Interview with John P Strohm
By Roo Simpson
What are you up to at the moment? How are things going with the new album?
At the moment I'm eating barbecue, but I'm guessing your question is intented to capture a bit more than that. My life is pretty mundane; I go entire weeks without picking up a guitar. I'm a lawyer with a big firm, and my wife and I have two small children at home (Anna is three, Bennett is nearly one). The vast majority of my time is taken up either lawyering or parenting, both of which I enjoy.
I've been working on an album for four years, and it's about 90% finished. I'm actually expecting the first four mixes this week (my friend and longtime collaborator Ed Ackerson from Polara is mixing in Minneapolis without my being present -- I wouldn't trust anyone else to mix without my being there). I have a good feeling about the album; the songs are my best efforts and the playing is fantastic. The band The Silos backed me up, which is an honor for me. I imagine they are pretty unknown in the U.K.; however, they are a bit of a cult band here.
I hope to do some limited touring behind the album when it finally comes out (hopefully next spring), but I doubt if I'll get overseas. My only hope there is that a label will license the album for European distribution.
Can you tell us a bit about your involvement as a lawyer in helping up and coming bands?
I'm only in my second year of law practice, so it's really just developing. At my firm I do general transactional work for corporate clients, and that takes up about 80% of my time. Beyond that, I have a great deal of support from the firm for bringing in musician clients, which I've been doing more and more. I feel very blessed, because some very talented musicians have actually sought me out to help them with their careers. I have to turn away many of them because I generally don't have time to "shop" for deals (as many music lawyers do); however, I've negotiated a number of deals for clients who have sought me out with a contract in hand or have been referred by music business acquaintences. It's really exciting for me to see it all come together.
Of the bands you've encountered through your work, are there any you'd especially like to recommend for us to check out?
I wish I could name names, because I have some wonderful clients, but the rules of ethics for attorneys in the U.S. prohibit me from revealing anything about the representation. They can talk about me, but I can't talk about them in specifics. I've had the good fortune of working only with artists that I actually personally like. I'll probably eventually have to take on clients that I wouldn't voluntarily listen to, but that's a bridge I've yet to cross. It will always be to allow me (financially) to help the artists that I am personally passionate about.
During your musical career, you've been both a drummer and a guitarist - which instrument came first in your life? Do you have a preference?
I started on drums. I played in a series of regionally successful hardcore bands as a teenager (in the midwest). I also played in school bands, did blues jams at local bars, basically anything I could do. I was regarded as a good drummer around Bloomington, Indiana (my hometown), but by age 17 I'd discovered the guitar and there was no turning back. I gave my drum set to Freda Love, who was my girlfriend at the time. She was all too happy to play drums for whatever band I started. That's really the start of the Blake Babies. I picked it back up when Evan staged a coup to get me in the Lemonheads back in 1987.
Of the bands you've played with over the years, including Velo Deluxe, Blake Babies and Lemonheads, which did you most enjoy?
I enjoyed different bands for different reasons. I loved playing in the Lemonheads during all phases, except maybe the last phase ('96-97). I was really close with Ben, Evan and Jesse and we just had such a great time on the road. I also loved playing with Evan, Nic and Dave. By the time I joined their lineup they were all getting burned out, but I enjoyed getting a peek at what it's like to be in a really big group.
The Blake Babies was never fun, but I had such a large stake in the creative aspect of the band I took pleasure in our successes. Juliana and I didn't really get along most of the time, and Freda and I had a disfunctional relationship. It was really just one drama after another.
All of the later groups were looser, with members coming and going. These days I just like to play with good players. I've had my share of road experience (probably six or seven years end to end), so I enjoy the freedom to play with a variety of good musicians.
How did recording as a solo artist compare to being part of a band? Which do you prefer?
