This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Kevin "Chief" Zaruk, president/owner, Chief Music Management.
Nobody calls Kevin Zaruk by his name.
Probably not even his family.
With two decades of excelling in almost every aspect of the music business, this bright, ambitious and dynamic Vancouver-based power plug has absolutely branded his moniker throughout his own world.
For more than a decade working first as a sound engineer, and then as a tour manager for Canadian post grunge arena rockers Nickelback, and then piloting market breakthroughs for Hinder, and My Darkest Days, Chief built his management firm brick-by-brick, largely based on a commercially successful business foundation model set in stone earlier by Nickelback.
Chief, however, has pushed well outside the perimeters of any existing box, and continues to forge new and unexpected affiliations, and business models.
Under his Chief Music Management shingle, Chief oversees a select roster that includes prominent producer Joe Moi, Head of the Herd, Cold Creek County, and the New Electric.
In a partnership between Craig Wiseman, (Big Loud Shirt Industries), Seth England (VP Big Loud companies), producer/songwriter Joey Moi, and Chief, the umbrella company Big Loud Mountain handles production, management and publishing of bro-country’s top attraction Florida Georgia Line, ex-Default singer Dallas Smith now enjoying sizable success in Canada, and North Carolina singer/songwriter Chris Lane.
If you harbor any thoughts that Chief is not one of the savviest tacticians of our day consider that--practically against all odds--he successfully tour managed Charlie Sheen’s 20-date “My Violent Torpedo of Truth: Defeat Is Not an Option Tour” in 2011, and lived.
The partnership of Craig Wiseman, Seth England, Joey Moi and yourself as Big Loud Mountain handles production, management and publishing of Florida Georgia Line?
Florida Georgia Line was the first act that we signed (in Dec. 2011).
At the time, I recall that Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley had released a 6-song EP, and were getting some good response to their songs
They had an EP that was self-promoted. They were really at that time more songwriters. That’s kind of how Seth discovered them. He heard some of the songs that they had been writing.
The duo's follow-up release was 5-song EP “It'z Just What We Do,” produced by Joey on Big Loud Mountain Records, released in 2012. It starts off with "Cruise" which, despite charting at #1 at different times for six months overall, Nashville’s label establishment wrote off as a fluke.
They didn’t like it because it wasn’t country. All of the old school country people—and trust me there are a lot of them---dismissed it.
[At the end of Nelly's music video for "Hey Porsche,” a remix of "Cruise" played, featuring Nelly. The Nelly remix was included on the deluxe version of Florida Georgia Line’s album, “This Is How We Roll.” "Cruise" peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and spent 24 weeks—in three different runs-- at #1 on Billboard’s country chart.]
Well, you guys ruined country music with bro-country. You must hear that all of the time.
We are loved, and hated by many. So, yeah we changed the game. They didn’t like it, and really didn’t want to know about it.
Plus for Nashville’s powerbrokers, you and Joey are outsiders.
We are outsiders.
Still Florida Georgia Line had Republic Nashville in its corner.
And we had Republic. They also didn’t give a crap (about criticism). It was like, “If we think it’s great, we are going to work it.” So that was it. Then once it (the track) started to go, it was undeniable. It didn’t matter if people liked it or not. But people did start to like it.
[Florida Georgia Line has just collected its 7th #1 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart (dated June 20th) with "Sippin' on Fire," according to Nielsen Music. The track is the 3rd single and 3rd #1, from the duo's sophomore studio album, “Anything Goes.” The tracks "Dirt" and "Sun Daze" previously reached the top chart position. The band will be releasing the “Anything Goes” title track as its new single.]
You must hear that Florida George Line is the country equivalent of Nickelback.
Definitely, once in awhile. Surprisingly, I thought that we’d get it a little bit more. I think the difference is that even the guys having Nelly do “Cruise,” they have been have been able to do enough things to show variety. Just when people are saying, “They are too much like this,” they will do a song like “Dirt” or do something with Nelly. I think they are open (to pushing boundaries). When you are a rock band, it’s rock. There really aren’t a lot of options to do other things. But for whatever reason, and if you look at Taylor Swift for example, you can go to more places in country. You can do different things, and people are a little more open-minded. Not a lot of Nickelback comparisons, and any that do come, maybe, it’s because Joey is tied into it. So people will say that sonically it (their record) sounds good because of that. But, as far as comparing FGL to Nickelback, and having that be in any form a negative thing, it has never happened. The bro-country thing....
C’mon, Florida Georgia Line arrived as young artists like Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Eric Church were beginning to push country boundaries by incorporating rock. So much so that Lynyrd Skynyrd today would be regarded as a country band.
