The Fee Waybill Interview (2022)

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2043
By Ira Kantor

It seems like it was only yesterday, but it was actually December 2019 when I saw my last concert prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The gig was art rock legends The Tubes at the Flying Monkey in Plymouth, New Hampshire.

After months on hiatus, the band is back in full force — amping up for shows in support of the 40th anniversary of their hit album Outside Inside, which the group will perform in its entirety for the first time. In addition to upcoming band shows on both coasts, the group recently played dates with fellow art rockers The B-52s, who are currently in the midst of their final tour.

Recently, I had the chance to reconnect with Tubes frontman Fee Waybill for an in-depth conversation about the group’s itinerary, the making of Outside Inside and the band’s biggest hit “She’s a Beauty,” and his decades-long friendship and partnership with million-seller Richard Marx — the latter of which yielding Waybill’s most recent solo album, Fee Waybill Rides Again.

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Fee, I’ll start off with what seems like an obvious question: How have you and the band been holding up since the start of the pandemic?

With the pandemic everyone freaked out. Every band guy I know freaked out and thought, ‘Oh no, live concert is over!’ Naturally, I did too. We had a whole lot of dates booked in 2020 — we were doing the “Completion Backward Principle” tour then — and everything got cancelled. We didn’t work for like 19, 20 months. Then we thought (COVID) was passing and we did some back east shows in October of 2021. We did one run and then…Omicron and the whole thing shut down again. We went, ‘Oh my god!’ Then we didn’t work for another eight months. We just started up again this year in June and finally everyone kind of came to the realization that this isn’t going away and you better learn to live with it. Get your vaccination, get your boosters, and deal with it. We all did and we’re all good. Nobody actually got COVID.

So we started working in June and did some southern California dates. In July we did the Midwest. We did the Summerfest in Milwaukee, and Chicago and Omaha. And then we did some more dates. We went to the Northwest, and we did some B-52s dates up in the Portland/Seattle area. That went really well. That was really cool, playing some bigger venues. Now we’re continuing on with our tour. This month we’ll play San Francisco, we’ll play Reno. We haven’t played Reno in a long time … We’re playing three nights in San Francisco at the Masonic Auditorium, which is a beautiful 4,000-seater with the B-52s. That’s coming up. Then we’re flying out a couple days later to Boston and we’re going to play East Greenwich at the Odeum, and then go to Buffalo and play the Riviera, another great big art deco theater; we’ve been there a number of times. Then we’re going to fly back and play the Cabot Theatre in Beverly, [Massachusetts], which we’ve never played before. It’s really, really nice. That will be really cool. I’m working on setting that all up now. I do everything, man (laughs). I’m booking flights, I’m booking hotels, I’m booking vans or limos or Ubers, I mean everything.

Your upcoming shows will focus on performing The Tubes’ hit album Outside Inside in its entirety for the first time. Can you share with me some experiences of making that record? What’s different this time around compared to your prior album, The Completion Backward Principle?

I really enjoyed making that record. On the record before — [producer] David Foster had never done a rock record before. He had just done “Boogie Wonderland” with Earth, Wind & Fire. So he was kind of more accustomed to a bunch of crazy rockers. Since we had such great success with [Toto’s Steve] Lukather and David and I writing “Talk to Ya Later,” right away we got into doing “She’s A Beauty” and “Wild Women Of Wongo” that [Tubes drummer] Prairie [Prince] wrote the lyrics for. Live, it really is great; I love doing that song. I thought that it was all fabrication — the Limpopo River and et cetera, et cetera. My wife and I love to watch a documentary called “Home.” It’s a series about architects and these interesting architectural projects…One we watched said a guy built a house on the Limpopo River and I thought, ‘What! There’s really such a place?’ They are really an eco-friendly kind of people. They didn’t cut down one tree or move a rock or a bush; they built a home around the existing vegetation. There’s like a tree in the middle of the living room. It was so cool. The creek running down to the Limpopo River runs right into the middle of their house. They just built around it. The guy was amazing.

