AN INTERVIEW WITH KASIM SULTAN
By David Iozzia / Photo courtesy of: www.myspace.com/kasimsultan
Kasim Sulton is a bass guitarist who also sings and plays keyboards. He is best known for his current work with Meat Loaf, his recent stint in the New Cars, and as a long-time collaborator of Todd Rundgrens, which included the 70s and 80s band Utopia.
As I sat down for the phone interview with Kasim, Meat Loafs song You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth resonated through my head. Not musically, and not for its lyrics, but for the significance of the song title. Kasim and I were only 10 miles apart when we did the interview, yet I felt that we were intellectually joined at the hip. I anticipated how he would answer my questions, and Kasim seemed to expect what question I would be asking next. Its probably a combination of a veteran musician and an interviewer who had in-depth and firsthand knowledge of his subjects career. Geography helps since we grew up in the same area. The dozen or more times Ive seen Kasim perform were all home-town gigs for him.
Kasim and I have spoken informally at concerts, and the formal opportunity to interview him was both a privilege and a lot of fun. After chatting about Todd Rundgren and Utopia, Meat Loaf, many of the other bands Ive seen Kasim perform with, as well as his solo records and concerts, I was All Revved Up With No Place To Go. So I sat down at the computer to type up my interview with Kasim Sulton so that YOU can read all about it!
Dave: Hello Kasim, thanks for letting me conduct this interview. Youve played with a long list of bands and musicians over the last three decades, and Ill have questions on some of those collaborations later. Lets start off the interview talking about your 2008 solo record All Sides. Your website states this double CD was a career in the making, and that it includes re-mastered songs, demos, and new material. Was the game plan to chronicle your solo career more than re-visit some of the big-name bands youve played in?
KASIM: My game plan was to keep it all of my personal material. It is a solo CD, its my music, its not any music that Ive written with bands. The only material on All Sides that was band-oriented was the Price-Sulton stuff. Thats a record I did in the late 80s with my friend Thommy Price, whos currently the drummer for Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.
Dave: How did todays computer technology help you with the mixing process on the re-mastered songs?
KASIM: On the stuff from my first solo record Kasim on E.M.I. from 1982, I dont have the original two-track masters. I had to basically take it from vinyl to re-master it. Technology has obviously grown in leaps and bounds. What was acceptable years ago when I released The Bassment Tapes in 1993 wouldnt cut it today. Even that material had to be re-mastered again to make it sound a little bit better. But to be perfectly honest with you, as a music listener, the difference to my ears is miniscule. Especially as I listen through computer speakers or the Cambridge Audio system that I have hooked up to my computer. Yet, to most audiophiles, the difference is like between night and day. Personally, I dont hear it. But other people do. Theres a fine line that has to be walked with todays music. You have to compress it and overload it and normalize everything to get the music as loud as it can possibly be to be captured on a CD. But that takes some of the life and some of the dynamics from the music.
Dave: How does the new material contrast and compare to the songs from your 2002 solo record Quid Pro Quo?
KASIM: Like anything, its just an extension of it. I like to think that Im progressing as a songwriter, as a player, as an arranger, and as a producer. The three new songs from All Sides are the next step for me artistically from Quid Pro Quo, a record that I was very proud of. Music is what I do. I continue to work on my craft and hopefully Im getting better and more introspective. Also, Im growing a little more decisive on how I want to do things, what I want to say, how I want it to sound, and how I want people to listen to it.
Dave: Many artists release a solo CD for reasons such as the chance to play with other musicians or the chance to record songs that arent a fit for your main band. Yet youve had previous solo records and youve worked with a whos who list of musicians throughout your career. On top of that, you sing, and play acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, and keyboards. What were your reasons for releasing another solo record?
KASIM: First and foremost, I consider myself a solo artist. I dont get a chance to do that very often because I choose to work with other bands and other artists. If I had my way, Id only do solo material. Unfortunately, for whatever reasons, it doesnt work out that way. I purposely dont do a solo tour or a solo record every eight months because my audience is not vast enough that I could survive doing just the solo thing. So I make my living playing with other people while getting the most joy playing for myself.
Dave: Who are some of the backing musicians that you used on All Sides?
KASIM: Nobody! Even my first solo album was just me and a drummer.
Dave: Where should music fans go to purchase All Sides?
