My recent phone interview with Roger Clyne, who will perform at Boonie’s on Sunday, May 19 with his band, the Peacemakers, was one of the more interesting I’ve had in the last few months. Clyne has dealt with major labels (and survived), created the theme song for a legendary TV show, and survives today as a strictly independent artist. He even has his own annual music festival in Mexico, which led to the creation of his own brand of tequila.
Our conversation went longer than expected, leading to much more material than I could have possibly utilized in this week’s Link feature. I’ve decided to publish the vast majority of our chat here on TooManyNotes. A few odds and ends have been left out, but the only major portion not included here is his highly technical description of the creation of his Mexican Moonshine tequila.
Q: Besides your band, The Refreshments, there were quite a few Arizona bands like The Sidewinders and Gin Blossoms making national waves in the mid-90’s? What was going on?
A: I don’t know. It was just one of those magic moments, I guess. All of those bands, or most of those bands, lived in the shadow of Arizona State University, which was a burgeoning university at the time. Actually, it’s still getting bigger. It was just the right place at the right time to have tons of clubs with stages. All of the bands were cross-pollinating, and living with each other. And sleeping with each other. It was quite the artistic soiree. That’s what came out of it. The Gin Blossoms, Spinning Jenny, Dead Hot Workshop, and The Refreshments, just to name a few. Later on, Jimmy Eat World. And the Tucson bands like the Drakes and The Sidewinders were coming up here, and we were going down there. The cities are only separated by 110 miles. The whole state was really sharing bands. It was awesome.
Q: So in some respects it was kind of similar to Athens, GA, in the early 80’s, or Minneapolis in the mid-80’s?
A: It was probably one of those flashpoints where everything came together, and the whole became bigger than the sum of its parts. It was really cool. I miss that atmosphere.
Q: The communal feel just doesn’t exist like it did back then.
A: It will. It will. but there’s no way to predict where it’s going to happen again. It’s just a spot fire. It happens, and it burns until it runs out of fuel.
Q: How did you end up providing the theme song to King of the Hill?
A: It’s a long story, and I’ll try to keep it short. It was during the time that The Refreshments were on Mercury Records. It was really common for advertisers, or people who were making movies or TV shows, to sort of send out a casting call to labels. The King of the Hill theme was essentially a casting call to probably many labels, Mercury included. Basically, any artist who would like to submit on that label could do so.
The manager called me, and said, “hey, there was a Mike Judge project going on, and you’re encouraged to submit a thirty-second song with lyrics. And I’ll send you a VHS tape with pencil test of the show so you can get familiar with it and write some music.” I said, “ok, I’ll give it a shot.”
I got the pencil test, and it was so half-assed it was hilarious. It was black and white with crappy animation, and no talking. It was just essentially the opening credit scene, where those guys come up and hang out by the wall talking. No color, no talking, and bad animation. I was like, “this is what we get? I’ve got to write a song about this?”
With that in mind and since I didn’t know the personality of the show or the characters at all, I kept the lyrics out but I sort of went with the galloping, “Bonanza on steroids” idea that became the theme. I worked it up at P.H’s (Refreshments drummer Paul Naffah) basement on a day off in Chicago. We showed it to the band during soundchecks, learned it, and then sometime not too long after we recorded it at the end of a show. We were somewhere in the Midwest, but I don’t remember exactly where. My soundman reminded me, “hey, don’t forget at the end of the show to give me that song so we can submit it on cassette”. So at the end of a really good show, I coached the crowd. I said, “we’re almost done, but I need a favor. Could you please at the end of this song, which we’re going to submit to a Mike Judge show on Fox, just yell and scream as loud as you can like it’s the best thing you’ve ever heard?” We played the song, the crowd freaked out, and we sent the tape in. That was it.
