Jason Bieler of Saigon Kick

by Greg Prato

Sometimes in a rock band's career, a hit single can provide the keys to the kingdom... or a one-way ticket to the trash heap. Saigon Kick is one of the few bands that have fallen somewhere in the middle. One of the few rock bands of the early '90s that could appeal to fans of both hair metal and alt rock, it was a 1992 power ballad, "Love is on the Way," that was their big hit.

But instead of quickly following up the tune with an album full of similarly styled songs, Saigon Kick parted ways with their original singer, Matt Kramer. And although they carried on for a few more albums with guitarist Jason Bieler doing double duty as lead vocalist, their subsequent music failed to the connect with the masses.

However, when the Kramer era lineup of Saigon Kick reunited a few years ago, the band was pleasantly surprised to discover that not only was their fan base was still very much intact, but new fans had jumped on board, as well. This subject - as well as the story behind "Love is on the Way" and how it affected their career - is one of many we discussed with Bieler when we got him on the line to chat with Songfacts.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How did the success of "Love Is on the Way" change your life?

Jason Bieler: In terms of what I do or how I do things, in terms of my day-to-day activities, not a lot. Whenever you have a record that has any momentum, it creates a lot of opportunities that might not have been there before in terms of business opportunities or performance opportunities or things like that, and exposure opportunities. I mean, monetarily, having a hit is far better than not having a hit. [Laughing] I'm no mathematician, but I'm pretty sure I can safely say that.

But I was never really one for the rock star thing, so I never sought that out. Being more famous one day versus the day before, I didn't really care whether that was happening.

But when you have a big record, you're secure in the fact that you're going to get to do another record. That's kind of a sports analogy in that sense: if you have a good season, you have a good shot at having a job next year. And really that was the biggest thing for me.

Songfacts: What do you think of that song now?

Bieler: It's so funny, it's one of the quicker things I've written, so I can't say I formulated this huge plan to write this chart-dominating ballad. It just happened, came out, went down on the record; just like ballads on previous things we'd done or softer songs or different kinds of songs.

And it really took on a life of its own. It wasn't even a single as much as a couple of radio stations in Florida just started playing it and then, as songs that are really successful do, it just exploded. I mean, phones went nuts, sales went through the roof, and the label was like, "Guys, you probably have a hit record here." So it accidentally happened - it wasn't a purposeful plot. I wish I was that good.

Songfacts: Did the success of that single put pressure on the band to follow up with a song on the next album that was similar?

Bieler: There are two separate contingents: there are the Saigon Kick fans who knew us from the first record, knew what we were about and kind of got it; and then there were people who were exposed to us in the car line, picking up their kids from school and soccer.

We were always a very diverse band. The first record had a ballad on it. The first record, I don't think we really changed much of what we were doing. And in terms of pressure, to say that you don't care is not true. That's some kind of wanky artist talk, which is bullshit. You want to be successful.

But I wasn't feeling like, okay, this sold 500,000 or 700,000 or 800,000, so we need to sell 850,000. When you start to get your artistic satisfaction from that, you're in for trouble. Because I can assure you having been around, unfortunately and fortunately, long enough, you'd better love making music, because some days you're going to be in arenas and some days you're going to be in clubs. Some days no one's going to see you and then all of a sudden you'll have resurgences.

I like playing music, so I take as much pleasure playing in front of 50 people as I do when we played in front of 20,000 people last month. It's all good to me. I'm making music. I'm not putting in plumbing or digging holes. I get to get up and make music. So that was really, to me, the measure of the pressure. Like, I want to keep doing that.

Songfacts: I'm thinking even back to that time period, '92/'93, one other band that maybe had a similar situation to Saigon Kick was Blind Melon, because they had a hit with the song "No Rain," but the rest of their self titled debut wasn't really like that song.

Bieler: But they were also way smarter and they adopted more of a grunge vibe. So they kind of slid more with that. We left ourselves in no man's land, which was the genius of Saigon Kick.

