We’ve all had at least one of our favorite bands take an extended break from recording, only to emerge with the fabled “reunion album” – a label that practically telegraphs disappointment from the minute you read it.
The Bad Examples leader Ralph Covert has spent a large part of the last decade exploring other outlets: a highly successful run making children’s music as “Ralph’s World”, and bringing the world of rock and roll to theatrical and literary circles… not exactly ignoring the spunky pop-rock combo, but certainly taking a more diffuse approach to his creative energies. With Smash Record, The Bad Examples have delivered a recording that’s not as much reunion album as a work that’s been ten years in the making. The band never really “broke up”; they still gigged recorded and throughout the years and in fact many of the Examples were key contributors in Ralph’s other projects as well.
And it doesn’t sound like a reunion album either… picking up where they left off, but allowing influences and sounds of those other projects to seep in, the twelve songs in this disc are just a re-charging of the band’s rock-n-roll batteries, another chapter of buoyant, tuneful pop, dressed up moments of sly and visceral energy. As Ralph asks on the album’s opening track… “If you could be anywhere at all, would you be anywhere but here?”
It was a pleasure to catch up with Ralph about the circumstances that allowed the band to put a bow on this latest work, the art of bringing that music to the stage, and other topics that come with being one of Chicago’s most accomplished musicians over the last few decades.
The Barn: Tell about what it’s like to work on an album for 10 years. I am intrigued.
Ralph Covert: It’s not like that was the plan or anything. When we first started to record the tracks just weren’t gelling. Creatively, things weren’t making much sense. On top of that, we had no resources for a major promotion. We weren’t working with an outside label; there was no money for marketing. There was no momentum.
Occasionally, the band would get together and record or write a snippet, but it never got that real push to turn into something commercial.
So did some of your work from back then actually make it on to this record?
Some of it did. The idea for the next Examples record was first conceived when we started doing work for the 5000 Days show back in ’99 and 2000. There was a vision to get all of the past band members back together. We’d tackle some unrecorded songs and cover all the significant lineups as a sort of celebration of the 5000 days the band had been together. We ended up recording that show and releasing as a live CD, but the older material didn’t feel right for a new album. The natural evolution of that work was to start creating something new. The door was open to that. Ideas were brought forward, but there wasn’t that overwhelming momentum.
Then Ralph’s World took off. I was pushed in so many different directions; I had to find a balance for what I was working on. It turned out that I was doing so much recording, I didn’t have time to record [The Bad Examples]!
There was not only that, but four books so far, two dramatic stage plays, and several musicals…
Being an author and a playwright working with other folks and with real deadlines, something else ends up getting put off to the side. In this case it was The Examples. We weren’t playing every weekend anymore. It was harder to get everybody together.
There were some good parts about being so busy, though. Luckily, when we signed on with Disney, instead of funneling some of that money into another studio or artist, they allowed us to make investment in Waterdog Records studio. In effect, it ended up liberating us as a band.
We were determined and lucky to be able to create a place to work that has just the right vibe, attuned to the way we work. The studio turned out to be a place to just be free, hang out and make music with my friends. There is nothing hanging over our heads. That atmosphere is really what enabled this Bad Examples record to come out. So much great stuff came forward so fast.
Sounds like that was a great inspiration for you and meant a lot to you creatively. Does that mean that there’s more Bad Examples material than the dozen songs that made it on to this record?
Oh yes. We’ve got a ton of material and there’s been a lot of discussion about how to go about releasing it. Whether it be a box set, releasing tracks to iTunes, there are lots of options. We really want to get creative about how we share this material with the fans.
I also heard that you are currently building a studio. What is that process like?
Well it already is a functioning studio but we’re about to embark on a phase two. The challenge is to continue to cultivate the vibe and creative energy that we want while being able to expand.
Do you think that vibe spills over into other projects that are in-progress at Waterdog?
