Marshall Crenshaw interview

A chat with Marshall Crenshaw

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He broke into the big time courtesy of his 1982 hit single, "Someday, Someway," but Marshall Crenshaw has remained one of the most well-regarded pop singer/songwriters in the business, courtesy of classic albums like his self-titled debut, 1983's Field Day, and 1991's Life's Too Short. It's been too long since his last studio release (2003's What's In The Bag), but he's kept busy by contributing tracks to various compilations and maintaining a steady touring schedule. In fact, our occasion for speaking to Crenshaw was an appearance in Norfolk, Virginia, at – of all things – a barbeque festival. (In the interest of full disclosure, it should be mentioned that a few of the quotes have already gone on to appear in an article that was written for PortFolio Weekly.) Thankfully, it gave us the opportunity to quiz him on several topics, including his discography, his work on an upcoming Judd Apatow flick, his thoughts on YouTube and MySpace, and his 1985 tour with…Howard Jones? Wow, really? 

Marshall Crenshaw: Hi, is this Will? 

Bullz-Eye: Yes, it is! 

MC: Hey, it's Marshall. 

BE: Hey, Marshall, how's it going? 

MC: Pretty good. How're you doing? 

BE: Not bad. Where are you at today? 

MC: Home. 

BE: New York? 

MC: Well, it's New York State. About two hours north of New York City. 

BE: Well, it's good to have you returning to Norfolk. 

MC: Well, yeah, okay, then. Great, thank you! 

BE: Yeah, the last time I saw you was in Jim Morrison's back yard. (Writer's note: no, not the Doors' late frontman. Morrison is a Norfolk-based writer of some note, and he's also the curator of the North Shore Pointhouse concert series.

MC: Yeah. Was that the one under the tent? 

BE: Right, yeah, in the back yard. 

MC: (laughs) Okay! I remember I had really raging asthma that day. 

BE: Yeah, I'm not gonna tell you that your voice was necessarily at its best, but you came through it like a champ. 

"A few weeks ago, somebody sent me a link to a performance of mine on YouTube. I watched it, and I was so proud of it, and really happy that it was out there for people to just sort of have at their fingertips. I just thought, 'This is really good. This isn't going to hurt me one bit!'"

MC: I don't have asthma anymore, though. 

BE: Well, that's a blessing. 

MC: Yeah, it's great!  

BE: You've actually got another Hampton Roads connection, though: the indie label Planting Seeds Records, that put out the Rick Nelson tribute record that you contributed to, is based here. 

MC: (perks up) Right in Norfolk? 

BE: More or less, yeah. 

MC: Oh, okay! Great! That means I'll probably see some of those guys! 

BE: You definitely will. I'm friends with Neil DelParto (the label's A&R/marketing guy), and I know he's going to be at your show. 

MC: Okay! I've never met him. 

BE: Great guy. And about as much of a music aficionado as you could hope to meet. 

MC: Omigod! Well, we'll have to play good, then! 

BE: How did you come to participate in the Rick Nelson tribute, anyway? 

MC: I have a friend named Jeffrey Foskett, and he's on the record also, and he was the one who told me about it or asked me about it. It's really as simple as that. I just thought, "Why not?" It's for charity, and I'm certainly enthusiastic enough about a lot of Ricky Nelson's music, so I just went ahead and did a track for them. That's all. But, yeah, Jeffrey also has a track on the album. 

BE: Yeah, I'm actually a big fan of his as well. 

MC: Oh, okay, so you know who I'm talking about, then! 

BE: Absolutely. In fact, when you were in Norfolk, I had you sign a copy of his CD, because my wife and I had our first dance at our wedding to the song you and Bill Lloyd did with him, "The Best Thing About Me Is You." 

MC: Wow! (laughs) Yeah, he did a nice version of that song, didn't he? 

BE: He did, absolutely. Which leads me to this question, I guess: how did you come to participate in that recording? Was that a song that you had written with Bill, or that the three of you had written together? 

