Singer-Songwriter Tim Kirker Has Fond Memories of Playing Music in Cleveland

Concert Preview

Singer-songwriter Tim Kirker will play a special homecoming gig on Friday night at the Beachland Ballroom to celebrate his excellent new solo release, Shallow End of a Deep River. Now based in the New York area, Kirker still has fond memories of the time he spent playing music in Cleveland during the ’80s with bands like Boy Wonder and Slam Bamboo. Both bands had their high points, with Boy Wonder being featured on the popular WMMS Coffee Break Concert series and Slam Bamboo later finding themselves in rotation on ‘MMS with their single “House on Fire.”

“It was really exciting in those days. There was an active scene — there were a lot of bands and there were a lot of places to play,” Kirker recalls during a recent phone conversation. “It was like a series of events. We played a lot of places, but our two main clubs were Peabody’s Down Under in the Flats and the Phantasy Night Club. When we would play — especially at the Phantasy— it was kind of like our home base and it was like an event. We would have parties and we would do giveaways. We had a regular crowd that would follow us around and it supplemented the people who had heard about us and it made it really, really fun. I kind of equated it to what it must have been like to be in a place like the Cavern in Liverpool in the early ‘60s. It was a scene of a bunch of people who were going out all of the time to hear bands and there was a lot of different kinds of bands and a lot of different sounds. You could go out every weekend and see somebody different and it was always a great scene and a lot of fun.”

He formed a number of lifelong musical bonds and friendships during his time here in Cleveland and more than three decades later, he continues to make music with his old Boy Wonder bandmate, drummer Michael Cartellone (Lynyrd Skynyrd, ex-Damn Yankees), who’s behind the kit for Shallow End of a Deep River. John Papa of the Pony Boys adds an additional Northeast Ohio-related thread to the album, playing bass on three tracks. Both will join Kirker at the Beachland gig to celebrate the release of the new album. Former Boy Wonder and Slam Bamboo vocalist Scott Hanson will also be on board for what is sure to be a great night. We caught up with Kirker recently and asked him to look back at his time here in Cleveland.

Let’s start out by talking about your musical career here in Cleveland. You played with various bands during your time here. What was the timeline on how those things unfolded? I know that you did the Boy Wonder thing — what came before that?
The only thing that was kind of the precursor to Boy Wonder was a cover band that I was in called the Notion and that’s where I first met Michael. That was right out of high school. I had become friendly with a guy named Greg Wooten, who as a bass player. I lived in Euclid and he was in Cleveland Heights and he was the only bass player that I was ever able to find. I mean, back in those days, everybody was a guitar player. You could not find a bass player to save your life. So when I did come across him, we kept in touch and played with a couple of local people here and there. Once we both graduated high school, we decided this was what we wanted to do for a living. I think that he found an ad in the Scene for a band, a working cover band that was looking to add a bass player and second guitar player.

So we answered the ad and we went out to audition. The audition was in Michael’s house, in his basement — that’s where the band rehearsed. That was the first time I met Michael and he was 17 and I was 18. It’s one of those moments where, you know, I played a little bit and I hadn’t really gigged, but I had played with a lot of different drummers. We sat down and we started playing with Michael and as soon as he started playing, Greg and I just looked at each other like, “Holy crap, this guy is really good!” Even at that age, he was leagues ahead of anybody else I had ever played with. He was just a fantastic player and really drove the band. So that was our introduction to gigging life. It was fun and we played a lot of clubs. We played probably three to five nights a week, all over the Ohio/Pennsylvania area. After a while, we just kind of felt that the whole cover band routine had kind of run its course. I had always been a fan and been intrigued by the art of songwriting. I really wanted to do that. I think Greg and Michael felt the same way, so we decided to leave.

We left that band and formed Boy Wonder, which started out as a power trio. I was writing the material and co-writing some stuff with Greg and Michael [also] wrote a few tunes. At that point in time, I just didn’t feel that I had the vocal chops to be fronting the band, so we found a guy named Scott Hanson to become the lead vocalist. That went really well and we became pretty successful. Boy Wonder became a working band and we were playing out pretty regularly, again in the same geographical area. We ended up doing a 12-inch EP, a six song mini-album that we did at the Recording Connection. We worked with George Sipl and Dale Peters, who was the former bass player for the James Gang, kind of produced it for us. We did that and we continued to play.  You know, we were always trying to get the attention of the major record labels and after a while it just seemed like things weren’t really progressing. We decided to join forces with Danny Powers and Jennifer Lee in Jewel of the Deep. It was in Jewel of the Deep where Michael and Greg and I kind of split up as a performing unit, because Greg and I weren’t really feeling like we were creatively fulfilled in Jewel of the Deep, largely because Danny and Jennifer were doing a lot of the writing.

I was still seeing myself as [someone who wanted to] write songs — I wanted to do the songs that I write — and I was becoming more confident as a vocalist. Greg and I kind of felt like it really wasn’t a good fit for us, so we then left Jewel of the Deep and Michael stayed for a time. Greg and I formed Slam Bamboo and then it was a short time after that, I think, that Michael left Jewel of the Deep — or they broke up, I’m not really sure — and he moved to New York. He had made contact with Eddie Jobson and had just on a leap of faith had decided, well, there’s a potential opportunity here, I’m going to move to New York. He did and you know, we continued to keep in touch after that and I visited him many times. We’ve just continued to see each other, especially since I moved up here, we’ll see each other for lunch whenever he’s in town, at least once a month or so. So Slam Bamboo is now a working band and became quite popular. We did a single called “House on Fire” that actually got into the local WMMS charts in ‘86 or ‘87. That was a real thrill, hearing Kid Leo introduce a song that I wrote and my band played. Especially in those days. It was very uncommon for a local band to get a break like that.

We continued to play and then again, the same kind of thing happened. We weren’t able to get the attention of the major labels or take it to the next level. Although we did get to the point where we were doing fairly good sized openers for people like Starship — we played Public Hall with them, we did some shows with the Michael Stanley Band at Blossom [and] I think the Akron Civic Theatre was a place we played. But we were never really able to get that record deal, so that band kind of just petered out. I continued and tried to do some solo stuff for a while and then I had been to New York a few times and really fell in love with the city and decided that’s really where I wanted to be. My wife at the time, now my ex-wife, and I moved up in 1993 and we’ve been here ever since. That’s kind of the nutshell history of my less than illustrious music career! [Laughs]

When it came to Slam Bamboo, where did Trent Reznor come into the picture?
Because it kind of came in a roundabout way from the ashes of Boy Wonder, Slam was a core unit of four people. It was really Boy Wonder minus Michael — we had Ron Musarra on drums. Because in the ‘80s, you know, keyboards were such an integral part of the sound, we felt that we needed to have a dominant keyboard sound in our sound. We ended up supplementing ourselves with a series of rotating keyboard players. The first one was kind of a member of the band and he didn’t stick around very long. Then we just kind of used different people who became available. Trent was kind of the last one who came around. I think it was probably the last six months that the band was together that he was with us. You know, there’s actually YouTube footage of us on AM Cleveland. That was right at the very end of the band. The band was probably together for about three or four years and he was a side member for the last six months or so.

The story goes that Trent was doing the Slam Bamboo thing at the same time that he was working on the album that would become Pretty Hate Machine. How aware were you guys of that music that he was brewing?
I wasn’t [aware of it] actually. He had a job at The Right Track as an engineer and he would record in the studio’s downtime. I was aware that he was doing something, but we weren’t really that involved in it. We were actually doing something at the studio during the same time frame, but I really aware of it too much until after it had been done. I think the last time I saw him — although Greg, who has now in L.A., has kept in touch with him on a pretty regular basis — the last time that I saw him was right before it came out and he was thrilled to finally have a record coming out.

Boy Wonder opened for Billy Idol at the Agora. What else comes to mind when you think of memorable opening slots you played here in the area?
There was a great memory of us back at the Agora in the dressing room [when we played that gig]. If memory serves, there were two dressing rooms in the back. We were back in our corner of the dressing room just being kids and having a great time and at one point, I remember I just looked up and Billy was standing in the doorway of his dressing room just watching us with a big smile on his face and I said, “That’s pretty cool — he might be thinking back to what it was like when he was starting out.”

We opened for Squeeze and this was on the Sweets From A Stranger tour, the follow-up [album] to East Side Story and that was really cool, because we were huge fans. I loved anything British, we loved quirky stuff and we just loved them. We were kind of dismayed, I think the gig was supposed to be at the Akron Civic Theatre, some larger auditorium and they weren’t selling tickets, so it got moved to the Akron Agora. We were kind of disgusted by the fact that they had played Madison Square Garden like two nights before and they were playing the Akron Agora. It was kind of like, what a weird business, you know? But it was a great show and my fondest memory, [Kirker chuckles] is that we were onstage doing our set opening for them and one of our road crew [members] was standing by the side of the stage watching us and waiting to see if anything was going to go wrong or if he was needed in any capacity.

He just happened to look over and Glenn Tilbrook was standing next to him watching us play. So he just walked over and said, “So, Glenn, what do you think?” And Glenn Tilbrook looked at us and looked at him and he said, “Eh, it’s not my cup of tea,” and he walked away! [Laughs] And I know why he would say that, because we were a quirky band, but we became enamored with the Police and that whole power trio [thing], just that driving early Police stuff and we were a little heavier than Squeeze. We were quirky, but we were very, very heavy and I guess we just weren’t what he wanted to see. Or maybe it’s just that we weren’t any good! That could be it. I don’t know, but we weren’t his cup of tea and I’ve always loved that story.

