A Conversation with REO Speedwagon’s Kevin Cronin – HuffPost 7.22.11

Mike Ragogna: Ladies and gentlemen, lead vocalist of REO Speedwagon, Kevin Cronin.

Kevin Cronin: Hi Mike, how are you doing buddy?

MR: I’m doing very well. Thank you for your time today.

KC: My pleasure, man, we appreciate the support. This is a big year for us–the 30th anniversary of Hi Infidelity, so we’re celebrating and we’re happy that people are interested in it. It’s very cool.

MR: So we’re celebrating this breakthrough album, it boasted four hit singles–“Keep On Loving You,” “Take It On The Run,” “In Your Letter,” and “Don’t Let Him Go.” They all got endless airplay in the ’80s, and I hear “Keep On Loving You” to this day. So, let’s get into the history of this album.

KC: Well, you know, it was a pretty amazing year for us. When you think of it, we had made ten records, one a year in the ’70s, and just barely broke even. Every time we went into the studio, we were on the cliff of getting dropped by the label. It was never easygoing for REO Speedwagon for sure, but we’d play 200 or 250 shows a year and we drove around the country in a beat up 1972 Chevrolet station wagon just to tough it out. In 1981, with the Hi Infidelity record, I guess you could say all of our “rock ‘n’ roll” dreams came true. Somehow, the stars were lined up and it just happened for us.

MR: It had to feel great finally breaking through.

KC: You know, at the time, we kind of felt like we deserved it. We’d worked for ten years and this was our fate. Finally the rest of the world had caught up with us. But now, from my perspective–at this point I look back and I go, “My God.” The chances of that happening, to anybody, is so infinitesimally slim–that the stars would line up like that. We sold, like, 10 million records in one year. It was just crazy. We sold out Madison Square Garden–we sold out the Houston Astrodome and the New Orleans Superdome on consecutive nights. Every dream that I ever had as a kid, and then some, came true. So, it was quite eye-opening, life-changing…everything you can imagine. And then there was the other side of it too, because with that kind of extreme success come other things that no one can expect. So, it was a big year for us. I can’t help, as every month goes by this year thinking, “Wow. What was going on exactly 30 years ago now?” It was an action-packed year, to say the least.

MR: That was the beginning of the Reagan years too, I believe.

KC: Yeah, I guess so. And I don’t know what effect that had on things. At that point, that really wasn’t something I was thinking about. It was all about music, it was all about the band and just playing gigs and writing songs and working hard and just trying to spread the word that this little old band from southern Illinois had something to say. And I’ll tell you what, the years leading up to it, we were beloved–all over the Midwest especially. We were the perennial underdog and everyone was rooting for us. Everybody was like, “God! When’s REO going to finally get a hit?” Then, of course, the Hi Infidelity record comes along in 1981, and we have all these hits off it, and then everyone’s like, “Oh, REO, they sold out. They used to be this pure rock ‘n’ roll band, and now they’re making pop records.” So, you can’t win. There’s always someone who’s going to give you a hard time. But, you know, it’s all part of what you have to deal with. I don’t regret any of it, and here we are, 30 years later, on the road and playing big festivals. People still want to come and see us, and we still do it at a high level. We’re having fun.

MR: I remember that “Ridin’ The Storm Out” had airplay on virtually every FM station, not just in the Midwest. And with You Can Tune A Piano But You Can’t Tuna Fish, people in the Midwest were really rooting for you. I think everyone, including your label, knew it was just a matter of time before you really kicked in.

KC: Yeah, we were kind of knocking on the door there for a while with “Ridin’ the Storm Out” and “Roll With The Changes” and “Time For Me To Fly,” but we just couldn’t quite break through. But then Hi Infidelity came and just knocked the doors in. But I tell ya, we were really lucky that our time happened when it did, because I think in the present day climate of the music industry, there wouldn’t be a band that had ten records before they finally had a hit. Nowadays, you better hit it on your first record or you’re history. Luckily, the learning process was going on as we were making records and we just kind of honed our craft. When I look back, I realize we were fortunate in that way too, that we had so much support over those years from our fans in the Midwest and Epic Records, who stuck with us and never dropped us and kept giving us another chance even though there were a lot of people who didn’t think we deserved it.

MR: Epic Records–along with a couple of other labels A&M during that era–knew they had the talent and they just wanted you to have your hit.

