|The Über Rock Interview: Kevin Martin (Candlebox)|
|Written by Rich Hobson|
|Sunday, 19 February 2017 05:00|
Formed in 1990 and hailing from Seattle, you might think you know exactly what kind of band Candlebox are without hearing a note of their music. And in some ways, you’d be right. Candlebox are (as put by Kurt Cobain) your radio-friendly unit-shifters. But then, if you look beyond the hook-filled catchiness of their music you’ll find that the band’s lyrical content is anything but commercial, tackling everything from homelessness to mass shootings.
I was lucky enough to speak to Candlebox’s passionate vocalist Kevin Martin during their recent stopover in Wolverhampton, to find out why they are a band so different to their peers and how it feels to be touring again in Europe after a 20 year absence. I started asking why, having been back in action since the release of 2008’s ‘Into The Sun’ album, it had taken them so long to get back to these shores…
It’s a financial burden really. Unless you’re Nickelback or Soundgarden, or one of those other bands who has done very well over here for all these years, it’s all on your shoulders – it’s an extremely expensive undertaking. For years I’ve been saying “we need to get over there”, but management have been saying “you’ll get over there when you get over there”. Finally this year I said “fuck it, we are GOING”. We got a new agent over here and we’re happy to be back, I’ll tell you that much. Every show has been amazing.
How would you say things have changed in the last 20 years, since you were last over here?
In Europe, outside of our fans being a lot older, it’s relatively the same. Europe still has that love for music that America has lost. If you were a band from Europe that hasn’t played in over twenty years and came to the States, you’re not gonna see 150 people there, 200 people. It’s not going to happen; we’re incredibly jaded, so full of ourselves it’s not even funny.
The main difference between ’96 and ‘94 – when we first came over - is that we still have those fans, which is great. A lot of them moved on to London or Sweden, or some other part of Europe, but we’ve had people fly in from all over to see the shows. That’s the main difference between touring Europe and the States. Overall in the past 20 years the music climate has changed. The world has changed; everything’s instantaneous now, instantly gratifying and that’s the main thing – people can see a concert on their phone, so why would they go to a show?
Do you think it’s easier to tour now?
I think it’s maybe harder now. It used to be that nobody knew who you were, so you could roll into town on your tour bus and you didn’t have to hang out and meet people afterwards – not that that’s a bad thing. Now, people know what you look like and they actually *expect* you to come out. The expectations of a band are a lot higher now than what they were, so touring is a little more difficult. Plus, financially, it’s a lot more difficult with inflation and travel costs. Touring for me has always been a bit difficult because I don’t really like to be away from home.
Overall, these shows are doing great: our London show is sold out, our Amsterdam show is sold out and our Paris show is almost sold out, with a lot of these dates selling 100+ tickets pre-sale. First time we came out we didn’t have that. We came here with Henry Rollins and nobody knew who we were, we were just breaking Europe. First time we played in Amsterdam, we played to like 20 people. Which is crazy, considering what we’d done at the time. In America, we’d sold three and a half million records, then we came to Europe and we play our first show there’s 15 people there.
Nowadays, people know who you are and they find you on Youtube, Spotify or whatever and that’s a great thing. So maybe it is easier; who knows?
You guys came up at (arguably) the height of the rock single, of radio-play on channels like MTV or college radio. These days the rock single is treated as all-but-dead, YouTube almost acting as a surrogate. What was it like having to completely adapt to a new way of promoting?
It’s such a different climate. Rock ‘n’ roll is not dead, but the outlet for it has died. Same goes for punk rock, for any other underground music movement. Alternative pop is all over the place right now, with X-Ambassadors, Imagine Dragons, Royal Blood. But even with Royal Blood, rock n roll as they are, there’s still that English pop sensibility to it. In the States we have Twenty One Pilots that are doing really well in the same sense, they’re just rock bands that have a different haircut and get accepted into a different world. I think people are fooled by that, but I think that’s been the game since day one.
For me, not having those outlets has made it difficult, but we’re fortunate enough to have fans that care. We have people from the States flying in to see us and that’s crazy to me. Like, “Why? You just saw us six months ago!” But it’s that element of “We love your band, you’re playing in Europe, we’ve never been to Europe so we’re getting our passports – we wanna go!” That’s a huge gift for us, it means we’ve done something right. I don’t know what the future is for Candlebox – I’d love to come back here and tour in August/September, play some festivals and maybe open for a bigger artist and have another crack at it. Maybe I’m an idiot for coming here twenty years later – I don’t know – but I love it and I love what I do. Whatever the outlet is, I’m going to use it.
You’re no stranger to using new outlets. Your last album (2016’s ‘Disappearing in Airports’) was helped along by a pre-order system on PledgeMusic. What do you see as being the future for bands looking to get a foot in the door?
We used PledgeMusic and that was great for us. Crowd-funding is the future, because your fans are in control. If I could have been behind the careers of Kiss or Aerosmith when they were starting, if I could say ‘I donated to that campaign so I got a special meet and greet with the band and got to hang out with them’ without having to pay a thousand dollars, which is what you get now, I would have done it in a heartbeat. I guess you just gotta stay connected as a band: the most important thing is social networking - outside of the crowd-funding and YouTube, that’s the most important thing and will be for a long time. Just making yourself available to your audience.
