(This interview was originally published April 6, 2012 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 Trevor Steel. He is best remembered as the lead singer and guitarist for The Escape Club. They had five singles reach the Billboard Hot 100 including a big hit in the late-80s with “Wild Wild West” and then in the early-90s again with “I’ll Be There”. The band split up in 1992, but has partially reunited and released a new album in 2012. You will find out more about the band’s early success and biggest hit songs as well as what they are doing now as we get on to some selections from my interview with Trevor Steel…
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a professional musician?
Trevor: I knew I wanted to be a professional musician when I was still at school. I guess I thought of myself as a bit of a rebel in those days and affected an “alternative” pose like a lot of teenagers do. School and I didn’t get on very well. I didn’t want to work in an office or do anything else my teachers would have recommended. I just stupidly assumed that rock musician was a good career choice.
Q: Please discuss any of your personal musical influences and who molded and inspired the artist you were back in the 80s and have since become.
Trevor: I discovered David Bowie when I was still at school. He was my first influence. Then David Byrne and Talking Heads. I think these two influenced me the most as a lyricist.
Q: Please tell us a little about how and why The Escape Club came to be. How did you choose that name for the band?
Trevor: We got together after two other bands, the Expressos and Mad Shadows, disbanded [in 1982]. We’d all been on the London scene back then and the four of us joined together from the ashes of both bands. Really can’t remember how we got the name, given loads of stories over the years but I think like most bands, it was the only one that no one hated.
Trevor Steel and John Holliday (guitarist), former members of Mad Shadows, were joined by Johnnie Christo (bassist) and Milan Zekavica, former members of Expressos, and after almost a year of writing and rehearsing they played their first gig as The Escape Club in 1983. Despite some quality exposure, they would not be offered a record deal for several years.
Q: The band first signed with EMI in 1986. How did you end up with Atlantic and having break-out success there?
Trevor: EMI put out our first record [White Fields in 1986] but when we went to them with the second (Wild Wild West), the A&R man Nick Gatfield, said he “didn’t hear a hit.” He’s pretty high up in the music industry these days. Just goes to show you, they haven’t got a clue what they’re doing in the major labels. Atlantic bought the album from EMI, so that is how we ended up over there.
Q: You released Wild Wild West in 1988 and it was a huge success. Please take us back to when the lead single “Wild Wild West” was written and recorded. What is the back story about how that particular song was conceived and written?
Trevor: John had heard a Run-DMC track on the TV the previous night and rushed upstairs to put a hip-hop drum beat onto his drum machine. The journey to the drum machine doubled the speed though and when I came round to see him the next morning and started singing over it, it turned into “Wild Wild West”. I think we wrote that song in the space of two hours. It was originally going to be three minutes long and the extended section with the rap was only meant for the 12″ single. We loved it so much full length though that we put the whole thing out.
The Escape Club released their rock/dance hybrid album in the summer of 1988 and its first single caught attention very quickly. “Wild Wild West” raced up the U.S. charts and would reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100 the week of November 12, 1988. The single would also have some success in Australia, but surprisingly not in their homeland of the UK. In fact, this made The Escape Club the only British artist to have a #1 hit in America while never even charting in the UK. Here is the music video for “Wild Wild West” by The Escape Club…
Q: Please tell us about the meaning behind some of the lyrics and what message you were trying to convey with this fun song. (Living in the '80s, heading for the '90s, safe sex, waiting for the big boom, etc.)
Trevor: I guess it was just a reflection of the times, living in the '80s with all the yuppies getting rich quick and living under the fear of the Cold War and AIDS. The “Ronnie” in the song was a reference to Ronald Reagan.
Q: Did you have any feeling that the single was going to be something special or receive the response it did?
Trevor: Not really. We knew it was good but never knew it would catch on to the extent it did.
Q: What changed for you personally and for the band after this single’s success? Were you prepared for attention and all of the other things that came with a #1 hit?
Trevor: It was never a big hit in the UK where we came from so our first experience of having a hit was when we arrived in New York City to a #1 record. It was mind-blowing!
Q: Had you been to the U.S. prior to this song’s success here? What memories do you have from you initial visits to the country and your U.S. concert tour? How did you feel back then that you were having such incredible success overseas in the United States, but your home country was not showing you the same love?
Trevor: As mentioned, our first visit to the USA was to a #1 single. I’d never been there before but quickly fell in love with the country. It’s been very good to me over the years. I live in Australia now but visit the States regularly. We had a solid core of fans in the UK, still do, and they were great to play to so it never really bothered us too much about not making it so big over there. We could fill out the Marquee Club in London so that was good enough for us.
Q: When you have a mega hit song like that, do you (or did you) ever get sick of playing it?
Trevor: No – that song’s been good to me and helped me pay for my house. I’m happy to play it whenever asked!
Q: What are your feelings regarding “Wild Wild West” today almost 24 years later?
Trevor: It still stands up really well on radio which is great as it still gets played. I think it still works because we never fell into that 80s trap of using too much reverb and big snares.
