Jeff Pearlman

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Sammy Burke

#415
I was attending a Blind Melon concert a few months ago. There was an opening act—the John McCloy Band. I wondered what it's like to be a seasoned bass player/math teacher jamming away in a small Southern California club. So I asked. POSTED July 20, 2019

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I love shit like this.

So, a few months ago a friend named Mike Moodian accompanied me to the Blind Melon show at a small nearby club, the Coach House. We arrived early, and heard those dreaded four words, “First, an opening act …”

Fuck.

Only, this opening act kicked ass. It was a three-man rock group, the John McCloy Band, and their set was electrifying, refreshing, edgy. The member who particularly caught my eye was Sammy Burke, the veteran bass player. Why did he catch my eye? Well, to be honest, I’ve always been fascinated by the bass. It’s the obscure instrument of most groups, but also a necessary factor toward any good unit. We may well all overlook the bass player. But can a gang like the John McCloy Band survive without him? No.

So I invited Sammy here to talk Bass, to talk Van Halen, to talk gigs in front of six people and John Oates’ presidential ambitions. One can visit his Facebook page here, and check out his band here.

Sammy Burke, you are The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Sammy, so about two hours ago I saw you and the John McCloy Band perform as the opening act for Blind Melon at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano. And during the show Travis Warren, Melon’s lead singer, thanked “the band that opened for us—I can’t remember their name, but I have a bad memory.” And I was wondering—truly wondering—whether that bothered you guys, whether it was no big deal, whether it was funny. And if there’s an actual protocol how the headliner is supposed to address/acknowledge the opening act.

SAMMY BURKE: We have a working relationship with the venue’s local talent representative. His job is to find acts that are willing to handle pre-sale tickets in exchange for ‘exposure.’ Some places require a guaranteed number of tickets, while others just go on how well you do in selling what you’ve got. Th Coach House is the latter; they don’t require a minimum, however getting asked to come back does depend a bit on your marketing performance.

J.P.: You’re a bass player, and I’ve always wanted to ask a bass player this question: How do I, the casual music fan who attends a show, know the difference between good bass, great bass and otherworldly bass? Are there telltale signs? Do you always know?

S.B.: Great question! Great bass players are a lot like Olympic divers; the better their performance, the less splash you’ll see when they enter the water. Imagine for a minute what the song would sound like without the bass line—if it would sound empty, then the bass player is doing his job. The truly great players have such iconic hooks to very simple lines. Think of tunes like ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’ or ‘Good Vibrations.’ With those simple lines, the songs simply wouldn’t exist.

J.P.: Along those lines, sort of a weird one. About, oh, seven years ago Van Halen replaced Michael Anthony, its bass player of about four decades, with Eddie Van Halen’s son. I thought it was a bullshit move, Anthony clearly thought it was a bullshit move. But I’m not sure fans care all that much. And I was wondering: A. What do you think about it? B. Are bass players too often undervalued?

S.B.: Yes, it was a bullshit move. Not just because of Anthony’s tone—I believe he is one of the most gritty, driving bassists around. But also his vocals were what made the ‘voice’ of VH so unique. All that high stuff on ‘Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love’ and ‘Jamie’s Cryin” are Michael, and he’s doing it while driving that low end. I saw them at a house party back in the mid 70s and I knew that I was watching something extraordinary.

J.P.: You’ve been with the band Echo Love Chamber since 1995. That’s 24 years. How is that possible? And what I mean is—don’t you get tired of one another? Aren’t bands meant to die on the relative quick?

S.B.: I’ve known Mark (Cardinal) since the late ’80s when we were both in different cover bands. The secret is this; we don’t get involved in each other’s lives outside of music. We will occasionally go out for a meal or a show, but that’s about it. Musically, we never have a set list—our running repertoire is about 500 songs, so we can pull out an old favorite every now and then just to challenge our brains. I really don’t know the magic behind ELC’s 24-year career … We’re just three guys having fun making music. However, I will tell you one way to know how a band is going to last. Watch them during load in and load out. If there’s a lot of communication going on about what or how to do things, then they’re doing it wrong. When ELC loads in or out, its 20 minutes of ultimate efficiency. We will oftentimes beat the patrons in getting out the door before the 2 a.m. closing bell.

