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Mike DeWald interviews Kiefer Sutherland

Mike DeWald, producer of The Drive, met with Kiefer Sutherland yesterday, who will be performing with his band in San Francisco next week. Mike's interview covers Kiefer's experience as an actor and songwriter, and gets to the heart of his motivation as an actor, songwriter and singer.


Mike DeWald:
You probably know our next guest as an actor, playing Jack Bauer on Fox’s 24, and President Tom Kirkman on ABC’s Designated Survivor. He also has the Kiefer Sutherland Band, they’re heading back out on the road. He’s got a new album out and he’ll be at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on May 4th. He is Kiefer Sutherland. Kiefer, thanks for joining us here on The Drive.

 

Kiefer Sutherland

Kiefer Sutherland on stage.

Kiefer Sutherland:
Hello Mike. How are you?

 

MD:
Good, thank you for doing this.

KS:
Thanks for taking the time.

MD:
Sure. Kind of a general question for you, how do you compare, kind of, the artistic experience of acting and directing to writing and performing on the stage? Are there any similarities between the two worlds or are they very different animals?

KS:
I thought they were going to be... I thought I was going to be able to use thirty years of working as an actor, certainly, that that was going to help me on stage. And I was wrong. The one part of that component that I left out in my thinking about it was that for thirty years I’ve been able to work as an actor and have the character. When I go on stage with the music, the songs are very personal and they’re mine and I don’t have... it’s kind of, I leave myself in a more open position than I think maybe I ever have before. So they ended up being incredibly different for me. And so it’s almost impossibler to compare them except for the fact that in both circumstances I’m telling stories and that seems to be the common thread and the thing that I enjoy the most.

MD:
Given your packed film schedule, filming such such as Designated Survivor, you’ve also managed to have a pretty intense touring schedule with the band as well. What’s the experience been like on the road for you?

KS:
It ended up being... we played about 75 to 85 dates last year. Uh, it became one of the most exciting things that I’ve ever had an opportunity to do. Kind of as I intimated earlier, it requred me opening up in a way that I haven’t done before, and by that I just mean in the context of explaining where I was when I wrote this song and we might have this between the audience and I. We might have this one thing in common. And I just enjoyed it imensely. Certainly at the beginning, I doubt that anything ever made me that scared, uh, in the first few shows that we would play, and by that I mean maybe twenty. Um, then for a variety of reasons things just happen and it ended up becoming, uh, a whole new way for me to kind of partake in telling a story that is about something and that is really the driving force of what excites me about working as an actor as well. There was something about he excitement and the newness of it, and it really has, you know, in many ways, it has transferred over to the acting as well. I think I approach Designated Survivor with maybe a more open sensibility than I have before. And so it’s kind of re-energized me in a creative way. So I guess, a long answer for that, sorry.

MD:
That’s OK. So, given all that time on the road, what did you learn about yourself and what did you learn about music?

KS:
I think primarily the biggest thing is that I won’t quit. As I said earlier, you know, the first few shows it was not easy. It was... I had to force myself to get out there and do it, and, you know, I think I was very nervous and, kind of, did not know what the outcome was going to be. But I pushed through it and I think that is something that I have done all my life. You know, you just kind of push through it. And then I got to a place where I actually really enjoyed it and I can’t say enough about the audiences that we got to play to over the last year and a half. But there was a thing that I started to really feed off of and, ... but I guess the thing I learned about myself the most would be that if I task myself with something, I’m going to follow it through, for better or worse.

MD:
So, a number of California dates coming up for you on this tour. You’re playing the massive Stagecoach Festival down there in Southern California, along with our Great American Music Hall up here in San Francisco on May 4th. What have the California shows been like for you so far?

KS:
Well, this is the first place. I live in Los Angeles and we would kind of play everywhere but Los Angeles, but we would play south of here. Um, so this is where, for me, it started. And I can’t say how generous and kind the audiences have been, and supportive. So this will always have a special place for me. With regard to playing something like Stagecoach, you know, we were just so kind of thrilled to have been invited, when you take a look at the acts that are on that list. To have been given an opportunity to play for an hour or forty-five minutes, is just a real privilege. So that kind of a thing, we’re just grateful for the opportunity to play something like, you know, a little bar or the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, that gets to be a really really special thing because those are much more intimate experiences. And the thing that I’ve enjoyed about our shows the most is, at the end of the show, whatever preconceived notions that I might have had about an audience or whatever preconceived notions they might have had about me, hopefully at the end of it we get to realize that we have probably a lot more in common than you would normally think. And I think that that shared experience has been amazing, certainly from my perspective. And again, that started here in California and I’ll always be grateful for that.

MD:
Now a little earlier, you mentioned about playing a character on TV. Do you bring that into songwriting at all? Are you writing as a character or are you writing as yourself?

KS:
Uh, well yeah, I mean, I’ve spent a lifetime kind of playing characters, and I think, when I started writing and when I started writing a lot more, the things that I would draw on were kind of the personal experiences that I had gone through. And like anybody else, they were every kind of general things, loss of love, finding love. I’ve unfortunately over the course of my life lost some really good friends way to early, so I would write about about that. And it just became the easiest thing. I think the only song on the record that is not a personal story would be a song called Shirley Jean, which is about a man’s last night before his execution in prison. But everything else is just what was in front of me and maybe I wasn’t, or am not, evolved enough as a writer to spend a lot of time trying to craft or creat a story. When... I never kept a diary in my life, this ended up maybe becoming that for me.

