At The End Of The Day, Musicians Are Entertainers

Trailer Radio 1

Even John Lennon knew that The Beatles had to be entertainers—the point was made early when the very green Beatles were ordered to Mach Schau! Mach Schau! by a Hamburg club-owner in their early days on the Reeperbahn. From making motion pictures to prancing around in tights, the most beloved and emotionally resonant rock band in history did what needed to be done to entertain the fans, who in turn supported the band with fierce loyalty and devotion.

Nearly 20 years ago Dan Rothchild introduced me to virtuoso guitarist David Michael Weiss. Dave at the time fronted SlackJaw (aka SlackJaw Blues Band), who, despite their prodigious musical talent, remained unsigned. All the requisite elements were in place: good songs, serious chops, tight band and commanding vocals. So why weren’t they signed? Probably because they relied exclusively on the music. As far as I know, David and his crew didn’t spend their time mugging for the camera while dressed like Peter Pan or Robin Hood. Surely some photos would have surfaced by now.

Because I dug both the music and the human being, I signed David to my production company, Alternator Records, and planned to include him in a joint venture label deal with RCA Records.  Everything was in place for a successful career to launch–until the RCA brass killed the deal, presumably as a byproduct of an impending corporate reorganization.  Whatever the reason, Slackjaw Dave was again without a clear roadmap to domination of the Top 40 charts.

So he moved to New York, armed with a Telecaster and an early Matchless DC30 with the fabled green transformer. Interesting factoid: I bought that amp from Greg Lake of ELP before playing it on A.J. Croce’s Transit and New Radicals’ Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed, Too, and eventually sold it to David because he made it sound much better than I ever could! But that’s another story for another time.

Fifteen years later Dave resurfaced in my life. He had cracked the musician-as-entertainer code by seamlessly blending smoking hot chops with redneck comedy lyrics and an over-the-top, politically insensitive persona known as Travis Whitelaw. He hooked up with producer and co-writer Joel Shelton to compose and record the album Sexarkana!, which was well received by fans and critics alike and garnered tremendous airplay on XM-Sirius (the only airplay obtainable in light of those pesky FCC regulations for the very “blue” material). The downside, if there was one, was that Travis was so over-the-top and one-dimensional that the joke could easily become old…or convincing. Apropos of that, Dave told me, “Funny and true story: the first time I met Shannon was at a Travis gig where she COMPLETELY bought the shtick and thought I was an actual potty-mouthed redneck. She loved it. I was very proud of the fact that I had fooled a genuine Southerner with my Travis routine.”

Rather than running the risk of overstaying his welcome by allowing the persona to overshadow the person, Travis asked David to re-emerge and assume guitar, vocal and co-writer duties in a super-tight country-rock outfit called Trailer Radio, led by West Virginia spitfire and bona-fide coal miner’s daughter Shannon Brown. Trading the id-driven redneck satire for a clever urban hillbilly shtick, the new band provides a platform for David to showcase his 6-string badassery within the context of an American subculture rich in tradition, tall tales, and culinary delights (boll weevils for dinner?!) as far from Manhattan’s dirty water dogs and thin crust pizza as is imaginable.

Where Travis Whitelaw’s entertainment value is rooted in shock, Trailer Radio’s appeal is in its humanity. The protagonists of TR’s songs are regular folks who find themselves in uncomfortable yet plausible situations. It’s easy to love Trailer Radio’s lead singer, Shannon Brown, when she sings in “Tar Beach” of a rooftop Manhattan summer “staycation” cobbled together from modest resources: “We don’t need no Disney cruise, we can climb up on the roof, drop a lawnchair and a cooler on Tar Beach.” She knows her lane, and she knows how to work it.

Same goes for the completely confused fellow, courtesy of Dave’s spirited vocal delivery, living in the doghouse in [My Heart Is On] “The Bottom Of Her Boots.” You can’t help but feel compassion for the guy as he announces, “Holy crap, she’s flipped her lid, I don’t know just what I did, my recliner’s gone, remote’s been hid, my clothes are on the lawn.” Poor guy…his woman crushed his heart, painted his man cave pink and pawned his shotgun along with her wedding ring. But impossibly he seems radiant in his acquiescence to his fate. There’s a price to be paid for every good story, and Dave’s character revels in the narrative, which makes the ride a fun one for the rest of us.

