As a frequent guest on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s, Steve Martin often did a recurring skit with the catchphrase “I’m just a wild and crazy guy.” Danny Wilde, half of veteran pop/rock duo The Rembrandts, facetiously describes songwriting partner Phil Solem in a similar way while referencing “Broken Toy,” a catchy standout on their new album Via Satellite.
“He has a different way to say what’s on his mind than I do. I’m more of a romantic guy; he’s the twisted freak,” explained Wilde, in a recent phone interview from home in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
With lyrics like “I can’t stop feeling like a broken toy/the way you threw me away made me feel more paranoid/I guess it’s better for you to buy new than repair the cracks,” Wilde said, “It’s such a mouthful. If we do the song live, he has to nail the lyrics. He hasn’t let us down yet.”
Via Satellite is the band’s first studio release together in 18 years. During that period, both guys kept busy with various solo endeavors: Wilde collaborated with Plain White T’s and Jesse Valenzuela of the Gin Blossoms and has a company that does music for commercials; Solem worked with Mandy Moore, Clay Aiken, Dave Barnes and The Honeydogs. Yet they still continued to write and occasionally tour together.
“Phil and I worked at our own pace. When we get together, we’ll show each other our ideas — that is, when we’re in the same town together” (Solem is currently based in Nashville). “When we do that, we work pretty fast. An idea will come up and I’ll go, ‘That’s definitely a Rembrandts song.’”
The new album title has dual reference points, with the first being Solem’s lyrics in “Traveling From Home.”
“One of the lines is ‘We beam live via satellite/Portland to the Cumberland Gap.’ I said, ‘That’s a great title for an album.’ Plus, for me it’s a nod to Elvis Presley’s [1973 double live LP] Aloha from Hawaii, Via Satellite. In my mind’s eye, I always think of Elvis” (on that).
Then there’s the long distance creative method The Rembrandts have typically employed since forming in 1989.
“It’s so much easier than the old days,” Wilde admitted. “I’d get a cassette in snail mail, put it on, listen to it and say, ‘that’s great. I’ve got a bridge for that song.’ Now, I can fire it off instantly. He can put it into his ProTools rig. I can throw it into mine. He can give me stems or leave a big blank space and ask, ‘what do you want to do here?’ That’s where I’ll add the bridge or chorus. It’s like putting a puzzle together.”
Having been out of the limelight for a while, The Rembrandts wanted to give Via Satellite a fighting chance for exposure, so they signed to Blue Elan Records, an independent artist-driven Los Angeles label whose roster also includes heritage acts Rita Coolidge, Gerry Beckley (America), Jack Tempchin (Eagles songwriter), Rusty Young (Poco), Cherie Currie & Brie Darling (Runaways, Fanny) and The Textones.
“We could’ve self-released the album and it would be out there like every other artist that self releases: it’s available, but without much fanfare,” Wilde said. “When Blue Elan came around, with the publicity and art departments, it felt like an old school record label” that really cares about every detail.
From harmonica on the jaunty, Sixties folk-styled “Me and Fate,” pedal steel during the pleasant “Count on You” and “Now,” horns driving “Traveling from Home,” a sweeping string section amid “Broken Toy” and Mellotron coloring the lush-to-blaring “Come to Californi-yay,” there are ample sonic nuances within the new songs.
And those trademark Rembrandts harmonies – which first came to national attention with such early 1990s multi-format radio hits as “Just the Way It Is, Baby” and “Johnny, Have You Seen Her,” not to mention “I’ll Be There for You,” (the pop chart topping ‘95 theme song to the sitcom juggernaut “Friends”) – are still strongly intact throughout the new material.
“We tend to not follow the trends,” affirmed Wilde. “That’s how we started out and basically we’ve stuck to that throughout our whole career.”
Valenzuela and Wilde contributed a few terrific songs to the Gin Blossoms’ 2018 album Mixed Reality and they have another three on Via Satellite.
