REO's Kevin: Cronin: Rolling with the Changes!

This interview first appeared in Goldmine Magazine in 2013.
The interview was conducted by Classic Rock Revisited’s Jeb Wright.
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By Jeb Wright

When it comes to rock and roll front men, no one, and I mean no one, is as energetic, enigmatic and energetic as Kevin Cronin.  REO Speedwagon fans realize that at least one song on the set list may fail to make it to the stage on any given night as Cronin may take up that much time with his stage rants.  Some fans use the spoken word sections of the performance as beer and bathroom breaks, while others can’t wait to see what he has come up for this tour.  Love them or hate them, they are as classic as many of the band’s hit songs, and, in the case of “157 Riverside Ave” they become part of the song i.e. when Gary talks with his geetar!

So, it was rather ironic to talk to Kevin for this interview and discover him being soft spoken.  I have interviewed Cronin at least a half dozen times before and he speaks clearly and passionately about all things REO.  Hearing him whispering away was quite a shock.  Seems the singer had laryngitis and despite doctor’s orders to shut the hell up, he still came through with a great interview for the Goldmine faithful. 

Part one of our interview was soft and sweet and focused mainly on REO’s live in concert release Live at the Moondance Jam…a favorite concert festival of both Kevin and me, in fact, I interviewed him and the band for the Jumbo Tron at Moondance only moments before the cameras began rolling that night.  During our interview, this time, we got so caught up chatting about Moondance and rock and roll families and the reworking of classic REO songs that KC realized, when his name was announced over the airport loudspeaker, that he was about to miss his plane!  Our interview was cut short.

However, thanks to Cronin’s kindness and willingness to finish our interview, and being able to communicate electronically, Cronin and I were able to finish the interview by typing back and forth the rest of the questions and answers, the result  of which was getting to finish a great interview and allow Kevin to rest his vocal chords!  Part II focused on many classic REO tunes, as well as some deep album cuts being discussed and how Cronin feels about former bandmate Gary Richrath.  The answers just might surprise you…

Jeb: You’re voice sounds hoarse. 

Kevin: I am suffering from a bit of laryngitis, so I will be quieter than usual today.  When you’re resting your voice shouting is not good, but whispering is just as bad; they’re the two extremes.  Not talking at all is what the doctor wants me to do, but talking softly is the next best alternative. 

Jeb:  REO is the favorite band to have ever played The Moondance Jam.  For people who have never been there, or don’t know what it is, please describe it.

Kevin:  I think it is the last of the big time old school rock festivals.  From the bands standpoint, we’ve seen it grow from a funky backwoods little festival into the great event that it is now.  It was a very grassroots type of festival and it started small and built over the years.  I think the dedication of the people who ran it and the fact that it’s in the northern Midwest…people in the Midwest are loyal to their bands.  It’s like Woodstock in a way.  People are there and they are camping out…its Woodstock without the bad acid, put it that way. 

Jeb: Describe your performance that night. 

Kevin: We got so lucky because there have been a number of times over the years where we’ve had the massive video shoot and all the remote trucks and the cameras and the whole thing and, for one reason or another, it just didn’t translate when you ended up watching it on video. 

Any number of things can get in the way, like technical glitches, or a subpar mix.  Sometimes, when the cameras are rolling the band gets so amped up that you shoot yourself in the foot. There are all kinds of things that can go wrong. 

I swear to God, in the history of our band, that night at Moondance was the first time that all of the stars lined up.  I think it was a 12-camera Hi Def shoot with state of the art sound and it was a beautiful production.  The weather was perfect.  I think we went on just before midnight.  They told me there were 30,000 plus people there.  I think Sammy Hagar played the night before and Lynyard Skynyrd the night before that, so the people were warmed up.  The band was in the right headspace and everybody was healthy and we really got lucky. 

We had to wait a little while before we could release it because there were some contracts where they got to show it on TV or something.  As far as capturing that chapter of REO Speedwagon it was great. 

We got offers to record live shows subsequent to that and I just keep saying, “It’s not worth it.  We are not going to top that Moondance show for this era of the band.  Let’s get that out there.”  Once you get that out there then that ends that era and it is a motivator for the band to kick it up into another gear.  To capture the last ten years of the band, that show was it. 

For some odd reason, I feel like we are getting better.  It doesn’t seem like that a bunch of guys around 60 years old in a rock band would be getting better.  I don’t know that we actually are, but I feel like we are. 

Jeb: You have maturity.  You can enjoy things.  You even have muscle memory of playing the music for so many years.  The band really clicks on this recording. You could be on auto pilot but you’re not.