About a week later, or ten days later, I got a call from my manager. He said, “hey, I gotta put you on a conference call real quick. Can you give me five minutes?” I said, “yeah, who is it?” He clicked off, and the next thing I know it’s Joe Boucher, Greg Daniels and Mike Judge on the other side of the phone call. They started totally berating me. “Is this Roger Clyne?” “Yeah.” “Did you submit this song for our show, King of the Hill?” “Yeah, I imagine I did.” Then they just started to just chew me out. “Who do you think you are coaxing the crowd? You think that has any influence in Hollywood? Telling the crowd to cheer. They have no influence here. I just wanted to let you know how disappointed we are in the professionality of Mercury Records, Roger Clyne, The Refreshments, and the music business in the general.” Just totally ripping me a new one for 35 to 40 seconds, which seemed like a day. I didn’t know what to say!
Then there was this long pause, and they said, “we were just kidding, man. We love it.”
We had forgotten to chop off the leader, which had me coaxing the audience, so they gave me crap about it. That’s what it was. We went to L.A. and recorded the tune, and it became one of the guideposts to their soundtrack.
Q: If you think about it, even after getting the gig, that show could have been off the air after four episodes.
A: When I went to L.A. and saw the first two episodes in the studio I thought, “there’s no way this thing will ever get traction”. But it did. It kept getting better. The writers were paying attention. There were some modifications developed, and the characters made the plot better. It brought in satire that a lot of people didn’t realize was there. It got better and better and better, and now it’s a cult classic.
Q: It’s now in syndication, so your song is still being heard everywhere every day.
A: Yeah, thank goodness. It’s funny, though, because it’s the song that everybody knows but nobody knows who wrote it. That’s presently my largest contribution to the American pop culture fabric.
Q: You mentioned Mercury Records a couple of times. Obviously, at that time you were playing the major label game. That period was kind of the last gasp for labels actively going out and signing bands.
A: Yeah, there was a real sea change in the way that labels treated their artists, too. We got on to Mercury Records with full support and basic autonomy. They said they “didn’t want to mess with what’s working. You guys have something that resonates with people, and we want to foster that.”
What happened was that midway through (1996’s) Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy’s album cycle, Mercury got bought by a larger conglomerate. I think it was Seagram’s, and they fired everybody. (They) hired a new president, got rid of our A&R people and our radio people. The president called our band into his office and said (they’re) pulling the plug on the Australian and Japanese and American tours. “We’re not going to work the third single, and you’re going to go into the studio with this new A&R girl and make a new record.” This was right in the middle of what was succeeding. It was heresy! What were you talking about? We didn’t understand it. The direction was really weird.
So we made (1997’s) The Bottle and Fresh Horses, and then things just went from bad to worse. We didn’t have autonomy. They would just plug us into the radio machine, and if it worked it worked. If it didn’t, it didn’t. We didn’t have any tour support. We didn’t have any relationships on “the floor”. It really turned from having what felt like a family to being a cog in the machine.
When our option came up for them to pick us up, they actually said, “we want to work another single for radio. Depending on the success of that single, we will exercise or not exercise that option. So give us 90 days extension on that option.” I said, “no. We didn’t sign up to go single by single. We’re a career band, and you’re going to pick us up as such, and trust that we know what we’re doing. Or you’re going to let us go.” They said, “with regrets, we’re going to let you go.”
That was when The Refreshments essentially broke up, and not long after the Peacemakers were formed.
Q: I have always said that the conglomerates eating each other up in the 90’s has more to do with lost record sales than illegal downloading.
A: I think you’re probably right, and what happened is that they got greedy. They put quantity before quality. It’s not the first time that cycle has reared its ugly head. It’s happened more than once in the industry, but I was right in the thick of it the last time it happened.
Q: Did your experiences with Mercury lead to the decision to keep this band indie?
A: Absolutely. Our options were to sign with another major label, and the writing was on the wall. Major labels were this giant homogenization process. As an artist, and an artist first, I couldn’t conscious that. That was just something I didn’t want to do. If I were strictly a businessman, I probably would have gone through with that because you have a large structure quote/unquote for you. It is almost always at the expense of the quality, and the liberty, and the guiding principles of the art. So I said no. I didn’t want to go that way. “Who’s with me?” PH got off the couch, and followed me out the door.
