February , 1992
Part 1: Doing ‘Justice’ to Its Genre
To properly do one's job in the music world, it is imperative "to be honest, to make the music 'real' and to have conviction."
If an artist can pull off all of the aforementioned, "then you've done your job," according to Exile bassist Sonny LeMaire. And that being the case, the hit-laden popgoes-the-country band is working overtime, to say the least.
Formed in 1963 as a pop-rock group, the Lexington, Ky., act scored the biggest hit of its 29-year career in '78 with the former No. 1 titled "Kiss You All Over." The song sold 5 million copies and put Exile on tour with the likes of Aerosmith and other rock headliners.
Nevertheless, home is where the heart is, and for Exile that meant country music. That is, country music with an amalgamation of other musical influences thrown in for good measure. Or, to put it more aptly, country music Exile style.
In spite of the inevitable turnover in lineup during the past two-plus decades, Exile has remained true to its country roots, scoring a slew of No. I tunes including "Woke Up In Love," "Crazy For Your Love," "Hang On To Your Heart," 'Too Good To Be True," "She's A Miracle" and "I Could Get Used To You" as well as 1990's "Nobody's Talking," "Keep It In The Middle Of The Road," and "Yet," among others.
Often called its genre's most versatile and venerable quintet, Exile now boasts what its members claim is its strongest lineup to date — namely, lead singer/guitarist/ mandolin and dobro player Paul Martin, piano/ keysman Lee Carroll, guitarist Mark Jones and long time members LeMaire and drummer Steve Goetzman. But the claim seems justifiable from all indications.
Now touring in support if its second disc for Arista titled Justice, a record that's already spawned the top-10 single "Even Now," Exile gained renewed vigor with the addition of Jones and 28-year old wunderkind Martin, a multi-instrumentalist and former keyboardist for Billy Joe Royal.
"We're really a band," says Carroll, "and we play with a band mentality. We all grew up playing in bands, we're not 'star guys' — that's not where we come from. We like playing together, feeding off each other's energy and really pushing each other. With us, the chemistry we make creates a band that's greater than the sum of its parts."
Long noted for its live-show energy and appeal, not to mention its superior musicianship, Exile is one country band that was made to cross music's borders.
JAM: Exile has been together almost 29 years; What's your first memory of the band?
MARK They were kinda top dog, Exile was, all during their fraternity days.
JAM: Exile was a fraternity band?
MARK: Yeah, I tried to hire Exile for my high school prom (in Kentucky).
PAUL: We meet people all the time on the road — you know, all over the United States — and people will come up to us occasionally and say, "You played my high school prom." And you say, "Where'd you go to school at?," and they say some place. And, of course, I'll say, "Well, I didn't, but maybe some of these guys did."
Steve and Sonny have been in the band for while. Steve has been in the band for, like, 15 years, and Sonny has been in for about 14 years. They came in right before "Kiss You All Over," so at the time they joined the band, they were still real popular and doing mostly local things to make a living.
MARK: They were doing fraternity gigs.
PAUL: Yeah, they had a Winnebago, I think, that they traveled in [laughs], so things have changed a little bit since those days. But, nonetheless, the players have always been well respected not only in the local Lexington area of Kentucky, but once the group went on and had the country success that they've had, it was real neat to get into the band.
When I told people I was joining Exile, for example, it was like a real neat thing with them. You know, people would say, "Wow, to be able to play in a band like that!" And it made me feel real good to think that they thought I was worthy enough to play in their band, because we are real well-respected musically, because we play on our own records. We're very much involved with the whole process, I guess.
JAM: Has it always been a conscious decision to have two lead vocalists or did it just happen to work out that way?
PAUL: Initially there was one lead singer, Jimmy Stokley, who was around from day one until early 1980.
MARK: Actually, there were three lead singers at one point.
PAUL: Yeah, it was real interesting. Stokley left the band — he was pretty much burnt out, I guess. And I don't know if you've ever seen pictures of the band from that time, but Jimmy was a big showman, like Steven Tyler (of Aerosmith). For years it (the band) was known as Jimmy Stokley and the Exiles.
When he left the band in 1980, they replaced him with some guy that lasted, I think, about three weeks or something [laughs]. And then they replaced him with Les Taylor, and the same day they hired Les, they hired a guy named Mark Gray. Mark was a keyboard player who played in the band for about two or three years, left to pursue a solo career, and actually, had some success. He was a real good singer.
MARK: We had J.P. Pennington, Mark Gray and Les Taylor at the same time, and then Mark left and they went on to country and it was J.P. and Les. It wasn't a conscious effort to formulate any particular kind of lineup. Exile has always been constantly evolving since 1963, you know.
PAUL: And we're all band players. No one in this band — as we speak, this group right here — really has the kind of ego that has to be fed, like, "I've got to be the only lead singer."
JAM: Yeah, your bio says Exile is very much a band.
