Keep This Band Goin’: A Conversation with NRBQ’s Terry Adams

NRBQ is an American institution. Since their recorded debut in 1969, the band has delivered its warm and inimitable brand of music, drawing from a variety of American styles but always crafting something original in the process. The band broke up in 2004, leaving behind a catalog of twenty-plus albums. After winning a bout with cancer, founder Terry Adams put together a new band – originally called the Terry Adams Rock & Roll Quartet – in 2007. As the band started playing out, they decided – based on fan reaction and their chemistry onstage and off — that they were indeed NRBQ. So Adams revived the band name, and with his three band mates recorded the group’s latest album, Keep This Love Goin’. Here’s my recent conversation with Terry Adams.

Bill Kopp: From a production standpoint, you completely avoid anything that pins the record down to a specific time; I think people will look back five, ten years from now and agree that there’s nothing especially “2011” about Keep This Love Goin’. A surprising number of artists I interview these days admit that their albums have been constructed, if you will, on a computer, ProTools, parts flown in, guitar solos emailed across the Atlantic…that kind of thing. I get the strong impression that is not how NRBQ does things. What’s the band’s approach in the studio?

Terry Adams: You know, there’s a spiritual truth that comes out in this style of recording. You can do that [record with modern techniques], and it works in a certain way. But it’s sort of like…have you ever had a photograph taken of yourself, and even though you try your best to smile, you can tell that you’re worried about something? You’re doing everything you can, but still, people can tell something’s wrong. It’s the same thing with a recording. You can make it seem like it’s a band playing together. But there’s that spiritual truth that the listener – or the listener’s soul – can detect. And a lot of listeners aren’t even aware that they’re detecting it. But something inside them may reject it on some level.

So what you’re saying is exactly right: the band is playing together. That way you can feel the warmth — the actual vibrations – of this combination of spirits.

BK: I hear everything from Merseybeat to hints of zydeco and rockabilly on Keep This Love Goin’. If there’s been one constant in NRBQ’s music, it’s been that joyous predilection for applying whatever style makes sense within a given song.

TA: It’s about the reality of the culture that we live in, the culture that I grew up in. A long time back before radio stations around the country were all owned by one person, there was such a thing as a local [identity], where you could say, “I grew up listening to country music; this is who I am.” But today, to be honest, if a musician is really honest, you can’t say, “I grew up listening to such-and-such.” Because you hear everything. We’re citizens of the Earth now. There’s not really much difference between what’s going on in Kansas City and Washington, D.C.

So being really, really honest, growing up and listening to music, I couldn’t really say, “I’m gonna be a rockabilly artist.” Or a jazz artist. It all makes sense to me. And I love it all. This has been my philosophy since the beginning. This isn’t a showcase of musical styles; this is just regular life now.

BK: I understand what you mean. I’ve heard some bands that trade in different styles on their albums, and sometimes there’s a whiff of a dilettantish attitude about it: “Okay, on this next song here, we’re gonna take a trip to New Orleans!” But there’s none of that here; the transitions are all natural, and it all feels authentic.

TA: Well, we’re not even aware [laughs] that we’re going from one thing to the next anymore. We’ve been doing this so long. And plus, I studied composition as a teenager. And one of the main lessons I learned was to not let it get boring. So I don’t allow…I really don’t want the listener to get bored. It’s just a natural process for me and the band.

BK: With such a wide array of influences, what do you think has been the “glue” that has held the band (in its various lineups) together. Put another way, what is it that all the various members have had in common that has made NRBQ work?

TA: Well, you bring up a good subject. Duke Ellington once said – in a description of jazz – that jazz is the music of personality. And I’d extend that definition to NRBQ. Getting the right personalities together makes it what it is. Not just talent or the ability to play your instrument; it’s the right personalities. And we’ve managed to have the right personalities to make that music happen.

BK: The upside for a listener like me is that you do pull a lot of styles together into something that you make your own. In retrospect, from a commercial standpoint — and by commercial I mean what we used to call the major labels – I can see why a label like Mercury probably didn’t know what to do with you guys. To some extent, at least. A marketer’s dream is the kind of band where all the songs sound the same. The music industry likes something they can package. Has there ever been a time in the band’s history where you though, “Hey, let’s milk this particular style — this small corner of what we do – and try to shift some units?”

TA: There may have been a time when a certain member of the group might have said that; he would have been laughed out of the car.

It sort of comes around to having imagination in marketing. For example, how would you market the Lovin’ Spoonful? You know that they made good-time music, but every record sounded different. Same goes for the Beatles. It’s not that big of a stretch. It’s a cop-out on the part of the labels to say they can’t market it.

But it’s something that I haven’t ever considered.