I’m pretty sure that Trailer Radio’s current success is based on much more than blazing riffs and catchy songs. This band is not afraid of holing up in the woodshed. Their sophomore effort, Country Girls Ain’t Cheap, is clearly the result of a well oiled machine that fine tuned its tightly crafted, hook-laden songs both in private and on countless merciless New York stages. Like the Fab Four, TR understands that folks like to be entertained.

If there’s a life lesson in today’s blog post for recording artists and producers, I suppose it would be to practice one’s entertainment skills as much as one’s artistry. When we make folks feel good about themselves, they reward us with their continued presence in our lives and businesses. Have fun, open up, and live fearlessly! 

Want To Be A Super Pro? Behave Like One!

Dan Rothchild (left), with Beck, for whom he played bass.

My wife Irina and I were driving the car, enjoying a lovely California evening with the radio playing in the background, when suddenly we shut up, locked eyes, and together declared, “Dude, that sounds like Dan!”

We actually stopped the car so we could crank up the volume without distraction, our eyes riveted to the FM radio dial, anticipating each subsequent note that might offer a clue that the groovalicious bass line was performed by somebody other than our dear friend Dan Rothchild. The feel was sexy, the pocket was deep, and the tone articulate and round. The bass was the perfect pivot for Sheryl Crow’s visceral vocal performance of a song that would soon be a massive hit, “If It Makes You Happy.” Dan later told me that this overdub session took only 20 minutes of getting a tone, and 20 minutes of tracking. 

The thing that blows my mind is that Irina and I both instantly recognized Dan’s unique character just as easily as we did Sheryl’s identifiable voice. By virtue of countless recording sessions with Dan, I was intimately familiar with his musicality, but Irina only knew the finished recordings, which were merely a small fraction of her playlists that included Seal, Crowded House, The Beatles, Peter Gabriel, et al. She had plenty of star power on her mix tapes, and no reason to pay any particular attention to our homeboy who rode mountain bikes and ate Thanksgiving dinners with us. Yet somehow Irina instantly recognized Dan’s unique musical DNA. 

I called up Dan to find out if it was indeed he who rocked the track. He modestly confirmed what I already knew in my bones. I was so happy for him! He was on another hit, one that was certain to raise his profile. Dan then told me that he was finally getting to really do what he loved. He was contributing on a creative level, live and in the studio, with many of his favorite artists.

I’m writing about Dan Rothchild today because there are so many things to learn from him about professional attitude and behavior, whether you’re on the way up or a veteran pro. Here’s one of the secrets to success, as exemplified by Dan: The right attitude attracts opportunities. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to spend your time doing what you love.

Dan was regularly getting called up to the bandstand by Jon Brion during Brion’s Largo residency, which was the equivalent of a master class in unrestrained creativity for us mere mortals. A quick glance at the audience would reveal a diverse crowd ranging from Aimee Mann and Michael Penn to Fiona Apple and Toad The Wet Sprocket. Everybody in the club hoped to catch a sprinkle of Brion’s mad genius, but Dan transcended that desire. He was actually adding to the strange brew without a net and in the moment, and he was loving it! 

So, how did he get to that place in his career where his professional and personal dreams so peacefully coexisted?

Dan’s initial success came from consistency, character and, perhaps most importantly, his positive “we’re all in this together” attitude. Whenever I called Dan for a job, I knew with confidence that we were going to have a good day. The mood would be fun, and the results would be super pro. Dan knew when to cut up and when to shut up & rock. He still does. That’s why he’s one of the top cats in the business.

Dan may be the ultimate team player. He is more than capable of running the show, as evidenced by his production of Better Than Ezra’s hit album Deluxe, but he respects the creative process enough that he is comfortable adapting to whatever role the situation requires. Even when I was the producer on various records, I knew that I would learn something new from the guy I hired. I distinctly recall Dan teaching me how to watch the lead singer’s lips to lock in the phrasing when doing background vocals. Seems obvious, right? Well, it’s not…at least not until you think of doing it. I also remember him showing me two different bass guitar tuning strategies, one for ballads and the other for faster tempi. Strings tend to drop in pitch after the initial attack, so Dan tuned for the sustain on slow songs and for the attack on faster ones with lots of eighth notes.  

