Robert Lamm is one busy man. Not only does he continue to tour and record with Chicago, the legendary band he co-founded in 1967 and has been with ever since, but he also has a busy solo career—his latest solo release, Robert Lamm Songs: The JVE Remixes, is a collaboration with producer John Van Eppes, who turned recordings from his Chicago work and solo albums into adventurous, techno-infused dance tracks. Tell Magazine recently talked to Robert about this project, as well as his other creative pursuits, some potential musical collaborations, and that pesky Rock and Roll Hall of Fame question.
Note: An edited version of this interview was published in the August 2012 issue of Tell Magazine. The following is the complete, uncut interview.
Tell:Robert, I have listened to the JVE Remixes CD and it’s really cool.
Lamm: Thank you.
Tell: How did that project come about?
Lamm: John Van Eppes and I are old friends and he’s produced a couple of my solo projects and I’ve been involved with him as a collaborating songwriter over the years. I’ve probably known him for like 20 years. And while we were finishing, we did a bossa nova album together, a kind of organic bossa nova album, and he did a couple of tracks where he remixed them not unlike the way some of the things turned out on this album. And at some point, he said, “You know, it would be really great to do some remixes of classic Chicago tunes.” At that point, I tried to interest the guys in the band and also at that time Chicago was with Warner Bros. and I tried to get Warner Bros. to at least underwrite the project. It didn’t really happen. He did a couple of things on spec basically just using a CD version of, I think he did “25 or 6 to 4.”
Tell: So, no masters, no tracks?
Lamm: No masters, nothing. So at that point I played the roughs he did for the other guys and they weren’t really too thrilled with it and neither was Warners. So a year or two passed and then Chicago had an opportunity to re-record its masters. We had sold our publishing, we had sold our masters to Warner Bros, and that gave us the right to go in and re-record, which we did in Nashville a couple of years ago. So in 2009 we had new masters that we owned that we could do anything we wanted with. So I asked my partners “Would you mind if I sent John Van Eppes some stems from these re-records so that he can do remixes?” So in 2009 is when it sort of started. So that’s the long answer to your question.
Tell: It’s a good answer. So is this new CD primarily from those re-records, from those masters?
Lamm: Much of it is, yeah. Obviously all of the Chicago tracks—“25 or 6 to 4”, “Beginnings”, “Saturday in the Park,” “Another Rainy Day”, those are all my songs from that era that we re-recorded from that era. By the way, the re-records are amazing.
Tell: Have those been released?
Lamm: They’re available on the Chicago Web site. They’re called The Nashville Sessions.
Tell: Oh, OK. No CD of that?
Lamm: There might be CDs. I think they’re just downloads at this point. We’re doing a lot of streaming and download from our Web site, Chicagotheband.com. So anyway, the other tracks on this remix album are songs from my various solo albums.
Tell: Skinny Boy, your first solo album—that was a great album.
Lamm: Oh, thank you. That thing still sells!
Tell: Is that available?
Lamm: I did a Skinny Boy 2.0 version and it’s available not only through the Chicago Web site but at Amazon and I think it’s at CDBaby. … I think I added a new track or two on this version from that era.
Tell: I saw on the Remix CD that Danny Seraphine and Peter Cetera were credited. Is that indicating that some of the old tracks with the original lineup were used?
Lamm: Yeah, there are two remixes of “25 or 6 to 4” and what I’m calling the dance remix actually came from the very first remix that John did using a CD of the second Chicago album. So I thought it was appropriate to give those guys credit.
Tell: But primarily it’s with the current band.
Tell: Tell Magazine is tech-oriented, so I was just wondering, what are you into in today’s tech?
Lamm: Gee, I’m very low tech. But I actually fell in love many years ago with GarageBand. It has its limitations, but I’ve gotten very, very good at doing edits. I’ve done some great edits. There’s actually something on my new solo album which I released earlier this year, Living Proof, the title track is something that started out being seven minutes that I edited down just in GarageBand. So anyway, I like GarageBand, LogicPro 9. For me this is all new stuff. I’m using Omnisphere plug-ins. And really what I like to do is, I like to build my demos that occasionally turn into at least parts of the master recording and that’s for Chicago and for my solo stuff. As far as tech stuff, that’s my world.
