Interview: Russ Tolman. From Paisley Underground to Laurel Canyon vibes

The so called Paisley Underground has been back in the news recently with The Long Ryders releasing a new album and touring while a Record Store Day release of an album, ‘3X4’, featured The Bangles, The Dream Syndicate, The Three O’Clock and The Rain Parade. And now Russ Tolman, a founding member of another Paisley Underground band, True West, has released his first solo album in many moons and will be touring the UK for the first time since the 1990’s. Tolman, a native Californian, formed his first band, Suspects, in 1978 along with Steve Wynn and Kendra Smith. Considered the first new wave Californian band, they foundered when Wynn and Smith moved to LA and formed their own band, the Dream Syndicate. Tolman then moved on to True West, a band noted for their twin guitar attack and blend of American and English rock styles (even recording a version of Syd Barrett’s ‘Lucifer Sam’). Despite several close brushes with fame True West called it a day in 1985 and Tolman went on to forge a solo career releasing several acclaimed albums.

Tolman’s last full album release was ‘New Quadraphonic Highway’ in 2000 and while he’s continued to release singles and play live he has concentrated on production work and label management but with a new album all booted and suited and ready to go he returns to the fray. ‘Goodbye El Dorado’ is a collection of songs themed around Los Angeles, recorded with musicians Tolman has worked with over the years including Robert Lloyd, Tom Heyman and Kirk Swan, and on the back of its release, he’s coming to the UK for some dates. On the eve of jetting over to kick off his tour in Spain, Russ was kind enough to spend some time with Americana UK to talk about the album and a few other things.

Aside from the compilation, ‘Compass & Map’, ‘Goodbye El Dorado’ is your first album in almost two decades and this will be your first large scale European tour in a long time. So why the lay off?
It’s been 19 years since ‘New Quadraphonic Highway’ but I got married in 2000, the year it came out, and you can draw your own conclusions from that. Mostly though it was just the start of a different time in my live, of wanting to do different things and getting in touch with my “inner adult,” you might say. But the new album’s been in the works for a while. I actually recorded it about a year and a half ago in Los Angeles and then my wife had an opportunity to work in Japan so we stayed there a while and I mixed the album over there. As for the tour, well, I haven’t played in England since around 1994. I did tour Scandinavia a few years ago, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, but this will be my first time back in the UK since way back then. I’m really looking forward to it and I’m kind of surprised at the interest that’s been shown. In Spain it looks like there’s going to be a crazy turnout. My friend Steve Wynn says that once you get your legend card it’s easy going,  so it might be that Spain is ready to give me my legend card. Scandinavia is always good for me and with regards to the English dates, I’m starting to get an inkling that folk are coming out of the woodwork.

The Paisley Underground has been getting some attention recently; do you think that your history will pull the punters in?
Yeah, I see the term being used and that is great, I mean, I’ll take it. Certainly it’s not what I’m doing these days, I’m now more of a genre hopping country singer or something like that but if people are interested because of that then that’s great.

How did you start off in music and eventually get involved with the fledgling California scene which spawned True West and the others?
I was always drawn to guitars, even at a very early age I loved seeing guys with guitars on TV and so when I was about five my parents went to Mexico and brought me back this ridiculously big sombrero and a guitar. So I had a guitar but I never really learned how to play it and the bridge fell off pretty soon after. So when I was about ten, my step dad bought me another one. I was really wanting an arch top, you know, the ones with the f holes, like a jazz guitar, but what he got me was this big round holed monster and so I never really played that either. So fast forward a few years and when I was about 16 I figured the only way I was ever going to meet a girl who would have sex with me was if I could play guitar and so I became more serious about it. The only thing was that the wire strings on the guitar were like cheese slicers and they really hurt my fingers so I reckoned I should get a bass guitar as the strings were bigger and fatter. So I got a bass and started playing it and I ended up in a polka band for a while. By the time I got to college I was ready to really get into playing guitar but back then, mid seventies, there was this thing that you had to be a virtuoso to play in a band but luckily, punk came along and showed us that any schmuck could do it. And I got the opportunity when Steve Wynn came up to me and told me that Kendra Smith wanted to start a band and they’d heard that I played guitar so did I want to join in and  that’s when we formed Suspects. Steve and Kendra then moved south to UCLA and I joined a band called Meantime which then morphed into True West. The drummer from Suspects, Gavin Blair, became our singer and Frank French was our original drummer, and then Richard McGrath, who was kind of like my guitar hero then and he still is today, joined and things started to take off. Richard and I were both big fans of Television and Richard could play like all the English guys, Page and Clapton and that.

