Interview with Bob Seger: I'm just trying to keep things simple

 

October 31, 2003

BY BRIAN MCCOLLUM

FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

Free Press pop music writer Brian McCollum sat down Monday with Bob Seger to talk about the Detroit rocker's latest music, his new album of greatest hits, and life as a 58-year-old family man. Some excerpts:

 

Q. "Satisfied" and "Tomorrow" are the first new songs we've heard from you in quite some time. How do these songs, and your recent songwriting, fit into the bigger context of your career?

A. They're maybe a little simpler. Sometimes I've gotten a little too complicated in my lyrics. These are pretty much outfront -- there's not a lot of hidden meaning or anything. These were meant for the new album (due in 2004). Basically (manager) Punch (Andrews) called me in a panic and said, "We've gotta have two new songs for the greatest hits!" I said, "I told you that six months ago." He said, "Well, take two from the new album." So I went in and listened to everything, and we felt these two were the best -- they sounded kind of similar, they were done near the same day, and they were in the same stages of completion.

 

Q. On "Tomorrow," you paint a pretty bleak picture of society, and you've got a chorus that says, "I can't promise you tomorrow." That's a different kind of message than the one we're used to hearing from the Bob Seger who made his name as the voice of hope.

A. (Laughs) It's true, though -- "I can't promise you tomorrow." Who can? I'm just trying to keep things simple, and just be a little more offhand and not get so deep into things. There's some humor in it -- enjoy what you got right now, because who knows what's going to happen tomorrow.

 

Q. Life is different for you these days than it was last time you put an album together (1995's "It's a Mystery").

A. It's really different now. (Laughs) A lot. I had the opportunity, and I took it, to be around my kids a lot. I guess I could have kept working, but I had them when I was 47. You only get to see all this stuff once. I just chose to work at home and watch them.

We did take them on the one tour (in 1996). They were 4 and 1 at the time. Then they got into school, and I couldn't take 'em on any more tours. I started working on this, the new album. I don't know what's going to happen now. I'm 58 and I'm probably too old to tour!

 

Q. So that's it -- no more Bob Seger in concert?

A. I never say never, because I don't want to be one of those guys. But I've told the guys no.

I'd say (the new album) is 70 percent done. I was 80 percent done, but I had to steal ("Satisfied" and "Tomorrow") from myself. I was gonna write three more songs; now I've got to write five.

When that comes out, we might do a small tour. Everybody says, "Why don't you just play 10 or 12 places?" But the problem is that you can't get a good crew, and you can't get a good sound system, and you can't get a good light system, if you do a "small" tour. If you want the best, those guys want a commitment of about 4 to 6 months. And I'd want the best people and the best stuff. So that's the problem. And then there's the issue of when do you do it?

The kids really want me to do it. They don't remember the last one.

 

Q. As life has changed, do you find that you're able to get yourself into the same spot in your psyche, that familiar mental place where your songwriting takes place?

A. I write a lot of songs that people don't hear. I just try to take the ones that sound the best -- maybe have the best lyric, or the best melody. I really just enjoy the process. I fall in love with every single one of them. I finish Îem all, and I don't think there's a whole lot of difference between the bad ones and the good ones. But every now and then you hit something that you really like a lot. Every now and then you'll nail one that's really, really special. And that's what you live for.

I've got a ballad on the new album called "Finding Out," where I really nailed the lyric. So that's real good. The whole process is a lot of fun. When I have time to do it. (Laughs)

I have to watch it -- I'll resent my family if I work too hard at it. But I try to get my time in. And this is the perfect time to do it now. They're in school. I write probably 80 percent of my stuff over the winter.

 

Q. "It's a Mystery" got a mixed welcome when it was released. What's your take on it now that you've had some time to step out and look back on it?

A. "It's a Mystery" was my garage album. I always wanted to make a garage album -- something where, the second I heard it in the studio, I used it, rather than rerecording it. What I don't like about "It's a Mystery" is that I got into drum machines too deep. There are some songs on that album that I really like, but I just took it so far. It made it a little strident.

