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Exhuming McDowell

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Exhuming McDowell

Dave Jordan's picture
Dave Jordan
Dave Jordan is the co-author of the critically-acclaimed baseball autobiography, "Fastball John."

Exhuming McDowell

Having enjoyed the experience of close to 13 seasons in the Major Leagues, a second life touring and recording with two bands after his pitching career ended, (his first group, V.I.E.W., opened for The Smithereens back in the 1990s) and now finding himself back in organized Baseball, former Cy Young Award Winner Jack McDowell recently sat down for a free-wheeling chat with INSTREAM, discussing his theories on breaking into today’s music industry, his artistic influences, and The Dodger Way. Oh yeah, and the playlist.

INSTREAM: You’re 48 now. You’ve lived two professional lives. You can look back with pride at some seriously amazing accomplishments. What’s it been like over these past few months, peering forward into the future? What did you see?

JACK McDOWELL: I really didn’t know what I was going to be doing. I went from coaching a High School Baseball team, where the hours were regular job and the pay was passion, to moving my family to another state, and being like, “What’s next? Will I get into TV? Am I gonna coach at the college level? Coach in the majors?”

INSTREAM: At this point, did you reach out to anyone in the game? Old Baseball friends, ex-teammates, front office types, did you make the rounds?

JACK McDOWELL: I had been talking with a few organizations and schools on both ends of this. The Dodgers asked me to come to Arizona for Spring Training as a special instructor, travel around a few weeks during the summer, you know, five day-trips to high-A, AA and AAA affiliates, just to see what goes on, which I was on board with. Couple weeks later, the organization called up to let me know they had a managerial opening in rookie ball for the Ogden Raptors if I was interested. I ran it by the wife and joked “Remember when I said I was gonna be gone for two weeks? How does six months sound?’’

INSTREAM: What about the music? Let’s talk about the music. You know, around two and half years ago, Jeff Pearlman covered nearly every element of your baseball career in his outstanding "The Quaz" interview series. So we’ll circle back with the baseball talk at the end of this. What’s the latest with your music?

MCDOWELL: Ha, nowadays I usually only play for my kids. I barely have two seconds to lay down any tracks, write a song, or do anything related to music. I don’t remember the last time I sat and listened for the sheer pleasure, rather than have the radio on in the car, you know, just chill and hear music like I used to do ALL THE TIME. It’s still a part of who I am. I mean, I was so lucky to grow up in Southern California listening to Rodney Bingeheimer on KROQ – the man’s legendary for exposing his listeners to off-the-radar stuff, different acts and sort of “breaking” new music. This is where I found bands like The Fixx, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Smiths, the guitar-driven bands and of course, R.E.M. Being on the road now with the Ogden Raptors, I’m gonna have a lot more downtime this summer to get back and start doing that again. Obviously, you can tell I have a little bit of a passion for it.

INSTREAM: You recorded two albums with StickFigure, your second music group. Walk us through your experiences, as a professional athlete with a band on the side, trying to break into the business.

McDOWELL: Our deal was kind of impossible for music industry types to put money or resources behind the first band because of my schedule. You can’t really tour much during the baseball season, can’t be doing appearances at the drop of a hat when you’re in the starting rotation. We knew it was going to be a smaller, club type situation. The sad thing I discovered at the end of my baseball career, when I started considering this as a full-time gig, was that things were different. There was a happening club scene in the early ‘90s where you could go play and even though it wasn’t gonna be a ton of people, you knew there was gonna be people, because people went out to listen to music, but by the end of the decade into the early 2000s, there weren’t a whole lot of places to perform and even then, unless people knew who you were, nobody was gonna show up anymore. It was a weird dynamic. Everything had changed.

INSTREAM: Do you attribute that lack of interest to a particular cultural or industry movement?