We went into the desert for the proverbial 40 days, which was really only 17, and we took our guitars and the tape recorders out there. We started talking about what direction we wanted the art to go, and basically reaffirmed our commitment to our life way and to each other. That trip became our sketch for what turned out to be Honky Tonk Union, our first album.
Q: By staying indie, though, there are some economic issues. I understand you currently are dealing with a bus that broke down.
A: It’s not even current. It’s perpetual. With a band at this level of exposure, irrespective with the passion of the fans, you’re going to have financial difficulties. We bought with a Small Business Loan a tour bus in 2002 that we probably put a million miles on. While that particular machine allows us to be a nationwide touring band of artists, which is awesome, there are economic realities associated with it. It has systems in it that I’ve never even heard of, like torsion bars and auto-shutdown sequences. That (stuff) just goes wrong all the time, and when it does the band finds itself on the way somewhere to go to work. It’s expensive. To get out of the bus and into rental cars and hotels is expensive. Tows are expensive. Repairs are astronomical.
Our hat is almost always out if anybody wants to keep the rock rolling. If anybody wants to be essentially an unrecognized patron of the arts they can go online and drop a few pennies in the hat. That helps keep the rock rolling.
It’s better than me having to go to (somebody like) Pepsi, but I don’t even think about going to sponsors to underwrite touring. We get in the bus with our fingers crossed. When it breaks down, I write a letter to the fans, and they respond. Usually, they help up covering a portion of the cost to keep us going. I don’t take a lot pride at putting my hat out, or my “tips sombrero” out there, to help make ends meet, but it really does foster a community. You find out what it means to people when we receive a donation of a hundred bucks. Or even twenty bucks or five bucks from Albany, or Portland, or somewhere in South Dakota. These are people who really want you to keep going, and beyond just making it to the stage in their particular town. I think that we represent a certain D.I.Y. tenacity, a certain American spirit that we can’t do unless we’re a community. It’s demonstrative of that ethic.
Q: You do have a fanbase that defies demographics. How do you account for that?
A: I don’t, but I’m grateful for it. Whenever I try to put my business hat on, and I try to figure out what our demographic is, I’m totally befuddled. I have been for years, so I quit trying to figure it out. There’s just a human touch that people respond to, whether they’re grandparents or grandchildren, and I like it better that way. We don’t necessarily appeal to cool people, or nerds, or baby boomers, or generation x’s or whatever the hell is coming up behind them. I don’t know, but everybody is there, and that’s the way I like it.
Q: What prompted you to create your own tequila?
A: I grew up the son of a ranching family in Arizona. My parents divorced when I was young, but my grandparents on my father’s side had a cattle ranch in southeast Arizona, just north of the border. Tequila has always been a part of that culture, and like really good tequila. The kind of stuff you couldn’t get in the stores at the time. Now you can. Because it’s part of my history, it made its way into song, starting with probably “Nada” on (The Refreshments) Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy, and there’s got to be some reference to tequila, or at least that spirit, on every album. Probably on more than one song. It became almost a character in my writing.
We do a festival in Rocky Point, Mexico. We used to do it twice a year, now we do it once a year. It’s called Circus Mexicus. A couple of cantina owners came up to me after one of these events, and said, “we serve and sell more tequila in a weekend when you’re here then we do the entire year when you’re not. And we happen to own a still. Any chance you’d like to have some fun? Let’s make a batch of tequila, put a cool label on it, and sell it at the next event.” I said, “yeah, sounds like a blast.” We made it up, called it Mexican Moonshine, after the song on Americano!, and made up a thousand bottles that we sold out in six hours. It was fun, and it was a cool addition to the event.
Fans started asking when we could do it again, so I approached the cantinas that had the still, but they said we had “clipped the radar of the Mexican government. This is kind of an illegal operation, so we don’t want to do it again.” But I did, so I started looking for a good distiller, and I found what I think is the best, and moved on from there. I went after creating a tequila that is really the best.
Q: The real question, though, is it better than Sammy Hagar’s?
