Greg Kihn is a rock and roll lifer. Having slogged it out for years both solo and with the trusty Greg Kihn Band, he’s managed to navigate years of struggle and adversity and come out victorious. Despite issuing a string of wonderful albums that uncomprehensibly barely made a dent on the charts, Kihn never gave up, believing that elusive success was waiting around the corner.
And he was right. The Break Up Song from 1981’s Rockkihnroll album was a # 15 hit and helped kick the door open while his worldwide hit Jeopardy delivered on years of promise, finally landing Kihn in the big leagues. These days, Kihn has put down his guitar and traded it for a career as a novelist mining the horror idiom. He’s written four books, the last two, Rubber Soul and Painted Black tap British Invasion icons the Beatles and the Rolling Stones for inspiration.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Your first few Beserkley albums found you exploring singer/songwriter territory. What prompted the jump to a more rock and roll sound starting with the first Greg Kihn band album, 1979’s With the Naked Eye?
Greg Kihn: Well, that’s a good question. I had started the Greg Kihn Band and the band immediately assumed a personality. We were good friends and we were all together. Once the band existed and Dave Carpender joined we were an independent thought unit and we were coming up with creative ideas all over the place. Granted, I had most of the early ideas but Steve (Wright) was an excellent songwriter and everybody contributed. It was liberating to explore new ground, and one of the great things about Beserkley was they allowed me room to grow and experiment. Also, the Greg Kihn Band was growing too. We were getting more experimental as time went by.
Rock Cellar Magazine: In what way were you getting more experimental?
Greg Kihn: We were much more of a rock band. I remember writing the bulk of the songs for the first two or three albums as acoustic songs with my 12-string acoustic guitar or a Martin guitar. At this point in time I didn’t even pick up the acoustic guitar; I was 100% Telecaster. So if I was at our rehearsal studio, which is where we spent the bulk of our time—we had a little warehouse down in Berkeley—we’d go down there and the first thing I’d pick up would be the Telecaster. Every time you pick up a Telecaster anything can happen so it made a different type of song aurally. It was different. We were brothers of the Rickenbacker but we were also becoming brothers of the Telecaster.
I’m really a bad guitar player; I’m not a good guitar player. I started out as a rhythm guitar player playing folk chords like Puff the Magic Dragon and Blowin’ in the Wind and stuff like that and that’s what I still play to this day! I’m basically a three chord dude and I could never do anything. I could only strum. So I strummed the electric Rickenbacker 12-string and it would achieve a completely different aural tone and that kind of became my sound. I kind of stumbled on it but I stayed with that for a couple of albums before I stated using the Telecaster exclusively. That was probably around Rockihnroll or Kihntinued.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Your cover of Bruce Springsteen’s For You helped to garner you significant airplay.
Greg Kihn: Yeah, that was on the second album. Bruce liked my version and started doing it live and even mentioned my name from the stage. I don’t have to tell you that was a thrill. The local airplay grew into national airplay at that time. I remember listening to Bruce’s Greetings From Asbury Park and loving that album and it resonated.
I had a copy and played it all the time and really loved all the songs. I was dying to see where he was gonna go from that as a songwriter from the first album. He could have gone off in several directions. As for the song For You I remember loving the song early. The chorus (sings) “For you, for you, I came for you…,” just stuck in my head. It wasn’t until I applied the Byrds-style arrangement with a jangly Rickenbacker 12 string guitar and harmonies that the song really grew. It was like I was Jim McGuinn and that song was Mr. Tambourine Man. At the time I used to play a Rickenbacker 12-string guitar and For You was a Rickenbacker 12-string guitar song if I ever heard one.
It’s still one of my favorite songs.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Starting with 1977’s Greg Kihn Again, many of your albums sported the “Kihn” pun—Next of Kihn, Rockihnroll, Kihnspiracy, Kihntagious. Citizen Kihn, Kihn of Heart. Whose idea was that?
Greg Kihn: That was 100% Matthew Kaufman. Those album titles used to make me cringe. My mother thought it was real cute, though. My mom got a kick out of it, God bless her soul, then so be it. There were a crazy amount of albums with puns that you could get out of one guy’s name. But listen, I went with everything in those days.
We didn’t know shit from shinola. We were not scientists; we were just crazy guys trying stuff and it was a wonderful time because nobody was keeping score.
Rock Cellar Magazine: The Break Up Song delivered on the promise of your catalog of great records and helped you notch your first hit. What’s the backstory behind writing it?
