Retrocon 2024

Interview with pat mAcdonald of Timbuk3

(This interview was originally published January 31, 2011 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.) 

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is pat mAcdonald. He is best known as the singer, guitarist and main songwriter for Timbuk3. He formed the duo with his then wife, Barbara, and they became an overnight success with their 1986 hit single “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.” Unfortunately, a follow-up pop hit proved elusive for Timbuk3. In 1995, the band (as well as pat and Barbara) went their separate ways which spurred a solo career for pat which continues steadily today. You will find out a little more about the hit single and the man behind the “shades” as we get on to some selections from my interview with pat mAcdonald

Q: I see you spell your name now as “pat mAcdonald” with all lower case letters except for the first A in your last name. When and why did you begin doing that and what significance does it have?

patIt was a few years ago. I got tired of seeing it spelled wrong in print, without the “a” in “Mac” and so I hit upon the idea of the capitalization, to distinguish my name from McDonald’s, the hamburger chain.

Q: When did you first realize you wanted to be a professional musician? How did that end up becoming a reality for you?

patI started playing semi-professionally when I was 13, just out of 8th grade, and music has been my main livelihood all my adult life, playing in bands, playing solo, whatever I could do to sustain myself.

Q: This brings us to 1984 when you and your then wife Barbara formed Timbuk3. How did the decision to form this duo come about? Why did you then move to Austin, Texas?

pat: Barbara was playing in my band, “Pat MacDonald and the Essentials.” She was way more committed than the other band members so we decided to break off and do our own thing. We also decided we wanted to play on the street, and winter in Wisconsin was too cold for that, so we looked at New Orleans and Austin. Obviously, we decided on Austin.

Q: What is the meaning and/or story behind the band name, Timbuk3?

patWe were really into a kind of interlocking guitar style that artists like King Sunny Ade were doing, and Timbuk3 sounded vaguely African, so we liked it. It also was a kind of tribute to my friend and mentor, Jim Spencer, who had died recently. He was into that kind of wordplay.

Q: You became almost an overnight success after “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” became a Top 20 single. Could you have ever anticipated the success it would have? Did you feel it was a special song when you recorded it? Did you enjoy all of the attention?

patYeah, we enjoyed the validation more than the attention. It was exciting, but wasn’t all fun – suddenly we had to work harder than ever, and we were pretty hard-working before that. The song felt like a radio song from the moment I wrote the lines, “I study nuclear science, I love my classes, I got a crazy teacher, he wears dark glasses…” Something about the rhythm of the words and the imagery sounded very current and listener friendly. I did have a feeling that song would be popular. Plus, the title hook hit home. Barbara inspired that.

The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” was released as a single in 1986 and became a huge hit receiving heavy radio rotation. It surprisingly only peaked at #19 on the Billboard Hot 100. Also surprising to many is that the song is not intended as an optimistic outlook though often is mistaken as such. While many saw it as a graduation theme song, pat’s grim outlook may have been more a result of fearing a nuclear holocaust. Nonetheless, the song helped earn Timbuk3 a 1987 Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. Here is the music video for “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” by Timbuk3

Q: What inspired you to write “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades”? Many people misinterpreted this song as a positive perspective when it really comes from more of a pessimistic view point

patBarbara, in reference to an Essentials record we had just finished, said “Our future’s so bright, we’ll have to wear sunglasses” [in a positive context] and I just immediately heard that nuclear angle, the shades protecting the eyes from grim realities, like blinders. Yeah, the misinterpretations were frustrating and embarrassing sometimes.

Q: The music video helps clarify the song’s intent with some references to nuclear holocaust. Who came up with the video’s concept?

pat: The video idea was a collaboration between us and the creative director at IRS Records, Carlos Grasso. We wanted a little trailer in there and a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape. Carlos helped flesh it out and added some amusing touches. The donkey with the TV on its back came from the album cover art, which had already been done before we conceived the video.

Q: The harmonica definitely helps add to the misleadingly fun vibe of the song. Do you play it the exact same way during live performances or do you improvise a little? What is your take on the value or character that the harmonica can add to a song? Do you cringe when you hear another performer try to add harmonica to a song where it does not belong or just poorly played?

pat: Ha, ha. I do kinda hate harmonica playing in general, because most of it is so cliché, and harmonica players don’t usually know when to stop. Maybe it’s like, when it’s in their mouth, they feel they have to keep sucking and blowing. If I could sing and play harp at the same time, I might overplay too. Anyway, yeah, I never played that part the same way twice. I like improvising on the harp more than playing fixed parts.

: When you have a mega hit song like that, do you (or did you) ever get sick of playing it?

patI’ve always given it a rest, sometimes for years at a time, but it always comes back in a new form. Right now, a shortened version is in the middle of a newer song called “Seeing Things” (from [2007’s] Troubadour of Stomp) and it works pretty well in there.