MC: Yeah, it was just something that I did with Bill. It's mostly Bill's song. It's got kind of a Bill Lloyd sound to it. 

BE: Actually, it was probably only about month after you were here that you released your most recent album, What's In The Bag? 

MC: Is that right? 

BE: You know, you've got a lot of fans chomping at the bit for a new record. Are they waiting in vain? 

Marshall Crenshaw
On Marshall Crenshaw:
"The sound was, for my own
taste, a little too airbrushed."
MC: (laughs) Yeah, I don't know. I wish I could tell you! I'm just…y'know, I'm still banging away at it a little bit off and on, I guess. But I don't really have any worthwhile information about it right now. I wish I knew. I don't know. But I'll cross my fingers. It's not like I'm just sitting still; it's just a work in progress. 

BE: Yeah, I heard that you contributed a song to the new documentary, "Walk Hard." 

MC: Well, it's not a documentary; it's a comedy. 

BE: Right, sorry, I meant mockumentary. 

MC: Exactly, a mockumentary. I did, yeah. I wrote the theme song for this film, and I read online the other day that it's supposed to come out in the early part of next year. And I'm actually going to be in L.A. this week; I'm going to go out tomorrow and pay a visit to the location on Thursday, so I'll see what it's all about. 

BE: I'm a big fan of Judd Apatow's work. I talked to him back when he released "Undeclared" on DVD. 

MC: Really? How about that? Judd Apatow, yeah, I guess he's either the grandson or the nephew of a person named Bobby Shadd, who was a record label owner (Brent & Shad Records) back in the '50s. 

BE: I did not know that. 

MC: Yeah, it's funny. Small world, right? 

BE: Definitely. But as far as the plot of the film goes, it sounds like something that'd be right up your alley. (Writer's note: Production Weekly – of the film, "Jake Kasdan will direct from a script he co-wrote with Judd Apatow; John C. Reilly plays fictional music legend Dewey Cox, who's an amalgamation of Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Waylon Jennings and will sing the tunes in his own voice.

MC: Yeah, you know, you never know 'til you see the movie, but on paper, it really looked just hilarious. There's a lot of inside stuff for music fans, but mostly it's just a lot of crazy jokes and good belly laughs. 

BE: Nothing wrong with that. Well, I know you keep plenty busy between recording sessions. I checked out your site, and it looks like you'll be hopping around on tour dates pretty much all summer. But, I mean, you stay pretty consistently on tour, don't you? 

MC: Well, yeah, I do. I do have a pretty nice full calendar for the summer so far, with more to come, I guess. And I think so far all my gigs this summer are band gigs, y'know, like the one in Norfolk. I'm actually going to have a group of guys with me. Usually, I play solo, as you know, so I do that a fair amount of the time, but this'll be fun. I'm really looking forward to getting onstage with these guys. 

BE: I've never even seen you with a full band before. The house concert was actually the only time I've ever seen you. Well, I mean, I've seen you performing with a band on video, but not in person. 

MC: Uh-huh. It's gonna be nice. The drummer's a guy named Diego Voglino, and he and I have played together for about eight years; I haven't played with any other drummers in that time. The other guitar player is a guy named Ben Monitor, who's really brilliant; he's a recording artist in his own right. The bass player is Richard Hammond, and…y'know, they're all just really great musicians. I just have to keep up with them. 

BE: Speaking of touring, my editor wanted me to mention that the first time he ever saw you was in 1985…opening for Howard Jones! 

MC: (deadpan) Oh, my. 

BE: (laughs

MC: Yeah, right. That was memorable. I guess.  

BE: He says that, to this day, it remains one of the oddest pairings of opening act and headliner that he's ever seen. 

MC: I agree with him! It was. It was just one of those things. Y'know, we had the same agency, and it was going to be a pretty comprehensive tour, where he was going to go just about everywhere, so we just kind of said, "All right, let's do it," because, you know, we had our record out just then. He was really nice and all that, but I felt like it was a rather strange match myself. 

BE: How did his audiences respond to you? Do you recall? 

