The Jock Bartley (Firefall) Interview (2013)

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Firefall first hit the scene in 1976 with the release of their self-titled debut album that would be, at the time, the quickest album to reach gold status in the history of Atlantic Records. The second single released from the album, “You Are The Woman,” would enter the Top 10 and become their biggest hit. That summer, the band found themselves opening up for the legendary Fleetwood Mac. In 1977, they had another major hit with “Just Remember I Love You,” followed by yet another in 1978 with “Strange Way.”

Both would hit the Top 20 (actually 11) on the charts. Over the years, they would compile an impressive six Top 40 hits. I spoke with the band’s guitarist and lone founding member Jock Bartley on the eve of Firefall heading out for Sail Rock 2013 tour, featuring Firefall, Gary Wright, Orleans, Christopher Cross, Robbie Dupree, Player and John Ford Coley. Here’s what Bartley had to say about this unique tour and his equally unique musical career.

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First, tell me how this Sail Rock Tour came together. Was it something that just sparked up on your radar or was this show in the pipeline for a while?

It was in the pipeline for a while. Each year this promoter does shows like this. Last year it was Hippiefest, where Dave Mason was the headliner with Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad and lots of other bands. This time its Sail Rock and they contacted my manager and Firefall’s agent and said they’d love to have Firefall participate and here’s who we think is going to be on the show.

It is a very cool lineup. Have you played with any of these artists before?

Firefall has played half a dozen times with Christopher Cross in the past decade or two. Same thing with Orleans. We got to know John Ford Coley when he was in England Dan and John Fort Coley. We both were on Atlantic Records in the 70s. We run into the guys in Player every five or six years. We know most of these guys, but it had been on just select gigs, so to suddenly having 10 or 12 shows with them, with everybody, is really great. At this point in the game, Firefall are mostly weekend warriors in that we go out for a few gigs on a weekend, could be one to three or so, so to be on a tour is great. You get to feel the camaraderie when you play multiple shows like this.

Like lots of these bands — hell, lots of other bands — Firefall has seen a fair amount of personnel changes.

The main one I had to contend with for the past 20 years or so is the original lead vocalist for Firefall, Rick Roberts. He wrote most of our songs as well: “You Are The Woman,” “Just remember I Love You,” “Mexico.” Rick’s health in the 80s took a turn for the worse and he has been contending with health issues these past 20 years and even if he wanted to — and I’m sure for a number of years he didn’t want to tour — he wasn’t healthy enough to do so. So the way the cookie crumbled with Firefall was I was the last guy standing who didn’t quit the band and the way our corporation was set up I could keep it going if I wanted to and the truth was we have so many great songs written by Rick and Larry Burnett and seemingly so many fans who still wanted to hear them that I made the decision to keep the band going and keep playing the songs as long as we have fans out there. And 25 years later in 2013, here I am still doing it.

I just wonder then, for a guy like you, a ‘mature’ musician, if I might be so bold: Do you just keep your head down and just keep doing what you’re doing or do you even get involved in how the music business works these days — if really there is even a music business left anymore?

It’s a good question and you kind of hit in on the head. You kinda keep your head down and keep doing what you’re doing. The truth is, the way regular radio is now, of course, there is the Internet and Sirius XM for people to listen to, but regular radio is set up now, not just rock stations, any musical format really in that one corporation may own three thousand stations. So it boils down to you pretty much have a playlist for radio stations being determined by two or three people for thousand s of radio stations. I mean I am simplifying it here but a lot of us bands who are still going really have no chance of having a new single on the radio. You have to be on all those stations that don’t want new music from bands that are 30 years old.

I hear you guys all the time, but it’s always your past hits.

Yes, stations will play dozens of songs by Journey, the Doobie Brothers, Firefall, Little River Band, but to have a new song, even if it is deserving, we’re not going to have new hit. You just kind of have to come to terms with that. I knew about 15 or 20 years ago Firefall would never have a new hit record. We could put out albums and get some radio play or have people buy our CDs, download songs, but in terms of getting on the Top 20 on Billboard, that’s impossible.

What I find interesting about Firefall’s history is that you are often lumped in with the Southern California mid-70s sound, but you guys come out of Boulder, Colorado.

