Greg Kihn has seen it all. The veteran musician has played with the likes of guitar god Joe Satriani and has been parodied by Weird Al. He knows what it is like to be a true rock star. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Kihn about his career, music then compared to music now, and his life before he became clean.
Q – For casual fans, you’re most known for the hits, “Jeopardy,” and “The Break Up Song.” However, you’ve racked up a number of great songs. What is your all time favorite song to perform live and why?
A – My favorite song to perform live is “Little Red Book” because it’s fun to sing, has a great guitar riff, and it I love the chords. Also it was written by Burt Bachrach, which makes it the only Bachrach song I do. It was originally written for the soundtrack to “What’s New Pussycat?”
Q – Weird Al did a parody of “Jeopardy” called “I Lost on Jeopardy.” You did a cameo in the video. What was that experience like?
A – It was very flattering to be parodied by Weird Al. That means that you are famous enough to be made fun off. I’ll take that any day of the week. He is a great guy and being in his video was a ball. I had fun and I also got to meet Don Pardo. To this day I still get mailbox money from Al. That endears me to him greatly.
Q – One of your former guitar players is Joe Satriani. How did this relationship come about?
A – I first met Joe when he was in the Squares, who played around the clubs in Berkeley a year or two after my band had graduated from that same scene.
I remember meeting Joe on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley at a clothing shop his wife Rubina worked at called Yarmo. I think our wives were friends before we were. It’s hard to remember those details. I know Steve Wright had always wanted Joe in the Greg Kihn Band.
Joe was well known as a local guitar hero even then. Joe also gave guitar lessons during that period, and many high-profile Bay Area guitarists were his regular students. My son Ry was one of Joe’s early students, as a matter of fact. Ry went on to study at Berklee School of Music in Boston and graduated a Jazz Guitar Major from Cal Arts a few years later, so Joe laid down a great foundation to learn. Ry took over lead guitar in the Greg Kihn Band after Joe’s replacement, Jimmy Lyon (Eddie Money’s former guitarist) left the band to become a pilot. Steve Wright (my former partner in the Greg Kihn Band) was hot to get Joe in the band and had asked him the first time right after Dave Carpender left the GKB in 1983. Joe turned us down that time; he was still loyal to his group the Squares. When the Squares broke up a few years later, we asked again and he said yes. We were happy to get him.
Q – What do you think about Satriani’s success today?
A – Joe? After my band? I sort of lost track to tell you the truth (laughs).
Here’s my confession – Joe was not a good fit for the Greg Kihn Band! He was just too damn good. Let’s face it, we were a 3-chord rock band with blues roots closer to the Stones and Creedence than to Hendrix and Joe was a 3000-chord genius who probably felt constricted by our music. I never asked him, but it’s entirely possible he thought songs like “The Breakup Song” and “Testify” were too rudimentary for him to work his considerable Mojo. Not that it mattered. I loved watching him on stage every night and enjoyed his input in the studio. Imagine Joe playing “Road Runner” (written by Beserkley label-mate Jonathon Richman) every night. The damn thing has two chords! Two! Joe Satriani with two chords? I don’t think so. You can see my dilemma. I loved Joe dearly, but the writing was on the wall early – the man was ready to launch a brilliant solo career.
Actually, I am very proud of Joe and all that he has accomplished since he left the band. I know he’s having fun with Chickenfoot and since I know Sammy I can tell you right now he’s working his ass off. Sammy never stops. Have you read his autobiography? “Red”? It’s an eye-opener. As far as Joe Satriani is concerned, all I can always say, “I knew him when he had hair.”
If you’re interested in hearing what the Greg Kihn Band sounded like with Joe Satriani on lead guitar, buy my new, three-disc, all digital anthology box set, “Kihnplete (Post Beserkley Records).” “Kihnplete” is a vast body of work from my post Beserkley Records era, 1985 to the present. Fans of Satriani will find eleven incredibly rare and hard-to-find studio and live tracks featuring Joe on lead guitar recorded between 1985 and 1987.
Q – How different is the music business today as opposed to when you first came onto the scene?