“We’re really good friends and he’s just a great hang,” said Wilde. “He’s very encouraging and validates stuff I may be doubtful on. As is Phil. Being a writer, it’s nice to have somebody you’ve known and worked with for years” to bounce things off on.
Examples of Wilde-Valenzuela songwriting for the Rembrandts include the jangly, inviting highlight “Count on You” and closing track “On My Own” (initially intended for Wilde’s 2016 solo EP Take Another Swing). The latter possesses an underlying tension and memorable electric guitar work.
“Phil thought it sounded like a Rembrandts song. I put it aside, we got together and put our stamp on it…We like to paint a little picture; have a mood. I like to think of a song as a visual thing; not just something you listen to, but something you picture as well.”
Speaking of imagery, the band’s new video for “How Far Would You Go” was shot in Lone Pine, a small frontier town in the Central California mountains that has served as the location for scores of films over the years, mainly westerns.
“It’s really beautiful up there with all the cool rock formations. It looks like you’re on another planet or something,” Wilde said. “There was an old silver mine 8,000 feet up in the mountains just above Lone Pine. That’s where we shot the interior stuff and the Old West town-looking bits.”
The singer/guitarists are seen playfully arguing about how to get to their destination as the car’s glove box suddenly opens to reveal a bunch of Twinkies.
“We actually wanted to get even more funny shit in there. There were some gags that didn’t make it. The video turned out really beautiful. It was amazing what our cinematographer and director could pull off with the budget we had for the video. We ended up keeping some of the comedy, but leaning toward, ‘How great is this shot?!’”
This past September marked the 25th Anniversary of smash-hit-90s-TV-show-turned-cultural-phenomenon Friends.
Since then, the Rembrandts have made appearances at various pop-up celebrations in Las Vegas, New York City (including NBC’s Today Show Concert Series), Chicago and Seattle to perform “I’ll Be There for You” and other material. A new instrumental version of the theme song was recorded by the London Metropolitan Orchestra and produced by Giles Martin.
Wilde and Solem’s musical history goes back four decades. Before they met in the late ‘70s, Wilde was lead vocalist/guitarist of The Quick. The short-lived Los Angeles glam/power pop band did one album for Mercury Records, 1976’s Mondo Deco. Kim Fowley produced the project, but later bailed and there was no label promotion.
What was it like working with the notorious svengali-type figure, who also oversaw The Runaways, back then?
“He was pretty intimidating — an idea guy and promoter. He and Rodney Bingenheimer [“Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” DJ supporter at KROQ/106.7 FM, now on SiriusXM’s Undeground Garage] owned Hollywood. The very first shows we did were two sold-out nights at the Starwood. His network was crazy and insane. We became a big fish in a small town, if you call Hollywood a small town. We never really left Hollywood. We never toured or anything.
Once The Quick dissolved, Wilde joined Solem and Ian Ainsworth in Great Buildings and made one major label album. Following a few Wilde solo efforts and having some songs recorded by Peter Frampton, Robert Palmer and Charlie Sexton, Wilde and Solem teamed up again for the Rembrandts.
Their self-titled bow was basically put out untouched by Atco Records. Wilde says the organic nature makes it one of his favorites in the catalog.
“I love all the records we’ve done, but I think the first album has a certain charm because of how it came about. There were no expectations and it was really just a demo that got released for our debut album.”
Having played the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin last spring, The Rembrandts plan to do a regular tour in 2020, comprising both acoustic and full band formats. Come February, they will join Train, Matt Nathanson, Kevin Griffin, Mark McGrath, Emerson Hart, Allen Stone and others on the Sail Across the Sun cruise to the Bahamas.
A reunion album by Great Buildings is in the works. Wilde also said he and Solem have enough solid material for another Rembrandts album sooner than later.
“In that whole [18-year] period, we’ve written quite a lot. We’re in the process of digging through the old tunes. There’s a bunch of new stuff too. It’s a great problem to have. Phil and I never stop writing.”