Whether 80s rockers Huey Lewis and the News are in vogue or out of vogue, making hit records or not, lead singer Huey Lewis, 58, is focused on the music scene, even if the music scene is no longer focused on him.
With two albums that hit number one on the Billboard charts (“Sports” and “Fore!”), six number one singles and a bunch of top 10 hits to his credit, you would think Lewis would kick his feet up and take it easy. In a way, he does. He is content with the hits that gave his career longevity and is no longer aiming for the charts. But he is uneasy about the state of the music business and unhappy with the reputation of his band.
GM: It goes without saying that you’ve had a lot of hits…
HL: [Interrupts, teasing.] It goes without saying, but Gene, you can say it anyway…
GM: Even though your 2001 album, “Plan B,” didn’t burn up the charts, critics said that was some of your best material and every bit as catchy as your hits…
HL: I think so too!
GM: That says to me that you guys still have it, and that leads to my question, when a band has “it,” what do they have?
HL: That is interesting… “Plan B” was written for the band. By that I mean, in the 80s, clearly when you wrote a song, you knew it was going to get some airplay…In those days, we made those records in the studio knowing full well that they were going to get lots of play on the radio. By the time “Plan B” came along, that was not the case. Radio had been segregated for a few years…There really wasn’t a station that was going to play our music. So they weren’t written or recorded for radio play. We were able to live with flaws a little more…let the songs breathe and allow ambiance to occur … or leave a little mistake here and there that you never would if you thought that the radio was going to play it 2,000 times a day. It was liberating in that way, and that is why the “Plan B” stuff sounds different. The fact that it wasn’t a hit is understandable. It was never aimed at the radio.
GM: When you wrote “I Want a New Drug,” did you know that it would be a hit?
HL: No, but I knew that we had a couple on there [the 1983 album, “Sports.”] I knew “Heart and Soul” was going to be a hit. In the old days, when you made an album, you needed a couple of songs that radio could play. There was no question about it. If you didn’t do that, you were fooling yourself. If you were producing a record in the mid 80s, you needed to have a hit. Everything was formatted. You needed to get into that playlist somehow and that took some consideration. We produced our records ourselves, so I am ashamed to tell you that we considered that. In those days, you’d have a couple of things that radio could play –singles as it were—and then you’d stretch out and do other stuff on side two. That is one of the problems with downloading one tune at a time. The nice thing about an album is as long as you have three or four things that radio could play, you could really stretch out with the rest of the stuff.
GM: With some artists, like Peter Gabriel, it’s obvious which songs are for the radio and which ones are not. But for you guys, that’s not coming to mind as easily. You guys have a bar band doo-wop sound and it seems consistent across the albums.
HL: On that album, “Heart and Soul” is a single obviously. “If This is It” was a song for radio to play. Now, “Heart of Rock and Roll” was not meant to be a single. It was an honest statement, lyrically. Musically, it was a groove thing where we were trying to get [the sound of] the old [music] and the new at once. Although “Sports” sounds like bar band stuff, it was actually carefully assembled. In fact, we used drum machines on a couple of the songs and synced up bass on one and created those things piece by piece. We wanted them to sound rootsy and bar bandish, if you will. But the truth is, they weren’t cut like a bar band at all. But “Plan B” was. “Plan B” was a live performance by five of us and we overdubbed the horns and the vocals. That was it. But on the “Sports” album, those tunes were constructed.
GM: What do you think would happen to “Sports” in today’s market?
HL: I have no idea. I don’t know the market well enough to tell you.
GM: What’s your opinion of iTunes?
HL: The trouble with iTunes is no one is going to download that other song. They are just going to download the one they want. It’s gotten to be a singles market again, which is kind of a shame. And then there are financial concerns. You don’t make a lot of money off of iTunes. You make a lot less money than if you actually sold an album.
GM: What do you think of MTV these days?
HL: I haven’t seen it in a long time. They’ve gotten away from showing videos. It’s part of a larger story. Television has become much more important in a band’s career. Is that a shame? Yeah…But there are always exceptions to the rules. The great things emerge anyway. As depressing as the landscape looks for an audiophile, there always are exceptions. Look at Nora Jones. There’s an exception.
