Once upon a time, the very mention of the term Power Ballad (a.k.a. Pop Ballad, Rock Ballad or Sentimental Ballad) was capable of sending the proverbial average Metalhead into uncontrollable first of rage. Despite this, what had once been viewed as a commercially-driven marketing ploy quickly gained momentum. Among the most significant of contributors to these auditory anomaly were Miami, Florida-born icons Saigon Kick. Armed with Gold-selling The Lizard (1992) and, more specifically, the haunting, chart-topping single “Love Is On The Way”, the group soon found themselves amid the dizzying heights of international acclaim. Recently, guitarist Jason Bieler, always a man of many words and interesting stories, was kind enough to speak with us regarding, among so many other things, the long-awaited follow-up to his solo debut Houston, We Have A Problem (1998).
Todd: What made now an ideal time to release Jason Bieler (2018)? Did you have specific plans for everything?
Jason: “I don't know that there was any planning or thought behind it other than I'm just making music and enjoying myself. I'm at a point in my life where I'm not chasing it. And I don't mean to say I don't care because that's not the way I'm trying to shape this. I love what I'm doing, but I'm not in pursuit of these other things I think as a new artist, there's a lot of pressure. To me, I'm just making music. I'm enjoying making music and I'm releasing it where and when it makes sense to do it. All of those other things aren't even on my radar, ya know?”
Todd: Am I correct in understanding that you played all of the instruments on Jason Bieler? Having survived and thrived amid the traditional band structure, what are the primary differences between the two environments?
Jason: “Every single thing on that record is me. All the instruments, the Mixing and the Mastering. Yes, there's no one on that but me. I was very fond of the guys I worked with. It doesn't mean I'm a genius and I'm not trying to frame it that way. I got tired of explaining my ideas or trying to lobby for my ideas and it holds true across the board. I don't want to have dinner with a radio guy and try to tell him that he's important to me and and I hope that he really likes the song because I think it could be a hit. And I also don't want to sit in a room and try to articulate to a bassist or drummer and really try to sell my ideas to people. I'm more interested in finishing them and getting them out. I'm not saying bands don't function. There are a billion drummers that I'd love to work with. There's many different people I'd like to collaborate with on different things, but in terms of overall writing, I tend to see music as a whole. What that means is the lyrics, the melody and all the music generally come to me in one big chunk. To me, it's become more of a part of taking a vacation. I have to get it out and down fast enough to make sure I have it all and the vision I have is done. Whenever that process is interrupted by someone saying 'Dude, I can do this', I'm like 'I want to stab you.' And that's not good for band relationships. In all fairness, that's all me being a dick, but I've really become much happier about being a dick.”
Todd: Is it easier to create music for 'yourself' or for satisfying the commercial expectations of an outside party?
Jason: “I don't know. We live in a time where everyone is making music, but everyone is also making TV shows and YouTube channels. Everybody's being creative. At the end of the day, the happiest I am is when I've just finished a song and am about to move to the next one. It's always amazing when things start to take off or they take on a life of their own by getting positive feedback people are really into it. It's been really positive for me the last few years just running into people. Whether it's (Slipknot and Stone Sour frontman) Corey Taylor or Devin Townsend (Punky Brüster, Strapping Young Lad, Vai) and they're like or people that were like 'You know I've always been a huge fan of you, right?' At the end of the day I think, 'Hey, I have a day job, man'. I equate to a guy who like makes it in the NHL. I'm not Wayne Gretzky, but I still play'. I'm fortunate enough to be able to wake up in the morning knowing my day will consist of me saying 'What kind of nonsense do I want to create'.”
Todd: With that in mind, how do you approach your songwriting? I imagine you can do whatever that you want.
