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Tom Scholz Explores ‘Life, Love & Hope’ on Boston’s New Album

Gary Pihl, BandBoston.com

It’s been 11 years since Boston released their last album, ‘Corporate America.’ If you were starting to think that there wouldn’t be another Boston album in your lifetime, you weren’t alone. As Tom Scholz shared with us during an exclusive interview, there were times when he too wondered if he would be able be able to finish the album he had been working on over the past decade.

“There’s always the question of whether I’m going to finish it,” Scholz says. “I certainly had that concern this time. It’s hard to think at all or let yourself think about the end result when you know you’ve got so far to go.”

Scholz was able to find the finish line in the long run, and ‘Life, Love & Hope,’ the resulting album, will be in stores on Dec. 3 — just in time for him to enjoy a break for the holidays. It’s a pause in the action that he says is long overdue. “These recording projects are so intense that most of my life gets put on hold while they’re going on,” he says. “There’s loads of things I’d love to be doing! Right now, I think I’d just like to have a vacation.”

The creative mastermind has spent a good portion of his life in the studio crafting music for Boston, which began as a basement project that was funded in the early days by Scholz’s day job at Polaroid. His work as a product design engineer for the company would help to provide the financial fuel that would eventually bring his musical dreams to reality. As he recalls, not everybody who heard the music that he was working on was supportive of his vision.

“When I first started recording, I was told by all of the experts in the business that the kind of music that I was doing was never going to sell,” he recalls. “That disco was the coming thing and it was going to take over and what I was interested in was a minor sideline. So I had no expectations that there was going to be any great interest in the album that I was working on. As you can imagine, it was quite a shock when it took off the way it did.”

‘Life, Love & Hope’ carries remnants of those early days in its sound — which is unmistakable from the moment the soaring harmonies kick in on ‘Heaven on Earth,’ the album’s opening track and lead single. It provides a vintage moment on an album that otherwise contains quite a bit of exploration, both musically and sonically — something that we’ve come to expect from Scholz when he’s working in the backroom on new Boston music.

He shared the story behind the creation of the new album during our recent conversation while offering a few hints as far as what we can look forward to in 2014 and beyond from Boston.

Tom, it’s great to talk with you about this new record.

Thanks very much. It’s a thrill for me to have anybody else hear it besides me!

Boston have moved through some interesting phases in recent years, as you’ve been working with a variety of people vocally, from Brad Delp to Tommy DeCarlo, Michael Sweet, Kimberley Dahme and, more recently, David Victor. You’re the guy who ultimately puts it all together to hopefully make it sound like a Boston album. New voices give you essentially new instruments to work with. As a guy who likes to tinker with things, that must be exciting for you, having really endless possibilities of where you can go with it.

When I write a song and come up with an arrangement and a vocal part, it’s always a challenge trying to find a singer who can interpret it sort of the way that I hear it, and it’s a very difficult thing to do. I mean, singing is like playing an instrument — everybody does it a little bit different — singing maybe even more so. So it’s a challenge, but all of these people that you mentioned are very talented and I’ve been very, very lucky in that department. Tommy DeCarlo stepped up — he wasn’t just an unknown, he’d never even been in a band before. He was a regular guy with a regular job and a family man with kids. He just turned into the ultimate professional singer. He just comes into the studio and he nails the parts in Boston. I’m very lucky.

With where you’ve evolved to in your overall creation process, how early on can you hear the vocalist that you want to use on a particular song? Where is it in the whole process where you decide that it’s going to be a Tommy song, Kimberley, David or perhaps a combination?

Sometimes I’ll have an idea of a voice I think might work and then it doesn’t! The last cut on the album, ‘The Way You Look Tonight,’ I tried four different singers — I mean, complete recordings [that were] edited — the whole thing, before I found the right one, which ended up being Tommy DeCarlo who was the last one I tried. Then again, for some reason I thought that Kimberley would sound great on ‘If You Were In Love’ and I wrote it because of that, for a female voice, but I had always intended to have it accompanied by harmonies that had male voices with her. But when I heard her sing the song and I heard the second verse harmonies come in, I just said, “This couldn’t possibly be any better,” so she ended up singing the thing in its entirety. So you never know, I mean this time I even sang one of them myself, which is totally unheard of on a Boston album. But I’ve been showing singers how to sing my songs for over 30 years and I decided it was time for me to do one myself.

It seems like you’re always willing to try things and take that risk. You certainly seem like that type of person. Since you mentioned Kimberley, I want to ask about that a little bit. At the time that you brought her into the mix with the ‘Corporate America’ album, that was a bold step putting a female vocalist on a Boston album. Did you have any hesitation about doing that?

