Robert Lamm interview, November 2007
By Morten Lauridsen, Blue Desert
Our writer Morten Lauridsen has been listening to the music of Chicago the last 25 years, so it was surely with a pleasure to do this interview with Robert Lamm, one of the founders of this legendary group.
With “Chicago XXX” – how come it took so long for Chicago to release an album of all newly composed material – 15 years since the album “Twenty 1”?
THE ANSWER IS THAT WITH THE RECORDING OF CHICAGO 22, PRODUCED BY PETER WOLF, THE BAND HAD VERY HIGH EXPECTATIONS FOR THE NEW ALBUM, WITH A RETURN TO THE APPROACH THAT MANY PEOPLE ASSOCIATE WITH THE EARLY ALBUMS: CUTTING EDGE, MORE CHALLENGING SONGS, THAN ANYTHING DONE IN THE 80’S. THE RESULT WAS A DISAGREEMENT WITH REPRISE/WARNER, AND THE ULTIMATE NON-RELEASE OF THAT ALBUM. THIS DISCOURAGED THE ENTIRE BAND, AND OTHER MY OWN CONTINUING SOLO RECORDING, THE THINKING WAS THAT WE HAD DONE OUR BEST, SO WHY CONTINUE TO RECORD MUSIC WE ARE PROUD OF, ONLY TO HAVE NO SUPPORT FROM THE RECORD COMPANY.
You used to be the main songwriter in Chicago in the early days, but that changed over the years. How come? Was this due to a lot of new members joining such as Jason Scheff and Bill Champlin? Further to that how come so many outside writers started collaborating from the early 80’s to present compared to the early days?
THE TREND TOWARD OUTSIDE WRITERS BEGAN IN THE 80’S BECAUSE THE SORT OF ALTERNATIVE APPROACH TO SONG WRITING WE HAD DONE IN THE PAST WAS CONSIDERED NON-COMMERCIAL TO THE RECORD COMPANY AND THEREFORE THREATENING TO THE ‘BOTTOM-LINE’ FOR MANAGEMENT, AND RADIO AND MTV.
I AM STILL THE MAIN SONGWRITER, AND HAVE NEVER STOPPED WRITING, IT’S JUST THAT EVEN WITHIN THE BAND, MY TASTE WAS NOT TO BE TRUSTED. THIS IS WHY THERE HAVE BEEN 5 ROBERT LAMM SOLO PROJECTS SINCE 1990.
The Chicago sound really changed from when David Foster started producing the band on “Chicago 16” and onwards. Why was he brought in to produce the band? Was this because he had worked with Bill Champlin previously and was it a deliberate decision from the band to bring him in to change the sound?
FOSTER WAS CONSIDERED FOR CHICAGO 13 AND 14, BUT FINALLY HIRED FOR CHICAGO 16. HE HAD A GOOD REPUTATION FROM HIS WORK WITH HALL & OATES, AND OTHER MAJOR ARTISTS. HIS INVOLVEMENT WITH CHAMPLIN WAS INSIGNIFICANT AND CO-INCIDENTAL. AT THIS POINT IN CHICAGO’S CAREER, THE MAINSTREAM OF POP MUSIC HAD SHIFTED, AND FOSTER CONSIDERED THE MOST ACCESSIBLE ASPECT OF THE SOUND WAS CETERA’S VOICE AND TO A LESSER DEGREE, THE HORNS.
The last album David Foster produced for Chicago was “Chicago 18”. Why didn’t you use him to produce any of the follow ups?
FOSTER WAS IGNORANT OF THE DYNAMIC OF THE BAND AND THE COMMITMENT WE HAD TO EACH OTHER. HE DID NOT LIKE SCHEFF’S VOICE, EITHER. AND 18 FAILED BECAUSE HE INSISTED ON CONTROLLING ALL ASPECTS OF THE SESSIONS, RATHER THAN BELIEVE IN THE POWER OF THE BAND.
There has been so much talk about the unreleased album “Stone Of Sisyphus” and a lot of people are saying that this is a masterpiece. From what I have heard the reason why this album was not released was due to the record company not finding it commercial enough. My question is – will this album in full ever see the light of day? I noticed that my version of “Chicago XXVI” is released on Chicago Recordings Inc? Does this label still exist? If so, could the album be released on this label? Furthermore I would imagine that the Italian based record company Frontiers would be very interested in releasing this album, or are you only allowed to release albums on Rhino at the moment?
SEE ANSWER TO QUESTION 2… AND RHINO NOW OWNS ALL THE MASTERS AND WILL RELEASE CHICAGO 22 NEXT YEAR.’CHICAGO RECORDS’ NO LONGER EXISTS.
One of my favourite Chicago albums is “Night & Day”. I just love these big band classics and evergreens in your arrangements. There is such a huge catalogue of songs to choose from out of this era (jazz/swing from the 1920’s-1950’s). Do you think you will ever do a “Night & Day Part 2”?
