Behind the Scenes with Dewey Bunnell from America
Ashleigh Prince spoke with Dewey Bunnell from America about his inspirations, America’s albums and the show. Read on for highlights from the interview, or listen to the full interview below. Tune in to Talk of the Commonwealth with Hank Stolz on WCRN 830AM Fridays at 9 AM and Saturdays at 1 PM for more behind-the-scenes interviews.
Ashleigh: Good morning, everyone! Welcome back to Behind the Scenes at The Hanover Theatre. This week on Behind the Scenes, we’re taking a trip down Ventura Highway to hang out with singer-songwriter and co-founder of the band America, Dewey Bunnell. Hey, Dewey!
Dewey: Hello, Ashleigh. Nice to be here. Thanks for having me.
Ashleigh: Thank you for coming on. I know that America has come to The Hanover Theatre before and we are so excited to welcome you back to Worcester.
Dewey: Well, thanks a lot. We are happy to be on the road again, and it’s certainly great to come back to Worcester. We’ve always had a great time out there so we can’t wait.
Ashleigh: We can’t wait to have you. So, if any of our listeners are unfamiliar, Gerry Buckley and Dewey Bunnell, along with their former bandmates Dan Peek, met in high school in London in the late 60s and harmonized their way to the top of the chart with signature songs like “A Horse With No Name.” Before we jump into the nitty gritty of the details of America and what you love about your decades of hits, I would like to just start with you and ask you what your fond memories are with America. Let’s talk about your beginning and the details of the beginning.
Dewey: Sure. Well, they were fond and they are fond. I really love my memories. It’s a strange thing to look back and see how much happened in our lives and try to pin down when, where and how things happened. Basically, it was great to be these American teenagers in London in the late 60s there with other American kids going to high school. We were sort of “people out of water”, if you will, we were fish out of water. We were kind of bonded together during those times and you really stuck together. I met a lot of British people and started to really enjoy the British lifestyle. At the heart of it all, we were still these Americans. Our dads were in the Air Force and we were just the three musketeers. We really saw all this great music in London and went to all the shows and festivals.
We had a high school band, and that morphed into writing our own music and that turned into America.Dewey Bunnell
Dewey: We were so fortunate to be at the right place at the right time, as they say, and I met the right people. It was a shared experience. It’s been over 50 years now and it’s snowballed from there. Virtually all the memories were good. Of course, we had ups and downs, and we’ve had down periods, tragedies and families, and a lot of life has been lived. I’m 70 now as of January and I never would have thought I’d be looking at 70, but it’s wonderful. It goes on and on, and I could tick off all kinds of year-after-year of great musical experiences and babies born and grandchildren. Life is what it is, we all experience it and I have no regrets.
Ashleigh: Right. You guys are still friends, still making music together, still touring the world and thrilling your audiences with your timeless music. I just have to know who your musical inspirations were pre-America.
Dewey: We talk about this a lot and I think there’s still inspirations. I think there’s a thing about all of us humans, regardless of our generation, something grabs us, whatever art form or music it is, and it sort of anchors you. My mom and dad played music at the house and there was a lot of old stuff there, like Elvis and what our parents listened to, which I still enjoy. When I really started getting serious, I listened to surf music and instrumental music like The Ventures and Dick Dale & The Del Tones. Ultimately, the Beach Boys became the jewel in the crown. Brian Wilson and those guys wrote and produced so many great songs. That really triggers me to this day to listen to any of that. Then, the Beatles; we were there in the formative years when the Beatles came on the scene and it changed everybody’s lives. It’s not just the generation of kids and young people, but I think it changed much more than that in many ways. It brought Technicolor into your life and these lyrics, musical arrangements and guitar sounds. That opened up the whole British invasion and it went on and on.
Dewey: Specifically, I think those writers, The Beatles and The Beach Boys, were a big inspiration, but then I became very influenced by the singer-songwriters Crosby, Stills & Nash. I’ve always been linked to Neil Young because I sounded like Neil. I love Stephen Stills and his songs and their vocal arrangements took it to another level. We just love singing harmony and harmony-singing is this magical thing. I’m a realist, I don’t really get too mystical or far out there, but it goes without saying for me that when you put two or three voices together, something different comes out and it’s a beautiful sound. Everybody’s voice is different, they’re like fingerprints. If you can get three voices of four voices or a choir that really strikes this sound. It’s a special time and you can’t put a finger on why it is. It’s kind of a magical thing, so there’s where my magical definition would come in. Crosby, Stills, Nash definitely had that. I mean, those are spectacular recordings. We were fortunate, they were our heroes and we got to meet them and hang out with them. We’ve worked with Steven and Crosby, and it’s a funny thing. Those are early memories when the band first came to California. We were 20 years old, we already had a hit record under our belt, and we were now in the big-time at the deep end of the pool and it was great. So, they’re inspirations and there’s been many along the way. I love lots of artists and lots of songs, too many to check off right now. Those early ones are what really matter. Those first impressions, those first things that grab you.
