{From Amplifier Vol. 3 No. 3, September 1998}

Doug Fieger: The Circle Goes Back to the Beginning

Rock and roll is, by its very nature, a fickle mistress. While those acts who have managed to achieve some degree of staying power in the business can be counted on one's fingers and toes, those who have gained some notoriety and then fallen by the wayside are myriad. Yet few bands and musicians in the history of popular music have survived the extremes, the dizzying highs and the crushing lows, the mass adulation and the outright hostility, as have The Knack and its lightning rod chief songwriter/lead vocalist Doug Fieger.

Disco ruled the charts in 1979. Between January and August, save for the Doobie Brothers' one-week visit to the number one spot with "What a Fool Believes," every single number one song was disco--from the Bee Gees ("Too Much Heaven," "Tragedy" and "Love You Inside Out") to Donna Summer ("Hot Stuff" and "Bad Girls"), from Gloria Gaynor ("I Will Survive") to Amii Stewart ("Knock on Wood"), even from Rod Stewart ("Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?") to Blondie ("Heart of Glass"), rock and roll music was a scarce commodity on Top 40 radio.

That all changed when "My Sharona," the first single from The Knack's 'Get the Knack' debut LP, exploded upon the airwaves and created a buzz virtually unheard since four lads from Liverpool came stateside fifteen years previous. "Sharona" sat at number one for six weeks, and "Get the Knack" went platinum seemingly overnight.

In the midst of the ensuing hysteria, Fieger, along with Knack-mates Berton Averre (guitar), Prescott Niles (bass) and Bruce Gary (drums), made a fateful decision. Unhappy with their press clippings, the band simply stopped granting interviews. While that strategy didn'=t stop the articles, it did change their focus--they became even nastier. The band was roundly criticized for its Beatle parallels--its choice of record label (Capitol), the title of its debut LP, even the album's back cover photograph. They were accused of being "dirty young men" on the basis of the occasionally crude lyrics on "Get the Knack".

The relentless press barrage took its toll on the band's popularity. An organized anti-Knack movement adopted "Knuke the Knack" as its rallying cry. The band's hastily released sophomore album, "...But the Little Girls Understand", failed to approach the lofty sales figures notched by its predecessor, providing further ammunition for the Knack Knukers. In 1981, following the release of the underrated "Round Trip" LP, the band split up.

In 1991, Fieger, Averre and Niles teamed with drummer Billy Ward to record "Serious Fun", which met with disappointing sales. Six years later, the band was signed to Rhino Records by company president Harold Bronson and recorded an album's worth of new songs with ex-Missing Persons drummer Terry Bozzio. The result is "Zoom", an exhilarating tour-de-force which combines the energy and the coltish enthusiasm of "Get the Knack" with the hard-earned wisdom and maturity that comes from surviving the ups and downs of more than twenty years in a crazy business. I spoke recently with Doug Fieger as he prepared to take the band out on the road for the first time in over four years. His enthusiasm for the band's new lineup and the chance to play again before live audiences was unmistakable.


Interview:

Q: Is it hard to believe that it's been 19 years since "Get the Knack"?
In some ways it seems like a long time, in some ways it seems like yesterday. Time has a strange way of condensing. I used to think ten years would seem like a long time, but that was when I was 19.

Q: Were you at all prepared for the way that album took off?
No, we weren't, and I don't think anybody could have been. We were a club band, and all of a sudden we were the biggest band in the world. That was interesting--to say the least.

Q: Did the subsequent "Knuke the Knack" backlash catch you off guard?
You know, I never actually thought about it, even while it was going on. It was a lesson in human nature for all of us.

Q: People like to take aim at anybody who's up on a pedestal.
That was something we found out. You know, our focus, and my focus, has always been positive, moving myself, or whatever I'm involved in, forward. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about ways to bring somebody else down. So it was kind of surprising, and a little bit disappointing, to know that there were some people whose focus in life was just that.

