Don’t Be Afraid: A Conversation With Chris Stills
Mike Ragogna: Okay, before we talk about your new album Don’t Be Afraid, did you ever find your f**king cell phone?
Chris Stills: [laughs] Yes. I found it. I’ve found it many times, in many situations, sometimes where it was returned, sometimes I took it back, sometimes it was found broken, sometimes intact. The Uber guy, the bartender guy, the restaurateur…usually the bartender. Sometimes you get to meet some interesting people who bring you back your cell phone. It’s great. Great way to meet girls.
MR: So everybody’s in on that joke, that’s your plight at the end of “The Weekend,” as in your somewhat “lost weekend.” Chris, you’re an actor and a singer, yeah yeah, but what are you looking for in all of this?
CS: There’s a song that says, “Looking for love in all the wrong places,” but I think for me, those are all the right places. All those different things are things that I really love. I love acting, it was my first “calling,” if you will, as a kid. Then somewhere along the line before I had any auditions or any semblance of an iota of a career, I discovered the guitar and that changed everything. But I love art, I love creating, I love performing. Obviously, I love playing and I love the stage.
MR: Ultimately, what you’re saying in Don’t Be Afraid is aimed at yourself, right?
CS: Yeah, very much so. The song, “Don’t Be Afraid,” for example. I’ve spent a great deal of my life living in situations where things can be scary. I’ve had my fair share of trials and tribulations, and in the end, I’ve realized that you can go through all that stuff and what usually happens is you’re going to be okay. If in the end you’re not okay, it’s not the end. That moment, when it hits you, your heart is troubling you. It’s like a little kid crying in the corner, so you go and make sure it’s okay and say, “Hey, keep on keeping on. See it through and you’re going to be okay.” As far as my career and applying it to that, I just say, “Yeah, I’m not afraid to do anything.” I love a challenge and I love the arts and anything to do with that. I can use that to touch people and it’s by means of trying to make the world a better place and by means of self-therapy at the same time.
MR: I’m also a fan of Chris Isaak, and starting out the album with “This Summer Love,” you kind of capture the same feeling that he did on his album San Francisco Nights. “This Summer Love” reveals a sensitivity to and knowledge of where great pop songs come from. Do you feel you have a handle on what goes into a good song?
CS: I leave that to you to judge, but I’d like to think so. I like an underlying message of hope. When you’ve traveled so much like me and met so many different people across the world and seen different cultures, there is a thread of humanity that exists, that is very real, and that problems on one side of the pond are very much not unlike the problems on the other. There’s always a greater theme in life that is universal and I try and find those themes that reach the most people possible with those undeniable truths. You can write about yourself, “I’m gonna buy a new car and drive down to the record store and buy my favorite records,” which is also very universal in itself, but then there are greater themes like love and pain and adventure. We’re all looking for answers. We’re all going through this life. We’re all on the same tiny blue dot in the middle of blackness in the middle of nowhere. I’m a big believer in humanity; we’re not black or white or democrat or republican or gay or straight, we’re all human beings. We’re all doing the same stuff. We all share the same thing. Music is the great unifier in that. That’s what I love, to tell a story with music. I try to keep it universal.
MR: Do you feel like you have this perspective because you’ve been afforded the opportunities of being multi-cultural and traveling the world?
CS: Yeah, I’m very lucky. I’m a very grateful person for my life. I have a beautiful family and I’ve had many chances that many people haven’t had. I am fascinated. Case in point, I feel very sad because [the other] night, I was up and got the newsflash that Anthony Bourdain died. I could relate to him in so many ways because my life comprised a little bit of what he did on his show. We would go out on tour in different places meeting new people and eating crazy good food and discovering cultures. All it does is make bridges between you and that culture and that food. What it does to the soul is it opens it up and you become a much more aware and mindful person of your surroundings and the world around you at large. I think, in that sense, I’ve been really fortunate. If you’re on a movie set, there’s a different vibe there, but it’s the same; there are people working hard to make the best art that they can. Or it’s a chef in the south of France who’s got the greatest little tiny restaurant that he runs with his wife and they spend six months of the year in Asia and then they come here and make a killing over the summer. To know that exists, it opens up your eyes to life.
MR: So…Don’t Be Afraid?
CS: I laugh but these days, I should have called the record Be Afraid.
MR: Be Very Afraid!
CS: Run! Run For The Hills!!
MR: Hey, I would like to get to that concept, too. For someone who’s as open and embracing of all cultures and people and their cultural attributes, these must be hard times for you to live through.