"If I had to explain my stuff, one thing I'd say about it is that what I usually present on my records is a guitar - dominated soundscape."  MC: Most of the time, they were…tolerant. (laughs) Not quite indifference, but tolerance. And every once in awhile, enthusiastic. We tried. I always hated doing those kind of things, like being an opening act on an arena tour. I did a couple of them, but I never liked it. 

BE: Who else did you do arenas with? 

MC: I toured with Hall & Oates for about a year. Daryl Hall and John Oates. This was at the peak of their omnipotence, y'know? And I played some shows with U2. I played a show in Norfolk with U2. 

BE: Wow! I didn't realize that! 

MC: No, wait, that's not right! It was that we were both in Norfolk on the same night, staying at the same hotel. And then I later played with them in Connecticut. 

BE: If you had told me that the bunch of you had jammed together in the hotel bar in Norfolk, I was going to get really depressed know that I'd missed something like that. 

MC: No, not quite! But I was friendly with them back then. I knew them through (producer) Steve Lillywhite. They were really nice people. And their manager, Paul McGuinness. They were just good, friendly people. 

BE: You know, as far as unique bills, for this show in Norfolk, the other person on the bill is Christopher Cross. 

MC: Yeah! I just found out about that the other day! 

BE: I don't think it's really a headliner/opener situation, though. I think you just play at one point, then he plays later in the evening. 

MC: I suppose, yeah. I don't know. We'll see just see how it goes, I guess. 

BE: Would you consider Christopher Cross one of your guilty pleasures? 

MC: Well, I'm not guilty about things. If I like them, I like them. I don't have any shame about them, really. But, yeah, I do, I like a couple of his tunes. 

BE: Okay, I've read a few interviews others have with you, so I have a suspicion as to how you're going to answer this, but to which of your albums are you the most partial? 

MC: Myself? Well, let's see. The first two I like. And, to me, they're kind of part of the same package, really. And then the last two, #447 and What's In The Bag, those are my two other favorites. I mean, those are the most definitive as of right now, the most recent, but I feel that right around 1997, when my daughter was born, and then when my son was born a few years later, during that time frame, my instincts really sharpened, and the records I made around that time and since then are kind of special. I still enjoy listening to them once in awhile.  

BE: That's funny that you view the first two albums as part of the same package, given that a lot of people tuned into Field Day after the self-titled debut and just went, "What the hell is this? What happened?" 

MC: I know. But, I mean, it just shows to go you, I guess. The sound of my first album was, for my own taste, a little too airbrushed. For my own taste, the kind of music that I tend to like the most has some tension and distortion in it, and there really wasn't too much of that on my first album, at least not sonically. And then with the next one, I went…well, the pendulum kind of swung too far in the other direction, maybe. (laughs) Because a lot of people…yeah, it's a pretty explosive, noisy record. 

BE: Yeah, there's a bit of '80s bombast on it. 

MC: Well, I guess you could say that. 

BE: Yeah, but that's Steve Lillywhite's stock and trade, you know? And I like it! 

On opening for Howard Jones: "It was just one of those things. We had the same agency, and it was going to be a pretty comprehensive tour, where he was going to go just about everywhere, so we just kind of said, 'All right, let's do it.'"

MC: It's all in the ears and the mind of the beholder, but the '80s thing for me is more trigger sounds and artificially generated sounds. And I know there are a lot of processed sounds on it, but there are still organic sounds on it. Like, there are real drums. And the effect is…it's not like an electronic effect, it's this nice wooden room that we used. But we used it too much. You know what I mean? I know that we did. But I like that kind of stuff. I like extreme sounds on recordings sometimes. And, emotionally, I thought the record felt right. 

BE: My editor is a big fan of the end of "Hold It." 

MC: Oh, yeah, yeah! See, those are all reflections of my taste at that moment. It was late at night when we did that, and it was kind of funny, because we knew that that had to be the last session for the record – because I think I actually got on a plane that morning – but we were up late at night, and we decided to make, like, dub reggae. I used to love that stuff. I used to listen to WLIB in New York all the time, which was a Caribbean music station. We were just having fun. We weren't trying to be trendy or anything; we were just doing our thing. 

