Like to rock? Dig power pop? Rejoice. Tsar is back.
Tsar (like czar) busted out of the then-stagnant Los Angeles music scene in 1998 with an undeniably impossible-to-follow live show, bolstered by an eponymous debut that introduced us all to Kathy Fong – who really is the bomb – in 2000, and the undeniably amazing Band – Girls – Money record in 2005, along with national tours opening for the likes of New York Dolls, Marvelous 3, and Duran Duran, and appearances on G4’s Attack Of The Show! and CBS’ The Late Late Show.
Then they just kinda disappeared, much to the dismay of those of us who love real rock ‘n’ roll.
Now, though… Tsar is back!
The lineup back then was: Jeff Whalen (vocals/guitar), Dan Kern (guitar/vocals), Jeff Solomon (bass), and Steve Coulter (drums).
The lineup now is: Jeff Whalen (vocals/guitar), Dan Kern (guitar/vocals), Jeff Solomon (bass), and Steve Coulter (drums).
No, there’s no difference. Same lineup. Same blend of sugary pop hooks and razor-sharp riffs. Same dance-til-you-drop beats and rhythms. It’s like they never left. And maybe they didn’t. Maybe they were just waiting for the right moment to drop the 5 jaw-dropping slabs o’ power pop that comprise their new EP, The Dark Stuff (read The Impaler’s review here).
To quote (or paraphrase, I suppose) James Todd Smith, don’t call it a comeback – they’ve been here for years.
I urge you all – frequent visitors, casual observers, and first-timers alike – to read on to the end, as Timothy ‘The Impaler’ Schwader interviews Jeff Whalen of Tsar.
The Impaler: Welcome to The Impaler Speaks! Holy cow… Tsar is back!
Jeff Whalen: We’re back, baby! Yeah! Coming straight atcha! …and yet also from the side! Straight on, and yet oblique as fuck, too! Thanks for having me!
The Impaler: I’m gonna throw a little history recap in the intro, but let’s get some of this in your words. First, enter the way-back machine… how’d it all start for you – your first favorite records/songs, the moment when you knew you wanted to play, the stories of your first guitar and the first time you sang?
JW: My first favorite records were this box of 45s that my mom had had when she was a little girl or a teenager or whatever: The Turtles, Harpers Bizarre, The Zombies… late 60s pop, pretty much. The Monkees. Mostly Beatles-ish stuff, but with a bit of a Supremes/Motown thing going on. Played ‘em on a little portable record player. I remember being very into ‘You Baby’ by The Turtles, in a many-times-a-day kind of way. This was when I was around 6 or 7 or so, living in Long Beach, California.
And then a wave of born-again Christianity swept through the house and changed everything. Things like pop music weren’t really OK anymore. I had a Canadian stepfather at the time – as one does – and I’m not really sure who was behind the born-again thing, my mom or him, really, but we were on a kind-of Christian clampdown at home until they got a divorce when I was in 7th grade. The only regular stuff my brother and I got was when we would go with my dad on weekends. He didn’t know what he was doing as a dad at all, so it was just all movies and rock music and Pepsi and chips and TV and sugar cereal and Disneyland and it was just awesome! Those experiences are my favorite memories of childhood, just a bacchanalia of video games and pizza and water slides.
Anyway, after the Christian clampdown was eased up, I started – slowly and guiltily, but unstoppably – getting into pop music, especially heavy metal and rap. During the church years, we would go to the church youth-group meetings, and they would have these presentations on rock music and Satanism, you know? The Satanic messages in the artwork and in the music. Backwards masking in the music. It seemed incredible to me, like there was all this symbolism and meaning, there were levels of meaning everywhere. Backwards, even! It wasn’t like regular life. Everything meant something. Things meant things in rock, more than things meant in regular life. And this was darkly appealing to me, which made for some very conflicted feelings.
OK, so in high school I was into metal and rap, Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard, the Beastie Boys, N.W.A. High-quality teenage stuff. Then, in my senior year in high school, I discovered The Beatles… and that was it, baby! Beatles fan-ship can replace religion – it did for me anyway. Like religion, you can study the texts and look for clues, find meanings, explore mysteries, discuss it all night with fellow converts, and you can do this for years. You can constantly examine the material, look at the covers with mirrors, play things backwards, and find meaning, value structures, magic, morality, a way to live your life. It’s really incredible.
