Talk to Ya Now! A Conversation with Fee Waybill

It was the mid 70s and Alice Cooper had his nightmares, Devo had their theory of “Devolution” and The Tubes, with songs like White Punks on Dope, Slipped My Disco and What Do You Want From Life, were the clown princes of rock and roll.

They’ve been called many things; theater band, novelty act, cult group, two hit wonders and glam rockers. All of it is true as much as none of it is true. The success of the popular rock band, born in the dive bars of San Francisco, is due in large part to the fact that The Tubes never really fit all that easily into the predetermined categories of rock music acts.

When modern rock historians consider the bands of the later part of the twentieth century it’s unlikely they’ll give The Tubes as much consideration as they deserve, and yet there is no denying they were at the forefront of the music video revolution and, with their angst and satirical bite, beat the Punk movement to the punch by a few years.

Much of the group’s trademark humor is due in large part to lead singer Fee Waybill’s ability to write a lyric that brilliantly comments on our modern and twisted times. Waybill took the rock and roll pretensions of David Bowie’s performance art and put a fright wig and a red nose on it but-  even with all the winks and nudges- he always maintained a healthy respect for the music. The expert musicianship of the band has always been a perfect set up to Fee’s punch lines and-  without that strong foundation of solid rock and roll- the humor simply would have never worked.

The art of parody and satire is that it cuts so close to the bone that it’s sometimes hard to discern between the truth and the fiction. When you see The Tubes in the cult classic flick Xanadu, performing the tune Dancin’- an odd mash-up of 80s pop with Olivia Newton John‘s Andrews Sisters tribute- you watch and wonder; is it a Tubes cameo or, more likely, a parody of the band’s contemporaries? Likewise, in another cult classic, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous StainsFee makes his big screen debut as “Lou Corpse”, (lead singer of “The Metal Corpses”) with a performance that clearly has more in common with Iggy Pop than it does Fee Waybill.

After being a pretty big Tubes fan for several years, I finally had a chance to see the band live recently and I was blown away at how sharp and tight they still sound. I also stood a bit slack-jawed as Fee changed costume 11 times and delivered a 2 1/2 hour set to a packed and still adoring crowd. If you ever have the chance yourself, don’t think about it twice, just go to the show, you will have a blast!

I realize I’ve been promising this interview to my loyal readers for awhile now. The truth is, Fee was gracious enough to spend some serious time talking with me on the phone and it has taken me awhile to work through it all. The one thing I noticed in my many, many hours of transposing was; yes, Fee likes to talk but, unlike many other interviews I’ve done, not necessarily about himself. That’s not to say he avoided my questions or was deflecting in any way, it just became clear to me that he’s much more interested in talking about the brilliance of his friends Dave Grohl, Richard Marx, David Foster and Steve Lukather than he is himself, so much so that I needed to edit quite a bit for the sake of time and space. In a business riddled with over stuffed egos Waybill is refreshingly humble.

So, without further delay or ado, enjoy my talk with Singer, Actor, Songwriter and all around great guy, Fee Waybill.

Pop Bitez: So, it’s like this, I probably owe you something like $6.99, because my first introduction to The Tubes, although I’m a little ashamed to admit this, was at Woolworth’s, when I was about 13….

Fee Waybill: …I remember Woolworth’s.

PB: …yeah, well, I had some light fingers back then and umm…

Fee: (laughing) You stole a copy of the album?

PB: I did.

Fee: That had to be tough because they were big albums back then!

PB: Yeah, except, as I was thinking about this earlier today I realized…and this makes the story even worse I think…I’m pretty sure it was an 8 track.

Fee: Oh Christ, That’s funny!

PB: So a new remastered version of The Completion Backward Principal was just released last month, have you had a chance to hear it yet?

Fee: I have not heard it yet, no. I don’t even have a cd player anymore, everything is mp3 now, I don’t even have a fucking stereo anymore. It’s crazy.

PB: I hear ya, but it’s kind of cool to leave the house and know you’re carrying 10,000 songs in the palm your hand, right?

