Exclusive: Jeff Bates Interview

Jeff Bates has been kicking around the music circut for over 25 years and has survived personal demons along the way to achieve a level of success that many artists dream of. Over the course of a half-hour, Jeff talked with us about a variety of topics and was particularly passionate about the music industry

Matt Bjorke: How does it feel to have your stuff back on the charts?

Jeff Bates: It feels good. You know, I went for a couple of years for anything on the charts. I really didn’t realize that it didn’t bother me not having a song out there until I had another song out there. I went OK. ‘Cause when RCA and I parted ways, I wasn’t really sure I wanted to do this. I like performing but the rat race part of it I could live without.

MB: One thing that drew me to your music was all the obstacles that you’ve overcome and how it related to people in my life.

JB: I’ve been clean now for seven years and it’s been the best seven years of my life. Alcohol was never a big problem so much, but when I quit one I quit them both. Usin’s Usin’. You can call it what you want to. You have your drug of choice and my drugs of choice were methamphetamines and pot. You need someone who’s tough enough to stand by you as you go through that.

MB: How does it feel to be compared to artists like Conway Twitty?

JB: Golly, you have to know it’s an honor but at the same time I have to wonder if it’s been hurtful to my career. I mean, in my opinion, we all sound like someone. There have been so many great singers to come before of us all, I think that everybody you hear nowadays sing, you hear a little bit of somebody else in ‘em. However, I do realize that there’s a huge resemblance between Conway and I. It’s more about how I say words, how I phrase, and the fact that my voice has a little gravel in it. It is what it is. It’s a huge honor to be compared to Conway.

MB: I certainly think there’s a place for an artist like that in country.

JB: Well, let’s hope, we got our fingers crossed (laughs).

MB: Why do you think your single “Rainbow Man wasn’t a hit?

JB: I think the problem with “Rainbow Man” was that it was too autobiographical too early on in my career. If I had three or four hit songs before that and then they came out with that, I’d have been fine. It was too much information about somebody that people didn’t know. You know what, as much as we want to see racism eradicated, at the same time we perpetuate it ourselves. Because nobody wants to stop and think about the different color in our ancestry so for a lot of people it’s not heavy on their minds. Me, I embrace it. We are who we are, that’s what Made America. But not everybody.

MB: How special is it to see “Riverbank” released as a single.

JB: Scary. I never wrote it as a single, never intended it to be a single. And here we are and it’s a single. That’s the artist part of me, I’m elated. hell, I’m excited. It’s a hugely personal song that we started writing about my merch guy and my guitar player’s fathers who passed away. My daddy actually got to hear the song. Then I lost my dad last August after we’d recorded it. It just about makes me cry every time I sing it. But you know, my daddy was a great man. I wish I had been smarter sooner to appreciate him. He was a great, great guy. He taught me a lot and most of it was told while at the riverbank. Nowadays when I fish, it makes me feel closer to my dad.

MB: For your writing, what comes first the melody or the lyric?

JB: It’d different every time. It’s usually the idea that comes first; I kind of get a rough idea of the direction I want to take (or with my co-writer). Then there are those moments where as soon as I heard the hook, I grabbed a guitar and started to sing “Wish this was a riverbank, instead of a graveyard, wish were sittin’ and fishin and this wouldn’t be so hard. Then I looked up to (co-writer Kirk Roth) and asked “does that suck?” He said, “No, that’s real good right there, you go ahead and keep on, I think I know the next line.” It kind of came together.

Every song is unique. The way the happen, there is a story behind every one. So I can’t say there’s any set way. Sometimes I hear it all in my head and try to make it so.

MB: Do you have a favorite song on any of your records?

JB: There are two songs on the new CD that are my favorites. Of course one is “Riverbank.” The other one is “He Wasn’t Like Us.” Because I can totally relate to being bullied (as a kid) at the same time I totally relate to bullying Jesus. I can see that I have that in me. Not to be a bully so to speak but, biblically they say “every time we sin, we crucify Christ.” Same thing as bullying to me. That song, there’s something, it has a lot of depth to it. I wish that I could say that I’m the reason but I don’t think so. Some songs are just gifts and I think both that one and Riverbank are those kinds of songs.

MB: What’s more fun? Paying a show or recording an album?

JB: Playing a show is more fun, recording an album is more challenging. Recording a record is an extension of songwriting. I have all this sound in my head, I have all this stuff running through my head, and I can literally hear it in my head. So when we go into the studio to record, I try to make that happen. Sometimes it does, sometimes it don’t, sometimes its better sometimes it’s not quite what I hear. But it is what it is. At any rate, it’s always challenging and always interesting, and it is fun but it’s a different kind of fun than going out on stage and grabbing a guitar and holding it in your hand, giving it your best. Instant energy, instant feedback.

MB: What kind of places do you like to perform in? Any favorites?

JB: I love ‘em all. I think I’m most comfortable in Honky Tonks because I’ve been playing in ‘em for so long. I feel the same if I’m playing for 5 people or 5,000. But I’m most comfortable in the honky tonks.

MB: What would you say to anyone who wants to be an artist?

JB: Run (laughing). I would say that if you want to be an artist, there’s not anything out here that’s gonna keep you from doing it. And if that’s truly what you want, educate yourself and gather as much knowledge as you want about your chosen field and do it. Learn your craft. Go for it. Because you’ll always be glad you tried and sad if you didn’t.

MB: What are your thoughts on the state of country music? Not to be controversial…

JB: (Laughs) Well, everybody needs a little controversy. If there’s not controversy then everybody’s too comfortable. I think there are some people in the music business that need to get a little uncomfortable and think outside the box. I think there’s too much cookie cutter music out there. I think there are certain areas of our industry that are being monopolized by corporations. And it kind of kills the freedom of it, the creative freedom, and the creative passion of it.

So what you wind up with is not the very best to get your hands and ears on. You wind up with cookie cutter stuff, rehashed pop. And I’m not saying that in defense or in offense of my own music. I think that any time that a corporate organization becomes more important and corporate profit becomes more important than the music we make, then the music we make is no longer an art form. It’s a hobby.

MB: What do you think of the internet and its role in music these days?

JB: I totally embrace it. I think that there’s a lot of new technology that we’ve not seen yet. That’s the direction the music’s going. I can’t blame ‘em. I know it makes some labels and some people uncomfortable but hey, it’s away to stay in touch with my fans through my myspace and jeffbates.net. Things like that. As long as we have modems and access to that much information, golly don’t it beat a ride down to Wal-Mart to just see what’s out there? I like iTunes. I like being able to go download the tunes I want. I think those types of venues should make the music better

MB: Do you think that the industry is returning to the way it used to be, from an album-based format to a single-based one because of that?

JB: Absolutely. I just cut a CD (“Jeff Bates”) and I’m not in favor of recording another CD, not anytime soon. Only singles. Guess what happens? If you record only singles, then only that quality of song gets through. So we all get better music.
Then you don’t go spend $17-18 on a new CD that has 11 songs on it where three of them are great and the rest of ‘em are crap.

I can go to iTunes and download the songs I want and make my own CD or put them on my iPod. My wife just bought herself a new car. Her iPod actually plugs into it. She drives down the road listening to what she wants to listen to. I love XM satellite radio. I don’t have to listen to commercials and I can hear anything I want to hear.

That’s where we are as a society. “I want what I want when I want it.” Good, bad, ugly, hate it, love it, whatever. That’s the way it is. So I think for me, when they want me, and they want what they want when they want it, I want to be there to give it to them. So I embrace it.

MB: What would you like to say to your fans?

JB: I love you and thank you.