Of all the interviews the Rock Hole has ever done, this was most definitely … the first. I called Ken in California to talk about his new album Wake the Nations, due out on Now & Then records in January. The most obvious thing about Wake the Nations initially is its phenomenal guest list, but this wasn't actually Ken's idea at all…
Friends in high places
"I had just done a song for his We All Come Together CD which is a big benefit, New York Trade Center benefit CD. I had done a song with Doug Aldridge [Lion/ Dio guitarist], and actually it's the first song on the CD if I'm not mistaken 'cuz it's actually part of the title track of the album. And anyway, Niki Baldrian [AORDREAMZONES man behind the benefit CD] had said, 'Hey, mate, what about getting some of these guitar players to play on your album?' and I thought 'Yeah, I did that back in the Shout days on In Your Face, why didn't I think of doing that for this album?' So, with his help and the help of a couple of other people, I contacted a bunch of other guys and the long and the short of it is we were able to wrangle in some pretty unique talent. It was actually kinda fun for me because I felt like it was an opportunity to have other guitar players know that a strong guitar player was asking them to play on their record. I felt like I got out of them what I expected rather than just a cheesy solo. I might've been a little… intimidating is not the right word, but… encouraging for them to come up with something cool, which was great."
For the record, Tamplin's friends on the album include Reb Beach (Winger, Alice Cooper), Richie Kotzen (Poison, Mr. Big), Kee Marcello (Europe), Jeff Watson (Night Ranger guitarist and pioneer of the 8-finger tapping technique), Marty Friedman (Megadeth, Cacophony), Jeff Scott Soto (who supplied most of the vocals for the movie Rock Star as well as singing for Yngwie Malmsteen and Talisman), and Pete Lesperance (Harem Scarem). Oh, and remember in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure when Rufus says "I play a little" and then shreds with a totally rocking solo? That was Steve Salas (a hugely experienced session guitarist with credits that include Terence Trent D'Arby), who also appears on Wake the Nations. Just how come Ken is so well connected?
"You know, I think when you strive to try to be the best you can I think that breeds a respect with other people that are also in the same mindset. And so, I think it's just a mutual respect for talent. I don't know about being connected as much as just a mutual respect. You know what I mean?"
So is it a lack of talent that has held back other Christian artists? "You know, I don't know that I can speak for everybody because Phil Keaggy, for example, is this absolutely phenomenal guitar player. Did he get the recognition he deserved as far as the amount of talent in equality to his ability? No, nowhere near, you know, he's stuck in the little Christian ghetto, you know what I mean?" Ken attributes his broad ranging success in the worlds of music, television, and film, to a total professionalism, something that shows in the quality of the CDs he puts out: "I've never tried to be one of these guys that shoves the Bible down everyone's throat. It's a personal thing for me. I've just tried to be… You know, when I tell somebody I'm gonna do something, I do it, when I tell 'em I'm gonna pay them something, I pay them on time. When I tell them I'm gonna turn in a project, I turn it in on time. When I tell them it's going to be great, it's going to be great. [laughs] You know? And I think if we live our lives that way that speaks volumes about who we are as people, and if we happen to be Christians in the process then I think that elevates the visibility and authenticity of the title 'Christian'. [That's the way Christianity should be], but unfortunately it isn't, for the most part."
Most commercial hard rock bands don't bother with much intelligence in their lyrics, favouring party-hard sentiments. Ken, on the other hand, sees his music as art, and aspires to make the best art out there. "When I think of the song 'Imagine' by John Lennon, I think it's genius. He engaged me and forced me to take a theological look at myself. This guy has the ability to charm anyone with his lyrics into taking a look at his perception. The song writing is genius. I thought to myself, if I ever wanna get really good at my craft I must aspire to that kind of excellence in lyrics. Otherwise, it's worthless, and I don't even care if people like it or don't like it, or buy it or don't buy it. It's a personal best for me. I look to Shakespeare, I look to CS Lewis, I look to a lot of the great poets of our time as my example and I try not to look to 'What's going on in this market?' If you look at movies from the '20s, 30s, 40s, 50s even, with Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life and things like that you just… It's amazing. No special effects or anything like that, yet you cry at the end of the movie every time you see it no matter how many times you see it. I don't care how many times you see it. Today, if you look at a Schwarzenegger movie and you cry 'cuz you just paid 20 bucks for a pile of crap! [laughs] That's true in most music. Not all but most music and most art, in whatever form, painted, sculpture or whatever, and it's also true in architecture. Cruise around Europe a little bit and go "Gosh this is just magnificent!" My point is that I don't want a pile of crap. You know, when I think about great singers I think about Aretha Franklin or Otis Reading or Wilson Pickett. That's what I want to aspire towards. I want greatness."
