Survivor 2012: A Conversation With Frankie Sullivan (Part Two)

Photo by Mary Hanley

In November of 2011 guitarist Frankie Sullivan and vocalist Jimi Jamison together announced that after a long hiatus Jimi would be returning as lead vocalist of the band Survivor. The group, which has a plethora of hits including “Eye of The Tiger”, “The Search is Over” and “I Can’t Hold Back” among others, will soon embark on a tour and begin work on their first album of new material with Jamison in more than five years.

The new lineup of Survivor includes Jimi Jamison (vocals), Frankie Sullivan (guitar), Marc Droubay (drums), Billy Ozzello (bass) and Walter Tolentino (keyboards/guitar).

In the second of my two-part interview with Frankie Sullivan I ask him about his approach to songwriting, the sessions for the album Vital Signs, his take on X-Factor/American Idol and why paying your dues as a musician is so important.

We’ll also discuss the upcoming 30th anniversary of “Eye of The Tiger”, the theme song from Rocky III, which earned the band an Academy Award nomination among other accolades, and still ranks as one of the biggest songs of all time.

It truly was an honor to speak with one of my all time favorite songwriters. I’m really looking forward to what Survivor has in store for 2012. As the band themselves have said: “Here’s to a year of new beginnings, determination and more great music!”

A Conversation With Frankie Sullivan (Part Two):

gJg:  You’ve written a lot of really big hit songs and one thing I’ve always wanted to ask you about was the process you use for songwriting.

FS: Actually it all depends. Sometimes I’ll start with a lyric if I’m inspired by the right thing, or a person or a place or you know, some experience. “I Can’t Hold Back” was like that. But sometimes it could be a guitar lick like the beginning of “I Can’t Hold Back”.  I was just goofing around with the acoustic guitar one day and (Jim) Peterik was like, “Hey, what’s that you’re playing?” and we took it from there. The next day we finished writing it. That was “I Can’t Hold Back.” It’s what ever you feel at the moment.

I like to play the guitar a lot. I jam out on a lot of riffs. And it’s not really heavy or hard all the time. Sometimes it’s on acoustic or piano. I think it’s whatever strikes your chord at the moment. But as long as you can get it out there and then maybe get with someone who can relate to and finish it, that’s what matters.

gJg: So you and Jim would just sit in a room together and start bouncing ideas off of each other? Playing and writing things down on paper?

FS: Jim Peterik and I, back in the Vital Signs days and prior, would write Monday through Friday every day from 2 o’clock until six or seven no matter what. No excuses, it was like going to work. We were practicing and honing our craft trying to do the best we could do. Some days we’d write two songs, some only one but we always had the work ethic of how we wanted to go about it. I’m proud of the fact that we always worked hard.

You know, it’s really difficult to write good songs. But Jim and I were coming from two different places. We were like night and day so the stuff we wrote together would always have that extra spark to it.

gJg: Was “Eye of The Tiger” like that as well?

FS: You know, that was the easiest of them all… (laughs).

We had a ballad that we wrote called “Ever Since The World Began” (from the “Eye of The Tiger” album) and Jim and I both loved it. We thought this song was going to be great. “Tiger” we totally down played. We thought “Eh, this is going to be like “movie music” or something.”

I think we wrote the music for it in like half an hour and it took us three days to write the lyrics only because we couldn’t come up with the punch line. But we kind of had it down in half an hour.

gJg: So there’s no big story about how it was written?

FS: No, there’s no real brilliant story behind it. Some of the stuff I’ve seen on the Internet that people have written about it and I’m like, “No, it’s not like that…that’s ridiculous!” – That’s not what happened. It was real simple.

The president of our record company was friends with (Sylvester) Stallone. They were really good friends. He had the Queen song “Another One Bites The Dust” and Stallone wasn’t happy with it. So he said “Well you know, I have this band…”  It was just two social guys having dinner. That’s what started it all.

I remember Jim Peterik had pneumonia at the time so I went out alone and spent ten days working with Stallone and it was just a blast. He was totally cool. He just wanted it to slam. He wanted it to sound just like the demo but with balls. So I played it for him and took it to the limit and he loved it.

And afterwards I remember seeing it in the movie theater and thinking to myself, “Man, this sounds raw, it sounds rock. It sounds basic.” There are a lot of cool things about it. It sounds like it was on the spot. You can hear a lot of spontaneity in it.

You can hear Dave (Bickler, the singer at the time) just going for it and you can tell some of the lines are just scratch lines. There’s a lot of good stuff going on.

gJg: And thirty years later?…(laughs)

FS:  Doesn’t hurt (laughs).

You know, I can’t believe it’s been that long. And there’s still a lot of cool stuff going on with it. Even today I’m hearing that Stallone wants to go LIVE and take it to Broadway among other things.

