Antihero Magazine’s senior journalist Mark Dean had the opportunity to chat with REO Speedwagon vocalist and songwriter Kevin Cronin while the band toured the UK as guests of Status Quo.
Antihero: I hope you’re well-rested now?
Kevin Cronin: I’m feeling really pretty well. I’ve just got a lesson in walking through the streets with an umbrella.
Antihero: The UK weather must take some getting used to.
Kevin Cronin: A little bit, but it’s so wonderful here, so one is willing to endure it. It’s so different from us from California, where we’re praying for rain. So, it’s kind of refreshing to be here.
Antihero: Okay, you’ve done a couple of days in the tour. I just wondered how it has been going for you so far?
Kevin Cronin: So far so good. We didn’t really know too much about Status Quo because in America they had a single, “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” back in 1968 and I used to play that song in my little band when I was in high school and that was pretty much all I knew of Status Quo, and then when this tour came up and we started hearing about how huge they were here in the UK and all over the rest of the world and that their music was not very much like “Pictures of Matchstick Men” at all, so I really dig them. I really enjoy their music, I got to watch a bit of their show in Bournemouth the other night and they’re really a good band and very pleasant people, so we’re having a good time out here.
Antihero: I just wondered, talking about that tour, why you chose as a band to accept that special guest slot rather than doing your own UK dates?
Kevin Cronin: Well, the obvious thing is that by supporting Status Quo we were able to play in front of 15,000 people at the O2 Arena last night and to come here and try to do that by ourselves it just wouldn’t work. We just don’t have that large of a following here and so it really made sense for us to play for as many people as we can and then hopefully set ourselves up to come back and play a headline tour in the future.
Antihero: What sort of set have you been doing? Is it a “greatest hits” set?
Kevin Cronin: Yes. We started out with the greatest hits and then as we always do you adjust to your surroundings and so we’ve changed our set list a little bit to, we got back to some of our early 70’s music which is a little more similar to the kind of stuff that Status Quo play, and we played an old song called “Son of a Poor Man” last night in London and it wasn’t a big hit but it’s a cool, it’s a song that Status Quo could have well recorded so it was fun to show their audience that we’re more than “Can’t Fight This Feeling” and “Keep On Loving You,” you know. I think a lot of people outside of the US have an image of REO Speedwagon that all we play is love songs. We’ve definitely had some big hits with love songs but we’re a bar band at our core.
Antihero: Yes. Songs like “Back On The Road Again” for example, they’re more heavier-based than obviously the ballads?
Kevin Cronin: That’s right yes. We’ve been playing “Back On The Road Again” in our sets and that’s going over really well, but the ballads get a really good response just because people know them so well and they’re familiar, and when you have a song that was a number 1 hit, people tend to react to it well because they’ve heard it so many times and they’ve grown to, it’s just part of the music world that’s inescapable I guess.
Antihero: Yes. I assume that you won’t be playing anything from the band’s Christmas album then?
Kevin Cronin: No. We’re only playing a 60-minute set, so we try to stick to songs that are going to appeal to the audience we’re playing for. The tour is a Christmastime tour, not really a Christmas tour. It’s a rock and roll show.
Antihero: I just wondered with reference to the ballads, how do you keep those songs sounding as fresh and as vibrant as you performed them way back for the very first time, because you must have done them many times?
Kevin Cronin: Yes, we have but I tell you what, the truth is when you first record a song, the song is brand new and so you really don’t know it that well when you make the record and as time goes by I feel like every time I sing it I get to know it a little bit better and I can sing it a little bit better. I feel like I’m always trying to find a little new, a little something that I can improve and we change it up just in little ways. We’ll change a little accent here or just a little, we’re always tinkering with the arrangements to make them a little bit better and the chances are the audience doesn’t really notice because it’s so subtle, but for us every night is a chance to improve the song a little bit so that’s why we never get tired of playing it or at least I don’t. I enjoy them.
Antihero: I did notice just exactly what you’re saying, little subtle changes, for example on those tracks on the Live at Moondance, whether it was in the vocal style or just a little bit of music but you do tend to change them up, I know exactly what you’re saying.
Kevin Cronin: Yes, I think it’s important to do that. We do it because at sound check I’ll always try to think back to the last show and try to remember things that I want to improve and so there’s always that, that’s what’s great about music. If you paint a painting, once you’re done with it and it’s hanging up in a gallery or in a museum or something, that’s it. That’s just how it’s always going to be but with music, even though you make the album, that’s like the painting, you can still perform it live and like I say, try to just make it a little bit better every time you play it.
Antihero: When you first wrote those legendary anthems, did you get a personal buzz and you just knew that this song was “whoa, this is going to be a classic”? Did they feel any different to any other songs at the time?
Kevin Cronin: Well, honestly I feel something different with every song I write and some of them you feel are good quality songs and other ones you feel are maybe good quality but you also get the feeling that perhaps there’s something just a little more special about it, whether it’s melodic or a chord change or a certain lyric idea that you just feel is something that is important personally, but you also feel like, “wow this is something that means a lot to me,” but you kind of just get a sense that maybe it’ll connect with a lot of people but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to turn out to be a hit because there have been plenty of songs that I’ve felt that way about and they have not become hits, but usually the ones that do become hits I got that feeling about too. Does that make sense?
Antihero: Yes, sure. The band’s last album, Find Your Own Way, was released way back in 2007. Fans are always going to want new music and I just wondered if REO had any plans to bring out a new album?
