Diamonds in the Coal
Diamonds in the Coal
A Q&A with Bret Alexander
And Pete Palladino
Of the Badlees
By Geoff Gehman
The Badlees are very good at staying in tune by staying fresh. For three decades the central Pennsylvanians have remained vital with infectious roots rock, stick-to-your-soul lyrics and novel projects like the soundtrack to “Lit Riffs,” an MTV book spotlighting “Maggie May,” “Hallelujah” and other musical cornerstones. They’ve turned regressions into progressions, recording spinoff albums during band hiatuses and two CDs when a major label kept monkey wrenching the release of “Up There, Down Here.” Indeed, the band’s bumper-sticker mission statement could read “What’s Next?”
What’s next is the sextet’s brand-spanking-new record “Epiphones and Empty Rooms” (S.A.M. Records), a double disc with a distinctive double personality. The first side features lead vocals by Pete Palladino, the group’s lead singer and harmonica player. The second side features lead vocals by Bret Alexander, lead guitarist, chief songwriter, producer and mastermind of the band’s studio, Saturation Acres. It’s a stereophonic hookup between polar opposites who are also kindred spirits.
The Badlees will sample “Epiphones and Empty Rooms” on Oct. 25 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, where they once performed every tune on their CD “River Songs.” They’ll mix new numbers (“Vigilante for the Golden Rule”) with old favorites (“Fear of Falling”) and covers (a pile-driving version of “John the Revelator”). In separate phone chats Alexander and Palladino discussed everything from the special chemistry of musical comrades to the difficulty of Chinese karaoke.
Q: I’ve heard of double albums with double personalities—live and studio, electric and acoustic, standards and rarities—but I’ve never heard of a double album starring one lead singer on one record and another on the other. What did you want to accomplish?
Alexander: We found ourselves with a lot of material that didn’t necessarily fit each voice. I just took the attitude of: Oh, I’ll put it on a solo record. The other guys went: Why can’t we have it on a new band record? We’re always looking for something new, so we decided to do something new.
Q: Did anything surprise or delight you about the double-disc, double-singer format?
Palladino: There are some songs that I love on side two where I didn’t hear the progress until they were mixed. When I first listened to them, I thought: “Well, there’s a pretty good band here.” “Your Alamo” is one of the best songs Bret has ever written; it just kills me.
Q: Were there any new ways of doing business while making the new CD?
Alexander: We get to showcase the influence of two new members: [violinist] Nyke Van Wyk and [guitarist] Dusty Drevitch. Before they joined the band, we were more song based, with pretty tight arrangements. This is our first record with violin as a core instrument. And since Dusty is such a good blues jammer, we decided to jam more, to spread out.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that I still try to write stories. For many groups lyrics are an afterthought. That’s definitely not the case with us.
Q: We’re talking on Oct. 18, a day before the 18th anniversary of a Badlees high-water mark: opening for Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Can you think of other happy events in the band’s history, when all the planets aligned?
Alexander: We’ve had plenty of stops and starts. We made pretty steady progress for the first six years, then ran into all sorts of label problems [with Polydor/Atlas, an A&M division sold to Seagram’s, and Ark 21, which went bankrupt]. We had a little hiatus and then we were pretty excited when we made the reunion record [“Renew,” 2002]. It’s been good most of the time. It’s one of those things that once you get in, you can’t get out [laughs].
Q: How about one of the band’s low-water marks? I’m guessing that the endless delays involving the release of “Up There, Down Here” would be high on the low-water list.
Alexander: That was pretty low. Our first run of the major label years in the late 1990s was probably our least productive creatively. We filled the gap by making an EP [“The Day’s Parade,” 1998] and another record [“Amazing Grace,” 1999]. It always makes the band feel better when they’re creative and working, especially when things on the business side are moving slowly.
Q: Can you think of a Badlees song with a surprising life after its release, a song with unusually long legs? I’m thinking of “Two States,” which you wrote to honor your father after he passed away.
Alexander: I can’t tell you how many people have adopted that song when going through the same thing I did. It’s interesting, and surprising, when people take something very personal from your life and apply it to their own lives.
Q: Bret, what do you like about Pete’s singing and harp playing?
Alexander: I really like that we don’t have to discuss it. That’s his area and we kind of let him do what he does. I’m a little more monkish than he is. It’s nice having an outgoing guy out there selling your stuff.
A: Pete, what’s so special about Bret as a guitarist and songwriter?
Palladino: The Bret I first met 24 years ago was a lot less confident in his songwriting and his abilities as a musician. I’m constantly amazed at the guy’s talent. He can just sit down and play anything. And what comes out of him as a songwriter constantly floors me. He definitely makes me feel more confident when we’re onstage.
I get to play with some of the best musicians I’ve ever seen; I have the honor of calling them band mates. There’s a certain vocabulary that we all have that allows us to start from a point further down the road than if we were a young band. We can step onstage without being onstage for a year and be very good, sometimes even without practice.
