Talking music with Carl Bell of Fuel
I saw you had something coming up called Fan Appreciation Tour.
We have some shows lined up for cities that really supported us. We just want to give something back.
Are you excited about touring or still a little shell-shocked after touring for over two years last time out?
Man, Im excited about touring. (laughs) Its what we do. I enjoy touring, I think all of us do, right now anyway. Ask us in a couple years and you might get a different answer. (laughs)
Did all that touring allow the band to really come together?
We lost our drummer on the last record and that tour we had Kevin join. I think he made us all better players and I think it shows on this record.
When did you start writing for Something Like Human? Do you write on tour?
Most of this record was written on the back of the bus. I have a portable studio I do a lot of writing on. We toured all the way up to November and had a month where we went our separate ways. In December I wrote “Hemorrhage”.
Are you a spontaneous writer or methodical?
Its something that is always in my mind. Writing for me always goes through my mind. Some people sing in the shower and I sing my songs in and out of the shower. (laughs) Its in my subconscious all of the time.
What is your inspiration?
There is a moment for me when a song comes and maybe Ill be on the guitar and hit a chord progression that I like and I feel this surge. Its really bizarre. At that moment, I try to grab as much as I can while its happening. I try to mouth the words and maybe get a title. Sometimes I think, Wow, I must have been thinking about that. I try to let the subconscious take over. The best stuff comes from that. Its hard to start from scratch if I dont have a working title that goes with the song. Its really tough to work without a title or something. If I have to go in with a clean slate lyrically, its really difficult for me.
As a songwriter, who do you look up to?
I like a lot of stuff from the 70s. There was so much diversity. If you heard a Queen song, Who song, Zeppelin song, or an Elton John song, they were all different. It was a different time and audiences and radio were much more open. I think that diversity shows on our record. I like a record that has different songs on it. Its more interesting for me, for the audience, for everyone. Lyrically I really liked Bernie Taupin, who wrote Elton John songs. Bruce had some great songs back then. You know Dylan could take three chords, and its not the sound, but what he said that keeps you involved. I strive to have as many ingredients from them that I can. For me, a great song comes from a great melody, lyrics, and then great music around it. If you can get all three of those, youll have something that will satisfy me. I put a lot of importance on everything. I try to do the best on those three levels as I can.
Speaking of the bands from the 70s, those groups had this feeling of being larger than life. Do you feel like a lot of that is missing today?
That is an interesting point, and I was thinking about it because Im more on the inside now and Im a signed artist, but I agree that there isnt that many people Id be star-struck meeting. I think back in the day itd be different. I met Jimmy Page and was like, Uh. I mean, what do you say to Jimmy Page? There just isnt that superstar from another planet kind of musical person. Maybe its because of the overexposure and avenues you get to know a person.
For me the only people that would catch me tongue-tied would be like any of the Beatles or Bowie.
Its true. Ive met a lot of people, but none had that Moses and the Bible where you take off your shoes because you are on hollowed ground sort of thing. (laughs)
We should probably talk about the album, and I guess Im interested in how you decided on recording the album in New York City. I mean, the last one was recorded in the sticks and here you are now recording in New York and its mayhem.
I think that is why. The first one was done on a farm and this one we wanted to get closer to the pulse and get that vibe and see if that would sneak into the record. You get out on the farm and you get lethargic, whereas in New York its go, go, go.
Was there a different feeling going in, like getting more involved in the recording process?
Yeah. We lost our first drummer during the first record and this time around we were determined to have more control, and we had more control. It was cool because Ben Grosse, the producer, said, This is your record. Do what you want. So that was cool and Ben was great to work with. We hired Ben Grosse without meeting him. He asked us, What if I was an asshole? and we said, Wed fire you and get another asshole. (laughs) We were just determined to get what we wanted. I mean, the first record was, you know, my first demos of “Shimmer” are more vibey and heavier than on the record. That record wasnt indicative of what we wanted to be and I think this one is a lot closer.
Do you ever look back at your lyrics and go, Wow, I didnt realize I was thinking about that.?
Absolutely. There are times when Ill remember exactly where I was when I wrote that and how I was feeling. For me, each song is like a cut place in time for me. The first record was during a really tough time for me. I was ready to give up on a musical career and a lot of those songs have a lot of struggle and strife in them. This record isnt really in the same vein. Its where Im at now.
What does it feel like being on the other end of songs that fans will now listen to and remember points in their life being associated with your song?
Its cool in some ways and other ways you feel kind of exposed. Ill meet people and theyll be like, Dude, I know exactly what you are talking about. Now theyll have two records of my self-documentation. People will go on the website and then come up to you and will know so much about me, or think they do. Sometimes theyll be spot on and that will scare you a bit, but that is what draws fans in because we arent some fabrication.
I think that those fans who want to know exactly what you meant in a song sort of miss it. I mean, its not as important to know what the writer was thinking as what feelings it brings up in you and what it means to you.
Exactly. When someone can be like, Wow, Ive been there, or at least you have a general idea that the person shares an experience. I remember when Bernie Taupin said, If anyone can tell me what “Take Me To The Pilot” means, Ill give them the rights of the song. (laughs) Im like, No, dont say that. I was hoping he had something really cool to say about it, but actually it was just written in some drug binge.
I think that example is perfect because some fans get mad when a group tells the world a song was just that, a song, and there was no meaning, because then its a letdown.
Then on the other hand, if you find out what its about and your idea was different, its another letdown.
Sure. I agree. That is why putting lyrics in a record is hard too. There is a Marilyn Manson song, I think its “Beautiful People”, and there was this line in there and I thought to myself, That is the fucking greatest line. I read the lyrics and that wasnt what I thought it was at all. So there is that danger.
Did you have to hold back songs?
Yeah. I probably had forty or fifty songs.
Is it tough to leave some of them off?
There are some tough decisions. We wanted to record fifteen for this record, but ended up with thirteen. Some are more obvious and some arent as hard of a decision. What is hard for me is when you have what you believe is a great song and its seventy-five percent done and you just cant put it all together, and when its done, its not the song you thought. Its like having some crippled child. A lot of times the songs that just flash and are really quick are usually the best.
I remember reading a quote from Noel Gallagher from Oasis who explained that the reason he only puts ten songs on a record is because if he puts more on, he doesnt make any money for them and the record label makes out, not him.
Well, thats true. That is how contracts are. The record companies figured out long ago how to make it work out for them. Ive always said that if the people in accounting were on the other side of the business, like signing artists, and the A&R people were the accounting people, itd be a better business, because those accounting people are creative. All the creative people are in accounting. Theyve got it all figured out. What happened is that the government passed a bill that an artist gets a rate per certain song, but the labels said they are only going to pay you on ten or eleven songs. That is why most groups only give you ten or eleven songs. I know its not all about money, but at the same time, the record company is making money, not me.
I mean, it is fun for you, but its still a business and you have to survive. Besides, why make art that fattens their pockets?
Thats the point. Why let them make out. It wasnt my idea to put twelve songs on the record either, because in the back of my mind I was thinking that we were giving a song away. Im glad you brought that up so we can make it clear, because people do get pissed if you dont have like twelve or more songs on a record.
I think a lot of people see records from punk bands with like seventeen songs, mostly because they are like two minutes long and they need to give you at least a half hour of music. And then they hear someone like Oasis having fifty songs and fans are like, Then why only give us ten new ones?.
I dont think a lot of people realize how hard it is to make money in this business because the artist is the last in the food chain. You are on mtv and radio and they think you are making all this money. You are last in line to make anything. People think you make a fortune touring, but all the expenses come out of you before you get paid. Its tough. Im guilty as well because I used to think a lot of these bands were rolling in dough. That is why Napster will be interesting, well, not exactly Napster, but a different business model will be extremely interesting, because if you cut the record labels out of there, its going to be a different world.
It will be very interesting.
There are things you need labels for, but if you are talking about downloading music, if you download my whole record and pay me three bucks, Im still making two-hundred percent more than I would right now if you go to the store and buy it.
I think fans would agree that theyd rather spend a couple of bucks and buy the songs they like rather than dish out eighteen bucks for twelve songs and only enjoying a few.
Right. The problem with Napster is that you cant choose to be on there. But something is coming. It really is.
Napster is sweet, yet unnerving at the same time. And the fact that so many people are talking about it proves its definitely something that will change soon, for the better, I hope.
I agree with the concept because I dont want to pay twenty bucks for a cd either. That is a lot of money. I mean, and then you have the stores adding a few bucks that they can scrape off the top. Its a mess, but I hate that everyone is like its not supposed to be about the money. But then maybe being a doctor shouldnt be about making money. I mean, seriously. I cant just do this 24/7 without money. I cant take another job. It has to make financial sense. I dont need four houses, but I have to be able to make some sort of living from it.
And they are making money.
Right. They just spent like two million dollars to support the Limp Bizkit tour. They make money off advertising on their site, so they are making money from something that isnt theirs. That is where I get angry.
Theyll figure something out where you get paid and people get their music easier than buying the cd.
Yeah. The big problem is that you are never going to convince people that getting something for free is a bad thing. (laughs)
I know. Even if someone has to lie to you about how they got it.
I know. I had this guy come up to me last night and he goes, Dude, your album is great! (this interview was done before Something Like Human was released in stores) and he stopped and was like, Uh, I mean I look forward to hearing your record, then he started stumbling over his words. And Im looking at him and hes got Napster written across his forehead. (laughs) I dont know how we got off on this huge tangent. (laughs)
I know. Here we are trying to promote your record and we are talking about Napster, the antithesis to what we are trying to accomplish. How ironic is that? (we both laugh) Okay, so lets get back on point. How did you get into music? I mean, some people enjoy it forever as a fan, how do you make the transition to making it a living?
I grew up in Tennessee and my family, for whatever reason, didnt have television. So all we did was listen to radio. My brother won a monster record collection from a radio station so I had like the complete Zepplin, Who, Queen collections. So I really got into that. Then he had a guitar sitting in his closet and I picked it up one day and started playing one note and it developed from there. I always liked music and I always felt like I had some talent. It just basically came from boredom. I just always loved music and it has always moved me.
Were you messing around in other bands before Fuel?
Actually, me and Jeff, the bass player, grew up together in this tiny town. I started playing guitar and so did he. We had this little Sunday afternoon jam we used to do and it was horrible.
Im glad you can admit it. (we both laugh)
We had been playing together for a little while when one day a friend goes, If you two tuned in the same key together it would be easier. That is how bad it had to be. (laughs) Jeff and I have been playing together forever. I remember a couple years ago on tour with Aerosmith and Id see Joe Perry and Steve Tyler on the side of the stage, and Id look at Jeff and just think, Man, weve come a long way.
See, the great thing about music is that you never know where its going to come from next. I mean, that whole Seattle thing was nonsense. Music has no geography.
I know. I grew up in a town that had like a thousand people and like two stoplights. I dont even think it was more than a blinking light.
My town had one. (we both laugh)
See. I mean, to come from that and to dream of being an artist for a living was off my radar. And through instances in my life and stuff that has happened, next thing I know Im in Australia on tv playing music. Its so true: you can come from anywhere with a little luck and a lot of work and make it happen.
+ charlie craine