I have to tell you about “Tip Of My Tongue.” We’re working on “Tip Of My Tongue,” right, and we’ve got the melody and the verses and we’re kind of struggling on a melody for the chorus. We have the lyric, ‘The heart speaks but the words play on the tip of my tongue.’ It’s about the words ‘I love you,’ though it never says that. We’re in the studio and we can’t seem to find a melody that works for these lyrics and works for this track. We were at a studio called The Complex in Los Angeles and down the hall was Earth, Wind & Fire. Fos said, ‘I’m pretty close with Maurice White and I’ll betcha Maurice could come up with a melody for this in like no time. He’s so good at that.’ And we’re like, ‘Wow, OK.’ He said, ‘But, he’s a very religious guy and the lyric in the second verse — ‘Never been too cunning, I’m no linguist’ — you can’t play that for him. You can’t let him know what that is because he’ll freak out.’ So we had Maurice come in and we played him the song but we didn’t play the vocal on the verses. We said, ‘We’ve got this but we need a melody and a chorus.’ He came up with it in no time. And he did all these adlibs on the chorus. He said, ‘You can use the adlibs no problem.’ So it’s actually Maurice singing the adlibs on the record. The whole project was really fun and he came up with some really great parts.

The song “Glass House” was a song [Tubes guitarist] Roger [Steen] wrote and we kind of sing a duet on it. He never wrote that horn part. Fos said, ‘I know Jerry Hey can come up with something. We need a horn line right here.’ The last song “Outside Lookin’ Inside,” with a lot of dialogue in it; that was [Tubes synthesizer player] Mike [Cotten’s] song. It just was really fun.

The title of “Talk to Ya Later” came from our engineer, Humberto Gatica, and he’s from Chile. He’s really quick and really adept. There were all kinds of new gear coming out in the early-‘80s, all kinds of great sonic stuff, and he kept trying out all this stuff. We were constantly asking, ‘What does this do? Humberto, why are you doing this?’ Instead of answering us, he would say, ‘Uh talk to ya later!’ instead of saying ‘Shut the fuck up’ basically. Instead of ‘Don’t bother me,’ he would say ‘Talk to ya later!’ That is where I got the title for that song. For “She’s A Beauty” – David’s Canadian and every time we’d do a good take, he would go, ‘Oh beauty, eh!’ And he said it over and over again. That line is where I got “She’s A Beauty.”

This is a good story. When I wrote the lyric for that song, we were in San Francisco playing at this club called The Great American Music Hall. It was right in the red-light district, if you know what I mean. In San Francisco, it’s called the Tenderloin. And right next door to it is Mitchell Brothers Theatre, which is a porno theater. So the whole neighborhood is porn stars and all kinds of prostitutes and everything walking around in the Tenderloin. One day we’re playing the Great American Music Hall. It’s the afternoon and soundcheck and the band is setting up. There’s not much I need to do while they’re all setting up until they’re ready to do vocals. So I decided I’m going to find some lunch. I’m walking down the street, I come to this massage parlor — there’s a lot of those — and in front of this massage parlor is what looks like an old telephone booth but instead of glass walls, it’s solid; you couldn’t see through the walls. On the front of it was a sign that said: ‘Pay a dollar, talk to a naked girl.’ OK, so I put a dollar in there and the front wall comes down and inside this booth is a live girl who is like stunningly beautiful. She starts stripping and going through this spiel about how I should come into the massage parlor for a massage and a ‘happy ending,’ if you know what I mean. There’s no way I’m doing this; I’m like a naïve rube. I was going, ‘Oh gosh, you could be a model, why are you doing this? This is so degrading! You don’t need to be doing this! You’re gorgeous!” I even offered to her to be a Tubes dancer. I said, ‘I’ll hire you for the Tubes; you could be a Tubette! I don’t care if you can dance or not — you’re gorgeous!’ And she never broke. She kept right on with her spiel … she must have been getting a kickback. At the same time she’s doing the striptease — she never actually got naked at all. It took like two, three minutes and then the wall goes back up. ‘Pay another dollar to continue.’ I just went, ‘OK, well, this is like talking to a blank wall. I’m not getting through to her at all.’ So I got some lunch and I went back to the club and I’m thinking this is good material for a lyric. I start writing the song. Originally the line was ‘You can talk to a naked girl,’ not ‘You can talk to a pretty girl.’ Fos goes, ‘No, you can’t say naked.’ ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘No, you can’t say naked. This is going to be a big single and it’s going to be on the radio, and you can’t say naked.’ ‘But she was naked!’ ‘I don’t care, you gotta change it.’ So I changed it to “pretty.” That’s the way that lyric came about and with him saying ‘Beauty, eh’ every 10 minutes, I combined it all. I find ways to write lyrics all over the place.

