Siblings who pursue the same career are not unusual. It’s been happening since time began. But when they form bands together, sometimes the most iconic songs have been created: “Highway To Hell,” “Barracuda,” “Midnight Rider” and “Unchained,” to name but a few. Okay, so the Bacon Brothers haven’t reached that mountaintop yet but they do have some really good songs. Michael, a noted film and television score composer, and his younger brother, actor and director Kevin, have been putting out music since 1997’s Forosoco. Didn’t know that? There are plenty of videos on YouTube you can check out, including live performances, that give you a glimpse into their singer-songwriter talents, evoking their folk roots and venturing into rock & roll, soul, and Americana.
When time allows them, the Bacon Brothers try to tour and record. Luckily for us, they have both going on this year. Their EP, Erato, will be dropped on July 8th, while their tour runs from June through August, with some Fall dates popping up as we speak. And come August they will be filming an episode of Carpool Karaoke.
Raised in Philadelphia, the brothers have always had music in their lives. Michael was drawn to more Classical-inspired sounds and began playing the cello at an early age before falling in love with the more harmonic shades of folk. Kevin plays guitar and can blow a mean harmonica, like on the song “Tell Me What I Have To Do.” Some of their songs may take on a whimsical vibe but for the most part, the lyrics are serious, honing in on realistic situations in their own lives or the world around them. “Corona Tune,” “Unhappy Birthday,” “Hookers & Blow” and “I Feel You” revolve around emotions and a human being’s reaction to them.
Their latest surge of creativity has begat Erato, a five-song petit four with a variety of flavors, from a saucy “Let Me Happen To You” to an upbeat pepper of a song co-written with Desmond Child called “In Memory Of When I Cared;” “Karaoke Town,” which Kevin worked on with his son Travis, hums along on a more serious note while the title track summons up the inspiration gods. “We’re still exploring the sound we began making twenty-five years ago,” said Michael recently. “We’ve just gotten a lot better at it.” Added Kevin: “We’re a songwriting band and the songs lead the way. We’re not beholden to a specific sound. We just write the songs and let them point us in the right direction. That’s how we’ve done it since the very beginning.”
Although Kevin has predominately spent his years in front of a camera, leading in such hit movies as A Few Good Men, Apollo 13, and Footloose, Michael has stayed behind a microphone, composing hundreds of musical pieces for film, and documentaries, and PBS. But now it’s time to get back on the road to share songs from their eleventh release. “It feels good to get back in the saddle, vocal exercising, building up callouses, and hanging with my brother and our amazing band,” declared Michael.
A few weeks ago, I spoke with the brothers about the new songs and getting back out on tour once again.
So where are you guys calling from today?
Michael: I am in the town of Amsterdam, New York, in this crazy place that used to be a National Guard Armory but it looks like a castle and they turned it into a hotel. We’re on our way up to the Adirondack Mountains where we have what they call a camp, which is on a lake. It’s really the place where I do my best songwriting. There’s no electricity, obviously no television, the phone works about 50% of the time. So I really look forward to being unfettered and have some time to sort of reflect and see if any ideas pop out about songs.
Kevin: I’m in New York
Why didn’t you give us more than five songs?
Kevin: We really only had five (laughs). You know, we were just talking about this, and Michael was talking about going to the lake and writing. First off, it’s not something that we do every day as some people do. At least speaking for myself, I have to kind of be hit by something, some idea or some feeling or something that happens in my life. I don’t tend to like searching for a title and writing a song around the title. A lot of people do to a tremendous amount of success but it’s just not the way it happens for me.
But you know, there’s hot streaks and cold streaks and rather than just sit on the five songs that we felt good about and wait until we had another twelve or seven or whatever to create a quote/unquote album, we were feeling like we’d just put it out. We had the music and wanted to share it.
There are so many different flavors on this record. Were those sounds there at the beginning or did they come as the songs evolved?
Michael: Well, the “Memory” song was really interesting because when I started out in the seventies, I was a professional songwriter in Nashville and they paid me a salary and I went in every day and wrote songs with my partners and drank coffee and they had a recording studio and it was what I call Tin Pan Alley style, where it’s really a job. With that song we got introduced to Desmond Child, who is one of the most successful songwriters probably that’s ever been. We made an appointment and went over to his apartment and cranked out a song. What was interesting was I’d been hearing about this kind of style of songwriting and he had a bunch of different titles he’d come up with and he had a young man from California who had given him ten tracks, which were probably about a minute long – I would almost call them motifs rather than songs – so they were ten different kinds of moods all done in a very contemporary style. And we picked a title, then listened to the ten tracks and we picked one and we were off.
The song starts off with the track by itself and then we build on top of that. But it was kind of interesting because one of the things with songwriting is you kind of have to use your own arsenal that you have and when all of a sudden you get exposed to things that are completely outside of your wheelhouse, it kind of opens you up a bit. I’m hoping that we’ll get a chance to write with Desmond again and try the same thing, because it was a really interesting thing. We came up with a song that most people tell me is much more contemporary sounding than a lot of our stuff, which I think is good.
What about your song “Let Me Happen To You”?
Michael: Well, that was another weird thing. I have written film and television scores for a long, long time and I have a lot of them; I’ve been really busy. Sometimes making copies or archiving stuff, I will run into a track that I just really like and come back to it. So I decided I would put up that track that I wrote for a film score and see if I could write a song on top of it and I did and that’s really the way that one happened. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. So I think that maybe if you could characterize this record, a lot of different songwriting techniques were used, not just one.
