Interview: Steve Poltz
12 May 2014
Steve Poltz is a big name around San Diego. He is known in the music industry as one of the best songwriters of our time. He won “Most Influential Artist of the Decade,” at the San Diego Music Awards in 2000. What makes his story unique and interesting is the fact that he is also a University of San Diego alumnus. I had a chance to sit down with him and talk briefly about his career in the music industry and how that came about. The stories Steve Poltz told me were absolutely incredible. Here’s what he said.
Juan Barragan: You are known internationally as one of the best songwriters of our time, and it all seems to have started with your involvement in the band, The Rugburns, how did that come about?
Steve Poltz: Well, we were going to USD. There was a guy named Robert Driscoll that graduated I think the same year as I did in 85’. Then, you know how they have that folk mass at Founders Sunday nights? We were the guitarists in it. So that’s how we met. We both had a sense of humor and would laugh about the same things. So we started The Rugburns and then at Mission Crossroads, they started doing these things called Mission Crossroads coffee house, and we would play shows at this coffeehouse. This is so funny because this was back in 85’ probably before Starbucks was really happening and the idea of coffeehouses came about. I remember there was a guy that was like an RA who became head of fundraising called John Trifolletti, he’s now the assistant headmaster at Bishop School in La Jolla. He suggested I play, because you know how they used to have these things in the 60’s called coffeehouses and they had folk singers, and I said “Yea,” and he said, “Let’s do that”. So we started playing there. So The Rugburns started in folk mass, which I funny, if you read our lyrics.
JB: You know, I have. I’ve listened to “Dick’s Automotive,” and “Suburbia.” So you would sing those songs when you were at USD?
SP: Oh yea! So when you think of that you don’t think of church. Although when we were at USD, I hadn’t written a lot of songs yet. That’s when I was doing my education. I would go out a lot and see things. I would go out to see a lot of music and listen to a lot of music. It was kind of like, to become a songwriter you have to listen to a lot of music. But I mean, that’s not the only way to do it. Some people just naturally are good songwriters. It took me a lot of tries to start, and a lot of failures, and to this day, I still don’t really know how I do it. That’s the weird thing, all these years and it’s still a mystery to me. You think I would have figured it out. When I was at USD, I was learning a lot of cover songs that other people had done, Neil Young, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, the usual suspects. Then, I was going out to see a lot of bands, and then I started writing songs, and I would sing those songs at Crossroads. Folk mass was entertainment. It wasn’t really for me about going to church; it was just like a show. I don’t mean to be blasphemous when I say that at all, it was like a show, I was honing my skills, and the congregation was like an audience.
JB: So when you were focused on The Rugburns, what method did you use to get your music out there? How common were house shows for the band back then?
SP: House shows? They didn’t exist! The funny thing is, that’s hilarious! We didn’t play house shows. That was a terminology that didn’t really exist. The idea of a band doing a house show was a foreign idea about as foreign as the Internet was back then. People were taking Dos programming language that basically nobody uses now. People would major in that and I didn’t even have an e-mail address when I was in college. It seems so funny to say that, but I don’t know when did the World Wide Web come into existence? We weren’t looking stuff up on the web, so we were playing and then we started playing at bars, like Irish pubs and stuff. Now if somebody was having a party, we would whip out our guitars and play, or down at the beach at a bonfire, but we weren’t really doing house concerts.
JB: Were there any venues near USD that you played at that were memorable?
SP: Well, there was one. It was in Mission Beach, and it doesn’t exist anymore but it was called the Mission Beach Club. It was by Sam’s Market which I don’t even know if it exists anymore. But, people at USD knew we were playing and I didn’t realize how good we had it because it was so easy to spread the word in college if you could create a scene. People in college are like sheep, “oh, this is where we go,” everybody used to hang out at the Silver Spigot on Morena Boulevard. Every Thursday night, that was such a USD hangout. It would be so packed with college students, it was nuts! Thursday was always a big party night because all you had to do was go to one Friday class hung over and you would weather it.
JB: What would you recommend musicians do now in order to get their music out there today?
SP: Well, this is a really good time to be a musician, I think. But you have to want to work. The rules have been decimated. There used to be a system and a way to do it where you would have to go make a demo and go find somebody that had access to a recording studio. It was expensive to record it was a big deal. Then you would have to send those things out by mail to record labels and hope somebody deemed you worthy enough. So there was a velvet rope mentality, where people would say, “We’re the gate-keepers, we say you are worthy to record, or to make a record for us.” They would have publicist, and this publicist would have these media outlets. Nowadays, all bets are off! Anybody can record anything. If somebody can’t record something, they are a complete idiot. I can record a record on my phone and it’s going to sound good. Before, you would have to physically drive your album to a record store and beg them to carry to record if you wanted to be really indie. Nowadays, anybody can be indie and do it.
JB: What do you think of recording tools that musicians have today like Protools? Are you a fan, or do you stick to traditional recording methods?