Oh, for sure. Joey and I laugh all the time about that. And trust me, when you hear some of the new country that is coming—it is Nickelback. It’s “Rockstar.” It’s “This “Afternoon.” It’s “Photograph.”
Chad Kroeger told me that “Photograph” was written for a country artist but Ron Burman, head of A&R at Roadrunner Records at the time, heard it and insisted that he didn’t give it away.
It might have been written for Tim McGraw.
Nashville is an industry town where everybody has a song. A similar scenario to Los Angeles in the ‘70s with the film and music industries. Even the cab driver in Nashville today has songs or wrote a big hit years ago. It’s a company town.
Oh yeah. When you say that we were outsiders, not only were we outsiders because we lived in Canada, but we are coming from the rock world. It’s like, “Wait a sec, what do these two yahoos know about country, and Nashville?” It definitely stirred a hornet’s nest up. But as the success started happening, once the sales and the radio airplay started happening, then it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter if people wanted to like it or not. It was working.
When you were growing up, your father was into country music.
Hugely into country music. George Jones, Waylon Jennings, and so many others.
Waylon could rock with the best of them.
Yeah. You made a great point that when you said that as Florida Georgia Line was breaking, wait a second, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Eric Church were too. You are absolutely right. If you look through the history of music, timing for so many acts is everything. For some acts, it’s like they are ahead of their time, and for other acts it’s like they are behind the times.” Then there are those acts that they just nailed the timing.
You worked with Joey Moi for years before starting to manage him.
Yeah. Joey had a manager before me. Then I started getting into management. So much of what I was doing, through Nickelback and everything else, just crossed into Joey’s world. After awhile Joey was like, “I don‘t why you aren’t doing my producer agreements or collecting my royalties or doing my management because you are here.”
Is managing producers different than managing artists?
Yes and no. It is a different world but it’s not a complicated world. It’s pretty easy. Most producer agreements are pretty standard, and most royalty structures are pretty standard. So it’s just more about making sure that the deals are done, and are in place, and everybody is happy, and everybody is getting paid when they are supposed to. If not, you then have to hunt down the record label and get paid. It’s, maybe, a time consuming job, but it’s not a difficult job.
[Aside from being a sought after producer, co-producer and engineer who has worked with Nickelback, Daughtry, Hinder, Default, and Theory of a Deadman, Joey Moi is also a significant songwriter. Among his hits are Tim McGraw’s, “It’s A Business Doing Pleasure With You,” Nickelback’s “Burn It To The Ground,” Daughtry’s “Life After You," and My Darkest Days’ “Porn Star Dancing.”]
By that point, Joey had done quite well, working with Nickelback, Default and other acts.
He had Theory of A Deadman, and some Hinder stuff. At that time, everything that he and Chad (Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger) were working on, I kind of had some involvement with.
Had Joey yet been approached to produce Jake Owens?
No. What had happened was that after the Nickelback recorded (“Dark Horse” in 2008) we were back on the road, and we were going to play Atlanta. Bryan Coleman (partner in Union Entertainment Group which manages Nickelback) called, and said, “Hey, some writers from Nashville want to meet with Chad. They love his work, and they want to write with him.” I was like, “Great, send them down.”
That would have been the Big Loud Shirt Music guys.
Rodney Clawson, Chris Tompkins, Craig Wiseman, and Seth England were the four guys who came down. They came to the show, and they loved it. We had a great hang. At the end of the night, Seth pulled me aside, and said, “You manage Joey Moi. I got a call from a country artist the other day, Jake Owens. He’s just finished his album, and he’s looking for some heavier rock mixes on the record. He loves Nickelback, and he asked if I knew their mixer, Joey Moi. He wanted to know if Joey would be interested (in mixing).” I was like, “Yeah, Joey would love to mix some country.”
So Seth put us all in touch. They sent Joey two tracks. He mixed the tracks, and sent them back. Jake then called him, and said, “You have to come down here, and mix some more tracks, and we have to produce and write together. I want to work with you.” That was almost four years ago. Joey went down, and he ended up mixing 8 songs, producing 5 off of that record (“Barefoot Blue Jean Night”). The first four singles were Joey’s songs.
Then Joey, as a Canadian, realized how warm Nashville was and has never returned to Canada.
Hasn’t been back since (laughing). So that worked out great. Now Joey is there. Seth and Craig at Big Loud Shirt, they signed Joey to a publishing deal because they realized that he’s quite a good songwriter. They have a studio in their building. They are like, “Joey, you can have this studio to work out of.” We all started working together. Then Craig and Seth came to Joey and I and said, “We have been looking at what you guys have done with Hinder, Default, Theory, and My Darkest Days. You guys just take these bands, and you develop them.”
