Rock ‘n’ Roll Lifer Derek St. Holmes Writes Another True To Form Chapter (INTERVIEW)

When we last saw Brad Whitford and Derek St Holmes, they were speeding down some highway in Nashville in Whitford’s Mustang. “He loves to drive,” St Holmes said with a laugh. “We’re in this rocket ship and it’s super loud.” Ah, the rock star life … at 63. Rock & roll may have started out for the young but it never came with a shelf life date. And these two rockers are proof of that, especially St Holmes, who retains his boyhood sense of fun and playing fast, rocking music. All the other stuff that happened to come about along the path from there to here was just icing on the cake. No need to start on tofu sponge cake now though. These rascals have energy to burn and creativity still sparking. Hence, a new album, , and a new tour with Whitesnake that kicked off this weekend.

Unlike Whitford, who has made a home in Aerosmith for most of his career, St Holmes has stuck his toe in several different pools, most notably in Ted Nugent’s band, where it was St Holmes and not Nugent on the vox for the rock anthem, “Stranglehold.” But he has also recorded music for movie soundtracks, played on songs by other artists, done solo work and been part of the bands St Paradise and Big People, and has gone down in the annals of quirky rock history as the influence for Spinal Tap’s David St Hubbins. And now, he is back again with his old friend Whitford, making new music, following up their 1981 self-titled album with Reunion, which is stock full of fast-paced songs that revs that inner rocker engine that we all love. “We’re rock & rollers so we want to stay true to the art form,” Whitford explained.

So as the good-time guys were flying down some highway, Glide spoke with St Holmes about the new record, singing next to Benjamin Orr, rattling Nugent’s chain and having fun with Whitford in their sixties.

whitford st holmes derek

Brad told me that you guys had a great time making this new record. Is he right?

Yeah, it was awesome. We just have a chemistry. We didn’t even remember we HAD a chemistry until we got together again here in Nashville. But we just do. There’s something about it that we love; and not necessarily our music but we love music so much when we do get a chance to play together, that’s the first language we speak is music, you know. When we get together, we try to play and put things together and we built those songs pretty quickly and it’s pretty cool.

How long had it been since you actually sat down and jammed with Brad before you started working on the record?

Before he moved here, about a couple of years ago I was coming through Charlotte and I said, “You want me to stop by? I’m going right by your exit.” And he goes, “Yeah.” I was coming from Baltimore so we stopped and I hadn’t seen him in a long time and we chit-chatted and I spent the night and we played guitars. That was a couple of years before he moved here I think.

Did you know right then that you wanted to do something together again or did it take a little while?

It took a little while. That didn’t really hit us then. I think the only thing that it awakened us to is that when we are together we do play music and we can come up with songs. We always have songs in our pocket at any moment anyway. I think that’s what sparked that but what really got me was when he said, “Hey, I’m thinking about moving from Charlotte and thinking about maybe Nashville.” And I was like, “Oh man, get to Nashville!” I was here already and his middle son was here already. I just thought, man, how perfect would that be if he moves here. And that’s what he did. And that’s when the flame got rekindled.

Brad couldn’t remember which song exactly you started working on first. Do you remember?

He couldn’t remember what song we started working on first? (laughs) You know what, let me think about that for a second. I think it was “Gotta Keep On Movin’” cause I know we sort of fooled around with that a little bit on the first day. It was the only day I brought my white SG and I know I played that on that track and that was the first day. So probably “Gotta Keep On Movin’.”

You guys produced this yourselves. How did you step away and be objective and critical enough to make the songs the best that they could be without ego?

Because we’re fabulous individuals (laughs) We’re just fabulous! (laughs) Well, I’m sixty-three and at this age, honestly, I don’t need somebody above me telling me what they think I might or maybe should be playing. I know what I ought to be playing, and it probably needs to be that way with most people. I mean, to give up that sort of creativity to somebody else at this stage of the game would have been crucial, I think, and I don’t think we would have gotten the songs that we got. I think it totally worked 100% in our favor on this situation. Maybe some young kids getting together, four or five kids in a band, maybe they need direction, who knows. But at this age, I don’t think so. I think we knew exactly what we wanted to do and believe it or not it came out exactly like we wanted it to. So we’re ecstatic.


Brad said he did more writing of lyrics on this record than he normally does.

Yes, he did and many, many times on songs where I would get a mental block and go, “I only have this verse and this verse and I just can’t,” he’d go, “Okay, hold on a second.” And he’d grab a pad of paper and go off in the other room and I wouldn’t see him for a little bit and we’d move to something else or work on something else until he’d come back. And he’d come back in the room, throw that pad at me and go, “Read that.” And I’d go, “That’s exactly it! That’s exactly what I was trying to say.”

It’s almost like telepathy

It really is like telepathy, it really is. There was not one time that Brad came back with a lyric and showed it to me and I said, “Oh I don’t know if I’m feeling that.” Not once. Not even a word. I think it’s a time in our lives where at this age you’ve experienced a lot of life. And we HAVE experienced a lot of life. So we just had a lot of things to say and it’s funny that we both have had the same kind of things happen to us so we just kind of wrote down what we wanted to say. It was pretty cool.

