Hitting it big in the late '80s with such hits as "Seventeen" and "Headed for a Heartbreak" and touring with some of the era's biggest bands (Kiss, Scorpions, ZZ Top), Winger sat out the grunge era before reconvening in the early '00s. In April 2014, the band (which also includes second guitarist John Roth) issued their sixth studio album overall, Better Days Comin', via Frontiers Records.
In this discussion with Kip Winger, he talked about songwriting, the music business, and the stories behind some of his band's biggest hits.
Kip Winger: I'm terrible with coming out with some kind of thing that I'm going to say for the album. I just write - we write the exact same way we've always written since the '80s: Set up a drum machine, write some riffs, and once we get the stuff the kind of quality we want riff-wise, then we start to shape the arrangements.
This album has a mixture of a little bit of everything that people know us for on it, so for me it's one of the quintessential records that we've done - there's something for everybody that is into us on this album. But it's not diverse to a fault. It's got a lot of the different types of things that we do on it. And I think it's sonically one of our best albums. We're all pretty happy with it. Not just because it's our new record - when I came out with my second record, there's tons of stuff I would have changed, so it doesn't always go well.
Songfacts: Is it primarily still you and Reb doing the majority of the songwriting and collaboration?
Winger: Yeah. That's the sound of the band for Winger records. I have three different things I do: solo records, classical music, and the band. And the sound of Winger is when Reb plays guitar and I play bass and we write from that perspective. We wrote 80 percent of the material, and then John Roth had a couple of tracks on there. If I'm doing a Winger album, that's pretty much the way I have to do it or else it really won't even sound like us.
Songfacts: I find it interesting that you also do classical music. How does it compare when you're writing music for, say, Winger, compared to when you're going to sit down and write a classical piece?
Winger: It's completely different. I'm a self-taught musician. It took a long time to learn how to write the long-form music. I didn't start until I was 35. I read piano music and stuff, but I didn't start writing orchestra music until I was in my 40s and started studying it when I was in my 30s. When I say study, I mean I had 12 years of composition theory and lessons with private teachers.
So it's totally different. Rock is a more tactile thing where you're sitting down with the other guy and you're writing lyrics and stuff. Classical music is long-form music, so you have to make it last much longer and go over a longer period of time, with variations on a theme and other enhancements. You work with totally different material when you're trying to do classical music.
"Classical" is not really the right term. I'm talking about orchestra music, contemporary classical composition. Short-form writing is verse, chorus, middle, verse, chorus, out. Or you throw a solo in there. And then long-form is take a shell and try to make 10 minutes out of it.
It's really helped my rock writing to have studied composition for so long, because I can now take a riff that normally any given band might repeat four times, and then move to the next thing. But learning orchestra writing has given me the perspective of varying and manipulating it and all of that kind of stuff to try to make it a little bit more interesting.
With everything going so fast nowadays, peoples' minds and the world coming at you so fast, from my perspective people get bored really easy, so you can't repeat phrases that much before people are like, "Okay, I got it. Next." Bach never did anything more than three times, so there's a whole plethora of shit that I do on both levels. One feeds the other.
Well, I'm rambling now. But they really help each other, because it's easy to be a rock musician your whole life, but it's not easy to write inspired rock songs. It's easy to go bankrupt physically. So studying, digging further into the past to come up with what I'm doing in the future is really the best idea.
Songfacts: When it comes to writing songs with Reb for Winger, is there a set format that you guys follow?
Winger: We come in totally fresh. Nobody brings other ideas from anything else. We just sit down and come up with it on the spot, because I find that rehashing old ideas, it never really works. You are trying to do something that was inspired in a different time so it's really hard to rekindle that inspiration.
So we sit down with a drum machine, same as we've done from the very first album, every single album, sit down with a drum machine, figure out a tempo, make a cool beat, start writing a riff. Lot of times I'll make a really nice sound and then I'll leave the room and Reb will just jam on and come up with three or four really good ideas. He's really good at coming up with ideas, but he can never remember them, so I always have the tape recorder going. Then I'm good at arranging and stuff. I've written a few riffs in my day. So that's really how it goes. Melodies just kind of come simultaneously when we find a riff that we dig, and then lyrics always come last.
Winger: We never collaborated in a room together. I did those with Kane. We just wrote some ideas and Alice probably wrote over them, which is the way a lot of stuff goes on nowadays. So I really wouldn't know, honestly speaking. But he's a great lyricist. He's got a lot of great ideas, and he's incredible. I can't say that I've sat in a room with him and written a tune, but I have seen it back in the day. You know, he's the same as everyone else: You sit around and wrack your brain until you come up with something that you dig.
I think you could ask any songwriter in the world, "What's your songwriting process like?" and they would all say the same thing: You sit around and wrack your brain until you come up with an idea that you like. Whether you're playing a piano, guitar, just singing in your head, writing lyrics, it's all just the creative process. We're all the same, right? So the creative process tends to be the same in general for a lot of people. I think the variable is that people have different voodoo and superstitions about how they're going to conjure up the spirit, so to speak. But in the end, man, you're just kind of pounding out to find a good idea.
Songfacts: What is going to be the leadoff single on the new Winger album?