Charity work: We've jihad enough
Ken's latest attempt at achieving greatness, Wake the Nations, features his most controversial lyrics to date, with lines like, "They're guided by the prophet of the utterly absurd" and "a messenger of Satan raising children to wrath". The subject of such fury is the Islam religion, but Ken thinks people will react to it fairly. "I'm not really [worried] because a lot of people I think if they make statements on their records and they don't back it up, I think that's pretty chicken-s---, if you know what I mean. If you make statements and you live it and you breathe it, and it's part of your life and you put your words to action, then it's really difficult to poke at someone. In other words, here's my point: I have a song called "Wake the Nations", and it hits square in the forehead at Islamic fundamentalism and there's two songs on the album that are like that. I don't feel in any way that I'm talking about moderate Muslims and I don't feel in anyway way like I'm attacking the Muslim religion as a whole, as much as I'm attacking the extremism and what's happening all around the world."
In recent years, Ken has continued to put out solo albums, and work as producer for several other acts. One such as is Laudamus, a Swedish heavy metal band whose Tamplin-produced CD has guest spots from Rob Rock (Joshua, Impellitteri), Marty Friedman, Kee Marcello, and Jeff Scott Soto. Ken has also done some big things in Hollywood like X-Files and the Ace Ventura theme tune, amongst others ("I got to work with Stu Goldberg, the ghost-writer for Hans Zimmer for almost fifteen years," he observes, proudly). However, Ken's highest-profile outing of recent years was not any of these, but his Make Me Your Voice project which gained support from politicians such as Baroness Cox and Congressman Frank Wolf as well as earning a lot of press coverage. Ken explained about how these two charity records relate to Wake the Nations. "I don't care if you look at Indonesia, I don't care if you look at North Korea, Palestine, Sudan, on and on and on… I could give you some 20 odd countries where this Islamic jihad is happening. We just happened to be beneficiaries of that just over a year ago with 9/11 and the Pentagon. I have made two albums now, both of which have done very well on EMI, called Make Me Your Voice. I want everyone to know this is before 9/11. The first one was a year before 9/11. I have big stars on there like Andrae Crouch who did all the Gospel vocals for The Lion King, and Charlie Peacock and all these people. I personally donated around $100,000 both in hard money, my time, and recording of a stellar record, with an orchestra, four different choirs; just a gigantic album. I got EMI to put up another $100,000 to promote the record that was non-recoupable against the record so that we could use 100% of the royalties to go to the Sudan Aid. Sudan Aid helps blacks in the south that are getting slaughtered. The Islamic extremist government has killed over two million of them. This is not some new fandangled thing that all of a sudden I have some neurotic revelation after 9/11. I've been watching this for several years now. Islamic fundamentalism is big bully, and they're doing it all over the world. It's just a matter of time before they come to your home. If someone has a problem with that, at least they can see that I'm not someone who's just blabbing words. I'm putting action to my words.
The new stuff: a sneak preview
Like his cousin Sammy Hagar, who is earning more from tequila than music these days, music is not Tamplin's main source of income. The result is that Tamplin is making the best records he can for his own satisfaction. "I do this because I like to. My revenue comes from film and television now, so I get to say things and make records because I like to, not because I have to. It makes them more critical too because I'm doing it because I want to make it great. It's not about spending extra money on the album; I do that anyway."
