Loverboy’s Mike Reno Explains Why He Can’t Drink Wild Turkey
As Loverboy get ready to release their latest album ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Revival’ later this month, they’re keeping quite busy summer on an extensive summer tour opening for Journey and Pat Benatar. The new album from the Canadian rockers, due out Aug. 14, mixes new material (including two songs produced by Bob Rock) with fresh takes of nine classics from their catalog of hits, recorded live on stage.
We had the chance to converse with frontman Mike Reno this week and as he told us, the band’s enduring success is something that continues to amaze him. “It’s like time stands still — these songs just seem to have a life of their own, man!”
Reno had quite a few good stories to share, including some memorable tales looking back at the time when the band hit the road with ZZ Top for a booze-soaked adventure they’ve never forgotten.
The new album ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Revival’ is a couple of different things. There’s some new tracks and then new takes on some of the old stuff that people know so well. How did this record come about?
Well, to tell you the truth, we hadn’t had any luck with record companies and nobody seemed to buy the last record [2007’s ‘Just Getting Started’] and nobody promoted it. We just did everything we could and it didn’t happen and I was pretty discouraged to tell you the truth. I said, “Well, why bother putting records out if nobody’s going to buy the damn thing?” You know, because we’d spent a hundred thousand dollars making a really good record and it just sits there and nobody buys it. I didn’t know what to do. I was totally dismayed and I just couldn’t [wrap my head around it], I said “why bother?” And I talked to some of my friends [like] Bryan Adams [and heard similar things] because everybody just wants to hear ‘Summer of ‘69,’ they don’t give a rat’s ass about the new music.
So we were in this little space where we were kind of feeling bad about the “why bother” kind of thing and then all of the sudden Frontiers contacted us and said, “We would like to pay for you to do a record, we would like to promote it all over the world and we’d like to give you an international release,” with no questions, no nonsense and no big contract, it was just a four page deal. Unlike Sony, where you have to get a lawyer from Yale University to read these contracts which are 600 pages and they tried to rip you off every second page. So we had a bad taste in our mouth until we met Frontiers and they just talked us into it.
They wanted something really quick and we had three songs that we had done. And we said we just found [this live stuff] that we recorded not too long ago and we got this really great high energy set. So really, those are not re-records, that’s a live show and we just took the audience out, because it was such a great night. Everybody was playing so good that we just threw that out and added three songs to it. I think that people can’t concentrate on a whole album [of new material].
If they don’t want to buy a whole album, they want to buy one song — why put 13 or 14 songs out, why don’t we just put out one or two? So I said “here’s two” and they said “do you have one more” and I said “well, we’ve got one really great song.” We were going to wait [to put that one out] and then we played it for them and they said “we love it.” So we ended up thinking that if people can’t concentrate for a whole album, let’s just give them a few new ones and mix it in with some live stuff — a lot of people may not realize it’s live, but those are live tracks.
The new album features a couple of songs that you guys cut in the past couple of years with Bob Rock. Now, I know Bob Rock, not only as the big time producer, but also on the Canadian side, he did his own thing musically with the Payolas and other things beyond that. How did these songs develop? As I understand it, he brought the songs to you?
Well here’s what happened. He was working with some guys that were doing an album and a couple of the songs, Bob had co-written with the guys, but he said “they’re not finished, so I’m going to phone Mike Reno and [Loverboy guitarist] Paul Dean and see if we send them these songs, if they can finish them.” Because as Bob Rock said, “to me, these sound like Loverboy songs — they’ve got Mike Reno written all over them.” So we took the half-finished songs, Paul and I, and we finished them. We sent them back to Bob and he went out of his mind and he said “that’s great! Can we go in and record them?” And we couldn’t believe what he was saying, because he had become one of those most premier producers in the world and he’s so busy, he never has time for anything.
He was doing a Michael Buble album and Michael decided to take a holiday for a week and he said “I’ve got the studio for the weekend, why don’t you come in and we’ll record those songs that you finished for me.” We just had a total blast. We just totally Loverboy-ized these songs. We wrote new lyrics, some new melodies and just totally put Loverboy all over these things. We didn’t even have a record deal, we just thought we’d do it. And then Frontiers contacted us and they’ve been so great so we said “well listen to these” and they said “we love them.” We gave them one more song, which Paul and I sat face to face and wrote, because we wanted a straight ahead rocker and it turned out to be [album title track] ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Revival.’
So here’s some new songs and maybe if you can’t concentrate enough to buy a whole album, you know, you pay 99 cents for the one song….how about we just give you three songs? I don’t know what to do anymore — the music business has changed completely.
It is certainly a quandary, because the music business is so different now, no matter who you are. Looking at the current state of the business, do you think Loverboy would have a shot to make it if the band was just starting out today, the way you did back then?
