Rob Lamothe is a rock n’ roll lifer. From the streets of LA to the wide-open country in Canada he has done it all. Best known for his band Riverdogs with current Def Leppard guitarist Vivian Campbell, Rob is back with a new band Cross Country Driver who released their debut record on March 17.
Please press the PLAY icon below for the MisplacedStraws Conversation with Rob Lamothe –
On how Cross Country Driver got together – James Harper reached out to me and said, “Hey, I’m a guitar player in Boston”, not the band, but in the city, and he said, “Can I just end you some kind of scratch demos or scratch guitars, acoustic guitar, rock acoustic guitar, I guess, and just see if you’re interested?” That wouldn’t have probably given me enough inspiration to say, “Yeah, here’s my address”, to be honest, but we talked about bands and music that we loved, and we ended up having a couple of long conversations about music before he ever sent me some of his ideas. We talked about Allman Brothers, and Arc Angels, Badlands, those were three bands that we had in common that we were really passionate about. So then he sent me these demos and it was just acoustic guitar. Well, none of them were full songs yet, actually, and some of them were just kind of riffs, and I picked out three that I liked or something, and I said, “Hey, can I have complete freedom to just not worry about what you think might be the chorus”, there were no lyrics, “Can I just grab parts that I think would make cool sections of the song and just see what inspires me?” He was into it. From the very first one, which was the song, I think “Real Love” was the first one, it ended up being called “Real Love”. And it just felt so natural and he really did give me the creative freedom to arrange the heck out of the guitar ideas that he sent, and I liked the way he played guitar. If I could play rock acoustic guitar, I’d wanna play like him. To me, the way he plays acoustic doesn’t lose anything in the translation from electric rock to acoustic rock, so it still had like an energy that I really liked that I’ve never cracked the code on. I just play like the one and the five for a chord. I don’t know, I don’t know what I’m doing, so he knows what he’s doing. We were gonna write like an acoustic guitar-based, folk rock record kind of harkening back to the 70s, maybe that’s what we were thinking. Sorry, I said a record, but it started out just to get a couple of songs. So we really liked the first one, we tried another one, it went really well, and then I think probably that second one. I got my son Xander to come in. He’s 31 now, holy molly. I just asked him if you could help me figure out what, help me arrange, “Could this be a verse, could this be a chorus?” So then I grabbed a guitar and just kind of played my Neanderthal away through James’s guitar ideas, and then let Zander kind of say, “Oh, that sounds like a cool chorus”, and I was like, “Oh, okay”, I really rely on him. He’s kind of my songwriting secret weapon because if he’s like, “Yeah, this is the pinnacle of the song”, or, “No, this is the mood change”, or whatever, I really trust him. Then I just start singing, “blah, blah, blah”, or “rock me all night” or whatever, it’s just silly lyrics off the top of my head, and that’s how we started really. Then it started to become like, “Well, we got two songs in, three songs in”, and then it was like, “We should make a record. Let’s make a collection of songs or maybe at least do an EP or something”, so that’s kind of where it started, is the three of us are the core band, Xander and James and I. :50
On the guests that appear on the record – Well, like Greg Chaisson from Badlands, he and I had always wanted to do (something). We did one song together years ago on his solo record, a song called “The River”, and we’d always wanted to do something. We run into each other online or something. For me, because Badlands to me was just, that debut album of theirs, and everything they recorded, and I saw them live a bunch of times, and always incredible. They were big, they are up in the top three of my favorite rock bands of all time, and Ray Gillan has to be absolutely top three rock singers I’ve ever heard. So that it was like, “Well, this seems like a great opportunity”. So we reached out to him. Then Doug Pinnick was like a wish list thing. What a voice, what a bass player, what a tone. Such a beautiful artist. It was one of the things, James, I think knew someone who knew him and that kind of thing, and reached out and he didn’t get back to us, he didn’t get back to us, then get back to us, and then we sent to one of the songs just without bass, obviously. Then I can’t remember what song we sent him actually, I can’t remember what the first one was, but he liked my voice and he liked the song, and I guess he thought it was worthwhile. He didn’t say much that I’m aware of beyond that, and then eventually we got a bass track back, which was like a really strange-sounding bass track, and then we dropped in with the drums and the guitar and the vocal and it was like, “Oh my gosh, this is Doug Pinnick’s bass sound and it’s amazing. That’s how that started. Rhonda (Smith) was just, we were looking for a different flavor., I think maybe James had worked with her before, I’m not sure I could be wrong on that. But he plays a lot on the East Coast, he knows a lot of musicians and obviously, Boston is a real heavy music town, has been a music city forever, so he just has connections all over the place. So that’s how we got Rhonda involved. I think Xander plays on eight songs or so out of the 13, and obviously Mike Mangini on a couple. He’s pretty good. But the thing is, now we didn’t have a budget. When we approached those people, we didn’t even know we were gonna make a record for sure, or that it was gonna be released, James and I thought we might release it ourselves, we had no plan about, “We’ll go to this person or that person at that label” or”. We didn’t think about it at all, which then I think really worked out because we had that starting point, as I