Songfacts: When you say "no man's land," how would you describe that at the time?

Bieler: When we first got together, we toured with the Ramones, we toured with the Godfathers, we played with Faith No More. And as that transitioned from what was hair metal into the grunge movement, Atlantic weren't really up for that kind of thing. There was a metal department and then there was their pop department, and we got caught in that transition where we weren't marketed as a metal band and we weren't really pop.

I mean, no pure metal band would be caught dead hanging out with Saigon Kick. And at the same time, no grunge or alternative band would be caught dead hanging out with Saigon Kick, because in that camp we were considered a hair band. And to say it was just us is not fair - Extreme, and I think to maybe a certain extent King's X got caught in that transition.

But Alice in Chains and even to a certain extent Pantera came out of the same camp. They were just able to transition better - far better than we were in terms of perception and otherwise. Alice in Chains, I remember being on tour in Vancouver and seeing pictures of that band. I was, like, "Holy shit." And we got persecuted. They were a great band, so at the end of that day that's what mattered. But it was just funny, it just really depends on what side of the street you were on when the meteor struck.

Songfacts: Would you say that the success of that song caused tension in the band?

Bieler: Normal band stuff caused tension in the band. I don't remember particular arguments related directly to that. I had written the song entirely, so there may have been some stress over that. But nothing that I remember being the major stuff.

Songfacts: And what was the inspiration behind that song and what are the lyrics about?

Bieler: I really couldn't even answer that question. I think it was more evoking a mood than it was a specific story. The whole thing, including the lyrics, was written in one or two passes over a microcassette recorder.

It was really just this idea. I had the riff, which was really a variation on a couple of really cool chords that I had always liked. It's a similar chord for "Message in a Bottle," and Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians had a song called "What I Am." That particular chord voicing was something that I'd always thought was a really cool chord. I was tooling around with that kind of voicing and the song came about and kind of wrote itself.

Songfacts: Wasn't there also a ballad on the first album, that potentially could have hit before "Love Is On The Way"?

Bieler: Yeah. There was definitely a ballad on the first record. People try to define what a hit is. In the truest pop sense it's so formulaic that I think it's more true now than maybe it was at the time. But hits used to be these weird, intangible elements that just magically moved a group of people to support bands and purchase music and go to shows.

There's always been pressures at labels and marketing and things like that, but now every pop song from Calvin Harris to Katy Perry is based around these certain chord changes that people like. They're kind of refurbished versions of these same chord changes. So it seems to work more now than ever.

I wouldn't say that they were the same kind of song. I can't answer why one was a hit and the other wasn't.

Songfacts: What is the name of that song on the first album?

Bieler: I think you're talking about a song called "Come Take Me Now."

Songfacts: Was that song even released as a single or a video? Because that would also play into if the song was going to have success.

Bieler: "Love Is On The Way" wasn't a video or a single. It kind of happened by mistake. The same thing theoretically could have happened on the first record. But I think we managed to screw that up decision-wise, too, because we were known as a really aggressive - I don't want to say heavy band, but more our live shows drew a crowd much more akin to Jane's Addiction than Warrant. But when we got signed with the label, they really didn't understand our diversity, and maybe we didn't understand it either. We wound up releasing the most middle-of-the-road song we had [the song "What You Say" was issued as a single/video from the first album], which made sense at the time. But when you look back at it, what the hell were we thinking?

The fact that the band is even here anymore or that there are this many people that even believe in what we care about is a miracle in and of itself. Because almost every case you point to, any critical decision-making process, the band has had the innate ability to go the wrong way. Even down to touring partners. When we first got signed, we were touring with all these cool bands. And not to be disrespectful, because I thought Ratt was a great band when I was growing up, but there was no thought process of, Wait a minute, this grunge thing's happening. You just played with the Ramones, you're going to confuse the shit out of people, and people are going to assume you're a hair band in its last dying days.

So it was, like, "A tour? Ratt? Great!" We just didn't think. So we just played with anybody. I mean, who plays with the Ramones and Cheap Trick, Ratt and Faith No More and Soundgarden?