But the music business is really fucked up. Yesterday I was doing an interview and somebody was going, "How do you feel about Mötley Crüe charging $499 for a VIP pass?" And I was like, "How do you think we feel about getting a million plays on Pandora and only getting $200 for it?" This is the state of the business. The Internet has decimated the intellectual property. On the other hand, it's made creativity flourish.
So everything about the Internet has helped the business, except that intellectual property is not worth anything anymore. So now what you're finding is unless you're KISS or Bon Jovi, bands are struggling to survive.
Songfacts: I think that you have some very valid points how different things are now, compared to how they were back in the '80s and '90s with the whole record business.
Winger: Yeah, the CD is now a piece of merch, man. But the thing is that my approach to this - my mission in life - is to understand that function of music. I don't care about the T-shirt and all that stuff. I want to write good music. That's the thing.
I'm a music theory geek, so I like to study music. Only a certain kind of thing. I'm not like, "I love all music." It's not like that for me. I've got a very specific sound palette that I study, and that's my thing. I'd be happy studying music the rest of my life. I'm not really trying to be a rock star - I'd be very happy teaching at a music studio or something like that. That's kind of my approach to it. I'm trying not to have things be boring.
I wanted to be a rock star when I was a kid, and it was fun and everything, but I started studying classical guitar at 16 and then I was in ballet and I heard Stravinsky and I was thinking, "How do these people do this? This is amazing." I always wanted to learn that.
I actually didn't think I was capable; the goal of having a symphony orchestra play one of my pieces seemed out of reach to me. Now I've done it, which is really cool, but it took a hell of a long time to be able to make it sound authentic so it wasn't Spinal Tap. A lot of rock guys try to do classical and they think that they can just have someone else orchestrate it. They don't do the homework.
Winger: Have you ever heard the Winger Demo Anthology?
Songfacts: No, I haven't.
Winger: The Demo Anthology is the demos of all those songs, which shows you the original songs, which, when you hear the album there's really not much different about it. But "Madalaine" was one where it was much slower. It was a lot slower, actually.
So, we wrote that song and it was kind of slow, and then when we went in the studio, one of the suggestions that Beau Hill made was to speed up that song. So when we sped it up, it came to life.
That was the first song that Reb and I wrote where people around us were, like, "Wow, this is a single." And I was thinking, "This is a single? What's a single?" I totally didn't get it. So I have to say I've been very naïve in my career. I'm kind of a late bloomer when it comes to understanding the function of marketing and all that kind of stuff. I just did the music and then all the other shit kind of came alongside of it, which wasn't always to my benefit.
But that song was real slow, we sped it up, it came to life. I think it's one of our cooler songs. It's still a chick song, but it's got a cool riff that Reb wrote and still rocks. But it's very cocky.
Winger: No. But people think it is. It wasn't even our highest-charting single. "Headed for a Heartbreak" for me exemplifies the band the most because of the way Rod drums and Reb's solo. It's in Lydian and it's more out in the zone of where we all come from.
Reb wrote the riff when he was 15, and he was, like, "I don't know what to do with this riff." When I heard it, I was like, "I know exactly what to do with that riff. Let's do this, this, and this." So he wrote the main chorus lick, I wrote the solo section. We went to the 5 on the bridge and put a bunch of riffs in there.
Actually, I'll tell you something about that song that never translated. What's the Led Zeppelin song that goes [singing], "I want you nananananana" ‑ I can't remember. It's got that weird syncopation in it. I don't know. But it's got the same syncopation as "Seventeen." And I was like, "Let's rip that Led Zeppelin song off on the verse." I can't even think of it now, but it's out of a Led Zeppelin thing. That was the whole idea for the verse. [The Zep song that Kip is referring to is probably "The Crunge," although the more obscure "Walter's Walk" has a similar vocal syncopation, as well]
And look, seventeen was legal in Colorado, so I didn't even get the joke, dude. I didn't get it. And then it hit and every seventeen-year-old girl in the United States thought that song was about her. So, I did well. [Laughing]
Songfacts: And then before you mentioned "Headed for a Heartbreak." What do you remember about the writing and recording of that?
Winger: I wrote that alone at the end of the day in the studio. I was fucking around with this keyboard thing - I do a lot of the cyclical keyboard fragments. That's a riff in D Lydian.
So I wrote the riff and we jammed on it a little bit, and it was just one of those things that happened magically. You'll talk to many people who think the best ideas happen by accident, and that was definitely one of them. A lot of times I'll sit down and the shit will just drop into my hands and I don't even think about it. That was one of those songs.
Kind of like the last line of the song: "Don't you think I feel the pain." I just sang that because I was like, "What am I going to sing here? I don't know what to do. Let's put this line in here." It doesn't have anything to do with anything else melodically, and that turned out to be very cool. A lot of that stuff just happens by accident.
I'd like to say that I really crafted that tune, and I think I did to a certain point. Once I figured out what I had, I rotated the bass notes around the common tones of the right hand on the keyboard stuff, so there was some music theory at play in that song, at the end of it. But basically the riff just fell onto me by accident.
July 21, 2014. For Winger the band, visit wingertheband.com, and for Winger the man, visit kipwinger.com.
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