CS: Oh, never in my life until last year have I ever been ashamed of my country. As someone who sees himself as open as you said, I believe it’s important to be able to “talk across the aisle,” and we have a lot of work to do. If anything is going to come out of this that’s good, we need to pull up and look under the rock that is this country, because underneath the rock are some critters that needed handling. Racism is alive and well in this country. Bigotry is alive and well in this country. Misogyny is alive and well in this country. We’ve been having to face these truths. We have a moment of reckoning with our country. We have a president who’s now gone and alienated us from all of our allies. This is a dog whistle and it’s a message. When you have those important people acting and taking actions like that, it does reverberate and send a message, and that message is not a good one. It’s a scary one. I just hope that we can get through it. But yeah, don’t be afraid, keep on going, this is a murmur in the heart of our long history and long future. We’ll look back on this and go, “Yes, we learned a lot of lessons from that,” but I’d like to believe that when all of this is over, we will do better and we will learn. I have to maintain hope that there are good people who are going to come and fix this. We will change course back to a better one that serves the planet, that serves the people, and that serves the world. I just have to believe that. But right now, I’m kind of like everybody else, gritting my teeth and scratching my forehead, waiting for this to pass. And on another side, I’m going to vote. I’m trying to vote for the right people in office. These times are very important to maintain self-integrity. Stick to your guns and stay true to what you believe in, but at the same time, somebody who is smart is able to hold two opposing ideas in their mind at the same time. We’re unfortunately at a place where that’s becoming more and more difficult for people. I feel like the Trump lovers hate the others and the others hate the Trumps. We have to be able to bridge that gap. As you travel the world, you’re able to see these cultures. I wish that we could do a program and raise a bunch of money to send a lot of middle America and that base for Trump on a trip around the world so they could see what it’s actually about and this isolation that’s happening right now could be thwarted and understood to not be a good thing.
MR: The last time we had a dark period, coming out of the fifties and into the sixties, there was a curiosity from people of all financial brackets about what the world really was like. Look at Frank Sinatra’s Come Fly With Me album with its TWA cover. Americans traveling the world with money and cameras, working hard so their vacations could be spent abroad. There was international education, outreach. I guess now we have the internet where you can theoretically “learn” about a country and its language and customs in a second through audio and video.
CS: You’re not going to learn French just by taking Berlitz. You’ve got to go there and immerse yourself. You really do. You have to go to Paris and London and Germany and Italy and Spain and get a sense of how old the world actually is. We’re young. This country is a baby comparatively and we have some learning to do with that. That creates and opens up a playing field that people just don’t know about, unless you actually go and do that. To get back to what you were saying, the fifties and sixties had that time of prosperity where the middle class was happening and then the sixties came along and it took a turn. We had some things we had to deal with and we did, but not completely. There was that movie with Tom Hanks, Charlie Wilson’s War. The third act of that story was heartbreaking because we had this great success but then when he asked for even the littlest of money for the followup, for the educating of that country to bring them schools and to rebuild, instead, they left them. They just took off. “Yeah, we beat the Russians! We’re out of here!” It’s like, “Yeah, but we devastated the country, buddy. We’ve got to help fix it.” We have this unbelievable ability to not follow through completely on these promises. If you go back to the sixties, you have Lyndon B. Johnson who signed the equal rights act and we did this thing to confront racism but we didn’t go far enough. We’re not staying the course long enough. We’ve got to go the full distance. We’ve got to make it happen and really go there. With guns in the country and the NRA, they’re not going the full distance. We stop at guns. Betsy DeVoss is like, “We’re not going to look at guns.” The lesson will not be learned, nothing will come of this that’s of substance for the long haul if you don’t actually look at the real issue. We have blinders on. You’ve got to get the whole picture. I can only hope that somebody will come along who will make that happen. This Bobby Kennedy documentary on Netflix is great, it’s so inspiring to see that guy and how he was actually doing the good work, what it is like to be in public service. That’s the whole thing that needs a bit of a PR boost because right now, it’s just self service. It’s immediate gratification meets demagogue-ish behavior that’s like, “You work for us, buddy.” There’s a long list of things but we just need to finish the job of educating people so that they understand that racism is not a good thing and a diverse country is a better thing. I feel like it’s ironic and really amazing that these people want to shut down what made this country. Really, our roots come from immigration and our diversity and our strengths come from immigration. All these people that you have to travel around the world to see came here and made this country what it is, and that’s why. To shut it down like this is defeatist and it’s racist. It’s terrible.
