A Conversation with Kasim Sulton – HuffPost 10.31.14

Mike Ragogna: Kasim, “Clocks All Stopped” from your new album 3 sounds like this group called Utopia that featured Todd Rundgren, Roger Powell, this guy Kasim…oh, hold on…

Kasim Sulton: I often get confused with the other guy named Kasim Sulton…oh, wait…there IS no other guy named Kasim Sulton!

MR: Yeah, I deserved that. So. You still like those guys?

KS: “Like” isn’t the best way to describe my feelings towards Todd, Roger and Willie [John “Willie” Wilcox]. “Owe my career to” is more appropriate. Yes, I still like them. Very much. They gave me my first real break. Took a chance on a greenhorn. Its certainly paid off for me.

MR: Okay, enough about them, onward with 3. “Fell In Love For The Last Time”‘s subject matter seems so serious yet the recording feels so delirious. So which is it? And was that infectious classic rock approach meant to signal something about the direction of the album?

KS: I think it’s serilerious? Tossing lyrical ideas around and someone says, “Imagine you see someone and you just KNOW you could fall in love with them.” Then someone else says, “Right, like you found the love of your life and you’ll never have to fall in love again!” Then another guy says, “You just Fell In Love For The Last Time!” Oddly enough, thats exactly the way it happened. Myself, Phil Thornalley and Jon Green started the song just like that. I like the big, bold tracks. A huge chorus. Lots of bells and whistles. Also, singing, “Wo-oh-oh,” in a chorus is so much easier than having to write words. I don’t think the song signals a direction so much as it serves as a request for your attention.

MR: So did you fall in love for the last time because of the events of “Fade Away” in which you kind of blow a relationship to pieces–shreds I tell you–but then you somehow get another chance?

KS: Actually, it was the other way round. Had it made, screwed it up–shredded it I tell you–and somehow got it back. The proverbial second last chance. There is rarely, if ever, a third.

MR: Okay, no more softballs, Mr. Sulton! Prepare thee! “The Traveler” deals–I think–with your being a hired hand for studios and tours. What is your favorite experience as a sideman and what is your least favorite, you know, naming names and revealing all the dirt…every last speck! Leave nothing out. Or, you know, just reflect a little about being a sideman.

KS: Never really liked the “sideman” moniker, although I guess thats a good description. People can make that the best job in the world or…the worst. Some people make you feel indispensable and some make you feel superfluous. I have been yelled at by the most talentless creatures to ever hold a microphone and praised by the most successful players around. Names? If you promise to cover my legal fees we can discuss it further. Often, these days when I’m asked by someone unfamiliar with me what I do for a living, I reply “I travel.” Because when you really boil it down, I’ll travel 30 hours in any given week to work for two hours. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE what I do and am blessed to have a career that spans three decades but…the traveling can be tedious. Yes, “The Traveler” is entirely about my feelings on that subject.

MR: “Watching The World Go By” kind of deals with similar subject matter to “The Traveler” although it seems more reflective. Do you believe that might have been the case? Do you feel that work kept you from having a fuller life and might it be possible it was also the other perspective, that music gave you a full life?

KS: Ah…regrets. Hard not to have at least a few during the course of one’s life. I’ve missed some important things over the years. Weddings, Father/Daughter dances, graduations and the like. But as Vito Corleone said, “This is the business we have chosen.” Having said all that, I have lived an extremely full life–SO FAR. Been around the world a few times. Celebrated my 21st birthday while on tour in Japan. Have performed in front of, oh I’d guess no less than a few million people over the years. Recorded and played on over 130 records, one of them the third biggest selling record in the history of recorded music. So I think I’ve led a pretty interesting life. “Watching The World Go By” is somewhat reflective. It’s just the difference between waking up and being utterly overwhelmed by the day to day stuff and the days you wake up and think, things will ultimately be ok.

MR: During your years with Todd and the Utopia gang, you all grew at your craft. As a musician, what was your role in the band and what contributions would you say you made to it?

KS: When I joined Utopia, it was still somewhat of a prog-rock jam band. Long extended songs, solo after solo, time changes, key changes. I came from a different background. More pop oriented. I like to think I had something to do with the direction the band took after I signed on. Both Roger Powell and Willie Wilcox (keyboards and drums respectively) came from the Jazz and Fusion world while Todd Rundgren was not only a brilliant musician, songwriter and producer, his river had more branches than all of us put together. I think I brought a flavor to the band that ultimately led to more accessible music. Songs and styles that appealed to a much broader audience. Maybe closer to the work Todd did as a solo artist. That’s not to say the band would have remained in one specific genre had I not been there, just that my contribution[s] tended to lean more towards the three and a half minute pop song.

MR: For the three people on the planet who still don’t know–see what I did there–how did you and Todd meet and how did Utopia form?