McDOWELL: I’m not sure. I think as things became less and less about small bands going out to play live, suddenly it was either you’re huge or you almost don’t exist, you know? Either you hit or don’t – right away. Everything becomes about that one breakout record instead of bands playing club gigs and mastering their chops, at least that’s my theory on it.

(INSTREAM SIDEBAR: A few years back, Guitar.com knocked out an excellent Q&A with McDowell that focused on his love of music. His answer below about particular guitarists he admired or emulated was the inspiration for our interview. Nice work, guys.)

McDOWELL IN GUITAR.COM: Probably the biggest influence on my style was Peter Buck. When I really started getting into guitar seriously and learning song structure, the early R.E.M. records were a great basis because there wasn't a lot of overdubbing-it was just one guitar part and him playing the song. You could really tune in on what he was doing, His arpeggio style filled out the songs, and that was really how I learned a lot of what I do.

INSTREAM: Jack, going back to your conversation with Guitar.com, let’s use R.E.M. as an example of a band that took its time finding the audience, so to speak. You have I.R.S. Records releasing “Murmur” in ‘83, the promotional department gets the band on Letterman (which we’ll check out shortly.) They enjoy first their success outside of the South, then not so much on “Reckoning,” which doesn’t really go anywhere commercially, though it received more than its share of critical acclaim. “Fables of the Reconstruction” comes out to barely nominal critical success, and now it’s three years later for them - that would be a lifetime today. Based upon your experience, can a band in 2014 survive that sort of career trajectory?

McDOWELL: Not a chance, the label would have dropped them and they don’t exist anymore. Because while they were going through all that stuff, they were playing, developing their sound, maturing as a band and also as individual musicians. The leash in the business just isn’t that long anymore. Either you have a single that hits, blows up on YouTube or it doesn’t. Not a lot of acts honing their craft with active record deals as they were 30 or even 15 years ago.

INSTREAM: Do you think a band has to make its sound more accessible to break into the mainstream?

McDOWELL: I think to an extent. It’s so funny how the powers that be, whether it’s the record companies or radio station programmers, whatever they decide they’re letting in the canoe, it’s not too long before something sounds exactly like it. Take Mumford and Sons. Now that they got in the mix of popular music, you’re starting to hear new bands that sound very, very similar. And those "new" bands have been out there for awhile, but as their particular sound has received this mass acceptance, they’re getting their turn at bat in the mainstream. I think we all saw the same thing with grunge back in the early ‘90s, where you had record execs thinking, “Oh, so this is the sound now? Okay, let’s find acts that can replicate it.” It’s not really people creating as much as people following the trend, so yeah, definitely, you have to adjust the sound to be accessible and similar to the music the industry is pushing. You know, would we be allowed to play the game with our own sound? As long as you sound like somebody else…maybe.

INSTREAM: When you hear R.E.M.’s “Document" album, their last for I.R.S., do you get the sense that this was the record where the band became more accessible to the listener? Would you say it’s one of your favorites from the early years?

McDOWELL: "Document" is fine, there’s good stuff there, obviously, but I have other favorites. If I had to rank them, I would go “Lifes Rich Pageant,” “Murmur,” and then the rest. Speaking of becoming more accessible, a lot of critics and fans point to Pageant as to when everything started changing for the band, and there’s some purists who take issue with that, but I love that record. You want me to point out one song on Document I really enjoy? "Distrubance at the Heron House" would be it.

INSTREAM: I came across a song off their first album, “Chronic Town,” the other day, simply titled “1,000,000.” One of the pleasures of watching certain TV dramas like say, "Mad Men" or "The Sopranos," is that moment at the end of the episode where oftentimes you’ll hear a deep track tune over the closing credits. “1,000,000” is to me the perfect song to close out a drama.

McDOWELL: Yeah, "Chronic Town’s" an EP that doesn’t get as much respect from the mainstream as it deserves. ““Gardening At Night” is one of those songs I used to mess around with – a great tune to play. Very heavy Pete Buck-influences - the sound I was going for on my very early stuff, mainly because it was so clear how in love they were with what they doing on those early records.

