Raspberries' Eric Carmen
JT: Do you go into the recording of an album with more material than you can use, and pick the best ones?
EC: Not usually, although this time we have because we've had a little longer to work at it. It may be possible for us to write a few more lines than we actually have to. Usually no-one does anything until about a month before the album and then our producer, Jimmy Lenner, says, "where's my tape of all the new songs?" and we immediately confine ourselves to our houses for about three or four weeks and write all the stuff. He says, "You just made it under the wire".
JT: Is the production a shared thing or is it mostly Jimmy?
EC: The situation is this: the arrangements are all ours. The songs are all ours, and we've usually got a good idea of what we want them to sound like. We don't do any of the production per se, Jimmy's in the control room listening with Shelly Yakus, our engineer, and we enjoy doing records with him because he is not a tyrant producer. He isn't out trying to put his personality into the record, that happens without him having to force it on you — if you listen to the records that Jimmy cuts you'll notice that there's a similarity about the sound that's just his production. He knows what we're going for, and he does his part very well.
JT: Where is his head at musically?
EC: He produces people who he feels have been either badly produced or who he sees as being talented and his production will help give them the shot they need. He's not interested in doing a band that's already peaked. He digs everything — he's produced Isaac Hayes, Donny Hathaway, Poco, the Chambers Brothers, Lighthouse, and more recently Three Dog Night and Grand Funk in addition to us. He's got his fingers in a lot of different pies, and musically he likes just about everything.
JT: On several occasions Tod Rundgren has recorded similar tunes to you. Care to elaborate?
EC: You heard about that? We were in New York cutting our first album at the Record Plant, studio B, we'd mixed everything on the album except for two songs. Todd was in studio A doing some tracks for the Something/Anything? album. We were finishing the mix on a song called "I Saw The Light". Todd came over, stuck his head in the door for a few minutes, and then disappeared. Then the other song on our album that we were mixing later on that day was "I Can Remember", and while we were mixing that Todd came in and listened a little more and went back, and that was that. Then when I went out and bought the Something/Anything? album I noticed that the very first song was "I Saw The Light", and I thought that it could be a coincidence. Just because I hadn't seen that song or song title surface in ten years of pop music before... OK, I'll chalk that up to coincidence. Well, the lyric to our chorus was, "Then when I looked in her eyes/I saw the light" and Todd's was "I saw the light in your eyes". But then, the very next song took the exact chord progression from "I Can Remember" and started with the lyrics "Do you remember" and I thought to myself, "Is this coincidence?"
JT: How do you feel about the supposed new movement of "American Anglophilia" and certain magazines calling your hometown of Cleveland, Ohio the "Liverpool of the Seventies?"
EC: As soon as you call something the new anything it's dead. I think that the minute somebody called us "The New Beatles" it ended our career for at least three years. They called Bruce Springsteen "The New Dylan" and it didn't do him any good, and calling Cleveland "The New Liverpool" isn't going to mean anything. The problem is that there isn't going to be a new Liverpool, there's too much media and there's been a complete sociological change in culture between the Sixties and the Seventies. If all these people would think about it, they'd realise that there won't be a "New Liverpool" until rock 'n' roll dies out to the point where it was when the Beatles hit.
JT: What kind of shape do you see rock in currently?
EC: It's kinda interesting — I was thinking for the past five years that things were rather dismal, but I just got in the car the other day, clicked on my AM radio, and heard four songs in a row that I really liked.
JT: Which were...
EC: Linda Ronstadt's version of "You're No Good" which I think is just great. To me it sounds like the drummer and piano player from the Staple Singers, George Harrison and Pete Ham on guitars, and some tremendous background singers all sounding like something from Abbey Road. Then I heard "Movin On" by Bad Company which I like, although I can't say I'm really into what Bad Company do on the whole — I couldn't sit through their album, although I tried. Wally's the big Free fan in the band, and I think Paul Rodgers has an amazing voice, but it's not my kind of music — it ain't the Rolling Stones, but I think that's all we're gonna get. I love the Rolling Stones — even the new album.
JT: How does it feel to be an instrumental "floater" on stage, switching from keyboards to guitar to just being a front man holding a mike stand?
EC: Well I'm a keyboard player, above and beyond everything else. I write almost all my tunes on piano, although I visualise them in my head beforehand on guitar. I'm at home on piano, I really enjoy the piano on stage. I think it's a good change from the bash, bash, bash all night long.
JT: But you're a bitch of a rhythm guitar player, and there's a shortage of them these days.
EC: Since I got the Ampeg stack and a Les Paul, I've really started enjoying playing guitar on stage again. If I could find any other guitar that sounded that good that wasn't as heavy, I would buy it in a minute. I played a Melody Maker, but nothing sounds as good as this Les Paul. I tried the Les Paul L5, the smaller model made more for recording, and it's a nice guitar but too clean. It'd be great for Mel Bay.
JT: Was there a rivalry back home between you and the James Gang?
EC: We were sort of a cutie-pie band at the time with crushed velvet pants, we looked like The Nazz or something. And the James Gang comes on stage looking like they hadn't washed their hair in six months. But no matter how hard they played, we'd still outdraw 'em, even if only by a little bit. I like Joe Walsh a lot better nowadays than when he was with the James Gang. He's done quite a turnaround, he gets a really great guitar sound and he's a great guitar player, but I don't know where his head's at. I used to run into him, say "Hi how're you doing", and he'd say "Great — if I could only stand my band". That's where he was at with the James Gang.
JT: Did you ever hear Big Star?