Jason: “For me, I was going about it from the point where I was like 'I just want to keep writing and I don't want to get bogged down in any of it.' I have a studio and it's fairly world class. You can easily get lost in four weeks of messing around which ultimately no one cares about and no one ever hears. I just wanted to keep trying to get better, better and better at connecting with whatever you're trying to say. Like I said, it's been fun. I think (comedian) Ricky Gervais had said 'I've hit this age where not in a bad way'. It's not unlike your relatives that are a little bit older. They can come to the dinner table and say whatever the hell they want. When you reach the age where you're allowed to be who you are, can say whatever you really feel like saying and do whatever you want to do, the ego is removed from it. When you're younger, you're out there slugging it, trying to do certain things. Those are all really good driving forces and really should be a driving force for everyone at some point.”
Todd: Is there a right or wrong way for a new or 'young-ish' group to approach the prospect of being successful?
Jason: “If you're eighteen or twenty and you're in a band and you don't think you're going to be the Beatles or Led Zeppelin, then you're probably doing it wrong. Not that you're going for it, but if you don't go in with the attitude like you want to be this amazingly important and influential monstrosity like Radiohead... There's a time for that in your life and there's no time in your life, but that can't be what's driving you. If you don't like making music and you're not satisfied by being a part of a creative process, then you're going to be a miserable person because for every Radiohead, there's eight billion people that subscribe to Pitchfork and at least one ambient hemp farmer who makes a record a year that no one ever listens to. If you don't enjoy that and that's not where your joy is coming from, you're essentially setting yourself up for failure. And that's true in all countries.”
Todd: The way music is accessed now is all about instant gratification. Buying it and playing it is much easier.
Jason: “It was culturally a part of how you grew up. ...I think music is in everybody's life in a bigger way now, overall, but it's not as singularly identifying and as important as it was when we were growing up. I think part of who you were was the bands you liked. Now, no one is who they are based on if they like Skrillex. They just dig it. That's what I've never understood about music. To me, music is like movies. I'm totally happy to watch any kind of movie. Some days, I want to watch a Horror flick, some days, I want to watch a funny movie and some days, I want to watch a documentary. Music has always been there. In the past, you were driven into these niches, but people don't really live life like that. No matter how angry you are, at one point you're probably going to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend and Ryan Adams is going to sound amazing. And at another different time, it might not have been amazing. Other times, maybe you're depressed and Ryan Adams is totally going to be who you'll need to see. That's the thing about music. And like you said, it's easier now than it was back then.”
Todd: As far as you solo material is concerned, what can your fans expect in terms of presentation? Will we find you amid a combination of MTV Unplugged and VH1 Storytellers or will it be more relaxed and stripped-down?
Jason: “I've decided to strip down to just acoustics. I do a lot of storytelling, so it's like a poor man's comedy. This way, if the joke sucks, I can play more music and if I actually do something funny, I can just keep going. The set will cover everything. There's songs from all of the Saigon Kick records and all my solo stuff. I had a band that I had done with (bassist) Pat (Badger) from Extreme. The music was akin to the American Pie (1999) soundtrack. We did a bunch of different movie soundtrack stuff and a bunch of covers that I thought were kind of cool and eclectic. I wouldn't say it's a career retrospective because it makes it sound like I'm ninety years old and about to die, but it covers a little bit of everything. If you're Saigon Kick fan, there's a tons of music that you're going to like from all of the records. And there's going to be a bunch of cool covers if you have no idea what any of that stuff is. Hopefully you'll also hear some cool and funny stories at the same time, too. I'm going to Paris, London and a bunch of cool places. It's amazing to me that I still get to do this. I feel like someone hasn't hooked me off the stage like they did on The Gong Show. ...Yet somehow, I wake up and still get to do it.”
Todd: Once Saigon Kick had officially come to an end, what did you do to occupy yourself? Was it easier to be in a band signed to a label or own a label that has signed bands? You have seen it all from multiple perspectives.
