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Concert Preview & Interview: Tonic

Grant Walters Grant Walters Concert Preview & Interview: Tonic
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With two decades of hits in their rear-view mirror and new music on the horizon in 2019, the alt-rock trio performs in Columbus on Wednesday night with road mates Gin Blossoms and Vertical Horizon

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My interview with Tonic’s frontman Emerson Hart wasn’t the first that began with a discussion about hockey, but the Nashville resident and avid Predators supporter uttered a symphony of words that are enough to make a Jets fan weep with joy.

“I tell you what, man, I was really impressed,” he exclaims during a phone call from a tour stop in Eldon, Missouri last week. “Winnipeg really was the team, from the beginning of this season…that was the team that scared the hell out of me.”

Oh, Emerson. If those were lyrics you’d be multi-platinum in my hometown in a matter of hours.

“I just think it’s hilarious that we ended up dukin’ it out in the semi-finals. I was like, ‘Oh, my God this is totally a weird nightmare come true!’ It’s happening in front of my eyes!’ But they’re a hell of a fuckin’ team.”

Eventually, we got down to brass tacks and discussed Hart’s real joie-de-vivre: the two decades (and some) he’s spent with band mates Jeff Russo and Dan Lavery crafting gleaming alt-rock gems that have remained instantly recognizable, much credited to Hart’s impassioned lead vocal and guitar work alongside the trio’s relentless pursuit of seamless melody.

“Yeah, that’s…man, that’s a happy accident, I guess,” he says of the band’s unique sonic stamp. “There was no real math behind it, honestly — that’s just was comes out of me. The marriage of the parts creates a sound. You know, I’m weird in the way that I still play those Chet Atkins SST acoustic [guitars] with a piezo, running them directly through a Marshall amp. Just any time I try to change that, it just doesn’t sound like us, you know? It’s just one of those things.”

Tonic’s debut album, Lemon Parade, thrust the band almost immediately into regular radio rotation based on the strength of its first two singles, “Open Up Your Eyes” and “Casual Affair.” But its third, “If You Could Only See,” planted them firmly on multiple Billboard sales and airplay charts, most notably reaching number one on its Mainstream Rock Tracks tally, and number eleven on the coveted Hot 100 in the summer of 1997. It would remain on the latter survey for an outstanding 63 weeks.

After two more albums — the excellent Sugar and the Grammy-nominated Head On Straight — Hart, Russo, and Lavery took a four-year hiatus from their collaborative work to focus on outside projects. They would return to form in 2008, which resulted in their self-titled fourth, and most recent, studio effort. In July 2016, they released Lemon Parade Revisited, a deconstructed revamp of all 12 tracks from the original 1996 set. With the production shine peeled back, the band’s tight chemistry and the strength of each of Lemon Parade‘s fantastic compositions are even more evident than they were 20 years before.

Next year, the band, at long last, will release its first new music in almost a decade.

“Yeah, I’m working on Tonic music now,” Hart confirms. “I don’t know if we’re going to…we’re in this weird place now that I think a lot of artists are in that are of our era. It’s, ‘Do we make full records anymore?’ You know, that’s the whole thing. So, I don’t know. It’s just part of me loves telling the whole story, but, maybe the story’s told in two EPs that are released closely together. I’m not really quite sure, but I do know that everything that’s coming out of me is pretty heavy right now, rock-and-roll wise [laughs]. It’s probably the worst career choice I could make, but I just love rock-and-roll so much I just have to do it, you know?”

In the meantime, Tonic is sharing an impressive summer concert bill with fellow alterna-kin the Gin Blossoms and Vertical Horizon on a lengthy national tour that will last through the beginning of August. The tour stops for an outdoor show in Columbus at Express LIVE! on Wednesday night.

I was exploring your website the other day, and I was particularly taken with a post you wrote a couple of years back called 20 Things I’ve Learned from 20 Years of Tonic. And I think it’s a really terrific piece that offers honest, gracious reflection on your career. One of the points that really stuck with me is when you discuss having a point when you write a song — I think you said, ‘Illuminate your subject and get to the heart of it,’ or something to that effect. Your songs are quite precise, and when I listen to a song like “If You Could Only See,” you make it rather clear who it’s about and how you feel about them. How do you actually write so concisely?

“Man, it’s really about ruthlessly editing. That’s really what it is for me. I really…I tell the story and then I go through and I pull out the parts that are really the easiest to understand and the most direct things to say. I was having this conversation this morning with a friend of mine, and we were talking about songwriting. And he’s reading James Joyce right now, and as beautiful as Dubliners is, it’s very challenging with the language. It’s beautiful and I love it, but I grew up…I was always obsessed with Robert Frost as a child, and I read all of his poetry and studied his poetry. And there’s nothing that’s really extremely veiled in his work. So I really credit a lot of that honesty in how I learned to write was from reading that poetry as a child.”

