Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Sunday Conversation with Derin Dow

Guitar shredding, retro rocker Derin Dow hanging on the Ripple couch.

When I was a kid, growing up in a house with Cat Stevens, Neil Diamond, and Simon and Garfunkel, the first time I ever heard Kiss's "Detroit Rock City," it was a moment of musical epiphany. It was just so vicious, aggressive and mean. It changed the way I listened to music. I've had a few minor epiphany's since then, when you come across a band that just brings something new and revolutionary to your ears.

What have been your musical epiphany moments?

I can't point to one major one, but there have probably been several mini-epiphany moments.  "Band On The Run" was the first song that really got my attention when I was about nine or so.  I loved all the changes in that song, which ended up being the first 45 single I bought.  Styx's "Lady" also stuck with me around that time, and I remember calling our local radio station to request it.  One day my cousin brought over the album Focus: Live at the Rainbow, and when I first heard "Hocus Pocus," that was it for me.  I was hooked; mostly on Jan Akkerman's guitar playing.I was also pleasantly amused by Van Leer's yodeling and impressed with his flute playing.

When I was about 13, I got Kiss Alive II and Hotel California, both of which I played over and over.  After hearing the live version of "Shock Me," I went out and bought a used guitar for $15, smeared white toothpaste and red lipstick on my face, and pretended I was Ace.  That ended up being the first song I ever learned on guitar.I also heard "Detroit Rock City" in 7th grade English class during a study of "poetry" around that time. That song also impressed me for all the same reasons you mentioned.  Most of my other epiphany moments probably occurred going home on the school bus, just listening to the radio when FM was first becoming popular.  I remember the first times I heard "Starship Trooper" (Yes), "Hold On" and "Lay It On The Line" (Triumph), and "Carry On Wayward Son" (Kansas), and thinking to myself what great songs they were.  All of those songs resonated with me quite a bit.  After that, I'd have to point to the opening track of Rush's 2112, and the opening cuts of Boston and Van Halen.  Those debut albums blew my mind because of the great production, the songwriting, the guitar work, and the pure, raw energy.

Talk to us about the song-writing process for you. What comes first, the idea? A riff? The lyrics? How does it all fall into place?

Usually, it starts with noodling around on the guitar, coming up with a part that I like, a series of chords, then humming a little melody to go along with it.  Then I'll try to create some lyrics to replace the humming and carry the melody.  Lyrics are usually the hardest part for me, since I sometimes don't have much to say.  When I first started songwriting, however, I'd do it in a different way.  I would usually sit down and write some lyrics about a specific topic, and come up with a melody in my head at the same time. Then I'd go find the guitar chords to go with it.  Those songs were more message-oriented, whereas now I tend to write more in terms of an overall vibe, and then just let the words follow.

Who has influenced you the most?

Pretty much anybody who was ever on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert back in the day!  That's such a tough question though, because there have been so many, and the influences have changed over time as I've gone through different phases.  I've probably spent more time listening to Kansas than any other band.  But I don't really write in that style because it is so orchestrated, and I'm pretty much just a self-taught hack.  When I first started playing guitar, southern rock was popular in my hometown, so after I had learned a bunch of Kiss songs, I ended up playing a fair amount of .38 Special, Molly Hatchet, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Eagles, etc.. That's probably where I get the twang in my playing.  Beyond those early influences, I'd have to point to a lot of the other rock acts of the 70s and 80s:  Aerosmith, Foreigner, Rush, Van Halen, Sabbath, Zeppelin, Heart, the Doobie Brothers, Styx, Triumph, Tom Petty, REO, Ted Nugent, Eddie Money, Journey, Pink Floyd, Night Ranger, Ambrosia, Peter Frampton, Chicago, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Neil Young, Elton John, Jefferson Starship, April Wine, Steely Dan, etc.. (Did I mention Kansas?)  The Who and the Stones were also in the mix to some extent, but I hesitate to say that they influenced my songwriting.  I can't say the Beatles impacted me much either, because I've never owned one of their albums. 

The first rock concert I ever saw was REO Speedwagon with .38 Special opening, so I'd be lying if I said that didn't influence me.  Both bands were really great that night.  It was in 1980 at Freedom Hall in Louisville, KY, and I had just turned 16.  Gary Richrath impressed me a lot that night with his playing, and Cronin was very solid as well.  38 Special was promoting Rockin' into the Night but hadn't recorded "Hold On Loosely" yet; so they were kinda 'up-and-coming' at that time and not really all that well known.  I think they influenced me by how they became more popular in the following years when they started putting out a lot of great songs that were getting a lot of airplay in the Midwest.

