22 Questions with Jeffrey Dean Foster
Jeff Foster’s first band, The Right Profile, remains one of the three best bands I ever saw that never “made it.” They managed a remarkable balance of verve and melancholy, moving easily between house-shakers like “Shacktown Road” and hauntingly beautiful ballads like “Underneath the Window.” I once saw them take the stage in front of a packed, jacked house, only to open with a quiet, a capella hymn of sorts. Of course, once they had everybody calmed down, they proceeded to kick our teeth in, exhibiting the versatility and control that made their live shows the best thing going after dark.
This was back in the mid-1980s. TRP signed with Arista, but the band walked away from the deal before releasing a note, and Jeff merged back into the fabric of the North Carolina scene. His next band, The Carneys, enjoyed some success (even opening for Bob Dylan), but never came close to the big time.
Now, over a decade later, Jeff has a new band and his new CD, Above Ground and Vertical, placed second in The Lullaby Pit’s Best CDs of 1999.
Over the past few days, Jeff made time to answer a couple rounds of questions for us, and he did such a wonderful job we not only have the standard 22 questions, but also an extra credit at the end.
Yes, that was Jeff in those Priceline.com ads with Capt. James T. Kirk…..
1. Lots of great bands never get offered a major-label deal. Your old band, The Right Profile, signed one, but walked away from it. What would you do differently if you had known then what you know now?
JF: I’ve thought a lot about it over the years, although not as much as folks probably think. I don’t think we were really ready to make great records at that point. We did have something live, what I’m not quite sure. Everything was played too fast and thin, I guess kind of like the Burrito Brothers! We did have some genuine emotional thing that was hard to define. We got wined and dined and hauled around in limos I suppose to impress us. It made me laugh. I felt like the Beverly Hillbillies the first time Arista gave us a limo for the night. Where were we gonna go in NYC? We knew no one and weren’t too interested in all the nightlife. We did call a friend of ours from the car phone to laugh about the absurdity of it.
We had a legitimate management company (they also managed the Replacements, and the Del Fuegos) and a big record company, lawyers, etc. I think we felt like things were just gonna move because they said they were going to. I always knew that just because we had a deal that didn’t guarantee any success and we had to make a record first and then go learn how to be a great live band. Maybe I was fatalistic but I knew we had along way to go before the celebrating should start. Other bands that were more indie-oriented were putting out their own records , doing tours, getting press, all the things we should have been doing, but we’d been kind of herded into this major label world and we didn’t know how to get to the other side. We certainly weren’t any less indie than, say, Fetchin’ Bones or the Connells.
I learned a lot about how not to do things. In the studio, on the road, and with business. All along we had some wonderfully weird times, and made really good music, most of which just floated out into the air. The band I had after the Right Profile, The Carneys, made some really good rock & roll that we were all proud of, but it never came to light except in some good live moments and some very hard-to-find demos.
2. How did you meet Tabitha Soren, and has that friendship helped you as an artist looking for exposure?
JF: When I was doing the solo acoustic thing a friend brought Tabitha to a show and after that she came to almost every show I did in NYC, which was quite a lot one year. We got to be great friends (she even drew a tattoo of me on her arm one night) and a few years ago she asked me to bring a band up to play at her wedding in upstate New York. That was the incarnation of The Pinetops. She requested a couple of my songs in particular, and we learned some special covers, and pretty much did a regular rock show (regular in that doing “Lust for Life” with Peter Buck guesting on guitar and our friend Phil Morrison writhing in the mud and singing while Senator John McCain looked on is regular). Tabitha has always been a good friend and supporter of the music and has introduced the music to some cool folks along the way, but we’ve never really tried to exploit that part of the friendship. I still communicate with her every month or so. She is living with her husband and child in France. Her voice can be heard on AGAV in the tail end of the murky phone messages before “Sweet William the Cop” (“Oh boy, I’m never gonna get to talk with you”).
3. What’s it like opening for Dylan?
JF: Quite a thrill and one of the highlights of The Carneys’ brief career. That band was a cool one, with Tim Fleming and Jon Wurster from the Right Profile and David Enloe (of The Woods) on guitar. Everyone in the Dylan camp made us feel very good and treated us like humans. I was told that Bob came in during out set and stopped a minute and listened but who knows. He then appeared and gave a very abstract show, even by his standards. His shows have always been true joys for me. Something real is always happening and he may be one of the last to do that.
