Kasim Sulton transcends ‘Utopia’

By Mike Greenblatt

Kasim Sulton has always had a knack for making good music seem effortless. An in-demand singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Sulton has worked with a wide swath of artists over the course of his career. He co-founded Utopia with Todd Rundgren (with whom he just finished a tour), served as musical director and bassist for Meat Loaf, been a sideman for more countless acts and added his esteemed input to a variety of projects (not that Mick Jagger wanted it, but more on that later).

On “3,” Sulton’s aptly titled third solo album, some of Sulton’s famous friends repay the musical favor. The result? A soulful pop record that rocks, with a song for seemingly every radio format.

“It’s not that calculated,” Sulton says. “It’s not like I went in thinking, ‘I gotta do a little of this and a little of that.’ Once you start, something else takes over and things go in the way they’re supposed to go. And if you try to push it in any other direction, it usually winds up becoming patently obvious that you’re trying too hard.”

GOLDMINE: “Clocks All Stopped” sounds like “Hello, It’s Me.”
KASIM SULTON: That was my blatant attempt to pay a little respect to the band I started with Todd Rundgren, Utopia. I kinda owe my career to Todd, Roger [Powell] and Willie [Wilcox].

KASIM-3-cover-artGM: It’s a great track on a beautiful album. I dig how a heavenly chorale starts it all off [“Introduction”]. Then that Elton-esque piano serves as a prelude to “Fell In Love For The Last Time,” where your plaintive voice is mixed so perfectly before the band whooshes in to sweep everything else away, wow. I found it more spiritual than sexual.
KS: I was on tour with Meat Loaf in Germany, where he’s very big. As a result, we spend a lot of time in that country. Inevitably, when you’re only doing three shows a week, you have some time off. So, on my off days, I would wander the streets of Munich, Hamburg or Cologne. On this particular occasion, it was cold. I happened by a church. The door was open. A choir was rehearsing. I walked in slowly and silently and had what you would call a profoundly spiritual experience. They were singing Christmas music, I remember. Most of the time I carry around my little hard-disc recorder, and I wound up documenting that exact moment by sitting in a pew and turning it on. I had no idea at the time what I would do with it … but that’s how that intro came about. Then, when I started doing the record, I wanted like a little breath before it actually started. So it came in very handy. It’s a meditative thing. You sit, quiet yourself, take a deep breath, there’s the choir. Then, and only then, does the actual record start.

GM: I couldn’t believe you dug up that old chestnut, “Someone To Watch Over Me,” written by George and Ira Gershwin in 1926. And you do it really nicely!
KS: Thank you. That means a lot to me. It’s a classic American song that’s been covered a billion times. I am of the tearjerker ballad school. I mean, Lennon once described McCartney by saying, “Oh, he’s writing his granny music again.” To me, sure, it’s old, but that’s what I do! There was a Utopia song called “Love Alone” that was just myself on piano and the other guys chiming in on background vocals. But it’s along those same lines. “Love Alone” was written with songs like “Someone To Watch Over Me” in mind. That blatant romanticism speaks to me. I love that stuff.

GM: With the glut of American standards on the market by every genre of singer imaginable, I doubt you would ever do a whole album’s worth.
KS: You never know. This record took me such a long time to make! I even had doubts of ‘Why am I even doing this?’ It was torture! I did it in fits and starts, in between tours with Todd, Blue Öyster Cult and a personal tragedy in my life about three years ago that really set me back. I did nothing for about a year and a half.

GM: Can I ask the nature of the tragedy?
KS: My wife passed away.

GM: Ugh. I’m sorry.
KS: No, that’s okay. She was sick for about 14 months, and then subsequently passed away in 2011. So I lost a bunch of time at that point. I really wasn’t in any condition to work on music. I was busy taking care of my kids.

GM: How old are your kids?
KS: At the time of their mother’s death, they were 15, 19 and 26. The funny thing is, for the 26 years prior to that, I had been on the road constantly. So being a parent was kinda my second job. My first job was always touring, recording or playing a one-off solo show somewhere, like any working, traveling musician. I wasn’t around a lot. So I got thrust into the position of being a single parent, and it took a while to adjust. But I’m loving it. I love my kids. It means more than anything else.

GM: I’ve always wondered how an artist of your stature can reconcile the two lives, personal and professional. You’ve been the man in demand for so long, for so many artists. How do you even get to have a personal life at all?
KS: I guess my personal life is indelibly attached to my professional life. They kinda meld into one. I have friends not in the music business. They’re people I see on a regular basis — buddies I grew up with or guys I’ve been friends with for 30 years or so. But, for the most part, all of my associations are with people in the music business. I guess, for lack of a better word, the weird thing is that personal tragedy changes your life forever.

