Robert Lamm interview, August 2008
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 for him to do this second interview with Robert Lamm, one of the founders of this legendary group.
When you started out in 1967, you really went where no one had gone before by being the first rock band with horns. Did you at the time realise how ground breaking it was?
WE ALWAYS THOUGHT OF OURSELVES AS PRETTY UNIQUE, NOT GROUND BREAKING, … THE MEMPHIS STYLE SOUL BANDS, WERE A ROLE MODEL.
Chris Pinnick was a member of Chicago on “Chicago XIV”, “Chicago 16” and “Chicago 17” but to my knowledge he didn’t appear on the official band photos. Wasn’t he intended to be a long term member?
I HAVE BAND PHOTOS WITH CHRIS. I’LL JUST SAY THAT AFTER DONNIE DACUS, WE WERE NOT IN A HURRY TO HIRE ANYONE AS A PERMANENT MEMBER. THE PHOTO ON “17” NOT WITHSTANDING, THERE ARE PR SHOTS WITH CHRIS.
How does the writing process normally work for you? Is it different from time to time?
MUSIC FIRST, LYRICS LATER.
One of my favourite early compositions is “Questions 67 & 68” from the first Chicago album. How did this song come about and what is actually the meaning of the lyrics?
IT’S ABOUT A GIRL I KNEW DURING THOSE YEARS WITH A HINT OF ACID IMAGERY, AND VERY BEATLES INFLUENCED.
Why did Danny Seraphine leave the band? I read that there was some tension between him and James Pankow. Was that the case?
THESE TYPE OF QUESTIONS ARE SO INVASIVE, BUT I WILL TELL YOU THAT THERE WAS NO ‘TENSION’ BETWEEN D.S. AND J.P. AT ALL.
Do you still keep in touch with past members of Chicago?
PINNICK, GREBB, DE OLIVIERA, YES.
One of my favourite albums from your 70’s period is “Chicago VII”. The song “Wishing You Were Here” features Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson and Alan Jardine of The Beach Boys. How did that collaboration come about? Was Brian Wilson asked to join in on the track as well? Have you ever worked with Brian Wilson? Have you tried writing with him?
THE BB’S WERE VISITING THE RANCH @ CARIBOU AND WE ASKED THEM TO SING ON SOMETHING. BRIAN WAS NOT TOURING AT THE TIME. BRIAN AND I ARE GOOD FRIENDS, BUT WE HAVE KEPT IT SOCIAL, NOT PROFESSIONAL. HE AND I ADMIRE EACH OTHERS’ WRITING.
In 1975 after the release of “Chicago VIII” you toured across the States with The Beach Boys. You performed separately but I read that you would join each other on stage for a finale. Could you tell us a bit about this tour and how it was performing with The Beach Boys?
THIS TOUR WAS THE BB’S COMEBACK AFTER STRUGGLING DURING THE 70’S. THEY OPENED, WE CLOSED, BUT I SANG ‘SURF’S UP’ DURING THEIR SET, THE HORNS PLAYED ON ‘DARLIN’ AND ‘GOD ONLY KNOWS. WE DID SEVERAL SONGS TOGETHER IN THE FINALE, AND IT WAS ALWAYS GREAT FUN.
The last album James William Guercio produced was “Chicago XI” which is also the last one to feature Terry Kath. I read that you thought that Guercio’s artistic control was smothering and you wanted to have more control yourselves. Was that the case and was it coincidental that it’s the last album to feature both Guercio and Kath?
GUERCIO WAS TRYING TO KEEP US PRODUCTIVE, EVEN THO’ WE WERE PARTYING PRETTY HARD AND LOSING FOCUS. AT THE TIME (IN OUR MINDS), HE WAS TOO CONTROLLING, BUT IN RETROSPECT, HE HAD NO OTHER CHOICE IN ORDER TO COMPLETE THE RECORDING. IT MUST HAVE BEEN HARD FOR HIM TO SEE US COMING APART, BUT HE HAD TO LET US GO. IT WAS A PITY FOR ALL PARTIES CONCERNED.
The follow up to “Chicago XI” was “Hot Streets”. This album was produced by yourselves and Phil Ramone. Was Ramone chosen as he mixed some of your earlier albums? How come you decided to call it “Hot Streets” and not “Chicago XII”?
