By: Skip Daly
“Josie’s on a vacation far away…”
That’s all I have to say, and now you know (if you didn’t already know) who Tony Lewis is.
That voice. The pure, siren song of ‘80s pop rock at its absolute zenith.
When The Outfield’s debut album, Play Deep, conquered the airwaves in 1986, I was but a freshman in high school. The album had actually been released in 1985, but the first single (“Say It Isn’t So” – still a great song in its own right) didn’t achieve mass penetration on American radio.
That honor fell to follow-up single “Your Love,” released to maintain a presence for the band during a brief break in touring. “Your Love” hit the airwaves like a tsunami, and would go on to achieve a ubiquity only rivalled by the biggest hits of the decade.
It’s no exaggeration to say that this was my own personal Beatles moment. That sound: Tony’s unreal, ethereal-yet-amazingly-strong voice, coupled with John Spinks’ unique, ringing guitar riff and Alan Jackman’s rock-solid drumming (with due credit to the beautiful, pop sheen of Bill Wittman’s production). This was my ticket to becoming a real fan of popular music – an adventure that continues to this day. I wore that cassette out. (Yes, cassette.) Then I wore the replacement out (no exaggeration).
Much has been said of “guilty pleasures,” and let’s face it – there’s no winning an argument with “serious” music folks if you try to expound on the virtues of a pop-rock band when stacked up against genres or artists universally accepted as “sophisticated.” It’s not a bucket list item for me to find the nearest hipster and try to engage them in an Outfield vs. Miles Davis discussion. Pass.
But I’m also old enough to scoff at the concept of feeling “guilty” over simple pleasures. You like it or you don’t. It resonates or it doesn’t. And while tastes expand and I don’t listen to certain things every day anymore, I will confess to still having a soft spot for this band, and to buying everything they went on to release.
I still derive shameless enjoyment from cranking the hell out of “The Boys Of Summer” (the endearing nickname earned by the band in that wonderful summer of ’86) with the windows rolled down on a warm summer day.
If this sounds like the diatribe of an apologist, then I’m out of line. The Outfield’s legacy stands strong in its own right – a career that spanned four decades, nine studio albums, nine Top 40 hits, millions of records sold, countless tours, and a dedicated base of fans.
Unfortunately, in the mid-2000s, in the midst of the band’s resurgence, tragedy struck: John Spinks was diagnosed with cancer. The Outfield soldiered on to produce one final record for the fans before John passed away in 2014.
For Tony, this hit home like the loss of a brother, and he walked away from music entirely for over two years. Eventually, with encouragement from his wife, Carol, Tony slowly started putting together tracks and now, almost four years to the day since John’s passing, Tony stands poised to release his first solo album, Out Of The Darkness (Madison Records) on June 29, 2018, before then embarking on a summer tour as part of the Retro Futuro line-up.
I was fortunate to catch up with Tony for a conversation in the wake of the release of his new single, “Into The Light”, and as he begins preparations for the upcoming tour.
Skip Daly: Thanks so much for calling in, Tony. I was hoping to share a quick story with you to start things off, particularly since it leads right into a couple of my first questions. I’ve been an old school fan, going all the way back to the first record, and I saw the band on the Voices Of Babylon tour (1989). And in 1998, after your hiatus, when you started touring again, I drove down to Atlanta to catch a gig, since you weren’t coming anywhere near the D.C. area. I ended up spending the day hanging out with you guys, and I have to say that of the bands that I have gotten to know, or have interviewed, you guys were just the most welcoming, friendly group of people. John, in particular, just went out of his way, and it really blew my mind. When I think back on that day, it was a blast. Your wives, Carol and Jean, were in town that day, and I ended up hanging out with them, and everyone was really just so nice.
Tony Lewis: Yeah, I remember that!
Skip: So, starting off…and I’m sure you’re tired of hearing this, and it’s been a few years, but my condolences on the loss of John. He was such a warm human being. I have very fond memories of that day, and the subsequent few times we got to catch up and hang out. Every time I met you guys thereafter, it was just so welcoming. And not all bands are like that. So, I wanted to start by saying “thanks again” for those experiences. But it struck me at the time, even back then, that you guys were even more a family than just a band, and this seems to continue into this new record, as your wife collaborated with you in that she wrote the lyrics for it.