I'm cured of that now. So it's always live drums, always live playing now.

I really think that's the magic. I like people to just bring it to the table and feel the moment. And that's why I've never done a session where I don't sing live. Probably 80 percent of the vocals on this (new album) are live with the band playing.

 

Q. That's a change in technique from your production style of the '70s.

A. It's quite a change. Something like "Brave Strangers" from "Stranger in Town" (1978) -- we did like 140 takes of that. It was nuts. You'd run all the life out of it. So I just fell into the Dylanesque idea of recording. Now, he is real fast. I've heard stories where George Harrison is still tuning his guitar, and they take the take, and he won't let George do it over. (Laughs) But somewhere in between there, I just think that's it -- that's the magic.

I've been seeing these things about film directors, like Clint Eastwood in "Unforgiven." That first take of Gene Hackman beating up the gunslinger -- it was all one take. They shot it with four different cameras, and they didn't do it again, even though Hackman wanted to. There's something about that -- "OK, everybody's ready, let's do it, and don't run it into the ground."

 

Q. In a way, then, it's back to your very earliest days of recording, when you just went in and knocked out the stuff.

A. The early, early albums, up through "Seven" (1974), I felt like we didn't do enough in the studio. We weren't there enough, and we'd have to cut like seven songs at a time, when we weren't really ready to cut seven. So now I'll go in and cut three or four, max, in a couple of days. I'd say we spend a lot more time just letting David (Cole), the engineer, get his sounds and get it the way he wants it.

 

Q. Looking back on a long career, what kind of perspective has time brought you?

A. It was 22 years of work in a row, right up until 1987. Twenty-two years in a row -- either on tour, writing an album, or recording an album. It wasn't until 1987 that I was able to -- ahhhhh -- take a breath. And I started slowing down and doing other things, recharging my batteries, taking a little more time on things.

I look back and realize I was a workaholic. It's easy to become one again. I have to temper things. I have to watch myself. I'll start resenting things if I don't get enough time. So now I just have to have some discipline, and say, "OK, I've got five hours each day." If I want to work, I can work. If I want to play golf, or ride my motorcycle, I can do that. But the rest of it is family. Sometimes, you're not really needed by your family, but you're there. And my kids like to know I'm there. I like being there. I like being around them.

I'm really glad I didn't have kids earlier, because I probably would have ignored them or whatever. I was so into my career. I was very healthy, very strong, very young. I could just go and play a ton of shows, night after night after night. I can't do that anymore.

The problem with going on the road ... I've done it all for 30 years. The two hours onstage is great. But I can only play a show and then take a night off. That's how we did the last tour -- one on, one off -- because I have to sing for 2 hours, and then I've gotta rest it for a night. So it's the other 46 hours, you know, that are just boring as heck.

 

Q. But do you feel like you have a debt to your fans, the people who'd like to see you get back out again?

A. Well, yeah. But they sure saw me! (Laughs) I played everywhere on earth for 22 years -- gymnasiums, cafeterias, clubs, concerts, outdoors, indoors. I played every kind of venue there was.

I mean, I know what you're saying. But I guess it's just the gearing up for it that's monumental. We've got to practice three weeks, get the kinks out, then we've got to practice three weeks with the crew, and then go out for four months. It's just a huge chunk of time out of life. It's a question of do you really want to commit to that physically -- and should you physically commit to that, you know? I have to keep bringing the keys down on some of the old stuff. The guys are sitting there tuning in E-flat on "Old Time Rock and Roll." (Laughs) I can't sing as high as I used to.

I'm 58. It's a matter of commitment. I want to be sure I can deliver what people expect to hear. I'd definitely be enthused. I just don't know if I can physically do it. Or if I should.

 

Q. With all the attention Detroit music has been getting, a lot of outside journalists have asked me to explain what makes Michigan so attractive to successful artists like you, Kid Rock, Eminem, Aretha. All of you have the means to leave and go anywhere you want, live on any tropical beach, yet you've stayed. How would you answer their question?