You left True West after two albums for a solo career.
Yes. I wasn’t sure what to do, I mean I didn’t sing in True West but Andy Childs  in the UK agreed to do an album with me and so we did ‘Totem Poles & Glory Holes’ on Zippo and then ‘Down In Earthquake Town’ on Demon and  they started me off. Next, I joined Steve Wynn’s label, Down There. I became a partner in the label and released some records with them and then I had albums on various labels while touring a lot in the nineties. I’ve also done a lot of production and been involved in managing record labels and reissues and so on down to today.

Let’s talk about ‘Goodbye Eldorado’.  It’s essentially an album of songs inspired by Los Angeles. Is it a concept album?
I’ve done other records in which LA was prominently featured, especially ‘Down In Earthquake Town’ but that’s many moons ago. I didn’t start off to write a concept album about LA, in fact the idea of a concept album is like a total slap in the face in these days of streaming and short attention spans so to hear folk talk about it being one is kind of fun. The record really is a bit of a love letter to the city but it’s also a bit of a goodbye note as I feel it’s time to move on to somewhere else. I mean I’ve lived here for a long time, in fact I’ve lived here twice, from ’86, after True West broke up, through to ’96, a good ten years. I moved to San Francisco, met my wife and we stayed there for some time but we both got bored with Frisco so we moved back here about eight years ago. We’re just restless folks.

The opening song, ‘Los Angeles’, was originally a digital download a few years back.
I released that as a digital single some years ago, it was more of a straight up rock version and I thought, well, it’s a great song and not many people heard it then so we did it again with more of a mariachi feel with horns and accordion and it came out really well. Living in Los Angeles the Mexican influence is such a great part of the musical culture and I’d never done that before, never had trumpets on a record, so it was like, let’s try this,  and it turned out great.

It’s not all sunshine and stardom in the LA you sing about with endless traffic jams and the threat of wild fires always there but in ‘Kid’ you touch on a more intimate issue.
Well in California, it seems that 50% of marriages end within five years so there’s a lot of kids like that out here. It’s not exactly what I’d call autobiographical but there are parts in it, the mother buying the local bar, well that’s definitely my mother.

‘Yuba City’ seems like a weird place, is it real?
It’s a town in northern California, about two hours from where I grew up and I ended up going to community college near there in Marysville. And that song, actually I didn’t write it, a fellow named Ted Savarese, a San Francisco singer songwriter wrote it about a place in Texas and I heard it and asked him if would mind if I changed it to ‘Yuba City’ and change some words here and there and he was OK with that. His is much folkier but I think the way we did it turned out fine.

There’s some cosmic country music on the album in the shape of ‘Pacific Rain’.
Well as I was writing the songs I wasn’t too sure how the album would turn out. It tends to develop its own personality and once that process had happened I didn’t think that ‘Pacific Rain’ and a couple of others really fitted in. So what we’ve done is to have the album as ten songs in whole, five a side in old vinyl terms,  and then add three bonus tracks to the CD and ‘Pacific Rain’ is the first one. It’s about this town in Oregon, a college town which seems stuck in 1973. Everyone wears sandals and eats Granola. If you own stock in the Birkenstock Company you’d be doing well if all of America was like this place. It’s not a hipster thing with man buns and such, it’s just a complete throwback to hippie days.

Another of the bonus tracks is ‘Time Flies’ which I think is like a meet up between Gene Clark and The Dream Syndicate.
Again, that was originally a digital single I put out some years ago but here it’s more fleshed out. There’s some 12 string guitar, some pedal steel. Part of the inspiration for the album was those records of the seventies, that Laurel Canyon sound and I was just feeling that vibe and it really works on this song. I’m glad you mentioned Gene Clark. I was privileged to meet him when The Long Ryders arranged a benefit show round about 1990, not long before he died I suppose. I met him backstage and we talked a bit. My thing is sort of collecting Byrds. I’ve met Gene and I met Roger McGuinn at a music equipment convention in Anaheim called NAMM, he was there representing Rickenbacker and I got to speak with him. And then I met Mike Clarke and Skip Battin in Italy, they were touring as the Byrds and staying at the same hotel as us. And then it turned out when I met Gene Parsons that he knew my dad because they were both  sailboat enthusiasts and they both lived in the same part of northern California so that was pretty thrilling. I had the chance to see that Sweetheart of the Rodeo tour that McGuinn and Hillman did last year with Marty Stuart, Marty was playing Clarence White’s guitar, the one that he and Gene Parsons’ developed, the B-Bender.

Well, it’s an excellent album and we wish you well with it. What can we expect from the live shows, any of the old songs?
I’m really looking forward to playing, as I said it’s my first time back in the UK for years. I’m doing the shows with the awesome Jesse Dayton, he’s more kick ass country so it should be a lot of fun. There might be a couple of surprises, some Easter eggs I’ll throw in. I hope to see some of you folk there.

Author: Paul Kerr

Still searching for the Holy Grail, a 10/10 album, so keep sending them in.

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