Eric Burdon: We Gotta Get Out Of This Place
Interview by Daniel Coston
originally published by the Big Takeover Magazine, winter 2005
Some interviews, by their nature, are straightforward question and answer sessions. Someone seeks information, another provides information, or info that’s shaped by their own opinion. And then, interviews can become conversations, where any idea of discussion that the interviewer had in mind goes right out the window, and instead allows themselves to go where the conversation is going. It can be both a thrilling and frightening prospect for an interviewer. What you get may not resemble anything that you wanted to talk about, but in return, you get something different, something you didn’t expect. And hopefully something better.
Such was this conversation with Eric Burdon. As many of you are, I know much of his work in the 1960s with the Animals by heart. I’ve also had a respect for Eric’s creative nerve over the last forty years, which has constantly moved and shifted over time, from his solo work, his collaborations with War in the 1970s, and the restless spirit that seems to feed his nature to this day, including his new album.
Sitting down with Burdon before a show in High Point, NC (the boyhood home of John Coltrane, as Burdon will point out later) on May 21, Burdon’s opinions on life and music, among other topics, became immediately clear. Was Eric a bit road-weary at the time? Yes. Was he candid throughout the interview? Yes, quite so. And so, this interview became a conversation. With many questions, and hopefully a few answers.
BT: Tell me about the live record that you just recorded.
Burdon: Well, we’re always recording live. But we got an especially good tape out of a show in Athens, Greece [last year]. So the album is pretty much composed of that gig, and the record company said that they want a companion DVD. I said, “That seems like a hefty package to me,” and they said that’s what a lot of groups are doing in Europe, and they’ve had good results.
So we shot a lot of interviews, and I shot three homemade videos of songs on my last album. Which, of course, didn’t go anywhere. I was just having fun, actually. So we’re showing them with commentary, interviews and just material that’ll appeal to fans.
I also went out this year with an experimental little band called the Blues Knights, which is just piano, drums, and myself.
BT: How did that come about?
Burdon: I can’t be doing the same shit all of the time. I always like to break away, not so much run away, but break away from the Animals, and what I did in the ‘60s and try to get people to understand that what I’m doing today can be as innovative and as fresh as what anybody’s doing [now]. But I look at the ‘60s as a ball-and-chain. You were there, you lived through it, so it sticks to you like glue.
BT: Do you feel like you have to keep going back to the Animals...?
Burdon: Especially at this time, we’re in the business of entertaining people, and if that’s what they want, than that’s what we’ve gotta give them. But there’s a bit of a knock to introducing new material, and I’ve seen a lot of people with bigger names than me fall flat on their face trying to do that. So I’m very careful the way I introduce new music. But up to now, it seems to work, and nearly half of the [Animals] tour is new material.
BT: But this is something that you’ve been doing for forty years. You’ve always been moving from one project to another.....
Burdon: Yeah. And even times that people think that you’ve disappeared, or you’re no longer in the business. You can’t go all the time, and you can’t be every place. Unless you’re Mick Jagger. He’s got enough money to pay a press officer to keep him alive in every country in the world where he’s taking a bath, or something. And him, I am not.
So when I’m on a holiday in Mexico, I come back, and people say, “Where’ve you been?” I took a holiday, and now I’m back.
But there was too long of a period where I was staying away from the recording studio. There were a few reasons for that. First of all, along came the ‘80s, which I had nothing to say [about]. That was a terrible period. And the ‘90s were even worse. I’d had nothing to say, in a recording sense, so why open my mouth? And there were other things that I wanted to do, that I haven’t achieved yet. There are still things that I’m just getting around to doing.
I’ve published a book, and now I’ve got a German-language version of the book that’s spoken word. And [the book’s] been successful in Greece. I’m hoping to get it published in England. England’s the last place that I thought I’ve had trouble with this, but hopefully that will change.
There’s also talk from about four different entities to do a serious documentary, which I want a lot of control over. There’s also a treatment for a screenplay, and a whole bunch of things that may never see the light of day. But in the meantime, I go out with my current band, which I’ve had for ten years, and that’s the mainstay of what I do.