Which Nashville generally doesn’t do.
Nashville does not do that (band development).
Nashville is a about the song.
All is about the song. Not about the artist.
The song over the artist almost every time.
You nailed it. For years, some of the things that happened in Nashville were like, “Wow.”
If you aren’t ready as an artist, you don’t get the song.
Yeah. If you aren’t ready, then you are never going to be ready. Or come back to us in five years when you think that you are going to be ready. Meanwhile, these artists don’t know what to do to get ready. So Craig and Seth were, just like you said, saying, “Nobody does that here. If we started doing that (development), it is wide open.” So sure enough, the four of us formed Big Loud Mountain. Our goal was that we had publishing, management, a studio and songwriters, an engineer and a mixer. Everything that we needed we had to be able to do it all.
What acts are on the Big Loud Mountain roster?
Florida Georgia Line, Chris Lane, and Dallas Smith, that’s who we have on the Big Loud Mountain side. We are getting ready by July 1st to make a pretty big announcement. Although we have Big Loud Mountain Records, we are going to make a substantial move, and really dive into the record business with a couple of new hirings. Then we are going to sign some new acts to that label. That is going to come July 1st. In Canada on my company (Chief Music Management) I have Wes Mack, who is doing the Canadian tour run with Shania Twain.
You are managing Wes?
And Head of the Herd?
Head of the Herd just got back from Europe.
Any new signings?
There will be. I also have in Canada, Cold Creek County, who are with Sony Music Entertainment Canada. They have just released to country radio (with the single “Our Town”). They are kind of like a Rascal Flatts’ type band. They are off to an amazing start. I’m really happy with Sony so far.
How big is your office?
It’s Bonnie McGrew and I. She works out of the office. I’m always out of town and traveling. But we have a web guy that works for us, and interns that come in. But it’s basically her and I who do most of the work.
Bonnie has been with you for six years.
Yes. She does all of the day-to-day stuff for Wes.
What’s the latest with Dallas Smith?
Well, he’s doing great in Canada, and he’s with Joey right now recording some new songs. We are going to have a U.S. release in September or October with Blaster Records, which is a smaller indie label that has Montgomery Gentry (as well as Jack Ingram, James Otto and others).
So Dallas is changing American labels, from Republic Nashville? But he’s still with Vancouver-based 604 Records in Canada.
Yes. We are changing labels (in the U.S.).
I saw Dallas years ago while he was still fronting Default singing country at a songwriter event in Regina, Saskatchewan. It struck me then what a great country singer he is.
Isn’t that crazy?
Dallas has certainly done well in Canada. “Lifted” recently won a Juno Award as the top country album of the year.
Man, it’s been good, and he’s working hard. As you mentioned, it’s no different with any artist, it’s an uphill battle in the States for a (Canadian) country artist.
There hasn’t been a Canadian country artist to jump the fence into the U.S. marketplace since Shania Twain in the mid-‘90s.
No. It’s been a long time. So we’re working hard at it. We’ve got some great new songs
For decades with new releases in America, you worked radio and clubs in tertiary markets, and then moved onto to the major markets. With all the social media tools available with the internet, and with iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, and now Apple, it seems that promotional opportunities have flattened out. Just how do you promote a new record by an emerging act?
It’s a combination of everything that you just said. As you said before, it was one thing (strategy). You’d start here, and you would tour.
I’ve heard figures of up to $1 million to launch a country single in America.
I can only tell you what we did with FGL. We released a track to get it on iTunes. Then we hired indie radio (promoters) to work B markets only because that is quite affordable. You can work a single for $8,000 to $12,000 just at B market radio. All those tertiary markets that all have small little radio stations, those are the ones that you are working. On top of those, you get it online. You get Facebook. You get a little money, and you do Facebook ads. You make sure that the guys (band members) are active on Instagram, and they are doing YouTube videos. Then, as an artist or a band, you get in a van and you go to those small radio markets that are playing you. You go to the radio station, and you do a show for 100 people. Then you go back the next time, and it’s 200 people.
Larry, (building an act is) a combination of all of these things.
I think that some people have lost the fact that, yes it’s a social media world that we live in, but you still can’t replace getting face time with the radio station. Going into a club, and playing in front of 50 or 100 people, and they love you, and they tell all their friends. When you go back a month later, it’s so much easier. You do a post and everybody is like, “I just saw them, and they were great.” Now they post their comments about you (online).
In some ways, it is harder because there are more bands, and the competition is greater because of the number of bands. In other ways, it’s quite a bit easier to self-promote, and to be able to get out there, and do the work. But you also have to have a good product. If you are promoting crap, of course, it doesn’t work as well.
There are acts that have broken through by advertising on The Shopping Channel as well the food and cooking channels.
