Phil Soussan - August 2011
(NO) PROTECTION RACKET: There’s not many people who can say they had to make a career choice between working with either Jimmy Page or Ozzy Osbourne, but that’s the dilemma Phil Soussan found himself in. Taking a leap of faith he hooked up with the Prince of Darkness, and has never looked back since. In between juggling 101 other things, he found time to talk about his new solo album ‘No Protection’.
Even if you don’t know who Phil Soussan is – it’s been a while since he’s done anything overtly high-profile musically, after all – you must know ‘Shot In The Dark’, possibly Ozzy Osbourne’s most famous solo single. Like ‘Paranoid’ many years before it was a late addition to the album sessions: as there didn’t appear to be an obvious single on ‘The Ultimate Sin’, the bassist (a recent addition to the band’s ranks) was asked if he had any ideas. Soussan suggested a composition he’d come up with a few years before; the song was recorded and released as a taster for the album and went on to become one of Osbourne’s highest placed UK chart singles, just breaking into the Top 20 in February 1986.
Soussan is a busy guy. With numerous other activities to keep him occupied and out of the limelight, he’s still found time to write and record his second solo album, ‘No Protection’, the follow-up to 2006’s ‘Vibrate’. In the intervening period he’s been up to “a shitload of stuff!” as he refers to it. “We put Big Noize together, a supergroup featuring the core of myself with Vinny Appice, Joe Lynn Turner and Carlos Cavazo which goes out and performs our individual hits; this is a revolving door band where we will guest different members as time goes on, so that we can all perform each other’s songs. I became Vice President of the Grammys here in Los Angeles; I have been on the Governing Board for four years. I started doing a lot of music editorial and mixing for feature films – I did three movies over the past year and I still find time to jam with other sessions and projects too: I just played with the Appice brothers’ Drum Wars band.” No rest for the wicked, as someone once said…
The most obvious difference between Soussan’s two solo albums is the backing and guest musicians. On ‘Vibrate’, the roll call was “quite impressive!” he said at the time. “Simon Phillips and Gregg Bissonette played drums, Steve Lukather, Shane Fontayne, Richie Kotzen played guitar, Jeff Babko, David Paich played keys and Steve Porcaro did some programming for me. I played basses, guitars, some keys, violin and sang all the vocals. I have worked with many people and all of them have been very encouraging about me doing a record. When they heard that it was in the works they pretty much called up and offered to guest on it. There were to be others but the scheduling would have delayed the record by many weeks and so I just went ahead and kept some of my own parts.” This time around, however, the list of guest musicians was much shorter. In fact, it was non-existent, as Soussan played every instrument himself. A good way to keep the wage bill down… “True, he agrees. “But I didn’t play everything just to have complete control either, as some have suggested. I played everything myself really for the challenge of doing something like this. I am a multi-instrumentalist and was always impressed by others such as Paul McCartney; when I heard ‘Maybe I'm Amazed’ and realised that he played all the instruments on ‘McCartney’ himself I had a desire to try to do that at some point in time. It turned out to be a very challenging thing to do and forces you to visualise arrangements and production in your head as you do not have the ability to try things out on the fly. I would say that the process takes several times as long but that it has made me a better arranger and musician.
“I guess I set out to prove that I could write, record and perform an album from scratch, which I did,” he continues. “But I also set out to put myself on the map in terms of where my musical influence lands me, and I think that I was able to do this on this album. However,” he notes, “I’m still finding the things that really make me feel are best in truly representing my musical style – the Philbone thing!” he laughs.
“Philbone is my nickname to all my friends and I’m still looking for that ‘thing’ that sort of defines me!”
“My last album I saw as a compilation of songs that had been written over a long period of time,” he continues, “but this album was effectively written as one project. I was conscious of the fact that I wanted there to be an element of continuity to the songs this time around rather than being abstract tunes, and as such I set out to write about all facets of this period in my life. All the songs were written initially on acoustic guitar and with melodies before I started to record anything and the whole story starts and ends with ‘No Protection’.”
The other major difference between Soussan’s solo outings is the overall sound, on which he’s keen to elaborate. “‘Vibrate’ was a compilation of good songs that may not have been particularly inter-related. I have a harder time listening to ‘Vibrate’ in continuity for that reason. And sonically, I find that ‘Vibrate’ was more ‘produced’ or slick-sounding, and now I think that I prefer the more raw element to some of the songs. My leaning is to go with more of that rawness for the future. I think that my vocals are better on this record too, but I do miss hearing the chemistry between all of the many musicians on ‘Vibrate’!”