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J.P.: I know you started playing music when you were 11. But what got you going? How did it all begin? When did you realize this was your love? That you could be especially good at it?

S.B.: I ‘borrowed’ my sister’s guitar and started hammering out some notes, and I sucked. Then I got together with a friend and we started playing together in his garage, and we sucked. Then I got together with some friends and played ‘Stairway to Heaven’ at a school performance, and it sucked. But by then music was in my blood. And that performance got me together with (now internationally known jazz pianist) Ron Kobayashi. He told me what I would have to do if I didn’t want to suck. So he gave me a cassette tape—Count Basie, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson, Louis Bellson, Buddy Rich, Charlie Parker… he told me to absorb every note, and when I did, he would give me another tape, and then another. I would just practice hours and hours with those tapes, learn my scales and keep up with the rhythms. In April, 1980, when we performed at the big Fullerton College Jazz Festival, Ron, our drummer Loren South and I were given the Outstanding Rhythm Section Award. That was when I knew I could play and not suck.

J.P.: Since 2013 you’ve worked heavily in the tribute band market, performing with such acts as REMitation, The Faux Fighters, The Pink Floyd Sound, KISSed Alive!, The Rising, Cheapest Trick and Petty or Not. And I’m interested how it feels, doing, say a series of Tom Petty songs as opposed to your own music? And, when you’re doing a tribute, are you trying to channel those other players? Or are you just being you?

S.B.: Being in a tribute is more playing a role—like an actor—than being a musician. Your mannerisms on stage, the look and sound, and even the playing style are studied and mimicked to give the audience a sensation that they’re watching a one-act play, rather than just listening to a bunch of tunes by an artist. So yeah, I try to channel Howie Epstein, Nate Mendel, Roger Waters, Tom Petersson, and Gene Simmons when I perform. Although I must confess a little of me naturally comes out—sometimes, I just can’t help that part.

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

S.B.: Greatest? So many … Playing with the Fooz Fighters to a packed House of Blues is a blast. I remember taking a limo from Atlantic City to Long Island with the boys thinking, ‘This is the shit!’  And then there a special personal moments —playing a song or two in front of my heroes … guys like Dug Pinnick (King’s X), Chris Wyse (Ace Frehley, Hollywood Vampires), Divinity Roxx (Beyonce), and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani), and then chatting with them afterwards. But I think the moment with John McCloy when we first walked onto a stage to perform our own music—that was magic. The irony of that is we still feel the same feeling before every show, including our last show at the Coach House.

Lowest? So many. Playing some godawful place with three other musicians who didn’t do their homework. You just want to go home and swear you’ll never do that again. And then you do it again. Some things we just never learn from. After all—musicians are the very definition of insanity.

J.P.: When you’re not performing, you’re a high school math teacher. Can you bring the same passion to teaching as you do music? Is it a means to an end? And do your students know of your musical career?

S.B.: For 30 years I kept the two completely separate. I didn’t bring my music to school, and I didn’t bring my school to my performing. It was this separation that helped keep me from going insane. I am passionate about teaching math—I love the subject, and I try to let my students know how enjoyable it can really be, if they just give it a try. Now, as I see more in my rear-iew mirror than my windshield, I’ve been more open about both. It gives me a chance to reflect, and to consider what lies ahead after I retire from my teaching job. I’m on a one-year contract (as Vin Scully would say), although my principal knows that if the Foo Fighters, Gin Blossoms, or some other national act calls (or maybe John McCloy gets signed?!?), I’m gone …

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J.P.: As I was listening to you guys play tonight I was thinking, “Jesus, this is a hard sell.” And what I mean is—y’all were great. Truly fantastic. But you’re playing songs few attendees have yet heard to people there for a different band. So what’s the approach? What’s the goal? How do you win audiences over?