When our first album came out in 1976, because the songs were so good and the timing was so good, yes we were thought of as part of that California southern rock thing. Although what had happened was that a lot of the Southern California rockers like Stephen Stills, Chris Hillman, Dan Fogelberg, Joe Walsh, the big stars who had taken up residence in L.A. for five to seven years. Then they got tired of L.A. and they moved to the mountains above Boulder.
And here I was a Boulder guy and Firefall was just starting, we didn’t have a record deal yet. We were just playing a little club called the Good Earth. And on any given night, Stills or Dan Folgelberg or Chris Hillman, who had connections with the band through (drummer) Michael Clarke who had been in the Byrds with Chris — this is where you see the in Firefall’s genealogy family tree. It was just amazing for me; it was being in the right place at the right time. Of course, I had to work really hard as a kid and teenager to get good enough on guitar to handle it.

To be ready for the opportunity, you mean.

I’ve learned this in my career most — explaining why some musicians, singers, writers and bands that are great don’t ever get that big break. The window of opportunity is a short one, when it comes. I know deserving great players who never got the chance to break out of their local regional scene because they weren’t lucky enough to have that opportunity to do so. So yes, when or if that opportunity arises, you better be ready because it may only be there a day or two and you have to be ready to jump through to see what happens.

How do you think your guitar playing has evolved over the years?

For 30 years, I have been on automatic pilot. You’re not really thinking about what you’re doing — you just do it. Kind of like Michael Jordan running a fast break — he just does it. It’s so much fun as a lead guitar player — just going out there and seeing where your fingers take you. And there’s not a lot of thought to it. It’s a feel kind of thing.

Where I think I have gotten better in the past decades is particularly in the studio. If there are technical problems or you’re just not playing all that great, when you start the take in the old days, I’d get kind of upset or be pushing to try it again. I’m better at being a lot more relaxed now and letting the game come to me. You got time for a quick story that illustrates this a bit?

Sure!

At eight years old, my mother found me a world-class guitar teacher, the great jazz guitarist Johnny Smith. When the Beatles came about, I stopped taking lessons. But when I heard Eric Clapton’s first solo on the Fresh Cream album; when he takes that guitar solo on “I Feel Free,” it was literally like the heavens opened up and I thought not only was that possible it was also I wanted to do that.

So fast forward 10 years later. Firefall is in Miami at Criteria studios recoding our first album. Criteria is a very popular place. Stills is down the hall, the Bee Gees are in another room, big-name people in and out of the control room, pretty much every place. I’m warming up as it’s time to play the solo on “Mexico,” pretty much my moment to shine as a lead guitarist on the record.

The producer pushes the talkback button and asks me if I am ready and I say yeah, knowing they have put down horn parts on “Mexico” but I haven’t even heard them yet, but I figure I’ll take it when we come to it. So I’m playing my solos and it’s going well. The horns are coming and all of a sudden…oh, there they are, so I stop, I play, I play through the song and it ends up being an all-the-way-through one-take deal. I had been working towards that song, pretty much been born to play on Rick Robert’s “Mexico.” It was perfect for me and my style and here, three- and-half minutes later after preparing for like three-and-a-half years, I was done!

So producer Jim Mason says, “That was great, come on in.” And I said, “Ya know, I wasn’t totally happy with what I did when the horns came in. Keep what I did and let’s see if I can beat that on the solo.” and Jim said, “No.” I said, “No?” He said, “Come on in.” So I said, “Ok.” So I grab my guitar, a little upset he won’t give me a second shot playing with the new horns section and I walked into the control room and the first person I see is Eric Clapton, my hero, who has been watching me play! I turned into Jackie Gleason, ya know, “hubba hubba hubba.” The supreme rock guitar God was there about to cut his 461 album and he just stood up and said, “Keen playing man” and left the room. And Jim said, “Now, what do you want to do?” I was a basket case the rest of the day. I couldn’t have picked up my guitar after that one take solo anyway, and if I had known Clapton has been watching me play, I never would have gotten through it.

Man, now that’s a great story. Really, you sound like a guy with so much enthusiasm for this, what you’ve gone through and what you’re still doing.

I know how lucky and fortunate I am to still be in this position. I have been at every Firefall gig that has ever been and we started in 1974 and to still have people come up and say they got married to “Just Remember I Love You” or how much they love “Dolphin’s Lullaby” or to hear the fans real stories how one of our songs helped them through tough times — it so great to be in that are position. How can you be egotistical, have a bad attitude? We owe our audience everything and we try out best to express that every night we go out to play for them.


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