Interview – Martha Davis of The Motels

The ability to create is a gift not to be tossed away. Each artist has a different approach to conjuring ideas, whether she is aware of it or not. Originally from Northern California, vocalist/guitarist Maratha Davis came onto to the Rock scene with her band The Motels during the dawn of a new era of music. On the heels of the Punk Rock movement, the talented rambunctious band found their niche in the blossoming New Wave scene, and after tremendous success in Australia, the band took their homeland by storm with a slew of radio hits during the 1980s which are still adored three decades later. Known for her unmistakable voice and one of the most underrated stage presences in all of Rock, Davis is not a musician that can be boxed into a corner. Recently we sat down with Davis for a thoughtful look at her musical roots, the success of The Motels, her love of writing songs, and more. – You have been involved with music since you were a teenager, and you’ve been a professional musician for over four decades now. In that time you have accomplished a great deal with the success of The Motels during the late ’70s and ’80s. What was it like for you and the band when things really started to take off?

Martha Davis – Confusing. A lot of it was not how I pictured us, and it didn’t happen until Val Garay came along and produced “Only the Lonely.” Before that we were a lot edgier and crazier, and it got very polished and pop, which is not my favorite. I like crazy, I like outside stuff.  I was happy that I got some money, but at the same time I felt that I was compromising myself, and that kills it.  It was confusing; for the first time ever you have success, but then it wasn’t the way I wanted to do it.

Capitol Records
Capitol Records
Capitol Records
Capitol Records – It was obviously exciting, but you also felt like you were being compromised.

Martha Davis – Yes. Especially at that time, I wasn’t the bravest or most self-confident person, so I was easily persuaded.  Also, when I make the music — it doesn’t matter what time; it could be the worst music in the world — as long as I’m making music, I’m happy to a certain degree. As long as I’m making music.  It was an interesting time. – Very interesting. In 1982 you released the album All Four One which was a massive hit going gold, and you followed with Little Robbers a year later. What inspired the band to release albums in consecutive years?

Martha Davis – I think that was in the day when record companies wanted one a year. We hadn’t had any success in The States. The first album, which was released in 1979, did nothing in the States, but it was really big in Australia — we were touring in Australia — and same with the second album.  Third album was actually the Apocaylpso album, which never got released, so that was four albums, and that was four albums with no success in The States.  Those were the days when actual labels stuck with artists they believed in. That would never happen today, ever.  It was called artists development, which was a strange thing.  Even though they rejected the Apocaylpso album and they said there were no hits on it, “Only Lonely” was on that album.  It was just a different production.

Capitol Records
Capitol Records
Capitol Records
Capitol Records – That is very true about the way artist development once was. In 2011 you released the album Apocaylpso, which was in fact recorded thirty years earlier. What caused the album to be shelved for so long, and was it exciting for you to finally see the original album see the light of day?

Martha Davis – Nobody was really interested. Timing has always been classic with me.  When the Motels broke up around 1988,  I went to do a solo album. At that time it was exactly the same time that Capitol Records was transitioning to CDs from Vinyl and Cassette.  Since there were no more The Motels, they completely deleted all of The Motels catalog.  I mean they destroyed it. It was gone.  Usually, when you put on your solo album, you’ll have your old stuff around it so they would be like, “Oh yeah, she used to be with The Motels, and now she has a solo.”  Now there was nothing to even connect the two; they were just destroyed. It took years for them to even come out with The Motels stuff that sold, let alone the album that never got released. It was my friend at a label called Omnivore Recordings who actually released it, and I was very glad that she did.  She’s amazing. She started her label in April of 2011.  I found an old copy of the release date, which was supposed to be August 11th. She actually got it released thirty years to the day.  It was pretty awesome, and I love that record. It’s a crazy record.

Capitol Records
Capitol Records
Capitol Records
Capitol Records – When you put time and effort into it and for it to be shelved for three decades has to be frustrating.

Martha Davis –  It’s funny. It’s the way this business works sometimes. – It certainly is a very strange business. The aforementioned All Four One and Little Robbers had the massive radio hits “Only the Lonely” and “Suddenly Last Summer,” which were also fixtures on MTV during the early years. What were those early days like during the dawning of this pioneering music television platform?