Q: Were you ever approached by any sunglasses companies to promote their product specifically? Like the official sunglasses of Timbuk3 or using your music for advertising or agreeing to wear a certain brand?

pat: The answer was in a 1998 article on by John Marks titled “Shake, Rattle and Please Buy My Product”: In 1986, Bausch & Lomb offered MacDonald $150,000 for the rights to use his Top 40 hit “The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades” to advertise its Ray-Ban line of sunglasses. But the singer-songwriter, then fronting a band called Timbuk3, said no deal. A few years later, Clairol upped the ante to $450,000 for another of his songs, “Hairstyles and Attitudes.” MacDonald turned that down, too. And last year, the artist rejected a $500,000 offer from fast-food giant McDonald’s, once again for “The Future’s So Bright.” The company hinted that it might go as high as a million, but MacDonald still wouldn’t budge–even though his only permanent address is a rented motel room in Austin, Texas. “I’m constantly feeling like somehow I have to justify my choice to people,” says the scruffy, soft-spoken MacDonald. But the songwriter won’t compromise because he feels that his own songs would be ruined for him, as Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” was for MacDonald, by its use in a Honda commercial.

Q: From 1987 to 1995, Timbuk3 would record five more critically acclaimed albums, but could never follow up that first hit. Are you surprised that Timbuk3 never had another hit single?

patI’m not really surprised, though it was frustrating at the time, being told it was expected of us because we had entered the mainstream. But I felt we were an “alternative” band and that’s where I felt more at home.

Q: I read that you said the following regarding songwriting, “But I wasn’t trying to write hits. And I wasn’t trying to write a hit when I wrote a hit. I was just trying to write songs.” Can you explain this thought process on your art a little more?

patI think most artists that do it obsessively don’t like constraints. We might acknowledge our own limitations, but we don’t like to do what’s expected of us. Hearing certain great songs that were hits, you can feel the sense of freedom, and if that freedom hadn’t been there, the songs wouldn’t have been so great.

Q: Please describe the circumstances surrounding the band’s break up in 1995.

pat: Barbara and I had been growing apart in our relationship, both musical and personal. It’s the typical story. We never drank when we played gigs before that, but we were taking turns being the problem drinker. Sometimes we were two problem drinkers trying to work together. I was writing darker stuff than she was into, so for the first time ever, I was having to fight for my voice in the band. We did the right thing by splitting up.

Q: Do you keep in touch with Barbara? Looking back, how did working together impact your personal relationship? How did that change from the beginnings to the conclusion?

patWe were a great team for about fifteen years. When it fell apart, it happened really fast. I was the catalyst. I got stir crazy. I don’t think she’s ever forgiven me for that, so no, we don’t keep in touch I’m sorry to say.

Q: Are you proud of what you created as Timbuk3? Can you ever imagine recording new music as Timbuk3 again?

patIn retrospect, I’m more proud of the songs than the performances – I wasn’t much of a singer back then and a lot of the production is pretty dated. I feel like I’ve only recently figured out how to get a sound I’m happy with. As far as future work with Timbuk3, it will be limited to remixing, remastering, and correcting misconceptions about what we were about. Getting everyone to remove the space between the “k” and the “3” is another huge project I’ve undertaken. I never wanted that space.

Q: Some '80s pop superstars “run away” from the '80s and some embrace the success and fans from that decade. How do you personally deal with and keep the '80s alive and in perspective?

pat: I’m working on a book called “A Decade Through Dark Glasses” that will hopefully do both. It examines '80s music, fashion, and politics through the prism of three songs about sunglasses by ZZ Top, Cory Hart, and Timbuk3, respectively. Billy Gibbons has agreed to write a piece for it. I haven’t been able to get in contact with Cory Hart yet.

Q: After over three decades in the business, from your perspective, how has the music industry changed over that time? And how do you see the future?

patIt hasn’t changed nearly as much as I once thought it would. People are still playing real instruments, and the guitar still seems to hold dominion over rock. I’m amazed that people still pay for music at all, and that people still come to shows. I thought robots would have taken over completely by now. The future looks fascinating, if not exactly “bright.”

Q: You have co-written songs and collaborated with many other great artists. In what way did you collaborate with Stewart Copeland [of the Police] and how was that experience?

pat: Stewart and I wrote a few songs together. He was trying to come up with material for a Police reunion. One song was also written with Sting’s son. We also met with a playwright in New York City about co-writing the music for a play about Eleanor of Aquitaine. Stewart is great to work with, a real gent, and of course he’s also an icon to me.

Q: Tell us a little about the Steel Bridge Songfest. How and why did it get started and what is your involvement?

pat: Originally, it was to help my sister win the fight to save this old bridge from demolition [in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin]. Jackson Browne, an old friend, offered to help, and Steel Bridge Songfest was born. Out of that, sprang the Holiday Music Motel, a restored fifties motel where we bring musicians together to make collaborative works. It’s also a real motel, open to the public. An ambitious project, for sure, but it’s actually doing really well. The bridge has also been saved.

Q: Your most recent work was a self-released album, Purgatory Hill, in 2009. What else is pat mAcdonald up to now?

pat: Purgatory Hill is my main focus. I play a cigar box guitar/bass made by Johnny Lowebow from Memphis, TN. It’s the most amazing instrument I’ve ever played – sounds like a slide guitar and bass jamming together. It changed my life musically. My partner melaniejane adds everything else I wanna hear. She also books music for Steel Bridge Songfest and helps run the motel. We recorded the next Purgatory Hill release live in the motel. It’s called Purgatory Hilton.

I am so glad that pat took the time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. Please be sure to visit his official website to stay up to date on everything he is up to now. I want to take this opportunity to again thank pat mAcdonald for his contributions to '80s pop culture through Timbuk3 and, even more, for sharing his memories with us here as well. “Things are going great, and they’re only getting better.”

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