(interview by Kristi Wachter)
Robbie Rist is the lead singer, guitar player, and main songwriter for Wonderboy.* His quick wit and passion for power pop are immediately evident in his music.** He's extremely charismatic - sharp, funny, thoughtful, and endlessly interesting. He's not shy about voicing his opinions, but he's willing to reconsider them when confronted with a well-argued challenge. A conversation with him is typically spattered with more pop culture references than an episode of MST3K, and is at least as funny.**** Fact
I interviewed Robbie over the phone on Thursday evening, March 23, 1995. This is the first of a series of interviews with Racer artists intended for online publication.
Racer: What's your birthdate?
Racer: Do you have any brothers & sisters?
Robbie: A sister, older: Judith.
Racer: What's your marital status?
Robbie: I don't believe in marriage. (Unless, of course, I can find some woman who's willing to put up with me for that long.) (Is Sela Ward married?)
Racer: Do you have any children?
Robbie: Not that I know of.
Racer: Do you have any pets?
Robbie: 2 dogs, Panda and Lou. One very wet, one very furry.
Racer: Where did you grow up?
Robbie: We started in Downey, then we moved to the San Fernando Valley and we've pretty much lived here ever since.
Racer: Where do you live now?
Robbie: In the Los Angeles area.
Racer: What's your favorite color?
Racer: What's your favorite food?
Robbie: God, it's a lot of things. French fries and lobster. (With accent:) "I like a nice piece fish on occasion." (maniacal laughter)
Racer: What are your favorite books?
Robbie: "Catcher in the Rye"; "The Prophet" (Kahlil Gibran); "The Big Picture" by A. Whitney Brown.
Racer: What are your favorite movies?
Robbie: "Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory"; "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead"; there's a lot of 'em - and a bunch of others. You have to include one David Lynch film in there, you have to include "Buckaroo Bonzai" - there's all kinds of stuff.
Racer: Do you have any hobbies?
Robbie: Well - I ... uh, no. My hobbies and my living are sort of intertwined. I dabble in painting but I would hardly call myself a painter, and I write other things besides music but I wouldn't call myself a writer. Oh - CD collecting. ... Whining. Put 'whining'.
Racer: What instruments do you play?
Robbie: Guitar, bass, drums, piano. Kazoo.
Racer: What other bands have you been in?
Robbie: Paul Pope, Robbie Rist & the Tower of Light Beer Rhythm Section; ... just a bunch of garage bands - bands that never even recorded or anything. Paul Pope, up until Wonderboy, was the biggest thing I did. Currently I'm in two other bands - I'm in the Andersons and I'm in a band called Big Drag. I'm playing drums with them; I play guitar with the Andersons.
Racer: What day jobs have you had while being a
Robbie: Mostly since I've been in my 20's I've been a voice-over guy.
Racer: Can you name anything people would recognize?
Robbie: The voice of Michelangelo in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movies [all 3], and I have some Spielburg cartoon coming out this year. ... Although I did build booths at the NAMM show one year. And I worked at a movie theatre for a day.
Racer: What happened to that job?
Robbie: I was 13 and I think my parents didn't want to drive me there all the time.
Racer: How did Wonderboy come together?
Robbie: I was playing with Paul and doing the Paul Pope thing ... I had all this material ... and we told him [Paul Pope] we'd back him up, and Roger and Wally and I went off and started rehearsing. I wanted it to be a trio at first but Roger thought we should get another guitarist (so it would be easier for me, basically). We started interviewing guitarists and then Pat walked in. (He had a moustache and we told him it had to go ... actually, I think he asked us what we thought.) And then, I don't know, we just started playing. The first record was almost done and Pat just walked and decorated everything like a Christmas tree.
And then Roger, after a couple years, Roger was just having less and less time for it and he wasn't really happy where he was, and I knew Dave from a voice-over studio that I did some work at, and I knew he played bass and stuff, and of course he worked in a recording studio so you have to have him in the band.
Racer: Who would you name as your influences?
Robbie: Everyone. I listen to so much music, you know - I started playing music because I saw the Knack play like 6 months before they got a record deal, and they were playing "Oh Tara", and I thought "I want to do that." I'd been listening to music - I was like an AM radio nut when I was a kid, I knew all the words to "Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes" when I was 7, but up until I was 13 I didn't know what I wanted to do. I'd been playing piano and drums and I was a big KISS fan, but when I saw the Knack I knew that's what I wanted to do.
Racer: If you were going to be stuck on a desert island and
could only take 10 or fewer albums, what would you take?
Robbie: How much time would I have to compile the list? I guess ... there'd have to be a Cheap Trick record in there, probably but not necessarily "Next Position Please"; I'd have to bring "Bat Out of Hell"; a Mingus record; a Miles Davis; I'd have to bring a compilation Knack one; Beach Boys; I guess a Beatles record; and you know, some sort of classical stuff - Mahler or something bangy, but I like the really bombastic stuff; and something really out there, like John Zorn, the Boredoms - again, you can't fit it all in ten. I probably could nail it down, but as the ship is going down, I'd be on the island and going 'Fuck! Why didn't I bring that?' ... Like today I was just trying to find my 3-D Picnic CDs and thinking 'God, I miss these things.'