No. ‘Corporate America’ was the one time that I departed from the way I’ve always made Boston records, which is primarily me working alone in the studio. In that case, I tried to involve some other people and it was an experiment and it didn’t work. But you know, these things are all sort of learning experiences. As far as her singing, no, I didn’t hesitate. I knew that there would be some backlash and I knew that there were going to be people who were used to hearing just a male voice in Boston songs. There’s certainly been more than one singer in Boston, even though Brad obviously sang most of it. But you know, this music, it comes from the heart. Every one of these songs that ends up on a recording is there only by great sacrifice of my personal life and time. So I sort of have to go with what I hear for the music and what I hear for the songs. This time, in the case of the song ‘If You Were In Love,’ she just did a beautiful job on it and of course is obviously pivotal on ‘You Gave Up On Love’ also. It’s a voice that works and she’s a very talented singer. I’d have to rate her as one of the three best singers that I’ve ever worked with or heard. To be honest with you, it’s a shame that more of the music doesn’t work for her voice.

Since you mentioned the last album, where did that leave you as far as where you wanted to go with making this new one?

Well, I knew I was going back to my usual way of doing it, which was basically me, myself and I in the studio going in whatever direction my thoughts and imagination take me. I am a little bit surprised that it took so long! On the other hand, there were a lot of roadblocks and a lot of bumps in the road. So there were lots of delays and [also] four tours in the course of the 10 years.

I was going to ask about that. You are someone who is legendary for staying in the studio and holding onto something until you feel it’s done. What sort of things did you wrestle with on this record?

Pretty much everything as I always do. They’re seldom easy — the songs rarely come together and go onto tape the way I imagine they could. It has happened. I had very good luck with ‘Amanda’ on ‘Third Stage’ — that happened very quickly. I had very good luck with the song ‘Don’t Look Back’ on the second album — thank God! But typically, I’ll go to work on a song and I basically get excited about some idea that I have that will be a set of chord changes and maybe some riffs for a verse and a chorus and hopefully some rough arrangement. I’ll start recording and I’ll get a rhythm track down and maybe some background guitars and bass. I’ll basically start putting it together the way I think I might hear it. Unfortunately, the moment I start to do that, I have a million more ideas about the same song. So I’ll get off on lots of sidetracks, trying different things with each part. Every time I put a new instrument on, I hear all sorts of new things that I could have done with the instruments that came before it, so then I have to back up and try those. It’s a mathematical progression that grows into large, large amounts of time very quickly.

‘Heaven on Earth’ really sounds like classic Boston. Can you tell us a bit about how that song came together?

[It came together] in my traditional way. I had some chord changes with some little licks that went in between them for both the verse and the chorus. It was a particularly hard guitar part to play for the accompanying rhythm guitar. But I really liked it, so once I got past the hurdle of being able to figure out how to actually perform the part, things happened pretty quickly with that one. It went together fairly quickly. It did take me a while to find what I thought was the right voice for it. I actually had the song finished and an arrangement for it with my voice on the recording, which I usually do just to show the singer how the song goes, back in 2008. I think I put the final vocal track on that three years later with David Victor, if I’m not mistaken. So there was a bit of a wait in between, and then of course I automatically heard new arrangement ideas and I had to try those too. That’s usually the way it is. I’ll go in and get started and after maybe three months or so, I’ll either have something that’s close to being finished or I’ll have hit a roadblock or just not be happy with it and [at that point] I put it on the shelf and then I come back to it later.

I think some people have wondered, in regards to your overall process, how you’ve evolved to the drum sound that you’ve been using on albums since ‘Third Stage’ versus what some people viewed as more of an organic drum sound with those first two records. Can you talk a bit about that?

Well, they’re actually surprisingly similar. I still use, as much as possible, live cymbals and snares. There are some drum tracks on ‘Third Stage’ that used sampled drum sounds, and I also tried that to some extent with ‘Walk On.’ You know, I like live cymbals and I don’t know whether to call it a method or an invention, but I have a way that I record cymbals which allows me to get an enormous ring off time without beating the cymbals to death. So I always prefer to get that live so that each crash is different. But there isn’t a lot of difference. Probably the only one that was somewhat out of the ordinary was the first album, because I actually had those drum arrangements all sorted out, down to exactly where the hits went — the rides, the hats, the accents and the fills — before I started the recording of the final master for that one. In that case, the record company felt that they had to have a [new] recording … They couldn’t use a recording that had been made in a non-professional studio. They had to have the studio made in a professional studio with a professional producer and etc. So that’s what they thought was happening. Of course, what actually happened was that I went back in the same studio in my basement by myself and laid down literally identical tracks. The difference was that Sib Hashian played the drums and did a great job as a session drummer. On the first demos that they heard, Jim Masdea was the drummer, but the patterns — everything was virtually identical.