It’s fairly obvious that he’s happy with his new baby. “Oh yes, I am very happy with it and the responses have been really great; even my friends are like ‘Philbone, dude; this is a great CD!’ and so I have almost lost all objectivity myself! One thing I will say though is that over the years I’ve trained myself to not be tempted to keep going back and replacing or repairing things once I have committed to a decision. As a producer, your job is to make decisions and I find that more often than not your initial instinct is the correct one. It’s very easy to start chasing your tail if you do not have the confidence and conviction to stick to a decision. This album was a great exercise in this type of discipline. In keeping with ‘Vibrate’ I also spent a frikking fortune on the CD artwork and packaging for those of us who still like to read liner notes and lyrics; I did this for the benefit of music fans like myself, so PLEASE,” he emphasises, “buy a CD and not just a download! I hate it when artists just give you a black and white photo in a plastic jewel case and are surprised that folks just want to buy the download as a result.”
And Phil Soussan’s favourite track would be… He considers the question. “Hmm... So many songs and for different reasons… Of course I like the whole album as a unit, but that’s not what you are asking me! I love ‘Free My Soul’ and could listen to that many times. ‘In the Name of Love’ is a song I am really proud of, as is ‘Change Of Perspective’. And ‘No Business’ is already in the feature film ‘13’ with Mickey Rourke, Jason Statham and Ray Winstone. And,” he concludes “I love the message of ‘No Protection’ itself – the notion that we have no protection from the inevitability of life and the fact that we are neither invincible nor immortal.”
In terms of songwriting, though, Soussan likes to keep things simple. “I almost exclusively insist that I write a song that can be performed on one instrument before I start recording,” he states. “I may start with a lyric, a title, a melody or a musical chord progression, but I have to write it as a complete song. I have all these minidisc recorders and dictation machines all over the place filled with titles like ‘good idea in B’, and sometimes it is hard to catalogue and work through them all. I still like having a couple of drinks late at night and just playing and singing until something really cool happens – or I piss off my wife!” he laughs. “On another level, when it comes to lyric writing, that becomes an intense intellectual and grammatical process where I try to be really cognisant of how I am saying what, versus what I mean to say. Does that make sense?”
I think so… I thought I read somewhere that he only took up the guitar around the time he started to work on ‘Vibrate’ but obviously got my wires crossed somewhere along the line. Fortunately, my interviewee lets me down gently. “Actually, no; I started playing guitar long before bass. I got my first guitar at around four years old but never really started playing it until about nine or ten. I started playing bass at about eleven or twelve and that was mainly because my school bands were always looking for bass players. And I was a huge Free fan and Andy Fraser was, and still is, one of may favourite bass players; when I heard ‘A Little Bit of Love’ I realised I wanted to play the bass. Then of course kicked in all the bass-playing influences including McCartney, Willie Weeks, Stanley Clarke, Bill Black, Jaco and even Ronnie Wood, who was an awesome bass player!”
One of Soussan’s other interests is protecting artists’ rights in the US. “Well, as I mentioned earlier, I was elected to a Board Governor about four years ago and then became chairman of the Advocacy Committee. We started travelling to Washington DC to lobby Congress and the House on issues of law-making to ensure artist participation in the revenues from new technology streaming as well as protection of the ‘White Spaces’ Act that ensures live artists the protected airwaves for wireless systems. We met some great people – and some not so great!” he shrugs. “I particularly have enjoyed getting to know [Republican senator] Darrell Issa – we connected after I went to entertain troops in Iraq.” And, as Vice President of the Grammys, Soussan says he is “very humbled to be on the Board with such breathtaking individuals, such talented and great fellow artists and music people like Lamont Dozier (who wrote all the Motown hits and who is an awesome person to be around), Peter Asher, Roy Thomas Baker, Amy Keys, Dave Koz, Jeff Lorber, MC Lyte, Ray Parker Jr, Mike Clink and Michael Bearden, just to name a few! Most of what we do is charitable and educational in nature. We just had our Grammy Block Party to raise money for the homeless – it was a great cause and a great success.”