Tell: You into smartphones, anything like that?
Lamm: Well, yeah, I’m talking to you on my iPhone.
Tell: But really you’re focused on the music.
Lamm: Yeah, I’m a Mac person and I use the iPhone. That’s pretty much it. I don’t have an iPad. I much prefer the non-backlit Kindle, which I can read for hours on a plane in any light. I’m really a book person. I read quite a bit—newspapers and magazines. I travel so much, I can’t watch movies on an airplane, I’m not into that. So instead for years and years, I’ve just read a ton, and I found that the Kindle lightened my luggage quite a bit, and I’m finding that I’m reading more, I read two or three newspapers a day and I read New Yorker Magazine, the Weekend Financial Times from London. I just find it’s so efficient. Like I said, I end up reading more than I used to, and I used to think I was a voracious reader before. But the cool thing about the Kindle, again, is that it’s not backlit and so there’s no eyestrain. When I’m working in my little home studio, which is basically a Mac-based studio, my eyes are gone after three hours. So anyway, that’s my story.
Tell: So do you miss physical books, magazines and newspapers or are you OK with having lighter luggage?
Lamm: Well, this goes with the music too—if I come across a CD that I just love, just love, I definitely want it on CD, I definitely want a physical version of it, because who knows what’s going to happen with the Cloud going down the road? So some things I stream or download, but certain things I really want to archive, I buy on CD. And it’s the same thing with books. It might be a rare edition, it might be an older book that’s out of print, of course I’ll buy the book. Well here’s the thing, when you get an a plane and they tell you to shut your thing off because you’re going to take off, you better have an analog copy of something to read. At least I do. So I always have a backup magazine or newspaper. I do love books.
Tell: Do you send files over the Internet?
Lamm: Yeah, I tend to use YouSendIt. Actually, Chicago is recording a new album.
Lamm: And the way that we’re doing it is, we have a serious digital recording studio that we travel with. And then we have a coordinating producer who is at home in his studio and he’s running ProTools but we’ve got a kind of pre-production workspace that everybody in the band has their own page, and as we write things and have demos, let’s say my demo is in LogicPro, I’ll upload it to Chicago’s workspace and I’ll send a link to the appropriate guys in the band that I think should hear this in case they want to learn the parts or whatever. So it’s essentially like YouSendIt, except it’s a very small community, it’s just the nine guys in the band and the producer. And it’s turning out to be very efficient and very exciting. And we just got a piece of equipment and it essentially mimics the sound of, let’s say, an SSL recording console or a Neve console—specific consoles, classic consoles that we have used over the years—so if we’re going for a specific sound, we might want to say we want to sound like the console at Abbey Road, and it’s got that in there. So for us, it’s really quite a breakthrough. And we’re pretty much recording everything 96-bit.
Tell: So you’re actually doing finished recordings this way, this is the stuff that’s going to be on the CD.
Tell: Amazing. So are you on the road now, or about to go on the road?
Lamm: I’m leaving Monday to go on the road.
Tell: This is with the Doobie Brothers?
Lamm: No, this is before the Doobies. We have maybe a handful of dates in June, we get back the last week of June I think, from this little run that we’re doing, starting in Chicago and playing around the mid-south. But the Doobies starts in July and that goes through September.
Tell: I saw that show a few years back, and really enjoyed how you interacted with the Doobie Brothers onstage. Another band you toured with, Earth Wind & Fire, I had the opportunity to interview for Tell in January at the CES Show.
Lamm: That’s great. Well, that show that we did with Earth, Wind & Fire for three years was just so amazing in every respect. That tour took a lot of rehearsing and a lot of staging, a lot of bodies.
Tell: They’re a big band too!
Lamm: Yeah. Exactly. So we basically did the opening, and then they their set, we did our set and then we did the closing together. The Doobies is not quite as involved. I think that it’s a great evening of music, it’s a great concert of songs. We’re somewhat limited with rehearsal time with those guys. We’re lucky to get one day of rehearsal to remember all the Doobies songs and for them to remember the Chicago songs. In any case, we try to keep the songs that we play of each other’s repertoire on the simpler side—which tend to be the most popular ones anyway.
