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20 August 2010|
It’s exciting times for the family melodic rock band from California as they release a new album that captures the band live and amplified while Kipp, Mark and Michael Lennon prepare to participate as backup singers, bringing their trademark harmonies to Roger Waters’ 30th Anniversary Tour of “Pink Floyd’s The Wall”…
Paul Jerome Smith discusses these developments with the members of the band (whom regular Fireworks readers will remember from the previous Venice feature in Fireworks comprises brothers Michael and Mark Lennon and their cousins Kipp and Pat Lennon – who are also brothers!)
Well guys, I don’t really know where to begin, ‘cause I expect three of you must be consumed with pride that you have been invited to participate in such a tour, and one that will last such a long time, that it will cause something of a hiatus in “normal” Venice activities. But I’m going to return to this topic later on and focus first upon the new ‘Electric: Live And Amplified’ album.
I was completely wowed when I gave this a first play. It’s got the most “oomph” of any Venice album, I think……
Mark: Thanks, Paul. We feel like we FINALLY made an album that captures our live sound and feel.
Kipp: Exactly. For so long, we’ve wanted to capture the energy and power of our band’s live shows. Our albums sometimes have come close, but there’s a certain feeling about the live shows: the power of the communal vibe with the audience. And we get so amped playing live as well. Anyway, we were really happy listening back to the mixes. Especially by the end of the show, you can really feel the energy…
Pat: I think Michael [as producer] has come as close as we’ll ever get to capturing that feeling and magic on an album.
Michael: Venice is a live band. We’re the opposite of artists who make great records but then their live show doesn’t quite hold up to what you heard on the studio recording. This album was long overdue.
Pat: I also think our fans have been waiting for this one. We have a meet-and greet after all of our European shows, and all the feedback has been really positive. They enjoy the rock stuff as much as our mellower side.
Michael: One thing I'm really proud of on this live record is that there were no fixes. I’ll admit, I tried replacing an acoustic guitar track on one of the songs that I thought had a bad sound and a few mistakes, but when I listened back, the new track stuck out like a sore thumb and it just didn't feel or sound the same. In the end, I went back to the original guitar track. It's funny, because now it doesn't even bother me when I listen to it. With all the new technology, it’s easy to be tempted to try to make a live record sound too perfect, but I realized that the energy is coming from the live community of musicians playing as a whole, together, and not from each individual having a flawless performance.
I see that your friend Matt Levitz, who runs your Venice Central website at www.venicecentral.com, gets a special mention for all his help with the project, and that he assisted with the audio editing. The audio on the album certainly sparkles, so I guess his “pixie-dust” was a secret ingredient to the great sound of the album…
Michael: I would credit Matt more for the flow of the album than the sound of it. He was a huge help in transitioning from one song to another. We were really pushing the outer limits of a CD’s capacity, because we wanted to fit as many songs on this album as possible. We had more than one CD’s worth of material from the tour, but not enough, in my opinion, for 2 CD’s. I prefer to give one CD of the best of the best, instead of two CD’s where a couple of the songs are not quite up to the quality or performance level of the rest of the material. Matt was instrumental in trimming the fat, while maintaining a pretty natural live flow. Editing is his business.
Kipp: He’s a DVD producer/editor by trade, so he has the patience to sit with Michael for hours, honing it until it’s right. Matt also brought an extra enthusiasm and perspective to the mixing and editing that only somebody who’s known us for so long can bring. After all of our years together, it can be really helpful to have someone else in the room whose opinion we respect - most of the time - and who has a different take on things.
Michael: Matt was also instrumental in building my confidence and pushing me along during the editing and mixing of this album. Just having someone else in the studio with you at 3am is encouraging, and helps to keep you focused on the whole album, and not just the snare drum sound. We had a great time working together, and Matt’s knowledge of Venice’s history was a huge asset when making an album that we were hoping would encapsulate the first album up until the Venice of today.