MD:
Right. Now, was it a little scary to open up that diary for everyone to read?

KS:
Well, that was the thing that I wasn’t expecting, you know? I figured that thirty years of being on stage or in front of the camera, I would be able to figure out how to go out and figure out how to perform, and that would be that. But all of a sudden, when I would start to say, you know, I was in this place when I wrote this song, and this is what I was writing about, I realized I was talking about my life and so I put myself in a position to open up maybe in a way that maybe I wasn’t prepared for. And that took a little bit of an adjustment. And I have to say, when I finally did, and I just came clean with it, and this song is about this and da-da-da-da-da. It was a really freeing experience for me and I think that’s part of why enjoy doing this as much as I do.

MD:
You can hear a number of influences in your music. There’s some Rock, there’s some Country, there’s some Americana in there. Were there any artists in particular that helped shape your sound?

KS:
Um, well, gosh, I’d have to go all the way back. Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote such, kind of, even though the production on a lot of their music was really big, the lyrics and the songs are really intimate. That’s what I was starting to listen to when I was eight or nine years old. Tom Petty is probably my favorite America artist. I don’t think he’s ever written a bad lyric. So, and if you listen to his records, there’s an incredible amount of diversity, where he can go from a real Rock song to kind of a Country feeling song to very bluesy stuff as well. Um, I would never ever put myself in the same sentence with those people. But theye are certainly people that I’ve listened to over the years that have really, really inspired me. But the list is so long, you know. The Band, just sonically, The Band is something that if we could ever get a sound that was that kind of warm and sophisticated, would be something I would give my eye teeth for. It really crosses a wide spectrum. When I think of writing, I think of Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. They told really linear stories. I think that’s my real attraction to Country music. So those are just some samples of people that have certainly affected me as a listener.

MD:
Now, sure when you got into all of this, there would be the criticism, “Oh, he’s an actor trying to get into music...” Did that come into your mind at all, when you decided this was something that you wanted to pursue?

KS:
Well, I’m certainly aware of it and I’m certainly aware of the stigma of an actor doing music. I probably, as you kind of layed out in that question, I probably wasn’t smart enough to realize the potential position that I was putting myself in until I actually got on stage. And again, it was that moment when I actually had, what I felt I had to explain, when I wrote this song, and why I wrote it. And I realized, regardless if you think I’ve lived a public life, I have, but I’ve always managed to know that a lot of stuff that is said just simply isn’t true and I would know the truth, kind of, for myself. When you start actually explaining the truth in the middle of a concert, I felt really exposed and I remember it making me feel kind of very guarded and uncomfortable at first. I think it was a show in Ann Arbor and I think maybe because the audience was sitting down and it was maybe a little more quiet, I just eneded up having more of a conversation with this audience in the middle of these songs. And it was one of the most freeing kind of enjoyable experiences I had ever had. So it was, kind of having to push to a point and then you either break through that barrier or you don’t. And lucky for me, I did. And I have to be honest, you know, you never control what the press is going to say or not say but I do think you have some control in the context of a show, and to the people that have chosen to come to that show. And that experience for me is one of the, kind of, I would have to be honest, one of the great experiences of my life. To be able to tell stories in three, four minutes, through a song, and kind of point out that, if there’s anybody in the audience that lost someone that they loved, way to early in their life, this is a shared experience. If there is anything, ah, if you’ve had your heart broken, in this fashion, at a really young age, then we have that in common. So this idea that we can leave a show at the end of the night, and whatever preconceived notions we had about each other at the beginning, a lot of that’s been broken down, that for me is just a really special experience.

MD:
Now let’s go way back to the beginning, here, I think it was early ‘90s, you got into Country music, and that kind of opened the doors for this project. Talk a little bit about how this came together for you.

KS:
I was rodeoing. I got into calf roping and team roping and I would tour, kind of California, Arizona, New Mexico, west Texas and sometimes into Utah. And I would travel with two cowboys, a guy named John English and another guy named Steve Gelchin. And we would haul all the horses together, kind of one rope into another. And Country music was on the radio and that was kind of really my first exposure to it in kind of a heavy way.

You know, we’re driving sometimes six, seven, eight hours a day. So I was listening to it all the time. And that’s when I started really to get into Merle Haggard, to Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristoferson. And the reason why those people stood out to me was just their songwriting. They told linear stories that were really, I’m not going to say, they weren’t clean, but there was a simplicity to them and they were so direct. And it just became a kind of style of writing that I really, really respected and really understood, and I found great, kind of, symbiosis with those songs, and connected to them. And that was in the 90s and it was through rodeoing and it’s been something that I just really loved. And again, I really believe very strongly that one of the great things about a great novel or a great film or a great song is that whatever you might be going through in your life, you realize you’re not the only one going through it. There’s a real comfort in that. Country music, from a lyrical point, has been my strongest kind of, identity tool towards that, than any other genre.

MD:
All right, you can catch him at the Great American Music Hall, in San Francisco, on May 4, with his band. You can catch him on ABC on Designated Survivor. The lastest album is Down in a Hole, you can find it anywhere, in stores and online. He is Keifer Sutherland. Keifer, appreciate it, thank you for taking the time, and good luck on the road.

KS:
Mike, thank you very much, man, thank you.

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