Songfacts: Thinking back to the '80s, before grunge, there was also a pretty firm line drawn in the sand between thrash metal bands and glam metal. However, Metallica toured with W.A.S.P. in '85 and even Ozzy in '86 when Ozzy was at his most glammed-out on The Ultimate Sin album. So it's funny how certain bands can get away with touring with bands that aren't similar to their style, whereas some bands can't get away with it.

Bieler: And to be clear, at least from my perspective, those are "of the moment" issues: whether you're in this trend or not; whether Fred Durst is cool or not cool. Those are all "of the moment." 25 years later, is Def Leppard a great band? Were those songs great? It transcends that if the band really writes good music, but it takes a long time and it can be quite painful in the transitions.

You and I both have seen it. I remember Limp Bizkit, there was no cooler band on earth at the time. And if you weren't doing that - if your guitar player didn't wear those pants that were bell bottoms from the waist and didn't play those riffs - you weren't playing music. You weren't even in the discussion.

It's understandable to assume that Limp Bizkit is no longer a popular act in the US, as their albums don't sell by the truckloads like they did during their enormously successful late '90s/early '00s commercial peak. But there is still demand for the Bizkit, especially outside their homeland: their 2011 release, Gold Cobra, topped the album charts in Germany and hit #2 and #3 in the Austrian and Russian album charts, respectively. Durst and company still play enormous festivals throughout Europe.
And how quickly it turned to, "Oh, my God, how could you possibly think that was good? This is horrible." I mean, Limp Bizkit, and specifically Fred Durst, was one step away from being alive perception-wise. He'll have his moment 10 years from now, 20 years from now. Some of those songs - I can't say I'm familiar with all of them, but some of them were great songs and they'll have a life. But those constant evolving trends... I still think the same thing should have happened in EDM. I'm convinced that any minute now people are going to go, "Did I actually pay $100 to stand in a field to watch a guy play a laptop?"

The same thing happened in disco. It was the exact same thing. The whole country was dancing like idiots and just mindlessly doing tremendous amounts of drugs and bouncing around clubs. And one day they woke up and were like, "What the hell are we doing?!?" And then it happened.

But going back to the main point, the great disco songs are still every bit as relevant today and are still respected because they're great songs. Those things survive. The trends and the things of the moment don't.

Songfacts: I don't know if I'm the only person who thinks this way, but I can listen to a radio station today that just plays '70s pop music and actually like it. But I would never be able to listen to a radio station that plays the pop music of today. It would just be very irritating and is almost poison to my ears.

Bieler: I think if you look back, there's brilliant songs from every era - I don't care if you go back to the '20s. And there are brilliant pop songs today. Skrillex... I like it. I definitely like some of the tracks. Only time will tell if it stands the test of time.

But you look at somebody like Barry Gibb, who's having this amazing resurgence. The guy's fucking brilliant, and he went through a period of time when the Bee Gees were the silliest thing on earth, because of the backlash. But you look now and you say, "Holy shit, that guy wrote amazing songs." Just one after another, after another. And he's finally getting the respect he deserves. He was always respected as a songwriter and he was always successful, but those great songs will endure and the rest kind of go by the wayside.

So whether Katy Perry's "Dark Horse" is one of those songs or not is yet to be determined. But whether it's pop, '70s folk, country, whatever, the special stuff finds a way to sustain itself over time and the rest kind of fades away.

Do I think we're going to be talking about the hundred or so mega DJs 20 years from now? No. Will one or two of them have made a lasting impact? Potentially.

Songfacts: You just mentioned Barry Gibb. He was on such a streak of hits in the late '70s that people tend to forget that he also wrote the theme song for Grease. Even songs that he wasn't writing for the Bee Gees were also becoming huge smashes.

Bieler: Yeah, the guy's brilliant. And he went through those days to where, in terms of the popular music of the time, no one took that seriously. But again, over time things that are good have lives.