A. It's a very grounded place, I think. You go to L.A., or you go to New York, and it's really fun to go there. But they're not grounded. It's like, everybody is just competing all the time for the limelight, and it's just÷ I don't know. It's different. It's too much entertainment industry. There are too many choices. And it's distracting to me. Everybody wants to come in and say their two cents. Back here, people don't treat me any different than anybody else, and that's what I respond to.

I tried it -- I recorded in L.A. for years, and I tried living there for a couple of years in the mid-'80s. And I just couldn't wait to get back. I thought I would really like it. I thought it would be really inspiring, to be around a Tom Petty and a Jimmy Iovine and the people I knew out there and liked. But I found that they were just as busy as me. I didn't get to see them, you know, so what's the point? I didn't respond well to that, personally.

And maybe that's the way those guys are too -- it keeps them grounded. Their heads don't go flying off in 20 different directions. They can focus on what they do, and do what they've always done.

And -- it's just nice to see old friends on a day-to-day basis.

 

Q. You still have the house in Florida?

A. We just wanted a winter place for the kids for their first five years. Now, we've still got the same place, but we only go down there 30 days a year. It's nice to get out for the winter. I'm recruiting for a different vacation place now. ... That was always a big Michigan dream, and we got to live it for four years. Now we go down there, but we live here.

 

Q. A lot of fans wonder when we're gonna see compact disc reissues of older albums like "Noah" and "Back in '72." What's the status of all that vintage material?

A. We, in conjunction with Capitol, bought (the masters). So we -- and Capitol -- can determine when that stuff is going to come out. Punch would know more about that. And I'm sure Capitol's got ideas for reissues.

But I am considering putting out an album eventually of all these tracks that you read about on the Internet, all these tracks that just missed being on albums -- even outtakes from "Live Bullet" and things of that nature. Just clearing the deck. It would be about 30 or 40 songs that have never been released. Like, "OK, here they are! Now stop calling me!

 

Q. Explain the timing on this second volume of greatest hits (to be released Nov. 4).

A. Capitol wanted it in front of the new album. They said, "Let's get this out of the way, and then put out your new album in the spring or summer." So I said OK. The label has been wanting it for four years.

 

Q. How is your relationship with Capitol Records?

A. Punch is a pit bull, and he's always after them to make sure they're doing right by us. He has his own opinions about everything that happens in the industry -- the downloading, the price of CDs. Punch is always the guy who says that everything should cost less -- "Bring that album price down!" -- and things of that nature. That's the way he is. He's not telling them that really I'm just not ready. (Laughs)

But I've never been unhappy with Capitol. Not really. They've been really good by me. When I actually thought I was done with the new album, I turned it in -- I turned in 11 songs. I wanted to ask (Capitol president) Andy Slater what he thought it needed. He's an old friend.

 

Q. Among the tracks on the new greatest hits is "Shakedown" (1986) -- which, perhaps ironically, has the status of being your only No. 1 hit.

A. Yeah -- "Shakedown" was my only official No. 1 single, and the next biggest single was "Shame on the Moon" -- and neither of those was on "Greatest Hits 1." (Laughs)

It's an electronic song. It's Harold Faltermeyer with a Fairlight (synthesizer). Kind of like what ZZ Top did with "Eliminator." There's a stridency to it, but it rocks. Harold's playing everything, and then I'm singing on it, and some girls singing, and some lead guitar, and that's it.

 

Q. Do you have a chance at radio with your new material? A. It's so different now. Radio is so fragmented, it's unbelievable. I don't know who's gonna play the new one, because it's not old. (Laughs) We'll just see, I guess.

In this day and age, I don't know what to expect. My management tells me, "Don't be optimistic, because it's the young people's world now. They want to hear what they want to hear, and you're a classic rocker. I don't know if you're gonna get the play. All we can do is put it out and hope people like it."

But I really like the thing I did with Martina McBride (the 1998 duet "Chances Are"). I had that song sitting around for a long time, and it was nice getting a No. 1 AOR on that, and a top 10 country as well. That was nice.

 

Contact BRIAN McCOLLUM at 313-223-4450 or mccollum@freepress.com.