"Tonic’s Emerson Hart is Keeping His ‘Head On Straight’"
It’s been nearly ten years since the conception of the band Tonic in 1994, and a lot has changed in the world of music radio during that time. For products of the nineties, such as myself, it seems hard to keep your head on straight in this ever-changing scene of pop stars and rap money moguls. Which is why it is all the more refreshing to see unmanipulated, unpretentious rock holding on with dignity and vigor, such as in the case of the L.A. trio, Tonic.
After the release of their second album Sugar in 1999, and the gruelingly long tour to promote it, Tonic members Emerson Hart, Jeff Russo and Dan Lavery have spent time reconnecting to the roots of what it means to be human. With both Hart and Russo getting married in 2000, the settled life has only seemed to make Tonic’s music stronger. The proof is in their latest album, Head On Straight, with its distinct melodies and truthfully upright lyrics that got them two nominations (Best Rock Performance by a Group or Duo and Best Rock Album) at this year’s Grammy Awards in New York.
On their recent acoustic tour stop at the Shelter in Detroit, I had the opportunity to meet with lead singer Emerson Hart and find out his views on the latest album and how they have come this far. As I walked down the stairs into the back bar area of the Shelter, it was comforting to find Emerson very relaxed and friendly as he munched on a tray of veggies before the show. I couldn’t help but think of Tonic’s last tour with the Goo-Goo Dolls and its grand scale of arenas, so as I settled into my chair it seemed like the most logical way to begin our conversation:
G.P. - This tour is a lot smaller than the last. Do you like playing smaller venues like this better?
E.H. “Definitely. I get to talk to everybody. It’s not like, ‘HEY! I’M PUTTING ON A SHOW!’ It’s like, ‘Hey, what the fuck is goin’ on man?’ I mean, both are nice, but for this, an acoustic tour is right.”
G.P. - What made you decide to do an acoustic tour?
E.H. “We just wanted to do something different. Instead of going out with all of the band and shit like that, we wanted to do something different where I could tell stories and let people get to know us a lot more as human beings and not as ‘artists’. You know, [so they can] see what goes on in our brains.”
G.P. - It seems like a lot of bands are doing these acoustic tours. Why do you think it’s become such a trend?
E.H. “We are all just trying to get back to what we started for. We have become very confused, I think. I know I had my selfish reasons for wanting to do this. I mean, I just wanted to get in my car and do it on my own. I wanted to get in the car and drive through the southeast and play like I used to. And, the guys were like, let’s do it as a band. I was like, ‘Alright, if you’re up to it.’ I gotta play, ya know. That’s what we are all here for [is] to play.”
G.P. - The band has been together for almost ten years. What’s the glue that has held you together?
E.H. “The songs. We are a band that’s really committed to songwriting, and just putting good songs out there and songs that you can remember parts of your life by. That’s really what it is man. It’s all about the songwriting. It’s not about the love of the business, that’s for sure.”
G.P. - How did the formation of Tonic come about?
E.H. “Well, Jeff [Russo] and I knew each other briefly in New York, we used to hang in the same sort of crowds, but not musically. Then, I just picked up and moved to L.A. I wanted to relocate and just get my life into a different place. So, I moved and I was running a pool hall called the ‘Hollywood Athletic Club’ when he came walking in, [well, kind of] his leg was in a cast, because he’d just been in a motorcycle wreck. He was like ‘Hey man what are you up to?’ and I was like, ‘Hey, I’m starting a band. Wanna join?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I’d love to.’ It was as simple as that.”
G.P. - Do you think that being in L.A. was a factor in getting signed to a label so fast?
E.H. “We had signed a publishing deal with EMI, so that probably helped and got us in the know. We were playing clubs like the Mint every Sunday night and the Viper Room on Fridays and Saturdays. We were kind of in that scene, so I’m sure that did help. But, I try to tell young bands when I meet them that they don’t need to move to L.A. or New York. If you are really great, building up a following and are making money [by] selling merch, they will find you because they want to take your money. It’s just a matter of time. So, stay in your area and tour regionally.”
G.P. - Where did the bands name originate and what were some other names you came up with?
