Songwriter Interviews

Roger Clyne

by Carl Wiser

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Roger Clyne had a taste of fame as lead singer of the Refreshments, but has found his niche writing and performing with an independent band. We started the interview talking about the difference between major labels and independents, and why it's important to put art before commerce.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): After doing this long enough you get an ear for the passion of certain fans, and boy, they really have an interest in spreading the gospel of Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers.

Roger Clyne: I love it. And, you know, we're really fortunate. We're an independent band and so we don't have to play by anybody's rules but our own. We decided to put the art before the commerce, and you know, put meaning in songs and try to be part of like a world community via Peacemakers, truly, and that's what people have responded to. Instead of worrying about writing for radio, or predicting or following trends, we just shot the art from the heart and bingo – it worked.

Songfacts: Well, you were with Mercury Records, right? When you were with the Refreshments?

Roger: Yeah, that's right. The Refreshments were from… when were we around? Not long, '95 to '97.

Songfacts: So you've had the experience of working for a major label and then being independent.

Roger: Yeah, it's a lot harder to be independent. But it's also more rewarding.

Songfacts: How do you mean? I'm just trying to get a sense for… you know, if you're a new artist or something and you have the choice, okay, should I really strive to get this major label contract, or should I go independent? What would you recommend?

Roger: I don't want to vilify a whole industry, or even the idea of a major label. They have a different agenda, and their agenda is, right now, to respond to stockholders. And the easiest way to do that is to create something that generates profits quickly. It's harder to do it long term. They have to answer to quarterly meetings and stuff. They have to show growth on the bottom line. And they do that by taking music and selling it. The idea of artist development, consequently, has kind of gone by the wayside. The major labels are in the business of finding hits. And they're still doing it. That's fine, I was in that business for a while. We were in a major label situation. They actually didn't ask us to change who we were or rewrite a song or write anything for radio in the beginning.

So major labels are in a different business. They're in commerce, not art. Artists are artists, they're not capitalists to begin with. So unless an artist can find a major label vehicle, or even a minor label vehicle, whereby the art leads the commerce, I would recommend that they let their art lead their commerce. That's the way it works for us, it's in our manifest now to do that. It was risky, and it was hand-to-mouth for a long time, and sometimes it still is. But it ultimately has been rewarding. I've been in the public eye now nationally for ten years, and still paying the utility bills.

Songfacts: Do you need to sell more records as an independent to make a living?

Roger: No. You know, it just depends on what you want to do with your living. I'm walking around a regular suburban household in Tempe, Arizona. I prefer to be fulfilled by calling rather than by my bank account. My bank account I don't consider a reflection of my impact or influence on the world.

Songfacts: I guess what I'm trying to figure out is if you get signed to a major label, you hear these stories all the time about how you can sell a million records and still be broke.

Roger: Yeah, I did. I've never received a royalty check from Mercury Records in ten years. I'm not calling them unfair, it's just that was the nature of the deal. They get to recoup everything. And everybody, make sure you underline everything twice, because when you show up at the Cuban restaurant, and the executives are there, and you're passing mojitos around, when the credit card comes out it's your name on the account. That's just the way it works. So have fun.

Roger's been crossing the Mexican border all his life, and that culture is reflected in much of his songwriting. In the next part of the interview, Roger discussed this and other common themes that run throughout his songs - breaking down barriers, global responsibility, and the universal life force, just to name a few.
Songfacts: I want to start with just your Refreshments, a couple of the hit songs you did there. "Banditos." Where did you get the idea for that tune?

Roger: (laughs) I was using college to support my music habit. And I was relatively broke, pretty much perpetually broke. And my friends and I were fantasizing about making a run to Mexico, and maybe on the way we'd want a little money. So we just were fantasizing about how to knock over a Circle K. So I just strung some chords together and wrote this tune pretty fast one morning over coffee, with a couple of my friends laughing at me. And we were big Star Trek fans at the time, so Jean Luc Picard made his way in there. It was just about that simple. That was it. Just kind of the compassionate bandito. The guy who really wouldn't hurt a fly. You go to Mexico, you know, that's me.