That’s the plan. I want it to be an ideal working environment for me, but also other like-minded folks. Sean O’Keefe, who mixed the last Bad Examples record, he’s doing a lot of his mixing and tracking work there. There’s been a lot of demand from all sorts of people to use the space. It’s crazy that it feels like I can barely get time in my own studio lately! In more ways than one, it really what made this record what it is.
How does that attitude and energy translate to the stage in your most recent gigs?
The best word I can use for it is “carnal” – we just are really trying to conjure this solid rock and roll vibe.
The song, “Big E Chord”, which is the first track on the album, is about all about that rock sound. Standing up on stage in front of excited people and creating a really raw reverberating rock noise, sending that out into the audience. It really became the theme for the entire record. Giving back to that energy to the crowd; tapping into that space.
Well, we’re not a jamband, as you know. But we’re not really a “parts band” either -- we just don’t get up there, have everybody play their written out parts and end the song. I’d say we’re a song band, we give everybody a little bit of room to express themselves in the confines of the song. Everybody is accomplished enough as a musician to be able to add a little of their personality.
That poppy aggressiveness seems like a very Chicago sound. I’ve always associated a playful, humorous vibe from you as a song writer or master of ceremonies.
In the best sense of the word, we are “playing” – it’s just me and some of my best friends up there, entertaining ourselves and the audience. We make music because it’s fun and for its own sake. Hopefully, that feeling comes through live and on the record.
This summer, The Bad Examples are doing a mix of festivals and club shows. Is there a different approach or expectations for each?
To me, it’s all rock and roll. Back to that “carnal” word I used to describe it earlier. The setting doesn’t matter as long as we can get loud and connect with the audience.
But there are other types of experiences, too. An interesting thing that I’ve been trying about once a month this year is the Acoustic Army show.
I think I’ve heard of that. Is that something you’ve done at Fitzgerald’s?
Yeah! It’s a twist on a solo acoustic show, but basically I try to break down some of the barriers between myself and the audience. A friend of mine says I’m going beyond social media into “social music”. It’s so interesting where I can go with this and break new ground and do things that really haven’t been done before.
I publish lyrics and chords on my facebook page and on our website (www.waterdogmusic.com). Everybody is encouraged to bring their guitars or string-based instruments and play along with those songs – for September, I’m working on playing the Bad Is Beautiful album. Last time we did this, there was a guy who brought a stand up bass. There were six or seven people with acoustic guitars. And everybody singing along, adding the hand-claps… background vocals.
At one point I just stopped playing and listened to the audience. So cool!
Kind of like a hybrid Ralph Covert Show and an open mic night?
Not exactly like Open Mic, since I’m still the focus. But instead of me doing that energy transfer with the audience in that carnal “big rock” way, it’s a more emotional experience. We’re doing things together, connecting around these songs I’ve written.
You’ve performed all over the country with The Bad Examples and Ralph’s World. What about the Chicago scene what has kept you here?
I literally have been all over the world: Europe, Asia, just about every place in the US. But, Chicago.... It’s home. The people, the city, the venue owners. They are in it for the right reason; there is a culture that really celebrates live music and that social experience. I’ve met so many different musicians in jazz, blues, gospel and there’s so much room for all sorts of music to flourish.
And I’ve got such great support from the fans here. They really make it worthwhile. I’m always open to chat with people at my shows, but I’m in kind of in a bubble there since I’m the center of attention.
This past weekend I was at Lollapalooza. I had the privilege of playing both Friday and Saturday. I had some time on Saturday, where I could just roam the festival grounds alone and check out other acts. About three hours. In that time, I must have had thirty people approach me. They let me know about introducing Ralph’s World to their kids, or an experience they had at a Bad Examples show back in the day. And they were just music lovers… festival goers. It wasn’t about me, it was about a pure love of music. To see that people these people care, that they are so gracious, was really something. Knowing that I’ve made a little difference in their lives through music… I feel like I’ve won the game, you know?