Of course I recognized some old favourites on the album, including ‘One Quiet Day’, ‘If I Were You’, ‘The Water’, ‘Baby’s Calling’, and two songs that go all the way back to your first album, ‘Pushed Her Too Far’ and ‘All My Life’. But you’ve also leavened the offering with the song ‘Evolve’, that has only appeared on your recent acoustic album ‘Good Evening’, plus one brand new song, ‘High So High’.
What were the considerations you had in mind regarding the song choice for this record? I’m especially interested in knowing why you went all the way back to your major label debut album – ‘cause I didn’t think you’d revisit that record much these days!
Kipp: Well, there are a few songs from that first album that still hold up as songs for us, and we love to play them live. They may capture a time in our songwriting when we were rocking a bit harder, but they still have a Venice sensibility to them that even our newest fans can recognize.
Mark: These songs have stood the test of time over the years, and so they’re always fun to come back to and play every once in a while.
Michael: If Venice is going to make a live rock album, it has to include some of the first songs that paved the way and were instrumental in building the band’s reputation and loyal following. Although we have yet to find major success in the business, the material on our debut album was the key in opening many doors that allowed us to keep the train moving forward. And yeah, the material still holds up when we play it today, 20 years later. Then the new song, ‘High So High’ acts as a nice bookend to the Venice story.
Kipp: ‘High So High’ is an interesting one. The song is about how fame and success in showbiz can be such a tease and such a frustration over the years. Just when you’re ready to say, “Forget it,” just when you’re ready to think “she” doesn’t even care for you anymore, that old feeling comes back and you’ll do anything for “her” to kiss you again. It’s a high like no other.
I notice that both ‘Evolve’ and ‘High So High’ on ‘Electric’ (as well as new songs ‘Pawn Shop’ and ‘One Less Someone’ on ‘Good Evening’) show you're working with a new songwriting collaborator. Tell me, where did Charlie Vaughn come from, and how did he find his way into the fold?
Kipp: Charlie Vaughn is a singer/songwriter here in LA, and he’s actually my son. He’s 29 years old. Back when I was very young, and in a very tumultuous relationship, we gave Charlie up for adoption at birth, and I only just met him 5 years ago. He’s a talented, incredible guy who was thankfully raised by great people. Needless to say, he instantly became a part of our family.
Pat: Charlie just pretty much fits in. When Kipp’s and my mother died in 2005, Charlie sang at the funeral, and it was beautiful.
Kipp: Michael produced his debut album, ‘A Bucket of Joy’, and he plays drums with his band, The Daily Routine. It’s like a movie, in a lot of ways. Crazy and cool.
Michael: It’s amazing to me that this kid grew up loving music, playing guitar and singing, before knowing his biological dad was a musician. Proof that it truly is in the genes. Being in the early part of his musical career and his life, Charlie has a raw love and enthusiasm for making music that reminds me of when I was younger, without all the responsibilities and distractions I have today. Back in the day, on a beautiful hot Summer day in Venice Beach, California, I would choose to stay in my room and play my guitar instead of heading to the beach with my brothers and cousins. Charlie is in that place now, and part of me is jealous of it. But I also realize that I can now play a different role, as a producer who can edit his ideas and hopefully improve them. I can pick the ideas that might fit Venice, but also help him with the songs that work well for his personal career. It’s nice to have someone else throwing out ideas, guitar-wise. The main ‘High So High’ guitar riff was an acoustic riff that Charlie played me that I simplified and made more of a rock riff.
Pat: I must say, I think Charlie is an amazing guitar player. He does things on the guitar that most players wouldn’t think of.
Michael: I look forward to our future with Charlie…
Since my interview with you, back in 2008, Michael, you’ve also released another CD. Here’s your chance to tell the readers of Fireworks Magazine about it too…
Kipp: ‘Good Evening’, which is a live acoustic album, is one of my favorites. In the same way we’ve always wanted to capture the live rock vibe, we’ve also wanted to capture the acoustic show thing. We got a lot of that on here for sure.