BE: Are you glad that pretty much all of your stuff is now available through iTunes? 

MC: Yeah, I am. I really like iTunes a lot. Y'know, I'm kind of sad that there aren't as many record stores on the planet as there used to be. 

BE: You and me both. 

MC: That's a big loss to me. But at the same time, I'm part of the problem. I can't help it. It's just too easy to sit there and do it. But it's amazing! The online purchasing of music, to me, is a horribly inadequate substitute of walking into a nice record store on a sunny day, but I like iTunes. It's amazing what they have. When I found Rubber Room by Porter Waggoner on iTunes, I just said, "Well, this is good! I can just sit here and do this, and it's all right there at your fingertips!" 

BE: I also was wondering about this: there are some no-frills physical reissues of some of your albums that have been done by a label called Wounded Bird Records.  

MC: Yeah. Which I never got copies of. 

BE: And here I thought it was just the press who couldn't get copies. I dropped them a line a few weeks ago to get a review copy of their reissue of The Rubinoos' Party of Two, and I got back a one-line reply that just said, "Sorry, we do not have promo copies of our CDs."  

MC: Really? God! 

BE: And I don't know if you were familiar with the New York band called Polyrock during the '80s. 

MC: I remember the name. 

BE: Philip Glass produced their album. 

MC: Oh, yeah! 

BE: Well, we just did a piece called The Best Albums You've Never, Ever Heard (Well, Probably Not, Anyway) , and we wanted to feature their self-titled album. And since Wounded Bird had just reissued it on CD, we just dropped a line to see if they could steer us in the direction of a member of the band, to do a quick interview. They wrote back and said, "Sorry, we have no contact info for the band." 

MC: Geez! God! 

BE: How do you put out a reissue for a band and not have contact information for them? 

MC: Well, there you go. 

BE: I didn't know if you knew if it was something they did by licensing the albums directly through the labels. Apparently, they don't actually talk to the artists themselves! 

Field Day
On Field Day: "It's a pretty
explosive, noisy record."
MC: I did hear from them. I had a couple of email exchanges with them. I've forgotten the name of the guy from Wounded Bird, but we went back and forth a couple of times, and then I just kind of stopped corresponding. But I did see some of the discs in a store, so I know that they did in fact manufacture the CDs. They do exist. 

BE: I know you have a MySpace page, but do you actually run it yourself? 

MC: Somebody runs it for me, but I try to check in. I told the person when they started it…and it was their idea to start it; I never would've done it on my own…that I'd be attentive to it, and that I'd get involved. But I, uh, kind of haven't. 

BE: Have you at least picked some of your own friends? 

MC: No, people just sort of signed up. I mean, that was the thing: it turned out to be a really good idea, and some interesting people have contacted me through that thing. I didn't know it would be as good an idea as it's been. But I like it. MySpace is kind of cool. But I never…well, I do sit around sometimes in an evening and, just like anybody, have my favorite websites and go read things online, but I never just kill time with MySpace. 

BE: There's definitely a lot of music on there that you wouldn't necessarily have heard before that's really cool to find. 

MC: Well, I guess you're right. I'm probably missing out. 

BE: The best way to find stuff is that you can sort by influences. 

MC: Oh! 

BE: So, I mean, you can put in the most obscure of your favorite artists, and you can usually still find at least a dozen artists who love that artist. 

MC: Boy oh boy. 

BE: It's dangerous. Suddenly, your weekend's gone, and you haven't left the computer. 

MC: Well, I really like YouTube ( I spend a lot of time on that. Well, I shouldn't say a lot of time, but that's one of my pastimes. Because, I mean, anything you can think of is there. 

BE: Now, do you have any concerns about some of your videos being up there? 

