Little River Band: ‘L.A. was home to so many great bands and musicians’
19th January 2014
Interview. Wayne Nelson, leader of Little River Band, talks about his beginnings in Los Angeles in the 70’s with musicians such as Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina, the best moments of his career with Little River Band, his work with Beatles producer George Martin, and the last LRB album entitled Cuts Like a Diamond.
When did you arrive in L.A. and how was life there at the time? Was it an exciting period for a musician?
I moved to L.A. in 1978. The music business was in full explosion at that time, and you could feel it in the air. I first worked with Eloise Laws, sister to famous jazz players, Hubert and Ronnie Laws. The drummer was Andre Fisher from Rufus. We rehearsed in a studio owned by the band War. So I was immediately immersed into the music I love most… R&B.
But L.A. was home to so many great bands and musicians. Seven nights a week you could go to the Whiskey or the Troubadour to see great up and coming bands, but then get the bonus of Henley or Frey or Lukather or Browne or Ronstadt or Jarreau or Loggins sitting in to help out a friend’s band. It was not just exciting… it was magical. And I was very happy to be there to begin the next phase of my musical life.
You have toured and recorded with musicians such as Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina. What memories do you have of that time?
Working with musicians of that caliber was an eye opener, and I learned lessons that have stayed with me ever since. Both were meticulous in their approach to rehearsals, so that there was a strong foundation within their bands that they could take on stage. That base made it easier for all of us to feel the creative spirit in front of a big crowd of fans.
There are a lot of distractions when you go on stage… from equipment to weather to security to crowd reaction. Through all those distractions, a strong “baseline” for the band allows you to roll with the distractions and keep the music on course.
But I also learned when it was time to stop rehearsing and get on stage. There’s a fine line between being precise and being obsessed with perfection. Playing live isn’t about being perfect… it’s about performing with an energy that the crowd can get engaged with.
In 1980, you joined Little River Band. How did this happen?
The Messina band opened for LRB for two weeks while they were recording a live album, Backstage Pass. They wanted one band for the whole trip so that each day unfolded like clockwork… less surprises. I knew that the bass player was a fill in, but I had no idea that he was the 6th or 7th guy that had either played or recorded with the band.
Regardless, some of the LRB members watched every one of our shows, and were auditioning me without saying so out loud. They wanted a bass player that could sing and help out with the live vocals. So I was truly in the right place at the right time. At the end of the 2 week tour, they stopped me in a stairwell at the San Diego venue and asked if I would be willing to rehearse, tour, and record with them if all went well. It went pretty well!
The Time Exposure album was recorded with the legendary producer George Martin. What memories do you have of this experience?
So many to tell it would take a small book. We were all Beatles fans and anxious to hear his inside stories. But we had to make a pact early on… dinner time was the only time we could ask questions about all that history. So none of us were ever late to the dinner table!
I have very fond memories of working with George and hearing his voice on the talkback. Two moments stand out…
We had begged him to play keyboards on something, and he always deferred to the piano player that had come to Montserrat Studios with us. But one day, out of nowhere, we looked up and he had come to sit at the Wurlitzer because he was hearing a tasty little keyboard part that would fit the song. Pretty thrilling to be cutting a track with George Martin.
The other thrill for me was while we were cutting Take It Easy On Me. The song was being treated pretty much like an “album track”… we counted to 4, played, and then stopped. I thought the song was much stronger, so I suggested the arrangement idea of starting with piano and vocal, building a bit for the first chorus, then having the band enter strongly for the second verse. We rehearsed it once, and George came on the talkback to say “that’s how we’ll cut it lads… take 2.” And take 2 was the one that went on the record. It was my first major contribution to the band… to have it validated by George was an honor I’ll never forget.
Little River Band has been through several lineup changes. How did you manage to keep the band’s spirit and sound?
