Long-lost Glen Burtnik interview from October 17, 1996

One of the many goals of this blog is to allow the publication of some of the interviews and writings that I conducted while working as a music journalist. I did it from 1996 to 1999, and it was a great education in the music business and the media. When I moved to Chicago I noticed that most clubs and record stores carried a free monthly music paper called Showcase Music Magazine (eventually Showcase Midwest). The content skewed pretty heavily toward classic rock and metal, with a lot of gearhead columnists and venue listings, etc. It seemed like a pretty low-key operation so I called up the editor and asked if they needed any more writers. He scheduled a meeting with me, and I brought in some reviews I had done for the super-influential Seattle music publication The Rocket. I got the gig, and the editor let me do whatever I wanted. I christened myself the official Americana and power-pop writer for the paper, and got on the press list for most major labels and PR firms. It was a blast. The first artist interview I set up was with one of my long-time musical favorites, New Jersey singer/songwriter Glen Burtnik.

A few years earlier Glen had toured with Chicago rock legends STYX as a replacement for singer/guitarist Tommy Shaw, so my editor knew that this story would have big interest to the local rock fans who read Showcase every month, and I was pleased to call attention to Glen's excellent solo career and his then-current album Palookaville. When I wrote the piece for Showcase it included Glen's career history and a review of the Palookaville CD, interspersed with quotes from my telephone interview. The whole thing got edited down quite a bit for publication in the magazine, so a ton of really nerdy and detailed info was omitted. I'm pleased to publish the interview transcribed in its entirety, seen here on this blog for the very first time, over a decade after the fact.

Glen was a great "first rockstar interview" for me to do...he was really enthusiastic, polite and appreciative. His attitude about his vocation as a songwriter/performer was realistic and refreshing, and it shaped a lot of my perspective about my own music career. Not long after this interview Glen had returned to Styx (this time with Tommy Shaw) as the bass player. In 2003 I executive-produced a Styx Tribute Album, and Glen was the one guy in the band who communicated with me directly and gave some feedback on the project. He's always been really cool, grounded, and positive. Check out the interview:


JR: Sorry I missed your call last night. My wife and I went to see James McMurtry in concert. Do you know him?
GB: Yeah! Great songwriter!
JR: And a good guitar player, too.
GB: Is he? I saw him once and he was in a songwriters circle thing. So I didn’t really get to see a lot of the playing, as much as just listening to his lyrics. His Father’s a writer…it’s pretty interesting.
JR: So, that’s where I was when you called.
GB: Well, that’s a worthwhile night out.
JR: I’m glad I can talk to you! I really love the Palookaville record, and I hope when I write this piece we can really get a lot of people in Chicago interested.
GB: Well, I’m happy to hear that you like it.
JR: To start out, I’d like to tell you that you’ve nailed it with “Learning to Crawl.” What’s the story behind that?
GB: I wrote it with a guy named Darden Smith. Me and Darden kept bumping into each other on airplanes and at different shows when I was playing with John Waite. We did a number of acoustic shows where I’d play acoustic guitar and John Waite would sing. We did a couple of those where I’d bump into Darden. We’d always saw each other and spoke to each other, and we finally got down to writing a song. We wrote it in a little room in NYC with a piano in it. Actually it’s at Warner/Chapel music, and they have a grand piano in this one office that belonged to George Gershwin. So Darden was playing his acoustic guitar and I sat down at the piano. It really didn’t take that long…maybe it took two afternoons. I play gigs here regularly in the New York area, and when I brought it to my band it just flowed so well. It’s a very simple song, and it felt so good that I thought I should record it. I thought it would be a good opener for the record.
JR: It’s one of those songs where you hear it and you think “I’ve got to put this on about 5 more times.” You mentioned playing the piano…your keyboard playing is all over this project. I knew you played a little bit from the “Talking in Code” album and other things, but man, you really play the keyboards! Is that how you started instrumentally?