Kevin:  I appreciate that, Jeb.  There is a balance between auto pilot and being scared shitless.  If you can find the right balance of those two things then you’re in good shape.  There has to be a certain amount of muscle memory after all this time.  When you have that, then it frees you up to try things that are outside of the memory.  If you’re trying to remember what the chords are for a song, then you’re not going to be able to be very creative with it.  There is something to be said in my mind for that. 

I get asked the question, “How does it feel to still be singing those old songs every night?”  My immediate reaction is that they are not old songs to me.  Every night I get to reinvent it.  I get to try something a little bit different than I tried last night.  Sometimes it is just surviving the night because I’ve got a cold or whatever.  Sometimes you’re in such a space, creatively, that you’re trying new things and you’re having fun and the audience is on that trip with you.  Other times it is the enormity of a show like Moondance where the power of that audience and having that many people sharing that experience that is centered around the little songs that we made up…there is something that is humbling and mind-blowing at the same time.  It is always something different.  Like I say, I still really enjoy it and I still really am grateful to have the chance to remake the albums every night onstage. 

Jeb: You are playing at Moondance in 2014 and so is Styx.  I love it when you two play shows together. 

Kevin: Styx has a similar attitude as us.  Every night they bring it and it shows the effort that you put into it.  When I go to a show I get a vibe from the artist. I can tell if someone is just going through the motions or if someone really loves it and people are looking for that energy that they deserve.  They expect the best of us. 

Jeb: I want to talk about some of your songs.  You were talking about reinventing things and you just did that with the song “Roll with the Changes” in the Jobs movie.

Kevin:  We had a nice placement in that movie.  It was a poignant scene.  The fact that they used the re-recorded music made me glad.  I was at the premier and I was sitting in the theater.  The movie is really rich with music.  The music is almost, in my opinion, it’s almost as important as the movie.  You can close your eyes and listen to the soundtrack as it is so interesting.  A lot of the songs in the movie are remixes and they sounded so good.  Some are classic songs done by younger artists.  The movie theater had this huge sound system and everything was so awesome. 

I was thinking that the original version of “Roll with the Changes” was the first time that Richrath and I had ever produced a record together, so we had no idea what we were doing.  When I listen to that record it is like there is no kick drum, as we forgot to put the kick drum on the record.  When the re-record came on, it came through the sound system and it just kicked my ass.  It is more like the song sounds today.  There was nothing different in the arrangement, but it sounded more powerful.  I feel the band, now, has a different kind of power that the band is playing from and it shows in that version of “Roll” for sure. 

Jeb: When you sit in your house and you watch something where REO music comes on is it odd to listen to yourself, or watch yourself, in your own home?

Kevin: Well, first of all, you’re assuming that I have ever sat down in my house and done that.  When I walk into my house, I quickly become my wife’s personal assistant.  I’ve got a list of stuff a mile long that I’ve got to do.  The last thing anyone in my house does is sit around and watch REO Speedwagon videos. 

I’m too busy being ‘dad’ when I’m home and I like it that way.  As rock and roll kids go, they are really well adjusted and I am strictly their dad. 

I think they are proud of what I do.  I am working on a TV show where I get to go into my daughter’s choir class…she’s a member of the elite 12 kids of the choir.  We are working out a choral version of “Can’t Fight This Feeling” and they are going to accompany me.  In those moments, that’s where my daughter gets to appreciate what I do and that is the side of what I do that I think is important for my kids to experience.  The rock show stuff is fun, but it is the actual working out of the music that is important. 

I have been doing that at her high school the past couple days and it is one of the greatest musical experiences that I have had.  These kids are really good.  To have my daughter there is really great and makes it the best of both worlds. 

Jeb:  I think REO gets lumped in as a pop band and that is really unfair. 

Kevin:  I do not think that is accurate. I think there are a lot of different kinds of music and each songwriter approaches it from a different way.  I don’t like being pigeonholed.  I would guess that most recording artists would agree that there are things about them that the public doesn’t know that they are capable of because whatever you have your first success with, people think that is what you are, and that is all you are.  Hopefully, I’ve still got a few surprises and I will tell you that I’m not done yet.   

Jeb: You bring songs into a band situation.  As a songwriter, you created the seed, what it is like have a band take your song and change it? 

Kevin:  Bringing a song into rehearsal is the scariest thing that I do; it really is.  I am just walking in with an acoustic guitar and I hear what the song could potentially be in my head and I have a feeling about it.  I know what the song is built upon and I know the chord changes and I know where the melody goes.  I know a lot about the song, when I bring it to the guys, and I know they can’t possibly understand it to the degree that I do. 

It is really scary because what if I don’t put it across well? I can’t expect the guys to hear what I hear in my head until the record comes out, basically. 