KASIM: It can be downloaded from iTunes or MySpace. If they e-mail me directly, I have a limited amount of copies that I can ship. Im in the process of re-doing the artwork. The glossy finish I chose for the cover is impossible to autograph. Im going to re-issue the record with a matte finish.
Dave: Your busy touring schedule had some space for you to play a handful of solo shows in March and May 2008. Please give us a preview of what fans should expect at a Kasim Sulton solo performance.
KASIM: Ive been doing solo shows for six or seven years. I got sick and tired of threatening myself with the idea of going out solo. I just take my guitar and go out and try to get bookings. Solo shows are a lot more fun than I expected. They are not the fearful and painful experience that I thought theyd be. I really enjoy myself and the people that come out keep coming back. I love doing those shows, and I wish I could do more. Maybe someday, in the not too distant future, I will do it more. Fans can expect me onstage for 90 minutes playing a bunch of songs on my acoustic guitar, sometimes with one or sometimes with two backing musicians. I tell some road stories, and I talk about my songs and my experiences in the music business. Its a fun hour and a half.
Dave: Staying right here in early 2008, you just played five shows in Japan and another half-dozen in the southeastern United States with Todd Rundgren. Whats the format of Todds band and what type of setlist was played at those shows?
KASIM: Todd has been concentrating for the last couple of years on playing, for the lack of a better term, as rocked out as he possibly can. Hes put together a four-piece band with himself, me on bass, Jesse Gress on guitar, and Prairie Prince on drums. He plays extremely guitar-driven music that goes back to his early career to his last record Liars. The fans seem to enjoy it and the band really gets to stretch out and play.
Dave: And the bottom line, no keyboards?
KASIM: True. Yet Todd is in the process of writing a new record that hell tour behind later this summer. Hopefully, with any luck, Ill be able to join him on that.
Dave: Given musicians and their egos, strenuous travel, and the pitfalls that need to be side-stepped in the music business, how have you and Todd kept your relationship working after more than three decades?
KASIM: I have an enormous amount of respect for Todd. Like most people who have worked with him or been around him, you have to love Todd for who he is and what he does. I dont know of any musician who has worked consistently with him for over 30 years other than myself. I guess he likes me! We work well together, I complement him musically, and after working with him for so long I dont second-guess him. I know exactly what he wants and how he wants it played. I love the musical and personal relationship we have. Whenever Todd Rundgren calls, I drop everything else Im doing to go play with him.
Dave: Todd Rundgren is not only an incredible musician; hes also an incredible producer. Whats the most important onstage musical lesson that you learned from Todd?
KASIM: Dont let anyone tell you what to do, why to do it, or when to do it. Be true to your own artistic nature. Doing something you dont subscribe to is the wrong way to go. The most obvious thing to an audience is when youre a phony. More than anything else that Ive learned from Todd is songwriting, song-arranging, and recording.
Dave: That leads right into my next question, what about the most important studio lesson?
KASIM: Studio-wise, I have a different take on how I conduct myself in the studio when Im working on my solo material. As meticulous as Todd is, he stays in the now and the present. He doesnt want you to dwell on things. If you have to think about something, then you shouldnt be doing it. I remember doing the first Meat Loaf record, and Jim Steinman would labor over one little part for ages. Todd would be beside himself and say make a decision PLEASE. Like Jim, Im a perfectionist with my material. But I also understand Todds point of view, which is that theres always another record. Save your decisions for that one. What note a bass guitar is played in during an inconsequential part of a song doesnt matter. Todd feels its better to keep the creative juices flowing and putting more material out, as opposed to wanting the material youve just written being saved until its perfect. I tend to fall under the Jim Steinman category of not putting it out until its perfect. It takes me a long time to let go of something because I always feel it could get a little bit better if I stick with it. That tends to hurt me more than help me. Its the exact reason that I dont do a solo record every year.
Dave: Ive attended a thousand concerts, and Id like to go back in time for a question from the late 1970s. Id like you to talk about one of my concert highlights. The only clues Ill give you are the four Greek classic elements: Earth, water, air and fire.