Where did you record at?

We recorded this album in a studio called the Castle – we’re actually driving by it now. But yeah, we both grew up loving the English Invasion and of course the hippie invasion. We loved all that stuff. We’re both roughly the same age, both born in the same month and one day apart. So we both liked the very English flair to recording and also to using big drums and sort of that whole Led Zeppelin/Humble Pie vibe and The Who. So we looked for a room that was big enough to set the drums and everyone in the rooms and get that sort of out in the country English Manor sort of sound. And we found a place, which is called The Castle. I think in the twenties it was built by Al Capone’s accountant, and it’s got secret passageways and secret getaways in it. I remember growing up in Detroit and he had a house built on the river; same thing, used to have a secret passageway, another way to escape if they were raided. So this place has got all that kind of history to it as well.

So it just sounded great and the engineer there we got along with really well and he was a very cool guy and he grasped pretty quickly what Brad and I were trying to do and thank goodness he works with a lot of different people here in Nashville every day. So it was kind of refreshing for him to actually do something with a couple of older guys that come from the seventies and play rock & roll and have a band. You know, they’ll bring in thirteen artists and have a fifteen piece band around them and every track sounds the same and it’s just a different singer and they put it out. And we had a young girl on the tracks that played violin. She was a friend of Brad’s sons so on the second song we went, “Let’s see if she wants to come down tonight and maybe jam on some of that.” And she started jamming on the second track of the album, and on the first track too, “Shapes” and “Tender Is The Night.”

That’s the slower one on the album

Now when you say slower, is that a good thing or is that a bad thing?

Good. This album does not stop. It just keeps going.

It’s got everything, right. You know, we just kind of consciously thought about that. We just thought when we were writing songs, we’re not just going to sit here and write ten songs that sound like “Shapes” just so we have some continuity to the album. But I think this whole album IS consistent with the way it comes across. We thought, do we have enough heavy songs? Are we supposed to be heavy? Is Aerosmith supposed to be heavy? Is Ted Nugent supposed to be heavy? Are we supposed to follow that? We kind of did that on the first one. We thought, we have to kind of show everybody what we got and where we come from. So I think we did that on the first album and then on the second one it was just a bit more mature. But I don’t know. I like that word mature (laughs).

whitford st holmes 1981I noticed you didn’t try to replicate the album cover?

(laughs) When we started getting close up shots of ourselves, we went, no, it’s not going to look like Dirty Grandpa! We’re going to have to let that go (laughs).

Which song on Reunion would you say changed the most from it’s original composition to it’s finished recorded version?

I would have to say “Shake It.” Brad had the idea of “Shake It” and they were in the studio sort of going through the chord changes and they were going along and I didn’t even have a guitar, I was just standing in front of a mic scatting, just trying to get some ideas for a melody and where he was going with it. So they were jamming on the song and I thought something was different so I went in the studio and asked one of the kids in there to grab their iPhone and pull up this song on iTunes and then set the tempo to this song that I was asking about. I said, “Now feed that to their headphones.” So I ran back in there and they ran this tempo and I said, “Now guys, I know this sounds crazy but just take that tempo and try the song right now.” And they clicked into it and it just freaking happened. It was just a fluke but I just heard it at a different speed and when they played it, it was like holy crap, everybody came alive and they just started going crazy. It just took on a whole other form. So I think that one was the most that changed.

Second to that one, maybe “Flood Of Lies,” because that one kind of took on another form once Brad started laying it down. It was a guitar lick he was playing and I didn’t say anything cause you never like to pigeonhole anything but there was something reminiscent about the song for me, which was very Aerosmith-y. So I didn’t say what it was, I was just listening. Then I kind of used that to my advantage in coming up with a melody. But again, I couldn’t come up with a lyric so Brad said, “Hold on,” and Brad went off to another room and wrote the lyrics to that song and I used the melody that I had in my head. And it just came together. I’m not going to tell you which one it is. You’re just going to have to figure it out but there is an Aerosmith song with that sort of tempo and it was from way back so I knew it was honest and I knew it was coming from the right place and Brad probably wrote that one too (laughs).

Which guitar did you use primarily recording this record?

I used a reissue 1959 Les Paul most of the time on everything. There’s no shortage of guitars, that’s for sure (laughs). But I kind of lean towards the Les Paul and Brad does as well but he also leans toward the Stratocaster and a Telecaster as well. He’s more of a guitar player than me. I just like to get a big riff and hold onto it and what does best for me is a Gibson Les Paul and a Marshall amplifier. So that’s where I go. But he likes different textures and thank God he does.

What do you remember most about the first time you did a guitar solo live?

I think being nervous, number one, because it’s basically Jazz is what it is. You’re given a moment to create a solo melody and it’s basically like Jazz soloing and you have to come up with it quick and you can’t make any mistakes and you have to carry everybody on a journey with it or it just sounds like dweedling. And there are some dweedlers out there. So I think I remember the most being sort of nervous about it and I just wanted it to be a complete paragraph, you know what I mean. I wanted it to have a start, a middle and an ending. And I didn’t even get a chance to really enjoy it (laughs).