said, Allmans, Badlands, Arc Angels, and that was the starting point, but acoustic versions of all of that. Xander took it heavier, right away, he just felt everything kind of heavier than we did, probably led by James’ acoustic guitar, now that I think of it. I hadn’t really thought about that before, but Xander just hears what’s going on, and then he just goes. So then it was just getting a bit heavier as we went, and then we got super self-indulgent, where a five-minute song, a six-minute song, whatever it was, we really were self-indulgent, but that was just freedom to create. We weren’t thinking about who was gonna hear it, we weren’t thinking about Riverdogs fans or James’s fans or any kind of genre fans. It was the pandemic, so times were weird, and to do something musical like that with that kind of freedom, and for me to get to play with my son Xander, write with him, and play with him, record with him throughout was really, really cool. I think that was a good tonic for some weird times in the pandemic, to be honest. 5:20
On composing the lyrics – None of it was floating around, I don’t think there was anything in there lyrically that was anything that had been written before. It was all led by the music for sure. At some point, we were like, “Oh, we’re making a record”. We kind of admitted it or embrace it or whatever, and whatever that was gonna mean, but at that point, I was like, “Well, I don’t wanna just make a record, of course, we can write some beautiful songs or some great is whatever. But like who cares?” In a way, it’s like, for me, I’m always looking for what’s the challenge. What’s the challenge here? Beyond just writing something. I write all the time. I do think in terms of stories. So the last Riverdogs record we did that was released in 2017, that was a concept album. So the characters on that album, those stories were all continuations of stories from the first album in 1990. So it was like the grandchildren or the daughter or sons of the characters from that debut Riverdogs album. Then I made a concept album with my youngest daughter, Rose, and my two sons, that was released in 2018, and I’m like, “Oh, I like this concept album”. It’s a challenge, it’s a longer form, you’re telling stories, and they’re interwoven and sometimes across generations across the continent, like with this one, and so I just went with that. A lot of it’s based on stories of my own family and geography, there’s a lot of geography. I was literally looking like, “Well, if you were driving from somewhere in Tennessee and you were going on the way to Hollywood, what would be halfway and then what would be a little community, 45 minutes off the highway, and I was looking for that. Again, basing on real stories, but changing them a bit, which I always do, I always get a little bit poetic and try not to be completely literal when I’m telling real stories. So it just developed from there and it just became a kind of multi-generational continent, spanning family history in a way, to be honest. 10:39
On how he approaches lyric writing – There’s a kind of songwriter manual starting out with a great title or starting out with a great line, no, I never do that. To me, I already have a story that I wanna tell, so thank you for acknowledging my desire to be a storyteller. To me, the story is the most important thing. It’s always been more important from that first Riverdogs record, the story to me was more important than my singing, than the vocalist. I remember doing a gig maybe 20 years ago, and I had such a bad flu, I was so sick, and there was this pro musician dude that was there from Canada, a guy named Ray Lyle, a songwriter, Ray Lyle and The Storm, was his band back in the 80s. He never heard me, and he just thought the songs were so great and I could barely sing, and I was like, “I think that’s a good thing”. I didn’t have my voice, but the story still came across and he recognized that. To me is about the story, and of course, I do look for some potentially devastating lines for sure, because I love it when songwriters do that to me, or writers of any kind, when they freaking push me off the cliff and I’m falling into that, I love that so much when I just get my ass kicked by great writing. I try to save that though. So the story has a bit of an ebb and flow and it’s not just clever lines throughout because that is possible too, you can just craft it until every word is a gem, but I like to have most of the words be subtle gems and the lines be subtle gems. I really do try to do that. So I’m meticulous and I’m probably a little bit obsessive. I’ve told some people, my daughter is similarly obsessed with words and with music and with singers, and we talk, we talk about songwriting, we trade suggestions for songs to hear and songs to listen to, and just yesterday, we were literally driving, I had a coffee, she had an iced tea and we were talking about music. Both of us, I was excited as a freaking 14-year-old, and she’s a sophisticated, hilarious 26-year-old, and we both have a kid energy about music and songs and singers. It’s one of the joys of my life. She and I’ve been driving almost every Wednesday for probably 12 years now, 11 or 12 years, and I hope I get to that for the rest of my life. She lives an hour away. I go drive in and we have that, we listen to music and we talk about all kinds of stuff, and I’m learning a lot because I spend time with a brilliant, no apologies, she’s unapologetically kind, unapologetically progressive. She’d probably cringe, I call her progressive, but she’s such a humanist, she’s just an amazing person, and I get to spend once a week and get my mind blown by a 26-year-old who studied anthropology at University, women’s studies and religious studies, and I just listen and learn and I have a lot of things to write about. I won’t run out of ideas. 14:11