KASIM: That Utopia tour was an amazing time in my life and music career. Looking back on it, I appreciate it more now than then. Granted that it was more than 30 years ago and that a lot has changed in the music business. Today, everything is done ass-backwards and for the wrong reasons in terms of artistic motivation as opposed to the monetary result. We did something at that stage of the music industry that not too many other people were doing. We were ahead of the curve in a lot of ways but thats Todd. He was making music videos before MTV was on the air. That tour was a tremendous undertaking, and we spent close to $150,000 on that set, which we took all around North America and a few shows in England.
Dave: What I remember was the band in t-shirts and jeans performing in front of the curtain playing songs from Oops, Wrong Planet. Then you changed outfits and the curtain opened.
KASIM: We were in our Ra outfits playing songs from that record under a pyramid set.
Dave: As I remember it, the solos addressed those four elements. Todd soloed from atop the pyramid, and he dropped from the top and fell to earth.
KASIM: Every night!
Dave: Willie Wilcoxs drum set was surrounded by water and his solo was sequenced to splashing water.
KASIM: Roger Powell played a keyboard solo surrounded in fire, and I played my solo with a big fan blowing air into my face. That tour was a trip!
Dave: Production-wise, that tour stands out to this very day. Lets switch gears, pun intended. The Cars re-formed in 2005, subsequently touring both the U.K. and North America, and releasing a live CD as the New Cars. Has the New Cars engine stalled, or has the motor blown?
KASIM: I think they are doing a private date later in the summer, but Ill be out with Meat Loaf. I think Todd is concentrating on his record, and I dont think hell do any public shows with the New Cars. I dont think its a dead issue, but its definitely on his back burner right now.
Dave: I was a fan of the original Cars, and I was an even bigger fan of Todd Rundgren, who I always viewed as innovative and cutting-edge. I must admit that I rolled my eyes when I heard he was signing on for a revival tour. I cant ask you to speculate on his reasons for signing on but I will ask you for your reasons?
KASIM: Ive been friends with Elliot Easton for a very long time. The Cars opened for Utopia on more than one tour in the 70s. When Benjamin Orr passed away, they needed a singing bass player and my name was tossed into the hat. Thats how I came aboard. And who doesnt like the Cars? I didnt have to listen to their songs to learn them; I already knew them.
Dave: Can I assume youre on board for Meat Loafs European tour in 2008 that starts late-June and wraps up early-August?
KASIM: Yes. We start rehearsals June 16 in New York City and that tour will keep me out on the road until August 17.
Dave: His 2007 tour in Europe was cancelled. All is well with Meat Loaf?
KASIM: That schedule was too tough on him regarding the amount of touring and the energy he expends on any given night. Unfortunately, none of us are spring chickens anymore. At the end of a show day we just collapse and the off days are spent recuperating. Meat Loaf, to his credit, starts at 1 p.m. when he wakes up. He starts his vocal warm-ups mid-afternoon, and hell eat sometime but his whole day is consumed by the show. The show is all about him, and the band just provides the backup for his performance. He does a lot of work on stage, and he works really hard up there.
Dave: Are there any plans that youre aware of to tour the United States later in the summer or fall of 2008?
KASIM: No, there is nothing planned in the U.S. for 2008. Its all in Europe. But I have heard whispers about a handful of East Coast shows in December.
Dave: In 1977 at the Palladium in New York City, I saw Meat Loaf join Utopia onstage at a benefit concert Todd Rundgren was staging. You also played on Meat Loafs 1977 release Bat Out of Hell. What did you see from Meat Loaf as a singer and performer in those moments that would validate his arguably Hall of Fame career?
KASIM: I saw absolutely zero! I got the call to do the record, and we rehearsed it for three weeks before we recorded one note. Todd, me, and Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg from Bruce Springsteens band played everything as a band before we set foot in the studio. At that time, the music was a little odd, and I didnt know what to make of it. I didnt know how to process what the music was. I was given free rein on what to play, when to play it, and how to play it. I did what I thought was the right thing to do. I played a lot of notes on that record and nobody said anything. Looking back, I would never ever play that many notes on another record but nobody told me to stop. I played what I felt. The funny thing is that I never thought Id hear that record again after we left the studio. I was driving a few months later up to Woodstock to record a Utopia album and I heard something vaguely familiar as I listened to WNEW-FM on the radio that I had played on. I thought good for Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman, they got it on the radio. I guess 48 million copies later the rest is history. Ill give him credit that he was really different. He came nowhere close to what people thought a rock star was. He was a big fat guy up there sweating and singing opera. Something was totally wrong with the picture. But thats the selling point and what made it so unique and so quirky. That record is all about the combination of how Todd Rundgren interpreted the songs and how he made it cohesive from start to finish, Jim Steinmans vision of it, and Meat Loaf as a performer. Everything came together and all of the stars lined up. The sum is always greater than the individual parts.
Dave: Most of Meat Loafs records have successfully charted in the U.K. and Europe. In the United States, it seems like the record needs to have Bat attached to the title to be successful. For example, Couldnt Have Said It Better was totally ignored by U.S. record-buyers. Is that just perception, or is that a real stigma talked about and accepted by the Meat Loaf camp?
KASIM: Meat Loaf does not have the loyalty with U.S. fans that he has in the U.K. Over here, people cant be bothered; theres too much other stuff going on. I think the United States has a tendency to get over things very quickly. Veteran artists struggle to capture the magic that they once had and very few succeed. Meat Loaf accomplished that with Bat II. I think the real problem with some of Meat Loafs other albums was that people were trying to write Jim Steinman songs. Theres only one Jim and nobody else can write Jim Steinman songs.
Dave: Youve played with some big guys and some big-name guys, yet youve also played with a bunch of big name female musicians like Patti Smith, Patty Smyth, Joan Jett, Celine Dion, and Ronnie Spector. Is it radically different backstage or out on the road traveling with female bandleaders or does that depend on the individual?
KASIM: Its radically different. I dont know why I continue to work with so many women. Maybe its because they are a force to be reckoned with. Joan Jett is just one of the boys, but she is Joan. Very few do what she does as good as she does it. Shes been around forever. Shes a pleasure to be around, to work with, and to be out on the road with. Patti Smith is the only other woman Ive spent time on the road with. Shes a girl and she likes girly things. As much as shes a rocker, shes a woman. She tends to be a little motherly out on the road. If you do something bad or say something nasty, shell chastise you. If I had my druthers, Id be in a band with nothing but guys thank you.
Dave: Speaking of Joan Jett, Ive interviewed her Blackheart drummer Thommy Price and we talked about the Price/Sulton record Lights Out. Do you and Thommy have any plans, or any time, to record a follow-up record?
KASIM: Nah. That was a one-time deal. We always talked about doing a record together and for whatever reasons we made it happen. It was a lot of fun but I wouldnt want to do it again. Were polar opposites musically: Im more pop and Thommy is more rock and punk. At this point in my career, I dont want to do music that I dont believe in. Historically, Ive done enough stuff that I dont want to do. These days, Im concentrating on things that I do want to do.
Dave: Heres a good spot in the interview to plug your signature bass guitar.
KASIM: Its manufactured by Archer Guitars and their sole distributor in the U.S. is Interstate Music in Wisconsin. I oversaw the design from beginning to end. I picked out the body style. I designed the head stock, put in the electronics, and I made the bridge stock all the way that I wanted. For five hundred dollars, its the best five hundred dollar guitar that Ive ever played. I couldnt be happier with it and thats witnessed by the fact that its pretty much the only guitar I use up on stage. I use it all of the time with Todd Rundgren, and I use it 90 percent of the time with Meat Loaf.
Dave: Bass guitars are no longer just four-stringed. At concerts these days Im seeing a lot of variations on the bass guitar, an instrument that has really evolved. How has Kasim Sulton evolved as a musician to keep up with the changes to your chosen instrument?
KASIM: There was a period that I had to play a five-string bass guitar all of the time. I really needed that fifth string and it was important to me, especially for a low B. I thought I needed to play down there to give the rhythm section the extra added bottom that was lacking in music today. But that was a total fallacy. If youre playing with Chick Corea or Pat Methany and you want a five, six, or 10-string, thats fine. Their music may call for it. Looking back at the history of the music I play, everything was played on four strings. If you couldnt do it with four, then maybe you shouldnt be playing bass to begin with. Archer Guitars asked if I wanted a five-string model, and I told them there was no reason for it. I rarely use a five-string these days.
Dave: How have you adapted as a music professional to keep up with computer technology?