Michael: While I was working on mixes for this CD, we’d also been working on some new songs with Charlie Vaughn. So we got the idea to add four new studio songs to the album, as bonus material for the fans. Now, in addition to ‘Good Evening’, we’ve also self-released a live DVD, ‘Alive and Acoustic’, which can be ordered exclusively through our website, www.venicecental.com. It’s a nice contrast to the live DVD that comes packaged with ‘Home Grown’ because that was a full band show that looks and sounds amazing, but is missing the banter and humor between songs that is so often part of our sets. The ‘Alive and Acoustic’ DVD is a much more casual environment, and although it’s not shot with seven cameras or mixed in 5.1 stereo, it captures a part of the band that the ‘Home Grown’ DVD doesn’t: Stripped-down Venice, in a casual setting, playing a lot of rarely performed live songs, and joking a lot with each other. We acknowledge the technical shortcomings with the $10 price we put on it!
I’ve recently become aware of the great work you do with the Artists For The Arts Foundation, which I believe is based in Santa Monica…
Kipp: Yeah, we’re really proud of the Foundation. Basically, it’s a non-profit thing started to help raise funds for the arts programs in various public schools. Sadly, in the US lately, a lot of the arts programs have been drastically reduced or even completely phased out. So we came up with a way to put on huge concerts to help out the kids in music, dance, art classes, etc. Every penny raised by ticket sales go directly to the art programs.
Michael: We also do a live auction during the event, auctioning off items like signed Fender guitars, a pair of tickets to the Grammy Awards, and a DW drum set. It's pretty amazing that we've raised over $600,000 for the schools over the past seven years, doing only one show per year.
Kipp: The real key difference with these benefit shows is that we’re the house band, and we include and feature student musicians all evening playing with world famous artists. For instance, we’ve had Billy Idol and Steve Stevens, Tommy Shaw, Jackson Browne, Ann and Nancy Wilson from Heart, Michael McDonald, Colin Hay, the list goes on and on. So we learn to play some of their most popular songs, and bring in the orchestra from the High School, or the choir or horn section or singers or guitarists. You get the idea. And we rock the house with very talented students leading the way. It’s an absolute blast every year. We get very ambitious with the songs, too. This year, we did ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Live & Let Die’ with full choir and orchestra. One year, we did ‘Ohio’ with David Crosby, and Michael got the idea to have the High School marching drums come down the aisles of the auditorium. It was fantastic!
Pat: I think the greatest thing about these shows is to watch the kids go from not exactly knowing what’s going on, to having an amazing musical experience with us and the other artists. There have been some wonderful moments, like when Billy Idol asked a young student how she started playing violin, and she blushingly said, “It’s a viola.” The crowd just loved it. But I always say another huge thing is the reaction of the parents. The proud look on their faces as they watch their children play with artists they grew up listening to is really powerful.
Michael: AFTAF is currently based in Santa Monica, but our hope is to take the idea nationwide, and maybe even onto TV or live streaming concerts on the internet. We’re missing the marketing/publicity piece of the puzzle right now. We put on amazing one-of-a-kind shows, but we have trouble getting the word out. It’s just a matter of time before we find that missing person that says, “What you need to do is...” Until that person comes along, we’ll just keep doing what we do, producing great shows.
Which brings us to the really big news…as trailed at the beginning of our interview – the involvement of three of you guys in Roger Waters’ major tour of ‘Pink Floyd’s The Wall’…. There’s 52 dates in North America and Canada already announced, starting in Toronto on 15 September, followed by 2 dates in Mexico City in December, and then a further 38 dates in Europe, including 5 nights at London’s o2 Arena. You have been invited to appear as backup singers, providing your trademark harmonies to the proceedings. Please tell me how all this came about, and what your initial reactions were…
Kipp: A good friend of ours, a singer named Jon Joyce, was one of the original singers on ‘The Wall’ album and tour. When I was starting out in the studio session world of LA, Jon was like a big brother to me. Mark and I have known him for many, many years, and he’s seen the band many times. Well, Roger (I call him Roger now that I’ve met him once) called Jon asking about putting the original background group back together for this new tour. But Jon said that the guys Pink Floyd used back in 1980 had all retired. So Jon suggested Roger try using us, because he knew that Roger’s original idea when recording ‘The Wall’ was to juxtapose a Beach Boys style background sound onto the Pink Floyd sound.
