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Piano-pop artist David Higgins talks songwriting and touring on a budget with Chicago's Robert Lamm

Words to the Wise

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This is the latest installment in our Unlikely Encounters series, where a local musician interviews a big-name artist. You can check out the whole series at charlestoncitypaper.com/unlikely.

Growing up in the '90s, most kids my age were into grungy rock from the West Coast and modern day bubblegum pop music. At the time, it didn't do much for me — I was addicted to the older stuff: The Four Seasons, Simon and Garfunkel, Righteous Brothers, Four Tops ... I would fall asleep to "I Can Hear Music" by the Beach Boys every night for years. I also loved '80s rock and power ballads: Air Supply, Heart, Meatloaf, Journey, REO Speedwagon, and Kansas. I love the huge, 'verb-soaked drums and the ocean-wide vocals. I love how lengthy and "rule"-breaking the song formats can be. So, of course, I leapt at the opportunity to interview Robert Lamm, keys player, vocalist, writer, and one of the founding members of Chicago Transit Authority — better known as Chicago.

David Higgins: So I think, probably, your management told you a little bit about this interview. I'm not a journalist. We're a small touring band out of Charleston, S.C., and so I have questions for you from our perspective that might encourage touring bands and get some information that would help us out as we're just starting out. Just starting off, what did your early years look like? Did you have investment and support from the beginning or did you have more of a grassroots effort?

Robert Lamm: You mean my own beginning or the band's?

DH: Yeah, more so yours and then moving into the band's.

RL: Well, I was in high school in Chicago. And so at this high school, there were a few places that the students would go across the street to one of three lunch places. And for some reason, I just started talking to one guy who was a drummer, and he said "Hey man, let's try and put together a band." So actually, we did put together a band. It was two guitars — actually one of the guitarists played bass and I had a Wurlitzer electric piano and a drummer we actually started out just playing blues, playing Jimmy Reed stuff and, you know, whatever was on the radio that we could handle, musically.

DH: So it started out more as a cover band like most of us?

RL: Yeah, because that's how you learn. If you're studying classical piano, you know you start by playing Bach's little minuet pieces.

DH: Yeah, that's what I started on, as well. So when did you start writing?

RL: Well, you know during those years, I started listening mostly to Chicago radio at that time. It was very broad, and so I was listening to the jazz station. There was a very cool jazz station and there was a really good R&B station. And so, I started listening and investigating Ray Charles. This is when he was doing his music for Atlantic Records, really before he got super, super big. The first time I heard "What I Say," it completely tilted my universe. So I was very interested in that, and I noticed on those albums that he composed many of the songs as well as performed them. So that kind of opened up that idea. Then of course, when the Beatles came along, you know, everything they did after the first couple of albums was written by Lennon and McCartney. So that kind of gave me and everybody else in a rock band permission to not only have a rock band but to also attempt to write a repertoire.

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DH: Now how long would you say from when you began writing to where you had some good confidence in what you were writing? I know that was a big struggle for me, being very critical of anything early. And I'm sure a lot of it was terrible, so maybe it was justified criticism, but when did you start to believe in what you were writing? Was it crowd interaction and people singing back what you had written? What was that turning point for you?

RL: Probably when Chicago was first formed, we were playing in clubs around the Midwest, and by that time I was in college and I was hoping to be a composer. I started out basically doing arrangements for Chicago, because I had the luxury of having great horn players. But they needed something to play if we were going to play some of our own stuff, so I started out arranging "Purple Haze" and "Foxy Lady" with brass and we were playing songs from the Sgt. Pepper album. So all of that arranging gave me confidence in then finally submitting a couple of songs, which we played back then. But it really wasn't until the band had moved to California, you know, that things were moving kind of fast. We'd moved to California, and we were all writing. I was doing a lot of writing and just the fact that I was part of a group of guys that were willing to play the songs that I was writing [was great]. Some of the arrangements I was doing for the original songs, that was giving me confidence and then, of course, once we got a record deal. We went to New York to record — most of those songs on the first album, a lot of them were mine.

DH: OK, so that must've been a huge boost in confidence as well as pushing you to write more.

RL: Yes, but I have to say that insecurity has stayed with me to this very day. So you're never really sure how good something is. Might be happy with your demo, but it might not be a great song.

DH: Yeah, that's exactly another question I wanted to ask you. You obviously had some smash hits — did you know at the time? When you wrote it, did you know it was going to be great or did it surprise you?