A: Unequivocally, yes. I got to tour with Sammy some summers ago. He was actually part of the consulting on Mexican Moonshine, and he gave me notes as we were working on our recipes. There was one part where I actually kept the phone call, because he was calling me to review the reposado, and he said, “damn, I don’t know what you did right but I wish I had thought of it”.
Q: Is there new music on the horizon?
A: We have a project this year that is called Cantina-cast. It’s still a work in progress as we haven’t got one right yet. The object or goal is to share one new song per month live on livestream, and then at the end of the year take all of those songs and make an album for release early next year.
Q: When you prepare a song per month for a project like this, does that change how you write?
A: It does. Usually, I’ll sequester myself for some period of time, and I’ll call it my writing time. I’ll then bring those songs to the band, and then we work on them. Usually, we put together anywhere between 12 and 20 tunes, and jam them to find out which ones work best together. To find out which ones have some sort of thematic similarity. Usually, they do. Doing this is really different because I have a monthly quota to fill. It does feel different because I look at the calendar and go “oh crap, I’ve got to have a song done”. I focus more on that something during that particular month instead of taking a bunch of time to be spacey and lazy and poetic. The way I usually write has very little urgency.
Q: I also wanted to ask you about the Three Amigos side project.
A: That’s usually a once a year thing. Some friends of ours who own a bike shop/bar in Fort Collins, Colorado, used to take a big hippie school bus down to all of our Mexico shows, like when they were in their early/middle 20’s. Life got in the way, and they opened a bar, and found that they couldn’t go down there as a group every year. So they wanted to just hire us. It was always in February for some reason, and the band has families and birthdays and such, so not all of them could always make it. I could, so I started going and playing just acoustic there. That’s where I met Jim Dalton. Dalton sat in with Johnny Hickman, who I’ve known for a long time. We weren’t really trying to form a band or a project, but we all ended up on the same stage at the same time in the same place…drinking out of the same flask. We didn’t even name it the Three Amigos. Somebody else did. That’s what came out of it. It’s totally fun and I probably remember like 20% of it. It’s a total blast, and to my horror I’ve seen some YouTube footage of songs that we had never tried. Like all of a sudden we’re doing “Space Oddity” by David Bowie, or “How Soon Is Now” by The Smiths. We don’t know those songs.
Q: You mentioned Johnny Hickman. Both he and his bandmate in Cracker, David Lowery, have been advocates against not only downloading but services such as Pandora and Spotify. What do you think about what those services pays? Is the promotion one receives enough against the pennies they pay you?
A: I do now. There was a time I didn’t like it at all, and I was probably far more in their camp. One should pay for music, but it’s a principle that’s changed in my mind. I do now think that to go tilting the windmill and telling people to stop trading/burning/sharing music is totally futile. I’ve had to adapt, and now I try to see the good in it. If somebody finds our music via a friend, or one of those “auto-selector” programs, and they come to our stage and buy a t-shirt, we win. It is tough as an independent, as Lowery and Hickman will attest, and it is tough to finance a recording. It’s not cheap, and it’s tough to market it. It’s tough to host a tour bus. If out of those billions of plays, somebody gets around to us, I think we win. There’s no way I’m going to turn back the tide, and there’s no way I’m not going to autograph that burned or ripped CD that the nineteen year-old gives me at the end of a show that’s my own music. “High five, man. Please tell a friend.”That’s the best I can do.
Q: On a happier note, and going full circle on the interview, I hear you are reuniting The Refreshments for some shows?
A: For a show. We ran into Brian (David Blush), The Refreshments’ guitarist, at a couple of shows, and at the same time we were looking for an opening band for our Mexico show. Somebody just said, “shit, let’s just play Refreshments stuff”. Finally, we are over the breakup and the bitterness of that breakup enough to say yeah, man, that’s a great way to get back together. Let a lot of people never did get to hear that band hear us, bury the hatchet, and walk away good. It all worked out. I’ve got my fingers crossed that we won’t suck. And even if we do, we’ll just hug it out and move on.