It's sometimes hard to admit now, but I've also been influenced to some extent by the singer-songwriters and soft rock groups of the 70s, like America, Firefall, Jim Croce, etc..  I actually got into bands like Ace, Player, Orleans, and Pablo Cruise.  Beyond that, I really came to appreciate some of the other progressive stuff out there like the Dregs, Steve Morse, Eric Johnson, Allan Holdsworth, King Crimson, the UK, and even Pat Metheny, though I'm certainly not on a par with those players.  When I was about 21, I switched to playing bass for a few years, so there are some influences there as well; Geddy Lee, Jack Blades, Jeff Berlin, Stu Hamm, Jaco, etc.. but again, I can't play as well as those guys, except for Jack maybe!  (ha, ha..)  In the 90s, I listened to Dream Theater and Vertical Horizon quite a bit, so they've left a meaningful impression also.

Where do you look for continuing inspiration? New ideas, new motivation?

Every day that I get up at 6:00 AM to go to my day job serves as a sort of motivation for me; knowing that I would rather be doing my music as a career instead; if only it would pay the bills. The frustration of that experience gives me a fair amount of motivation to try to figure out how to create an avenue out of it.  Sometimes, it gives me ideas for songs as well. The first song on Retroactive, "Friday" is probably a good example of that frustration.  I tend to write when I'm unhappy, but not so much when I'm feeling good. Once in awhile, I'll write a happy song, but usually that's not the norm.  Occasionally when I'm out driving around or jogging, I'll get some ideas for a song that just pop into my head.  I also tend to get ideas when I'm just jamming by myself.

Otherwise, I just listen to music that I like to feel inspired.  There's not a lot going on right now musically with the newer bands that I relate to, so I tend to look back to the 70s, 80s, and a little to the 90s for inspiration.  My wife likes to tell me that I'm stuck in the 70s, but I don't mind since I tend to think that's when a lot of the best rock music was created.  Lately, I've been listening to some of the older Rush material, especially Hemispheres, which is probably my favorite album of theirs.  I've also been listening to Winger's third album, Pull, from the early 90s, just enjoying the different guitar sounds that Reb got on those tunes. I also listen to Eric Johnson's albums fairly often.  Even though he's known for being an accomplished guitarist, I actually like the laid-back quality of his vocals as well.  I tend to prefer Tones or Venus Isle these days.  I also get inspired by Robert Plant's Principle of Moments album from time to time, mostly for its sparseness and basic 3-piece approach.  I also love Steve Morse's High Tension Wires, which makes me realize how much room I have to grow as a guitarist and songwriter.  I'm pretty much all over the map when it comes to music I like, because I also enjoy stuff like Donald Fagen's The Night Fly or maybe some Pat Metheny, Seal, or Sade if I'm in the mood.  It's all inspiring for me.

When it comes to vocals, I still get inspired when I go back and listen to some of the older recordings of guys like Steve Walsh, Lou Gramm, David Pack, and Geddy Lee.  I also like Paul Carrack's voice.  They're all great singers in my book, and very inspirational for me personally.  Occasionally, I'll also go back and listen to Ozzy on something like Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, which I consider to be an excellent album.

Genre's are so misleading and such a way to pigeonhole bands. Without resorting to labels, how would you describe your music?

I've heard it described by some people as "Foreigner meets Ambrosia meets the Eagles" or something like that.  I've heard others compare it to Triumph or Aldo Nova.  Both of those descriptions are probably in the ballpark stylistically, but production-wise, my recordings certainly aren't on a par with those bands due to my budget issues (i.e. no label, no backing, etc..).  It's basically just rock, but each song is somewhat unique stylistically, so they don't all fit nicely into one simple category.  If one wants to narrow it down, then I suppose it might be described as "semi-progressive, yet mostly straight-ahead melodic classic rock with a few fusion elements thrown in here and there, alongside a moderate dose of southern twang."  It certainly has its share of vocal harmonies and guitar solos, which makes it more classic/retro than most of what we hear today with modern rock.

