Chicago Remixes Chicago

Founding keyboardist Robert Lamm’s gym kismet

Chicago and Earth, Wind & Fire pull into Circuit of the Americas Thursday, July 23, during their “Heart and Soul” tour. For sheer volume of chart hits that run the gamut from precision pop and ambitious jazz-rock to gloriously arranged funk, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better value than this dual headliner revue.

Like many Seventies kids, I have no memory of a time when Chicago wasn’t playing on the radio. Songs like “Saturday in the Park” and “Beginnings” supplied the soundtrack of emblematic childhood imagery as I soaked up the waning days of AM Top 40 from the backseat of my parents’ car.

By the time David Foster-produced couple skate balladry put Chicago back on the charts in the Eighties, I was trying to turn skeptical friends onto their early work. Few could believe “Free Form Guitar,” late guitarist Terry Kath’s showpiece from 1969’s debut Chicago Transit Authority, emerged from the same band that did “Hard Habit to Break.”

Against this background, I spoke to founding Chicago keyboardist Robert Lamm by phone from Vancouver last month. The interview was just a hair over 20 minutes, but Lamm covered lots of ground, including tour preparations, recording on the road, the genesis of the Chicago logo, and the under-heralded legacy of Kath, who died of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1978 at age 31.

We even talked about the band’s cameo in Larry David’s 2013 feature Clear History, where David plays a disgraced marketing exec bristling at a rumor that his ex-girlfriend once “blew Chicago” after a show on Martha’s Vineyard.

Austin Chronicle: How many times have you gone out with Earth, Wind & Fire now?

Robert Lamm: This will be the fourth, I believe. We weren’t really expecting to do it again. We had so much fun and so much success on several different levels the first three times. So we thought, well, that was nice. Let’s move on.

Then this year, we were getting a lot of requests from various promoters and we were looking around to see who else we might package with because that seems to be the thing. We actually kind of started that back a long time ago with the Beach Boys, where we just put two headliners together and it really worked. The Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago thing does work, so we said, okay, let’s give it one more shot.

AC: I saw the show in 2004. Are you doing the same format?

RL: Yes. We play a few songs together. Then Earth, Wind & Fire, then Chicago, then both bands in the finale. When we all got together to talk about doing this again, I was completely ready for [EWF vocalist] Philip [Bailey] to say let’s do something completely different. Let’s just tear it all down and rebuild it. I was shocked when he said, “Let’s do the exact same show.”

Of course that’s not going to happen, but it’ll be close. I think the format will be the same. It’ll be Earth, Wind & Fire, then Chicago, then both bands again with a slightly re-rigged set list.

AC: How do you go about developing a set-list when you’re doing a show like that?

RL: Going back to before we did the first one, Philip and [EWF bassist] Verdine [White] met with [Chicago trombonist] Jimmy Pankow, [Chicago trumpeter] Lee Loughnane, and myself. We kind of shared what our reality is when we’re touring solo. And that is we can’t really get away with playing half of our latest album and then throw in some of the greatest hits. It’s an embarrassment of riches in that both bands have such a large repertoire of really popular songs.

We had that in common, so we said let’s not be stingy. Let’s give the audience an amazing experience. We just started throwing songs back and forth. There were songs that Philip thought we would sound good singing and there were Chicago songs we thought Philip would sound good singing. So that was really the criteria.

AC: Are you playing any lesser-known songs on this tour?

RL: We’re doing a couple of songs that we didn’t play in our set previously. Last year at the Grammys, our first album [Chicago Transit Authority] was entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame. That year, we started opening the show with the first song on the first Chicago album, which was Terry Kath’s “Introduction.” We hadn’t played that for decades. We worked it up to honor the album, honor Terry’s memory, and just throw something really hard. Throw a fastball right from the very beginning. That’s something that I think we’re going to keep in our set.

We also discovered in our international touring that there’s a dance remix of a song from one of our middle albums that we’ve been hearing at various dance clubs in Asia and Europe. So we decided to do a remix of the remix and arrange it for live performance. It’s really been a kick, because we play this song – it’s called “Street Player” – and people kind of know it from the remix.

I think it was the Bucketheads who did the remix. Definitely not from our repertoire! But it always goes over really, really well, so we’re going to keep that in the set.

And right now, we’re talking about doing one song from the album that came out last July, Chicago Now, the title track, “Now.” I think those three songs will be very different.

AC: It sounds like you pieced that album together, with different people laying down different parts over time.

RL: Yeah, we assembled the best quality recording equipment we could that was also small enough to fit into a rolling trunk. We kept it with us for a couple of years and just kind of chipped away at trying to record while we’re touring. None of us live in the same city anymore. We’re all spread out, so the only time we see each other – which is quite often, thankfully – is on the road. We just said let’s see if this will work and we were able to piece it together.

We did scratch sequencing to start – to give us a grid to work into. Then we replaced all the sequenced stuff with live playing. We had a coordinating producer who basically took all the tracks, did rough mixes, and went from there. It was really an interesting process and now we know we can do that anytime we want.

AC: One of the songs that stuck out is “Naked in the Garden of Allah.” Chicago’s covered a lot of musical ground over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard that Arabic/Middle Eastern flavor. Where did that come from?

