Songwriter Interviews

Chris O'Connor of Primitive Radio Gods

by Carl Wiser

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That haunting, sublime song with the B.B. King sample you hear on '90s stations is called "Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand." It was the most unlikely of hits, reaching #10 in 1996 for the Primitive Radio Gods.

To get the story, we tracked down Chris O'Connor, the reclusive frontman for the group and the song's creator. He is averse to interviews, but agreed to this email exchange.

Some background: Chris formed a group called the I-Rails circa 1987. They played clubs around Santa Barbara, released four independent albums, and broke up in 1991. Chris took a job as an air traffic controller at LAX and put together an album called Rocket, which contained "Phone Booth." He sent copies of the album to record labels and publishers around Los Angeles - a strategy with a success rate near zero. But in this case, it worked: An A&R guy plucked the tape from the pile, heard a hit in "Phone Booth," and pushed it up the corporate ladder at Columbia Records.

It's clear in retrospect that given the chance, Chris would have sabotaged his opportunity to sign with Columbia, but the label signed him sight-unseen. They issued Rocket in 1996 and placed "Phone Booth" in the Jim Carrey movie The Cable Guy. Chris brought his I-Rails bandmates Jeff Sparks and Tim Lauterio back into the fold and along with guitarist Luke McAuliffe, hit the road as the Primitive Radio Gods.

Chris kept a low profile and ensured his commercial doom with a follow-up single called "Motherf--ker." The thing is, he never asked to be a rock star.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): How do you typically write a song?

Chris O'Connor: Sometimes it starts with an instrument, sometimes melodies in the head, sometimes with a song title or lyric. Tim or Luke might have something that triggers a beginning. Sometimes there's just a vague notion of something waiting to be expressed.

Songfacts: What's an example of a song that came out of something waiting to be expressed?

O'Connor: "Ripped in November." Feeling simultaneously that you don't belong where you're at on the one hand, and not so sure the kingdom of bliss is somewhere else on the other. The lyrics are dream images that describe a surreal, observational detachment of the speaker from an unreal world in which you feel you cannot escape, want to, yet somehow achieve a certain acceptance and resultant release.

Songfacts: What was going on in your life that led you to write that song?

O'Connor: The normal stuff. Most of the music post-White Hot Peach [2000 album] is inspired by the unconscious, so there's no biographical connection that I'm aware of.

Songfacts: What is "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand" about?

O'Connor: A light that never goes out.

Songfacts: Where did the title come from?

O'Connor: There's a song called "Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand" on Bruce Cockburns' 1978 album Further Adventures Of. I had already finished the song and thought, "that's it." I threw "standing" in front, but at the time I would have swore I lifted it word for word. Rocket was an alter-ego side project I started in order to teach myself how to use a sampling keyboard I had just bought after the first serious band I was in (the I-Rails) broke up. There wasn't any thought of releasing it, and in fact it wasn't released until five years later.

Songfacts: What happened in those five years before the album was released?

O'Connor: I quit playing music, I worked, and I drank.

Songfacts: Your band was the I-Rails, but from what I understand, you were signed as a solo artist. Can you explain how that worked and why you became Primitive Radio Gods?

The I-Rails performing "Sticks And Stones"
O'Connor: The I-Rails started as a 4-piece in the late '80s and ended as a 3-piece in '91. there were four records. when Jeff (Sparks) left the band, there were two songs that had already been recorded at Camp David ("Are You Happy?" and "Where The Monkey Meets The Man") that were to be the start of the fifth record. That's when I got the sampler and decided to do the rest by myself. In '94 I printed 500 CDs of the finished album, Rocket, and mailed them out to college radio and independent publishers and labels. In '96 it was released in England on Columbia Records.

Songfacts: Were you a solo artist at any point?

O'Connor: I'm not sure what you mean by "solo artist" Can you give me an example?

Songfacts: Sure. For instance, a musician named Gregg Alexander wrote and created all the sounds on his album himself, but called his act "The New Radicals" so it would give the impression of a band. He was effectively a "solo artist," even though he recorded under a band moniker.

O'Connor: Well, I produced, sang, wrote the songs and played all the instruments on Rocket except for the two songs previously mentioned, so I don't know if that meets the criteria or not. Most who I hear termed "solo artists" hire engineers, producers, musicians, songwriters, etcetera to make a record. I did a record called Ellis Kelley, Songs About Women I Never Knew in which I engineered, played, sang and wrote everything, but it was never released.

