Posted August 8, 2012 by Jeff in Tunes

Marshall Crenshaw reflects on his 30-year career

Singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw
Singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw

We had an opportunity to talk to singer-songwriter (and actor) Marshall Crenshaw for an article for a weekly paper. There won’t be room to print the entire interview, so we decided to post the rest of it here. Crenshaw  is currently on tour and says he has a new album in the works, too.

Your concert [in Cleveland] is listed as a “full band show.” Does that mean you’ll be backed by the Bottle Rockets or is this a different band?
Well, it’s three out of four Bottle Rockets. The lead singer is the one who’ll be missing so we can’t do any Bottle Rockets’ songs. I have been a fan from the start and ever since I heard “$1000 Car.”  I immediately liked them and they’re just great. They’re particularly fine rock musicians. They are killer players. They approached the whole thing with a lot of enthusiasm so I love it.

You’ve never liked the term “power-pop.” Why is that?
Because I don’t like the idea of my stuff being shoved into a sub category. I can’t tolerate that. Secondly, most of the music that’s called power-pop is stuff that I don’t particularly like. I don’t like having my stuff tagged with this puny little label. That bothers me. My stuff is better than that. Call it rock ’n’ roll or American vernacular music.

Despite the fact that it yielded the minor hit “Whenever You’re on My Mind,” self-proclaimed “Dean of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau called 1983’s Field Day a “misconceived sequel” to your self-titled debut. What do you think of that criticism?
Well, I’d call it an incorrect appraisal. “Mis-executed” might be fair, but not misconceived. It was conceived really honestly, and it was all based on my own personal taste and vision. The problem with it was that it was hurriedly done and there should have been more thought put it into it. We did our second album less than a year after we did our first. It was stupid. I never should have gotten talked into it. But I’d say, no, it was not misconceived. He should have talked to me about it.

Looking back on the ’80s, do you think it was a great period for music?
Yes and no. I certainly bought a lot of records during that time. I did like a lot of the pop music back then, but my problem was that I hated the sound of the LinnDrum machine. Everything was going great until that came along. For me, it ruined R&B and pop music. I liked to hear people on records with blood in their veins. I like to hear people in the same room playing on a record. I do a radio show and this week I worked on a show that’s a tribute to Bob Babbitt, the bass player who just died. I’ve been listening back to all these records he played on. It’s guys who have some depth and they’re all sitting in a room together. These are records from the ‘60s and ‘70s. When that started to go away in the ’80s, I thought it was about the dumbest idea that anyone could come up with. In the early part of the decade, I was enthused about a lot of the contemporary music. The LinnDrum machine screwed it up. That thing sounds like a sack of shit. It’s a toy and it put a lot of people out of work.

That’s kind of like how AutoTune ruined hip-hop.
Yeah, that’s not good either. I just ignore all that stuff. It doesn’t matter to me because I don’t listen to it. I just went to the Newport Jazz Festival this weekend with my son and there’s tons of great contemporary music out there and I just focus on the stuff that I like.  I’ve always been great at ignoring the things I don’t like. I just tune them right out and it’s like they don’t exist. It’s not hard to do.

Which acting performance are you most proud of?
Uh, lemme see. I like them both. I don’t count Beatlemania. It’s La Bamba and Pete and Pete. I like the way the La Bamba thing came out. It was improv. The dialogue was written but the way I did it was just spur of the moment. It was good. Pete and Pete was a lot of fun. We just had a reunion show at the Bowery Ballroom.

Why didn’t you pursue more roles?
It was never really on my agenda at all. I just wasn’t motivated or interested in it. I didn’t think I needed to take advantage of the opportunity. It just happened. It came out of left field and I didn’t try to go towards it.

What was it like working with John C. Reilly on the title track to Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story?
I did go to the set one day. It had been a long time since I had been on a movie set. It’s a great atmosphere. It’s a great way to live your life. It was nice. I loved that whole project. Some of the other songwriters like Mike Viola, I knew him, but I’ve gotten to be friends with Dan Bern since. It was a lot of fun.

Did you like the film?
I liked it when I saw it on paper. I went to the premiere at Mann’s Chinese Theatre. I asked Wayne Kramer to go with me because I knew that he knew a lot of Hollywood people. We really had fun. It was a million dollar party at least. They had the whole place decked out like it was the Hard Rock Café but all the memorabilia was Dewey Cox. It was unbelievable and then three or four weeks later, I watched it in this shitty screening room in Hyde Park, New York with about eight other people in the room. It was funny how quickly it became what they called a surprise bomb. It was crazy, but really fun for me to do. I got to add Grammy nominee and Golden Globe nominee to my resume. The money was good. I have no complaints, but I felt bad for people who had more in stack. I know a lot of people do love the movie. They sold of tons of DVDs. I know that.

You’ve said that your latest album, 2009’s Jaggedland, took a lot of “wear and tear” on your emotions. Explain what you mean.
I put my complete heart and soul into this stuff. You’re supposed to do that. You’re supposed to give your heart and subject yourself to possible heartbreak. You gotta do that. When I said that, I didn’t mean it in a negative way. I felt so great about the stuff once it was all said and done. It took a long time, and I don’t know why. I had a better sense of how to proceed and I had strong faith that it was going to work out if I gave myself time to get it right.

Who’s the best producer you ever worked with?
Steve Lillywhite was great. I should have done more stuff with him. T-Bone Burnett was interesting to work with. I really produced Jaggedland but I couldn’t have done it without Jerry Boys. That’s one thing I’m really happy about. I work with great people. Nobody that I work with now is any kind of slouch. They’re all killers. That’s good. I’ve always had the respect of my peers and that’s a big thing, too. I’m grateful for that.

Does it irk you that you’ve only had one Top 40 hit in your 30-year career?
Yeah, “Someday, Someway.” I hate that. Of course, I wanted lots of hit records. That was the whole thing. Any vision I had of being a big rock act had to do with records. That’s where my head was it. What I found out was that you don’t just make records and put them out there. You have to go be in showbiz and you have to conquer territories. I didn’t have the stomach for that. I was really into the whole idea of records and hit singles. I love playing live and we had a nice three-piece band when we went out there. We maybe over-rehearsed and were a little too slick, but it was records. I remember when “Someday, Someway” was in the charts and Warner Bros. ran an ad in this trade paper called Radio & Records and the ad said “his first hit record.” I just loved that and thought it was so cool. It was like there was going to be more. But there was just the one and it was crushing, actually.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.