Tom Keifer talks the Blues, Cinderella and the Music Industry

Tom Keifer Photo
Photo courtesy of New Ocean Media

We recently got a chance to catch up with Tom Keifer, the frontman for one of the most popular bands to come out of the 80’s,  Cinderella. With sales of 15 million albums world wide, some of the most memorable videos of the MTV generation and of course some of the most memorable hair.  So that might beg the question, “why is American Blues Scene interviewing the singer of a 80’s glam rock band?”

That question can and will be answered by Tom himself in the interview but his biggest influence on the guitar was Albert King and most fans of Cinderella could tell you that they(Cinderella) were just a little bit different than some of the others in that genre. First of all, they were rooted in the blues, in fact on Long Cold Winter the song “Bad Seamstress Blues” might have been the first introduction of the blues to a largely unsuspecting audience.

Keifer’s latest album The Way Life Goes  is actually his solo debut and it borrows a little bit from all of his influences.  His blues rock background and his ability to craft wonderful songs comes shining through on this album.  Tom was gracious enough to spend some time with us and we dug into his background to learn a little more about this fantastic musician.

ABS: A lot of bands in the 80’s got a bad rap about their hair, regardless of the music they were making.

Tom -Well sometimes people like to put a label on things and unfortunately with music a lot of times the label has more to do with the visual than the music itself. So, I have a thing that I always say about that, and that is I think people should listen to music with their ears and not their eyes.

Not everyone would agree but there was really good stuff that came out of 80’s.

Yeah I agree, I think it was a great decade for music, not just in the hard rock, but you know, everything in the 80’s was just very colorful and very creative. Everything from the pop stuff like what Madonna was doing to the kind of more new wavy stuff, like, I love that song Science by Thomas Dolby, and the video that went along with it. And then all the hard rock stuff that we were doing, it was just a very creative time for music, and you know a big part of it had to do with MTV obviously. Because there was this visual aspect that I think added a whole new dimension to music, to the artists and bands so it was a fun time.

How different is it now from how it was then, what are some of your thoughts about that?

Well I think the weird problem of the industry is lack of revenue, because of music basically being pirated, and then that starts to reflect in the art itself.  I was fortunate enough to come in when Cinderella was coming up, it was a time where record companies had the money to stay with an artist for multiple albums, so when we signed with Mercury, we were very fortunate that they were like, whatever it takes, we want to make sure you guys are in the best studios, with the best producers and the best engineers. And I’m not saying that doesn’t still go on today, I just think that those opportunities for the artists are fewer and further between. I think that because record companies don’t have as much money to put into artist development and working with new artists that they’re really more and more these days looking to them coming in already developed with a finished product. So you’re kind of on your own these days, you know? The days of “here’s a shitty work tape,” and label guys having an imagination and saying “well we’ll just draw up a budget, and get you a producer”.  It’s very different, and then on top of it, the piracy also contributes to those same artists who work their asses off to develop themselves and risk everything not really having any kind of a return on it. There’s huge bands and artists today that just in terms of being well known and being high profile, who are barely making a living. So it’s a strange time. Everyone deserves to be paid for their work, you know?

Entitlement is a word that get tossed around when talking about piracy. Thoughts?

I think there’s been a mindset like you said, of entitlement, with a certain percentage of the population out there, but with others I don’t think it’s intentionally done to harm anyone,  I just think that people don’t think about it. You know? It’s just kind of like become the accepted norm almost.  I don’t know how that will change, I’m just not sure.  I guess through continuing to educate people and really make them realize that ultimately it affects the art and the quality of music that they’re receiving. The general mentality not only impacts the art itself and new artists and arts development, but just in general the idea of piracy, there’s more to it. It impacts four major industries, everyone’s so concerned about the economy, and I don’t hear a lot of people in Washington talking about this, but there’s four major industries impacted by piracy. Music, software, literature and movies. That’s a huge segment of our economy. It is. And everyone’s just kind of like ‘fuck it.’

Right. I hear what you’re saying. 

I mean, it’s like, we already have laws in the books, they’re called copyright laws, it’s just no one’s enforcing them on the internet because they just think the internet is this other crazy place where laws don’t apply or something. I don’t know what they’re thinking in Washington, but we have laws to stop all this, and my understanding is there’s even technology, it just needs to be legislated as to who is responsible for installing it. Whether it’s the servers or whatever. I’ve read a lot about it and it’s just kind of crazy the way this bleeds into our economy, down to trucking and retailing and across the board in those four industries, it’s a huge impact. Look at all the retail stores that have closed, between movies and music, it’s just crazy. It’s huge, I mean, it’s millions of jobs there’s no doubt about that.