Michael: The first email came in November. A casual possibility mentioned by Jon Joyce. My brother Mark forwarded the email to me while we were on tour in Holland, and I remember being surprised that he didn’t add a comment to the forwarded email from Jon, like, “Oh my God, check into this, this could be huge!” Needless to say, I jumped on it and wrote back to Jon, telling him we’re totally interested, and, “What can we do to move forward?”
Kipp: We sent Roger some stuff of ours, including a live Beach Boys medley we’d been doing on a recent tour. And he wanted more. So we downloaded some Pink Floyd “Wall” stuff on iTunes and dubbed some vocals over it and sent that along. We just kept recording bits and pieces and sending them.
Michael: The next three months seemed like forever: sending demos, waiting for a response, wondering if this was really a possibility. Plus, the whole time, we had to keep it all a secret. We also had to make huge decisions on whether to put our own Venice career on hold, based on the slight chance that we might actually land this historic tour. We had a new album on the calendar with Universal Records for this year that was going to be made with the legendary Dutch Metropole Orchestra. It was going to be an album of west coast covers. This CD would have been released in August with a huge radio push and a big live show with the orchestra at the Heineken Music Hall in Amsterdam, followed by a tour in the Fall. We had to pull the plug on this album because they needed a yes or no, and we decided to roll the dice on the Roger Waters tour, in case the fairy tale actually came true.
Kipp: Roger decided to come out to LA to meet us. It was all very casual and easy. He came one rainy night to Michael’s house in Mar Vista, and sat on the couch as we sang ‘Goodbye Blue Sky’ for him. Really trippy to sing it right there for the actual guy. Then he showed us a bunch of unreleased footage of the original tour, and talked all about the upcoming one. It was very surreal, and yet laid back at the same time. A couple of weeks later, he had us meet up with James Guthrie, who was the original engineer/producer on the album, and we spent the day recreating vocals on various songs from ‘The Wall’. We actually overdubbed onto the original tracks! It was amazing. Our faces hurt from smiling all day.
Michael: Picture going into a studio and they put on, for example, ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and then they solo John Lennon’s vocal, and then they say, “See, he sings it like that. Try it again.”
Kipp: It was so trippy to hear David Gilmour’s iconic vocals all alone so we could work out the parts. It was like being an archaeologist at times. Really cool.
Michael: It was mind blowing, and it really didn’t sink in until we had left the studio. The tour hasn’t even started yet, but I can already die a happy man, thinking back on this opportunity and the countless others we’ve had to rub elbows with some of the most legendary rock stars in the history of rock n roll.
Kipp: Yeah. So then a few weeks later, we got the call that it was on, and now we’re off to the races…!
This is going to mean a major change to the normal Venice routine, of course. But I guess that the exposure on such a grand scale might help to spread the word about Venice……
Kipp: We’re hoping it will. It’s not like background singers become famous doing tours, exactly, but this is a very special tour, and we are a family from an actual band. So it is an interesting story, I think, to people and Bloggers and local papers, and so on...
Michael: It’s already started. We’ve been contacted by the head of the Pink Floyd fan club in Spain, who checked us out on YouTube and on our webpage, and was asking, “How did I not know about you? You could play here in Spain and be huge.” This was based on Roger’s Facebook announcement of the band line up. So I would imagine that once the tour starts, the exposure will increase tenfold.
Mark: It’s going to be difficult not playing our music for a combined period of about nine months. But we believe exposure of this magnitude can do nothing but help push Venice further into the ears and eyes of people all over the world.
Kipp: Also, it stands to reason that we’ll be meeting a lot of people over the next year or so, and certainly that can’t hurt. We intend to use this experience as a chance for more people to find out about Venice along the way, however we can.
Pat isn’t involved, so I suppose he will be taking care of “normal” business whilst the rest of you are away on tour.
Kipp: Yeah, that’s the only drag for us. They only needed three singers and not four. Still, Pat was the first to say we should go and not miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And thankfully, Mr. Waters is generous enough that the three of us can send home a nice chunk of our pay to Pat so he can at least share in the spoils, if not the adventure. So it’s bittersweet, but mostly sweet. We’re so thankful to be a part of such a historic tour.