PHIL WAS KNOWN TO THE BAND AND IT WAS A GOOD CHOICE. WE TRIED TO BREAK THE ‘NUMBERS’ PATTERN, BUT IT WAS NOT A GOOD IDEA.
On “Hot Streets” Bee Gees sing backing vocals on “Little Miss Lovin’” and the Chicago Horns play on their album “Spirits Having Flown”. I read that Bee Gees were recording next door to you at the time, but how did that collaboration actually come about?
JUST AS YOU SAY. WE SAW THEM EVERYDAY @ THE STUDIO IN MIAMI AND STRUCK UP A CORDIAL RELATIONSHIP. THEY WERE GREAT PEOPLE.
Do you ever listen to your own early recordings? How does it feel listening to yourself much younger? Does the music and lyrics still sound “fresh” to you and are there some parts you wish you had done differently?
NO, I DON’T LISTEN TO EARLY CHI, EXCEPT TO RESEARCH IF WE ARE ADDING SOMETHING TO OUR LIVE SETS.
With “Stone of Sisyphus” finally out. Do you feel it is as good now as it was when you recorded it back in 1993? The album created a legend of its own similar to “Smile” by The Beach Boys. Doesn’t that actually make you very proud?
I THINK IT’S GOOD WORK, A PITY IT WAS DELAYED FROM RELEASE. I WAS AS PROUD FROM 1993 AS I AM NOW.
With the un-release of “Stone of Sisyphus” in 1994 you felt that you weren’t getting sufficient support from the record company which discouraged the band. Rhino has now re-released Chicago 1-17 and finally “Stone of Sisyphus”. I assume this means that Rhino is supportive? Do you reckon you will be more in charge of the next Chicago album and that you will produce it yourselves?
WE PROBABLY WILL OVERSEE PRODUCTION, BUT WORK WITH ACTUAL ‘PRODUCERS’ IN THE RECORDING PROCESS. RHINO IS AS SUPPORTIVE AS THEIR BUDGETS ALLOW THEM TO BE. NO ONE IN THE INDUSTRY IS KEEN ON SPENDING MONEY ON A BAND FROM THE 70’S.
Why was Jay DeMarcus of the country band Rascal Flatts brought in to produce “Chicago XXX”?
HE WAS JASON’S FRIEND, VERY SUCCESSFUL WITH HIS BAND, AND WE WERE LOOKING FOR A FRESH APPROACH FOR THIS PROJECT, HOPING THE SUCCESS WOULD ‘RUB OFF’ ON THIS ALBUM.
Will Rhino re-release “Chicago 18”, “Chicago 19”, “Twenty 1” and “Night & Day” (with bonus tracks)?
THAT’S THE PLAN, AS I UNDERSTAND IT.
Why did you decide to add Laudir DeOliveira as a percussionist to the official line-up on “Chicago VII”?
KATH WAS FRUSTRATED WITH DANNY’S ‘TIME’ SO HE THOUGHT LAUDIR WOULD HELP DANNY KEEP A STEADY TEMPO. THIS IS ULTIMATELY WHY DANNY WAS ASKED TO LEAVE. IT TOOK A FEW YEARS, BUT IT JUST GOT WORSE.
I believe I read somewhere that Duke Ellington called Chicago “the new Duke Ellingtons” or something along those lines. That must have made you guys very proud. How well did you know Duke Ellington and what was your impression of him?
WE MET HIM JUST THAT ONCE DURING OUR APPEARANCE ON A TRIBUTE TV SHOW PRODUCED BY QUINCY JONES. HE WAS QUITE A GENIUS AND A GENTLEMAN.
I really like the song “Feel The Spirit” from the Beckley-Lamm-Wilson album “Like A Brother”. How was the writing process for this song?
PETER WOLF GAVE ME THE BASIC MUSIC IDEA, I WROTE THE LYRIC, WE RAN OUT OF TIME ON THE SOS PROJECT, SO I TOOK IT INTO MY NEXT PROJECT WHICH HAPPENED TO BE ‘BLW’, THEN PHIL GALDSTON AND I SLIGHTLY RE-WROTE THE MUSIC.