A – The music business today bears no resemblance to the music business I knew back in the day. When I started there was no internet, no cell phones, no iTunes, no downloads, no CD’s, no iPods, no nothing! Dinosaurs still walked the earth!
We didn’t have a bona fide hit until our seventh album. That would never happen today. Record labels don’t develop acts anymore; it’s all geared for instant success, which is a shame. Back when we were making albums we considered ourselves artists, we were making art. We were allowed to grow as musicians. I think the focus will shift back someday and rock bands will dominate the charts again. I hope it’s soon, I can’t take too much more idiotic pop music. I’m a born rocker I guess. Some music is designed to go against the grain.
Q – Rock and roll in the 80s was synonymous with drugs and sex. What experiences jump out at you in terms of the dark side of the music industry? Any stories you want to share?
A – I have more yarns than a Rastafarian hat factory; trouble is I can’t tell any of them for fear of ruining lives (including my own). Suffice to say, I snorted half of Peru, drank half of Tennessee, and smoked most of Columbia… I’m clean now, and I guess I had to learn my lesson the hard way. Man, I was whacked out of my gourd. Most of my generation had to have the sense knocked into their heads rather than read about it. I quit everything and I only have one vice left… and I ain’t sayin’ what that is.
There’s nothing at all the same today as when I started. After a lifetime of rock and roll, my gnarly, twisted dreams of world domination have mellowed. I just enjoy life. I am very comfortable in my own skin.
Q – You do a lot of writing, with numerous novels and a screenplay titled, “45 RPM,” under your belt. The premise is fascinating. Talk about the storyline and the process of writing it.
A – Right now I’m super busy juggling several careers. I do the morning show on KFOX radio in San Francisco and we were just bought by Entercom and we’re kicking ass in the ratings. KFOX is a classic rock station and it’s a comfortable fit for me. I’ve been doing radio now for 15 years, 14 of it in the morning on KFOX when it was a little mom and pop station in San Jose, CA. Now we’re a two signal super station, with a huge radio audience on 2 frequencies – 98.5 in San Jose and 102.1 in San Francisco. So the radio career is going along nicely.
I’m always working on something in the writer’s field. “45 RPM” is the one we’re currently shopping in Hollywood. It’s about the mafia in the music business circa 1962 in the Brill Building- NYC- during the payola scandal. It’s got guns, guitars, babes, and rock and roll – how can it fail? I’ll keep you updated on this because it’s just now seeing the light of day for the first time. In Hollywood you have to keep the lid on until the last minute. I’ve also got a rock and roll comedy in the works.
This is very exciting for me because it is my first foray into TV writing. I’ve been writing novels for years, and even some scripts based on those novels, but never for TV.
A movie project for “Horror Show” based on my first novel is in the works with Corbin Bernsen (from L.A. Law fame) directing. Corbin’s so busy that it’s hard to pin him down but hopefully we’ll get into production next year. It’s about a B movie director in the 50’s who uses real dead bodies for zombies in his movie.
That reminds me, I will be recording the audio book for “Horror Show” this Fall, so hopefully it will be available for download in the fall or winter.
Let me tell you something, Hollywood makes the music business look almost normal.
Q – What’s the single most important lesson you’ve learned in the music business?
A – The most important lesson I learned in the music business is keep your pants on, your nose clean, and do it because you love it, not to become famous or make money. Of all those lessons, the first one is most important. Remember, pants on! Zipped, zipped!
Q – Are there any regrets in your life?
A – Regrets? I’ve had a few. Sinatra songs notwithstanding. I don’t know if I’d do it any differently. Every mistake results in a lesson learned. I’d never have made it this far without those mistakes. Life is good. I am truly blessed to have a great career and still have my wits about me. I guess the most important thing is to still love what I do. I have a lot of careers that I juggle – musician, writer, broadcaster, producer, brain surgeon, shoe salesman… wait, somehow I got off the track, but I love ‘em all.
Q – Thanks again for taking the time. Is there anything you wanted to add?
A – Be true to yourself. Learn from your mistakes. Also, believe in yourself. That’s the most important thing – believe in yourself. All things are possible if you believe.