Huey Lewis: Still doin’ it
“You gotta have confidence.” Those were the words that Huey Lewis said to his bandmate Bill Gibson in 1984. Granted, they were on a golf course, blowing off a bit of steam as their album Sports was really starting to blow up, but the words from Lewis definitely fit into the storyline of events that had helped to bring about that success for the hardworking group from San Francisco.
It had been nearly a year since Huey Lewis and the News released Sports, an album that would ultimately yield five Top 40 hits, four of which would go Top 10. The album itself would go to the top of the Billboard Album Charts and has sold more than seven million copies to-date.
At the time, Lewis was really confident about the long-term prospects for Sports. In an interview for Rolling Stone he told journalist Christopher Connelly, “I think we made a record that America can play a million times.” Thirty years later, Sports has gone even further than that. The songs have been played millions of times and Sports still hangs together as an album that sounds just as good now as it did back in the day.
The longevity of the songs that you’re writing can be a difficult thing to grasp at the time that you’re immersed in the creative process. Introducing the Back to the Future soundtrack smash “The Power of Love” during a recent concert, Lewis told the audience, “Who knew when we wrote it that we’d be playing it every night of our lives?”
Crossing over into 2014, Huey Lewis and the News are moving past the afterglow of the 30th anniversary shows they played last year to celebrate the legacy of Sports. They’ve got a new song called “While We’re Young” which they’ve been playing live and as Lewis told us during a recent phone conversation from his home, each new song brings another new story to tell. From talking to Lewis, it sounds like they’ve got plenty of stories left to share.
You and the band have always worn your influences on your sleeves. It had to be a lot of fun going to Memphis to work on the Soulsville album.
It was awesome. It was unbelievable, man. It was the most fun record ever. First of all, you don’t have to worry about the songs [because they’re all hits]. We picked all of the great songs and the idea was rather than replicate [the originals], to give a modern twist to the old classics like “Knock on Wood” and find these other ones that weren’t totally obscure, but most people hadn’t heard of them, and capture those faithfully. So that was so much fun and we went down there and it was really, really cool. Some of those guys are still around and [John] Fry still runs [Ardent Studios] and he engineered the first Staples version of “Respect Yourself,” you know? So it was really, really cool.
I was excited to find out that you guys are working on a new album. I know that it’s been in the works for a little while at this point. What can you tell us about where things are at?
Well, we have one song. [Laughs.] But we have one fabulous song and bits and pieces [of other stuff]. I don’t know that we need 12 anymore, but I know you need more than one, I think. I don’t even know. I’m going to explore all of that. I don’t know anything about it, but we do have a fabulous new song! It feels good. We’re going to make a record of some sort. I don’t know that anyone would care and I don’t know if there’s a market for any of this stuff anymore, but it’s fun.
Nowadays, you kind of have to do it for yourself. And it’s not even that you’re tired of playing the old songs, because we’re not, frankly. Fortunately, we’ve got enough of the old ones that when you rotate them around, you can keep it kind of fresh and all of that stuff. We don’t work 200 shows a year anymore either, so it’s always fun. “The Heart of Rock & Roll” is a great song that’s always fun to play, man. One thing that is nice about having a new song is that you’ve got a new story to tell. Not musically, but lyrically, about whatever it is. So that part’s nice.
It seems like you feel good about it, because you’ve been playing the new song live. What’s the story behind it?It’s called “While We’re Young” and it’s slightly tongue-in-cheek, but it just feels good. I have no clue how these things come together—I wish I could figure it out. You know, you go to write a lyric and when the music and the words come together, wow it’s so cool. Sometimes you just look for something and something happens and it’s completely original and it’s good. You think “Wow, that was so great!” And then other times you just work and work and work and it just doesn’t work.
Creatively, where did the song come from?
John Pierce, our bass player, had a riff. He did it on his laptop in his home and he came down here to my little place here and we were going to play golf together and he said “Look at what I’ve got.” I said “Hey, that’s cool.” So I got the idea for the melody and the lyric and then I sang it in my living room right here. And then we played it for Johnny [Colla] and Johnny had a third idea [for an additional part]. He took that same piece of digital info and worked it a little bit at his place. That’s the way things are done nowadays I guess.
