s some local bands that I’ve had my eye on that are very good; I just haven’t been able to approach them, because something else comes up — like the Jim Ed Brown record we have coming up, he came to us.

Before we leave that: have whatever local bands you have seen dropped that playing-dumb act, more or less?

I think it’s gotten better. I think Paramore and Kings of Leon kind of changed that — if you sound good, you might do better, you know? [laughs] Paramore kind of broke the curse. Before, people would be in four or five bands. It was like they weren’t real bands, just kind of thrown together for a gig.

Speaking of bands, how did the group you’re playing with Saturday come together? Shannon Pollard (drums) is the president of Plowboy, and you’ve worked with Greg Walker (bass) a long time — he was in LAMF, wasn’t he?

That’s right. He’s on the Woodstock tapes — he’s on the record. [Guitarist] Chuck Tate I’ve known since he was in Who Hit John. I was looking for a good guitar player who would be compatible. Shannon’s a good drummer who’s played in several bands around town, and God knows we know each other well enough! [laughs]

Shannon approached you about joining Plowboy, right?

He’d been tossing the idea around, and when he saw I was available [after a reunited Rocket From the Tombs went back on hiatus] he asked me about it. The first project he wanted to do was a tribute to his grandfather [country musician Eddy Arnold]. It was a huge project to start with, and everything else kind of came up around that. We started securing artists for the project, and as that all kind of started to snowball, I got my Rolodex back together, and next thing we knew we had a label! I’ve made a lot of friends over the years, so it was nice [to get back in touch].

Of all the different hats you wear at Plowboy, what’s your favorite?

I really do enjoy the production end of things. I enjoy being in the studio and I love watching songs come together. I really have a passion for that. The day-to-day working is always fun — I get to talk to a lot of interesting people and a lot of old friends. I’m working with The Fauntleroys [Alejandro Escovedo’s project with Ivan Julian from Richard Hell and the Voidoids and others] right now, and they’re old buddies of mine.

Another of your recent production projects was J.D. Wilkes and the Dirt Daubers’ Wild Moon, which sounds fantastic. Would you call yourself a hands-on kind of producer?

I just try to present the band as they sound. Bands do their homework — I’m not there to change their songs or rearrange them. I don’t want to be intrusive, just capture what they’re doing on tape and enhance it, if I can. I like to suggest ideas, but I’m not part of the band, and I’m not their boss.

You’re more about trying to help them make what they do transfer to a record.


You released Solo last fall, right about the time the movie CBGB [with Alan Rickman as Hilly Kristal and Rupert “Ron Weasley” Grint as Cheetah Chrome in the on-screen version of The Dead Boys] was released. What did the movie do well, and what could it have done better?

I think people were a little hasty in judging it. Its heart was in the right place. It’s not Citizen Kane, but it was never intended to be, and a lot of people tore it down before they ever saw it. Rupert Grint did a great job as me, and Justin Bartha did a great job as Stiv. For what they were trying to achieve — a Punk magazine cartoon come to life — I don’t think they could’ve done any better. They should’ve made it clearer that it was about Hilly and not about CBGB; maybe they should’ve called it something else. People got mad because The Dead Boys are in it a lot, but he managed us — we were part of his life [in a way that] the other bands weren’t. Our fortunes were entwined with the club very much.

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