Q: That sense of brotherhood must be sweet, especially after all those ups, downs and all arounds.
Alexander: I don’t have that kind of [reflective] personality. I don’t spend a lot of time going: “Well, this is awesome.” I’m going: “Come on, come on!” In our world it’s always: What’s next?
Palladino: I’m a one-for-all and all-for-one kind of guy. When we’re onstage, regardless of the baggage of 24 years, it’s six guys running after the same thing. My thinking is: I can hit my guys but don’t you hit my guys. I wouldn’t want to stand onstage with guys I don’t have a special bond with, guys I hate. I certainly have that bond with Bret, even though we’re polar opposites. We’re both fated to do this together; we just seem to have the right recipe.
Q: Speaking of recipes, you used to manage a hotel-restaurant on Long Beach Island. Someone once asked you to compare the restaurant and music businesses and you said the major difference is that food people are honest.
Palladino: I’ve been yelled at less in the music business, however [laughs]. Seriously, I want people to take away from our shows more than a band playing the right notes in the right order. I want them to remember the experience, the exchange. For me, these shows are living, breathing things.
After all these years it’s still a joy playing with these guys. We’ve never been interested in being a greatest-hits act. We’ve never been interested in repeating ourselves. If we didn’t have anything to offer I’d prefer to stay away and let the legacy stand. I still feel that there’s plenty of gas in the car.
Q: One way you’ve stayed fresh is through merchandise: records with distinctive covers and titles [i.e., “If Memories Had Equity”], cassette singles with remixes, Badlees boxer shorts. Do you have a band archivist, someone who does what Bill Wyman did in the Rolling Stones?
Palladino: We don’t have anyone like that. But from early on we all had the approach that music is a business and we’re going to run it as a business. We weren’t one of those bands staying up to four in the morning and then sleeping all day. It was very difficult [in the early 1990s] to be an original band in an area [central Pennsylvania] that really supported cover bands. We had to work pretty hard to build this thing. For us, it was the day after a show you’re on the phone, you’re getting out flyers and postcards, you’re designing T-shirts.
Q: One of the band’s most unusual experiences was playing a 1994 beer festival in China set up by Bud Lite, your sponsor at the time. What do you remember other than bad water, bad cigarettes and chicken bones tossed onstage?
Alexander: I remember being told that the Chinese love karaoke, so make sure to get them to sing along. So our singer gets up there and goes “La la la la” and they don’t sing along; they look at him as if he’s crazy. So he does it again—“La la la la”–and again they look at him as if he’s crazy. After the show we told an interpreter: “We tried your idea and it didn’t work at all. Are there any words that [the Chinese] have trouble with?” And the interpreter said: “They have trouble with anything with an ‘l’ and an ‘a’” [laughs]. It was just one of those culture-shock things.
Palladino: I remember that it really fell flat, and that it was pretty funny. They didn’t know who we were; they just knew that we were a rock band from the West. I tried to lead them in [“Back Where We Came From] The Na Na Song” without having any success whatsoever [laughs].
The shows that stand out for me are the elevated ones, where we transcended the space. The last show we played was a record release [for “Epiphones and Empty Rooms”] at the Whitaker Center in Harrisburg and it was just a great exchange, a great vibe. I have to tell you I could have played for another two hours.
Q: You’re well known for treating your fans well, whether it’s running trips for them to Manhattan gigs or changing the band’s name from Bad Lee White because they kept calling you the Badlees. Can you think of an extreme example of fan passion bordering on fanaticism?
Palladino: What floored me is that our fans pledged money to help us make this record [“Epiphones and Empty Rooms”] without hearing a track. If you think about it, that sort of trust is crazy. But I love it.
Alexander: There are a few tattoos here and there. One guy has the cover of our first full-length record, “Diamonds in the Coal,” on his leg. I think that’s pretty radical love.
The Badlees: The Scoop
Guitarist Bret Alexander played defensive end for Bucknell University. His favorite move was “the swim,” where he used a swimming motion with an arm to knock down an offensive lineman’s hands.
The songs on the band’s 1992 record “Diamonds in the Coal” are accompanied by quotes from the likes of Oscar Wilde and Andy Warhol.
During 1994 performances in China band members were called “Michael” because listeners knew all about Western superstars Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan.
Alexander’s song “Fear of Falling” was used during television coverage of the 1996 Olympics.
In 2001 band members released three spinoff CDs within six weeks, all recorded at Alexander’s studio Saturation Acres.
Last summer the group toured with Bob Seger, filling in for Kid Rock.
In 2010 the Badlees performed the entire “River Songs” CD at Mauch Chunk, something they hadn’t done before and haven’t done since. “It was a really cool night,” says Alexander, “just for the sheer thrill.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He really digs the Badlees’ version of “Maggie May” and thinks that Rod Stewart should hire the band to re-record his hit. He can be reached at email@example.com.