Anyways… what was the question?! Oh yeah… so, heavy into The Beatles, and then when I was a freshman in college, I had an epiphany while walking in the botanical garden of our school. I called my dad and told him the good news, that I was going to drop out of school and be a rock star. I had never sang or played guitar or anything before, which didn’t seem like a problem to me. He said OK, but stay in school, and he sent me a guitar for my 18th birthday, a super-cheap acoustic, and I learned a few chords from a Beatles songbook, and I could barely change from one chord to another without bringing the song to a complete stop. I started writing songs with ridiculous titles like ‘The Color That Is Blue’. Ironic, half-serious songs. Me and a couple friends formed what we called a band. It was two acoustic guitars and a Casio keyboard. We were called Chipp, with two P’s, for some reason. We’d play for whoever wandered into our dorm room. I’m sure we were terrible, and we’d say we were terrible, but I think deep down we thought we were kind of amazing.
Then I transferred to UC Santa Barbara and I met the guys that would be in Tsar.
The Impaler: Wow! So… how’d Tsar first come together, and, really, how cool was that?!
JW: When Tsar came together it was a very special, very happy time in my life… I think maybe in all of our lives. There was a sense at the time of a kind of inevitability to it. This was happening. You couldn’t stop it.
The four of us had all been friends at UCSB and had played in a bunch of bands with each other in school – parties and stuff. But after school we had gone in different directions geographically. Dan [Kern, guitar/vocals] and I met up in LA in 1998 and got a band together, and we were good, had good songs. We practiced constantly, 3 or 4 hours a day, every day. We started getting some small offers from some indie labels after just a couple shows. We were having a good time for sure, but it just wasn’t exactly right. Bassist Jeff Solomon had been living up in San Francisco and he was in a band, but it wasn’t until he nearly died in India of e. coli or Ebola or something, I forget exactly what – the Hanta virus? – that he decided to move to LA and join up with us. Steve [Coulter, drums] was in a signed band called Ridel High that was going through a rough time of it over on A&M Records. The drummer in our band quit over differences in aspirations – I think he just wanted to be in a band as a hobby or whatever, while for us, it was the reason we were alive. So he quit, and we had a few key shows coming up. We called Steve, who was still in Ridel High, to fill in as a favor, and he said sure, just these two shows or whatever. And then we played the shows… and then a couple more… and then he joined the band. I don’t know what it is about drummers, but they can make the biggest difference in a band. I mean, here we were, the same group, playing the same songs – essentially the same way – but with Steve on drums we were suddenly twice as good. We went virtually overnight from a better-than-average band to some kind of ridiculous rock fuckin’ machine. And it was fun, fun, fun. And we destroyed Los Angeles. We could not be stopped. We were signed within two months or something.
The Impaler: Tsar was kicking serious ass back in the early 2000’s. I was enthralled from the first album on. You played with a bunch of cool bands, had a bunch of cool experiences!
JW: Thanks. Yeah, it was fun. It really was great. There is probably nothing more fun than putting out your first album, which you’ve really worked hard on and really believe in, and going out on tour for the first time, flying to New York for the first time, going to England, playing with bands that you love as a fan. You can’t beat it. Kids, don’t let anybody tell you different: it’s awesome. On our first album, the best tours we did were with Duran Duran and then later, the Marvelous 3.
The Impaler: I annoy everyone I meet by obsessively talking about Butch Walker. But come one, you toured with Marvelous 3! Tell me some cool stories about Butch Walker!
