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Chicago’s Robert Lamm Talks About Rock Hall, Peter Cetera and More: Exclusive Interview

Photo Credit: Chicago Records II
Chicago Records II

Chicago will finally take a well-deserved spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 8. The legendary “rock ‘n’ roll band with horns” has been eligible for induction since 1995; 20 years later, they finally nabbed an official nod the first year that they were placed on the ballot in 2015.

The group has taken its share of knocks from critics over the years — something that led keyboardist and singer Robert Lamm, a principal songwriter for the band in its early days, to pen “Critics’ Choice,” the lead track on the band’s 1973 album Chicago VI. It seemed apparent that it was a topic that struck a personal chord with the group even then.

The tide has turned in recent years, and the band and its legacy have been reconsidered in a favorable way, something that Lamm addressed in a 2014 interview with us. “The critics that are doing the critical re-appraising are not necessarily the critics of 25 or 30 years ago who began to turn on the band as we became very, very successful,” he noted. “I think it has to do with somewhat of an appreciation for a band being able to play live, and certainly even someone who was born in the late ‘80s or ‘90s, they hear our music all of the time.

“The younger generation doesn’t really care who you are, where you came from or any of that other stuff. They just want to hear that song. Everybody is on random play, whether it’s internet radio, streaming or whatever. So I think there’s a lot of reasons for this new appraisal of Chicago. I think that there’s an open-mindedness that we all have now for music, wherever it comes from and whatever vintage it is.”

Next year will mark the group’s 50th anniversary, and it remains an active presence on the touring circuit, performing more than 100 dates each year. Their current tour finds them reunited with longtime friends Earth, Wind & Fire for another run of shows. Now More Than Ever, a new documentary about the band’s history, recently premiered at the Sedona Film Festival and won the festival’s Best of Fest Audience Choice Award.

“We were very young and very green and inexperienced, so a lot of it came from sheer intuition and ad libbing the whole process,” Lamm recalled, talking about the group’s lengthy career during a 2012 conversation with Ultimate Classic Rock. “Because we didn’t really know anything except we knew that we wanted to make music and play together. I do regret not having had [late guitarist and singer] Terry [Kath] along on this whole ride. I would just love to see how he would have evolved.

“He was always tinkering with the apparatus in an experimental way,” Lamm remembered. “Whether it was a guitar or a way to strum the guitar or a way to make the amplifier do something it wasn’t supposed to do. Or just a reel-to-reel tape deck, playing with that thing. So it would have been interesting to see how he would have interacted with the technology. He’d have a lot of fun, I’m sure.”

Lamm recently checked in to discuss the upcoming Rock Hall induction, which comes in a year that was already quite busy thanks to the band’s existing tour, promotion for the documentary and other activities.

Let’s start out with the obligatory congratulations on your induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Congratulations.

Oh man, thank you so much. We are very grateful to finally be allowed into the pearly gates of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

How did you feel when you first heard the band had been nominated?

My vibe was that I’ll believe it when it happens.

Now that you’ve had some time to process the news, how do you feel about it from your perspective?

Once I became aware of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was probably a couple of years after they built the place, I was a little puzzled why there was no discussion about Chicago being inducted — even in the late ‘90s. But I’ve always thought that it was great to just be able to continue to record and perform. [We] travel all over the world [and have a] lot of fans and lots of fun. My attitude was, I think I’d rather be working than just sitting around waiting to be honored in some way or another.

So I think everybody just sort of shook it off and we just kept doing what we’ve always done: play 100-120 shows a year, write our songs, do our little side projects and basically live the life of a living, breathing musician who is always trying to improve as a musician. That’s been my vibe.

It must be interesting for you too, because as I understand it, it’s the classic lineup that’s being inducted, and it seems like they are honoring what is roughly a decade’s worth of work. And that’s interesting when you’re looking at a band that has another 40 years on top of that. The band is going to mark 50 years next year.

