Hey, Hey, We’re The Monkees! A Chat With The Seminal ’60s Band On Their 50th Anniversary

In celebration of their 50th anniversary, ’60s pop icons The Monkees are hitting the road. This past May, the band, who is best known for their hits “I’m a Believer” and “Daydream Believer,” also released their twelfth studio album, Good Times!, featuring a mix of decades old songs and newer cuts penned by the likes of River Cuomo of Weezer, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, Noel Gallagher of Oasis, and Andy Partridge of XTC.

In advance of The Monkees’ stop at The Warfield on Tuesday, Sept. 20, SF Weekly chatted with founding member Peter Tork from his home in Connecticut, and got the lowdown on the album, the tour, and what it’s been like to be in a band for five decades.

The Monkees play at 8 p.m., on Tuesday, Sept. 20 at The Warfield. More info here

SF Weekly: I know that this tour is in celebration of your 50th anniversary. Is that also why your new album, Good Times!, came out this year?
Peter Tork: It all ties in. It’s a promotion man’s dream. Think about it: How rare it is that any kind of an entertainment operation should have a 50th anniversary? I myself am astounded. It’s like are you kidding? How is that possible? Consider this: When we were first starting out back in 1966, if we were looking at 50th anniversary tours or something or other, it would have been some act that had gotten famous in 1916, like Charlie Chaplin or some silent film star, like Mary Pickford. And goodness gracious, the car had just been invented.

SFW: That is interesting. Do you think your music translates better with today’s tastes?
PT: It’s hard to know. When The Monkees first came out, there were a lot of people who were giving us flack for being not as original as they wanted us to be. We had songwriters and we didn’t have much to do with the making of the first couple of albums personally. But, a lot of that oppositional stuff has gone away, and what’s left is nostalgia. And now Ben Gibbard and Rivers Cuomo and a Gallagher or two, all these guys were Monkees fans themselves, probably more from the ‘80s than form the original. But they were writing songs and were informed by The Monkees’ song book. So the stuff they wrote has a lot in common. So here it comes full cycle. And they’re sort of giving back to us the influences that we gave them. And we’re very lucky. The album is really right on the money. You write an album 50 years later on The Monkees and what are you going to get? You could get trash just as easily. And we’ve done a few albums in the in between times and it’s been less successful. I don’t know what to say about all the reasons. But one of them might have been the people that were writing songs that were too much out of the ‘60s or too contemporary to the time the album was made. And the result was that nothing seemed quite to fit. But these guys did. These guys wrote for us because they came from us. The fit is brilliant and perfect. We’re very lucky this way.

SFW: And there’s even some older songs in there, too, and the combination of the new with the old is seamless. 
PT: Yeah, I was thinking the same thing remarkably. It is seamless. You don’t really know where the dividing line is.

SFW: So how did you guys link up with these modern songwriters in the first place?
PT: I couldn’t tell you for sure. I think the Rhino Record people hooked up with Adam Schlesinger and he knew the guys, I think. But you couldn’t prove it by me.

SFW: In terms of the album, was it just you and Micky Dolenz who did the singing in most of it or did Michael Nesmith help out with the album, too?
PT: Nesmith sang lead on three songs.

SFW: Got it. But he’s not touring the entire tour with you guys?
PT: No, he isn’t. He will be with us in Los Angeles and join us for half a dozen songs there. And he joined us for three or four songs in Monterrey, which is his hometown nowadays. And he joined us via Skype for one show; we had him up on the screen.

SFW: What are you going to do about Michael’s songs when he’s not there to sing them?
PT: I’ll probably take his part.

SFW: I know that being able to play your own instruments was a point of contention in the early days. 
PT: Yeah, it was for me at the time. That has waned. At the time, I got very excited about it, but I look back and see that there was no point.

SFW: But in this album, I’m assuming you played instruments?
PT: Well, here and there. Adam played bass on just about every cut, and he had his favorite drummer and guitar players from Fountains of Wayne. And that was the core rhythm section. The song I wrote I played the rhythm guitar part, for “Little Girl.” That was sort of the sequel to “I Want To Be Free.” It just sort of popped out of me one day. And I played some banjo on a few cuts here and there. And some incidental keyboard here and there too.

SFW: “I Want To Be Free” is an older song. So, with “Little Girl” did you write that around the same time? 
PT: It was fairly soon after, I guess. Back in those days, a year was the equivalent of 10 today, so if it had been a year or so later…. I wrote the thing for Davey, and Davey liked it, but we forgot about it. And now was the first time that we had a chance to do something about it. So it didn’t manifest before.

SFW: This was years before the computer was invented, so how did you remember the song? Did you have a hardcopy that you saved over the decades?
PT: Nope. It was in my head. It’s been in my head all this time. The original software.

SFW: Right. Hate to bring it up, but I read that you were fired from The Monkees’ 35th anniversary tour because of issues with the other dudes and stuff. Are you worried about any problems this time?
PT: The 35th anniversary I was fired? Oh, I quit and then they said, ‘You can’t quit. You’re fired.’ That one was a little rough. But these things gloss over. They soften with history. None of us carries grudges too severely for too long. It’s alright.

SFW: How well do you guys keep in touch? 
PT: Well, the basic core act is just Micky and me right now. And Micky and I are very friendly, and if one of us is in the other one’s neighborhood, we make it a point to look him up and go visit. Some friends are like, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen you since January, so why don’t I come out to the West coast in June and we’ll hang?’ Intimate very close friends make it a point to visit each other. They go where the other one is to hang on purpose with that person.

And we haven’t been that close. We’re not like that. We are incidental visitors. ‘Well I’m in the neighborhood, so can I come on over for lunch?’ But once we’re in the business of doing something together, we’re on the phone with each other all the time. As a working relationship, I’d say that when we’re called upon to work together, the working relationship is very tight. It’s very close. And, in the meantime, we have a lot of fun together. The personal side of things is very rich and funny and sharp edged.

But, when work is done, each one retreats to his den.

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