Greg Kuehn has rocked the keyboards for T.S.O.L. (True Sounds of Liberty) for the better part of 3 decades and Sunday, July 20th at Alex’s Bar in Long Beach, CA was no exception. Those who know Greg in that role, may be unaware of his vast repertoire of other projects as both a musician and composer. By the Barricade was on hand for the show and talked with Greg about his current work and early days in music. The full interview follows.
By the Barricade: Tonight you are playing with T.S.O.L. but you are also in Suedehead, and Black Diamond Riders . You just finished a series of shows with X and you also are heading up Peligro Music and Sound, and plenty more. How do you juggle the various projects and bands that you are involved with?
Greg Kuehn: It’s just good time management. The shows are usually on weekends or at night so if I have a show on Friday, I need to stop what I am doing by 3 to swing by to pick up my gear and get to sound check. I need to start early that day or make sure things are taken care of earlier in the week. The hardest thing is making sure all of the composing work is done. Those things sometimes have really hard deadlines so I make sure I stay on top of that the best I can and fit the other stuff around that. When I know in advance, I can invite the client to the show instead of just saying I don’t have time to get it done. People sometimes understand but I am pretty used to working with the hard deadlines and just get it done.
By the Barricade: When you were a kid did you aspire to be a musician?
Greg Kuehn: I did, I always knew I wanted to do it for a living, since I was 8 at least. I had piano lessons beginning at age
6 so it was pretty much my whole life.
Greg Kuehn: I played piano all the way through adolescence and I was a classical piano major for a year. The T.S.O.L. opportunity came up and I really wanted to do that. I wanted to make a record and go on tour. I didn’t actually finish, but I did go back and do a little bit more, but gigs would come up and the next thing I knew I was busy.
By the Barricade: Were you interested in punk music from the beginning?
Greg Kuehn: I loved it when it all started happening. I had a buddy that was a writer for Flipside and we lived on the same street and were friends since we were little kids and we kind of got into it together. We turned each other on to records and listened to stuff like all those great bands: The Buzzcocks and The Damned, The Clash, The Ramones. We just thought, “Wow, this stuff is all new!” I was a big Zepplin fan and into prog stuff like YES and Genesis and all of that because of all of the technical stuff. I thought it was cool and I wanted to play like Keith Emerson. But when punk rock came along it was new and cool and I was immediately attracted to it and thought fuck all that other stuff.
By the Barricade: I’ve talked with a number of other punk musicians who didn’t even know what they were doing when they started. Was that a challenge for you being more of a trained musician?
Greg Kuehn: Not really. It was good to have that too. I am mostly a piano player, but I also play guitar so even back then, I had instruments that I played that I didn’t know everything about. It was good to play that kind of stuff. When you are into those big rock bands it seems unattainable, but when you are into punk rock you think, “Wow, I can just write songs and do it!” You form a band and learn a lot. The DIY thing was good to have in my repertoire of stuff.
By the Barricade: You chose to make the transition into T.S.O.L., what influenced you to join them?
Greg Kuehn: It was a band that I admired. I wanted to make records and go on tour and be in a band. I thought the band was cool and I already liked them. It was real and seemed like it was what I was studying to do. It was the opportunity it was here and I thought I would just do this. It’s available to me and they were always a progressive band. The fact that they wanted a keyboard player, wanted to do different stuff and it was never your typical punk rock band. It wasn’t just labeled hardcore, it was always something different. I was into all of the records and it just seemed like a cool place to be creatively too.
By the Barricade: T.S.O.L. has become synonymous with wild shenanigans. Do you have a story that particularly stands out?
Greg Kuehn: We used to steal stuff. One time Jack (Grisham) and I went to the Long Beach Convention Center and walked out with this powered mixer that was just in there. They would set up PA’s and stuff for events, but we unplugged it and walked out with it. I used that for years and claimed it as my amp. There was a lot of amoral activity going on, but when you are 19 and you see something you want … I wouldn’t do that now of course.
By the Barricade: Through the years you have had opportunity to play with a variety of musicians and bands including Bob Dylan. How did that come about?
Greg Kuehn: It was through the punk rock scene. There was a girl named Pam Douglas whose dad played sax for Dylan and she shared a house with Dylan’s manager at the time. They were looking for guys to be in a video for “Sweetheart Like You,” so they got Charlie Quitano from The Plugz and they got me because I was the only punk rock keyboard player guy. There were some other people, but somehow I was recommended and I went down there and they cast me. I got to know him through the shoot and he invited Charlie and I to come up to the house and so we were then in his band. We were with Bob and we would work on stuff. There were a lot of different guys that went up there and played but we were fairly consistent for a couple of years. It was neat. That is how I got to know The Plugz and worked with them on the Repo Man Soundtrack and a bunch of other stuff. They were into getting commercial gigs and they would get me to play keyboards on them and that was kind of neat, we did some cool stuff.
By the Barricade: Currently you lead a team of artists at Peligro Music and Sound. When did you begin that and what was the driving force that led to its creation?
Greg Kuehn: I’ve had it for about twelve years and before that I worked as a freelance composer for other music houses and on my own would get jobs. It was time, I had a lot of clients so I started my own thing. It’s mostly me but I do have other guys that I can call on and it is great. I have a lot of really talented composers so if we are really busy or need multiple demos I can call guys and bring people in on that. It is a little different animal when I am writing it than when someone else is writing it and I am producing and helping out and making sure they are getting the job done and dealing with the client. It is fun.
By the Barricade: A bit of management and creativity there. You have worked on soundtracks and recordings of numerous films and TV shows as well. Do you have a project that you are most proud of?
Greg Kuehn: Confessions of a Superhero documentary, I like that a lot. People seem to respond to that. The director, Matt Ogens and I have a new film coming out, Meet the Hitlers. It is a really cool film, a documentary about people who are named Hitler. It is pretty trippy and a personality study of a lot of different people and their life experience. That will be out in the fall probably. I like doing long form stuff, it is good and rewarding. All of it is rewarding, but in a different sort of way.
By the Barricade: You were interviewed a couple of years ago by OC Weekly when your sons’ band FIDLAR was soaring in popularity. What is your relationship like with them today?
Greg Kuehn: It is really good. Max is 24 and Elvis is going to be 23 this week, it was a little rough from age 17-21 or so, but I have backed off a lot. I am busy, I don’t want to manage a band. They had a band called The Diffs and I produced their record mostly, but they are realized musicians. They don’t really need my help. They will play me stuff sometimes, but they don’t need me around and I let them do their thing. They have a whole team: managers, agents and publishers and all of that stuff. When they were getting started I was the person in the back checking stuff out like looking over contracts, I do that whenever they want me to. They have done stuff on their own and they have made a couple mistakes along the way, but they will be alright.
By the Barricade: Is there anything else you would like to tell the readers of By the Barricade?
Greg Kuehn: It was fun playing with X; that was an honor. I have been a fan forever and I reviewed Los Angeles for my high school newspaper. That was pretty cool to revisit that. I have been seeing them for 35 years. I saw them at South by Southwest and last year at Pershing Square so I am still a fan and to get to do that was really, really cool. Come see X and hopefully they will have me up to play some Ray Manzarek stuff.