Sure, the band long ago made the descent into power ballad dribble, but those hits have afforded the band the ability to keep cranking out records (many of which have gestured back to their more off-kilter material) and tour. The group stops in Arizona Sunday afternoon for a stop at San Tan Valley's Encanterra Resort, and keyboardist, singer and songwriter Robert Lamm took a few minutes from working on his latest solo album to talk about the influence of electronic, hip-hop, Kanye West and Cee Lo Green with Up on the Sun.
UOTS: What are you up to?
RL: I am working on a new solo album. This is actually the last day I will be able to spend any time working on that project for another month or so. We're about halfway through, so we are making good progress.
UOTS: How is that coming along? What does it sound like?
RL: Well, um, this will be my seventh solo album, and really what it entails is an exploration of songwriting in directions that are probably a little more -- well, a little less mainstream than what Chicago has been doing for a while. I kind of explore art-rock, a little bit of world music, whatever I've written that I feel like would not really be suitable for Chicago.
Although, the band is thinking about getting back in the studio in October, because most of the guys who write have been writing a lot, and are starting to get itchy to get in there and record something. I'm not saying that everything on this solo album would not fit Chicago because I think a lot of it would, but, y'know, it doesn't have any horns on it, so that's the main thing.
UOTS: You mentioned art-rock and world music. Would you say that your own musical tastes are a little left of center? Are you interested in more avant garde stuff?
RL: Yeah, it's always been that way, essentially, I grew up listening to soul music and jazz, and Brazilian music, as a teenager I was listening mostly to Brazilian music. I've always been sort of drawn to that genre. In the last 10 years or so, the music that has sounded most interesting to me has not so much [been] mainstream rock, it's more European electronica, stuff that groups of DJs put together, remixes, that kind of thing. It's sonically interesting and occasionally it's kind of avant garde. I listen carefully to that stuff, and get a lot of pleasure drawing influence from that.
UOTS: In preparing for this interview, I went back and listened to the first Chicago album (Chicago Transit Authority), and it kind of took me back to realize some of the stuff on there, stuff like "Free Form Guitar."
UOTS: Just to hear stuff that's so indicative of modern noise rock, and stuff like that.
RL: Obviously those first couple albums, especially that one, evolved at a time when what is generally called rock & roll was really wide open and willing to experiment, not only musicians but listeners, and they wanted to hear something different. The radio would play long album cuts, and extended solos, basically explorations, and it was at the forefront then.
UOTS: It seems to me that experimentation lead to two different schools, with the art rock leading more toward punk.
UOTS: And some of the classical- and jazz-minded stuff leading to progressive rock. In the late '70s, those two seemed like polar opposites, but they kind of started in the same place.
RL: Yeah, yeah.
UOTS: It's interesting, in light of your later pop success, to hear how out there you guys got on the early records.
RL: [Laughs] I tip my hat to you for going back and listening to that, because I think a lot of people, many people, don't know the context from which Chicago comes. We were pretty good musicians when we started, and we've gotten better, but certainly uh, because of personnel changes and just the nature of music, and the fact that we've been doing this for so long, all those influences tend to have a confluence where we are just basically [trying to] record great songs, and that's where we are now.
You can go back and listen to Chicago XXX, the album we released four years ago, and it's certainly pop-driven, and it has its moments of power balladry, but in those tracks, there's pretty advanced musicianship and interesting songwriting.
UOTS: You guys came about at the tail end of the '60s, and gained popularity in the '70s. Do you guys feel at all responsible for the glut of geographically based band names from that time, like America, Chicago, Europe, Kansas, Boson, etc?
RL: [Laughs] I don't feel responsible, but I think that a lot of people thought that. "Hey, that's a good idea, let's just call ourselves by where we come from!"
I think that a lot of band names are dreamed up after injecting some sort of drug [laughs]. We had the advantage in that our name was dreamed up for us by a really straight-arrow producer, who thought it was a good idea.
Robert Lamm Anti-Drug PSA 1972
UOTS: Your most recently released album was Stone of Sisyphus, in 2008, but that was recorded long before it came out, correct?
RL: It was recorded in, I want to say 1994, and it at the time we were at Warner Music, and, and that was kind of the beginning, um, I am not sure of the exact date when Napster started, but it was kind of the beginning of the end for major record companies, and I think that many labels, including Warner, were looking for reasons to let artists go.
I truly think that was an album we had been waiting to do, because at that time, it was a bit experimental. We did a rap tune, some extended solos, the compositions themselves were not your normal mainstream pop. So when we delivered them an album like that, they did not like it, and they said you're going to have to go back in the studio and record a couple more power ballads or we're not going to release it.
We said, "Well, we're not going to do that because we really believe in this album. We've been waiting to do an album like this for a decade at least, and so we stand by it." They said, "Well, you can have it, and goodbye [laughs]."
It wasn't until, ironically, a decade or so later, we were back under the Warner label, under the auspices of Rhino, who had been meticulously going back through our archives, found this album sitting there and said, 'Can we release this?' We said, yeah, absolutely, go ahead.
UOTS: About that rap track, is it "Sleeping in the Middle of the Bed" that you are referring to?
UOTS: That's one that you wrote, correct?
RL: It's one that I wrote. It was actually on one of my solo albums of similar vintage, the early '90s.
UOTS: How interested, then, were you interested in rap, and have you kept up with it? Is rap an interesting genre to you?