Songfacts: You put Rocket together almost entirely on your own. What I'm wondering is how you and the record company decided to turn the project into Primitive Radio Gods instead of "Chris O'Connor" or "I-Rails."

O'Connor: Well, the I-Rails no longer existed and I would never put my own name on the cover of an album. One of the great things about band names and race horse names is that you can call them anything, and even though someone may not like it, they will never question your prerogative to do it. Primitive Radio Gods was a song title from the I-Rails third album. It seemed appropriate. The record company came years after the "project" was finished and had no say in the matter.

Songfacts: Why wouldn't you put your name on the cover of an album? Seems like it takes at least a little ego to perform on stage.

O'Connor: I'd rather use new words to define myself than something I had no choice in, and find boring and unoriginal. Since I first got into recording songs (which began with a 4-track cassette tape recorder), part of the process that made it fun was picking a new band name and album title to group the songs in. As for my ego, while very dependable in some areas, it has never helped me get on a stage. I've always relied on intoxication for that.

Songfacts: When you had to do press to promote the album, what was that like for you?

O'Connor: One part spinal tap, one part deer in the headlights, and one part good old fashioned bloodletting.

The '90s was time of radio station consolidation, and these newly massive station groups used their clout to extort appearances by artists at their events, which ranged from meet-and-greets to concerts. In the old days, only the biggest or most ambitions stations could pull this off, but these collectives could now organize appearances at a corporate level, essentially requiring them in exchange for airtime. For instance, if a new act like Primitive Radio Gods wanted their song heard on Clear Channel stations, they could find themselves playing to a room full of contest winners in Pueblo and or answering questions from a DJ in Des Moines.
Songfacts: Can you describe what your days were like at this time? Wondering if you did the typical radio station gigs and appearances.

O'Connor: We would pull into town the day of the gig and a rep would pick you up and wheel you around to whatever they had set up. If it was a city that had a station playing the song you would usually stop by and do some trailers and maybe an interview. There could be a promo event or TV or a flesh-presser at some bar - you never knew what was happening before you got there. Then you would do the gig and start over the next day.

Songfacts: What were the gigs like, and were any other acts on the bill?

O'Connor: Mostly clubs, colleges, and festivals. We, like most bands, were subject to the universal law of good gig/bad gig. We always played with at least one other group. The best by far for me was James Hall. We toured with them awhile supporting their album Pleasure Club. They kicked our ass every night. I thought that record was by far the best thing that came out on Geffen that year.

Songfacts: What's your philosophy on sampling? You came up with some very interesting sounds that way, and I'm wondering how you did it and how you found the material to sample.

O'Connor: Well, from a technical standpoint, the sampler is the most powerful musical instrument created by man. You can capture the sound of anything and manipulate it in just about any way you can imagine. Having said that, my use of sampled sounds has steadily decreased through the years. The sound library I built up in the '80s and early '90s is stored on floppy disks, so you can see roughly when my interest started to fade.

Initially, I would record things on a stereo DAT machine or cassette tape recorder, then transfer it to the sampler. There was also a lot of high-quality samples of acoustic and synthetic instruments, sound effects, etcetera made by the manufacturer and independent third parties that could be purchased.

Songfacts: How did you learn to create songs?

O'Connor: I met Jeff (Sparks) in junior high, and he taught me open chords and bar chords and basic guitar theory. He could read music and was playing in the jazz band, and I had always been attracted to guitars, so I sort of latched on to the opportunity. We hung out for a while and wrote a few songs together, mostly comedy stuff - I remember laughing a lot. We did our own thing in high school and I lost interest in playing. Then (I think after we graduated) I went to see him at his house and he had gotten a cassette tape 4-track recorder.

This was the early '80s and if I remember right it cost something like 800 bucks, which could have gotten you a real nice guitar or amp, so initially I thought it was a waste of money until he showed me how it worked. Then I was hooked. I got one myself and that became the catalyst for everything that happened later. From then on, recording and songwriting became synonymous.

Songfacts: Sounds like that 4-track unlocked a lot of your talents. Has there ever been anything else in your life that has brought out this kind of passion in you?

O'Connor: Talent is 90 percent desire, and passions come and go. How old are you Carl?

Songfacts: 43.