Even further to that effect, I loved the creative decisions you made in paring down the tracks from Lemon Parade on …Revisited. They’re not simple compositions, but the sound — your blend — feels effortless. How did the three of you negotiate the approach to that album?

“Well, the interesting thing about making the …Revisited record first off was that it’s just, in the simplest of terms, revisiting it. It was interesting for me to play songs that I wrote, you know, 20…some of them 23 years ago. And pulling them apart piece by piece and remembering, ‘Oh, that’s right, I wrote most of these songs on an acoustic guitar.’ That’s how they started. And so there is definitely a blend with Jeff and with Dan, you know, we all grew up listening to Elton John records and Eagles records. Backgrounds were super important to us, so I think we tried to keep it as simple as possible.

It was so much fun to make that record, because we literally were able to go through piece by piece and go, ‘Oh, that part was so much more necessary than I thought it was,’ whether it was a guitar melody or something. It was a great experience. We always lean on the melody. I have to — it’s a part of me, it’s in me.”

And I think that has helped you achieve a singularity among others. When I hear one of your songs come on the radio — the a cappella intro you sang on “If You Could Only See,” or the opening guitar line of a song like “You Wanted More” — I can pick out almost immediately that it’s a Tonic song. It’s tougher to decipher that now if you listen to current top 40 stuff. It seems the same drum thumps and synth hits are being used by almost everyone. Not that I don’t like new music, but when I hear the beginning of a song that’s now a chart hit, I think, ‘Well, that could be one of about 15 artists…’

“It’s true. I have a 10-year-old daughter, and I listen to pop radio every day, and I work with younger artists, so I have to know the business, and I have to understand it. There is…I’ll say, ‘Oh, is this blah, blah, blah?’ And she’ll say, ‘No, Daddy! This is blah, blah, blah!’ And I’ll go, ‘Oh. Oh, okay. They both sound the same.’ I feel like there are three guys that are writing all the songs, and they just kind of move ’em all around. I mean, it is — it’s Max Martin and…”

Right. The overseas song factories. I think Art Alexakis and I talked at length about that last year. Not to detract from their skills, but you just start to wonder how anything really original comes out of that…

“I’m with ya, brother. I’m with ya.”

What mistakes have you made as a band from which you’ve learned the most? And my question isn’t intended to fish for private or uncomfortable examples, but more to solicit your thoughts for a point or two in Tonic’s trajectory that made the three of you pause and realize you had to do something significant to sustain yourselves.

“I think a couple of things that have been…overshooting the mark creatively. Sometimes when something comes out, the older I get, that’s really what it should be in its purest form, and it should be great. I think we spent a lot of time, especially on Sugar, on the second record, just obsessively re-writing and moving things around all over the place. And I know that’s a healthy part of the process, but at the end of it all, we’d land back at the original moment when I brought the song or we were playing it together, and go, ‘Oh, wait. That’s what makes it great is that!‘ So, overshooting a creative mark and getting a watering down of what was initially great was a big mistake for us, on a few records.

And, then, secondly was remembering that just because we’re a gang of guys, we don’t have to be married. I think that — not too be too personal about it — but, you know, you’re in a gang. I mean, that’s what it is. You’re out and you’re going on the road, and you’re in each other’s lives. And I think when I stepped away for a couple of years and made Cigarettes & Gasoline, my first solo record, it was because I kind of needed a divorce and to rebuild and remember what it was. And then when we came back and started making music together, it was like, ‘Oh, okay. We’ve found this balance now. We’ve figured it out.'”

Speaking of your solo projects, you’re in the process of making another record as we speak, correct?

“Yes!”

I hate asking, ‘Tell me what’s next,’ but I’m genuinely curious in what direction this record has taken you.

“No, no, no, it’s fine! It’s great. It’s done. I’m just figuring out the mixing part of it right now. It’s a really…it’s not some kind of really extreme stretch departure for me, production-wise, because there is not a lot of production. It’s really just my acoustic guitar, some pedal steels here and there — not a whole bunch of…well, just not a whole bunch of production. There’s no really better way to say that. I think I loved writing that record, and there’s a thread in there from the title track, which is called ‘32,000 Days’ — which is 90 years. And I kind of wanted to write that journey of my stepfather serving in the Second World War. It doesn’t get specific as far as the information, but it’s all the different aspects of that journey and what that looks like: about falling love, and losing love, about questioning what comes next. About being in the middle of the journey and realizing, ‘I’ve made some big mistakes. How do I turn this around? Maybe they were made for a reason?’

So, it is a theme record in that way. But, yeah, I think the record’s just going to be called 90. That’s what I’m thinking. 90 or 32,000 Days — I haven’t decided yet, but I hope people embrace it.”