SP: I think they are all good. The key is to have a good song and have something to say. I’m not an old school apologist who thinks that you have to record on two-inch tape. I like that though. It’s definitely cool. I love vinyl records. I like the idea of recording something on tape and transferring it right onto vinyl, but I also like the idea of Protools because you can get real tricky and make crazy stuff up. It’s a powerful program. The key is, what are you saying? What’s your art say? There are so many different ways to put art across. Who wants to be the guy running down the street saying, “You guys are all wrong!” You just end up looking like an idiot. You have to have an open mind, and know that there is no right or wrong, meaning there is no right or wrong way to write a song. And there’s no right or wrong way to record it. You can try and record on a cardboard box in the street because you want the ambient sounds. You can do anything you want these days, and you can make a video of it and put it on YouTube easily as well.
JB: So what is next for you as a musician? Can fans expect new material soon?
SP: Yea I just put out a brand new record a month ago, a rock record, called The Accident. It’s up online everywhere. It’s kind of Rugburns sounding record, it really rocks hard, it’s fun, it’s really profane. It’s called the accident, and it’s called that because I went in to make a real folky record and by accident made a rock record, so it was an accident. I’m following it up with a record that I already finished called The Claims Adjuster, because I thought the accident and the claims adjuster go together because if you get into an accident you call the claims adjuster to sort everything out. That record is done and that’s going to come out next. I have a lot of material, and I’m already thinking about the one after that now. I think it’s going to be called Folk Singer. I’m thinking of the songs and starting to write them. I just want to always keep creating, that’s all I really care about. It’s weird because I went to USD and it has nothing to do with what I do for a living.
JB: What did you major in?
SP: Political science and Spanish. Then again, college taught me to finish something. There are all these intangibles you get from college. They taught me how to finish a project, how to see it, how to have follow-through, how to complete a task. It taught me how to network and socializing, how to work as a team. It taught me how to live in another country; I lived in Mexico for a semester, in Guadalajara. USD was cool because when I went there it was a small college. I brought professors home for Thanksgiving with me. Two different times, and the professors would come to Palm Springs and drive out there with me. I got to know my teachers really well, and they gave me an opportunity, they made me feel special. But I’m not using political science in my career.
JB: When you were a student, and a musician, did that ever interfere? Was that ever an obstacle, being in school and playing music?
SP: No, it wasn’t. In fact, I honestly didn’t think I would be doing this for a living. When I was in college, and I would go out to see shows, I thought, “That would be cool to be able to do that.” But I never thought, that’s what I’m going to do. I actually thought I would get a job with Kodak or somebody in sales, or IBM, or maybe the FBI. They would have these career days when people would come on campus and recruit. I thought, I want to make a lot of money; maybe I’ll be a stockbroker. I had all these different ideas. Maybe I’ll go to law school. I really didn’t think I would be sitting here thirty years later as a full-time musician. When I was in college music helped me because it made me more popular, because I wasn’t an athlete. I played intramural sports but I wasn’t in a fraternity. But because of playing music, I made a lot of friends. Fraternities would have me play their parties and stuff. I really believe that music never really got in the way; it actually opened doors for me. It’s funny because I got a job right out of USD in sales for a plastics company. That’s what hilarious about this whole thing. Then, I worked there from 85’ until 88’ and I told the boss I wanted a leave of absence to go play my guitar on the streets of Europe. I had a corporate job and he looked at me like I was crazy. He said to me, “Like a bum?” and I said, “Yea, like a bum.” I had read a book that had changed my life, it was, The Razors Edge, by William Somerset Maugham, and the book really change my life. It’s amazing what literature can do. It change my life in a way that the protagonist of the story is a guy that goes out and just bums around the world, washes dishes in Italy, Spain, lives in all these countries and just bums around and lives in Europe and backpacks around.
JB: So where did you go?