GB: No, but when I was a teenager there was this old lady that a girlfriend of mine knew, who was getting rid of her upright piano, so we went over there with a van and I got this free piano when I was a kid. I learned to play enough so I could write songs on it. I’m really not like a great pianist, but as a songwriter you get a lot of ideas and you want to hear things a certain way, and sometimes its just easier to do it yourself, instead of telling somebody who can really play how to play simply. Maybe it’s good to play simply. A lot of my favorite songwriters are very basic keyboard players…Randy Newman and people like that who are great writers and, actually, much better pianists than I, but know how to play simply. I’m glad you noticed!
JR: My little brother was over here right after I got your CD in the mail, and he listens to all these indie rock bands. The whole ethic of that music is poor performance, poor recording, but it’s still kinda fun. And with your album…he just never hears anything like that in his do-it-yourself scene. Your album is so amazingly performed, and recorded so clearly…
GB: That it’s a detriment?
JR: No, but it’s just way different than this indie rock alternative movement. We were listening to what the guitarist Jimmy Leahy was doing on your album…it was just incredible.
GB: yeah, he’s a great player.
JR: so, it’s nice to hear music that’s well-played and well-recorded in the 1990s.
GB: I actually have a son who is into that music. He brings a lot of indie rock home, and it’s like anything…there’s a lot of great acts, and a lot of bad acts, but I agree with you, there’s a real movement about non-slickness, and leaving the edges raw. I think that’s good to clean out the music business every so often. My concept in making this record, though, was that I wasn’t going to try to follow any trend, I wasn’t going to try to be anything I’m not. I’m not an 18 year old. And I just have some firm ideas about music, and I’ve been around in music long enough that I wanna hear ideas a little more developed, and I feel like Palookaville is an album for an older audience anyway. This is the first time I ever made a record without having to answer to anybody. Without having to deal with and A&R or a band leader or whatever. I was just trying to be true to who I am, and honest to my own tastes, so it kinda came out the way it did. I really love great musicianship, so when I’m lucky enough to have a guy like Jimmy Leahy in my band it’s like, hey, let this guy PLAY. Let him rip, as opposed to telling him to play dumber. You sound like you really listened closely to this record!
JR: Yeah, well, I like records. I noticed that you’re pushing this to AAA radio, which I think is perfect for what you’re doing, but it’s interesting listening to your music from the late 80s, when I first got into your music, and how it was geared, in my opinion, to AOR radio format. It seems like some of the things that move it away from the AOR crowd…I’m trying to describe how it sounds…if it’s more like power pop, or if your doing more chord-things, or using more unusual melodies. One song that really stands out that way is “Doesn’t Mean I Love You” where you’re using Chamberlains or other keyboards, and it sounds like some of my other favorite artists like Sam Phillips, Aimee Mann, and the Rembrandts.
GB: Love ‘em!
JR: They’re using these ‘60s instruments, and these unusual chords. Was that your goal there?
GB: I’ve been joking that after recording that song that I’m wanted by the Beatle police. I love those three acts…I think Aimee Mann is unbelievable, Sam Phillips’ records are great. I listen to a lot of that stuff, and I’m kind of in the same head as some of those people. I’m a little torn, too, though. I really listen to a broad spectrum of music…I listen to anything from jazz to Pete Seeger records, to electronic music, and I’m all over the place in my listening habits. When I recorded this record it was one of my fears that it was a little too much variety for most people, but then again, my ultimate template that I base everything on, or that I compare everything to, is the Beatle catalog. And I think of the Beatles as being very versatile and varied in their music, and I don’t think that any of my chord changes are any zanier as “I am the Walrus.” Those guys took it as far out as you can go and still be a pop band, and that’s really what I wanted to do with Palookaville. When I first started it I said if I could make a record that was something like The White Album by the Beatles, I’d be happy. I don’t know that I reached that height, but that might explain my adventurousness on some of the tracks. Yeah, and “Doesn’t Mean I Love You”…we kind of pushed the envelope there.