Greg Kihn: I already had enough lyrics to go into the studio and I was just gonna fake the rest and went, “Uh uh, uh, uh, uh, uh…” At the time I thought I was gonna get yelled at. With the band, it was like being in the KISS Army, “C’mon man, it’s time for your vocals. You mean to tell me you’re not ready?” You’d let the band down. So I just went in there and really looked cool and did the “uh uh uh uh uh uh” after every line. And then I came back into the control room and thought they were all gonna yell at me and everybody was hugging me and said, “That’s the deepest lyrics you’ve ever written.” I was like, “Really?” I literally made them up right on the spot.
I had about a half a song lyric wise and the rest was “un uh uh uh uh uh uh uh”, which by the way translate into any language on Earth. People come up to me in Japan and go, “Are you the ‘uh uh uh uh’ guy?”(laughs) As for writing the music, I remember we had two strong songs. One was a chord progression of A minor F and G and that turned out to be the verses. I thought that was a really cool chord progression. And then there was a second song that Steve Wright came up with and we used that for the chorus. I think it was Steve Wright’s idea to glue those two pieces together. He was at the center of a lot of the creative thinking that was going on in the Greg Kihn Band.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Once you finally enjoyed success, were you able to appreciate it more given the years of struggles you went through?
Greg Kihn: Yeah, absolutely we appreciated it more. You tend to not appreciate things you don’t work hard for. It’s like someone giving you money that you didn’t really earn. I felt like we really appreciated it. For instance, our first national hit didn’t come early in our career, it happened on our 7th album. Now that’s absolutely unheard of today. We were lucky to be on Beserkley so we had those multiple shots at success. We got a shot every time we put out a record. A lot of cool stations would play our records and we didn’t even have promotion; we had nothing. One album would show up in the mail at a station and they’d go, “Hey, there’s a new Greg Kin album, I think I’ll check it out.” It was nothing like the way things are with records being promoted so heavily.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Unlike most of your previous songs which were power pop flavored, Jeopardy was inspired by soul music.
Greg Kihn: I found it ironic that Jeopardy became our biggest hit. It seemed that irony was the feeing of the day. I remember thinking KISS is one of he heaviest bands in the world but Beth is what everybody knows about them. And I thought, it’s ironic your work your way up doing one thing and then boom, you do something else and that’s the hit.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You wrote Jeopardy with Steve Wright.
Greg Kihn: Yeah, that was me and Steve and that was pure, man. That was one of the purest days of my life. He came over to my house early in the day around 11 or 12 and he had just bought one of these Casio keyboards and it had a drum machine in it. It was like the first one. This keyboard was just this little grey thing, maybe a foot long and it had just come out. He comes into my living room and says, “Hey, Come check this out” and he starts playing (imitates Jeopardy signature riff). Out of the clear blue sky and out of my head I started singing (sings) “Our love’s in jeopardy, baby…” And we looked at each other and wrote that song in literally 15 minutes.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You had a gut feeling that Jeopardy was a hit, why?
Greg Kihn: I just knew it was. Every second we were working on the song or working on it in the studio that feeling never left. There was never a time that Jeopardy didn’t feel like a number one record. That was the magic. That was what the magic was all about. We had stumbled on the magic. That song was total absolute magic! And I was proven right it became a smash hit. Me and Steve did a version of Jeopardy on a boom box with him just playing the keyboards and me doing the vocals and hand claps. We did a version right there when we wrote the song and every person that I played that tape for thought it was a hit. Every person. I ran in and got my wife and got my neighbors and asked, “Listen, is that a hit?” And they’d be like, “Yes it is!” There was never a minute where people didn’t think Jeopardy wasn’t a hit.
Rock Cellar Magazine: How did you first come to learn that Jeopardy had hit number one?
Greg Kihn: I remember we were driving in a used Coachman tour bus. We didn’t have the budget of a lot of bands so we would lease these old used tour buses. We were all in the bus going to a gig in North Dakota and we went by the Little Big Horn. It was like, next exit, Little Big Horn! All the guys in the band were like “Let’s go, let’s go!” We went to Custer’s last stand, the Little Big Horn. We got out and walked around; it was a national park at that time. There was an old time accordion style phone booth.
We called L.A. and the publicity guy from A&M Records said, “Hey man, your record has gotten to number one!” I was like, “C’mon man, don’t do that to me, you’re joking right?” I remember thinking of that song Top of the Pops by the Kinks, (recites lyrics in English accent), “Your record has gotten to number one and you know what means, you can make some real money!” (laughs) I told the guys and we celebrated by having about 400 pitchers of margaritas; it was great.
Rock Cellar Magazine: In recent years, you’ve carved out a nice literary career in the horror idiom. Did you do some of that type of writing growing up?