All of the music that you made here in Cleveland and all of the bands, how do you think that contributed to where you’ve evolved to over the years musically as a singer/songwriter?
From the day I really started writing songs, I have continued to try to master that. It’s an impossible task, but I still consider myself primarily a songwriter and I work really hard to make it sound like it is an easy thing to do. That’s my main function. You know, I’ve learned a lot of things and I’ve written in a lot of different styles and I’ve kind of found over the years, especially now that I’ve been doing my own solo stuff here, that I do have kind of a unique voice and a unique sound.

You know, I consider myself to be….I have kind of an eclectic approach to music. I grew up as a little kid, I was listening to the White Album and you know, you have “Back In The USSR” and then you have “Honey Pie” and then you have “Revolution 9” — all kinds of different styles on one record. I remember as a kid listening to WIXY 1260 AM Radio and I remember hearing “Smoke On The Water” followed by “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” and to me, it just seemed like two really cool songs, very different, and I love that approach. I don’t really want to be tied down to one genre, even though it’s all kind of rock. If you listen to Shallow End of a Deep River, there’s heavy stuff, there’s country-flavored stuff — not as diverse as the White Album by any means, but I like to kind of explore different styles of playing. For instance, on this new record, I played slide guitar — not for the first time, but really a bluesy Edgar Winter-y kind of a slide guitar on “I’d Walk A Million Miles.” Also for the first time, I did some lap steel work on “Everything Changes” and I’d never really focused on it — it’s something that I always wanted to do and the song seemed like a good opportunity to do that and that’s what I did

It’s been over a decade since your last full album of songs was released. How did this new one develop?
I want to say it kind of happened around last summer, about a year ago. I just got the bug to write a couple of songs and I was going to do a single, maybe one song. i was going to write two songs and finish one and put it on iTunes. And then once I’d written the two songs, I said, “You know, now I’ve got three, so maybe I’ll do a four song EP” and by the time I had four songs, then I had seven. Well now, I’ve got to have the whole album, so I just wrote three more and then I had ten. I ended up playing with what I had, half-finished demos and masters for Michael and he said, “Listen, this is some of your best stuff, I think. I’d be happy to play on it — let’s work it out and let’s make it happen.” So that was great — it was a nice boost.

You know, he played on [my solo debut] Like Distant Sounds, which came out in 2004 [and that] was great too. We recorded the drums in Cleveland actually at a place called Metrosync Studios which is no longer there, over by the Agora. I was working with someone out of Cleveland and we decided that we were going to do the tracks there and I went to a couple of places and I think Metrosync was the second one and I just said, this is it. It just had a great vibe to it [from when it was the old WHK Radio Studio] and I had known Frank Vale for years. He had been around the scene, so I loved working with him.

How did John Papa get involved with the record?
John is another guy that I’ve known since at least the Slam days, maybe even going back to the Boy Wonder days. As a bass player, he was one of these musicians who started coming to see us because we kind of appealed to that sensibility as well and he was a huge fan of our bass player Greg Wooten. They became tight friends, you know, bass compadres — they would go to shows and Papa told me that he and Greg went to see Marcus Miller play so many times that he started recognizing them and he would wave to them from the stage. So John has just always kind of been — he was always at the Slam gigs and right before I did Like Distant Sounds, Greg was at that time living in New York and with his girlfriend at the time, had formed a band named PIN and he recruited Michael to play drums and me to play guitar and John Papa to play bass and a guy named Doug Beck on keyboards.

Doug was in the Exotic Birds and he was around in that scene as well. We did some recording up here and did a couple of shows in the city and that was kind of my re-introduction to John. So when it came time for me to do Like Distant Sounds, I kind of split the bass duties between Greg and John. You know, John is a great bass player and just a great guy to hang around with. Greg really wasn’t available for Shallow End of a Deep River because he’s out in L.A. doing his gallery business, so John became the go-to guy. He played on three of the tracks, “Blink Of An Eye,” “Don’t Give Up On Me” and “I’d Walk A Million Miles,” and I did the bass on the rest. It was just kind of a simple matter that we ran out of time for him to really do more tracks. But he’s doing the show and hopefully this is the first of many. I’m hoping that when Michael’s tour schedule frees up, which usually happens in the fall up until early spring, I’m hoping that we might be able to do some shows here and maybe back in Cleveland with Michael, which would be great.

What sort of things were inspiring the material on this new album?
If you look back at Like Distant Sounds, I was going through a divorce at the time and I think a lot of the songs kind of reflect that kind of feeling of like, “Ah, shit,” you know, abandonment and how could this have happened? You know, Michael and I started referring to it as the divorce album. So that kind of theme runs through those songs. This record, it’s just really about...I actually came up with the song, “Shallow End of a Deep River” and thought, “Well, this is going to be the title,” because it says something really profound. It’s like, we all get in over our heads and we’ve just got to keep going to that shallow end and climb out. We’ve got to keep going. So the songs kind of naturally took on a tone like that. So you have “She Lives In Mansions Filled With Empty Rooms,” you know, this is someone who didn’t do that. This is someone who kind of gave up and then didn’t try for the shallow end and is now just isolated and alone. There’s “I’d Walk A Million Miles,” you know, I’m just going to keep going, no matter what it takes. I think that whole theme of just keep moving forward and keep your head held high and don’t give up. That’s the general theme of the record.

I love what you did guitar-wise on “She Lives In Mansions Filled with Empty Rooms.” That really makes a nice closer for the record.
That was Michael’s idea — he said, “You should end with this song. I said, “Yeah, you know, you’re right.” The way it fades out with what I call my Jimmy Page panned guitar, multiple guitar solos going on at the same time — I love that old trick and it’s something that I picked up from Jimmy Page, who used to do it on lots of stuff like “Ten Years Gone” And “Achilles Last Stand,” where I used to sit there with headphones on and just listen to this stuff. There was one guitar over on the left doing something and there’s another guitar on the right doing something else and there’s something in the middle and I was like, “Oh my God, this guy is incredible!” That’s me trying to be him, paying homage to Jimmy. Still one of my all-time favorite guitar players and I love him to death.

What do you like about working with Michael and John?
What I like about playing with Michael is that he’s so good and so driving that it makes you a better player. I was looking at some old Boy Wonder footage not too long ago and I was marveling at the speed with which I was able to just completely downstroke these power chords. It was just me trying to keep up with him and getting better by the virtue of the fact of doing that.

The other thing I love about working with Michael is his music sensibility that goes beyond the drums or just the rhythmic part of the song. Michael made some really, really fantastic arrangements for Shallow End of a Deep River. The most important thing, the song, “Shallow End of a Deep River,” originally, it started as a full band performance and it was Michael who said, “I was listening to the lyrics and it’s really a personal statement that you’re making.” He played it for his wife and she agreed and he said, “We think that you should just do this with piano and vocals to start to the song and then the band comes in on the first chorus.”

I thought, “Oh, okay — that’s actually not a bad idea.” And then I said to him, “Well, the only thing is, I don’t know about my piano playing skills,” and he said, “Okay, well let me call Peter [Keys] from Lynyrd Skynyrd and I’m sure he’ll play on it,” which is what happened and that was another great fortuitous occurrence. I got a great keyboard player to play on the song, a much better arrangement, it’s a much more effective song now and that’s another contribution of Michael’s.

John is a great feel guy. I think what he likes about my stuff, you know, whenever I play with anybody, I have a rule that I’m not going to tell you what to do. This is the song and here’s my idea — make it your own. You know, you’re a professional musician, you’re talented and you’re here for that reason, so do whatever you want. If you do something that I hate, I’m going to tell you. But John’s the kind of guy that I think loves that kind of freedom to express himself however he feels like it. I think he comes up with some great unexpected things, because he knows that I’m just going to let him run free with it. There’s a great bass part on “I’d Walk A Million Miles” where he does these little lead things in the chorus, it’s almost like lead bass, where he said he was just trying to be like Jack Bruce. He said it kind of reminded him of a Cream thing and I just love that. He just [played] lots of interesting and expressive riffs on the bass. To me, it just adds another dimension to the song. That’s what I love about working with guys that really know what they’re doing. You let them run free and they come up with great ideas and Michael and John are both like that.

What can folks expect at the Beachland gig?
The set is material from Like Distant Sounds and Shallow End. We’re doing the bulk of the material from both albums. Michael will be joining us towards the end of the set to play on two of his favorites from Shallow End and then we’re probably going to revisit a song from the past with Michael, myself, Scott and John Papa substituting for Greg on bass. We’re going to do an acoustic thing probably towards the middle of the set. I’m going to have Scott from Slam join me and we’re going to do some acoustic versions of some old Slam tunes and bring them up to date a little bit and just kind of revisit the past in that way. It should be fun! You know, it’s funny when you take some of these songs, like some of the Slam songs, and I was even thinking today about a song like “House on Fire,” and I remember that when I wrote it, it didn’t sound really like the record that came out. It was more of a straight forward song when I wrote it and a lot of those Slam tunes were, because I wrote most of those on my dad’s acoustic guitar. So they were much more straight forward and then when everybody would get involved and add in their parts, it became more quirky and more Slam-ish, so I’m kind of looking forward to revisiting the songs a little bit closer to how they were written — still recognizable as the songs, but a little more I think contemporary sounding, as they were when I wrote them.

Tim Kirker, 8 p.m. Friday, July 24, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $15,