Former Air Force brats Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley continue to guide Grammy-winning America into its fifth decade.
When most people are asked about the band America, they reference the group’s iconic hit “A Horse with No Name” or possibly lesser-played songs “Ventura Highway” or “Sister Golden Hair.” It’s a touch ironic that a trio of American kids who met in a London, England, high school would become so closely identified with the late-’60s acoustic, predominantly Southern California and Haight-Ashbury sound.
The band’s ability and willingness to evolve led the group down a variety of paths with a sometimes chameleon-like sound. Although the group’s acoustic roots have always remained intact, an experimental attitude and willingness to change led the band through more psychedelic, ornate and Beatlesque, and polished ‘80s synth-pop iterations. Along the way, the group has recorded a string of hits that have grown in fans’ subconscious, even when they don’t immediately think of America when recalling the songs themselves.
While America remained active on the concert trail, the band generated a new wave of interest when Gerry Beckley got involved with Adam Schlesinger (of indie-rock group, Fountains of Wayne). As a result, Schlesinger and James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins) produced 2007’s Here & Now, to positive reviews, renewed interest, and a new wave of younger fans.
Founding members Beckley and Dewey Bunnell are touring in support of America’s 50th anniversary and a recent hits compilation that spans their career (50th Anniversary: Golden Hits). In advance of a stop at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa (Nov. 7), we talked to Bunnell.
Q. What initially made the biggest influences on the America sound and aesthetic?
A. The fact that we were young Americans who came of age in London during an amazing time in musical history, 1967-72, gave us a unique perspective. We were able to see British bands perform and at the same time we got the American artists album releases at the Air Force base before they reached the street in London. I think the combination of all that music, and the hunger we had to see and hear it all, influenced the way we wrote and produced our own music.
Q. You began working with George Martin in 1974. How much did he, as a producer, influence your sound and direction?
A. Teaming up with George at a pivotal time in our career gave us the freedom to explore some different ideas concerning production, most notably George’s abilities with orchestral and vocal arrangements. He took over the day-to-day role of producer on the seven albums after our fourth album beginning with Holiday (1974). Those years were very special for us all.
Q. Founding member Dan Peek departed from the group in 1977. How much did that affect the chemistry of the group?
A. Dan’s departure was the single-biggest disturbance on our career path. The three of us had been extremely close since high school and had put together the band as a unified team. We made the decision right away that he could not be formally “replaced,” but we needed to fill his shoes with other musicians in the following years to sing the high harmony parts and play lead guitar which, along with his songwriting talents, were the strongest elements he brought to the band.
Q. Your work with Russ Ballard in the early-’80s transitioned the group back to the radio with a more polished and refined sound. How did you adjust when working with Ballard?
A. At the point that we met Russ, we were in a career slump. The musical landscape was changing, and we were not a band to follow new trends. We were open to recording a few songs that we had not written at that point. “You Can Do Magic” jumped out as a tune that was written with us in mind, and it proved to be a big success on the album View from the Ground (1982), resulting in collaboration with Russ on the follow-up album, Your Move (1983). It was a good experience, but a change that took a lot of the process out of our hands.
Ultimately, we used several other producers and recorded songs by other outside writers during the time after Russ, which took even more control out of our hands. In the end, it was an experiment that was not as satisfying as creating the albums ourselves. Future albums were conceived and produced by Gerry and I.
Q. How much did working with Adam Schlesinger differ from previous partnerships?
A. By the time we began work with Adam and James Iha on Here & Now, we had made two other albums, Hourglass (1994) and Human Nature (1998), which were very satisfying in so far as we wrote and produced them together. We regained the control and confidence we had missed on the albums before them, so going into another collaboration was easier and we knew what to expect. It was a great experience working with Adam and James and the other artists they brought in.
Q. What keeps America going?
A. Having started the group in our teens, it is the only thing we have ever done in our adult lives. We have grown up on the road, touring, and playing live shows; that keeps us inspired and energized.
The Joint: Tulsa | Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa
777 W. Cherokee St. | Catoosa
Nov. 7: 8 p.m.
Must be 21 or older to attend
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