E.H. “We were ‘Radio Flyer’, like the wagons, but there was a blue grass band in Kentucky that already owned that name. Tonic is a term we use in music all the time, whatever the key the song is in is called ‘the tonic’, so it just seemed like a natural thing [for us to call ourselves that.]”
G.P. - So, no medicinal reference like has been quoted?
E.H. “No. Nuh-uh.”
G.P. - How do you feel you have grown as a songwriter?
E.H. “I think I’ve become more honest… (he rethinks his choice of words)... more open. I think I’ve always been an honest writer. I’ve just become more open and not afraid to bear more.”
G.P. - You have been compared to bands like The Wallflowers, The Black Crowes and even Sister Hazel. How do you feel your music comes across to the public?
E.H. “Well, I think that when people listen to it, they can interpret the songs. They definitely know it’s Tonic. The thing is, a lot of people don’t know that we’ve done so many songs, and they can’t seem to tie it together. But, I mean we all came up together… Jake [Dylan] and I used to play together every Tuesday night. You know, that was our night before Tonic was even a band. And Ken [Block] from Sister Hazel is one of my dearest friends. So, we all kind of came up [together] in that era.”
G.P. - Head On Straight has been described as an album of “three-minute rock anthems”. How do you see it?
E.H. “I’m a little suspect of the ‘rock anthem’ thing. Are the songs anthemic? Yes, they are. I think they all have a lot of that [quality]. I mean it’s just the nature of Tonic, songs like, ‘Do You Know’ and ‘Take Me as I Am’ definitely have that kind of anthem feel. So, [the answer is] yes, but ‘rock anthem’ always makes me think of Bon Jovi and hair-band stuff, so I’m a little suspect of that [term] (he chuckles).”
G.P. - You just received two Grammy nominations. How did it feel to be nominated?
E.H. “The nominations were a huge honor, because it’s not a bullshit thing, you’re nominated by your peers. So, that was pretty neat. What happens after the nominations is just hype and getting out there and being visible. We were just happy to be there. I mean to be in a category with Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, and just a lot of great bands, was great.”
G.P. - How did it feel to lose?!
E.H. “I wasn’t really expecting to win, so I wasn’t disappointed. I mean, going up against 9-11 Bruce in ‘Rock Record of the Year’ category was pretty much like I didn’t even have to think about winning. So, I wasn’t really disappointed, I was just happy.”
G.P. - Why was there a three-year gap between Sugar and this album?
E.H. “We toured for two years on Sugar, so we were on the road for most of that time. Then, I got married, so I took a little time off for that. Dan also got married [at that time]. So, we’ve just been kind of becoming human beings again and then it’s back out on the road.”
G.P. - You have been quoted as saying that this is “one of the most personal and focused albums” you’ve ever done, and it’s an “emotional road map” for you. Why is that?
E.H. “Like we were talking about earlier, being honest in songwriting. It’s really a reflection of where I’ve been - a direct reflection of what I’ve seen, how people have affected me, relationships, my career, where it’s all going. It’s definitely an open book as to what was going on in my life when I wrote this record.”
G.P. - How does the song ‘Irish’ from this album tie into that?
E.H. “That was for the fans. We have played that song live for years, we’ve never put it on a record and everybody wanted to hear it. So, I said to Bob Rock, our producer, ‘This is a song we really want to do for the fans,’ and he was like, ‘Hey, it’s weird, it’ll fit in and we’ll make it work’ and he did.”
G.P. - How were you personally inspired to write that song?
E.H. “Probably, just being able to tell the story. The Irish are notorious storytellers, and I wanted to be part of that tradition. I really just wanted to tell a story.”
G.P. - Do you feel the band has matured a lot since the last album?
E.H. “I think that we are all still kind of kids mostly. We still have fun, but have responsibilities like grown-ups. We still do a good bit of partying and live like kids. But, we’re not that old. Musically, yes, we have definitely grown up. By the sheer nature of working like we do and as much as we do, you will always get better, it’s just a matter of time.”
G.P. - How do you feel this album compares to Sugar and Lemon Parade?