Tell: The guys in Earth Wind & Fire told me Chicago was the only band they could do that kind of show with.
Lamm: Yeah. It’s true. What was really nice was the friendships that developed as a result of that tour. As you know, the musicians’ community is very friendly and very broad. You don’t really get a lot of time with musicians that you like or musicians that you meet on the road. So we had months together for a few years and I really treasure that experience.
Tell: Think you’ll tour again with them?
Lamm: We were trying to do it this year and it may happen next year, I’m not sure. Essentially our manager is the guy who really dreamed up the … it wasn’t just co-headlining, but performing together with Earth Wind & Fire, and he had been trying to get that concert on the road for years, and there were a lot of people that didn’t think it would happen, or it wouldn’t work or work for the audiences but they were wrong and he was right, which is why we did it for three years. And now that we’ve established that model, now we got a call from Stevie Wonder, who maybe wants to do something with Chicago …
Tell: That would be tremendous!
Lamm: It would be. We did do it with The Beach Boys in the 70s, and now that The Beach Boys are sort of back together, we may do it again with them next year, so there’s a lot of interest in this playing together. It’s a lot of fun, and I think that it’s really wonderful for the audience, because it’s really a once in a lifetime kind of thing.
Tell: Any other acts you may team up with?
Lamm: We’re going to play a couple of shows in the fall with Kool & the Gang. Like Earth Wind & Fire, we have a lot of things in common. They have great tunes that it would be really a lot of fun to play. They also have very gifted musicians in the band that could play our deeper stuff. So we’re going to play a couple of shows with them and maybe go in and rehearse a couple of songs together and see how it goes, and if it works out, then that’s also an opportunity for us to really develop for another year.
Tell: Sounds great. Now, I have to tell you … I feel it’s a crime that Chicago and so many other deserving bands are not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What’s your feeling on that? I think you should be in there.
Lamm: I agree. I have a couple of thoughts about that, and that is, certainly there are wonderful and deserving artists that are in the Hall of Fame. I’m not saying that anybody doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame that has been inducted, but because of some of the choices that have been made to induct, I don’t understand why Chicago has been shut out. I have talked to a friend of mine who is on the board who has said that Chicago’s name comes up every year in discussions, but it’s just never really happened. So that’s one thought, and I agree with you, I think at some point they’ll run out of bands and they’ll maybe decide Chicago should be in. However, in the scheme of the universe, I sort of have a problem with a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As wonderful as music is for the soul, I think that in terms of importance in the community of humans on earth, I think that there are other people who are more deserving in other walks of life, in other careers, that really deserve a hall of fame—whether it’s firemen, policemen, whatever. So in the scheme of things it’s not terribly, terribly important. … In general, I’ve been a little tired of awards shows and that sort of stuff. It’s all marketing and it’s all self-congratulatory and … I have other things to do.
Tell: And music is its own reward.
Lamm: Oh yeah. I love writing songs, and recording them, and performing them. It’s my life.
Tell: You’ve done some collaborations, like the work you did with Gerry Beckley (of America) and Carl Wilson (of The Beach Boys). Any other projects like that in the works?
Lamm: Not so much. That was sort of a one of a kind thing. And had Carl survived, I think we certainly would’ve done more recording together and more performing together. I’ve been talking to Peter Cetera about going out as a duo when I have time, so that’s interesting. That’s something that I’ve been thinking about. But in terms of something as artistically satisfying as the Beckley-Lamm-Wilson thing, I have nothing I can think of right now that I really want to do.
Tell: Carl Wilson is irreplaceable, right?
Lamm: What a voice.
Tell: Have you seen the current Beach Boys show yet?
Lamm: I haven’t seen the show, but last year we toured with Brian Wilson’s band, America and Chicago. The tour together was fantastic. Brian and I have been very friendly, very close for many years, so it was just really a thrill to be able to tour together and hang out.
Tell: Anything you wanted to add?
Lamm: Well, if you haven’t heard my new solo album, it’s Living Proof, and it was released in January, and there’s actually one song from that album that got remixed for the JVE remix album. But if you’re curious where I’m at as a solo guy, you should check that out.
Buy Robert Lamm’s Living Proof on Amazon