Q: So you didn't take it personally.
No, not at all. I have seen this happen to just about everybody who's ever gotten successful --especially people that have gotten successful very quickly. I realize now that it really didn't have a lot to do with us.

Q: Your success didn't come as quickly as a lot of people might have believed--you'd been in the business for a long time.
Oh yeah, and the success was definitely hard won. But to some people it seemed like it was out of nowhere, because they were unaware.

Q: If you could go back in time, but with all of your accumulated knowledge intact, would you do anything differently?
Well, hindsight is always 20-20. But I can't, so I don=t really dwell on that. Do I acknowledge that there were mistakes made? Obviously. We didn't have a press officer--which was a big mistake. We didn't realize that releasing our second album eight months after the first was not a really good idea. The fans loved it--it sold 2-1/2 million copies worldwide--yet it was deemed a failure by the critics because it didn't sell six million like the first album. And because the press and certain critics compare things, and they don't judge something on the merit of what it is, but rather on what it sells, we got tarred with the idea that that second album wasn't a success. So those things were mistakes, but we couldn't have known.

Q: The "My Sharona" stutter is a classic, right up there with the Who's "My Generation" or BTO's "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet." How did that come about?
It was the syllables (laughs). I was trying to get the syllables right.

Q: It seems like stammers make killer hooks.
And it also thematically worked. Our idea was to start the first album from the perspective of our 14 year-old selves. And then we were gonna move from there into what it felt like through our psychedelic era, our coming of age, and so on. The band, for me, was always an art project--it was a rock and roll band, but it always had an idea behind it. So the stuttering in "My Sharona" fit in thematically because, just like in "My Generation," young men stutter sometimes, especially when they=re confronted with young girls.

Q: Why did (original Knack drummer) Bruce Gary move on?
Personality conflicts. The band just doesn=t get along with him. We tried again in the last year, and it was the same as before, nothing changed.

Q: Sometimes that works well in rock and roll, having a little bit of tension within a band...
But there's enough of it going on with the rest of us! With Bruce, it was just unworkable, we couldn't make music.

Q: How did Terry Bozzio join the band?
[The band] got together a year ago and did a couple of surprise gigs at the Viper Room here in L.A. with Bruce Gary. At one of the gigs Harold Bronson, the president of Rhino, saw us and he called me the next day and said, "I gotta sign you." At that time, we were playing with Bruce because I felt that just because you didn't get along with somebody at one time it doesn't mean that things can't change--I know I've changed a lot in the past 18 years. But, truth be told, the same exact problems that we had with Bruce back in the beginning cropped up again, and it became an unworkable situation. So I called up the best drummer I knew of, who was Terry Bozzio. I said, "Do you wanna do this album?" and he said, "Sounds like fun." Those were his exact words, and that was exactly what I was hoping he'd say. During the recording, we just had such a blast, that when the album was done we all looked at each other, and said, "What do you think?" and he said, "Well, I'm in." So he joined the band.

Q: How has Terry's presence changed the band?
We feel really reinvigorated, as we did when we first started out. There's a real intense energy, and Terry has a lot to do with it. Besides being one of the greatest drummers who ever lived, he also happens to be one of the best guys--he's funny and bright, and just a joy to be around. And for the first time in a long time, it's fun to sit in a room with the four of us. We still have artistic tensions-- each of us fights for our vision, which is good for a band, I think. I may be the leader of the band, but it is a band. Everybody gets their say, and sometimes it gets heated. But there's no animosity anymore. It's more of a respectful rivalry, based on artistic beliefs and artistic wants, not ego. And that's a really great thing, it's a very wonderful feeling and it's very freeing.

Q: Talk about the new tracks on "Proof: The Very Best of the Knack". "She Says" is an original.
That one was written for Roy Orbison, actually. I wrote it, and got it to him a few months before he died. I would love to have heard him do it. He was one of my idols, so I hope we do it justice. I'm not Roy Orbison, but it's kind of got that feeling, it's got the timpani...