THANKS FOR YOUR KIND WORDS ABOUT THIS ALBUM, IT IS ONE OF OUR PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENTS. THERE STILL MAY BE A SEQUEL. IF BRUCE FAIRBAIRN HAD NOT PASSED AWAY, I THINK THERE WOULD HAVE ALREADY BEEN ONE!
The late legendary Bruce Fairbairn produced “Night & Day”. How was it working with him and how was his style of producing and way of approaching a project different to David Foster?
FOSTER FEELS MORE COMFORTABLE PRODUCING SOLO ARTISTS. OUR EXPERIENCE WITH BRUCE WAS THAT HE UNDERSTOOD THE NATURE OF GROUPS, HOW CONTRIBUTIONS COME FROM EVERY QUARTER IN CHICAGO, HE GAVE US THE SPACE TO MAKE THAT ALBUM EXTRAORDINARY.
Another one of my favourite Chicago albums is “Twenty 1”, and talking about brilliant producers – Ron Nevison produced the majority of tracks on this album (he also produced some of ‘Chicago 19’). How was it working with him and how was the decision made to use him as the producer?
NEVISON WAS CHOSEN STRICTLY ON THE STRENGTH OF HIS SUCCESS AT THE TIME (LATE 80’S). HE BROUGHT THE DIANE WARREN SONGS TO THE TABLE. WE DIDN’T UNDERSTAND WHY WE WERE BEING ADVISED TO RECORD SUCH SIMPLE MUSIC. BUT THEY WERE HITS. THIS PERIOD EXPOSED THE DIMINISHING DRUMMING OF SERAPHINE, (WE USED SOMEONE ELSE) AND ALMOST COMPLETELY IGNORED THE HORNS. I INSISTED ON USING HORNS ON THE SONGS I WROTE FOR THESE ALBUMS.
NEVISON IS NOT A MUSICIAN, WHICH DOES NOT WORK FOR THIS BAND.
Chicago has such a long history. How do you think the band is different today compared to when you started out?
THE MAIN DIFFRENCES ARE: NO TERRY KATH AND LACK OF DIRECTION. MANAGEMENT HAS BEEN ABLE TO DIVIDE AND CONTROL THE ORIGINAL MEMBERS, SO THAT IT FUNCTIONS MERELY AS A MONEY MAKING ENTITY. IT COULD BE SO MUCH MORE.
Chicago has always been a band consisting of a lot of members. Currently you are eight people. Is it sometimes difficult to come to a decision? Do you have someone in the band who has the final say if you can’t agree – like yourself or James Pankow?
SEE QUESTION 9…. THERE ARE 4 MAIN MEMBERS. CHAMPLIN AND SCHEFF ARE PARTNERS, THEY CHOOSE NOT TO GET INVOLVED WITH DECISIONS, UNFORTUNATELY. IMBODEN AND HOWLAND ARE EMPLOYEES. I AM THE MOST OUTSPOKEN ABOUT CERTAIN CREATIVE ISSUES, NOT THAT ANYONE LISTENS.
How did the Beckley-Lamm-Wilson project “Like A Brother” come about?
WHILE I WAS RECORDING MY SECOND SOLO ALBUM, BECKLEY SENT A SONG TO MY PRODUCER PHIL RAMONE, WHO SUGGESTED WE GET CARL AND GERRY TO SING WITH ME.
AS WE DID THOSE SESSIONS, ALTHOUGH WE ALREADY WERE FRIENDS, WE WERE ALL EXPERIENCING BEING ALIENATED FROM OUR RESPECTIVE BANDS, CREATIVELY, AND SO WE BECAME VERY KEEN ON WORKING TOGETHER.
You participated on Roger Daltrey’s solo album “Rocks In The Head”. How did you get involved in this project?
MY SONG WRITING PARTNER AT THE TIME, GERARD MCMAHON, WAS PRODUCING THAT PROJECT AND ASKED ME TO GET INVOLVED. IT WAS GREAT FUN GETTING ACQUAINTED WITH DALTREY, A GREAT ARTIST.
Chicago played on the USA For Africa album and contributed with the track “Good For Nothing”. How were you approached with regard to participating on this project?
QUINCY JONES AND ALL WHO PARTICIPATED IN THE RECORDING OF THE SONG, REALIZED THEY WANTED TO HAVE US BE A PART OF THE FULL ALBUM, FOR SALES APPEAL. FOSTER ALSO WANTED TO GET ON THAT ALBUM.
Was “Good For Nothing” written and record especially for the USA For Africa project?
NO, THAT SONG WAS WRITTEN BY MYSELF AND RICHARD MARX, A PROTEGEE OF FOSTER, WHO ALSO ARRANGED IT, FOR CHICAGO 17.
