Most people, if asked to name a Kevin Bacon movie, could probably come up with several.
But how many Kevin Bacon songs do you know? Or, to put a finer point on it, how many songs by The Bacon Brothers do you know?
Coming up empty? Then that right there underscores the challenge Kevin, 59, and his brother Michael, 68, have faced since the two started making folk-rock records and touring together more than two decades ago: getting audiences as excited about the music as they are about the fact that they’re standing in the same room as the star of Hollywood movies like “Apollo 13” and “Footloose.”
The Bacon Brothers can’t easily be dismissed, though. Since 1997, they’ve recorded seven albums; their eighth, which is self-titled, is being released Friday and was partially produced by former “Saturday Night Live” musical director G.E. Smith. They’ll also launch a 29-city summer tour on Friday, with the second stop to be Charlotte’s McGlohon Theater on Sunday.
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And if you’re headed to the show to stalk Kevin but at the same time wouldn’t mind being able to actually sing along with at least one song while you’re there, we’ve got a good one for you to start listening to on repeat now: “Tom Petty T-Shirt.”
Perhaps the most accessible and radio-friendly song these siblings have ever recorded, the new album’s wistful lead track has been in rotation on (appropriately) Sirius XM’s Tom Petty Radio and got a boost when they performed it on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” in April.
Kevin and Michael Bacon got on the phone with the Observer recently — right after doing a guest DJ spot on (again, appropriately) Tom Petty Radio — to talk about why it’s tough being a celebrity band, how they hooked up with G.E. Smith, and what the heck “Tom Petty T-Shirt” is all about.
Q. So last time we all spoke, Kevin, you said that one of the big challenges for you guys was the fact that you didn’t have a hit that you could play at shows. One, is that still a struggle, and two, do you think it’s possible that “Tom Petty T-Shirt” could be that hit?
Kevin: Well, I hope it is. I mean, yeah, that would be awesome. ... What I’ve learned — it took a long time to learn this — is that if you play a regular show, I don’t think you really feel that way so much, because people haven’t come to hear us do covers. If they have, they came to the wrong show, and it’s fine; they can leave, if they really are looking just for a cover band. So I don’t really worry about that so much anymore with our regular shows.
It’s more of an issue when it comes to playing a corporate show or a party-type situation, where people didn’t come really to see you, necessarily. And I finally came around to saying, listen, if they want to hear some covers, let’s just play covers. We love playing covers. So we have a different kind of set that we do in that situation. It’s not all covers. ... What we try to do is bring people in with some songs they may recognize, and then also leave them liking, you know, some Bacon Brothers song. So I think we’re good with that now. I don’t think we worry too much about that anymore.
Q. Tell me about this new record. What do people need to know about it as far as the feel and the sound of it as compared to your previous albums?
Michael: Well, one thing is we worked with an outside producer. We’ve worked with our engineer Steve (Buonanotte) as producer, but in this case, (we had) G.E. Smith — who you probably know as the former “Saturday Night Live” guitarist and plays with everybody, I mean, he’s a famous guitar player. We did a show with him out in the Hamptons, where it was a unique format: You play with him on stage and then he talks between the songs and asks questions; it’s halfway between a panel and a rock and roll show. So he learned a bunch of our songs and he was particularly taken by a song Kevin wrote called “I Feel You” and said he wanted to produce it. We said, “Sure.”
He got us a studio in Weehawken, New Jersey, literally right on the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel. The studio was a smaller room but very old-fashioned and analog-y and had a lot of really great instruments — old Hammond organs and Mellotrons. ... We decided to go in there with G.E. and we did “I Feel You,” and we also booked the studio the next day because we wanted to cut another four songs to get ready for the record. We said, “Would you want to come tomorrow and help us with these other four songs?” And he said, “Sure.”