INSTREAM: Ok, let's do something fun. Take us back to your formative musical years and give us six R.E.M. songs from their I.R.S. catalogue that resonated with you.

6. Maps and Legends (1985)

McDOWELL: “Story Songs.” "Fables" is a perfect title for this album. Every song tells a story. I like “Driver 8,” not sure it’s in my Top Six, just another cool tune that paints a picture, that leaves you with vivid images, but “Maps”is one of those songs that grabs me when I hear it, that just gets in there. It’s not the technical elements specifically that make me love it – although anytime a Mike Mills harmony makes an appearance on an R.E.M. record it works for me - it just has something that gets inside you and stays there.

INSTREAM: I have a song like that – “Crazy.” There’s no musical element I find notable or some corresponding memory attached it to for me, it wasn’t the soundtrack to some seminal life moment. It’s just one of those songs you hear and puts you in a good place.

McDOWELL: Isn’t that a cover of the Pylon song? First track off of "Dead Letter Office?" Yeah, that’s another good one. The band spent a lot of time at the 40 Watt Club in Athens with Pylon in those early days. You know, listening to music now is whole new experience for all of us. I think something really gets lost just tapping on the iPOD versus sitting in your room, staring at the album cover while some LP spins on your stereo. It’s not the same running through song after song – they all blend together on that little contraption in your hand that makes you forget for a moment which songs came from which albums.

5. The Flowers of Guatemala (1986)

McDOWELL: Song for song, "Lifes Rich Pageant" is my favorite album. It was something of a departure from their early stuff. On “Flowers,” the first song of Side Two, you just have to love the feedback they left in about a minute before the solo. I know that was just, while it wasn't a mistake, they had the track running for Michael Stipe to come in on the solo, but hearing that feedback, they must have been like, "Ok, leave it, that sounds cool.” Obviously, "Fall on Me" was the breakout song from the record - gotta love the triple Harmonies. Sure it became their first real hit, but they showed they were doing musical things no one else would touch at that time. "Cuyahoga" is another tune I love off the album. A great rock record.

INSTREAM: I think "Pageant" also contains this element of optimism, this declaration or call to arms in songs like "I Believe," or "These Days," especially "These Days." I’m surprised this song never emerged as an MTV/"Rock the Vote"-style anthem.

McDOWELL: "Begin the Begin," the opening track, another song I love. So many songs on this album are awesome. They hold up, too.

4. Pretty Persuasion (1984)

McDOWELL: Berry’s drumming, altering the vibe of the song as they go along – very cool stuff, Buck doing his arpeggio thing. The LP gets off to a nice start with ""Harborcoat." I didn’t love this album in its entirety as much as “Murmur." I like it, it’s cool, but “Persuasion,” has a phenomenal sound to it. As far as the band’s deep tracks go, they don’t get much better than this.

3. Wendell Gee (1985)

McDOWELL: As basic as it gets. Not much to dissect here. Just as you feel about "Crazy," the song gives me a great feeling. Love that tune.

2. So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry) (1983)

McDOWELL: This was written while they were on the road in California promoting "Murmur" when they first heard about the floods in the South Central area of Georgia and couldn't get in contact with anyone there because the phone lines were down. The band played on Late Night with David Letterman before anyone had heard it. They performed "“Radio Free Europe” first, then Dave let them play another song. They didn’t even have a title, it was that new. A very moving, heartfelt song.

1. Can’t Get There From Here (1985)

McDOWELL: Not a true deep track, but my favorite song, all things considered. Again, another one from Fables, this song contains all the unique elements that make R.E.M. a Hall of Fame group. You have Peter going from kind of strumming his chords and scratching in between on the beat to his apreggio finishes. You have Mills weaving and the fact that’s it yet another slice of Georgia life that makes them specific to that region, just a basic look at their deeply personal experiences without trying to create this “pop song.” It’s sort of like, “We’re writing this song about our friends and the people in our lives, if you wanna listen to it, cool.” Bill Berry did such a great job on those early records, with symbols, just with the high hat, how he transitioned. I think that drives the sound to a large degree, as well.

