WHAT WAS THE FIRST TUNE YOU LEARNED TO PLAY ON THE DRUMS?
It was a very long time ago (1965?) but I think the first song I played on drums was “Little Red Riding Hood”, by Sam The Sham and the Pharaohs.
DRUMMER JOKES ASIDE, IT SEEMS THE BEST ARTISTS (AND PRODUCERS FOR THAT MATTER) CAN PLAY SOME DRUMS, OR IN FACT BEGAN ON THE DRUMS: HOW DID UNDERSTANDING RHYTHM HELP YOU AS A SONGWRITER AND PRODUCER?
There’s this presumed orthodoxy that everything begins with piano … learn to play piano and the rest will follow. That’s why so many kids are forced to take piano lessons. If it were up to me, I’d say “start with drums and the rest will follow”. Rhythm is the most basic musical building block.
I took piano lessons like every other kid of my generation — except the ones who took accordion lessons! — but it’s drums that taught me how to play music with feeling. Even now, when I play guitar, I play like a drummer.
WHAT WAS THE ALBUM THAT GOT YOU HOOKED ON ROCK & ROLL AS A KID?
I wasn’t aware of albums when I was a kid. It was all about singles, 45 RPM vinyl disks. The first ones I bought were “She Loves You” by The Beatles and “Glad All Over” by The Dave Clark Five.
HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE STAGE NAME ‘RODNEY HIGGS’ WHEN YOU WERE IN PRISM AND DOES HE, AS AN ALTER-EGO OF SORTS, EVER PAY VISITS TO YOUR MIND SET?
I live part-time in London … I have an apartment in Kensington. I’ve always loved Sherlock Holmes, that whole Victorian-era thing. Rodney Higgs sounded like a character from a Sherlock Holmes story.
DID BEING FROM CANADA MAKE IT HARDER TO BREAK INTO THE MUSIC INDUSTRY AT LARGE OR DID YOU SEE IT AS AN ADVANTAGE?
I’ve always wondered if it made a difference. There were hundreds of bands in Los Angles, all of them within walking distance of the big label offices. Whether it was Devo from Akron or Nirvana from Seattle, I think there was some novelty attached to bands that were from somewhere other than LA. So yes, I think it helped to be from Vancouver.
IN YOUR PARTNERSHIP WITH BRYAN ADAMS, HOW DID YOU GUYS WORK ON SONGS TYPICALLY? DID THE APPROACH CHANGE AT ALL OVER THE YEARS OR DID YOU HAVE A FORMULA TOGETHER?
No formula, but certainly a democratic approach to writing songs. There’s no ego … the best idea wins, no matter who came up with it. We both write melody and we both write lyrics. We can bounce lyrics and melodies back and forth until the best idea becomes apparent. Sometimes I’ll play guitar, sometimes bass, sometimes piano. It depends on the song. Bryan usually plays guitar when we write, although he’s actual a very good piano player.
YOU HAVE WRITTEN WITH A NUMBER OF MAJOR ARTISTS OVER THE YEARS, WHICH WAS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE FOR YOU AS AS SONGSMITH?
I’m 60. I’ve been writing songs since I was 16. You’d think it would get easier, but it doesn’t. It’s hard work.
Every song, every artist, comes with its own set of challenges, the main one being, you want to do the best job possible. I admit I was nervous the first time I wrote with Steven and Joe from Aerosmith — same for Ozzy or Alice Cooper — but you get over that quite quickly. Then it’s all about focussing on the task, spending the time — hours, days, whatever it takes — writing, re-writing, honing it until you’ve got it right.
Honestly, every song is a challenge. There’s nothing quite so daunting as staring at a blank piece of paper waiting to be filled with lyrics. Somehow it just happens. There’s that great story about Andrew Loog Oldham locking a young Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in a room, threatening not to let them out until they’d written a song. That’s kinda what it’s like. That’s what it takes.
ONE OF YOUR CURRENT ‘PET PROJECTS’ IS JOHN LENNON IN GERMANY FROM 60-62: CAN YOU SHARE A PEARL FROM THE YOUNG TOUGHS DAYS IN HAMBURG?
An interviewer once asked Lennon to divulge the secret of the Beatles’ success. Lennon replied, “We were a really good band!”. And they were. Listen to their recording of “Kansas City”, which is straight from their Hamburg set-list. That’s four guys in a studio, singing and playing at the same time. No ProTools or overdubs, just a really good band taking their Hamburg club show into a recording studio. That’s where they got good, playing eight hour sets at the Top Ten Club and the Kaiserkeller. There’s no substitute for that kind of apprenticeship.
HOW DO YOU RATE RINGO AND WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE OF HIS DRUM TRACKS IF YOU HAD TO PICK ONE?
Ringo is one of the best rock drummers, ever. Bonham may have been heavier, and Stewart Copeland may have had more finesse, but you won’t find a more tasteful drummer than Ringo. Plus, he basically invented the drum fill as we know it.
My favorite Ringo tracks include “Lovely Rita”, “Carry That Weight”, “Ticket To Ride”, “Rain”. For that matter, he played great on everything. Never the same feel twice.
DO YOU STILL PLAY ‘SONG DOCTOR’ AND DO YOU MAKE HOUSE CALLS?
I don’t like the “song doctor” label. It sounds like all I do is fix other people’s songs, or contribute the last 10% to fine-tune the song for radio. I might have done that a few times over the years, but 99% of the time I start from scratch, sitting in a room with Bryan Adams or Steven Tyler, blank page, no clue where things are headed, and somehow you come up with a song. That’s a great feeling. That’s what I love about my job … creating something from nothing. – JIM VALLANCE