Pat: Obviously I’m heartbroken and disappointed about not getting to go. I went through the whole demos and studio thing, and it was exciting to think we were all going. But I understand the politics, and they absolutely chose the right three. It’s certainly going to be an adventure. I know they’ll be amazing on the tour, and I wish them the best. I can only hope that this will bring us more fans, and we can take our music to more of the world.
I guess the rest of you guys have something of a mixed view to being away from your normal surroundings for so long…
Kipp: You know, it’s always tough to leave home for extended periods of time. Especially since Michael and I both have kids at home. But this opportunity is so huge, not only on a life experience and musical level, but also as a chance to work steadily for such a long period of time. It’s obvious to everyone, including our families, that this is a win/win. We’ll try to bring them to cities here and there, of course, to make them feel like they’re a part of it. Our kids already love telling their teachers and parents of their friends, and getting a kick out of their reactions.
How are the rehearsals going?
Mark: We haven’t started yet, but we’re going to rehearse as much as we can by ourselves first, so we don’t go in there with our drawers down.
I am aware that the epic scale of the stage production means that there will be little or no chance for improvisation and that it all has to be very carefully choreographed – so that will be a major change to the free-flowing nature of what you normally do…
Kipp: The idea of doing a very structured show like this is actually going to be a fun change for us. Especially because this is really as much theatre as it is a concert. So it’s cool to be a part of something so different than our usual shows. It’s so massive and artistic on such a grand scale, musically and visually. We can’t wait to get to the actual production rehearsals and see what it’ll actually be like. From reading articles and researching online, it seems like they’re planning lots of innovations and additions to the production, compared to the first time around. It’ll be as big of a surprise to us as it is to everybody else.
It will mean that Venice music lovers are likely to have to wait quite a while now for a new studio album, and it may not end up being the covers album you mentioned just now – but the touring schedule will, I am sure, help you to write a lot of new material.
Kipp: We’re looking forward to writing on the road. This gives us a lot of extra time to focus on writing. Almost like being forced to be in your twenties again. We’re bringing laptops and guitars, and plan to really enjoy this special time. It’s very inspiring, as you can imagine. The next Venice album is going to be great. We can already feel it.
Michael: It’s been fun dreaming up my ultimate traveling studio. Being the engineer/producer guy, I get into all the tech and gadget stuff, and have to have the newest, bestest stuff! I’m planning on buying a new laptop, an iPad, the new iphone, and any other gadget that is shiny and new and will make my life better and my work faster and easier. Whoopee!
Well, guys, I can only wish you all the fun in the world!
Kipp: Thanks. I feel like we get to be a part of the type of rock tours that never happen anymore. Like it’s the 1970’s and we’re out on the road in a jet, making music and seeing the world. Very, very lucky. We can’t wait to work our asses off!
Thank you for talking with me….When you are in Manchester on the tour, I really hope that we will be able to share a little time together. I’d certainly be very happy to be your guide between the two shows you are doing there!
Michael: Thank you, Paul. We appreciate your interest and your support of Venice. We’ve been together a long time, and we’ve weathered many storms while struggling to achieve greater success. We continue to wonder where next month’s income will come from, but we have no regrets. We get to do what we love, and we’re in control of our own destiny. So many people would kill to do what we get to do, even before this Roger Waters’ tour came along. For that, I’m extremely grateful. Now, with this upcoming opportunity, the monthly nut will not be an issue. At least not for a while. I also think this break will be great for Venice. Being able to step back from our normal (or abnormal) everyday life, and the responsibility that comes with sustaining our own career, in order to step up and support one of the most historic tours in rock history: The Wall Tour! It’s weird to hear myself say that. Holy fuck!
In conclusion I would like to thank Matt Levitz for his invaluable and tremendous help in coordinating this interview between myself and the band. His assistance in the process and also in providing some very interesting background material has been outstanding.
PAUL JEROME SMITH