"We've come too far to leave it all behind," crooned Chicago's former bassist Peter Cetera. Those lyrics, from the 1977 hit "If You Leave Me Now," are still relevant for a band that's sold more than 100 million albums in a career spanning 45 years.
Chicago is one of the first bands to incorporate brass as an essential element of its sound, a signature style as definitive as the Roman numerals that mark almost all of the group's albums. They've successfully adapted to changing times, from underground beginnings and tours with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to their role as pop linchpins and stadium headliners. These tireless troubadours remain.
Despite the fact that it's been eight years since their last album of all-new material, the predictably dubbed Chicago XXX, the band's trajectory has continued practically unimpeded. The loss of cofounder and guitarist Terry Kath to a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1978 and the departure of Cetera in 1985 created momentary crises. But with four original members still in the fold and four newer recruits, Chicago remains as vibrant and invigorated as ever.
That was clearly the impression vocalist and keys guy Robert Lamm imparted when he spoke with New Times from his Santa Monica home. Lamm, who also maintains a successful solo career outside his stint with Chicago, was frank about his band's ongoing efforts.
New Times: Chicago has been making music for 45 years, both on records and on the road. What do you think accounts for the band's ongoing popularity?
Robert Lamm: I think it's the songs. We were part of that group of artists that emerged post-Beatles when we noticed the Beatles were writing all their own material, and we were part of the generation that emulated that aspect of being in a rock band. The writers in the band — me, Jimmy Pankow, and Terry Kath — all brought very different influences into the mix. The fact that the instrumentation was unusual meant our recordings were very different from everybody else's. They sound distinctive and unique. So regardless of what the trend was or what was being played on the radio, Chicago stood apart. You either liked it or didn't like it, but it was definitely different.
When you started, very few bands were using brass as part of their core instrumentation. I read somewhere that you were influenced by the Beatles' incorporation of a horn section in "Got to Get You Into My Life."
Yes, that and all the orchestrations that appeared in Sgt. Pepper and their other albums after that.
Chicago started as this kind of late-'60s underground band and then took on a populist persona as the hits continued. Was that a deliberate strategy on your part?
With many artists, management does get involved with image shaping. Our management wasn't so focused on that, but instead focused on keeping us on the road and in the studio as much as possible. So I think the image was one of perception rather than something that was directed by us.
It's been nearly eight years since your last album of original music, Chicago XXX. Can we expect anything new on the horizon?
We're actually recording a new album in a very different way. We're planning to release two songs at a time for a while throughout this year and then eventually compile them into a CD or some other format. So this is a very stimulating time musically.
All of your newer music has been Christmas music, right?
[laughs] My decree to the band after this last Christmas release was that I don't want to do any more holiday albums. And I don't want any more greatest-hits albums either. To a degree, we can control our part of it, but our masters are owned by Warner Bros., so they can do whatever they want with them. Still, I think we can all agree there are enough of those. So the things we're recording now are new and kind of interesting, and they're coming from the various guys in the band, including Lou Pardini and Keith Howland, who are the newest guys in the band, although Keith has been with us 20 years now. [chuckles] Those guys are very enthused about writing and being included in the mix of composers.
So, will the next album be titled Chicago XXXI?
I hope not, but —
You've broken that chain in the past, but it is a signature thing.
I think that with the Christmas albums, we're around Chicago XXXIV actually, but whatever the number is, I'm ready to give up on that.
Still, it's kind of your trademark.
I suppose it is, but I think the logo is the most important thing. I think that's the least of our concerns with the next thing, because the music is all-important.
When you look back at your catalogue and all the hits, you've clearly set a high bar for yourselves. Is that intimidating?
A little bit, but I think there are a couple of things that work in our favor. We're not trying to compete. We can't really compete with the 70 or so hit singles we've had over the past 40 years. They're always on the radio. It's like the Stones or the Beatles. One of our songs is being played virtually every minute.
During the last two decades of our recordings, the trouble we had getting our songs played on mainstream radio — when there was mainstream radio — was that the program directors would come back to us and say, "Well, we're already playing a lot of your songs, so we're not that interested in adding any more Chicago songs to our rotation." But all that's kind of out of the way right now, so we can pay more attention to being more creative with our writing and considering things that we might never have considered for our albums before.
What can we expect from a Chicago concert these days?
These dates we're playing in Florida, they're sort of the first of the year, and although we played a little bit in Hawaii and played a little bit in Mexico earlier this year, it's only now that the long ride begins. We have a new production that we've put together for this year, with a longer format. We're performing a show with an intermission, which allows us more time to stretch out a bit and play some songs that are still very popular and that we usually don't have time to play in a one-set format.