MC: No, I'm kind of glad that anybody's interested! A few weeks ago, somebody sent me a link to a performance of mine on YouTube; it was me with The Crickets on TBS, back in the late '80s, I guess. I mean, I watched it, and I was so proud of it, y'know, and really happy that it was out there for people to just sort of have at their fingertips. I just thought, "This is really good. This isn't going to hurt me one bit!" (Writer's note: disappointingly, I can no longer find this clip anywhere on YouTube.

BE: On a related note, a friend of mine runs a blog where he does quote-unquote "Complete Idiots Guides" to his favorite musicians. He's done one for Nick Lowe, he just did one for Joe Henry and for John Hiatt, and he's done one for you as well.

MC: Hmmm. 

BE: And when he does these guides, he includes MP3s for the first week; the links expire after that, so there's no mass downloading or anything. And it's a pretty steadfast rule that he doesn't tend to offer the singles from the albums; it's more an opportunity to check out lesser-known album cuts. 

MC: Yeah. 

BE: How do you feel about that? Are you cool with that, given that it's clearly intended to spread the word and expose people to your entire catalog of music? 

MC: (exhales deeply) Oh, boy. 

BE: Yeah, I know, some artists would say it's walking on the wrong side of the line, but… 

MC: Well, no, I mean, I wonder. I mean, there has been sort of a breakdown of the established order. But, well, hey, whatever. It's widespread. That's what's happening. It's really up to the performing rights society and the people who own the material to make sure it stays on the up and up. 

BE: You can tell from the responses he gets that, in a lot of cases, it's clearly the devout fans who are reading the guides, who already have the material, anyway. One of my favorite comments, though, is this one. "The Marshall rarity I'd love to revisit again is his live take on 'Flirting with Disaster,' which he played during a gig I attended at Chestnut Cabaret in Philly in 1991.'" 

MC: (Bursts into proud laughter.) Yeah! That was great! We used to really play that song with a lot of enthusiasm! 

BE: And, you know, there's a lot of enthusiasm among the comments about Mary Jean & 9 Others as one of your best albums. 

MC: Oh, that's good! Well, that's one of my records that…I guess that, if I had to explain my stuff, one thing I'd say about it is that what I usually present on my records is a guitar-dominated soundscape. Like, I suppose that if you took away all of the vocals on Mary Jean & 9 Others, you'd have…I think of it as a really good guitar-player record. 

BE: I think Don Dixon did a really good job of producing it. 

MC: Yeah, yeah. And it's got this kind of otherworldly atmosphere to it that I like a lot. Again, that's kind of one of my deals. Not so much anymore, but with Field Day and Mary Jean, I have a real larger-than-life kind of effect, where the sound of the recording just kind of takes your imagination someplace. So, yeah, to me, Mary Jean is sort of the psychedelic one, I guess. Not lyrically, but just the sound and feel of the recording. It's kinda got that psychedelic feel. 

BE: Okay, to close, I've got one more question for the article and one more just for me. For the article, as far as your set list nowadays, do you ever just delve into the back catalog and pull out oddities that people wouldn't necessarily be expecting to hear, or do you stick with a semi-straight greatest-hits set? 

MC: Well, I guess you'll just have to come and find out. 

BE: A-ha. 

MC: That's the best way to know. But let me see. Oddities from the back catalog…yeah, there are a few. I forget what's in the set right now, but we do about 21 songs, and it's all across the board, but I think we do a few of those. 

BE: Do you try to hit all the albums, or do you have too many to really try and do that anymore? 

MC: Well, I'll tell you the truth: it's mostly the first two, the latest two, and then just a little smattering from the ones in-between, plus a few cover tunes that I've recorded. I'm trying not to do any that I haven't actually recorded on records. You know what I mean? Right now, there aren't any sort of gratuitous cover tunes in the set. But I still do (Grant Hart's) "2541," "Valerie" by Richard Thompson, and miscellaneous others. "Crying, Waiting, Hoping," we do that one, from La Bamba. But it's cool. The last time I played with these guys, it was just really great. 

