Monday, May 12, 2014

Music Weird interviews Chris and Lorin Rowan of the Rowans

Peter Rowan will perform at the John Hartford Memorial Festival in Bean Blossom, Indiana, at the end of the month (May 29-31), so I thought it would be a good time to post my interview with Chris and Lorin Rowan, who recorded with Peter as "The Rowans" in the 1970s.

I worked on two Rowans CDs for Collectors' Choice Music: a reissue of their debut album, The Rowans (1975), and a twofer that contained their second and third albums, Sibling Rivalry (1976) and Jubilation (1977). I interviewed Chris and Lorin for the reissue of The Rowans.

Before the Rowans' debut album, Chris and Lorin had recorded one album for Columbia/CBS as the Rowan Brothers (1972).

My interview with Lorin and Chris Rowan took place in 2002.

Talk about what you did before The Rowans.

Chris: Greg, in 1970, mandolin player David Grisman and music agent Richard Loren [The Doors, etc.] asked me and my brother Lorin if we ever thought of doing something professional together. We got together, exchanged songs, and started working together, and got signed to CBS Records a year later. 

Around 1973 our brother Peter had been playing with a group called Seatrain and decided to go out on his own. The three of us came together in Stinson Beach, California, and got signed to Asylum Records by Davia Geffen, which resulted in The Rowans. Before all this, I had a rock band in Boston called the Ziet and later pursued a singer-songwriter career, which took me to England, where I hoped to get involved with the Beatles's record company, Apple. But that's another story.

What's different about being in a family band?

Chris: I think the difference or dynamics between a family band and a band of mutual interests is that in a family band, not only did we grow up together and share our space with mom an dad, but we share memories of childhood and endless stories of sibling interaction—the good, the bad, and the ugly. As to a non-family band, where creative endeavors can be as great or greater, there isn't that primal family connection.

Why the name change from "The Rowan Brothers" to "The Rowans"?

Lorin: To differentiate from Chris and my first record, as a duo, before Peter's involvement. 

ChrisWhat sets The Rowans album apart from the CBS Record and Sibling Rivalry was that it was our first record of the three of us and our three-part harmony.

How did your move from Columbia/CBS to Asylum happen?

LorinClive Davis signed me and Chris to Columbia—with David Grisman producing, using the pseudo-name "David Diadem"—but after our first record, Clive was fired for some alledged scandal involving misuse of company funds for personal use. Not sure about the truth of these accusations, so don't quote me on the reasons he was relieved, but it was big news at the time. 

Billboard, 1973

Previous to signing with Columbia, we had been offered a deal by David Geffen for his new label at the time, Asylum, but Clive then heard us, and after a bidding war, we signed with Columbia. However, after Clive's release from Columbia, our rapport with Columbia suffered to the point of discontent, and we got out of our deal with them.

By this time, Peter was out in northern California where Chris and I were, and we decided to become a brother trio act, a lifelong dream of ours. We went back to Geffen, and without playing a note, he offered to sign us on the spot as the three brothers, hence the name change to "The Rowans."

On the cover, Lorin, you're credited with playing the "ganja boom boom."

Lorin: "Ganja boom boom" was a nickname we came up with in the studio with Richie Podolor as we added my dumbek drum to a track. The name also reflected a bit of humor we were experiencing—kind of a cosmic joke involving the Arabian roots of the drum and the psychotropic influences from that part of the world showing up on the new West Coast horticulture scene on the rise at that time.

The band you used on The Rowans included David Hayes, Russ Kunkel, and Jack Bonus. You had played on Jack Bonus' 1972 album, Russ Kunkel is a well-known session drummer, and David Hayes was Van Morrison's bassist and band leader. How did you hook up with these guys, and did they tour with you?

