Spiky haired American guitarist Tommy Kessler [far left] joined the ranks of Blondie, during their Endangered Species Tour in April 2010 replacing former guitarist Paul Carbonara. Everybody knows Blondie were one of the first bands to emerge from the early New York punk scene, always re-inventing their sounds, amalgamating their music with punk, pop, reggae, disco, rock and electro, in doing so became highly influential, creating many hit records, selling worldwide, always with awesome videos and upbeat pop tunes.
Tommy is a very busy man indeed as he also performs as a member of the 1980's rock band in the award winning Rock of Ages musical on Broadway. Not content with that he is also a producer and songwriter in his own right.
Tommy and I booked a date on Skype for a live chat, discussing everything from Blondie, touring, guitars, and social networking, and it went something like this…
MEL: My first question has to be when did you first pick up a guitar and start to play?
TOMMY: I think I was around 12 something like that, my Mom is a piano player so I guess it was natural that I picked up an instrument, she was really good and I didn’t want to be in her shadow for a while. I loaned a guitar after seeing Van Halen play in concert…I was like “that’s it I wanna play guitar”.
MEL: I believe you had a background in classical music is that what you started to play on the guitar?
TOMMY: I didn’t go straight to classical music. I played acoustic guitar for a while, all the chords, and all that stuff, I played a lot of blues stuff, which led to the rock stuff and somewhere there I spent a good amount of time playing classical music which led to all my heavy metal influences. My Mom’s a classical pianist so that I guess I probably got that from her…I dunno?
MEL: Who were your guitar heroes and who did you aspire to be?
TOMMY: Growing up they were …definitely Randy Rhoads, Slash and Eddie Van Halen was the last one and Steve Vai was in there.
MEL: No English guitarists?
TOMMY: Yes, no I never looked at where the music came from, but I guess I didn’t…I learnt ‘Stairway To Heaven’ earlier on …and a couple of Led Zeppelin songs, Pink Floyd was not even in the market. A handful of Beatle songs, but I was never really a Beatles fan. Obviously I know and respect what the Beatles did for music and song writing, what they had at the time it was amazing but I don’t like turn on The Beatles and go “oh this is great”. That’s funny that you say that I really don’t have a guitar player from across the pond.
MEL: What kind of music was the soundtrack to your formative year, those teenage rebellion years?
TOMMY: Oh well Blondie fans will probably cringe, but I was listening to…. lets see….The Osborne tribute album with Randy Rhoads, all the Guns & Roses albums, Pantera, Metallica and Megadeath. I grew up in the nineties, when Nirvana was coming out and stuff like that. Pantera was there and Metallica when the Black album came out.
MEL: So it was the heavier side of music..... did you not get into Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd?
TOMMY: Oh yea, definitely that’s kind of where classic music took me. Led Zeppelin not until I was older and playing already and I was like “oh this stuff is great too”. I have friends who were listening to that stuff but most were a different crowd, than what I hung out with.
MEL: So moving on…......you joined the legendary 'Blondie' just over two years ago, why did you decide to be a part of the group?
TOMMY: Yea, it’ll be three years in April. Well the keyboard player Matt, [Matt Katz-Bohen] we have some mutual friends. I guess there are a couple of people I have to thank for that connection, and at one point one of them recommend him as a sub guitar player for Rock Of Ages, so he came down to watch the show. We met face to face and then Blondie went on tour, so I never got to bring him in as a sub. Then he contacts me probably a year later, I’d just kinda got a random phone call from him saying that Paul [Carbonara] had left and they were looking out for some guitar players and my name came up and he asked this producer and drummer that we both mutually knew. Those were our mutual friends and they both brought my name up when matt asked them and here I am!
MEL: What did it feel like stepping into a well established band, especially being one with such a legendary background – did it meet your expectations?
TOMMY: Oh yea, the third show I think was in the Isle of White 2010 on the tour, meeting my expectations ....yes! Playing in front of one hundred thousand people, right off the bat like that was quite an experience. I didn’t really do the whole like I am playing guitar in Blondie now thing, it never kicked in because I knew Blondie. I knew the songs really well, I'd heard them a lot. It wasn’t like I was just listening to them I was listening to other bands too.
MEL: Blondie wasn’t really your musical era though was it?