If somebody was trying to steal some gasoline from the oil companies you think Washington would sit by and let that happen?

They’d be in the dirt and eating concrete. Or walk into a bookstore with a copying machine and just start copying books, and see how long they would get away with it. I don’t think it’s malicious, I don’t think it’s malicious on people’s part, it’s just become an accepted convenience to people, and I think until people realize how much it impacts our economy and how it affects jobs and how it affects the art and the artists who are trying to create this, and  ultimately the quality of music and art. I think when maybe society needs to feel that impact before they make a change, you know? When artists can’t afford to be artists anymore, and art suffers, and all the music and art that we’re getting and literature and movies just outright suck, then maybe people will say ‘wow, did we do this?’

Right? Yeah, that could be. Well I hope we don’t actually go to that length to figure it out. 

I hope we don’t either.

I was looking through your bio and it said your mom was going to get you a guitar, a Les Paul if you finished school. Still have that guitar?

Yeah, to graduate high school she bribed me with a Gibson Les Paul, 78’ tobacco sunburst custom and yeah I still have it. It’s actually black now, I had it refinished years ago. If you’re familiar with the early Cinderella videos like Shake Me and Nobody’s Fool, it’s that black Les Paul in those videos. So that’s what got my diploma for me. I was not the most academic student, only because I just had different plans. I didn’t think I needed to know any of that other stuff, because I wanted to be in a rock band and I was playing guitar. I’d been playing guitar since I was eight years old, so I kind of wanted to move on by the time I was about half way through high school. I actually had offers from bands to go out and work professionally but my mom said  you really need to get your high school diploma and she knew what would motivate me would be that guitar.

What was the first song you ever learned on the guitar?

Oh man, well I remember the first electric song was Sunshine of Your Love by Cream. An older guy up the street had an electric guitar and an amp taught me that riff, and I didn’t even know the song, I just heard him playing the riff. So  I said “that’s cool, teach me how to play that”.  But I was playing acoustic guitar before that, I had lessons when I was about seven or eight for a couple years, because I saw the Beatles on TV. I loved that show The Monkeys too when I was a kid. So I was strumming chords and singing songs.  I honestly don’t remember what the very first song was in those early lessons with the acoustic was, but I do remember my first electric heavy blues hard rock riff was the Cream song, I thought “god this is kind of cool, I wanna play some more riffs like this”.

Cinderella is definitely rooted in the blues, even though a lot of people probably don’t even realize that, where did your blues background come from?

Honestly it was second generation, and I didn’t even know it was blues. When I started hearing Led Zeppelin and Janis Joplin and the Rolling Stones, and a ton of artists that I could name for days from the late sixties and seventies when I grew up, I started emulating their guitar playing style and the vocal style. I didn’t know that it was blues,  to me it was just rock. And I was very young then. But then I was in a band there was a guy who played drums with us who was a few years older than me. One day he brought me an album called BB King –  Live at the Regal, as a gift. I guess he was trying to inspire me, which he did. And I remember we had it playing,  the record, remember those days? Spinning round and round?

Oh yes, I remember.

And I remember my first reaction was, as I turned to him and I said “this guy sounds like Jimmy Page”. And he just started laughing and he said “actually it’s the other way around. This is called blues music”. And that was my first exposure to blues, and I loved it. A great way to get into blues is BB King, because it’s very simplistic, his lead work, but it has a lot of feel and just great melodic sense. That led me to getting  into Albert King and Johnny Winter, and I got into Elmore James with the slide thing. Then Muddy Waters, so that record Live at the Regal just got me hooked on the blues all the way back to Son House at that point. Because when I realized that Jimmy Page and Keith Richards’ guitars and Janice’s vocal style, where all that came from, was from this whole other thing, the blues music that I wasn’t even aware of, and so I was like “I gotta check that out”.  I just really started getting into it  and that is the way it is with all the American roots music.  I was a huge James Brown fan, I started digging into that stuff. And the thing with the country influence, you know, I loved the Eagles, and I loved the country influence that Stones had, and just all that stuff is the ingredients to me that made the music that I loved. So I went back and kind of reviewed it all, particularly the blues. Not review, review is a bit of an understatement.

Yeah, I gotcha.

It became my diet, you know?

How important do you think it is for young players to have a blues foundation in their playing?