INSTREAM: Once you got to training camp this spring, did any of the players ask you about your musical past?

McDOWELL: Yeah, when I first got in, they sort of joked around about it.

INSTREAM: Let's talk more about the Ogden Raptors. How excited are you to be managing?

McDOWELL: I’m pretty fired up about it. Jumping into my first pro job as a manager should open me up to a lot more exposure of how things are run as a primary decision-maker rather than being pigeonholed as a pitching coach and not get to experience the whole other end of it.

INSTREAM: What are you most looking forward to in this position?

McDOWELL: I really loved coaching high school ball and this isn't such a huge jump from that in terms of working with young players. Half the kids are coming straight to me from the draft after signing their contracts. My job is to not only advance them in their game but to lock them in on the details of how the Dodgers want it done. I’m adding stuff where I can but for these first few weeks, I’m open ears, open eyes. It's really a whole a lot of “Is this what you’re teaching, is this not what you’re teaching” right now just to make sure we’re all on the same page.

INSTREAM: Has the famed Dodger Way remained the same all these years?

McDOWELL: I think it’s gone back and forth. Growing up as a kid in California, they were one of the teams that you just knew would develop quality players through their organization that were ready to come to big leagues prepared to play the game. I mean, just look at all those Rookie of The Year Award winners back in the ‘70’s and ‘80s. I think that there might’ve been a time where it slipped away a little bit, where there was a little too much turnover in philosophy, but they’re really trying to get back to that, you know, “Yeah, we’re gonna have star power, but we’re gonna out-play you with the little things, attention to detail," that sort of thing. You develop players that come up with a definitive mission to play the game how the Dodgers want it played. Running the bases right, the fielders being in the right spots at the right time, they’re going to play the game of Baseball – it won’t just be talent vs talent and let’s see who wins. There's a definitive plan here.

INSTREAM: Major Leaguers both current and retired have stressed to me the importance of coming into rookie ball with a confidence beyond the obvious ability that gets a player to this level. How will you handle young ballplayers who have been the best all their lives, best in their town, all through their high school years, suddenly facing superior opposing players?

McDOWELL: You know, Baseball’s the one sport, and I say this all the time, where prepared teams always have a chance to win. When you field a bigger, faster football team against a smaller team, they’re gonna kick the crap out of them. You face a much more talented group of basketball players, you are going to get your butts beat. In Baseball, you can put a really solid high school team against nine big leaguers, and the major leaguers can hit 15 line drives right at guys and you can win. That’s what makes the difference. I know people realize that, but it’s a different thing to build your organization on that foundation. How’s that for a company answer? (laughs)

INSTREAM: Jack, I'm glad we got the chance to talk some baseball with your music-

McDOWELL: -Hey, speaking of which, don’t forget, The Baseball Project is releasing their new album next week.

INSTREAM: Of course, they were just down in Austin at South by Southwest. An amazing collection of supergroup-level talent– Peter Buck & Mike Mills from R.E.M., Steve Wynn from The Dream Syndicate, Scott McCaughey from The Minus 5, a great Seattle-based band and Linda Pitmon on drums-

McDOWELL: Yup. They’ve crafted some really good songs around Baseball History. I wasn’t able to get down to SXSW to hear their new stuff. I actually got a call the other day to go down and perform “A Boy Named Cy” with them but the timing was tough, didn’t happen, which was a bummer. There’s been some talk about me playing on their next record, and if I can find two seconds, I’d love to do that.

INSTREAM: Any chance you guys perform together this summer?

McDOWELL: That would be cool. Up in Utah!

Blog image: 
The former All-Star Pitcher (and current minor league manager) gives us his R.E.M.deep tracks playlist.

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