The Greg Kihn Interview
(2017)

When you think of Greg Kihn, it’s hard not to think about the 80s, the All-American no-nonsense indy rocker image he and his band projected, and the hits that followed. First there was 1981’s “The Breakup Song,” which peaked at #15 on the Billboard charts and lifted the Greg Kihn Band out of the Bay Area scene and onto the national stage. Two years later, Kihn’s song “Jeopardy” battled it out for the top spot with Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” The song’s video also found itself in heavy rotation on MTV, itself a ripe, young network altering the music consumption habits of the world with a slew of sonically charged visual candy. When “Weird Al” Yankovic parodied “Jeopardy,” that pretty much sealed the deal. By 1985, Greg Kihn, a Baltimore native and, by all appearances, “a regular guy,” was one of the biggest stars of a whole new pop music medium.

Like many things that came out of the 1980s, it was a short ride, and by the end of the decade, Kihn’s brand of rock and roll was sidelined by grunge and rap. Greg Kihn, however, was far from done. The man hailed by NBC as “Rock’s True Renaissance Man” reinvented himself and became a disc jockey in 1996. Over the next 16 years, he went on to become the top morning jock in San Francisco. At the same time, Kihn jumped into the literary world and started writing novels and short stories. The former darling of MTV had successfully transcended the “jeopardy” that devoured many of his peers.

Then his radio career came to a screeching, unexpected halt in 2012. Lesser men would have caved and crawled under a rock, but the ever-resourceful Kihn saw an opportunity and returned to making music. This time, he recruited his guitar playing son, Ry, into the fold and recorded his first album of all new songs in 21 years — Rekihndled. Rounded out by bassist Robert Berry and drummer Dave Lauser, the Greg Kihn Band have played several dates in 2017 behind the album, and are raring to do more. And in between gigs and recording sessions, Kihn keeps writing novels. At the time of the following interview, he was just finishing up the third of a trilogy that includes plot lines built around the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. You’ll have to read the interview to find out what the third book is about. Energetic, content without pretense, and filled with stories to tell, Greg Kihn is back and better than ever.

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Let’s get into Rekihndled, the first album of all-new Greg Kihn Band material in 21 years!

Yeah, that’s unbelievable.

What took you so long?

(Laughs) For 16 years, I was doing the morning show on KFOX radio in San Francisco. When I started off with them they were a little mom-and-pop station in San Jose, and then Clear Channel bought them, and then Entercom. It went unchecked with three or four different owners and ended up a big major Classic Rock station up in a big penthouse in San Francisco. It was pretty wild. Anyway, the reason was when I was doing that — you got to get up at four in the morning to do the morning show, and let’s face it, by the end of the week, you’re too pooped to pucker — I really didn’t have any time or much of an inclination to do much of anything except to keep doing the show. There was a lot of show preparation and so forth. I didn’t really think about it, and before I knew it, 16 years had gone by. I started missing my primary thing in life, which was to make music. I felt, “The world is leaving me behind.” That coincided beautifully with getting fired at KFOX (laughs). They pushed me right out of the nest.

Ironically, it was the same week that I was inducted into Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame. That was the same week I got fired. I remember when I got fired. The general manager called me into his office. I was walking down the hallway, thinking they want to re-up, my numbers were good and I’m kicking butt. I think I’m gonna get a big, fat raise. I walk in there and I look at the guy’s face and I could tell it was the opposite. He goes, “Ah…we’re going in a new direction.” And I said, “Is that a new direction without me?” He said, “Yep.” And I said, “Am I getting fired?” And he said, “Yeah, you are.”

Anyway, I left and, after a few months of waking up at four AM and wondering where I was, I really started to love my time. I had a ton of time. The first thing I did was write a novel, which was Paint It Black, and now I got the next one after that, halfway done. And then I got into the studio, and I re-put together the band. We went into the studio and we started cutting stuff, and the next thing I know, we had an album out and it’s been doing really good. It’s been getting great reviews. Everybody loves it. I’m proud of it, number one. And number two, it sounds like Greg Kihn, but it doesn’t sound like Greg Kihn 20 years ago. It sounds like Greg Kihn right now.

You have Ry Kihn, your son, on guitar. And then you have producer and bassist Robert Berry, who I know from his work with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer.