BK: Beyond the stylistic variety, I think part of what sustains NRBQ musically is the fact that there’s not a single vocal front man. It’s not like, say, Roger Daltrey in the Who; various members take the vocal spotlight, so the band’s identity is sort of the combined effect of all of it, as opposed to one guy’s voice. Was that part of some sort of plan from the start, or did it just work out that way?

TA: I know that my perspective, I [sometimes] write songs that I can’t sing. I write songs out of my range; I have ideas that I really can’t deliver vocally. So I’ve been lucky to have good singers around me in the band that could take on my ideas and vocals.

When I met Scott Ligon, the guitarist in the band now – I just knew he was really right for the band, but I hadn’t really heard him play guitar. I thought, “I’ll do it anyway.” I had only heard him play one song on the piano. I said to him, “What’s your main instrument: the piano or guitar?” His response was, “My singing.” There’s a devotion to singing coming from Scott. And from Pete [Donnelly], who’s got his own brilliant style of singing. And we’re lucky to have a guy in the back — Conrad Choucroun, on the drums – who can sing the wildest, highest harmony parts.

It’s all part of keeping things interesting, and also of not working somebody too hard…

BK: Right; if somebody’s doing all the vocals at a gig, it might be tough.

TA: and if you’re doing a four-day run, you could be in trouble.

BK: I was at a garage sale this weekend and found a vinyl copy of At Yankee Stadium. I was struck by the similarities between that record and the new one. Arguably there’s no reason to expect a big similarity: you wrote about half of that album’s songs, and you’re the only player who’s on both of the records. What it suggests to me – and I’m hoping that you can speak to this — is that you exert a subtle influence upon the music and the band’s direction. Not an overt one, I’d argue, but kind of a Wizard of Oz behind the curtain sort of thing. Would you agree with that assessment?

TA: I’m sort of the Designer in Charge of Activities and Vibes. That philosophy sort of came together way back in my basement, back in ’66 or something. It’s my overview, my take on music and the world. But it does not mean in any way that other songs from other members of the band are diminished in any way. Their composing and songwriting is important in so many ways. It all comes together. Somebody said, “This new one sounds an awful lot like an NRBQ record.” And I thought, y’know, I’d have a really hard time making a record that didn’t sound like an NRBQ record. I don’t know how; this is what I do.

BK: This isn’t a question so much as an observation: I can’t put my finger on exactly why this is so, but your songwriting – especially the chord voicings and subtle technical things like that — reminds me of Paul McCartney. Can you help me figure out why that’s the case? The only thing I can come up with is that you write your songs on piano.

TA: Nobody’s said that before, but it’s a high compliment. I appreciate it. It’s about being not just a songwriter but a composer. I’m a composer, and I think McCartney is, too. To compose as well as write songs, you’re going to hear something different in a song. I’m not knocking songwriters who don’t think in compositional forms; it’s just a different approach, I would say.

BK: The song “Talk” sounds to me like your version of a pastiche or homage to Brian Wilson.  

TA: Whenever you decide to use a high falsetto part — which is what Scott did – it instantly brings to mind Brian Wilson. People can’t help it. So that much you could say was influenced by him. But the song itself has nothing to do with him. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever written a song consciously influenced by Brian; in fact I might even try to avoid it if I saw it coming. Yeah, I would, because if someone said, “Oh, this is a Brian Wilson-type thing,” although it’s a compliment, it’s an easy categorization… [pauses] …but I also understand that it goes into a different tempo, so, that song, yeah. I’m not gonna deny that; I can see where someone might say that.

BK: Since I had never heard At Yankee Stadium until a few days ago – I used to see it on shelves when I worked in a record store in the early 80s – I didn’t know until recently that “I Want You Bad” was an NRBQ tune. I knew it from the Long Ryders cover. When one of your songs gets covered, is it much of a windfall in terms of financial terms? Or is it more “hey, that’s nice, but it doesn’t change my life.”

TA: Well, y’know, it depends on who covers it. It’s the pop music publishing business; that’s how that works. It’s always nice to know that another artist covers one of my songs. There’s been a couple of tribute albums, with all kinds of artists doing NRBQ songs.

BK: At the moment you’re doing a handful of stateside gigs — sadly, nothing close to me here in Asheville — and then it’s off to Scandinavia. Why there? Is it – as is so often the case — that this American band gets a better reception overseas than at home?

TA: I assume that in the next half-a-year or so we’ll probably be coming in your direction. It just happens that’s the way the bookings fell in the fall. Every city’s different, and the fans are different in every city. And that causes the band to play differently, because we’re tuned into the vibrations of the rooms and the people. You’ve got to be to make it work. Otherwise it’s a cold, hard, rehearsed Broadway musical that puts out the same thing every time you go.

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