It's probably safe to say that I sometimes combine a singer-songwriter approach with a full band, arena-rock mentality, (if such a thing is possible), which I hope is something a bit unique, even though not all of my songs would fit that description.  Songs like "Highways," "Door To Your Heart," and "River Of Time" all start out in singer-songwriter mode, but then they build into either big choruses or semi-prog instrumental jams.  Some have multiple bridges. It may be confusing for some folks, but it makes perfect sense to me, since it tends to represent the sum total of my influences.  It's definitely not a psychedelic or blues thing.

What is you musical intention? What are you trying to express or get your audience to feel?

It's a therapeutic thing for me mostly.  I don't have a big, calculated intention other than trying to get some deep emotions off my chest from things I've experienced in my life.  At the same time, I'd like to think that some of my songs will connect with other people who might be going through some of the same things as me; like a divorce, or maybe an estranged relationship of some sort, or even some kind of spiritual awakening.  When I was 18, I had a near-death experience brought on by prolonged drug use, which really changed me on a spiritual level so that now I view my life and my songs in a different way.  I value life more than I did when I was a reckless, depressed teen.  Some of my songs have subtle, or not-so-subtle spiritual messages in them, mostly just trying to lead people towards God and love, and his ways of looking at things; as opposed to the opposite of that, which, unfortunately, is what "rock-n-roll" is often associated with.  I also hope to write some songs that enable people to have some fun along the way as well.

Come on, share with us a couple of your great, Spinal Tap, rock and roll moments?

This is a tough one, since I don't remember much from all the hazy times back in the day.  Well, one time, when I was about 17, I got so high before a show that when I went to put my gear in the car to leave, I set my guitar case down on the ground behind the trunk of my '74 Chevy Malibu.  Then I loaded my amp and a few other things into the backseat, jumped in the car, started it up, and promptly backed up over top of my brand new Washburn A-20 guitar!  I was so wasted that I didn't even realize what it was until I had pulled forward and ran it over a second time!  Oh yeah, the guitar!  Duh.. The neck actually ended up being okay, but all the control knobs were smashed and the body was all caved in near the input jack.  What was amazing was that Harvey Jett, (the former lead guitarist from Black Oak Arkansas whom I was playing with that night) actually fixed the electronics on that guitar in time for the start of the show!  Thanks Harvey!

Another memorable time was when we were all wearing spandex pants back in the mid- to late-80s.  The lead singer of our band had a habit of not wearing any underwear beneath his spandex in order to promote the details of his manhood to all the ladies. Unfortunately for him, he also enjoyed imitating many of the moves of David Lee Roth, Steven Tyler, and Bon Jovi.  One night, he did a big jump and landed while doing the splits, and his spandex pants ripped right in the crotch!  Luckily for him, he also wore several bandanas on his wrists and neck, so he was able to cover himself until the set was over with a little American flag.

This may not rank as a Spinal Tap moment, but you may find it to be a rather amusing story nonetheless.  After I first moved to L.A. in '89, I got recruited to play bass by this band called the Waifs. (Not the one out of England).  They were a hippie group fronted by a girl singer and her husband/guitarist. Their whole act was predicated on the '60s flower-child movement thing.  They were trying to bring all that peace and free love stuff back, so I had to play my role.  It wasn't really my cup of tea musically, but they had a decent following, a manager, a lawyer, and a few connections with RCA/Arista, so I went along for the ride; even though I would go home after a rehearsal or a gig and revert to listening to my favorite bands of the day, one of which was Night Ranger.  So, one night, we were playing a showcase for some industry people at the old China Club in Hollywood.  Our chick singer was always trying to fiddle with the way I dressed in order to make me fit in better with the overall 60s concept. So, this night she convinced me to wear these low-slung, reddish-purple, velvet pants, with no shirt, and a really weird hat with some odd-looking jewelry, along with some big black boots.   I looked really ridiculous, but I went along with it for the sake of flower power resurgence.  Our whole act was really quite silly in retrospect, as we had several hippie-chick dancers on stage, a girl with a rainstick, a bongo player, etc..  Anyway, after our set was over, I walked off the stage and went down to the bar to order a beer.  Then I said hello to the guy sitting next to me, who turned out to be, of all people, Brad Gillis, lead guitarist of Night Ranger!  I felt like a complete fool in my 'retro' get-up, but he didn't really care.  Turned out he was bumming out since Night Ranger had just broken up, and they were trying to reform it without Blades, who had already gone on to form Damn Yankees.  He said they were probably going to work with Fran Sheehan, the former bassist from the band Boston, but I don't think that ever panned out.  I saw them a year or two later at the FM Station in the valley as a 3-piece with a different guy (Gary somebody?) on bass/vocals.