Kevin Cronin: Well, you know it’s a strange thing because our fans always desire new music and at the same time when we play concerts really everybody just wants to hear the old favourites.
Antihero: What they know, yes.
Kevin Cronin: So, it’s an interesting situation but right now, I’m always writing songs and I’ve actually been thinking lately that maybe I do want to get in the studio pretty soon. There’s so much effort and so much time and energy that goes into making an REO Speedwagon record that it’s a little daunting sometimes, especially you know I have a family at home so I can imagine coming home from tour and seeing my wife and saying, “okay, the good news is I’m home from tour but I’m going in the studio tomorrow,” and her saying, “well, then just don’t bother coming home.” So, there’s family considerations but I imagine we’ll get around to it one of these days.
Antihero: Is there ever a worry for yourself as an artist that REO Speedwagon are a band that look to the past rather than to the future?
Kevin Cronin: Well, we don’t really look to the past, we’re always looking to the future. The past is also the present for me because these songs, as I say, every time we play a show it’s down to us to make the songs brand new again and so I don’t really relate to the idea of looking to the past and I think that it’s real important to stay in the present and that’s where I like to be and I really think in terms of keeping myself in good physical condition so when people pay good money to come to an REO Speedwagon show I’m going to be in as good a shape as I can to exceed their expectations and so it really becomes about putting on a great concert every night. The songs that we play were written in the past, there’s no denying that, but they really do feel brand new to me every night and like I say I’m always writing, the creative process goes on. I’m writing a book, I love to write, as you know, being a writer yourself, writing is just such a whatever it is, whether it’s a blog for the REO Facebook page or for a song or a magazine article, whatever it is, I love to write, just finding that perfect word to express the idea that you have and when you find it it’s just such a thrill. So, writing keeps me in touch with the present and also to me it’s almost like the past and the future are both in the present, if that’s how you choose to view it, and I guess maybe I’m fortunate because I’m still doing now what I did when I was 12 years old, when I started my first band. So, I’m always connected to that youth and so to me the past just reminds me of being young so I don’t know being in a rock band definitely warps your sense of time, I guess we’re lucky in that way.
Antihero: Are you surprised that the band are still around and touring because you’ve been through an awful lot over the years, whether band members coming and going, just different things?
Kevin Cronin: Yes, well I’m thankful that the band is still going because I don’t know what else I’d be doing honestly but it never occurred to me that there would be anything else but this and I work really hard to maintain this great gift that our fans are giving us and I don’t take it for granted, I appreciate it every single day. I also realize that it takes a giant family to make this happen. The band members, we get all the credit but we’ve got our crew, the newest member of our crew has been with us for 12 years. My manager is my son’s godfather, he has been with us for over 40 years. We’ve been really fortunate that every single person that has ever been in the band we’re still friends with.
Antihero: That’s good.
Kevin Cronin: We don’t have any real, there’s no enemies that we’ve made along the way and I was thinking about that the other day, that that’s really fortunate. So yes, like I say I appreciate what we’ve accomplished and what we’ve maintained but we also work hard and I think the key is we have a lot of fun doing it. We work hard but we enjoy it so if you can do that, whatever you’re doing, no matter what your job is, if you can enjoy it and work hard then I think that’s a pretty good recipe for happiness.
Antihero: Just a couple then to finish Kevin. If I could take you back, can you recollect your first introduction to music?
Kevin Cronin: Yes, sure I can. My first memory of life was being sat behind my grandmother’s baby grand piano and I was about 2 years old and I just was banging on it but I guess I had some sort of natural feel for rhythm because people thought that I knew what I was doing and so I would bang on the keys and my aunts and uncles would applaud and smile and so I would bang on the keys some more and they would applaud and smile some more and I think that as a little child I got the feeling that oh I see if I make sounds on a musical instrument, people smile but my first actual rock and roll experience was when The Beatles came to America and played on the Ed Sullivan television show. I think I was about 12 years old and I had been taking guitar lessons for a couple of years but I didn’t really know why and then when I saw The Beatles I knew why. I watched them play “She Loves You” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and that was it, I knew what I wanted to do and there was nothing that was going to stop me.
Antihero: How do you look back and view your own musical legacy? There’s songs that you’ve written that have formed a part of many people’s lives throughout the world.
Kevin Cronin: Yes, I feel pretty fortunate that the songs that I have written, that people have taken them into their hearts, that’s something that not too many songwriters get to experience and that feeling where you stand up on stage and just play the opening chords of a song and you feel the energy of 10,000 people’s arm hairs standing up at the same time. You feel that and that’s just a very humbling and yet thrilling sensation and it’s very addicting. It feels really good and so how do I view my musical legacy? I don’t know about that. I think that’s for others to decide. I’m just pleased that I’m able at my age to still be able to tour the world and have people come and just get excited by the songs that I’ve written. Like I say that’s a rare treat that I get to enjoy.
Antihero: What’s next for you guys after the UK dates? Do you get some time off for Christmas?
Kevin Cronin: Yes, my family is actually meeting me in London on Christmas Eve. Our last show is in Liverpool and I’m very excited about playing Liverpool. I’ve never played there before and so we’re trying to decide which Beatles song we’re going to play at the very end of our show because I want the last show of the year in Liverpool to be a Beatles song, I think that would be appropriate and then my family comes over here and we’re going to spend Christmas in London and yes then take a little time off.
Antihero: Okay, Kevin that’s great. Thank you very much. I’m actually going to the Manchester show next week and it will be the first time that I’ve seen REO live so I’m really looking forward to that.