I would imagine that whether you’re a seasoned veteran or a newer act, there has to be a bit of pause that creeps in every time you look down that road of possibility as far as launching into a new album these days. There are so many different factors in play that are always changing as far as how you’re going to do it, possibilities for how you could fund it, get the word out about it, sell it . . . all of those things.
I don’t understand any of that! What I have is a label, which is now Universal. They own our masters, so all of my catalog is with the same label. There are only three or four labels anymore. So since my catalog is with that label, anything I do new pretty much just plugs the catalog. You know how it is when somebody has a new song out, you suddenly hear all of their old songs. Because what are they going to play, Elton John’s new one? Or are they going to play one of the great ones again? Well, it’s a chance to play Elton John’s old ones. So anybody who would be interested in [putting out] my new music, I would think, the only person arguably might be whoever owns my catalog, so I’m going to talk to them first.
It’s not a big deal. We don’t sell any records anymore—nobody does. Nobody really sells records anymore, so it doesn’t matter, I don’t think, in terms of record sales. When you look at a successful act like Bruce Springsteen or any of us and look at where the income comes from, the record [sales] don’t count for any of it. It’s very little.
I dug the Plan B album…
Cool! You’re the one!
I know that you guys put a lot into making that album and it seemed like there was some disappointment that you didn’t get a lot back as far as results for all that you put into it.
You know what happened? I’ll tell you. In the old days, there was only one path to success. You had to get a record label, because it was a radio-driven world. If you think about it, in the ‘80s when we came up, it was all about radio. MTV had just started and they were playing the Radio & Records playlist. They played whatever video [for] the radio hit, which is why some of those videos are so terrible and so funny. It was a radio-driven world and radio at that point was completely programmed. Even FM radio, which had started out playing everything and anything, was now playing pretty much 28 records.
Top 40 [was invented because of] push button radio. With push button radio, as long as you didn’t play something they didn’t like, they wouldn’t switch from your station. Before, they used to have to look around for stations, so they’d leave it on your station. But now that they could switch with a push button radio, the idea was to narrow your playlist, hence Top 40 and just don’t play anything that they don’t like. By 1983, the Top 40 was the Top 28 and CHR (Contemporary Hit Radio) on FM and AM and the only avenue [to success] was a hit record.
The way you did that was by first getting a record label capable of distributing a hit record. Then when you got on that label, you had to out-compete the other bands on that label for their attention for a six-month period at least. You became their attention and then they shoved you down everybody’s throat and at that point, you needed to have a hit that was good enough. We produced Sports ourselves, which is something we’re fairly proud of, because we saw that and we said “If anybody’s going to make these decisions, we want it to be us.” We wanted to make commercial decisions that we could live with. That was the climate in those days. It was a radio-driven world and the visual side of things was, at first, non-existent.
So what happened with Plan B was that the world had changed. We wrote the Plan B record, which I loved. Five of our best songs are on that record and we still play them. So I went to Clive Calder who was [running] Jive Records. Clive Calder came out of South Africa with Mutt Lange, who is a good buddy of mine because he produced Clover back in the day and we’ve stayed friends since that time. Clive Calder, who owns Jive, Zomba Publishing . . . they had Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, R Kelly and they were killing it with the label. So I wrote a little handwritten note to Clive and I said, “Look, this ain’t up your alley right now, but we made this little personal record and we’re just looking for a home for it. I don’t necessarily need any money; I just want somebody to distribute it for me. Since you’re the hottest label on the planet and Mutt and I are pals, I couldn’t help but write you to ask. I understand it’s not up your alley—we’re just looking for a home for it.”
