CRR archive interview by Eric Sandberg — Tony Lewis Formerly of The Outfield
You may not know the name Tony Lewis, but you know his voice. Tony's voice has been soaring out of radios since 1985, starting with the Outfield's "Your Love" and continuing with mega radio and MTV hits like "Say It Isn't So", "All The Love", "Since You've Been Gone" and "Voices Of Babylon."
The Outfield reached the bottom of the 9th with the tragic passing of guitarist/songwriter John Spinks in 2014, from cancer. Tony took some time away from music, but at the urging of his wife, he began working in his home studio, creating backing tracks and composing his own music which, with the help of his wife, lyrically, he developed into an album's worth of top-notch songs.
I spoke with Tony from Hertfordshire, England as he prepared for the release of his first single and lyric video of the song "Into the Light" which was released on May 18th, to be followed by the album's release at the end of June. Tony will also be back out on stage as part of the summer US Retro Futura tour, also featuring Howard Jones, Men Without Hats, The English Beat, Modern English and several more ‘80s stalwarts.
Eric: Congratulations on this new solo album. It's really terrific.
Tony Lewis: Thank You. Any favorites?
Eric: Well the first three tracks, "Into The Light", "Here And Now" and "Only You" evoke a certain band you used to be in, but throughout the album you take things in new directions. "The Dance Of Love" is just beautiful. I also love "Dreams and Wishes" which might have sounded at home on an early Fairport Convention album. Practically every song on Out Of The Darkness is an earworm. The melodies pop into my head and I think, "Where is that from? Oh, that Tony Lewis album!" Obviously "Loving You" is one of the most affecting songs on the album. I like "I'll Still Be here' which comes off as a more menacing version of "Every Breath You Take". How did this album come about?
TL: What happened was that Randy Sadd (Protocol Entertainment), who used to promote The Outfield, knew Tanner Hendon, the owner of Madison Records. Tanner is a drummer. He's drummed with Paul Rodgers and Bad Company.
Getting a record deal with a guy who owns the label, who can drum as well...It's like, "Thank you, God!" Tanner plays drums on five of the tracks and he and Wyatt Oats mixed the record. The rest of the album, which goes in a different direction, Is basically what I did in my home studio. For drums, I played an electronic kit. I love the drums. I love writing drum parts. I treat them as a musical instrument, not just a backing instrument.
Eric: Do you use drums sometimes as the starting off point for writing a song?
TL: Yeah, I do. It's like building a house. If you get a really good rhythm section, you get the bass drum and the bass guitar in sync...once you've nailed that, everything else is a bonus. Then you can start layering the guitars and the vocals on it. I had fun doing it. It wasn't stressful at all. A lot of people feel it's a huge undertaking, making an album on your own, but for me it was almost effortless.
Eric: When I hear an album like this I think, "It can't be that hard!" but I've tried to write songs, and it's hard!
TL: In the studio I'll get an idea and try it out but, if it's not happening in the first five minutes, I'll move on to something else. It's an amalgamation of applying yourself, using your imagination and letting your mind wander. You keep your fingers moving on the fretboard until you come up with something special.
Eric: Anyone who is a fan of the Outfield knows that the late great John Spinks, and my deepest condolences on your loss, was the songwriter for the band. How confident were you would be able to write songs good enough to put out on a album?
TL: It started off as a hobby really. In the first couple of years after John passed, I didn't even pick up a guitar, let alone thinking about recording music. But my wife and I were out at the pub one night and she said, "You're a musician, why aren't you doing anything?" In the studio I started putting all these backing tracks together. I started trying to turn them into songs but I was really struggling. I did the odd song but was very critical of myself. Then my wife had some lyrics. Some of them worked with the backing tracks and with some I started from scratch with an acoustic guitar.
The main thing was to come up with a real hook or a chorus and then you could build a song. If you haven't got a hook or a chorus, they'll become album tracks. I was fairly confident in my ability to produce, arrange and play all the instruments myself. It all just formed into an album after a year or two. I very rarely went back and remixed stuff. In the Outfield we were always doing that. We were always remixing and singing first lines (opening vocal lines of a song) again. John was very picky about first lines where I'm not. If the first line grabs you then sing the rest.
Remember "Missing You" by John Waite? It took him two weeks to nail that first line (sings) "Everytime I think of you..." Two weeks to get that one first line down. I know it's important, and it used to really spook me, but now I don't even think about it. You'd be on a recording loop forever if you keep thinking about that first line. The important thing is just to be confident and just sing it rather than just do it a line at a time. It's made it more enjoyable. I just really enjoyed doing this album.
