INTERVIEW BY BRIAN BAKER
Michael Lennon is on the road again. For the fourth time this year, he and his brother Mark -- along with cousins Kipp and Pat, collectively known as Venice -- are criss-crossing the country to spread the gospel of their second album, Born and Raised (Vanguard). The previous night in Nashville went extremely well, and even the road noise, intermittent static and drop-outs from our cellular phone connection cannot disguise the joy in Michael's voice.
"It's great to be in whole new cities outside of California," Michael says from the van by cell phone. "That's our home, and that's our fan base. We've always done well there. But to get out of there, go someplace else and have people show up, know the words and ask you to sign their CDs, it's just such a great thing. I'm amazed it took us this long to get out of California and see the world."
The Lennons, along with bassist Alexis Sklarevski and drummer Dann Gillen, have spent the last few months bringing the live version of Born and Raised to as many people as possible across the United States. Some who attend the shows are the faithful who know what they're in for, while others are merely curious to see the band that no less than David Crosby has declared his favorite vocal group and the best in the country.
As a group, Venice's history goes back to the early 1990s, when the Lennons found themselves signed to Atlantic and working in a big studio with a big budget and big-name producer Danny Kortchmar. The results were less than spectacular, and, with little support from the label, the album sank like a stone.
"It was the wrong record," says Michael of their debut. "Danny was great, but there was too much tinkering. Three of us would sing around the mike, and then we'd double it and sometimes triple it. There'd be four guitar overdubs on a song and percussion overdubs, and then add a keyboard. Pretty soon it was this wall of sound that was like, 'Who's in there?' We lost the intimacy."
As a family, the Lennons have an even richer history. The fathers of the respective brothers in Venice had a singing group in the 1940s known as the Lennon Brothers, and Kipp and Pat's older sisters are the Lennon Sisters, who came to prominence in the '60s singing with everyone from Andy Williams to Lawrence Welk. This musical heritage has always loomed large to the Lennons, who have inherited a fierce determination to succeed from the previous generations.
And when the time came to christen their group, the Lennons had little trouble coming up with Venice as a name. Their grandparents, a Midwest newspaperman and a German dancer, moved to Venice, Calif., in 1917 and had eight children. Those eight produced 56 children, many of them remaining in the environs of the sleepy California town.
It is that very intense family relationship that resulted in Born and Raised having a completely different feel. When the group examined the problems with the first album, the overwhelming opinion was that it failed to capture the essence of the Lennons.
"We've been playing together for 17-plus years," Michael says. "It all just came to a head on this record. We came to grips with who we are and what we're about and what the strength of this band is, which is the four of us singing. We had to bring it back to where we're from. We figured this is what we do best, so let's have the album talk about our family history and be proud. Not a lot of bands can say that they've had a great upbringing and a great home life."
Although the Lennons had performed in one form or another for almost two decades, Michael says that only in the past three or four years did they realize just how special they were as a group.
"We'd go to these music conventions and hear these bands that got signed for a million dollars or whatever," he says. "We realized that they might have a better hit song than us, but very few of them had what we had. We came to realize that we sing harmonies as good as Crosby, Stills & Nash or the Eagles. We haven't written a song that matches their hit songs, but that's another matter. We can sing that good, and we can do it live. Once we get that song, it will be undeniable."
Once they agreed to go with Vanguard and had their recording budget in hand, the Lennons made the decision to sink it all into buying state-of-the-art digital recording equipment rather than blowing it on another big-name studio fiasco. They installed everything in a family vacation home in Vista, Calif., and spent two weeks writing and recording the album. In the relaxed setting, the two sets of brothers allowed their natural talents to come to the forefront, with Michael handling the production. The results astounded even the brothers, who were fully aware of their potential.
"We had to bring it back home and back to ourselves and make an album that we had control of," says Michael. "A lot of what I learned from the first album was more like what I didn't want to do. We bought all the digital stuff so we'd have the technology and we rented all vintage outboard stuff so we'd get that warmth of the old records. We were recording little demos in the living room that sounded so good and so real. They had such a charm that we said, 'Let's just try to do the record like that and keep that organic feel of us hanging out and make a record like the old days.' "
With Born and Raised doing well critically and selling briskly at their shows, the Lennons of Venice are turning their attentions to new material. They're currently working out some tunes live that were written for Born and Raised but left off for time considerations (the album already clocks in at over an hour) as well as all new compositions.
"The next one is going to be a little more energetic, a little more in your face," says Michael. "That doesn't necessarily mean more guitars, but there's going to be more of an edge to it. We're really happy with this record, and we're working hard to promote it. To this day, I can put it on and listen to it all the way through and be happy with it. But we're really looking forward to the next one. We're going to step it up."
VENICE performs Friday at the Southgate House with Roger Klug.
CityBeat, Vol. 4, Issue 15; March 5-11, 1998