|Venice is one of the best contemporary groups in the United States today, but despite a dedicated following and brilliant recordings, the band has to date been under-exposed. This is great for fans of the group who enjoy Venice's intimate and lengthy shows, but a shame for the millions of people in the world who have not heard them.
This interview was conducted with the intention of running in Performing Songwriter, however changes in the magazine's editorial management and direction meant this, and a number of my other interviews, fell by the wayside.
|Interview with Venice
24 August 2000
Saratoga Mountain Winery, California
© Debbie Kruger
Im interested in when each of you started writing, how early in your lives you started writing music, and whether it was always a collaborative thing, or whether each of you was locked up in your own rooms, discovering and creating music individually when you were kids.
Michael: I first started writing with Kipp in my bedroom - how old were we, Kipp? Seventeen? Seventeen years old, we wrote our first song together.
You didnt write before then?
Thats quite late for writers.
Kipp: For writing, yeah, for sure. But as a player, Michael played guitar and drums, and Pat played guitar, since they were kids. But we just didnt write any songs; we mostly learned everybody elses tunes.
Which is why you do all these covers all the time, because this is the stuff you grew up listening to.
Kipp: And playing.
Mark: And they stuff we grew up playing, when we used to play parties, and wedding receptions and high school dances and all the clubs in Hollywood. We were playing the clubs in Hollywood before we were even eighteen, and that was incredible, on Sunset Strip.
Before you had to pay to play at those clubs.
Mark: Yeah, we never had to do that.
Kipp: We played a club called Gazarris which was like legendary in those days, and Mark was so little that they made him stay up in the dressing room a few times or go out in the car. Like, he couldnt hang out in the club between sets.
This was pre-Venice?
Kipp: No, we were called Venice.
Kipp: We were doing cover tunes and the occasional original tune.
Pat: That was before I was in the band. But I used to go see them, and I used to thing, oh theyre so cute.
So you guys started writing together when you were seventeen. What about you, Pat? Had you been writing?
Pat: I dont write that much. Ive added a little bit to a few of the songs.
So thats what your co-writing credit is when youve put something in at some stage.
Michael: A guitar riff, yeah.
Mark: Were hoping to incorporate him more as we go on.
What about you, when did you start writing, Mark?
Mark: I joined the band when I was 14, the summer out of eighth grade, and I didnt start writing until - when did we write Stay With Me? - when I was 15, probably a year later.
Who was your role model - Leif Garret? Mark the teen idol!
Mark: No, no, he was my age. Michael Jackson, as far as he was such a great singer when he was a kid, you know.
I was kind of being facetious. I just was having this picture of you at 14 years old.
Kipp: He did look like it, he did have long blonde hair like a girl.
So was it a conscious decision you guys made, okay, we should start writing our own original material? Or was it a more gradual thing?
Kipp: Yes. (Laughs)
Its key to me, what made you start writing.
Michael: I guess when we decided to form the band and then we thought, after we did, learned those other songs, right? We started playing and thought we should write our own songs.
Kipp: In fact the irony that Michael pointed out yesterday is that were opening for the Doobie Brothers tonight - I dont know if its exactly irony but its pretty coincidental or whatever - and the first song we ever sang together when I first went to try out for his band, he said, Do you know that song Without lo-o-ove..?
Michael: No, I said, Do you know Long Train Running?
Kipp: And I said, I dont think I know that. And then you said, You know, and you sang it. And I go, Oh you mean Without Love?
Pat: You guys began with that? That is amazing.
Kipp: Thats all I knew. I knew that and Just around midnight... (sings). Thats about all I knew, of the songs he knew. But anyway, after a while, if you start doing okay, playing dances and parties and start realizing, hey were pretty good at this, for us anyway, it was just sort of a natural progression to start, you know, hey lets see if we can write some stuff.
And you had enough musical training that you could actually sit down and write? Or have you never actually sat down and written charts?
Mark: Right. No.
Kipp: Michael can, and Michael has taken some more training and stuff, but even before he had most of his training, we were already writing songs. Its more like
Michael: Anyone can write a song, really.
Its really interesting, the more I interview songwriters, the more I realize a lot of them cant write or read music.
Kipp: No, we cant.
Pat: No, we cant.
Michael: I can write if I have to, but you cant put it in front of me
Its like being able to talk without actually being literate.
Kipp: Yeah, I suppose. Yeah.
You know, people who cant read or write, but who can talk and form a sentence.
Mark: It depends. Sometimes, Ill be like, I want to do a groove like this and go Dum dum bah bah, dum dum. You can sing the drum groove, and then the melody would go like this, and the harmonies would be there, so when you have a melody and harmonies the guitar can only play one thing. Or, hell come up with a guitar groove, you never know. There are so many different ways of writing, so we never know how were actually going to start or finish a song.
Being that you come from such musical families - sisters, parents etc - what do you think it was that brought you four together out of all these billions of Lennons?
Pat: I was in a band with two of my other brothers, sometimes three of my other brothers. And when these guys, I think they stopped playing for a while because they were just doing cover tunes and stuff. And when they reformed their band they asked me to join, thats how I joined the three of them. That was in 1980.
And what do you think it was
Kipp: That brought the three of us?
And particularly you two with the writing.
Kipp: I know what brought us together.
Were you just great pals?
Kipp: We were pals when we were kids, when we were little kids. Theres so many of us, theres so many of us. But you tend to hang out with the cousins that are your age.
Mark: And that lived across the boulevard.
Michael: We were hanging out before the band, and then we went to alternate high schools.
Youd run traffic together on the boulevard.
Kipp: When we were kid kids. But then we went to different high schools, so that a big difference at that age.
Michael: We were in Westchester and they were in Santa Monica, so we totally didnt really hang out that much.
Kipp: And when Michael went to his high school is when he started his band. In the mean time I was hanging out with people at my high school by that point, so we didnt see each other as much. And I was at the beach one day and Mark said to me, Michael wants to know if you want to come and try out for the band, or something like that. Hes got some band. And I was like, Oh, Okay. I guess I could do that. I never had even thought about it. I knew I wanted to sing, but I wasnt even thinking in terms of a band. I didnt know what I wanted to be. So I went, and he already had a band together that was playing, they had already played some parties and dances and stuff.
Michael: The guy could only do Zeppelin, though.
Kipp: The lead singer?
Kipp: Anyway, thats how we ended up together, cause he knew that I could carry a tune, that I could sing, cause we had had a band... Actually, we did have a band together when we were in 7th and 8th grade for a second. We knew like three songs and we played at our grammar school, no big deal. So he know that I could sing and we did have a band for a second when we were kids. And then Mark joined because basically the more songs we started learning, the more we wanted to hear the high harmonies on everything. And Mark, before his voice changed especially, he sang so high, he could sing all the stuff from Boston and Led Zeppelin. So Mark could sing all that stuff and so thats when we asked him to join, and it was sort of natural and then the three of us were together for a long time, and then Pat joined in 1980.
Once your voice broke you needed somebody with a higher voice, was that it?
Mark: Yeah, we called on Pat who out of the four of us was the oldest.
Pat: I got all the leftover harmonies.
How do you use the guitar as a songwriting tool? Clearly you write on a guitar as opposed to writing on keyboard. Theres not alot of piano, really, acoustic piano on your stuff. When you contribute, Pat, is it a guitar thing? Youre sort of thought of as the guitar guy. I love that story about David Crosby giving you a guitar.
Pat: That was just lucky.
That was so cute, he said all your guitars were shitty.
Michael: He was right. They were at the time.
Well, can you each talk to me about how you use the guitar and how that all comes together? Im not a guitarist and Im not a songwriter.
Kipp: Its a pretty short story for me and Mark. Basically we write with Michael and we sort of say, Its that kind of a chord, it kind of reminds us of this kind of a song, cause we dont know the names of the chords.
Mark: Same as piano. But guitars are easier to carry about and go take over to someones house. Three-quarters of the time we write on guitars and one-quarter is piano.
Kipp: And over the years we used to use piano a lot more, Michael plays especially well enough to write with, but mostly its guitar.
Mark: Its easier to lug around a guitar, you can write at the
beach, go write at your friends house...
Michael: But youre asking how we go about it; youre asking, when we use a guitar, how do we use it?
Yeah. How that works for you as a songwriting tool, for instance will you be playing around and a chord will come up and youll think, wow, that would sound really nice with our voices as well...? How it affects the song as its developing.
Michael: Normally it would be either a guitar riff, you know like [Mark sings riff from Satisfaction]... Yeah, it starts with something like that, or just a chord progression with a kind of beat, and then I switch to this chord
Mark: And then well go to a different chord, yeah, that ones better, and well just build it that way.
Michael: Or Ill build it around four chords that Ill be playing, just a circle, over and over again. And then Ill come up with a melody, or one of these guys will walk in and go, ooh, what if we sang something like this over that. It seems kind of obvious to me, but maybe to someone that doesnt do it... I usually hear it first, I hear something melodically in my head, and then I find it on the guitar. Sometimes if I cant find a chord Ill just hit them until something rings.
So it comes from you and not the guitar?
Because some songwriters get really spiritual about their guitars and say the song is already in the guitar and they have to find.
Michael and Kipp together: Yeah, nyah nyah.
Mark: Every song is in the guitar if you find it.
Michael: No theres definitely - if I pick up an electric guitar Im gonna probably write something different than if I pick up a nylon string guitar, or if I pick up a mandolin and I start messing around.
Mark: Or even a piano.
Michael: So the guitar is only different in that its a guitar and its not something else. But no matter what instrument it is, its definitely gonna make you write a certain way just because of the mechanical setup of it.
Kipp: But like Mike said, if you change it up, like electric - acoustic, or like recently he started trying out some different tunings he didnt do normally, and he wrote a whole bunch of stuff, Family Tree...
Michael: Yeah, I came out with songs that were kind of different to what wed been writing, because all of a sudden I was open to this accident that someone showed me. I was like, wow, it kind of opened my mind to this. Like someone giving you a new tool, a saw, that cuts a certain way, you never used it, and all of a sudden youre going, oh my god, look at this door.
Mark: You just tune the keys a different way and you play
Michael: But everything I had learned went out the door, because now this wasnt a D chord any more. When someone said, play D, I was like, I dont know how to play D, but I was like, I used my thumb on it and Id just slide it up and down, it was like a whole new thing, and now I use that a lot.
So youre using a D chord?
Michael: Its a D tuning, thats what its called. Before I was just using standard guitar tuning, which is E based. But it all depends on what the instrument is, and if I sit at the piano Ill write something a lot different sounding than if Im playing guitar just because I dont know the piano that well.
You mentioned mandolin before; do you often pick up a mandolin?
Michael: I just started doing that. I just started teaching myself mandolin, I bought one about a year ago now.
Michael: Its an Ovation. Its acoustic-electric so it plugs in, cause thats kind of important for me that I can bring it on stage eventually if I want to use it. Its miniature, it looks like an Ovation guitar, you know, with the round back. But its shrunken down and its a mandolin. So it sounds good acoustic, but you can plug it in and its got a volume on it and everything.
And your favorite acoustic that you write on?
Michael: Probably my Tacoma right now.
Do you ever write on a 12-string and does that change things?
Michael: I just got a 12-string but yes that definitely changes things as well.
The 12-string I have now is I just got it for Christmas whats that company, the red guitar?
Pat: The Dan Electro
Michael: Dan Electro, 12-string. Thats the only 12-string Ive had. But Pats got one that hes using on stage right now thats a Washburn acoustic-electric.
Pat: That actually I bought ages ago.
And Kipp, what are you writing on mainly?
Kipp: Nothing. I usually just write with Michael. Piano a couple of times, but mostly I do the same thing as Mark, get in a room with people that play music.
So youre not necessarily the one sitting there with the guitar.
Kipp: No, definitely not.
Youre coming up with melodies.
Kipp: Every once in a while Ill play bass on something. Some of the stuff on Born and Raised we all sat around and I sort of got lucky a couple of times and made the song go a different way because I have no idea what Im doing. Sometimes you get lucky like that, or Mark will be sitting at the piano and hell hit some cool stuff and were, Oh thats kind of neat! And it makes the real musicians think of places we could go with the song. Thats kind of serendipitous.
Mark: Or sometimes well have, or Ill sometimes have the whole song pretty much, 75 per cent done in my head and I just have to translate it over to someone who can play an instrument.
Kipp: Right. Like Charm You, you know that song we do, that was all in my head, and then I just, Michael would help me map it out.
Mark: And End of the World was like that, I just had it all in my head, and Michael just found the chords with me.
Being that the voices and the harmonies are so intrinsic with Venice, how often will you actually write a song based on how you hear the voices, and then translate that to drums, guitar and bass and everything else?
Pat: You know what I think, even though I dont write that much, I think you just try to get a really good melody and a good chord structure and then you start basing around melody where you want to have your harmonies, where you want to have the other vocalists.
Kipp: Every once in a while well think, on this song lets have some cool vocal break. It doesnt mean it ends up in the song.
But you would rarely write a song based around a vocal.
Kipp: No. Its mostly about lets write a good song, lets write a song that we can sing around the campfire or - You know what I mean, not around the campfire, but something that will last long enough that people will want to sing it around the campfire or whatever.
Michael: As were working on it we will look at it and go, okay now where will harmonies go, or would this be a harmony song? I mean, the song Starting Here Again really didnt lend itself to harmonies, and we were like, thatll be good, that will be like a break in what were doing.
Kipp: Lets not force it. I think because weve been together for so long one of the really good lessons that we learned that took a while was when NOT to do vocals. Cause we could do them all the time, but its too much, it becomes too much, and its better to save it.
Well my first intro to Venice was Born and Raised and I was really struck by songs like Rivers Never Run and Bad Timing Song and Never Coming Back. And I find songs like that and, to an extent, End of the World, they have a strong sense of melancholy; theres definitely this very strong melancholic theme that runs through a lot of the music.
Pat: Melancholy is the perfect word for Rivers Never Run.
And the poetry is gorgeous. And I discovered that its actually one of your older compositions. But then of course at the other end of the spectrum youve got really cute songs like For A Kiss and Charm You and Cool Me Down which I think would make a great advertising jingle
Kipp: Well theres a story behind that. That how it started.
I always thought, I want to do them a favor and find someone in advertising and get them to use if for a soft drink, a cocktail or a resort, a holiday resort.
Michael: It was a beer.
Kipp: No we wrote it for a beer commercial for a friend of ours who wanted us to write, just a tiny version of it, and then we turned it into a real song.
Its so jingle-esque. What Im saying is, youve got the melancholy strand and youve got the upbeat strand, and then youve got this big vast part in the middle which is all the real rocky stuff. Is one of you more melancholic than the rest, or is it more, again, about the melody.
Mark: I think so. I write more like songs out of nowhere, where he seems deeper... I dont know.
Kipp: Yeah I guess so. But when we listen to songs, when we listen to music in the car, and whatever, we grew up in situations where we really love real sentimental songs, not sappy but stuff that really tugs at you, stuff that gets you. We love that stuff but we cant write ALL that. We also love pop Beatles songs and funk dance songs and lots of stuff so I think its just a natural progression for us to sort of add all our influences when were writing.
I just wondered of one of you was coming up with all these melancholy ideas.
Kipp: Not really. I mean we all love something that makes you go Ohhh... Like Family Tree in particular, when Michael first came up with the idea and then Michael and I were trying to come up, what should it be? It should be about something that really moves us all. And then when we finally came up with the concept, it was like, lets make every line be something that really feels like our family and how we feel about our family. Those are usually the songs that stick around the longest.
I read that you all said at the time Born and Raised was coming out that it was the perfect Venice album at the time, that that seven-year gap had brought you to this point where you could be yourselves which was stripping back to the essence, the acoustic and the melancholy etc. And then you come out with Spin Art which is like up beat pop, rock, all of that. What direction do you see yourselves going in next? Would the next album be more of a balance, or do you think youll go back to the acoustic.
Kipp: I dont know.
Mark: I think a balance. We havent really even started talking about it.
So you havent got anything scheduled yet?
Michael: Yeah, weve been thinking about, or Ive been thinking about it. I hear like maybe the rock stuff being less not that it was really produced on Spin Art but just less stuff hopefully.
Michael: Less overdubs, less instrumentation, simplified almost.
Pat: Like our live show.
Michael: Kind of like Born and Raised but with electric instruments, like not as much going on, not as much information maybe.
There was a lot more on Spin Art. And that was deliberate?
Michael: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Mark: Yes, that was deliberate. They were both two different concepts, which was fun.
Michael: You know, we played Born and Raised, which was one of, you know, we love both those albums, but we played Born and Raised and with radio and stuff its like, theyre like, oh we love the band but, number one we couldnt get much touring because people thought well its real mellow and were like, no, the band can rock, too! Theyre like, but no, I got the CD and you know... So it was like, okay. And we couldnt get on many radio stations.
So was Spin Art a little bit more commercially oriented in a deliberate way?
Michael: Well it was more like our live show, which is dynamics. I mean, its still... Spin Art has Landslide, it has Family Tree, it has Always. I mean, theres a lot of - Road to Where You Are - very Born and Raised songs.
My favorite is actually One Quiet Day which is upbeat but the harmonies are fantastic. Thats the one I was playing on radio.
Kipp: You know, that ones doing really really well for us in Holland. Its one of the songs that they picked up on.
This Holland thing is so out there.
Kipp: Its so cool, its so cool. Its so amazing to go over there.
But is it expanding to other areas in Europe?
Kipp: Starting in October were going to Germany.
Well if you can get Germany
Michael: Thats the plan.
Kipp: Out latest album over there is number 18 on the charts right now, and when we left it was number 23 or something, so its still climbing. So its legitimate, its really great. Its like our Venice shows here but more validating in a way because its new people.
Its obvious that a cult following can spread and can multiply itself around the world.
Kipp: Well thats whats cool about Holland, that we had a chance for it to not just be a cult following, but for it to be a genuine... like they did those tv specials about us, so everyone saw us at once and we didnt have to do the word-of-mouth build up for five years.