It is a real touchy process as the songwriter.  Sometimes every idea that you have doesn’t always work out in the studio.  Some ideas work out better than you may have expected.  It is scary, but it is also so exciting and so rewarding.  The times that it works, and works well, it is just amazing and that is why we keep going in for more abuse. 

Jeb:  The song “Keep the Fire Burning” was not a song that I liked at all when it came out.  I saw you perform it, acoustically, and that version I fell in love with.  It was a totally different song.  How did you come to get that song to be where it came to be?

Kevin:  You got it.  That’s interesting because that is the way I felt about it.  I really didn’t like the record that was on.  Honestly, I can’t even say that I liked the song that much but I guess in retrospect…I am trying to think how it happened.  I think it had to do with the 30th anniversary of the Good Trouble album and the fact that we never play any of those tunes live.  We were getting requests for it through our Facebook page and stuff. 

I literally hadn’t listened to that record probably since soon after we finished it.  I put it on and when I heard “Keep the Fire Burning” it went a certain chord direction and I thought, “Wait a minute, that’s not right.”  I got out the guitar and tried a different thing that I was hearing.  Suddenly, I kind of liked the lyrics.  It was interesting because usually it’s the opposite for me.  Usually, if I want to rewrite something in a song then it is a lyrical rewrite I want to do.  To rewrite the music around the lyric was a first for me, but it really changed the way I felt about it.  It gave it a different feel and I gave it a few different chord changes and I really like singing that song now.  I trot that out every once in a while when I am in the mood for it. 

Jeb: Talk about “Time for Me to Fly.” A guy in another band (not Head East…well…okay Head East) told me you wrote this song and some others that appeared later on Hi Infidelity while you were still in High School. I don’t think that is true. Tell me if it is and what you DO remember about writing “Time.”

Kevin: "Time For Me To Fly" was one in a long series of what I call "happy accidents". I just happened to have been on hanging on a friend's front porch in Boulder Colorado, and coincidentally his guitar was resting against a chair in open D, a tuning with which I was totally unfamiliar. At that moment I was feeling inspired having never seen the Rocky Mountains, or any other mountains for that matter, and I really wanted to play some guitar. So I started messing around, trying to suss out some fingerings. When all else failed I remembered Richie Havens playing with his thumb at Woodstock, (one of that film's most powerful scenes in my opinion...the guy had no amps, no drums, just him, his beat up acoustic guitar, and a song he was making up as he went along...awesome!) so I wrapped my own thumb around the neck of my friend David Drury's Guild six string and next thing I knew the verses of "Time For Me To Fly" effortlessly materialized. Those verses laid around in my head for about five or six years until one night in Chicago the chorus popped into said head, and I had me a song.

That being said, I would like to take this opportunity to start a rumor that "Never Been Any Reason" was actually written by one of the Head East guys' high school girlfriends right before she left for college. Think about it!

Jeb: I wanna go WAYYYYY back. R.E.O./T.W.O. and the song is one that YOU SHOULD PLAY LIVE!!! Tell me about “Let me Ride.”

Kevin: "Let Me Ride" was my answer to CSN's masterpiece, "Suite Judy Blue Eyes"...the songs are actually quite similar, with one minor exception: their song is actually a masterpiece.

When I heard the first Crosby Stills and Nash album my head exploded. As far as I was concerned Stephen Stills ripped up the songwriting handbook and redefined the art form. I dug some of the early Buffalo Springfield stuff like "Bluebird" and "Mr. Soul", (my high school band, Fushia, covered those tunes), but when I put CSN on my high school girlfriend's turntable she didn't see me again the rest of that day. I could not stop listening to "Suite Judy". I literally got up, set the needle back into the lead in groove, and listened to that cut twelve times in a row before I even got to "Marrakesh Express". "Let Me Ride" was merely my feeble attempt at imitating my heroes, (although it did become a stalwart of the Fushia set list.) My lyrics make very little sense, of course I never really understood exactly what Stills was talking about either. Then again, he had reportedly been schtooping, er inspired by, the great songstress Judy Collins. I on the other hand had not yet been laid.).

Jeb: Gotta talk about “Music Man.”

Kevin: "Music Man" got me the REO gig. If not for that song I would likely have gone on to tremendous success as a happy hour folksinger at supper clubs all around Chicago and the surrounding area! I suppose my lyric was slightly prophetic, if you believe in that shit. I don't.

Jeb: Another one of that albums that is horribly underrated is “Being Kind (Can Hurt Someone Sometimes).”

