With a new EP out, and brain surgery behind him, life is good for bassist Kevin Chown
Kevin Chown has performed around the world with some of the best-known names in the music business, but at heart the Los Angeles-based bass player has never strayed far from his small-town roots.
Chown, 43, grew up in the small town of Escanaba, Michigan, on the shores of Lake Michigan, where his mother was a pianist, composer, church organist and teacher and his father – who still performs on his trumpet even though he is in his early 80s – was a conductor and band teacher at the local high school.
Kevin started his career at age 15, working professionally in the nightclubs and bars around town. Although his parents, two sisters and his brother were known for playing the music of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, Chown was in love with the rock and roll of Led Zeppelin, Rush and Van Halen. He spent every weekend in the live music hotspots of his hometown as well at locations across northern Michigan and Wisconsin, playing with the area’s best musicians, honing his craft and performing with people twice his age. As he sampled the life of a working musician, he was quickly hooked.
Chown moved to Detroit at age 18, a city where he could follow his bigger dreams and take advantage of all a musical hotbed like Motown had to offer. Although his initial focus was to study jazz at Wayne State University, from which he earned a degree in music, he never lost his connection to rock and roll, playing and touring with local luminaries such as Ted Nugent, Uncle Kracker, Martha Reeves and Little Anthony. This combination of the love of rock that he grew up with, together with the new knowledge and appreciation he had for jazz he learned in college are what led to Chown’s debut instrumental CD, “Freudian Slip,” released in 1996, when he was 25.
In 1997, Chown moved to the musical mecca of Los Angeles, Calif. For many years, he lived and worked in L.A. as one of the most in-demand session musicians in town, playing on other artists’ recordings, on TV and on movie soundtracks. He also continued to hit the road, touring with artists across America and the world, including a Japanese tour with Artension, performing as the bassist for an American USO tour, backing musicians while performing for the military in Iraq and Kuwait, and rocking the clubs in England and Germany with the band JKB, formed with his long-time pal Jeff Kollman.
But despite the success of his career, by 2005 Chown was starting to feel disconnected from the reasons he chose music in the first place. "I started performing because I loved being on stage and inspiring people to take a moment of their lives and enjoy the music, and forget all the hard times that life can hand you. It was my escape. There was a point where music was starting to feel like my job, and that was not why I started."
Chown again connected with Kollman, the Edwin Dare and JKB guitarist, cowriter and long time friend, to see what else they could do together. At the time, Chown was the music director of the "Royal Jelly" show at the famous Forty Deuce nightclub, and he brought his long-time cohort on board to perform in the show.
In 2007, Kollman reached out to another friend, Red Hot Chili Pepper drummer Chad Smith, to form a new instrumental group that could play funky rock. Smith felt Chown would be the perfect bass player. Along with keyboardist Ed Roth, Chad Smith’s Bombastic Meatbats was formed.
Chown’s relationship with the Meatbats’ most famous member is rooted in one of the things they have most in common: Detroit.
"The thing that Chad and I first talked about the first day we recorded together was not music, it was Detroit. We both still have friends and family there, started our careers there and feel connected to what it has to offer the world musically," he said.
The Meatbats have toured America and Japan and perform regularly in L.A. They have released three full-length CDs: 2008's "Meet the Meatbats,” 2010's "More Meat” (both on Warrior Records) and 2012's “Live Meat and Potatoes" on Marmaduke Records.
However the Bombastic Meatbats is not the only project that’s occupied Chown’s time.
"Back in 2009, I got a phone call from long-time friend Mike Terrana. Mike had moved to Europe in the late 1990s after I had produced his first solo CD. He was back in L.A. and was touring with Tarja. He invited me to the show, so I went and saw them in concert and had a great time. Mike is a great guy and has always been a great friend of mine. Early the next year, I got a call asking if I would be interested in touring with Tarja on her "What Lies Beneath" tour, and after I met with her and her husband, Marcelo, in Los Angeles, I accepted. The experience has been incredible (and) her fans have been so amazingly kind to me. I've toured around the world to over 60 nations, playing with some of the finest musicians in the world. I am the bassist on her 2012 DVD ‘Act 1,’ recorded on our last tour, and I appear on her new CD coming out later this year called ‘Colours in the Dark.’”