Talking of which, I mention that ‘No Protection’ has been nominated for a Grammy, which must be quite a buzz. And wasn’t ‘Vibrate’ given a nomination too, or did I make that up? Soussan laughs. “No, you made that up! But I like you! The song ‘After You’ve Gone’ that I wrote for Toto on the ‘Mindfields’ album was nominated; and yes, ‘No Protection’ has been accepted for possible nomination. It is really a long shot with such great music out there, but who knows? The awards are voted on by the voting members of which there are about 12,600, and they are all musicians and artists. You can actually win a Grammy with as little as 2,600 votes! I am not holding my breath, to be honest, although it would be a tremendous honour, and I could not even imagine how I would feel if I won!” Soussan had to choose two tracks, one rock, one pop, from the album as part of his nomination. “I went with ‘Change Of Perspective’ and ‘In The Name of Love’. They were the most popular [Soussan had emailed all and sundry for their thoughts and collated the results] and you only have about twenty seconds to grab someone's attention!”
Musician, songwriter, producer, champion of artists’ rights… How, I wonder, does he manage to fit it all in, and which of these roles is he most proud of? “You left out music editor and film mixer,” he snaps and laughs. “I don’t know - I just get so restless if I’m not moving forward, I feel that I would just get into trouble! But really, there just seem to be so many things to do that are exciting, every time something new happens I feel a new rush of adrenaline - I just don’t get people who get bored! I do play hard though: after long days I really love to let off a bit of steam, relax, go and have some beers and tequilas, go fishing for yellowtail or go riding my motorbikes through the canyons without a care in the world, just bugs in my hair (and mouth). I am probably most proud of the fact that I am still doing it!”
You’d have thought by now that some like Soussan would have seen and done it all by now. He shakes his head. “It’s the realisation that I have seen something that I have not yet done that keeps me going. I want more, and I want to accomplish it all! I am extremely tenacious. I never give up. I will not rest until something is done right. I believe that I can do anything that I want to do. And at the end of the day, I’d like people to think of me as someone who kicked ass and took no prisoners, or shit from anyone, in anything that I set my mind to. I would like to leave a bit of a legacy – maybe some inspiration for the next guy. Actually, there’s a saying that I love: ‘the meaning of life is to make a difference to someone else’s life’. I’d like to think that I have done that in a small way. Besides,” he adds with a smile, “I need to keep going: I want an Aston Martin!”
Given the time Soussan devotes to furthering other causes, it’s pretty much inevitable that he has made a difference to the lives of others. His most famous song ‘Shot In The Dark’ has recently had a new lease of life, appearing on a fund-raising album. “I was offered a slot recently on the David Lynch Foundation’s new compilation CD ‘Download for Good’. The Foundation raises money to help teach transcendental meditation to people in need; troubled teens, soldiers with post traumatic stress disorder, anyone who may fall victim to drugs and alcohol abuse… As the other artists on this CD are so well known, I wanted to pick a track that people knew and I had always wanted to do my own version of this song. After speaking initially to a couple of producers I decided to jump into the studio and do it myself. I was never 100% pleased with the sound of the original and felt that some of my ideas at that time had not been exercised and so this was a great opportunity. I cut all the instruments, even playing Randy Castillo’s exact live drum parts and came out with a fantastic remake of the song. In the end, my friend Luis Maldonado heard it and asked if he could play a different solo and I agreed. After a few listens I loved what he did and ended up keeping his part completely. Everyone who has heard this version thinks that it is really up-to-date and full of energy, yet it still remains true to the original. I am really happy with it!”
During the course of the interview I’d discovered that we share a liking for the Pink Panther. “I am a huge Pink Panther fan; both the movies and the animations. I love the animations – they are the only thing that seem to makes sense in this world!” Putting two and two together, does that actually mean that his most famous song is named after the second Inspector Clouseau film? The cat’s out of the bag. “Yes,” he laughs, “I did use the title of the film as an inspiration for that song, although to be fair in its final form I also injected it with some influence from the film ‘Prizzi’s Honor’.
Soussan is full of plans to tour with ‘No Protection’. Sadly, his father died shortly after ‘Vibrate’ appeared, and long-term plans for that album had to be shelved. So now, he’s really fired up and ready to roll. “Oh yes,” he confirms, “I am definitely planning on touring this album. I’m putting a band together now and it will be a great band – very classic -sounding and harder-edged than the album.” And given the fact that he has written a good number of songs for a good number of people (“I actually have a lot of material to draw from if you include some of the songs that I wrote for others,” he points out) it should be one hell of a show.
'No Protection' can be obtained as a digital download at iTunes and Amazon
(see details here: http://digital-nations.com)
Hard copies from CD Baby and also direct from Phil's website - buy an album direct from the website and not only will it be autographed, but you will also get a free copy of the newly released version of 'Shot In The Dark' as a download MP3.
(c) John Tucker August 2011