Yeah, although when we perform, this band is going to perform, the few songs that we’ll do. We’ve been talking with the Hall about the finale there, leaning toward doing “25 or 6 to 4” as the jam, which will be fun with all of the guitar players who are being inducted, and [we’re] even talking about trying to get N.W.A to rap, do some freestyle over “25 or 6 to 4,” which will be very cool. We’re going to enjoy it, but it’s going to be this band — not a band that doesn’t exist anymore.

I know that former drummer Danny Seraphine is going to play with you guys …

He’s going to play one song.

Have you guys talked about what songs you’re going to do there?

Yes — remember basically at this point, it’s an HBO show. It’s different than the original jams each year when the Hall of Fame first started, so it’s very different. There are a couple of lineups of songs as far as our performance is concerned that have been bandied about. They’ve zeroed in on a couple of possibilities and they’ve asked me not to say what they’re going to be. But you could probably guess two out of the three might be from the early albums. It should be fun. I don’t really know who is going to welcome us to the Hall of Fame. We made a few suggestions and found out that the Hall of Fame kind of decides who that’s going to be.

Who would be somebody on your list that you think would be worthy to bring the band in?

I think Brian Wilson would be great and it would be really a trip, actually. Going completely the other way, somebody like Bruno Mars would be good. I wouldn’t even really mind … not because we’re touring again, but Philip Bailey [from Earth, Wind & Fire] would be great. Or Philip and Verdine [White] together. They would be great. But I don’t think any of those are going to happen.

One point of excitement for fans was the fact that it looked like Peter Cetera might take the stage with you guys at the induction ceremonies to perform. Now it looks like that’s not going to happen. What was it really that went down behind the scenes that brought things to that conclusion?

In a nutshell — and I really don’t want to talk too much about it — I would say that Peter didn’t understand that this was a band honor, that it was the band Chicago being inducted. He was proposing to bring his band to play when he sang a Chicago song. So you know, it got very strange. But I think in a nutshell, he didn’t or doesn’t get that it’s a band thing — it’s not about any particular guy.

If I’m correct, you’ve had some contact with Peter in recent years, haven’t you?

Oh, yeah.

It seemed like there was a slight amount of water that had gone under the bridge after all of these years.

Yeah, you know, I was very surprised at his attitude.

Regarding this band, you’ve said that the lineup being inducted, vs. what the band became, they’re two very different animals. With the announcement that Chicago are going in, there’s been some snark about whether the band deserves to be inducted, with some people pointing directly to the ‘80s era of the group, using that as their ammo. Those were significant hit records. Why do you think that period is so polarizing for some folks?

Anything that was recorded in the ‘80s by any artist sounds horrible nowadays. It was the beginning of drum programming where the snare drum was the loudest thing on the track, very shrill mixing and mastering of music — a lot of music that in my opinion just doesn’t groove, because it’s a slave to the machine. Nowadays, the machines have been programmed to groove. [Laughs] So it’s less of a problem nowadays. But I do think that was the beginning of the polarization. It was like right after we learned to love the punk era, the really sort of stripped down, unsophisticated non-virtuosic musician, of just stripped-down rock ‘n’ roll — once we learned to love that, to go from that into the ‘80s? I think it was just too much of an ice-water dip.

As far as the effect on Chicago fans, you know, I can’t argue with people’s’ tastes. Either you like it or you don’t like it. But it doesn’t stop us. It doesn’t stop us from being musicians. You know, the reason we’re still around is that we have constantly experimented, absorbed, listened and played our music. Hey, some things were pretty awful in the ‘70s too. There’s good and bad in every era, but I don’t really take to heart anybody’s particular animosity or disappointment in a few power ballads.

One thing that you can say looking at everything the band has done, whether it’s the ‘70s or ‘80s or moving forward past that, your music makes it clear that you guys have always been open to exploring new ideas and that’s always been an important part of what the band is about, I think.

