May 19, 2017 Interview – Robert Lamm of Chicago
As the late great Jim Croce once said, “I’ll have to say I love you in a song,” because sometimes music can say what we cannot. Such is the case with the mild mannered Robert Lamm, who has spent most of his life expressing himself through song, and what a job he has done. A co-founder of the legendary Rock band Chicago, Lamm is responsible for penning some of the band’s most memorable tunes including “Questions 67 & 68,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?,” “Beginnings,” “25 or 6 to 4,” and “Saturday in the Park,” to name just a few. Together with Chicago for five decades now, the band is one of the best selling acts of all-time, pioneering Rock-n-Roll with their unique blend of guitar, piano, and horns. Sustaining a solo career in between all the work with Chicago, Lamm recounts his music in a new collection, Time Chill, A Retrospective, on June 2, 2017. The first-ever look back at Lamm’s solo career, recently we caught up with the busy musician to talk the history of Chicago, the concept behind the new compilation, future touring plans, and more.
CrypticRock.com – As a founding member and songwriter of Chicago, you have attained an amazing career spanning over five decades filled with hit songs, top selling records, and so much more. First, briefly tell us, what has this incredible journey been like?
Robert Lamm – I have to say that it’s gone by rather quickly. The guys in the band, from the very beginning, and several incarnations later, we’ve always been lucky to have guys who have a great work ethic, so we’ve been busy for five decades. We’ve been writing songs, recording songs, taking them on the road and playing them for audiences all over the world. It’s sort of been one long tour (laughs). You know, the gestation of an album for many artists is that they sit, they write their songs, they record them and then they take them on the road. That’s really been the cycle. It’s remained interesting and as a composer over the years, every song leads to the next song. It’s really been a journey of discovery and exploration as well.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, and as you keep busy, time just flies by. Through the years, Chicago have really put out some timeless songs. Above singing and playing, you are truly a songwriter. As a songwriter, what has served as inspiration for you through the years?
Robert Lamm – I do think that I was born with a brain that’s wired for music. I can remember at a very young age hearing music inside my head; hearing music internally. Even still, when I’m taking a walk or I’m on a plane, sometimes I start hearing a melody or hearing a piece of something that could be made into a song. Besides that I’m, hard to believe, not a guy that talks a lot. I have spent much of my life watching, observing, and analyzing things I see and things I hear people say to each other. An awful lot, I’ve been inspired by reading. I’ve led an interesting life and I have lovely people in my life. It’s always been toughest for me to really express my love for the people closest to me. It’s just something that I really had to work hard at doing. Writing about politics was always easy compared to writing about my feelings.
CrypticRock.com – Understandable. Well, as you said, you were a relatively quiet guy throughout the years, the music has done a lot of the walking. What is quite amazing about Chicago is the longevity of the band. Few bands have attained such a feat. In addition, the band has always had a signature style, but has managed to mix into various decades. What was the transition into the ’80s like for Chicago?
Robert Lamm – I do think that’s because the band has never stopped and, really, the band is made up of individuals who have very different tastes. I do think that, bottom line, the guys that write and the guys who play, and maybe don’t write, have always listened to music. I think that part of being a musician is hearing other music. So while we haven’t really adapted or appropriated the trends in music, we are certainly aware. It’s Pop music, and it’s really formed by the culture and the culture is constantly shifting. That shift in the culture is what forms Pop music in my opinion, and when I say Pop music, I mean all music. Whether it’s Metal, Rap, Dance music, or Electronica, it’s all formed by the culture.
CrypticRock.com – Completely agreed. What we go through as a people socially, personally, it is in our art. Beyond your career with Chicago, you have also had a lengthy list of solo credits as well as collaborations with others. Documenting this history, you are set to release a new compilation album on June 2nd called Time Chill, A Retrospective. What was it like putting this collection together?
