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GERRY BECKLEY: AMERICA 2017 AUSTRALIAN TOUR INTERVIEW

GERRY BECKLEY: AMERICA 2017 AUSTRALIAN TOUR INTERVIEW

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Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell and Dan Peek were three young American guys in a foreign country in the 60s, who made a name for themselves taking their perfectly constructed breezy, west coast acoustic-based songs to the London pubs. With a career spanning 47 years and achieving albums sales in the millions, featuring numerous hit singles which became the soundtrack to people’s lives globally, the band America has nothing more to prove. However that doesn’t stop remaining members Beckley and Bunnell from touring annually and continuing to write new music. They’re regular visitors to Australia and will be back again in late July to begin a national tour. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips spoke to Gerry Beckley about the band’s career, songwriting process and the upcoming tour.
You’re coming back to Australia for yet another tour. What are your memories of your first Australian tour?
The first tour was back in the 70s and I do remember it. I remember Sydney and Melbourne and they seemed to be much smaller towns than what they appear now. We’ve been coming every few years since.

You’ve written some of the most perfectly constructed songs in contemporary music. Is there one song you’re particularly proud of from the perspective of song construction as opposed to its success or lyrics?
When you do an album there are 10 or 12 tracks and they are not all singles. I would pick a couple of those. There’s a song called Another Try from our Holiday album which was our 4th record but the first one that George Martin produced for us. I thought that went well. It has a storyline, a family story and I like that construction-wise. There’s a song called To Each His Own which I wrote on the 2nd album, Homecoming. I just happened to hear it the other day when something was on shuffle and it came up and I thought that came up pretty well too. I Need You was a hit for us, it was the follow up to Horse With No Name and that was one of the first songs I wrote, so I guess I got lucky early right?

What kind of things did you learn from working with George Martin?
We learned many, many things but I usually just corral it into one thing he taught us and that was focus, or he brought focus back to our process. His talents are endless, an amazing arranger. If you are a Beatles fan you know that he is responsible for the great string charts on Eleanor Rigby, Yesterday and Something. So you’ve not only got a producer who was very good at doing what I consider as production type things but an arranger was bottled into the same guy, so you didn’t have to bring in another guy to do that job. We were producing ourselves by then and we were starting to lose focus so I think when he came on board he kept us always heading in the right direction.

I always thought that the Hideaway album was your finest work. A lot of people don’t agree. How do you look back at that album?
Well it didn’t have a very big hit on it the Hideaway album. Unfortunately with a lot of those songs, we didn’t have the opportunity to play them a little bit more live … didn’t end up in the show as long. There were some wonderful orchestrations on Hideaway. I think the single from the album was one of Dan’s, Today’s The Day, which we had in the show for a few years.

What tricks have you learned to stop yourself from writing the same song over and over?
Well you’ve got to focus on that because it can happen I can tell ya (laughs). That bridge sounds familiar, well that’s because I’ve used it once before! We all have our little systems which seem to work. There is no book on how to do this. Some of the greatest songwriters .. Elton John has never written a lyric, he relies on Bernie Taupin or other lyricists and he sits down and writes incredible music to other people’s words. Both Dewey and I are lyricists and musicians so we both write parts of the equation. We learned a trick from our good friend Jimmy Webb years ago and he told us to keep a list of titles. He worked from a title, kind of like having a target at the end already at the start. If you have a nice title, you already know where the song is heading, so tricks like that.

Has your method of songwriting changed much over the years?
It probably has. It’s a challenge like anything you want to do well. if you are serious about it you continue to work on it. I’ve been trying to simplify for decades. My tastes tend to run more to the minimal artists. I have a dear friend who is an architect and he says less is more was never intended to mean nothing is something. In my mind you try to boil it down to its simplest elements until taking away one more thing no longer improves it. I like to apply that to songs. I like to try to come up with the simplest idea but still think of it as a quality piece of work.

Do you keep an archive of song ideas that you return to?
Oh yeah. In fact now that we all have pocket computers and stuff. You’d carry a little cassette recorder around for years and hum and strum a few bars into that. Now we all have iPhones or similar things and it makes it easier. Of course you have to make sure you back it all up.

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Have you been through many acoustic guitars over the years? What did you start out playing and what do you play now?
The very first album was done on some Yamaha acoustics. They were FG180s which are Yamaha’s version of a Martin. It was a dreadnought. I think it had rosewood back and sides. Dewey then switched to a Guild which he played for years, a D50 a classic dreadnought Guild and I played a Martin D41for a long time. We’ve now beenTaylor endorsees for well over a decade. I have my own model Taylor which is  shaped like a jumbo but a smaller body and I have quite a few of those … 6 strings and 12 strings which are matched. I play those on stage. I play them so much that I have actually gone through the tops of two of them, a la Willie Nelson where there are holes in the top.