Songfacts: Mexico shows up in a lot of your songs.

Roger: It does. I've been going back and forth across the Arizona/Mexico border all my life. It doesn't even really exist, you know. It's more a metaphor than a physical thing for me anymore. It's something that doesn't really divide a culture; it defines it. I'm hoping that any divisions it actually creates sometime in the near future will go away. I think that, if I have any influence on artists of the world, I want to be able to break down barriers. I want to be an inclusive artist instead of somebody who's exclusive. And so I use the border as a metaphor quite a bit.

Songfacts: Okay, for barriers.

Roger: Yeah, any real barrier. Any divisive threshold.

Songfacts: I think it's interesting, because "Banditos," for whatever reason, I always thought of it as kind of a Bonnie and Clyde type thing, where it would be a girl.

Roger: Yeah? Cool. Well, there was… I lived in almost a co-op of roommates, and there were definitely… we had quite a few girls in our company.

Songfacts: That's the benefit of being a musician.

Roger: So we were all talking about how, "Man, we need to get down there. How much money do we got in the couch?" And there's seventy-five cents. "Let's knock over something on the way." "You get this one, I'll get that one."

Songfacts: Now, another lyric that shows up – and this is probably something somebody from Arizona would know a lot about, but somebody from the Northeast doesn't – when you mention the mission, what is the mission?

Roger: Well, the mission is a physical structure. It's basically a church, old Spanish churches that pepper the Southwest. They're all over the Baja, and well, in Mexico and Arizona, too. I've grown up kind of knowing where they are. And they're always kind of a sanctuary, or at least that's kind of what they've meant to me, and an old cultural landmark. And so "meet me at the mission at midnight" was a very simple alliteration for me to throw in there.

Songfacts: Okay. And your song "Down Together," that has some interesting lyrics in it. Can you explain a little bit about that song?

Roger: Um, yeah. I wrote a lot of that, actually, when I was camping with my girlfriend who later became my wife. And we were just… celebrating life, our life and nature, you know, outdoors, streaking around the river. And it was really about going down to the river, let's go down together. And the river, of course, is another great metaphor for any would-be poet. It's a thing that's always changing, it's always there and always static. So a lot of those nonsense lyrics are everyday details that lead down to the metaphor, that lead to the river; the ever-changing yet ever static thing that is life. I know that's probably even convoluting that song more, but it's not about heroin addiction, which one writer said. Good Lord, get off that. No, it's about celebrating life, and being there by the river.

Songfacts: When you're writing these lyrics, do they all kind of hit you at once, or do these lines just come up from time to time?

Roger: It's very, very sporadic. Sometimes I'll get lines. Or I'll get a whole idea that I understand before I can put it into English, or into lyrics, and I'll scramble and scramble to put them into a tape recorder or to write them down, or both. And then other times I'll be just at a loss, and I'll have to basically sit in silence, or just keep working on finding what I want to say. So sometimes they hit me like a bolt out of the blue, and other times I'm mining, so to speak.

Songfacts: Do you speak Spanish?

Roger: Si, un pequito. Do you speak?

Songfacts: Muy pequito.

Roger: You should visit our fair city of Cortez, that Gulf of California. We throw a concert twice a year down there on the beach. It's a beautiful as-yet relatively undiscovered place. And I recommend it if you can get down there. Stay at the hotel that's at the beach… the cantina that we play is right across the street from it.

Songfacts: I can see that being a really good time.

Roger: It's a hoot. It's my favorite show.

Songfacts: When you throw these Spanish lyrics in, is it just the words that you happen to know? Or do you ever find yourself going out and singing, Oh, I really… what's a good Spanish translation? And then finding somebody that can help you with that.

Roger: I don't usually find anybody. I reserve the right to mess 'em up. I think it's more honest. Sometimes I'll go back into my Spanish dictionary and I'll look up subjunctive tense or something. But typically I don't ask for help. If I mess up, I'll stand by it.

Songfacts: It's more authentic that way.

Roger: Yeah, you know, just more… it's gringlish, it's Spanglish, it's the gringo lingo, you know? I think it's okay, as long as it's an honest effort, and I'm really trying not to be an expert, I'm just showing that I'm trying to bridge cultures. If I make a mistake, so be it.