He’s played with everybody. He was in Ambrosia, Three and a couple of other bands. He’s one of those guys that can play every instrument; he plays drums, he plays guitar, he plays bass, he plays keyboards — he’s unbelievable. He’s a real good producer. And then we got from the Sammy Hagar band. Sammy cut him loose. He was out there, and we snatched him up. My old drummer, Dave Danza, was making too much money (laughs). He was at a real estate appraisal business and the guy was making too much money. He told me, “I can’t go on the road anymore. I can’t take the loss. If I go on the road and play with you guys, I’m losing money.” So we went out and go Dave Lauser. He’s a great drummer. He’s kind of like a Keith Moon kind of guy. I just love the four-piece band. It’s the Beatles configuration — just the basic guitar, guitar, drums and bass.

Did you and Ry write most of the songs? Did Robert contribute to the songwriting?

Actually, we had a thing going in the beginning that all three guys had to contribute to a song, unless otherwise noted. For instance, one of my favorite songs is “Big Pink Flamingos” on the album.

I’ve been watching the video (laughs).

(Laughs) That was the first song that we wrote and recorded for the album. One day, I came with Ry and we’re hanging at the studio there at Soundtek studios, and Robert. It’s a wonderful place to record. We were just hanging around, kicking around song ideas, and Ry starts playing the riff that would become the backbone of “Big Pink Flamingos” and it sounded great. I said, “What is that?” And he goes, “I just made it up.” So I started singing, “Big Pink Flamingos.” I don’t where it came from. I just snatched it out of the air. I don’t know why. What he played sounded like “Big Pink Flamingos.” So I started singing “Big Pink Flamingos.” It’s like, “Hey, I think we got something here.” So I pulled out my notebook, the three of us sat down, and we wrote that song literally in 15 or 20 minutes.

Those are the best ones, aren’t they?

Yeah, they always are. All of my hits were like that. “Jeopardy” was like that. “Breakup Song” was like that. When you do that, the song writes itself. The less you’re involved with trying to make it what it’s not — you’re getting in the way of the song. Songs sometimes they come to my mind fully realized. Like, for instance, “Cassandra.” It’s a 45-minute drive from my house to the studio. And I drive down there, and maybe a mile from my house, I get this idea for the chorus of “Cassandra.” I got this idea and I wrote the entire song in my head while I was driving down to the studio. I got to the studio and ran in the front door, and said, “Someone get me a guitar. I got to put this thing down right now before I forget it.” And I did it, and there it was. We didn’t hardly do much to it. And that was just completely spur of the moment. You’ll notice it’s the only that was written completely by Greg.

The other ones are all collaborations. I love working with my son because he’s such a great guitar player. Writing with me is like writing with Woody Guthrie. I’m an old three-chord guy. “Tom Dooley” was my first song I ever learned. But Ry grew up with everything. Like I’ll say to him, “Can you come up with like a ‘Crossroads’ riff?” He’ll come in the next day with like a whole bunch of Robert Johnson riffs. And he’ll just start laying them out: “How this? How that one? How about this one?” And I’m like, “Hey don’t give me so many opportunities. I don’t know man. They’re all great.” I’m more of an old-school guy and Ry is a new-school guy, and Robert is kind of in the middle, when he started in the age of analog and vacuum tubes. When I first started, it was all analog and vacuum tubes. I remember doing the first album at CBS Studios on Folsom Street in San Francisco. That was like a famous old room there. It had been CBS Studios for like 20 years. They were these big, giant studios; they were like gymnasiums. It was state-of-the-art, 16-track Ampex. You know those big two-inch tapes — that’s what we started on. When we had to splice something, we had to make a copy and cut the copy because there was no digital. You couldn’t digitally do it. It was like that well into the 80s. The digital revolution just knocked us right off the path.

You got some really cool songs that follow the melodic, power pop style you’re known for. “The Life I Got” sounds autobiographical, as do some of the other songs. Based on your career as a musician, DJ and author, it sounds like the life you got is a pretty full and satisfying one.

Yes it is (laughs).

“Good To Be Me” is another one with an autobiographical theme and an optimistic outlook. Sounds like you’re in a good place in your life.

I am mentally in a really good place. Creatively, it’s never been easier. I seem to be writing songs so much easier now. They come to me almost fully realized. And I’ll take what I got and show it to Ry and he’ll bring it into the modern world; you know, come up with a really great guitar riff or something. Suddenly, we’ve got the best of both worlds. I’ve been a songwriter for so long, and I know for me, the best songs were always the songs that wrote themselves. That has always been true from the beginning to now.