You are right. That’s when it comes down to everything. There is no one way anymore. If somebody says they are spending $1 million to launch an artist, you can. You can spend that amount of money for advertising, paying to get on tours, paying tour costs, and losing money out there. All of it adds up. And, if you want to go to A market radio by yourself independently which you can, that’s really expensive. You are talking $200,000 just to start.
And be prepared to play for free at radio station live presentations in market after market.
Well, that’s just it. The other thing is that let’s just say that you are an “unproven artist” who gets a record deal. I can tell you right now nobody is getting any good record deals these days. If they (the label) dump some money into you, and it doesn’t work, you are done. At least, if you go the independent (label) route, and you can hopefully afford to go that route, you keep growing. You can keep changing. You can keep building.
Independent labels have returned to the days of being music publishers, managers, and labels in order to recoup their investments.
You are 100% right. It has definitely gone back. It’s crazy in some ways how much it has gone back.
At the same time, the majors have backed away from demanding 360 deals.
Oh,100%. What the labels realized was that it doesn’t work. The 360 is a broken formula. They were scrambling, and it was something they tried. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t help the artist. It doesn’t help the label. It is a formula that is just a waste of time, effort, and money. I think that they have realized that.
You worked on the road in sound production, and later as a tour manager with Nickelback for 11 years. What qualified you for those positions?
My first taste of a major tour was with (Vancouver alt metal band) Noise Therapy which opened up for Motely Crue, and with (Vancouver ska punk band) DDT that opened up for Kid Rock. Both of those were my first taste of what a real tour was. We were opening bands so you don’t even get the stage until 3 or 4. You are basically sitting around all day. Instead of sitting there doing nothing, I would go in at 6 and 7 in the morning. I’d go up to the audio guys—because I was into doing live sound—and I would say, “I want to learn how this is. Can I help?” They were like, “Absolutely.”
There was no resistance to you trying to fit in?
No, they loved it. They were 100% behind that, “We’d love to help you. We will teach you everything that you want to know. Ask questions.” I was also in there pushing gear, and lugging cables. At the end of the night, when the show was over, I was in there asking, “What do you guys need me to do?” They were like, “Grab that cable, wrap it up, and throw it into the box.” I wasn’t afraid to work, and help them. It was great, man. Honestly, those two tours taught me the in-and-outs of how a major tour works.
Meanwhile, Roadrunner Records signs Nickelback in 1998, releases their album "The State,” and the band begins opening for Creed on a tour.
Creed was on that tour. We did Creed, Sevendust, and we co-headlined with 3 Doors Down. They were just releasing a record as well.
You were only supposed to be on the road for a couple of months, but you were out for 14 months.
The initial tour, and game plan was for 14 weeks, and 14 weeks turned into 14 months. In the middle of the tour, I got married, and I had a two week honeymoon. That ended up probably being the best thing that ever happened to me because the guy that they got to replace me for the two weeks was an absolute nightmare. Those guys were almost in tears when I came back. It was the greatest thing, ever. At one point they asked me if I would cut my honeymoon short because they literally wanted to kill this guy. So it ended up being a really good thing. It showed how well that we worked together. Then when they started going big, it was like, “You want to come along with this?” I was like, “Yeah. Let’s do it. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but let’s do it.”
Little did you suspect that you’d be out on the road with them for over a decade.
Honestly, I could not have asked for a better situation. I remember when they started recording “Silver Side Up,” and we had finished this big long tour. I remember that Sum 41 was just exploding. They had sold 2 million copies of their debut album ("All Killer, No Filler"), and they were the “it” thing. They called me and said, “Hey, we want you to be our tour manager, and sound guy.” They offered me twice as much money. They were getting ready to go out on the road for a year. Man, I just sat there and thought, “Is this my big opportunity? Should I be taking this? What should I be doing?” I will tell you. it just didn’t feel right. I was really grateful for the opportunity though. Really happy.
At that time Sum 41 was considered a cool band.
Oh yeah. They were funny, and they played well too. I remember making the decision not to do that because I enjoyed the (Nickelback) guys so much. I felt that Sum 41 might be a great tour or a great career move, but I just thought (about Nickelback), “I love these guys.”
In 2005, Nickelback took a year off, and you started managing Hinder which, as a trio, had been recording with Joey Moi and Brian Howes at Chad’s home studio. Then Nickelback offered to take Hinder on the road with them as an opening act.
That’s exactly what happened. And, of course, that worked out. They thought they were doing me a favor by bringing Hinder, which they were at the time. Then Hinder had a massive single (“Lips of an Angel”) which soared to #1 (on both U.S. and Canadian pop charts in 2006). And we brought some real value to the tour.
You also managed the Canadian band My Darkest Days as well as Jason Newsted
My Darkest Days was another Chad, Joey and myself project which ended up being great. Getting a #1 hit with “Porn Star Dancing” from a new band that no one had ever heard of was awesome. The singer from that band, Matt Walst, is now the singer for Thee Days Grace (replacing Adam Gontier in 2013). The bass player (Brad Waist) is his brother. I did Jason Newstead, Ace Frehley, and I did the Charlie Sheen tour as well.
Touring, when it is done right, can be gratifying, but after 11 years with the same band doesn’t it get like Bill Murray’s 1993 film, “Groundhog Day?”
Did the job get easier as Nickelback became more popular, and their shows became bigger and more organized?
It did. Absolutely, and for a lot of reasons. You are able to hire a lot more staff. So, all of a sudden, I’m not settling the shows, and dealing with money because we have a tour accountant. I don’t have to deal with that. There is now a production assistant who does all of the travel, and the hotels. Although, you are overseeing everything, as long as you hire competent people, it absolutely gets easier.
Meanwhile, the live music sector dramatically changed. Did the consolidation of the American promoters that developed into Live Nation make it easier to tour?
Absolutely. People will say, “It’s now down to two promoters, AEG Live and Live Nation, It’s monopoly,” and it’s this and that. But you know, it’s easier. It’s much, much easier. If you are doing a Live Nation tour, you can advance the tour with one phone call. Back in the day, every single show was a different promoter. You know this. We had the good, the bad, and the ugly. There were some great promoters, and there were some promoters who would be like, “Get out of my building, and I’m not paying you.”
Each one was different.
They really were.
As well, you were touring internationally and working with an assortment of tried and untried promoters.
Yeah, we did tons of European stuff. The same thing. As we got bigger we hired a European tour manager over there. So we could go over there, and he would have gear and buses waiting for us, and he knew all the promoters. It definitely gets much easier as you get bigger.
Explain your participation in Charlie Sheen’s 20-date “My Violent Torpedo of Truth: Defeat Is Not an Option Tour” in 2011.
I have to tell you it was one of the greatest experiences that I have had in my career. It was right when all hell was breaking loose (with Charlie Sheen), and Live Nation was doing the Nickelback tours, and we were in-between tours. They knew that I was sitting home for a couple of months.
Was it Steve Herman, senior VP, North America that phoned you from Live Nation?
Yep. Steve called and said, “Are you busy for the next 6 to 8 weeks?” I said, “No, I’m not.” He said, “We need you to get on a plane tomorrow morning, and come down to LA. We will have a car pick you up. That’s really all that I can tell you.”
I’m not doing anything else, and he’s paying, so let’s go for it.
In LA, the car pulls up to this house, and Steve is outside. “Hey man, thanks for coming. Let’s go. We are all waiting for you inside.” We walk into this house, and in the dining room, there’s 30 people sitting at the table. I sit down. And we are all sitting there. I don’t know what’s going on. Then Charlie walks into the room and says, “You guys want to me to go on the road, and do a comedy spoken word tour?” Steve says, “I think we have a shot to make some money here. And, I think it’s going to be good for you” blah blah blah.
There were TV script writers, and Live Nation people, and the Eagles’ production manager there. We are all just looking at each other. I realized that nobody sitting there had any idea of what we were walking into in.
Including myself. We met for 3 or 4 hours. Charlie says, “Let’s work on the show, but I’m in.” I left the house. Outside, Steve says, “We want you to be the tour manager. You are the perfect guy. Charlie wants his friend to be the tour manager. We don’t know his guys. We don’t want to put somebody out there who we don’t know, who doesn’t know how to settle shows, and who doesn’t know how to run a tour. So you have to get in there. You have to go back to the house. You have to spend time with him. You have to wedge yourself in.”
You have to sell yourself.
Basically. And I’m like, “How do I do that? This is just weird.” Meanwhile, everyone else had left, and gone back to their hotels. So I called Charlie’s assistant later that night who said, “We’re chilling come on up.” So I went on up, and his assistant says, “Just sit in the kitchen, and he will be right there.” Charlie walked in, and says, “What’s up.” It’s just the two of us. “Hey man, we didn’t get a chance to hang earlier today. I just want to make sure that you understand what is going to be involved in this. How touring works. I want you to ask me any questions. I want to make sure that we are on the same page. Anything that I can help you with let me know. I would love to do this tour, but you have to be comfortable with what it is.”
What’s Charlie’s reaction?