Songfacts: Now, just getting with the lyrics, are there any lyrics that really stand out in your mind as some of the favorites that you've written?

Roger:
I love how "Switchblade" has turned out as a whole. That was a really, really fun song for me to write.

Another one, if you look at it lyrically, it's very simple, is "Love, Come Lighten My Load." That was also off ¡Americano! That was great to have a song come out so simple. Because if you look at the content sometimes of how much paper space my songs will take up, it can be rather daunting. I've been asked by more than one professional agency to dumb it down a touch, and I just can't. But when "Love, Come Lighten My Load" hit me, it was with a certain purity and eloquence that I hadn't experienced before. So I was really pleased to write that.

And… these are all kind of off the same album, but… no, they're not, actually. "Sleep Like A Baby" was one that I thought was very acute in its delivery.

Songfacts: Just getting back to "Switchblade," what was it that really, you think, that makes that song for you?

Roger: I think it's… the narrator is realizing that there are consequences to predatory actions, and oftentimes they're not to the external world, they're to yourself. There's a lot of bravado in the narrator – in the kid – to begin with. You know, "We're gonna go and get rich, we don't care who we harm." And then by the end, there's a certain degree of responsibility in the consequences that he or she realizes. And I like that. Sort of the process of growing up.

Songfacts: And then in "Love, Come Lighten My Load," you mentioned that that is more… you didn't use the word concise, but almost a different style for you.

Roger: Yeah, there are not many lyrics in that. It's pretty short. And it's a message of gratitude in a certain servitude. Like, to this uniting power, this thing that, you know... Bob Marley sang of "One Love." I cite that and The Beatles at the end, in the reprise. But it's this power that runs through us all. It's the life force. And it's inherently beneficent. Even though there's tragedy and there's cynicism, and there's all sorts of things around us, I think that love is the animating force of the universe. And I sang about it and felt very comfortable for the first time. I didn't have to put my ego in the way, or anywhere near that song. It felt great.

SF
: The title track on ¡Americano! sounds like a character song. Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired that one?

Roger: Yeah. I'll try and give the broad view. I think it was about my awakening to… whether individual or national course of empire. And what I mean by that is, lately, as people of the world are gaining more and more sources of information, I think there's a general awakening as to what it really means to be part of a nation. And our nation is imperial, by its nature. And it's interesting to find that your actions, simple things like turning the key on a car, or even paying your taxes, have global consequences.

And that song is about… there's a certain callousness I kept in the character there. In his responsibility to the consequences of what's going on. How do I put this… this is not very simple at all. The song is a representation. It's not about a person… it's a representation of what it feels like to understand responsibility. And I purposely, in that song, have that character, in a way, recognize that responsibility, and he turns his back on it. It's not as simple, it's not as happy-go-lucky, and it's not as carefree as "Banditos," but it could be the same character a little down the road, which could be me.

In any case, the character in "¡Americano!" says, "The blood is on my hands because I put down the money and I made up the plan." There's a certain recognition of that consequence there. I wanted there to be a tragic element in it, because he's clearly on the run, and that's an uncomfortable place to be, and torn between two things: between two different kinds of pursuits of happiness. He's divorced himself from that. This is long, but… there it is, there's "¡Americano!"

Songfacts: Oh, you can keep going.

Roger: I don't want to take up too much time. I don't know how long it'll take. I don't know if anybody's going to want to translate that thing. It's more about consequence and responsibility. And that character has turned his back on reckoning, reconciliation. "It's in my blood to live for the kill, but God only knows I want to stay and love you." He's made a choice to be torn in two. And that's a tough way to live.

Songfacts: One of the things I found kind of interesting about it, the character… it's a white guy, you know, the blue eyes, right?

Roger: Sure.

Songfacts: But he's praying to Ave Maria, which… you know, here is one of these cultural things. He's praying in Spanish, right? I guess that was kind of interesting to me, and partly because here he is, this bad guy… or this guy that's doing these bad things, and yet he's praying. I thought that was kind of interesting.

