We caught up with our old friend Stacy Jones (Letters to Cleo, Veruca Salt, American Hi-Fi) at the tail end of his current freelance gig, which just happens to be the biggest pop tour in the universe -- let's just say he's now the Tommy Lee of tweenpop. Click above for the video; but note that our web-size screen doesn't even begin to convey the insanity of Hannah Montana's digital-3D movie. More soon on the film, which is legitimately ridiculous. (Our favorite pop critic weighed in with a pretty great review of the tour here.) For now, maybe it's enough to say it's a new high-water mark in hyperreality, and it's even more of a mindfuck to see Stacy and Kay Hanley in larger-than-life dimension-bending action. (Note: now extended for another week!) After the jump: the full text of the interview, plus links to the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus tourblogs that Kay and some of the other band members kept.
Recommended reading: The Best of Both Worlds tour, from the viewpoint of those who lived it . . .
OTD: Dude, how on earth did you end up getting this gig?
Stacy Jones: I’ve been producing a lot in L.A., I built a studio there like five years ago. And originally it was met to be a base camp for American Hi-Fi, and for me to goof around, but I ended up producing records and loving it. And one of the bands I work with is managed by Miley’s managers: they’re called Open Air Stereo and they were on that show Laguna Beach that was on MTV. They were the kids on the show, and they were signed to Epic Records. I did a few tracks with them, and then the show got cancelled, and they were subsequently dropped from the label. Even though they’re a great band and the singer, Chase, is a fucking star. He’s awesome and I love him and I’m sure they’re going to get another deal.
But in any event, I became acquainted with Mylie’s manager, Jason Morey, through working with Open Air Stereo. Open Air Stereo did a TRL performance in New York and I kind of helped them get their show together. I actually ended up playing guitar and singing with them – off-camera. I was literally [standing] in a broom closet next to the stage. So just from that experience, Jason called me and said, ‘Hey, listen, I really want you to be the musical director on the Miley Cyrus tour. You can play the guitar or you can play drums or whatever the hell you want, you can hire the band.’ His only instruction was that he wanted this to be a real rock band and not a bunch of cheesy session players.
And I was totally into it from the moment he called me -- even more so once I met Miley. She's the real fucking deal, she sings her ass off. She has this new song out with her dad, it’s a duet, and she sounds like Stevie Nicks on the song. I talked to her about it and I was like, ‘Miley, when you cut that song, how long did you work on that?” And she said, ‘Oh, I sang it twice. I learned it in the car on the way to the studio, I sang it twice, and then I went to shoot my TV show.’ It didn’t even occur to her that wasn’t even, like, a huge thing. It’s just what she does: she learned the songs, she goes and sings it and it sounds awesome. There are a lot of people who work really hard and can’t do that, so I have a lot of respect for her.
Jesus. What is she, 16 now?
She just turned 15 on this tour. It’s crazy. To see her every night and to see the way she handles the crowd, the way she handles the meet-and-greets, the way she handles the press, the pressure and interviews -- this girl is working. Working! And you would never know it. Last night we had a wrap party for the tour here in Disneyworld, we went to this big thing there, and she was just playing video games and hanging out. She’s just a normal person, and it’s pretty incredible that she has been able to maintain that kind of vibe, considering she’s the center of a cultural phenomenon – a complete juggernaut, a whirlwind tornado, whatever you want to call it.
One thing our friends probably don’t understand unless they’ve got young daughters is just how utterly pervasive Miley is: in a room of fifteen 8-year-olds, fourteen of them know every word of every song on those records. A few of them might know a Gwen Stefani song. A couple of them might know who Fergie is. But they all know Hannah Montana. By heart. And I guess the even weirder thing is – and it feels odd being a 35-year-old metal guy saying this – the music is really fucking good.
It is. It is. That’s another reason why I wanted to do it. I mean, when I talked to Jason I knew about Hannah Montana and I knew what the music was like, but I hadn’t really listened to it. So he gave me the record and I listened to the record, and I thought, ‘These songs are good, man,’ and it seemed like it would be fun to play. Then once we got into rehearsal and started working through it – look, everyone I hired in the band, they’re rock-band people, so we started fuckin’ cranking the Marshalls up and I started pounding the drums, rather then programming the drum machine, the drum loops, that kind of stuff. We made it this organic rock-band thing and it sounds awesome. We don’t have a bunch of keyboard tracks playing through ProTools and all that stuff. The band is live off the stage every night -- which is pretty cool, because there are a lot of other acts out there doing this that have musicians on stage, but they really aren’t doing much.