RL: I've always been surprised, and I've never known something would be great or that people would love it. Ever.

DH: Interesting. Well back to the touring a little bit. Anything band drama-related or anybody get arrested or fight with a promoter or venue?

RL: All of that! [laughing] All of that happened. And really, you know, yeah we were a rock band but really the main attribute of the band was that we were seven guys, so that meant that we had to double up or sometimes quadruple up on hotel rooms the first years of touring. We did a year or a year-and-a-half of two station wagons and a van. You're driving around, mostly on the West Coast. But, as for war stories, there were too many to run down, and don't forget, we were emerging at the same time as student unrest and demonstrations both for anti-Vietnam War and also Civil Rights and actually got involved in voter registration in the early '70s, as well. So all that stuff definitely churned up some resentment toward us from the power structure at the time. But, you know, we survived.

DH: Why do you think — in this day and age, there's obviously a lot, politically, going on — why does it seem like there are not as many bands on that front as there were back during that time. During Vietnam, it seemed like, for a lot of popular music, that was the content. Now, do you think the industry has changed?

RL: Well, definitely the industry and record business has changed and affected the approach of young bands, I would assume. But I think there's just as much thoughtful music and lyrics, political music, and lyrics that are being generated by young bands.

DH: So maybe it's just the amount of play they get that's different?

RL: Yeah, I think just the way that we now tabulate those things is way different than people were doing in the '70s.

DH: Leading into modern music and the modern music business — streaming versus record sales and that kind of thing — what's your take on that? Obviously, it's not something that we can change at this point. That's the way that people listen to music now but, what do you think about that? Back then, you could make money on selling music. I don't really mind if someone is buying my music or streaming it or pirating it. I don't care as long as it means something to somebody, that's fine with me, but what do you think about the business now and trying to earn money in this day and age versus when you could sell a record?

RL: Well, I think the obvious answer is that it's completely different — it's completely changed and really, the best way to earn a living playing music is to actually play music more than you record music, which is really unfortunate. But I think you can't put the genie back in the bottle. I think the industry has changed; the way that we get our music has changed. In terms of having a career, which includes recording new music, I think the biggest challenge is getting music into people's ears. The delivery systems for music are so diverse and it's everywhere in the world and the music is coming from every culture in the world, virtually. Where, perhaps, there was just as much music around the world in various cultures in the '70s as there is now. It's just that now, we all have access to it, so it just seems like a very crowded field so certainly, it dilutes the sales of albums and singles. It's bound to continue to change — I don't know how. All this is very long answer to what you asked. I do think that earning a living as a recording band is not a way to think you're making a lot of money.

DH: So would you recommend then, record to get a product that you think is great and then just tour it relentlessly?

RL: That's the only way to do it. But that's not any different from the beginning. You know, Chicago recorded its first record and then we went on the road for 300 days. And we went everywhere you could go including Europe and Asia. We did have some backing from the record company, but that's the only way that that first album became popular — because so many people had seen the band play and then think, "I want to hear what their record sounds like." And, it's really the same today. Once in a while, I'll see a YouTube of some band or some artist who I've never heard of before and be very impressed, and then I go search out their music.

DH: So exposure is key, then.

RL: Yeah.

DH: Do you have time for one more question, then?

RL: OK, Great.

DH: Yeah, I just wanted to ask — early on, has your purpose in writing and touring changed at all? Recently, you were inducted into the Hall of Fame — that's probably huge for your goals. Your touring purpose, has that changed at all, early career versus now?

RL: Well, this is a band that loves to perform, loves to play. And it's turned out that there are audiences that seem to want to hear us play. So we've been very, very fortunate and something that we're all grateful for is to still have an audience that really wants to hear us play live. I think that that's something that has not changed, so we generally play somewhere around 100 concerts a year or more — and then when there's time to do some writing, you make time to do some writing or, if you're lucky, you get to go into a studio and record. For us it takes a lot of scheduling because we live spread out over the country, so we really have to schedule everything. But there's still the interest and the energy to do all that. To write songs and to record them and also tour on the road. So that's all something that we still love to do, and we're going to be doing it.

DH: Awesome. Well I'll let you go, but thank you so much for time. I appreciate the insight. Especially around Charleston, a lot of younger bands are in the early stages of touring, so I think this will be some good information for all of us.

RL: OK. Very interesting questions, very different than the normal interview, so thank you.

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