Fee: It’s kind of ridiculous, you know, I’ve got this hard drive thing that’s got like 250,000 songs in it and I can’t even open the thing, it’s just so daunting, it’s like ….what in the hell am I going to listen to?

PB: How did the idea to remaster the album come about?

Fee: We had nothing to do with it actually, we were contacted by this guy at Iconoclassic Records, which is a company that takes old classic albums and remasters them, I guess they buy the rights to certain albums they think are classic.

PB: And the additional bonus tracks, that was their call as well?

Fee: Yeah, they’ve actually got a tune on there called Gonna Get it Next Time, which was the end title song to the Chevy Chase movie Modern Problems, and that has never been on anything ever. We recorded that in Boston, in the middle of a tour, I guess it had to be early 80s, and we flew David Foster, our producer at the time, from L.A. and we recorded it. I actually wrote the last verse of the song but the movie company wouldn’t give me a writing credit on it. It’s never been released, we didn’t include it on any of our albums and the movie never had a soundtrack, so unless you’ve watched the movie, you’ve never heard the song. We’ve had requests through the years, people either at the shows or, you know, by email, asking ,”Where can we get Gonna Get it Next Time?” and our answer has always been, “You can’t”. So, cool, it’s out there now.

PB: Did I hear you’re singing a little back up on the new Foo Fighters album?

Fee: Yeah, I’ve been friends with Dave Grohl for years, we actually met in a vintage clothing store years ago. I was there looking for Tubes costumes and he was with his wife looking for clothes for an 80s theme party, he was looking for parachute pants (laughs), and I’m a fan, I was always a huge Foo Fighters fan, I love his voice and I love the fact that he can scream like that and get that rasp in his voice, that’s really hard, and to do that every night is just ridiculous. So I saw him there and I walked up to him and introduced myself and said “Man, you are the best” and I told him who I was and he said, “Oh, I’m a fan, I love The Tubes“! So, we became fast friends and we’ve been to each others parties and, you know, over to each others houses for dinner. They have a New Year’s Eve theme party every year and… he loves John Travolta for some reason… and the year before last was a Grease party where he came as Travolta’s character and we all dressed like greasers (laughing) the year before it was Urban Cowboy, so it was all cowboy music and everybody dressed like cowboys. So, yeah, we go to each others shows, I went to a few Crooked Vultures shows last year…. anyway, he sent me a text and said “We’re doing this tune and the background vocal sounds like you, come over”. So, we did it at his house, with no computers by the way, everything was recorded on a 24 track, ALL analog, Butch Vig produced and, you know, it was all real, no Pro-Tools, no flying in parts from here or there, we sang that chorus every time it came up.

PB: Very cool.

Fee: Yeah, it’s a song called Miss the Misery.

PB: Who else are you listening to these days, in terms of contemporary artists?

Fee: Oh, jezz, I don’t know, umm…you know who I really like lately is Duffy, she’s not rock and roll but she’s got such a great voice and I love that kind of Betty Boop thing she’s got going on in her voice, so I’ve been listening to that a lot lately and the new Foo Fighters of course.

PB: Now, David Foster, who is arguably one of the most successful producers of his generation, was fairly instrumental in helping The Tubes finally crack the Top 40. At the time he wasn’t really known for his rock records so, I’m curious, how exactly did Foster end up producing The Completion Backward Principle?

Fee: We had just been released from A&M after five albums… we actually had a sixth album with them, we call it “The Black Album’ which they didn’t like and they just shelved it and dumped us. You know, being a cult band only goes so far. After five records at A&M that never sold more than 150,000 and after they spend a couple million bucks and they don’t get paid back, they’re like “O.K. We don’t care about being THAT cool”. Herb (Albert) and Jerry (Moss) loved us, they thought we were great but, eventually the accountant said “We’re not making any money here, we’re in the red, so…” So, we were without a label and we were approached by Capitol Records and they said, “You know, we’ve got to have some kind of commercial success, we’ll give you a three record deal but the second two records are options. We know you’re a cult band and you’re really good and blah, blah, blah but we gotta have a record they can play on the radio, we’ve gotta sell more than 150,000 albums, we’ll give you one shot and if it doesn’t work, we’re done. We think you have the potential for mass appeal”.

