Chris Norman's interviews digest, spring 2009
 
In spring of 2009 Chris Norman has done many interviews in Germany presenting his new album “The Hits! From His Smokie And Solo Years”. Here is to your attention a compilation of the most interesting questions & answers.
 

Did you have a special reason for publishing a “Best of” right now?

— I had this idea on my mind for a long time. It's 35 years ago since our first Smokie hit, that seemed to be a good reason. Apart from that I did a few specials in England and I thought, that's exactly what I want to do next. Of course I could have recorded another studio album. But... you know, if you are not top of the pops, people don't want to buy new CDs of an artist – apart from the established fanbase. In the past there have been a couple of hit compilations and “Best Of's” of Smokie and me. Sometimes the fans show me such an album, and when I see the tracklist I often think: this song is not my favourite, I don't really like it. So I thought it would be time to do an album which shows the story the way I see it. With songs that are important to me, not to somebody else.

How did you select the songs for this album?

— In my opinion this 16 Smokie songs are the really important ones. I surely could have picked out other songs. There are a few songs I would have liked to add, but finally I chose these ones. They are contained on the album in chronological order. I had the same problem with my solo songs. You can put just a predefined number of songs on an album. But these are the songs I like best and I consider of importance. “Midnight Lady” is present, of course. The first song is “Love is a battlefield”, that was my very first solo single. So altogether the most important songs are contained.

Why did you re-record the Smokie songs?

— To be honest, actually I wanted to have the original Smokie songs on this album. But it was too difficult to get the licences for the originals. Terry Uttley already recorded these songs, with his new Smokies, as I use to call them. But they didn't use real strings and of course there was another singer. So I thought I should make a completely new recording of these songs.

What was the most important criterion the re-recordings had to fulfil?

— My criterion was to get as close to the originals as possible. So I listened to them very carefully. When I went to the studio the musicians said: We could do it like this or like this! – And I answered: No, we won't do it that way! – But this sounds old-fashioned! – I don't care. They used to sound like this then and the new versions have to sound like this as well. – I was meticulous about it. I played all the guitars myself, except for some solos, which were played by Geoff, my guitarist, because they are not my style. But apart from that I played nearly everything myself, even bass. Pete Spencer, the former drummer of Smokie, played the drums. For the songs that were written at the end of the 70's, beginning of the 80's, I digged up the old synthesizers to reach the original sound. Today nobody uses these synthesizers anymore, just samples and so on. I had to search for old Prophet-5-Synthesizers and Oberheim-Synthesizers which we used in the 70's. But I got hold of them. Then I got real strings into the studio, who played the string parts. For example for “I'll meet you at midnight”. If this song doesn't have this well known operatic string theme, it doesn't sound like “I'll meet you at midnight”. I really made every effort. And I made sure that my voice sounded as exactly as possible like on the originals. In the course of time my singing had slightly drifted apart from the originals. So I listened to them very carefully, to get sure that I am singing like I used to do then. The same goes for the harmonies. I am rather proud how good it worked.

You could play the new versions to 100 people and at the most a few would notice immediately that they are not the originals...

— That was the first I did. However not to 100 people. But after I had recorded the songs, I played them to different people to test their reaction. And most of them said: So what? – I asked everybody: What do you think about it? And they said: I like it, I always liked it. – Me: But what do you think about this version? – What do you mean with “this” version? Did you remix or remaster the songs? – And I thought: That's ok.

— Of course I have played the songs to my kids, too. They are no children anymore, they are 22, 24 and 18. They always liked the Smokie songs, because they discovered them only when the original band didn't exist anymore for a long time. They know the albums very well. And my son Michael said about the new version of “I'll meet you at midnight”: Your singing has not as much echo as on the original! – Then he played it to me and he was right. So I put a bit more echo on the voice. And now it really nearly sounds like the original. I made every effort.

