Back in the mid 1990s, just about everyone was singing or humming the Rembrandts #1 single, “I’ll Be There for You” — the theme song from NBC’s “Friends.”
But it was hardly the musical duo’s first success as a band, having previously entered the Billboard Hot 100’s Top 20, and producing multiple well-received albums.
The Rembrandts just released their long awaited 5th studio album via Blue Elan Records titled “Via Satellite.” I was fortunate enough to be able to discuss the band and the new album with co-founder and respected songwriter, Phil Solem.
John Daly: “Via Satellite” is the first studio album the Rembrandts have released in 18 years. That was quite a hiatus as a band, though you and Danny Wilde had kept busy with other projects.
The two of you have always had great musical chemistry, but was it tough after an extended period of time to get back into the flow of collaborating on new material? Was there any Rembrandts rust, for lack of a better term? I understand that you live about 2,000 miles from each other, so that probably came with its own challenges.
Phil Solem: No rust, maybe some nice caramelized crust. We did a lot of it long distance, seeing as how we live in the future and that’s an option. We would send each other tracks in progress, and the other of us would kind of fill in the blanks if there were any, and that became our modus operandi for this record.
That’s one reason it’s called ‘Via Satellite’… we send our songs into space and they land on the other side where the other ‘brandt would pick it up and take it from there, in some cases. On some songs, we’d eventually get together, and knock out the final tracks in the same room.
Daly: You’re quoted as saying that the Rembrandts’ “m.o. is to only put out things that have a timeless kind of quality to it, that isn’t going to be time-stamped in some era.”
I think that’s a very accurate description. Whether it’s your first album from 1990 or “Via Satellite” nearly 30 years later, your music isn’t emblematic of a particular period or trend in music. It sort of stands on its own, while still offering a variety of influences, from rock and folk, to psychedelic and the blues.
Do you think that level of creative freedom is sort of a dying art in a music industry that often seems to be focused on whatever sound is hot with audiences at a given time?
Solem: I guess we’ve never really cared about what’s “hot” at any given time, and we just go with what comes naturally to us. Nowadays, if there’s a trend and you follow it, you can bet that by the time anyone hears what you’ve done, it’s passé.
Daly: I’ve been listening to the new album for a few days now, and as a longtime Rembrandts fan, I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Like your previous albums, its guitar-driven and very strong lyrically. From “How Far Would You Go” to “On my Own,” the listener experiences some real depth.
As a writer myself (not a songwriter), I’m always interested in how other writers go about their craft. When you’re constructing lyrics for a song, do you prefer to work in silence without distractions, or do you find that the right words kind of hit you in the face when you’re out and about?
Solem: It can definitely go either way. I tend to like to go on “lyric walks“ where my mind is freed up to let ideas fall into place without having to break my brain to concoct them. Although, you never know what happens when you’re in a room batting lines back-and-forth to each other, and some magic stuff can pop out unexpectedly.
Daly: Which song off of “Via Satellite” was the most difficult and time-consuming to write, and why?
Solem: I have to ponder that for a while… I suppose there are some things that were written over a period of time a bit at a time and then put on the back burner for a while until the ultimate lyrics gelled. Let me get back to you on that one…
Daly: I imagine that the runaway success of “I’ll Be There for You” was sort of a double-edged sword for the Rembrandts. It certainly brought you a ton of new fans, sales, and mainstream recognition. But in a recent interview, you said that the song’s very-last-second inclusion on your third album made the other songs on the record “almost invisible in comparison.”
Do you feel the same is true, to some extent, of your larger body of work, in that — despite a catalog of really great music from the two of you over the years (including other hit singles) — “Friends” is what you’re most closely identified with?
Solem: Well, that was because of a power-play on the part of our record company at the time, and they knew they had to force our hand in including the song on the album. Thankfully we got to rewrite and really dive deep on the version that became the hit, at least artistically.
There was a lot of pie-slicing going on because of the producers being involved as we sat around writing the rest of it together. But yeah, it was very hard to try to put out singles after that one because it was one of those songs that just wouldn’t go away!
Daly: As someone who has yet to fully embrace the downloadable music era, I love that “Via Satellite” is also available on vinyl (as well as CD). Honestly, between the color scheme and artwork, it’s one of the best looking records I own.