SP: Well, he inspired me that there was more to life on a spiritual quest, meaning find out what made my heart happy. My job really wasn’t making my heart happy. I have nothing but good things to say about my boss. He was the nicest guy! He couldn’t have been kinder to me. Yet, even through that, the job was making me feel sick because spiritually, I wasn’t sated. I was physically getting ill, I was getting colds and strep throat, and I think it’s because I wasn’t being true to my soul’s code. Every soul has a code within us, of what we are meant to do. I read that book and it spoke to me because this guy was on this philosophical journey of what is life about. Life is too long to not do what we want to do. Everybody always says it’s too short, no, it’s too long if you are going to be doing something you don’t want to do. You have to find out what makes you happy. That takes a lot of soul searching. When I read that book, it gave me courage to go out. So I landed in England and I was too scared to play my guitar in the streets. I realized, this was just this romantic ideal I had. I though I was going to land in England and people were going to go, “Oh my God, there’s an American with a guitar playing on the streets, this is the greatest thing ever, we love it!” Little guy realized, London is a big cold, rainy, impersonal city to land in. It would be like landing in New York City. But I had this idea that the British were going to think that I was the greatest thing ever. I left there as a failure and I wanted to fly back home and give up. I was in England for two weeks, and I didn’t play at all in the streets, and I never really got over the jetlag. I didn’t really understand jetlag, I never really traveled that far away, and I was alone and felt really lonely. I had just broken up with my girlfriend and left. They say you can’t run away from your problems, I did. So I ran away from my problems. I was in this relationship that really wasn’t good for me. I wasn’t in love with her but I didn’t really know how to break up with her. So I ran away and joined the circus to play guitar on the streets after having a corporate job. So I left England after two weeks and I was going to fly home, and I had taken a six-month leave of absence, so I was going to come home a complete failure. Then I thought, well, I’ll go try it in Ireland. That was the best choice I ever made. The Irish are so friendly and they sort of took me in and they understood that I was on this journey. I learned that if you are just honest, doors will open for you. I was really honest and I told them my story of going to England and thinking I was going to be a street musician and was too scared. These girls kind of appreciated the fact I was forthcoming and they said, “We’ll take you down to Grafton Street in Ireland and you can play on the streets for passing change and we’ll help you do it.” I was really scared and they helped me and I did it! People started putting money in my case. You have to understand, I left a job where I had credit cards, a life, a bank account, and I was like, a street person. Then I got really good at it. I realized I could do anything I wanted. It almost was like the string theory. Stephen Hawking kind of talks about the idea of a black hole, a universe that goes on forever. He has this whole idea that there are other universes out there, and if you think of our universe, our planet, and then think of it as one of the planets on a tree full of oranges, and then picture an orange grove full of orange trees, then picture that times infinity. Our universe is one orange tree. So there could be another universe where there is another you, or there is another me. I mean, we don’t know. So anyways, I guess my point is, I was living this existence as one thing, and then I went to Ireland and I became a street musician and I sort of rewrote who I was. If you think about it, people who know you, people that know Juan, your family and everybody, they know of you as a certain way. But in a way, you become shackled to the reality you’ve created of yourself, who your friends know you as. What if one day you decided you wanted to dye your hair blond and be a punk rocker? Your friends would be like, “Dude, that’s not f*ck*ng cool.” But maybe you went to Europe and you just started letting your freak flag fly, and you’re like, “You know what I’ve decided? I’m a hippie!” I took a lot of religion classes at USD, I really appreciate USD, I have nothing but good things to say about that school. So there I was, playing on the streets, and then it worked. Next thing I know, I had all these friends that wouldn’t have existed. I had corporate world friends here, and honestly they were boring. They were conservative. By the way, my boss who hired me out of USD loaned me money to pay for my PA, so I could play at the Mission Beach Club. I was playing there even after I graduated for about a year with a PA that my boss loaned me money for. I graduated with no money. My parents weren’t the kind of people that would pay for you to go backpack around Europe. My other friends had rich parents. I don’t come from a rich family. I went to USD on a scholarship. I don’t come from a lot of money. I come from a very frugal family that isn’t liberal with their spending. They hang on to it. So once I started playing on the streets, at one point I ended up in Spain. I ended up in Morocco, I went to Africa. I was in Amsterdam, I went and got free room and board for a fortnight. A fortnight is two weeks. Next thing I know I was in Sweden. Then I went back to England and conquered that place. I was in Paris. I was on this whole path and when I came back, I took my job back. My boss hired me back. I had long hair, I’ve been living on the streets. I saw my job in a whole different way. When I came back I really didn’t care about my job because all I was dreaming about was music. By then I wrote all these songs while I was over there. So I came back and used my job to make more money and write songs and continue my shows at night. My boss happily too me back. To this day, we’re still friends thirty years later. I still go to Padres games with my old boss. He’s been so good to me as a friend. He loves it, that I’ve been on my path and he’s been on his path. It’s just funny that it all started kind of playing in folk mass on Sunday nights at Founders Chapel. Yet I didn’t think I would be sitting here in 2014 and this is what I’ve been doing now as a living. I just did a soundtrack to a movie as well. It’s a documentary about a guy, it’s called “Running Wild.” I wrote all the music for that film. I wrote a really popular song with Jewel. That was kind of crazy. She was on her own journey. I met her because I stayed in San Diego and was playing music. We didn’t set out to write a really popular song, that just happened. She’s from Alaska. She was living in her van, and I met her and she was a waitress at a coffeehouse. It’s just weird how life goes.
JB: You are a very well traveled man; you played on the streets of so many different countries across Europe. Are there any bands or artist that have caught your attention that you would recommend listening to?
SP: Well, it’s always changing. The people I like at this moment as I sit here with you are dead. I keep discovering them. One of them is John Hartford. He’s amazing, he was this banjo player. There’s this record called Aeroplain, like the plains, and it’s such a good record. Bands I like that are still happening: I really like Wilco. I’ll always be a Bob Dylan freak. Although recently, I’ve really gotten into the Grateful Dead and I was never into them. I had a rental car the other day and it was on XM and I got really into the Grateful Dead channel. There’s also a band I’m opening for tonight called The Lovebirds. I really like them. They have some good stuff going on.
This was the first interview of a series of four with prominent and influential members of the music industry in Southern California. Check back soon to read up the perspectives of other members of the industry.