Jeff Pearlman

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Eric Kufs

#222
We were sitting at a small farmer’s market in Orange County. This guy started singing. Some listened. Some focused more on their lattes and burgers. We listened—and were blown away. The ups and downs of a musical superstar who has yet to become a musical superstar. POSTED September 1, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 5.34.42 PMI love finds.

What I mean is, I love stumbling upon things, whether it’s a $12 Los Angeles Rams T-shirt at TJ Maxx or the best ice cream float on the streets of Austin. It’s cool and fun and serendipitous, and it also offers the opportunity for some darn good braggin’. You know—”Dude, there’s this [FILL IN THE BLANK] I found, and it’s awesome!”

Which leads me to the 222nd Quaz Q&A.

Several months ago, the wife and I were attending a farmer’s market here in Orange County. It was one of those things with a bunch of tents, some food trucks, overpriced iced coffee. Beautiful day, nice family time … and a fantastic musician, sorta hanging in the background. His name was Eric Kufs. He had a guitar, a beard and oodles upon oodles of talent. I’m not sure who to compare him to—I guess, gun to head, I go Paul Simon meets Ted Hawkins meets Dave Matthews meets Sam Cooke. But that’s an odd combination, so I’ll simply say he sounded terrific, and I wanted to scream at every loudmouth attendee, “Stop eating your damn burger and listen to this guy, because he’s fantastic!”

Instead, I tracked Eric down and asked him to do a Quaz.

And here we are.

Eric is based out of Southern California, and has a story to tell. About his band. About his solo career. And the loneliness of musicianship and the joys of musicianship; about trying to catch a break and grab your ear.

One can follow Eric on Instagram here, Facebook here and visit his website here.

Eric Kufs, the Quaz stage belongs to you …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Eric, first question: You’ve had this really interesting musical career, with lots of highs and experiences. And yet, I first heard you playing at a farmer’s market in Orange County, with a small amp under a small tent with some people listening and some people not listening on a hot day with a half-filled tip jar of singles. And I wondered, “Why? Why do a gig like that? Money? Fun? And is it hard to stay focused and excited when the crowd is distracted and kids and running left and right? Do you even think, “What the fuck am I doing here?”

ERIC KUFS: Well Jeff, the first reason is that I love to play and I consider any gig an opportunity to improve as a performer. Sure I’ve put in my 10,000 hours and then some, but I like to keep pushing myself.

The truth is that when I first moved from L.A. when I was 20, I spent some time working day jobs. Any time my band booked a tour, I’d have to quit whatever gig I had. As you probably know, clubs don’t pay artists very well and when you factor in the cost of travel, the road leaves you with very little. If you’re lucky, when you get back home, you have enough to barely get by as you search for another day job, usually at a coffee shop or whatever. As fun as the road could be, I began to dread coming home broke.

So in order to quell my anxiety about my finances, and keep focusing on my passion for music , I began to perform out on the streets of Los Angeles. For seven years, when I wasn’t on the road, I was a busker. Some of my fellow musicians and songwriters might have thought a little less of me for it at the time, but in my mind I was doing what I love for a living. To be honest I think most musicians would find it difficult to make the good living I made doing it. There were times it was challenging. Getting people walking past with their face in their phones to stop, listen and buy your CD or at the very least leave a tip is not easy. You have to be unique in your delivery and remain true to yourself in order to find ways to appeal to all types of people. This makes it rewarding, especially when you’re in a club and people are there to see you. You are instantly captivating and even an off night is better than another singer’s best.

So how do I end up playing a farmer’s market? Well, after years of playing on the street I have made enough friends and connections to sustain myself performing private events as well as touring (whether I’m backing up another songwriter or I’m promoting my own music). Occasionally I like to do farmer’s markets or street fairs that pay well enough. They help me keep my chops up and try new material. They’re also good for promotion and often lead to other bookings.

J.P.: I have a disease—“When I see a person performing and not many people listening and/or acknowledging said performer, I feel the need to approach performer and make him/her feel better with either compliments (if they’re sincere) or small talk.” Eric, is this dumb? Like, are most performers in those situations OK, or are they heartbroken and sad? Because I’m sure you’ve been there (hell, I’ve been there. Book signings with three attendees—and it’s awful for me).

