(This interview was originally published May 13, 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 Marv Ross. He is a guitarist, songwriter and producer best remembered by '80s fans as a founding member of Quarterflash. In 1981, with his wife Rindy who was a vocalist and saxophonist, he formed the band which would go on to produce four albums resulting in more than 2 million records sold. This includes their award-winning platinum debut album, which featured the hit single, “Harden My Heart”. You will find out more about Marv and Rindy Ross, how Quarterflash came together and their big '80s hit single as we get on to some selections from my interview with Marv Ross…
Q: How did you & Rindy meet each other? Was there immediate chemistry between you? When did you start performing music together? How did Seafood Mama come about?
Marv: Rindy and I met as juniors at Madison High School in Portland, Oregon. Yes, there was a mutual attraction and we started dating soon after we met. We didn’t perform together until over a year after we met. We were 18 when we played our first “gig” together as an acoustic duo. Seafood Mama was our 3rd band and we put that group together in 1977. We had known the bass player (Blaine Moody) and drummer (Morrie Woodruff) from previous bands and the fiddler (Bruce Sweetman) was my violin teacher.
Q: When and how did Seafood Mama evolve into Quarterflash? How and why was that name chosen for the group? What were your expectations and goals when you started out?
Marv: Seafood Mama broke up in 1980. Rindy and I started working on the first Quarterflash album without a band or a band name. It was just the two of us with Los Angeles studio musicians. The album took almost a year to record and during that time we found the other musicians (Jack, Brian, Rich, Rick) all playing together in a North West band called, “Pilot”. We got the name Quarterflash from a book about early Australian slang phrases. In the early 1900’s, Australians would refer to newcomers to the country as being “one quarter flash and three parts stupid”. Our goal was to make the best record we could. We didn’t know what to expect, honestly.
Q: Please take us back to when “Harden My Heart” was conceived and written. What is the back story and what inspired the song? How long did it take to write? What is the intended meaning behind the song? Was it personal at all?
Marv: A friend of mine gave me the title. I came up with the lyrics very quickly. The title came first and I don’t really remember how the rest came about. I usually write the music and words simultaneously. It wasn’t a personal story – just made it up. The chords are simple but voiced so as to make it sound more complex than it is. The whole song is really the groove which we called a shuffle in those days. Rindy came up with the sax line. The whole thing was written in less than a week and recorded in our basement for the Seafood Mama version. It sold 10,000 copies in Portland and Seattle and was the key to us getting signed to Geffen records.
Q: When you first recorded it in 1980, did you feel you had something special? How did it feel when you first heard it on the local Portland radio?
Marv: We thought it sounded like a hit song, but you never know, of course. It was very fun to hear it on the radio – we’d always turn it up when it came on.
Q: How did this initial exposure lead to Quarterflash getting signed to Geffen Records?
Marv: “Harden My Heart”, “Find Another Fool”, and “Right Kind of Love” were all on our demo that Geffen and other labels got from our manager. I think the combined strength of all those tunes led us to getting signed, but certainly the local success of “Harden” was the key.
Q: A re-recorded “Harden My Heart” was included on your debut album in released in 1981. What was changed, if anything, on this re-recorded version?
Marv: My guitar solo was changed (for the better, I believe), but that was the only thing really changed. Of course, it was recorded at the Record Plant in L.A. instead of in our basement in Portland, so the sounds of everything were better (drums, bass, etc.)
Quarterflash released their self-titled debut album in October of 1981. In less than a year, the album would be certified platinum selling over a million copies. This was achieved on the strength of “Harden My Heart” which would reach #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January of 1982 and hit #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart as well. The song was written by Marv Ross and features the vocals and saxophone of Rindy Ross. The lyrics describe a situation where the singer finds strength to leave her man and is determined to do it without getting all emotional. The album also included the single “Find Another Fool” which would later reach #16 on the Billboard Hot 100. Here is the video for “Harden My Heart” by Quarterflash…
Q: It is surprising to many that in addition to the lead vocals, it is Rindy who provides the outstanding saxophone in this song. It is unusual to see a lead singer (especially female) who also plays the saxophone. I’m interested to find out how you write the sax into your songs. When writing the song, do you plan on putting the sax in it right from the start?
Marv: The sax parts usually come last. Sometimes I have a vague idea of a melody that Rindy refines, but usually it’s her creation, her melody. She has a gift for coming up with hooky, powerful sax lines.
Marv: I don’t know why it is not featured anymore; it is such a cool sound. And yes, the '80s had so many great sax riffs. I think Rindy was influenced most by Clarence Clemons with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, but she had been playing for years. I think Clarence played tenor lines that were not jazzy, but simple and emotional and rock. That’s what Rindy did, too.
Q: The single would reach #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and become one of the most popular songs of 1981. Could you have ever anticipated the success it would end up having? What changed for you personally and for Quarterflash after the huge success of this single?