KASIM: I went kicking and screaming and I was late to the party. I didnt immerse myself into computer music until the late 90s, but now its all I do. Its all anybody does. Nobody uses tape anymore; its cost-efficient not to. Yet recording on computer is so antiseptic and cold, lacking the warmth and personality you have when you record to tape. But I cant have a 24-track two-inch machine in my basement. I replaced it with a 128-track computer system. If I had my way, Id have a tape machine. Unfortunately, the cost of tape, parts, and upkeep make it so expensive.
Dave: Youve played an endless list of concert venues. How different was it performing in a Broadway theater during Movin Out, a Twyla Tharp choreographed Broadway musical about the music of Billy Joel?
KASIM: The whole night was spent onstage with the band so I felt right at home, playing rhythm guitar with a great bunch of guys. The band was a major part of the show and I had the time of my life. If I couldve been there for every show they had, I wouldve. Im a big Billy Joel fan so I was in hog heaven. I was playing songs that I loved and respected, some of the best-crafted pop songs ever. If I had the chance to do it all again, Id do it in a heartbeat.
Dave: As a New York City resident, do you enjoy and get to attend Broadway performances?
KASIM: No I dont. Its really expensive. Between the cost of the tickets for you and a girlfriend, dinner, parking, tolls, and gas, its a five hundred dollar night. Id rather stay at home and write thank you.
Dave: Historically, Broadway has also hosted some rock and roll bands. You played a four-night run on Broadway with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. As a concertgoer, have you attended the Broadway runs of Mott the Hoople and Lou Reed?
KASIM: No I did not. I dont even remember those shows.
Dave: Mott the Hoople recorded a live album on Broadway and an unknown Queen opened those shows. My lovely wife Barbara and I attended a Lou Reed show on Broadway in the late 80s. What is the most memorable concert you attended as a fan in New York City?
KASIM: Led Zep at Madison Square Garden right after they released Led Zeppelin III.
Dave: New York City, with its famous buildings, landmarks, museums and music venues, offers its citizens and its visitors an endless list of things to do. Can you think of one choice that youve overlooked as a lifelong resident of New York City?
KASIM: No buildings or landmarks stand out. Ive pretty much done it all. My Mom used to work at the World Trade Center and my Dad took me up to the observation deck when it first opened. Regarding some of the newer concert venues, Ive yet to attend a show at B.B. Kings.
Dave: You mentioned the World Trade Center and its rare that I ask anything political in a music interview, yet here I go. It angers me that so many musicians these days use the concert stage as a venue to bash President Bush and the U.S. governments response to terrorism and the events of September 11, 2001. You and I, as residents of New York City and New Jersey, watched the devastation first-hand and saw its lingering effect on our friends and neighbors. I think its time for musicians to shut up and just play music when they appear at East Coast venues that stand in the old shadows of the Twin Towers.
KASIM: There is a time and a place to espouse your political beliefs, but I dont believe its in front of people who pay their hard-earned money to hear me play music. Its a cottage industry these days to bash the President, and I think weve been hoodwinked over the last eight years by a bunch of corrupt politicians. But then again, what politician isnt corrupt? Were coming up on a really important time in this countrys history. The U.S. people are so separated and at opposite ends. I hope we as a country can come together, put our differences aside, and try to repair our image around the world. I travel internationally, and I dont like people not liking us as a country because were big bullies that take over sovereign nations without them asking us to. I hope someday the name-calling and backstabbing will take a backseat to whats really important: how to make a better future for our children.
Dave: That was my final question Kasim. Thanks again for the interview. Is there any aspect of your musical career that I overlooked that youd like to promote?
KASIM: No, but I wish I had a million fans. Or, that the few thousand fans I do have now had 10 clones each that would all come to see me play live.
Dave: Feel free to close the interview with some closing comments for your fans.
KASIM: You guys mean the world to me, and in the famous words of Sarah Bernhardt, without you, I am nothing.
Full Name: Kasim Sulton
MySpace Page: www.myspace.com/kasimsulton
Birthday: December 8, 1955
Birthplace: Brooklyn, New York
Favorite food: pasta
Favorite beverage: Constant Comment tea with any kind of exotic honey
First record you ever bought: probably Meet the Beatles
Last CD you bought: when I was in Japan I bought about $200 worth of bootleg live Beatles CDs
Favorite U.S. city to visit: other than New York, its Los Angeles
Favorite international city: Sydney, Australia
Favorite venue to play: Madison Square Garden
Favorite film: Its a Wonderful Life