Debut | YMTH | RFYL | Coel
The Producers - Life On The Road And Then Some
Story and Photos by Steve Hurlburt
The Big Apple probably doesn't have a club called Augusta, GA. Augusta, however, has one called New York New York. A combination club/disco/singles bar, NYNY has lots of glass, mirrors, neon, flashing lights -- and a carpet which still possesses its original color (green). Spread throughout the interior are white naugahyde bar stools and white formica-topped octagonal tables, backgammon boards, director's chairs, and yes, Scarlet, there is a Dress Code. And a sparkle ball. And not a whisper of julep; this is the new South, Augusta-style.
a few minutes to go before showtime, The Producers are loosening up in the
Bryan Holmes -- drummer, sometime vocalist, vegetarian, age 25 -- warms up with some jumping jacks and a brief lap or two around the dressing room. He gingerly puts on a pair of white, soft leather gloves to try to ease the pain emanating from approximately ten nickel- and quarter-sized blisters on his hands (this is only the band's third gig after almost a three-week layoff).
Wayne Famous -- keyboardist, workaholic, the world's third most unlikely-looking rocker (behind David Byrne and Robert Fripp), age 31 -- has set up a small mirror on the pool table and is in the last stages of applying just enough make-up around his eyes to set them off under the harsh stage lighting.
Kyle Henderson -- bassist, vocalist, string bean, age 24 -- doesn't do anything except sit around and look good. If Wayne is the antithetical rock star, Kyle is the embodiment: slender square-jawed, wavy-haired, and a killer smile. Whereas Van's good looks spring from a certain naivete, Kyle's come from definitely knowing too much -- and liking it.
"And now, ladies and gentlemen," says Donnie over the PA in his best circus barker/radio DJ style, "previewing their new album, You Make The Heat, to be released in July, CBS recording artists, The Producers!!"
And New York New York erupts like the crowd at Times Square at 11:59 on New Year's Eve when the ball finally hits ground zero. The band then leads off with "The End," -- a point of fine, wry humor probably lost on the crowd this night -- and follows it with a mixture of eight other songs from its debut album, all of its new one, and, of course, "A Hard Days Night." Throughout the evening, Van looks anything but bored, playing the guitar with a fluid ringing style, playing with an ease and simplicity which indicate years of seasoning and a very musical ear. To his right, Wayne brings lyrical sounds out of his keyboard rig that are heard in no other band's repertoire -- oftentimes hamming it up with his exaggerated facial expressions and happy feet dancing (a pop music combination of Chico and Harpo Marx). Stage right Kyle carries the "perfect rock star" image on stage: a knock-kneed, bean stalk, mop-top jumping and lunging around stage like he was on fire; while behind Van, Bryan attacks the drums sparingly, manically, always tastefully, looking the entire time like he is in the midst of a grand mal seizure. The band is called back for two encores and generally has a good time.
Perhaps the only other noteworthy events of the evening were 1) seeing, for the first time in my life, a very severe-looking, technoid, new wave frugger in an Izod knit shirt and a skinny tie (actually tied), and 2) hearing afterwards one of the patrons tell Kyle that "the show was really good. But I was wondering if you could add "Free Bird" to your repertoire. It would make a great encore."
Of course, both of these approaches to The Producer's music fall wide of the mark. Not mere techno-Cars trying to squeak out a few more emotionless, glacial songs masquerading as pop, nor good-ole-boy southern -- hell yeah! -- rockers, The Producers' songs are celebratory, joyful, humorous, fresh, tongue-in-cheek, always danceable, very accessible smart pop and the result of a flood of converging influences.
Every member of the band comes from a family where having musical aspirations was looked upon as a valid career. Kyle's parents "insisted that I play cello in the third grade," he says, "and remember -- these are the same parents that named my older brother Carey, me Kyle, and my younger brothers Kevin and Kimble ..."
Wayne came from a long line of players (a concert master, a concert pianist) "all of whom are legitimate," he says, "except me, I'm the black sheep in the family," While still in grade school, Van's father brought him a Les Paul Special after he saw his son's affinity with the guitar and Bryan's father did the same for him with a set of drums.
After those initial musical urges were satisfied, they all moved in different directions musically -- Kyle to British rock (Yes, Genesis, ELP -- "Which makes perfect sense, because those bands were based on the kind of music I grew up with"), Bryan to Tonight Show jazz and Fatback R&B/soul, Van to Clapton and the Beatles, while Wayne remained under the tutelage of classicist Powell Everhart and classis Stax/Volt R&B. And though their musical directions were diverse, their geographical directions weren't, in that all roads -- Kyle from Indianapolis, Van from Knoxville/Pensacola, Wayne from Memphis and Bryan from Carrollton, GA -- led to Atlanta.