Ashleigh: Right? When we’re thinking about the legacy of America, everyone loves “A Horse With No Name,” “Ventura Highway,” “You Can Do Magic,” a personal favorite. What is your favorite song to perform?
Dewey: Well, of those hits, I always say “Ventura Highway” because it still feels fresh to me and sort of youthful. The first three albums I block together almost because we were writing consistently and we were very prolific. We’d wake up every morning practically and start a song and want to bring it over to Gerry or Dan. We really had a full head of steam then. Then came the George Martin years; George Martin, The Beatles’ producer, became our producer. We did seven years and seven albums with George so then there’s that chunk of time. In that time, Dan left the band. From that period on, it was just Gerry and I as a duo, if you will, and the albums after that were all over the board a little bit. We used a couple of different producers. I love the first three albums and I can listen to those still, although I don’t very much. When I do, I’m always reminded of the sounds we were trying to get. Sometimes I listen to them and go “Damn, we could have done that better, I would have changed that or I would have changed this.” But, they are what they are and those are our anchor albums. I have to separate out the hits because we have a lot of obscure album cuts that I really love and songs that people don’t know so well.
Dewey: There’s a song of Gerry’s called “Sarah” which was on our album “Harbor,” that’s a beautiful song. Gerry tends to write more of the love songs and the ballads. I’ve got some songs that I wish had gotten more attention, like a song called “Sleeper Train” that I really like. I like Gerry’s “Daisy Jane” and “Lonely People” of Dan’s was probably his biggest hit actually. Dan wrote a lot of great stuff and he was a great guitar player. “Ventura Highway,” and “Sandman” from the first album is a fun song to play, we still do that. The show is predominantly the hits because we were lucky enough to have a lot of hits and people want to hear what they want to hear. They don’t want to hear a bunch of obscure stuff, so we learned that lesson the hard way back in the day when we got sick of playing some of those songs, and we take them out brashly thinking, “Who needs to hear that anymore?” Of course, half the people in the audience said, “Wait, we haven’t heard it.” You have to weigh the pros and cons of the show and decide what songs you must play every night. In the remainder you can, salt in different songs, take some out, take some in and so on.
Ashleigh: Right. I know from our Facebook comments that people are getting really excited for America coming to The Hanover Theatre on June 4. I think that you have some really big diehard fans coming so I think that they will be absolutely pleased with hits and some of the more lesser-known songs.
Dewey: It’s a big part of the show. The show has really evolved. Songs are songs, they are there, they have a life of their own, they stay young and we get old, but the show actually does evolve. We’ve got a lot of video behind us now and technology has taken us to some different places so we’re able to really enhance the show. The other songs that I’m talking about, besides the ones everybody knows, have features in the show that have fun dynamics. We have a great band; our drummer, bass player, lead guitar player/keyboardist are behind Gerry and I. They’re all equally talented and super guys, and their performances are worth watching in and of themselves.
I’m very proud of the show and I think anybody who hasn’t seen us will be surprised. For anybody who has seen us, it’s still keeping up the standards that we’ve liked to think we set years ago.Dewey Bunnell
Ashleigh: Yeah! I noticed that America is popping up a little bit more in popular culture right now. I mean, “A Horse With No Name” was featured in Grand Theft Auto, “Ventura Highway” is used in the theme song from a Saturday Night Live sketch called “The Californians,” and I am begging James Gunn to incorporate America in the next “Guardians of the Galaxy” soundtrack because it just makes sense. What has really surprised you with things with songs that you wrote popping up now, having a resurgence, especially with vinyl coming back?
Dewey: Yeah, vinyl sort of blows my mind. I haven’t played a vinyl record for years. I guess maybe that’s sacrilege because now vinyl is back to such an extent. I don’t even have a turntable. I remember vinyl, I grew up on vinyl and I still have a lot of vinyl albums. As far as that thing’s being placed, that’s out of our control. It’s always a big unknown and a surprise. It’s licensing and anybody can license something. You have to pay for it, of course, barring it being in something that we would simply not want to support or be part of. Nobody turns down licensing deals, especially in big shows. I remember “A Horse With No Name” in the “Breaking Bad” series was great. The episode was actually even called “A Horse With No Name” in Spanish. Other things such as a “Friends” episode, being in movies, “American Hustle,” things like that are really great. You can look at it from afar and people tell you “Hey, I heard your song in this or that.” It’s really special. It’s a good feeling. We’ve already done the recording and we’ve already written the song, so it’s just this bonus thing that happens.