With good singers and players that first and foremost respect the history of what Little River Band songs have meant to people through the years. I shared the stage and sang with the founding members of the band. There was always a strong focus on the vocal blend and making sure it was featured heavily in the mix as multiple lead singers… like a horn section would be featured. But the songs were about life and not about a fad. The road is tough and this business eats people up. So people come and go in the course of 39 years. But when we had to replace someone, the vocals and the sincerity of the music had to be the main focus for anyone new coming into the band.
Originally Little River Band was an Australian band. Is this still the case?
Our Aussie ambassador on tour is Greg Hind… he’s been in the band now for 14 years and contributed greatly to the songwriting and lead singing on 7 CDs. But all the band members currently live in the US where the bulk of our success and touring is located. LRB will always have its founding roots in Australia, but constantly traveling that distance between home and it’s most prominent marketplace became problematic very early on.
Could you relate the Cuts Like a Diamond album’s conception? I’ve read that some songs came from the Nashville scene. Did you know exactly what you were looking for or things were somewhat improvised?
We were approached by an Italian label, Frontiers Records, to create a new CD… all new material, no remakes or reissues of hits. We were thrilled for the opportunity and the challenge to have new music released internationally for the first time in over 20 years. But I was also hesitant to tackle a project like that without full support from the label… creating a CD that gets put on a shelf after 2 months would do us no good whatsoever. So I reached out to the president of the label and asked him to focus on a direction that he could endorse… and to lend his ear and taste to the selection of songs so that he got what he wanted for his label. LRB has a wide variety of music in its history… from Night Owls and Lonesome Loser to Lady and Reminiscing. I needed to know what direction the label had in mind for us so they would promote and market on the world stage.
Because we’re based in Nashville, we are friends with and have direct access to the work of some great songwriters. So we reached out to them for songs, while writing over 30 from within the band for submission as well. The blend of band and outside writers is just about half and half.
The decision process started with me… as the lead singer I needed to feel comfortable with the nature of the songs, and know that I could physically do them justice. Then I left it up to Frontiers to choose the final list. There was a bit of back and forth, and we settled on 13 to track, then 11 that made the CD. It was very interesting to translate not only language, but also taste between myself and the label.
Who is coming to see the band live? Did you rejuvenate your fan base?
Our fan base is rejuvenated, but by many things. Our live show is very strong, and a lot of fun. I call it an interactive scrapbook, because so many memories are attached to our songs. So we get people singing along on their own with choruses.
But another key to our fan base is that younger and younger fans are coming to see us and being turned back on to the music they grew up with because their parents were playing it in the 70’s and 80’s. Sometimes we play to 4 generations if we’re outdoors at a festival where young people can come to the show. It’s very gratifying to see them still enjoying LRB music, and reacting strongly to our new songs too.
Is there a chance to see you live in Europe soon?
We hope so. It’s been way too long. We played at a festival in the Netherlands a few years ago, and the reaction was astounding. We were the first band out of 12, and I expected to see people drifting in as we got going. Not so… 20,000 were in place and ready to party at noon! So we’d very much like to come back and see all our friends and fans in Europe again.
What is your best memory with the Little River Band?
Again… a small book full. But I can’t ignore my first show with the band. It was my birthday in Munich at Olympic Stadium. 130,000 people on a miserable cold and rainy day. We were there with Fleetwood Mac, Nina, and Bob Marley. I had no idea how the crowd would react to our music in those weather conditions. As we took the stage, the clouds parted and the sun shone for a solid hour. It was a very wet party, but a huge party nonetheless. When we got done, it clouded back up and started raining again. Hard to forget that beginning to my time with LRB.
Is there a missed opportunity in your career that you deeply regret?
Not one of any consequence. There have been disappointments along the way because of our expectations and knowing that the band is much better and stronger than some have given us credit for over the years. But at this point, I have to look at the big picture and say that we’re doing just fine as we close in on the band’s 40th anniversary. We have a strong CD out, a full calendar of shows every year, and I look forward to every time we are blessed to step on a stage and I can be part of such a great band. I’m not sure that any other opportunity could be as rewarding as this one.