Martha Davis – Fun! It was fun, fun, fun, and it was crazy low-budget.  It was pre-unions, pre-anything. It was very much make it up as you go.  The first ones I worked with Russell Mulcahy we did “Take the L” and “Only the Lonely.” I think we shot both of those videos in two or three days. It was just, run out, get people off the street, find a location, don’t get a permit, run in, shoot shoot shoot, and get out.  It was fun. It was great, and Russell is brilliant too. As those videos got really huge, budgets went way up, and then I got to work with David Fincher. He is not a low budget guy at all. He always had big visions. I’ve worked with so many great people. It’s really fun, but it’s like any art, when it’s the first blast of that raw feeling. Then it gets more corporate, more costly, and  when the money comes in, then people start worrying about the wrong things.  Then it disappeared, and everybody wants MTV back. Everybody I talk to says, “I want MTV back!”  MTV has just decided to do something completely different while everyone would like to have it back. I don’t understand the thinking exactly. It can’t be cheaper to have reality shows than just show people’s music videos. Who knows? – It was a great promotional tool. It also gave people a chance to put a face and an image with a song. Before then you had promo videos in the ’60s and ’70s, but it was nothing like that where you had these full on productions.

Martha Davis –  It was fun. I guess now it’s up to the artists to go out, make a video, and put it on YouTube. – That is very true. You have kept active through the years with your solo career and contributing to film soundtracks. One thing you have done is to keep your musical style always expanding. How important is it for you to have the ability to explore different areas musically?

Martha Davis – Yes, well I don’t really have anything to do with my creative process. The muse sort of comes in and beats me up for a while.  Basically, what I’ve learned is to get out of my own way and whatever comes, it should be accepted, whether it’s Country Western, Jazz, or a Kids’ album.  Whatever is coming, and whichever direction I want to go, I don’t go, “Oh I can’t do that.”  I used to when I was in The Motels, and would think “I have to write Pop songs.” Now I feel, “Screw that. If I want to write a Musical, I will write a Musical.” The more of that the better because it’s always exciting to try something new. I love change. I am not one of those people that likes to stay put, especially artistically.

Clean Sheets
Independent – Understood. Sometimes it works for some musicians to stick with what they know, but I think a lot of musicians are like you: they like to push the envelope.

Martha Davis – It’s very few that can do it, and a lot of times you find that the audiences don’t want them to. They think they want them to stay at that place. That’s why when you see someone like David Bowie, when he would come out with a new album the first time I’d put it on I would think, “What is he doing?!” and then a couple listens in I would think, “Oh my God, he’s so brilliant!”  There is that resistance because we do sort of stick with what we love and what we are familiar with. That’s why it’s exciting. We are working on a new album now and on tour we are bringing some new songs out just to test waters to see what the reaction is. It’s been really exciting. I have to say that about The Motels fans: they go with me. They don’t want to just hear the hits. It is nice. – That is excellent. You are, in fact, working on new material as you mentioned. How is the writing process going?

Martha Davis – It is difficult to do when you are touring. That’s one problem. My band lives in LA, and I live up in Oregon on my farm. There are logistics, but it’s mostly time and money, the same old things.  We get together and we will have enough stuff written before the album is done. I have a concept for it. I’m past the point of just making Pop albums. I really like everything to have a cohesiveness and a feel to it. It’s not like a concept album in a sense where there’s a story-line that runs through it; it’s just this thing where everything fits. I have a clear idea of what we need to do. We have most of the drums done. Then we go over to Nick’s studio, and then we will record.  It just takes time, and then it will take more time for mixing and artwork. – Yes, it is a long process, but it is exciting that you are working on new material. You have now been on the road regularly again for the past three years touring with the current lineup of The Motels. Seeing you have attained the mass experience, do you have a different perspective on performing in recent years?