MR: There’s a parallel between you being born when you were and having the outlook you do, and the time your father Stephen Stills was born and the challenges of his era. You being the son of a civil rights and cultural warrior and icon in all his work, well, sorry to put it this way, but now it’s your turn. I’m mostly joking by putting it like this but is your bloodline doomed to always deal with cultural challenges?
CS: I wouldn’t call it “doomed,” I would call it an opportunity. I’m an environmentalist. Beside music, I try and involve myself in projects that are going to help the world. Just to touch upon what my father has done, he’s always been politically active. I’ve seen that. [Now] there’s a real lack of education, kind of like how a banking system works or what do you do when you have a baby. There’s nothing in school that’s taught us that by default. We don’t have much education on how government actually works and how you can get things done. It’s really left on the citizen to do that. I’ve got to commend my dad for being so involved over all the years. He would fly to Florida and be like, “Yeah, I’m meeting with senator so-and-so,” or, “I’m doing a political drive because they need help over there,” and the XYZs of that, the reasons of that. His knowledge of that is because he has informed himself. It’s up to us to find someone in our community who is into that and just go hang out with them and see how they do things, see how a vote matters. Find out where these people who represent us in public office are, which direction they’re going so that you can really pick and discern which ones are which. The whole country was founded on this thing, “We The People.” That’s what it’s really about. Many don’t realize it’s really on us. Like Martin Luther King said, inaction makes you complicit with the problem. I grew up with that. My Grandfather on my mother’s side, he was a politician. He was the mayor of the 13th Arrondissement in Paris. He helped write the UN charter. Both my grandparents were in the Resistance in World War II. They both went to prison. My grandmother escaped. Her story alone, we’ll make a book and a movie about it one day. It’s just amazing. I was fortunate to grow up with a sense of service. We owe it to others and to ourselves. The greatest feeling that exists is when you give. We can smoke a cigarette, we can win points on a video game, we have this reward system in our brain, but the highest amount of dopamine you can get–for all the kids, “the highest you can get”–is from giving. Being of service to somebody other than yourself. I learned that lesson. I work with charities, I try to associate myself with projects that help the world on a grand level. I’m working with a battery company right now to bring carbon footprint-free power for everything. I had a project for a while where we came very close to doing a venture deal with Boeing. We were going to take military drones and use all their tactics and equipment and operators and instead of hunting terrorists, we wanted to protect the environment. We wanted to defend elephants and gorillas and prevent illegal logging and fishing. I was close to that because that’s my greater sense of trying to help the world. I can do that through songs, that’s what’s closest to me and what’s easiest to me, but the harder work, the bigger work, the more world-helping work are these projects. I really do believe that your life is going to be better should you decide to attach yourself with an organization that’s bigger than yourself that is there to help the people. I don’t believe in telling people what to do. I don’t believe in telling people that women can’t have an abortion, I don’t really believe in religion. I think it’s good to have a sense of a higher power but I don’t believe that that higher power is the law of the land. Humanity and the universe isn’t built on “religion.” I’m sorry, God did not create the universe. God was an invention by man as a moral compass. But if you use that moral compass to hurt people, then there’s something fundamentally wrong with that you’re doing. That’s what I grew up with. That’s what I learned from my family and that’s what I try and do.
MR: And you have to take care of yourself as well, to make a living.
CS: Movies are great, they pay really well. Is that a weird business and a tough one? Hell yeah it is. Is there a lot of competition? Yeah. Have I been very lucky to be able to work in some great situations in that? Yes, absolutely. But that’ll never stop me from being engaged in the bigger picture than what’s going on in our personal lives.
MR: Beautiful. Chris, you have two daughters, do you find that they’re picking any of this stuff up from you?