On the way to Savannah it's suggested we all see a movie. E.T. and Bambi are the nominees (and , of course, between sound checks, the motel, changing clothes, etc., there will never be time to see a film). Bryan drives. Kyle reads The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Wayne is staring intently at Understanding Digital Computers -- "If I don't start now, in five years when everybody's doing it, I'll be lost."
I interrupt Kyle to tape an interview. Bad timing, though. He is up to August 31, 1939, the day before Hitler invaded Poland, "and here I am talking to you about this rock and roll nonsense." Donnie calms him (so that's what road managers do) by promising him a poached egg later on and the interview goes smoothly even though the entire time Van reads out load the current National Lampoon series on "Do It Yourself" projects. The ones he is most interested in are "How to Perform Hemifacial Spasm Surgery on Yourself" (using a high speed drill, soldering iron, X-acto knife, regular and needle and thread, hydrogen peroxide and ace bandages) and "The O.C. and Stiggs Guaranteed Method of Porking the Vice-President's Wife."
In the meantime, Wayne begins to consume a few odds and ends he bought earlier: 1/8 watermelon, five apricots, three peaches, a pint of yogurt, honey and several bananas, and tells me about the time the band was crossing the Mojave Desert with Van at the wheel (the air conditioning was broken) with the heat on "Maximum."
Arriving at Remington's in Savannah is like revisiting a bad dream -- more white naugahyde and formica. Surprise! The club is run by the owner of New York New York. Good taste obviously doesn't observe city boundaries. We immediately head over to Goodies across the street where, if you want it, they got it: Gas, fresh popcorn, fresh pastries, a blow-up plastic swimming pool, beach sand, fried chicken, boiled peanuts, ice cream, magazines, and virtually every other conceivable item made for the express purpose of sating the American consumer appetite. A truly great place to hang out. Goodies did not, however, have poached eggs.
In the spring of 1979, Cole lost interest in the band and quit. Bryan, a drummer since he was ten years old had a varied stylistic background, from playing covers of Genesis, Yes and Rufus to doing jingles and commercials to playing at Ray Lee's Blue Lantern on Ponce to his most recent gig (1977) in Forecast, a jazz-rock instrumental band (where, he says, with Steve Gadd and Tony Williams as models, "I learned how to be creative and really play drums"). After two years of that, he wanted to play something a little more accessible, and was convinced by Christopher to sit in with the band (which around this time changed its name to Cartoon) until they could find a replacement for Cole. Two months later Bryan was officially Cartoon's Drummer.
In 1976, Kyle was in a show band called Explosion which had Teddy Baker as its lead singer. In late 1977, Baker bought into the Bistro and the band became Whiteface. For about a year, Whiteface was the happening band in Atlanta, but by the summer of 1979, Kyle was unhappy with the group, and by year's end, he says, "We were no longer a band. We had died." And a horrible New Year's Eve performance at the Fox (opening for Sea Level and the Dregs) confirmed it.
That same evening after the show, Kyle went to Uncle Tom's to hear a band he liked called Cartoon. Although everyone was drunk (it was New Year's Eve), Christopher was so offed he could not play and Kyle ended up jamming with the band. "Two days later I told Van I wanted to join his group," he said. And two days later, Christopher (currently with the Brains) was fired; Kyle was hired.
But they were still Cartoon. Sometime later, Wayne noticed a group on the Billboard charts called "Cartoon" and they decided to change their name. And so, The Producers.
In the spring of 1980, a live audition was set with Epic Records' Producer (Ted Nugent, Cheap Trick, Molly Hatchet) and Vice President of A&R Tom Werman. "I had to drive to New York," said Werman, "I was tired and I didn't want to hear anything. But it was the best live audition ever done for me and I knew midway through the third song I wanted to sign them." And he did.
The band entered the studio in November, 1980 and it's debut was out in January, 1981. Though The Producers sold moderately well, fully 30 per cent of its sales were in Atlanta, and the singles released from the album were never more than regional hits. Bad management, ignorance of how to deal with record companies, the record company's failure to really push an album that had at least three major singles on it, and a "twitty pop" album cover all contributed to making the album less a success than it could have been nationally.