Martha Davis – I’ve been touring non-stop. Basically in ‘89 I took one year off.  I have been working every year since. I just got a new manager who’s made me social network savvy and a visible person. Now I say, “To become real, you have to be virtual.” People will say, “I’m so glad you’re back,” and I would say, “I’ve been doing this the whole time, but I just didn’t know how to wrangle a Facebook page.”  It’s beyond important. People lost the means to figure out other ways on how to find things out about you.  Rolling Stone used to talk about all of the new bands. People do stuff like that online now, but people really go to Facebook for it.  I looked around. There really isn’t an option other than Facebook.  Myspace tried to crawl back a little bit again, but it didn’t work out.

the-motels-122web – Unfortunately, that is the way things are now. It is a good thing and a bad thing. It is a good medium to promote, but it is a bad thing because people become lazy and they do not actually want to seek out anything anymore.

Martha Davis – It’s true, and you go to YouTube, watch a clip, and go, “Well, I don’t have to leave the house.”  It’s so great when we have people coming out to the shows. We had some great audiences. It’s hard these days. I get it with ticket prices. Nothing is cheap anymore. The small venues are great for that. – Considering how you have had this vast experience being on the road and recording, has your perspective changed at all playing live now from what it was when you were younger?

Martha Davis – No.  It’s the same. It is exciting and wonderful.  We’re still driving around in the car, cracking jokes, squishing in, stopping at Whole foods to get something to eat.  It is the same. I’m sure Taylor Swift doesn’t travel that way, but that’s how we roll.  I’ve done all of it. I’ve done the fancy tour buses, I’ve done the arenas, but this is more fun in a lot of ways.  I know for a fact playing in those arenas sucks. They are built for sports.  Your audience is also so far away, and you can’t even see them. In that respect, smaller venues are the way to go, but then there’s money, so you have to try and balance it. – It definitely is better to play in an intimate setting. You have a better way to connect with the audience. You were part of that New Wave movement back in the late ’70s and ’80s. That movement was the first form of Alternative Rock

Martha Davis – My theory is that up until the ’60s, there were very tight formatted radio playlists. The song had to be two minutes and 30 seconds long.  Everything had to be perfect little Pop songs. Then in the ’60s, something magical happened. FM radio came on (that didn’t exist before) and for the first time ever people were writing six minute songs.  All of a sudden there was The Who, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Janis Joplin.  All of these things were happening at once, and it was just crazy. I think it was the freedom of the FM radio that allowed this, where people felt they could do it.  It was as though everything was cooped up for a while, repressed, and then it burst open. I have watched music through the years do the same thing.  When we first got together in 1971, the earliest version of The Motels, we were a little crazy Berkeley band. We thought we were great. We were going to move to LA, and we did.  At that point in time, the sound that was happening —  it was the California sound such as Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles. It was very produced, polished, very safe.

We couldn’t play anywhere in town because unless you had a record deal, you couldn’t play.  You weren’t allowed to play in the clubs. There were two clubs, The Whiskey and The Starwood.  We put on our own show, did all of these shenanigans and playing without a contract. We actually did a demo for Warner Brothers, but we were too quirky for the sound happening then.  It was this polished sound and they said, “No. Pass.”  Then, it seemed like it was a split second later, Punk happened.  Punk was the reaction to that really produced, polished sound.  That was the fight back against it, and everything was blowing up Punk wise.  All of these record labels went to New York from Hollywood, signing Richard Hell, and all of those guys such as Patti Smith.  At that point we became too melodic to be in that Punk scene. We had to wait around ’til New Wave hit. When New Wave hit, it was like a club where everybody was allowed in, as long as you were unique. You didn’t want to sound alike. Oingo Boingo didn’t sound alike, Devo didn’t sound alike, Blondie didn’t sound alike, Talking Heads didn’t.  Nobody sounded the same.  Every single one of us, and that was the main thing, if we can all sound different, which is funny because when I listen to kids today, emulating ’80s music, — and there’s a lot of that — they are missing the point.  The point is to be different than anything you’ve heard before, like, to say “We are going to do this, and it’s going to be completely crazy.”  That was a wonderful renaissance in its own way, because it was the Punk scene pushing back the polished scene. That’s what opened the door. If you can do Punk and piss on everything, then I can do this, and it blossomed into that. – Yes, it certainly was a special and unique scene.

