Dennis Quaid's True Fiction
The Veteran Character Actor Assumes Yet Another Persona: Rocker
For years, the strange sub-genre of actors who release records has included an incredibly varied collection of artists. Some questionable (Telly Savalas, William Shatner, George Burns) and some surprisingly good (Billy Bob Thornton, Kevin Bacon).
Enter Dennis Quaid.
He's obviously best-known for an impressive acting career that includes a wide variety of dramatic and comedic roles. "Breaking Away" (1979), "The Right Stuff" (1983) and "The Big Easy" (1986) established him as a solid box-office attraction. But the affable Houston native has also been singing, playing and writing music since he was 12.
Quaid's current musical project with his band The Sharks has been going strong for the past 18 years on the southern California club circuit. Last year the band finally got serious about releasing a proper album. The result, Out Of The Box (Omnivore) is a rocking collection of originals and choice covers including fresh takes on "L.A. Woman" and venerable old warhorse "Gloria."
Insite recently caught up with the irreverent actor/musician/Esurance pitchman by phone from Chicago.
You're based in Los Angeles but you've been making movies in Georgia long before it became such a hot destination.
Yeah, I did several movies there. "The Long Riders," and before that some drive-in movies in the '70s. I always had a good time there and there's such a vibrant music scene. Let's see, "Our Winning Season" was also shot there, a movie called "Gorp" and "Something To Talk About" was shot in Savannah. I've always loved the south.
Congratulations on your first album. It only took, what, 18 years?
(Laughs) Yeah, I guess so. We've been together for 18 years, and we've done a few live recordings and stuff to have something to sell at gigs but we hadn't made a real record.
But you've made it to a few soundtracks.
Yeah a few songs here and there for movies. But I was playing golf with my friend [producer] T-Bone Burnett and he became a great facilitator. He set us up at Village Recorders and loaned us his engineer. We put down 25 tracks and 13 made it to this record.
Are you saving the others for b-sides?
Some will go on the next album. I've been on a tear over the last couple of years, writing songs and we're gonna go in and start on the second one soon. The Beatles put out one every six months, so why can't we?
It's good to hear you're in a prolific period, but you've been writing songs for a long time.
Ever since I was 12, actually. When I started playing guitar, I just started writing. I knew I'd never be able to really shread, so writing was just kind of a natural thing for me.
Growing up in Texas, you must've had a lot of early influences.
Yeah, I was exposed to a pretty eclectic range of music. The first one I can remember was Hank Williams and then Elvis came along and Buddy Holly. My dad played piano and Bing Crosby was his Elvis. And Gene Autry was my cousin, so there's a legacy. Then the Outlaws came along and hit right about the time I was 16 and of course the Beatles were a constant.
Early on, was Jerry Lee Lewis an influence?
I wouldn't say early on. I guess I was 33 when I did "Great Balls Of Fire" (1989). But I did know his story and I hadn't really played piano before that. So I had a year to prepare and Jerry Lee was one of my teachers. He was over my shoulder the entire time. 'You're doin' it wrong, son.'
I thought they might have pushed you to make an album during the "Great Balls Of Fire" period, but it didn't happen.
I don't really think I was ready for it. I don't think I found my musical voice until I got with the Sharks. I did have, around that time, The Eclectics, which was some of Bonnie Raitt's band. We had a record deal actually, but the night the we got the deal, we broke up! Like in "The Commitments," did you ever see that movie?
Right. Breaking up on the day of the deal is very punk.
Well the next day, I was in rehab and I didn't play music for about ten years, so yeah. Then the Sharks got together through Harry Dean Stanton. A couple of the guys were playing with him and that's where I started to really find my ownÂ voice.
Now you're getting serious with the music, the record and a big tour.
Well I don't want to say 'serious,' but we've been a band for so long now. It got to the point where it became an unspoken thing. We just kept playing and we have our own sound.
What do you call that sound? It's obviously rock-based.
It's just junk-yard American music. It's kinda all thrown in there, we're rock and roll, but we're also country, a little lounge and blues. But yeah, it's rock. Our manta is we're gonna be the oldest guys to make it in rock'n'roll.
You're taking it on the road this year.
Yeah we did like 50 dates last year and now I want to double that.
You'll be able to balance that many cities with your actingÂ schedule?
I'm lucky enough to do both. With movie stuff, for so long I used to play the lead and that keeps you in one place. What I love now, I'll go in like a hit man and do a role on something for a couple of weeks and then I'm out of there. So now I can spend more time on the music.
I saw a clip from the CD release show in November and you were all over the stage and out in the crowd.
That's what we do. We started out as a bar band, really. If people pay their hard-earned money to see us, we want 'em to have a good time.
People want to come to a rock show and have a good time, but in your case, some will come purely out of curiosity.
And that's fine with me. I feel like, if you want to see a 'movie star,' that's fine, but stay for the music. We're all there to have a good time, and it's an opportunity to change their mind so they can see that we're a real band. I just don't get uptight about it.
But there's always the Golden Throats stigma. The Shatner-ization of celebrity expression. So many actors have tried to release a record and it becomes kitsch rather than art. But your record isn't a novelty.
Right. In my case, it's what I've always done. At this point, my only goal is to be authentic.
So many actors get stuck in a type of role. But you haven't. Each role seems to live in its own little world.
I don't really have a strategy for that. I just want to try as many things as possible. Characters or whatever it is - and it keeps it fresh for me too.
You've played a number of real people over the years. Is that more difficult than playing someone you can completely create fromÂ scratch?
In some ways it's easier. You have so much material to draw on and sometimes directly from the person themselves. I never try to imitate people, I just try to get their essence and be respectful but still truthful. I don't try to do an impersonation.
You've done Clinton and Jerry Lee and Doc Holliday.
Oh man, so many. Gordon Cooper, too. It seems like most people I've played are realÂ people.
And now you've got Ronald Reagan on the horizon.
That is in the works, yes. If they'll give us a start date, I hope we'll be able to do it in 2019. That'll certainly be a doozy.
It's a long way off, but have you started to prepare for it?
I went up to the Reagan Ranch. I already knew so much because he's my favorite president, to tell you the truth. But the more I kinda get to know him when I talk to people who also knew him personally, it makes it even more intriguing. That's what I love about acting is that it's a study of human behavior and that just dovetails right into music.
When you're onstage with the band, are you assuming another character?
Yeah, there's a persona. It's not quite intentional but it's just what I kinda become. I call it true fiction. I'm playing a true fiction of myself. It is theater and presentational and it's a way to tell a personal story, but it remains a piece of fiction. Which makes it even truer sometimes, you know?
Dennis Quaid and The Sharks' Out Of The Box is available at most music retailers and from omnivorerecordings.com. Catch them on tour later this year.