BE: I'll tell you, the song that I'd love to hear, but I don't know if you play it anymore, is "Blues Is King" (from Downtown). 

MC: (hesitates) Uh… 

BE: That doesn't sound good. 

MC: (Offers an embarrassed laugh.) Yeah, we don't do that one. 

BE: Oh, well. 

MC: God, I wish you'd picked one we do, so I could say, "Oh, yeah, you got it, man!" But we don't know that one. 

BE: Do you play anything at all from Downtown, or is that completely off the table? 

MC: We play "Vague Memory." Would you like that one? 

BE: Yeah, that'd be awesome. 

MC: Yeah, that's a pretty tune. 

BE: Okay, then, the last question is, like I said, mostly just for me: any chance of seeing a revised edition of Hollywood Rock, your guide to rock 'n' roll movies? 

MC: I talked to somebody about it awhile ago, a couple of years ago, but, no, not really. We'd have to really scramble to update it, wouldn't we? 

BE: Pretty much. But, then, with the internet being what it is now, I guess it'd be easier to research it now than when you did it originally. 

MC: Yeah, but there've just been so many new films that have come out since then. No, that was kind of a one-shot thing. I was in kind of a…I wasn't really doing much at that time. I think I was between record deals, and there were also, I think, some stuff with my wife…health problems and stuff. So I was sticking close to home and kind of laying low, so to speak, and then the opportunity came along to work on that book, and I thought it would be interesting. And it was. It gave me a chance to think a lot about the socio-political history of rock 'n' roll as it was presented in those movies over the years. But it was cool, a really fun exercise. And people liked the book, too. It got nominated for a Ralph J. Gleason award and all this other stuff. 

BE: And I actually just thought one really final question, and then I promise I'll close it up: would it ever have occurred to you when you were doing your stint in "Beatlemania!" (and playing John Lennon to Glenn Burtnick's Paul, no less!) all those years ago that you'd still have people asking you questions about that gig over 30 years later? 

MC: Well, I usually do; people still ask me about it, usually. (hesitates) Are you going to ask me about it? 

BE: Well, no, not per se. I just mean, y'know, is this the sort of career path you ever could've imagined at the time? 

MC: No. I mean, who knows? I don't know what I thought about back then. I didn't really have a plan. But it was a big turning point. I can really trace my entire career back to that pivot point. The fact that I ended up in New York, that was the first domino to fall, I guess you'd say. Being in "Beatlemania" really shifted my life; it's definitely a "before and after" marker point in my life. It was good. 

BE: Okay, then, I think we're good. I'll definitely be at the show in Norfolk. 

MC: I'm glad. Yeah, come out! I think it's gonna be nice, and I'm always excited about playing. 

Mary Jean & 9 Others
On Mary Jean & 9 Others:
"I think of it as a really
good guitar-player record.
BE: Plus, hey, barbeque. 

MC: Is that right? 

BE: Yeah, it's a BBQ Fest! 

MC: Tell me more about the event, if you don't mind. Just a little bit. Just, uh, what is it? 

BE: No, not at all. In fact, I'm sitting in front of the computer right now, so I'll pull up the press release. "Slammin' BBQ," it's called. 

MC: (chuckles

BE: "The annual Smithfield BBQ Cookoff, featuring the 2007 Southern Living Barbeque Tour." 

MC: Wow! 

BE: Multiple award winning competitive barbeque chef Troy Black will share his tips and Southern Living Magazine barbeque and grilling recipes. 

MC: Dig that! 

BE: "Live music Saturday featuring Marshall Crenshaw and 5-time Grammy-winner Christopher Cross!" 

MC: (laughs) Man! That's huge! 

BE: And there's a very nice photo they've created where you're both sitting there, each of you wearing a hat. 

MC: Is that right? Well, okay, I look forward to meeting him. 

BE: Yeah, he seems like a nice enough guy, and he's managed considerable longevity with his fans. 

MC: That's right. Well, all right, thanks for the call, and hopefully I'll meet you!