What makes a great song?

If it gives me goosebumps, or moves me in some way, then I know it's great.  It doesn't matter what it's about or what the style is really.  I've loved everything from "Sunshine" (John Denver) to "Killing Yourself To Live" (Black Sabbath) and all points in between.  The best songs usually have a simple message that gets communicated in a sincere way by the artist.  McCartney has always been really talented at this.  "Silly Love Songs" might be a good example.  On the other hand, if a song sounds contrived; like somebody was just trying to write a hit for the sake of having a hit and making some money, then that usually comes across too; so it tends to be a forgettable song.

Also I would have to say that a great song usually has lyrics and a vocalist involved, but not always. I've always thought that "Frankenstein," (Edgar Winter Group) is an amazing rock instrumental piece.  To me, that's also a great song.  But usually, there is a lyrical message involved that strikes an emotional chord with people.

Some songs might be great from a technical standpoint in terms of the proficiency of the players and the complexity of the arrangements, but at the same time, they might be lacking an emotional connection with the listener.  For me, that's where a Van Halen song, (like "Mean Street" for example), might have more meaning than an artful, classically-influenced masterpiece that Yngwie Malmsteen may have written/recorded.  Eddie VH has always had a knack for playing from the heart, even with all of the hammer-ons and pull-offs, whereas somebody like Malmsteen plays from a more schooled perspective, which for me, doesn't really have the same impact on an emotional level.  (I must say, however, that I did enjoy his Odyssey album back in the 80s when he had Joe Lynn Turner singing).

Who today, writes great songs? Who just kicks your ass? Why?

That's a great question, and even though his style is not my style, I'd have to say John Mayer.  Not only is he a really good guitarist, he writes some real hi-quality pop songs that most people can relate to.  His style is not as heavy as what I would normally listen to, but I have to give him props for being one of the best out there today.  Lyrically, I think he's able to phrase things and say things in a way that packs a lot of meaning into fewer words.  He's also got great ideas for the vocal melodies and song structures, and his performances on the recordings are spot on.  He definitely kicks my ass.

Whiskey or beer?  And defend your choice

These days, I'm just a beer man.  When I was a teenager looking to get drunk, it would have been Maker's Mark or Jim Beam straight outta the bottle.  But now, given that I have children to consider, a regular teaching job, and a liver that's been through its fair share of abuse, it's mostly just Coors Light or Bud Light for me with dinner.  If I'm feeling adventurous, I'm might down a Heineken or two, but only if I don't have to work the next day.  Pretty lame, I know.

We, at the Ripple Effect, are constantly looking for new music. What's your home town, and when we get there, what's the best record store to lose ourselves in?

My hometown is Madison, Indiana, but I've lived in Los Angeles now for over 21 years; so I've pretty much lost track of what's been going on back home.  If I had to guess, I'd say that Wal-Mart has probably taken over half of the town, so it may very well be the only place to buy music of any kind nowadays.  Back in the 80s, we went to a place downtown called Madison Music, but they're probably gone by now.  If you're planning to visit there, I'd recommend that you go during the July 4th weekend for the Madison Regatta so that you can enjoy the hydroplane boat races on the Ohio River.  (October is also a good time, when the leaves are changing).  There's an Americana artist there by the name of Rusty Bladen who has put out several albums along the lines of Neil Young, John Prine, etc..  He's a main staple in the music community there, and a former roommate and band-mate of mine.  (Remember the spandex story?)  But again, as for a record store.. who knows?  It's really a small town.

Any final comments or thoughts you'd like to share with our readers, the waveriders?

Thanks for reading all of this and for checking out my music.  I'm working on another album right now, which I hope to complete sometime before the summer is over.  I think it will probably be more cohesive stylistically compared to the previous album, and will hopefully sound better sonically as well.  Feel free to visit my website at for more info, and feel free to order a copy of Retroactive while you're at it.  (We've got T-shirts too).  Oh, and have a great 2011!

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