KS: Utopia was formed well before I came on board. Early ’70s I believe. The original line up was Todd, Tony Sales and Hunt Sales. I just saw a picture of them at a show in which they were all wearing something that looked like welder masks. Can you say…Daft Punk? After that was the big band. Todd, Moogy Klingman (Piano), Kevin Ellman (Drums), John Siegler (Bass), Jean Eves LaBatt (Synthesizer), Ralph Schukett (Organ), Roger Powell (Keyboards) and Willie Wilcox (Drums). Then it was scaled down to a four piece, Todd, Roger,Willie and John Siegler. I replaced John Siegler who went off to find fame and fortune writing Pokeman music. In 1976, I was playing piano with NYC winger/poetress, Cherry Vanilla. She traveled in some pretty eclectic circles and knew everyone in the NYC music scene. She introduced me to Michael Kaman who was a friend of Roger Powell. So when John Siegler left the band, Roger called Michael to see if he might have any recommendations for a replacement. I heard about it through a friend and called Michael. He called Roger and the next day, I borrowed 20 dollars from my uncle and took an Adirondack Trailways bus up to Woodstock where the band was based. Todd was mopeding across India at the time but was due back in a day. I did some playing with Roger and Willie. We went over the material that Todd would probably want to try with me. Then Todd came home. He wasn’t very warm and fuzzy to me. He didn’t think I was the right choice because I simply had no experience touring or recording with a national act. Roger and Willie insisted he give me a chance. Todd relented and, I proved my worth within a few months. I will say that he didn’t make that first year easy for me. He didn’t start saying “hello” to me until 1977.

MR: When you work on solo projects, what’s the method like? I’m imagining it’s a different creative process than when you’re working with others.

KS: I tend to work very slowly. I like taking my time and exploring options before I commit to any idea. Jim Steinman once told me, “A decision means the end of all possibilities.” While I believe there is a saturation point, a place of diminishing return, I look at the writing/recording process much like sculpting. Take a little off. Put a little on. Step back and look and then fine tune. When I’m co-writing, things tend to go much faster. Songs get written quicker because the ideas are coming from more than one person. It’s also easier not to get stuck trying to find the right chord change, melody or lyric.

MR: Have you yet figured out what makes you creative and if you did, can you sell me the formu…no, can you tell us what it is?

KS: I guess it’s the same thing that makes someone want to be a good doctor or a good teacher. I think we’re all born with some innate ability to be good at some specific thing in life. I knew I was going to be a musician at a very early age. My passion for it allowed me to concentrate on making it up the ladder rung by rung–still climbing by the way. There’s no need to try and capture that creativeness because we all possess it in one form or another.

MR: On 3, what’s the most daring step you took creatively? What was the most surprising result of all the recordings? Do you think the process has satisfied you enough so that you’ll be moving on to becoming a roofer or politician?

KS: I didn’t compromise. I didn’t settle. I wasn’t done with any aspect of the record until I was completely satisfied. I asked the other musicians who played on the record to redo things that in the past, I might have said thanks and moved on. On this record, if I thought something like a guitar part, or a bass part, a lead vocal, a background vocal part wasn’t exactly the way I wanted it, I kept working until it was right. I do have a roof on my house but I’d never try fixing it. I’m also into this thing called honesty these days so that kind of rules out being a politician.

MR: Considering your awesome career, what advice do you have for new artists and come on, let it rip, none of these two or three baby sentence answers. Young musicians need this stuff!

KS: Look, if you think you’d like to try your hand at making a career in music, go for it. Making a living by being an artist is probably one of the hardest things to do. Music, like most art, is subjective. Where one person sees brilliance, another might see complete dreck. I know that I like what I create, otherwise why bother? So it’s just a matter of finding like minded people and getting them to pony up their time, belief and money. Confidence is a must have trait. Stick-to-it-ivness is indispensable. Yet, at the same time, you need to be honest enough with yourself to know when it’s time to stop banging your head against a wall. Just don’t pull a ‘Kardashian’ and think you’re gonna be famous for doing nothing.

MR: After touring with Meat Loaf, did it become obvious that “Objects In The Rear View Mirror…” is the best song of his career? Which reminds me, what is your favorite song you ever created…might it be, I don’t know, “Fade Away”?

KS: I’m afraid I’m going to have to respectfully disagree. It’s a very god song but certainly, in my opinion, not one of his best. If you’d had said “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” or “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad” or “I Would Do Anything For Love …” I might agree. Any song that can span a generation is, in my opinion, a great song. Couples still have their wedding band play “Paradise…” so they can act it out on the dance floor at the reception dinner. I’m not sure I have any one favorite song that I’ve written. They are all special to me in one way or another. Some because of the chord changes, some for the lyric and some because, well…I just think it’s a good song. “Fade Away” was the last song written and recorded on 3. I wasn’t even sure I was going to include it because it was taking so long to finish. I was already about two and a half years past my self imposed deadline. I’m glad I persisted. It’s a really good and meaningful song. One of my all time favorites is “Set me Free” from Utopia’sAdventures In Utopia record. It was the single from that record and the only Utopia song to reach Billboards Top 20. I wrote and sang that one.

MR: That’s my favorite Utopia album, Adventures In Utopia. Love every song on that. Hey last question. Why are you such a freakin’ awesome musician?

KS: Probably the same reason you’re such an awesome journalist. Seriously, the questions you asked were really good. I’ve had to answer some truly inane questions over the years. Also, you didn’t ask me what my favorite color is.

MR: It’s green, everyone knows that, duh. Okay, last last question. What does the future look like for your music and your personal life?

KS: You mean second last question? I’m in a great place both musically and personally. It’s been an interesting journey. Life has thrown me a bunch of curve balls over the years. Some I’ve dodged, some hit me smack in the head. However, I’m still here and I’ve just made the best record of my life. I’m gonna keep making music as long as there are people that want to hear it…I’d probably do it even if it’s only to please myself. I love what I do and I get a tremendous amount of joy from it. You know that saying, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” It really is true.

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