The Unassuming Renaissance Man: An Interview with Greg Kihn

You know, that I know, that you know, that Greg Kihn is a bad ass… right? The affable man of many hats wants you to know that it’s OK if you don’t. He’s only a platinum selling rock star, award-winning novelist, Bay Area DJ, who is pals with members Grateful Dead, played in a band with Joe Satriani, and won the prestigious WCAO Baltimore, MD talent contest at the age of 15. Greg Kihn hasn’t put out a record of new material in 21 years until he released his new album ReKihndled in March of this year. He really has had a storied career, and loves to talk about it in the affable way your Uncle loves to tell you stories of his youth.

Greg Kihn sat down with RarasFarm to discuss the items listed above, his newest record, and the craziness, that still gets him excited, around his hit song “Jeopardy”

Cheers,

You have your first record out in 21 years called ReKihndled how does it feel to have a record out after that long?

Greg Kihn – “Well, 21 years is a long time to go between records. The band had a couple of issues, I had to change a couple of guys. Currently, Robert Berry, who produced the album, is playing bass and he also owns Soundtech Studios, where we recorded the album. My son Ry Kihn, is the lead guitar player in the band, and he’s got huge shoes to fill because he is replacing Joe Satriani, so you can’t denigrate that. I also have a new drummer from Sammy Hagar’s band, Dave Lauser. Sammy gave Dave year off, so he came over to our band and we’ve never sounded better. I think this is the best Greg Kihn Band we have ever had. Rekindled man… as in, I hope this album rekindles my career.

“I think I’ve made 18-20 albums over my career, and all but two have the “Kihn” title. My mother loved it when she was alive.”

After watching your new video for “Big Pink Flamingos” it looks like you and the band are having a lot of fun together.

Greg Kihn – “I’m to the point in my career now that if it ain’t fun than don’t do it. So we have a blast playing live again, which is always the most fun of anything. Writing mode is different than rehearsal mode, or anything else we do together, and when we write the songs, it’s a little mixing pot. For instance: when we did “Big Pink Flamingos”, I was talking to my son Ry, and I told him ‘I really want to do a solo that was like “Oh Well” by Fleetwood Mac.’ It has a riff, then stops, and then they sing something, and then it stops.’ And Ry goes, ‘I know what you mean, like ‘Black Dog’ from Zeppelin.’ So he goes home, and the next day he comes back to the studio, and he’s done his homework and came up with this really cool riff. And instantly I came up with the title “Big Pink Flamingos” and we wrote that song in about 15 minutes. And that is how most really great songs are written… in about 15 minutes.

“If you talk to a lot of songwriters, you’ll find that the songs that they worked the least on, are the best. You look back on the Greg Kihn catalog, with stuff like “Jeopardy”, and “The Break- Up Song”, those were all written in 15 minutes. Back in the day, we would get together in the same organic deal. We would get out the guitars, mess around for a couple of minutes and then the next thing you knew we were writing a song.

“We’ve got so many damn records out, that when I try to make a setlist, it’s hard because there are 70 songs on the setlist, and I have to whittle them down. But those setlists change all the time. That is what makes the gigs really fun, they are never the same twice. The writing itself, is really the reason that all of this happens. Same thing if I’m writing a book or a song, you use that same creative muscle in the brain, and if it’s organic and it writes itself then that’s what you’re going for. If you try to force it, it’s never as good.”

You grew up in Baltimore, Maryland; how did the city affect your musical career?
Greg Kihn – “When I was about 15 I got my first guitar, and my cousin got a banjo, and this was during the folk boom, and we were writing Kingston Trio songs and stuff like that. There was a church coffee shop near my mom’s house. Every Sunday night they had a “hootenanny” where you could just go and sign up. So, every Sunday night me and my cousin would go and sign up, and every week we got a little bit better. By the time a year had gone by, I was used to playing on stage, and I never got nervous and I always enjoyed it.

“The whole reason I became a musician was because of my mom. My mom and dad lived in a duplex in Baltimore, it was a row house. There was a Top 40 station in Baltimore, WCAO, and we would listen to it all the time. They had a big talent contest in and I had made a tape on an old reel to reel tape recorder, a real piece of junk, I used to take it into the bathroom because it had great acoustics, and I would go in there with my guitar and cut demos. So, my mother, without telling me, sent the tape to the radio station and I won first prize! I won the talent contest for WCAO, and I won three things that affected my life forever, one of them was an electric guitar –  a Vox Teardrop, A Wollensak electric typewriter, and a stack of records. It just so happens that I used all three of those items in my career.”

Can you speak a little to your career as a DJ in the Bay Area?

Greg Kihn – “We were in San Jose, and then up to San Francisco and the Bay Area. It was a trip because I was doing the morning show and I had to get up at 4AM every freakin’ day and drive 45 minutes down to the station. It was insane… When it finally ended I wanted to sleep until noon every day for the rest of my life.

“I really did love being on the radio, it was an absolute blast, I love talking to people. Everybody knew who I was in San Francisco. I would walk down the street and people would scream how much they loved the show, so it was pretty nice.

“As for the interviews, some were really great, some not so great. A lot of the musicians that came from the Bay Area I already knew because we came up together. So if I was talking to Huey Lewis, Eddie Money, or Journey it was really easy cause we were all friends.

“I was particularly close to the Grateful Dead and we would do opening gigs for the Dead. They would put on these huge elaborate shows in Spartans Stadium playing to 80,000 people. Backstage there would be this humongous Moroccan tent with cushions on the floor and a hookah in the middle of the space, and the thing would bellow out smoke. I’m hanging around with Mickey Hart and we pop into the tent to say hi to Jerry Garcia, and Jerry says “sit down and have a toke”. I sat down and they were smoking hash out of this thing, and within 10 minutes I was catatonic. And I had to go play a show!