Racer: Now that you've listed those, what are some of your
Robbie: Beach Boys Pet Sounds is up there ... with me, everything else, I go in and out of phases with. I'll listen to something every day for six months and then I'll put it away for two years and then I'll bring it out again. Again, there's a Cheap Trick record in there somewhere. Oh, and there has to be an Eric Carmen record in there and Raspberries ... [getting back to the desert island discs] I'd just kick the kids out of the lifeboat and say 'Sorry, I have to have my CDs with me.'
Racer: What are your favorite Wonderboy songs?
Robbie: There aren't. I only write them. It's not my job to like 'em or hate 'em. It's sort of like having children. There's ones that I don't like as much, but that's mostly because of how we play them live rather than how they're recorded. It's not the artist's job to like or dislike; he's just the place from which it comes.
Racer: What are you wearing?
Robbie: Not very much.
Racer: What color is your hair?
Robbie: It's brown but it's also shaved. It's sort of like a Marine haircut. But it's been blonde, magenta, black. [Racer note: every time I see Robbie, his hair looks completely different.]
Racer: If you could put together the ideal band, who would be
Robbie: Oh, I've thought about this. It would definitely have to be the bass player from Elvis Costello's band; Tim Pierce from Rick Springfield's band or Phil Solem from the Rembrandts, playing guitar; Bruce Gary or Clem Burke on drums; and Steve Naive from Costello's band on keyboard. Yeah, the ideal band, I guess I'd have to have a keyboard player - or some badass guy like Billy Preston; and I guess I'd have to have some other guy singing ... I don't know - Michael Des Barres [laughs]. And they'd have to play all of Tony Perkins' songs. [Racer note: Tony Perkins has a band called Martin Luther Lennon and is involved in the LA power pop scene.] I wouldn't even be in the band - I'd just like to watch them. And of course the dream band is going to change by tomorrow. There's definitely different guys that could make it killer in different ways. The other guitar player would be Ricky Bird, the singer could be Joan Jett easily. Since I'm a guy and I play with guys I tend to lean toward guys, but there's so many female musicians ... Caroline Edwards would have to write all the material, or Susan Cowsill. [Racer note: Caroline Edwards wrote and performed with Spindle and 3D Picnic.] It's impossible - you can't do this! There's so many good people out there. I guess the ideal band would have to have an open-door policy, with everybody just changing position all the time, to suit MY PLEASURE. [laughs hysterically]
Racer: How did you get started in music?
Robbie: I just kind of did it, I just kind of started doing it. I took piano lessons when I was a kid; I was playing violin when I was 3. Like any other kid who played music I used to just beat on my knees when the radio came on. I used to sing ... I've always been that way. I'm reading a Bukowski book now, and somebody asked him how he chose to be a writer, and he said 'You don't choose to be a writer, writing chooses you.'
Racer: If you were doing an interview like this, what
questions would you ask?
Robbie: Why does most music suck? Or at least most commercially released music? Why is it Paul Westerburg used to be so good and he's not anymore? After "Hold Me Up", why weren't the Goo Goo Dolls the biggest thing on the planet? How come Joan Jett (or Kirsty McColl for that matter) (or the girl in the Muffs) won't fall in love with me? THESE are the important questions. I think the answer is because I'm too big a geek for them.
Racer: Why does most music suck? Or at least most
commercially released music?
Robbie: Because if you want to sell a WHOLE mess of product, you need to make sure you don't challenge, offend, or make somebody think too much, because to sell a lot of it, you need to make sure it appeals to a lot of people a little and not to a few people a lot.
Racer: Why is it Paul Westerburg used to be so good and he's
Robbie: That's a really good question. I don't know if I have a good answer for it. I think it's because he bought the fact that he's the poet for a generation and he gave up on writing totally bitching songs. But there are also a lot of people who like him so I'm probably wrong.
Racer: After "Hold Me Up", why weren't the Goo Goo Dolls the
biggest thing on the planet?
Robbie: See the first question you asked ["Why does most commercially released music suck?"]. Because "Hold Me Up" is a favorite record, as opposed to say Mariah Carey who sells a lot of copies. I think there's a difference between favorite records and ones that sell a lot. I don't see a lot of people listening to "Thriller" these days.
Racer: Do you have any other questions you'd like to answer,
or anything you'd like to spout off about?
Robbie: Why is it that "Waterworld" cost 225 million dollars to make and there are children out there that can't read? Actually we could say that "True Lies" cost 135 million but you get the point.
Racer: Is that a question you have or a question you'd like
Robbie: This is the question that I have. Does anybody have any answers out there? E-mail me at Trash24713@aol.com.
Racer: Anything else?
Robbie: Even if the bands in your hometown suck, go see them play all the time because it's much better than staying at home watching TV. Bad live entertainment is always going to be better than good programmed entertainment. Go see a play. Don't watch TV; it's bad for you. Listen to more music, and listen to more kinds. And yeah, you're probably thinking I'm a pompous ass - so what? What are you going to do about it? (maniacal laughter)
Any errors are the sole responsibility of Racer Records.