What was it like the first time you got together with Miley? Because I’m assuming that she hadn’t done something like this before.
No, she never had. We’re her first band! She’s had bands that were miming to stuff when she would do a show at Disney World or something. But we’re her first real band. The first time I met her, she came into the room and started busting my balls – like, immediately -- and I can’t remember if she was making fun of American Hi-Fi or making fun of my car, I can’t remember what it was. But she makes fun of me a lot, basically. That kind of set the tone and that’s been our relationship ever since. She’s super feisty. The tour is ending in a couple of days and I’ve been racking my brain to figure out pranks to play on her, and every time I think of something I’m like, ‘Eh, she’ll know I’m going to do that.’ I know she’ll be one step ahead of me at all time.
Is Billy Ray hanging around?
Yeah, Billy Ray is awesome. He’s actually playing with us tonight, he played with us last night. He comes on stage and does the duet with her for the encore when he’s around. We must’ve played with him a dozen times, and he’s the nicest guy. He’s actually filming a movie here in Orlando, and yesterday I was walking in as he was walking in, and he was like, ‘Hey man, where were you? I was trying to get you in the movie!’ I was like, ‘Oh, I was at my hotel,’ and he was like, ‘Damn I wanted you to come fight me in the movie.’ He had a fight scene that he wanted me in -- and that’s just the way they are. Her whole family is awesome. Her mom is on the tour, her sister Brandi has been out there a lot, and they're just great people. It’s seriously a dream come true.
You realize your mission is to corrupt her and get her into metal, right?
Trust me, I don’t think that’s going to be hard -- and I already have. The other day we were screwing around at soundcheck and Jamie [Arentzen, from American Hi-Fi], the guitar player, was playing drums and I was playing the guitar and singing, and we were doing ‘Surrender’ by Cheap Trick and Miley just hops up on stage and starts singing the chorus with me and was like, ‘I love that song, that’s one of my favorite songs.’ The fact that she knows ‘Surrender’ and knows all the words, that’s pretty fucking cool if you ask me.
Do you have a sense of what other kind of stuff she’s into?
She loves all kind of stuff. I do know that when we play Guitar Hero she shreds it on metal stuff -- she loves metal, she loves to play AFI and stuff like that. It’s pretty funny. I mean, she’s a 15 year old – she’s a normal 15 year old kid. But she’s also grown up around music so she knows the Stones and Fleetwood Mac, so it’s cool, she knows the history.
I still can’t believe she’s only 15.
Man, I can’t either. Because when I was 15 I was a complete moron -- I wanted to be Tommy Lee from Motley Crue, and all I cared about was skateboarding and growing my mullet even longer. That’s all I cared about. But Miley’s waking up at 4:30 in the morning, doing Good Morning America interviews, going back to bed, waking up to do some schoolwork, coming to sound check, doing more interviews, doing the meet and greets, and then she has to play a show for an hour and a half, for which she has four costume changes she has to run off for. It’s crazy. Just thinking about her day makes me tired.
You’ve been on some big tours before, but give me a sense of what it’s like to be in the middle of something this huge.
Y’know, until I saw the movie I didn’t really grasp the enormity of the show. I’m playing drums – on the stage I’m on a 10-foot riser, so all the video screens and all that shit, and fire and flames are shooting up but all that stuff happens behind me, or above me or around me. I didn’t actually know what the show was like til I saw the movie -- we flew back for the premiere in LA and I was blown away. It was like, ‘Holy shit -- is that what it looks like?’ I knew it was big and I knew it was killer but I didn’t realize it was that big. But I’ve heard people on the tour saying that this production rivals Madonna in her heyday and Michael Jackson on the ‘Bad’ tour. I heard that there are more lights and video screens than on any other tour that’s gone out. It’s pretty crazy -- this tour is breaking records formerly held by the Rolling Stones and Metallica. It’s one of the biggest tours of all time.
The amazing thing to me is that she’s doing this without any radio airplay – obviously she’s got the TV show, but it’s a very different sort of thing in terms of her mass-culture exposure. People our age have heard of her, but chances are they don’t really know what she’s about – it’s not like she’s overexposed in the way that most teen-pop artists are at this point in their careers. Without any radio airplay she’s still the number-two selling artist of the year.
Her manager and I were talking a couple of weeks ago and he said, ‘We’re going for pop radio right now with one of her songs,’ and I said, ‘Ah, really, how’s it going?’ And he said, ‘It’s going amazing -- and can you believe this is the first time we ever worked a single on pop radio?’ Are you kidding me? This was only two weeks ago!
Kiss-108 just recently started playing it here. I don’t think they were playing the record when the tour came through, but they were getting so many requests for tickets, they ended up playing the song.
Exactly, it’s fucking lighting up the charts -- and they never even worked it. I don’t even think they have to work that hard right now either. “See You Again” is the song they’re working to pop radio now. It’s a great song! I mean that’s the thing: that’s a fucking good song and when I heard it, it was one of the songs that really drew me in, originally, when I first heard the record.
So to jump back again: when you got the gig, who did you think you were gonna get to do it with you?
Well, I knew immediately that I wanted to hire Jamie from American Hi-Fi to be the guitar player. That took about five seconds. I think I was sitting in Jason’s office and I think he might’ve clicked on the Hi-Fi website and watched a video or something. Jason was like, ‘All right, we’re done.’ I was like, ‘OK, good.’ I knew I wanted to hire Kay [Hanley], she kind of came into it in a weird way. What happened was I knew Jamie was going to play guitar, and we held auditions in LA, even though I had people that I knew I wanted already. But Miley wasn’t going to be there for the auditions, so I hired Kay to come in and sing the lead vocals while we were auditioning musicians, because I didn’t want to play with nobody singing. She came in and did two or three days of auditioning at Center Staging in LA, and that was quite an experience. Coming from just being a band guy I’ve never really done that. Well, I’ve auditioned -- like I had to audition for Veruca Salt, but it wasn’t really an audition. It was more like, ‘Hey, we want you to come join the band so come play with us for a week,’ and I went down there and did it. I don’t think they even played with anybody else. I auditioned for the Smashing Pumpkins one time, and that was . . . like . . . weird, because it was me and Kenny Aronoff. It was funny because it was right as Veruca Salt was kind of ending and I had already started American Hi-Fi and I didn’t really want to play with the Pumpkins. But their manager called me and said, ‘Hey, we want you to come audition because we think you’re the right guy for this band.’ I was like, ‘OK, cool.’ And then they were like, ‘But Billy told us that he doesn’t want to hire some dumb punk from some dumb alternative rock band.’ And I was like, ‘Um, guys, that’s kind of exactly what I am.’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, we know, but come down anyway.’ So I go down there and it was me, Kenny Aronoff, and Will Calhoun from Living Colour. It was the weirdest experience: I knew Billy and James from Chicago from the Veruca Salt days, and it was totally great and friendly and cool and it was fun. D’arcy was still in the band and we were playing ‘Rhinoceros’ or something, and halfway through the song she forgot how to play it and she started rooting through these Barneys bags she had with her. And I had to play on Kenny’s kit, and his drum roadie was there, and he was like, ‘Don’t move anything,’ and Kenny sets up really weird. It was obvious that Kenny already had the gig, and I don’t know why they wasted their time playing with me. Sorry, that was a total sidebar.
So we held auditions and Jamie was in. Jocko is our other guitar player -- he came to our audition and he just clearly shined above everybody else. We had guys come in who seriously didn’t know the music. We had this one guy come in who was dressed like he was in the Libertines, his guitar was slung slow and he was wearing one of those military jackets and hat and fuckin’ scarves all over the place. He came and plugged in his delay pedal and started making random feedback noises while we were playing. It was awesome. Bruce was running the audition and he stopped us halfway through and was like, ‘Hey pal, you don’t know the chords to this song, do you?’ And the guy was like, ‘No,’ and so he actually let him learn the chords. The bass player knew the chords and so he said to the bass player, ‘Show him the chords,’ and so we took a five minute break for him to learn the chords and it didn’t help very much. Another guy just came in and went bananas, jumping around like crazy, like a freak-monkey spazz-out. I was really having a hard time keeping a straight face. The characters that came through there is unbelievable.
Did you have anyone unexpectedly well known show up for the auditions?
No, nobody like that. A lot of the guys are seasoned LA session cats. But nobody like, you know, Steve Lucas coming through. It was mostly young people; there was definitely an age cap on this gig. I’m certainly much older then they probably planned, but nobody can see me.
Well, you also look like you’re about 15 years old.
Exactly. Somehow rock ’n roll has not weathered me and has preserved me in a perpetual stage of adolescence.
You see so many of these bands that are self-consciously put together in that let’s-audition-a-band sort of way. It seems like there’s a circuit for that kind of stuff.
