Saturday, January 22, 2022

‘We were never a heavy metal rock band or wanted to be, frankly’: America tours through Wilmington for 50-year anniversary

America is playing their 50th anniversary tour after being off the road for 19 months because of the pandemic and will stop over at Wilson Center on Saturday. (Port City Daily/Photo by Christie Goodwin)

“It’s been the longest pause in action in 50-plus years,” America’s founding member Dewey Bunnell said from Red Bank, New Jersey.

It was T-minus five hours before the band played its 14th stop on the latest 50th anniversary tour, which has them moving through Wilmington Saturday night at the Wilson Center.

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Nineteen months went by without the folk-rock troubadours, including co-founder Gerry Beckley, taking the stage as America. Covid-19 had the bandmates relegated to their corners of the world — Beckley lives in Australia mostly, and Bunnell splits time between California and Wisconsin. There was no living out of suitcases or hotels; instead, enjoying pets, wives and home projects started life anew.

By the time America got back on stage in August, Bunnell said it was like riding a bike: “Well, at least when we got moving and knocked off the barnacles.”

Fans have been humming along with America’s hits over their half-a-century journey. It all started when “A Horse With No Name” shot to number one in 1971 in the U.S., Canada and Finland, and charted on the U.S. Billboard 100 and Record World Singles Chart. 

The band also scored a Grammy in 1973 for Best New Artist.

Though he built a career on creating lilting, delicate rhythms, Bunnell’s introduction to playing music came from heavier riffs. Surf-rock was embedded into his youth in California. The son of a military man, Bunnell lived on the Vandenberg Air Force Base along the central coast of the Golden State in 1962. As a 10-year-old, Bunnell said he soaked in the culture of the West Coast, complete with skateboarding and surfing — far from the quieter, gentle plains of Omaha, Nebraska, from where he had moved. 

Bunnell started playing guitar in an attempt to mimic the sounds of bands like The Ventures and Dick Dale and the Del Tones. “It wasn’t about writing so much as trying to learn how to play those melodies,” he said.

He also became obsessed with The Beach Boys — who created at a skill level he hoped to attain: “beautiful harmonies and layered instrumentals.”

In the eighth-grade — again, at the mercy of military life — Bunnell moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, where he started his first band, The Renegades. “We played covers of the most popular songs of the time,” he said. “I guess now they’re called tribute bands.”

When the military transferred his family overseas in the mid-‘60s, to a base outside of London, Bunnell met Dan Peek and Gerry Beckley, also military brats. Though they played in different bands, the trio would scoop up all the albums at the base’s commissary — getting first dibs on American music, like The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, before it would hit the U.K.

They were getting first-hand inspiration from the British Invasion bands of the time — namely, their icons, The Beatles. 

“We used to go and watch King Crimson every night at the marquee club when they were just starting,” Bunnell remembered.

By 1969, Peek had moved stateside to go to college, while Bunnell and Beckley worked on the military base and attended school. 

“Dan only lasted one semester,” said Bunnell, who had enrolled in drama school. “And we realized, we all three, just by some kind of synchronicity, had been writing a couple of songs ourselves.”

Bunnell brought to the table “Riverside,” which would end up on their self-titled debut. The three fell into a rhythm of songwriting, rearranging words and melodies, which would set a precedent in the structure of their three-part harmonies, and how they would carry forward in their musical partnership.

“Why don’t you glue that piece of that song line to that piece of that song?” Bunnell described. “That’s how the songwriting was: We always wrote separately, but we always did co-writes, throwing in different ideas.”

As a band, America — named in part out of nostalgia for their roots and in part from the name of a jukebox in their high school — was drawn more to the singer-songwriter types, especially Simon and Garfunkel and Crosby, Stills and Nash.

“They kind of exemplified and distilled all of those vocal harmonies of The Beach Boys, which we loved,” Bunnell said, “and the sort of songwriting of Lennon and McCartney, if you will. We were never a heavy metal rock band or wanted to be, frankly.”

Their first gig came in 1970, and the band ended up opening for well-known British acts  — Elton John, The Who, and progressive rock band Patto. It wasn’t long after that they landed on the British arm of Warner Bros. record label, and co-produced with Ian Samwell and Jeff Dexter their first album, “America.” Bunnell wrote five of the 11 tracks, including “A Horse With No Name” and “Sandman.”

In “A Horse With No Name,” his writing exemplifies storytelling at its finest, visual, yet evoking place and time seamlessly: “The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz / And the sky with no clouds / The heat was hot, and the ground was dry / But the air was full of sound.”

“You’re trying to create this imagery in a song, and you got three minutes or so to really pack something in there,” he said, “and I wasn’t that into doing love songs or the emotional side of relationships — I was definitely and always have been a very outdoorsy guy.”

Throughout the years, Bunnell has said he writes “outdoor songs,” while Beckley does “indoor songs” (“I Need You,” “Daisy Jane,” “Sister Golden Hair”). 

Yet, he also uses stream-of-consciousness descriptors as heard in “Ventura Highway,” which heavily leans into the nostalgia of his early years in California.

“My motivation, or my goal, was to paint this visual load — internalizing things, but the things that you could see and, of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re real. They can be imagined,” Bunnel said. “So ‘alligator lizards in the air’ [from “Ventura Highway”] create those. Though the grammar is questionable [laughs].”

America’s debut album went to number one in 1972. The band followed up with six more releases as a trio before Dan Peek sought a solo career in 1977. Yet, he was with the band when it charted its second number-one album in 1975 with “Hearts” (which was remastered and released on vinyl in September 2021 as part of America’s 50th anniversary). The band was able to create the record with personal hero, composer and producer George Martin, most famously known for his work with The Beatles.

“It’s a big job to produce records when you have to pay the bills and hire players and engineers, and there’s a lot of desk work,” Bunnell said. America was doing sold-out tours and traveling a lot back then. “So we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to get George Martin? He’s kind of between gigs,’” Bunnell said. 

Martin was in town doing Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die,” produced for the 1973 Bond film of the same name. At the time, America was being managed by “a somewhat powerful guy named David Geffen,” Bunnell said, who was able to land Martin for a meeting.

“And it was great — it was like we knew him all our lives,” Bunnell said. “He’s this regal guy and we hit it off primarily because of the British connection. As American kids, we knew our way around the British sensibilities — food and humor and all of it. He came in, took off his shoes, and we sat there, and he listened to the first albums and [in Bunnell’s best British accent,] said, ‘Well, that just sounds like a jolly good idea. Let’s do it.”

Martin ended up producing seven albums from America’s catalog, starting with 1974’s “Holiday,” recorded in Oxford Circus in London (the band ended up recording in Abbey Road Studios years later, but not under Martin). After recording “Hearts” in Sausalito, California, in 1975, the band landed a gig at the Hollywood Bowl and something monumental happened: Martin conducted the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra to open the show.

“Yeah, so George was the opening act, if you will — if you can actually describe conducting that orchestra with works of his own from the Beatles, Bach and James Bond, and so on, that way,” Bunnell said.

The concert was recorded as well and is one of the only documented full live shows with Peek before his departure (he never rejoined the band and passed away in 2013). Bunnell said he remembered the night well and even the footage of it, but also recalled how back then he and Beckley weren’t keen on the sound. 

“There was kind of some funky vocals and guitar tunings,” he said. “We just shelved that thing and forgot about it for all these decades.”

An archivist friend of the band, Jeff Larson, who has been working on projects related to America’s 50th celebration, decided to revive it from the vault. “And it’s turned out Jeff has done some magic on these things,” Bunnell said, admitting 51 years later that when he sees it, he doesn’t hear the same discrepancies he did in his youth. 

“We were always our biggest critics,” he said.

Once the band secures approval from George Martin’s estate — the producer died in 2016 — the Hollywood Bowl concert will be released. 

America also has access to Martin’s arrangements and compositions for when they play with symphonies four or five times a year. “For me, it’s kind of intimidating,” Bunnell admitted. “I’m not a schooled musician. I don’t read or anything like that, but Gerry is very good at talking arrangements with symphonies. But it’s incredible to hear that all behind you — it’s strong stuff, it’s powerful.”

America is playing their 50th anniversary tour after being off the road for 19 months because of the pandemic and will stop over at Wilson Center on Saturday. (Port City Daily/Photo by Christie Goodwin)

Throughout the years, America has had their works sampled or covered across various genres. Seventies singer-songwriter and pop-recording icon Henry Nilsson almost debuted “I Need You” before the band even released it. “It’s a very palatable, nice song — you know, had ‘standard’ written all over it,” Bunnell said.

Nilsson worked in the London offices of Warner Bros. in 1971 — a “groovy hangout,” Bunnell described: “There would be George Harrison or Bill Wyman or somebody cool in there all the time.” 

America decided to release “A Horse With No Name” as their first track, with Nilsson hoping to release his own version of “I Need You.” But his concept was pushed aside because Warner Bros. decided “I Need You” would be better as a followup release for America. 

“He eventually did a version of it later,” Bunnell said, referring to Nilsson’s 1976 album “…That’s the Way It Is” — “the only way Harry Nilsson could do it: in that loud voice.”

America has inspired other artists throughout the years, including two Jacksons. In 1987, Janet Jackson’s “Let’s Wait Awhile,” from co-writers Jimmy Jams and Terry Lewis, sounded quite similar to Beckley’s “Daisy Jane,” according to the band’s manager at the time, who heard it while driving in his car. Beckley and Janet’s team reached a settlement agreement out of court concerning plagiarism. 

Yet, in 2001, Janet’s team approached Bunnell with a writing credit on the song “Someone to Call My Lover.” They sampled the opening guitar licks to “Ventura Highway.”

Years later, America received word Janet’s famed older brother Michael had written a followup to “A Horse With No Name,” in “A Place With No Name.” Bunnell called it “a bit of a curiosity” since they never knew any of the Jackson family. Yet, he also said he was flattered to have such credible musicians honoring America’s work.

“I liked the Jackson Five back in the day, and I like Michael’s earlier stuff,” he said. “We thought it was just a novelty — that it was called ‘A Place With No Name.’”

As fate would have it, America also shared the same manager, Jim Mory, who worked for Michael Jackson in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. “But we kind of forgot about it,” Bunnell said. The song was recorded in 1998 but didn’t get released. 

Though remixed, the music is very much like the original, albeit the words and story are changed. Michael sings about escaping into a utopian city without fear and pain. 

“It had been in the can,” Bunnell explained, “something he’d done over a couple of nights, while he was embroiled in his sorted sidebars stories.”

A 24-second snippet was released in 2009 by TMZ, a month after Michael died. Its full release followed on the posthumous album, “Xscape,” in 2014, and it was the first music video that debuted on Twitter. At that moment, following Michael’s death, the song shifted, Bunnell confirmed.

“It took on a different kind of power for us — it did reflect the time,” he said. “It’s another odd footnote in our career.”

In 2007, another musician came calling in Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger. He reached out to Beckley about America pairing up with various musicians who had been influenced by them to create a new record. America’s greatest hits would be featured on disc two, but disc one would be a collaboration of new music and covers.  

“Here and Now” was recorded in New York and co-produced by Schlesinger and James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins. “It was new and yet not new,” Bunnell said. “Their energy was something we’d felt before, but we sort of lost some of that impetus, that excitement, and our career was in another place — getting long in the tooth.”

Jim James and Patrick Hallahan of My Morning Jacket, Matthew Caws and Ira Elliot of Nada Surf, Ben Kweller, and others joined the production. The record included three cover songs, including Bunnell doing My Morning Jacket’s “Golden.” The rest of the tracks on disc one were original and co-written between artists. 

Ryan Adams was one.

“He was like a tornado coming into the city one mid-afternoon,” Bunnell described, as he explained it took days for the team to “corral” the artist. Once in the studio, though, Adams and Bunnell got right to work. Bunnell opened his laptop to reference a list of phrases and words — “painterly language,” he described, which he always goes to when writing songs. 

“[Ryan] just ran his finger down my screen,” Bunnell said. “We’re gonna do that one: ‘Glass King.’ And he just started strumming away and came up with some chords, and we were humming along to a melody in no time.”

Bunnell wrote the lyrics and said the song came together in one day. “It was unbelievable — I’ve never done it that way before or since,” he said. 

“Glass King” ended up being a bonus track on the Australian release.

Bunnell remembered: “I said to Adam some years later: ‘Did Ryan ever want to put that out or do anything with that song?’ And Adam just said, ‘He probably forgot he even did it.’”

These days 81,000 followers, including Bunnell, tune into Adams’ Instagram to catch the singer’s life unfold through numerous videos he posts. 

“It’s like a reality show,” Bunnell said. 

Adams has had his fair share of controversy since in 2019 The New York Times reported seven women — including Phoebe Bridgers and ex-wife Mandy Moore — had claimed sexual harassment and emotional abuse from the singer.  

“[T]his is part of the sadness,” Bunnell said. “I think he’s been sidelined because of all that stuff. And he’s trying to pick up some pieces, but it’s in a kind-of disheveled way. It’s worth it just to see his hair. You can’t believe what he’s doing with his hair all the time. But then this beautiful, unbelievable performance comes out of it. It’s not just chaos. He gets there. And he’s singularly motivated to play music and that’s what he does. And that’s why everybody logs in to watch.”

2015’s “Lost and Found” was the last of America’s 18 studio albums (they also have 10 compilations and six live albums). As to whether another will come remains unknown, Bunnell said. 

During Covid, he and Beckley remain focused on their 50-year projects, not necessarily new music, “sifting through old tapes and ephemera,” Bunnell said.

“I certainly don’t write for pleasure as much as I did in my younger years. So, without a project on the table, that required sitting down and putting a pen to paper and fingers to a fretboard, I just settled into life. It was a new experience to actually shelve our careers, and carry on — a sort of alien life, if you will.”

America will tour through Wilson Center on Saturday night, Oct. 16, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $30.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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