Which leads in to talking about the new record. It’s fantastic and full of your signature sound, but also sounds very fresh and new in a lot of ways. You’d written occasional songs for The Outfield in the past, like “Girl Of Mine,” or collaborated with John on songs like “Taken By Surprise.” Did you have a bunch of stuff written over the years that just, for whatever reason, didn’t feel right for The Outfield? Have you always written stuff, or is this record a totally new endeavor for you?
TONY: I’ve written stuff in the past. I’ve been writing since around ’87. I have a Portastudio, and I’d record demos on that. I’ve always been a bit diverse [in terms of material] from [the main thrust of] The Outfield. I’m a minor chord and John was a major chord. So, I was coming from a different angle, and some of the ideas didn’t work, but then some stuff did – like “Girl Of Mine” worked. I’ve always been very critical of my own stuff.
Coming out of this four year hiatus since the passing of John, I just sort of put some backing tracks together, and I was struggling with lyrics, and Carol helped me out. She’s good at telling a story. So, it just grew from there. There wasn’t any real “plan.” It just built and built, and after about a year – boom, it was coming together, and then it was a matter of recording and producing it.
Then Randy from Protocol Entertainment emailed me a couple years ago and asked “What are you doing?” There wasn’t really a plan to put at album out. I mean, at some point I wanted to release something of my own, just to show the fans that I wasn’t just the voice and bass player from The Outfield. I have other strings to my bow.
So, Randy and I met in London and he liked the stuff I was putting together, and he had a connection to Tanner Hendon from Madison Records, and he signed us last October. It’s been quite a long process…mixing it, and getting the artwork together. To be honest with you, it’s been quite enjoyable. I’ve always treated music like…..and John and I would always say this too: if we’re not enjoying doing it, we should stop. You’ve obviously got to be motivated, but you should enjoy doing it. You shouldn’t record because you feel you have to.
Skip: It’s interesting that you mention “just being a voice,” because I know John was credited as songwriter on most of The Outfield material, but you two must have worked very closely together on putting those melodies together, developing the nuances of the arrangements, etcetera, and it must have been a very collaborative process.
Tony Lewis: Yeah, we produced them ourselves. I mean, on the Replay record, he would play bass and I would play guitar, and a little bit of drums. And then we got Alan back to play drums, because we wanted to make one final album together, since John’s health had started deteriorating by then, and it made sense to do an album like that. It just grew from there. And we had learned tricks of the trade from the producers we’d worked with. And with drums, working with software like EZDrummer and Superior Drummer. If you program them right, you can give them the right feel as well.
I’m very much into drums myself. I like to put drums down as an instrument, instead of just tapping along to a song. The two of us were always very conscious of putting a proper rhythm section down before we put any of the guitars down. Once it’s tight and solid…I mean, that’s how this album came together. I made sure to put a good drum track down, then a good bass track, and then built the guitars on top of that.
And Carol’s lyrics really fit with a lot of the backing tracks I was doing. Though some of them we did from scratch with the acoustic, and it was just a matter of finding melodies and choruses. It came naturally to me because I’ve learned over the years how to do it, by working so closely with John on producing Outfield albums. When we finished with MCA, we got so used to producing the albums ourselves and we enjoyed doing it.
Skip: When you speak of drums though, do you primarily program them, or do you actually sit down to play on a kit at all?
Tony Lewis:It’s funny because Tanner Hendon, from Madison Records, is a drummer himself. He played with Paul Rogers and Bad Company. That was quite a thing, to connect with an indie label where the owner is a drummer. He drummed on five of the tracks, including the first single (“Into The Light”), and hopefully the second single, which might be “Here And Now.” And I did the rest myself.
But when I sent in the songs, he thought they were real drums. He didn’t know they were sequenced. A lot of the drums I did in quarter time, because I try to give a real human feel to them, but you can’t beat a real drummer. If it’s so clinically in time, it can sound sequenced.