I can tell the songs that wrote themselves from the new album are “Big Pink Flamingos,” “Cassandra,” “The Life I Got.” In fact, all the ones you’ve been mentioning because they just seem to spring into my head fully realized, and I knew what exactly I wanted to say. You listen to a great songwriter…say Ray Davies. He always knows exactly what he wants to say. And that was part of the thing. Back in the old days, we were floundering, just looking for some cool words to put together. We didn’t really have that laser vision that we have now. And as you said, my message, which is a positive one, creeps out through the music. You couldn’t stop it if you wanted to. I think that’s symbolic of where I’m at.

My favorite song on the record is “Tell Me Something Good.” On that one and “The Brain Police,” the lyrics reflect a lot of what we read in the news today. Can you talk to me a little about that?

I am anti-politicians. I just don’t like them. I think they’re a bunch of lying scumbags. That’s what it boils down to. There’s no hope as long as they’re in charge. I don’t have anything good to say about anybody politically. When I was writing those songs — for instance, “Tell Me Something Good” — “I see the demonstrations, see the people on the street, looking out my window, I got a ringside seat.” Well, that’s true. It doesn’t say which side you’re on. Personally, I don’t like it when my musical heroes start telling me about their politics. I really don’t like that. It spoils a lot for me. Especially, my sports heroes. Back when I was a kid, we had guys like Johnny Unitas. They were stoic, they never changed expressions. They never talked about politics and any of that kind of stuff. All they could tell you was about that wishbone defense and all that.

When I grew up, I was a major sports fan. I grew up in Baltimore, a scant three blocks away from Memorial Stadium. I grew up watching the Colts and the Orioles my entire life. My whole family was fanatical, and we used to go and see the Colts and the Orioles all the time. In fact, my uncle worked for the Colts. He was making the game films in the 50s. They didn’t have game films back in the beginning. They looked around, and my uncle had a company that was filming the races at Pimlico. You know the photo finishes and stuff. They figured if you could film a horse going around, you could film a ball game. So they got some guys and went out. This was the beginning for NFL films.

I look now and I think you can’t really get a perspective of what’s going on the world unless you take a few steps back. Everybody is just too involved. They’re too passionate and crazy. I do my best when I keep my distance. And I think that’s reflected in a lot of the songs I write because I keep my distance in the lyrics as well. All I’ve wanted to do is just write an honest song. I remember when I was a kid and I bought The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and I heard songs like “Hollis Brown” and “Blowin’ In The Wind,” I thought, “My God. This guy’s a genius.” But you know “Blowin’ In The Wind” just asks a whole bunch of questions. A lot of that Dylan stuff, if you go back and listen to it, he’s not really taking a stand. He’s just telling it like it is, which I think puts you above the fray slightly.

That’s very true. Dylan doesn’t talk politics. He’s very ambiguous in a lot of what he puts out there, and people pick up on it.

I think art is always like that. You couldn’t pin something on Pablo Picasso or Matisse because their lives were their art. I have no idea what Matisse’s political views were, I don’t care because I think he’s just a great artist. If you look at a guy’s volume of work in his lifetime, you can extrapolate kind of where they’re at from just about everything. It’s like to figure out my income, you can’t. You have to rank it by the whole year and divide it by 12 to get an average month. It’s crazy — it’s like herding cats.

(Laughs) Well, again, congratulations on the new record. Real quick, I wanted to ask you a few things about your past. Of course, everyone knows you from your breakout hit “The Breakup Song.” You said that one came together pretty easily. Anything you remember particularly about writing that song?

I do. We used to rehearse at Berkeley Rent A Space, which was a rent-a-space and we had a garage — we had a double garage. We rehearsed there almost every day. I remember coming in with two songs. One of them, the verse was, “We had broken up for good just an hour before,” the first verse of “The Breakup Song.” And the other was, “They don’t write ‘em like that anymore.” We were kicking around these ideas, and I couldn’t come up with a chorus, and Steve (Wright, the song’s co-writer and original Greg Kihn Band bassist) goes, “Hey, what are you, nuts! Why don’t you take this chorus, put it with that verse — perfect.” And I hadn’t even thought about that. I thought “Oh my God. What a revelation! It goes perfectly." Like most of my good songs, everything is a little ambiguous. I leave it up to the listener to figure out what’s going on. If you look at that song, it really is two different songs welded together with steel joists.