“We went out on stage in front of 80,000 people high as a kite, and I couldn’t remember how to play the guitar. I learned a big lesson at those shows. We went and played our big hits; “Jeopardy”, and “The Break-Up Song” and nothing, you could have heard a pin drop. So we said ‘screw it’ and jammed “Johnny B Goode” for 20 minutes and we got a standing ovation. Every time we played with the Dead we threw the set list out the window.”

How did you lure Joe Satriani into playing with the Greg Kihn Band?

Greg Kihn – “We were a Berklee band, and we would play in and around the city. There was another band in in the city called The Squares, and Joe Satriani was in The Squares. They were really good with Mr. Satriani on guitar. We had been asking him to join the band for years. The first guy we ever asked to be in our band was Satriani, and he turned us down because he was already in The Squares.

“10 years went by and our guitar player quit, and then his replacement quit, and were without a guitar player. Out of the blue I called Joe Satriani and I asked him ‘I know you turned us down before, but we have a number one record and we’re doing pretty good playing in giant arenas, would you want to finally join the band?’, and he said yes. He was only in the band for 2 and a half tremendous years. Obviously the problem was he was just too good for us. The Greg Kihn Band was a three chord band. We were like Creedence, and he was like Hendrix. I told him to go out and do his own thing and two months later he madeSurfin’ With the Alien> and the rest is history.”

I am very interested in how you pivoted from writing music to winning a Bram Stoker award for writing Fiction?

Greg Kihn – “I didn’t think anyone was going to take me seriously as a writer because really, I had always been a writer. Even when I was in elementary school, I would write these crazy stories, and was always into sci-fi and horror. When the band starting playing around the country in 1978/79, I really got into Stephen King, so I always had one of his novels in my pocket, and I read everything he ever wrote. After a while I would get back to my hotel room, and I didn’t want to sleep so I would write for an hour or two. It was a very fulfilling thing, and by the end of the tour I had almost a book.




“I get ideas from everything… my last couple of novels Rubber Soul and Paint it Black are certainly influenced by music. Rubber Soul came about when I was interviewing Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney in the same week, and I asked them both the same question: “Where did the Beatles get their music?” Where did it come from? You couldn’t go to a record shop and buy “Twist and Shout”, you couldn’t by “Money” by Barrett Strong because they didn’t have any import shops. Ringo went on to say that they got those American style records from the merchant marines that were returning from America. They would buy the R&B singles at the record stores in the US and bring them back on the ships and sell them in Liverpool. That was how the hero of the Rubber Soul book; Dustbin Bob, came about. Bob had a booth down at the penny market and he sold the records. And one day The Beatles came by and they developed a friendship and Dustbin Bob sold them all those great American songs that eventually they did covers of. I’m now on my third sequel with the character of Dustbin Bob. The first one was about the Beatles, the second Paint it Black is about Brian Jones, and the new one is called Anarchy, and it’s all about punk rock and Sid Vicious and the whole scene there.”

“Jeopardy” was such a huge hit, and was everywhere when it came out in the early 80’s. What was that time like for you?

Greg Kihn – “MTV had just started. All the stuff they were playing were fake, live videos that were girls running down alleys in lingerie. We were the first guys to come along and do a concept video. It was huge, because no one had done it yet. I had a great Director in Joe Dea, and we sat down one day and discussed ideas for the video for the song “Jeopardy”. He asked me ‘what are you into’, and naturally I said ‘well… I’m into horror movies and sci-fi’. And he said ‘perfect, let’s do Night of the Living Dead.

We had a great time doing it, and recorded the video in one massive 48 hour shoot. We did it in the same church that was in the Dirty Harry movie in San Francisco. And I’m telling you right now, I am definitely going to go to hell for the things I did in that church after hours. Years have gone by and I still don’t think that God has forgiven me for the things that I did in that church.

“We were basically doing a low-budget horror movie. We came up with different special effects. One of them was a giant snake that comes up through the floor and wraps itself around me and tries to drag me down into Hell. We did that with a latex rubber snake, and we wrapped it around my body real tight, and then we let it go, and when we played it in reverse, it looked like the snake jumped out and coiled itself around me. There was a part of the video where I was stabbing the snake and the supposed snake blood was splashing me in the face. We bought some big cans of split pea soup and filled squirt guns with the soup, and had extras off camera shooting me with the soup. When we played it back it looked really awesome. There was nothing else like it at the time so MTV played that song every hour all day long.

What are you thoughts on the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame?

Greg Kihn – I was talking to Weird Al Yankovic about a month ago, the guy is just wonderful, one of the funniest guys you’ll ever meet, and we were talking about one of our other friends – Joan Jett – making it into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame. And we were talking about whether or not we would make the Hall of Fame. I said ‘Al, they are never gonna let us get within 10 blocks of the Hall of Fame. And he asked “why do you think that is?” And I said “I’m writing novels, putting records out, and touring and I still can’t get in.

Joan Jett was happy to be in the Hall of Fame but she wasn’t jumping up and down about it. It was just another accolade in her crown. I think the fact that you are recognized and your music will live is more important than being in the Hall of Fame. I don’t worry about that kind of stuff, if I worried about recognition for my art I’d be worrying a long, long time.

You can write novels, write songs, act like you know what you are doing, but it’s easy if you just stop worrying and just do it. When I sit down to do something, it never occurs to me that it’s impossible to do. I just do it. And that continues to this day because you’re only going to get better as time goes on.

Check out Tour Dates for Greg Kihn Here.

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Rock On!
Brian Furman





 

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