When people come to the concerts, if they’ve never heard anything except “You’re The Inspiration,” they walk away with a deep understanding of what Chicago really is.

I’ve heard you describe where things are at musically these days as being the “Wild West,” which is I think something that you could also apply to where you guys were in the ‘70s. Things seemed very free. You had the ability to turn out things like “It Better End Soon” and “A Song for Richard and His Friends.” As one of the guys who was making records in both the ‘70s and the ‘80s as the group’s sound and song structure were changing, how did you see things evolving? What did it feel like in that moment, making that transition?

As a musician and as a composer, a lot of my life is listening to music of all types. For me, composing is a lot about trial and error or it’s about listening to any piece of music and being inspired to say, “I wonder how they did that?” Let me figure out how they did that …. how they got that sound or what that beat is. What is that sample really adding to the record? So a lot of it for me has been investigation and learning and all of that. I never would have expected in the mid-‘70s that by the mid-‘90s I would be conversant with computer programming and building my songs on a laptop using loops and samples and all of that. I never would have considered that being anything that I would ever do, because none of that existed.

For me, it’s all been about learning and absorbing and I feel completely confident in the “Wild West” that it is now. You know, I was just actually online this morning on a couple of websites that sell my music and I realized that as far as people who are listening to music, they’re listening more to streaming than wanting to own any music. So I’ve adapted to that concept, because everything is different. People right now are buying vinyl and a lot of it is just to look at it — but they’re still streaming music as they look at the vinyl album covers. So it’s pretty funny.

I think it’s interesting, though, because I think that you do have a bunch of folks now that have grown up just with streaming and MP3s and Napster and all of that kind of stuff. So for them, the vinyl probably is a weird thing — where it gives them an opportunity to hold something physical that represents the music, which unlike us, it’s foreign to them.

Well, when vinyl was king and I was buying the new Cream album and putting it on for the first time, I would sit there and hold the album, read all of the words and really have that whole experience. So now I think it’s happening again in a digital way.

One time when we spoke, you pointed out that the band in its heyday had delivered an album roughly every nine months. I talk to a lot of bands that were making music at that pace. How do you look back on what you guys were able to achieve creatively in those years?

Well, there was a lot more rehearsal, I’ll tell you that. Which is a good thing. I think it really taught each of us individually a lot about music and performing music. For me, there was more band interaction in the formation of the songs as they got ready to record — and the actual recording of [those songs]. That’s a very different experience now. Now we tend to work individually and then kind of briefly get together and then record it live, if you will. It’s a very different experience.

What do you think caused that collaborative shift?

I think we were all, and still are, fascinated with the technology, and it changes so rapidly now, I cannot tell you. It’s not even about laptops anymore, it’s about apps. It’s about your phone, stuff that you can do on your phone. You know, build a track on your phone, present it to the band then maybe have the bass player replace the bass part — stuff like that. It’s very different.

The last time we spoke, the band was about to release the Now album and things were in a really, really productive place — you talked about how there was going to be another new album in six months. Where are things at presently in regards to more new music from the group?

I say this half in jest: If the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would leave us alone and everybody else that wants to give us a lifetime achievement of some sort … you know, I suspect that when they start giving you these kind of things, that they’re really trying to tell you to stop and go away. [Laughs] It’s just been so hectic with the documentary that just premiered. We’re going to have to get on board with that as it starts to be programmed at various film festivals and have a couple of us show up and do a Q&A and that kind of thing. So really, I was hoping to do more music stuff this year. But between the touring and the documentary and the Hall of Fame and the [other stuff], I’m thinking that we won’t get anything done until after the first of the year.

When are folks going to have a chance to check that documentary out outside of the festival circuit?

I don’t know. The major media places where you could see it are negotiating for it. So whether it’s HBO or whatever, I don’t know. It will be one of those at some point.

At the time that you were doing press when it was about to premiere, you hadn’t had a chance to see it at that point. Have you had a chance to watch the documentary yet?

