Kerrang 1999 - the Ed we all miss
The Bare Necessities
Interview with Ed from Kerrang!, October 9, 1999
In the last five years, Live have sold more than 10 million records, yet no one knows who they are. But today, frontman Ed Kowalczyk is sitting in a London photo studio with no clothes on, ready to reveal all about his spiritual beliefs, his big hair days and why so many people want to fight him...
EDWARD KOWALCZYK Mark One is staring bug-eyed at his starter of 12 fresh oysters, which has arrived mounted atop a foot-high metallic contraption that resembles a skeletal darlek. "These are supposed to be powerful aphrodisiacs," says Ed, gurning at his wife Erin. "So you'd better be ready to hose me down later."
It's Monday night in London and Live's frontman is - metaphorically speaking, at least - letting his hair down in one of the capital's more self-consciously upmarket restaurants. He has, after all, spent most of the afternoon having his picture taken without any clothes on. He talks about everything from extreme weather conditions to the reformation of The Cult. He enjoys a good gossip and he smiles a lot. He is definitely not what you'd expect.
The popular perception that Edward Kowalczyk is of, let's be frank, a raving loon who found a spiritual Guru on the Internet: this is Edward Mark Two, and he's arrived for morning coffee at his London hotel the next day.
"I drove a lot through the desert of Southern California and wrote many of the songs for this record in that environment," he says of Live's new album 'The Distance to Here', his brow furrowed deeply. "The beauty of the Earth in that part of the country informed a lot of the elemental metaphors that I use on the record. It was if I disconnected from the world to find it again."
It is for statements like this that you, Edward Kowalczyk, are regularly referred to as a crackpot.
"Ha!" he hoots. "I'm aware of that definitely. Does it bother me in a place that would ever affect my vision? No. Believe me, my skin is tougher than most people would ever imagine."
BORN 28 years ago in the small village of York, Pennsylvania, Edward Kowalczyk and his younger brother were brought up by just their mother - a legal secretary - from an early age.
"I was seven when my mother and my father divorced," he says. "It definitely forced me into an early manhood. But I had a great relationship with my mother. She was a woman who could at once lay down the law and keep a very open-minded vision in her household - everything from teachings of Buddha to John Lennon. Although there was a Christian background, as much as most people in the States have growing up, it wasn't something that was beaten over my head. I was able to explore what I wanted to."
"We didn't grow up with lots of material possession and our happiness was never based on those things. I think my value of things now comes from that. Our happiness was always based on creating things. My mother played the piano, and from very early on my brother and I picked up the guitar. I was always singing."
Did you like going off on your own as a child?
"I've always been a loner. I've always been a guy who's just a very self-sufficient being and struggles at times to integrate myself with the world. Being in a band is like the ultimate therapy for me, because it forces me into a place of relationships with people at a very intense level."
It's hard to pin Edward Kowalczyk down on personal matters. Time and again, you'll be extracting information from him and he'll divert the conversation back to music in general and usually Live's in particular. He says his most vivid childhood memory was coming home and finding his mother crying; John Lennon had been shot.
BY HIS own admission, Kowalczyk spent his formative years in Live. He joined the band at 13, when after seeing Chad Taylor (guitar), Patrick Dahlheimer (bass) and Chad Gracey (drums) playing together at a local talent show ("They were definitely the coolest thing happening in school"), he invited himself along to one of their rehearsals.
Back then they were called Public Affection, and their first release was a self-financed cassette album titled 'Death of a Dictionary' in the late '80s.
"When I was about the years 13 through 17," says Kowalczyk, "even then, it was us against them in a way, because we had something different. My friends in high school - the guys who were headed to college - the moment they found out I was going to do the rock band thing there was, I think, a tinge of jealousy but also this sense of, 'Are you insane?!'. I remember feeling emboldened by that rather than crushed by it.
"We played our first dance in an ice-rink to 30 people. We were doing the more alternative mid- '80s songs, which was totally informed by Patrick's brother Matt. Without his record collection, we wouldn't have ended up succumbing to our teenage Duran Duran fandom. We all had pretty big hair a few years and there are some pretty damning photos: that's why I've shaved my head so young."
A FEW observations about Edward Kowalczyk. Over a meal he'll look you straight in the eye, but during an interview his chocolate brown eyes remain fixed at a point just beyond his feet. He smokes 'natural' cigarettes, although not in the company of his wife. When she joins us briefly at the hotel's coffee bar, he stabs one out and promises not to smoke too much. As soon as she's gone, he lights another.
In 1994, Live became America's biggest band in America as their Second Album 'Throwing Copper' sold by the million. When he finally did return to York, Kowalczyk was surprised to find that people wanted to fight him whenever he went to a bar. Partially because of this, he has since moved to Los Angeles.
"I remember the summer of '95 being a particularly violent time," he says. "There was definitely some jealousy going on. There was some distance between us and a lot of people we knew, too, that made us feel quite lonely. I did a lot of drinking. It was just dealing with all the stress."
"That whole period was like getting hit by a freight train. I've only recently begun to have a perspective on it, because there's some distance now. It was tremendously disorientating. The amount of pressure and the number of people who were talking about us - good and bad - completely freaked us out. Three years was what it took to adjust to a level of peace in our lives."
I met Edward Kowalczyk at the start and the end of the 'Throwing Copper' tour, and the contrast was marked. At the end of it, he seemed to have erected a wall around him to ensure that he didn't have to speak to anyone unless it was absolutely necessary.