And then there was your biggest hit “Jeopardy,” which went to #2 in 1983.

It was #1 in R&R (Radio & Records) that’s all I remember (laughs). I remember where I was when I found that out because it was duking it out with “Billie Jean.” I mean, Michael Jackson, come on, he was a god. And my little record was just knocking on the door. The first week #2, then it goes down the next week to #3, then it goes back up to #2, and we’re like, “Come on, come on!” Rooting for the horse. “Come on you nag, get going!” We were on the road, opening for Journey. We were on a tour bus, and I remember where we were when we found out about “Jeopardy” getting to the top.

I was at Custard’s Last Stand in Little Bighorn. We stopped at the gift shop and they had a bar. We went into the bar and I called the record company in LA and they go, “Your record has gotten to #1.” Now that was in Radio & Records, it was #2 in Billboard. “That’s it man!” I remember we had a pitcher of margaritas and we got toasted, got back on that bus and we were flying to the next gig. We were pumped up. With the fact that Weird Al came along six months later and did his version, it was like it completed the whole thing. You couldn’t do better than that. It was like a hole in one.

That’s like the ultimate tribute, and obviously you had no problem with it because you’re in the video.

I loved it. And “Weird Al” himself is a great guy, he’s a really funny guy. I love him. It was a pleasure working with him. To this credit, to this day, I still get mailbox money from “Weird Al.” Can you believe that? Because he put that on an album that went triple platinum, “Weird Al’s” Greatest Hits. It was one of his favorites. I recently got a check from “Weird Al,” and I always thank God for “Weird Al.”

Did he contact you about doing this?

Oh yeah, they have to get your permission on a parody. He called me one day — and we were just getting ready to leave for the road — and he said, “I got an idea for a parody on ‘Jeopardy,’” and he told me about it — “I lost on Jeopardy” — which was such a brilliant idea. Who would have thought of that? I said, “You gotta do it! It’s great.” I was very flattered he chose my song because among all the musicians I know, it’s like, “Hey, you haven’t arrived until ‘Weird Al’ has mangled your song.” I asked “Weird Al” if he’s ever been turned down, because remember guys like Michael Jackson loved him — everybody loved him. He said the only guy who ever turned him down was Prince. He wanted to do a “Purple Rain” parody, and Prince turned him down.

As you said, you spent 16 years on the air as the morning DJ on KFOX in San Jose and San Francisco. A friend of mine who lived in San Jose was a regular listener and told me you were incredible. Of course, getting up at four AM wasn’t fun, but what did you enjoy about doing that gig?

I loved talking to people. We used to have call-ins and everything. It was horrible getting up, it was horrible driving to work, it was horrible going into the city, it was horrible parking, but once you got in front of that mic, it was the best job in the world. I had so much fun talking to people. I would tell stories, or I would play something. I’d play the Grateful Dead, and then I’d say, “I’m probably the only DJ that can say this — I actually smoked a joint with Jerry Garcia. In fact, I smoked two joints with him (laughs).” And people would call in and say, “Come on.” I’d go, “Yeah.” And they’d go, “Where and when?” And I’d say, “Spartan Stadium, August 1st, 1978.” That’s where I was and I know because I got the poster from it.

It’s just a lot of fun interacting with people. You’re part of their lives. I remember when 9/11 came along. We always had the TV on in the studio with the volume turned down. It was always on behind us just in case a big story broke because, you know, it’s morning radio, everything is instantaneous. And I saw the first plane go into the tower. And I thought, that was a really bad accident, something is a really amiss. I mentioned it on the air. And then a couple minutes later, the second one hit the tower, which we watched live. “Oh my God!” And it dawned on me: This is war! Somebody is waging war on us. This is an attack! And then we spent the entire day — I was on from five in the morning until eight in the evening. We couldn’t stop. The whole day was nothing but closures — airport closures and this bus and you can’t get from here to there and they were closing freeways. It was crazy. We were doing basically news all day until about 8:00 when I finally went home. I could not believe it. What a day that was. There we were — we were part of history and we were living it. A lot of our listeners were living it.