RL: It's become less interesting because it's become more boring. With all genres of pop music, once there's sort of a flavor of the month stylistically, everybody jumps on the band wagon, so you get a lot of watered-down stuff.
So know you have Katy Perry with Kanye West rapping over the bridge and that sort of stuff. Rap was more interesting 15 years ago now. Certainly, there are new guys coming up who have a way. I like Kanye West, by the way, but I am less interested in it now then I was then. Really, what I was drawn to back then was the sampling and the nature of the beats, the manufacturing of the beats, which relates back to classical electronic music. So that's my interest in it. I was kind of like, let's see if I can do this.
UOTS: Did Chicago fans take to it? Was that strange for people?
RL: Chicago fans are all over the map. I don't know if you heard of this, but we did a mash-up with Cee Lo's "Forget You," or, "Fuck You," where we mashed up "Saturday in the Park" and that song together and released it virally, and a lot of our fans went crazy against it, but a lot of our fans were like, 'This is cool,' it's Chicago and this [other thing.]Cee Lo & Chicago Mash Up, "Forget Saturday"
At the time, the most negative thing I heard was some middle age woman saying, "What is Robert Lamm, a guy in his late 40s, in his midlife, doing rapping?" Well, you know, that just comes from an ignorant point of view. Many mainstream rappers, the most famous guys, are middle aged. If they weren't then, they certainly are now.
UOTS: People probably didn't expect the Beastie Boys to still be rapping in 2011.
RL: They are, yeah.
UOTS: I feel like rap has really come of age, and there are some really interesting things happening in rap, with hip-hop radio being willing, kind of like you talked about in the 60s, to play thing that sort of stretch the boundaries. There's a lot of experimentalism on Kanye's records, and that's exciting.
RL: I absolutely agree. For me, again, the nature of the sampling, and the choices that are made, is the most interesting thing. Kanye is very good. 808s & Heartbreaks is a great album.
Even going back to when P. Diddy was really doing a lot of work, I was amazed at the breadth of his choices. I knew that he, or someone on his staff -- I'm assuming him -- really listened to a lot of stuff, and not just listening to look for stuff to sample, but just listening and discovering it, and compile it in a way. So I hear you, man, that aspect of rap has always been very interesting.
UOTS: There's a very intriguing sense of experimentalism in hip-hop right now, but things are done in a way that doesn't sacrifice the pop element. Which I guess is something Chicago did as well, with long songs and elaborate arrangements, but there was always a pop/soul element to what you did. I never would have thought that I'd be making the comparison between modern hip-hop and Chicago, but there it is.
UOTS: What are you guys doing right now with the American Cancer Society and the "Sing With Chicago" campaign?
RL: We hooked up with ACS last year, and put some stuff on our website, and essentially all last year we played a hundred concerts or so, and we had people go on our website and bid, and each concert the person who donated money to the Breast Cancer Campaign could win a chance to come up on stage and sing with us.
I have to tell you, at first I was a little skeptical. But it turned out to be a fun moment every night, and sometimes poignant, and the audience really liked it. The worse the singer the more they liked it. But they were singing "If You Leave Me Now," which was picked by the American Cancer Society, and they asked if we would do that.
"If You Leave Me Now," 1977
The upshot of it was we played some great concerts, but we generated a lot of money for the Cancer Society. They approached us again this year and were really created a charity model, and we're doing it again this year, and we hope that it's just as successful this year, if not more so.
UOTS: You were nervous people were going to get up there and butcher the song?
RL: I wasn't worried about that so much as that, when we structure our set, we structure it to have a certain momentum, a beginning, a middle and an end, and I was worried that it was going to disrupt that, but it doesn't. We do it early enough in the set that it doesn't ruin our groove later on.
UOTS: You guys were recently on American Idol.
RL: We were on the finale of American Idol. We actually spent a lot of time last year abroad. We were in Brazil, and Australia, and later this year, we're going to spend a good part of the summer touring Europe, which will be the second time we've been there in the last couple of years.
That's a really important thing for us. So many of our intial fans were international fans, and we had pretty much abandoned going abroad in the mid-80s but in 2008 we decided to see if they remembered us in Europe, and they did in fact. We'll play at least 25 or 30 shows over there.
Later this year we're going to release a Christmas album produced by a famous producer and wonderful man Phil Ramone, an old friend of ours. We recorded that in Nashville last October, and that's going to come out in the fall of this year.
UOTS: Is the Christmas album a very traditional one?
RL: We chose lesser-known songs, but, there might be only about 40 Christmas songs that anybody knows, and every one thinks they can write a Christmas song, which is not the case -- we found after a lot of research -- so these are very mid-tempo to up-tempo. There is a minimum of smarmy Christmas stuff, and there's a tune called "Last Night of the Year," which is kind of an anti-Christmas song.
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UOTS: There's some humor involved.
RL: Yeah, there's one song that's pretty smarmy [maybe too much]. We are juggling whether or not to put that on there. We had some guests. America appears, Dolly Parton appears, and Steve Cropper. We actually did a Christmas album a dozen years ago, and in recent years, we've bumped into Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, who is kind of a pal, and Elton John, and they both said that our first Christmas album is their favorite Christmas album. They listen to it all the time, even when it's not Christmas.
UOTS: That's high praise, and also two people you wouldn't expect that to be the album on the tip of their tongue.
RL: [Laughs] Exactly.