Q: The video for “Wild Wild West” was pretty interesting with the mirror effect giving the illusion of disembodied arms and legs dancing. Do you know why the video was banned in the UK? Videos had become so important to a song’s success in the U.S. What are your thoughts on the impact that MTV had on your band’s success and music in the '80s in general?
Trevor: MTV was the biggest thing for us then. I’d say it was instrumental in breaking the band, much in the way as YouTube does it for bands these days. I can’t remember why the video was banned in the UK, I think some kids got scared looking at the disfigured legs. [The video was reportedly banned in the UK for being allegedly sexist and offensive, but not sure why.]
Q: In 1991, The Escape Club had another hit with “I’ll Be There”. Please take us back to when you wrote and recorded the song. What is the back story about how it was conceived and written? What inspired it? Did you write the lyrics and how long did that take? Any interesting facts or memories you can let us in on from creating this great song?
Trevor: When we were recording Dollars & Sex, our third album, everyone in the record company was on us to write a ballad as that was all that radio was playing from rock bands at the time. A friend of ours’ wife died while we were in Los Angeles recording. John had come up with some chords which he left with me one night when the rest of the band were going out partying. I wrote the lyrics and left them on a table. John says that he remembers coming in that night and “seeing them in a shaft of light”. I don’t know if that story has been exaggerated over time but that’s how it was written.
The Dollars & Sex album was released in March of 1991. Its first single, “Call It Poison”, peaked at #44 and failed to crack the Top 40. But the second single was a surprisingly different story. The very emotional and moving ballad “I’ll Be There” struck a chord with the listening audience. So much so that it would push the single all the way up to #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and eventually to be certified gold. If you didn’t know, it would be difficult to identify that this beautiful song is by the same band who performed “Wild Wild West”. It has become an anthem to many who have experienced losses of their own. Here is the music video for “I’ll Be There” by The Escape Club…
Q: Was this song’s success a little unexpected or did you have a feeling it would resonate with the audience? What are your feelings regarding “I’ll Be There” today over 20 years later? I imagine it has to be pretty cool having a song that has helped many people cope with loss.
Trevor: It has become a bit of a cult hit on YouTube these days. I think a lot of people know the song but don’t realize it’s us. It’s really nice to have touched so many people. We’ve done an updated version for our new album and put it up on iTunes. I prefer the new version.
Q: You worked with Peter Wolf as producer of your Dollars & Sex album. What can you tell us about Wolf and your experience working with him? Did he contribute anything in particular to “I’ll Be There”?
Trevor: Yes, he played the keyboard parts and was very patient in getting a vocal performance out of me. As I’m a producer myself these days, I appreciate what a hard job that is.
Q: What do you remember best about the decade of '80s music?
Trevor: The '80s was my time in the same way that every decade means something to different people. I loved being young, full of hope and belief but I guess that’s just about being young. I think the '80s had great songs, way more than you get these days. On my wall I have a disc with the Billboard chart for the week we went to # 1. That same week there was The Beach Boys, U2, Phil Collins, Bon Jovi, Whitney Houston, George Michael and INXS and that was just an ordinary week in the music charts. All substantial artists with some very big songs; the charts are nowhere near as rich these days.
Q: Why did The Escape Club split up in 1992? Did you ever regret that or was it just time to move on? Did you feel that you might reunite again down the road?
Trevor: We split up for the usual music biz reasons; we’d made a lot of people a lot of money but none of it seemed to find its way to us. Looking back on it, I wish we’d stayed together for one more album but we were contractually tied. John and I reformed the band last year and we’ve just put an album out with a friend of ours, Red Broad, on drums. It’s called Celebrity and I think it’s some of our best work.
Q: Please tell us a little about where your music career has taken you since that time. What are some of your proudest professional accomplishments?
Trevor: After the band split, John and I went on to be producer/songwriters based in the UK. We had a few hits there in the '90s, including three #1 singles. I emigrated to Australia nine years ago and started my own record label. I discovered a young band called Short Stack who have had two gold selling albums over here and are about to release their third. My proudest accomplishments to date are to have stayed in the music industry for so long and to have written and produced a few hits. I think the whole reason I do what I do is to reach people so I think I’ve at least managed to do that in a small way.
Q: As you mentioned, you reunited with John Holliday in 2009 and just released a new album in 2012. Why was it the right time to reunite and release new material by The Escape Club? What are your feelings regarding Celebrity? Please tell us a little about the album and who will like it.
Trevor: The album is written for our generation although, as John and I have been working in music since the band split up, we’ve been able to stay with the times on a production level. I love it, but then, of course, I would. One of the songs, “God’s Own Radio”, is getting some plays on AAA radio and people are giving us some good reviews on iTunes and our Facebook page.
Q: What else is Trevor Steel up to nowadays? Musically and otherwise? What can we expect in the future?
Trevor: Well, we think we may tour the States later on this year and I’m going to carry on writing and producing for other acts. I’ve also started writing a novel which I hope to get out by next year.
I am very happy that Trevor was able to take some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. You can find out more and keep up with The Escape Club at their official Escape Club Band website and at the band’s official Facebook page. I want to take this opportunity to again thank Trevor Steel for his contributions to '80s pop culture with The Escape Club and, even more, for taking a stroll down memory lane with us here for a little while as well.