Well, he wrote me back and called me up with Barry Weiss [CEO of Jive Records at the time] and my manager said “Come meet your new best friend.” We went to New York and met the whole company and it all sounded great. They released Plan B and meanwhile, they were selling the whole label to BMG at the time and we didn’t know it. So all they did was they signed us and added another 25 million dollars to the deal, because now they had Huey Lewis and the News as well—and they paid us nothing and then did nothing with the record. So I freaked out after a month and I called them up and I said “Give me back my frickin’ record.” It was a travesty.
They wouldn’t give me back the record, because they wanted me to pay them the promotional money that they had spent of like 25 grand. Meanwhile, they’re announcing a sale to BMG for 3.6 billion dollars and they want 25 grand from me. [Laughs] So that album had ill-fated business, unfortunately. We went with the wrong label and we did the wrong thing with Soulsville as well, unfortunately. We had a lot of great early success with our record labels and maybe not so great success later. But whatever. Nobody sells records anymore, I don’t think. I mean, I know what the Doobies do, I know what Steve Miller does—my generation of stuff.
You mentioned this with Sports, but you guys self-produced your own albums pretty early on. How did you get that kind of clearance from Chrysalis Records?
Well, that’s really interesting and it was key for us in the ‘80s. Our manager Bob Brown fought for that for us, because he thought our demos were better than [the album]. You know, our first record, Bill Schnee produced it and it died. But I really bullied Schnee—it was really my fault to be honest. I thought if we ran in there and resisted the [traditional] recording process and [worked] fast with everything, we’d have a live sounding record. Of course, that’s not the case. Anytime you’re recording and you’re working on something, it’s not live. So if you want it to sound live, you’ve got to fake it. I learned a lot from [the experience of working] with Schnee. We did demos [for the next album] to audition producers and these were all of the up-and-coming guys who were doing work at the time.
We made these demos with them but clearly [our manager] Bob liked our [original] demos better than the stuff we were doing with these guys and they didn’t seem to be doing anything but just manning the dials. That was my view—I felt like we could do it ourselves. So he fought for that and fortunately our label was small, tiny, little Chrysalis Records in London. We were six thousand miles away and Bob was very persuasive and they allowed that to happen, which is very rare for an unknown band to produce itself.
One thing that’s always been interesting to me about your band is the way you came out during a decade where there were a lot of power ballads and drum machines, it seems like on paper, what you guys were doing might have been out of place with everything else that was going on. But you did an admirable job of fitting into the framework, at times by incorporating the necessary elements that were popular, like drum machines and things like that.
I’m so glad you mentioned that, because I’m proud of that. The angle was the new and the old [together]. We wrote old school R&B-based songs, but we used the up-to-the-minute technology of the time, believe it or not. Those records are pieced together one piece at a time. There’s a cool story about that. I had the idea of cutting “I Want A New Drug” with a drum machine, because next door at the Record Plant was [producer] Peter Wolf. Ron Nevison was producing Starship and Peter Wolf had everything all synced up [imitates sound of the record] and I was going “Holy shit! What is that?” I’m listening to that coming through the door—Austrian Peter Wolf, the producer. So he said, “Huey, how are you man?” I said, “Peter, what the fuck is that?” He says, “Oh, I’ve got this Synclavier. I’ve got it hooked up and I sequence the bass on it.” I said “No shit!” So then I started thinking about this and I go “Wouldn’t that be cool on ‘I Want A New Drug’?”
So I got Peter to come into our studio and hook it up [imitates instrumental pattern] and figure that out for us with a Linn Drum and shit. So then we cut it at the Record Plant and my band was [not happy]. Billy [drummer Bill Gibson] wasn’t going to play drums and what the fuck is Huey onto with this deal? I think that was probably the case. Although I [kept going] full-speed ahead, because I thought it was a great idea. Anyway, we tried to cut the song with a machine and it wasn’t very good. It just wasn’t groovin’. So finally everybody says [this isn’t working] and I’m going “Alright, scrap the machine — let’s play.” So then we play the song and at the end of the thing, we finished all of our songs and went back to New York, mixed it with Bob Clearmountain and I mixed “I Want A New Drug” about five frickin’ times.