CS: Bit by bit. Kids are amazing sponges. My in-laws are very involved in politics. They hosted Obama at their house. I was unable to go but [my kids] went. I told my daughter, “Listen, you’re going to meet the president of the United States. When you’re there in front of him, that’s a great opportunity to ask him a question. When you’re standing amongst the greats, always find a question to ask them because you have a small opportunity to get something from that person, to learn something from them.” Her response was very cute. She was seven at the time and she said, “Oh, but daddy, I’m just a kid and he’s the president of the United States, he doesn’t want to hear from me.” I said, “Oh no, no, no, he is everyone’s president, including yours. He works for us. We put him in office, we hired him. We pay taxes and pay his salary. He wants to know what you have to say.” She looked at me like, “Oh, really? I had no idea.” And you know what? The next day, I called and asked, “How did it go?” My ex said, “Oh, my God! They were sitting there in the line, taking pictures!” You had Hanks and Streisand and Spielberg all waiting in line to get their picture with the president but the family goes first. “Hi, what grade are you in?” Click, click, click, and then the secret service guy comes to usher them out and my daughter turns around and goes around the secret service guy and literally puts her hand up and says, “Mister President, I have a question.” I was told the room stopped. Obama turns around and asks, “Well, what can I do for you, little lady?” You know what her question was? “How do you find time to relax?” She’s an empath. It was right when he was getting slammed for health care; the guy was getting killed. He took a knee and he called my younger daughter over and he spent about five minutes with her–which is about two million in taxpayer dollars, by the way–to tell them about how he likes to spend time with his family and his daughters, and that’s his best relaxing time. Even the highest office of the land, the leader of the free world gave her the message of how important family is. That was just priceless. It’s worth everything in my life. But at the same time, I was able to install in my daughter the confidence and belief in herself that she matters to those people. I think we get a sense in this country–whichever side you’re on–that you don’t matter to the people in charge but we actually do. And they do care. But the people that care are the ones who are in public office. They’re public servants. Even at the highest office, that does not change. They’re there for the people. Unfortunately, this guy now is in it for himself, dodging every bullet ever. But yes, I do try to install in my kids a sense of that, and I try to explain to them what’s going on.
MR: Amazing story, thank you, Chris. Listening to everything you’ve just said, is Don’t Be Afraid something you could only have come to with all the life lessons you’ve had? Just how much of a culmination of your life is this album?
CS: This album is probably my best one yet. I’m really proud of it. I feel like it stems from a breakup, it stems from me stumbling and having to recreate my life. It came at a time when I had nothing left to do but make a record but at the same time, I was going through a divorce. When you’ve been with someone for ten years, there’s a bit of reinventing, a bit of identity searching, and those sometimes can be really hard questions and really confusing questions. When you enter into married life, you’re in your little bubble and the outside world can seem trivial. But then all of a sudden, you’re confronted with it, a single guy–but not just as a single guy, as a single parent having to work and create my story that, at the same time, is responsible and there for two little children. I had to make some choices, but there was the idea that there was no putting my arms down. I wasn’t going to give up but I think that ability to follow through on that decision comes from the upbringing that I’ve had and not just from my parents but from my grandparents. And being able to be inspired by different writers and different people–politicians, even–from the distant past to today. You’ve got to get your inspiration somewhere, so I can make records and make songs that inspire people and give them a sense of hope and just remind them that it’s going to be okay. On the first record I made, I wrote a song called “Trouble.” I was all but twenty-two when it came out but I got a letter in the mail from a woman. The lyrics of that song were, “The trouble has fallen on you but the trouble will make you strong,” something about the paths we choose. “Keep on truckin’, it won’t be long.” It was that sort of message. The woman wrote me, she heard this song on the radio and sadly, she was in a relationship where her husband was beating her, and that song inspired her to leave him and build a new life for herself. I literally had an effect on somebody’s life in a positive way, not only for her, but for her kids. If I can keep on doing that… Once you drink from that goblet, you’re like, “I want some more of that!” I like to say that I can make a difference in the world and bring a little light.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
CS: I would say try not to pay attention to the labeling that goes along with entering into the artistic world. I would say that the prison bars that are the charts at the back of Billboard that pigeonhole you to one genre are a restraint in a greater potential. I think people hyper-focus on one genre, one subject line. I love all music–I love classical, hip hop, punk, funk, afro-funk, there’s even some great EDM. I knew a girl from Iceland who liked techno. I was like, “Ugh,” but she said, “Wait, listen to this,” and she opened me up to it. Never judge a book by its cover because that book is you and your cover is allowed to change. Sadly, you’re going to be confronted by “the machine.” It’s like The Matrix. They like it a certain way. They like things in order. It’s a pre-programmed thing. If you can play that game and at the same time find a way to break from it and change the rules of that game and make it your own rules and create a following around your own ideas that are independent, then go do that.
MR: That’s beautiful. By the way, when I interviewed your dad he said, “Don’t leave your wallet in the dressing room.” It was kind of bizarre considering all the knowledge and experience your dad has. I was hoping for more though I did laugh at his being a wiseguy when I was in the moment with him.
