(extended version of an article originally published in Star News, with additional Q&A)
By Brian Tucker
In November 1998 at House of Blues in Myrtle Beach Candlebox finished their set and left the stage. Singer Kevin Martin returned for an encore and did something bold, especially for back then when everything gets covered on shows like American Idol. He sat alone onstage with an acoustic guitar and performed Prince’s “Purple Rain,” a song most would agree doesn’t need covering. But Martin killed it, made it his own that night, and it’s a concert highlight among the many shows I’ve seen in twenty-five years.
On Saturday night at Ziggy’s, Martin and Candlebox bassist Adam Kury kick off their acoustic tour.
“That’s something I would do occasionally if the guys didn’t want to go out right away to do an encore,” Martin said from his Los Angeles home. “I do it in a Lindsey Buckingham tuning, open F tuning is how I learned how to do it. I don’t know when I started doing it, maybe ’96.”
Now 46, Martin has a family and not immune to jury duty (I’ve been called fifteen times and none of my friends have”). He formed Candlebox in 1991 with three musicians from Seattle after moving there from San Antonio at fourteen. His mother was an opera singer, his father a jazz musician and Martin was a drummer before singing in Candlebox. He still considers himself one (“I’m the reluctant singer of this band”).
“I got my first drum set at twelve. That’s what I really wanted to do. I didn’t really know this was my voice.”
Candlebox is the “red headed step child” of the 90s Seattle music scene, he says, but they’ve always sounded like a hard rock band among grunge-era peers. Mark Yarm’s 2011 oral history of grunge music Everybody Loves Our Town paints a vivid portrait of the period and the high school level snobbery leveled at the band. The first band signed to Madonna’s Maverick label and their 1993 debut sold four million copies on the basis of hit songs “Far Behind” and “You.”
Madonna’s Maverick label). Martin praised the band’s manager at the time for keeping them focused and grounded (he also managed the Red Hot Chili Peppers). The problem was that the manager couldn’t keep Maverick on Candlebox’s success and trajectory. Focus was split between them and Deftones and Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill.
“It got out of hand. We couldn’t get the type of attention we needed from our A&R department, from the marketing department. (Maverick) pulled all their marketing away from Warner Brothers because they thought they could do it themselves. A lot of stuff like that happened which unfortunately led to the demise of the band (the band broke up but reformed years later).”
Candlebox was rushed to produce 1995’s Lucy and things were tougher making 1998’s Happy Pills. But things didn’t actually happen too fast for Candlebox, Martin cites things were happening too fast for Maverick. Turmoil forced the band on hiatus by 2000 but they reformed in 2006, releasing new albums in 2008 and 2012. Since 2010 they have performed three times for troops stationed overseas.
“There’s so much misconception of the band. (We were) six years younger than Eddie Vedder, Layne Staley, Chris Cornell, so there’s a lot of difference between a sixteen and twenty year old. To this day, it’s still the thing that’s the most daunting for the band. We get no respect from our own community as musicians. It is unfair, (things) in (Yarm’s) book pissed me off. There were a lot of things in there I didn’t even know.”
Their debut album charted well into 1994 and the band performed as part of Woodstock ’94, playing in front of 200,000 plus people. Martin recalls stepping onstage for the first song, how the show’s sound waves worked and how the audience moved to them. During “Change” at the stage’s edge he watched in disbelief at all those people.
“Oh man, just the whole experience, it was so big. Stepping out on the stage for your first song of the set. It’s like the rolling tide of the ocean. It’s unbelievable. You can’t fathom what its like to sing in front of 200,000 plus people. It’s just insane. You play in front of 10,000 or 20,000 people and you think this is a lot of people. Multiple by ten, it’ll freak you out.”
Martin speaks a little softer after mentioning that the band is a quarter century old (“Yeah…it’s pretty weird, means I’m old”) but he hasn’t slowed. If not working with Candlebox he’s in other bands or dabbling in music for independent films. He’s also in a better place after experiencing success in the middle of the grunge explosion.
“I have a son that makes me laugh every day and a beautiful wife. I’m very lucky. I live in Los Angeles, its 75 degrees and sunny outside. I woke up today and life is good.”
Additional Q&A with Kevin Martin
I saw your solo performance of “Purple Rain” at a House of Blues show in 1998. That was bold to me. Even now as people cover everything on singing competition TV shows, it still seems bold.