PB: And this is where Foster comes in?

Fee: Right, so we started talking with quite a few producers, we talked to quite a few “L.A. types” and we were a San Francisco band, we were a bunch of hippies and not all that crazy about L.A. guys and it seemed like everybody who showed up from L.A. had a lot of gold jewelry and they were really just “too cool”. So we turned down a bunch of producers and they kept sending more and we had a bunch of songs but they were all weird, like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and Mr. Hate, we didn’t have Talk to Ya Later yet but we did have Don’t Want to Wait Anymore and a few others. So, Foster showed up and he’s got short hair, no gold jewelry, Levi’s and a sweatshirt and we were like, “Oh, O.K.” and he had just come off of Boogie Wonderland and we were HUGE Earth, Wind and Fire fans, we all loved R & B and we were always trying to get some kind of R & B feeling in the songs and David had just written After the Love is Gone which went to number one. So we sat down with him and we played him some of the songs and his big expertise was arranging and he took Don’t Want to Wait Anymore and in seconds he said “Well, you know, if you do this and then do that and do a modulation here and it all lifts up…because a song has got to pay off, the chorus has got to kill you” and he did the same thing with the song Amnesia and we were just like, “Wow!” and this was just in the span of one day, we were like “Oh my God, this guy is a fucking genius”. He had never done a rock and roll album and he was excited about making one and so we went to Capitol and said, “This is the guy, we want him!”

Fee Waybill with David Foster (L) and Steve Lukather (R)

PB: So, tell me a little about your experiences working with him on that album.

Fee: Foster was a ball buster I’ll tell you that, he refused to accept mediocrity, the first time I did a lead vocal for David it took me singing it again and again and again, it took me 8 hours before it was good enough for him and, by the end of the record I was pulling ‘em down in about three hours, I became a much better singer with David Foster. So, went into the studio and started working and, of course, the record company is looking over our shoulder the whole time saying, “What’s the single,? Where’s the single?” and they really liked Don’t Want to Wait Anymore and we were looking more for a rock and roll track. Foster wanted to come up with a rock song that would get big radio play and we didn’t really have anything that was NOT weird or that was straight forward enough for rock and roll radio and we didn’t want to do a kind of bull shit formula Journey-like song. So one day David says, “You know what, we need to write a song, we don’t have the rock song we need and we need to write it” and then he says “I’ve got a guy, he’s a great writer, great guitar player, he’s like the number one session guy in L.A.” and, of course he was talking about Steve Lukather from Toto. So we met and David told him what we were looking for and… Steve is a genius, he’s amazing, we’ve been good friends for 30 years now and, you know, been writing together ever since. So we wrote Talk to Ya Later in like an hour, Luk came up with the guitar part and I sat down and started writing the lyrics and we actually recorded it before the band even got to the studio, Steve and David and myself, we did the whole thing in four hours. The three of us pretty much did the same thing a few years later with She’s a Beauty, that was another three or four hour session. I remember, when we recorded Talk to Ya Later, I was staying at my manager Rikki Farr’s house in Toluca Lake at the time, and I came in really late from the studio with a cassette in my hand, a rough mix, and I woke him up at like 2 in the morning and I said “Rikki! You gotta here this! This is it, this is our single,blah,blah,blah” and so we blasted this cassette tape at 2 o’clock in the morning and he flipped out, he was like, “This is it, this is gonna do it, this is gonna change everything!”

PB: And it did.

Fee: It did pretty much, although Capital Records never released it in the U.S. as a single, the first single in the U.S. was Don’t Want to Wait Anymore and Talk to Ya Later was never released in the states as a single, which I thought was a huge mistake, but back then everybody wanted to hear “power ballads”, it was a big, rock “power ballad” world, Don’t Want to… did O.K., it was like top twenty or something, but the whole rest of the world released Talk to Ya Later and it was number one in England, it went number one in like a ridiculous amount of countries, Sweden, Portugal, all over really. It was this massive hit and in Europe we were playing these huge shows, Sixty thousand seaters, these huge outdoor festivals and that, of course, led to us making the videos.