CS: He has an ability to boil it down because it’s all relative, but he’s right! He’s basically saying, in a sardonic way, there is really nothing special about what we do–to go a little on the dark side. The playing field is flooded. We’re a dime a dozen. We are almost insignificant these days, in the light of things. I think back when they all started, there was an underlying reverence to a folk artist or somebody who knew how to play an instrument. There was a respect there and I think we’ve lost that a little bit. When you’re running the gamut doing these clubs and tours, the monotony that it is to be on tour will become clear. Every club promoter is the same. It’s the same thing repeated over and over, expecting different results. The difference here is that the results do vary, and they do change, and if you’re lucky, they’ll change your life. If you’re really lucky it’ll change the life of others.
MR: Wow. I take it all back! Chris, you’ve saved your dad in this person’s eyes.
MR: So before we end, are there any songs on Don’t Be Afraid that resonate with you more than not?
CS: Yeah, I think “Daddy’s Little Girl.” I play that song and people cry every single time. I think it’s funny because I cried when I wrote that song. I think the deeper you go and the more you lay on the table, the more receptive people are to it. I love “Lonely Nights” as well. I love to rock out, I love to play rock ‘n’ roll, so I love “Blame Game.” It’s about Trump. I was literally watching CNN as I wrote that and it all came out. I was pissed. I think in the end, everybody wants to rock. I do hold dear playing a loud electric guitar and getting my ya-yas out and bringing a message with it. “Leaving You Behind” is gut-wrenching. “In The Meantime” is a special one to me just because of the vibe. That’s a very true song. I’m really proud of “In Love Again.” I just think that musically, it touches upon all of the things that I love. It’s got that sort of Pink Floyd-y vibe with a little Rufus Wainwright in there and a classical touch, but then at the end it just goes full-on Queen. And it’s a beautiful story, I love the idea. It touches upon the theme of the record quite well. Don’t be afraid to fall back in love again after you’ve gotten your heart broken because you’ve got just as good of a chance.
MR: And I thought nI heard a little Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers love on the album as well.
CS: Oh yeah, “Criminal Mind” is probably the one you’re thinking of. I was in France for a while, I was in a musical, I did a French film and I made a French record that really never came out because I needed to come home and be with my family. It was really trying on the family and I think it ultimately led to the divorce. It was an amicable divorce and all that stuff but coming back to my roots, I reached out. I went to my inspirations from Elton John, Pink Floyd, Tom Petty… “Blame Game” even has a little Foo Fighters influence. I was like, “I need to get back to America, get back to my roots.” Rocking in English is so much better than rocking in French. To really rock out in French, it takes a Frenchman, which I’m only half of. I give the floor. Here’s the conch. Somebody else take this thing.
MR: Where are you going from here?
CS: Where do I see myself in five years? Oh, Jesus, I pinch myself today that I’m still in this business. Me and my friend Adam Cohen laugh about it. We came up together as kids and it’s like, “We’re still here, still doing it.” I see myself trying to help the world and find some sort of public service thing. I see myself trying to get these other adventures off the ground. I want to try and bring carbon-free footprint power to festivals around the world so we can get rid of diesel generators and not pollute and not hear generators, so all we hear are the birds and people clapping and singing along to the music. No more smells of diesel fuel. That would be nice. I would love to be on tour, I would love to have a successful record so that we can have a party and get down and rock out. I love putting on a great show. There you go!
MR: Between acting and singing, which is more fulfilling for you?
CS: I would say that the one that I have the most control over is the music. When you act, you’re an actor, and you’re at the whim of the director and the writers. You’re really somebody else’s tool. So you reach for moments within that and with what you’re given. You’re given the dialogue and the story and it’s up to you to interpret that and to live that and to embody that and not act. [laughs]
MR: And between singer and activist?
CS: I think deep down, the singing and the activism go hand-in-hand. They’re really one and the same because you can just find the thread. You’re being an activist for love, you’re being an activist for rock ‘n’ roll, you’re being an activist for public gathering, you’re being an activist for the messages that are in your song. That’s an activist endeavor. You can go deeper into actually getting involved with an organization that only does that, but eventually, they’re just going to ask you to play the show.
MR: And of course, the most important question: What is your favorite name for a dog?
CS: Oh, my God! My favorite name for a dog is “Larry.” My sister had a dog, a black lab, and he was the greatest dog. He was there when I was making my first record. He met the Rolling Stones when they were next door. He was never on a leash, he was always with you, he was the greatest. In the end of his life, he was a little deaf and that was when I was making that first record, so he’d literally plop down in front of my amp as I was doing electric guitar takes. He just loved it. We called him Larry Love the Doggie Lama. It was very sad but very poetic–he died of an enlarged heart. He was a poet ’til the end.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne