Headed back to town for a pair of acoustic performances Sunday and Monday at City Winery, I spoke with Candlebox frontman, and Elgin native, Kevin Martin about emerging from the Seattle scene, moving on from the 90s major label boom, the band’s sixth studio album Disappearing In Airports and much more…
As Seattle found itself ground zero for the “grunge” explosion that came to define alternative music in the early to mid 90s, the group Candlebox found itself in a strange position.
“Our first album, there’s a lot of intricacies in it,” said vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Kevin Martin. “There’s a lot of us yearning for something as a band, and looking for something different, because we wanted to stand out in that world.”
The sudden success of that scene started to carry with it expectations – if not locally, nationally. And, for a band trying to establish an identity and break out of that Seattle scene, the extra attention the city was bringing could almost be viewed as something of a double edged sword, as it made achieving that goal a bit more complicated than it needed to be.
“The movement of grunge – if that’s what you want to call it – was so prominent that we needed to kind of… We weren’t a grunge band. We were a blues based rock band,” explained Martin. “So, to come out of Seattle at that time, we needed to make sure that those songs would stand the test of time.”
As the group celebrates the 25th anniversary of that self-titled debut album, the years since have provided highs and lows. That album sold more than four million copies but a prolonged battle with Maverick Records led to a six year breakup starting in 2000.
When the band got back together in 2006, they reentered a vastly changed music industry following the rise of the internet – one which forced Martin to become more involved in the business side of things while reestablishing a brand in the new social media era. For a group that broke through at the height of the major label system, it wasn’t easy to adapt.
“Around 2010 I just realized, ‘You know what? This is a totally different climate. And how do you adapt to that as an artist in a band?’ You make it about the music and the fans. You don’t make it about the sales,” Martin said. “I’m never going to sell a million records again. And I know that. And I accepted that a long time ago. And, for me, it’s really about people hearing the new stuff that we’re creating and some of the stuff that we’ve already created that they may not know about.”
In 2016, ten years into their second act, in an era where it’s become harder than ever to sell albums, their sixth studio release Disappearing in Airports cracked the Billboard albums chart.
“Because I have that foundation – because I have that 10% of that audience from that first album that still cares about what we do – I know that I’m able to write the songs the way that I want them to speak and the way that I want them to play,” Martin said. “So, it’s really just an album that I think spoke very well for itself, and continues to do so, and people love it. And I’m thankful for that.”
Written primarily on acoustic guitar, the record lends itself particularly well to the group’s current acoustic duo tour featuring Martin and guitarist Brian Quinn – one which focuses on intimate performance and the stories behind the songs.
Gearing up for a pair of acoustic duo performances Sunday and Monday at City Winery – which feature handpicked opener, Athens, Georgia alternative rock quartet Lullwater – I spoke with Kevin Martin about the 25th anniversary of the first Candlebox album, the highs and lows that followed and adapting to the current music landscape via work on a trio of upcoming new EPs. A lightly edited transcript of that phone conversation follows below…
Q. How’s the tour gone so far and what’s it like coming back to Chicago?
KM: I can’t wait to get back to that city, man. I love Chicago. I was born in Elgin. I’ve got a ton of family there. And it will always be home to me. So, I’m looking very, very forward to playing there again.
I lived in three different places by the time I was 3 and then I was gone. But [I spent] Christmas at my grandma’s house in Aurora every single year from ’74 to, I’d say, at least ’81. Driving up there and spending Christmases and Thanksgivings. It’s always been my home and it will always be that.
Q. What sticks out about performing here over the years – any particularly fond memories?
KM: Oh jeez, so many. The first time we played the Metro was kind of like playing Madison Square Garden. Just the history in that club. Double Door, U.I.C. Pavilion. The Aragon for god’s sake – with Flaming Lips in ’94.
There’s too many. We even did the Cubby Bear a few years ago which was an absolute blast. We just always have fun in Chicago.
And City Winery last year – two shows back to back, which is really, really difficult for me because of the way I sing. But they were a blast too.
It’s always fun there and people still really love live music in Chicago. And I think that’s why, as a city, it continues to produce greatness: musically and artistically, financially. It’s a city full of people that just love life. And I think that’s why I just really enjoy being there.
Q. Well, this is obviously a bit of a departure from the typical, full band Candlebox sets. And there’s a real focus on getting to the stories behind these songs. Does telling those stories in a more intimate venue, where the spotlight is squarely on you, make for a bit more vulnerable performance experience?
Kevin Martin: (laughing) Yes, considering I’m a terrible guitar player! That’s why I bring Brian along with me.
No, it does. It’s a really stripped-down version of the songs. I think there’s probably only maybe six or seven songs in the set that were actually written on acoustic. The rest of the stuff is mostly electric driven. So it’s been a bit of a challenge over the years to transpose those songs that weren’t written acoustically to work acoustically – such as the song “You” from the debut album.
And, of course, telling the stories about the songs. When you write them, you don’t want anybody to know what they’re about. Because you want them to experience their own feelings with that and attach themselves to the songs their own way. But I guess over the years of watching whatever it was on MTV – Unplugged, Storytellers, all these sorts of things – I felt like, “Hey, maybe it’s time for me to kind of let these people know what these songs are about.”
Q. How does that process of picking which songs are going to work in this setting, and which ones won’t, and then reworking them for performance as an acoustic duo, go?
KM: Well, for example with the song “You,” it took about a week of us trying to figure out capoing, strum patterns, the two guitars and how they could work together with the opposite melodies – certain chords that can overlap, if you will, in transposing that progression to work. That one took about a week. About the third day in, I was pulling my hair out going, “Why are we even trying this?” But then, magically, you capoed on the 7th [fret] and there it was.
If you’re a theory driven musician, it gets a lot easier. But I’m strictly a feel player. So I don’t have the theory behind a C major 7 against a G over C [chord]. So, it really took me quite some time figuring out how to transpose them.
Then there were songs that were super easy where it was like, “Why didn’t we do this on acoustic in the first place?” But it takes time and it takes a lot of that brainpower that we don’t use every day to kind of figure it out.
Q. Obviously the story behind “Far Behind” is an emotional one, as your tribute to Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood. You guys also cover Mother Love Bone from time to time. How important was Andy Wood to that Seattle scene and how important is it for you to kind of tell that story each night onstage and maybe even expose some younger fans to him in the process?
KM: I think Andy was incredibly instrumental to what happened with the Seattle scene.
He was best friends with Chris [Cornell]. They were roommates. They’d have constant competitions of songwriting to see who could write better songs. And, in that process, I think a lot of musicians realized how talented he was.
And then, of course, you had Malfunkshun which was one of the greatest bands to come out of the Seattle scene. They never really blew up because it was just so experimental – and, frankly, so cool. And playing with his brother Kevin Wood on drums, they created this style of music that I think a lot of musicians in Seattle tried to duplicate but make a little bit more accessible.
And meeting Andy at the age of 16, for me, was life changing. I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody with as big of a soul as that. I’ve met a lot of musicians in my life that are talented and creative but nobody that had the kind of passion and energy and beauty inside of them that Andy had.
He was so supportive. You’d see him at everybody’s shows. And he was friends with everyone and everybody loved him.
And I was fortunate enough to meet him at a young age and be inspired by him and be taken kind of under his wing. [He’d say], “Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do this. There are no rules. You can do it however you want.” And I’ll forever be grateful for that.
Q. It’s now twenty-five years since your debut album. What’s it like on stage, during these shows in particular, talking about the highs and lows that have come with that?
KM: (laughs) Well, the first thing that comes to mind is, “I can’t believe I’m as old as I am.” And the second thing that comes to mind is, “I can’t believe that people still listen to it.”
I moved to Seattle when I was 14 in 1984. Soundgarden was just starting. There were a lot of bands that were making their mark in that city. And I was just a 14 year old kid that was playing drums in a punk rock band. So, I didn’t really know what my place in the world of music was going to be. I just really loved playing it.
So, when I play those songs from the album, and the fact that it is 25 years old now, and we’ve sold as many records as we have and people still come to see us play, I’m just grateful. I’m grateful for the opportunities that have been given to me. I’m grateful that I found my voice in those songs.
I never really wanted to be a singer. I’m still kind of the reluctant lead singer of this band. But I pinch myself every single day to make sure that I’m still alive and that this really is something that happened to me and I was given this opportunity.
And that’s really what goes through my mind every time I play those songs. I’m not sick of them in any way, shape or form. And I love being able to tell people what they’re about and see what the reaction is.
Q. I think when you say you’re not sick of playing those songs, I think for a lot of bands that came out around the same time as Candlebox, not all of your colleagues could say that. Was there ever a time when it was difficult for you to say it?
KM: Oh, I think probably towards the late 90s – just the struggle with the label and what we were going through as a band. Then breaking the band up to get out of the deal with Maverick [Records] and that whole legal battle that lasted six years. That was when I was kind of like, “Why do I even want to continue this? Is this the way that my life is going to be from this moment on?” So, I would say yeah.
And there was turmoil inside the band. We had an alcoholic and a drug addict in the band and it was making things very, very difficult. And, yeah, there were times when I really felt like I was going to pack it up.