On chances of the band playing live – We didn’t talk about it while we were writing and recording the record, which I think was, again, just gave us freedom, we weren’t thinking about playing the songs live, we weren’t any of that or what bands will we play with, or what gigs we wanna do. So to answer your question for me, I’m not as interested in fronting a band, traveling, I’ve done it, and I love it, I’m doing some shows in Mexico, a couple of shows in Mexico in March, and then four or five city tour starting in Ottawa, up here in Canada in the capital city, but it’s all small and manageable. It’s like comfy, cozy, soft-seater theaters. It’s pretty luxurious and I’m 64, so I don’t really wanna be like a gear closet with a bunch of gear or mops and buckets, and I’ve done it and I loved it, and I lived it and I puked on it and I smelled like all those closet “dressing rooms”, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but now I’m sort of like, “Oh, they don’t have any good coffee here”, it’s like a disaster to me… Nothing is impossible. When you asked that, I’m thinking of more like touring. Even with Riverdogs when we did a couple of shows, I don’t remember what year it was, I think it was when we released World Gone Mad, whatever year that was, 2010, I don’t know, but we did like two shows in LA and two shows in San Diego. Originally it was like, “Oh, we’ll start in Las Vegas. We’ll go to San Diego, LA, San Francisco”. I can’t remember where else. Oh, we’re gonna go Phoenix, and the tour started getting planned and I was like, “Man, I’ve done this, I’ve done all these venues. These are the same venues I did 20 years ago”, and that was 10 years ago, we’re talking about it. I mean, I love it, and I play guitar in a band for my friend Logan Staats, and his album comes out March 24th, a week after the Cross Country Driver record of all insane coincidences. But I was just talking to his manager this morning actually. I like that kind of touring with no pressure, I just played guitar, I’m in the background, I’m singing harmonies. His sister Layla is an amazing singer. My son Xander is the drummer in the band. We got some festivals, good-sized festivals this summer, so I’ll be playing a bunch of shows this later spring and summer, but again, it’s so low maintenance. It’s like I bring a couple of guitars and my little amp, it’s over there. I say it’s easy, but it’s like, this is my family on stage, we’re like family, we really know each other and love each other, and we all know our roles, we know the songs inside out. So that kind of touring is easier, and then I don’t want it to be the lead singer. 19:09
On future plans – I see playing with Logan for a couple more years because I like the gigs, they’re cool gigs, and I can see that for a couple more years. We just added another person to the band a couple of months ago, and he’s just fantastic. His name is Tim Wilson, he’s fantastic. Like multi-instrumentalist, lap steel, mandolin, banjo, acoustic guitar, electric, bariton, electric, he’s good on everything. For me, he’s my replacement, and I said that to Logan. I’ll be 65 this August, so eventually, I’m just not going to want to stand there with a guitar around my neck for an hour and 15 minutes probably. I’m an active person. I walk, and I ride a mountain bike. I ride a road bike, I’m pretty active for a person of my age, and I’m healthy. I see myself easing out of that side of it. Then as far as Riverdogs, I think about Riverdogs, we’ll always work together. That’s the thing, as you know, Vivian played and sang on one of the songs, a song called “Risen” on this album, Nick (Brophy) mixed it all, as you mentioned before. So that will always be near and dear to my heart. We’ve been such friends for so many years and with Mark (Danzeisen). Getting that together is so expensive because Nick’s in Nashville, Mark’s in LA, I’m up here on the Grand River, and Viv’s in the northeast part of the US. It’s just cost so much money, and no one’s gonna give us a bunch of money to get together and write songs, we got to do it for Frontiers when we did the California album. I also kinda feel like if we just leave it, and I told the guys this, then we kinda like we did what we set out to do on that album, 100%, and I kinda feel like, let’s just leave it. That’s like the cherry on this beautiful chocolate cake of the Riverdogs, why not just leave it at a high point? I feel like we wrote that California album in a different way than we’ve ever written. Usually, I was kind of writing the majority of the songs and almost all the lyrics. That was great. And World Gone Mad was a little bit patchwork the way we did it. A little bit scattered. And then California, we got together, we never talked about how we were gonna write. I brought in two ideas, “America”, and “The Revolution Starts Tonight”, the first two songs in the album, and then the rest of the songs, the four of us sat in a room. We had a rented house in LA and we just wrote the songs together, and I kind of feel like, “Wow, it all went so well, let’s leave it because that was perfect”, and not the way we had written before, and it still worked so well. I was so proud of everybody. We could do it the next time, and maybe I’m just not in the mood and I’m grumpy the whole time and complaining about the coffee or whatever it is I do. No, but you know, it’s like the stars aligned. It was a perfect storm to make a really good record, and that’s good enough for me. That’s good enough for me for sure. Cross Country Driver, the band is James and Xander, and I, we shot some video and did some live-off-the-floor recordings and filming about two months ago now, and my friend Justine Fisher from Hamilton, Ontario, she played with us and she’s a great fit, and of course, if we needed a bass player should be absolutely perfect. Great singer, a beautiful voice. She sings on “My Goodness”, the 13th song on the Cross Country Driver record. We’ll see. I would never say never, really, because if Frontiers said, “Hey, we’ve got one of our festivals that were involved with if you guys wanna come to Italy or wherever, and then play another festival a week later somewhere else and do some gigs in between”. We have to think about that because that could be really fun. So I’m not gonna say no. 23:08