JR: You mention all these different genres that you enjoy playing…for example “Learning to Crawl” is pretty straight ahead, and “Doesn’t Mean I Love You”…has the Beatles thing, and I really love “Hold that thought” which is…soul or something?
GB: Completely, I know.
JR: And then there’s “Don’t Give Up” with all this Irish stuff going on.
GB: I still have a concept where I’ll make four albums…I have all these different things that I’m into. There’s a number of songs I’ve written that are kind of a celtic folk thing. And then there are songs I have written that are more classic pop. There are a lot of different things that I do, and I’d like to release them all separately as different projects. In any case, I like lots of music. I don’t want to write the same song over and over.
JR: I noticed that you wrote “Don’t Give Up on Your Love” with Fran Smith and I have his solo album…it’s frustrating when guys like you and him are making such fun music but you can’t go to the record store an buy it!
GB: Yeah, you know, what are you gonna do? I look at it like, my job is to make my music as good as it can be and that’s that. I can’t change the acceptance level, and I can’t change the music business. Those are things that are out of my power, so I just try my best to write good songs and record good records.
JR: I think you’re in a really good position, though, because you get to do a lot of really amazing things in the music community, and you get to hang out with and work with really talented people.
GB: Absolutely. I’ve been blessed. I’ve had a pretty doggone good thing so far…I’m not the wealthiest man on earth, but I’ve got a job in the music business, which is alright.


JR: I want to ask a little bit about your history. Before I got your press kit I didn’t realize that you were in Beatlemania. Was that the same one with Marshall Crenshaw?
GB: We were in the same band. He was John Lennon and I was Paul McCartney.I actually got out of it before Marshall did, after about a year. That’s how we met and we’re still good friends. I just played bass on a gig with him recently. After Beatlemania I did a record with Jan Hammer, the synth guy…I was the lead singer in his band.
JR: Did Beatlemania lead to you’re a&M contract?
GB: Not at all. Completely different world. After Jan Hammar there was an LA group called Helmetboy that I joined. We got a record deal, and put out a record that went nowhere. But I met in that process, the guy that produced that record got involved in my career a little bit. Years later after I’d gone back to New Jersey and played in bar bands, he helped me get a record deal with A&M records. In the meantime I’d gone back to NJ and I played in a band called Cats on a Smooth Surface which was the house band at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, and every Sunday night Bruce Springsteen would come in and play with us. It was a real education playing in bars in New Jersey…it was a lot of cover songs, but nevertheless it was very educational. Then I got the deal with A&M Records, put out two records, got into a horrible legal nightmare, and then Styx called, which gave me the opportunity to get out of my horrible legal nightmare with A&M Records.
JR: About your a&m albums…I bought Heroes and Zeros right when it came out. I was with my cousin and we bought it ‘cause we thought the record cover was cool. We didn’t recognize you. But I remember looking on the album credits and seeing that Neal Schon and Bruce Hornsby were playing on there, and we thought, oh, this is pretty interesting! So we bought it, brought it home, put it on, and “Follow You” just blew our minds. We thought who is this guy! Then we picked up Talking in Code and worked our way backwards. I especially enjoyed Heroes and Zeros…that was almost 10 years ago. Do you approach things differently now?
GB: I’ve turned it down a bit, you know? I notice when I listen to music around the house I usually don’t listen as loudly as I once did. I’m a little more interested in the subtleties of music, rather than the over the top stuff. Like I said before…I’m not trying to capture any specific audience. I’m just trying to make a good record, and something that I won’t be embarrassed of in a few years. Although I have to say, I like H&Z a lot more because I really did take the reins a lot more at that point, and started battling with my label about what it was that I wanted to do. So I’m not embarrassed by H&Z, although it is an extremely 80s sounding record. It was of the time.