We just got a plaque from Sony, it’s something like 2.8 million downloads. I don’t have an updated official number but I know it’s the 8th most downloaded song on the Internet right now.

gJg: Amazing.

People love the tune. They can identify with it. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to be part of Rocky.

gJg: Then you had success with “Burning Heart” a few years later.

FS: Yeah, Burning Heart was after Tiger. That was in Rocky IV. That one was actually just a phone call we got. They asked us if we could do another song and we were like “Of course!” We wanted to be part of Rocky too. That sure wouldn’t hurt us. (laughs). Not with a #2 record.

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gJg: What was the story with “Fire Makes Steel”, the song from the “Reach” album that was rumored to be on the Rocky Balboa soundtrack a few years back (2006)?

FS: You know, I just think at certain times things are either meant to be or not meant to be. Looking back now, I think this was a case where it just wasn’t meant to be and I’m ok with that.

gJg:  Let’s talk a little bit about my favorite Survivor record: Vital Signs. The first album I ever bought and  subsequently wore out. That album has meant so much to me that I now have it framed and hanging on my wall.

FS: That’s really an intense album. Ron Nevison (producer) really was responsible for that record. In the beginning it came down to songwriting. Then it came down to Jim’s voice changing the whole landscape of Survivor. But in the end, Ron Nevison played such a huge part.

gJg: Yes, I read a lot of interviews where you were talking about his contributions to the success of it.

FS: Well, he’s really been underrated. I mean, I met this guy and he’s telling me that he had just finished up producing Physical Graffiti (Led Zeppelin) and was getting ready to go to work on The Baby’s new album. I mean, this guy is a MAJOR cat. He did Bad Company. I was like “Holy shit, the guys he’s produced are my idols!”

Unfortunately, the first time we got him on board it didn’t work out. But the second time we got him (for Vital Signs) he was really hungry and just wanted to work again. I mean, he always works hard but on ours, he worked so hard I can’t tell you.

gJg: It paid off for sure.

FS: It absolutely did. Nevison worked so hard at making us all do the best we could do. He was very demanding with us. Not difficult, but demanding. There’s a difference. Always demanding that we did our best. And it really did pay off.

We already had the songs but Ron helped us arrange them and helped us deal with this new voice that I loved. I remember when he first committed to do the record with us that he didn’t know what to expect.

I sent him over a cassette tape of our rehearsal  with some of the songs. I think “Broken Promises” was one of them. He said “That sounds great, I’ll do it”.

And the thing is, he’s very picky about what he does so we really got lucky. It’s like I said earlier, everything is always kind of either meant to be or not but at that point all of us were working together towards the same goal and that’s what mattered most.

What’s funny is that even though we worked really hard there was a lot of fun with it too. It’s true dude. People sometimes become jaded and forget that. They forget the one thing that makes it all worthwhile: It’s fun.

People sometimes ask me what I do it for and I tell them: “Because it’s fun as hell to get up there on stage and play the guitar, have people act crazy and have a good time and sing along with your songs. That’s really, really enjoying.

gJg: What do you think about those shows like “The X-factor” and “American Idol”? The ones where they get some unknown up there who wins a contest and then all of a sudden they’re famous. What are your thoughts on that?

FS: I’ve kind of been down on that ever since Tyler did it (current American Idol judge Steven Tyler).  I don’t know why. I guess I’m a Joe Perry kind of guy (guitarist from Aerosmith).

I think it’s all kind of manufactured in a way. I think it’s seen its day. I think Simon Cowell has something to say and I think he really wants to matter. I don’t know if you can find it in a TV show and giving some kid five million dollars though. If you would have given me five million dollars I probably wouldn’t even be around. (laughs)…

Seriously though, I really think that you can’t short-cut the process. What it’s really all about, at the end of the day, for any and every artist is paying your dues.

Shows like those sure as hell try to short-cut it. Sometimes they succeed but most times they fail. Most of the time when something is manufactured, especially where music’s concerned, you can tell its been short-cutted.

gJg: I read somewhere where Brittany Spears’ last album had something like 25 songwriters on it, 10 producers or something outrageous like that.

FS: (Laughs): They’re all great songwriters but still, TEN great producers?  I mean, at the end of the day, you really only want ONE….not one producer for each cut. (laughs)

I think that’s part of where things are really different now as opposed to the “old days”. It’s too manufactured. It’s like, “What is this stuff?”

Authenticity is obvious. It’s something you can’t always explain but you can feel it in your gut. That’s when I put on “Houses of The Holy”. You know what I mean? Jimmy Page and Robert Plant used to write from the heart and soul. Now that was real talent. Guys that just went in and jammed on the great tunes. Through their feel and relating to each other. Throwing down the best stuff they had to offer.