GM: Of course MTV, had a large role in your success in the 80s. What did MTV feel like back then?
HL: When you toured the country, you could really feel the MTV markets because they knew the songs so much better. What MTV amounted to in those days was an amazing marketing tool. In fact, when we first made videos, they weren’t called videos. They were called clips or promos. That’s really what they were. There’s no quicker way to break a band than to show them on television nationally. The downside to that is, if you think of iconic groups from the 70s, Led Zeppelin for example, their first album, we lived with that album. There were no pictures of the band, or maybe there was one picture of [Robert] Plant. So, that was all you had for a year or so, until they came to your town. Then you go to see them live, and there is one more image you have…Now, you’d have to live with that for a year or so. So it literally took you years to find out as much about the band as it did on MTV in two weeks. The advantage to all of that was while you were finding out about the band over those years, their music was the soundtrack to your life. It occupied two years of your life. Nowadays, a band can come from out of nowhere and within two weeks, you know everything about them. It’s Andy Warhol’s prophecy, “In the future, everybody will be famous for 15 minutes.”
GM: And with downloading, it’s becoming 30 seconds?
HL: That is right, and the value of a recorded piece of music is going rapidly to zero. My dad was an audiophile and would play jazz records when I was a kid on his turntable. The kids weren’t allowed to go anywhere near the turntable…He valued that record. That Benny Goodman record he had was of ultimate value to him.
GM: Benny Goodman is in my hard drive right now.
HL: You’re right. It’s robbed it of its own personality in a way…
GM: Kenny Loggins sold a recent album exclusively through Target. Paul McCartney put out an album through Starbucks. Do you think that you might go with a non-traditional deal like that?
HL: Yeah, that makes total sense. I think our cache is probably better off at a place like Wal-Mart or Starbucks. That is a definite possibility. You can’t sell as many CDs as you used to. The value just isn’t there anymore. People get it on their iPods. It’s hurting everybody, but you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
Really, in my day, records were a way to get hot and once you got hot you needed to get big because you might not be hot anymore. So, even records are promos. Look at someone like [Bruce] Springsteen…He probably spends a lot of money making those records because they do ‘em first class…Let’s pick a number and say he spends about $400,000 to make a record. He really only sells about a million of them. With a regular record label [deal] he’s really only going to make $2.50 for a CD. So minus expenses, he is going to gross about $1.5 million from a record that he spent months making and years writing. But then he is going to play 10 nights at the Meadowland s and he is going to make $1.5 million each night! So records aren’t about money. They are about promotion and having hits that you could play.
GM: Let’s go back to talking about your career. I’ll say it again, you had hit after hit, and then in 1988, you put out the album, “Small World.” On that album, you were creatively branching out, but I would like to read you this quote from All Music Guide: “While the record produced the Top 10 hit “Perfect World,” it was a commercial disappointment after two chart-topping, multi-platinum albums, stalling at number 11 on the charts and only going platinum.” Do you think the music business has less patience for a band that’s made it and had a lot of hits than it does for an up and coming band?
HL: The sad part is “Perfect World” [the first single from the album “Small World”] went to number one. The second single was “Small World.” That [song] was really cut as a vehicle for [sax player] Stan Getz to play a solo on. I met Stan Getz at a jazz party. My dad was an old jazz man and I got tickets and Getz came up to me and said, “When are you going to let me play on some of your [songs]?” On the ride home, my dad said, “If you don’t take Stan Getz up on that I will never talk to you again.” That was the second single, and it was the first single we had that didn’t crack the top 20. The irony is that artistically, it is really one of the best things we’ve ever done. That was a disappointment to me. That was when I realized that you can grow in this business, but only to a point.
HL: The MTV glare is tough to stand up to because now your mug is on that box every hour and people are going to get sick of looking at you. The same phenomenon that had helped us so much, it prejudiced the critics against us. We got hurt by the MTV phenomenon. We were seen and continue to be seen in many circles as a pop band.
GM: What are you listening to these days?
HL: The jam band scene is very interesting. I’ve come to know this band, Umphrey’s McGee. They are fantastic musicians. That whole jam band scene has popped up as a direct reaction to televised music. They wear flip-flops and literally dress down, anything but to appear as show business. I think it’s very healthy.