By Jeb Wright, March of 2012
Van McLain is best known as the lead guitarist of AOR band Shooting Star. The band had varying degrees of success over the last thirty years, but no matter how bleak it sometimes looked, McLain has been the one who has kept the band alive.
Shooting Star has had several unfortunate occurrences in their career but it never kept them down. They have sold around one million albums in their career and toured the world opening for Journey, Robin Trower, Kansas and scores of other bands. They were even featured on CNN early this millennium. While Shooting Star came close several times, they never managed to make the big time.
McLain feels the frustration of a career where the brass ring always seemed to be just out of his reach, still, he loves writing and playing music and nothing is going to keep him from pursuing his passion.
His latest effort is his debut solo album, which sees the muse trading in his AOL styling for his blues rock roots. The album, which, one way or another, will be released in spring or summer of 2012 is a breath of fresh air. His songwriting is better than ever, his guitar playing impressive and his vocals are out of this world.
In the interview below, Van openly discusses his new album, the fate of Shooting Star, the things that kept him from being a world famous musician and how his new songs have brought back his passion for music.
Jeb: After all these years you are finally making a solo album.
Van: I have always had a few songs that didn’t fit Shooting Star, so I decided to put them out. Some people have been calling this blues music, but it isn’t. This is more like Little Feat or Eric Clapton – it is not Muddy Waters. It does, however, have a blues inspiration.
Jeb: When did you decide this was a project that you really wanted to do?
Van: I have a studio in my house so I just kept writing things not really knowing what I was going to do with it. I ended up playing this stuff for some people; one person was Bob Tarantino, who was head of promotions for years at A&M Records. He played it for another guy and everyone kept telling me that they thought it was really good. You never know how other people are going to react to your music. I knew it didn’t fit Shooting Star, but on their recommendation I went ahead and wrote another four or five songs.
Jeb: Explain the latest singer saga in Shooting Star.
Van: Our latest signer, Ronnie Platt, has been difficult to get to do dates because he is very busy playing in a cover band in Chicago. They are called Aura and they do a ton of dates in Chicago.
I just don’t want to replace another singer. I feel like we are starting to be like Spinal Tap. Gary [West] was the original singer and we had a lot of success with him. When he left, we replaced him with Keith [Mitchell] and we had a pretty big hit with “Touch Me Tonight.” That song ended up being the # 1 song on MTV at the time. People accepted Keith.
Keith left after several years with the band and we got Kevin Chalfant and he wouldn’t tour. We replaced him with Ronnie and he has touring issues as well. I am just done with it. We are still going to play some dates but we are not going to get a new singer. Janet [Jameson] and I will handle all of the vocals.
Jeb: She is going to sing as well.
Van: She can wail; she is awesome. I never did it before because I thought it might be weird to have a girl covering parts that were originally sung by a guy, but she sounds great. I cover most of the guy parts anyway. We did a gig in St. Louis and people went nuts; they loved it.
Jeb: Some people never knew there were two singers, as you sound similar.
Van: We were not famous enough to where most people know who Gary was, or who I was. They knew the name ‘Shooting Star’ and they knew the songs. I think this will be fine, as long as we are doing good representations of the songs.
Jeb: Tell me about your solo band.
Van: We have an eleven-piece band. I have three horn players, a percussion player and background singers. If we took this out on the road then we would have to scale back to six or seven people but the shows we are doing around Kansas City are all eleven of us. I am trying to pattern this band after the Mad Dogs & Englishman type thing. I want a wall of sound and a bunch of people on stage.
Jeb: Is this music going back to your roots?
Van: I am a Clapton/Beck/Hendrix guy; that’s how I learned to play guitar. Those guys are very blues influenced and that is a big part of my playing. I have always loved that kind of music and we would do little bits of that in Shooting Star but not a whole song. You’ve seen us do “Breakout” live and I do a long blues solo during that song. My band is more leaning to the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s.
Jeb: Are all of the songs new?
Van: Most are new however, one song is really old. There was a band in Kansas City, years ago; called Hot Foot, which I think was a great name. They were one of the best bands that I have ever seen – not just in Kansas City but anywhere. They had Kansas City disease and they never got discovered.
Steve Werner, the songwriter and guitar player, and I were friends. He had a song he wrote called “Tailbone Jones” and I always thought that was a killer song. I recorded that song for my album. I rearranged it and put my own thing on it but it is just a great song. The other song that I have had for a while is called “Voodoo in your Hoodoo.” We used to joke around and say that we were going to put our voodoo in your hoodoo and laugh, so I wrote a song about it. The rest of the songs are new.
Jeb: Is this more of a challenge for you vocally or musically?
Van: I am okay on both but in rehearsals I discovered I had to do something I had never had to do before. In Shooting Star, I never had to sing and play on everything. I would sing a little bit but mostly I would sit back and play my guitar. This is totally different. I can’t think about my guitar playing as much while I am on stage, as I am busy the entire time.
I have had to really get my chops up. In my basement, while recording this album, I would put the guitar track down and then do the vocal track. Now, I have to do both at the same time, live. As I wrote it, I was not thinking that I needed to be able to play a difficult guitar part while singing at the same time. I made it kind of complicated.
Jeb: In Shooting Star you were pretty much the only guitar player and you only had a bass, violin and keyboard to compete with. Does this setup make it more complicated for you as a guitar player?
Van: I need to stay out of the way more. I am used to playing every lick through every song. Now, I have to make myself come in and out more than I am used to. I have to lay back on parts and then jump in when it is time for the solo.
This has been a musical trip for me, as I am used to playing the same twenty songs for years. After you play “Last Chance” or “Bring It On” for the millionth time then you are on autopilot and you don’t have to think and the words come right in your head. Now, I have to memorize all the words and get back to basics.
Jeb: This sounds like it has been a very good experience for you.
Van: It has got me excited about writing music and playing live again. When you keep switching singers it gets really hard. I love the style of music we play in Shooting Star but for years I have been writing without knowing what singer I am writing for. The new album I know who I am writing for because I am writing it for me. I used to write songs knowing Gary would be the singer, so I would consciously write songs for his voice. I have never written parts that I knew were just for me.
I always felt that my voice, in Shooting Star, was the second voice, as Gary was the main singer. I would come in and sing some parts, which is very similar to what a band like Kansas does. Steve Walsh was the lead singer but Robbie Steinhardt would come in for a few lines, here and there.
Jeb: What is the goal with the new solo music?
Van: We own our own pipeline into iTunes, so we have that covered. We have a show in Kansas City at Harrah’s Casino and we are going to shoot video of that. I don’t know if it will be a complete DVD, but we’re going to record a couple of videos. We talked to Alligator Records and they are coming down to the show to check us out. There are a few other labels that are interested. I don’t have delusions that we will sell a million albums but I would like to be able to get out and play and take a band on the road this summer.
Jeb: Where does this leave Shooting Star?
Van: We still love playing and there is still a market for the band. I don’t foresee us making another album. If my album completely bombs and no one hears it, then I might reconsider. I still have the fire to write music.
I just don’t want to get another singer. I don’t want to become one of those bands that end up being a cover band of themselves.
Jeb: Have you thought of getting Gary West back in Shooting Star?
Van: I tried everything I could to get Gary back in the band. I just don’t think he has the confidence to do it anymore. He has not been playing on a regular basis and he would have to do a lot of rehearsal to get his voice back in shape. He would have to really work to do it and I just don’t think he’s up for it.
We talked about it. I called him when I got totally sick of this whole lead singer thing. I said, “Gary, let’s get the original guys and lets go do a tour.” He was interested but I think he started thinking, “What have I just got myself into?” He has not been doing anything musical for twenty years.
Jeb: Didn’t something get released recently that Gary produced?
Van: This goes way back. When Shooting Star broke up the first time Gary and I were making an album together. The album was going to be much more R&B, which was something totally different for us. We used this girl for background vocals named Baby Lee. She was really good and Gary produced an album for her. Gary co-wrote some of the songs. The album never saw the light of day and recently, the tapes were found and they are releasing it. It is very 1980’s and it sounds like it. When you hear it then you will remember that era of music production. Gary sings some on the album as well, so the Shooting Star maniacs will want to get their hands on it because they want to hear everything that Gary ever did.
Jeb: I saw Charles Waltz a few years ago when The Young Dubliners opened for Jethro Tull. His singer announced that he was in Shooting Star but Charles almost seemed embarrassed by it.