JW: Butch is a ridiculous musician. He’s like on a different plane altogether. In Tsar we were pretty used to holding our own against whatever headliner we were opening for. I think we were pretty cocky at the time. I remember playing our first show with the Marvelous 3 somewhere in the South. North Carolina? Somewhere around there. Anyway, so we played. We were first and I thought we were pretty kick-ass, and then the middle band played – and I thought, yeah, no problem – and then the Marvies came on, and I was just stunned! The mastery of their stagecraft was staggering to watch. Jumping, running, yelling, choreographed pick-tossing. Butch jumping into the crowd – his guitar had a cordless thing – and jumping onto the bar and running down the length of the bar – in the middle of a song, mind you, still playing guitar – and ordering a drink. I was stunned. And humbled. And this kind of unhinged rock energy mixed with a clear, undeniable musical virtuosity is something I’ve never seen before or since. I once saw Butch play an off-the-cuff rendition of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and sing it fearlessly, like Freddy Mercury is good, sure, but so am I, watch this, and then casually play the guitar solo as if yeah, Brian May is pretty good, but so am I, watch this. Another time I saw him toss a pick in the air, kick it with his foot, catch it in his mouth, sing a verse and a chorus, spit it back into the air, catch it, and then play the solo. And he’s a cool customer all the way: funny, smart, shockingly gifted.
The Impaler: Awesome! While we’re revisiting the early days, do you want to talk about Kathy Fong – fill in the gaps for those newly converted to the ways of TSAR?
JW: ‘Kathy Fong Is The Bomb’ is a song title that came to me in the middle of the night when I was working a graveyard-shift temp job in downtown LA. I wrote it down on a Post-It note. Normally for me, that’s where it ends. I have hundreds and hundreds of song titles written down on slips of paper and notebooks, virtually all of which will never become songs. Here, I’ll grab a notebook and read some off: She’s So Stoked,Francophone Africa,A Procrastinator’s Job Is Never Done, Hecho en Vietnam. None of these will become songs.
Anyway, back in the day, there was this cute Asian girl that worked at the record store down the street from where we lived. When I’d go in there, I thought she’d be looking at me, you know, in a boy/girl way, but now I think she probably was seeing if I was shoplifting. That was Kathy Fong.
The Impaler: And now… Tsar is back, baby! Again, one step at a time… how’d the reformation come about?
JW: Dan and I put Tsar on hiatus after the Band-Girls-Money record so we could work on this band/TV show idea we’d had with a couple friends, called The Monster Squad. I still have high hopes for it. It was like The Monkees except we’re classic movie monsters. We play 60s-style bubblegum music and live in an apartment and get in adventures trying to make it in Hollywood. I’m the Mummy and play bass. Dan's the Wolfman and plays drums. Our friends Dylan Callaghan – from Shapes Of Race Cars – and John Oszajca – from John Oszajca – are Dracula and Frankenstein, respectively, and play guitar. It was surreal taking meetings with TV executives in full monster makeup. That is, we were in makeup, not the executives. Well, maybe a couple of them. We nearly shook the handshake on a couple deals, but somehow it never happened. Or hasn’t happened yet, anyway. We recorded an album’s worth of material that I think is rock solid. Something will happen with The Monster Squad.
I’ve never publicly talked about The Monster Squad before this, by the way!
Anyway, so Dan and I worked on that for a long time. I think we needed to sit Tsar down for a bit. It was necessary. Then I saw the Raspberries play out somewhere by Disneyland and they were talking about how they just said fuck it and got the original band back together, and why hadn’t they just stayed together back in the day? That even if they’d had problems, they’d have made better music if they’d stayed together. And that got me thinking. Why wait 20 years? So, we called everybody. It was pretty weird at first, but totally fun right from the beginning. It felt strange, for sure, but totally right. We didn’t know what we wanted to do for a while. At first we wanted to just record some music and not play live at all. Then we wanted to record an album. Then we recorded an EP.
The Impaler: It seems to be going great. You have a new EP – ‘The Dark Stuff’ – that is simply fantastic!
JW: Thanks! Yeah, it’s super fun to be back out there, playing and everything, with a new thing out. Videos and parties and stuff.
Recording the EP was a trip for sure, after so long. It was weird recording without having played the songs a bunch of times live first. Usually, we would’ve played the songs many, many times live before recording them. Here, we wanted to record and then play live. So how does that work? And it was weird recording everything by ourselves, just essentially me and Dan producing and engineering, without any grownups there. We’re pretty jazzed about how it came out, since we hadn’t ever attempted anything like that before.
