Martha Davis of the Motels: "I'm Still a Storyteller"
Photo by Mike Krzeszak via Flickr cc
Every city has had its scene at one time or another. In the '60s, it was London; in the '70s, New York; Boston ruled as far as the folk crowd was concerned, and today Austin and Nashville are at the essence of Americana.
Nevertheless, the '80s belonged to Los Angeles, and it was there, during that time, that Martha Davis and the Motels first emerged at the dawn of the decade. Originally from Berkeley California, the first incarnation of the band emigrated to L.A. in the mid '70s, but were dismayed to find that none of the local venues -- specifically, the Whiskey A Go-Go and the Troubadour -- offered a place to play for any band that wasn't signed to a label.
"I had to leave my two kids, my house, my life, and move to L.A. where I didn't like it, and where we couldn't play," Davis recently recalled, speaking by phone from her manager's L.A. office. "That was the first real 'whoops!' moment, like maybe this was a mistake. But we put together an event we called the Radio Free Concert with three bands -- the Dogs, the Pop and the Motels -- and we did our own original music. It was really well attended and very successful. Shortly thereafter, the Whiskey called and said, 'Maybe you should play here.' So there was that kind of camaraderie with different bands that all clicked together. We all had to stick together just to survive. Yet there was so much individualism as well. It was an interesting time."
When the record labels subsequently began seeking out the hottest local bands to sign, the Motels were at the center of the action.
"At first, all the record labels were looking to New York to sign bands, and then the Knack came out with 'My Sharona,' and then they all went, 'Oh, maybe we have talent here,'" she remembers. "So everybody got signed in L.A. It was a kind of feeding frenzy. You didn't notice though, because you were working so hard at becoming one of those bands. The beauty of the '80s was that none of us wanted to sound like any of the rest of us... Everybody was different and so unique. That was the main directive. You had to have your own identity and you had to have your own personality. That's what made it such a heady time, because it was such an individualistic era where people were really touting their intent along with their clothing and their hair color. Talk about a me generation! It was all about the art."
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While it was undoubtedly a transitional time, it was also fraught with frustration, at least for the Motels. A demo recorded for Warner Bros. was rejected, and when Capitol Records came calling, the band not only declined, but disbanded in the process. When they later reformed with Davis on guitar and vocals, along with bassist Michael Goodroe, drummer Brian Glascock, guitarist Jeff Jourard, and Jourard's brother Marty on sax and keyboards, they gained a groundswell of support, and the next time Capitol appeared interested, they accepted.
"I had so many heydays," Davis recalls. "It was with a fabulous record label and an amazing team. I was there for the beginning of MTV. It was a wonderful time to be making music. I have no complaints really. It was such a great label. It was like a family."
Despite the fact that their first two albums for the label, The Motels and Careful, helped expand their burgeoning following, Capitol rejected their third attempt, Apocalypso. They didn't consider it commercial enough. Still, Davis didn't harbor any grudges.
"I'm always one of those people who thinks when one door closes, the fire escape is always available," she laughs. "It was Rupert Perry, the head of A&R, who told me their decision, and he was so sweet about it. He said, 'Martha, we'll release it if you really want us to, but we don't think promotion people will work it, and we don't think the marketing people will either.' So I thought, if nobody's going to get behind it, then what's the use? And it was fine. I was kind of pragmatic about it and I saw this freedom that came with it.
"So it all worked out. Maybe in other circumstances it would have been a more crushing blow, but you have to learn early on in the music business -- or you should learn -- to take rejection. That means everything from going out to do a show and not have people interested in you, to having people walk out on you and getting bad reviews. If you let that shit get to you, you can't do this business. You have to be secure enough in knowing that if it doesn't work, you'll have something else going.
"That creative energy has always been strong in me. I live to think of the next thing. That's my happy place. So instead of taking rejection as rejection, I think, 'Well, what do we do next?' And I go forward. So I guess I'm in a good place that way."
For Davis, there were other reasons to move on as well. Her boyfriend, Tim McGovern, had replaced Jeff Jourard, and as their relationship soured, so did the creative process. Nevertheless, after revamping Apocalypso as All Four One, the band hit their commercial stride, scoring a hit single with the top ten "Only the Lonely" and two other successful singles, "Take The L" and "Forever Mine," garnering an American Music Award in the process. Their next album, Little Robbers, continued their winning streak, courtesy of another chart topper "Suddenly Last Summer." The album then went gold in the process.
