By Chris Shapiro
Before he had his driver’s license, Greg Kihn was creating his future as rock star. His early ambition paid off when his singles “The Breakup Song” and “Jeopardy” entered the Billboard Hot 100 cracking the top 20 and top five respectfully.
Kihn says he’s been writing songs since day one. He bought his first guitar at age 13, and once he mastered three guitar chords, the songs came pouring out of him.
Unbeknownst to Kihn, when he was 15 his mother entered his song, “Feather of Dove,” in a local Top 40 radio contest at WCAO in Baltimore. Kihn recorded the song on a reel-to-reel tape recorder in his mother’s bathroom. The bathroom walls provided an echo that Kihn liked. To his surprise, he won the contest.
“I won an electric guitar, a type writer and a stack of records, three things that I would wind up doing for a living later on,” Kihn said. Kihn shelved the song after the contest as he felt he had more creative material within him.
Kihn strongly attributes his success to his ever changing creative process.
“Part of the creative process is you’re always coming up with new ideas,” Kihn said. He believes the best idea a musician ever has is the idea they’re currently working on. “The mind never stops coming up with ideas. I guess the day that it does is pretty much the day you quit,” Kihn said.
Kihn’s constant flow of creative ideas led him to new frontiers. During the mid-1970’s, Kihn, after being cut from a development deal with the label A&M, began work with Mathew Kaufman’s start up label, Beserkley Records.
On the label, Kihn’s band, The Greg Kihn Band, worked with other local California bands such as Earth Quake and Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. Kihn says the work they did in those early days was experimental.
“We were the one of the very first of the independents because as soon as we made that first album, Chartbusters which was really the first independent of the modern era,” Kihn said.
As they continued to produce music, Kaufman’s label secured distribution deals. The first deal came from Playboy Records, who agreed to distribute the Chartbusters album. Other record companies including Epic, Warner Brothers and Elektra soon followed suit as the label turned out new albums.
“And each time we sold a few more copies and we survived,” Kihn said.
Kihn is thankful for the opportunity of working with a small startup label as it gave him time to develop and hone his sound.
“You know I didn’t have a top ten hit until my seventh album. I mean that’s unheard of today. You couldn’t do that,” Kihn said. “But the advantage of being on a little tiny label, independent label, was they didn’t care.”
For Kihn it was never about the money. He always considered himself to be an artist.
“We considered it a victory just to make it enough to break even to make enough money to make the next record,” he said.
1981 proved to be a breakthrough year for The Greg Kihn Band as they scored their first hit singled, “The Breakup Song.” Kihn says the song started-off in his mind with a verse and a guitar rift, A minor to F to G. Steve Wright, the band’s bass player and co-song writer, had written a melody for a chorus. They combined Kihn’s verses and Wright’s chorus to bring to life “The Breakup Song.” Kihn says the song fell together in less than 10 minutes.
“The songs that you write in ten minutes are always the best ones,” Kihn said. “All my hits were written in ten minutes.”
The band scored big again in 1983, when they broke the top five with their song “Jeopardy.” Again, the creative process of the song took a matter of minutes.
“It was spontaneous. It was almost as if the song wrote itself,” Kihn said. “That was one of the few times that I believed it was a hit.”
They recorded the song a week after writing it and after two takes in the recording studio Kihn knew they had a hit.
“I remember in the studio thinking ‘that’s a hit,’” Kihn said.
The success brought about a music video for “Jeopardy.” According to Kihn, the band operated on a “shoe string budget.” Working with director Joe Dea, Kihn created a music video based on the theme of the horror movie Night of the Living Dead, which Kihn was a fan of.
Working on a “shoe string budget” led the band to use some unique special effects. During the scene where Kihn is stabbing the serpent that breaks through the floor, green blood is sprayed into his face. The green blood is actually Campbell’s Split Pea soup shot into his face with a squirt gun.
Currently, Kihn is releasing a new greatest hits CD. Kihn says it’s taken him ten years to collect the rights to his songs back from the record companies. Now, he is re-releasing his hits for fans once again.
Two tracks from each album were selected for the compilation, including two songs from the original Chartbusters album. The CD also includes covers of Bruce Springsteen and all the hits from The Greg Kihn Band. The CD, Greg Kihn Band the Best of Beserkley, is available in stores and on iTunes.
Kihn’s advice to future musicians is it to be true to yourself.
“My advice is to do what I did. Do it yourself. Do it home grown,” Kihn said. Kihn goes on to say that once a musician creates their music, it’s up to them to get it out there.
“Spread it organically among your friends and your family and go out and play gigs,” Kihn said. He says it doesn’t matter the size of the venue, it matters that the musician goes out and plays.
Kihn adds that as long as you are, “your own person, you’re not dancing to somebody else’s tune, they will come eventually, they will come to you and they’ll go ‘you know what, we want what you got’ and that’s when you sign your record deal.”