Many acoustic based acts have trouble getting a good acoustic sound live. Did you go through that process in the early days?
Well there was always what I would call the latest version of how to do it. When we first started playing we actually had 6 boom stands. There were 3 for our 3 vocals and another 3 that sat out and pointed microphones into the holes in the guitars. We didn’t have pickups on them. Which is amazing to me now because that actually seemed to work. That was followed shortly after by a whole series of contact mics and stuff that glued onto the surface of the guitar soundhole. Now most of them work on a variety of a piezo kind of thing under the bridge. I have a few vintage guitars that I bring out. I have a lovely Epiphone Texan that I converted so that I can play it on stage and I have a Gibson Hummingbird that sounds lovely. It’s far easier now to get a good sound acoustically on stage than it used to be.

There’s something I find really intriguing with rock music history. That is that every great band in music has a period of x amount of albums and songs which is regarded as their golden period. Bob Dylan once said that you can never return to that period no matter what you do. It was the right time right place and the moons aligned. It seems to me that for bands who have been going for decades that there’s almost an automatic prejudice that even if you WERE writing songs now that ARE equally as good as the golden days, that they’re automatically dismissed. Do you sometimes feel that now, that you’ve written a great song, as good as any of your hits and think well why aren’t they going for this too?
Well it is not just the quality of the song. Yes, if we all had time machines we could put those theories to the test and bury what we consider to be newer gems into what we know now as very successful albums. But it doesn’t matter who the artist is, there is going to be an arc to your career or at least an arc to your sales. You can take the biggest acts still touring today … Springsteen or The Stones or whatever … they are not really going to have hit records or new material on the radio. It just doesn’t happen that way. The reasons they are classics and continue to draw thousands of people is because they have cleared that particular chapter and have moved into an area that I like to think of as timeless. That’s not an easy manoeuvre. Nobody has a guarantee that you continue to make hit records decade after decade. I think it is virtually impossible.

When your audiences hear your hits, it transports them back to certain times in their lives. For many its the soundtrack of their lives. What artists or songs have that effect on you?
Well the quick answer to that is The Beach Boys and The Beatles. We were children of the 60s and it’s one of those things, you had to be there to witness it. It was just an incredible time for creative music. Everybody of our generation were Beatles’ fanatics and waited for every new release. We were also very fortunate to have something as wonderful as the Beach Boys. I think that combination of Californian music coming out of Brian Wilson and Los Angeles combined with the English invasion stuff of the 60s.Those are the two things that really drove our writing style

Four to five decades down the road would you have done anything differently if you could?
The simple answer to that is that I wouldn’t change a thing because everything that happened brought us to this point and Dewey and I are two of the luckiest guys who have had endless amounts of good fortune but we have also work very hard to put ourselves in the position we are in. To do a 100 shows around the world you have to have a 100 offers. You can’t just say let’s go out and play everywhere. There has to be demand and we have been very fortunate, we have treated the live show with a great deal of energy and respect and it is as good as it has ever been. There are a  couple of new guys in the band makes it more fun than it has been in years.

If you were starting the band today would you still call it America?
You know what I probably would. I get that it’s kind of a risky thing and has a certain presumptious nature to it but for us, when we were kids playing in London, it was a way to tell a bit of a story about us before we even started to play the first few notes. We were amongst a lot of really talented bands in England. There were great people like Nick Lowe and Brinsley Schwarz. In and around London we were all playing the pubs. By calling ourselves America, it defined us. It was like oh yeah that’s those 3 American kids, that acoustic act. I think we made the right choice.

Lost and Found was your last studio album in 2015. Any plans on another one any time soon?
Well that came about because we’d been archiving. I had a studio, Human Nature at a previous house for decades and I did so much recording there that when I closed the studio down, a dear friend of mine said you have to go through all of these hard drives. You have to make sure you’ve got them all backed up. There was a lot of work and we ended up with quite a few albums just out of those archives. There might be a Lost and Found volume 2 but I would also like to get in and cut some new stuff. Just as they say writers write, painters paint. Whether or not you are selling albums or not doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make any. I still plan to make a few more records.

AMERICA on tour with special Guest: Russell Morris
MONDAY, 24 JULY 2017 – PERTH, WA
CROWN THEATRE
Book at Ticketmaster 136 100 or www.ticketmaster.com.au

WEDNESDAY, 26 JULY 2017 – MELBOURNE, Vic
ARTS CENTRE, HAMER HALL
Book online, at the Box Office or call 1300 182 183

FRIDAY, 28 JULY 2017 – SYDNEY, NSW
DARLING HARBOUR THEATRE at ICC SYDNEY
Book at ticketek 132 849 or www.ticketek.com.au

SATURDAY, 29 JULY 2017 – CALOUNDRA, Qld
THE EVENTS CENTRE
Book at 07 5491 4240 or www.theeventscentre.com.au

SUNDAY, 30 JULY 2017 – GOLD COAST, Qld
BROADBEACH MUSIC FESTIVAL
* FREE SHOW *

WEDNESDAY, 2 AUGUST 2017 – WOLLONGONG, NSW
WIN ENTERTAINENT CENTRE
Book at Ticketmaster 136 100 or www.ticketmaster.com.au

THURSDAY, 3 AUGUST 2017 – CANBERRA, ACT
ROYAL THEATRE
Book at Ticketek 132 849 or www.ticketek.com.au

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