There are two roles that I enjoy: playing in someone's group (such as the Lemonheads, where Evan clearly runs the show), or leading a group (such as everything I've done since Velo Deluxe). Anything in the middle is problematic. It's best when there is a strong leader calling the shots. I can easily take a backseat or take the lead, but I want it to be clearly defined. That was the problem with both the Blakes and Antenna: more than one person leading a disfunctional group. Think of the Beatles as the ultimate example. You had three brilliant songwriters trying to make the necessary compromises to make the band work. I'm not comparing our talent with the Beatles, but you get the idea. If you can't communicate well, then problems just fester. That was the Blakes.
Of the records you've recorded both on your own and with bands, which are you the most proud of?
I'm proud of the Blake Babies catalogue, but I can't listen to any of it (except "God Bless"). My favorite album I've done, which I think is really my best work as a writer, singer and producer/arranger, is Vestavia, my most recent solo album. I've recently made it available for free download at www.musicalfamilytree.com.
I was intrigued by the comment in your myspace page stating: "I also had a Black Sabbath cover band called the Hatin' Spores with Evan Dando and Ben Deily", would you care to tell us more about this one?
I was being goofy when I wrote that, but it's really true. Evan and Ben and I were very close in those days, and we used to hang out together all day every day playing at Ben's parents' house in Cambridge. We were all about 20 years old, and none of us had jobs or school or anything else to do. We learned dozens of Black Sabbath songs and played one gig as the Hatin' Spores at Vassar College. I think we opened for the Meat Puppets. People were a little perplexed and thought we should at least play a couple of Lemonheads songs (since we were 3/4 of the Lemonheads at that time), but we stuck to it. I'd like to hear a tape, but I remember it being very good. Evan does a great Ozzy.
We played another gig as the Hatin' Spores at the Middle East Cafe in Cambridge, this time with me on guitar and Evan on drums. That was free improv -- sort of like Kraut rock meets Sister Ray. Really sick stuff. Shortly after that Evan quit the Lemonheads to join the Blake Babies. He was really looking for something more musically diverse than early Lemonheads. He got it going again when Luka was a minor hit in Europe, and by that time the Blake Babies were starting to happen, so I didn't go back to the Lemonheads. The girls in the Blakes used to give me such a hard time for being in both bands, like I was cheating on them or something!
How did you meet and come to form a band with Juliana Hatfield and Freda Love?
As I mentioned (I think), Freda was my girlfriend in high school in Bloomington, Indiana, and she followed me to Boston when I was a student at Berklee College of Music (studying audio engineering). Freda and I became interested in Juliana, who was also a student, because she just had this air of cool about her. There were so many people at Berklee who were trying so hard to be pop stars, but she seemed above it. Turned out it was mostly that she was shy.
One night in early 1986 Freda and I had been drinking at a bar (using our fake IDs -- we were only eighteen), and we decided we would meet Juliana. We sat in the lobby at Berklee until she strolled through -- with a pineapple and a King Crimson album of all things (turned out she'd been to a gig with her cover band -- the pineapple was from the catering and the K.C. album included a song her inappropriate band wanted her to learn). We followed her up to her room and knocked on the door and Freda said "wanna start a band?" We went back for Freda's and my apartment and learned about half our set that night. We all shared a love of R.E.M., the Replacements, Husker Du, The Violent Femmes, and X.
Could you tell us a bit about your years with the Blake Babies? Any especially fond (or not so fond) memories of that time?
The first year was amazing. We got so much attention so fast; it far exceeded our expectations. Things became complex when the band became semi-successful. It's always hard to have more than one writer in a band, and that band was no exception. I'd been the de facto leader early on because I was the only one with any real experience or proficiency on my instrument. Later Juliana took on a leadership role but doesn't have very good leadership skills. Things became awkward.
I think, however, that certain business people pushed us to break up in order to jump start Juliana's solo career. In retrospect I wish we'd had a chance to make one or two more albums, because I think they would've been better than the albums we made apart. The Blake Babies had rare chemistry, which is something you don't appreciate when you're in the middle of it.
Are you still in touch with your fellow Blake Babies members?
Yes, I speak to Freda once every week or so. We remain close friends. I don't see Juliana very much, but we're still friends at least in concept. I still admire her work very much.
Do you think the Blake Babies may ever record or tour together again?
