Los Angeles. Home to the Sunset Strip and to America’s rock n’ roll dreams past and present. Los Angeles is also home to Jeff Whalen, lead singer of rock band Tsar and now, solo artist and new power-pop hero. He is no stranger to the great heights of rock n’ roll. With Tsar, he released two albums on Hollywood Records and toured with the likes of Social Distortion, Eve 6, the New York Dolls, and Juliette and the Licks. He’s lived those rock n’ roll dreams.
Whalen recently released his new solo album, Ten More Rock Super Hits; ten fantastic power-pop songs that traverse the rock n’ roll spectrum, demanding repeated listens. On the back of its release, we spoke to him about the new album and how his approach to writing for it. Whalen touches on the difference between writing solo and writing for Tsar, his “perfect 10” records, working with producers like Rob Cavallo and Linus of Hollywood, and how he got into this crazy thing called “rock n’ roll”.
Congrats on the release- how does it feel now that the album is out and available to the public?
Thanks! It’s super-great to get it out there. Releasing a record is definitely an unusual feeling—you have such hopes and dreams put into it, yet so much of what happens to it is out of your control.
Records are like kids or whatever, you know? They are who they are. You try to raise them right, give them the tools they need to give them the best chance to succeed out there in the crazy old world. But you can’t control who they are or what happens to them. And I think, like a lot of parents, especially back in the major label days, I think we put a lot of our own hopes and dreams and sense of identity into what happens to them, kinda living through them. Which isn’t really fair, probably.
Now, with this record, I don’t really have any expectations—I just want the record to be happy. I want it to do whatever it wants to do and feel confident and happy being what it is.
I love the variety of styles you’ve got on Ten More Rock Super Hits, from glam, to pop rock, to power pop, to rock n’ roll. How did you approach the songwriting to the album?
Well, on some level, the record is like a K-Tel record, kinda, so the moving around, style to style, is part of it, maybe? I hope there’s a consistency to the proceedings, so that it all feels of a piece, or whatever, but it definitely moves around.
Some of the songs fall into a “type” kind of thing, which was fun to do. I’d never intentionally done that before. Like “Shanghai Surprise”—it’s one of those old-timey kind of songs from vaudeville times or whenever that bands back in the day used to put on records. The Beatles, Monkees, 1910 Fruitgum Company. As I was getting ready to start recording this record, I happened to have a couple albums in rotation that had that kind of song on it. The Crazy Horses album by the Osmonds was one. Great album, by the way. The old-timey one on that record isn’t super-duper old-timey, but it’s super McCartney-y, and old-timey in that way. Cool song. Anyway, it seemed to me when an album has one of those old-timey songs on it, it kind of subconsciously signals what kind of aspirations the album as a whole has. Kinda classes up the joint.
But mostly, I just wanted to have a good time writing without worrying too much about how it all fit together.
How did it differ to when you were writing songs for Tsar, was there a little more freedom with this being a solo record?
Songwriting is fucking weird. There are times when it seems so easy, that anything could be a song. That’s where you wanna be. Like, “Walk Like an Egyptian,” for example, was on the radio the other day and I was thinking, that guy—whoever wrote that song—that guy was in the fucking zone, you know? The confidence is amazing, effortless. You can feel it. It’s like he’s saying “Watch this! I can do fucking anything right now! Watch! All the cops in the donut shops say way-oh, way-oh, way-oh, walk like an Egyptian. See?” Amazing.
And there are definitely, definitely, definitely other times when it seems impossible. It feels like a weird dream, another life, when you were able to write a song. And you have to work through that. You have to just plow. Take every hard-fought minor victory and keep working.
This not being a Tsar record, I felt I could take some different approaches in order to get where I needed to be. There was a certain part of me that wanted the whole record to be by a character, some kind of alter ego. So I started writing from the point of view of a made-up actor who had, in my fantasy, made a record that had been a surprise commercial and critical hit—kind of a Rick Springfield or David Essex kind of guy—and now he has to make his follow-up record and he’s super-jaded and freaking out. He wants to be arty and a real rocker, but he’s worried he’s a fraud and he’s just oh so tired. “Soylent Blue,” “Ground Game for Worm,” “The Eye of the Spider”—those ones came from that idea.
On some level, I enjoyed not having to worry about the new songs fitting into a Tsar context or whatever. I mean, I think they’re in the same rock and roll multiverse as Tsar, but not precisely Tsar, somehow.