GM: You don’t suffer fools gladly after a loved one goes. Believe me, I know.
KS: Exactly. I don’t have the time for bullsh*t anymore. There’s just not enough time left. So let’s get on with it and let’s make the most out of the time we do have here on the planet. Be good to one another. Don’t treat anybody like you wouldn’t want to be treated. And try to take care of your health. That’s so important. If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.

kasim-sultonGM: So besides singing, producing, composing and arranging, how many instruments do you play?
KS: My main instrument is bass, obviously, but I play guitar, piano and drums. Funny, but I can only play drums on my stuff — not anybody else’s. Drums is a really, really tough instrument, man. I rise to the occasion when needed.

GM: You left out mandolin.
KS: There’s a few I didn’t mention, actually, because I only play them well enough to add a little part to a song.

GM: That counts! So what else?
KS: Dulcimer and clarinet. I’m a hacker. I’m certainly not technically proficient in anything other than bass guitar.

GM: Yeah, right. Anyway, the other cover on “3” that’s from deep left field is “Too Much On Her Mind.” Is that by The Tubes?
KS: Close. It’s a Bill Spooner song, yeah, but it was on one of his solo albums. People suggest songs to me all the time. Normally, I just wave them off, but when I was sent that song, I thought, “Hmmm, let me just take a stab at it.” I wanted to see where it went after I added some percussion.

GM: And you got Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes on it! Very cool!
KS: After the song started taking shape, I thought, “Oh, OK, this isn’t bad! It could make for a nice addition to the record.” Then it was a question of completing it in a way that would make it mine. That’s when I thought of Greg. It was perfect for him. And since the track only had percussion, I went all the way and asked [Utopia drummer] Willie [Wilcox] to play, too.

GM: It seems a lot of people have repaid the musical favors you’ve bestowed to them over the years by playing on “3,” including Todd Rundgren, Roger Powell, Andy Timmons and Buck Dharma. Y’know, when I was growing up, and The Beatles broke up when I was 19, every new solo album by its members was like having a new Beatles album. Do you think kids will be like, “Wow, it’s like having a new Utopia album?”
KS: Well, first of all, there’s no kids who grew up on Utopia. There’s us, y’know — just two old farts. I think part of the reason my record sounds the way it does is because this is what I know best. And while it might not be a “Utopia record,” there are elements in my both my playing and my songwriting that evoke Utopia. It’s inescapable. I couldn’t write any other way even if I tried. I do what I do. A big part of that is where I went to school, if you will. My school was at Bearsville [Records] with Todd, Roger and Willie.

GM: How was it playing in a band with Todd all those years? I’ve heard stories he was a tough taskmaster, almost Ian Anderson-like in his exactitude.
KS: He didn’t need a personal tragedy in his life like us not to suffer fools gladly. He was always like that. Todd was an old soul at 28. He’d be the first one to tell me I was being an idiot. Or he’d say, “I don’t have time for you right now,” or “That’s a stupid question.” Me, being 20, at the time — a total hick, I hadn’t even ever been outside of New York State when we formed that band — it proved to be very enlightening to have someone be so dictatorial. As much as Roger and Willie would like to think it was a democracy, it was Todd’s show all the way. And rightly so. Todd had had an extensive and successful career prior to Utopia.

Utopia-Bearsville

GM: It certainly wasn’t The Nazz, a band I did love.
KS: Don’t forget “Hello It’s Me” and “I Saw The Light” made him a household name for a few minutes. When I go into my local ShopRite, I still hear those songs. It’s certainly part of the soundtrack of my life, and the lives of many others.

GM: You’ve played with so many great people. Let me have my fun. I’ll rattle off a few names, and you can tell me some impressions. Let’s start with Meat Loaf’s band, of which you were bassist and musical director.
KS: Meat is a pretty interesting guy. He’s not a musician. He’s a singer and an actor. That’s what he does best. I think he fancies himself a musician. There were times when we were working out arrangements for new material or even changing arrangements on old material where he would do his best to try and explain what’s he’s hearing. And when someone’s not a musician, and they try to do that, it’s very interesting. He would say, “Y’know, I’m hearing it more like uh, like uh,” and he would flail his arms wildly and say, “Like that! Can we get some more of that in?” And he’d flail his arms around in the air again. And I’m supposed to know what that means! Or he’d make believe he’s pounding on a keyboard and say, “I’m hearing the part a little more like this! You need to play it like that!”