There is, and that’s exactly what Jason didn’t want. If you look at this band we don’t look like a bunch of session cats and it’s cool. Shawn, who’s playing bass, he came through on the auditions, too, and he’s killer. This guy is insane, he plays with Lenny White and is a super jazz musician. Then I’ve got Kay, she got one of the background-singer roles due to singing the lead stuff in rehearsals. Jason said, ‘I want you to hire two background singers.’ I already had put the band together and he said, ‘Let’s get some girls to sing backup,’ and I said, ‘Hey, why don’t we get Kay,’ and he said ‘Great, let’s do it.’ I knew that she’d be able to carry the show. We do this musical bit while Mylie’s getting changed where Kay comes out and gets the crowd pumped up and have them clap their hands and do that whole thing. There’s a few moments in the show when it’s all about getting the audience involved, so it’s critical that one of our girls can be able to command the stage like that. The other background singer I got is this girl named Candice whose record I produced, so she came through the friends-and-family plan as well. Then, Mike Schmid, who is playing keyboards, is also a friend of a friend, so he didn’t even have to audition. I knew he was a catch, I just called him and he was available and it worked out great. So that’s the band. We got two guitars, bass, drums, keys, and two background babes.
Are you guys going to be doing more stuff with Mylie after this tour?
I would love to do more stuff with her. We’re doing the Houston Livestock and Rodeo show in March which is fucking huge. She’s headlining one of the nights -- I think it’s for 80,000 people or something like that. It’s giant. The rodeo goes on for like two or three weeks or something, and they have headliners every night -- and these are big, big, headliners. So we’re going to do that and maybe some award shows or whatever -- that kind of stuff -- but I told Jason the other day, ‘Hey listen, I’m down 100 percent, so whenever you guys want to roll out again give me a call.’ And it seems like he was probably going to do that. This is definitely the kind of thing that I would love to do once a year, go out for a couple months on tour and do a couple shows with her here and there, it’s absolutely a blast, and really low maintenance.
It seems like an ideal gig. Have you developed affection for any of that material?
Totally, I love sugary pop tunes. There’s some fucking good tunes, there’s this song called “Start All Over” that could be a Foo Fighters song if Dave Grohl was singing it. The music is great. I wouldn’t have done this gig if Miley wasn’t talented and was just a product of Hollywood -- I would have not have done this gig. If the music was lame I would have not done this gig. I’ve spent six months working on this, I’m not going to get involved in something that takes that much commitment and that kind of sacrifice if I don’t believe in it. I am backing this 100 percent
It’s such a crazy phenomenon to get caught up in.
I like the balance. I’m doing Hannah Montana now, I’m going to fly home on Friday and about take 10 days off. I work for this record company from New York, so I’m going to fly to New York and do record-company stuff for a minute and fly back to LA to do an American Hi-Fi record. After that I’m gonna produce this band from Atlanta and then I’m going to do this rodeo with Miley.
So American Hi-Fi is still together?
Hi-Fi is back! I put in a bulletin up about two years ago and it just wouldn’t die -- and I have tried really hard to kill it. This record is going to be our best record; our last record we put out was border-line embarrassing. I can’t even believe it. I mean, I liked it at the time, but I was listening to it the other day and I was like, ‘Oh my god, what the fuck was I doing?’ It was a weird record, there were a couple of songs on there that I really like but there are a couple of songs that were just fuckin’ cringers. We were trying to be Blur and we just weren’t Blur. Our best shit is when we rip off the Foo Fighters and that’s what this record is. This record we’re making right now is kind of like our first record but there’s no one standing around telling us what to do. It’s just us; our original drummer is back, so Drew and Bryan are coming out on February 15. It’s going to be killer, we’re drinking beers and fucking rocking out, there’s no thoughts of what the fucking single is or any horseshit like that. The thing that happened to us is that our first record came out and we were touring with Our Lady Peace, and we were touring with Fuel and Saliva, we found ourselves on bills with Godsmack. It was great, those crowds were fucking great, but then all of a sudden the record label decided that we should tour with Sum 41 and be on Warped Tour, and that was our mistake. I love Sum 41 and the Warped Tour but we didn’t fit, that was not our scene . Everyone thought we were now a pop punk band and that’s where we fucked ourselves. On our third record we didn’t know what the hell we were doing, but now we’re back to the basics – drop-D and Budweiser. It’s nice to be in that position where we can just make a record. We don’t have a record deal right now, it doesn’t matter. I own the studio, we can go do whatever the fuck we want and just finish this record. People have already been calling me from some record companies who want to put it out -- we’ve been putting some of the shit on our MySpace and people started calling me and I was like, ‘All right, that’s cool, at least somebody’s interested.’ So we’ll do something. We’ll do the shit that’s fun; we booked a show at the Troubadour in April with our friends on the bill. We’ll go to Japan, Italy, France and England; we’ll just do the shit that’s fun. That’s what Hi-Fi is all about.