Animal Instincts

Eric Burdon has played the rock and roll runt, the flower child, and funk ringleader. A Q&A with the 57-year-old singer.

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Ask people about Eric Burdon, and if they have any idea who he is--this is a guy who has no trouble admitting that the best-selling T-shirt of his career bore the inscription "Fuck Me. I thought he was dead"--and they will drop names like the Animals and War, songs like "House of the Rising Sun" and "Spill the Wine."

Reached by phone in advance of his January 21 appearance with the New Animals at the Odeon, Burdon added actor, artist, author, and philosopher to his list of credentials, but admitted that singing and touring are still what define him best. Ever the Englishman, the 1994 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee begged a moment to finish preparing his tea before holding forth.

Scene: Included in your press material is a CD titled The Official Live Bootleg: Volume 2, which appears to be a new product. Is that going to be out for general distribution, or is it just a fan club thing?

Eric Burdon: No, those albums are just sort of within the band, our own production of the material we're currently doing in our set. It's not really meant to be a commercial operation.

Is that indicative of what the New Animals sound like?

Well, we have, by virtue of the many gigs that we've done over the last few years together, we almost developed a sort of near-heavy-metal sound. But that's not deliberate--you've gotta step back from the brink, and we hope to do an acoustic set as well as an electric set. I also want to add percussion to the band when I can afford to do it--percussion and a second keyboard would be the ultimate touring band.

How many pieces would that give you then?

We normally have five people in our touring band, including me. We have Aynsley Dunbar on drums, and we have Neal Morse on keyboards, guitar, and piano, Dean Restum on guitar, Dave Meros on bass, and myself.

It's an impressive-sounding band on the CD. I thought that was an interesting choice, ending it with "You've Got Me Floatin.'" I haven't heard anyone do that in a long time.

Yeah, well, we always try to include a little Hendrix in our sets.

But that's usually not the one that people pick; I guess that's what makes it interesting.

It's a good song to end a set with.

I'm curious, you're calling your congregation the New Animals. Was there any problem with name rights, since there are no original Animals here besides yourself?

People have forgotten that I was only with the original Animals for two years--'64 to '66. And by 1967 I was living and working out of California with a--for lack of a better expression--a psychedelicized version of the band. And the record company, which was MGM at the time, demanded that I keep the name. At the time I really didn't think much about it, so in order to keep the record company happy, I used the name Eric Burdon and the New Animals.

That band stayed together from 1966 till the tail end of 1969, so in essence that was my own band, and since the Animals' name has been dragged through the dirt and pinned up on walls and graffiti scrawled on toilet walls, and nobody knows what's what and who's who, I think the name [New Animals] should be used, you know.

Were there ever any hard feelings between you and any of the old members?

No, as a matter of fact, I have a call in to Hilton, Hilton Valentine, the original guitar player, and John Steel, the original drummer. They were going out as the Animals for the last three years, and that was confusing the picture even more.

Sure, that's the kind of nightmare you'd expect.

So it wasn't really my choice. It was mainly the guys in the band who were ragging on me, "Hey, come on, just use the name the New Animals. You've got the right, so why aren't you doing it?" I used to call the band the I Band for the last three years.

What led to that?

I liked the Jamaican concept of the I-tals, which means instead of "you and I," you say "I and I" because you're equal. It was a good idea--get it, I-dea--but it just wasn't making any inroads with anybody. And with the other guys going out as the Animals, I'd run into people, and they'd say, "Hey man, we came out to see the Animals, and there was some other guy singing."

Hello, Fleetwood Mac.

Exactly. So I caved in, and we'll see what effect it has. Maybe it will, maybe it won't, but the fact that we're sitting right here talking about it seems to indicate that it might be the right thing to do.

Well, you've had--at least by my count--two Animals reunions in the past. What led to the reunions before, and have there been any discussions in terms of any of those people joining you again?

First of all, it was just a virtue of the fact that I was back in England. I was around and I was available, because my mother was ill, and she took a long time to die. The first reunion [1976's Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted] they were never serious about, and we never saw eye to eye with the way the Animal reunion gigs were handled. In fact, the second one got off to a great start. We got some great publicity, and we actually had a charted record called The Night that was slowly climbing up the charts in America, and then we were off to tour the world. I was arguing like hell with them, saying, "What are we leaving the States for? We've got an active record in the charts. We should just stay here and work our way from New York to L.A., take a week off and turn around and go back and try to chase the record up the charts." But no, we had to do a worldwide tour because the T-shirts said "Worldwide Tour."