Roger: Yeah, people are complex systems. We contain multitudes. I think that's part of the fun of exploring characters, because they can really be anything. I don't watch a lot of major media presentations, but I find that our characters in the modern day are far less black and white than they used to be in the old movies, in the old literature. I find that you can find somebody who's really adorable in a lot of respects, and despicable in others. I just read recently, one of my favorite Tom Robbins books, it's called Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates. The protagonist in that… you're cheering him on 80% of the time, and the other 20 you want to just execute the son of a bitch. And I think that's really interesting. I also watch Deadwood, and there are characters in there who are total predators, and then they'll have a heart of gold at a certain moment. And I think that's really, really interesting, how humans can be that complicated, that complex, that subtle. Finally our media is starting to reflect that. Because everybody knows they are, it's just that it's never been acknowledged that it's normal to be so.

Songfacts: Good point. Alright, "Your Name On A Grain of Rice." Can you tell me what was going on that prompted this trip to Mexico?

Roger: Yeah. I was in self-sequesterment. Sometimes the noise of daily modern American life can distract me, actually quite easily, from the writing process. It's hard for me to walk by a computer without checking e-mail or going to eBay. And the phone rings a lot here because I'm home-based, the RCPM [Roger Clyne and the Pacemakers] headquarters at my home. I ran into a couple of writer's speed bumps -- not full-on writer's block -- but I packed my bags and headed south at the behest and request of my wife, because she was asking, "How's the writing going?" I was getting pretty cranky, because it wasn't very fruitful. So I got an ATM card and a brown bag full of 20s and took off.

It's interesting, you know, as soon as you leave what you love, how much more you miss it. And so, "Your Name On A Grain Of Rice" was set against that backdrop. It was also the United States ramping up to the war with Iraq. Going across the border to my old familiar stomping grounds in Mexico was a different experience, because everybody was casting a pretty harsh eye on the gringos down there because of what our government was doing. Like it or not, we are a reflection of that.

And I was sitting in the cantina where there were a couple of televisions on. One of them was CNN and another one was a Mexican station, and they were reporting the same events: the initial bombing of Baghdad, with incredibly disparate views. And that was really strange. So "The fighter planes tearing across the desert sky, don't know whether to curse them or cheer them on" is largely about being torn between… what we're taught to believe is America is the good guys, and be the proper patriot 100% of the time, and back your leaders. And then what was going on seemed… Frankly, I had a big problem with it. So I tried to put it in there without being preachy. I didn't want to condemn anything. I don't believe that there's a solution in condemnation. You have to offer some sort of inspiration, explanation, before you can solve the problem. In any case, "Your Name On A Grain Of Rice" was written then, and it's really about a lot of different things.

Songfacts: Was there really a grain of rice?

Roger: Oh yeah, it's a souvenir. It's pretty typical in Mexico. There'll be street vendors or beach-walking vendors who will carry around a sign that says, "Your name on a grain of rice," and you can tell them what to write and they'll do it. They can write the word "Mississippi" on a grain of rice. And then they'll put it in a little vial filled with oil, add some small seashells, and give it to you as a necklace, for $6.00 or something like that.

Songfacts: Did you really get one?

Roger: Yeah.

Songfacts: And you paid full price, you didn't bargain down?

Roger: I didn't want to haggle.

Songfacts: Which is the whole metaphor, I guess.

Roger: Yeah.

Songfacts: How did it feel coming home?

Roger: Great. (laughs) Actually, it felt great to come home to my family, and then… you know, I honestly felt a little safer getting across the border, so I wasn't under so much scrutiny. But then again, I felt like I didn't know exactly what the home I was coming home to was. I mean, the country home. It seemed awful aggressive, and very, very imperial. And it seemed we had lost compassion and track of the truth, to be frank.

Songfacts: The song "Leaky Little Boat." I'm guessing it either has some deep meaning or you wrote it for one of your kids.

Roger: I didn't really… didn't mean to write it for the kids. (laughs) They dig it. That song came almost complete to me in a dream. It was a day after one of our Mexico shows. I had a whole bunch of guests at the house, and it was some time in the late morning, and that song came to me as I was in the process of waking. It's hard to explain how a song comes like that. But… you can almost see and hear the whole thing without having to play a tape. Like time has nothing to do with it, you just know the song. Anyway, it was there. I jumped up out of bed, stepped over as many people as I could, grabbed my guitar, went out on the porch, and started playing it so that I could remember it. And somebody asked me what it was before I was through it, and I said, "I don't know, it's not done. The transmission's not finished." And when I got through it, I went back in and found my tape recorder, hit record, and that was it.

I later understood that it's a metaphor. Where it comes from I don't know. Subconscious. I don't know if it's personal or if it's something bigger than that. But it's a metaphor for any vehicle you might be traveling in or with. Everything in the universe is subject to creation and degradation, and it's all about the attitude you take, whether or not you're going to suffer or enjoy it. And good company is very, very important.

Songfacts: I think it's interesting you look around and there's other people in leaky little boats, as well.

Roger: Oh yeah, everyone.

Songfacts: So, I've had a few people ask about this. "Jack and Jose"… where did that come from?

Roger: That was basically a narrative of a real-life experience. It was the end of the Refreshments days. It was actually during the Bottle And Fresh Horses tour. I stepped off the bus in -- I can't remember the name of the club -- in Memphis, Tennessee, and stepped inside. And it was before the major proliferation of tequila. There was a time when tequila was a drink of banditos and pirates, and not cigar smoking executives so much. But I went into this bar and ordered one up, and it was actually around the same time that my friend -- my best friend, actually, at the time -- had just died. So I was purposely going to go on an afternoon bender, and stepped off the bus into the bar and ordered a shot of tequila. And the bartenderess actually just read me the riot act. Pretty fast, you know, it was a pretty quick melee. And I'd say she won. I didn't end up getting kicked out, but I did have to drink whiskey.

Songfacts: What's the toast at the end of the song?

Roger: Adios, rogando… literally means "with a hammer, giving you"… adios rogando… God be praised, and with the hammer given me, here are my tools… Katie, bar the door, pass the gun powder and praise the lord. Kind of the same interpretation. They're both idiomatic in English and in Spanish. But it's basically... how does it go… do you want the literal translation?

Songfacts: I'm just wondering where it came from. Like where you… if this is something that people really can do or if you made this up for the song.

Roger: I made it up for the song. And luckily, I made it up the day I was recording it. I knew there had to be something in there, but I didn't have it down exactly how I wanted it. So I woke up early on the day we recorded it, and worked out that toast. And that was harder than, actually, the rest of the song.

Songfacts: It sounds like a bit of work.

Roger: Yeah, adios argonda y Katie, bar the door, pass the gunpowder and praise the lord. Though I make my way… tu mis amigos… you may deem lowly and holy… I will tell them what they've learned… though I've been good, like night I've been spurned. Si aroma fuedes es como viedes… for when in Rome, do as the Romans do. In Memphis, why not try something new?

Songfacts: "Honky Tonk Union," anything to do with your real life, your wedding?

Roger: Yeah. Yes. Though we weren't married in a bar, I have seen many extraordinary colorful weddings at a place called The Stakeout in Southern Arizona, which was sort of cowboy headquarters when I was growing up down there. I've seen many a cool, cool cowboy weddin' down there. My wedding was also down in that part of the country at my grandmother's ranch. But it was outdoors. We had mariachis and fireworks and rattlesnakes and the whole bit. Three-legged dogs.

Songfacts: And the best man didn't get lost or anything?

Roger: No, he died. (laughs) That's alright. We all knew we would. Or he would. We all know we will.

Songfacts: Now, the song "Green and Dumb," anything about that you can tell us?

Roger: That song I wrote in the same stint of writing as the rest of Honky Tonk Union, so I wrote it down in the cattle ranch, the Clyne Ranch. And there's a lot of characters that I grew up with out there, like the hired hands who… you know, who for some reason seemed separated from those who hired them. In writing it, I was actually sort of self-exiled from the house. I said some despicable thing to my fiancée, and I got kicked out of the house, and I was watching her cook and sway to the radio. And so I used that as fodder to write the song. That exile was painful. And I felt for one reason or another like, maybe the hired hands whom we'd been employing for 20-30 years down there, sometimes may look at us with a certain longing to be included. So I wrote it about that. But it's basically a love song. It's a song that's hoping for reconciliation. For reunion.