BT: I noticed that you’re touring again under the “Eric Burdon and the Animals” name.
Burdon: The name, “The Animals,” like the ‘60s, is a pain in the ass, and so many people have misused the name. I had the whole ‘60s attitude of, “Man, if you want to use it, use it. Just use it with respect.” There’s an old expression, “My name is for my friends.” And if people that you think are your friends use your name or whatever, that’s fine. I don’t care. But it’s gotten to the point over the past few years where so many bands are calling themselves the Animals, that it was threatening my livelihood. And it’s an insult to the people who stand around paying money, thinking that they’re going to see the main people of the band. And it’s not.
And suddenly, I was realizing that I wasn’t getting gigs in Scandinavia, Russia, and other countries were off-limits to me because a band had already been through calling themselves the Animals. So I had to go to war. I had to make a lawsuit.
I’ve secured the name in the US, and now I’m about to secure the name in the UK. It’s something that I really don’t care about, but it has to be done. And I’m going up against former friends, which is not something that I want to do, but it has to be done. It’s just business. Nothing else.
And that’s why I stretch out and do other things, because the other things are not business. The things I mentioned to you are labors of love. I’m writing a screenplay because I love movies, and I want to make a movie, and always have. And I’ll keep trying. and I’ll keep throwing stuff at the wall until it sticks.
BT: Do you find that the other projects help to feed the music, or do you see them as different [entities]...?
Burdon: It’s equal. When I write songs, actually, I get ideas from what’s going on, let’s say, politically in the world, although I try not to mention things directly. You don’t have to be running down the street screaming with a placard in your hands.
BT: IT doesn’t have to be on a marquee to get the message across.
Burdon: Right. Because [the current political climate] is imploding itself. It’s destroying itself. Which is not a good thing, either. We shouldn’t be at this point, but we are.
All I can say is, when I go to Europe, it’s a totally different world. It’s unreal, or just step onto the border of Mexico. It seems to be that in the last few years, the heart’s gone out of people. So much hatred and mistrust in people. Which brings me back to this fight to get the Animals’ name back. It kind of makes me feel like I’m joining that [feeling].
BT: Has it been hard to come back here and tour America in the past years, as opposed to forty years ago, with all of these things going on in this country? Also given the fact that you grew up listening to American music?
Burdon: [Logistically], it’s a lot easier touring these days. I often travel by air, or train, when I can. It’s not that I’m nervous about flying. I just hate the process. Sitting around for fucking hours wasting my time. Going through security systems that are not security systems at all. This morning, for example, my boarding pass got mixed up with one of the guys in the group, and they let him on with my boarding pass while I was stuck. I was like, “Is this for real, or what?”
And also I’ve found that security people have stolen stuff from me. It sucks, man. You put your life in these people’s hands, and they’re putting their hands in your luggage.
Now I understand why America has gangs. Now I understand why there’s Hell’s Angels. I understand why there’s a Mafia. Because if you’re not in a group like that, you’ve got no defense. Look at the black movement of the ‘60s. All that evolved because nobody was doing anything for them. So they had to do it for themselves.
I find a lot of flaws in human beings, in the way we live, and we could be much better. Much better people.
BT: Are there some things about people in general that you wish you had recognized earlier in your life?
Burdon: I didn’t care, I was stoned all the time. And that’s a good argument for being high, ‘cause it’ll get you through anything. I always go back to the character in the movie Apocalypse Now. The one guy that survives is the one that’s stoned out on LSD all the time. Everything magically misses him, because he doesn’t get it. And that’s the way I was.
When I was young, I went into war zones without even thinking of what I was doing. There’d be riots, and other stuff would be going on, would just go right over my head. I couldn’t care less. Now that I’m straight, I’m much more aware of everything, and I don’t particularly like it. I wish I was back being stoned, but I can’t do that. Because I’m 64 years of age, I’ve got kids, and I’ve got a wife.
BT: Do you find that you approach your creativity now differently than you did back then, or even compared to ten years ago?