KC: We were very fortunate. Looking back on it now, I realize the phenomenon that happened to us in 1981 was just amazing. There were so many things that had to be in line for that to happen. It’s wild–it’s amazing that it did happen to us. When I see a new artist who has that big time hit and all of a sudden the success starts rushing in, I always think, “Man, if they were smart, they would sit down with me and have lunch, and I’d say ‘Let me just run it by you what’s gonna happen to you. Because you’re going to go from scrapping your way up, and then all of a sudden you have this success, and then all of a sudden a lot of energy comes your way that is very different from the energy that got you there. Because the energy that gets you there is just the acoustic guitar and the pen and your writing songs, and it’s pure, and it’s all about the music, and it’s all about expressing yourself and getting your feelings out there and writing the most honest songs you can. And then, when that success hits, suddenly everybody from the record company and all the accountants and the attorneys and everyone who means well and is trying to do their job–if you’re not careful, that influence can become a bigger influence than it really should.'”

It’s so important for an artist to keep their eye on the ball at that time and really realize that it’s still about the acoustic guitar and the bic pen and the spiral notebook. All the other trappings are there and it’s great–it’s wonderful that you’re staying in nice hotels now and you’re flying in the front of the airplane and not the back of the airplane–all those little comforts that come in are all nice, they’re all great. But without that acoustic guitar, that bic pen, and that spiral notebook, nothing happens. It’s easy to get polluted when you have a huge amount of success like we did, and we succumbed to it for a while–I’ll admit it. Some of the only regrets I have in my career are some of the choices that were made in the couple years right after the Hi Infidelity record. You know, luckily, we pulled it back together, but we had a couple years there where we were a little lost. We kind of lost our focus. But now, with perspective, I get it. I see what happened, and it’ll never happen again.

MR: But even during that next period, you still had hits–“Keep The Fire Burning” and “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” for example.

KC: By the time “Can’t Fight This Feeling” came, we had righted the ship. It was just those years–1982 and 1983–where we were definitely floundering, and I knew it, man. I wrote some songs during those years that I knew were piles of poo, and people from the record company were telling me, “Oh, man–dude, that’s a #1 smash.” I’m thinking to myself, “Wait–I’m not even finished with it yet. (laughs) Don’t tell me this is a #1 hit. This is junk, this is not even a real song yet.” But people get caught up–they get caught up in the wave, and the bigger that wave gets, the harder it is to get off of it. So, we definitely made some mistakes in those years and we were influenced in ways that…looking back, I wish I would have been stronger, because no one can force you to sing. I could have just said, “Nope. Not ready yet. I’m not ready to go back in the studio yet.” And I wish I would have, I wish I would have been a little bit stronger, but I just didn’t have the awareness. I didn’t have the perspective that I do now. You know, you learn, and it’s a little embarrassing when you look back at those things. But then you go, “Hey, I guess that’s what got us where we are today, and we’re very fortunate.” I’m one of the luckiest men in the world and I don’t take that for granted, ever.

MR: Are there any stories about going in to the studio and recording Hi Infidelity that you remember most after all these years?

KC: You know, in a couple of weeks, we’re releasing this commemorative, 30-year, double CD version of Hi Infidelity, and the second disk, we call “The Crystal Demos.” Basically, what happened was we went into this little funky Hollywood studio called Crystal Recording and we were just going to spend three days in there making demos of the songs we had written and rehearsed. The plan was to listen to the demos for about a week or so, and then make the changes to the songs and then go in and record the real record. What happened was, I had this cassette in my car and I drove around listening to it for a week, and just fell in love with it. There was some kind of special magic that happened in that studio and during those sessions that was just undeniable. As it turned out, probably about fifty percent of the performances on the Hi Infidelity record were from that demo tape. But no one knew at that point what was going to happen, and as soon as we went into the studio, I lost the tape. I couldn’t find it.

Of course, after the phenomenon of Hi Infidelity, it was like, “Where’s that demo? We all want to hear that demo,” and no one could find it. There was an epic search of the vaults in New York and Los Angeles and there was no sign of it anywhere. So, we kind of gave up on it, and it was lost for about 28 years. Then about a year and a half ago, our manager was cleaning out his garage and found some boxes that were marked “1980.” They were full of outtakes from a Norman Seeff photo session, and he goes, “You wanna check these out, see if anything is in there?” I was like, “Yeah, sure.”

So I’m looking through these photographs, and sure enough, I find this little tape box–“Crystal Studios, June 1980”–and I’m like, “Dude, it’s the holy grail of REO Speedwagon. I’ve been waiting to hear these demos ever since.” So basically, the second disc of the package is those demos. What it is is a garage band version of the Hi Infidelity record–just two guitars, bass, and drums. No background vocals, no sweetening, no keyboards, just the raw version of all the songs on the record. So, for anyone who’s into that type of thing–hearing the evolution of those songs–it’s a pretty special little piece. I’m just glad we found it, because it was lost for years. Now, everybody can have a chance to hear what the record sounds like in it’s really raw state. It’s a lot of fun to listen to.

MR: Kevin, your first record with REO was R.E.O./T.W.O., can you give a quick rundown on how you joined the band?