4. I’m a long-time fan of Don Dixon, who produced Above Ground and Vertical. In addition to being a superb artist in his own right, his production credits include The Smithereens, Chris Stamey, The Connells, Matthew Sweet, Kim Carnes, Marshall Crenshaw, and REM’s Murmur, which many critics regard as the finest work of their career. What was it like doing your record with one of the best (and most underappreciated) producers in the business? Will he be producing your next CD?
JF: I’ve known Don since the late ’70s when he was in Arrogance and I was a fan. He would talk to me and so he was a cool rock star. Later, in ‘85, he produced demos that eventually got us the Arista deal. We always kept in touch and he had heard some home demos of mine and called and offered to help record something. Whenever he would come through North Carolina he would call up and say, “hey let’s record something tomorrow.”
The original Pinetops (Jon Wurster, Brad Rice, Danny Kurtz) recorded “Jesus Spoke,” “Bird of Prey,” and “Sweet William the Cop” all in one night. The rest of the record was done in a barn out beside my house with snow falling. Dixon set up his machines and we set up kerosene heaters. It was cold, dark and very still. Kind of like a Twin Peaks lodge meeting. At times I think the fumes from the heaters took over. It felt like suspended animation. The very end of “Movie Star” has the vibe. “Hello Down There” was done by John Pfiffner and myself at his studio in another all-night session.
I’m not sure what Don’s involvement will be with the next one. I don’t think it will be done in the usual studio fashion with band and producer. I’m sure he will be involved in some way along the path. Spiritual advisor.
5. What are the last three CDs you purchased?
JF: The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin, Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane, Rough Mix, Led Zeppelin, IV, Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out, and David Bowie, The Buddha of Suburbia. I know that’s 5 CDs. Sue me.
6. The Right Profile was sort of a two-headed beast, with you and Steve Dubner sharing songwriting and lead vocal duties. With your current band, you’re the main guy. Do you miss a more collaborative environment, or do you prefer having complete creative control?
JF: I do like being my own boss most of the time, at least when it comes to making my home recordings, so I’m hoping to capture more of that on the next record. As for being the boss of everything else that comes along with a band, Jon Wurster once wrote in a fictitious but kind of true diary, “as leader, Jeff sucks.” I think I’m always too interested in making sure everyone is happy.
7. What do you see as the most important trend/event/development in the world of popular music during the last decade?
JF: I suppose you could say Nirvana’s records were a big deal but I don’t think they really changed music in any real way. They just made a lot of people like music again or realize that it could touch them. The internet and the possible irrelevance of big record companies has some possibilities for excitement. I still really get the most from records made from about ’72-’78 so what do I know about the future. I wish MTV had never been born. I miss my own videos in my head.
8. The club shows you did with The Right Profile back in the mid-1980s were some of the most exhilarating rock performances I ever saw. What do you think is the best single live show of your career?
JF: A lot of those Right Profile shows were pretty pandemonium-filled. I think that everyone there and the band must have been on some drug that made it all better than it really was. I played a solo gig in NYC and Sinead O’Connor put a ten in the tip jar. That was pretty good. The Pinetops had a show in Asheville where we experimented with a grand piano that was on the stage, and tried different arrangements of almost all the songs and everything worked. Lots of strange effects and ambient things that turned us into a cross between Crazy Horse and Supertramp!
9. What was the last movie you went to see? Thumbs up or thumbs down?
JF: Magnolia, thumbs up! Pretty great songs by Aimee Mann.
10. North Carolina has a thriving music scene, although it probably doesn’t get the exposure it deserves. Which of the bands in the state do you really like, and are any of them likely to break out into the national limelight?
JF: A lot of them already have broken out in their own way. Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, SCOTS (Southern Culture on the Skids), Squirrel Nut Zippers. I don’t see too many bands stuck out here in the woods. I know what kind of band I would like to see and haven’t. I guess that’s what I need to get busy on.
11. What’s your favorite song on the new CD to play live?
JF: “Hello Down There. It’s not always good, but it’s interesting. We’ve done it with a piano, with just guitars and with a flute/recorder and trumpet one night. It’s comforting to sing too. Brad Rice joined us onstage in Atlanta in the fall for “Jesus Spoke to Me” and that was a rock moment.
12. If we’re doing one of those “music family trees,” in what neighborhood would you put The Pinetops and what other bands would in the near vicinity?
JF: As far as what I grew up hearing and loving and what shapes what I do… The major list: Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Creedence, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Neil Young. The B-list that seems to matter more for some reason: David Bowie, Cheap Trick, The Kinks, Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith.
13. What do you think is the best make-out CD ever recorded?
JF: Brian Eno, Music for Airports, or side two of The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You.
