Chicago Interview (1970)
with James Pankow

By Rick McGrath and Mike Quigley
The Georgia Straight, 12 April 1970

After Chicago played their first set at the Gardens a couple of Thursdays ago, Mike and I wandered backstage to try and line up an interview with someone in the group. Amid the confusion of Illinois Speed Press getting back on stage (both groups shared the rather cramped dressing room), groupies, and only about fifteen minutes worth of time we managed to obtain the following with James Pankow, Chicago's trombonist.

Rick: The liner notes on your latest album talk about the revolution. Could you explain that a bit more?

Pankow: It's a peaceful revolution. I mean, we're not in the position to tell people what to do, but this country is obviously in a state of turmoil because the younger generation's not happy with the way the older generation's running the country. Violence is not the answer although people have had to go to extreme means to get their points across because they aren't being listened to. What the answer is, I can't say. We're aware of the situation like a lot of people are, and we let people know it through our music. In that way our album is dedicated to the revolution in the fact that we're aware of the political upheaval in this country and if we can make people more aware of it, like we are, maybe better understanding can come out of the whole thing -- better communication.

Rick: Last year the group's image was rather antipolitical. What made the change?

Pankow: Well, the reason I said that we were antipolitical is that we didn't like to think of ourselves as a political group. We thought of ourselves as a musical group because the music is what we're in the business for - it's our life. But last year things weren't coming to a head like they are now. Kids weren't as involved as they are now because they didn't have to be. Kennedy was assassinated, Martin Luther King was assassinated, the hopes for the younger generation were gotten rid of. And about the time of those assassinations, when the outright revolution began, things were not as stormy as they are now. We just wanted people to know that we're aware of what's going on over the country, all over the world, and we say it in the music. We don't want to tell kids to go burn down universities and break windows and things like this, because that's not the answer to anything. It's just a matter of communication -- people have to talk to one another rather than criticize. It brings us down when we go from town to town and see uptightness and bad things going on around the country, and it affects us, our emotions and our thoughts. The best release for these thoughts and emotions is in the music, so we say it in the music. And in that way our music is dedicated to the revolution in the way that people may become more aware of what's going on in this country and they may begin to communicate more.

Mike: Last year you also had an idea of a musical community. Can you explain that a bit more?

Pankow: We're like a family -- like brothers. The same personnel have been together for about three and a half years now, and we stick together socially and musically. As far as the musical community, within this corporation, there's a Production company, a management, a publishing company, and other little things, and some day we hope to be in the position to give other musicians a break like we got.

Rick: Is that like Zappa's Bizarre organization...?

Pankow: Yeah. In the future we'd like to build a studio, possibly in the Northwestern U.S. somewhere in the mountains, and record other groups that we have an interest in, and give them the chance that we had, because there's a need for a cultural revolution as well as a political revolution. I mean people are listening to better music in general. Rock and Roll is no longer 1-4-5; it's no longer simple music. It's becoming a legitimate music form and it deserves advancement just as any music form. If we can help other groups out someday, fine. We aren't in a position to do it now.

Mike: Do you envision it as a North American version of Apple?

Pankow: I suppose you could, to make the analogy.

Mike: Your recent album has a lot of classical music on it. Do you think you'll carry on in that trend?

Pankow: Not necessarily. It just happened that we were in that direction about the time of the recording of that album. It's hard to say what direction the music is going in -- whatever comes out at any particular time, that's what comes out. We may go into a Country and Western vein - any particular vein we happen to be in at that time. We try to be as versatile as possible without getting cluttered, so to speak. We don't want to be ultra-commercial, we don't want to prostitute ourselves, but on the other hand we don't want to become so complex that we burn ourselves out of the industry. Like The Mothers. The Mothers had a very musical thing going but their approach was a little too heavy, a little too quick for the mass media to accept, and they kind of burned themselves out. Zappa got so frustrated that he closed the band down.