On your new CD there is the wonderful track “Endless Night” from the musical “Lion King”. Your family was somehow involved into this choiceÖ

—That's right, we watched this musical together in London and we all fell in love with it immediately. My father died when I was 28 years old and this scene, when the lion king's father died, although he had promised his son always to be there for him, this touched me deeply. At the age of 28 I was just starting to form a friendship with my father, I just got to know my father as a friend, not only as a father. There are so many things left I would have liked to tell him. When I was discussing the new album with my producer, I was asked to chose a track that I would like to sing, and it was obvious at once that it would be “Endless night”.

You have changed the original version carefully. How did you proceed?

— Songs from musicals are no popsongs, they are rather musical stories. The original version of “Endless night” has a very dramatic and operatic character (sings). They wanted a popversion of it. Anyway that was the song I liked best. I went to the studio with Sandi Strmljan, who co-produced and wrote the new songs together with me, and then we started to develop ideas for the song. First we changed the middle part where the choir sings “I know that the night must end” into a refrain. For this part is very catchy. And then we changed the rhythm of the song so it sounds a bit like “Graceland” by Paul Simon. I had as well the song “The living years” by Mike And The Mechanics in mind. That was a ballad, but the song had a special rhythm. There is a song by U2, too, that has a slow rhythm. We tried it, he sat at the keyboards, I played guitar, until we got a feeling for it. That's how we edited the song.

“Endless Night” contains the line “Home is an empty dream”. Did you ever have the feeling that this applies to your life?

— No, in this regard I am very happy, because my home has always been good. I have a very steady family with a lot of children. We have an extensive family life, which basically has always been like you can wish for... So “Home is an empty dream” doesn't apply to me.

Do you love musicals? With all your numerous Smokie and solo hits you would have enough material to produce your own musical, like for example ABBA did.

— People keep asking me that. A friend from the musical business even has a story in mind. It could be based on the song “Living next door to Alice” and be about a young man who lives next to Alice. I don't know yet what will happen to this plans, but it would be a big pleasure for me, if such a musical came about.

With whom do you sing “Stumblin' In” on the new recording?

— It's Shannon Callahan, who sings in my band. She is from America, from San Francisco. And since we keep playing the song live, she knew it by heart anyway. I knew that she can sing the song well, so I asked her to come into the studio. She did a good job.

How did the duet with Suzi Quatro back then come about at all?

— The story of “Stumblin' In” began in Cologne. I have been there together with Smokie and we got a “Bravo”-award, an “Otto”. Suzi Quatro and her band were in Cologne with Mike Chapman, to produce a new album in the EMI-Studios. They came to the prize giving ceremony to say hello. Afterwards there was an after show party for the prize winners and all involved. Bonnie Tyler was there, Leif Garrett and so on. I have forgotten who else was present. Anyway, there was a party with a band playing. During the evening we all got on stage. It was like a jam session. Suzi and me sang a couple of rock-n-roll songs, of Little Richard and so on. When we left the stage and had a drink Mike Chapman came around and said: you fit together very well. It would be great if you did something together, would you like to? - And we both said: sure, why not.

What kind of influence did Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn have on the development of Smokie?

— Mike Chapman was very important to the development of this special sound, consisting of my voice and the harmonies of the others. We had published records before the period with Chinn and Chapman. When we called ourselves Kindness we already published a few singles at different labels, but they weren't successful. But when you listen to this records you can already hear these harmonies and my voice. We recorded our first single in 1969 and until 1973 you can hear a development, how we got closer to the sound of Smokie. But it was not until we went into the studio with Mike Chapman that it was really worked out. It was him who really heard this sound, whatever it was. He already knew it when he saw us live on stage, before we got the contract with Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn. They thought we had a special sound on stage. And it was Mike, who knew how to manage this sound in the studio as well and who tought us how to do it.

The first big Smokie hit was “If you think you know how to love me” in 1975. Did you realize at that time, that there was nothing in the music scene that sounded like this song?

