By Carl Begai
I recently caught up with original Saigon Kick vocalist Matt Kramer to discuss his newest project, A Book Of Poems From The Smallest Of Towns. During the conversation we addressed the rather persistent rumours of a Saigon Kick reunion looming on the horizon, which have been gathering strength over the last year. Kramer revealed that he and his former bandmates have in fact tossed around the idea of getting back together, which came as a complete shock given that the mere mention of original guitarist Jason Bieler’s name 10, or even five years ago, was enough to blast open Kramer’s well stocked crate of derogatory adjectives. It turns out there are certain finance-oriented requirements that need to be resolved with Bieler before Kramer will commit, but in a nutshell, if they can come to terms Saigon Kick’s return goes from being a pipe dream to a definite possibility.
A day after the story’s publication – found here – I received a polite email from Bieler stating that, if I had the time and interest, he’d be open to telling his side of the story. It was a surprising offer, and accepting it a no-brainer, particularly since Bieler rarely speaks to the press. Between co-managing his own label, Bieler Brothers Records, and working on his Owl Stretching project there isn’t a lot of time that can be dedicated to rehashing the past. Or at least there wasn’t until now.
It should be noted that Bieler didn’t set out to shoot down Kramer’s claims, nor did he take potshots at his former bandmate. In fact, like Kramer, Bieler didn’t display even the slightest animosity. On the contrary, Bieler is all for working with Kramer again.
“I think Matt has his own perspective, and maybe his life has gone down a different path than mine, which has given him his feelings on the way things went down,” Bieler offers. “Do I think that I hold partial responsibility for making bad decisions in Saigon Kick? Absolutely. I think everybody shares that responsibility, though. Matt and I have spoken a few times over the last year, and things have been really civil, so that’s a healthy place to be. When everybody was on the phone talking about the possibility of a reunion, I told the guys that I don’t care if they want to draw up contracts, it was cool with me. I don’t want anything more than my share. So, whatever Matt wants to do, if he wants to do it, I’m fine with it.”
“Saigon Kick isn’t a corporation that I control, where I’m allowing him to have his fees,” he continues. “He’s kind of under the impression that Saigon Kick made a fortune for Atlantic Records, but the statements say that the band is out $600,000 from the label. The reality is that sometimes people don’t want to address this stuff, so it’s easier to say ‘He screwed me.’ Maybe the record label did screw him, I don’t know, but if they did then they screwed me as well.”
For people on the outside, it sounds like a situation following the theme behind Extreme’s album III Sides To Every Story; in any dialogue or conflict there’s my side, your side, and the truth. Kramer’s split from Saigon Kick was anything but amicable, so it’s reasonable to assume the bad blood stirred up in the press in the years that followed was due in part to the way things went down leading to his departure. Bieler offers a look at what may have contributed to the conflict.
“When Matt left the band – and this is making a long story short – I was writing the music from Day 1. I knew how a record label worked, I knew about publishing, I wrote tons of songs, so on any given day I could wind up coming into a record with 50 different things. When we got signed and the band became more established, money became a factor, and suddenly the guys realized there were publishing and economics involved. That put a strain on us because now everybody in the band wanted to write, which is totally normal.”
“As a band I think everybody wanted to have a certain quality of songs, and I was off on a tangent when the Water album came around. I really didn’t care what kind of band we were. I was never a heavy metal guy any more than I was an alternative guy or a pop guy. I just wrote music. Looking back, had I remained true to Saigon Kick, I probably would have been smarter to make heavier records. But that’s not what I wanted to do as a musician. If I wanted to do something that was polka that’s where it was going to go. That’s not necessarily a smart way to do things, and maybe that was irresponsible of me because I wasn’t considering what was best for the band. Then again, I was 23 at the time…”
“My sense of direction was different than the other guys in the band,” he concedes. “I think at one point there were thoughts of gearing things in a Skid Row kind of direction, but I was listening to Peter Gabriel records, off in La-La Land; that was the furthest thing from my personal interest. If that makes me a dickhead, I’m a dickhead.”
Ironically, much of Saigon Kick’s early appeal – on the first album in particular – stemmed from the fact the band couldn’t be lumped into a single genre, metal or otherwise. They were an act of dynamics and extremes, doing whatever they wanted to do for the love of making music.
“And without a doubt, Matt was a huge factor in building that base,” says Bieler. “I’m not a frontman and I’m not cool. Matt has this neat thing about him that just makes him compelling as an artist. Looking back, I see now that the idea of me taking over, maybe we thought it would be a Phil Collins replacing Peter Gabriel kind of thing. At that time I think Matt devalued my worth, and I’m sure I felt the same towards him.”
Fans of the first two Saigon Kick records are in general agreement that album #3, Water, was a letdown. Not only was Kramer’s absence and Jason’s vocal takeover a shock, having heavy tracks ‘One Step Closer’, ‘Torture’ and ‘Close To You’ sandwiched with lighter pop-oriented fare like ‘I Love You’, ‘When You Were Mine’ and ‘On And On’ left folks scratching their heads. The album had some fine moments, just not enough of them. Bieler takes a look back at the making of what some fans took as Saigon Kick’s fall from grace:
“We were coming out of this situation where we had this great frontman, we had a lot of success and a single that almost went platinum, and we went to Sweden to record a new album. Matt brought a lot of ideas that I think everybody thought – not just me – were a little disjointed, and I’m off on the other end writing whatever the hell I wanted to write. It came down to him wanting to do something his way, and at that time the rest of us wanted to do it our way, so he decided to leave. We were in isolation, so it was a fun record to make in that we were in a suburb of Stockholm with no one around, no sounding board. Looking back on that I would kind of agree with you; it has some cool parts, and there are other parts where I cringe, but that’s true of anything I’ve done.”
“We were taking the band in this unorthodox direction. Matt left, so of course we lost a huge chunk of fans. Water wasn’t a tremendous commercial success, although by today’s standards it’d be triple platinum (laughs). The Water record exploded in Asia, though, and became this juggernaut for us. It became huge for us in places that I wasn’t even sure where they were on a map. We ended up playing sold out arenas on a tour of Indonesia, which was four or five shows. It was a neat experience, but when we came back and started working on the Devil In The Details record we tried to narrow our focus a little bit, which is why it sounds more together as a complete package. There’s more of a theme running through it.”
The popular belief amongst the diehard fans is that there’s no Saigon Kick without Matt Kramer. By the same token, there’s no band without Jason Bieler either. Bottom line; Saigon Kick can’t live up to anyone’s expectations unless Kramer and Bieler are working as a unit.
“A lot of people feel that way, and even I’ve come to feel that way. As I said, time gives you a little perspective and I think you start to value what other people’s contributions were. It’s just like breaking up with a girlfriend; when that happens it’s ‘Screw her!’ and ‘Death to her!’, and later on you think ‘Man, she could really cook. What the fuck did I do?’ All the other things start to come out beyond the fact she was a pain in the ass (laughs).”
“The funny thing is I’ve done other things, I’m doing other projects, I’m having a blast, so when Phil (Varone/drums) reached out to me about doing a reunion… I don’t know. My only thing about Saigon Kick is that I wouldn’t want it to be a ‘Will Work For Food’ tour. I hate that, and I expressed to the guys that whatever and if ever we do something, I want to do it at a level that’s higher and better than it was. You tend to remember the best things about a band when they’re younger, and when you see them when you’re older you think ‘Oh man, they suck! Maybe they’re still the same band and just never got any better.’ I’d want to go out there and capture something, do something great. If we’re going to do some shows, I don’t want to show up with one flashlight and rip off the fans to make an extra $200. That’s not what I’m interested in.”
“The reunion hasn’t happened, I’m open to it happening, and everybody is on speaking terms which is really cool. We’ve all grown up a bit. I think it would be a fun thing to do. I guess the thing I’m trying to articulate is that it’s not not happening because of anything I’m doing specifically. If Matt decides that he wants to draw up a contract that makes him happy, I’ll sign it and you can post it on your site. There’s no weird behind-the-scenes ‘I’m-running-the-show’ thing going on. I couldn’t care less about the business side of things,” Bieler admits. “I think it would be an interesting challenge to say ‘Okay, we haven’t done this is a long time collectively. Can we do something that I actually feel is amazing? Can we play one more game at a high level?’ That’s the only concern for me.”
Asked if there’s one Saigon Kick album in particular that, should a reunion become reality, Bieler would like to see a new record live up to, he says he’d much rather surpass what’s they’ve already done.
“I’ve been actively producing records and working with bands, so I can look back with a lot of perspective and say ‘Wow. Maybe those songs weren’t right for that record.’ I feel confident that if Matt was in the zone and the guys were all passionate about it, we could make the record that we’d need to make to be competitive. And I don’t mean competitive for a sales standpoint; I’m talking about people saying ‘Holy shit, they’re still a really great band.’ I think that a new record could probably be the best Saigon Kick record of all of them.”
“Then again, there’s the legacy part of it, too. I don’t care how good the new Rolling Stones record is, it’s never going to be better than Jumpin’ Jack Flash, and unfortunately, because so much time has gone by people are going to want to hear the Saigon Kick songs they grew up with. But I’m cool with that.”
“I’m not really interested in touring, but I wouldn’t mind doing the festival circuit. For me – and maybe Matt feels the same way, maybe not – it comes down to the question of can we do something amazing? If not, I have no desire to do it. I don’t want to be one of those bands that goes into the clubs to earn an extra $300 so they can pay their electric bill.”
Simply put, there’s no sense in getting back together and ending up tarnishing the Kramer-era Saigon Kick legacy.
“It’s funny, I’ve been to various festivals and on radio shows, and I’ve had Chad Gray from Mudvayne screaming all the lyrics from the first record at me saying ‘Aw dude, it’s such an awesome record!’ (laughs). And Corey Taylor (Slipknot / Stone Sour) is a massive fan of the first two albums. That’s when I sit back and say ‘Okay, maybe someone got it…’ (laughs).”
In closing, Bieler addresses the subject of Saigon Kick seeking out a record label if they were to get back together. The album would not, he insists, end up on the Bieler Brothers Records roster.
“It’s Matt’s show. I just want to back him up. Whatever he wants to do, however he wants to do it, I’m happy to help. I’ve been doing this a long time so I know a lot of people, and I think that’s the thing that creates the issue, too. Not that Matt hasn’t done anything, but he hasn’t been in it the way I have for the last several years. Matt’s perspective is ‘I know I don’t want Jason to do it.’ The reality is that the sound of ‘Oh, Saigon Kick is back…’ isn’t going to command a 10 million dollar advance from Sony. My main point is that I’m not impeding this in any way through some kind of bizarre business requirement. Whatever Matt wants to come up with that makes him happy, I’m good with it. We just have to make something great. Or at least attempt to make something great (laughs).”
Go to the official Saigon Kick update page / forum here.
Kramer’s new book, A Book Of Poems From The Smallest Of Towns, is now available via www.mattkramer.net.