There is a chance that by the time you read this interview with legendary producer/songwriter/filmmaker/actor Kim Fowley, Kim Fowley will be dead.
But don’t take our word for it. Ask Kim.
“In two weeks I’m going in to have bladder cancer surgery, and there’s a good chance that I might die. Part of me hopes I do die. I could care less. Man, I’ve had cancer four times in my life, pneumonia nine times and polio twice. I would say that I’m due. If I die, it will be somebody else’s turn to be kicked around and disliked.”
If this truly turns out to be the 72-year-old’s last hurrah, nobody will argue that he didn’t leave quite a legacy. Beginning with the likes of Nut Rocker by B Bumble & The Stingers and Alley Oop by The Hollywood Argyles in the 1960s, Fowley has carved out a seemingly never-ending run of production and songwriting contributions: Frank Zappa, Paul Revere and The Raiders, Leon Russell, Kiss, Helen Reddy, The Runaways, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and a stadium-full of lesser lights and total unknowns. And international success as a solo artist.
In his 53 years in the business, Fowley boasts that he has sold 102 million records worldwide and that royalties continue to come in at a rate of $200 AN HOUR. Yet when it comes to the public at large, people of a certain age don’t have a clue about who Kim Fowley is.
Rock Cellar Magazine dropped in on the notorious producer during a break in a recording session in a cramped Hollywood studio and got an entertaining and frank interview:
“People say four things about Kim Fowley,” he says as he dives into a styrofoam tray of Chinese during a lunch break. They say ‘Fowley is great.’ ‘Fowley is horrible.’ ‘Fowley is confusing.’ And finally they say ‘Kim who? Who is she?!’ ”
Needless to say, Kim Fowley is not your boilerplate interview. He is a ride down the rabbit hole on a sandpaper slide. Alternately contrary, jokingly combative and totally ego-driven and candid, he does not suffer fools or journalists lightly.
It’s all about the money and the product. It’s next to impossible to find the creative side. And while he will grudgingly go over past glories, it is only in stacatto bursts, with almost no specifics. Mention something he’s tired of talking about and you get a groan or a mild rebuke.
He is a blaze of talent, perhaps a less-than-stellar human being. Hang on for the ride. And don’t be surprised that if after meeting Mr. Kim Fowley, Death backs down.
ROCK CELLAR MAGAZINE: You’re known as this monster talent as a producer and a songwriter but yet, a lot of people don’t have any idea who you are.
KIM FOWLEY: I never set out to be rich and famous and I’ve succeeded. Nobody knows me. I never went after the name in lights. Fame never really interested me so I never really pursued it.
RCM: Your credits literally stretch a mile. Name a few.
KF: It’s like who haven’t I worked with. I’ve recorded Socialists, Fags, Christians, rappers, hillbillies, heroin addicts, Crips, Bloods, triggermen and rebels. And everyone I’ve worked with always ended up bitching at me about something.
RCM: Any familiar names in that bunch?
KF: No names. But I was recording bands in San Francisco in the 60′s and a guitarist would shoot heroin just before we recorded a guitar solo. People were on acid, peaking and tripping. I recorded bass music in crack-houses in Florida and house music in Chicago. I was always dealing with somebody who required that I introduce their environment and lifestyle into their music.
RCM: It sounds like there was a lot of drama.
KF: There’s drama everyday.
RCM: Like the drama we had when I walked in the door?
KF: Exactly. And at this point I’d like to interject full disclosure on what happened before this interview started.
RCM: Be my guest.
KF: Marc Shapiro walked into the recording studio earlier than he was supposed to and the artist I was recording – who was giving a tremendous performance – went ballistic when she found out that Marc had actually heard her performance and stormed out into the daylight. Final contracts to be signed and there’s a possibility that Marc Shapiro may be the only person to ever hear the performance.
KF: There’s always torment and drama going on between a producer and an artist. I do whatever it takes to get a performance out of an artist. I get people to cry, laugh, dance. Everybody says they are human and that they have privacy issues and sensitivity issues. That does not count with me. What counts is getting the performance out of an artist.
RCM: How was the session going before I came in?
KF: We recorded eight tracks in two hours. Very fast. Very Sam Phillips and George Martin.