E.H. “I think all the records are different. Records are recordings in time and there’s no way I could re-write Lemon Parade. I’m not in that place anymore. It’s gone. It’s a part of my history. Do I love each record on it’s own? Yes. Can I put the three together and say it sounds like the same band? Yes, I can. So, there is continuity. As far as where they stand, they are three different children.”
G.P. - You are quoted on your website as saying you “have been touring while trying to keep relationships from unraveling at home.” Has touring really been that hard on your home life?
E.H. “It does take its toll on the home life, but you just have to be with the right people who understand your schedule. My wife’s dad was a songwriter all through the fifties, [and] still is a songwriter, a big country guy, so she knew. But, we don’t go more than two weeks without seeing each other either. We have rules. And, you have to live by the rules in order to maintain a good, healthy relationship.”
G.P. - Does she come and visit you on the road?
E.H. “Absolutely. I’ll come home or she’ll come out with me. She usually comes out with me, and we travel and do stuff. So, it’s fun.”
G.P. - When is your anniversary?
E.H. “October 14th, 2000.”
G.P. - Can Tonic’s music survive in the musical climate of pop stars, boy bands, rap and even reality shows?
E.H. “You know it’s always a cycle. There are ups and downs in every industry, but Tonic is still around… We’re still surviving. It kind of goes back to the songwriting thing. I mean, all of those boy bands have to sing songs that are written by writers. That’s what it’s all about. Tonic might not survive as ‘Tonic’ itself, but as writers, we’ll all go on.”
G.P. - Do you see the cycle turning around any time soon?
E.H. “Well John Mayer won a Grammy and he’s just a songwriter with an acoustic guitar. And, Nora Jones, even though she’s not a songwriter, she still has songwriters for her, it’s all melody based. I’m sure it’ll be just fine.”
G.P. - You have done a lot of soundtrack songs in the last few years. What made you do the song ‘East Bound and Down’ for the King of the Hill soundtrack?
E.H. “We did it out of shear being a fan of that movie growing up. 'Smoky and the Bandit' was such a great movie when we were kids. When they approached us to do a song that was a little odd, I was like, ‘I’ve always wanted to do this song.’ It’s fun, it’s quick, and they thought it was right up the show’s alley.”
G.P. - You traveled overseas to Bosnia and Kosovo in 2000. Is there any chance that you will do anything with the U.S.O. for the boys in the Middle East right now?
“It’s already in the works.”
G.P. - Where do you plan on going?
E.H. “Not sure yet. Probably Qatar or an aircraft carrier or something like that. I mean, we’ve always been involved with the U.S.O. My dad used to sing with Vic Damone during the Korean War in the U.S.O., so it’s kind of like a family tradition.”
G.P. - So, what is your opinion of this war we’re seemingly on the brink of?
E.H. “My opinion is that with most actors and musicians, we really don’t know all of the facts, so I don’t really have a place to talk about it.”
G.P. - Enough seriousness. Who in the band would look the best dressed as a woman?!
E.H. “Probably me. I have the nicest legs!”
G.P - What is your deepest, darkest secret?
E.H. “I couldn’t tell you my deepest, darkest secret. I will tell you that we all have a few we carry.”
G.P. What is the cheesiest 80’s band you can admit to liking?
G.P. - Who has the worst touring habits?
E.H. “Jeff, definitely. He always uses all of the towels. He needs a towel for his feet when he gets out of the shower, a towel for his shoulders, a towel for his waist, a towel for his hair. He uses all the fucking towels. He’s such a bitch.”
G.P. - What’s the weirdest gift you’ve gotten from a groupie?
E.H. “I had one guy try to give me his wife. He wanted to watch me his fuck his wife and I said ‘No!”
G.P. - Where was that?
E.H. “That time was in D.C., but it’s happened quite a few times. That’s a pretty weird thing to have someone try to give you their wife! I don’t know if you can print that, so I’ll give you another one. Somebody gave me their shoe once. It was a loafer with a quarter in it and it was good luck to them. The guy literally walked out of the club with one shoe, and it was winter. He was like, ‘Take the shoe. It’s going to bring you good luck.’ I still have it. It’s in my basement!"
G.P. - Finally, describe the bands music in three words
E.H. “Honest. Focused. Lush.”
Interviewed by G.M. Pasfield for Exclusive Magazine
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