Of all the music I’ve listened to in the past few months, “The Alien Lanes” is the one that sticks in my head more than any other. I just find myself singing that fantastic chorus/hook. What’s the story behind “The Alien Lanes”?
Why, thank you! The song’s about a girl who kind of goes crazy listening to music in her room. There’s a madness there, for sure, but a freedom, too, in rock and roll obsession.
And that awesome video, how did that come about?
Thanks again! Yeah, I dunno! Who knows these things? I was at the library and I was flipping through a book and a piece of paper fell out and it said, “The action of God is now flowing through you in a pattern of success.” And I thought, well of course it is! Who can argue with that?
I met with Thad Bridwell and Dan Cleary, these video director friends of mine, and we talked about The Secret and positive thinking and affirmations and slogans and creativity and fear and whatnot and it kind of went from there.
It was really fun to make, at least from my perspective. I mean, the band and I just danced around in front of a green screen for a while. I put on a fake mustache and typed on a typewriter. The directors, especially Thad, put in who knows how many hours creating everything you see. Of the handful of videos I’ve been in, it’s definitely my favorite.
Watch the video for “The Alien Lanes”:
It’s my favorite song on the record. Do you have a favorite?
Ah, I dunno if I can say! I don’t want to make any of the other songs jealous! It’s a bit weird, but the songs on the record that I find myself listening to the most often are ones that came out different than I had expected them to, like “10 More Rock Super Hits.” I had crazy, crazy demo-itis with that one. I felt so connected to the demo, but felt almost like the album version was by someone else somehow? Totally weird. So I find myself listening to that one a lot. It remains a mystery to me, almost like I’m listening to a cover of the song.
You’ve worked with big name producers like Rob Cavallo, and now with Linus of Hollywood. What was it like working with them and what were some of the things that differed between the two?
Those two guys are very different from each other. Though one characteristic they share is a near-virtuoso level of musicianship.
Rob told me about being a teenager and recording demos where he played all the instruments—drums, everything—at 15 or something. He said he had been playing a cassette demo for his dad, who at the time was Prince’s manager, and had left the tape in the car stereo. Later, Prince got in the car and turned on the stereo, and there was Rob’s demo. And Prince turned it up and was digging it, saying something like, man, your kid’s got chops, or something. That’s gonna be something you remember, you know, Prince digging your demo when you’re 15. As a point of comparison, that never happened to me.
Linus told me about learning to play guitar in his room, copying guitar parts from records. He learned the guitar intro part to “Welcome to the Jungle” so that he could play it and make it sound perfect without using a delay pedal, which is of course insane, since the delay pedal is how the riff works. As a point of comparison, I danced around with a tennis racket, lip synching Shaun Cassidy’s version of “Do You Believe in Magic?” well into my 20s. Actually did that a couple weeks ago, in real life, by the way.
So they both bring a humbling, and freeing, command of the music-making process. They both always have ideas for what notes to hit for harmonies, what the piano should be doing, a million other things. They both say things like “OK, good, this time, though, on that G, add the 9th diminished with the minor augmented” or whatever. And then I stare blankly. And then they sigh and say, “put your pinky on the third fret,” or whatever.
They both—and I mean this in a good way—strived to focus me toward the middle. I tend to want to subvert expectations maybe too much, and I kind of rely on a relationship with the producer where I’m free to try to do the weirdest stuff possible and their job is to keep me focused on the strongest elements of the song. This only works with someone I respect a great deal, and I do respect those guys a great, great deal.
So, all that said, Rob and Linus are very different people. Rob is coming from a record executive point of view and regardless of how much you connect, you will not be his friend. He is other. He is business. Not that that is totally a bad thing all the way through, but it’s a particular kind of relationship. It’s built on a distance between the roles. I don’t know if this is the experience every band has with him, but I bet it’s the default.
With Linus, on the other hand, we became friends through the recording experience. Lots of running jokes, lots of drinking coffee and eating candy and talking about the Zombies and rock and life. I only knew him a little before we started the record and by the end I felt I had made friends with a truly good, truly funny, truly interesting person. I’m very much looking forward to making another record with him.
In a previous interview, you talked about the strict upbringing you had with your family. How did you get into rock n’ roll?
Yeah, we had a born-again Christian thing going on. That shit’s brutal. As I got into my teens, I definitely traded religion for rock. I’m sure that’s not uncommon—a young person, pummeled with religion from an early age, losing their faith and putting their focus in art instead. For as often as I think I think it happens, you really don’t see the concept tackled too much in books and movies and whatever. The best thing I’ve seen on it is this autobiographical graphic novel called Blankets by a guy named Craig Thompson. When I read it, I recognized so much of what the author went through as a kid and young person—family, church, youth groups, rock and roll, art—that it kinda whomped me emotionally.