How old were you?

When I soloed? Oh gosh, probably thirteen. And then I put my guitar on (laughs). I just got a look out of Brad (laughs). So yeah, I’ve been playing a long time, started playing when I was eleven.

Was there ever a time when you thought you would be just a guitar player or just a singer and not both?

I don’t think so. I don’t think there was ever a time that I would have chosen between the two. I made sure that I always put myself in a band situation where they needed both of those instead of just one. I mean, I would have played guitar in another band and then a background singer. I would have done that as well if I had to. But I never thought about putting the guitar down until a couple of years ago. I was playing with a bunch of guys – one of the guys from 38 Special, one of the guys from Billy Joel, one of the guys from Pat Travers, one of the guys from The Cars – and it was the first time that I put the guitar down and grabbed a mic and walked out front of it. And that’s fun, don’t get me wrong, but for me it always seems like everybody from my era are just trying to pretend to be Steven Tyler (laughs). I mean, nobody does that better than he does! Or you’re pretending to be Rod Stewart. One of the two.

What was it like working with Benjamin Orr in that band, Big People?

He was so sweet. He was the sweetest man ever. He was just so accommodating and such a talent. I mean, he was a star. When the guy opened up his mouth and that voice came out. Every night I got a chance, when the band was on tour, I had a chance to stand next to him and watch him sing “Drive” and he’d get a little grin on his face when he’d be singing it and he’d look out of the corner of his eye at me and laugh. He knew that I was just enamored by standing next to him watching him sing that song.

Sometimes he would do the same thing to me when I was doing one of my songs. But I mean, gosh, and it was so funny. When I called him to ask him to join the band, he just started laughing. And I said, “Okay, I don’t even know you. Why are you laughing on the other end of this phone?” (laughs). He goes, “I can’t believe Derek St Holmes from Ted Nugent is calling me and asking me to be in a band with him.” And we just fell out laughing and we became fast friends because we’re both from the Midwest and we were both in situations where people always thought our voices were somebody else’s. Everybody thought Ric Ocasek was the singer and he always had trouble with that. And everybody thinks my voice is Ted’s. I had a couple of people come up last year and go, “Man, I’m sorry Ted’s voice isn’t feeling so good but you sure did a good job tonight.” I went, “What?” (laughs)

Since Ted is so politically outspoken, has that made for some interesting and lively conversations over the years?

I egg him on to just really get him going (laughs). All I have to do is say one word and I can send him off in a conversation that would warrant fifty people standing listening to him. But he is something else. He is so passionate about that stuff. But I have heard so much of the rap about politics that, gosh, I couldn’t stand one more second. So we don’t talk about it. But there will be a case where I’ll get in the car and I go, “You know what so and so did today?” and he just goes off.

Was he a good band leader?

I’d say Ted is a very good band leader for Ted. Everything is about Ted and I think he is very good at promoting himself and promoting himself within his band and it’s organization. Does it make him a good band leader? Yeah, I think so. I think I learned a lot from him. I learned a lot of things from him: Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t do this and don’t do that (laughs)

Have you ever written something on guitar that was so complicated or intricate that you couldn’t do it live?

I think maybe once. There was a band I had together in 1979 when I first quit Ted called St Paradise. I think we wrote one song one time that we couldn’t do live and we didn’t know it at the time. But we all of a sudden went, “Wait a minute, unless we have six guitar players, there’s no way we can reproduce this.” So we learned from that point on, don’t ever do that again. It’s silly. Instrumentally I would trim, I’d still do the song, but I would instrumentally trim it down to where you wouldn’t miss parts. So I wouldn’t put those parts on for you to miss when we did it live. But I learned from that one that I wouldn’t do that again.

Now that you and Brad are older and wiser, what kind of shenanigans do you guys get into?

(laughs) We’re like young kids in older guys’ bodies. We’re full of life, everything is fun, we try to make everything fun cause if it’s not fun why do it. We try to see the best in everything, Brad more than me (laughs). Brad just said, “It’s like a big old battery and there’s a negative and a positive and there’s a lot of power in there.” (laughs). That’s great, that’s perfect.

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5 Responses

  1. Congratulations on the new album, Derek, and thank you so much for sharing some of your memories of Benjamin Orr. I love watching the videos of Big People performances — so much energy and so many rocking good tunes. Here’s to many more years of making music!

  2. I know this place in Detroit Derek is talking about. I remember all the good times of Derek playing the high school dances. all those great nights at the Painted Pony. Good Times everyone

  3. The first Whitford/St. Holmes was a great album. Just mention the word ‘Sharpshooter’ and that chorus immediately comes back to mind. Back then, I couldn’t wait for the next one. I just never imagined it would take this long! Whitford’s skill with a guitar has long-been overshadowed by his more-regarded bandmate in Aerosmith, so it’s good for him to step out and be ‘the guy’ because he’s that good. And Nugent is not Nugent without St. Holmes. Watch any Big People video and what you see are talented musicians having a blast. Thank you for this interview and asking the right questions!

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