The vinyl resurgence we’ve witnessed over the past few years seems to be a bit of a cultural pushback by those of us who weren’t quite ready to give up the physical appeal of albums. Just like a lot of readers still prefer the feel and smell of an actual book in their hands (as opposed to reading from a digital device), there’s also a partiality by many (including young listeners, as it turns out) to the collectible component of music, as well as an appreciation for cover-art and printed lyrics.
What are your thoughts on the evolving delivery methods for music, and from an artist’s perspective, is there a direction you prefer?
Solem: Well, for one thing, we’re very lucky to have hooked up with Blu Élan Records, as they have an appreciation for all the formats available to release, and it’s kind of unbelievable that they wanted to put it out on vinyl!
Having a choice like that for the consumer is fantastic. We haven’t gone so far as to release a cassette version yet, but who knows. If people start buying cassette machines, we would be more than willing to make some for them. Personally, I don’t mind the streaming aspect, strictly for convenience sake, although the royalty rate sucks for us as artists, compared to physical product.
Hopefully that will all get sorted and we’ll all be happy.
Daly: I see that Jesse Valenzuela of the Gin Blossoms contributed to the new album. I’ve heard nothing but good things about him. What’s Jesse like to work with, and what’s the biggest asset he brings to the table when creating music?
Solem: Jesse has been a friend of ours since the early 2000s, but it’s Danny who’s really done the writing with him. They’re kind of neighbors and they hang out a lot, so I guess it was inevitable that they’d start putting together some tunes. They’ve even done projects together, Valenzuela/Wilde, and Danny has contributed to some writing on records of theirs as well, not to mention production.
I’ve been living out in the hinterlands, comparatively (Minneapolis and now Nashville), so I’m out of touch with all humanity. Not to mention, I’m a bit of a hermit. But now we’re in full Rembrandts mode, so I’ve had to come out of my shell.
Daly: I was fortunate enough to see the Rembrandts perform years ago at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, and you sounded great live. I don’t see a lot of upcoming tour dates on your website. Do you plan on getting out on the road a bit, in promotion of “Via Satellite?” Also, what have been some of your favorite concert venues to perform at?
Solem: I remember the Red Rocks show… We need to do that again! We’re hoping the record garnishes the kind of attention that would lead to some sweet shows in venues like that. Amphitheater’s are especially cool.
Daly: On a personal note, the Rembrandts’ first album from 1990 served as sort of a backdrop for a relationship I had with a girl at the time. “Someone” was our cherished song, but the romance eventually fizzled into something more closely resembling “Show Me Your Love,” before moving on to “Just The Way It Is, Baby” territory.
(For the record, I don’t blame you guys for how things ended. Ha ha).
Were you surprised by the immediate success of that album (its first single making it to number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100), and how it seemed to really connect with people? Just about everyone I know who bought it (for the songs they heard on the radio) fell in love with the entire album.
Solem: We got lucky with that one… I’ve gotta say, “Just the Way It Is, Baby” actually peaked at #13, and it was the first song we wrote for the record. The vocal channel was on track 13, and the room we recorded in was 13X13, which is supposedly not good for sound waves. We used bad luck to our advantage!
I’m glad it served as a soundtrack to that relationship, but it’s sadly funny how those particular songs worked to spell out the episodes… sorry to hear.
I’ve heard a lot of stories from people over the years that felt that that album had sort of vignettes they adopted as themes for whatever was going on in their lives. Makes it feel like you’re doing something more than just writing little pop songs, y’know? …when people can personalize them.
Daly: One of my favorite Rembrandts songs is “Chase the Clouds Away” off of your second album, “Untitled.” Were you surprised that the album wasn’t as commercially successful as your first one? I felt it was an awfully strong collection of music.
Solem: It kind of felt like there was a shift happening at our label, so that record got pitted against a lot of other product and maybe the competition became more fierce. Hard to say, but I hope that it can have a resurgence in a time when it’s much easier to hear music due to streaming.
Daly: Have you and Danny started working on new music for perhaps a 6th Rembrandts album?
Solem: We’ve got all kinds of material for the next round, and can’t help but keep writing more. It’s just a matter of time, and we hope people will keep listening!
The Rembrandts’ new album “Via Satellite” is now available via: