Emerson Hart Interview with Diffuser – “Lemon Parade Revisited”
The beginnings of Tonic play out appropriately enough, like a bit of a rock and roll buddy movie. Frontman Emerson Hart and guitarist Jeff Russo had a friendship that stretched back to the early days when they both were living in the New York City area. Hart moved to Los Angeles in the early ‘90s, where he eventually reconnected with Russo in a pool hall. It was good timing — Hart was looking to start a band and before long, the pair became regulars at the weekly jam session at the Kibitz Room in Canter’s Delicatessen, which had been a launching pad for bands like the Wallflowers and local luminaries, like Slash of Guns N’ Roses, would drop in from time to time.
Hart and Russo met drummer Kevin Shepard at the Kibitz Room and Tonic as a band began to officially take shape in 1994, with bassist Dan Rothchild completing the lineup. The group focused in on playing gigs and started to generate a good amount of attention, doing a number of record label showcases before finally inking a deal with Polydor Records. The label paired them up with producer Jack Joseph Puig (Weezer, No Doubt, Green Day) to begin work on their debut album.
“They were like, here are some guys that we think are really great,” Hart recalled during a recent chat with Diffuser. “We met with a few producers and he really just seemed to be the one that kind of got it. He got me as a singer and I think we were still so pliable at that point that we felt like, ‘Well, he kind of understands how to drive a boat, but also understands kind of how to let us drive a little bit.’ As opposed to working with some of the other producers that we had met with, who were just kind of like, ‘It should be done, this way, this way and this way.’ I was just like, ‘Eh, that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.’ It was really great. I wouldn’t have changed it. Working with Jack was a great experience. I learned a ton and I learned a lot about ethics, about working, how hard to work, how hard you have to work on your craft.”
The band had a regular weekly residency at the Mint, so Puig had had the opportunity to see them play the songs that they had written so far in a live setting. From that point, as Hart remembers, he helped them to hone in on the sound that they were going to capture in the studio.
“I was playing an acoustic guitar and playing it through a little Fender amp, which would distort and I thought that was great,” he says. “But most people were like, ‘No, you should have a cleaner tone.’ Jack was really the guy. He was good friends with Mark Sampson at the time, who was just starting Matchless Amps. He took me out to Mark’s place, which was really kind of like a big garage. He was like, ‘That’s your sound. Let’s find the distortion.’ We spent weeks and weeks, just he and I, going through tones, finding the right combination of amplifiers, learning how to mike them correctly, what should be be more prominent, the DI sound or the distortion sound and the mix of the two. That was really, I think, one of the biggest things for me, was helping us get that sound.”
The time that they spent working on tones is indicative of just how much time they were able to spend in the studio working on Lemon Parade, which is something that Hart marvels at now when he looks back.
“Nowadays, we make a record, I mean, we can burn through it in a month, just with technology,” he says. “But you think about [how we were working at that time], you know, this is [with] no Pro Tools, this is tape, this is three takes per reel, rewinding, flipping over — and comping vocals was a totally different thing. Also, Jack took a break in between making our record to make Amorica for the Black Crowes, so it’s crazy to me that it was so much time ago that that happened. When I go in and sing vocals now for something, whether it’s something I’ve written for myself or for somebody else or if it’s Tonic, I can negotiate the waters a lot faster now. I can understand and I can connect to the vocal quickly and I think that comes from the experience of making records. But I think it really came from just being on the road so much and just knowing my voice.”
Russo had some prior recording experience with a previous band, but it was largely new territory for Hart, who only had spent a small amount of time in the studio, thanks to an early publishing deal that he signed with EMI. “I kind of had experience there, but really, not a ton. It was definitely like making your first record,” he says. “It was every bit of the joy and the pitfall.”
Listening to Lemon Parade, one thing that stuck out early on was that Tonic was a guitar-driven band at the core, with the album opening “Open Up Your Eyes” and “Casual Affair” quickly revealing those distortion-heavy roots. Even as the record shifts into quieter territory with “If You Could Only See” as the third track in the album sequence, the guitars quickly come back around and kick in midway through the song, something that happens consistently throughout the record.
“We went back and forth as you always do with all records [when it came to determining the album’s running order],” Hart recalls. “At that point, I understood what the word ‘eclectic’ meant. We had made an eclectic record. But I didn’t really know how to put all of those pieces together, so I just kind of embraced the eclectic nature of the order of the record. We knew ‘Open Up Your Eyes’ should be the first track to start it, because we felt like that was where we were, rock-wise, what that meant to us, how it felt and it was a beautiful introduction with the guitars feeding back. It was like, ‘Hey, we’re a guitar band. This is what we are.’ By the time you got to ‘If You Could Only See,’ which I didn’t even want to put on the record, which everybody fought me on, because I was an idiot. [laughs] Once you get to that, then it’s a total dynamic change and I don’t know, I think we just kind of tried to embrace the eclectic nature of it and just let it be what it was going to be.”