Wasn’t it difficult picking the songs for “Night & Day” with such a huge catalogue of songs to choose from (the fantastic American Song Book)?
YES, THERE ARE SO MANY GREAT SONGS FROM THIS ERA. WE HAD TO KEEP REMINDING OURSELVES THAT IS WAS ABOUT BIG BANDS, NOT JUST ABOUT JAZZ OR PORTER, GERSHWIN, ETC. I THINK WE MOSTLY GOT IT RIGHT WITH A COUPLE OF QUESTIONABLE CHOICES, LIKE BLUES IN THE NIGHT AND DREAM A LITTLE DREAM.
Wasn’t it difficult to re-arrange all the songs for “Night & Day” as they are already such classics? How did you approach that challenge?
WHEN ONE IS HAVING FUN, NOTHING IS DIFFICULT! THE KEY WAS REMEMBERING IT WAS A CHICAGO ALBUM.
How did you approach the challenge of replacing Peter Cetera in Chicago and why was Jason Scheff chosen?
WE WANTED SOMEONE WHO REALLY WANTED TO BE APART OF CHICAGO. IT WAS RIGHT FOR CETERA TO RESIGN, AT THIS POINT.
WE WANTED A TENOR WHO DIDN’T SOUND THE WAY MANY ROCK/POP TENORS SOUND. JASON’S VOICE IS DISTINCT. HE IS A TALENT MUSICIAN WHO PLAYS GREAT BASS, WRITES SONGS, SO IT WAS REALLY A PERFECT FIT.
I could imagine that Chicago would have a lot of unreleased tracks/recordings lying around. Other bands have released albums containing previously unreleased material such as Toto, The Beatles & Bon Jovi. Could you see Chicago doing the same maybe as a box set?
THERE ARE VERY FEW UNRELEASED TRACKS LYING AROUND, AND THOSE THAT ARE … NOW AVAILABLE ON THE RHINO RE-ISSUES. YOU SHOULD CHECK THE RHINO.COM WEBSITE FOR FULL CURRENT DISCOGRAPHY FOR THIS INFORMATION.
To my knowledge Keith Howland hadn’t really made any recordings before he joined Chicago. How come you chose him as the guitarist back in 1995 as there are so many other brilliant guitarists to choose from in L.A.? (not putting Keith down…he’s brilliant).
HOWLAND GREW UP ATTENDING CHICAGO CONCERTS, KNOWS ALL OF THE REPETOIRE, UNDERSTANDS KATH’S IMPACT ON THE SOUND OF CHICAGO, HAS FRESH IDEAS, WANTS TO CONTRIBUTE, HAS GREAT ENERGY. HE WAS THE RIGHT CHOICE!
Bruce Gaitsch is listed as a band member on the album “Night & Day” but he didn’t seem to be a member for long. How come?
BRUCE IS A GREAT FRIEND AND SKILLED PLAYER. HE’S COMES FROM CHICAGO, TOO! WE HAD JUST CUT BAILEY LOOSE WHEN THE N&D PROJECT WAS SCHEDULED AND HE KINDLY AGREED TO STEP IN. HE DID NOT PARTICULARLY WANT TO BE A PERMANENT MEMBER, AND HE DOES NOT SING.
Your solo album “Life Is Good In My Neighborhood” was produced by the legendary Phil Ramone. How was it working with him as opposed to the other fantastic producers you have worked with?
PHIL WAS VERY ENCOURAGING TO ME AT A TIME WHEN I WAS FEELING VERY DIS-RESPECTED IN THE BAND. HE HAS A LONG HISTORY WITH CHICAGO, I’VE KNOWN HIM A LONG TIME AND HE’S A FRIEND.
WE SHOULD MENTION THAT 2 OTHER PRODUCERS WERE AN IMPORTANT PART OF THIS PROJECT. RANDY GOODRUM, AND JOHN VAN EPS.
You wrote or co-wrote most of the songs on your solo album “Subtlety & Passion”. How was the writing process for this album?
IT WAS LIKE BEING I HEAVEN. I SPENT A LOT OF TIME GOING OVER SKETCHES I HAD ACCUMULATED FOR YEARS IN MY STUDIOS IN CALIFORNIA AND NEW YORK. I KNEW IT WAS AN ALBUM THAT CHICAGO SHOULD HAVE BEEN DOING. YET MY SUBJECTS WERE ABOUT THE LOSS OF TERRY KATH, MY NEW LIFE/LOVE WITH JOY, MY CHILDREN, 9/11, MY RELATIONSHIPS WITH MY BAND-BROTHERS… ALL VERY PERSONAL… THIS WAS THE POINT….I NEEDED TO WRITE MY FEELINGS RATHER THAN BULLSHIT POWER BALLAD SONGS.