Ashleigh: Yeah, I can imagine! I don’t know how I would feel if I was watching a movie and a song that I wrote just popped up in the middle of it. I think that’s really special.
Dewey: It is, yeah.
Ashleigh: We put out some feelers for some questions from America fans and I have one question from Dave Garofalo. He says, “10 of your 18 studio albums begin with the letter H, and you have an album titled “Silent Letter”. Is there a significance to the letter H, and is the silent letter the letter H?”
Dewey: Yes, the silent letter is H. Bingo, you get the bonus prize! That was one of the last records at that phase that we did and we were trying to phase out the H’s. The H’s started organically by themselves. The first album was technically just called America but “Horse With No Name” was the big hit and they subsequently started printing that on the cover with the America band name, so that was kind of an H. The second album was “Homecoming,” which was us coming back from England to the US, so it was technically our homecoming. The third album, “Hat Trick,” of course, three in a row like the sporting term. So, those three came by themselves and when we made the fourth album, that was the first one that George Martin produced and we went back to England to do it. Somebody had already pointed out the H thing and we said, “Well, let’s keep that going.” So, it was kind of a gimmick. We tried always to make the H title in some way apply to the project. In the case of “Holiday,” which was the fourth album, the first George Martin. Some of your listeners may know that the British term for vacation is a holiday, “We’re going on holiday.” We always think of holidays like Christmas or the Fourth of July or something. But, it was a holiday, we were going back to England and we were making this record. It was kind of like our version of a vacation. “Hideaway” was an album we made up in the mountains of Colorado Rockies at the Caribou Ranch, “Harbor” was in Hawaii and “Hearts” was in San Francisco. George Martin liked to record in different locations so that was fun. So, the H stuck. We’ve done others in recent times. There’s one called “Here & Now.” I can’t even think of them all. There’s a few other H’s, but it’s not locked in stone anymore.
Ashleigh: Yeah! That’s a great question, Dave.
Dewey: Yeah, Dave, good question. You got the silent letter, bingo!
Ashleigh: Our next question is from Lloyd Noel. He would like to know, “If you could travel back in time and talk to those high school kids, young Dewey, what would you tell him?”
Dewey: That it’s great to see you again, man! Keep your publishing. You learn from mistakes in life, theoretically, and sometimes we just keep repeating them.
I wouldn’t change a lot. I think you just deal with life as it comes along. I’m certainly grateful and it still surprises me how our band managed to get such traction and stay together this long and keep doing it.Dewey Bunnell
Dewey: We always marveled at that, Gerry and I. We still keep wondering when it’s going to dry up and when nobody’s going to buy a ticket to a show. You can’t have regrets. I’m healthy enough to be grateful for everything.
Ashleigh: Yeah! This has been very eye-opening to be able to actually speak with you today. I know that your music speaks for itself at some points but it’s really great to hear all this backstory and all the history that comes from the legacy of America.
Dewey: It’s been good. I probably should have mentioned a little bit more when you ask about influences and the early years that we did. We did have a nice gang of people that we were around when we were in the offices of Geffen-Roberts. When we came back from England, we made the second album and David Geffen became our manager. The Eagles were just starting, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell and all these great writers and singers. They were big influences and we were able to be influenced in real time. I just want to add that addendum to what I said earlier, because there’s many chapters and I was thinking about it. That was a great time working there and being with all those artists.
Ashleigh: Absolutely. I completely understand that inspiration comes from everywhere. We’re just so excited to have you back in Worcester on Saturday, June 4 at 8pm. Make weekend plans to go out, get some lunch, hang out with your friends and family and then come and enjoy this amazing concert. Before we wrap up for today, Dewey, do you have any parting words for audiences?
Dewey: Come to The Hanover Theatre. We’re looking forward to seeing you and I hope you’re looking forward to seeing us. Just keep on keeping on. These are tough times in many ways, but there’s still a lot of beauty and goodness in life. Keep going forward. Love from America.
Ashleigh: Excellent parting words. Everyone, if you’re looking for your tickets and you haven’t gotten them yet, head to TheHanoverTheatre.org. We still have great seats available in all price levels. Head to our website or give us a call and we’d be happy to help you find your perfect seats. Thank you everyone for tuning in today and we’ll see you next week with more Behind the Scenes.