The band wrapped up the bulk of the work on Lemon Parade midway through 1995, but it would still be almost a year before the record was released. Polydor made a savvy move and told the band that they were going to go on the road first. “We were on the road for almost a year before our record came out,” Hart says. “The label was like, ‘Get in a van, go do crappy gigs for a year and become good artists.’ Because labels used to do that! So by the time, ‘Open Up Your Eyes’ [was released] — that went to radio in ‘96 and that was our first No. 1 at rock radio — we were already in shape.”
In between touring runs, Hart and the members of Tonic put a few polishing touches on the album, but mostly, they were out there playing any and every show they possibly could.
“I think our first tour was I Mother Earth and some other band. We were talking about this two nights ago when I was in L.A. We took them all,” he says. “We did whatever we could to do to just get out there and stay on the road. You know, playing for seven people at the Samurai Sake House in Oklahoma City, sleeping on people’s’ couches. They were some of the greatest times of my career, those first couple of years just really learning who we were as a band and [the moment] we heard ‘Open Up Your Eyes’ on the radio for the first time. We were in Las Cruces, New Mexico and I heard ‘Open Up Your Eyes’ and we pulled the van over and we listened to it and I was like ‘Oh, I guess this kind of like a real thing now.’ You know, you just never know.”
Indeed, you never know, as the band found out after they released “Casual Affair” as the second single from Lemon Parade. As it turns out, radio had a different idea of where things were going to go next.
“Our initial thing that we wanted to do, after ‘Open Up Your Eyes’ started doing well, we were like, “Okay, second single is going to be ‘Casual Affair,’” he remembers. “We started gearing up for that to really solidify ourselves in rock and roll. But then Kevin Weatherly at KROQ in L.A. was like, ‘No, I’m just going to start playing [‘If You Could Only See’].’ And we had to….the amount of panic and gear-changing that had to happen and be in place for that single, I thought people were literally going to lose their hair. [laughs] Because it was like, all of the sudden, he was spinning it and then everybody added it. Because at that point, KROQ had so much add power and everybody was watching and I was like, ‘Oh, okay, well I guess we’re going to be this band now.’ Like, I was still in that kind of rock mode of ‘Casual Affair,’ really get a solid fanbase for rock and all of that stuff. But you know, look, I’m glad he did it. I’m very grateful. But it was quite a panic, that’s for sure.”
The pace of activity intensified for the group with the success of “If You Could Only See.” More people started showing up at the shows and the band found themselves doing an increased amount of interviews, station visits and performances at radio, as many as three per day. Hart began to get phone calls from the label, who advised him on how to deal with the radio programmers, cautioning him not to make any promises or give any special treatment. The curtain fell away, revealing a lot more of the radio station and label politics that were in play.
“That was when I started to understand the actual mechanics of the machine and that kind of scared the hell out of me, to be honest,” he admits. “I was like, ‘Wait, wait, it should be not about this,’ but we just got so busy that it wasn’t until we were doing a week of shows in Paris [that the impact of the band’s success really registered]. We were home for 20 days in two and a half years. That’s really the only way I can equate it. Literally, my body just gave out when we were in Paris for the last two shows. I had to go home. I had to sleep. I had to write another record. They’re like, “Where’s another record?” I’m like, “I don’t have any time to write!” It was like, I’m always on a plane or not sleeping because I’m doing three radio things and then I do the show. I’m not saying ‘Poor me,’ because like, wow, I’m glad I had the experience and here we are 20 years later and we’re talking about it. But it wasn’t until the exhaustion set in that I saw the change. Because really, we were the same band, other than some personnel changes [Rothchild left in late 1996 and was replaced by Dan Lavery, who is still with the group today]. We didn’t fight, other than normal brother stuff that you fight about. We got through it and we realized, “Oh, okay, everything we do now, everything we say now, counts.” What I say on the air now, counts. What I say in the press now, counts. Very strange. That was the biggest change, just the sheer mechanics of the machine and [the moment] when it locks into place.”
In 2016, Hart, Russo and Lavery went back into the studio to revisit the songs from the album, re-recording all of the material acoustically on Lemon Parade Revisited. Hart says that he’d love to see the band play some full album shows this fall in smaller, intimate venues (“The summer kind of crept up quickly and we all got busy doing other stuff”). Although the new album is acoustic, if he has a choice in the matter, he’s hoping they’ll get a chance to play through the whole album in an electric setting for the shows.
“I love doing it acoustic, but there’s something about playing that record top to bottom full electric that is just great,” he says. “But as you know, going out today and touring, it’s expensive. So we’re trying to figure out the best medium way to get music to a few of the places that are close to our hearts and maybe some that aren’t, just for fun. [laughs] And just have a night. Because really, this is for the people who were in college [when the album came out] and starting their first jobs. I want an audience full [of those people]. It’s for the fans.”
He says that new music from the band, which released its fourth album, Tonic, in 2010, is also in the planning stages.
“You know, living in Nashville, I try to write as much as I can with other people, just to keep sharp and do my business part of my career. It’s usually fairly easy to discern what is going to be for somebody else, what is going to be for a solo record or what might be the makings of a Tonic thing. Dan and I have been going back and forth with a lot of Dropbox files. I think we’re actually now in the place where we can start putting things together to really make that a concrete concept for another record.”