Shake Me: Tom Keifer talks moving to Nashville, going solo, and that infamous Cinderella chili dog commercial

Full disclosure: One generation removed, I grew up right across town from Tom Keifer and the rest of the guys in Cinderella, so I’ve always been slightly partial to their blend of bluesy rock and roll for which the band was known, despite being considered a part of the cherry pie that made up the mid- to late-’80s musical landscape. Like many other artists decimated by the flannel and Doc Martens influx of the early-’90s, Keifer was left a bit disillusioned by the dramatic industry shift and relocated to Nashville where he slowly explored his solo leanings.

That’s the Way Life Goes isn’t just his mantra, it’s the title of Keifer’s debut effort under his own name, which coincidentally came out two years ago today. It’s gotten some of the best reviews of his career and took nearly a decade to complete, a time-frame which has transferred over to the touring cycle, which has been just as relaxed. Tomorrow night, Keifer will be in Malden at Mixx 360 to perform a career spanning set, from the Cinderella hits to his newer solo stuff. 

Vanyaland caught up with the singer to talk about a bunch of topics, mainly in between shooting the shit about matters of Philly that no one else would be interested in reading.

You just got back from the Monsters of Rock Cruise. How was that?

It was a lot of fun. It was the first year I’ve done it with my solo band; normally when I’ve done it in the past it’s been with Cinderella, so it was cool to do it with the new band with the new record and it had a fresh feel to it. People really loved it, they got to see my band live doing the Cinderella stuff as well as the new stuff.

The new record has been getting a ton of positive buzz. It’s not so new now, but for a lot of people it’s the first time they’re getting to hear the material live.

I’m happy about [the album’s reception], when you release a record, that’s what you want to hear. Particularly in making this record, it was really a labor of love for the better part of nine year; and it didn’t really start off as a record, it was more about going out and making some new music with people I enjoyed working with. My wife, a lot of friends of mine from Nashville I wrote with… so it started off just making music and I woke up one day and it felt like a record.

How long have you been living in Nashville?

Since ’97.

What do you compare the music scene like there compared to either New York or L.A. …more laid back, more artist friendly?

I never got heavily involved in the music scene in L.A. or New York. I grew up in Philadelphia and there’s a lot of great music that comes out of there, but it’s not as concentrated in the industry like New York or L.A. — or Nashville. It’s really hard to compare since I didn’t come up in either of those scenes, but if I compare Nashville to Philly, and my whole formative years were in Philadelphia, I was part of a band and it was a pretty self-contained unit.

When I decided to move to Nashville, [Cinderella] had lost our deal, as did many other bands from our decade, when the whole grunge thing came in and I started thinking about doing my own thing at that point when we drifted apart. In Nashville, it just seemed like there was so much more of a concentration of talent and creativity and songwriters than in Philadelphia. I felt like I really needed that shot in the arm.

Everybody’s moving here. Every time I turn around someone from another band or genre of music I moving here — everybody lives here.

So many mainstream artists have been able to make that seamless transition into country, or at least work with country acts and not have it seem completely out of place; everyone from Foo Fighters working with Zac Brown to Steven Tyler working on his first solo album. Why do you think that is?

The standard in Nashville for songwriting is like no other. Everybody comes here to write, it really is the songwriting capital of the world. When someone comes to town such as myself, or from any rock band, they welcome you. And for me, I was one of the early migraters here, before it was trendy. What motivated me to move here was how it’s very roots oriented. When I wanted to work on a solo record, it was such a natural place for me to come because it was a place I’d always written from anyway.

I was reading the recent interview you did with Rolling Stone and you said how ’80s rock fans appreciated what the country music scene brings to the table aesthetically, as far as big shows and the songs. My question is, why didn’t this happen earlier? Obviously when there was the early-’90s shift in music both artists and fans were probably too shellshocked, but two decades is a long time for people to come down there and say, “Ok, this is where I’m going to make my homebase.”

I think people have been migrating slowly over the years. But if you read the article, I’m sure you remember the part where I said shortly after I moved here and the whole ’80s rock thing was kind of down the tubes because the rock landscape had changed so drastically, and no sooner do I move here and I see the Monster Ballads advertised on CMT. And I thought, “Someone’s got it figured out.”

That thing sold millions, and I really think a lot of rock bands from the ’80s felt a little displaced with the grunge movement coming in, even though a lot of it to me, Nirvana and Soundgarden, were very similar, in terms of loud guitars and screaming vocals and slamming drums. But the difference in the grunge thing was the lyrics were much darker. And fans from the ’80s people were looking for like what Garth Brooks was doing, swinging from ropes and doing big rock shows.

Looking back at that period in the ’80s, some of those bands that got lumped in with the hair metal or glam metal genre that didn’t really fit in with the Poisons or the Warrants. You had Extreme who were more musically talented and funk based, Tesla was a bit more cerebral in some of their songs, and Cinderella had the Stonesy blues thing. You look at an Exile on Main Street and it sort of the same thing. Did you feel, I don’t know… slighted by being considered just another act in that genre?

I don’t like genres anyway. If you look at every decade, if you’re going to categorize artists by what they look like, every decade had their own look; the ’70s did, the ’80s did, the ’60s… I think because we were on MTV 24-7, it was the video generation. The look was over the music, and we were put into this cheesy-named hair band or hair metal thing.

I really think that all the rock bands in the ’80s, if you just close your eyes and listen to them, they all sound really uniquely different. Bret Michaels to Stephen Pearcy to Axl Rose to me, to Jeff Keith from Tesla to Joe Elliott, all the singers had their own signature. Then in the ’90s, I felt like a lot of those singers sounded the same. To be categorized as one genre because of a flavor of the day look? When you get right down to it, it’s something every decade has.

What’s the latest on the Cinderella front?

Mmmmm… just extended hiatus really. A lot of it is just building this new thing and we just believe in the record we made. We spent so much time making this record, we’re really in no hurry to stop touring behind it.

Earlier you said that you don’t get to go back to the Philadelphia area much anymore. Is one of the major reasons because you’re bummed out that Pat’s Chili Dogs closed down?

[Laughs] Those were actually really good chili dogs.

I know!

That could be part of it, you know, but there are still Tastykakes there and Philly cheesesteaks and pretzels. So there’s enough Philly food to make up for that… but I don’t think that’s the reason. It’s really more schedule [laughs].

Are you surprised about the interest in recent years the commercial has gotten since it’s popped up on YouTube and whatever?

Yeah… I mean, obviously we were just kids and the way it came about was Pat’s Chili Dogs advertised on MTV local and they were open 24 hours a day and wanted to get the crowds coming out of the rock clubs. When we were approached to do the commercial it was like, “Well, we’re kind of on MTV!” [laughs] It was a good thing for us. I just cringe now when I see it, my vocals are out of key and it’s a little embarrassing but it has its appeal thought I guess.

A colleague of mine caught up with the filmmakers last year, Richard and Brian, and they dished on the shoot. Do you have any memories that stand out from it?

Not really… I really don’t. I barely have any memory of it. We just kind of pulled up and it was the first time we had done anything like that and before I knew it, it was over.

TOM KEIFER + FORTUNE :: Friday, May 1 @ Mixx 360, 665 Broadway Malden :: 7 p.m., 21-plus, $25 :: Advance tickets :: Facebook event page

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