The Impaler: Do you want to discuss the songs on the EP specifically? Lyrical themes? Musical elements? Production? Distribution? If not, I can dig it. If so, take off and let it all out!
JW: I was recently reading this book called Conversations With Wilder, which is a series of interviews that Cameron Crowe conducted with Billy Wilder, who is probably my favorite movie director of all time. In it, Wilder was talking about how he tended to make his darkest movies when he was feeling happy, and his lightest comedies when he was going through dark periods. I dunno if that’s exactly the case with me, but I was surprised to find how dark the songs on the EP suddenly seemed to me, considering that I felt pretty good about life and everything at the time.
The Impaler: Power Pop. Discuss.
JW: Power Pop! Love it! One of the things that’s always surprised me about Power Pop bands is that, with a few exceptions, they never become that popular. Especially considering that so much of what they do is based on time-tested values of hooks, melody, good fashion, mastery of the pop form, whatever. A cool thing about Power Pop is that you can spend a lot of time discussing whether or not something is Power Pop. For example, this morning I woke up and turned on the radio and Cold As Ice by Foreigner was on, and for the life of me, in my semi-conscious state, I couldn’t figure out why one wouldn’t classify it as Power Pop. I mean, I don’t think it is Power Pop, but the reason for that may come down simply to how Foreigner dressed, maybe? Well that, and I guess also because of some of the other music Foreigner made later.
The Impaler: You know what I love? Power Pop. haha! I do! The Flamin’ Groovies. Big Star. Dwight Twilley. The Records. The Motors. Raspberries. Cheap Trick. Hoodoo Gurus. Jellyfish. The Posies. Teenage Fanclub. Butch Walker. Too many to mention. Care to choose some favorites and talk about them a bit?
JW: You betcha! Some current Power Pop spins are:
- 20/20’s first album, especially ‘Yellow Pills’. The opening line, Everybody’s feeling groovy, everybody’s got tight pants on, cause everybody feels like they were just made by the creator, is an incredibly empowering line to me.
- ‘Rollers Show’ by Nick Lowe. This is from the album that was called Pure Pop For Now People in the US and Jesus Of Cool in the UK, and I’ve never been able to decide which title was better.
- ‘I Did the Wrong Thing’ by The Toms. Ever check them out? I think it’s just one guy named Tom who recorded it all himself and put it out himself in the 70s. Good stuff.
- ‘So You Are A Star’ by The Hudson Brothers. I just recently discovered The Hudson Brothers, and I’m kinda digging their first two records a lot. I don’t know if they exactly qualify as Power Pop – maybe Classic Rock is closer. I don’t know why I’d never heard of them before – one dude was married to Goldie Hawn and is Kate Hudson's dad, and another dude is a totally successful producer/songwriter for Aerosmith or something, and they even had a Saturday Morning TV Show in the 70s, but I’d never heard of them.
The Impaler: Sweet! (Ooh, The Sweet! haha!) I’ve got all of that except for The Hudson Brothers, which I will seek out. How about Joe Meek?!
JW: I don’t know much about him, actually. I did have an argument with a friend recently, though, in which I was saying that ‘Have I The Right?’ by The Honeycombs was the first glam song. A provocative conversation. Joe Meek produced that song, I believe.
The Impaler: He did. That song and 3 others by The Honeycombs appear on ‘Joe Meek: The Alchemist Of Pop – Homemade Hits & Rarities 1595-1966’, an amazing double-disc collection that I strongly advise you to add to your collection. Now… Aderra Records. Details!
JW: Aderra is run by this very cool guy named Ed Donnelly. Everything has been very fun and casual and supportive. We hooked up with him through our friends Killola, who are also on Aderra. We wanted to have our first thing back as Tsar be something completely ridiculous, so we decided to do a vinyl-only split-single of Olsen Twins covers. Ed was game, and we thought he was a very cool guy, and we decided to stick with him for the EP.
The Impaler: Everyone likes to talk about gear (or they should, in my humble opinion, ‘cuz it’s awesome). Wanna talk about the basic live setup – guitars, amps, heads, pedals, drums, plectrums?!