TOMMY: No, it wasn’t my era, but music lives through each era and I’d heard a lot of it. In fact when I was learning the songs I was like…"Oh this is another Blondie song, I know this song”. There were a lot of experiences like that, I had no idea how influential and big Blondie was. I knew that Blondie was really big, obviously everybody, every Guy and most people in the world can recognise Debbie, so I could do that.
MEL: That was kind of their downfall though in the early days, as in the fact that Debbie was the main focus of the band, it became about Debbie’s looks, and at once stage I recall they had a statement “Blondie is a band”.
TOMMY: Oh yea, I mean we do that all the time – they always come up and say “Oh you play with Blondie I love her”. The thing is people show up and they say is "Is Blondie here yet? It’ll be like me Chris and Clem…"we are all here.” "No but is she here, is Blondie here” It’s like "Oh Debbie, no she’s not here yet", or whatever. We always try to have fun and play around with it.
MEL: Debbie's a real legend though isn’t she?
TOMMY: Yes, and I think it’s great that the band had something to latch onto. Look at the bands today; there is always something that people latch onto whether its one thing, or one guy or one girl, their look, personality off the stage, there is one person they associate with every band, so…
MEL: How long did it take before you felt like a fully fledged band member, you must have felt like the new boy on the block for a while?
TOMMY: Oh yea. Paul was with the band for twelve or thirteen years, before me the newest member was Matt, and I think Matt was there for two or three years before me. So, yea definitely, its not one of those bands that has a revolving door by any means, its a great band to be in and part of and it takes a minute I guess to win over some loyalty. I try to stay away from all that stuff that is said on the internet, but every now and then I’ll come across something, or someone will send something my way, were it’s like who is your favourite guitar player in Blondie, sometimes I make the cut and sometimes I don’t.
MEL: What was your first meeting like? I presume you met Debbie and Chris first?
TOMMY: Yea. I actually met everyone in the band; Clem was the last one because he doesn’t live out here in the New York area. Debbie called me, left a voice mail, I called her back and within a couple of days we met at her place in New York and just hung out for a couple of hours, we talked and got to know each other. I am assuming at this point, before they had even called me, they spent a minute looking around for videos and pictures figuring out “ok, what’s this Guys deal”. So I am sure they did a little bit of their homework. Everyone gets recommended for a job like that, you get recommend by people that they trust and they are not gonna send someone who isn’t capable of playing it. It’s more about how you get along with everybody, and can we hang out with you, on the tour bus…. we spend hours on the bus, it’s like a soup can, are you gonna get along with everyone…
MEL: What kind of things did they ask you?
TOMMY: It wasn’t like an interview…like where are you from, just general, no questions, it’s not really the questions that are the important thing, its how you talk and how you reaction, that’s more what they want to see. Like if someone asks you a question and it’s the wrong question or brings up a touchy subject, how do you deal with it, do you shut down, do you lash out, or do you calmly vaguely beat around the bush so nobody is uncomfortable. I spoke with Debbie and she was cool, she said you should go and meet Chris up in Woodstock. So I went up there, drove up within the next few days, the next week, I don’t remember the time frame. I went up there and spent about 4-5 hours with Chris at his house, but I think we played all of five minutes, it was all about talking. I played a few guitar things and had a guitar in my hand most of the time, but it was more just talk, talk, talk.
MEL: So how would you describe your relationship with Debbie and Chris now?
TOMMY: They are very welcoming, and Clem is too, all three of them. They want it to be a band, they don’t want it to be looked at ...I am assuming as Debbie, Chris and Clem and three hired guys in the band, they want people to know Blondie is a band; all six of us are members of the band. Its like camaraderie, we all travel together, and we all stay together.
MEL: And that is my next question…...what do you do with yourself on those long boring days/nights on the road?
TOMMY: I am gonna be honest I usually bring an old Nintendo with me on my tour bus experiences, because we all have our TV’s and I always hook up my Nintendo and I usually bring a few old games and play em through. That kills a lot of time.
MEL: What music do you listen to on the tour bus, or do you not, do you have general music going around, or do you all have your headphones on?
TOMMY: No, on the tour bus its usually Chris enjoys to watch bad horror movies, there is always one of those going on in the front of the bus, the back of the bus its usually Clem he usually enjoys watching music documentaries, then you can find us at any various times in one of those areas or in a bunk. I love sleeping on the bus; everybody pretty much enjoys sleeping on the bus. We stay in hotels everyday too, but we do a show, then we drive overnight.