He was like, “You are right man. TV and film I get. I don’t get this at all. Who do you work with?” I said, “The last 10 to 12 years, I’ve done Nickelback.” He says, “Man, I love ‘Rockstar.’” I said, “Oh, cool.” Then I asked, “Do you know what a dressing room rider is? Do you know about sound checks? Do you know how we are going to travel?”
He says, “No, I have no idea what you are talking about.”
So I grabbed a pen, and some paper, and I said, “We are going to run down a tour from top to bottom. Let’s talk dressing room rider. What do you like?” He opened up his fridge, and said, “I like this coffee. This water. I like Red Bulls. I like this, and I like that.” I’m writing it all down. “Great. Every show that you do, when you walk into the dressing room, these items will be there.” He’s like, “Really, like (film & TV) craft services.” I’m like, “Yes, exactly what you want.”
We hung out for about three hours, and he approved everything. He was like, “You’re in. You are the man. You tell me what to do, and how to do this. Let’s do this.” And that was it. Everybody went home for a week or two, and we then started working on it and setting it up.
How was the tour?
It was crazy. It was the craziest tour that I have ever done from the first show (at the 5,000 restored Fox Theatre) in Detroit. At the end of the show, I called my wife and said, “I’m coming home. We are done. We just got booed off the stage. The police are here making sure that there isn’t a riot. They were throwing stuff at him half way through the show. We are done.” Everybody on the crew was like, “We are done. We are going home.”
The next show was in Chicago. We got to the hotel around 4 a.m. I checked Charlie into his room. He said, “What time does the venue open?” I said, “The crew loads in at 7 A.M.” He says, “I want you at my door at 7 A.M. with a car, and we are going to go to the venue.” I said okay. I had no idea of what he wanted. So at 4 A.M. I booked a car service. Went to sleep for two hours, got up, and knocked on his door. He was up already to go. We went to the venue. We walked in, and the crew is all looking at us, “What the hell are you guys doing here at 7 A.M?” Charlie grabs a chair, sits in the middle of the stage as the crew is loading in, and he says. “So, last night was a disaster? I’m like, “Yes it was.” He goes, “Do you think that last night was a good thing or a bad thing?” I’m like, “Well, it wasn’t good.” He goes, “Do you know what last night was? It was a gift.” I’m like, “Why would you say that?” He said, “When do you learn anything in life from anything that goes well? I learn the most from making my biggest mistakes.”
Charlie goes on.
“Last night was a mistake. Do you know what I learned from last night? I need to re-do the show. I never would have learned that if last night was good. I definitely learned it because it wasn’t. So we are going to re-write the show. You are a fan. You paid for a ticket. What do you want see?” I’m like, “Well Charlie, c’mon you are in a lawsuit with (the producers of) ‘Two and a Half Men.’ Everybody wants to know what you think of the other actors, and the show, and about the background with your wife, your kids, your family, the drug stories, the crazy spending. You have lived one of the craziest lives in the history of our time, and everybody wants to know those stories.”
He just started writing down, with pen and paper, story after story. After two hours he says, “Okay I’ve got the show. Let go.” We left, and he got a standing ovation that night. Everyone thought the show was amazing. The problem was being in TV and film that actors never do the same show twice. So for the rest of the shows it was from standing ovations to getting booed to Dennis Rodman co-hosting to him being onstage by himself.
So the chaos continued.
The chaos continued day to day. We never knew what the show was going to be like. Good, bad or whatever.
Charlie had a great show in Toronto.
He did, and (Canadian comedian) Russell Peters was a big help. And the bipolar walk from the (Ritz-Carlton) hotel to Massey Hall was awesome. But that’s the kind of stuff that he did. He called me in the morning, and said. Get the news channels down here I want to walk from here to the venue, and raise money for bipolar ( for the Calgary-based Organization for Bipolar Affective Disorder).” I’m like, “okay.”
In Toronto, you and Charlie were almost arrested.
Chuck Zito, who is a good friend of his, was doing security for us on the U.S. tour. Chuck, who was in (FX network show) “Sons Of Anarchy,” is the former president of the New York chapter of the Hells Angels. But one of the nicest dudes I’ve ever met. Anyway, he’s not allowed in Canada. So when we played Toronto, I got a knock on my door in the morning. When I opened the door, there were five gentleman in suits from the FBI looking for Chuck Zito. They know that he is touring with us from inspecting our rooming list.
Well, he’s on our rooming list because the travel agent makes up the same rooming list for the full tour.
They didn’t believe we didn’t know where Chuck was, and they started threatening Charlie and I that if he’s in Toronto, with conspiracy charges. “You guys can be arrested, and thrown in jail. Charlie can get deported. Until you prove to us where Chuck Zito is the show is not going to happen.”
What did you do?
