CHICAGO’S IN THE HAPPINESS BUSINESS
by Paul Freeman [2009 Interview]
Chicago began with nothing but a dream and an innovative, horn-oriented rock sound. Forty years and 120 million record sales later, they’re feelin’ stronger every day.
“It’s hard to believe,” says keyboardist/vocalist/songwriter Robert Lamm. “To keep this many people together, roughly pointed in the same direction, yeah, I would say that that’s an accomplishment.
“It’s a group of guys that are really and truly musicians. We try to listen to as much different music as there is, including what’s new. We’ve been able to stay engaged with the idea of being a band and trying to play interesting music every night. Even if it’s the same songs every night, you’ve got to play them in an interesting way.”
Other bands implode, because they can’t maintain the united commitment to developing musically. “With Chicago, we do want to stay together, to grow and make music and make people happy. We’re in the happiness business.
“Pleasing an audience and pleasing yourself are sort of 1A and 1B... and they change places all the time. Obviously, if you’re able to make an audience happy, it’s a lot easier to stand on stage and want to do it.”
In 1967, when Lamm joined the band, originally based in Illinois, its name was the Big Thing. “We shook hands and said, ‘Let’s take this as far as we can go.’ At that point, we were in the basement of Walt Parazaider’s parents house.” he laughs.
It wasn’t a lock that the band was going to become big enough to escape the basement. They weren’t following any rock formula, choosing instead to forge a new path, in terms of instrumentation and influences.
“In addition to the naiveté that can give you confidence, we had the spirit of exploration. We’ve been able to maintain that to some degree.”
Massive success brought a measure of self-doubt. “You worry about everything. Is this a mistake? Is this the wrong career? Do people really like this? How do you apportion your time between your career and your family? The nuts and bolts of life are complicated enough when you’re not being ‘a rock star.’”
Through trial and error, Lamm was able to achieve balance in his life. Releasing solo albums periodically helped keep the creative fires stoked.
“I’ve had some of the most fulfilling moments doing solo work, writing songs, being in control of a piece of music, being able to shape it without having to run it by six or seven other people. That’s a whole other muscle that’s worth testing, flexing and developing. Those solo albums have kept me sane and productive.”
He doesn’t try to force a song out of his brain and onto a musical staff. “I’m not good at dragging the muse into the room in handcuffs. I’ve never been a workaholic in that sense. But when I have the time, which means when I’m off the road, home for a couple of weeks, I give myself the freedom to sit down and play piano as little or as much as I want... and that’s when things happen. I just let it flow.
“My experience has been that I usually think a song is better than it is, when I first start out. Then as it develops, I think, well, maybe that wasn’t as good as it could have been. Maybe that’s just the nature of creativity.”
He doesn’t toil endlessly, pursuing elusive perfection. “I know when something’s finished and it’s got to stand or fail on whatever characteristics it has. I know it’s time to move on to the next one.”
In concert, music can always evolve. “Things occur, night to night, even in songs we’ve played for 30 or 40 years. There are moments in each song, where it might happen on a voicing or a transition that I’ve never found before and I try to remember it. Playing live definitely keeps the juices flowing.
“This year, we decided to dust off a bunch of older songs we hadn’t played in a long time, try to create arrangements that include a few songs and write the segues. That’s really been interesting this year. We love getting those little challenges, those little puzzles to solve.”
For Lamm, who studied music for two years at university, the learning never stops. “All musicians realize, the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.”
He’s currently working on a bossa nova-flavored solo CD. The band is planning a series of collaborations. Such luminaries as John Mayer, Fiona Apple, Imogen Heap, John Legend, Sting and Barry Gibb have been approached. “This project is a big mountain to climb. I’d really like to tackle that and see what happens.”
The years of recording and touring haven’t worn Lamm down. “It’s a matter of attitude. This is a dream of a life, to be able to do what you really want to do, making music, doing it well and having people appreciate it. You get to travel, meet a lot of people. We get to share this with our loved ones. We’re very conscious of how lucky we are.”
The public continues to be enchanted by such Lamm compositions as “”Beginnings,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and “Saturday In The Park.”
“There are songs by other artists that I grew up with, as well as classical pieces - they’re like old friends. When I hear them, it makes me happy. It takes me to a nice zone, mentally, emotionally. So to know that the band has created some music that has that effect on other people is gratifying.”