PAUL: Yeah, we are. I mean, we look at the more successful groups and we go, "Well--" [laughs]. But when you think of a certain band, you think of one person, maybe, and it's usually the singer of the band. But, it's like, I feel like I bring something to the band vocally, whereas Sonny is a vocalist that brings something to the band, too. And when we go into the studio we just kind of pick out favorite songs and sing them.
JAM: You sing, too, don't you, Mark?
PAUL: Yeah, Mark's been singing the high lead and, you know, as time's gone on, I mean, Mark's gonna start singing, too. You know, there's not a problem there. Really. It's more of a record label thing than anything else, I think, because trying to market two vocalists is bad enough. But we really are a band.
JAM:• What kind of reaction do you get when you play the older material that, for example, Les or J.P. sang?
PAUL: [Smiles( You'd be surprised. Really, it's very interesting. People don't even realize those guys are gone, which is good for us. I mean, I'm not patting us on the shoulder.
MARK: Sonny wrote those songs (that were performed by former Exile members Pennington and Taylor). He's the co-writer on all that music....
PAUL: You know, I sing a lot of the stuff myself, and I try to go after the stylistic thing, anyway. We try to capture the sound that was those songs, I guess. And it's really interesting that the best compliment you can be paid, I think, is when someone says, " I saw Exile about six months ago at the fair." And you go, "You did?" And they go, "Yeah." You know, they don't say, "Yeah, but I don't think you were there." So that's really good, you know, because this band has always been kind of faceless. But, we're trying to change that right now.
We're trying to market ourselves, but that's a whole other thing with two lead vocalists. You know, in the past, it was J.P. and Les, but I don't think they ever really went after that.
JAM.• So you guys aren't entertaining any thoughts of a solo project on the side such as how (Bon jovi guitarist) Richie Sambora has done?
PAUL: No. I mean, we all love music, and all kinds of music, and we all would love to be able to indulge ourselves in some kind of outside project that would be lucrative. And I know for myself that I would love to do that, but what would be neat would be that if we could, in turn, help Exile, you know?
MARK: We all do a lot of other things, but for all of us Exile is job No. I.
PAUL: Yeah, it's our top priority.
JAM: What's interesting to me is that your bio states that most people who like the band don't recognize the excellence of its instrumentalists, they focus on the lyrics or vocals, but roe always revered the band's instrumental capabilities. It seems natural that others outside the industry would, too.
PAUL: Well, it is really interesting. This band has more respect from musicians that it does, probably, the general public. And I think I can say that, and he (Mark) can back it up, because more musicians come to see us and are more complimentary. And there's that select few who really like Exile songs, but then those are the same people who say, "Exile?" And you say, "Do you remember the song 'Kiss You All Over'?" And they go, "Yeeeah." So, you know, the name sometimes doesn't register.
JAM A lot of people do do that, but I only use that song as a reference as a last resort when I try to familiarize people with Exile material.
PAUL: Yeah, it's very funny. I mean, that song is very important to this band, because it, basically, is the biggest hit the band ever had. To be honest, for me to say it was one of my favorite of our songs would be a ludicrous notion. I mean, it's not like a song I really dig. I mean, I wasn't a disco guy back when disco was big.
JAM. But you do still play it in the live shows, don't you?
PAUL: Oh yeah.
MARK: We do it better than any version of the band has so far.
PAUL: Yeah, we've really worked to make it ours, too, to the point where it's got a little more energy. You know, we maybe grind it a little more [smiles].
JAM: At soundcheck the band was playing "Sweet Home Alabama" and someone jokingly stated that wasn't their favorite song or some remark like that.
Who said that?
PAUL: [Laughs] Oh yeah, that was Lee or somebody. There is something about us in that we get along well enough that we can pick at each other, really go at each other all the time, in a loving fashion. And I think that's how we break the monotony out on the road, too, after we've been out for a few days.
JAM OK, I noticed on the new album that Sonny wrote some tunes, but neither of you had anything on this album. Did you write for the band, but it just didn't make the cut this time out?
PAUL: Yeah. We, actually, had submitted songs for this last album. We got real close.
MARK: Yeah, Paul and I got songs cut, but they just didn't make it on the album.
PAUL: The only song we cut that I submitted was a song that I felt really wasn't for us, because it was kind of a hard-edged, blues-based song. I had stuff that was a little more mainstream country-sounding, so I kind of missed our niche there a little bit. And Mark had a song that had a real jarr overtone, because that's something that Mark really runs real well. He's really good with the jazz influence.
MARK: I think the thing to note is that there were a lot of great songs by songwriters who missed having cuts on our album this time.
PAUL: Like a hundred different songs.
MARK: We had a whole lot of songs, and what we discovered is that the songs we submitted were very strong songs. We had about 40 songs we submitted.
PAUL: Yeah, and see, our producer Randy Sharp and our bass player Sonny had a jump on us from the last album. Plus, they had a catalogue of songs they had already written from the last album. So, per se, the more songs you come in with, the better your chances of getting something out.
MARK: Yeah, (keyboardist) Lee had his first cut on this album (titled "One More Reason," co-written by Sonny LeMaire.