Best known for their classic hits of the ‘70s and ‘80s including ‘Ventura Highway’, ‘Horse with No Name’, ‘I Need You’, ‘Don’t Cross the River’, ‘Tin Man’, ‘Sister Golden Hair’, and ‘You Can Do Magic”, AMERICA return to Australia and New Zealand to kick start summer later this year.
Celebrating their 50th Anniversary, the iconic classic rock duo of Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell will perform a 10-date tour, and we managed to nab a chat with Gerry ahead of their visit.
You started out with just acoustic guitars with three part harmonies. What was the process like developing your music in the 1970’s when AMERICA was establishing itself as a band?
Well we were students of the music we all grew up with, and if you talk sixties, at least in our case, it was music like the Beatles, Beach Boys and such. Both of these groups were very well known for all their vocal harmonies. So you know as you learn to start playing these songs, that you love, you learn to play it in the same way that the Beatles learnt and used to strum along to when they learnt listening to the Everly Brothers songs. We started to learn structure, what chords made up these songs, what the harmonies were, what that meant. That is how we did it back then.
50 years later you are still writing, producing touring and pumping out the music, both with AMERICA and personally. How has the process of creating music changed?
There have been some technical differences that have occurred in the business over the last few decades that are immense. The change from the analogue days of recording to digital was an immense adjustment. This change is all good but it created whole new skill set that was required. The basic fundamentals of writing the song, the song idea, the of picking up a guitar then sitting and recording, those things have changed very little since the 70’s.
Your fathers worked together at an Air force base. What was this like growing up as a teenager on these bases?
Once you grow up in the airforce service it is very worldly. You travel constantly and while that takes you to the far corners of the world, what it doesn’t provide is any sense of a real home. You are denied a hometown, lifetime friends and things that a lot of people take for granted. These are not part of the service upbringing we had. Now having said that, the good news is that you do not know what you are missing or you are not always aware of the things you had or may have been denied. You just grow up in a different environment and you just learn to adjust and deal with this.
I would imagine this would have been a strict environment to grow up in. Did your parents embrace your music or did they encourage you to pursue other things?
All three of our parents, of the guys in the band, were very very supportive of us from the very start. It’s a great story and yes you are right there may have been some apprehensions, but luckily we were embraced in the industry and successful from the start. We were blessed that we got off on the right track. If anything the three of us had very supportive and proud parents and they were overriding with pride if anything. They were all proud parents.
How did the process or opportunities come to perform and open on stage with some of the biggest acts of the 70s? You guys were only starting out and teenagers.
I think being in the right place at the right time is a huge part of it. We were in London at the time and London is one of the few international centres of the music business, alongside the United States, Los Angeles and Nashville. Most of the music in England gravitated down to London so in one sense or another. We lived there right in the centre so we signed with Warner Brothers in the UK, which was the English affiliate of Warner Brothers company in Burbank California. So we were in good company from early on in our careers. This certainly helped with a lot of things for us and placed us in the right place at the right time.
You have toured a lot with the Beach Boys. Can you share with me a little about this and how your relationship developed with them?
Well of course we started just being fans of them in the very early sixties and they were one of the very first groups we met in 1971. While we were in London they came over to tour and their label Brother Records had been acquired by our label Warner Brothers so we were all basically on the same label as each other. We followed them around on tour and within a few months we got with them when they were recording their next album in Holland and got to know them. Then when we relocated to the states in the 70s we ended up playing with the Beach Boys and supporting them more any other band in most of the 70s and 80s. We would go on tours together and travel all over the country and it was just fantastic. We are still very close.
You started out calling yourself AMERICA to separate yourselves from other British Bands in the London pub scenes. Where there any other names that you considered calling yourselves?
No not really… it is a good question. I don’t think we had another name we really went by but were called the Days with a Z. D- A- Y- Z -E. That is what we were named in high school when we were basically a cover band. But that broke up when school finished for us and there was no name change event as such. When we got back together within the next year we knew part of that equation was that we were all pre-writing original new material. We thought what is it about this new band that is writing new material and what are we going to call it. So we just picked AMERICA as a way to tell something about us.
You are a songwriter first and foremost. If you were to have dinner with three songwriters, dead or alive, who would they be?
I am dear friends with one of my idols, the great composer (who is godfather of my first son) Jimmy Webb. He composed songs such as ‘Macarthur Park’, ‘Up Up and Away’ among many of course. By time I was in my teenage years these were some of my favourite songs of all time. Brian Wilson is a dear friend and have become quite close with him. However I would put into that mix Burt Bacharach probably. I have meet Burt on a couple of occasions but by no means consider him a friend but I am a huge fan so I think that I would enjoy that.
How about I change that to what three musicians, dead or alive, would you have dinner with?
Oh boy! Well we lost one of them recently – Tom Petty. I would enjoy that, as I was a huge fan of Tom’s. I did meet him on one or two occasions but I never really got to know him, but I was such a huge fan of his. I am also a fan of Rick Rubin who is a producer but if you know his body of work he crosses so many genres. I think that that would just be a wonderful experience and perhaps have a chance to work with him. We are also big fans of Wilco and Jeff Tweedy, I love what they do. What those guys do I like to call good old fashion musicianship and I would like to work for him.
You have married an Australian and you have a home here. Do you spend much time here or do you live mainly abroad?
No, as much as we can my wife and I will come home to Sydney. We also have a little place in Venice, California and when you do 100 shows a year, as we do, there is a lot travel involved. I am currently in the middle of a month off and I am spending that time here in Sydney at the moment, but this time just flies by. At the moment we are just here to relax and before we are starting our tour later in the year.
You spend a lot of time travelling so what would you typically do in this limited time off?
Well today we just got back from the beach. Actually we go down to Bronte almost every morning and have swim, run and stuff and lots of good food. We went out to see a show last night and we never go to shows really, as we tour many of our own. We went to see our friend Fred Armisen, who is a comic from Saturday night live and Portlandia and stuff. He was here in Sydney last night at the Enmore theatre so that was fun to see him.
Your upcoming tour is the 50th Anniversary Tour. Many artists when they get to this stage of their careers will promote such a tour as a farewell or final tour but keep coming back time and time again. How many more years will the fans get to see AMERICA Tour?
That is an interesting distinction as there is absolutely nothing about this 50th year or 50th celebration that has the word final or farewell in it. We haven’t been thinking about or focusing on that at all. Obviously there is a ticking clock so to speak. Whatever happens we are both quite honest in saying there is no retirement plans. We are both very happy to take the work down to keep it at a level we feel we could excel and do well with it. You do not ever want to think you are ever shortchanging the audience. I have to say I think 100 shows is a lot per year, when you stop and consider the tour days and travel. However I can imagine us both cutting this back as the years go by.
Bluesfest Touring presents AMERICA at The Star Casino on Saturday 30 November. Tickets are available through Ticketek.