Robert Lamm – I love writing music, I love writing songs, and the one thing that I probably, without being modest, worked on most is my lyric writing. As a result, listening back to my solo projects, some of it musically is definitely defined by the decade it was created; whether it was Skinny Boy in 1974 or Life is Good in My Neighborhood (1993), which was very much from the ’80s, and they sound like it. So what the record company Omnivore and I were shooting for was an album that was a retrospective, but one that kind of had a thread at least of the 21st century. I think it does. Musically, we’ve all been affected by the digital aspects of making music, recording music, and producing music. We tried to make this retrospective something that’s more today than yesterday.
CrypticRock.com – There is just so much history to cover, but this collection really offers some great pieces of audio for dedicated fans. This is a treasure chest of tracks.
Robert Lamm – Yes, and I’ve really been enamored of Electronica since the ’90s and I have a wonderful producer by the name of John Van Eps, or as I call him JVE. He and I have worked on many kinds of music, but once we started, I wanted to see what he could do to recreate some Chicago songs, which we did on an album called Robert Lamm Songs: The …JVE Remixes about ten years ago. One of the things that we were planning to do, moving forward, was try to do what we were calling Electro-Balsa music – which is basically Brazilian influenced songs that we would record organically which we would try to remix them using Electronica standards and techniques.
CrypticRock.com – Very interesting. You mentioned Electronica and your interest in it. We could look back to the late ’70s when synthesizers started to come in. You look at bands like Kraftwerk that started to use it heavily and what it formed into through the years. If you look back at it, they kind of used to say that synthesizers are not a real instrument. They kind of downplayed the effects of it, but it really is a compelling instrument to work with.
Robert Lamm – It totally is. I would say that even before the ’70s, if you listen to some of the old electronic music of Edgard Varèse, where he, probably as early as the ’40s and ’50s, was doing things that in an analog world still were very experimental. He would record an orchestra playing music, then take the actual tape, cut it up, throw it up in the air, and paste it back together: and in a sense, remixing if you will, using the analog technology as it existed back then. I think anything that makes a sound, whether it’s tape or a bazookie, is something that has to be considered a musical instrument. Once the technology morphed into synthesized music or synthesized sound, if you will, then all bets are off.
CrypticRock.com – It is certainly interesting to see how it has developed. Music has certainly been an important part of your life for so long now. Of all the experiences you have had, what would you say, as an artist, has been the most important lessons you have learned?
Robert Lamm – One kind of obvious thing that I’ve realized just recently in the last couple years, is that music is best enjoyed live. We all have our music collections, whether it’s LPs, cassettes, CDs, or just whatever we’ve decided to download and keep as our own. As wonderful as that experience is, it really is not the experience that one would get in a concert hall or in a club. There’s something to be said for whatever the slight loss of musical experience occurs when listening to recorded music.
Having said that, my solo projects, each one of them, has taught me so much about working with others in the studio, but also about developing confidence in my ability to make decisions. I do think that recording an album, and I don’t care what it is -whether it’s songs or electronica or whatever- being a producer or being the artist with a hand in the production, a lot of it is trying things and making a decision. I’ve never been the kind of artist, either with Chicago or as a solo artist, that wants to spend six months or a year in the studio.
For me, that is not the way to record music. That is not the way to produce a project that has some continuity and depth. Over the years, I’ve learned to make decisions when decisions are necessary and not be afraid to pull the plug on a particular approach and then jump into another approach on a song. All of those things have been profound lessons for me.
CrypticRock.com – Very interesting. All those lessons are interconnected. You are right, there is no substitute for a live performance. And perhaps, with recording, like you said, you do not want to spend six months in the studio. You do not want to overthink things because that ties into the spontaneity of a live performance. Music, if you overthink it, does not come naturally.
Robert Lamm – Absolutely. One really cool thing about Chicago, and that’s really been 99% of my experience recording with them or a band, is that we’ve always been the kind of band that would do a few takes and pretty much always like the first, second, or maybe third takes of a half dozen. I think that has imbued Chicago’s stuff with a certain level of spontaneity and creativity, so that’s something that I’ve proud of.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, Chicago is certainly a unique Rock-n-Roll band. At the center of it all has always been the signature horn section. Pioneering in many ways, how did you find listeners initially reacted to the heavy use of horns in the music?