— That's right, “If you think you know how to love me” was different than anything else. It was during the glamrock period, T. Rex, Slade and so on. “If you think you know how to love me” sounded more like a song by the Eagles from the west coast of America. There were other artists, who had a sound like this, but not in England, just in America. Insofar we bucked the trend with our sound. This applies to Chinn and Chapman, too, because they produced glamrock stars like Sweet, Mud or Suzi Quatro, who had nothing to do with what we did. But that was intended. They wanted consciously do something different. And furthermore we tried to avoid that the songs sounded all the same. We recorded all kind of things. “It's your life” for example was a reggae. Or “I'll meet you at midnight”. That was a conscious try to do something different which promised to be a bigger success. Especially in Europe. “If you think you know how to love me” was a hit, “Don't play your Rock'n Roll to me” as well. Then followed “Something's been making me blue” which wasn't such a big hit. So we started to worry a bit. “Wild wild angels” was more rocking, but that didn't really work either. Then we really got worried that we might lose the winning ways. “I'll meet you at midnight” was a try to write a song which was catchy and sounded European.

When did you realize that your voice has a special sound?

— To be honest, I have to say that I never thought that I had a special voice. It was always other people saying that. My voice is the product of circumstances, for if you are playing in small clubs or smoky bars you really have to shout. As a child I was in a church choir for a while. I always had a good voice and a good sense of hearing. I even could sing harmonies already when I was very small, already since I was four or five. But that people say, oh we can always tell when you're singing, I only realised that when people kept telling me.

Many of your solo songs, but many Smokie songs, too, have a certain melancholic mood. What is the reason for that?

— I think, I have this sound in my voice anyway. In England they call it pathos. It is a bit sad, like it is with clowns – they can have pathos, too. It's a mixture of humour with a bit sadness.

Do you feel melancholy sometimes?

— Certainly, everybody does. Sometimes I definitely write songs because I feel that way. I think, the song “Lost in flight” expresses that. The text is reflecting it, because at that time I had the feeling that I didn't really know which way to go. That is the matter of “Lost in flight”. – Like a bird that's lost in flight, there's a corner in my mind, says I'm losing everything. – This puts in words that I didn't really know in which direction I should go and what I should do next. Insofar the song was melancholic, because I felt that way then. And the text reflects this.

When did you start to think seriously about becoming a professional musician?

— In the beginning we played just for fun. Nobody thought we could ever do it as a job. Even my parents who were in show business didn't encourage us. My granddad who always called me Bill said: Bill, you can't do it as a job. You have to think over what you really want to do! - We thought the same, we just did it for fun - and it was fun. Then we did our first gigs where we met other musicians. We thought we are as good as they are, but they get a lot of gigs. We need a good manager. When I was 17 we found one and we told him, we want to do it as a job. He tried to get enough gigs so we could work as fulltime musicians. For the first time we thought, hey, we can really do it, we don't have to work. At that time it didn't seem to be work, it was just fun. Later it was work, but we still had fun (laughs). Anyway, at that time we thought it really could work.

But the beginning was no bed of roses, wasn't it?

— At the beginning we had to fight. We slept in our van. We had no money for weeks. The van constantly got broken. Whenever we thought that we finally had earned some money, we had to spend it for a set of tires. In the beginning it seemed as if we would never really earn some money. It was really hard.

Could you imagine to be involved in a band again like you used to be with Smokie?

— When we recorded the new stuff for the current album, I actually was a part of a band. I produced it together with Sandi and we wrote the songs together, too. Like it used to be in the Smokie period. Then we had a guitarist, a bassist, drummer, singer – different people joined in and did their job. So I haven't been completely on my own. If you ask me, whether I would like to be a member of a band like I used to be with Smokie, then I think I don't want it. For I think it's too late for it. I am sure that you can start a new band when you are a bit younger, but I can't imagine to do it myself. I think it's definitely too late. Unless we are all successful and come together again, like the Traveling Wilburys did. That would be great. Honestly, if somebody asked me whether I wanted to become one of the Traveling Wilburys, I would probably accept immediately. Hey, they have sold 15 million albums. Fantastic! If you ask me whether I could imagine to join Smokie again, then I can only say it depends on whether it will ever come that far again. Or to say it in other words, it would just be possible, if everybody would like to do it at the same time. But right now it doesn't seem so at all. We have talked about it so often, but there is always one who doesn't feel like it.

Was there a moment after you have left Smokie where you regretted your decision?