Lorin: Originally, we met David Grisman through brother Peter in Boston where we grew up. They formed Earth Opera together in late '60s. After they broke up, Grisman, as a producer, started to make a compilation record called Record, featuring several performers that he had an interest in producing, including Jack Bonus, Chris Rowan, Maria Muldaur, among others. This record never was released, but it did inspire Grisman to further pursue producing. He thought Chris and I should join up as a duo act and would have a greater chance at the big time if we did so. Peter was in Seatrain at this time.

By the fall of '70, we all decided to move to Marin County where Grisman had a musical frienship with Jerry Garcia. Jack Bonus was part of this, too. David was going to produce Chris and I, as well as Jack, and find us each our own record deal. So, we got to know Jack very well and loved his playing. He finally made his own record, although without Grisman producing, but we did sing on it. Richie Podolor suggested Russ Kunkel on our request for a top-notch drummer. David Hayes we had playing with us up in Northern California where we all lived, but we didn't have a drummer at the time. Locally, in the SF Bay area, Hayes and Bonus did play with us regionally, but not on national tour.

Any comments about the songs your wrote for The Rowans?

Lorin: "Take It" ["Take It as It Comes"] was a response to perservering in the up-and-down world of the music business, not giving up as things didn't go the way you planned.

Chris"Me Loving You" is the hope that we can make it through our challenges together and stay true to our higher self. "Man-Woman" represents the chi/prana energy in a spiritual connection of the human cycle on Earth between the sexes. "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" is my personal and narrative belief that, through life's journey, in the end it's my choice of how I accept this experience on the physical plane.

"Take It as It Comes" b/w "Thunder on the Mountain" was one of the two singles released from the album. I don't have this 45, but I'm assuming that "Take It as It Comes" was the A-side. It didn't make the charts, but did you have any regional or international success with the single? How did the album do overall, from a commercial standpoint?

Lorin: The single didn't do anything for us. In fact, the only one that did is a song of Chris's, "If I Only Could," from the next album, Sibling Rivalry, that followed this one. From a commercial standpoint, the album did mediocre. There was no hit single to kick it into the charts. However, we did tour, especially East Coast, and established a fan base. 

By the way, we've never even seen a royalty statement by the record company, so I don't really know how many sales there were.

I remember that "Here Today" won some radio airplay, like a whose-song-do-you-like-the-best contest. At least that's what the record company told us, but I don't think we ever saw any chart action.

The album notes show that you had some interest in Tibetan mysticism. 

ChrisPeter is the one who's into Tibetism. As far as I know, this didn't create a cult following that the Rowans are Tibetan mystics.

Any anecdotes or interesting stories about the recording of the album, the photo shoot for the cover, or working with Richard Podolor and Asylum?

Lorin: Richie Podolor and his engineer Bill Cooper were really professional to work with. Richie had his own studio, American Recording, in Studio City, Los Angeles, where we worked. He was and is actually an exceptional guitarist  He played most of the stuff you hear on Three Dog Night hits that he produced.

When we took a dinner break, we would go to a good Chinese restaurant and we all would order Mai Tais. A phrase we made up and sung was "My tie is your Tai." We had some laughs.

As producer, he and us picked through our material for the album, and we all thought we had something great when we were finished. I think we slipped through the marketing cracks of the record company. They didn't hear the single, and without that, they basically weren't into promoting that album. Too bad! 

Having Geffen sign us without even playing was pretty cool. He said, "What do you guys want to do?" We said, "Make the best successful records possible. Do you want to hear a few tunes?" and he said, "I know what you sound like. I don't need to hear it. Go to it!"

A well-known photographer, Norman Seef, took the cover shots. It was very L.A., with fans blowing our hair while we sipped wine and joked around, posing this way and that. Richie also allowed us some free time to make a Christmas singing tape to send our mother back in Boston. We spent a whole day recording a bunch of little tunes with some fun vocals and guitars and some Christmas stuff.

Laughing a lot when we went out to eat with our producer, Richie Podolor. And maybe breathing helium if there was a high note that I or the others couldn't reach. It turned more into imitating the munchkins from the Wizard of Oz.

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