How come you skip the really cool short piano part just after the horn intro on “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” when you play it live?…You also skip the whole initial piano intro – how come?
21ST CENTURY AUDIENCES SUFFER FROM ATTENTION DEFICIT SYNDROME, AND IT WOULD BORE THEM, WE ARE CERTAIN.
Did you see/hear Peter Cetera’s version of “25 or 6 to 4” from his DVD “Live In Salt Lake City”? He says in the interview on the DVD that it’s a tribute to you and Chicago and that he thinks that you are one of the great songwriters of your generation.
I SAW IT AND PETER WAS VERY GRACIOUS.
Phil Ramone produced/mixed some of the early Chicago albums and your solo album “Life Is Good In My Neighborhood”. He also produced a lot of Billy Joel’s albums. Have you ever met Billy Joel or worked with him?
I’VE MET BILLY, AND WAS PRESENT DURING THE RECORDING OF ‘MY LIFE’. HIS PIANO SOUND ON THAT TRACK EMULATED SOMETHING I WAS DOING ON MY YAMAHA CS-80 AT THE TIME. PETER AND DACUS SANG THE BACKING VOCALS.
One of my favourite tracks on “Chicago 17” is “We Can Stop The Hurtin’” written by yourself, Bill Champlin and Deborah Neal. How did this song come about?
I WAS JUST BEGINNING TO WRITE SONGS AGAIN AFTER TAKING A BREAK FOR A FEW YEARS, AND HAD THE VERSES SEQUENCE IDEA GONG, DEBORAH WROTE THE LYRIC, BILL ADDED CHORD CHANGES FOR THE CHORUS. STEVE PORCARO PROGRAMMED THE SEQUENCER IN THE STUDIO.
How do you select the songs for a Chicago album? Do you each submit demos or do you as a band record about 15-20 songs and select the ones you or the record company find most suited? Is this very different now to what it used to be like in the 70’s and 80’s?
DEMOS TO THE PRODUCERS, AND/OR A&R PERSONS, VERY RARELY WILL THE BAND MEMBERS SELECT ANYTHING, BECAUSE EVERYONE, UNDERSTANDABLY, THINKS THEIR OWN SONGS ARE THE ONES TO RECORD! IN THE PAST, THERE WERE FEWER BAND WRITERS, AND NO OUTSIDE SONGS, SO THOSE OF US WHO UNDERSTAND WHAT A CHICAGO SONG OUGHT TO BE HAD THEIR SONGS READY. EXAMPLE: CHICAGO V.
Were other people considered to join the band when Bill Champlin joined in 1981? It says in the liner notes on the Rhino re-release of “Chicago 16” that Champlin was actually considered (by band manager Howard Kaufman) to join after Kath’s passing but he declined at the time. Did you as a band approach him as well in 1978?
TO MY KNOWLEDGE, IT WASN’T UNTIL 1981 THAT HE WAS APPROACHED, BECAUSE MANY IN THE BAND ASSUMED I WAS NOT GOING TO CONTINUE WITHOUT TERRY, SO THEY WOULD NEED A KEYBOARDIST/SINGER.
In the beginning of your career you wrote mainly by yourself but during the 80’s you began collaborating with other songwriters. How come?
THIS SEEMED TO BE A TREND, AND CONTINUES TO A LARGE DEGREE TODAY, WHICH I ENJOY, AND LEARN MUCH FROM. IN RETROSPECT IT HAS DILUTED THE ORIGINS OF CHICAGO’S APPROACH.
The first five tracks of “Chicago VII” are very experimental as opposed to the remaining part of the album. How come you chose to start the album off in such an uncommercial vein? Why didn’t you spread the experimental tracks out more evenly on the album?
LET’S NOT GET INTO SECOND-GUESSING. IT ALL COMES DOWN TO YOUR TASTE VERSUS MINE. BUT I THINK WE RAN OUT OF STEAM AND COURAGE TO CONTINUE RECORDING AN ENTIRE ‘EXPERIMENTAL’ CHICAGOVII .