RCM: You grew up in a theatrical/musical family. You were a child actor, you had polio, you went into the army and worked for a time in the sex industry. Of the latter occupation you were quite candid when you said in a previous interview “When I was in high school I was getting paid to make older women cum.” How did those experiences help you once you entered the music industry in the ’60s?
KF: I knew I would use all the pain and “fuck yous” I had as fuel. It was always my intention to be the in-between guy, the override guy. Early on I was a producer, writer, publisher, publicist and artist.
RCM: And from the beginning, with songs like Popsicles & Icicles for The Mermaids and I Love My Dog which was the B-side to Cat Stevens’ first single… was it always a money-making venture rather than a creative one?
KF: When Fred Astaire was asked why he did things he said ‘I was paying my phone bill.’ Everything I did in the ’60s was all about paying the bills. What I’m doing today is about paying the bills.
RCM: C’mon, there must have been some artistic attraction even on a ‘pay the bills’ level…?
KF: No. Somebody came in the studio door, everybody made noises, some noises sounded good in the studio and some didn’t. I figured out which noises sounded amazing and I reproduced them. Then I turned in the product.
RCM: Is it true that a lot of the ’60s hits you were involved in were turned out in a day or less?
KF: A lot of the things I worked on in the ’60s were turned out in minutes. Nut Rocker was turned out in a half-hour. My attitude has always been ‘Come in. Do one or two takes. And see you later.’
RCM: Into the ’70s you already were established in the industry as the go-to guy for people like Gene Vincent, Alice Cooper and Kris Kristofferson. At any point, did it surprise you that you had become so successful?
KF: I always knew I was great. I’m a workaholic – that’s my problem. As a human being I’m a zero. I have no humanity at all. No one has ever rewarded me for being a nice guy.
RCM: Is it tough being in the music industry with that attitude?
KF: It sure is. I have death threats around the clock. At any given moment I can think of at least eight people who would like to see me dead. Not many people know how to kill which is a big reason I’m still alive. I’m constantly pissing people off. But I get the job done and I have successes. That’s all that counts in the business anyway.
RCM: People you’ve helped out want you dead?
KF: Sure. People enjoy disliking people.
RCM: It has to have bothered you to have worked with so many people over so many years and not being acknowledged for your contributions.
KF: I’ve gotten used to not being acknowledged and it doesn’t really mean anything. But when I finally did get the acknowledgment, I have to admit that it suddenly meant a great deal to me.
RCM: And who was that?
KF: Believe it or not, Leon Russell made me cry. I was producing an album for him and he turned to me one day and he said ‘Do you know how good you are?’ He actually thought I was good in the studio. I broke down and cried in front of him and his entire band because he was the first one who had ever told me I was good. All I could think of was that somebody didn’t mind how I was in the studio as long as it resulted in something that was good.
RCM: Russell was obviously able to see through your controlling ‘my way or the highway’ attitude. Is that the key requirement for somebody to get along with you in the studio?
KF: The most important thing is that they have to be able to not resent the end result. They can hate me and all that but, at the end of the day, it’s the public that decides the worth of what we do. The media and the industry decide. At that point, I have nothing to do with what we’ve done and I have no control.
RCM: You worked with Frank Zappa. Did he want you dead?
KF: I had no problem with Zappa. We just went into the studio and did what we had to do. He said ‘Thank you and see you later.’
RCM: You wrote a song for Kiss’s Love Gun album. How was Gene Simmons to work with?
KF: He’s great and a big reason why Gene Simmons is great is that he pays his bills. If he wanted to change something, I was like ‘Go ahead and change all you want.’
RCM: How about The Runaways?
KF: Oh no!
RCM: I’ll take that to mean that you’re tired of talking about The Runaways?
KF: There are certain projects that have had more notoriety than others. People tend to gravitate toward the famous ones, the number-ones or the notorious ones. To me, it’s all been tedious and it’s all been a lot of work.
RCM: That being said… what about The Runaways?
KF: Creating The Runaways was all about my fantasy of Beatles-style marketing of Rolling Stones music.
RCM: Why did the band and you go your separate ways after a certain point?
KF: There was a lot of naïveté, a lot of mis-communication, one too many blow ups. One too many whatevers. It boiled down to them basically quitting me.
RCM: You kind of slipped off the radar for a while in the ’90s. What happened?
KF: I’ve lived in 22 different countries over the years so I haven’t always had an American presence. If I was missing in action, it’s only because I wasn’t living in the USA. But I haven’t been off the charts in Australia, Canada, Japan, England, Germany or the US in 53 years so, obviously, I haven’t been resting.
RCM: In the mid 2000s you switched gears and started making and starring in movies. Had you gotten tired of making music and were looking for something new?
KF: No. It’s all been reflex. I basically got up one day and said ‘This is what I want to do today.’ For me, making the films is just like making the music. It’s all about selling units.
RCM: You’ve got to realize that your insistence that everything you do boils down to dollars and cents rather than art sounds insane to people.
KF: The last time I checked, it was still called show ‘business.’ I pay bills. That’s all I do. I’ve never looked back on anything I’ve done and said ‘this is something special.’ I don’t see the art in what I do.
RCM: Is there any satisfaction in doing what you do well?
KF: None. All I’m doing is getting up every day and thinking what can I do today to occupy my time.
RCM: You insisted that you only had 45 minutes to do this interview. I really believe that at 46 minutes this interview will be over.
KF: I meant it! And by my clock, you have about ten minutes left. Now get with it! I want some really tough questions.
RCM: Have you ever been romantically involved with anybody you’ve worked with?
KF: I don’t have a personal life at all. I have a cat. That’s it. And besides, I’ve always made it a rule not to have romances in the workplace.
RCM: Have you ever been married?
KF: I was married once for 68 days a long time ago.
RCM: Do you have any kids?
KF: Lots. At last count around 12. I’ve seen one or two of them over the years but not the rest. I’m sure by now I’m a grandfather as well but I haven’t seen the grandchildren either.
RCM: So with no family, few if any friends, what do you do when you’re not making music or movies?
KF: I go home and feed my cat. I live in a shitty apartment on a crappy street in a bad neighborhood and, because I do, I can finance an album or a movie anytime I want. I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to do anything.
RCM: It sounds like you live in a world that is out of time and place with the rest of the world.
KF: I am in a separate place from everybody else. I was a child actor in the ’40s. I’ve spent 65 years being the little kid who is annoying but who gets the job done. Now I’m a crippled senior citizen who is still being annoying and still being misunderstood.
RCM: In hindsight, is there anything you’ve done that you wish you hadn’t done?
KF: No regrets. Wait, I take that back. I never got to produce The Beatles, Elvis or Madonna. That would have been interesting.
RCM: Do you ever look back on your life and just kind of laugh up your sleeve at the absurdity of it all?
KF: All the time. I’m not Jewish. I’m not in the mafia. I’m not English. I’m not from the south. I’m not gay. I’m not pretty. I’m not nice. I’m not smart. I’m not talented.
So how in the hell have I been able to sell 102 million records in 53 years? The answer? I put my stuff in the holes of pop culture. What I do may not always be a home run but it will be a hit. I listen to my audience and I give them what my competition forgets to give them.
RCM: So what’s next?
KF: I’ve got a radio show on Sirius radio. That’s where you hear my ‘radio self’ rather than the guy you’re hearing now. I’m in a movie with Johnny Depp and Keanu Reeves called Sunset Strip that will be coming out soon. And anybody that’s interested can read my autobiography which is about to be published by Kicks Books.
RCM: With the spectre of cancer surgery looming over you, are you pushing yourself even harder because there’s stuff you want to get out before it’s too late?
KF: No. Because at the end of the day, nobody is really that interested in what I’m doing. I do what I do because I’m good at it. I could care less whether people like it or not.
RCM: So how will this day end for you?
KF: After you leave, I’ll go in and check with my singer and see if I end up having to erase everything you’ve heard today and I go home with nothing. That could still happen. Nobody could end up hearing what you just heard.
RCM: And after that?
KF: When the session is over, my engineer gets paid, the singer gets paid and I’m still a piece of shit who will hope somebody can give me a ride home. Because I don’t drive.