Martin: That’s something I would do occasionally if the guys didn’t want to come back out right away to do an encore. It was one of those songs, and I do it in this open tuning, a Lindsey Buckingham tuning, open F tuning is how I learned how to do it. Its one of those things, the guys don’t want to go our right now, I’ll go out and do that. Thank you for that. Its one of my favorite songs, and I don’t know when I started doing it, maybe ’96. I know I used to do PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me” and I did Bush a couple of times. I would do “Over the Hills and Far Away.” I don’t where it started but I enjoyed it. I’m glad you did.
Is this the first acoustic tour for the band?
Martin: We’re kicking off in Wilmington, it starts there. It’s me and Adam (Kury), the bass player. We tend to do acoustic shows more so than taking the whole band out, five guys trying to travel around. The other guys don’t enjoy them so Adam and I get a car and drive around.
It’s more like the old days?
Martin: Its fun, just sit in a car and drive all day, listen to audio books or talk about life, whatever, and breathe it all in all day long instead of being in a tour bus driving over night and the wake up in town. Adam and I, we’re the guys that just kind of like driving, you know what I mean? It is like how the band really started – get in the van back in the day. It’s great, we love it.
Is the set list a cross section of Candlebox, deep cuts?
Martin: The set list has a couple songs from Lucy which people haven’t heard in a long time, of course “Far Behind” “Cover Me” and “Change.” I’m doing some stuff I haven’t done in a while. I do “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin which I really, really love doing. It’s a fifteen song set.
Is it fair to say the band is a quarter century old?
Martin: (quieter) Yeah, its pretty weird. Pretty weird, means I’m old. It’s a shocker. This is the 20th anniversary of Lucy this October, our second record.
Is an acoustic performance more challenging? Some bands can hide behind being loud.
Martin: It really is, for us, we revisit all the songs, how to make them work acoustically rather than approach them as the same song live, the whole band and electric. We do it in a capo position in the seventh fret. We do the same thing for the song “Drown” from the album Lucy. We use a capo on the third fret for a song called “Vulgar Before Me” we move those chords around so they sound a little bit more like ear candy rather than try to play as it is on the record where that doesn’t work out on an acoustic guitar.
We change thinking patterns, it’s a challenge, and it’s a challenge for the show. You’re so used to doing something live for 20-plus years to sit down and remember to perform it in the new version. We rehearse for a week before going out and doing these. We hunker down here at my house and play acoustics for about four or five hours a day. It’s not like we’re used to doing the songs (that way).
You have a unique voice for rock and roll. Did you find your voice early on?
Martin: I didn’t, I was a singer in choir in first or second grade. I did that all the way through my senior year in school. There was always good looking girls in choir and it was an easy elective to take. I was a drummer, I started playing musical instruments in the fourth grade, started with the French horn and the clarinet and Spanish flute and other things. I really gravitated toward the drums around the age of eleven. I got my first set at twelve and that’s what I really wanted to do. I was playing drums in bands until started in Candlebox. I didn’t really know this was my voice.
How much did playing horn instruments inform your singing?
Martin: I don’t know, maybe just learning how to breathe. French horn, that whole process of blowing through the little mouth piece requires so much control. Maybe that helped, I don’t know. Music has always been in my life, but singing-wise, I don’t know where that power came from. Maybe I just like to hear myself talk so much I’ve built up the strength to sing loud. Rhythmically, I know playing drums really helps with what I do as a singer. The rhythmic of approaching verses and choruses and movement around those types of things, other than that it’s a natural progression of how I started, I suppose.
“Far Behind” is about Mother Love Bone singer Andy Wood?
Martin: Yeah, Andy was a good friend and super talented obviously. One of those guys when you met him he never forgot you and you never forgot him. When he passed away, it was about a year to the day that he passed away, when we were recording in the studio that I changed the lyrics to the song.
It used to be “Now Andy,” and I changed them to “Now, maybe…” because I didn’t want it to be so blatantly obvious that it was a song about the death of a friend. I didn’t tell people for the longest time it was about him, friends and people close to me, they knew. Andy was about six or seven years older than me. He would have be twenty one, twenty two around then (the singer died in March 1990 from a heroin overdose).
Did that help you to stay away from drugs, or try to?