E.K.: Most times these performers are sad. There have been many times when I played on the street in the drizzling rain hoping someone would take pity on me and drop a few hundred bucks in my tip jar. I’ve played in theaters for thousands of people completely enthralled with whatever I was doing and I might’ve been more concerned with how they were perceiving me than when I’m forced to close my eyes and focus on singing the song for myself. Sometimes there’s no other option but to use the sadness to create something beautiful even if you’re the only one to hear it. But I’ve played in clubs in Nashville for three, maybe five people, and that’s just depressing … no way around it.

As for your disease, I welcome the interaction of appreciative listeners in those situations but I’d like to speak for all of the professional musicians who have or have had any ambition or aspirations for a more fruitful career when I tell you this: “Do not say anything like, ‘Man what are you doing here?!’”

First of all, it’s a line from “Piano Man” and second of all it only reinforces the sadness of the situation. You can certainly compliment a performer as much as you’d like and even elaborate on how much of a treat it is to see them wherever it is you run across them, but don’t ask incredulously why they are there. (I mean, like why are any of us anywhere anyway dude, bro, man? Like really …) But seriously, it makes them feel like they’ve failed when the truth is that music is a difficult business and there are many different paths to success. The business has changed since when I was a kid and now more than ever it’s on the artists to be their own business manager, publicist, recording engineer, producer, and in some cases their own booking agent.

Jamming on the sax as a boy.

Jamming on the sax as a boy.

J.P.: Soup to nuts, what’s your writing process? I mean, you’ve written more than 1,000 songs. How? How do you start? Finish? And when do you know when a song is complete and ready?

E.K.: My writing process has changed a lot over time. Back when I was starting out I would write a poem, while sitting in math ignoring the teacher, and then I’d go home and instead of doing my math homework I’d find a melody for the poem on guitar. Now I seem to do more humming over chord patterns, or a few words will come to me that naturally fit and I’ll go from there. Every now and then a song will pour out fully formed but mostly I just sort of recognize interesting ideas or hear melodic hooks in your day to day.

There was a time when I took writing songs very seriously and I forced myself to record a song every day. Sometimes it was just a verse chorus idea or a tone poem kind of thing. This work helped me build up a muscle, so to speak. Now I can write a song quickly if someone needs one. Sometimes I’m hired to write a tune for a film or TV submission. But for my own recordings, I tend to let those songs come to me slowly over time. I begin playing them at shows and I let the performance dictate how the song evolves. Sometimes the melody and lyrics change. The song is done when I settle into a comfortable space with it on stage.

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J.P.: While watching you perform I actually turned to the wife and said, “How is a guy like Jonathan Mayer making millions and playing Madison Square Garden and a guy like Eric Kufs playing the farmer’s market?” And, Eric, I don’t mean that as an insult to either of you. You’re both excellent. But have you figured out the music business at all? Like, what it takes to be rich and famous and secure? And is that even your ultimate goal?

E.K.: Jon Mayer wrote a lot of accessible pop songs. Combined with his great guitar playing and boyish look a record company had very little trouble selling him as a product to a wide range of people, young and old.

I never had aspirations to write that kind of music and I’ve always stayed true to my own sensibilities and interests as an artist. This fact and my deficiency in the art of self-promotion have made it difficult to attain that level of financial success. That said, within those parameters I always felt like there was room for success in one way or another. The music business is wide open. It only takes one song to be a hit on YouTube or wherever and this can lead you to something like a career. As in anything there’s always a bit of timing and luck involved.

J.P.: I know you’re from East Meadow, N.Y., I know you live in LA. But what’s your musical path? Like, birth to now, how did you get here? First instrument? First musical love?

E.K.: After playing New York City clubs for a few years in my teens, I came out to Los Angeles with my band from high school, Common Rotation. We lived in a house in LA not far from where I live now and recorded an album with the band They Might Be Giants. We toured for a few years with them promoting that album. The band evolved from a more pop rock type outfit into a folkier indie singer/songwriter group. After a while we began to record with acts like the Indigo Girls and Dan Bern.