Do you think PledgeMusic offer a viable alternative to bands looking to fund their careers?
Absolutely. There are distribution companies out there who are willing to take a chance on a young band, maybe they’re willing to say “we’ll put out 5,000 records for you” and that’s great, because the first thing any band needs is physical copies. Regardless of how many people download or stream music, there is still a crowd of people that want physical copies. If you can get a physical copy in the hands of a fan and they can burn off a copy for their friend, that spiral is how a lot of bands got started. The mixtape community is what became RnB and hip-hop, a lot of those artists would never have been heard if it wasn’t for mixtapes. That’s what a young band has to focus on now. There’s just a visceral connection between those bands and their fans. Rock bands have got to learn to use that mentality to get their music out.
In hip-hop, those guys would all make their tapes together. Whether it was Lil John and that whole crew from Atlanta, Tupac and the whole California crew, it was a community of people. Rock bands asking me to tweet about their record isn’t gonna help them. But, if they have five or six bands within that community helping to push them forward, like the hip-hop community, you’ve got a way better opportunity. It’s utilising your locale and making sure you’ve got enough raised for Pledge or a Crowdfunder to go to a distribution company and say “we’ve got 15,000, we want you to release 5,000 units for us”. That’s the future.
For all of the catchiness of your music, there’s always been a grounding element in the heaviness of your lyrics. Why do you think Candlebox gravitate towards heavier lyrical themes in your songs?
I grew up on punk rock. For me, that’s always been the greatest relief in general, musically. People love their metal and they love their pop rock, but for me punk rock was the end-all, be-all of music. Everything from the Sex Pistols to The Exploited, Peter & The Test-Tube Babies to The Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat to Butthole Surfers... They all had a political statement and they were catchy. Take ‘California Uber Alles’ – those are chord progressions, but the statement is not happy.
I think that’s why I gravitate to writing songs like that; ‘I Got A Gun’, ‘God’s Gift’, ‘Vexatious’. If I could be in a punk rock band I would be, but instead I’m in a rock n roll band and I use those veins of punk rock that I have to inject my political awareness. It all stems from that.
As a punk rock leaning band, do you think this gave you an edge of other bands that were coming up at the same time as you?
I didn’t grow up thinking “I wanna be in a rock band”; I was a punk drummer who just got stuck with this gig! It just so happened I could sing and write lyrics, so now I’m the singer in a rock band. Maybe that’s what sets us apart; I don’t give a shit, I don’t care what you think and this is the music I wanna make. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, you don’t. I’ve never tried to do what a label wanted, I always tried to do my own thing. It’s not that somebody like Chad Kroeger is a bad dude – the guy can certainly write a hit song –but would I want his problems? No. I wouldn’t want Eddie Vedder’s problems either. If there’s anybody I’m most connected to, in that realm of thinking, it’d be Eddie.
Maybe that’s why the Seattle scene has continued to be one of the most provocative movements of rock n roll. All these bands, nobody cared. It wasn’t like “I’m gonna get a huge deal and get signed”, it was just “We play music, we do shows. There’s a tape and T-shirt for sale”. We didn’t wanna be huge stars. You think of it as a kid, of course, but I think that’s what set us apart. Even Stone Temple Pilots, who came at the same time, people could smell that something was a bit off – I loved Scott, but I think everybody knew that they were a ska band a month before they were a rock band. Candlebox was always a rock band. Pearl Jam were always a rock band. Soundgarden were always a rock band – they weren’t ever cover bands.
I’ve never been in a cover band. I think what’s happened to music – and this is the whole thing – is that a lot of bands that have become signed and been successful, the Imagine Dragons, The Killers, Panic at the Disco, all these new pop rock bands, all those bands were in cover bands. So they know how to steal a song, but I was never that guy and the Seattle scene was never that way. That’s why Seattle is still bad-ass and why the bands are still considered the greatest bands for decades.
What is your favourite song from ‘Disappearing In Airports’?
I couldn’t pick just one. ‘Only Because Of You’, because it’s about my mom. ‘Vexatious’, because it’s about the selfie society. ‘Supernova’, because it’s about sex – how mind blowing it is, what it means to you. ‘I’ve Got a Gun’, because Americans are fucking morons and think they have to own all these guns to protect themselves and that’s why we have the problem we have. It’s really hard to pick a song.
I love ‘Alive at Last’ – I wrote that for some friends of mine who had terminal cancer, one of whom I lost last year, two more that I’m not gonna be able to say goodbye to. ‘I Want It Back’ because it’s about fucking up your relationship on whatever level it is, with whomever. ‘God’s Gift’ because I fucking hate Kanye West – whatever. ‘Keep on Waiting’ is probably my favourite, I love that track because it was inspired by my love for Kyuss and the Black Keys. I was like “how do I combine two of my favourite songs into a blues song about addiction?” and that’s probably my favourite song because I just wanted to take two different worlds and jam them together.