JR: Do you still play a lot of the songs live?
GB: Yeah, ‘cause a lot of people who come to see me want to hear “Abilene”, and “Follow You” and “Love Goes On” and that stuff. I recently played really long show, and I devoted one half of the show to really old music, so we did :”The Day Your Ship Gets Through” and all kinds of stuff of Heroes & Zeros and Talking In Code and the audience liked it. My following here in New Jersey is really into that stuff.
JR: is “Follow You” the song you’re most known for?
GB: Well, I can tell you which one has made me the most money: “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough” (a big hit recorded by Patty Smyth).
JR: How did you end up on the Styx project?
GB: I had met JY at an industry convention and thru Al Cafera(?) who works at A&M, now he’s the president. We were introduced, we got along…he’s a nice guy, and years later I got a call on my answering machine from Dennis DeYoung and I pretty much knew instantly what it was gonna lead to. I knew Tommy Shaw cause we had both shared a manager, and I knew Tommy was not in the band at that time ‘cause of Damn Yankees. I could just tell…I figured “Oh boy, they’re looking for a replacement for Tommy.” It worked out OK. It was a good opportunity for me to get out of my legal nightmare that I had with A&M.
JR: Did you join them knowing it would be a short term thing?
GB: I didn’t know what it would be. I was very happy to get my songs placed on a Styx album. I’ve often said “I’ll do anything to get a cover…I’d even join the band.” In that case I was really pleased. After Heroes & Zeros I was getting ready for a third solo album, and A&M just kinda strung me along for awhile, so I was under the impression that there was a third album in the making and many of the my songs on the Styx album were songs that were written for my third solo album that never came out.
JR: I think your music really kicked some new energy into Styx.
GB: Well thanks, I guess that was my job. I really admire what Tommy Shaw did with the band, and I clearly had that role. JY was like the heavy metal guy, and Dennis was the ballad guy, the position I was in was to bridge those two worlds. That was my gig, and it was OK. It was a good exercise for me, and we had a fun tour. It was fun to tour the way big rock stars tour.
JR: I saw you play with Styx in Escanaba, MI, and I think it was the night one of your kids was born.
GB: Yeah, that’s right!
JR: You announced it on stage.
GB: Yeah!
JR: I’d been a Styx fan since 1978 and to finally see them live was just great. I’ve seen Tommy Shaw with Damn Yankees, so I know what he does live, but to see YOU do it just blew me away.
GB: Well, I think Tommy does his songs a heck of a lot better than I do, but it was fun to sing some of those songs.
JR: How did two of your songs end up on their Greatest Hits project?
GB: When we finished Edge of the Century, we did a tour, and we were talking about another record. So I was writing music for another Styx album. At least one of those songs that Dennis really liked a lot, called “It takes love to make love.”
JR: Yeah, it sounds to me a bit like “the Day Your Ship Gets Through.”
GB: Well, same writer! That was slated to be another album song, and then when Tommy came back, Dennis called and asked if I had any songs that Tommy could work on or be a part of, so I sent them a number of songs. Kind of as a last minute thought I threw down a version of “Little Suzy” not thinking that Dennis would go for it, and of course that’s the one Dennis perked up for. So Dennis and Tommy made a few changes, and they put that song on their Greatest Hits album. It’s pretty weird.
JR: Yeah, I was wondering what you thought when you heard their version of it.
GB: Actually, they had sent me a copy of it all, and I was really busy and I didn’t have a chance to listen, and this Summer I was on vacation and I went to a restaurant and they were playing pumped in music, or DMX or something, and in any case, I realized as I was eating “wait a minute…this is “It takes love to make love” and I realized that’s its ME playing piano, and it’s ME singing the final note of the song in this high falsetto thing! And I said “Wait a minute, I’m ON this!”
JR: My gosh, so they left your tracks on there!