Martha Davis – What happens, and I’ve watched it so many times, it’s like the pendulum swinging back and fourth.  You’ll get somebody coming out of the pack, just like what happened with Nirvana. Nirvana was one of those standouts. Then you see the corporate people come in and say,  “Give me 20 more Nirvanas.” Then it becomes corporate again, because it gets the same sounding.  The thing you are looking for is something you’ve never heard before, like the first time you heard Bob Dylan, and the reaction was “What?”  It’s about more than anything else being a songwriter. The voice is my way of telling the stories.  The important part is being able to tell something, say something that honestly resonates with people, and genuinely speaking. “Honesty” is the keyword there.  When I write, I try to get out of my own way and let my subconscious take over. It’s a very stream of conscious vision for me.

the-motels-98web – That is the best way to write.  What you said there about Nirvana with the Grunge scene, and all of a sudden there’s a gazillion bands.  That happens with any genre.  All of a sudden it becomes a parody of itself because it is overkill.

Martha Davis – That’s why in some ways the brilliance of David Bowie, or anybody that says, “I’m not going to stay here too long” because to say, “If I stay here, even if you invented it and came up with the idea, I will be in the same soup.” Soon, if it becomes one of those ideas that catches on, you’re going to be one of those in the sea of people doing the same thing. It is good to move. – Absolutely, progression is essential. What are some of your musical influences?

Martha Davis – Besides David Bowie?  I love Classical music. Igor Stravinsky is the guy that blew my mind when I was about five.  My mom had an old ‘78 of “The Rite of Spring” and I would sit by the turn table, in awe, and I loved it. I love Musical theater.  I did a little bit of a Folk thing, I like old Country music, I like certain Jazz, not all Jazz. I enjoy virtuosity when I am sitting and watching, but Jazz Fusion is not something I want to listen to. It is interesting watching the guys play because it’s amazing what they can do, but I’m definitely one of those that does not like too many notes. I don’t like busy music.  I love melody, beautifully stated melody that’s really moving, not a lot of notes. I was right there with the Radiohead gang in the beginning when that happened.  Music is subjective. We all like a lot of different things.  We are in the car driving around listening to music, and there’s always something. Everybody has their own thing. I like stuff that’s dark and chaotic and cinematic. I think that’s the keyword. I like music to make you feel like you are somewhere and not just something you can dance to. I like to paint pictures.

To me the song structure is if you walk in a theater and the stage is set.  As soon as you walk in, you feel what’s going on. That’s the music.  The lyrics to me are the set dressing, the candle stick. They are almost secondary because, as I said, I do it very stream of conscious.  I don’t spend a lot of time on lyrics because they just come out. Sometimes I will fuss with them  a little, but the music is what is really important. The right chord change can really move you, and that’s what’s important to me.

Capitol Records
Capitol Records – Extremely true. The music is the most important thing. My last question for you is pertaining to movies. covers music and Horror films.  If you are a fan of Horror films, what are some of your favorite Horror films?

Martha Davis – I wouldn’t say it’s the movie I seek out. I love Sci-fi. I’m actually working on a television show with a friend of mine. It’s just us playing around. It’s real interesting. It is kind of like music meets Doctor Who. That is all I’m going to say. It’s really fun. I’m having a great time doing it. I love imagination. I love science. It’s the only magazine I subscribe to: New Scientist.  The more I read about quantum theory, the more I think anything is possible. It’s all so crazy out there. We can’t even make out what goes on out there. – Science keeps changing as well. Nothing is exact science.  You mentioned television. Television has been the better product lately.  It seems like a lot of TV shows are of better quality than movies now.

Martha Davis – This is the new way to promote.  There’s really good stuff on TV. I’m a big fan on some of these series.  I also want to say this is a really good time for comedians, which gives hope for mankind. There’s some great comedians out there.  I love comedy.

Tour Dates:
June 19, 2015 – The Ark in Ann Arbor, MI
June 20, 2015 – City Winery – Chicago in Chicago, IL
June 21, 2015 – The Dakota in Minneapolis, MN
June 22, 2015 – City Winery – Nashville in Nashville, TN
July 15, 2015 – MIM Music Theatre in Phoenix, AZ
July 17, 2015 – The Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, CA
July 22, 2015 – Beaumont Summer Concert Series in Beaumont, CA
July 24, 2015 – The Chapel in San Francisco, CA

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