It’s funny you mention Kanye. Hip-hop is often now treated as “the new rock ‘n’ roll”, mainly because the idea of debauchery seems to be synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll now. What would you say is the true spirit of rock ‘n’ roll?
Anarchy. That’s what rock ‘n’ roll is. Punk rock, rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, blues – especially blues. These are musicians who weren’t allowed to play music and said “fuck it, I’m gonna play”. Running the risk of being lynched, murdered, beat up in the South... I don’t know what your race issues are in Europe, but in the States it has been a long battle and heartbreaking. For musicians like Hendrix to tour in the South in the 60s, or Muddy Waters to be playing some of the venues he played, running the risk of being killed for it, that’s anarchy. That’s rock ‘n’ roll. It’s going against what the mainstream believes. I don’t think Kanye is rock n roll at all. There are very few hip-hop artists in the popular aspects of the genre that embody rock ‘n’ roll. For them, it’s all about that debaucherous side – it’s about the money, it’s about “I’m gonna get paid”.
But then, I look at somebody like Alicia Keys and I’m like “she’s rock ‘n’ roll”, because she’s not wearing make-up, she’s not wearing what they want her to wear or making the music they want her to make, she does what she wants to do. She’s not gonna be bullied by the system – that’s rock ‘n’ roll. If you’re doing it in the hopes that the mainstream is gonna love you and you’ll have shit tonnes of fans, you’re doing it for the wrong reason. Rock ‘n’ roll is about making the music you want to make. You live, shit, eat, breathe music.
Jeff from Staticland would say the same thing, Pete from Pete RG would say the same thing. That’s why I love this tour so much – we’re all so different, all different bands, but we all have the same opinion of music. Pete RG is like Roxy Music meets Happy Mondays meets Oasis meets The Smiths, this ethereal thing with a Neil Young baritone vocal. It’s weird to me. But it’s “fuck you, we’re gonna play music.” Jeff from Staticland is a bad motherfucker and the respect we have for each other on this tour, we all share this bus, is what it’s all about. It’s not about “the status” and that goes all the way back to Elvis, to Little Richard, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters – way, way back.
Lastly then, this week is independent venue week in the UK, how important a role do you think they play in the modern music scene?
The most important. They’re the most important stepping-stone. It’s marijuana – independent venues are the weed of the drug culture. A lot of people will move on to cocaine or heroin, that bullshit that could be the arena, but everybody loves marijuana. And I mean EVERYBODY loves marijuana. That’s why independent venues are so important; because people fucking love them.
Everybody wants to come. When I first saw Nirvana there were 20 people at the show. When I first saw Tool, there were 30 people. Soundgarden – when Chris was drumming and singing and they were a three-piece, there were maybe 40 people at the show. Those were small independent venues. California, Seattle, even Texas – a lot of the punk rock shows were at places like Liberty Lunch, a venue I absolutely adore, where I saw the Dead Boys play with the Dead Kennedys and the Butthole Surfers.
Those are huge bands now, everybody knows who they are, but in 1983 nobody knew who they were. I saw them at Liberty Lunch –an independent music venue – and when I played Liberty Lunch in 1993 I was more happy to be there than to be at Madison Square Garden, because that was the venue that changed my life. That’s what independent music venues do, they change people’s lives. They bring them into a place where they can be affected by the music that is going to change the world eventually.
You can’t just go straight to the O2 Arena. I mean, last night the Pretty Reckless were playing the O2 ABC in Glasgow. I don’t know why - I’m not a fan – but people love them over here and I’m like “well where was the first place that they played?” I can’t imagine it was small. I guess they came over with a big band so people were like “yeah Pretty Reckless are awesome – O2 ABC!” They should have played the garage. You wanna be cool, when you come to Europe you play the small venues and you play for £15, £10 – whatever the ticket price is, you give the fans an opportunity to see you at a scale that they won’t get to see again if you’re that good.
We did a tour in 2013 for our 20th anniversary where we went back to every single small venue we played the first time round that was still open and we played for $10 a ticket. Why not go back to where you started? I feel like Pearl Jam, when they did the 20th anniversary of ‘Ten’, should have done the same thing. Go back to all the little places you started out – I know you played a shit-tonne – really give the fans who put you where you are a chance to see you in that way. Yeah, tickets will sell out in five minutes. But then do five nights there. Do five nights in Kansas City at the Hurricane, a week in San Antonio at the SPC Hall, whatever it is you gotta do. There’s 200 tickets available, nobody gets those tickets but the fans. It can be done. People might get pissed off, but you just say “we wanna get back to our roots” and that’s what I’ve always felt.
We played G2 in Scotland with my other band [The Hiwatts] in 2005, opening for Seether. In ’94 we played The Barrowlands. For me to think I can go back and just jump right back into that venue is stupid – I need to play where I can afford to be at. This tour might cost me a fortune, but I need to be where the independent venues are and if it kickstarts my career again in Europe, awesome. But without these places booking my band, I haven’t got a career.
‘Disappearing in Airports’ is out now.
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