S.B.: That is exactly the approach. Make music that people who’ve never heard us before, be able to sing along by the end of our set. If we win over one Blind Melon (or Fuel, Berlin, Spandau Ballet, or Marcy Playground) fan at each show we play, then we’ll have like … 20 new fans a year. At that rate we’ll be overnight sensations in about 15,000 years. Seriously though, hopefully one of those new fans will have some connection to something bigger, and we can cut our timeline down. At least in half …

J.P.: A lot has been made of late of groups like Kiss and Motley Crue singing over recorded audios. It’s a thing in rock that didn’t seem as common decades ago. And I wonder—are you OK with it? I mean, as guys like Paul Stanley and Vince Neil age, is it kosher for us to expect they get a little help? Or is it dishonest bullshit?

S.B.: Another great question. I feel it’s dishonest if you lie about it. Bands like U2 make no bones about using tracks, and people still buy up their tickets at record numbers. What I do have a beef about is when artists insist that they’re not using tracks when you can clearly hear background vocals, extra guitars, cowbells, and strings. ELC uses tracks for about 5-to-6 songs, and we make fun about our ‘keyboard player,’ but we don’t try to deceive our audience. Now if Paul and Vince want to say they use tracks, say it. Nothing wrong with it—just ‘fess up and let’s get on with the music.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH SAMMY BURKE:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Shaquille O’Neal, Blue Oyster Cult, nachos with jalapenos, $5 cover charges, Tammi Terrell, the old testament, Black-Scholes Equation, John F. Kennedy, Jr., Bo Jackson, your left foot: Blue Oyster Cult (c’mon … Godzilla!!!), Nachos with Jalapenos (liquid cheese at its best), The Old Testament (The Greatest Story, right???), Tammi Terrell (The sound of Motown with one of my favorite bassists ever (see below)), Black-Scholes Equation (maybe if I’d use it I wouldn’t have lost so much money on penny stocks like ICOM), John Kennedy, Jr. (iconic vision of him as a boy saluting his dad), Bo Jackson (Bo Knows … baseball more than football), Shaq (The Great Aristotle was no Kareem), $5 Cover Charges (If that money actually went to the bands, then I rank it higher), My left foot (Even though I am left-footed, it still ranks below everything else).

• Five all-time greatest bass players: James Jamerson, Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn, Carol Kaye, Leland Sklar, Carol Kaye, Dug Pinnick. Together, they make up about 90 percent of my music catalog.

• Five songs you never need to hear again: Sweet home Alabama, Mustang Sally, Stairway to Heaven, Jesse’s Girl, Don’t Stop Believin’

• One question you would ask Peter Criss were he here right now: Do you prefer the 9mm Beretta over a classic 45 Magnum for target shooting, and why?

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: No, but I would probably try to make out with the flight attendant on the way down…

• What’s the smallest crowd you’ve ever played before?: Six. And it was worth every moment.

• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and Nas? What’s the outcome?: I’d get my ass kicked. My reflexes are way too slow to fight. I think my record is 1-5 in fights.

• Celine Dion calls. She’ll pay you $10 million to move to Las Vegas for a year and sing background vocals on her new album, titled, “Sammy Burke is a Pimple on the Ass of an Ass.” You also have to live on the floor of her guest house, while only eating cat food, mint Oreos and beet juice. Oh, and your name will be changed to Ruppert Jones. You in?: If I can just eat the creme filling on the Oreos (I can’t eat chocolate), then I’m in. Draw up the contract.

• Who has the greatest singing voice you’ve ever heard live?: Damn. That’s a good one … I’ll have to say Chris Cornell. I’ve heard him sing three times; ’93 at Lollapalooza, ’13 at The Wiltern, and one of his last shows back in ’16 at the Forum. I was amazed to hear him sing every time. That range, and the soulfulness in his tone.

We actually met back in 1988; I was hanging out at a place called the Off Ramp in Seattle, having a beer and chatting with this guy at the bar. Some band like Mudhoney was playing in the room next door, while we were talking about the Sonics, or why there’s no NHL team in Seattle… anyway, about six months later my friend shares a CD with me and I look at the picture and I see the guy who I met at the Off Ramp. I said, “is his name Chris?” and my friend said, “yeah, that’s Chris Cornell”… Like I said, Damn.

• In exactly 17 words, make an argument for John Oates’ 2020 presidential run: So many came to see, what you think — get it for free! Vote John Oates in 2020!!!

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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