MEL: Have you not gotten into Kindle; I know others tell me they take them on the road trips?
TOMMY: No, actually I prefer to bring books on the road. I have a kindle and it’s loaded and every now and then I’ll go through spates were I’ll read a book on it but right now I like physical books. So, on the road I’ll either find a book I like, or Debbie and Chris bring a lot of books.
MEL: Do you keep a record or diary of where you have been?
TOMMY: I keep all the tour books, the hotel sheets, and the day sheets. Our tour manager is really great with keeping us in the loop and where we need to be, times and all that. Everyday we get a day sheet so I save those, like a memory, I don’t really write into a diary, I’m not a diary person. I like to collect those things,...... this is what I did in Blondie for all those years, as long as it goes I’ll have a big old stack of memory stuff. I always collect little souvenirs, from the shows I’ll get posters and we will all all sign them and the bands that we were touring with, I’ll have them framed. I have a big studio here where I live in New York, and I hang these posters on the wall. It’s just nice little things like that, that’s my diary, if it’s worth remembering I won’t need to write it down. A good friend of mine once said about pictures, “I don’t really to take pictures, if it’s worth remembering I’ll remember it, I don’t need to have a hard drive full of thousands and tens of thousands of pictures” – which I do [laughs]. I have a lot of pictures and I don’t really go back to them.
MEL: But you quite like your instagram I noticed!
TOMMY: I do enjoy instagram, that’s kind of fun, that creates a kind of diary. There will be sometimes when I go a day or two when I don’t do anything, but when I am on tour I always make it a point to take a picture every day, sometimes I take two or three, things I see.....and if nothing else I always take a picture of the venue, and the sound checks.
MEL: People like to see that....
TOMMY: Absolutely yea, and I know the fans like to see that in this day and age, it’s a right here right now thing. Since we can do that people would rather have that than a finished polished picture of something that you spent a couple of weeks on - you took a thousand pictures and you pick the best one, you make it this amazing thing. People like the real you, in the moment, this is what I’m thinking now, that’s what twitter, facebook is about. It pretty much all started when people could start updating, ....what do you think right now, done!
MEL: It’s fantastic, when I was a young teen growing up, bands were unobtainable.The only contact was via a fan club, if you were lucky you got a reply. I chatted to Keith Levene [ex PIL] the other week and he describes Twitter, as being “like a backstage area” he loves it. So I guess I’m asking how important are social networking sites to you?
TOMMY: I can’t keep up with the Facebook stuff; it’s kind of like adjusting our way of handling each other socially. Twitter is one thing, I think because it limits you to what you can do - I think that’s great. That’s a really good comparison that he said, because your limited, if you’re in the backstage area of the band, you’re still limited, your back there but you have access to more things than the people out in the front do, but you’re still limited. I think that’s why I like the Twitter and instagram. I have a facebook fan page there. I keep up with messages that people send me, all my tweets and instagram go to my page as well. Plus it’s easy for me to do it from my phone, I like to snap a picture, tag it, talk about it in less than 100 characters, throw a filter on it and call it a day. I think peoples attention span are not that long, they see it, enjoy it, they comment, if I comment back, lets be honest they probably forget about it and go onto something else.
MEL: I was advised to contact you on Twitter, as you’re really prolific?
TOMMY: I’m really glad I came over to the dark side [laughs]
MEL: Just moving away from Twitter…...can you share one of your most memorable experiences, since you have been involved in music?
TOMMY: One of my highlights is always gonna be that Isle of White show. We flew over to London on that first tour. I got into the band in the April, that’s when I met everybody. We played around a couple of times and that was good because nothing was coming up for a little while. I was on vacation; they called me about the TV Land awards a couple of days before it aired, before it taped. I was like “oh ok, we had never played together, that was actually where I met Clem. I met Clem for the first time at the rehearsal, for the actual gig, so that was quite a sink or swim situation, but I thrive on those situations, it didn’t bother me. A month later a rehearsal and going to the UK, flying over there with the band the first time, I was as nervous as hell. I had no idea, I hadn’t spent a lot of time with these people, or them with me. We don’t know what was gonna happen, or anything like that, but it was quite exciting and the first time I’d ever been to England or flown out of the Country. I’d been to Mexico and around here, but nothing over one of the big oceans.