We decided when we made God Bless that it would be a true one-off: one album, one tour. I think we'll stick to that. I don't have time to do much music these days, and when I do I like to do my own projects. It's not at all about the money these days, so I like to have as much fun with it as possible. Whatever else it is, Blake Babies isn't all that much fun to do.
How do you feel about the other Blake Babies offshoot projects, such as Juliana's solo work and Some Girls?
As I mentioned, I admire what Juliana does, although I'd like to see her step outside of her comfort zone occasionally. I guess Some Girls kind of did that, with Freda contributing songs and everything, but I'd really like to see Juliana work with some producers or musicians who would cause her to approach her music a little differently to bring out different sides. He talent is immense but I'm not sure it's been fully revealed in her collective work.
I love what Freda and Jake do in the Mysteries of Life. I really hope they continue to release music despite their busy lives. Freda is emerging after all these years as a wonderful songwriter.
Lemonheads and Blake Babies came up through the Boston scene at around the same time, and obviously a couple of Blake Babies have also been Lemonheads at one time or another - how close is the bond between the two bands?
Very close, kind of like the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre (joke). We were very good friends, shared members quite often, and lived and worked together in the late 1990s. We all attended one another's shows and often shared bills. We really were all best friends -- up until Evan joined the Blake Babies and things got a little weird. Once his record took off in Europe he split from the Blakes and caused some resentment from certain members.
How did you first meet and begin working with Evan Dando and how did your joining the band come about?
We met when the Lemonheads first came to see the Blake Babies -- at our second show. Evan and I became very close friends and we remain as such to this day -- even though we only see each other a few times a year. Evan brought me into the band because he didn't much care for Doug, the drummer on HYF, and he really wanted another pal in the band. I got along so well with all those guys. I love Ben Deily like a brother. I had so much in common with those guys, even though our backgrounds were a little different. We were so close we practically had our own language.
What brought you back to the Lemonheads around 1997 after several years out of the band?
I re-joined in late 1993 as touring guitarist, with Nic and Dave. I think they were getting bored and wanted some new life in the whole thing. Evan knew I would be fun to have along, and the fact that I played good guitar was a bonus. I really believe that! Those guys were pretty burned out, but I had the time of my life until eventually I got burned out as well. Playing Reading and Glastonbury with those guys was a peak experience (summer of '94).
The 1996-97 lineup with Murph and Bill Gibson (and later Kenny Lyon) was more problematic. Things had become a bit disfunctional, and the year of touring was a bit depressing. I had some good times, but by then I was ready to be home and think about having a family. Being on tour didn't offer that much to me anymore. I still felt very close to Evan as a friend, but I could see he needed to step back from it and re-think his direction as well.
Would you consider playing with Lemonheads again in the future, now that Evan has resurrected the name?
I just don't have time. And I haven't been asked! I think Evan understands that I have my kids now and my career, which combined take up all of my time. I'd love to get up onstage with Evan and do a couple shows, but re-joining the band is just not an option. That said, I'm very happy he's doing it, and the tracks I've heard that he did with Bill Stevenson are just tremendous.
What did you think of Baby I'm Bored?
I heard that album in all it's stages of progress, and it was great to finally hear it all in sequence. I loved the stuff he did with Calexico, and I was glad that made it on the record. I'm also a big fan of Jon Brion. I heard a number of those songs come together in the writing stage.
My one disappointment was that Evan didn't write all the songs. Evan's greatest talent is as a writer, and I wish he would write more songs! I hope he takes the time to write every damn note of the forthcoming Lemonheads. All due respect to Tom Morgan, Ben Lee, and all his other collaborators -- I think they'd all admit that Evan's got them all beat for sheer talent.
We have recently released a tribute CD of Lemonheads songs - if you were going to contribute a cover version of any song from the Lemonheads back catalogue, which would you choose and why?
I think I'd do "Half the Time" -- it's an amazing song that suffers from some half-assed production on Lovey. Same with "Ride With Me." I'd also enjoy doing "Don't Tell Yourself."
John's album Vestavia as well as some mixes of songs from the new album he's working on are available to download from musicalfamilytree.com
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