Skip: Well, with drums perhaps more than any other instrument, I know that the sound of the room, and the acoustics of the room, can have a real bearing on how the drums sound. For this record, did you go into any professional studio at any point, even if for mixing or mastering, or did you do the whole thing at your home studio?
Tony Lewis: No, I did it all pretty much at my house. I added ambient reverbs and overhead mics…because these drum programs now, they’re so sophisticated you can even change the “overhead mic” and what not.
But with all the software in the world, nothing replaces a real drummer. You can’t beat that – the sound of a real drummer. It just helped me in putting songs together to put drum tracks down that were quite convincing. It’s raw – it’s pop music, so there’s no grace notes, or intricate jazz patterns. It’s just straightforward rock music, so I think people really care whether the drums are sequenced or not.
Even on “Replay,” when we had Alan in, I think some people thought that some of the drums were sequenced, and they were all played by him. I mean, full credit to him for his timing being so precise!
Skip: Yeah, it all comes down to feel. Speaking of Alan, are you still in touch with him? Were you tempted to call him up to do drums on this record? Or even on the upcoming tour, I have to wonder: will we see Alan and Tony together again in some way, shape, or form?
Tony Lewis: To be honest, when John passed, for me it was the end of The Outfield. I wanted to do this on my own, and he was fine about it. We’re still good friends. But if Alan had been on this record, it would have been two-thirds Outfield. I didn’t want to go out on tour as “The Outfield,” because it just wouldn’t sit right with me. As for the record, I love doing drums anyway, so I just wanted to do it myself.
Skip: That makes sense. And that’s refreshing to hear because we see so many touring acts where it’s really only, like, one or two original members… That always feels a little “impure” to me when people start doing that.
Tony Lewis: Yeah, it gets quite confusing. Wang Chung is an example…I’d always known Wang Chung as Jack Hues. And now he’s not there, but it’s called Wang Chung. I find it hard to get my head around that.
Skip:Yeah, and what’s even more bizarre is when there’s a band like Yes, where you’ve got two different line-ups touring at the same time!
Tony Lewis: Right, and there’s been, what, three different lineups of Bad Company? I always associate Bad Company with Paul Rodgers. For me, he’s the singer from Bad Company. I just think it’s very confusing when a band has disbanded, but people go out and use the name. That’s another reason I didn’t want to go out as “The Outfield” – it just wouldn’t be right.
Skip: So, going back to the new record, how did the collaboration with Carol tend to work? Did she come to you with lyrics first, or would you tend to go to her when you’d worked up some music and ask her to write some lyrics to go with it? Or a bit of both?
Tony Lewis: Well, the first three tracks off of the album started with some backing tracks that I had, and she had some words, and they just seemed to fit. “Out of the darkness, into the light…”, I wanted the first three songs to tap into the spirit of The Outfield, and then when you get deeper into the album, you hear more of my version of things…rather than just banging out an Outfield-sounding album. I wanted to use the first three to help people feel like “that sounds like The Outfield!”
But, the Outfield’s music…I mean, that’s just the kind of music I love playing. When I was in the band, I was the biggest fan of The Outfield!
Skip: Oh wow, that’s really fascinating that you deliberately sequenced the album like that! Pulling the listener in with what’s familiar, and then you take them somewhere else.
Tony Lewis: Yeah, because working with and associating with Randy, and even back with The Outfield, he would talk about radio, and there’s the notion that you had to grab the listener in the first five seconds. You can’t have slow builds, or four-bar intros of guitars….they’ll dial into another station, so you have to grab people straight away. The Outfield albums were always put together like that.
Skip: Speaking of the way the album evolves as you get deeper into it, that actually brings me to a song-specific question. Listening to the record, I can definitely feel the parts that have some familiarity to the past work, and also some parts where it feels like you’re stretching out. What really grabbed me was the fiinal track, “I Know,” with that acoustic sound. That’s a really beautiful song, and quite different from your work with The Outfield.