I kept apologizing to him and I said “It’s just not groovin’, Bob. I don’t know if there’s too much bass or not enough this and that—we’ve got to try it again.” We kept putting it up there and I couldn’t get the thing to groove much. But we got it as best we could and we finished the record and mixed it up and we’re just about to hand it in and Chrysalis went nuts and sold out to CBS. We couldn’t give them the record now, because they hadn’t even worked through the CBS thing. So we held onto our record, literally, because when I mixed it in New York, I had the tapes under the bed. I was afraid they were going to come into the studio and steal my tapes. So I took one reel at a time to Clearmountain and he did it on spec, which was really great.
We got it all done and then we went on the road on the bus for the Workin’ For A Livin’ tour in one bus with the crew and the band in it and we just went to all of these clubs all over America for a month. We spent so much time on this stupid record that we just left it alone. Three weeks into this trip, I remember I put the thing on and said “Let’s hear it—let’s hear what it sounds like.” I put “New Drug” on and it was not grooving and I said, “That thing needs to be cut with a drum machine, period.” So we went back in and went with a drum machine and set it back up and instead of setting it at 102 beats per minute—I’m making this up, because I don’t know what it is—we moved it up to 104 and the thing just came together like crazy. Bingo. So then we recut ‘“The Heart of Rock & Roll” and all of those songs are placed together—every single instrument on there is overdubbed.
There’s no playing together at all on any of those songs. Now fast forward [to] Plan B? Captured in the studio, all at once. Soulsville? Captured in the studio—nothing like the Sports record. That’s what’s interesting. The essence of our production back in those Sports days was “Bad Is Bad” where you hear [imitates drum intro] and then you hear the doo-wop vocals, so you get the new and the old [styles] juxtaposed a little bit.
You spoke about this a little bit with “I Want A New Drug” and “The Heart of Rock & Roll,” so I’m curious—did you often get the chance to write songs and road-test them and perhaps develop them live like that? Was that a common part of the songwriting process at that time?
Yeah. We tried to do that as much as possible, because we instantly realized from our very first record when we went out and played it with the Doobie Brothers, how much better we played the songs than we had when we cut them. So yeah, absolutely. We called ourselves “The Sports Section” a lot and played our little clubs just to road test our songs.
It gives you a place to work out the kinks.
No question. In the energy of the moment, if you don’t like what’s written, you just do something different and you might write something better just like that. So it’s always a good thing to do. We have a new song and we road-tested it and it’s fabulous. We’re going to cut it next month.
That’s “While We’re Young,” right?
Yeah, that’s all we’ve got! [Laughs] That’s not true. We’ve got a few ideas coming. But it’s fabulous and because we road-tested it and everything, we’re going to cut it next month and it’s going to be tremendous. I mean, for what we do, it’s going to be great.
I was happy to see that you guys were playing that. There’s a lot of artists that won’t do that these days because of Youtube. They don’t want it out there.
Yeah, I don’t know how that works. I don’t get that. I suppose I’m being stupid with it as well, because it’s a nice new song. But I don’t know how to market music. I’m not in that business, man. I don’t know how to do that, so I don’t care. I figure a song is a song.
Looking at the Picture This album, “Do You Believe In Love” is a tune that was written by Mutt Lange. How did you guys come to cut the song and was Mutt involved at all?
Nope. I asked him, I said “Mutt, you got a song?” I called him up and he said “Yeah, I do!” He sent us that one and I rewrote it a little bit. It was [originally] “We Both Believe In Love.” It was funny when I played it for him. You know, Mutt and I are pals, but we have sort of different philosophies of making records, to be honest. He really is a perfectionist and I’m anything but. I can be shamed into re-cutting stuff, but I like little mistakes and stuff. I’m not saying that I like it shoddy or out of tune. I like it in tune and all of that, but I like a certain [looseness]. The thing doesn’t have to be in the pocket rhythmically necessarily or a lead vocal sometimes.