At this point, do you ever start with a live drummer laying down the parts, or are you always working in pieces?

Well, there has to be somebody hitting the drums. I’ve always played a little, but I got more into it in the later years. It was the kind of thing where I found that I would have to put in a fill to get it sound the way that I was imagining it. But I hated spending all of the time — to do a good job playing drums, like everything else it takes dedication of hours of practice every day for at least the periods when you’re going to be playing. I have a bad back and have for years, so it really bugs me, but I will do that and I have sat there and banged out the pattern and then played to it.

What I will usually end up doing is that I will lay something down that is a rough guitar track or keyboard without much time to it and then play to it. Then I’ll go back to the instrument, like if it’s a guitar part, for instance in ‘Heaven on Earth,’ and then I’ll play the guitar to it. Then I make the adjustments and that’s when I start to see exactly where it feels natural for it to speed up or slow down and where there should be a retard and where maybe you should be on top of the beat a little bit. Then I’ll go back and adjust the drum tracks. It’s very time consuming. Back in the old days, I’d be sitting there slicing together little pieces of tape for days on end, but you know, sometimes that’s what it takes.

I think that Boston fans are happy that you were able to include some of Brad’s vocals on this record. Do you think Brad would have been happy to be on this new record?

Well, of course he did the singing on the songs, knowing that they were headed for a Boston album. I would think that if he were alive today and I didn’t use them, I think he would have been quite unhappy. You know, my only judgment about the album is how I feel about it, because there’s nobody else with the exception of a singer coming in towards the end of each track to sing a part, I am basically working alone. So I really don’t ever know what the reaction is going to be to any of the songs or the album as a whole. So basically the only measurement I have is how I feel about it. I was really happy with the way this one turned out. Sometimes, by the time I get to the end of a project like this, I’m pretty burnt on it. But this time, I love listening to this album. I actually keep a disc in my car, and when I’m going to drive someplace that is a distance, I’ll put that in and I listen all the way through. So I’m really happy with it, and I’m sure that if Brad were still around he’d be thrilled that he was on a new album called ‘Life, Love & Hope’ that was getting received well.

There are three tracks on this album that, in a sense, you’ve revisited from the ‘Corporate America’ album. What made you want to go back to those songs?

Well, there are two different stories. The first song, ‘Didn’t Mean to Fall in Love,’ is very close to the original. I did remaster it and change the mix a little bit, but that’s basically the same song that was released back in 2002. That’s the only song on the album that I didn’t write in its entirety. Curly Smith and a friend of his wrote that verse and I just really liked the song. So my goal was to try to get a bigger audience for it than it got with ‘Corporate America.’ It was no mistake that I put it in there in the number-two position. I really wanted people to hear this song. On the other two songs, ‘Someone’ and ‘You Gave Up on Love,’ there was a much different motivation. I thought I just completely missed the mark with those two recordings on that prior release. In fact, right after the ‘Corporate America’ album was released, I went back to work on ‘Someone’ with Brad. He re-sang some lines and I did a lot of rearranging. I ended up remixing it and it took over the course of [what] I think was eight years to get it to where I finally thought it should have been in the first place and where I was happy with it.

‘You Gave Up On Love’ is the same story — I was very unhappy with how that turned out. With that one, I saved some of the tracks from the original recording, but it’s essentially a new recording. Now, the moment those giant three-part a capella harmonies come in, you know it’s a Boston song. I thought Tommy did a great job of covering that first verse lead vocal and finishing out the choruses. It works for me now and the slide guitar should have been there in the first place and it’s a nice offset to Kimberley Dahme’s flute line at the start of each verse. So now I’m very happy with both of them. I’m lucky to have had a second chance to get those out in a form that I’m happy with.

Regarding the three tracks that Brad is on on this record, does that clear the vaults of stuff that you have with his vocals that you could release?

There are other recordings. Whether or not there’s anything that … I’m not planning on releasing anything else that I have that I think he would be happy with as far as songs that I’ve written that he’s on. There are certainly live recordings that have things that we did onstage that aren’t on any album and that is certainly a possibility for the future.

What are the touring plans looking like in support of this record?

You know, I don’t plan tours necessarily around records. I know that’s what most people do. We’ve been out on the road four times while I was working on this record, actually. But we had been talking about a tour in 2014, and that looks like that is going to come together, which is always very exciting. That’s by far the fun part. The studio work is the nasty, tedious, hard and nerve-wracking part, interrupted by moments of exhilaration. Playing live is the chance to actually have some fun and get on a stage. There’s kind of no comparison between playing to the four walls in your studio as opposed to playing to thousands of people who are there just to hear you play your songs.

Next: Top 10 Boston Songs

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