PB: In my research for today’s interview I came across an article that mentioned you were working on a solo album with your songwriting partner and friend Richard Marx, what’s the current status on that project?

Fee: I’m still working on it, we’ve got about five songs done and whenever he’s not busy and I’m not busy we go to his house outside Chicago… he’s got this big studio in his house… and we do some tracks and get his kids to play on ‘em. His boys are great, he’s got three sons, they’re my God-sons and one is a guitar player and one of ‘em is a drummer and they all sing great and we actually have a distribution thing happening, maybe, we’re at least going to try and finish off an EP and get it out there soon, maybe on iTunes.

PB: Now you’ve been good friends with Richard for a long time, haven’t you?

Fee: Oh yeah, we actually met on a David Foster project in L.A. Richard was just a kid, he was like 18 and he’d just placed a song with Lionel Richie that he wrote and…Richard grew up in a really musical household, his dad was a really successful jingle writer as well as a respected jazz musician, so Richard wanted to meet David Foster and watch him work and Lionel knew David so he set it up for Richard to come and watch David work and it just so happened this is when David was working on a Tubes session, so there’s Richard sitting in the back of the room, this 18 year old kid, and it was one of those days in the studio when everybody was frustrated and tired and just couldn’t get it right, and one of the guitar players was having a really tough time and he just couldn’t get it right and the sound wasn’t right and David was not satisfied, he’s in the control and he’s pissed and he sees Richard sitting over in the corner and he’s like, “Who the fuck is that? Get rid of him, I’ve got enough trouble here!”, and I was like, “C’mon man, he’s a fucking kid, he’s just watching Fos work, give him a break and go get your fucking part right.” So, after the session, Richard came up to me and was like  ” Thanks a lot man, fuck, I thought that guy was going to bite my head off”, and I was like, “it’s cool man, just one of those days.” And he said, “you know I’d really like to write a song with you, would you consider writing some lyrics for me?” and I said, “sure, that’d be cool” and so we wrote one and then another and then another, and then I had a solo album in 84 and he wrote some songs for that, we actually wrote a hit for Vixen, remember them? Eighties all girl band, they were rockers?

PB: Of course.

Fee: Yeah, Richard and I wrote Edge of a Broken Heart for them, it was their first big hit I think.

PB: Wow, I didn’t know you guys wrote that one!

Fee: Yeah, so, we wrote some songs for some other people and then Richard was like “You know, I want to do this, I want to be a recording artist and do my own album”, this was like ’87 or ’89, or something like that and I had like three songs on the first record, and then he did another and I had like four songs on there and I was living in L.A. and had left the Tubes by this point and I was writing for other people and cashing the checks and I was like, “This beats busting my ass on the road, I want to keep doing this!”

PB: When I saw you guys in concert recently I was really taken with how great you all still sound and I was especially amazed by your stamina. I’ve seen a few much younger bands recently that don’t even come close to your energy so, I have to ask, what are you doing to stay in such great shape? Did I hear you’re actually a polo player?

Fee: Yeah, but I’ve only been playing polo for about eight years now, I’ve got a bunch of horses and I like to do that. I don’t know, I’ve always worked out, always tried to stay in shape, always tried to eat right, I was never a big druggie, even back in the old days when everyone was crazed and doing cocaine. I hated it, I thought, “Fuck this. This sucks”, I hated the drug, I tried to get everybody I knew to stop using it and I finally ended up leaving the band because I just gave up, I couldn’t take it anymore. You know, I use to smoke a little pot but I never really got into drugs or alcohol, I’ve just tried to stay in good shape, I work out a lot and I’ve been doing yoga for 20 years, Bikram Yoga, “Hot Yoga” and that really helps. I go to Gold’s three times a week and I probably ride the horses three times a week.

PB: And it looks like you’re still having a blast on stage, there’s a serious party goin’ on up there!