I think it’s just essential really, it improved my playing more than anything. A lot of guitarists I think, they maybe find it too simple, you know, they listen to it and they don’t understand why they need to learn this. When you listen to a player like Albert King, the reason you need to learn Albert King is because he can play the same four or five notes a hundred times and never play them the same, his phrasing is different every time, his feel is different every time, and when you can learn to express just a few notes that way, it’s just a good thing.  I didn’t get in the beginning why blues guys played with that kind of cleaner sound but it finally dawned on me and I finally got that, and when I started learning, really digging into blues,  I would turn off all the distortion and all effects, cause now it’s just down to your fingers and your soul, there’s nothing to hide behind. That forces you, with that cleaner more pure sound, to try to put the emotion into the strings, because you got no help from a stompbox.

Right. So blues is essential then?

It’s a good thing to learn. It’s a good thing to learn for any player, and it will definitely bleed over into any style that you play, that sense of expression. And it develops your ability to put your emotion into the notes, it really does, it’s like running with ankle weights. Then when you take the ankle weights off and you plug into the big high distorted Marshall Amp or whatever,  it’s like, it’s like wow, you’re like superman at that point. And that’s not to say that blues guys haven’t used distortion, but the really, really traditional stuff, it’s a pure cleaner sound, and you just hear the soul and the feeling of the musician coming off those strings, and I think that’s a good exercise for anybody to partake in if they want to improve their playing. Not to mention just the endless phrasing that some of those classic guys like Albert King have on four or five notes, I mean you put on an Albert King track, and at first listen it’s like “oh that’s easy I can do that,” and then sit down and try and learn it, by the time you get four phrases in you go “what were those first three again? I can’t remember them,” because every one is different. You know, and it’s pretty amazing.

Oh yeah man, I mean, a left handed Flying V, dude was a badass.

Yeah he was badass. Yeah,  if he’s not the best he’s certainly right up there, I learned a lot by listening to him. Albert Collins was kickass too man. He was just so nasty and he just has that feel…… and that’s what you learn more than anything from trying to emulate and learn that stuff is, to feel an expression in the notes.

Buddy Guy says the blues has never gotten the respect it deserves. Why do you think that is?

I think in some ways it does, I mean it’s, it’s funny, I know what you’re saying, but at the same time it’s so mainstream like in commercials. It’s like that heritage, because it’s just so uniquely American, and it’s such a vibe. You do hear it in mainstream in a lot of the pop culture and commercials and even on TV shows and movies, it sets the background and the landscape for so many things.  I think what you’re referring to is in really the pop music, like top 40, even rock. If you’re gonna just play like a straight blues thing it’s very rare that any of that can break through to the big radio formats, right? But it’s very well represented, or was anyway, in the hard rock world. And I guess in a different form that it took on, so, you know, it definitely has bled out into the world, but yeah, there’s not a big reach radio format that accepts like pure blues. In that way I think you’re right, and I don’t know why that is. The pop culture, the rock formats and pop formats of radio, they’re looking for, I guess, the new.  But I do think a lot of blues elements are found in those new styles of music, certainly but  in its purest form it seems to be segregated from there.

You’ve always been a fantastic songwriter. What instrument are you using when you’re writing? Guitar? Piano?

Well that depends. It’s one of two things, it’s guitar or piano. And that really depends on the song. It depends on what I’m hearing in my head. A lot of times if I start hearing a lyric and a melody in my head, and this feels more like a ballad, then I’ll sit down at the piano, or an acoustic guitar, just to kind of get that kind of more organic mellower sound for lack of a better word. And if the lyric and melody I’m hearing in my head just sounds like a hard driving rock song then I’ll pick up an electric and plug it into some little practice amp and kind of approach it from that angle. ‘Don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone’ was written on the piano, definitely. Some of the other piano ballads too. Generally if there’s a piano in it, and they’re ballads that I’ve written, then that’s probably what I wrote it on. Although Heartbreak Station, that song I actually wrote on an acoustic and the piano was added later.

Let’s talk about your voice. You’ve had your share of ups and downs, how’s the voice doing now?

It’s really strong now. There’s no cure for the condition that I had, the paralysis thing, but it’s very stable now, and in some ways stronger than it was before I was hit with that paralysis. Because there isn’t really a cure for it, it’s a daily maintenance, of an hour and a half or two hours a day of vocal exercises to keep it in shape. But it’s very strong right now.

Did your singing style have anything to do with condition?