You know what? I honestly think that we would. Because the first 20 rows of all of the concerts that we’ve been playing in the last few years have been all people in their 20s — they seem to dig it. And if they dig it, everybody would dig it. Millions of people have dug it for 30 years and I think it’s just [because] it’s inspirational stuff.
It’s positive lyrics and high energy music. One of the things that we’re really known for is what we love the most, which is playing live. People can rely on that over the years that if you’re going to a Loverboy concert, you’re not going to listen to a bunch of crap and a bunch of old geezers that are playing [to] tapes and stuff. We just play all of our instruments and we just go for it. We’re sweatier than the audience — we’re having a competition to see who can have more fun, us or the audience?
Well, I just look at artist development, which they say is one of the things that has gone away in the music business today. When you guys were starting out, how quickly did things happen for you? The band had two monster albums back to back. How much build up was there leading into that before it happened?
We recorded our monster album when we had a five week break when we came off a tour. We had five weeks and instead of sitting around, we went into the studio and cut a whole pile of new tracks that turned out to be the ‘Get Lucky’ album. We never even had time to think about it. And I think that has a lot to do with why it was so successful. We just went in the studio and we didn’t have any time to think about it. We were fresh off of the road, so we were playing like crazy, we were really on top of our game and we just banged them out.
When the band was coming together, what bands were inspirational and who were the ones that made you say “we want to do something like that?”
Well, Paul and I went down to California and my brother picked us up and took us to a concert at the Coliseum. There must have been 50 or 60 thousand people there at this big outdoor place in Los Angeles.
On the bill that night was Eddie Money, Toto, Van Halen, Sammy Hagar and it was one band after another all day long and all night long. Paul and I looked at each other and said “man, we could do this, we’ve got some good songs.” We’d written some songs and we weren’t sure what to do with them. We were going to go to L.A. and maybe look for a band and find some guys and talk to a record company.
As it turns out, it inspired us to go home and fill in the rest of the blanks [and] find the right musicians — guys that we knew we could hang out with for a long time and guys that we knew were really good. We just had a focus and zeroed in on what we really wanted to do and it really helped. That’s kind of what inspired us.
Listening back to the music, it really struck me what a big part of the sound keyboards are in the whole musical makeup of Loverboy. Was that always the case from the beginning?
What developed right off the bat, was between Paul and [keyboardist] Doug Johnson, we’d do like a point/counterpoint. We developed that style and you’ll hear a point/counterpoint through almost all of our songs. And then we developed into writing themes where it was either a guitar intro theme or a keyboard intro theme and then it just became part of our DNA. That’s just how we do things now.
I know what you mean and I can even hear that “point/counterpoint” between you and Paul on a song like ‘Take Me To The Top,’ the way he’ll respond to your vocal with a certain riff.
Right. Exactly. If you see us live, you’ll see that we even do a little more of it live. We even stretch it out a little bit more live. I’ll do a big thing and he’ll do a thing and I’ll do a scream and he’ll do a guitar thing. Live is really fun and people really get their money’s worth, because that’s what we’re all about.
30 years after your first tour with Journey, you’re back on the road with them this summer. Flashing back three decades, what was an average day like on those tour buses, being out with those guys?
Well, I’ll tell you what, it’s almost a mirror image to what we’re doing today. We have tour buses, they’ve got trucks of equipment, we’ve got t-shirts. We’re just out there doing exactly the same thing and for some reason, they’re selling out and it’s a whole new audience. It’s an unbelievable experience — I can’t put my finger on why it’s happening, but it’s happening.
How much were you guys scrapping back then? Because I remember hearing that on the Journey side of things, that was the tour where they were finally able to afford hotel rooms and stuff like that.
When you first start off, you’ve got to watch the money. You can’t spend more than you make. What we would do is when we first started going, the first tour with Kansas, we were actually in two cars. One of the cars was a bigger old station wagon so that people could lie down in the back and sleep. I mean, that’s all we could afford. When we picked up [the] Journey [tour], we got our first tour bus and we were totally stoked and very excited. But you’ve got to get used to living face to face with all of these people. We’ve got roadies and band members all in the bus, just kind of crammed in there. Over the years, we’ve developed a pretty good system of not getting in each other’s faces.
Being out this summer with Journey, have any of the guys made any guest appearances during your set? Maybe Jonathan Cain during ‘This Could Be The Night’ [co-written by Cain] or something like that?
It hasn’t happened yet, but I’ll tell you what happened the other day, which was pretty cool. I’d just finished doing an interview for ‘NBC Nightly News’ and I was just walking back to the bus and [Journey lead singer] Arnel [Pineda] was just warming up and he was starting to get ready for the show and we were standing beside each other and he breaks into singing every word and every Mike Reno lick acapella. He sang ‘Heaven In Your Eyes’ perfectly and I just stood there with my mouth open going “how do you do that – you sounded just like me?” and he said “I love that song, that was my favorite Loverboy song” and he used to play it when he lived in Manila.