Q: The first time I heard "That Thing You Do!" I thought of you guys--it really sounded like your kind of song.
It's funny that you should say that, because the first time that I heard it I thought the same thing! I said, "That sounds like a Knack song!" And when Harold Bronson suggested that we do it, I couldn't believe it, because it was a song I wanted to do anyway.

Q: What about "I Knew the Bride" and "Teacher Teacher"?
"I Knew the Bride" is one of the very first songs the band ever played--I think we started playing that on our second gig. And "Teacher, Teacher," again, was a song that Harold suggested that we do. We basically gave it more of a Buddy Holly treatment.

Q: I read that "Girls Talk" was planned for inclusion.
We recorded it, but there were just too many songs. It will come out sooner or later on something. We have at least an album=s worth of unreleased stuff, both covers and original songs, that just never got on albums. Not because they weren=t good, just because there was too much material. We left a song left off of 'Round Trip' called "Go Away, Stay Away" because back then, the vinyl [format] limited how many minutes you could have on the record. And now, _Zoom_ is almost an hour long.

Q: _Get the Knack_ was reportedly recorded in less than 2 weeks for a total cost of $17,000. How does the new album compare?
In today's dollars, 'Zoom' was cheaper to record than 'Get the Knack'. It took longer to mix, because there are a lot more background vocals on this album than on 'Get the Knack'. We were basically going for one sound on that album. On 'Zoom', we tried to vary the sound from song to song. When you do that it takes longer to mix, since you're basically constructing a different sounding room each time you set up.

Q: The band's sound on 'Zoom' is different, not only from song to song but also from previous Knack albums.
Every album should be different, I think. That's what we=ve always strived for. The bands that I've loved are the bands that changed. They've kept a core truth, but they evolved, mutated, became something more, retreated at times and then pushed forward. And that's what we try to do. If we didn't do that, it would get boring to us. And while 'Zoom' is not supposed to be 'Get the Knack 2', you can tell that this is a Knack record. It doesn=t sound like anybody else, as far as I can tell.

Q: "(All in the) All in All" is a radical departure.
Oliver Lieber and I wrote the song--he's Jerry Lieber's son--and we basically started a demo that the Knack finished. There's a reason why it's the last song on the album. The album really ends with "Tomorrow," and then the next album sort of begins with "(All in the) All in All," if you know what I mean. That's why there's a long space in between "Tomorrow" and "(All in the) All in All." Thematically, we thought it really worked, because the circle goes back to the beginning, and that's basically what always happens, and that's what's happening with us.

Q: When you say "Pop is Dead" do you mean pop music, or pop culture...
What do you think? I don=t know. (laughs) I just write 'em, I don't analyze 'em. There's always been a certain amount of irony in our music. But I've always felt that our music has an ironic twist coming from the heart. It's warm irony, it's not cold irony. It's irony coming from a place of love and caring, rather than from a place of making fun, or nastiness.

Q: It's certainly ironic that this incredible pop album begins with a track called "Pop is Dead."
The idea was that we would start this album with "Pop is Dead" and then give you thirteen reasons why it's not.

Q: "Mr. Magazine" is a scathing put-down of print journalism. Do you feel like you've reached a truce with the media?
I never had a battle with them. Basically, that song was about a specific, tabloid-type mentality. The news today is just gossip, it's not news. It's about trying to hurt, rather than ennoble. It's about tearing people down, and invading their privacy, and stuff like that. Jim Morrison wrote a book called 'The Lords', and in one of the poems he describes reporters in the coffin interviewing the worms. And it was sort of from that perspective that I wrote that song. It wasn't a blanket indictment of the fourth estate.

Q: There's a neat little Beatles reference in "Terry and Julie Step Out." Do you see that as a dangerous move?
I can't think about that. If people don't have a sense of humor, get a life!

Q: Well, you did have the audacity to sign with Capitol the first time around...
I can't help it! So shoot me! (laughs)

--Rick Schadelbauer


Return to links page