Things should go differently this time around with the new album, You Make The Heat (tentatively set for a mid-July release). With stronger material (indicative of their maturing as songwriters), a rawer production, a bigger, sharper drum sound and at least as many hooks as on the debut, Heat could (and should) well break The Producers nationally. In addition, they are doing a month's worth of dates in July with Squeeze and negotiating to open some dates for the upcoming Go-Go's tour.
That night the club is packed to near capacity and the band starts early due to the "All-bars-close-at-midnight-on-Saturdays" law in South Carolina. The crowd seems to be more up for the show than the one in Savannah, which is partially understandable when you consider that the opening act, Cheap Skates, played mid-seventies heavy metal while their lead guitarists cruised the audience wirelessly on roller skates.(!?)
Kyle dresses totally in white and does Mick Jagger back stage. Van is stylishly "in" in khaki. Wayne is totally out in billowing dark aqua clothing resembling either a tent or a Goodwill store. Bryan looks like he's ready to play basketball.
But the looks don't really matter because the band proceeds to put on its most energetic show so far, with almost everyone standing, dancing and singing along with the hits.
Although the show is over at 11:45, we do not leave the club for another hour. Once back at the motel, everyone is up for food and whether by Providence or just as a result of the American Dream, a Waffle House is strategically located next to the motel and Kyle finally orders his eggs, poached.
As energetic and attractive and fun and fresh as The Producers' music is -- it did not happen overnight or because everyone in the band comes up with the same musical ideas. There are at 50 years of combined musical experience among them and an extreme diversity in personalities: Van the cynic/Kyle the sincere; Wayne the workaholic/Van who hates to rehearse; Wayne, glued to the radio in second grade/Kyle who never listened until high school; and Bryan the optimistic fanatic/Van, preoccupied and laid back. The list could go on, but the point is that all of these traits and characteristics go into a blender in one form and come out completely different to make songs composed by and representative of the band.
Instead of a Ric Ocasek-type dictatorship which shakes only because it is so cold, the fraternity of The Producers produces music that is human, warm, fun and on the cutting edge of contemporary American pop. It is more a combination of like souls than like minds that have been fortunate enough to find one another among the thousands of musicians out there.
"Through all these years," said Van, "I've just sort of gone along having a good time, and I consider this band as lucky -- the right time and right place. Somewhere in the back of my mind I've always felt, 'I think that I'm capable of doing this,' but it's never, for me, been a goal -- it just turned out this way."
Wayne, however, speaks about the band experience in stronger terms tinged with the magic that is surely happening in The Producers:
"Our goal is: No matter what, if we stay together, something good is going to happen to our band. We've had our trials and tribulations with the record company, and ridiculous people handling us we had to get rid of, but no matter what happens or how many mistakes we make, if we stay together, that's the ultimate power because that's what drew all these people here in the first place.
"We've got a one-in-a-million type band. It's the kind of combination that's too rare; there's so much power in the four personalities. There's real talent here, a real strong band , and if we stay together I don't care what we do wrong -- we'll still survive."
Van's rig includes a Roland Jazz Chorus JC-120 with two JBL 12 in. speakers ("It can handle tons of effects and still stay clean"), a small Music Man amp ("I'm getting away from the Dinosaurs"), a Korg SE-500 stage echo (tape echo) and Mutron digital delay. He alternates between two guitars. A 1966 Telecaster ("It was the first year after CBS bought Fender and supposedly still a good year") with Dimarzio super distortion in the treble position and a Schecter for the rhythm position, and a 1976 Gibson L-5S -- the solid body counterpart of the hollow L-5. It has Humbucking pick-ups and both have oversized frets. "I will play the Gibson till it goes out of tune, then play the Telecaster."
Most of the time Wayne uses an Oberheim OBX 8-voice polyphonic synthesizer with 32 programs. He also has a Mini-Moog and a Yamaha-electric grand, CP-70B. As for his strap-around, "I dreamed up the design, the look, the functions, everything it would do and wrote it up into a booklet that was about 30 pages long with pictures and illustrations, and sent it to a guy that makes custom keyboards and asked him if he could build it. He called back and said, 'Yeah, I can build if you want to spend that much money.' And he did, to the tune of $5,000. It uses Oberheim parts and drives the OBX and Mini from a portable keyboard. I can control all the programs from it."
Kyle uses a 1962 Fender Precision bass (completely stock), a 1981 Sunn Coliseum head and two 1981 JBL cabinets with one 15" speaker in each.
Copyright © 1997- 2003 by Paul Schulz. All rights reserved.
I'm Paul Schulz in Columbus, Ohio and I'd like to hear your stories about The Producers. Maybe I'll put your experiences on the Fans page! firstname.lastname@example.org.