Formed in 1998, Tsar was the upcoming L.A. band inspired by glam rock and bubblegum pop with explosive power-pop choruses. After releasing their self-titled debut on Hollywood Records in 2000, they received critical acclaim and gained a cult following, but despite touring with the New York Dolls, Social Distortion, and Duran Duran among other famous bands, despite several late shows appearances and a few TV placements for a few of their songs, the band never made it. After recording a follow-up in 2003, as well as a couple of EPs and demos, Tsar has still not received the recognition it deserves.
Last week, I had the chance to talk to Jeff Whalen, Tsar frontman and the mastermind behind the celebrated L.A. band. He has just released his first-ever solo album, ‘10 MORE ROCK SUPER HITS’, and the first thing I wanted to know was how he could describe this new experience compared to his adventure with Tsar.
JW: ‘It’s a different experience, when you are in a band you can call your friend when you hear your song on the radio, but when you are solo, you can’t say ‘Dude, I am on the radio!’ It is my first solo thing, it’s new to me, and it’s a lot of freedom. Being in a band is like having 4 girlfriends, there are a lot of feelings, a lot of personalities involved. Tsar was a shared endeavor, but there are lots of different ways to get there, lots of hope and dreams that were tangled up in there. You don’t have much of that when you are solo, so that’s easier, but you don’t get to share up. I just wanted to be in the Monkees, that was always my dream, to live in an apartment by the beach with the band, but being solo is different.
But I wanted to make a solo record for a while, although the thought didn’t turn into action right away. It’s kind of like exercise or something. Like you say, “I think I’ll get in shape.” And then a couple of months later, you say, “I think I’ll get in shape.” Then a couple of years later, you say, “I think I’ll get in shape.” Maybe you join the YMCA, swim a couple of times. But it was pretty crowded that one time you went, so you stop going. Then one day you say, “I think I’ll get in shape,” and somehow it’s different. You really want to do it now. You start doing these weird exercises. You go to Target and buy one of those pull-up bars that you hook up to your doorway. And for the next four months, you get in shape and you love it! Dude, you are incredibly in shape! Your body looks so good, it’s almost embarrassing. You look like one of those guys standing next to Michael Phelps, laughing and clapping and hugging.
So the experience was kind of like that. But better than getting in shape, because once the record’s finished, it’ll always be finished. Whereas with getting in shape, that shit is never over. You can never arrive and just stay there. And the motivation to keep exercising is super-impermanent, so fuck it.’
Despite the lack of activity during these past years, Tsar never disbanded and is still a rock band.
JW: ‘We are still friends and everything, and we never officially broke up, the drummer played on some songs of the new record. But it’s tricky too, we did a lot of stuff we were proud of, but we didn’t make it. On some levels, we put out two full-lengths and a couple of EPs, toured with the New York Dolls, we had fans, but we didn’t sell many records… There are a lot of bad feelings (laughs), but there are bad feelings in bands that become very successful! When you put out a record, you are very excited about it, you think you are gonna be huge… and you are not, it’s hard and a lot of feelings happen. That said, this was the main endeavor of our lives, You focus on this one thing to the detriment of other aspects of your life, your personal relationships, your growth as a human being, maybe. You’re betting it all on rock and roll, baby! Is that a reasonable thing to do? I don’t know! Tsar was the major focus of your life for years, the main thing that we tried, and we are linked together forever. I’d do it again, though, without a doubt.’
And Jeff doesn’t even exclude new music and a reunion.
JW: ‘I don’t know where the other guys are on the subject, but in my heart, Tsar is still a living thing. There’s not a day in which I don’t think about it. I’d be surprised if that wasn’t true for the other guys, too. And maybe that’s true of virtually everybody in every band that ever tried to make a go of it: I bet they think about it every day. Like, I bet that right now, every member of, um … I’m trying to think of a random band … um … Voice of the Beehive? Sure. I bet every member of Voice of the Beehive is right at this second thinking about Voice of the Beehive. So, yeah, I’d be into a new Tsar album and thing.’
A lot has been said about Tsar and its bubble-glam inspiration, the hooks of these songs were big and bold, just like on Jeff’s new album – just listen to the single Jendy! – but it’s more difficult for Jeff to appreciate anything contemporaneous — although he admitted to liking MGMT’s last album.
JW: ‘Yes, I definitely explore other kinds of music, but the UK bands of the 70s, that old kind of music is my home base. My main home is ‘‘60s British invasion era’, but when this comes out, it’s more ‘70s, like Bowie, T Rex. I’m currently a bit into sunshine pop—Salt Water Taffy, the Sugar Shoppe. There’s a Rhino box set of lesser known girl group songs that are making me happy right now.
I don’t really listen to new bands. People tell me about some new bands, and usually, they have a cool style but their songs are not good enough. Everybody tells you they’re cool, but for me, as a fan, I need better songs. Apparently, nobody can write a bunch of good songs like they used to in the olden times. A bunch of good songs used to be the price of admission for a band. When I was first really getting into 60s music and 70s music, I bought a Herman’s Hermits album at a thrift store and every song on it was great. And I wasn’t surprised at all—I assumed they would pretty much all be great—because of the era. And that’s Herman’s Hermits we’re talking, a fairly inconsequential band. They didn’t write their own songs—I don’t think they even played on their own records—yet they have like 20 great songs. I’m not sure why bands can’t do that anymore.
There is still a lot of music of the ‘70s I haven’t heard before, some bubblegum band, some girl groups that make me laugh, make me happy, make me look cool walking in the streets with sunglasses! And I hope I am not fetishizing old things from the days I was born, but it’s rare that you go see a new band and say, ‘oh what a great band! I didn’t know rock would be so bad.’
Jeff was raised in a very religious household, and he told me how this strict upbringing affected his relationship with music.
JW: ‘At my house, there was this born-again vibe going on, big time! So, TV, junk food, pop music were not allowed, if it was not for the glory of Christ, it wasn’t allowed! But when you are a kid, you buy whatever they are telling you, so I was a religious kid. But it’s a fairly grim approach to peace and love, and I really don’t recommend it.’
But Jeff didn’t buy everything even at a young age.
JW: ‘Our church was very strict, pretty deep into the craziness, not quite snake handlers, but just barely. People at our church did speak in tongues, this kind of nonsense babbling without any sense or pattern. Even as a kid—and I was a religious kid—it seemed like the people speaking in tongues at church were faking it. It seemed phony. Even then it seemed like people were doing it to signal their holier-than-thou-ness. I’ve sometimes wondered if someone like Little Richard or Jeff Barry would be able to speak in tongues without accidentally giving it a hook or two. You know, throw a “doo wah diddy diddy” in there somewhere. Maybe end with “a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom” or whatever. That’s always a reliable closer.’
However, Jeff’s dad was not religious (his parents were divorced and he was visiting his dad on the weekend).
JW: ‘My father had this fancy car, and since he didn’t know what to do with me and my brother, it was TV, sugar, chips, movies, Disneyland, and rock music. I remember coming back from a weekend with my dad, and I could not speak for a day at all, I don’t know why but it must have been the juxtaposition of the 2 worlds. But my favorite childhood memories are about TV, pizza and Disneyland not so much about the health food and the born-again Christianity.’
Unsurprisingly, his religious upbringing may actually have acted in the opposite way than it was supposed to:
JW: ‘We were strongly encouraged to not listen to any music that wasn’t explicitly for the glory of Christ. They told us about Satan and rock ‘n’ roll, there were special church youth group meetings where they’d give presentations on the Satanic properties of pop music. They uncovered this vast conspiracy of meaning and intent in rock music. Backward messages, album cover images you could only see with a mirror, mysterious symbols, secret codes. Incredible. I was very impressed by that, it was extremely interesting to me, this whole system of symbols and meanings in rock ‘n’ roll! I thought it was amazing and I should go there. It was super-fun, though presented as this dark, forbidden thing. I’ve never seen Led Zeppelin IV receive such a thorough and thoughtful analysis as I did in the rec room of the Assembly of God church in Lakewood, CA. They took it much more seriously than I’ve ever seen a Zeppelin fan take it, praise God.
Then, around 10, I came across a radio rock station when changing channels on this little radio I had in my room, they were playing AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black’, and it was very hard to change the channel, it seemed like something satanic and evil that I should not listen to, but Its power was very magnetic, because I had been told so many times I should not listen to this kind of music. I let the dial stay there for a lot longer than I thought I was supposed to. And it was incredible. I felt it through my body. It was electric. It was undeniable.
My Christianity kinda wobbled through that era and then through junior high and high school, especially with my mom and stepdad got divorced. There was less of a focus on Jesus, less being encouraged to pray about tests and friend’s hockey games.
If we agreed on the fact that the creative process can be very mysterious, Jeff had a few more things to tell about his writing process.
JW: ‘You got to want to write, it never accidentally happens. I never pick up the guitar and accidentally write a song…If it happens, it’s because I am in the middle of writing a lot of songs. I often write down titles and rhymes that occur to me when I am walking in the streets and put them in my pocket, then I never look at them again, and they never become songs.
Mostly, I’m looking for a song that I’d like to hear myself. There are lots of different ways—a lyrical concept first, maybe a haunting melody that comes to me in a dream, but more often than not, I’ll write a chord progression on guitar while just kinda mumbling out potential melodies. Maybe like a form of speaking in tongues? If there’s a hook in there or something I like about it, I’ll try to develop it. And then I’ll go do something else and completely forget about it.
If I’m walking around and the hook keeps coming back to me, then I’ll try to finish it as soon as possible, though usually, it takes a while. I was talking to this friend of mine who is a really good songwriter and he was stressing that, no matter what, you must finish the song in the same session that you began it in. Otherwise, you end up with a million unfinished chord progressions and mumble melodies. I know he’s right and I wish I could do it that way. But I just don’t work like that, somehow. I have to walk around with it and think about it and think about it and think about it… and try to figure out if it doesn’t sound like a song that already exists.’
However, Jeff doesn’t worry too much about sounding like songs that already exist.
JW: ‘I quote songs in my own songs, I make reference to other songs in the lyrics, sometimes in the melody, but It has been so re-contextualized that the meaning is different. My rule is ‘don’t try to take what’s cool about the original song’, you have to take what’s there and switch it such a way that you have made it yours. And as long I am comfortable with it, I think it’s okay. Rock ‘n’ roll follows some basic structures that everybody follows, in the ‘50s, every song was the same, every Chuck Berry, Little Richard song was the same. Every band tries to copy what they want to be, that’s how it always starts, the Beatles wanted to be Elvis. There’s a rich tradition in rock ‘n’ roll of sampling or borrowing stuff and put it back together in a new way. Then hopefully you do your own thing.’
If it is hard to find new inspiration, Jeff has still plenty of ideas
JW: ‘I find inspiration in a lot of places, but I’m feeling a lot of rock and roll these days. Rock and roll will be whatever you need it to be. And it never lets you down. It’s the only thing in your life that will always be there for you. Also, I’ve been eating a lot of ice cream for breakfast. That’s pretty reliable, too.’
Jeff, who is in his 40s, is someone you could call anti-technology, he still owns a flip phone and doesn’t do social media at all. Since Tsar, which had its chance in the 2000s, so already 20 years ago, a lot of things have changed in the music business, and it’s difficult to imagine someone making it without Spotify and Youtube.
JW: ‘Yeah, I don’t do that stuff, I am not on the internet, I don’t have a smartphone and I don’t listen to music on a computer. For me, rock & roll means records and posters, that kind of thing, and I really don’t know about technology. But everybody has to choose what that they feel is right for them. More and more, we are forced to participate in a thing whether we want it or not. When I tell people I am not on Facebook, nobody says, ‘oh you should try it!’ everyone says: Good for you, I wish I could do that!’ Well, if you don’t want to do it, then don’t do it! Nobody likes Facebook but everyone feels powerless. Who could possibly think any of this is a good idea? Nobody. Donald Trump is President of the fucking United fucking States for fuck’s sake, and nobody can stop it. The internet is terrible. And everybody knows it in their heart. And nobody can stop it.
With YouTube, there’s definitely an increase in access, for whatever that’s worth. Like if you’re talking to somebody and they tell you to check out some Chip Douglas-produced Harry Nilsson demos from 1967 that you’ve never heard of, you can find it on YouTube and be listening to it instantly. So that’s … a good thing, I guess? Maybe? But there’s something ultimately joyless about it, somehow. Back in record store times, you had to find the thing you were looking for, and it wasn’t always easy. You had to go store to store, always on the lookout. But when you found it, it was a triumph, it was fist-in-the-air, laughing, smiling joy. You remember that shit your whole life.
Also, everybody enjoys getting a nice letter in the mail and nobody does it anymore! It is much better than liking a tweet!’
And since Jeff sent me his new album in the mail inside a personified envelope with letter decorated with photos of Kenny Rodgers, Dolly Parton, and Luke Skywalker, I tend to believe he is still the only person on earth doing this kind of thing. But seriously, if a lot of things have changed in the music business in 20 years, Jeff has only one goal.
JW: ‘There was a time when a band could survive and not even selling albums. With Tsar, if we didn’t sell a few singles, that was it, and that was the 2000s, now it’s even crazier. The music business was already pretty screwy when I showed up, but now it’s extra super-duper screwy. Nobody likes this model. It’s supposedly convenient or whatever, but it definitely degrades the rock experience for band and fans. But at this point, my goal is just to have a good time. I really tried, Tsar was the focus of my life, but it wasn’t as fun as I wanted to be, it was more frustrating than fun. There is not a day that I don’t think about Tsar, but it didn’t happen, so I am ready to have a good time.’
He is ready to have fun with this new album, ‘10 MORE ROCK SUPER HITS’, 10 songs which have this same Tsar glam-power-pop vibe
JW: ‘I think the new stuff is part of the same universe as the stuff we were doing with Tsar. It’s more pop-forward, maybe. Definitely more bubblegummy. Maybe more power poppy, but I see a lot of shared values with Tsar, fewer guitar solos, and less rock n roll, yes, less ‘destroy the moon with our rock ‘n’ roll laser’. Tsar’s second album was a concept record about how the first record bombed, it was heartbreaking and perplexing, the lyrics were funnier but darker, there was a lot more anger. But the first record had a more optimistic approach to music…. and my solo album is actually more aligned with the first Tsar record in terms of optimistic and magical feelings. The shared values are the melodies and the lyrical approach to things. I don’t think anybody who likes Tsar will be all what-the-fuck-is-this-bullshit about this record, which is nice.
When I was writing the songs, I had this pop feel, this nostalgia for some sort of pop band thing that I don’t think really ever existed in real life, certainly not anything I was alive and around for. This kind of bright colors, Saturday morning TV show, amusement park feeling that I can’t quite pinpoint. On some level, the concept is that it’s supposed to be like an old K-Tel record from the 70s. How that record made me feel was a kind of blueprint for how I wanted this record to feel, a kind of optimistic energy about life and love and fun and most of all rock and roll.
When I was writing these new songs, it was like drinking a lot and waking up in the morning, except it was not about drinking but about writing songs.
There’s an album from 1993 called ‘Million Seller’ by a Welsh band called the Pooh Sticks. I love that record so much, it’s almost ridiculous. It speaks to me, almost like it’s speaking directly to my soul, in this super-meta celebration of rock and roll. There’s a sadness to it, a melancholy, but overall the record has this optimistic glow to it. When I first discovered it, I listened to it over and over again, many times a day, just on repeat. I thought to myself: Take it easy! Don’t burn out on it! But I couldn’t help myself. I just put it on again and again. So, the rough concept of my album is this good feeling, power-poppy and a little bit glammy, I want it to be a good album all the way through. And I just want to have a good time, walk in the streets, wearing sunglasses.’
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