So yeah, I traded the one for the other, though I probably didn’t see it that way at the time. I probably didn’t think at the time that I was into Motley Crue because of the satanism and pentagrams and whatever. I probably thought it was because of their songs, their look. OK, and their codpieces, maybe. Codpieces, you know, can be very persuasive to a 13-year-old boy.
It was a slow process, Christianity to rock. Getting heavy into the Beatles in high school was helpful in enabling the process, since being a Beatles fan is a bit of a religion itself.
If you had to list 4 records you can say are perfect 10s, what would they be?
Great question! OK, I’m gonna skip all the Beatles and Bowie and all that, because, you know, there’s probably not a lot of surprises there, and who wants to hear somebody talk about Hunky Dory? I’m also gonna skip one of my favorites, Million Seller by the Pooh Sticks, which was a heavy inspiration for this album, but I feel like I’ve been talking about it in every interview. So, OK, in no particular order:
Olivia Tremor Control – Dusk at Cubist Castle
I had a fairly hipster roommate back in the day who had this record and I liked it a lot. Over time, it has quietly hung in there for me. I almost never go through a period where I’m down on it. It’s a ‘90s lo-fi record of super-melodic ‘60s-ish psychedelic pop, but even as I say that, I feel like that really doesn’t give it enough credit. It was supposedly recorded, at least in part, on a cassette 4-track recorder, though it sounds full and complete to me. It’s a triumph of style and hipness and coolness, but it totally delivers the goods on the pop side, too. And it has this really enduring charm of a band trying to do all the Beatles or whoever harmonies on a cassette 4-track. Great record.
1910 Fruitgum Company – Goody Goody Gumdrops
This is probably my favorite bubblegum record, though the record by The Fun and Games is amazing, too, kind of like if the Zombies or the Association were a bubblegum band. But, yeah, Goody Goody Gumdrops. Great fucking record. Most bubblegum records only have the one or two or three good songs—and then the rest is some terrible blues or something they threw on there as filler, clearly played by some different band, different singer, totally different sound. But this record is solid bubblegum all the way through. Super chewy. In the getting-signed days, Tsar used to cover the title track—it’d been covered by both the Pooh Sticks and Teenage Fanclub, so that seemed like a good idea.
Ugly Kid Joe – America’s Least Wanted
This album never got its due. You know how when some military pilot guy is talking about seeing a UFO and he says that the thing moved this way and that way and changed directions and had incredible bursts of acceleration and then stopped impossibly fast? And its purpose and nature cannot be determined? That’s what this record is like. I mean, it’s an insane record. It’s all pretty catchy, some of it really catchy, but mostly what sticks with me is the attitude. In some moments, it’s clear that this is satire, joyful and funny, almost Spinal Tap-y in its take down of heavy metal. Other times, it seems just as clear that they mean the banality of it all completely sincerely. He’s so nihilistic—that’s probably the clearest thing you get from the singer, that he hates everything and everybody—but then he starts talking about how we’re all the same deep down in this bizarre, trying-to-be-funky fake singalong. Bizarre. It’s kind of a snapshot of the exact moment when hair metal sincerity was wrapping up and being replaced by
MGMT – Oracular Spectacular
This record fills me with a kind of rock desire that few records can. Is there a better let’s-start-a-band manifesto than “Time to Pretend”? Embracing the realness of the fakeness as a glorious inevitability. I got heavy into the record and was listening to it pretty constantly for a few weeks and then one night for the first time I watched the videos for “Kids” and “Time to Pretend” and “Electric Feel” and I was gut-punched. I could barely speak the next day. When you see the dude for the first time like a minute or two into the “Kids” video—which starts by the way with that Nietzsche abyss quote misattributed to Mark Twain, brilliant somehow—and you see him standing in the bushes and he’s wearing this silver suit with silver gloves and he’s got silver paint on his eyes and he looks totally drugged up and out of it as he’s singing and the whole band is dressed like that and you go, “AHHHH! Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck!” and start laughing. Incredible. The whole record is like that for me. It’s like they started the group as a joke about rock and rock stars and rockness and then were overtaken by it and embraced it for realsies in all its radness and glory and ridiculousness.
What are your music plans for 2019?
Well, I have a
Jeff Whalen’s Ten More Rock Super Hits is out now via Supermegabot Music Concern. Pick up your copy from their website. We recommend it.