How could the 1978 "jukebox musical" film, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, miss? It featured countless Beatles classics remade by some of the era's biggest acts (Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Earth, Wind & Fire, etc.) and featured all three Bee Gees and Peter Frampton as the main stars - both acts being stadium headliners at the time. But somehow, it all fell flat, as it was panned by critics and failed to be the box office blockbuster many had hoped it would be, and has been pointed to as a major blow to the careers of both the brothers Gibb and Frampton.
Songfacts: Something with the Bee Gees, I wonder if they never made that silly Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band movie, if that maybe wouldn't have hurt their career as much at that point.

Bieler: I don't know. Look, I mean, I think as an artist you do what you do. I know I've made horribly dumb decisions and nowhere near on the scope of success of the Bee Gees, but we've made great decisions, we've made stupid decisions. That's part of any process. And you hope when all's said and done you made a few more good decisions than bad.

But I'd hate to live and work and create in a situation where I can't make a mistake, because if you can't make mistakes, you're not going to do anything new. You have to put yourself out there. You go see the guy jump over the 84 buses of flaming farm animals because he might wipe out. At the end of the day that's why the crowd's there. The crowd's not there because they know he's going to make it. They're there because the potential of him ending it all in a giant, flaming ball is there, and that's what makes the crowd happen.

Songfacts: Something else you just brought up, which I always find kind of fascinating, is how certain bands can get away with making a mistake, and others can't. Metallica have put out some albums that seem to get a pretty major backlash, yet they still have their following. But then you have somebody like Billy Squier who put out that "Rock Me Tonite" video and it pretty much killed his career. So it's strange how some artists are forgiven and some artists aren't forgiven with their fans.

Bieler: You never know. I don't think I'd have been forgiven for dancing around in lingerie in any of our videos, either! Because maybe we don't have that cred of Metallica. Metallica was at the cusp of that whole movement of metal, and no matter what they do from this point forward, you can't deny the fact that they started that thrash-heavy hard sound, one of the first to break through with that. And Metallica moved the game to them. So you get a couple of extra get-out-of-jail-free passes.

You have to give that band that. Because when I first heard them, it was like, "What the hell are they doing?" If you would have told me when I heard the first records that that was going to be on mainstream active rock radio as a staple, I'd be, "Are you out of your mind?" There's no way that Metallica's going to be perceived like Led Zeppelin was when we were kids. That's not going to happen.

But they did. And the whole game moved to them. And when someone can do that, you've got to give them the respect. I don't know they'd be forgiven for doing the Billy Squier video, but, you know, some of their musical decisions, you just have to give them a pass.

Ozzy's the same way. Ozzy's done that a few times. There's been some decisions. But he's Ozzy. What are you going to do? So he has no right to make music anymore? Or you take away what he's meant to hard rock and heavy metal? There are certain guys who have done enough. You gave Michael Jordan a break when he had a bad basketball game.

Songfacts: KISS is also an example when they put out an album like, say, The Elder and it flopped. But then their fans eventually came back to them.

Bieler: I think Tom Morello said it best when he was talking about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. People always go to cocktail parties now and talk about how Radiohead was their biggest influence, but I wager the rock landscape would be a different place if KISS was not a band. So people can say what they want, and whether they were super relevant musically or not, those are great rock records. They were important to me when I was 10, and the reason why I thought that's got to be the coolest possible job on earth, because of them. It wasn't because I saw the Eagles and was, like, "That's the coolest thing ever." I appreciate how great they were musically, but when you're 10, it was KISS that was, like, "What? Blood, fire, guitars?!" I mean, how does it get any better? There's nothing you could do better.

Songfacts: Regarding that Billy Squier video before, I actually did a book about three or four years ago called MTV Ruled the World, and there's a whole part in which I spoke to directors and members of bands, and they wound up analyzing that video and its effect.