You know, you go listen to Marvin Gaye or whatever and some of those old vocals, there’s something charming about them not being spot on. But Mutt’s a perfectionist. I knew that, so we just cut the song [without his input]. I remember mixing it at the Power Station with Clearmountain and I said “Should we call Mutt and play it for him?” He said “Sure, yeah!” He was real excited—he’d never met Mutt, so that’s how he met Mutt and then they did all of that Bryan Adams stuff together after that, which is weird. Can you imagine Mutt Lange having Bob Clearmountain mix his record? I mean, these guys are completely, philosophically and ideologically opposed to one another and they’re working together. It’s crazy!
But anyway, I play the thing on the phone for Mutt and it kind of goes quiet. I get him on the phone at whatever time it is in Switzerland or London or wherever and we play it. Clearmountain had this setup where you could patch it right into your phone. So he listens to the song that we cut and he says, “Yeah, good!” We hang up and I can’t remember if he called me back or wrote me a letter, but later he told me, “You know what? The second verse speeds up a little bit!” [Laughs]
My other favorite Mutt Lange story is [about] “The Power of Love.” We cut “The Power of Love” and we go to New York and we mix it in New York with Clearmountain. I had a two-day session and I had to show Bob where all of the stuff was, because he got so behind. We were supposed to mix two things and I had to catch a flight to Amsterdam, because we were on tour. This is when we were doing things like really crazy. So I finally just laid out all of the faders for him and showed him the mix and said, “This is about what I think [it should be like]. Good luck!” Then I go to London. Now, they’re going to send the mix to London. We got word from the record label three days later that the mix is here, come and listen to it. Well, I’m hanging out with Mutt at the time and Mutt was hanging out with Trevor Horn.
So Trevor Horn, Mutt and I go to Chrysalis to hear the new mix of “The Power of Love” that Clearmountain had just done. [They were] just along for the ride. We went to Trevor’s studio and he introduced me to Trevor and it was the only time I’ve ever been with Trevor Horn, oddly enough. But now we go to Chrysalis and we go in and they play us Clearmountain’s mix of “The Power of Love.” Which sounds okay. It doesn’t sound particularly great to be honest with you, but it sounds okay. Then he [the guy from the label] says “Well, we’ve also had a dance mix done.” I said, “What?” “Yeah, we had a guy called John Luongo who did a club mix.” I said, “Club mix?” It was the first time I’d heard the term and this was in ‘85. So he says, “Well, just check it out! He’s done a 12-inch seven-minute dance mix of the song and he also did a single version too.” I said, “What do you mean he did a single version?” You see, I’m producing this record and I’m thinking, “What the fuck, they gave the tapes to somebody to produce this thing without me knowing about this? What’s going on?” So they put on John Luongo’s record and Jesus Christ, it jumps out of the speakers. It sounds twice as big and twice as huge. It really does, because he sampled the drums . . . He [also] put big synths on those pushes, so he actually recorded on the track as well, which to me, an old hippie, is like, “What the fuck did you do? You mean, you pissed on my take?” I’m shocked.
Later, Mutt says to me, “Huey, man, you know you should really go with the John Luongo mix, man. I mean, it’s much more powerful.” I said, “Mutt, it don’t make any difference what the fuckin’ mix sounds like—it’s all about the song. You know that. I don’t give a shit! I’m not going to do that to Clearmountain.” So I stuck to my guns and we used that Clearmountain mix. Long story short, I stuck to my guns because I was so pissed off and we went with the Clearmountain mix and the Clearmountain mix was number one for three weeks, so maybe it didn’t make any difference. But every time I walk into a disco in Europe, they play that little Clearmountain mix and it sounds like this wimpy little tiny thing compared to [everything else], because nothing’s sampled. It’s all mic’ed up and it’s acoustic. I said to Mutt, “Mutt, it won’t make any difference,” even though I actually knew he was right. It’s funny. He’s always respected me for that, because he knows I don’t give a shit.
I’ve heard you talk in interviews about how competitive you were back in the day. Were there good rivalries that were in existence or, to put it in a sports context, any trash talking?
You know, competitive isn’t the right word. Ambitious is probably the better word for it—“overly ambitious,” I think. If you think back to ‘80 to ‘84, it was a radio-driven atmosphere and the hardest thing we had to do as a band was to get a hit single. I mean, we were a good band but by today’s standards, we would have been more like a jam band.