Jason: “When the band initially started coming to an end, I started Producing records and I started a label (Bieler Records) that went on to have bands like Nonpoint, as well as Fiction Plane, Skindred, A Silent Film, Six, Smile Empty Soul and Soil. I stayed very busy working with a lot of different artists and developing the label. ...I think once you come to a realization that both bands and labels are full of assholes, it becomes a lot easier. All bands ultimately think they have a specific destiny, but at the end of the day whether it's U2 or some club band, the psychology really isn't that different. In terms of the inner dynamics, all of the same stupid fights are still happening and all the same stupid struggles are still happening. I really do wish I could tell you some unbelievable dynamics story that you've never heard, but there just isn't one. I think who's the bigger dick in a band always changes, but it's always the same stupid nonsense. I've gotten to the point where I know who I am and what I really like doing and I'm fortunate enough to be able to do that. The funny thing is, literally two or three years ago, I said to myself 'I just just want to write music and I want to do it in an improv environment'. I don't want to spend three or four weeks in my studio crafting the perfect single. I want to sharpen my tools as a writer, so I'm going to keep writing, writing and writing. ...That's what my focus has been. You can't do a PowerPoint presentation on how to become a better writer. You write, write and write and over time hopefully you learn certain things about yourself and your style. That was the whole goal. It wasn't like 'Let me have a come back'. Strangely enough, it's taken on a life of its own. It's funny what happens when you just stop trying.”
Todd: When Saigon Kick was in the process of writing and recording “Love Is On The Way”, were you aware that the group was on the cusp of releasing what would soon become your greatest critical and commercial feat?
Jason: “I've always been always consistently oblivious to such things. There was also a ballad on the first record (Saigon Kick, 1990) that people liked. I had no idea it was going to blow up. We didn't even release that song as a single. I take great pride in the fact that I think it killed Hair Metal entirely. Without me, Grunge may never have happened. It wasn't like one of these 'thought out' things. We've always been a band that did a lot of different things. We toured with The Ramones early on in our career and we also played with Ozzy (Osbourne) and Soundgarden. Bands always say they are diverse and I'm not trying to make myself cooler by saying 'Look at us. We're diverse', but we really were diverse. It really took off on it's own. (Southern Florida) Radio stations started playing it and it absolutely exploded. Being a record label, Atlantic (Records) was like 'You have you have hit' after it had already become successful, so there really was no thought behind it. Personally, I think the first two records are very similar sonically. They sound different, but at the same time, they really don't. I can't imagine anyone was saying 'Oh my God! They're a totally different band. That's a massive change in direction'.”
Todd: In hindsight, it's amazing how polarizing the musical diversity of The Lizard could occasionally prove to be. It was if half of your fan base only wanted “Love Is On The Way” and half only wanted “Peppermint Tribe”.
Jason: “We managed to piss off just about everybody by playing something they didn't want to hear. There's no doubt that when people came to see the band there was a massive soccer mom contingency. But there were also people who understood the rest of the music. I think we were stuck in no man's land because we were never accepted by the Grunge movement and we were never accepted by the Hair Metal movement like as a Glam band, which we weren't. We were kind of our own thing and that confused a lot of people, especially back then. The funny thing is, I think what we did then makes more sense now because kids don't give a shit about what they listen to. They will go from AC/DC to Green Day to Radiohead to Rihanna to Skrillex. They just want to hear good songs, so there's a different kind of culture happening. When I was in school, you were either a Rock fan or you were a New Wave fan and you wouldn't even talk to people that weren't into the same genre as you. ...To me, music is a lot like movies. I am totally happy to watch any kind of movie, but some days I want to watch a Horror flick, some days I want to watch a funny movie and some days I want to watch a documentary. In the past, you were driven into these little niches, but people don't live life like that. No matter how angry you are, at some point you're going to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend and Ryan Adams is going to be amazing. But at another time, he might not be amazing at all. ...It's all much, much easier than it was before.”
Todd: Once (ex-Saigon Kick vocalist) Matt Kramer left the group, how easy was it for you to step into the role of frontman? Did you find it awkward or even difficult to suddenly become the center focus of the entire group?