Q. I’ve heard you say the response to the latest Candlebox album Disappearing in Airports has been really strong during these recent shows. What’s that kind of reception been like?
KM: This record, the response on stage has been amazing.
All the songs lent themselves to the acoustic guitar very well. They just kind of fell into place and they’re very simple chord progressions and I think that’s probably why.
Our first album, there’s a lot of intricacies in it. There’s a lot of us yearning for something as a band, and looking for something different, because we wanted to stand out in that world.
The movement of grunge – if that’s what you want to call it – was so prominent that we needed to kind of… We weren’t a grunge band. We were a blues based rock band. So, to come out of Seattle at that time, we needed to make sure that those songs would stand the test of time. So, we really, really dug deep for interesting parts.
And I don’t concern myself with that anymore. Because I have that foundation – because I have that 10% of that audience from that first album that still cares about what we do – I know that I’m able to write the songs the way that I want them to speak and the way that I want them to play. And that’s kind of what I do now.
So, it’s really just an album that I think spoke very well for itself, and continues to do so, and people love it. And I’m thankful for that.
Q. The music landscape has obviously changed drastically since you guys hit at the end of that major label boom in the 90s. You have to be so much more involved in the business end now. What’s it been like trying to adapt to that and establish a brand?
KM: Yeah. That’s been strange.
Because, like you said, we came up in an environment where people didn’t really get to you. They couldn’t get to you. The only way that they could find out who you were was via MTV or coming to the concerts or someone turning them onto the album and then purchasing the album. Whereas, now, you’ve really got to make yourself accessible.
Which is difficult as a musician. Because you want that anonymity a bit. You want to be able to hide behind the music and let it speak for itself. And that’s just not the case anymore. You’ve got to be constantly reaching out. And responding to emails.
I still get the emails, “Is this really Kevin Martin that I’m speaking to or is it management?” And I write back going, “It is me. I run the page.” And I want that connection… But there are times that I wish I didn’t have to do that – where I could just be on a tour bus, play the show and go to the next town. And not have to come out to the merch booth and meet 150 people after the show.
But that’s just the selfish side of being an artist I suppose.
Q. Have you guys been working on more new Candlebox music?
KM: We’re going to release three EPs this year. And we’re going to put them out on Bandcamp for free. I’m not going to charge unless people want to make a donation [in which case] they can. And that’s what I love about Bandcamp: you can pay a buck for the album, you can pay ten dollars or whatever you want. Or you can just download it and listen to it.
I say it every night on stage: “If you’re hearing something you haven’t heard before, just go on Spotify and type in ‘Candlebox’ and download anything you want.” Because I’m not concerned about making my money off of records anymore. For me it’s like, buy a t-shirt, come see us play live and I’m happy with that.
I’m never going to sell a million records again. And I know that. And I accepted that a long time ago. And, for me, it’s really about people hearing the new stuff that we’re creating and some of the stuff that we’ve already created that they may not know about.
Q. Again, coming at the end of that major label era and going from that rare situation historically where you could sell a million copies of something, how difficult was it to make that transition and accept now, like you said, the fact that that’s just not going to happen as the industry landscape continues to change?
KM: I don’t know if it was difficult… But it was a little bit heartbreaking.
You hope that you always will sell at least 100-150,000 copies of an album. But it was right around 2010, I think, after we made Into The Sun – which I always kind of felt should’ve been our second album, even though a lot of songs we didn’t have and some of them we did have way back then and revisited for that album – But I always kind of felt like that was the record that would’ve continued that progress of the first album for us.
But around 2010 I just realized, “You know what? This is a totally different climate. And how do you adapt to that as an artist in a band?” You make it about the music and the fans. You don’t make it about the sales.
And that’s kind of when I was able to come to terms with the fact that I’m never going to be who I was in 1994, 1995 or 1996. I’m going to be Kevin Martin from Candlebox and if 500 people show or up if 5,000 people show up, that’s great. And if 50 people show up or 100 people show up, that’s great. I’ve had a great career.
It’s been, like you said, there’s been ups and downs but, ultimately, I’m happy. And I’m very happy with where I am and who I am in my life now.
– Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )
(Details on Sunday and Monday’s acoustic Candlebox shows below)
(Kevin Martin, Brian Quinn Acoustic Duo)
Sunday, April 15, 2018 (SOLD OUT)
Monday, April 16, 2018
Doors open at 6PM
Show starts at 8PM
Also performing: Lullwater
Tickets: $25 – $35 per night
Sunday is SOLD OUT
Click HERE to purchase tickets for Monday, 4/16