O'Connor: Assuming you started getting into music in your late teens, give me a few albums from the late '80s, '90s, and '00s that you really got into so I have some idea where you're coming from musically.

Songfacts: Elvis Costello - My Aim Is True
Outkast - Stankonia
A Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory
J Geils Band - Blow Your Face Out
The Coral - The Coral
LL Cool J - Mama Said Knock You Out
N.E.R.D. - In Search Of
Prince - Hits/B-Sides
The Pretenders - The Pretenders

O'Connor: Thanks for the list. You're no longer an anonymous script on the screen. Are you a musician also?

Songfacts: I have no musical talent whatsoever, which makes me appreciate people who do. That's one of the things I was getting at - you had to have realized at some point that you had something special. Wondering what that moment was like.

O'Connor: I don't believe in the idea of talent. Sure, there are people who may have more mental or physical aptitude for one thing or another, but the most important element in one's ability to do something at a higher-than-average level is the time you spend practicing it. Interest in, or desire of something, makes the practice enjoyable and you naturally spend more time at it without concern of results.

The reason I didn't start trying to make music when I was younger than 12 was because I was convinced that if I had talent, I would already be doing it. I was very conscious of 5 and 7 and 9 and 11-year-old kids who could read and play music and thought to myself: What's the point of even trying? I'll never be as good as them.

Songfacts: How does that translate to the working world? Musicians often have a burning desire for their art, but also have to work a corporate job to make ends meet.

O'Connor: Making music and making money are two entirely different things, and I know nothing about the later.

Songfacts: How did your outlook change as you got older and got some experience in the music industry?

O'Connor: Out of a 30-year period of writing and recording, my music industry rape lasted about a year, in which all relationships and bridges were burned, so my experience is too limited to warrant anything resembling a polished turd of wisdom. I can, however, leave you with this famous quote from Dr. Hunter S. Thompson:

The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.

Songfacts: It sounds like you had little tolerance for the business side from the jump. When you talk about burning your bridges, can you elaborate on what you did and if you regret any of those fires you set?

O'Connor: Well, first I got 150 pounds of plastic explosives, some blasting caps and detonation wire and attached all that to the bridge foundation. Then, I pissed and shat all over the showbiz end, commandeered a tanker truck filled with high-octane jet fuel and parked it strategically near the accounting department cafeteria and had an old friend from my Navy days fire a tomahawk missile into the bastard while they were all having lunch on my royalty account. Then I let the bridge have it. The explosion was intense and I singed most of my hair and eyebrows (which, needless to say, at the time I very much regretted). When the smoke cleared I heard a tiny voice scream, "You'll never work in this town again!" To which I replied, "Fuck you and the cheap suit you rode in on!"... And that was that.

Songfacts: But isn't the corporate world just as bad? Trying to understand why the music industry was so particularly loathsome.

O'Connor: The corporations are here to feed the beast, which is us. We want cheap, plastic shit we can bury somewhere in a few days so we can buy something else. Consumption, which used to be a nasty disease, has been magically transformed into the ultimate economic model, and everyone is in on the take. The only thing in question now is how much of the corporate cut is levied to the king and his court, and how much is levied to the pawns working in the trenches. Pawns are cheap, and kings are priceless, so the king gets more. And frankly I feel sorry for him... Do you know how expensive a golden parachute is these days?

Songfacts: I don't feel sorry for the king, but I wouldn't want to be him either. So what can we do, and does music play a role?

O'Connor: The eternal question: "What should I do?" The eternal answer: "I don't know."

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. People are too busy staring at their phones and buying crap to even notice. The role of music now is background noise to try and hold the ever-shortening attention span of the debtor public while they are sold something else.

Songfacts: Songwriters are an empathetic bunch, which when churned through the industry machine can come out tattered. What seems to keep them going - especially in the down times - is their music. Even if it's just for them, they find some solace in the creation. How do you make it work for you?

O'Connor: For me it's the primary experience that gives meaning to my existence. When I die, whether it's sooner or later, I will have a body of work that can last as long as there is the technology to play recorded music. It gives me a sense of mission and purpose that is impervious to acceptance or rejection from an anonymous crowd.

March 16, 2015
The Primitive Radio Gods discography includes the albums White Hot Peach (2000), Still Electric (2003), Sweet Venus (2006) and Out Alive (2010).
Get more at primitiveradiogods.info
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