Songfacts: I just have two more quick ones if you don't mind.

Roger: Yeah, if you don't mind me prattling on.

Songfacts: Oh, I'm fine with you prattling on. I just don't want to take you too long. "Beautiful Disaster."

Roger: "Beautiful Disaster"… what is that song about? It's just a fun rock song. I'd never used the highway metaphor before, I remember that. And I remember when I started to use that, I started finding myself running into the same literary devices that Bruce Springsteen uses all the time, he couldn't get around them. So I decided to put that middle section, "Take the wheel, the highway's clear," and basically lift that out of "Born To Run" for however many bars that is, like six or eight bars. And just to acknowledge that it's a tribute, and not a pilfering, I put the glockenspiel behind it, because it comes right out of "Born To Run." But it's about being very, very enthusiastic about your power and freedom.

Songfacts: It's an interesting image, the beautiful disaster.

Roger: Yeah, I love paradox. I love juxtaposition.

Songfacts: And, "Bury My Heart At The Trailer Park." Which is a big fan favorite.

Roger: Probably the most complicated song for me to explain on Sonoran Hope And Madness. What is that song about? That's song's a lot of me. That song is about a certain redneck cowboy pride that I have about my heritage, with the knowledge that it may be very barbaric, very simpleton. And I have those things in me, I just don't want to be harmful to the world. So it's sort of a song that celebrates my simplicity and some of my upbringing. I don't know. It's also just a fun hillbilly stomp. You know, it changes keys and it changes tempo. It's all over the place on purpose. Because I'm kind of… I'm all over the place… sometimes on purpose.

Songfacts: Well, it definitely strikes a chord with the audience.

Roger: It's a blast. Fun, shake-your-ass rock song that doesn't mean anything.

Songfacts: Did you know that the audience was going to respond to it like that?

Roger: No, no, no. I never know how the audience is going to respond.

Songfacts: The whole way you work the crowd, was that something that you developed over time, or did you just have the charisma where you can just get out there one day with your guitar and you're gonna do it?

Roger: No. I'm sure that what I'm doing now has been developed. It's an evolution. I'm very, very comfortable with it. I don't feel like I step out of character at all when I go on stage. I feel like I'm the same guy while I'm on stage as when I get off. I just have a few more decibels behind me. I've been a shoe-staring statue before, as well, but that was earlier when I was 16 through probably 22. That was me, the shy, misunderstood artist. Now, I don't care. I'm just happy to be there drinking beer and having an audience. You know, like, I don't mean just an audience to entertain. I mean an audience to exchange ideas with, and hopefully in some way influence the world positively.

Songfacts: You'd be surprised. People really do seem to connect with your music, so…

Roger: I hope so. I connect with the people.

Songfacts: Well, Roger, I really do appreciate you taking the time.

Roger: Well, I appreciate the time. My apologies ahead of time for all the babble on and all the… probably more than one contradiction in there, but I've got to stand by my mistakes.

Songfacts: That's what makes it authentic.

Roger: Hallelujah.

February 23, 2006
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Comments: 3

  • Ryan from ColoradoBeen a huge fan of Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers since the early 2000's (it's 2017 as I'm writing this) and have seen them live around 15 times. Was looking for the meaning behind "Beautiful Disaster", my girlfriend can be a bit of a mess sometimes, but she's just so amazing at the same time, so I call her my beautiful disaster. Great interview Carl, learned so much more about some of my favorite songs than I'd ever imagined I would.
  • Jes Polubinsky from IndianaJust saw Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers for the second time and the show was awesome (again)! It was awesome to read where some of my favorite songs came from. I especially love Switchblade, and was happy to hear that song means something to Roger Clyne as well.

    To the Peacemaker in all of us,
    Peace and Love aren't just options, they are the only options; we just have to learn to choose them.
  • Cory Zolkiewicz from Arizonaglad I stumbled upon this interview, it was a nice drunk read.
see more comments

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