Being on the road with Tarja for nearly three years inspired Chown to reconnect with his biggest dream – to be an artist in his own right.
"Being on the road with Tarja reminded me of what an impact that music can have on people’s lives, just like I saw way back when I started doing this. It was inspirational to see,” he said. “For the tour, Tarja asked me to sing alongside her for the ‘Nightwish’ songs she is so famous for and still performs, so I was honored to become a lead singer for really the first time in my career.
“I had an idea one day that it was time for me to release a CD that was in the style of the music that had defined my life during the time of touring as her bassist – European rock. Ironically, it’s a style of music that is rooted in the same music I grew up with and was originally inspired by.”
Although he has played in other bands – Midwesterners with long memories may recall his association with rock bands like Tiles and Edwin Dare – this is his first effort as a leader.
“It’s fantastic to be able to do something that has my own name on it like this,” he said. “It’s time for me to evolve to the next level. It was time for me to release who I had become as an artist, and that’s what this is all about.”
Chown’s EP, "Light the Way," was released May 1, 2013. The music, rooted in the sounds of European rock, was inspired by the other famous artist with whom he has toured the world the last few years, Finnish singer Tarja Turunen.
“It has kind of a rock edge with a little orchestral influence and an inspirational lyrical structure,” he explained. “We wanted people to be inspired in a positive way. I wanted to have an inspirational quality for people to look at what life really means and to look at what we are capable of when we look out for not only our best interests, but the best interests of each other.”
He not only plays the bass on the EP, he makes his lead vocal debut and provides background vocals, keyboards, guitar and percussion. He also produced and engineered the EP and mixed it in his Los Angeles studio, The Groove Bubble.
“Light The Way” was recorded and mixed with additional production by long-time friends Jono Brown and Adam Gust on drums, Jeff Kollman and Jeffery Marshall on guitar and Marian Tomas Griffin on backing vocals. Chown was also joined by long-time friend Chris Herin, an artist he met working with the band Tiles back in the Detroit days who has recently worked with alongside famous progressive rock producer Terry Brown as the lyricist on "Ties That Bind.” "Alive" features not only Chown on lead vocals, but some of the greatest guitar playing that Chown has ever heard from Kollman.
A video clip for "We Light The Way" was filmed and edited by L.A.-based Dalen Muster, who Chown met while working together on a video for L.A. band Bleeding Harp's tune “Breaking Me Down.”
“On my new EP, there's four songs,” explained Chown. “I sing two myself, ‘Alive’ and ‘Ties That Bind.’ There’s one instrumental, ‘Fortified Bastions of Liberty,’ and my favorite song, ‘We Light the Way,’ which is in the style of the epic rock and roll that became such a huge part of my life as Tarja's bassist. The song co-features a killer singer I have known for many years named Angel Travis – she is just a great singer who, along with the other amazing musicians I recorded with, brought this song to a very high level.
“I am so lucky to have the friends I have as musicians,” Chown added. “When it was time for me to release my own EP, I had the great honor of featuring my friends who are among the best at what they do… Jeff Kollman, Angel, Adam, Jono, Jeff Marshall, Marian … are all amazing musicians and producers. It is my honor to have them appear on my own release.”
The disc is digitally available on iTunes and will also have a link to a video via Chown's YouTube channel.
Chown said he wanted the CD to express his feelings about being involved in rock and roll in a positive perspective.
“Something in rock and roll lifts us all up to a place where we not only can believe in ourselves, but in the message of the music. That’s kind of how all this started,” he explained. “It’s been a wonderful process working with all my different friends. I am such a lucky musician who has not only the most talented people you can ever imagine, but people who have the ability to make an artistic statement with what they do.
“I feel not only blessed by the life that I live as a musician but also by the talents of the many friends who are part of my life. And now, with the massive changes and improvements in my health I have been re-evaluating just how grateful we all should be for life. I am a lucky dude!”
Although Chown has been a professional musician almost his whole life, he readily admits the last few years have been particularly intense.
“It’s been a crazy,” he observed. “Not only have I performed in 60 different countries on the road (mostly backing Tarja), I got married in 2010 and became a stepfather, acquired an entire litter of dogs, built a house in Los Angeles, have driven three times across the country and I’ve had brain surgery. It’s been absolute and utter madness.”