MEL: You are touring with Blondie this summer with a series gigs in the UK, interestingly some of them are 'forest gigs'. How much are you looking forward to this ?
TOMMY: Well I’m excited about it because I’ve been over there twice now…. to the UK and first time I was nervous and didn’t know what to expect, as those were my first shows with Blondie....my first tour. I was kind of focused and didn’t really do much at all, the second time I went over there I spent more time just relaxing and enjoying the whole experience, and this time I am really excited because there is just no expectations, no worries, or anything. We go where we have fun, we do our thing, so there’s no inhibitions.
MEL: Have you ever played in a forest though? It is literally a forest in Cheshire, albeit with a camping area and stage!
TOMMY: In a forest? No, I’ve played in some parks, not forests [laughs]. I’m excited for it.
MEL: I’m wondering how much do you collaborate with the music and lyrics?
TOMMY: Yea, everybody has their own respective writing things. Chris and Debbie, Matt – keyboard player. I've never really spoke to Clem too much about the writing process; I’m sure he has some sort of situation going on. And I’ve been together with Matt a couple of times and wrote. Actually today in about 4 hours I have a session with Chris and Blondie stuff. I have to go in and record guitars. There is a fair amount of collaboration, but as far as I know there is no getting in a room as a band and toughen things out, bouncing out ideas and emotions all over the room. I wish it was.... I think that would be a great way to write and put an album out. In this day and age everyone’s got their own little areas, I mean I’ve got mine, I’ve got a writing partner and we do a lot of stuff for commercials and other artists on our own, so everyone has their own role to play.
MEL: And plus you have got ‘Rock Of Ages as well…
TOMMY: 'Rock Of Ages', that’s what I call my day job here in New York when I am home. It’s a Broadway show, it’s a musical. It was over in London for a while. It’s a musical set in the 80’s at Sunset Strip in L.A, its your typical love story, boy lives in L.A, girl comes to L.A to be a star, meets boy and they have a missed romance and she ends up running off with a typical rock star. She becomes a stripper, goes through some bad roads, and then comes back, in the end they reunite and live happily ever after.
MEL: Are you acting in this, or do you just do the music?
TOMMY: No, I’m in the band; we are on stage the whole time. We are part of the show; we are characters in the show. I wear a wig, which everyone is always happy to hear, and laughs about. We don’t actually have names, there are two guitar players, I am one of the guitar players, there is a lead guitar and rhythm – and I am called guitar two. We set up the stage like a bar; we are basically like a house band, eight shows a week, every day of the week, except Wednesday.
MEL: Wow... on top of all the other stuff you do as well!
TOMMY: Yea, my typical day is usually I wake up I go to my studio from 10-5 then I go to the gym for an hour, then I go to my show at 8. And then I am back home by midnight [laughs] then try and fall asleep I guess [laughs].
MEL: Is there anything you’re working on currently?
TOMMY: I am always writing music for other bands and artists. Just last month my partner and I licensed around twenty songs for TV shows and commercials and whatever, for whoever wants to use them, so they are out there now, that’s basically what I spent my 9-5 day hours.
MEL: I saw something online when I was researching, called ‘study with a star’ http://studywithastar.com do you still do that?
TOMMY: I do, when anyone wants a lesson, I got one yesterday. It’s a really cool idea, the idea was brought to me through Matt, and he is on there too. It’s basically a website where you can go and get lessons from the musicians that play with Rhiannon, Pink and Avril Lavigne, Sean Paul, basically all the guys that are playing for the biggest artists in the world.
MEL: I’d guess you would need to have a certain amount of experience playing the guitar first.
TOMMY: Oh yea. I remember my first lesson on there, I think we’d done a lesson for ten minutes, because the other 40 minutes we spoke just about the industry. There are a lot of times people will get on there and they just want to talk, it’s kind of like an interview, a kind of walk through, they might want to try to do it, or how did you do it. I think it’s very important to hear it from someone who already did it, rather than read it in a book, or you hear about it, you gotta see how everyone else did it, its gonna give you an idea of how you can do it. So a lot of people will use the service for that, and so if you go to http://studywithastar.com Blondie is under the Indie music section, you can find Matt and I. They have keyboards, vocals, guitars, drums, bassists, all the instruments. Because of my crazy schedule, it’s hard for me to keep up with it, but definitely if anyone wants a lesson I am happy to carve out the time for them, because I think it’s a great idea. Every now and then I will post something about that, like when I get off tour, or even when I am on tour. When I am tour going from hotel to hotel that would be a fun time for somebody.
