Chicago's Jason Scheff: "When the Music Is In Your DNA, It Finds Its Way Out Pretty Easily"
Since 1967, some form of the band Chicago has been a part of the American musical experience. Formed as a jazz-influenced jam band, the early incarnation of Chicago bore little resemblance to the pop hit-making machine the band would become in the late '70s and early '80s.
When singer/bassist Peter Cetera left in 1985, many thought the band could not continue without one its most recognizable voices. Yet, for another quarter century, Chicago has carried on and continues to be a solid concert draw, especially so on holiday-themed tours.
Speaking from a tour stop in Louisville, Kentucky, and in anticipation of Chicago's performance Saturday night at the Allen Event Center, Jason Scheff, they guy who actually replaced Peter Cetera, spoke with DC9 about becoming a member of Chicago and how the band has managed to remain focused for over four decades.
You joined Chicago in 1985 as a replacement for Peter Cetera. Those are pretty big shoes to fill.
I was just talking about that. It's funny. At the time, I was young and stupid enough to figure why not. Looking back all these years later, I still am amazed that they chose me.
How does that process work? Did you get a call in the middle of the night?
That would have been even more dramatic, but it didn't happen in the middle of the night. What happened was that I had a publishing deal. I had signed a publishing deal because I wanted people to talk about me. Apparently, when Peter left the group, someone at Warner Brothers heard my demos. They were looking for songs for Peter's solo record. My publisher got them a couple of songs. The executives heard the songs and said, "Wait a minute, these sound like the songs we need for a Chicago record." They sent my tape around to everybody in the band. They all said they thought I was their guy. So I got a phone call. They said that they thought that maybe I was the guy they were looking for. It was a great call to get.
How quickly did you say yes?
It was pretty quick. It's funny. When I go back to L.A. and visit now, because I don't live there anymore, I am reminded of how enormous that day was. It was pretty bizarre and I realize how fortunate I was to get the opportunity.
You played your first gig as a member of Chicago about a year later. You must have been nervous.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. The good news was that the band welcomed me with open arms. They never made me feel intimidated. I was young and stupid enough to say why not. I always felt comfortable in the recording studio, but live, I was a little more tentative. Once I got on that stage in Rockford, Illinois, for the first show, I will never forget these people holding up a sign that said, "Welcome Jason." That's when I knew that the fans wanted this music to survive. There are a lot of Peter Cetera fans out there and I am one of them. I was saddened when I heard he left the group and that was way before they asked me to join. But there are a lot of people who wanted the music to survive. After all the years, I am still very grateful.
Chicago had quite a back catalog of music. Did it take you long to learn the songs?
Not really. What's really funny is most of the stuff we played then and the stuff we still play is the hits. We've all heard this stuff for so many years on the radio. I had a career as a Top 40 musician. I was in bands that covered the songs in the Top 40. It was in my blood to learn songs that I had heard a lot on the radio. It was always easy for me to catch on. It wasn't that big of a deal. When the music is in your DNA, it finds its way out pretty easily.
This current tour is in support of the band's new Christmas CD. Do you still mix in the hits with the holiday fare?
We are only doing three songs from the Christmas album. It's not a whole night of Christmas music. We chose three songs that are a blast to play live. They are very Chicago-ized.
The band has done a number of Christmas-related albums. That market can be more lucrative than an album of original music.
In this day and age, you have to have a real good reason to make a record. The logistics of getting everybody together in the same place and the same time and I think within the industry, specialty albums seem like nice projects to take on. When we do these types of projects and they do well, it reminds us how much fun it is to be in the studio and it gets us closer to, maybe, making some new original music.
When will that happen?
Well, we are always working on it. Another thing about this day and age, people are not limited any longer to thinking that they have to make an album in one sitting. You can go a song at a time and we are all used to that. Stay tuned to the website and I think you will find, in this new year, a song coming out here and there. My vision is that you go a song at a time and at a certain point, it will be a good idea to get in there and make an album's worth. I am not one of those who is afraid of the changing times. I think that we are at the forefront of one of the most incredible renaissance periods of music and art. I really believe that.
Some form of Chicago has been together nearly 45 years. Are you planning to be there for the 50th anniversary?
Why not? We are having a great time. I know some people say that as some kind of catch phrase or lip service, but when you see us live, you will see. We get comments from people about how we all travel together, stay at the same hotels, you get along. And we really do. It's no easy feat. I have no reason to go anywhere else. We have an incredible catalog of songs, big hit songs, and we get to go out and people keep coming every year.
When the band appeared on American Idol last year, do you think you were exposing a whole new generation to the music of Chicago?
That's really true. I have friends who have been around the industry for a lot of years. Jonathan Cain from Journey is a good friend of mine. They had the same experience with American Idol. It's all about keeping the old fans and gaining some new ones.
Chicago performs Saturday, December 10, at the Allen Event Center.