GB: That was a surprise. But when it comes to songwriting, I can be such a ho’. I’m so happy to get the cut, I’m happy that somebody is recording my music, I’m happy that a major label is releasing versions of songs that I wrote, and then I just move on to the next thing. I try not to be too critical, because 99% of the time I’m unhappy with the way other people record my songs. That has a lot to do with why I recorded Palookaville. I had this urge to do it my way. It’s just one of the pitfalls of being a songwriter who has songs cut by other people…I’ve already been spoiled by having the taste of controlling the my own music myself. Inevitably I always feel like “Nah, they didn’t do such a good job.” I feel that way often enough to know that it’s probably me, and not everybody else. So I try not to judge to harshly, and just move on to the next thing.
JR: As far as I can tell, your fan base must have exploded. I’m on this internet mailing list for Styx, and it’s seems like there are hundreds of people who have all your albums and road trip to your shows, and fly out to see you on the East Coast.
GB: Yeah I met a lot of sweet people through the whole Styx thing. It definitely opened up some doors, but conversely, it closed a lot of doors. I knew that when I joined Styx I was selling my soul, in terms of the snob rock critic element. I was probably the most un-hip thing to do, to join that band. For me, I’m a musician and that’s my job, so when somebody comes a long and offers me the opportunity to make music, I do it. In any case, I’ve since felt the crunch where if I’m introduced to a project, or if somebody’s looking for songs, and they ask “So what’s he written, what’s he done,” it’s certainly a detriment to say I was a member of Styx. The good thing is that I’ve met a lot of nice people that were Styx fans who might not of heard of me otherwise, so I’d like to concentrate on the positive instead of the negative.
JR: Right after the Styx project was done, is that when you were doing the Slaves of New Brunswick record?
GB: It was actually during Styx. It was the weirdest thing. I was in Chicago staying in an apartment working on the Styx album, and at night I would go back to my apartment and start writing songs about my home. I had to be 1000 miles away to do it, but I pretty much wrote an album of songs about New Brunswick, where I grew up.
JR: The first two cuts of that album are just great. That must have been fun to make a record with those local people.
GB: Yeah, it was an extremely zany idea, and I’m still amazed to this day that we actually did it.
JR: I noticed that the Slaves album appears on the cover of the Palookaville album. Did the Slaves album lead to your solo album in any way?
GB: No…I was pretty blown away to the reaction to the Slaves album.
JR: More than you expected?
GB: Absolutely. I thought, here’s a record that nobody will have any reference to. Maybe 1000 people in New Brunswick that would relate to it, but otherwise, who would be interested in an album about New Brunswick, New Jersey? But sometimes the universal comes out of the local. You talk about something really small, but there’s a bigger picture there that people can relate to. It wasn’t a giant hit record, but it was a great exercise.


JR: What was the first song you wrote that got covered by somebody else?
GB: I think it was a Christmas rap song recorded by Monyaga called “Got the beat for Christmas.” That’s a really good question, and nobody’s ever asked me that before. How unusual is that? Me writing a Christmas rap song, completely goofy, completely nutty, and I think that was it. An actual release…it was on A&M Records. Go figure.
JR: That’s what you’re known for these days…you’re always showing up on other people’s albums as a songwriter.
GB: Well you know, just trying to make a living.
JR: Do you see your self more as a songwriter, than a recording artist or performer?
GB: Part of the reason why I made Palookaville was I missed it. I felt like I had started something I never got a chance to finish. It had a lot to do with my situation at A&M Records, when I was very psyched to make a 3rd album and I was convinced that it was gonna be my main piece of work, and then the plug got pulled. I guess there was that sense of closure or something. Then I discovered that I could make a decent living writing songs for others, and basically, necessity is the mother of invention for me. I really wasn’t making enough money as an artist, but then as a songwriter I was a lot more successful. And ultimately you get to a point where you have to make choices about your life, especially when you’re married and you have kids and stuff. So I started concentrating more on the path of least resistance.