When the band wasn’t touring, I started street performing as I mentioned before. This eventually led to me performing more often as a solo act. Common Rotation are my best friends from when I was a kid and we do shows when we can but right now we’re all happily supporting each other’s projects.

Currently I have two records I am recording with different producers. Both should be finished by the end of this year or early 2016. One will be a full-on soul band arrangement of tunes and the other will be a more acoustic Americana tinged album with a collection of short stories.

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J.P.: In 2005, you released an album of original songs recorded on the streets of Santa Monica. Um … how does one record songs on the streets on Santa Monica? Like, literally …

E.K.: My old friend Brian Speiser, producer of many Common Rotation records and currently the sound engineer for Tedeschi/Trucks band, rented some microphones and we used a laptop and a portable pre/amp. He followed me around Santa Monica as I played folksy Woody Guthrie type originals.

I have to make that available online someday.

J.P.: I love this shit—you have a 2004 IMDB credit for playing “Guy in Cafeteria” in the TV series, “The Jury.” OK, Eric, do tell what happened, what you remember, how you landed the part. And what was your theatrical motivation behind, “Guy in Cafeteria”?

E.K.: My friend Adam Busch from Common Rotation was an actor on the show and he got me the gig. My motivation was something like … “Don’t fuck this up, don’t drop the lunch tray.”

J.P.: Greatest moment of your musical career? Lowest?

E.K.: Years ago I traveled to the upper Yukon in the dead of winter to play for two Eskimo fishing villages. In school gym we led the entire village in a sing-along of “All I Have to Do is Dream” by The Everly Brothers.

The lowest? Any time I play in Costa Mesa. It all blurs into one bad experience.

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J.P.: Eric, random question—I’ve lived in Southern California for a year, and I’m freaking out the state is going to go completely dry. Nobody around me in the OC seems to give a shit. Do I need to chill? And what the hell is wrong with people?

E.K.: No please don’t chill. Keep freaking out. Someone should. I think there’s a denial being fueled by the hopeless reality of this frightening situation. Pray for rain. Pray for rain.

J.P.: So … you’re also a member of Common Rotation, a band you’ve been with for many years. Two questions—how have you guys survived for so long, and what can you tell me about covering a Twisted Sister tune?

E.K.: We don’t live together anymore and we don’t do long tours so that helps us keep working together. Twisted Sister: Classic Long Island band. Strong Island represent, word. “We’re Not Gonna Take It”: It’s a protest song.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ERIC KUFS:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Bernie Williams, MMMBop, 60 Minutes, Bobby Bowden, Instagram, sugar cane, New Rochelle, Peter Cetera, skateboarding parks, Susan Sarandon, Golden Girls: 1. Golden Girls; 2. 60 Minutes; 3. Susan Sarandon; 4. sugar cane; 5. New Rochelle; 6. Instagram; 7.Bernie Williams; 8. Peter Cetera; 9. Bobby Bowden; 10.MmmBop; 11. skateboarding parks.

• Five greatest songwriters of your lifetime: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchel, Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan

• In 10 words, make your best argument for a Styx enshrinement into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Come Sail Away? Come on they’re no lamer than Kansas.

• Would you rather lick the innards of Kobe Bryant’s nostrils or spend the next two weeks listening to a nonstop loop of the Musical Youth-Donna Summer collaboration, “Unconditional Love”?: Definitely Donna Summer now that I’ve watched this video.

• How do you feel about American Idol and The Voice?: I don’t like Karaoke contests. I think music and art competitions are not in anyone’s interest accept for those who profit most from them which are not usually the artists.

• Where’s somewhere cool in LA I need to take my wife for a night out?: Bestia … great food. Orange Creamsicle cake

• I have an ongoing debate with my friend—who has a better voice, Daryl Hall or Johnny Gill?: Daryl Hall was great but I think Johnny Gill’s is holding up better.

• One question you would ask Emmanuel Lewis were he here right now?: What was it like to meet Ronald Reagan?

• Why did you stop blogging? You’re an excellent writer.: I’m in grad school. Takes up a lot of writing time. Also I’ve been writing short stories for new album. People prefer Tweets anyway … but I’m terrible at that type of writing.

• Best song lyric ever written …: Too many to choose. One that’s held up since I was a kid: “Oh I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused.”

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life