Rick: Do you spend much time in the studio?

Pankow: Well, lately we've been devoting most of our time to live performances, just playing as much as we can and playing for as many people as we can. We've been recording in between the road shots; we've been very busy.

Mike: On your last album you have four classical-like cuts that are orchestrated. They're the one thing I really couldn't get into. What are you trying to do with those cuts?

Pankow: Don't you think they're musical?

Mike: Yeah, but the only interesting part is where you're interpolating little outbursts like Stravinsky.

Pankow: The first five minutes of that tune is an instrumental, an orchestration by Peter Matz. The tune is a love ballad written by Terry, our guitar player. The orchestration, which is a prelude for the tune, just kind of sets you up for the tune. We like it because it contributes to the overall effect of the album. It's a little different, a little more musical than the first album. We don't like to get into misrepresentation -- we don't like to make people think we have violins with us and all that sort of thing; to do a big orchestrated Garry Puckett sort of thing (to drop a name). We just thought that one tune deserved a little extra, a little orchestration, because it meant a lot to the guitar player and he wanted it to be orchestrated.

Rick: To change the subject, do you have any network TV spots coming up?

Pankow: We've refused to do American television because of bad audio. If we did American television, we'd do it live -- we don't go in for the lip-synching, and up to now American sound engineers have not been able to capture any sound experience well, including Blood, Sweat and Tears, who I saw on the Ed Sullivan Show. They sounded bad, because the engineers didn't know what they were doing. We did a lot of TV shows in Europe when we were over there because the European engineers are into live recording, live video tape, and it came off very well.

Rick: Yeah. I saw Santana on Ed Sullivan and the engineers just didn't have a clue as to what was happening.

Pankow: Right. We did NBC's First Tuesday and it'll be on in April or May. We did that because it's a documentary, and that's a story of the group, who we are, what we are, how we live at home, how we live on the road. They followed us around on the road, getting out of bed in the morning, rehearsing, shooting the bull, brushing our teeth, going to the store; it shows us as we are from day to day. It's not a phoney thing - it's us, and because it's a documentary, because of the presentation, we did that show. But we won't do any variety shows.

Rick: Looking ahead a bit, do you anticipate doing any more rock festivals this summer in light of Altamont?

Pankow: I personally have nothing against rock festivals. I think it's a good way of reaching a large number of people. There's quite a lot of disorganization in these festivals...

Mike: Yeah, like the one at Squamish last summer.

Pankow: Yeah, it was nice, but it wasn't run properly. We were going to do the Toronto Revival with John Lennon in April, but that was cancelled. We wanted to do the Miami festival but we already had been booked at the time of that. As for other pop festivals, offhand I really can't say what's going to happen. It depends whether we can fit it into our booking schedule or not. We have nothing against pop festivals, on a general basis.

Rick: No, I meant like if the way Altamont has turned out has affected your attitude to them at all.

Pankow: Well, you can't judge them all by one or a couple. The Atlantic City Pop Festival and the Atlanta Pop Festival were both excellent. They were very well organized, and the sound systems were more than adequate. All the people there -- up to fifty thousand -- got to hear everything that was presented because of the setup. So you can't judge them all by a couple of bad ones.

Mike: Are you working on a third album now?

Pankow: We're recording in June so we can have a third album out by Christmas of this year. It's going to be kind of tight since we'll be on the road all through May and it's hard to write material on the road -- you have to write it at home in most cases. So we're going to be kind of busy, getting our material ready for the third album as well as getting ourselves together to play on the road.

Rick: Have you thought of taping any of your live performances for an album?

Pankow: Well, the mobile units that record you on the road are effective if you've got a small group, a four or a three piece group. But when you have this many pieces, everything has to be miked in such a way that everything becomes an involved, difficult process to pick up the seven pieces with the brass in such a way that it'll be recordable. So we're restricting ourselves to the studio for now. Maybe someday we'll think of a live performance.