People, like Jimmy Page. I mean, the kids out there obviously know of his work but if they saw him play they would “get it” it one second .They’ll probably never get to see him play but if they did, they’d “get it” in one second.

I mean, here’s the guy who came up with “Whole Lotta Love”,”Black Dog” and all those riffs. We overlook that but man, there’s a GENIUS at work there. I mean just with guitar riffs.

gJg: It seems that contributions from artists like that are now just taken for granted.

FS: Well, I guess that’s human nature. But with music you just can’t take anything for granted.

I think you just close your eyes, put blinders on and then just go to the woodshed. You make an agreement with yourself that you’re just going to do the best you can do. You say, “I’m going to the write the best songs I can write. Put down on the table the best I have to offer.” If you do that, and really try hard you’re probably going to come close.

But if you sit around and you’re complacent and lazy and not really sure well then that’s how it’s going to come out. I really don’t have much of that in me. I really want to work.

It’s kind of a void now-a-days. I mean, except for the Chili Peppers and people like, say Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters). I really like him. They throw down. I just don’t have the stomach for a lot of this contrived new stuff.

gJg: Well I just hope you guys make it around to my neck of the woods this year.

FS: I’m sure we will man. If we get our way, both Jim and myself are gonna make it to every neck of the woods. That’s what we’d like to do.

gJg: I have to tell you the best show that I ever remember seeing was when you guys were with REO Speedwagon back in 1985 at Stabler Arena in Bethlehem, PA. Both of you were at the top of your game. You guys had “I Can’t Hold Back”, “High on You” and “The Search is Over” out and REO had just hit #1 with “Can’t Fight This Feeling”.

FS: That was THE tour man.

Photo Credit: Tim Hardgrove

gJg: That was the best show I ever saw. I say that only because the impact of it still sticks with me today. No other show has done that for me.

FS: That’s nice of you to say. We were really at our peak. We were just on the road having a good time. We realized that the harder we tried to make something happen it just wasn’t going to. So we just decided to have the best time we could. People still like spontaneity. People can tell.

gJg: How will you choose what songs you’re going to do this time around? I mean, aside from the hits.

FS: I think this time around we’ll look at around 45 or 50. I think we’ll actually look at the whole catalog. You can look at the fact that the keyboard player just doesn’t play keyboards but is also a killer guitar player. So now you say ok, now we can do “Love is On My Side”, “Take You On A Saturday” (from the “Premonition” album). You can go down the whole list.

Then you can think “Nothing Can Shake Me” and “Somewhere in America” from the first record and before you know it you’re saying “Hell, we’ve got 45 songs to learn!”

And then you can say, “Well, isn’t this fun? We don’t have to play the exact same set all the time. We can change it up every night.” And people can kind of be re inspired. It will be like playing a different show every night. I think that’s where both Jamo and my heads are at. It’s a good place to be, where we’re at right now.

gJg: I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me Frankie.

FS: No problem James.

gJg: Back in the day, my guitar teacher thought I was crazy coming in there to learn songs from the Vital Signs record and me telling him that I wanted to learn “See You In Everyone” note for note… (laughs)

FS: (Laughs) Yeah, it’s kind of like me with “Black Dog” saying “Yeah, how do I play like this guy?” But I found it didn’t sound exactly the same. Then I realized it’s because Jimmy Page has got different fingers and a different soul.

gJg: I felt the same way playing your stuff.

FS: Well, that’s nice to hear. I’m glad you enjoyed it though. I really am. Thanks for your time. I really appreciate it.

gJg: No problem. It’s been great talking with you. Looking forward to what’s next with Survivor. Happy New Year to you.

FS: And the same you too.

Article first published as Survivor 2012: A Conversation With Frankie Sullivan (Part Two) on Technorati

4 thoughts on “Survivor 2012: A Conversation With Frankie Sullivan (Part Two)”

  1. very nice indeed. as a part-time (is there really such a thing?) writer, interesting to hear of Frankie & Jim’s putting in the hours every day work ethic. great effort=great product. so excited about not only hearing the hits on tour but some other tasty treats as well. for me, while sure i enjoy hearing the hits, my heart explodes seeing a band play something i wasn’t expecting to hear…something that i can’t see 25 versions of on youtube. thanks for the interview jim, as a long-time survivor junkie…i can only imagine the blood, sweat and tears involved with talking to the man himself. so can’t wait….

  2. I totally agree with you! I was just in awe listening to him tell me how he came up with “I Can’t Hold Back”. I could probably talk to him for hours on just how he came up with all of his songs (especially the ones from Vital Signs/When Seconds Count). To most people that may sound boring but for someone like me who was so impacted by those songs it would mean so much more. Good stuff.

    I also like it too when a band you love goes out of their comfort zone and plays the unexpected song. It proves they’re not just a machine going through the motions of a “tour” if that makes any sense…

    Have a great day!

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