Tony Lewis: Yeah, you know, I played that for someone and they said “You need all the bells and whistles and the big production on there,” but I said “No, I think the song stands up on its own with acoustic”, don’t fix what isn’t broken, and all of that.
Skip: Yeah, and it sounds really contemporary. I mean that in the best possible way. It just struck me as really different, and breaking new ground for you. I know the band had done the occasional acoustic thing, but this is very fresh, and it’s a powerful closing track. Did you ever intentionally try to depart from sounds you’d previously been associated with, or was it a more natural thing where you just went with what felt right? Was there any different type of process that came into play with a track like that, because it’s so different from what you’d done before?
Tony Lewis: Yeah, I mean, as I was saying before, John would always come from the perspective of … he liked major chords…and he liked choruses and middle eights, and I was always into…not the “darker” side, but different rhythms and different chords. And that’s just how the production sort of worked.
I wanted the album to be a blank canvas, once you got past the first three songs, which have that stronger Outfield feel…I wanted the listener to feel like “wow, this is taking me somewhere else.” It wasn’t “intentional” per se, so much as just that it’s how I like to write music, and how I feel songs. I wanted to write material that really connects with people, as opposed to just writing straight-up love songs. Less predictable.
Skip: You mentioned in a recent interview that producer David Kahne once described you as “a freak,” due to the nature of your voice. As I was listening to this record, it really struck me. How is your voice possibly still in such good shape, as these years later? It’s amazing how you still have that high range? Do you have a special regimen that you follow to keep your voice in shape? I’m shocked at how good your voice still sounds.
Tony Lewis: Yeah, I guess I’m just lucky. When David Kahne said I was “a freak,” it was in Sunset Sound in California when we were recording the “Voices of Babylon” album and we were working on the song “No Point.” We were working on the arrangement, and he had spliced some notes together, and I went in and sang them, and he just looked at me as said “I don’t know how you’re singing that high – you’re a freak!”
I think he meant it in a nice way – I took it as a compliment anyway. [Laughs]
Yeah, we were just trying different things…different melodies. Because, once again, he was coming at it from a different angle, which worked for that album. He was coming from a musically-trained background, and had had success with The Bangles by that point, and he put together a great sound for that album. I mean, it was a turning point in the sound of The Outfield, after the first two more straight-up rock-sounding albums.
But, getting back to your voice question, I don’t do anything special. I should do vocal warm-ups before a show, but I don’t. I had a rehearsal yesterday, and was really going for it, and sometimes your voice breaks up. If you’re got a loud drummer and you’re pushing it…I mean, the first two weeks on tour are always really rough on me. Because your throat is a muscle. If you’re not using it…it’s like an athlete…like if you’re a runner, and you haven’t been running, and suddenly you start sprinting, you’re going to be hurting.
It’s the same thing with the throat. You have to try to take care of yourself, and sing as often as you can. I think one of our tour managers had mentioned that Robert Palmer did a tour where he was flying between dates, and he would be singing on the plane. And I understand that, because you have to keep the tubes clear, and keep your vocal cords in shape, and primed. When you’re on stage and you’ve got a loud drummer going, and you have to project above things, yeah, I guess I’m just lucky that I have one of those voices that can survive it.
Skip: We talked about how you play various instruments on this record. Do you still consider bass your primary instrument? And getting into “gear talk”, what kind of equipment are you preferring these days? What kind of bass?
Tony Lewis:Primarily, in the live setting, I’m the bassist, but when I’m at home I tend to find rehearsing with a bass boring. I tend to like playing guitar at home better. Bass is great, but in terms of expression, when you’ve got a straight going through all these effects, going through a guitar amp, it’s wonderful.
I have a Fender Strat that my wife bought for me for my fiftieth birthday, and I bought am American Elite Telecaster, but I always go back to the Strat. I love the Strat. It has so many different tones. So, primarily I’m a bass player, but I really love playing guitar. And drums as well!
For basses, I have two Status basses. I still have the original bass I used in the “Your Love” video. For the recording of the album, I used my Steinberger. It’s got the EMG pickups, and is just great. It’s a great work tool for me. But live, I use the Status basses. Oh, and I bought a Rickenbacker 4003 recently. I’ve used that on a couple of the songs that I hope will go on the next album. It sounds really nice.
Skip: Oh yeah, those have that great distinctive growl! That ’70s sound…
Tony Lewis: Yeah! But I always go back to my Steinberger for recording and the Status for live. Because I made that tone, and that’s the tone that I like. And I’d never use anything but my Ampeg SVT – I’ve used that all the way through, for 33 years. That’s just my favorite amplifier. People change their sound a lot…they’ll change guitars, but I just like the sound that that Status makes. It sounds like a guitar – that’s probably why I like it.
Skip: So, for the summer tour, can you give any clues as to what the band will be like? Is it going to be a trio, a four-piece band, or what? Will there be any players we know? You mentioned rehearsals, have you been getting together with the band yet?
Tony Lewis: I haven’t met them. For the Retro Futuro tour, Randy has lined up a backing band for me. So, I’ll fly into Atlanta, and we’ll do two days of rehearsals. It’s only a 20-minute set, so that’s…4, 5, maybe 6 (at the most) songs. We’ll go through those. They’re learning the songs from live recordings that I’ve sent them. But yeah, I haven’t met them yet. It’s quite exciting. Because it tends to be a lot of pressure on people when they go solo to get a band together.
And you’ve got to get on, you know, with different personalities and the timing might not be right, or the guitar sound might not be right. But when you’ve got a professional backing band, you think “Whoa, all I’ve got to do is just show up and plug in and play with them,” and then we’ll see what happens. But, I’m looking forward to it.
Skip: In terms of the setlist, I assume it’ll be a combination of songs from the new record mixed in with some of the older hits?
Tony Lewis: It’s going to be primarily Outfield songs. “Say It Isn’t So,” “All The Love In The World,” “61 Seconds,” “Since You’ve Been Gone”…hopefully I’ll get one or two of the new ones in there, ”Into The Light,” and maybe “Here And Now.” All I’ve gotta do is learn them!
Skip: I assume, given the short set, you might mix some songs up night to night?
Tony Lewis: Yeah, we’ll probably rotate some of them around. There’s no set sort of plan. But with Retro Futuro, it’s all about The Outfield. I mean, if I go and see Sting at The Albert Hall, or wherever he’s playing, I’d want to hear The Police songs, you know? People come to see me, they’re going to want to hear “Your Love.” I’m not going there to try to shove my songs down their throat. I just want to go there and be part of a great ’80s tour and see what happens.
Skip: Have you given any thoughts to plans beyond this summer? You mentioned songs for a follow-up album. Have you thought about doing a smaller club tour where you’d headline and play longer sets?
Tony Lewis:I don’t know. I’m just taking it one day at a time. I mean, I haven’t toured in fourteen years. When Carol and I fly over to Atlanta, and I rehearse and then the first show at Chastain Park, there will be, what, 7,000 people there? That’ll be amazing.
So, I just want to get out there, and get onstage, and do the tour, and see what happens after the tour. I don’t have any set plans for what happens next. I just want to enjoy it and take it one day at a time.
Skip: My last question is maybe a little corny, but if John were still with us, what do you think he’d say to you, about the new record, and going into this tour…your re-entry into the music scene?
Tony Lewis: I hope he’d be pleased for me. I really do. I mean, I can’t believe it’s actually coming up on four years since his passing. That’s going to be really really strange getting up onstage, and not seeing him on stage with me. That’s going to be a really bittersweet thing. Not a day passes where I don’t think of him.
I’ll just take it a day at a time. I mean, going over and not being in The Outfield is going to be a whole new experience for me anyway. But it’s also going to be quite exciting. I’m trying to stay positive about everything.
Skip: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat today, congrats on the new record, and best of luck with the tour.
Tony Lewis: Thanks, it was my pleasure.
Tony Lewis of The Outfield – Out of the Darkness Into the Light
Source: Guitar International Magazine