The other funny thing about that record is (Capitol Records) said, ‘Oh this is a hit, you need to make a video.’ One of our favorite movies is one from 1932 called Freaks, made by a guy named Tod Browning. “Freaks” was a movie about a sideshow. It had all these freaks — Schlitzie the Pinhead and the Chicken Woman and the Bearded Lady. We wanted to make a video with freaks and geeks. It was pretty twisted. There was a little circus here in southern California, like a little dinky backyard circus called Circus Vargas, and they used to tour around California. It was nothing like Ringling Brothers at all. It was a little sideshow kind of circus. They had these funky little rides and booths and really low-end and cheap. We got a hold of them; it was in the winter of 82 maybe. They had a lot where they stored all their gear because they didn’t tour in the winter. We made a deal with them and said, ‘We want you to set up your whole thing on your little back lot here and we’re going to come and make a video.’ We made up a storyboard and Kenny Ortega put together all of this choreography and movement in the video. We had a bunch of fake geeks. We wanted to get Capitol a budget for the video and we submitted a storyboard. They just went, ‘What are you crazy? No way — you can’t do this! No!’ They went, ‘No, this is going to be a big-time video on MTV, you can’t do this. It’s way too weird. Way too weird and not politically correct.’ So the video that we did with Alexis Arquette in the little cart was Plan B. They just censored us left and right. We had a woman in an aquarium like a mermaid in the video and originally she was topless. They went, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that. She can’t be topless.’ And then the last shot is the thing crashing through a big paper screen that had a gigantic breast that was airbrushed on it and they went, ‘No, you can’t do it.’ They fuzzy-focused the whole thing. ‘You can’t have breasts on MTV!’ OK…OK…Back then in the early 80s, there was a lot of censorship going on. We may be able to get away with it today but I don’t know… 

What further success did Outside Inside bring to the band, if any?

It uplifted us, I believe. We sold even more records and had even more Billboard success, and more MTV, and more everything. We ended up playing bigger venues and making more money. We had switched management companies. The guy on Completion Backward Principle was this guy, Rikki Farr, who was just insane. Just a crazy guy, and he was big — he was like a rugby player. Rikki Farr’s father, Tommy Farr, was the heavyweight boxing champion of Europe and he fought Joe Louis for the heavyweight championship of the world. He lost but the guy was a brute. Rikki was like that – he was a blonde-headed Welshman who would take us to dinner, drink a bottle of champagne, and then jump on the table and start dancing. He was such a great guy; I loved him.

But then we found out that there was kind of a shady financial thing going on. So we went to this Fitzgerald Hartley management company for the Outside Inside album. They were big time; they were pros and they had a lot of big-time artists. They just really got our shit together. We cut back on dancers and we just made everything more economical, more road-worthy. On Completion Backward Principle, our whole set we designed, which was incredible, but it was all round. We had round platforms for the drums and for the keyboards and we had big round towers covered in that Completion Backward Principle blue shade of material. We had one that was 10 feet around; we had two in the front — one on each side — giant things with spotlights on top of them and then we had two in the middle and the back that were like five feet wide, but they were round. Round doesn’t pack very well in a truck, if you know what I mean. You have to have a whole extra truck because you can’t pack round. They just got it together and really tightened up the loose edges. We ended up playing bigger venues and doing better. That tour was a big deal.

Do you find it tricky at all now to re-familiarize yourself with the songs on Outside Inside for upcoming live performances?  

We had never played “No Not Again.” We had never played “Fantastic Delusion.” “Glass House,” we never played that in previous shows. We had done “Wongo,” we had done “Monkey Time,” and “Tip of My Tongue,” but a lot of the others we had never played. I live in LA and (the other band members) all live up in the Bay Area. Prairie has an art studio that we kind of convert into a rehearsal hall, and boy, we knuckled down. We had to learn those songs. I didn’t know the lyrics; they didn’t know the musical part of those songs. So we had to rehearse. We spent quite a while rehearsing and have done it three or four times since. Yeah, it was a challenge putting that show together.

The Completion Backward Principle, that’s pretty much my favorite album we ever made. We had played almost all of those songs over the years in different shows. Every tour, we try to do something different. This time it’s Outside Inside, last time it was Completion Backward Principle. The time before that was our tribute to Quentin Tarantino — it was the “Mondo Pulp” tour and we did a bunch of songs that were in that movie Pulp Fiction. The time before that it was kind of…an Italian tribute. I did a Pavarotti song and it was kind of the all-Italian tour. We always try to make it different. People know they are going to see something different than they saw the last time. We’re not just handing out the same set that we’ve had for 20 years. That makes it more fun for us too. Everybody’s excited — it’s an adventure and you’re not quite sure of how it’s going to go, you know. So there’s an element of surprise and excitement that is incumbent with the whole thing.

Not too long ago, you released your latest solo album Fee Waybill Rides Again, working with longtime collaborator Richard Marx. For those who may not know, how did your musical partnership come to fruition?