Kevin: The situation with G.E. is something that we haven’t really done all that often. In the early days, we used a friend of Mike’s as a producer, but he wasn’t someone that was making big suggestions musically. G.E. did a little bit more of that. He had some parts written that we didn’t have anything to do with, and it was kind of cool. I mean, we’re usually so hands-on, and it’s so much on us, that it’s nice sometimes to just sit back and go, “That’s the way you hear it? OK. Yeah.”
Q. Is “Tom Petty T-Shirt” one of the songs that you can feel his mark on?
Kevin: Yeah, yeah, I’d say so for sure. ... I think I demo-ed “Tom Petty T-Shirt.” We usually start with a demo that we like. If it’s Mike’s song, he’ll do a home demo; if it’s my song, I’ll do a home demo, to just have an idea for what we’re thinking. I had demo-ed it, but it definitely went to a whole new place from where I had it.
Q. How did that one come together just purely from a conceptual standpoint?
Kevin: It’s really a song about being in a relationship and one person being sad or having a really rough time, or a period, or a day, or a morning, or whatever it is. And sometimes — certainly I can’t speak for all men, but for me — I’m someone that has this really strong desire to fix a problem. ... That includes any kind of sadness and stress of the people that I love that are in my life: my children, my wife, my family, my friends. I go, “OK, what am I gonna do?” But sometimes you don’t really have either necessarily the skills or the tools to get that done.
So it’s a little bit about just saying, “Well ... the best I can do is just give you my old T-shirt.” (Laughs.) It’s kind of lame, but you know what I mean? And Tom Petty had just passed, so that piece of it was on my mind. I’m a very, very big fan, and his songwriting has influenced me really, really a lot. But I didn’t sit down going, “I gotta write a song about Tom Petty.” It was really just more about “Hmm, what T-shirt?”
Michael: Well, it’s the perfect image, because if you did another kind of T-shirt, it wouldn’t be that. There’s something about it being a Tom Petty T-shirt that imparts meaning beyond just an old T-shirt. I don’t know exactly how to explain that, but —
Kevin: The other thing that’s funny is that I put that line “Tear stains on the heart,” and I hadn’t even thought about the fact consciously that the Heartbreakers’ logo was a heart, you know, so a lot of Tom Petty T-shirts actually have a heart on it.
Michael: Right, I mean, the Firebird is going right through the heart. Gibson Firebird.
Kevin: Yeah, Gibson Firebird, exactly, going through the heart, right. That never even occurred to me when I was writing it. It was just, I was going back and forth between a Tom Petty T-shirt or a John Tesh T-shirt — and I went with Tom Petty.
Q. Michael, are you a big fan of Tom Petty, too?
Michael: Actually, more so after doing that Sirius show, because I had to do quite a bit of woodshedding on (him). I had some holes in my rock and roll history. I knew, obviously, all his big songs, but it was interesting to me because (in his work) I saw so much of what our band is doing. ... We’ve played with the same guys for (a long time) — one of them 25 years — and we have a lot of background vocals, and it’s kind of a classic rock sound but also an acoustic component, so it was fun for me to do a refresher course and to see how much influence he’s certainly had on my brother’s writing and performing. ... I love when new things happen and you connect with new things, even though it’s obviously not new to most people.
Q. And last thing, this is a question I actually asked you guys four years ago, but I’m just curious about how your answer might have changed: Do you find, in talking to fans, that a lot of those who come to your shows really intimately know your music, or are there a good deal of people out there who come out of curiosity or because they’re superfans of Kevin Bacon?
Kevin: I think it’s a combination of both. Sometimes what you find is that half of the (couple is familiar with our work) — a woman will bring her friend, who’d never been to a show or didn’t really know the music. Or a wife will bring her husband, who didn’t know the music. But, yeah, there’s definitely people that just show up because they want to see me in person, and that’s fine. I mean, we always knew that. We’ve known that for 25 years. We never had the misgivings that people were just showing up because they just adored us musically. You can’t make that assumption until you’ve played for awhile. So we just try to do a good show and hope that they dig it.