My 1997 review of The Rainmakers album Skin

One of the things I hope to accomplish with my new blog here at Blogger is to archive my writings as a music critic. Yes, a decade ago I was straddling both sides of the showbiz reality: an artist and a rock journalist at the same time (a paradox that my Lutheran brain should have been able to handle, I guess). I did it from 1996 to 1999.

When I lived in Oregon I started writing reviews and concert summaries for a Seattle-based bi-weekly called The Rocket. It was a cool of the outlets that broke the whole Nirvana/Pearl Jam scene back then. I moved to Chicago and REALLY got a lot of work writing for a local
free monthly paper called Showcase Music Magazine. Showcase was a labor of love for its editor Nort Johnson and its coverage tended to skew toward whatever Nort was personally connected to, but he let me run free with my coverage of obscure bands, singer/songwriters, producers, etc. I got to interview and meet a lot of my musical favorites, from Tommy Shaw and Glen Burtnik (of Styx), to Lisa Germano, to Walter Salas-Humara (of the Silos, who would later produce one of MY albums!) and Kurt Neumann (BoDeans). Saw a ton of shows, slogged through hundreds of good and horrid albums. I used to write the first draft of my reviews on the back of scrap paper, and then transfer it to a MANUAL TYPEWRITER! Yes, that's the late 1990s. I had no reasonable computer to do word processing. Then I'd turn my typed pages in to Nort at his office, and his wife would re-type them into the computer for layout in the next issue.In 1997 I got to meet and interview my all-time favorite and most influential band, The Rainmakers. As I learn how to post photos and graphics on this blog, I'll attempt a post of their album cover, and give you the text of my interview with the band. Watch for future blog posts containing the reviews and interviews from my rock journalism days!

from Showcase Music Magazine, Chicago, IL
December 1997

It's Time to Meet Your 'Makers
Midwestern rockers The Rainmakers reflect on their controversial new album Skin, their major-label history, and the "sheer love of playing the notes."

After decades of listening to their albums, I finally had the opportunity to meet my favorite band, The Rainmakers. The Missouri-based quartet was headlining the opening night party for St. Louis' Midwest Regional Music Festival this past October, and the show's venue, Mississippi Nights, sits only a few yards from the banks of America's largest river. It was fitting for the Rainmakers to play there - their song "Downstream" features the line "I don't trust nothin' but the Mississippi River," and their music has the twists, turns vastness, beauty and power of the Mississippi itself.

Guitarist and frontman Bob Walkenhorst, lead guitarist Steve Phillips, and drummer Pat Tomek have been on quite a journey since The Rainmakers' self-titled debut was released on Polygram Records back in 1986. Eleven years and four records later the band is back at square one: their new album released on an independent label, new bass player Michael Bliss in the band, and a new generation of music fans who've never heard of them. As if starting over in the music business isn't difficult enough, their new album Skin tackles the complex and taboo topic of pornography in America… not exactly listener-friendly subject matter. It's these kinds of creative risks, though, that have kept The Rainmakers so vital throughout an unstable rock and roll scene. Now more than ever, The Rainmakers' revved-up, political, and distinctly Midwestern brand of guitar rock matters in the grand scheme of American music.

The band's early '90s career hiatus, a new marriage, and a perspective-shattering personal awakening helped Bob Walkenhorst shape the controversial concept for the Rainmakers' Skin album. "I was opened up to a whole world of things that I had been participating in, but blind to," Walkenhorst confesses. "And very accepting of, because that's the nature of pornography in America. When you say 'pornography' people always think of print and video, but the pornographic mind set is: you either don't even know it's there, or the parts you know are there you think 'Well, that's First Amendment freedoms… freedom of the press, freedom of thought.' It's all cloaked in these disguises that make it seem acceptable. The more you talk about it and think about it, the more there is to talk and think about… and the more there is to write about."

And write about it he did. Objectification of women, the onslaught of sex-driven media, guilt, the lasting impact of abuse, porn addiction, the numbing of the mind, the staggering statistics of violence against women, and the duality of nature… no related subject was ignored. Walkenhorst's songwriting momentum just kept building. "I was really excited about it, and I was writing ideas for songs, rather than titles or choruses," he remembers. "It was more like 'there's never been a song written about this, or this particular angle.' I didn't even know what the song would be like. This was a whole new way of songwriting which, at age 42, to find something that lit my jets that much… it was like turning your brain inside out. After you've been writing songs for ten or twenty years, you sort of have a formula - that's the pattern your brain is used to working. And now to have this burning intense idea… that the idea for the song in and of itself is going to upset someone, or it's going to upset you to write it."

With the foundation for this potentially inflammatory new project developed, Walkenhorst had to confront one of the most difficult challenges of rock and roll: selling the idea to the rest of the band. He knew that for The Rainmakers to be able to make this record, Phillips and Tomek would have to feel as strongly as he did about the concept. "It was an interesting situation for a band, because you can't play on an album like this without personally knowing that you're gonna have to answer for it," Walkenhorst says.