Kevin: Let's see, horribly underrated...I guess that's a compliment? Come to think of it that song is another instance of me trying to write a Stills song, and coming up horribly short. Years later when I wrote "Roll With The Changes" I was not thinking about CSN or Stephen's writing at all, yet one night under his breath I heard Stills mutter something about me having stolen "Roll" from him. I guess one could make a case that some of the sustaining organ stuff bore a resemblance to "Love The One You're With", (which happens to be one of my all time favorite songs...oopsie). Then again I have never made a secret of the influence CSN has had on me or the pleasure their music has given me over the years.

Jeb: What is the REAL reason…all BS aside, you left before Ridin’ the Storm Out?

Kevin: I was politely asked to leave, on behalf of the band, by then tour manager Andy Green, after dinner in the dressing room, before that night's concert. everything!

Jeb: Tell me about writing the lyrics to “Keep Pushin’.”

Kevin: I was lost on the streets of Chicago, literally, metaphorically, musically, emotionally, you name it. I had dropped out of college, run off to join a rock band, been excused of my duties with said rock band, and returned with my tail between my legs, and not much else. I was shuffling around the Loop, wondering where my life was headed, feeling like my prospects were few, yet knowing that I could not possibly give up on my dream. There was no choice but to keep pushin' on...which I have been doing ever since.

Jeb: Was the Tuna album the changing point in band power? Did you inadvertently start to lead REO?

Kevin: I had some good luck writing leading up to the Tuna album, and to me the song rules. My theory, though some may disagree, is that the band serves the songs. That being said, I have always felt like Gary and I worked together really closely on that album. Gary had been the driving force of "Live, You Get What You Play For"... It was his idea, his production, his baby. The success of the Live album was what forced Epic into letting us produce Tuna, so any power that fell into my lap was a result of Gary's vision of capturing the band's live show on record, and thereby giving all of the early songs, including "Ridin' The Storm Out", "157 Riverside Ave." a second chance. The band's sound became more melodic on the Tunafish record, but that was more a result of the songwriting. Gary had some pretty melodic stuff on there too.

Jeb: Nine Lives… I like. But it is very much a Richrath album, IMO. You never play anything from that album, other than Bruce’s song… Why? The fans would love “Only the Strong Survive.” 

Kevin: I love the sentiment behind "Only The Strong Survive"..."You may not know this but you are everything you ever needed" is another of Richrath's amazing opening lines. That being said, "Heaven with a touch of New York, silver with a touch of gold" may be one of his most underwhelming. I can't find any way to interpret that line. I just can't sing it.

Jeb: The last album I will mention is Hi Infidelity. This is so historic. I want the KC take on it, with hindsight. I mean, it made you famous, gave you TONS of cash, cemented REO’s place in Rock History. Yet, it also sowed the seeds of Richrath’s exit and it divided the hardcore fan base. My guess is that while it must have been a glorious time, it probably was very stressful and maybe even a hard time…

Kevin: Yeah, all that and so much more. I was convinced that the band's success and my emotional health were inextricably interwoven...if the band made it big, all my problems would be over. Well guess again Junior! Turns out that the enormous popularity of "Hi Infidelity"only magnified my insecurities. Bummer right? I had no choice but to actually look inside myself for the solutions to issues which had been piling up since I was a kid. Hey, at least that "Keep On Loving You" money helped take the sting out of my shrink bills.

Jeb: I would not be doing my job to the readers if I didn’t ask about Gary. It is widely reported his substance abuse problems are, well, problematic. You two were a true team and I am wondering how the way things turned out makes you feel when you look back at the good, the bad and the ugly with that particular relationship.

Kevin: I'm sure some things regarding Gary and me, our relationship, what happened when he left the band were said by me in various emotional states including anger, sadness, determination, ego, whatever. But putting aside all the bullshit, I love the guy, probably a lot more than he loves me. He was my rock 'n roll big brother. I learned so much from him. He was, and is a rock star in the true sense of the word. I am but a pretender.

Jeb: I would love to hear you take that song and maybe ten others and strip them down and give us acoustic Cronin singing REO classics with just the acoustic guitar. 

Kevin: I know I’m going to do that eventually.  It is really just a time management issue for me.  Like I told you, having three teenagers in the house there is just not time to do that.  At some point, when I have more time on my hands, I know I’m going to get around to doing this. Hopefully, there will still be some people around who want to hear it. 

I’ve still got songs that have never seen the light of day and it is a little frustrating at times, but I can only do what I can do.  Playing with the band and keeping the band working is kind of the priority. 

Jeb: During this interview you were kind enough to keep talking even though you had laryngitis…. With all of your stage raps, and talking so much on stage…do you think your band mates may have secretly been glad to hear you have to be quite for once?  

Kevin: if there were a type of laryngitis which affected only a person's speaking voice, but their singing voice remained intact, my band mates would break into Cedar Sinai Hospital, steal the bacteria, and inject me while I was in my bunk.