In the 70’s you recorded a lot of your albums at Caribou Ranch which is out in the rural areas of Colorado. Was this a good spot to record as I would assume you would have a lot of peace and tranquillity being so far away from everything?
THAT WAS THE HOPE.
The track “Where We Begin” is included on the re-release of “Chicago 17” but why wasn’t it included on the original release? Who is the gentleman singing backing vocals/harmonies on this track? It sounds very much like David Pack.
YES, IT’S DAVID BUT IT’S A RATHER UNFINISHED TUNE.
On “Chicago 18” you wrote “Over And Over” with Steve Lukather and James Newton Howard. How did that collaboration come about?
LUKE AND JAMES NEEDED LYRICS.
David Paich, Steve Porcaro and Steve Lukather of Toto seemed to be pretty heavily involved on “Chicago 16”. All three played on the album and Paich and Lukather co-wrote “Waiting For You To Decide” with David Foster. Why were they brought in to participate on the album? Was this Foster’s idea?
FOSTER, AS GREAT AS HE IS, DEPENDED ON TOTO AS SESSION PLAYERS ALL THE TIME, FOR ALL HIS PROJECTS. HE WAS JUST TRYING TO GET A GREAT CHICAGO ALBUM, FORM A BAND WHICH HAD LOST IT’S CONFIDENCE, AND IT’S ORIGINAL MEMBERS.
Not that many of your songs were recorded for “Chicago 16” and “Chicago 17”. How come?
I SLOWED DOWN A LOT AFTER KATH’S DEATH. ALSO WHAT I WAS WRITING WAS NOT “RADIO- FRIENDLY”, IT WAS TOO “70’S”.
According to what I have read “Chicago 13” got pretty bad reviews. Some say you went for a more slick sound possibly because of disco being at its peak. Judging from the band photos on the album it looks like you tried to change your image a bit to suit the period. Was that the case? I reckon there are some really good tracks on the album such as your composition “Reruns”. What do you think of the album?
IT ‘S BETTER THAN THE REVIEWS, BUT WE WERE TRYING TOO HARD TO BE ‘POP’.
Why was Tom Dowd chosen to produce “Chicago XIV”? The production of this album is more basic as opposed to its successors. It’s not your most successful album…but how do you feel about it looking back now? I personally think it’s a very good album with some great songwriting.
PRETTY GOOD ALBUM, I AGREE, TOM DOWD WAS A GREAT MAN, WHO DID HIS BEST TO HELP CHI THRU THIS TOUGH PERIOD. CETERA WAS FINALY GETTING SOME CONFIDENCE IN HIS WRITING WHICH I ALWAYS ADMIRED.
You mentioned in our first interview that you weren’t too happy about “Twenty 1” mainly due to producer Ron Nevison, but aren’t you pretty proud of a song like “One From The Heart” which you wrote with Gerard McMahon? I reckon it’s one of the best songs of the album.
I LIKE THAT SONG, AND ACTUALLY EVERYTHING I’VE WRITTEN WITH GERARD.
You released your first solo album in 1975 called “Skinny Boy”. Why did you feel the need to do a solo album at the time instead of submitting the songs for the next Chicago project?
I WAS WRITING QUITE A LOT, THESE SONGS WERE DIFFERENT THAN CHI WAS DOING, I THINK. WE HAD JUST BEGUN ACCESSING THE STUDIO AT CARIBOU, AND I THOUGHT THE PURPOSE OF THAT COMPLEX WAS TO TRY TO BE AS PRODUCTIVE AS POSSIBLE. KATH UNDERSTOOD THIS. I HAD PLENTY OF SONGS FOR THE NEXT BAND ALBUM ALREADY.
Terry Kath is the only Chicago member playing on “Skinny Boy”. Why did you ask him to participate?
GULLIA GARCIA PLAYED PERCUSSION (HE WAS IN CHI BEFORE LAUDIR, VERY BRIEFLY). TERRY WAS AN ADVOCATE OF WRITING AND RECORDING ALL THE TIME. HE WAS A GREAT BASSIST, TOO. HE UNDERSTOOD MY CONCEPT FOR THE SOLO ALBUM. I THINK HE ENJOYED PLAYING WITH A DRUMMER WITH EXCELLENT TIME AND FEEL, TOO. (ROSS SALAMONE).