Bieler: That guy wrote great songs. I'm old enough now that I really don't care what anybody thinks. It's that "cocktail mentality." Like, I have to go to this party and say I like this bizarre band, because that's what these four hipsters say, and then I'll be perceived as really edgy and cool. Billy Squier is a super talented guy. He was a great singer and he wrote some amazing songs, to the point that Eminem just sampled him.

They're great hooks, great songs. I say to those people who don't forgive him: "Get a life. Let's put your high school photo online and then we'll talk about dumb decisions." It's that trolling mentality of people who love to build you up and then they love to tear you down. And I personally would be very interested in hearing Billy Squier create music and do stuff again. He's a talented guy, period.

Songfacts: It seems like people put celebrities on a pedestal and then don't forgive them. Meanwhile, ordinary people make mistakes constantly.

Bieler: It's the same idiot mentality that Billy Squier cannot make credible music anymore, but this guy that's a good-looking inmate is going to have a reality show and make $10 million. That's the culture I'm worried about accepting or not accepting me? That has made Kim Kardashian the biggest celebrity in our universe? That's who I am worried about is going, "Jason's great"?

Not that I have anything against Kim Kardashian. But you're going to sit up at night worried that those same people that are TMZing their life don't think you're credible?

Songfacts: Let's talk about the song "What You Say." What do you remember about the writing of that and what is that song about lyrically?

Bieler: You are not going to enjoy this part of the interview. Because when I write it's more like a channeling. And I don't mean in any remote way to connect that with anything spiritual. I just mean that it's a stream of consciousness, that thing that happens. Especially on the older stuff, which is why I think some of the lyrical content is severely lacking.

But it comes out in one chunk. I hear songs. The battle for me is not to write, it's to capture the moment so I remember everything. I feel like all of a sudden this weird radio station tunes into my head and it's going by rather quickly. So, as far as lyrics, I get the basic lines, the percussion stuff, and it's only going to hang out in that moment of my awareness for so long.

So to me, that's the way I hear a lot of music and write a lot of music. It's more from that perspective than a conscious, "Oh, I remember when that girl broke my heart when I was 12. Let me get into that emotional state and speak of this girl and the emptiness," or the joy I had at this party. I probably should experiment more with those thoughts, but it tends to happen very, very quickly, both from a melodic, lyrical, and even to a certain degree, arrangement standpoint. For better or for worse, that's the way I write. I don't really have a very strong recollection of the sparks or inceptions of a lot of the ideas.

Songfacts: What is Saigon Kick currently up to, and do you think that a new studio album is going to be released at some point?

Bieler: We are going to do a new album with Billy Squier as our frontman, and we're going to do 18 live versions of "Rock Me Tonite" and mix it up. No, but we're talking, we're taking our time, we're not doing a lot. We just played with Avenged Sevenfold and Volbeat and Chevelle three months ago. To even be put in that wheelhouse of bands was awesome. And we played with Alter Bridge and All that Remains and a bunch of bands like that.

So we're taking these festival opportunities when they make sense for us. I'm sure at some point we'll get to music, but we're trying to walk the line we didn't walk correctly before. We want to make sure we don't go that road - and I won't name names - but these sad, horrid bands from way before that are playing every pig-in-a-poke barbecue festival for any amount of money and just living in the glory of before.

Not that we think we're going to be this new reborn cool thing, but we just want to stay a lot more true to who we are musically and a little bit more protective of what we weren't protective of before, and show the things about us that we didn't really pay attention to. So that's kind of where our head's at, both musically and even performance-wise. That's why we're not doing 300 dates and that's why we're not supporting every band or doing a headline here. Heck, we've done nine or ten shows in coming on two years.

So we're just really taking it easy and finding the right opportunities that make sense for us.

October 30, 2014. For more Saigon Kick, visit their Facebook page.
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Comments: 2

  • Justin from Clifton Park, NyVery cool interview. I love his comments about not even sure if he wants this society to accept Saigon Kick.
  • Jay from EarthThe most criminally underrated band in the history of the universe. All SK fans are patiently awaiting a new album. Take your time, we know it will be worth it.
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