Greg Kihn: I had always done it growing up and I used to keep notebooks and write short stories and poems and stuff. So it’s really been with me from junior high school all the way to now. I just didn’t really delve into professionally until much later in my career when I was done making albums. It was something that I always knew I was going to do.
Rock Cellar Magazine: What sparked your work in the horror novel realm?
Greg Kihn: Stephen King and Dean Koontz inspired me to become a writer. Dean has been a good friend over the years. I love sitting in front of the word processor late at night banging away on a new novel. It’s a lot of fun. The first book I did was in 1996 and that was Horror Show.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You were a big sci-fi and horror film buff growing up, was this a natural subject matter for you to delve into for your novels?
Greg Kihn: Oh absolutely. You know, I love those old crappy Creature Feature movies. I came up with the premise on which to build a horror story. I had started off writing a fairly benign horror story about this kid that works for Monster magazine and he tracks down this famous old horror director to find out if this rumor that he heard is true; that the guy used real dead bodies in his movies instead of zombies. I thought, wow, on this I can build a whole landscape. If you’ve got a guy that will do that, now you just have to follow that creative muse and voila, the first novel wrote itself, a lot like Jeopardy did. You know you’re a writer when these kinds of things happen. I love writing; in fact I was writing before we started this interview and I’ll be writing right after we’re done.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Where do you glean your ideas?
Greg Kihn: It comes from a lot of observation and from a lot of reading. For instance, I just read this book called Out There by Howard Blum. It’s a flying saucer factoid book from the ‘60s. It’s really outdated but I found this really great idea about how everybody in this town in Minnesota has had an experience with this flying saucer. Everybody in the whole town had seen flying saucers. So the mayor decides to build a landing strip and asks them to come and land. It’s just a ridiculous story but I thought, this is a great story. I’ve got to write this story now before I forget it. This is how the all come along; they all come along dressed in ridiculous hats and ideas. I can’t isolate one place these ideas come from. They all use the creative muscle.
Rock Cellar Magazine: So your decades of work as a songwriter come into play being a novel writer?
Greg Kihn: Yes, like I said, the same creative muscle is used. Sometimes songs write themselves. Sometime novels write themselves; of course it takes a year to write a novel.
Rock Cellar Magazine: It’s fascinating that your last two books have centered upon the two greatest rock and roll bands of all time, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. One book, Rubber Soul, was written with the Beatles as its pivotal subject. How did the idea of using the Beatles as a subject originate?
Greg Kihn: I came up with the idea from all of my years as a disc jockey. I did 17 years doing the morning show on KFOX radio in San Francisco and San Jose. During that time I got to interview Paul McCartney twice and Ringo twice. I asked them both the same question because I was kind of curious, where the Beatles get their records? They were covering songs like Boys and Chains and all these songs on their early albums. They didn’t have import shops so I was curious where they obtained these records and they both gave me the same answer.
They got them from friends of merchant marines returning from the states with the latest R&B 45’s. These guys would come back from their ships and bring stacks of 45’s and trade them to the kids out on the wharf. And of course, having a great stash of 45’s meant that your band had a great repertoire. And of course, the Beatles needed that; they desperately needed a repertoire, and not just three or four songs; they needed a whole bunch. So that’s how they learned how to do all that stuff when they wee playing the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, Germany and they all got them from Dust Bin Bob. And that’s how I got the idea for the guy Dust Bin Bob; he’s the guy who gets the 45’s that everybody wants.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Your latest book, Painted Black, finds the Rolling Stones at the center of the action with Brian Jones a key figure in the story.
Greg Kihn: Brian was an incredibly messed up guy. He was a troubled genius. I get the feeling that he was always on his 19th nervous breakdown almost. But he was also a musical genius; he’s the same guy who played the marimbas and the dulcimer and the flute and the recorder on their records. He had interests outside of the music. He died far too young. Almost everything in his life reads like fiction. In my novel I out him in an auction house and he busy this magic mirror that’s thousands of years old and it’s supposed to be for mirror-gazing.
Mirror -gazing is a type of meditational thing where you stare into the mirror until stuff happens and you see things from your future and so forth. Putting that scenario together and then putting Brian Jones in it, that’s what really interested me. The thing about Brian Jones is a weird way he’s the most accessible of the Stones. Mick (Jagger) and Keith (Richards) were like a two man show, Bill (Wyman) and Charlie (Watts) was a two-man show as well and Brian was always the odd man out. Let’s face it; he was a miserable rock star.
When he started having all of his drug busts he couldn’t tour anymore and that was the end of that.