Charlie calls Chuck, and puts him on speaker phone, “Hey Chuck” who then goes, “Hey bubba what’s up?” Charlie says, “I’m in the hotel room in Toronto. I have five FBI guys looking for you. If you don’t tell them where you are, they are going to arrest Chief and I and put us in jail.”
Well, Chuck thought Charlie was pulling a joke. He says, “You tell them to fuck off. If they want to find me, they know where to find me.”
And Chuck hangs up.
We look up, and these FBI guys are looking at us like, “What is going on? Charlie and I are dying. Charlie calls Chuck back, and says, “Chuck, I am not kidding. We are on a speaker phone.” Chuck goes, “Oh. Just kidding guys. I’m in a deli in New York having lunch.” The FBI guys called the deli, and asked for Chuck. They (the owners) confirmed that the phone was a deli in New York, and put Chuck on the phone. At that point, the FBI guys believed us, and let us go, but that’s an example of the craziness that would happen day-to-day on that tour.
During that tour Charlie had a bus, and a G5 (Gulfstream V airplane) and we never knew from town to town if he was taking the plane or be taking the bus. After the show, it would be midnight, and I would have the bus out front and have the pilots and the plane ready. I’d say, “Where are we going?” Airport or the next city?” He’d tell me where. I’d tell everyone what the plan was, and off we’d go.
You were born in Calgary, and raised in Vancouver?
Yep. My family moved to Vancouver when I was in grade 6. My dad did construction. He went to work one day, and the gates were closed. So he lost his job. He went to an auction where he met someone from a construction company from Vancouver who said, “One of our guys is going away for a month do you want to fill in?” He did, and then they hired him full-time. We sold the house in Calgary, and moved the family out here.
You went to your first concert while in Grade 10 seeing Motley Crue and Whitesnake at the Pacific Coliseum in 1987. While everybody was watching the stage, you were watching the sound and lighting crews?
Yeah, I was intrigued by everything else. The soundboard, the lighting board, how they got the stage up, how they hung the lights, the PA.
Did you go the show with friends?
Yeah. We were all huge music fans. I’d buy cassettes, and CDs, and I would read every lyric. I read every credit. I was curious. What does an engineer do? What does a producer do? What does the assistant engineer do? I wasn’t sure of any of these titles, and why there were so many people involved in recording or doing a tour. It fascinated me.
Big name international bands, Vancouver had them all in the late ‘80s, and early ‘90s, recording at Little Mountain Sound with producers Bruce Fairbairn, Bob Rock, and Mike Fraser, including Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Loverboy, the Cult, Metallica, Poison, AC/DC, and Motley Crue. Were you and your friends waiting to meet bands outside the studio?
Absolutely. Dude, I was there. We would leave junior high with our one friend that could drive, and we’d load up. Grab our rock magazines and off we’d go. Oh yeah. Spent many days and many hours outside of Little Mountain waiting for pictures and autographs?
Did band members come outside and meet with you?
All the time. Every single one. It would be great. You’d go to the studio, and there would be anywhere from 10 to 15 people outside. Not a lot. Sometime you would just sit in your car or if it was nice you’d wait outside. They would pull up, and we’d take pictures, have them sign autographs before they went in. If they were already inside, somebody would come to the door and say, “Hey guys they are going to be another hour recording this song, but they are taking a break and then they are all going to come out.”
For a brief period, Vancouver was the epicenter of music in Canada with viable alternative, punk, heavy metal, and mainstream rock scenes all happening at the same time in the city.
The music scene here with the local bands it was on fire. It was crazy.
Nettwerk was happening as a label and management company.
Nettwerk was just exploding at the time.
After completing high school, you went to a recording school in Vancouver?
The Columbia Academy. I finished high school in July, and I went to this school in September. I wasn’t one of those kids who was interested in taking a year off because my life was stressful, and I had to go and find myself. I knew what I wanted. I was eager to get going, and get in there.
Paying $14,000 was pretty stiff for a two year course.
That was per year.
So you were working construction?
Yep. When I went to my parents and said I was going to do this they didn’t know what it was or what I was doing. I took them down there and it was like, “We don’t know what this is, we don’t get it but if it’s something you want to do and you believe in, we support you. We like the idea of you going to school whether we know what it is or not.
Was the education there helpful?
Oh yeah. It gave me every opportunity that I got. Remember when I went there everything was analog. Everything that I learned I learned on two-inch tape. I learned to edit, to cut and splice, to solder, and do all of the old school stuff. It was worth it because it gave me some opportunities at that time because the music scene was so huge and thriving. There was Mushroom Studios as well in town, and everybody was just rocking. You needed some schooling. You couldn’t come off the street, walk into a studio, and say, “I want to be an assistant. I want to be a runner.”