Marv: We knew it had a good chance because it was a regional hit. We did not anticipate it being such a big hit. We got lots of publicity, TV shows, great tours like with Elton John, and a nice “bump” in our income.
Q: When you have a mega hit song like that, do you (or did you) ever get sick of playing it?
Marv: No, we do not. We like the song and people love hearing it.
Q: What are your feelings about “Harden My Heart” today 30 years later?
Marv: I feel so lucky to have had a hit song that everyone knows.
Q: The music video for “Harden My Heart” includes many random images. This was a time when music videos were just becoming mainstream. How was the concept for the video developed? Do the images signify anything or have any symbolic meaning in particular or are they just random interesting images?
: Well, it wasn’t developed. It was a Fellini-esque concept that the director (whose name I forget) just sort of “winged” in half a day with a very small budget. They were just random weird images. Rindy hated it, but I thought it had “moments”.
Q: Your video received frequent airplay on MTV being released the same year that MTV went on air. What are your thoughts on the impact that MTV had on music in the '80s?
Marv: It changed everything and the artists like Michael Jackson and Madonna who had great videos became the biggest stars in that era for better or worse.
Q: Please discuss the circumstances surrounding getting dropped by your label and disbanding in 1985. At the time, did you feel like you would ever perform and record as Quarterflash again?
Marv: The circumstances were that Geffen wanted us to be a Top 40 singles band and we were looking for new directions to explore. We wanted off the label and they let us go. The band breaking up had nothing to do with the label switch. There were personal artistic differences within the group that led to the split. I thought we might be done, but Rindy believed in the group and rallied us to keep going.
Q: Some '80s pop superstars “run away” from the '80s and some embrace the success and fans from that decade. (If at all) How do you personally deal with and keep the '80s alive and in perspective?
Marv: I’m happy for the success we had in that decade and thankful for all our fans. Our music evolved and changed and so we went on to record music that does not sound like that era, of course. When we play in concert now, we do at least half the material from that time.
Q: I have to ask you about being married and working together like you do. Has this ever been a challenge? Has it gotten easier or harder over the years? Are your accomplishments even sweeter since you shared the experiences and conquered them together?
Marv: Yes, naturally there have been challenges. It has gotten easier over the years, for sure. It’s helpful to have someone go through the good and band with you – someone who understands what you are going through and can relate to the highs and lows.
Q: It certainly is unusual (and admirable) for a couple like you to make it work for so long. If you don’t mind me asking, what is the secret to maintaining both your professional and personal relationship at the same time?
Marv: We keep them separate and that’s the key. We fell in love and dated for nearly two years before we played professionally together, so the relationship came first and will always remain so.
Q: After over three decades in the business, from your perspective, how has the music industry changed over that time? How do you see the future?
Marv: The music industry is “in the tank” right now and I thank my lucky stars that I'm not in my twenties today trying to make it in the biz. I think the internet has hurt musicians as much as helped. The industry needs passionate driven young artists that are not from the American Idol mold. They are out there, but it is harder to find an audience and a platform for new music.
Q: How have your priorities changed over the years compared to back in the '80s? How has this affected your music, if at all?
Marv: Well, I’m not concerned with what my label thinks. These days, it’s really about writing the best songs we can and finding the gigs that will be the most fun. It has freed me to write in any style about any thing.
In 1991, Marv and Rindy formed Ross Productions to create music for North West audiences. Their first project was a commission from the state of Oregon to produce a musical based on diaries of immigrants on the Oregon Trail. From that project came The Trail Band and nine CDs of traditional Americana music. You can find out more about them at the official website: Trailband.com Also, the Rosses gained a deep interest in Native American music and Marv began to write his second play, “The Ghosts of Celilo” (pronounced Suh-Lie-Low), a Broadway-styled musical featuring Native American music and culture. You can find out more about that project at GhostsofCelilo.com.
Q: Quarterflash released a new album, Goodbye Uncle Buzz, in 2008. What are your feelings regarding this album?
Marv: I love this record, but it is a dark collection of songs. This was us exploring our families growing up and we both had some pretty dark times. It was kinda like therapy for us creating that CD.
Q: Can we continue to expect more new music from Quarterflash? What inspires you to continue writing and recording new music after all these years? Where do you feel that Quarterflash fits within the contemporary musical landscape?
Marv: Yes, we are working on a new batch of tunes right now. I love the process and it’s still a thrill to hear a song develop and played back through speakers in a good studio. Not sure we do [fit in the contemporary landscape], but there are a lot of folks not that different from us and if we write what we feel, chances are other folks will feel it, too.
I am very happy that Marv took some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. You can stay up to date with Quarterflash at the official website Quarterflash.net. I want to take this opportunity to again thank Marv and Rindy Ross for their contributions to '80s pop culture especially with Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart” and, even more, for taking a walk down memory lane with us here as well.