With songwriting is it an ongoing process? Would you perhaps be in here one night before a gig and come up with an idea and sit down and scribble something out? Or are you more kind of like, youll set aside, tomorrow were all going to get together and write a song.
Kipp: Both of those, kind of.
Particularly when youre collaborating I guess you have to be a little bit more structured.
Kipp: I think what happens is, like a year ago, a year and a half ago we finished writing everything for Spin Art. And basically in the time since then we just kind of, Ill go and Ill just write down a couple lyrics here and there in my computer, oh thats kind of a good idea for a concept. You kind of have all these pots cooking in the back of your brain somewhere. Ooh that would be a cool type of idea - and Ill write down, Write a groove kind of like 'Suite Judy Blue Eyes' mixed with 'Cisco Kid', or some stupid thing, some weird hybrid thing you hear on the radio.
Do you sing into the tape recorder occasionally?
Kipp: Or Ill write it down in my Palm Pilot. We all do different things. Michael has all these tapes of little grooves he thinks of over the year. And then eventually we start thinking, okay, its about time we get together.
Do you have any finished songs at the moment?
Michael: New songs, you mean?
Yeah, new songs that could go on a new album.
Michael: No. Nothing finished.
Oh, okay. So at the moment youve got lots of fragments.
Michael: Lots of new ideas, yes.
Kipp: And we write with different people. Different combinations of friends of ours and stuff. Like Michael and I just wrote some ideas with James Raymond the other day.
I was actually going to ask whether you were ever going to write with David, whether hed ever suggested it.
Kipp: Yeah he wants to. In fact he just suggested that the other day when we saw him. Its a matter of scheduling, and he lives up more near Santa Barbara and whatever. But if our schedules work out and we have time itd be great. Its the same with all the people that we know, Jackson and whatever. Wed love to.
James Raymond is wonderful, and then I guess youd get more of a piano influence.
Kipp: Right. And that reminds us more of our older stuff, like Rivers Never Run and stuff where Monroe was in the band and we used to write a little more... It makes the songs different.
Mark: Im kind of open to get more piano and keyboard kind of stuff in this next album. Whether we get a keyboard player or just force Michael to put down the guitar. And also you were asking earlier the kind of stuff we want to write for the next album, the concept. This is just my opinion but Im hoping we can get a world beat sound, you know, just that, not tribal, not R&B, like world beat. It kind of transcends, theres no real genre, but everybody around the world just likes it, its got just a cool kind of sound. I dont know, thats just one of my hopes.
Kipp: We cant just keep recreating Born and Raised or Spin Art. I mean the idea is to expand but not change too much so you dont leave everybody behind.
I tracked down a copy of the self-titled album on ebay, and I was actually quite shocked. I still havent quite gotten into it yet. Because its so different to Born and Raised. And yet all the die-hard fans rave about all those songs all the time, and I still havent quite got it.
Kipp: Well some of the songs were still really proud of, some of the songs on that album. It was just a different era.
Its such a loud album, its Danny Kortchmar, its really heavy stuff.
Mark: You should hear our garage demos of all those songs before we went and did it. Cause Danny Kortchmar reproduced it and really changed the sound.
Kipp: We were signed to a pretty big label and they were trying to push us more towards, it was the end of the hair band era.
Mark: Yeah, we were up against Bon Jovi and all those bands.
Kipp: It was a different scene, you know, and there were other members of the band that were permanent members of the band at the time, there were seven of us. It was a different scene. Everybody goes through different eras in their life, just like looking at your senior picture, or whatever, and you go, like whoa, that was my hair back then. And its the same thing with music, you know, you have different styles and different whatever that you try out on the way to finding out who you are. But were still proud of some of those songs, we really like some of those songs.
Im not saying I dont like them, I just havent had a chance to listen to it enough, cause when I put it on it was hard for me to listen to
Michael: Its hard to listen to.
Kipp: Yeah, its hard for us to listen to.
Michael: It hurts your ears.
Mark: It also came out real tinny, too.
Because I was so immersed in Born and Raised and Spin Art, and those songs had just washed over me so many times they were like a part of me. And then I put that on and I went is that really them?
Mark: You have the Garage Demos, right?
I have everything except the Christmas Album.
Kipp: We have that here, well give it to you.
© Debbie Kruger
No part of this interview may be reproduced or transmitted in any form
without prior written permission.
Venice performs at the Abbot Kinney Street Fair, Venice Beach, September 2000.
Top left: Mark Lennon; top right: Pat Lennon
Bottom: Kipp Lennon and Michael Lennon
For more information on Venice visit the Venice Central website.