Jason: “I always sang and wrote a lot of the music for the group. A lot of that stuff was demoed with me singing originally. ...We were in the middle of Sweden, and of course we picked the perfect time to go to Sweden which was in the middle of winter. There were like two hours of daylight, so we were pretty isolated which led to the band having a fight. ...We were there and then our blonde haired, sex symbol singer has now quit. We started to rationalize things by thinking 'Well, Genesis did it, so obviously, we can do it.' and 'What could possibly go wrong with replacing your blonde lead singer? This is should work perfectly'. I think it was a combination of cold weather, delusion and isolation, but we thought 'Let's move forward', ya know? Looking back, it's very cool that those records had their own unique growth and followings. There are people who are really into them.”
Todd: I was quite disappointed when I read (in The Wire news section of Metal Edge) that he had left the group.
Jason: “I get disgusted by hearing about it myself. As a music fan, I just don't care. It's like 'Shut up and be the band that I want to see', so I totally get that mentality from a fan perspective. I don't want to hear about your stupid argument and I don't care who hates who. It's like 'No one cares. Just play together or just go away'. I totally get that for a fan perspective. The flip side of that is that I also don't care. I'm just doing what I do and hoping for the best. I'm trying to have fun. Life's too short to be miserable. It would be like me telling you to keep working at a publication that you absolutely despise because 'It's a primo gig and you're making money'. You're like 'But every waking minute, I want to slit my throat, so it's not worth it to me. I'd rather do my indie thing and stay obscure. ...At least I won't wake up in the middle of the night feeling like I am being suffocated'.”
Todd: As far as Saigon Kick is concerned, what are your touring plans? Will you be working with new material?
Jason: “It's been one of those things where we're all doing our own things, but are happy to do shows whenever they come up. We're at this point where we'll play a city when we want to play, but there's no active pursuit of anything. We all know what would happen if we made new music at this point. I know how I feel about the bands I love that I haven't heard songs from in twenty years. ...When you do stuff like that, you're fighting two things. I mean no disrespect to The Police because obviously their legacy is beyond belief, but after seeing them at eighteen and then seeing them as an adult, I was like 'They're not as great as I remember. This isn't wasn't what I remember'. ...If we did something new, we would want to take on the world, but in reality, we just want the people who do actually care to be like 'Wow. That was so amazing'. ...We'd be happy if people felt like that.”
Todd: How would you describe your relationship with (ex) drummer Phil Varone (Skid Row, Waking Up Dead)?
Jason: “Phil is a different guy and makes completely different life choices than other people do. We have talked over the years and we've stayed social. I'm glad to see he's more focused on making music now. I don't have any issues with Phil at all. He's an interesting guy. ...People ask me all the time about him, but Phil wasn't like that when he was in Saigon Kick. Phil was the guy that would drink a beer and pass out in the back of the bus. A lot of the darkness came during the time was playing with Skid Row. I didn't have any awareness of that stuff until other people said 'Wow. Phil has gone off the rails' and I was like 'That is not the same Phil that I used to know.”
Todd: On a strictly personal level, how mush of your musical prowess in a direct result of your giant facial hair?
Jason: “All power to the beard. The beard thing is the funniest thing of all time because I never had a beard. I had a goatee for a number of years, but I think when you're a guy, at some point you go 'I have to try and grow this beyond this point'. Usually, you get to the point where you start itching and then you get pissed off. I don't know how long it's been. Not that long, but long enough. I just finally got past that point. And now my wife absolutely despises it, so that makes it even more fun (laughs) Plus, the dog is in love with it, which makes it even better. It's one of those things where I finally have something to grab with my hands. I think it's a rite of passage. Everybody has to have one for a certain period of time, if possible. I wish I could say there was some giant thought process behind it. The wonders of not shaving are brilliant. I have to say that. And the reward is fantastic. Anytime you're in a social situation and you grab it and stroke it, you automatically look twenty IQ points higher. You look as if you are pondering so much more. ...It's got a virtue in making you look intelligent.”
Jason Bieler (2017)
Greatest Hits Live (2000)
Houston, We Have A Problem (1998)
Moments From The Fringe (1998)
Greatest Mrs.: The Best Of Saigon Kick (1998)
Devil In The Details (1995)
The Lizard (1992)
Saigon Kick (1991)
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