How did you choose the musicians for your solo album “Subtlety & Passion”?
I WANTED TO INCLUDE EVERYONE WHO HAD EVER PLAYED WITH CHICAGO, EVEN TERRY KATH, BECAUSE THIS ALBUM WAS AN HOMAGE TO CHICAGO. SOME PEOPLE WERE UN- AVAILABLE AT THE TIME THAT I COULD GET THEM INTO THE STUDIO, WHICH I QUITE REGRET.
I believe I read somewhere that Chicago worked with Duke Ellington once or participated on the TV show with him. Is that correct? How was your relationship with him?
DUKE WAS VERY ILL AT THE TIME, AND HE PASSED VERY SOON AFTER THE SHOW. BUT WE MET THE GREATEST MUSICIANS OF THE 2OTH CENTURY, WHO WERE ALL VERY KIND TO ‘THE NEW KIDS’. YOU SHOULD TRY TO GET A COPY OF THE DVD “WE LOVE YOU MADLY”
How come you didn’t use more of your own songs for the “Chicago XXX” album?
IT WAS THE PRODUCER, JAY DE MARCUS, RESPONSIBILTY TO CHOOSE THE SONGS FAIRLY. MY PERSONAL CHOICES WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN THE SAME. PANKOW DID NOT SUBMIT. LOUGHNANE’S SONGS WERE NOT CHOSEN. I SUBMITTED 9 SONGS.
Do you have any plans of releasing another solo album?
YES I WILL ALWAYS BE MAKING NEW MUSIC. I WILL FINISH AN ALBUM CALLED ‘THE BOSSA PROJECT’ BY MID 2008. AVAILABLE CD AND DOWNLOADS.
Which artists were the main inspirations for Chicago when you started out?
OTIS REDDING, SAM & DAVE, JAMES BROWN, BEATLES, MOTOWN, MOTHERS OF INVENTION, VANILLA FUDGE, DON ELLIS, TRAFFIC, HENDRIX…..
A lot of West Coast artists participate on projects through Frontiers Records. Eg. Thom Griffin with Ambition, Joseph Williams with two Vertigo albums, Mickey Thomas with Over The Edge. Could you see yourself being involved in a similar a project as the leader/main man?
I DON’T CONSIDER MYSELF A WEST COAST ARTIST. ARE YOU AWARE OF MY SOLO DVD “LEAP OF FAITH?” THIS WILL ILLUSTRATE MY SOLO CONCEPT, AT LEAST IN 2004.
Could you see yourself exploring other genres such as progressive rock, fusion or heavy metal (meaning classic 70’s/80’s metal)?
I AM OPEN TO ALL GENRES OF MUSIC, FILTERED THROUGH MY OWN TASTES AND INTELLECT.
When I have briefly met internationally known musicians it seems that a lot of them (also judging from the internet) really admire and look up to the progressive rock/metal band Dream Theater. So I am curious to know what you think of Dream Theater?
HONESTLY, I’VE NEVER HEARD THIS MUSIC. BUT I’LL CHECK IT OUT. DO YOU KNOW MONKEY BUSINESS? (Editor’s note: Monkey Business is a Czech funk band. Robert Lamm saw this band in Prague and reckons that they have an interesting interpretation of funk, filtered through their European sensibility)
You played on The Howland/Imboden Project which was fusion. You co-wrote and participated on the songs “Theme From A Love Dream” and “Inching Towards…?” mainly with Chicago members. How was it working with Chicago members playing a completely different musical style?
IT REMINDED ME OF HOW THE BAND OUGHT TO FUNCTION, INSTEAD OF BEING A CORPORATION.
Out of all the musicians you have worked with, who have impressed you the most and who do you admire the most?
THERE ARE SO MANY, I CANNOT SPECIFY, FAIRLY.
Any artists/musicians you haven’t worked with you would like to work with?
MCCARTNEY, PRINCE, JOHN MAYER, IMOGEN HEEP, SLY STONE….
Any plans of a Chicago tour of Europe?
WE ARE TRYING TO BOOK A TOUR FOR SPRING OR SUMMER 2008!!
In Chicago you have a lot of great vocalist to do the backgrounds live. But these days a lot of bands I see live use sampled/taped backgrounds (mainly vocals – but sometimes I have also noticed percussion and other effects). This really annoys me…because when I go to see a live show, I want a live show. What is your attitude towards this and is this just the consequence of bands having less money due to dropping album sales?
NO, THIS HAS TO DO WITH ARTISTS DOING MORE IN THE STUDIO THAN THEY CAN DO LIVE IN CONCERT. BUT NOW WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY, WHICH WHEN ABUSED, RESULTS IN A FALSENESS THAT IS OBVIOUS AND DISAPPOINTING TO LISTENERS.
Thanks a lot for taking time to answer our questions, we really appreciate it.