JW: There is a blank spot in my brain when it comes to gear. I don’t have the gear gene. I’ve never been able to get into it, or really talk about it intelligently. I just have my guitar, which I believe is a semi-unusual thing called a Big Apple Strat, and my amp, which is a Peavy Classic 50… and I use a red distortion pedal and an Orange phaser. I recently took the guitar in to get set up and the guy looked at it and got mad at me for not taking care of it properly.
The Impaler: Oh, Jeff… haha! How about in the studio? Any special effects or particularly cool pieces of gear utilized on ‘The Dark Stuff’ (or on the earlier recordings) that make for a good story?
JW: Let’s see… Dan used an EBow for the solo on ‘Conqueror Worm’? Oh, I know! Recording on tape! We recorded our first record on tape and it was great! Let me just say that having a really big budget and a really talented producer and engineer, and recording on tape, is the best way to make records! 99% of my favorite records were recorded on tape. I’d say that most records that most people would say are the greatest records of all time were recorded on tape. I know it probably will never go back to that, but I tell you it’s the best way to make a record.
The Impaler: No arguments here. Tsar is gonna go on tour? Make sure the Austin date is on a good day for me. I can’t miss this!
JW: I definitely want to get out there on the road. Write some party-on-the-road songs. And then some lonely-on-the-road songs. Then get home and write some the-road-is-calling-me-back songs. It’s a matter of budget and opportunity. I know we definitely want to get some tour-type things rolling and we will for sure check in to make sure you’re in town and everything when we play Austin.
The Impaler: Thoughts about trekking to Europe, Japan, parts unknown?
JW: We’ve always thought we’d be huge in Japan, but no one’s ever put us out there. We almost titled the Band-Girls-Money album This Band Goes To Japan just so we’d have a better shot in going there. I think we’re trying to get that going now, so we’ll see.
The Impaler: The dream tour lineup. You’re out there on the road night after night alongside…?
JW: I really enjoyed playing with the New York Dolls, so I’d have to say them. Their fans, young and old, seemed to understand what we were about instantly. And they’re amazing to watch every night. A lot to think about.
The Impaler: I saw them on the Little Steven’s Underground Garage tour in San Francisco when they first came back, with Sammi Yaffa from Hanoi Rocks on bass. The rest of the bill: The Chesterfield Kings, Supersuckers, and The Charms. Incredible. Incredible. What are you listening to right now, apart from your own stuff? Anything you wanna gush about?
JW: I’ve been listening to a lot of Michael Jackson for some reason. He’s kind of blowing my mind!
Oh, and do you know this song ‘Hold Her Tight’ by The Osmonds? It’s incredible! Play it for a friend and have him try to guess what band it is! He’ll never get it! He will guess 14 cool bands and be wrong before you reveal that it’s The Osmonds. Also, I’m digging ‘Randy’ by Blue Mink right now.
The Impaler: That is a great track! I’ve played that game with their track ‘Crazy Horses’ with the same results! Inspirations?
JW: Inspirations, have I none? Just to touch the flaming dove… I guess. I mean, all I have is my love of love, and love is not loving.
The Impaler: Hopes? Dreams?
JW: I still have tremendous, tremendous hoop dreams. I figure one of these days something’s gonna click and we’re gonna get huge and we’ll stand at the top of the mountain and say Is that all there is?!
The Impaler: Fears? Nightmares?
JW: Hell. Death. I have a weakness for the classics.
The Impaler: The floor is yours! Pimp the product! Explore the power of the haiku! Whatever!
JW: Hey everybody! Looking good out there! Keep up the good work!
The Impaler: Jeff, I can’t thank you enough for your time. It’s great to have Tsar back on the scene!
JW: Thanks, The Impaler! It’s great to be back! That was a lot of fun! See you in Austin!
Tsar online: www.facebook.com/RockGroupTsar
Photos provided by Tsar, used for promotional purposes only. Photo of Jeff Whalen with his arm in the air by Tony Pierce. The other two photos of Jeff Whalen were taken by drummer Steve Coulter at a Tsar performance for KXLU. Logos created by Derrick Algernon, also used for promotional purposes only.
Follow The Impaler on Twitter too! @impalerspeaks
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