MEL: Especially if someone in the UK would want to do it when you are over here in the summer? [Lessons are $125 for 50 minutes]
TOMMY: Absolutely, if you come and see the show.... like the night before. If you’re coming to see Blondie play like on a Monday night or something you could schedule a lesson for Tuesday and you can talk about “oh last night you did this thing” you can pick my brain all day long about the show, as its fresh in my mind.
MEL: Someone might just take you up on that after they read this interview. I imagine you have a large selection of guitars, how many do you own and which is your favourite and why?
TOMMY: Well, I have gone through a lot of guitars. Let’s see sort of between 30 to 40! It’s not anything, some guys I have spoken to have got close to 200 – 300 guitars, that’s like wow! Well they all sound different, or do something different, they have their sentimental value; those are the ones you keep around. I started with the Gibson Les Paul, through to a Marshall that’s what I enjoyed the most, then I started getting into the boutique thing, handmade guitars and I bounced around a little bit. About the last six or seven months I’ve been playing these guitars by a builder by the name of Kauer who lives in California and I’ve really fallen in love with them. A handmade guitar has a really good feel to it, because it was built by hand, by one person, they have left the flaws in it. It’s like all today’s social stuff, its not that they took a thousand pictures and picked the perfect one, made it right, made it perfect, so it’s the similar with the guitar they are not being mass produced. So that’s what I really like about them and they sound the best, feel the best and so far I am really happy with them. I don’t foresee myself going anywhere else after I have found this one.
MEL: And do you have names for them [laughs]?
TOMMY: No, well there was a time growing up I would name my guitars but after a while I stopped [laughed]. None of them were actually names they were usually just some silliness which I was coming up with, which made it easy to remember, but eventually you kinda go “oh I don’t know what to name this one”.
MEL: When you have time, what are your other passions/interests outside of music and playing guitar? If you indeed have any?
TOMMY: I do, I spend a lot of time with my family, as much as I can, once a month I go and see them. When I have time I really enjoy playing old video games but it usually takes up a lot of time which I don’t have….I’m a play station fan. I used to be a big car nut, racing cars, and motorcycles. When I was twenty I broke my hip in a motorcycle accident, I used to be a little speed demon and race… a lot.
MEL: Was that the end of your motorcycle days when you had your accident?
TOMMY: Yes, actually when I had my accident that was when I decided career wise that I was going to be a musician. Before that I was a day trader for a growth fund, I basically traded stocks. Obviously that put me in the area of being around guys with fast cars, I had a couple, and we did a lot of stupid things after the 9-5 job ended. So anyway I said I’m gonna have a stab at this guitar playing thing, besides you know I can’t collect cars, and guitars it’s too expensive. That was it.
MEL: So finally coming to the end, is there anything you wish to say to our readers out there?
TOMMY: The best way to get hold of me and stay in contact is twitter and instagram, which of course would be @therealtommyk - in this day and age you gotta embrace all the social stuff.
Thanks to Tommy for the 50 minutes chat, we shall see you down the front in Delamere Forest. If you want to catch Blondie on tour in the UK, here are the dates.
BLONDIE TOUR DATES:
06/19/13 Douglas Villa Marina
06/21/13 Tetbury Westonbirt Arboretum
06/22/13 Tunbridge Wells Bedgebury Pinetum
06/23/13 Carlisle Sands Centre
06/25/13 Dublin Olympia Theatre
06/26/13 Belfast Waterfront Hall Auditorium
06/28/13 Pickering Dalby Forest
06/29/13 Cannock Cannock Chase Forest
07/01/13 Glasgow Clyde Auditorium
07/02/13 Edinburgh Usher Hall
07/06/13 Northwich Delamere Forest
07/07/13 London Roundhouse
07/09/13 London Kew Royal Botanical Gardens
Interview by Melanie Smith
Photos provided by Tommy Kessler