It’s a beautiful, sunny and warm day in Los Angeles, but it’s not only the Californian weather that is giving Steve Bertrand reason to smile. After the pain and disappointment of the demise of his former band The Tories, Bertrand sounds overjoyed to be making music again, and determined to make a success of an imminent solo career.
“Things are going great!” he says on the other end of a trans-Atlantic phone line. “I’m really excited about my solo record and I’m in a place and a season of my life where I know what I want to do with my music.”
“I’m starting over, I parted over with my old manager, lawyer and everyone. I took the first few months of the year to write, and now the record is basically written. I’ve got a Pro Tools system so I’m recording everything myself and I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of people who have said they want to be involved with my new career.”
Some might question the Vermont native’s mental state for prolonging his efforts to develop a long-term, successful career in an industry that has already done for The Tories; a band that seemed on the brink of major success, yet one of the many that mystifyingly never made the crossover from much vaunted band to major national act.
The band were one of the hottest acts in L.A. soon after forming in Spring 1995, and were inundated with recording and publishing offers after only 6 months together. Then the legendary Phil Ramone entered the fray and signed them to his label N2K Records. Yet for some reason, the buzz surrounding the band’s two excellent releases, Wonderful Life and Upside of Down did not translate into the massive success that was reasonably expected.
Bertrand is far from bitter about the parting of the ways though, and believes the time was right for everyone in the band to meet new challenges.
“I joke about it, but it would have been a lot easier if we were all mad at each other or had been sleeping with each other’s girlfriends! The fact is, the split was entirely amicable and the reason behind it was that we had made two records, and been in the band together for seven years and we were all a little bit frustrated. People would come up to us and say we love your music, why aren’t you huge! So something clearly wasn’t happening, but we didn’t know what it was, so it was a logical step.”
Whilst Tories guitarist J.J. Farris and bassist James Dupree took a back seat from music following the break-up, Steve locked himself away in his home studio to begin work on a series of solo tunes he had been writing. The Tories may have worked with producers like Nick Didia and Stuart Brawley in the past, but Steve was now, in the words of a Tories song, “Flying Solo”, and that challenge has clearly invigorated him.
“Oh definitely!” Steve laughs, “I’ve been locked away in a room for four months working hard on my music and I haven’t seen much of the outside world! I’ve been doing one or two other things—acting and commercial work to pay the bills, but for the most part this has been it for me. I’ve been entirely focused on the songs I’ve been writing and demoing. I play all the instruments on the songs and everything was done right here in my apartment.
“All of it was done on Pro Tools on my Mac, and that’s great, as I can get a great sound without having a lot of resources. It sounds like a band, so when I can get into a pure studio, and then it’ll be even better.
One of the things Steve was keen to achieve with his new music was a simpler, perhaps more organic feel than songs The Tories had released, and he admits this freely.
“Oh, absolutely. The Tories used to get caught up in demoing and demoing and sometimes the songs lost the spirit they originally had. I mean, the tunes on Wonderful Life were done over and over so many times. So, I’m conscious of that this time—I’m writing them on my couch, jotting the music down and hoping back to my computer to create the song and lay it down!”
Most of the songs may have been written and recorded in Steve’s living room, but the end result betrays the low-tech recording process. Rather than wait, he has decided to use his website to let fans hear the fruits of his endeavours by releasing a seven track demo, Joyride, and it’s an EP that stands as a high quality natural progression from The Tories Upside Of Down, with perhaps a more pop-flavored, commercial edge.
“That’s very perceptive,” he agrees, “but then again I wrote 80% of Tories songs and sang them, so I’m not reinventing the wheel here! People are maybe going to listen to it and go “Oh, that’s the Tories!” so there’s only so many variables that are different.
“But it is a progression as things are a bit more modern and maybe a bit more back to basics than stuff I’ve done before. I mean, take the song “Loved” for instance. I sat down and thought that one of the main things The Tories were known for was the witty lyrics and complicated chords and I wanted to do something simple. I said ‘it’s gonna have three chords and a simple message, and if I can’t write a song like that then I suck!’
“That was the mission and that’s really been the plan. I’ve drawn from bands like U2 who say the simplest things in a really profound way. It’s all about the message in the song, does it communicate a message people and can they relate to it?”
That goal has certainly been achieved, but it’s the melodies and radio-ready nature of the majority of Steve’s new material that is the most striking aspect of his new songs. “Loved”, and “Beautiful” are simple yet mightily infectious modern pop-rockers, whilst “Seven Days Without You” and “When I Breathe” are purely and simply great songs that could have a major impact at both Top 40 and Adult contemporary charts if given the opportunity.
So, is there any of the new batch that he is particularly enamoured with? He pauses for a moment, before admitting his best song isn’t even on the Joyride demo:
“That’s a hard question. They’re all really special in the sense that I’ve put everything into all of them. I’ve had a difficult time with the band breaking up and some personal relationships as well as Sept 11th so I’m close to all the songs, but possibly the new one “Bulletproof Glove” is the best so far.”
He adds, “‘Seven Days Without You’ and ‘Beautiful’ are songs about my old girlfriend, ‘Bigger Than Me’ is all about the events of September 11th, whilst ‘Perfect From Now On’ is an autobiographical look at critics and the way they rip you apart. They’re all different, so I like them all, but I would have to say I’m really excited about ‘Bulletproof Glove’.”
The reaction from fans has also inspired Steve, who was initially skeptical that people would be interested in his new project.
“The response has been great. I’ve been surprised, to be honest, as I thought people might not care anymore, but all the work building fans with the Tories has paid off and most of the old Tories fans are totally behind me. There’s been a huge amount of supportive emails through the website from the US, but also from as far a field as China and South America, so it’s been great.”
Such communication with former Tories fans also convinced Bertrand that the best way to kick-start his solo career was to do something he had been reluctant to do—embrace the Internet.
“I recounted times we played shows when fans were singing along to new songs we hadn’t released yet and we realised people were getting stuff from Napster. The Upside of Down record was bootlegged and when you’re an indie band that’s a big issue. It used to piss me off, but now I’m thinking that’s kinda cool.
“This time though, I had to get out of the box and think differently and now I’m in a different place to get my music out there. The Internet can help you as an artist, and I switched to the mindset of “if you can’t beat them join them”. If someone’s going to capitalise on this demo it’s going to be me, not some one else!”
He adds, “Seriously though, at this stage of my career, I’m glad for the technology as it has enabled me to stay in touch with fans of my music round the world. Plus I haven’t played for six months and I want fans to know what my new stuff is like when they see me play, so people feel like they are participating in things.”
A major label deal is of course the ultimate goal in Bertrand’s fledgling solo career, and although he is currently self-financing the Joyride demo on an independent basis, he is actively in discussions with industry figures who he hopes can take his project to the next level.
“I haven’t signed a new management deal yet,” he admits, “but I had a great meeting with a potential management group who represent some pretty big acts and that would be cool, as the music is the number one priority rather than the hype. It’s frustrating that I don’t have a deal yet, but the people I’ve sought out are quality and it’s been a good response. I’m really excited about getting other people involved.”
Steve has begun playing live for the first time without his Tories band mates, with a couple of acoustic shows at L.A.‘s Genghis Khan club already under his belt. Plus, a full-length version of Joyride is also on the agenda and with Steve constantly writing new material, he should be in a position to have plenty of songs to choose from.
“The demo I’m selling through my website is like Chapter One of my solo career”, he admits. “Chapter Two will be the other bunch of songs I’ve needed to have to choose from for a full album. Some of them are hits and some of them are misses, and which ones are hits will hopefully be determined by interested record companies and lawyers!”
“To be honest I would have liked to have had the full length record ready and out by fall this year, but in a perfect world it should come out early in 2003. But whether that happens remains to be seen, there’ll be other people involved by that point, and my time frame is not a normal time frame, so we’ll wait and see!”
In the meantime, Steve is enjoying that Los Angeles sun, relishing making and performing his new music, and is safe in the knowledge that he is on the brink of an exciting new phase in his musical career.
Joyride is available from Steve Bertrand’s website at stevebertrand.com.
// Notes from the Road
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