Van: In all of his bios he never mentions that he was in Shooting Star. I don’t know why he does not embrace his history in the band but he just doesn’t do it. We didn’t break up badly, so I have no idea why he separates himself from us. People can be really strange.
Jeb: How did Shooting Star form?
Van: I moved to England in 1976 when I was 18 years old and was playing sessions. Gary had been in a band in Kansas City called The Chessmen, who were actually a very popular band. Gary moved to New York to work with Michael Brown, who was in the band The Left Bank that had a big hit in the late 1960’s.
I was shopping a demo around in England and I actually got signed by Arista Bell Records by Clive Davis. We didn’t have a good drummer and they brought in a session guy who sucked, so I called Gary. He said that he would do it but he told me he had other things going on. I needed someone long term, so we didn’t get together at that time.
The song I got the record deal for was called “Take the Money and Run.” Two months after we went into the studio, Steve Miller came out with a different song named “Take the Money and Run.” There was no way my song would get released with the same name after he had a huge hit with his song. The record deal fell apart and I moved back to Kansas City. In the interim, Gary’s band fell apart and he came back. We decided to just start from scratch and put a band together. We took my stuff and his stuff and we started writing some new songs.
We started playing the bars and working on our material and we took the entire band to New York and spent four or five months up there and we got signed. Back then you had to go to LA, or New York, in order to get signed.
Jeb: Did you know the other guys in the band?
Van: Ron Verlin had been in the version of Shooting Star that was in England. Steve Thomas had gone to high school with us. I saw Charles playing keyboards with a band in Kansas City; I didn’t even know he played violin at the time. He had a great harmony voice and he played well, so we invited him to join. Gary wanted out from behind the piano, so we auditioned ten or twelve guys and we found Bill Guffey, who played keyboards. All of the guys were from Kansas City but it is interesting how we had to go to England and New York to form in our hometown.
Jeb: I figured the violin was to give you that Kansas sound.
Van: Everyone thinks that. We didn’t pattern ourselves after Kansas. I like Kansas but I was not influenced by Kansas. Shooting Star was not trying to recreate Kansas. We were way more influenced by Genesis and the Beatles.
It is interesting that we ended up with a violin player and that we were from this area, which is down the road from Topeka, where Kansas came from. I think it kind of hurt us in some ways. We got known as Baby Brother Kansas. The violin only works in certain kinds of rock music; however, I think we did it differently than Kansas. Robbie played very classical sounding parts. In Shooting Star, Charles played parts that were more rock oriented.
Jeb: Kansas was much more of a Prog Rock band.
Van: They were very progressive and Charles was playing rock and blues licks on the thing. If you were a journalist in Toledo, Ohio and you came and saw us and wanted to describe us, then the easy thing to say was that we were a Midwestern band with a violin player, just like Kansas, so we became Mini-Kansas.
Jeb: Shooting Star is the most unlucky band in the world. Everything went wrong for you.
Van: Our first managers were stealing us blind, so we fired them. They were record promotion guys and I think they blackballed us to a lot of radio stations. Another thing that happened was that we signed to Virgin and they had absolutely no money at the time. We did not know that when we signed with them.
Later, we signed with Geffen and we put out Silent Scream and Geffen got in a fight with all the radio promo guys and they fired them the week our album came out. We had 200 ads on radio, out of 300 reporting stations the first week. “Summer Sun” was being added everywhere and it looked like the album would be a smash. After the fight with the promo guys it dropped to 40 stations. What do you do?
Jeb: That was going to be the album that finally put you on the map.
Van: We really worked hard on that record and it was the one. It is the thing that truly drove Gary out of the music business. We were very proud of that album. John Kalodner put us through hell making that album. He had us write fifty songs and then whittle it down to ten songs that made the album. He was the driving force on that record. He traveled to the studio in Olathe, Kansas ten times.
It just crushed Gary when it all fell apart over something that ridiculous; it literally drove him out of the music business. Gary was done. He put all that work into it and he was done. He wanted to get a new career and raise a family and that is what he did.
Jeb: Early on, you couldn’t get your first album in stores could you?
Van: Oh yeah, I was skipping over that so the answer would not be too long. Yes, that happened. We had the number one most played AOR song in the country with “Last Chance” and our record company, Virgin, had gotten into a fight with Atlantic Records, who was there distribution. We ended up not being able to get our album in the stores for six months. We should have sold a ton of albums from having that popular of a song on radio, but when people went to the stores they couldn’t buy the album because it was not in the stores.
We, then, got labeled as a Call Out Research Band. At that time, radio would call out to people and play them songs and ask them what songs they liked. We tested off the charts but when they looked at the charts they didn’t see any sales. They didn’t realize that the reason they didn’t see any sales was because there weren’t any fucking records in the stores. People in the radio business labeled us as a band that did great in research but did not get any sales. Shooting Star and Red Rider were in the same category.
Jeb: Shooting Star is a band that should have been huge.
Van: If you go on YouTube and you pull up the video to “Last Chance” or any of our other songs, then you will see comment after comment about how Shooting Star is one of the greatest bands that no one ever heard of.
It just kills me but what am I going to do about it? I’m not going to commit suicide over it. I am just going to keep making music and having fun with it. For whatever reason, it didn’t happen. I take a lot of satisfaction that a lot of people really like it. It made us kind of cool in a way because if you know who Shooting Star is then you’re really into music.
Jeb: Looking back now, how would you sum up Shooting Star’s music?
Van: I would describe the music as having power – we were not pop. Gary and I were heavily influenced by the Beatles. We wanted to write songs that had lyrical and musical content like a Beatles song but make it rock. We wanted to make it heavier with hard rock guitar on it. We wanted to rock it out but we wanted the songs to be classic and to be remembered.
We didn’t want our legacy to be for songs that went, “Raise a little hell, raise a little hell.” Those were easy songs to write and to get on the radio and we didn’t want to do it that way. Maybe we should have because then we would have had a hit. I am not against “Raise a Little Hell” as it is a fun song, but we were trying to be a little deeper than that.
Jeb: You’re a cancer survivor and I wonder if that helped you look back and be able to accept the fact that Shooting Star never hit the big time.
Van: It did. We are only here for a short time. Ronnie Montrose just died. It can happen to any of us on any given day.
I am still walking around and I got to do a lot of great things and go to a lot of great places. I did better than anybody else around these parts, other than the Kansas guys, and I enjoy music.
I think that was the difference between Gary and me. Gary was not just about making money, don’t get me wrong. It really crushed him when these things happened. You put your heart and soul into this stuff and you expect these business guys to come through for you. We got hosed four or five times. For me, I love playing guitar, so maybe I’m not playing stadiums but I am playing for a lot of people who really like my music.
I ended up getting a different career so I didn’t have to freak out about playing in every bar in the country. When we do play, we are playing a nice theater, or we are opening for a major act. We are not playing in some shit house in Windsor, Missouri and driving around in a van with five other guys. For me, it is still great fun and I still can’t believe how many people still like us. We played St. Louis recently and there were still 1,500 people there who were singing every word to every song.
Jeb: I was there when Edgar Winter came to Kansas City and opened for you. There must have been five thousand people at that gig.
Van: He must have thought, “Who the hell are these guys and why am I opening for THEM?”
Jeb: Last one: It sounds to me like you are comfortable again.
Van: You and I have talked enough about this in the past that you know I’ve had my ups and downs in the music business. With my new solo band, I’m not trying to recreate Shooting Star without Gary. My new band is really cool. We are playing music that I love and it fits me really well. Best of all, people seem to like it.
When we get it out there people may wonder what the hell I am doing. It could end up like when Spinal Tap wanted to do their jazz odyssey. It sounded great to them but everyone else thought it was a terrible idea.
Seriously, the feedback I’ve gotten so far has been very positive. It has been from people that I trust. A lot of people will tell you whatever you do is great but these are people who would tell me if it sucked. I have had a lot of enthusiasm from these people and I am having a lot of fun.
Jeb: It is not out yet, right?
Van: It is not. My website is called www.vanmclain.com and I do have some samples on there of some of the songs. April 15th is when we’re going to release the album but it may get pushed back because we may get a label to put it out. We have a few labels sniffing around and looking at it. If nothing comes together between now and April 15th then we will put it out ourselves.
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