— At the beginning I had the feeling that I lost my soul. When I was successful with things like “Midnight Lady” and I was on the road that much without the band, and when I was on stage alone in TV shows, that was quite strange. But in the Smokie period it was always me who gave interviews and did the promotion. So that was nothing new, but this time it was for me and not for the band. It was a very strange period and sometimes I felt rather lonely. Especially when I stood alone on a stage and there was nobody I already knew for 20 years and I just had to look at to know everything is going nicely. As a group you stick together, you are strong, and this feeling got lost when I started my solo career. As time went by I got used to it and meanwhile I am happy with as it is now. Especially as I have a band with me on stage when I am on tour. We get on well with each other, we are friends and we travel together in a tour bus. The advantage of my job now is, that I can enjoy the comforts of a band and still can make my decisions alone, without any arguments.

Are you still friends with the others of Smokie?

— Yes, sure. We had some strange years at the beginning when I left. After a while that was ok again. Today we are absolutely quits. We have seen all of us on Pete Spencerís birthday party, had some drinks together – and at the end we stood on stage, sang and played a few songs. That has been great fun for us.

Maybe there's a chance for a reunion comeback?

— This chapter is completed for me – at least there are lots of terms and objections to be overcome. In addition, I donít believe that we could attract so many people like Led Zeppelin for a comeback concert.

Some years ago you have won the Comeback show on Pro7. WhatĎs your opinion of casting shows?

— Nowadays they are unavoidable. The Comeback show was no casting show and the only reason, why I have taken part there: to promote my new album. The other casting shows ... oh yes, that's just it. Unfortunately. There are no more enough opportunities to play. When I started we played in pubs, clubs and on the radio. Record producers heard that and one got a contract. Today that is no more in such a way. It is harder. Casting shows are a cheap way to do a television. And people like them. For me they are not important. They are like instant coffee, one drinks him and then one forgets him.

Our best known caster is Dieter Bohlen who has written your hit “Midnight Lady”. What do you think of him?

— I would say we havenít got badly with each other. We had only completely different views on music. We have done “Midnight Lady” together because he asked me whether I sang it. I did it, and it became a hit. Then the record company wanted to bring out a whole album. We also did that. But it was not a good album. Rather because I wanted to have it in my kind and he on his. His roots are a disco and drum machines and synthesizer, mine are guitars and real instruments. Therefore it did not work. We had, as itís said, contradicting musical ideas. Apart from that fact he was ok.

If you would live your life all over again, would you have done things different or would you do it the way it is?

— There would be some small things I would change. But I would do the same thing. I mean, I would do the same job and everything. I consider myself to be really privileged and lucky to be in a career which I really enjoy, Iím lucky that I do something which started off for me as fun, started off as a hobby – playing in a group. So I wouldnít change that. But thereís a couple of decisions or things that I made along the way that I would change.

For example?

— Well, “StumbliníIn” was a song with Suzi Quatro. When that record came out that was a big hit all over the place. And we were asked to do all kinds of things. And to be honest, at that time, in 1978-79, I was going through a strange sort of personal period in my life. I didnít really want to be away so much. So I was being asked to go to America, was being asked to go and do “Top Of The Pops” in London and so on – Suzi wanted to do it. In fact she is still a bit pissed off with me today because I didnít do it. But I said no. And I wished I had now. Looking back I think I should have done some of that because it would have been good. If I have done it, there were so many opportunities because, you know, you have a record that gets number 2 in America, which is what it did, suddenly the doors are opened to do all kinds of things – movie parts, all kinds of things weíve being offered. And at that time I didnít feel like I was in the mood for it. I've been through a bad year when things had gone wrong – my father had died, my granddad had died, we were broken into the house, we got a lot of things robbed, I have been away for a long time – and I was just going through like a very stressful period. And I thought I really canít handle going on and travelling on. So at that time I said No to everything. And I know now looking back on it, if I have done it, then I would have been in a different situation, cause certainly the career in America would have been a lot bigger. So these are the bits and pieces like that that I could say.