I met Richard by accident. His father was a jingle writer. Dick Marx was like a jazz keyboardist in Chicago and pretty well-known, and he went on in his later years to write jingles. He wrote “Doublemint Gum,” he wrote “Ken-L Ration,” he wrote all these jingles. Richard used to sing the jingles with him and Richard learned how to play keyboards. He was pretty much a keyboard player and he started writing songs. He placed a song when he was like 18 years old in Chicago. He sent a song to Lionel Richie and he placed the song on a Lionel Richie album.

He came out to LA in the early 1980s to see Lionel record the song. When he was here, he asked Lionel about David Foster. He said, ‘Could you set it up for me to meet David Foster?’ And Lionel went, ‘Sure, no problem, he’s right down the hall at the Lion Share doing the Tubes.’ So one day we’re in the studio … and there’s this kid sitting in the back of the room, this little kid from Chicago, 18 years old, who came to meet Foster. We were having a hard time in the studio and [Tubes guitarist] Bill [Spooner] was trying to get a part right. His amp was broken and it sounded terrible and he was upset and frustrated. It was just Fos and Humberto and me and Bill — Bill was upset and he couldn’t get his sound together. Foster was such a perfectionist — there was no Pro Tools to fix things back then — you couldn’t fix it; you had to play it perfect. The first vocal I did for David Foster, it took me a week to get it because I had never been pressed that hard before. We had worked with Todd Rundgren who was kind of like, ‘Oh it feels good, cool, it feels pretty good, let’s move on.’ I had never worked with anybody so discerning and so bound on perfection.

So we’re in the studio and at one point Bill turns around and he sees this stranger sitting in the back of the room. He goes, ‘Who the hell is this guy? What’s he doing here? Kick this guy out of here, I don’t need this!’ And I just kind of went, ‘Bill, c’mon, it’s OK; I don’t know who he is. He’s a kid, he came to meet Foster. Just forget about him and let’s get this done, OK. That’s all we need to do.’ So we got it done and at the end of the session, Richard came up and was like, ‘Hey, thanks man, I appreciate it; I just came to meet Fos.’ I said, ‘Yeah it’s OK, man, it’s no problem.’ And he said, ‘You know, I really like your lyrics. I kind of follow the Tubes and I really like your lyrics. Would you write a song with me?’ And I said, ‘OK, fine.’ I didn’t know who he was. ‘Send me a track.’ So he did. The first song we ever wrote together was on my first solo album [Read My Lips] called “Who Loves You Baby,” which was a Kojak line. In ’84 I did my first solo record and I put that on the record. We kind of got to be friends. At that point, he wasn’t an artist; he was only a songwriter.

We wrote that song for Vixen, “Edge Of A Broken Heart,” which was a big hit. We just kind of became friends and we started writing together and he started placing songs with various people. Then kind of … he decided, ‘I want to make my own record. I want to be an artist; I want to be a performer.’ So I wrote lyrics to like three or four songs on his first album and his first album sold like 3 million records.

The next record I had three or four songs, the next record I had three or four songs. Then we had a hit with “Nothing Left Behind Us.” I had like three or four hits with him. It’s funny because he married Cynthia Rhodes and Cynthia was a Tubes dancer. They actually met having nothing to do with us or me. They got married and they had three sons. They’re all my godsons. I did another solo record in 1996, Don’t Be Scared By These Hands, which Richard and this guy named Bruce Gaitsch helped me write and produce here in Los Angeles.

Richard had a big house north of Chicago in Lake Forest. I got to be really close with the boys and I would go out and hang out and stay at his house. We would hang together and do stuff together. Every summer we used to do a boys trip and that was a thing for us. His dad had a cabin up in Minocqua, Wisconsin, and for a number of years we would just jump in the car and drive up to northern Wisconsin and hang out in the cabin for like a week and go fishing and go go-kart riding and horseback riding. Just the three boys, and me, and Richard. No women. It’s funny because Cynthia wouldn’t let the boys curse at home; she was very strict. And on the trip, we’d go, ‘Ok, this is a free-for-all, you can curse all you want but don’t tell your mother and don’t do it when you get back home.’ The boys loved that; they would just go crazy in the backseat. We did that year after year. Then after a while we got bored with Minocqua and we would do whitewater rafting in Jackson Hole or go to Cody, Wyoming, and watch a rodeo. We did all these wacky trips.

