“So you wanna be a rock n roll star, now listen up to what I say,”: talk to Tommy Kessler. Pittsburgh Music Magazine was fortunate enough to catch up with Tommy right after two photo shoots for Whirl and Manic Magazines, and just before he had to hit sound check at The Palace Theater in Greensburg before the Blondie show. The fact that Tommy went out of his way to hang with us and spend quality time talking with us, is just one example of a multi-faceted, multi-talented individual who understands that the glitz and glamour of rock n roll is not all what it appears to be from the outside.
After racing cars and motorcycles, Tommy started his musical career when at the age of 20 he had a horrible accident that “basically busted up the left side of his body”. His first venture as a ‘working musician’ came when he auditioned for Shadowbox Cabaret. Participating in studio work in NYC since 2005, Kessler has created a career of music with longevity rather than the flash in the pan that so many musicians encounter. With a strong business sense, a winning smile and laugh, and a positive upbeat personality, Kessler knows how to talk the talk and walk the walk in an industry that is ever-changing and creating new challenges. Building his credentials by working on Broadway in Rock of Ages and The Blue Man Group, Tommy found his way to being not just some hired gun for Blondie, but actually being part of the band. When attending the Blondie show one can witness him shred on solos in songs such as “Atomic” where he can show off his hybrid picking and finger tapping (see below for Tommy doing EVH’s “Eruption”). But, he did not get where he is by being a flashy type guitar player. One has to have a wide range of abilities to actually be a working musician. He may describe his style as, ‘sloppy Eddie Van Halen meets Randy Rhoades with a bit of Steve Vai’, but his abilities reach far beyond that of the typical guitar virtuoso. And there is good reason for that, Kessler knows that being stuck in that genre can pigeonhole a player into a corner. We get the feeling that Tommy does not like corners, preferring to see what the wide open spaces have to offer.
Fortunate enough to travel the world with Blondie anywhere from four to eight months of the year, Tommy gets to enjoy the perks of being in a top-level band. Unlike many musicians who subsist on a diet of McDonald’s or whatever the road has to offer, he gets to eat health consciously on things such as salmon, free range chicken, and fruit smoothies. He pays particular attention to staying fit and looking good with an understanding that this is part of his marketability as a musician. Gone are the days of just relying on talent. Tommy always wanted to entertain people and maybe even at one time wanted to be famous and on the cover of Guitar World, he “wanted to be the next Slash/Eddie Van Halen”, but that market is not there anymore. Very realistic about his place in the industry, he will tell you how the attention span of the public has become a heartbeat at best, and that is part of the reason the guitar heroes of yore really do not exist in the same way anymore, ‘If you don’t listen to guitar music, outside of that market you are not known’, bringing up the example of Joe Bonamassa. With this understanding, Kessler has found a way to make a comfortable living as a musician and remain relevant because of his ability to play many styles. Originally trained in classical and Latin styles of guitar, he has developed his own style while understanding that at times he must conform to whomever is paying the bills. Whether it be the regimented playing of exact chords and licks every night with Rock of Ages or having those times to spread out and keep the audience interested with parts of the show in Blue Man Group, Kessler understands what is needed by his employers and consistently performs. There is great knowledge and wisdom to be had here for many an aspiring musician. Oftentimes Tommy is asked by friends to speak to kids about how to make it in the industry. When it comes down to competition between players ‘you got to go get it’ and it ‘comes down to who wants it more’ are simple adages that Tommy will invoke. But how does one distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack? Playing music: “it’s only half your plan- don’t spend all your time practising… spend time on your brain.”
And Tommy practices what he preaches. He understands the importance of the new music market out there, especially social media. With a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Linkedin presence, Kessler knows that he has to take the time to connect with his fans when he can, “you have to do it, it’s business now”. When asked about how social media has effected the industry he is quick to tell you the good and bad of it, (it’s) “great cause everyone can get their ideas out there…but everybody is doing it.” When not on the road and keeping up with fans from his cell phone, he can often be found in his own studio right outside of the Lincoln Tunnels. He often collaborates with Finger Music (http://www.fingermusic.tv/), a music and sound design company that works with commercials, films, television, new media and video games. From a young age with a little tape recorder he “has always dabbled in recording”, and has progressed into having licensed five songs to Nickelodian recently. As the years progress it seems the studio stuff is taking over, and he now can “play live for fun”. But, this is all part of the plan for Tommy; he understands that there is a shelf life to his live career. He will tell you that he is trying to look to the future because, as he jokingly expresses, he is “not going to stay beautiful forever…you have to plan for that”. So, Tommy likes the idea of writing in the studio and working with Finger Music and Grammy winning producers such as Thomas Russo on various song writing projects.
With so many irons in the fire Kessler is one busy man. When he has down time on the tour bus you can often find him playing an old Nintendo NES system. His passion for race cars has not left him either, for he can often tell you a car just by its tail lights or the sound of its engine. And when he isn’t playing with Blondie or doing fly dates with other artists for a night or two, we are pretty sure you will be able to find Tommy at the new Formula One race track in Palisades, NJ that is due in 2013.
To catch up with Tommy’s world check out:
For the full interview (including busses passing and dogs barking!): Tommy Kessler
A special thank you goes out to Gretchen at Social G Media for making this interview happen. With any luck we will get Tommy back to Pittsburgh to do a seminar about surviving in the music business…stay tuned.