Huey Lewis: "I Would Be Just as Content Playing the Harmonica Somewhere"
From what I gathered from our half-hour conversation, Huey Lewis is a neat guy. He laughs a lot and talks to you, not down or at you. He mumbles funny stories and name-drops totally unpretentiously and has sort of an accepting and easygoing attitude. He's cool like the Dude, but with talent and enduring success.
He called at our scheduled interview time, a reasonable 10:30 a.m. on the East Coast. But after chatting for a minute, Lewis mentioned that it was much earlier out on his Montana ranch where he currently lives. He then complimented me on my name. There's nothing that warms a writer's heart like a name compliment just before an interview with an '80s icon -- especially one who also has two first names.
Lewis isn't only one of the most famous pop stars of that neon decade but he's also an accomplished actor who got his start on the harmonica busking in Europe. He performed with the News this past weekend at the inaugural Lauderdale Live. In reference to his migration to warmth, he mentioned something Merle Haggard once told him. Haggard defined success as living "North in the summertime and South in the wintertime."
You can read about Lewis' local performance on County Grind. To learn about the last time he hitchhiked, what he thinks about drum machines, and what it was like on the set of his American Psycho parody, keep clicking here.
New Times: In your early days you busked in Europe. How much did it affect your musical style and how it evolved?
Huey Lewis: I don't know about my style, but it had something to do with me making the decision to actually go to school and become a harmonica player. My year year busking through Europe, a light when on in me in North Africa where I busked in the square in Marrakech and I got three dirhams. My youth hostel was a dirham, to eat was a dirham, so I was a dirham good. I thought, hey this is happening (laughs). I thought, I could really exist this way if I had to.
You also hitchhiked there. When was the last time you hitchhiked?
That's a good question. Long time ago though. Let's see, probably... That's a really good question. Probably 1970. No one's ever asked me that.
That's quite some time. Do you have any advice for people busking these days?
Down. Get down garments. You're in Florida, you don't care about this stuff. Pay the extra money for the down, because it's warmer. I don't know. You practice your... I used it as a practice session. I just sort of practiced. I'm always asked about how to make it, clearly, you need to work hard and be talented somewhat, but also you have to be fortunate as well. I always tell people, unless it's the only thing you want to do, unless you'd be content busking there out in the street, you might as well think about something else. It is a long shot, but I made that decision. I said, I that's what I want to do, I want to play harmonica. My life is very complicated now, obviously. I've done a lot of things that I wouldn't have done had I not been successful. But I would be just as content playing the harmonica somewhere.
I saw you did a few parodies lately, "I Am the World," and American Psycho with Weird Al. Are you going to be making more? How did you get the idea to make those?
The idea for me is to create, I owe it to myself and my band to do that. Even though, this is our Sports album, we're celebrating the thirtieth anniversary. On the radio in 1982, that's what was going on. Even MTV was just starting, everything was programmed, including FM radio. And you needed a top 20 single. In retrospect, it sounds like what it was, which is a collection of singles. Then once it hit and did so well, we changed our focus entirely to creative endeavors as opposed to economic ones. We've become a much better band in the 30 years since. We now capture performances in the studio as opposed to creating them piece by piece. I can't remember your question now, but I was going to get to it.
(Laughs) The parodies.
And when we began being able to pay bills, we said, hey let's make it challenging and creative. And that's what I've done with myself. I ask myself three questions. I run a small business. So, is it money, is it a career move, or is it something very creative that I want to do. And actress I did the Broadway show Chicago with taught me that. And I use that, so therefore, when it's creative like this, I say, why not? It's fun? It's great.
Was it funny?
The funniest part. In the American Psycho parody, these kids, there are probably 11 kids in their 20s on set. And they're directing and doing lighting and wardrobing. And they're serious as a heart attack! They're not funny. They're very serious. And we do one take and they'd go, "eh, I don't know, can you do it more like this?" It ended up really being a hard working day!
How did you get that Back to the Future gig?