Martin: No, no, that was just sad. I’d already been away from drugs, three or four years, before then. I did it all between fifteen and eighteen. It wasn’t something I was tempted with at all. I was a bit more of a drunk than a drug addict. It was just a sad, sad situation unfortunately when he passed away. He obviously left a massive mark on the Seattle scene.
Of the 90s era of music, what stands out?
Martin: The main thing I remember about the scene and the music that came out is the honesty to it, you just don’t have anymore. Everybody is trying to sound like everybody else now. That sincerity that happened in the 90s is gone. The Blind Melon’s of the world. You’ll never hear another Blind Melon, like them or not. Shannon Hoon was a singer that was out of his mind brilliant. That’s gone.
There are bands out there, don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of sincerity out there right now. But the bands that are huge like the huge bands in the 90s – Nirvana, Pearl Jam, they’re not writing those songs right now. There’s just not that sincerity from those types of bands.
“Everybody Loves Our Town” shows snobbery about the band being from Seattle.
Martin: I think there’s so much misconception of the band. (We were) five and six years younger than Eddie Vedder, Layne Staley, Jerry Cantrell, Chris Cornell, Andy, so there’s a lot of difference between a sixteen and twenty year old. In that city, Seattle, we’ve always been the red headed step child. To this day, it’s still the thing that’s the most daunting for the band. We get no respect from our own community, musicians.
You later toured with Henry Rollins. He mentioned once about stopping and just staring at the audience to never forget that sight.
Martin: The funny thing, we were about to tour Europe with Henry. He was on the day after us (Woodstock ’94). I watched his set and he did do that. He stopped at looked out. I think everyone did that. I know I did that when we were doing the song “Change.” I just sat there on the edge of the stage and looked and thought I can’t believe how many people are here. I’ve never forgotten it, honestly never forgotten it. We were there to see Green Day with the mud fight. We were on tour with Metallica and watched their set. The Chili Peppers set was great. We played on Friday night with Live, Collective Soul, Violent Femmes. The whole thing for me was just a great experience.
Playing for the troops in Kuwait, put that into perspective, as a band and an individual.
Martin: We’ve done it a few times. It’s very emotional. My dad is a WWII veteran. He’s almost twenty years older than my mother. For me it’s an honor to play for these young boys and girls serving our country and there to protect us. It’s an honor to do it and not in any way shape or form do I take lightly. It’s emotionally overwhelming, it’s physically draining. It’s amazing what they do on a daily basis in Dubai and Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s physically exhausting, and to go over there and play for them it’s an honor, a pleasure, the least I can do.
You learn something new every day and meet some new every minute. It’s life changing. It’s an experience every band that has the opportunity should do. It makes you respect what your craft is, it makes you thankful. (As difficult as it is to be a musician) it’s nothing like being in the military.
“Blossom” is a great song – can you share the story behind it?
Martin: It’s written for an ex-girlfriend if mine, a girl named Gretchen. We needed one or two more songs and Maverick asked to hop into the studio to produce a couple more demos. That’s one I had written a couple weeks before signing the record deal.
Happy Pills was your third album, the last for a while. What surrounded the writing of that album.
Martin: It’s an interesting record. The band, we were trying to find our footing at that point. The label was really, really pulling away from us. They were going in a new direction. We had a new A&R guy, a new general manager, all these new people working for the label. We didn’t know that they had all these new projects. There was a lot of drugs and alcohol abuse in the band at that point. It was very difficult to get things done.
Dave Abbruzzese (original Pearl Jam drummer and played on Ten and later Candlebox’s drummer for almost two years) had replaced drummer Scott Mercado by that point and he and I were doing the majority of the writing. It was a record that took a while to get made and get written. It’s not my favorite record but there are four songs that I think are stellar. I liked the production, but I don’t love it. I don’t like the mix so much but, like I said, I think there’s some brilliance on that album. It’s not in my opinion, as good as our Into the Sun (2008) or our last record Love Stories and Other Musings (2012). It’s just a record where we were trying to find our footing.
And the song “Breakaway”?
Martin: To me it’s a summer time song. There’s something about it I do like. I don’t like the production of the song and I don’t like how my voice is produced on it. I do like the song but it’s not one of my favorites. It’s a song I would play live. It’s not a song I gravitate to.
Do you feel you’re a better band than during the hectic pace of the 90s? Are you happier?