I really like the track “Temporary Jones” from “Skinny Boy”. According the official Chicago website you wrote this song with lyricist Bob Russell who had also worked with Duke Ellington. But as per what I have read Russell died in 1970 and “Skinny Boy” was released in 1975. Did you write the song with Russell before he passed away or were his lyrics passed on to you after his death?
I WAS ACQUAINTED WITH HIS FAMILY, AND THEY ADMIRED MY WORK, AND WERE KIND ENOUGH TO GIFT ME WITH A NUMBER OF HIS UNPLACED LYRICS.
The album “Skinny Boy” is very piano driven…more so than your more recent solo albums. How come?
MORTEN… THIS IS THE SOUND OF 70’S ROBERT LAMM! ALSO THAT STEINWAY PIANO@ CARIBOU CAME FROM THE NYC CBS STUDIOS. COUNTLESS GREAT RECORDINGS WERE MADE ON THAT PIANO, MILES, MONK, BLOOD SWEAT, DYLAN, PAUL SIMON, ETC. ETC. A FANTASTIC SOUNDING INSTRUMENT!
Was it a deliberate decision to use strings on the album “Skinny Boy” and no horns? Did you do this because you wanted to do something different to Chicago?
How come you decided to link the ballad “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” with the completely different up-tempo song “Get Away” on “Chicago 16”?
FOSTER’S IDEA. GETAWAY IS ACTUALLY THE CHORUS OF THE SONG “SACHA“ FROM MY “TOO MANY VOICES” ALBUM. I HAD SUBMITTED SACHA FOR 16.
The suites were a trend on your early albums (“Chicago” and “Chicago III”). How come you moved away from doing suites? Would you like to do suites on future Chicago albums?
CHI ALLOWED ITSELF TO BE MOVED IN TO MORE POP DIRECTION. I WOULD LOVE TO EXPLORE SUITES, BUT, AGAIN THERE IS A CULTURAL LACK OF ATTENTION SPAN.
Wasn’t it very hard and difficult to record “Hot Streets” as it was the first album after the death of Terry Kath?
Your latest album is called “The Bossa Project”. Have you always wanted to do a bossa nova album? Are you familiar with the jazz/bossa nova singer Jane Monheit? She’s very talented and even sings some of her songs in Portuguese.
YES MONHEIT IS VERY GOOD, THO’ I WOULDN’T CALL HER A BOSSA SINGER, SHE IS A JAZZ SINGER. I AM NEITHER! I PREFER THE BRAZILIANS: COSTA, MORELENBAUM, PASSOS, ETC.
You recorded a lot of classics for “The Bossa Project”. Why didn’t you write more of your own material for the album?
MAYBE NEXT TIME.
What style of music could you see yourself exploring on your next solo project?
I PLAN TO MAKE SIMPLE POP.
I saw an interview with you on the internet from 1986 where you talk about the departure of Peter Cetera and about finding a replacement. You mention that you had approached Mickey Thomas, Richard Page and Sting. How far did the talks go with these guys and did you approach other people?
NO ONE APPROACHED STING, BUT THOMAS AND PAGE WERE INTERESTED, BUT FELT THAT CHICAGO WOULD NOT LAST AS LONG AS THEIR OWN BANDS, I GUESS.
This might be a difficult and unfair question, but if you have to pick about 3-5 of your proudest moments in your career, what would they be? It could be an album, tour, specific concert, collaboration etc.
CHICAGO TRANSIT AUTHORITY
CHICAGO CARNEGIE HALL CONCERTS 1972?
CHICAGO/EARTH WIND AND FIRE TOUR 2004/05
LEAP OF FAITH, ROBERT LAMM LIVE, AUCKLAND, NZ 2004
EUROPE TOUR 2008.
You have recorded and performed in five different decades. How do you think the decades are different to each other with regard to the music business? Eg. having a video out, especially for a band like Chicago, might not be as important today as it was in the 80’s and 90’s…
THIS DESERVES A LONG, COMPLICATED DISCUSSION…LET’S PASS FOR NOW.
What are the future plans for Chicago?
Thanks a lot for taking time to answer our questions, we really appreciate it.