You are not just playing guitar. It is interesting for our readers which equipment you are using?

— Ok, when you say that I am playing other instruments than guitar, then I have to admit that I just do it if there is nobody else who plays them. First of all I am a singer and guitarist. I guess, most musicians who work as often in a studio as I do, learn a bit. Especially keyboards. I guess, most musicians can play some chords on a keyboard. At least most of the ones I know. So I play a bit on the piano, on a keyboard, a synthesizer or an organ. I am not so presumptuous to do it when I sit next to a pro, but it's enough to show them what I mean. So I am a guitarist and I play a lot of instruments with strings like mandolin, ukulele, banjo or bass. On stage I play both acoustic and electric guitars. My most important electric guitar is a Jaydee-Hooligan. I use it really often. It is more than 20 years old. And I quite often play the Stratocaster and Ibanez guitars. My acoustic guitars are from Ibanez, too. I have got a lot of guitars for different occasions, for example Maton guitars, which are from Australia. They are great acoustic guitars.

What music do you listen yourselves?

— All possible, depending on my mood. This can be a classical period, Frank Sinatra or the Beatles. But also Duffy or Jimmy Eat World.

You live on a quiet Isle of Man – is it a good place for a rock star? At least, Robin Gibb also lives there...

— I guess, Robin is rather seldom there – with his property he probably has houses in every land of earth. But for me the island life is a welcome antipole to the whole vanity and spotlights. However, if I was not in this job, the island would make me mad maybe, and I would hate the quiet life.

What inspires you?

— All sorts of things, it depends on how things on earth are developing. Some experiences and thoughts I already worked into the songs of “Handmade”. The world is just crazy. I mean, just look at the impoverished communication. People have to struggle with call-through systems on the phone, have no direct counterpart anymore. You don't write to one another but just send mails or SMS. I am watching the news and I see terrible things, but afterwards the moderator proceeds to news of the show business, as if nothing sad ever happened. What kind of world is that? This sounds rather serious – I have to admit that sometimes I write a song just to tell a story.

You are very involved in social matters. What is your main message?

— I think, it's very important that people take more care of each other. People often handle with each other agressively. Although it would be so easy to be a bit nicer, courteous and tolerant. Especially children are so vulnerable, you have to help them in a generous way.

What would you advice young musicians?

— I think, it's much more difficult now than it used to be. My kids make music. My daughter is a good singer, my son is a guitarist and the other one is a drummer. They are playing in different bands. First I thought, they don't want to make music together because they are brothers and sister. Now that they are getting older it seems they will. So we went into my studio and recorded a few rock- and popsongs. I suggested to them: record a couple of songs and at the same time try to reel in some live performances. To gain experience and establish a fanbase. My kids are lucky because they can use my studio, many others don't have such an opportunity. Anyway I recommend trying to do some recordings and send the complete package to a record company, for that is what they are looking for. These days you can't launch a career with one single song. They want the whole thing. Enough material for a CD, the band must have live experience, talent and charisma. Then maybe they sign on you. That's the hard way. The other possibility is to go to a casting show and with a bit of luck make your career like Leona Lewis. She is an exception, one of the best who made it lately. I would prefer to go the hard way, because only that way you learn how to survive in this business.

Do you already have plans for the time after the tour?

— Well, it's a long time until then. I don't have to think about it right now. The tour will be quiet long, with dates in Russia, Austria, Germany and a lot of other countries. So I am fixed up with that for the next months. After that I have to think about what I want to do. A new studio album, maybe something completely different than everybody is expecting from me. No idea. Suppose I'll have to put my thinking-cap on and ponder on it (laughs). I think, it will be a solo album again, unless the Traveling Wilburys call me. I mean.. hey, George Harrison is no longer with us, nor is Roy Orbison. Maybe they need someone to fill these gaps (laughs).

 

© Sources: “BUNTE”, “Der Westen”, “Musicianís Life”, “HJH-Press”, “Oldie95”, “Leipziger Volkszeitung”, “SWR1” (Germany)
 Compiled, transcribed and edited by Annie & Stranger
© 2009  www.chris-norman.ru