They just called, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, they produced, directed, and wrote the film. They said the lead character's favorite Band would be Huey Lewis and the News, so how would you like to write a song? I thought, what the heck. We didn't know how to write a song for films necessarily. I told him straight off, I don't fancy writing a song called "Back to the Future." He said, no problem, you don't have to have the title. I said, OK, in that case, it sounds good! We'll send you the next thing we write.
Next thing we wrote was "Power of Love," which I didn't think would work because they'd shot some of the film and there wasn't any overt love story in it. In the end, they wanted me to be in it, a little cameo, which I thought was kind of silly, I didn't want to do that, I was just working on my music. We agreed to do it if I was uncredited. I actually adopted the persona of our record company head, and I became him for that part.
With Duets, how did you feel about being the lead? Did you enjoy the acting?
With acting, it's interesting, I really love acting, it's really fun. Most of it's just hanging around waiting and most acting you can get a couple great scenes, and there's a lot of just pushing the story along. But what's interesting, I did a musical Chicago on Broadway as Billy Flynn for 222 shows, and I did television, Hot in Cleveland, and then I did some film work, like Duets, and such. The three things are completely different, stage acting, film acting, and three camera sitcom stuff. They're just completely different and really neat.
I can see that if that were your gig, 24-7, you might be tired of that too, but for me, it was very exciting. I enjoyed it. I don't have to do it for a living, fortunately. So I don't have to take all the stuff I'm offered. I can pick and choose. Which means, I don't do very much. I want roles with real acting. They always go to real actors! (laughs)
You also did Dancing with the Stars recently...
We performed on it. I graciously did not dance.
Why did you decide to perform on that? Do you watch the show?
This is our Sports 30th anniversary tour. I have a 9-piece band. You have to make a living with my 9-piece band. If you want a good trumpet player, the difference between a good trumpet player and a not good trumpet player is huge. And if you want a good trumpet player, you've got to assure him a bunch of gigs. My trumpet player has three kids, so I have to take care of him, and we have to work.
Every year, we say: what are we going to do this year? And this is our 30th, and so it resonated with people. I had two other ideas for tours, but this one seemed to be the most popular. I'm not a backward looking guy, but this 30th Sports anniversary tour has invited a look back which is very interesting for me. I really enjoyed it, to that end, we want to promote that and Dancing with the Stars offered.
The sad part about it is it's live to track. I sing, but everything else is fake. It's on tape. All the music is. All those music shows are fake. It's all partial karaoke really. That's really what's happening. There's very few bands that just get up there and play.
How do you feel about Sports now as opposed to 30 years ago?
It's so a record of its time. Everyone asks, why'd you call it Sports? I have no idea why I called it Sports. Cause it had a lot of hits! I didn't know that, I didn't even think of that.
There aren't many albums anymore because of the internet.
The other thing about the '80s, music television changed things, and then synthesizers and drum machines. Which is insane. You never hear anyone out of tune on the radio. They use Pro Tools and then Auto Tune, and everything is very different. In our day, you needed a drummer, without speeding up or slowing down, just to pocket the beats. That was the hardest thing on the planet. Then the machines changed all that. You have the Germans (singing something Kraftwerk-ish). Very funky Germans. No German guy could play that, they cut to a drum machine. When the German's are getting funky, you know something's up! Now it's all machines, anyone can do it. Pro Tools is amazing.
It requires less skill. Do you feel like it's lesser music if someone is only using Pro Tools?
I do not. I do not. It's just different skills. It's not singing and playing like we do. It's programming. These guys are brilliant. My old man was a Jazz musician and he used to say, "What's with the drums all the time?" I said, "It's so you can hear them pops. That's just a kick drum. In your day, you didn't want to hear them." He says, "Actually the difference is, people don't listen anymore." We're both right. There's not a whole lot of melody, not a whole lot of harmony. But the beats are good! It's just different. It's not better or worse. It's like food, burgers or foie gras, it's all just different.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.