Robert Lamm – When we first started out, we were basically a cover band. Most of us were still in school and playing clubs in the Midwest. We were basically playing soul tunes. That was a great way to introduce the sound of three horns along with a rhythm section in a club in a live situation, and the things that we were playing, were things that people loved hearing and loved dancing to. So we were accustomed to that kind of acceptance. Towards the end of that phase, before we moved to California and started recording, we began doing strange arrangements of Jimi Hendrix tunes or Beatles tunes. We found that if we interspersed them in the sets with music that was more familiar and more literal, if you will, that acceptance was forthcoming for the stranger things.
I have to say that we were very lucky to emerge during the era that we did because it was the beginning of the psychedelic era where virtually anything was fair game. It was the era of the beginning of infusion, Jazz fusion, very long solos; the influence of Ravi Shankar, of extended pieces of music. All of that kind of influenced not only the band but also the listeners to the music that was being made in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
CrypticRock.com – It was certainly a great time for music. Popular music has changed decade after decade. The way we receive our music and the way it is produced has changed through the years. What are your thoughts on the state of Rock-n-Roll in 2017?
Robert Lamm – The March 9th issue of the New York Times Magazine, it’s called 25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music is Going. I read that issue with interest and also listened to the songs that they referred to. I think that where it is going is a continuation of influences that come from every corner of the world. That’s kind of the impact of the internet, of websites that offer music from every culture, from mostly younger generations of many different cultures. I think that all of that is funneling into what we generally call Rock-n-Roll. Now you can listen to film scores; you can listen to singer-songwriters; you can listen to dance music; you can listen to narrowly-described Rap music, and it all has a certain worldliness that I think has been infused into Rock-n-Roll or Pop. I think that we’re going to continue to feel that.
CrypticRock.com – That is true, there is certainly a world diversity in all music now. You can hear it in many of the younger bands coming out. Chicago will be out on tour the next few months. You guys are always touring and you put on exceptional shows.
Robert Lamm – I actually just got home recently from three weeks in the southeast, but yes, we are going to spend a couple months with the Doobie Brothers this summer. That’s always fun.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, and you’ve toured with them in the past. Chicago is certainly a hard working touring band. This in mind, is there a possibility of some solo gigs from yourself intertwined in all of this?
Robert Lamm – I never say never, but my loyalty and responsibility to the band, to be available at every gig that’s on the books or is contemplated, far outweighs my desire to perform as a solo act. There are a couple of small, very private, events where I’m going to end up by myself and I’m going to perform a song or two just as part of the event. I can’t get specific about it because they’re sort of private fundraising events, but in no way would I be performing songs from my solo side. Having said that, I have performed occasionally with a put together band of the solo repertoire, and I may do it again, but I couldn’t say when.
CrypticRock.com – Understood. If time allowed it in the future, that would be fun to see, especially with your new record coming out.
Robert Lamm – And you know, I could see a scenario where one or two of partners says, “You know, we’ve worked pretty hard for the last few years, let’s take six months off,” and that would be when it could possibly happen.
CrypticRock.com- Well that would be fun to see as well. Until then, people can enjoy Chicago out on tour with the Doobie Brothers this summer. My last question for you is pertaining to movies. CrypticRock.com covers music and Horror/Sci-Fi films. If you are a fan of either genre, do you have any favorites?
Robert Lamm – I prefer Sci-Fi films, but the kind of Sci-Fi like classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Blade Runner (1982), or The Fifth Element (1997). I like those kinds of Sci-Fi, and really most Sci-Fi films. What I’m really not a fan of is Horror or Fantasy. For some reason, I’m just interested. But Science Fiction and even things as close to reality as Apollo 13 (1995), I like all that stuff. I like all that outer space stuff.
CrypticRock.com – Very cool. Horror and Fantasy definitely are not for everyone. In regards to Sci-fi, you mentioned some great films. Alien is sort of a cross between Horror and Sci-Fi, what were your thoughts on Alien when it came out in 1979?
Robert Lamm – It was gripping and compelling. For me, it worked really well on a lot of different levels. There were a lot of twists and turns in the plot. I think that the fact that a woman was an essential character and a hero and a tough son-of-a-bitch, I think all of that was groundbreaking in a lot of ways.