He says “I know a bunch of your songs, word for word.” I was totally pumped, so I’m going to maybe talk to him about getting up on stage one night. We still have another 65 shows to do, so I imagine I can talk him into it. I’d love to have Neal Schon jump up too. He’s one of the best guitarists, if not the best guitarist in the world and I think it would be great to have any of them jump up. Jonathan Cain has of course become a friend over the years. He helped us write one of our big hits, he’s a great guy. You know what? I really couldn’t ask for a better tour, I really couldn’t. There’s absolutely no complaints.
The last time I saw Loverboy was in the ‘90s, touring with ZZ Top. I’m sure you came away with some great stories from that tour.
Well, they were a good bunch of guys, I guarantee you that. We got pretty tight after playing 100 shows together or how many ever it was. It was a whole year, I know that. What happened, this is a pretty amazing story really, but right off the bat, our manager said “don’t bother these guys — they’re seasoned veterans, they don’t even want to talk to you. So just do your show and get the hell out of the arena and don’t bug them and don’t try to talk to them. Just give them some space.” So we thought they were kind of standoffish, because our manager said that’s probably what’s going to happen, so don’t get your feelings hurt, just play and go.
So as we usually do, we played our hearts out and the crowd went nuts. We went back into our dressing room and it’s a big hockey rink so we turned on a bunch of showers and steamed it up. We’re sitting on chairs and letting the hot water run over our bodies and the room was all steamy. Everybody showered in this big huge shower, just like in high school. And into the steam, comes these three guys and it was almost like a video, the way it looked. And they come sneaking into the steam and they just went “who’s the guy with the trash mouth?” Because I was swearing a little bit on stage and I thought they were going to give us sh-t. We didn’t even know who it was, but then we focused our eyes and realized it was ZZ Top, they’re standing in the foggy steamy room going “welcome to the tour boys, this is going to be one hell of a good time,” you know?
It was just an amazing story and then the other story that goes with that is that we started getting encores every night and right off the bat, we’d do our set and then we’d walk off stage. Billy Gibbons would put me in a headlock and make me drink two inches of Wild Turkey or he wouldn’t let me go back up and sing an encore. So needless to say, I can’t stand Wild Turkey anymore. I can’t even stomach smelling the bourbon. So it was either drink the two inches of Wild Turkey or don’t go back up on stage. So I’d drink it and walk back on stage. I had really great encores that I was really jazzed up for!
That’s quite a memory to walk away with. Let’s talk about ‘Lovin’ Every Minute Of It,’ which came from Mutt Lange. How did the band connect with him?
I’m not really sure how we connected with him. I do know that we got to know the guys in Def Leppard over the years. We’d done some stuff in Europe together. I was pretty good friends with Phil Collen and we’d mentioned to them that we were doing an album and it would be great if we could work with Mutt Lange.
Somehow, I guess maybe they mentioned it to him? We got a call from Lange from overseas and this was before they had email and all of that other fancy jazz. So he says “I’ve got a song I want you to listen to,” and we listened to it over the phone. He played it in the studio and held the phone up and we said “we love it, can we do it?” and he said “yeah, you can do it, but the only thing is we’ve got to have this wrapped up in three days.” So there’s no time to mail us a copy of the song, what can we do? You can’t fax it or email it — this is way before all of that stuff.
So what we did was we took a little recorder and held it up to the phone. He played the song again and we taped it. We sat around and we listened to the taped song, which you can imagine how sh-tty it sounded. So we just went out in the studio after that and started cutting it. That’s how it came about. We never worked in the same room together. He played it to us and we recorded it over the phone and then we just played it. And that’s how it came out.
It’s a journalistic rule that if you’re talking to Mike Reno, you have to ask about the red leather pants, so I’m going to keep that streak going. What’s the most off-the-wall thing you’ve ever been asked about the red leather pants?
Well, of course I got a lot of invitations to swap pants with girls in our heyday. I’d say “I’ll trade you those red leather pants for those tight blue jeans you’re wearing” and that was just my way of getting the pants off of a girl. [Laughs] We’ve had people ask us for the pants to auction them off and then we decided to do that. We raised a whole bunch of money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. The coolest story is the way it was presented to us. The only reason we even wore the red leather pants is that our manager’s publicist, her husband owned a leather shop and she realized that we were going to get pretty busy.
We were starting to do shows like Dick Clark’s ‘American Bandstand’ and people were interested in seeing us and so she said “go down to my husband’s leather shop and grab whatever you want — we’ll just make a note of it and you guys can pay for it when you guys earn some money.” And we thought “wow, that’s great” so I went down and picked out a bunch of pairs of pants and it was just one pair that was red, but they fit the band. I ended up wearing them at some shows and I started wearing them in some videos.
The next thing you know, it was time to do the new album and the art director who was designing the album in New York said, “well, what do they look like, what do they wear?” So they just devised this whole red leather pants thing and made it into the ‘Get Lucky’ album and it was just one of those magic moments that seemed to click.