No, it doesn’t have anything to do with the style of singing. There are three or four different ways that I’m aware of that it can happen, and one has to do with general anesthesia, which I’m not sure how that works but it can paralyze a vocal chord. Another one is from a brain tumor, it can be pressing on a nerve, cause it’s a neurological condition. Or the other way is it can be damaged by a virus, like a flu or cold virus, and if it lodges in the nerve that controls the signal from the brain to that vocal chord, the virus can deteriorate that nerve causing the response of the vocal chord to be diminished, and that’s what they treated mine as. And it literally happened overnight, and I just woke up one day and I couldn’t sing, and they said I would never sing again. That there’s no way that they can fix a neurological condition with medicine or surgery. And they said if you have any prayer of singing again, you’re gonna just have to try to figure it out, and start working with coaches and try and train it back, and it’s taken years. It’s been up and down and five steps forward and three back. Two forward and six back, and I’ve had a lot of surgeries along the way to repair collateral damage as well. Just because it’s so hard to sing with it, I’ve blown my pipes a bunch of times and had six surgeries to repair that. So yeah, it’s been an up and down road, but overcoming it has been the culmination of working with a lot of different coaches, and speech pathologists, and a lot of experimenting because it’s not an exact science, and finally just figuring it out.

What was it like when they said you may never sing again? That had to be devastating.

It was awful, really awful. You know, I went through a very long deep depression, and you know, there were a lot of other things going on at that time in my life that were piling on, like Cinderella losing their deal with Mercury and the whole music scene was changing around that time, with the Seattle grunge thing coming in. So those two things alone among other things, personal things too that were going on, but it was just a pretty dark time,  the 90’s were, for me. But the two things I just mentioned, between losing the voice and the career changes, were very frustrating because when the whole music scene changed and we were let go by our record company and Cinderella started drifting apart. That’s when I wanted to make music more than anything. To kind of get back in there and say ” I’ll show you, and I am still relevant, and fuck you”, and I didn’t have my instrument, I didn’t have my voice. So it was a rough time.

Any thoughts of you doing just a straight up filthy blues album at some point?

I think about it all the time…I’ve done a couple of pure blues themes in recent years that I really enjoyed doing. I don’t know if you’ve heard the acoustic version of Shake Me. It’s a delta blues kind of vibe… it’s on one of those VH1 series called “Stripped”. There’s a volume one two and three, and I have a track on all three of them, but Shake Me is on one of them, I think it’s on the second one. Strip volume two. Um, but you know, if you go on YouTube and put in Tom Keifer Shake Me Acoustic, it’ll come up. Then the other thing I did was Blue Christmas, and that song I did was like a Chicago blues style thing for monster Christmas a few years ago. And that was a lot of fun, we just went in and cut it live and. I used my 335 and a crazy old spring reverb Gibson amp, and we just laid it down, it’s a pretty cool version. You can find that on YouTube too. So yeah, I have that in me and I’ve thought about it. Those two I just mentioned are the most pure blues things that I’ve done,  even from the sense of the way they were recorded, like the acoustic one was just, no overdubs, just  set up  mics, play acoustic and sing it, Robert Johnson style. Blue Christmas was that way too with the full band, we just set up and just laid it down. And  it was fun doing that, I enjoyed it. Check out Blue Christmas. Blue Christmas has got some pretty cool vocals and lead guitar on it.

Let’s talk a little bit about your solo album. It took a while to get finished. Can you go into what took so long? 

Well, it was a point in my life where we had had a record deal with Cinderella go south, and it was pretty ugly with legal battles, lawsuits and that type of thing. When I started it, it almost didn’t even really feel like a record, it was just about going out and recording some songs. Without lawyers involved or record companies or any of that stuff. So I started producing it with my wife Savannah and a friend of mine here in Nashville, Chuck Turner, who’s a really great engineer and producer. The three of us were just having fun and laying down some tracks, for the better part of nine years, just kind of working on it for months, and then taking months away from it. Then coming back to it, and then going on tour with Cinderella. It wasn’t like constant over the nine years working on it. But over time it started to feel like a record, and that’s really, why, combined with my voice problems it took so long. Of course like I said the mindset in the beginning was ‘it’s not really a record, we’re just kind of recording music, we’ll see what happens’. There was no record company involved, there was no release date, there was nothing to adhere to in terms of a time-frame. It was just about laying down music and making it as good as we could make it. Then at some point it felt like a record and then when it was done, or what we felt to be a finished record, we started shopping at labels.  Pretty early on in the shopping process we found the label that I signed with, Merovee Records. They’ve been very supportive and just amazing in their commitment to the record, so it just kind of all unfolded and worked out I guess the way it was supposed to.

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