I think it was 2013 and the boys were getting older…and we had to get more exciting stuff every summer. I went to Chicago that summer and we were trying to figure out what to do. The boys said, ‘You know, Uncle Fee’ — they call me Uncle Fee even though I’m not actually their uncle but Richard doesn’t have any siblings so he kind of thinks of me as his older brother — ‘We’d rather hang out with our girlfriends and go to the movies than to go fishing’ (laughs). The trip is cancelled, and I had made plans and I’m going to hang in Chicago for a week. Richard had a recording studio at his house and he said, Let’s go make another solo record. You haven’t done a solo record for like 10 years now so let’s go start another one. Time for a new one.’ So I said, ‘OK.’ So we went to the studio and the first song we wrote was “Faker,” which is the opening song on my record Fee Waybill Rides Again. I think we started four songs that summer — “Faker” and “How Dare You” and “Promise Land” and “Woulda Coulda Shoulda.” Then I think it was like three or four years before we got back to continuing. He was touring and I was touring and there were no more summer boys trips.

In 17 or 18, Richard had moved to LA and he said, ‘Let’s finish this. It’s been laying around here for four, five years. Let’s find some more songs and do vocals and put it to bed.’ So we did – we worked through the summer of 2018 and then 2019 we found some more songs. There was one song, “Say Goodbye,” which was a song I wrote for him for one of his records — a ballad — and he never used it. I said, ‘Well you never used this. I love this song, let’s put on my vocal.’ So we did that. Then there was a song that he had written, “Still You on the Inside,” which he and Chad Kroeger from Nickelback wrote for a Daughtry album and Daughtry didn’t want to do it. I always loved the song. So that’s the one song on the album that we didn’t write. We just scrapped around. We found a couple more songs and we wrote a couple of songs — “Don’t Want To Pull The Trigger” we wrote in 2019 and the other one “Meant To Be Alone” we wrote from scratch. “Man of the World” was actually a song we had written years before and forgot. He sent me the track and it didn’t have any lyrics or melody and I couldn’t remember it. I just went, ‘I don’t remember this song at all.’ He goes, ‘I know you’ve got it somewhere; I know you wrote it so look in your stack.’ I used to write with these Mead notebooks, then I would transcribe them onto my computer on some kind of word doc. He said, ‘Well find it.’ I looked through all my Mead notebooks; I couldn’t find it. So I went to my computer — I have all (songs in) alphabetical order. I had like a hundred songs because I saved everything, so I just started with the As and I played the track that he sent me and then brought up the word doc of lyric for A and then tried to fit the line of the verse or the chorus into this musical phrase. I went A and then B and then C and I got all the way to M. Finally, I said, ‘I found “Man Of The World” on the computer and it all fit in the length of the musical verse. Well this is it.’ We went and put that down. Then we finished it toward the beginning of 2020 and we mixed it and we mastered it. There’s a young guy in Chicago, Matt Prock, who’s just really, really good. Richard had used him for a number of things in the past.

Then we’re all ready and searching around for record companies and somebody to release it, and then the pandemic hits in March of 2020. I went, ‘Oh god, after all this time, now a pandemic…’ But we decided, screw it, we’re going to release it anyway because everybody is quarantined so they are probably ready for some new music.

You mentioned playing with the B-52s who are currently on their farewell tour. Had The Tubes ever played with the B-52s previously? Sounds like a great matchup of bands.

Oh no, never had before — first time! They are on their — at least the first — farewell tour. I don’t know why — I mean the gig we played in Seattle was like a 4,000-seater that sold out. I don’t know why they are calling it quits. I don’t know their internal politics and we didn’t really get to hang out with them at all but they were great. It was a great show. We had a great time. We’re looking forward to the shows in San Francisco. We haven’t played in the city for a long time. I don’t get it but what are you going to do? Maybe they’re independently wealthy and they are ready to retire, I don’t know (laughs).

Actually, this just came down the pipeline. In July of next summer, we’re touring in the UK with the Hollywood Vampires, with Johnny Depp and Alice [Cooper] and Joe Perry from Aerosmith in big, big arenas — really big venues. We went over with Alice Cooper in 2017; Alice and I have been friends for years and years and years and it was a combination of our bands. We did the same kind of venues, big arenas, and it’s just going to be a freakshow. Johnny Depp’s got like 28 million Instagram followers. I mean it’s going to be a complete freakout, especially given the UK loves that kind of tabloid media. I’m sure they were watching every second of the trial with him.

We’re looking forward to a big year next year. We’re thrilled; we’re having a great time. People are showing up. I mean I can’t say the pandemic is over but, like I said, we’re realizing it’s not going away so you better deal with it, you know?

Visit The Tubes for upcoming tour dates

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