JR: Describe the first time you heard one of your own songs on the radio.
GB: Oh man, it was just unbelievable. And it’s something that never goes away. No matter times I have records out, or records are cut of mine, it’s just absolutely thrilling, moving…it’s not actually enjoying the music as much…I still like hearing other songs on the radio in anther way, musically. I fall in love with other records, and I’m more excited about hearing those on the radio. But personally, it’s just such a nice pat on the back, and vindication that all the work and all the crap you have to go through is worth it, cause a lot of strangers are getting to hear your songs. It’s a really amazing thing to take in…you just feel on top of the world.
JR: Did that first happen with your solo albums?
GB: No, the first time it happened was…when I was in Beatlemania with Marshall Crenshaw, me and Marshall put out a single and we called ourselves The Sides, and we went in the studio and cut two songs and pressed ‘em up. It was a song called “I hate disco music.” The other side of it was called “Ooka Shala Bango.” So anyway, we released this record. I came home from Beatlemania, and I was driving in my car one night, going to a bar, and I turned on the radio to the local college station here in New Brunswick, and they were playing “I hate disco music,” and that was the first time I heard it. Another zany first for me. It was a big thing…it was unfathomable. I’ll tell you, a really great thing about it, when you don’t know it’s gonna get played and you’re caught off guard…that’s really fun. Probably one of the great thrills about it. It’s different if it’s like “At 6 o’clock they’re gonna play my new record.” But when you don’t expect it, that’s really a thrill. It’s like 10 times more exciting when you don’t expect it.
JR: How did the “C” get dropped from your last name?
GB: I don’t even have a good explanation for it. I just felt like it. Actually, the best I can tell you is that one time there was an article in the newspaper, and that’s how they spelled my name accidentally, and I looked at it and thought it was kinda cool.
JR: Is it Czechoslovakian or something?
GB: The name Burtnik…it’s hard for me to track down my lineage, but my father’s father came from Russian Jews.
JR: It sounds eastern European.
GB: That’s how I feel about it…kind of Eastern European, probably Jewish. So I dropped the “C,” so it’s a little quicker to sign checks.
JR: Do you have any stories or memories about Chicago that I can put in the paper?
GB: I love Chicago. I lived in a little apartment there and I loved it. I used to walk all over town ‘cause I was exercising a lot at the time. I used to spend hours walking around town. I bought a beautiful Elvis bust that I have in my window…I bought it at an Italian dry cleaners. I forget where it was. He’s a dry cleaner but he sells Marilyn Monroe velvet paintings and Elvis busts. I love Chicago! How close is Champaign?
JR: Close…about 2 hours maybe.
GB: WEBX in Champaign is playing it heavy.
JR: Which is your single?
GB: We never picked one. We thought we’d just send it out there and see who is playing what. I would say most stations are playing “Learning to crawl.” It’s probably the closest thing to a first single. In AAA radio there are a lot of different types of stations that fall into that category. There are some very soft stations, and they’re playing “Watching the World Go By” and “Spirit of a Boy” so it’s unusual. But my second choice would be “Doesn’t Mean I Love You.”
JR: Anything else that the readers of this paper need to know?
GB: Uh…my hair is really short now.
JR: How can people buy your disc?
GB: Good question. They could probably contact War Bride Music and that’s the best way to do it. I think $15.50 with shipping, and they make the check out to War Bride.
JR: Thanks for talking to me, Glen! It’s really cool, after listening to your music for so long.
GB: It’s really great to talk to you, and you obviously paid close attention to the music, and that’s very cool. It makes it fun for me, too! Do me a favor…send me a copy of this, okay?
JR: When it’s published I’ll send a couple copies of the paper out to you. Thanks a lot, Glen!


Anonymous said…
Great read - thanks so much for posting this long lost interview. Glen is a brilliant songwriter and performer, this was a blast to read. Good questions as well!

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