“I’ve been biding time with crows and sparrows while peacocks prance and strut upon the stage,” Don Henley sings on “Waiting in the Weeds,” one of several powerful set pieces from the Eagles’ new “Long Road out of Eden,” the band’s first studio album since 1979.
The line is pretty descriptive of the Eagles, Henley believes. “We’re a band that knows how to bide its time … how to wait,” he says. “We’ve just been sort of waiting for some of this bad music to die down, for certain trends to go away, so we can get out there on the dancefloor again.”
In this exclusive interview, Henley takes Billboard through the making of “Eden,” due Oct. 30 exclusively via Wal-Mart stores.
For Billboard’s interview with Eagles cohort Glenn Frey about the process, click here.
It’s great to see all those Henley/Frey co-written songs on the new record. Can you talk about how the songwriting and recording processes have changed?
The songwriting process hasn’t really changed that much. The thing that has changed somewhat is the recording process, and that’s because of technology. We’ve recorded a few songs here and there since the turn of the century, but we haven’t done a whole album, and the changes in the technology are amazing.
Clearly, there is still a way to capture the chemistry, even with technology.
We still play instruments and sing. There are still some of the processes that remain organic, and that’s the way we want it. But things like editing are a whole lot easier, and you can arrange a song on ProTools if you want to, add an extra verse or change the structure of the song. But what the computer still won’t do is write lyrics for you. That still has to come by the sweat of the brow.
There is a lot of social commentary on this record, but there is also a focus on personal relationships and the human condition, as well.
We’ve always had love songs and we’ve always had social commentary. I think we’ve gotten a little bit better at both ends of the spectrum. In fact, I think our love songs have matured a little bit and the social commentary has matured, as well, and gotten maybe a little bolder. But, it’s an Eagles album. It’s all over the map, both musically and subject-wise. I guess there are more love songs on it than anything else. The last two songs on the record in particular are both messages from Glenn and I to our children.
Those are more about “big picture love” than “I love you tonight.”
It’s not just a boy/girl thing. We both have young children. We are both trying really hard to be good parents. That’s one reason it took so long to make an album — because we are so busy trying to be good parents.
There’s a question in the song “Do Something” that kind of struck me as, in many ways, central to the theme of this album: “How did we get on this road we are traveling?”
“Do Something” is an interesting song because it starts out like a love song, a boy/girl song, but then it takes on larger implications. And that line that you pointed out could pertain to a relationship between a man and a woman or it could be a statement about the country as a whole.
Is this an optimistic album?
I think it’s basically an optimistic album, with the possible exception of “Long Road Out of Eden.” Of course, that’s about the war, and it’s also about the human condition. The point of the song is [that] we may think we are civilized, but we have a ways to go yet.
But I think the point of the whole album is summed up on the last song that Glenn wrote with Jack Tempchin, “Your World Now.” The crux of the whole thing for me is those two lines: “Be part of something good, leave something good behind.” For me that sums up everything — to my children, to my fans, to everybody. If there was one message to this album that I want to impart, that would be it.
There’s another line that hit home for me on “Business As Usual”: “I thought that I would be above it all by now, in some country garden in the shade.” And yet here you are with a new record.
That’s right. Here I am, just turned 60. I’m not complaining. I’m thrilled and delighted. None of us ever thought it would go on this long. But we are a determined bunch of guys. We take our time. We are not afraid of the passage of time, necessarily, and we’ve been sitting one out for a long time. That is kind of what “Waiting in the Weeds” implies. Again, on the surface, that’s a love song, but it’s also about this band. We’ve just been sort of waiting for some of this bad music to die down, for certain trends to go away, so that we can get out there on the dance floor again. We are a band that knows how to bide its time, and how to wait.
“Long Road Out of Eden” has an interesting lyric: “Weaving down the American highway, through the litter and the wreckage and the cultural junk.” Is that what we are doing right now?
I think so. I was originally going to write “weaving down the information highway” because I get on my computer every day and there is so much crap on the Internet. It’s such a big waste of time if you aren’t careful. There are wonderful things on there, too — it’s such a resource of knowledge and information. But, just like television, the Internet has a lot of useless crap going on. In the end I decided that it wouldn’t make a lot of sense with the rest of the song just to suddenly go over and start talking about computers and the Internet. So I changed it back to American highway just to make it broader in scope. I think with the words “cultural junk” I got my point across. I think we’ve cornered the market on cultural junk, pretty much.
You revisit some of those themes on “Frail Grasp on the Big Picture,” where I was sorry to hear that journalism is dead and gone.
It’s not completely dead and gone, of course. Obviously, there are still people out there who are trying to do a good job and trying to keep some integrity in the work. But for every one of those people, there are 20 or 30 more that are just in it for… I don’t know what. Again, that is part of the cultural junk. The interesting phenomenon in this age is you turn on the news on the television or on the computer and you see all these very serious stories, like the war in Iraq, people dying and people being killed, and children being abducted and murdered. And then here comes “Entertainment Tonight” and “Access Hollywood” and “Hollywood Insider” and all this crap. Same thing when you go [online], you see [these stories] side by side, and we seem to give equal weight to both. Sometimes the trivial crap seems to get more weight and more coverage than the important stuff.
The coverage of this war has been, for the most part, nonexistent, except what the military wants us to hear and what the White House wants us to hear and see. That’s what’s appalling to me. I don’t really want to hear any more about Britney Spears. I don’t really want to see the trainwreck.
It’s just a continuation of stuff that I’ve been harping on for a long time now: the dumbing down of our culture and the dumbing down of reporting, and the abbreviation of everything because people’s attention spans are so short. Everything is edited and chopped and shortened, from music videos to news pieces. And there’s no time or place for in-depth analysis of anything, or reasonable discussion, reasoned dialogue. It’s just people yelling at one another. Everything is about confrontation and controversy and sensationalism. There are no quiet voices. The quiet voices of reason get drowned out and stomped on.
In “Long Road Out of Eden” we tried to touch on all that stuff. It’s hard, even in 10 minutes, but I really like it. I think that song is a good piece of work. I like some of the instruments we came up with on there. I like the last verse, the one you quoted. This album’s not perfect. If I were king, I would have done a couple things differently. I might have left a couple of songs off and perhaps made it a single album. But we vote by committee.
There is a commentary on consumerism here, so it’s not a stretch to go from that to talk about the Eagles’ Wal-Mart exclusive. Is there any kind of problem in reconciling the art and the commerce of this?
I certainly had some trepidation about it, but the business has changed so drastically. Wal-Mart is not a perfect company, but as I have said many times in print, they can’t possibly be any worse than a major record label. My daddy was a small businessman and he was not a fan of big box retailers or chains or franchises. But this is just the world we live in and there aren’t many places where 60-year-old men, no matter how good their record is, can get this kind of promotion and widespread retail coverage. We are artists, but we are also businessmen and we try to live in the real world.
Some of my environmentalist friends are a little upset because we made this deal with Wal-Mart, but on the other hand I now have the direct line to the CEO of Wal-Mart. I also have a direct line and exchange e-mails on a regular basis with the two whiz-kids they have hired to make the company greener. They have a pretty elaborate and impressive plan laid out.
You really can’t change things from the outside. We are certainly making our feelings known about what we believe as far as ecological stewardship and some of the practices of big business that are undesirable and wasteful, and I think Wal-Mart is making an effort.
Let me hasten to add, I am not thrilled with everything Wal-Mart has done, both in terms of doing business with us and on the environmental front and on the matter of some of their employee practices. But you could pick out just about any big company and say the same thing. We wanted to try something new. Everyone has been screaming, let’s have a new paradigm in the record industry, let’s figure out a way to do this ourselves. Let’s figure out a way to leave the big dinosaur record companies behind that have been robbing from us — and the consumer — for the last 60-80 years. Ever since the record business became big business, the labels have been suspect. We just thought we would try something different. Some people have praised us for it and some people have damned us for it, but that’s the way it goes.
When it comes to this new album, are you at the point where you can rise above being a critic and just enjoy it?
Not yet. We just finished it [about] three weeks ago, so I don’t have enough distance from it yet. Frankly, I don’t want to hear it right now, because I know every little glitch, every little thing I think is flawed about it, I’ll hear. We are going to start rehearsing some of these tunes in October, so I am just trying to basically stay away from it until rehearsal starts so I won’t be burned out. We’ve been living with these songs for a long time.
You guys have been playing together since 1994. Why a new album now?
We were never a band that was able to record and write and tour at the same. When you go on tour at this age there is a lot of recovery time involved. Plus, as I’ve said before, we all have young children. Our priorities are different. Not that this album and our music isn’t important, but my kids are more important to me than anything, and that’s where I put most of my energy these days.
There are some people who seem to think that this is some sort of comeback or we’ve been away, but, if I might say so, we’ve been breaking box office records all over the world since ’94 and we’ve been touring quite a bit. It just took us a while to get on a roll again, to get into writing mode and learning how to work with each other again in a studio.
This is still very much a band effort. There is co-writing and there is a lot of intermingling of vocals, a lot of harmonies. At the end of the day, we agonized for two or three years how we were going to make an album that was going to be modern and cool and cutting edge, and finally we said “To hell with it, we are just going to be the Eagles. We are just going to do what we do.”
And that comes back around to what we said before about waiting for your time to come again. We wanted to wait until some of the latest trends and fads died down, and you have to sort of wait for people to miss you. It’s kind of like that joke in that old country song, “How can I miss you when you won’t go away?” We’ve always been good at getting out of the public eye and being gone for a while. You sit around today and you watch these kids who are exposing themselves — in every sense of the word — to death, it’s ridiculous. We all value our private lives and our families and our charity work, and all the other things that we do, because those things inform our music. You won’t see us at most of the award shows.
You’ve got an awards show coming up, the CMA Awards. I’ve heard people say that if the Eagles were to come out today they would be a country band, but I’ve always looked at you as a rock band.
I think we are both. A country band wouldn’t do “Long Road Out of Eden” and a rock band wouldn’t do “How Long” or “Do Something,” so I don’t think we can be put in a box. I think we defy all those labels. We are an American band and what we do is informed and influenced by just about every form of American music you can think of. There is rhythm and blues in there, there is folk, there’s rock, there’s country. It’s all in there, which is one of the reasons I think we have a lasting appeal.
We are pretty excited about doing the CMAs. I did them once before with my friend Trisha Yearwood. I sang with her a few years back. We don’t normally do award shows, but we are making an exception because we are honored and so thrilled to have been accepted by country radio. That’s kind of a hard club to get into.
Click here for Billboard’s interview with the Eagles’ Glenn Frey about making “Long Road out of Eden.”