You end the record with a serious song. Can you tell us more about “Karaoke Town” and how did Travis’s input make it a better song?
Kevin: You know, “Karaoke Town,” I don’t think would be a surprise that it’s about my kids. I have two kids, I’ve got a daughter and a son and I think it came from this idea that both of them were raised in New York and both of them live in LA. There’s something about choosing not to live where you were brought up, that not only do I think is kind of interesting but it also is something I can relate to, you know, having grown up in Philadelphia and finding my way to New York for so many years. I wrote it as a sort of man-with-guitar type of folk thing, imagining that sort of Neil Young-style fingerpicking. Then I wanted to do something different with it in terms of the backing track and I knew that Travis’s ear for it would be really good. So I gave it to him and said, “I want to see what you build electronically, basically, around it.”
So really aside from a little bit of percussion of mine, it’s got one acoustic guitar and he played some electric, but most of it is built from his computer and a lot of the music he makes is in that vein. So it was really fun cause we haven’t collaborated that much musically – a little bit here and there. But I sent it to him and then he started putting the track together and then I went out and did the vocals in his studio. He was my producer so it was a great moment.
Kevin, who gives you the most inspiration?
Kevin: Oh wow, you know, inspiration, that’s what the song “Erato” is about. I don’t even know where inspiration comes from. If I knew where the inspiration came from, I would go and just sit there when I felt like it was time to write a song, you know what I mean (laughs). I just really, really don’t know. It’s like, it’s there and then it’s gone, and that’s what’s kind of terrifying about writing songs: every time I finish one I think, alright, this is the last one.
Michael, as a composer, who have you looked to the longest for your inspiration?
Michael: Well, I have to make a distinction between being a composer and a songwriter. A composer, particularly in the commercial film and television industry, you have to be able to turn your ability to write music off and on like a spigot, because one day you might have to write for two hours then the next day you might have to write for twelve hours. It’s a very time sensitive, deadline sensitive thing.
Luckily, when I was a very young child and I started playing cello, when I was six or seven, I just got that ability, because the music that our parents exposed me to allows me to function in the commercial production world as opposed to songwriting, which nobody is sitting around saying, “Michael, you have to turn this song in tomorrow at 11:00.” I used to do that. I was a staff songwriter in Nashville for many years and we would make a date with a writing partner and you’d show up at 10:00 and drink coffee and there’d be guitars and pianos and you’d write until 1:00, go out to lunch, come back at 2:00 and you start writing again and try to crank out songs, usually title-generated. You think of a title and then you try to fill in the blanks.
But I don’t think that’s a really strong suit of mine in terms of my musical output. I think something about your songwriting has to be a little bit different so that you’re going to reach people with immediacy as opposed to things that might develop when somebody else’s ears are listening to your song over a long period. So I feel like, unfortunately, that songwriting is just something that has to, and I think Kevin touched on this, it’s something that comes to you and there’s no real way to do it if you don’t want to go in and make a date with someone and crank out a song. You want to do something that really comes from your own experience. That’s why I was touching on the Adirondacks. That’s the kind of place where things come to me, because my brain is a little less filled with all the work stuff and the teaching and all that kind of stuff. Check me in a week and I’ll let you know how it went (laughs).
What was the first song you obsessed over as a kid?
Kevin: Hmm, the first song I obsessed over as a kid, gosh, I don’t know. I would say probably something like Temptations “Ball Of Confusion” or “Standing In The Shadows Of Love” or something like that, where I’d listen to it again and again and again and again.
Michael: I grew up where you kind of sat around and played the guitar and sang songs so I would have to say like “Delia’s Gone.” A phenomenal song that I learned at camp and learned how to play. Those early folk songs, I really got obsessed over those. “Four Strong Winds,” “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley.” I’m really dating myself (laughs) but that raw simplicity and how they hit me emotionally, that’s always something I’m trying to get back.
Kevin: Yeah, you like the dark stuff. “Hang Down Your Head” and probably “Long Black Veil.”
Michael: Death, destruction, murder
Kevin: Yeah, all that stuff (laughs)
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
Kevin: This is going to blow your mind. It was Janis Joplin. My best friend growing up, his dad had a legendary rock & roll club in Philly called The Electric Factory and as kids, we were allowed to go and hang out backstage and in the dressing room and she signed an autograph for me that had, “Hello Kevin” and everything.
Michael: Our parents used to take me to the Philadelphia Orchestra concerts and the first cellist there was a guy named Lorne Munroe, who was very dashing and romantic and would throw his hair around while he played, and my father got me backstage and I met him and that was the first kind of big person I’d ever met; plus I was a cellist and that was memorable for me.
Are you guys ready for the tour?
Kevin: No, we have a lot of practicing to do (laughs) You know, we were on tour and I got covid so we shut down but I feel like a lot of the heavy lifting we’ve already done. There’s still some other stuff that we need to do but we’re not at square one. We’re playing a lot of new stuff in the set so we have learned that. Well, I know we’ve played it well at least once (laughs)
Michael: There’s also getting vocals back in shape. That’s really like going to the gym and working out and I’ve got to get to work on that right away. And you’ve got to get the calluses back and your hand has got to get strong (laughs).
Portrait by Charles Chessler