I know I’ve asked this of other bands who were born and came of age in the same era as Tonic, but there seems to be a real and heartfelt interest in 90s music, especially when it comes to alt-rock bands and artists. From your perspective, is that something you’re actually seeing and feeling as you’ve been on the road playing your catalog, especially when it comes to younger listeners who are discovering music from that period?

“I mean, yeah. I feel like there’s…we don’t rest on any laurels, that’s for sure. The songs were a part of people’s soundtracks of their lives, and as much as I hate that expression it really is kind of true the way they say it. But here’s the thing, man — we feel fortunate as a band in the way that there are a lot of people in their late teens and early 20s whose parents played our music, you know? And that is really…it’s been cool for me to watch. I’ve met a lot of kids named Emerson, which is awesome, you know? That means we made some kind of a mark. And we have no plans to stop doing it.

But I do feel like we’ve made our mark, and I like seeing music revisited, whether it’s nostalgic for them or not. It’s hard, because you’ll go to a party in Nashville where I live, because we have a lot of young writers in our studios. And they’re like, ‘Let’s throw a 90s party!’ And then they show up looking like they’re from the 80s. And I go, ‘Alright, you’re not really getting it, but…[laughs] We didn’t wear that.’

The thing that I have found is there’s some sort of interesting connection to the honesty of the music that was made in that era. And they’re discovering that now and going, ‘Wait…we can say that?!’ Fuck yeah, you can say that! Just say it, but say it how your generation would say it, you know?

Does that answer your question, or was that…”

It does. And I sense a difference between how 90s music is sort of revered by audiences, and even the media, in a way that’s much more affectionate and respectful than the 70s and 80s. It, and I’m speaking mostly about modern rock from that period, resonates differently. 

“Yeah, I think so. I hope so. An elder statesman of rock-and-roll, who I will not name, sat me down after we did some kind of festival, and he was there. We talked and he said, ‘Look, here’s something you have to realize. Your band — you, Third Eye Blind, the Goo Goo Dolls, Matchbox Twenty — all you guys are going to have to take our spots, because that happens. Because we’re all going to pass, and our bands will fall apart, and whatever it is, time is going to will out. You’re going to need to learn the heritage rope. Because those are the concerts people in their 60s are going to go see — they’re going to see you because that’s their music. If you still want to do it. Eventually things change and that’s the natural way of it.

The fact that I’m sitting on a tour bus 23 years later, and I’m still playing to people — what an amazing experience. What a blessing, you know, that this can still happen! There hasn’t been a day in my life that I haven’t stopped and thought, ‘Wow, bro. You are really lucky.'”

And as a fan, I feel lucky that Tonic and all those other bands have been willing to weather the industry and continue to perform. I mean, just this ticket you’re on for the next few months…with Vertical Horizon and the Gin Blossoms? How does it get any better than having three bands I’ve grown up with playing songs that I love in front of me on the same night. 

“Well, that makes me really happy to hear you say that, my friend. Hopefully we will not let you down.”

What’s different now being a music fan is that social and digital media have made the music industry much more transparent than it used to be, and I have a much better sense now of who’s connected to whom. It almost seems like everyone knows everyone and that celebrity is kind of all relative now. But, I’m curious which artists are still on pedestals in your eyes? Who gives you butterflies when you think about interacting with them?

“Dude, you know…yeah, it’s true. I mean, my neighbor is Kevin Griffin [from Better Than Ezra], and he lives over the hill from me where we live in Nashville. And I always go and see my cronies whenever they’re in town. But there are a few bands…but they’re kind of obscure bands, you know? Here’s a prime example, as nerdy as it sounds: my buddy called me, and he was like, ‘Dude! The Fixx is coming to Nashville!’ I was like, ‘Oh my God!‘ I remember being 13 years old and watching them on their Reach the Beach Tour and going, ‘This is amazing,’ because it was somewhere in between where U2 was going and the bass sound and all of that stuff. So, I’m excited about that show.

But I met Bono once years ago, and I could not open my mouth. I was so nervous. So, those are the bands that…I mean, I’m not putting The Fixx and U2 in the same ballpark, just to be clear. But it’s just that random thing, like I remember meeting the lead singer of Psychedelic Furs and being like ‘wh…what?!‘ I couldn’t get my head around it. Bowie was the same way. I met him when I was 17 or 18…no, it was 18, because I’d just moved back from France. And he was doing that Tin Machine project, and my buddy was a director on the video. I remember distinctly standing there, smoking a cigarette with David Bowie, and thinking, ‘I don’t think in a million years would I ever forget this moment.’ It was unbelievable. But I said…I had five words to say to him. I said ‘How do I do this?’ And he explained how to do it.”

Tonic will join Vertical Horizon and the Gin Blossoms Wednesday night at Express LIVE!, 405 Neil Ave. in the Arena District. Doors open at 6 p.m. General admission tickets are $25 (plus applicable taxes and fees), and are available via Ticketmaster. Explore more about Tonic and Emerson Hart, including music downloads, news, and future tour dates.

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