EC: I never heard them live, but I heard their albums. I have 'em both. I like Big Star, I like the things they're into, I think they're really interesting to listen to. I keep hoping that they'll cut something real commercial, and I don't even think it's the fault of the band or the songs, I think it's the production. I think Alex is a real tasty guitarist, that Strat sound he gets is terrific, and all the reverb he gets. I really like the Big Star, I like the whole album — they don't do much overdubbing, they keep it really clean and like what they'd sound like live. I must say that one of my reasons for ranking Pete Townshend as my favourite guitar player is that in a guitar-bass-drums band, it requires a lot of self-restraint not to go out playing solos all the time, freaking out for a half hour — it takes a lot of restraint to play what sounds good and makes the band sound good, rather than showing off the guitarist. That's what I think of when I listen to Big Star, Alex Chilton doesn't play the stuff to impress guitarists, he plays things which make the band sound full. Three-piece bands are real hard to do, it's hard to keep a crowd interested — The Who are the living example of all the possibilities of a three piece.
JT: You've always had a lot of image problems with Raspberries... care to talk about it?
EC: Oh yeah, starting with our album covers. Like the white suits, that was a concept that had to be believed in, but the cover was an absolute disaster. Up until our latest album, we didn't see our album covers until the day the album was released... we thought our first album cover was the worst that any could possibly be. Then we saw the second album cover.
JT: The white suits on the first album cover was your idea?
EC: The way it came across just flipped me out, we looked like wax dummies. The true story is that I took the cover of Straight Up by Badfinger to our art department at Capitol and explained to them about the beautiful photography, the portraiture — I said this is what I want with our faces, and that's that. If the picture had been that good it might have come off, but when I saw that album cover I wanted to slit my wrists. We absolutely forbade them from using a picture of the band on the third album cover.
JT: Are any of your influences American? Besides the Beach Boys, I mean?
EC: I started playing guitar when I heard "Mr. Tambourine Man" on the radio, that song did it for me. My life's ambition was to own a Rickenbacker 12 string and get in a band with somebody else who could sing so we could play that song. From the month after a Byrds album was released, I'd hang out in the record Store every single day and ask if they had the new Byrds album. I was about 15 then, I had taken a lot of classical piano before that, all the formal musical training, because a very close aunt of mine was in the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. My parents zapped music lessons on me when I was 2½, an elementary theory course for children, where you learn rhythmic values by dancing. You take one step for a quarter note and two for a half note. I detested it and quit, but when I was about six I took violin lessons from my aunt and hated that with a passion, I was sort of a mascot for the Cleveland Orchestra for two years, hiding in cello cases and going to the concerts. But when I was eleven I took piano lessons, which is what I always wanted to do, and I took about four years of lessons until my talent wouldn't carry it alone and I really had to get working. But then I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan doing "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and realised I was playing the wrong instrument, so I went and took one guitar lesson. They taught me "Buzzing On The B-String" or something like that and I said this wasn't going to make it, so I bought a Beatle chord book. Next lesson I walked in playing chords and my teacher said "No, no, no — you want to play 'Red River Valley'" and I told him I didn't want to play any lead, just chords, so that was that. I'd just spend hours listening to Byrds records and learning off that, and later I learned a lot of Beatles records and Who records.
JT: To quickly change the subject, when did you realise that the rhythm section of the Raspberries Mark I resembled dead weights yearning to be The Eagles rather than a hard rock twosome?
EC: The thing was when Jim [Bonfanti, drummer on the first three albums] and I started the group we had this idea, we agreed on almost every facet of it. But Jim was a staunch conservative and I'm a complete eccentric. I'll try anything if I think it might work and I'd rather take a chance and fall flat on my face — but we didn't know this about each other. We put together the group, and Wally had hair down to his elbows, moustache and beard, the same jeans for about three months — not to mention a complex about being in the same city as Joe Walsh — and I had to keep telling Wally that the two of them played a different style and one wasn't better than the other. We cut the first album, we were all naive little 20 year olds and pretty pleased; Dave had only been in the band a few months when we cut the album, he'd been in Vietnam. We originally had another bassist in the group and he was a good bassist, a fine songwriter, a pretty decent singer, and an absolute tree stump on stage. He was actually even good-looking, he looked like Elvis with horn-rimmed glasses, and we kept trying to get him to take his glasses off but he wasn't into it. We have a short drum break in the end of "Fire & Water", the Free song, and Jim would be going at it, me and Wally would be egging him on, and this guy would sit on the piano bench and smoke a cigarette. This was in 1970 and 1971. One night we asked him if he was bored, he said yeah, and we asked him with what, and he said the music. So we asked him what kind of music he liked and he said Neil Young — we said "You're bored playing Little Richard songs and you want to play Neil Young!"
He was always late to gigs, and we kept telling him to be on time or we'd dock him from his pay, y'know, any excuse to take 50 dollars out of the bass player's share, and one gig he was outrageously late and Jim called him up and told him he'd be docked the 50 dollars and he said "Oh yeah — well I quit!"
That was that, we never called him again and we played as a three-piece for a few months with me on bass. Actually, I really enjoy playing bass, it's a really creative instrument and if I didn't have to be visual on stage I'd do it. Then Dave came out of the service, and we needed a guy with a bit of charisma to fill the hole between me and Wally. We let Dave play rhythm guitar at first because that's what he'd always played, worked him in about two weeks. We spent about 4000 dollars of our own hard-earned bucks cutting demos in a local studio, and our managers — two real snakes — got Jimmy Lenner interested. Jimmy came and saw us at a little bar at Kent State called J.B's. and we blew everyone away, it was right about the time of the Kent State massacre and we were playing all these Rolling Stone songs, and everyone was getting all excited, breaking things and smashing glasses, the owner told us that there had never been so much damage to the club in a single evening. But he didn't mind, he made his money, and I guess we did ourselves.
Joe Walsh & Rasperries
Interview by Jon Tiven