Wait. Brain surgery?
Fans can rest assured that he’s fine now, but Chown has suffered from epilepsy since the early 1990s, when he was in his early 20s and living in Detroit, but he kept it under wraps. “I wanted people to identify with who I was as a musician and an artist at the time. I didn’t want people to identify with me as the one who had a medical condition,” he explained.
For years, as he traveled and performed worldwide, medication kept his symptoms under control. Meanwhile, he was managing a life in Los Angeles that he said was becoming more and more stressful.
After having a seizure at a Meatbats concert in the fall of 2012, and another one after that, everything changed. The word was out, and a nearly two-month long hospital stay at the Keck/University of Southern California Medical Center followed.
“For many years I thought that was the way it was always going to be,” he recalled of his condition. “But technology has come a long way and I think the doctors who are specializing in this now have the ability to use some pretty advanced technology to make a difference and to offer people the ability to potentially correct a huge problem in their lives.”
Some of that technology included surgically hard-wiring 56 electrodes into Chown’s brain. He moved into the intensive care until for a record-setting 24 days while the doctors waited for him to have the seizure needed to generate the data they needed to create a three-dimensional model of his brain. This data and model helped them to do the corrective brain surgery that was successful on May 2, 2013. After a few post-surgery days in the hospital, Chown, with his wife Sarah and his sister Amy keeping him company and lifting his spirits – was able to return home, relieved that the hardest thing that he had ever been through was finally in his past. There is a 80-90 percent chance he will never again suffer a seizure.
Chown said he has been blown away by the support that he has received.
"As I became public with my medical issues after over 20 years of living with it, when I first entered the hospital for my seizure studies, I didn’t know what to expect. But I must say, the unprecedented words of kindness that have flown my way, how people have been on my side, have supported me, have loved me unconditionally… its been a humbling experience that has changed my life forever. I never thought that facing my greatest fears would give me such strength and confidence in moving ahead with my future. I am a lucky, lucky man and I am so completely grateful for everyone that has shown me such kindness."
But now, he said, the show must go on.
“By the end of the year I’ll be back on the road, touring all over the world and doing my thing,” Chown observed, adding that he will probably still have to take medications to manage his condition. “I’ve got to take it day by day and figure it out,” he said, “and have a positive outlook for our family and what we want to do.”
Fans can rest assured that the release of “Light The Way” by no means ends his association with the Bombastic Meatbats.
“We’ll still do exactly what we’ve been doing, and taking it to the next level,” he promised. “We released a live DVD last year. We’re going to get together and work on our next record ... Chad’s been on the road with the Chili Peppers for the last couple of years. He’s just wrapping it up now … He’s not going to be on the road (with them) for a while so we’re probably going to start doing some shows again. We have just a tremendous amount of fun playing together. We play music for the reasons we originally started doing it in the first place – music can do everything from inspire us to make us laugh to challenge us to put us in front of people who actually inspire us to approach music in ways we’ve never approached it before. Not to mention, these guys are among the finest musicians in the world. It’s such an honor to play with them, not to mention fun.”
Chown said he is thankful for the way his musical journey has turned out so far. Still, he remains determined to eventually find a simpler life away from the pressures of a metropolis such as Los Angeles. His small-town upbringing will most likely figure into wherever he and his wife Sarah, plus stepson Tyler, eventually wind up.
He remembers fondly the slower pace of his native Upper Peninsula of Michigan – where he still spends 3-4 weeks every summer. “Life up there is so much more incredibly straightforward,” he said.
“There will be a point when it will be time for us to get the hell out of California. We both really like the simplicity of life, enjoying our dogs (they have three doted-upon golden retrievers), being with nature and having a good time with each other,” he said.
“We are excited to go to a place where waking up in the morning and making a damn good cup of coffee and throwing the ball to the dogs in the back yard – that’s what the goal of the day is. We’ll get there. We’re just starting the conversation. Eventually we are going to be living somewhere else, whether that’s in another country or another state.”
He pauses a moment, then adds, perhaps in jest, or perhaps not, “there’s always Tahiti.”