KC: Well, it was pure luck. It’s a story that I like to share because there are an awful lot of people who are probably in the position that I was in right before I joined the band. I was writing songs, and I felt like I had something going on, but I didn’t know where to go with it. I’d heard about the Musicians Contact Service in Los Angeles, so I thought, “Well, alright. I’m gonna start the Musicians Referral Service in Chicago.” I figured it would be a way that I could find the best musicians to hopefully put a band together myself, and also so I could help people. It was kind of like a dating service for musicians, to help put bands together. So, I went down to my dad’s office and wrote up some fliers and hung them in music stores all over Chicago, and after about a month of my phone ringing off the hook, I realized that it wasn’t going to work because people would just call up and hype themselves up: “Oh, this guy’s the greatest drummer in the world,” you know. I had no way of knowing who was real and who was just hyping me. So, after about a month, I was just burnt out on it.

I got a call one day, and it was the typical thing–“Oh yeah, our band is looking for a lead singer and rhythm guitar player. We have a record deal with Epic Records, and we released our first album,” and all this hype. I’m sitting there going, “Yeah, right. This is another hype job I’m getting.” I’m like, “So, what’s the name of the band?” The guy on the other end of the phone is like, “I can’t tell you the name of the band because we don’t want our singer to hear about it,” and I’m like, “Dude, if you can’t tell me the name of the band, I’m sorry. I really can’t help you.” He said, “All right. The name of the band is REO Speedwagon,” and I’m like, “Wait, I’ve heard of those guys. You know what? I think I might have the guy just for you. I got a guy who plays rhythm guitar, sings, is a songwriter…he’s at the top of my roster here. I’ll introduce you to him.” Of course, I was talking about myself. So, I basically recommended myself very highly for the job and ended up getting it. (laughs)

MR: That’s a great story. While we’re here, what advice do you have for new artists?

KC: Well, for a new artist–that’s a little bit different. For a new artist, the biggest advice I could give you is by sharing this story that I have. When I was a young songwriter, the publishing company I was working with in Nashville got me a meeting with Clive Davis. At the time, Clive Davis had just started his new record label, which became Arista Records, and Clive…he was it. He had signed Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He was the god of music. Just to get a meeting with him was unbelievable, I could not believe my good fortune. So, I went in with my little demo tape and Clive put it on and kind of listened through it, and after about ten or fifteen minutes of listening to songs, he just said, “You know, I’m sorry. I just don’t think you’re ready yet. These songs are just not what I’m looking for. Good luck, but I’m really not interested. I’m going to have to pass on you.”

You would think that that would be something that would just crush your spirit. You know, my hopes were so high and I’m getting to meet Clive Davis, and then I get shot down like that. But my attitude was…I swear to God, when I walked out of his office, my thought was that there was something wrong with his tape recorder, that the demo didn’t sound as good as it should’ve. (laughs) And in a nutshell, that’s my advice. You have to believe in what you’re doing so strongly that no matter what anyone else says, you can’t be discouraged, because you’re going to be turned down by 99 people, and that 100th person might be the one who gets it. You just have to keep plugging, and you have to just have such an undying belief in what you’re doing that no matter what anyone says, you just keep plugging.

And you see that in our music. I mean, that’s kind of what REO Speedwagon is all about. We’re not the greatest musicians in the world, we’re not the flashiest dressers in the world…we’re kind of, you know, just your average guys who live in the neighborhood. But we’ve got something, and we feel like it’s something that people can relate to and that people react to. People have been reacting to my songs ever since I was twelve years old, and so I don’t care if Clive Davis doesn’t get it or not. It’s, like, I’m not going stop, and that’s my advice for young artists–don’t let yourself be thrown off track by other people’s opinions. You’ve just got to believe.

MR: Kevin, you might say that your advice is “Keep On Loving What You Do.”

KC: (laughs) Yeah.

MR: Kevin, there’s so much more I’d love to talk with you about, but I really appreciate your time and especially sharing the story behind Hi Fidelity. All the best in the future, sir.

KC: Well, thank you. It’s really nice to talk to you, you’re a good interviewer. It makes it easy for me when someone knows what they’re doing. Anytime you want to do a follow up thing, just let me know. I’d be happy to talk to you again.

MR: (laughs) No, you’re a good interviewee, but thanks Kevin.

KC: Give my best to Arianna–I am a fan. I’m a Bill Maher kind of guy–I was actually onPolitically Incorrect once, which is my claim to fame, but I really do like Arianna. I think she’s got the right outlook on things. I’m happy for her success as well.

MR: Kevin, that’s a whole ‘nother interview for you, isn’t it, a political one. That’s great. We have to do this again, thanks man.

KC: I would love that. We will certainly talk again. Thank you.

Transcribed by Claire Wellin

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