That decision was made because of T-shirts?

Yes it was, and it was a frustrating period for me, and I said, "That's it. Enough and no more." And of course, I don't want to go on and on about it, but you know, a lot of these guys retired for years and I kept working, and that kind of made me resentful. And I never really saw eye to eye with the guys in the band except [for] John Steel, who I went to college with.

How did you hook up with War?

Well, because the second group of Animals, the New Animals, like the first--I got tired of what we were doing and wanted to do something else. I was tired of touring, and I hadn't taken a serious holiday since I was a kid with my mother and father. So I was in Hollywood, I had broken up the band, and they all drifted off in their own directions. I stayed in L.A. and went to the Actors Studio for a year, and although I never really got an agent and pursued an acting career seriously, it was really good for me. It was help that I needed at the time. I felt that I was losing myself to a certain degree; on a one-to-one basis I couldn't talk to anyone anymore. I could relate to people from a stage with spotlights, en masse, but not one to one. I was pretty messed up at that time.

It's interesting that you view acting as a form of therapy.

It's a great form of therapy. It teaches you that you have an inner circle, an outer circle, and an outer-outer circle, and how you can use that as a defense or offense. I met some wonderful people at the Actors Studio and went two to three times a week. And then I met Steve Gold and Jerry Goldstein, and they said, "What are you doing here?" And I said, "Havin' a good time." They asked what I wanted to do, and I said maybe get into some movie work, to which they said, "Oh, you can't deal from a position of weakness, you have to deal from a position of strength. In the movie business you're nobody, and in the music business you're somebody." So we started scouting around, and we found this black show band that was playing in the San Fernando Valley doing cover versions. I liked the nucleus of the band.

They always had that Afro-Cuban thing happening.

The band is as much Latin-influenced as it is black, and I liked that.
To my ears, that was your most creative work.

Yeah, I think so too, and pity it had to come to an end.

On the continuum of the kinds of music you've done, is your upcoming release more Animal-like or more War-like--especially since you've described your performances as bordering on heavy metal?

We've got about ten songs finished and need about four or five more to complete the set. I'm co-writing with guys in the band and with a friend of mine in Brazil, Marchello Nova, via fax. That's given the band a Latin tilt, although Marchello is really a rock and roller.

What else is keeping you busy?

There's been a lot of stuff lately that I've been doing, where I'm stepping out of the role of just being the lead singer in a band. I just returned from Melbourne, Australia, where I sang with the Melbourne Philharmonic. The second keyboard player that I want to add is also a symphonic conductor, but this all depends on me getting a record deal so that I can get some financial help.

Any progress on that front?

Not yet. We haven't really shopped the thing yet, mainly because the record industry is in such a mess at the moment.

At the moment?

[Laughs.] We're not sure what to market at this point.

It's kind of like hitting a moving target.

It is, yeah. But I'm trying to come at it from a different angle, as I've been writing my second book. [Burdon published his autobiography, I Used to Be an Animal, But I'm All Right Now, in 1986.] I have more faith in that as a way of getting my face on the television, doing talk shows, and maybe being able to bring the band and doing a song.

Touching on the Animals' past, there is a movie coming out that is based on our second reunion tour. And what they do with my character is, he dies of an overdose in the first twenty minutes.

That's got to make you proud.

Well, yeah, it does in a perverse way, because it proves to me that people can't deal with me. I can just see these guys sitting down to write a screenplay: "Let's zero in on the characters. What do we do with Eric Burdon? Well, he's impossible to deal with, let's give him a drug overdose."

You've mentioned acting, writing, and various contortions of working in the music industry as a way of getting your name in front of people. If you had the power to control your destiny, would you choose playing music, or would you want it all?

I'd want it all.

But what one thing would you want to be known for?

Being a rock and roll singer.

Eric Burdon and the New Animals. 8 p.m., Thursday, January 21, the Odeon, 1295 Old River Rd., $12.50 ($15 day of show), Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.

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