"Yeah, exactly," he says now. "That wasn't a happy time for me."
Did you find yourself losing control?
"In a breakdown kind of way? No. And that's because of what I've embraced in my personal life. Even in my darkest and loneliest moments, my interest in spirituality has kept me with a sense of hope and an innate sense of a greater reality out there. When I was feeling so alienated by the success and the fame, I was still able to find that in myself."
"We've been able to stay pretty clear of hard drugs as well. But we don't deny the experimental natural excursions: they can benefit you if you use them in discretion and moderation. Always moderation. The hard drugs never appealed to me, because they don't lead anywhere positive."
IN 1997, Live released the 'Secret Samadhi' album. Less successful and much darker than its predecessor, it featured a collection of lyrics which were as strange and oblique and, well, mad as any you'll find on a mainstream rock record.
In the interviews that accompanied it. Kowalczyk announced he'd become immersed in the teachings of Adi Da, a guru he'd first discovered via the Internet. How people laughed.
"There was tremendous scepticism, sure," he says. "It didn't hurt me, because my core as a person is so utterly convinced of a greater reality than this one, I'm able to take those things in my stride. I've always had a very open-book policy with my life. I'm the type of guy who that dives in head first and doesn't see the depth marker on the side of the pool."
"One of the lessons I learnt from 'Secret Samadhi' is that I want to keep portions of my life for myself. Whether it be my spiritual practices or whatever."
There is also a feeling that dabbling in spiritualism and finding a guru is a very successful-rock-star thing to do.
"Ah yes, I've seen that. All I would say to anybody who thinks that about me is to do a little Live history lesson. Go back to our first album 'Mental Jewelry', when it was four guys with nothing to lose, and we've always been about that.
It isn't something that erupted because I moved to Hollywood and bought a yoga mat. It ain't about that man. I really do feel it's deeper than that, and it's something that my life has been about for a long time now."
A RECORD constructed to move stadia, 'The Distance To Here' is Live's best and, says Kowalczyk, their most optimistic yet. Lyrically, it once more finds their singer discussing his beliefs. On paper these can appear trite and simplistic (essentially, that love will conquer all). Of more gravity is the sense of doubt and fear at the heart of each song.
Today Kowalczyk initially says he does not want to talk about these beliefs in depth because he's "exposed" enough of himself in the lyrics. In reality, he's probably become accustomed to how badly they translate in print. He also struggles to articulate his personal views. He's undoubtedly sincere, but he often sounds as if he is quoting huge tracts from a textbook.
"I've really struggled on the lyrics with 'The Distance To Here'," he says, "and worked harder than I've ever done to maintain the universal appeal. It's dreadfully important to me to be able to relate to everyone."
Would you describe it as a spiritual record?
"In a way, yes. In that sense, it's probably the most complete and coherent statement of my intent as a singer, as a seeker and as a human being. If that is spiritual, which I feel it is, then that's something that I also want to feel and make up their own minds about."
"But more than use the word spiritual, I would describe it as human first. The word spiritual is so overused. It's like the word love, in that it really can't contain everything that it's meant to. My ultimate message in the record is that human and spiritual are one thing - that we are spiritual beings first and foremost. The world is fluid, and I've seen how it can move and grow and evolve into different understandings."
Do you believe in an afterlife?
"What I've been feeling about reincarnation lately is that life itself is evidence of no beginning and no end. If it's really over when it's over, then what are we doing here? I remember as a very young child hearing about the Big Bang and thinking it was bullshit. How could anything come from nothing?"
I've recently gotten into a writer named Ken Wilbur, who talks about integrating the greatest profundities that we've discovered as scientific beings with the most profound discoveries that spiritual teachers have made. Just meditating on that is enough stuff for many more records from my ass, that's for sure."
We were talking last night about the TV news coverage of events in East Timor. Doesn't that make you feel hopeless?
"Never hopeless. Absolutely distraught to the point of tears sometimes, but never hopeless. I really feel the evolution for mankind is choosing love. Consciously. There's a human tendency to look at the physical world for all of the answers, when they are maybe not there. They're in our own hearts."
WE DECIDE to conclude with a selection of random questions.
"Kerrang!'s really good at this," says Edward with a smile.
When did you last cry?
"Watching the news. Three weeks ago some madman opened fire on a community centre in LA. My wife and I were sitting there watching this unfold on TV. It was this image of these children who were spared being lead out hand-in-hand by their parents. Seeing their innocence and realising an adult had achieved this level of insanity just fucking broke my heart. Thinking about it now, I could cry."
When did you last hate yourself?
"Hate's a strong word. I don't know if I ever hate myself. That's a good question. I have bad days, but I don't ever really feel that I hate myself for it. I'll have to come back to that one..."
What do you dream about?
"My dreams are erotic. But I think I share that with many men."
What sort of drunk are you?
"A squinty-eyed one. You can always tell when I've had a few pints - my eyes go semi-shut. I become really relaxed. The same when I partake in the Amsterdam coffee special. Squinty-eyed and contemplative. I'm not a very righteous being."
When were you last envious?
"I can't even think. I dunno."
What do you always carry with you?
"A laptop. My prayer beads that were given to me by Adi Da. They've never left my person in the last three or four years."
"For Live, to touch as many people with this album as possible. My vision overall, though, is to world in the year 2000 that can begin to find itself in the mist of all this craziness. Find a means of hope and love. Because it's a scary world."