He was my boss. It was his band, his tour, his record, and you don’t want to p*ss off the boss, so what I’d do is say, “Absolutely! Cool! Sure! I know exactly what you’re saying!” So I’d play something, whether or not I thought he wanted it, but it was what I thought was right. And he’d invariably say, “That’s it! You got it!” [Laughs.]

GM: Maybe he was doing that on purpose all along.
KS: It’s possible.

GM: I always thought he was a bully. He threw me up against a wall once in his Capitol Theater dressing room before a set one night in Passaic, New Jersey. That’s the night I learned not to attempt to get a few quotes from the artist directly before a set. But, gee, he didn’t have to pick me up and throw me against the wall!
KS: He did the same thing to me!

GM: He threw you up against a wall, too?
KS: Yeah, but it was after a show, not before. The show didn’t go so well.

GM: So Meat Loaf likes throwing people up against walls. Nice.
KS: Yeah, he was a bully. But I best not say anymore.

GM: Oh, please do.
KS: Who’s next?

GM: Joan Jett.
KS: Ah, Joan. She was the opposite end of the spectrum. Joan is a pure musician. She might not be the most adept guitar player, certainly no virtuoso — she can’t play like Eddie Van Halen — but she’s really, really good at what she does. She was one of the people who started the whole chick-rock genre. And she’s still there! She rocks, boy! Plays probably a hundred shows a year. She knows what she wants, and she’s not afraid to tell you, “No, that’s not right. Let’s try this instead.” And when she tells you that, she knows what she’s talking about. She was great. I absolutely loved working with her.

GM: Daryl Hall and John Oates.
KS: Next to Utopia, their band was the best band that I have ever played in. The musicianship, the camaraderie and the level of intelligence made it into one of the best experiences in my life. Daryl is brilliant. John is his perfect foil. That, right there, is a prime example of the sum being greater than the parts. Separately, Daryl and John aren’t nearly as interesting or as strong as they are together. There were two other great musicians in that band who I will never forget. Bobby Mayo [1951-2004] and T-Bone Wolk [1951-2010] made indelible impressions upon me. I can’t even explain.

GM: Cheap Trick.
KS: Oh, they were so much fun. It was a wild time. Hell, it was the mid-’80s and there, uh, was a lot of extraneous stuff that everybody did, and, yeah, we all went a little overboard. I actually replaced Steve Walsh [Kansas], who was playing keyboards and singing backgrounds with them at the time. I’m still friends with all those guys. I love ’em; they’re great guys. And they’re still a great band.

GM: Richie Sambora.
KS: You don’t get any nicer than Richie. You just don’t.

GM: Then what the hell happened with him and Bon Jovi?
KS: I don’t know if I should say this …

GM: Oh, c’mon …
KS: You work with someone enough and you contribute to them enough over the years, through the course of your career, and you’re still second fiddle, when, in reality, they would not be who they are were it not for you. That’s when you go, “Y’know what? I got my millions. I’m OK. I don’t necessarily need to be in this position anymore. It’s painful. So I’m just going to take my toys, and you go have a good time without me.”

GM: Mick Jagger.
KS: Not a very nice guy.

GM: Why not?
KS: We were in a rehearsal at S.I.R. Studios in New York City. We were doing “Little Red Rooster” [by Willie Dixon] and trying to figure out a new arrangement. So we listened to [Howling Wolf’s 1961 original] and he made a comment, so I chimed in. That’s when he looked at me sideways. I mean, man, he drilled a hole in the top of my head with that dirty look. And he said, “We are not doing it like that.” He got p*ssed! How dare I even say anything! He just wanted me to provide my part and keep my mouth shut.

GM: Celine Dion.
KS: She’s a real sweetheart. Amazing singer.

GM: I was hoping you’d call her a bitch [laughs].
KS: If she was, I would tell you. Of course, had I worked with her for any real length of time, I might be saying that. [Laughs.]

GM: Jon Bon Jovi.
KS: He’s more a businessman at this point than he is a musician.

GM: Blue Öyster Cult.
KS: Great guys. Sweethearts all. Couldn’t be any nicer. Mercenaries when it comes to travel and work, though.

GM: Boy, you have played with the biggest and the best. Did I miss anybody?
KS: I also played with Patti Smith. Patti was wonderful to me, as was her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith [1949-1994], who I also worked with. Solid people.

GM: So many are gone …
KS: Hey Mike, you and me? We’re closer to the end than we are at the beginning. So let’s make the most of it and be good and kind to one another. That’s becoming more and more important to me as I age.

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