"Yeah," agrees Phillips, "in most cases you can detach yourself from the lyrics and say 'Well, I'm just gonna play the guitar,' but with this album you have to either be with it, or not. We had some hairy discussions, because from a business standpoint it was like 'Are you insane? You're going to do a whole record about THIS? Aren't you afraid nobody's gonna buy the record?'"

"But then I said 'Steve, nobody's buying our records anyway!'" laughs Walkenhorst.

Phillips smiles, "Bob said to me, 'I feel compelled to try.' And you can't argue with that… I'm with you."

And so the band began assembling and arranging the most poignant songs of their career. The personal nature of Skin's subject matter resulted in extensive debates among the band members and inspired two of the album's best tracks. Guitarist Steve Phillips was driven to write "Did you see the Lightening," a triumph of perfect pop songwriting that celebrates a healthy romance in the midst of a perverted world. Also moved to write was drummer Pat Tomek, who passed along the haunting lyrics of "Hunger Moon" to Phillips, who then constructed a beautiful mandolin arrangement around Tomek's verses. "Those songs were some of the last songs written," Phillips recalls. "It as more of a response. Cause and effect." Tomek adds, "For 'Hunger Moon', on that day I don't think we even got anything recorded. We just had this big discussion for a couple of hours and I went home and wrote the lyrics for it."

This kind of collective enthusiasm about their music wasn't always present for The Rainmakers. At the start of their career, the thrill of a major label record deal, international touring, interviews on MTV, and critical acclaim kept them energized, but cynicism and exhaustion eventually set in. The band's albums on Polygram, 1986's The Rainmakers, 1987's Tornado, and 1989's The Good News and The Bad News, failed to produce any major hits, and their non-stop tour schedule began to take its toll. In the late '80s, Walkenhorst felt his band's passion and verve begin to slip. "I think we completely lost it," he admits. "The time off was what let us get it back. We were going though all those things that are part of the rock and roll package… touring, Newsweek, MTV… and finding them all so damn draining. I didn't get a lift out of it… it felt like blood was being sucked out of me all the time."

The Rainmakers spent their major-label years constantly on the road with other bands. They shared bills with dozens of acts, including INXS, the Doobie Brothers, Rush, Berlin, and Soul Asylum. "the band, by the end of the albums and all the touring, could walk on stage in our sleep and play a good show," Walkenhorst remembers. "It was autopilot," agrees Phillips. "I started to keep a journal for awhile, but every day was so repetitive: Red Roof Inn every day, the club situation was the same every day… the only exciting thing was getting to eat at good restaurants. That was the highlight!" Tomek felt the touring lifestyle begin to blur, as well. "I don't remember any gigs," he says incredulously. "All I remember was a lot of restaurants. And I just felt like I spent my whole life waiting. I would sit in a little box… a little boxy van, a little boxy room, waiting to get to the next town, waiting to go on stage, and waiting to go to sleep. All I did was wait."

In 1990 the Rainmakers put the band on hold in favor of families and personal lives. Although their career in the United States hadn't amounted to much, there was continuing interest in the band from Europe and Scandinavia. The Norwegian branch of Polygram Records requested another Rainmakers album in 1994, and they obliged, reuniting in Steve Phillips' basement with a couple ADAT recorders. Soon Polygram Norway unveiled The Rainmakers' Flirting with the Universe, a positive, victorious collection of self-produced songs. Flirting… went gold within two months, and the band successfully toured the European festival circuit. Polygram Canada licensed the record soon after. The group's reunion was on excellent terms, and they began experiencing the joy of writing, recording, and performing once again. The overwhelming overseas support of Flirting with the Universe reinforced The Rainmakers' new found vigor, and upon the completion of the Skin album, they were signed by Kansas label V&R Records. Skin is currently generating rave reviews in the music press and its first single "Different Rub" is getting national radio attention. The Rainmakers are back, and their songs, and attitudes, are better than ever.

"It's all attitude," Steve Phillips says of his ability to cope with the rock and roll lifestyle. "Just being able to get away from it, and when you come back you have a whole new look on it." The challenges of The Rainmakers' past cannot overpower the optimism they feel about their current situation. "We could see that it wasn't working. We put out three albums and spent all this money, leaving our families behind, and we weren't getting anywhere… it was real frustrating. There was no alternative but to quit," Bob Walkenhorst says. He pauses thoughtfully, looking at his longtime bandmates, an then with a sparkle in his eye, adds, "But today, when we were playing soundcheck we got to do two songs, and I was like 'I want to play another song! I don't want to wait two hours… I want to play now, NOW.' That's the part of being back together, that I didn't even feel ten years ago when we did it the first time. The sheer love of playing the notes - I've never felt it like I do right now."


Anonymous said…
Nice start to the blog site JR. I too am a fan of The RMs. Got their self-titled one way back when. Can't recall how I first found them - either Rolling Stone of Tower Records' Pulse mag. Lost track of them for many years but enjoy their stuff even now.


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