Fee: Well, it’s the passion of my life, I’ve just been so lucky to get through life without a 9 to 5, and my voice has always held up pretty well, you know, I never pushed it too hard where I got nodes or anything like that and, like I said, I never did a lot of cocaine and fucked my voice, my voice is better now then it was before and we’ve never lowered the key, all of our songs are in the original keys. I just love the whole thing, on stage I turn into a different person, I’m a completely different person on stage. It’s funny, my wife and I have a commercial property development company, I manage about a million square feet of commercial property in Orange County. We have four buildings and every Tuesday I go down there and take care of problems and fix stuff and all of our tenants are all government, that’s kind of our niche’, The County of Orange Probation and Child Support Services and Social Services, so I deal with all of these straight government people all day long, who do nothing pretty much but complain about the most menial, trivial bull shit that you could ever imagine. And, you know, they don’t know who I am, they think I’m “John”. You have a problem? Call John, he’ll take care of it! And, if it’s something small, some stupid thing, like a faucet leaking or something easy, I’ll do it myself. It’s kind of embarrassing sometimes, you know, I’ll be in a building and somebody will go “Jeez, you’re not the guy from The Tubes, are ya?” and I’m like, “Umm, yeah” and they’re like, “What are you doing changing a faucet in our building?”, and usually I’ll just say, “I own this building”,(laughing), “I’m just here protecting my interest”. I actually did invest in one of our buildings, I own a piece of one of them so it’s not a complete fabrication.

PB: So, I understand you’ve added another hyphenate to your resume’, Singer/ Writer/ Actor/ Sweet Transvestite?

Fee: Oh yeah, Rocky Horror, I’ve been doing Frank-N- Furter for about 12 years now at a little summer stock theatre in Augusta, Michigan, The Barn Theatre, which is about ten miles outside Kalamazoo. It’s the oldest for profit summer stock theatre in the United States. The guy who runs it now, Brendan Ragotzy, actually went to San Diego State College back in the ’80s and he was a Tubes fan, so he was looking for a new guy to play the role and, out of the clear blue sky said “God, you know who would be great is Fee Waybill!”, because he loved The Tubes and saw me doing all of those characters and thought, “He could do Frank-N-Furter in a heart beat!”, so he called me in 1999 and said “You wanna do this? You wanna come do Rocky Horror? I think you’d be great, you got the part, I’ll send you a script, learn the songs”, and I said, “Fuck, that’d be great, I love that, I’ll do it!” and I love it, because, you know, I used to do a lot of plays in high school and in college, a lot of musicals, and I love the stage, the stage is my spot, that’s my home. So I’ve been doing Rocky Horror with them, like, every other year and I did a few other shows as well, I did a musical called The Civil War which was really great and I think I’m doing something with them this summer, I’m not sure yet what it is, they want me to do a play during the regular season and then Rocky Horror again in October, around Halloween. It’s just incredibly fun, I love it.

PB: Well when I heard that you were playing Frank-N-Furter my first thought was, of course! My second thought was, why did it take so long for THAT to happen? It’s no secret that when Richard O’Brien wrote The Rocky Horror Show, bands like The Tubes and Alice Cooper were just coming up and I’m thinking he had to have been influenced by you guys, in some way.

Fee: Right, I saw the play before it was a movie when it was playing The Roxy in L.A., when it first came to the West Coast with Tim Curry and a lot of the people who ended up doing the movie and I thought it was just great and I actually know Lou Adler pretty well, who directed the movie, I’ve known Lou for years, I did another cult movie early on that Lou directed called Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, which was Laura Dern’s first movie and I think Diane Lane’s second and Ray Winstone was the star and he’s pretty big time now….

PB: Yeah, I just watched it again recently and I was really taken with how disgusting you were.

Fee: (laughing) Oh, I know, it’s so great, I love that!

PB: Alright, so let’s finish up with the question that no one likes to answer but I still love to ask; you’re lost on a desert island and, somehow, you knew you were going to be stranded and you packed five albums that will keep you company until you’re rescued or dead, what are those albums?

Fee: Oh, jeez, umm…O.K., Led Zeppelin- IV, Jimi Hendrix- Are You Experienced?, Pretenders- II, Foo Fighters- In Your Honor and The Beatles…a box set…I know that’s a cop out but any Beatles would be great.     

You can find more Tubes news and tour dates at http://thetubes.com

Let’s finish today with a few of my favorite flashes from The Tubes‘ past, Prime Time  and T.V. is King from the album Remote Control

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