"It was definitely a double edged sword," Davis says of having hits. "My favorite album is still the first one, and it's quirky and weird and minimal, and that's what I like. I like weird shit. I do not like normal music. It definitely wasn't MOR and wasn't not pop. As we progressed, we made that first album, which again, was weird, and the second album, which was also weird." She explained that Apocalypso, which was finally released in 2011, was "too dark and too weird" for the label. She continued about the project, led by McGovern, "He was an amazing, amazing musician and also my boyfriend at the time -- and not such an amazing boyfriend. So when the rejection of the album took place, there was also the ending of the relationship, which was good for me. I was just continuing to do what I was doing, without thinking, without thinking period maybe."
Fortunately, Davis' obsession with making music allowed her to persevere. "I'm one of those people who have a problem with music in that as long as I'm doing it, I'm not nit-picking or being critical. As long as I'm making music, I'm happy. I can't really say I reached a point in my life where I had the confidence to do true artist work. However, I feel a lot more empowered and able to speak my mind and do the crazy things I want to do. At the same time, I'm still old-fashioned. I like a song written as a song. I'm still a storyteller, so I'm very old-fashioned in that sense. It's not like I'm going to come out with some crazy atonal work or something like that."
Nevertheless, after a fifth album, Shock, and a solo effort, Policy --initially intended as a Motels record -- Davis decided to break up the band and ask for her release from the label.
"The reason I left in '89, when I asked to be let out of my contract with Capitol, was because I felt like I had lost the vision I had originally, plus, the label had changed so much. The people I had worked with in the beginning were no longer there. They loved music, they knew music, and by the time '89 rolled around, there had been so many changes in the line-up at the label, you could really feel the shift." That wasn't the only reason for her decision however. "There was so much going on in my personal life," Davis reflects. "I lost my parents. I was a teenage mother. There was all this stuff going on, and I had only concentrated on being a musician. I didn't have time to stop and think and absorb anything else. It was just do, do, do and just keep going. So when I asked to get off the label, it was over. You could tell. The band used to be so excited to go into the studio, and now they were just sort of dragging in. I just felt, it was no longer the Motels. The honeymoon was definitely over. So as they straggled in one by one, I took them across the street, bought them a drink and fired them.
"Michael Goodreau still refers to it as the 'St. Valentines Day Massacre.' It was sad. I suffered the loss of the band, and we were once so close. We had been together eight years. But things were totally different at that point. There were so many things that were so far away from who I was. I was exhausted, and I told the label, 'This isn't working, I gotta go.'"
She not only left the label, but, for a time, left the music business, as well.
"For the first time in my life, I didn't write songs for a year," she says. "And that's what I do. I write songs. Inspiration strikes me, and I write songs. But I was so exhausted and so empty, it was a year before I wrote my first song again." She then started all over, putting together a young band that hadn't ever had a record contract, calling it, "a garage band really, and then we progressed to the next level."
After a series of solo albums, she ventured into new realms -- jazz and children's music in particular -- a new Motels studio album, So The Story Goes, appeared in 2005, followed by another group effort, This, in 2008. A year later, Davis assembled another incarnation of the band, which now bills itself as Martha Davis and the Motels. The band is currently recording a new album to be released later this year.
"I've come full circle again," Davis maintains. "I have a fabulous band, and we're writing a new album together and we're doing it all ourselves and there's nobody looking over our shoulders. It's modern, and it's cool, and it's retro, and it's a really neat sounding album. So I'm doing what I want. The band I work with now has been together longer than the original band. They're amazing guys and great musicians."
The question inevitably arises -- were they intimidated by her fame?
"No," she insists. "Basically I'm not a very threatening person. If anything, I'm probably more intimidated by them than they are of me. The testimony to that is that we're still playing together and we have this mutual respect. It's about the songwriting. We're all here because of the songs."
So too, Davis has come full circle, reunited on the current Replay America Ultimate '80s tour with the Go-Go's, who were compatriots in that earlier era. "It's going to be hilarious," she promises. "The girls are great. We actually shared a rehearsal space back in the day, and you want to talk about skanky, that was one skanky place. I would always come in and the microphone stands would always be way too low, because I'm not short, and they were. When we got signed, they said, 'We're going to move our equipment, to your side of the room, and maybe we'll get signed too!' And sure enough they did."
Martha Davis and the Motels perform as part of Replay America, the Ultimate '80s Festival, along with the Go-Go's, Naked Eyes, and Patty Smyth of Scandal at 4 p.m. on Sunday, July 6 at Hard Rock Live, 1 Seminole Way, Hollywood. Tickets cost $44 to $64 plus fees. Visit hardrocklivehollywoodfl.com.
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