I remember calling my literary agent, who lived in the Bronx. I called and said, “Are you aware of what’s going?” And she goes, “No.” And I said, “Look outside.” She lives in a high-rise. She goes, “Oh my God! Where’s all that smoke coming from?” I said, “You have to go to school. Get your son out of school.” I knew that he was in school. I said, “Go home and bar the door because something that’s really bad is happening right now.” I had it on the air, so people are thinking, “Oh my God, you’re calling people in New York telling them to stay in place.” There you were — you were part of history and I liked that. Whether it was a sad day, like the day that Jerry Garcia died, or really a good day, or a really horrible day like 9/11, but you’re sharing it with the people — it was their show too. I really felt like I was part of their lives.

Today is the anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s passing.

I remember I was on the air. I made an announcement, and then I played about a half an hour of Grateful Dead. Then I couldn’t get back on the air. A couple of my friends called in, I don’t remember who — all the musicians people knew about. When I started talking to people, I started choking up. I was OK in the beginning, but then as it sunk in, I got to the point I was choking up on the air. But hey, that’s part of being on the radio. You’re part of their lives.

I’ve cried on the radio a couple of times (laughs). Not a lot but a couple times (laughs). You’re sharing your innermost thoughts with those people. It’s a lot like when you’re writing songs. You’re touching people in the same special way. That’s why I love my jobs. I write novels, I write songs, and I talk on the radio. I reach out and I directly touch people. That’s what I do.

You mentioned that you’re a novelist. How many books have you written?

There’s six novels and three anthologies. And I got another one that’s ready called Southern Gothic that hopefully we’re going to try to publish this year. And I’m working on the third of the trilogy of Dustbin Bob, which was Rubber Soul, Painted Black, and the third one, which will be Anarchy In The UK. Guess what that’s about? Anyway, I love writing the novels. To me, it’s a lot like escapism, which is a lot like what doing drugs used to be.

I'm very intrigued by Rubber Soul and Painted Black, and how you’re working in the Beatles and Stones into the stories. How did you come up with that?

When I was on KFOX, I interviewed Ringo Starr two times, Paul McCartney two times and Pete Best three times. I asked them all the same question: Where did the Beatles get their music? In other words, who handed John Lennon a 45 RPM of the Isley Brothers “Twist And Shout”? How did he get that? Because there were no import shops, you had order directly from the distributor in the U.S. and it would take forever. “How did you get your records? Cause you had a great repertoire.” Didn't they in the early days, in the Hamburg days? Well Pete told me and it was a revelation, “We had a lot of friends that were merchant marines. Guys we’d been to school with.” They grew up and they all joined the merchant marines. This was after the war.

They would all go to New York and they’d come home to Liverpool with these stacks of 45s. And those records wound up into the flea markets, second-hand shops and places where the Beatles would see them. And the Beatles were walking by the flea market in Penny Lane one day, and John Lennon happened to look down and said, “Chuck Berry! On my God! Do you realize what you got there?” And Dustbin Bob, who’s the protagonist of the novel, would go, “Of course I know who Chuck Berry is. What are you, an idiot?” And they would go, “No, we’re a beat group.” He becomes very good friends with the Beatles because he furnishes them with their repertoire. All through the Hamburg days and the Cavern years, he becomes their best friend. And in the end of the book, he saves their lives from an assassination attempt in Manila in 67.

It’s all very possible. There was a conspiracy to shoot the Beatles in Manila because they snubbed the Marcos regime and all the people got assassinated at the airport when they were boarding or getting off the plane. Brian Epstein said, “Boys I don’t want to scare you but you could be shot. I want you to run, not walk, to the plane.” So they ran to the plane, and that’s how they got on. But in my novel, other things are going on. The wheels are turning. To the Beatles, I’m sure it was a frightening experience.

And you’re working on a new one about the punk revolution?

That’s exactly right. We’re going to move in with the Sex Pistols. It’s about an heiress who doesn’t know she’s an heiress. She’s a 16-year-old school girl that runs away from her boarding school and joins a punk band with her boyfriend. They run away to London, they go to the U.S. and wind up in San Francisco, and they actually become a hit. But she doesn’t realize that she’s an heiress to this great fortune. I’m working on that one right now and it’s a lot of fun writing it.

Getting back to your music, I see you’ve played a few live dates this year. Any plans for more touring?

We’re trying to get as many dates as we can. Every time I look, there’s a couple more dates added. As long as there’s a gig to go to, I’m happy. I told my agent, we want to play. I’ve already recorded three songs for the next album, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. We want to go out and play. Right now it’s a wonderful time to do it and rock and roll is in the air.

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