Ken produces his own stuff, and he has said that Wake the Nations would be a combination of traditional hard rock with 21st-century sounds: "I say that from a fidelity standpoint, there were a few little drum loops and things like that. I didn't get too far off the beaten path of what I need to stay true to, which is the straight-ahead hard rock/ hard commercial rock thing. I think that would be really disappointing for fans when they're expecting one thing and they get something else. For example I have a song called "Cell Phone Freaks". It's kind of a Van Halen vibe but it's got this really guitar muting things going on that make it sound modern, like if Van Halen had kept going, you know what I mean? Modern, but still has all the BIG elements, you know, big guitar, heavy drums, big guitar solo. It wasn't like I'm trying to get alternative because I've chosen not to live an alternative lifestyle! [much laughter]" Of course, Ken hasn't done a hard rock album since his Shout reunion album, Shout Back. Comparisons between that album and Wake the Nations will surely be inevitable. "I would say it's about five times as good as that record. I think the reason for that is that when we did the Shout Back album, I felt like I was trying to fit in a mould. I knew that people expected and wanted to hear Shout. They were expecting to hear Shout making a reunion album. It wasn't Ken Tamplin going nuts. It was "how do I take this paradigm from back then and this mould from back then and still make it cohesive for today?" The opening song sounded like Lenny Kravitz rather than Shout, which is kinda cool because it's a little modern and whatever but it didn't stray too far away from Shout. Well, then there are other things in there that are like your typical big anthemic things that to me are a little trite now, that I wouldn't have necessarily have done for myself because I felt like it was a little to trite. But I felt like if I didn't do that, Shout fans would have been disappointed. Whereas in this record, I just got to do what I wanted."
When Ken talks about other music, it's almost always motown; it's clear he's one soulful dude. How does motown lead to a successful hard rock career? "Well, it's kinda funny, because if you really think about somebody like John Fogerty [Creedence Clearwater Revival], and from him you think about David Coverdale [Ken does his best impersonation of the Whitesnake singer]. You think about Fogerty and his real distorted, middle-American, and then you think about Coverdale [impersonations of both to show how similar they were]. Now, let's go back to Wilson Pickett [sings "Mustang Sally" and again, the similarity to Coverdale is remarkable], you know, it's big, distorted. It's more than obvious that David Coverdale wanted to be Wilson Pickett. All those things translate into what we do as rock musicians. Van Halen! Eddie's guitar… Not so much his lead playing but his rhythm playing was always a big influence. I just love that behind-the-beat thing. I can't escape that. That and AC/DC rhythms have been my favourite kinds of… you know, I just love stuff like that."
Ken sent the Rock Hole an exclusive peek at Wake the Nations. In addition to an mp3 demo of the title track ("just a poor demo, nothing more than that"), he also included an almost-finished version of "The Story of Love", a hard rock duet with Jeff Scott Soto. "What's cool about this song is the lyric is just indicative for me of the story of Christ, but not the way other people tell the story of Christ.
"You became one of us,
Born in a slum in the ghettos of the city,
Your aim was to show the world how to love
So you healed the sick and needy
Did we show our gratitude or reveal our attitude?
We hung you to a cross. That's the story of love."
"He did nothing to cause people to hate him. I'm sure a lot of what's been done in the name of Christ over the years -- which is man's fault, not God's fault -- is wrong. I just wanted to write a song about it."
"Story of Love" opens with some drum loops but traditionalist Tamplin fans will not be disappointed. Funky hard rock, a pounding chorus, and killer harmonised arpeggios in the guitar solo all mark it out as a Tamplin classic. Both "Story of Love" and "Wake the Nations" have similarities to Shout Back and Tamplin. The title track has a solo similar to Nuno Bettencourt's best work ("I love Nuno's stuff. I shoulda called him.") and sounds like what might happen if Ken Tamplin joined Aerosmith. Ken aspires to greatness; in the eyes of his fans, he has already achieved it.
Ken talked about a lot more in the whole interview. Read a full transcript of my conversation with Ken here.
See also the Tamplin feature
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