I did. I watched a final edit maybe over the holidays and it was better than I expected. My opinion was and is that I think that we could have waited to do it. We should have waited to do it another year or two or three. As the film is now, I would have edited it differently, but I didn’t have anything to do with the film. Lee Loughnane [a founding member and trumpet player for the group] was more intimately involved with it than the rest of us. But between the director and the producer and the editor, I’m in it far more than I wanted to be. [Laughs] I was interviewed a couple of different times during the making of it just because I couldn’t not, being a responsible member of the band. And really, I have to defer to my wife’s opinion of it. She was completely removed from the whole thing, so she really saw it cold and she thought it was pretty good. She doesn’t like anything!

I think a lot of people consider you a major player in the overall Chicago story, so I’m not surprised to hear that you are in there a good amount. What would you have wanted to see instead?

Recently I saw the Eagles documentary [History of the Eagles]. I saw it when it first came out and I saw it again recently. They were so huge and they had so much archival footage that it was really rather interesting. It was a pop music/industry history lesson. We didn’t really have a lot of stuff, because I just think that we were busy making music. We were too busy making music and what little home camera stuff we had, I think it was pretty bad anyway, but I think the producers of our film used as much as they could possibly use. I guess I would have searched more carefully and more exhaustively to see if there was more archival footage somewhere, whether it’s in the archives of radio stations or TV stations or somebody somewhere. We played a lot of places and I know that there was cameras at a lot of them, I just don’t know where that footage is and I would have liked to have tried to find it.

Was there anything in there that you were surprised to see as the guy who has been along for this entire ride?

[Long pause] No. [Laughs] But I know for instance when the band first played in New York City at Central Park, and this is when the first album was coming out, CBS and Columbia Records filmed our concert in Central Park live in black and white. Great footage, especially of Terry Kath playing guitar. I would rather have seen that than some of the things I saw in this film.

As this band nears the 50-year mark, it’s incredible that there are still four original members left in the group. Do you see an end date on this band? Is it possible that this band continues forward someday with no original members?

I suppose. I do think that to a large degree, the music is more important than who is playing it or singing on some level. But having said that, I’m not sure I would want to … I mean, when I’ve seen the Beatlemania [tribute] groups perform in various places, it’s the music that holds the interest and not so much the guys who are portraying the Beatles onstage. So then it’s just a matter of how relevant and interesting the music that whatever band Chicago becomes without the members, it’s going to be more important about the repertoire that they choose to play. I think that the repertoire that I wish they would play is going to be different than the repertoire they choose to play.

I think it’s interesting, because certainly this is not something that Chicago would have considered in 1967, but there are a lot of groups like Chicago that are finding their music has become everlasting because there are new generations that continue to come out and discover the band’s music. We’re already starting to see some of these bands that are continuing on with either close to no original members or no original members. I don’t think that any of those bands would have seen their groups turning into these everlasting corporations that they’ve become.

Yeah. I was just watching a bit of Tony Bennett with [Lady] Gaga and also the bit he did with Amy Winehouse. For me, that was chilling and that’s the kind of once-in-a-lifetime performance that we won’t get to see again because she’s not around. So I think that there’s something to be said [for] letting Chicago stop and not go on.

What else is coming up either for you personally or Chicago that you want people to know about?

Well you know, the other venerable band, known as Earth, Wind & Fire, and Chicago, playing again together. Playing tonight in Louisville, playing Friday night in Chicago. Even though we thought that we not play much after last summer or even a couple of years ago, that show, that concert with the two bands, has turned out to be quite an experience for the audiences but especially for the guys in the band. Because we’re all sort of feeling…although no one’s saying it, we’re all sort of feeling that this could be the last time around, you know. Especially with all of the people that have passed this past year.

When you say “last time around,” are you speaking of Chicago and Earth, Wind & Fire together?

Yeah. Except they keep adding dates. [Laughs]

It’s good to be wanted.

It’s good to be wanted. Exactly right.

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