Bob Rock may have started as an assistant engineer at Little Mountain Sound, but those days were over by the time you came along
MTV had glamorized the music industry in many ways. People were looking at what they were seeing on TV and film screens about the music business, and saying, “I want to do that.”
Oh, for sure. I remember at the same time when I was working construction and going to the recording studio that I was also starting to volunteer, and work for bands as a drum or guitar tech or loading or moving gear. Whatever it was doing for local bands. Me and my friends would go to a show, and we’d see a band we liked, and we’d say, “Hey, guys, we will help you out next time. Here’s our number. Give us a call.” All my friends wanted to be roadies or to work in the music business or just be part of a show or a club show. Now, man I can’t pay somebody $300 to move gear.
What led to the change?
I think it’s what you said. The music business was glamorized for awhile. People now realize that it’s not glamorous. That it’s crazy hard work. It’s not a lot of money, and it’s a lot of commitment. I remember one of my first tours across Canada was a 5 week tour, and when I came home I got paid $100. That was fine because I was living at home. I didn’t need the money so I didn’t care. At that time everybody was working for nothing, but you know what? They loved it. I can tell you. I loved every second of it. I had a blast. Yeah, it was hard work but I didn’t care. I was a 20 years old touring across Canada with DDT. It was fine. After DDT I did Noise Therapy. I loved it. but man I will tell you that my nephew is 19, and he’s a music fan, but the idea of tuning a guitar and loading gear he’s just not into.
Even on major tours few people want to be a tech.
Nooooo. No one wants to be a tech. That’s a lot of work. I think that you nailed it. Go back to the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s everything was glamorized. They (the media)made it look like the greatest thing to be on a tour with a rock band.
There was Jackson Browne singing about the road crew in “The Load-Out” in 1978. There was Meatloaf in the “Roadie” film in 1980; and Cameron Crowe’s nostalgic tour film, “Almost Famous,” in 2000.
They made roadies rock stars. Now everybody is like, “No, I don’t want to do that type of work.”
You ended up interning at Turtle Mobile Recording Studios.
Yes. I finished my two years of school. As soon as I finished I went to all of the studios, including Little Mountain. and put in my resume that I was just finished Larry Anschell at Turtle hired me right away. He said, “I need a guy here. I will train you.” At that time, it was a mobile recording studio.
Going around to all of the local clubs for radio station broadcasts.
Yep, CFOX had a live broadcast every week. Man, it was great. That was cool because I got to learn the studio environment in the week and the live sound environment on the weekend.
Meanwhile, building a network of relationships.
I met everybody. Every band in town I knew. I knew every club. It was just more and more opportunities. There were probably three or four local sound guys who did all the sound at all of the clubs. On any given Thursday, Friday, Saturday I would have four to five bands that I would mix on one night. Literally running out the back door of the club, down the street, up the alley, up the stairs into the club, mix another band, out the front door, down three blocks, over into the club, in the front door, mix, go back to the first club because the headliner was getting ready to go on. There were so many bands, and so many venues, and not very many sound guys.
Learning to understand the politics of a headline band, not giving full lights or sound to the opening act.
Oh yeah, absolutely. Then if you were one of those guys who took off for a month to go on the road, I mean you really screwed up the system because all of the bands are like, “Wait a sec I thought that you were our guy.”
Was it at Turtle Mobile where you met Nickelback?
Yes. That is where I first met the Nickelback guys in ’96. One of my first jobs ever was assisting Larry on “Curve,” the first record that they did. It turned out great. It’s sounds pretty good. Through working with Larry I got to work with Econoline Crush, Bif Naked, Matt Good, Nickelback, and Noise Therapy at Turtle. Every rock band recorded at Turtle. So I mixed sound with all of those. I toured with all of those. Man, it was like you said. You build your relationships and you gravitated more toward others whether it be musically or you build a friendship. With Nickelback, we just built a friendship. I really did, and still do enjoy their music a lot. But above and beyond that, they put a lot of trust in me, and gave me an opportunity to tour manage them, and run the show. They put a lot of trust in me and it was great. We have had a great friendship, but also there’s a great professional relationship as well.
Today, with the success you are having, you have so many opportunities coming your way to choose from.
It’s interesting with some of these outside things. A lot of people want to get into the music because it seems sexy and exciting. And there are parts that are exciting, sexy and fun to be part of. But I don’t think that people realize how much time, effort, work it takes. It’s really a 24/7 thing. It doesn’t stop. It doesn’t shut down. You don’t get days off. I think that people don’t realize that. Then they see what it is and it’s, “Wait a sec, I just thought that it was all one big party.”
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
For more about Larry, please check out this recent article published by Canada’s National Music Centre.
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