Martin: Yeah, it’s probably another part of why I’m writing the music I’m writing. I need something terrible to happen so I can write one of those records that sells a bunch of copies. No, I am very happy. I have a son that makes me laugh every day and a beautiful. I’m very lucky. I live in Los Angeles and its 75 degrees and sunny outside. I woke up today and life is good.
Has it changed how you write songs?
Martin: Totally. They’re in every song I write.
What are the crowds like now, new fans or adults who were college kids in the 90s?
Martin: We see a lot of parents. One of the craziest is parents that had children who now are married and have children coming to our shows. We’re seeing third generation at our shows which is really cool.
Tell me about your first concert.
Martin: My first concert was Black Flag, Dead Kennedys and Butthole Surfers in San Antonio, Texas. It was the greatest experience of my life, that’s one of the things I talked with Henry about it on that tour we did Europe in September ’94. Of course he remembered everything about the show which is what he does. He’s a no bullshit dude. I had just turned thirteen and it was life altering. I knew I had to do something in music.
And you saw The Cult perform as a teen?
Martin: I saw them when Guns ‘n Roses opened for them, another time playing with Jane’s Addiction. I saw them on the Love album tour, which is a magical record. Brilliant band. Ian (Astbury) and Billy (Duffy) you think about The Cult and its Ian and Billy and seventeen other musicians over twenty plus years. We did a show with Ian when he went solo – The New Bohemians. It was strange because we got to spend some time with him. Which was weird, growing up with them seeing them live, thinking he’s this big crazy spirit. And you sit down and have a beer with him and it kind of trips you out. Great guy, very cool, very talented.
Have you gotten to meet a lot of your heroes? Is it bizarre?
Martin: I have, I’ve been very fortunate. It’s funny, because I’m a super fan. I’m the reluctant lead singer of this band, I should be the drummer. I’m not the guy walking around going ‘I’m the lead singer of Candlebox.’ It’s always strange to meet these people because I’m a super fan. I kind of wig out. I met Neil Young. Touring with Rush, it took three weeks to sink in that we were supposed to be on tour. It’s humbling. It’s exciting. Its nerve wracking because you know you’re going to say something stupid. It is what it is.
Was Rush helpful?
Martin: Yeah, those guys directed us on several occasions as to what to recognize about the audience, how to play the show, if this song isn’t working or to move on from it.
Do you have a favorite Candlebox song to perform?
Martin: I’d have to say it’s probably “Them Eyes” on the Love Stories and Other Musings record.
Does playing some songs ever get old?
Martin: No, you have to snap back into what it is that you wrote it about, even though it kind of keeps you there. The funny thing is forgetting the lyrics to a song like “Far Behind” which I’ve done twice over the last year. Because I kind of get lost in it, and for me it’s that I need to check my head when you get there for those songs. For so long it was paint-by-numbers for me – I switched it up to have fun and fell right back into the paint-by-numbers thing. It’s a little strange, but even though they’re twenty years old they’re, I still love playing them.
You endured your share of label turmoil.
In 2003 the label terminated my contract but I had to deliver a fourth attempt at a record, which never happened. So from 2003 until 2005 I did The Hiwatts as a side project and never turned an album into Maverick, so I was free and clear as of 2005. We got a phone call that the Best Of record was coming out through Rhino. I called the guys and said listen there is a Best Of coming out, it’s probably a good time to maybe consider putting this thing back together. We are free and clear from Maverick, we don’t have any obligations to them, we can do what we want to do and that’s kind of how it happened.
You can always say, “Fuck you, I’ve sold a million records.” At the end of the day, it’s always nice to feel like you have some kind of value in the marketplace. It’s nicer to know that your peers respect what you do. For us, “grunge-lite” is such a funny term. I think the only band that could ever really be called Grunge was Tad. Nirvana is a punk band. Soundgarden was a fucking rock band, an acid rock band. Alice in Chains was a fucking metal band. Pearl Jam, I dare say those first two records were pop rock albums, almost arena rock.
“Grunge-lite” was such an odd term to be thrown at us. We were five years younger than any of the guys in those bands. When you’re an 18-year-old kid in Seattle in 1987 and everything’s blowing up and you’re in the mosh with your buddies, you realize that you have to wait until you’re legal to play the bars. By the time we came about in 1991, things had cooled down considerably.