When you hired Dan for a gig, you got much more than a bass player. You got an encyclopedia of music history, who would happily share knowledge bequeathed to him from his rock royalty father, legendary producer Paul Rothchild, whose myriad credits include The Doors and Janis Joplin. No matter how fresh or unique you are, you will always benefit from having someone who learned from the Masters on your team. Dan is that guy, yet he is full of experimentation and serendipity. 

Dan always brings his A-Game to a session, regardless of the status of the artist. Major label or independent, it makes no difference to his performance or attitude. Watching him do his thing is a reminder to me of what is truly important to any artist who hires me: the artist wants me to make him/her feel good about the music.

Apropos of that, I recall working on the New Radicals album, Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed, Too. Before cutting the song “Crying Like A Church On Monday”, the band (Dan on bass, Gregg Alexander on vocals and acoustic guitar, Dan McCarroll on drums, Danielle Brisebois on percussion, and yours truly on electric guitar) experimented with some arrangement ideas, and really began to gel into a tight unit. And then McCarroll, who was known for playing with Jellyfish alumni in The Grays, tells us that he needs to leave for another gig…before we even pressed the Record button. No need to worry, though, because Dan Rothchild was friends with virtually everybody in the record business. He suggested we call Matt Laug, who played drums on Alannis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill. 

Soon enough, Matt was set up and ready to rock. Before recording, however, everybody in the room was so inspired by the new chemistry that we jammed on Police songs for an hour! Nobody was stressed about time because we were in the zone, living in the moment, loving the sheer joy of music. Finally we cut the song. It was so easy to fall into the perfect groove with that combination of cats who knew how to listen, and knew how to have fun.

As a treat to you, my beloved readers, before I wrap up this post, I’ll share a couple personal vignettes that I probably shouldn’t. Even if I get in trouble, these are too good to take to the grave.

1. For a brief time, Dan’s nickname was HinderHat. He was fearless on a mountain bike. Before a challenging race in 1990, my pro cycling colleagues and I warned him to watch out for the Rim Wrecker, a technical kamikaze jump over a concrete irrigation trench that could be safely avoided by pedaling around it. It was marked with a makeshift tombstone made of taco’ed rims. The detour, although safe, was a clusterfucked traffic jam. The fastest line was the straight airborne one—provided you had enough speed, skill and guts to clear the jump. After the race, Dan said he looked for the hazard each lap, but never saw it, even though he sailed right over it! Clearly he focused on the goal, and didn’t get hung up on the obstacles in his path.

The race bug bit him, so Dan began training with a small group of elite racers. One day he discovered that his tires were shot, so I left a pair of new skins for him at my home. My training partners and I pedaled the eleven miles to the trailhead while Dan drove to my place, picked up the tires, and then chased us by bike to the trail after he installed only one of the tires. He wrapped the other new one around his helmet, like a turban, and planned to change it at the designated meeting place. 

When he arrived, however, Dan was eager to hit the mountains, so he elected to wear the tire “hat.” The knobby turban, which understandably slowed him down a bit—and caused at least one spectacularly hilarious crash—became known as The Hat That Hinders Dan’s Progress. And Dan became affectionately known as HinderHat.  He didn’t seem to mind, though. If everybody else was happy, then so was Dan. 

2. Dan recorded Better Than Ezra’s electric guitar amplifier in a van, outside his West Hollywood apartment, by running mic and instrument cables out of the second story studio window to the parking lot. I guess the landlord didn’t want him to record loud music inside the apartment, so Dan did not record loud music inside the apartment. No worries. Problem solved? Check. Hit record? Check. 

Circling back to the theme of doing what you love, the takeaway is that we can create our fantasy life by behaving like the person who would actually live such a life. Across the 27 years I’ve known Dan, he has consistently behaved like the guy you want to have on your team; like the guy who would produce a hit record; like the guy who would play bass for Heart, Sheryl Crow, Shakira and Fiona Apple; like the guy who would get his friend a coveted A&R job at a major label. Because of his behavior, all of those things became reality. 

So, how does this story relate to the rest of us? Simply put, let’s behave like the people we want to be, to ensure we live the lives we want to live.