Eric: I always find it interesting when they remaster an album, and toss on the studio outtakes and demos to make you buy it for the fifth time, that some of the earlier takes some of the lines are sung differently; the timing, the notes, the emphasis on words are different. I think, "Oompha! I'm glad they kept at it until they got it right!"
TL: It's actually gotten a lot easier with today's technology. I'm not talking about using Autotune but in Logic there's a program that allows you to nudge a note up a bit. I'm not being lazy, but if I've got a good performance, but a note is a little bit sharp or flat in there, I can do a little adjustment on it and put it in tune, whereas, in the old days you had to sing it over and over and over again. John was always into getting the performance on time and in tune and it's very difficult to do that, especially when we were singing the parts together and we had to do them again and again. After the fiftieth time I'd just be like, "AAAAAAAHHHHHHH!" (laughter). I just want to sing the song! It had a reverse effect on me after a while. The Red LIght Fever we used to call it.
Eric: When you get new record from an artist you like, and it's really good, it makes you also want to go back and listen to the old records. After listening to Out Of the Darkness about twenty times I went back and listened to the old catalog over the weekend. It was then that I realized that your album is actually very different from the Outfield. You're doing your own thing here. I was reminded that John did an awful lot of singing on those records, mostly in harmony with you.
TL: John's voice had a very hard-hitting, upper-mid sound to it that was very different from mine. David Kahne, who produced Voices of Babylon (1989), called me a freak. He said my scale is very different, almost like a woman's scale. I can't even sing Christmas carols because the pitch is too low. I have to sing them in a higher register. My high matched with John's mid-low. Our voices were almost an octave apart so we fit together, a marriage of two voices that sounded great.
Another example is "Closer To Me" from Rockeye (1992). That chorus is his voice and mine. It sounds like twenty voices but it's only eight voices. That's what's missing from my album, that hard-edged John Lennon buzzsaw voice. This album is really just about me; my portrayal of moving into the light and getting noticed as, not just the bassist and singer from the Outfield, but that I can produce, play the guitar, keyboards and drums. This is my work and my time to get out there and play.
Eric: I believe that everyone who truly loves music has one or a few albums they discovered when they were young that virtually imprinted on their DNA and hold a sacred place in their hearts until the end. Do any albums come to your mind in that context?
TL: Strangely, the very first album I ever bought was Machine Head (1972) by Deep Purple but I'm a big Beatles fan. The music that shaped me, growing up as a kid, was the Beatles. I remember hearing "Penny Lane" on the radio when I was nine and this voice was telling me that I'm safe...that everything in the world going to be all right for me. It's almost like a spiritual thing, listening to them. There is something in the music that takes it beyond the music. It speaks to you. They were so, so clever at such an early age. Of course I'm a big fan of Paul McCartney's bass playing.
As far as albums, as a kid I really didn't have enough money to buy albums. I bought singles by T Rex, David Bowie...the 70's were a big influence on me, as well as listening to the radio in the 60s. I'ts a very broad spectrum of music. I couldn't put it down to one album. I know that the very first Van Halen album made a huge impression on me. Eddie Van Halen, I'd never heard anyone play guitar like that. It's like he was from outer space. Toys In The Attic was big. "Sweet Emotion", made a big impression on me as to how to start a record with a bass. Very haunting.
Eric: You are going to be in the Retro Futura Tour in the US this summer. There are a lot of bands out there touring under a 'name' but with nobody that was actually around when the band started. Most people would say that you would be perfectly within your rights to use the name, the Outfield. But, when I listen to this record, it's clear, this is Tony Lewis, which I really respect. Obviously, you're going to be playing some Outfield favorites on this tour, but I think your new material will easily hold up alongside those songs.
TL: Thank you. That's a nice compliment. Hand on heart, if I went to a Sting concert and he didn't play "Message In A Bottle" or "Every Breath You Take", I'd be disappointed. It's the same with the Outfield. I cannot get off stage without singing "Your Love" or "Say It Isn't So" or "All The Love In The World".
They're great songs and I'm lucky to be able to get up on stage and sing them. It's going to be weird without John onstage. It's going to be very, very strange. Even Liam Gallagher said when he was getting ready to go on tour, that he missed his brother. He was thrown into this solo career. It's a shame they don't talk. Without John it's going to be very surreal and bittersweet.
I'm looking forward to playing new material and Outfield songs and just getting out there again. It's been a long time.
Eric Sandberg: My true opinion on everything is that it's splunge.