RL: Well, we’ve all been listening to music from all over the world because we can get it at the click of a key on one of the music streaming services. I had been interested in listening to not only Middle Eastern music, but Brazilian music. It’s in my regular library of stuff that comes up when I’m on tour in the hotel room listening on random play.

So I became fascinated with those sounds and I wanted to try to lyrically approach what has been going on since 9/11. I knew I was going to get a lot of flack, but I have to say, the album has been released in Europe, and in Europe, that was the track all the journalists wanted to talk about. So we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from that.

AC: Chicago and Earth, Wind & Fire both got started in Chicago, and both went out to California around the same time. Did you cross paths?

RL: You know, the first time I met Philip was at a gym. We were both working out. We’ve traveled the same roads, but not at the same time for so many years. They did some recording at Caribou Ranch in Colorado when we were working there with our producer [James William Guercio]. So we have a lot of parallel experiences, but it wasn’t really until we all got together for a couple of weeks before the first tour that we started getting to know each other and started playing together. And that was really a revelation, and one of the best memories I have of working with musicians outside Chicago.

AC: In the early days, in Chicago and the Big Thing before that, you honed your skills playing covers in clubs. How did playing covers night after night figure into the early sound of Chicago and your songwriting?

RL: I came into the band wanting to be a songwriter and wanting to be a composer. I was a composition major at Roosevelt University. What I learned was that these guys, for one reason or another once we all got together, were willing to play anything that I sketched out and put in front of them. So I learned arranging and learned how to write for this band.

The funny thing is that no matter how far away I thought I was getting from basic Stax/Volt, horn-driven rhythm and blues, which is kind of where we started, we just always sounded like us. Which is a good thing. I think what people have responded to over the years is that it’s highly identifiable, whether it’s the way the horns are voiced or the nature of the songs or the vocals themselves. If we could’ve just gotten away with doing Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, and that era of music, we probably just would’ve done that, but we were all schooled and we were all interested in other kinds of music. All that stuff blended into how we were composing.

AC: I wanted to ask about the logo. It’s one of the most identifiable service marks in music. Who designed it and why do you think it has endured?

RL: John Burke, the art director at Columbia Records, was just a brilliant art director, not that we knew that at the time. I remember all the album covers that were coming out on Columbia back in those days, the Sixties and Seventies. And he brought in a freelance guy by the name of Nick Fasciano. I think both of those guys are credited on the first record.

John just said, “I want a logo for this band that is immediately identifiable. That when people look at it, they’ll know what the music sounds like. This is not about trying to create a single personality to stand in front of the band and be the guy. This is about the music. We want a logo that represents the music.”

At the time, it was all about us being from Chicago.

AC: Given how innovative a guitar player Terry Kath was, why do you think he has never been recognized as much as his resume would seem to indicate he should be?

RL: Well, I think if he had gone solo, if he had put together a power trio, I think that would’ve happened. But he, like the rest of us, we were all really committed to the band as a project. The kind of things Chicago could do because of the instrumentation and the openness of everybody’s attitude was a one-of-a-kind experience and opportunity. I think if he had fronted his own band and just let go, I think certainly he would’ve joined the ranks of the renowned gunslinger rock guitarists of the era. I think that people who are knowledgeable and people who have good ears recognize his chops, his originality, his sound.

Once the technology came around, it really changed the way everybody writes, records, and plays. It’s really a shame Terry wasn’t around, because he was very inventive and all about wanting to try new stuff. I remember when the wah-wah pedal was introduced, he spent hours working that thing and mastering it. He had that kind of mind.

So that’s what happens. In our life, people come into it and they leave it. I was lucky to know him for as long as I did.

[ED NOTE: Michelle Kath Sinclair, Terry Kath’s daughter, is working on a documentary about her father featuring interviews with current and former Chicago members, including Lamm. “I speak with her at least once a year,” he says.]

AC: I saw the movie Clear History on HBO a few nights ago. How did Chicago wind up doing a movie with Larry David?

RL: Geez, I don’t know. I think maybe we were already out on tour somewhere, maybe we were in Europe, and it came through our management. I think it came to Irving Azoff. Irving and Larry are friends, and apparently Larry said, “Would Chicago consider coming into this project with me?” So Irving called us and we took a look at each other and said, “I guess so. Shit, why not?”

Then, much to our chagrin, we realized there was no script. Because he never has a script. He never has had a script for anything he’s ever done. So it was just a matter of taking a day while we were out on the road and joining him at the location. He walked up to me and said, “It’s going to be fine. You guys are going to be great. This is the gist of what’s going to happen. I’m going to say this and you can say whatever you want to say.”

That was it!

We actually went to the premiere. And I walked up to the actress [Amy Ryan] who played his girlfriend who supposedly had joined us backstage in the Eighties or Seventies or whenever it was. I had never met her other than at the premiere. So I walked up to her and said, “Hi, I’m Robert Lamm” and she busted out laughing.

AC: So you didn’t know about that plot-line when you agreed to do the movie?

RL: Not in advance! We were in the middle of doing it. And we looked at each other and said, well, I think most of our marriages are strong enough to stand any kind of controversy that happens, but it was so damn funny.

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Chicago, Robert Lamm, Terry Kath, Jimmy Pankow, Lee Loughnane, Philip Bailey, Verdine White, Earth, Fire & Wire, David Foster, Larry David, Beach Boys, Bucketheads, Amy Ryan

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