We’re kind of like Bruce Springsteen & the E. Street Band, but the last thing we were was a pop band, if you know what I mean with my kind of rough voice and all of that stuff. We did this 30th anniversary tour for Sports, which not only invited but sort of required a look back at all of this stuff. When I go back and listen to that, I realize that Sports is an album of its time and it’s a collection of singles. We aimed almost every song at radio, because we knew we needed a hit single. We didn’t know which one of those songs was going to be a hit and we didn’t want to repeat ourselves. So one’s kind of a ballad, one’s kind of a rocker, but they’re all aimed at radio. We insisted on doing that ourselves.
Once we sold 10 million copies, we changed our priorities to now not doing things for commerce, but doing things for creative reasons, like Small World, which killed us. I mean, Small World was the worst album of the year in Rolling Stone. Worst album of the year. And it’s got a solo on it by Stan Getz that’s off the charts, man, by the great Stan Getz. That was a mistake I guess, but I still love that tune.
It seems like you were always able to call your own shots a lot of the time and I was actually going to throw out that Small World album as an example. When I looked at the track listing and saw “Small World (Part One)” and “Small World (Part Two),” I knew it was going to be a different kind of album.
Yeah, and that was a mistake on my part. It was a seven-minute tune and I thought that would be cool if we framed the whole album that way. But it didn’t hold up, the front and the back end. There’s an edited version that we did for a “single” that’s five minutes and 10 seconds and it’s magnificent. It still includes most of Getz’s solos and it’s one of the best things we’ve ever done. That was the single that broke the string of like 14 Top Ten hits and died. That was the beginning of the end for us, the Stan Getz single, which is so ironic for me. It’s crazy.
Would you do that one differently if you could do it again?
No. Well, I’d put part one and part two together and edit it down to five minutes and just make it cut one and let that rock. Getz on it is so fantastic and I have a story about how that happened and he came up and played on it on the session itself. I mean, it was just a music lesson. It was unbelievable. That cat is unbelievable.
That’s a life experience.
It was. It was a great, great experience. I can thank my dad for it. My dad was an old jazz nerd and when Zoot Sims died, they had a memorial for him. Surreptitiously, I got two tickets for my old man. I took him to the place, we get there early and they go, “Oh my God, Huey Lewis, Jesus Christ!”
My old man’s amazed. He’d never seen [this] and he has no clue and now everybody’s recognizing me and falling over themselves to go talk to me. They sit us in the third row, right on the aisle—perfect seats, right next to Phil Elwood, the great jazz critic for the [San Francisco] Examiner. My old man knows everybody that was ever in Jimmy Lunceford’s band. He knows every cat who ever played anything in jazz, right? And he knows [who] Phil Elwood [is]. He says “Phil Elwood, oh my God.” And Elwood? He says, “Huey Lewis? Jesus Christ!” My old man can’t believe that Elwood knows who his kid is, right?
So they start in on this jazz [discussion and] while they’re talking, I get a tap on my shoulder and I turn around and it’s Getz with his sax on. He’s wearing his horn. He looks at me and he goes, “Hey, are you Huey Lewis?” Both Elwood and my dad look up. He goes, “My girlfriend wants to eat your shorts.” [Laughs] He goes, “Hey, why don’t you let me play on some of your shit? You know, I can play that shit too!” I said, “Whoa, yeah, of course!”
He gives me a little card and writes on the card: “Stan Getz, have sax, will travel” with his phone number. So on the ride home, my old man says, “If you don’t fuckin’ take him up on that offer, I’ll never talk to you again. He has cancer and he’s not going to be around that long—do it now.” My dad was a radiologist [and he knew his stuff]. It took us six months to find the right song, but we got it together and it was a marvelous song. We did a video with Getz and he was a character, man. He was a frickin’ character, but just a monster musician. It was a really fun time. One of my best career things was Getz [playing on] “Small World.” Fantastic.