Burdon: No, It’s like riding a bike. Once you ride bicycles all your life, if you fall off, then you get back on. People say to me, “Do you still ride a motorcycle?” Yes, of course. “Why?” Because I can. Aren’t you worried about taking a spill? Yeah, of course, that’s why I haven’t taken a spill. I’m afraid to. I honestly always think about the accident that could be up around the bend. It teaches you to be vigilant, and not be afraid of riding a motorcycle again.
BT: Would you say that’s a good metaphor for living?
Burdon: Yeah, I think so. I’ve always wanted to travel, from being very young. The first chance I got, I escaped from my parent’s clutches and went to Paris, and southern France. Which is nothing these days. You jump on a plane, and you’re there in two hours. When I was a kid, that was like going to the moon. I was on the road alone, and I put my trust in people. And people back then were trusting.
Again, going back to what I said a few minutes ago, in other countries the attitude is so different. You can hitchhike everywhere in Greece. you just get on the road and stick out your thumb. You don’t even think about it.
I met my wife hitchhiking through Europe by herself. A female, hitchhiking all over Europe. People don’t do that anymore in America They’re afraid to. What’s this fear all about? The fear is a real reality of being shot, stabbed, raped.
I think that the current outcry against the way we were is not just the fact that we’re in Baghdad, and Afghanistan, all over the place, exposing Saddam Hussein’s underpants, I think it goes beyond that. We complain about the price of oil, and yet we still have the cheapest oil in the world, and you go to the schools at the end of the day, and every kid is getting picked up by a mother in an SUV. There’s nobody on bicycles, there’s nobody walking, you’re asking for outside criticism. We talk about saving the planet, we talk about reduction of waste of power, but we don’t do it.
BT: Are people scared of discover things that they don’t know about? Or do people just have blinders to all of this?
Burdon: I think we’re being lied to. It’s like George Lucas’ movie. It’s just a big huge bunch of bullshit that they’re feeding these kids that it’s gonna be fun in outer space. It’s not gonna be fun at all. It’s gonna be damn boring, and tough.
The plot seems to me is that they just want to burn up the planet, and leave it. Then select a few and get of there, which is not a new idea. It’s an old idea. But I don’t believe that, and every country doesn’t want to be under the same democracy that America has. Greece is the cradle of democracy, and yet, at the moment, if you mention America and democracy to the Greeks, they just laugh in your face. They invented it. And they’ve been through their changes. They were communist until the ‘70s, and they got rid of their royal family.
Everybody has to go through these changes. And every country, every regime, has its peak, and its lows.
I don’t know. Instead of worrying about things getting worse, I think i’m embracing the downfall of where we’re going. I’ve read it in several books, and I’m beginning to believe that chaos is the natural way of life and things, and the more chaotic we get, the more that we’re fall towards something bigger than even I can explain. In the meantime, we try to make music that I feel reflects that. Young kids play that music that reflects that anguish.
And the blues is always there. It has healing qualities, blues. It’s the kind of music that you turn to when you’re in trouble, and you have doubts. You go back to the roots. That’s why my next album is a blues album. Go back to the roots, go back to the beautiful original soul
that they’ve got, that black people in this country have for expressing themselves. No, I can’t write blues. I can talk it, I can feel it. But I can’t write it. That’s why on the blues album, there is no original songs by me. I’ve just dug as far as I can into the history of the blues, and recorded stuff from the 1920s and ‘30s. And you know what? Those songs are so old, that they’re right in time with today.
BT: Do you find that those songs speaks to you now, in terms of where you are with life?
Burdon: Really, I’m at a point where I’m doing everything and anything. Do it all, just do what you can, and see what sticks, see what people like best. I’m happy to be busy.
BT: What keeps you going, at this point? What are you hoping to find?
Burdon: I’m hoping to find another side, or segment, of the human spirit. Today, for example, driving here, going over a railroad track, and I saw the name John Coltrane. And that suddenly made this place come alive, for me. Up till then, it was just, in a van, come to the airport, enter the same hotel room, trying to watch some news that may make sense. Switch it off, fall asleep, wake up, come to the gig, and all of a sudden, I see that John Coltrane was born here. And that puts instantly in touch with a reality that exists, or existed in this town. So, I think above all, the human spirit can overcome anything. I hope so. I hope I’m not wrong. (smiles)