14. What can we expect from you during the coming year – a new CD, a tour, what?
JF: Hopefully a new CD. Murkier, fuzzier record. Hopefully uplifting, though.
15. What non-musicians have most influenced your music?
JF: My father’s character and work ethic, Rod Carew’s swing and Ernie Banks’ attitude.
16. Online services like CD Now represent a great distribution option for indie artists like yourself, but they also pose a significant threat to the independent record stores that have long supported non-corporate music (like The Record Exchange in N.C.). How do you see this conflict resolving in the next few years?
JF: I don’t know. I still miss record stores that were dark and smelled like incense.
17. What artist that you absolutely cannot stand to listen to do you respect the most?
JF: I wouldn’t say I can’t stand her. I like Tori Amos quite a bit but I get my fill pretty quickly. But I am awfully glad she is around. Reminds me of the witchy older girls in drama class in high school that liked the Blue Oyster Cult.
18. What artist that you have zero respect for do you listen to anyway?
JF: This isn’t quite the right answer either. I’ve heard from some close friends that Jimmy Page isn’t a terribly nice chap, but he did make some of the most devilish-sounding records ever. Those records are the best evidence of some kind of underworld collaboration. A record that everyone I knew just hated and thought was laughable is actually one of my favorites of the last year: James Iha’s Let It Come Down is so bravely non-rocking and all about love.
19. Your new CD includes “Linger,” an old Right Profile song. Will we see some of your older stuff updated for future releases, as well? I’d give just about anything to hear you do “Underneath the Window” or “God’s Little Acre.”
JF: I don’t know about those two but I’m always looking through the old tapes. Sometimes I’ll hear something and can’t imagine how or why I wrote it.
20. What Web sites do you visit most often?
JF: There’s a Kinks site that has everything you could possibly need. All the songs, lyrics, chords, etc. Come to think of it, Ray Davies songs are all anyone really needs…the most beautiful songs.
21. What was the first rock show you ever saw?
JF: The Outlaws and the Doobie Brothers. Both rocked. I think shows sounded better back then for some reason. Less technology and a more natural sound. The Doobies started with “Jesus Is Just Alright.” Jeff “Skunk” Baxter sat on a stool wearing headphones the whole time. He played part of his “Reelin In the Years” solo in the midst of a Doobie song. I wish this knack for remembering obscure rock moments was a marketable skill.
22. What was the best rock show you ever saw, regardless of size of venue?
JF: Several great ones: The stones in 1978. A very plain stainless steel stage. Keith coming out of the tunnel of addiction but still a little shaky. Mick played piano on “Faraway Eyes.” A bootleg of this show circulated, called Southern Quotations.
The Stones at Shea Stadium, Steel Wheels tour. I was there with Steve Jordan and Niko Bolas. The show was adequate but the last song was “Satisfaction.” A light rain was coming down and I was standing on the infield of a pretty important place, considering my love of baseball. I looked around and the entire place was jumping and singing and dancing. A big moment, even if it was about nostalgia.
Johnny Thunders at the Ritz in NYC, 1987. I saw Blue Velvet on a Friday and Johnny on a Saturday. A pretty mind-bending weekend. Jerry Nolan played drums and Arthur Kane played bass, making Johnny look like the picture of health. Johnny must have had on few thousand dollars worth of clothes. They started with “Pipeline” and Johnny’s guitar was already huge. He kept going back and turning up his amps for more.
Cheap Trick at Ziggy’s in Winston-Salem, 1997. Completely thrilling. They all were great. Looked great and played great. They remembered what made them cool to begin with. Robin may be the best rock singer ever. He’s got three or four different levels of power and he’s what really makes them rock as hard as they do. The end of “Surrender” (“we’re all alright…”) really struck me as such an affirming anthem.
I saw The Band three days before Richard Manuel killed himself. He looked the happiest of them all. Very bittersweet.
Extra Credit Question: You’re the guitar player on the right in these weird new Priceline.com ads with William Shatner. Tell us what that was like.
JF: Shatner was nice to the band. Like any “great” bandleader he knew he needed us behind him! Hah! He was quite the playboy with the women in the audience.
The rest of the band were great. Carrie Brownstein from Sleater-Kinney was the other guitar player. She got to wear the double-neck guitar on “I Want You To Want Me.” I got to play slide on “Freebird.” I talked Capt. Kirk into taking my guitar off of me and smashing it. He eventually got very into it and we destroyed quite a few.
It’s somehow sadly appropriate that all of us band members probably made more money for acting like a rock band than for ever actually being in a real band. Fun, strange, and surreal all the same. Look out for the reunion tour!