Fee Waybill Talks Co-Writing With Richard Marx For ‘Fee Waybill Rides Again’

It’s been quite a while since fans heard new material from Fee Waybill, the charismatic frontman for the long-running rock band The Tubes. That group’s last album of new material, Genius of America, came out in 1996 – the same year that Waybill put out his last solo album, Don’t Be Scared by These Hands. But, on May 19th, he finally released another solo album, Fee Waybill Rides Again.

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Calling from his California home, Waybill explains that this new album has been in the works for seven years. It took this long to complete because he co-wrote it with Richard Marx, which meant they had to work around both of their busy schedules. But, Waybill says, he was happy to do things this way in order to collaborate with Marx. “We’re very close, Richard and I, and have been for years,” he says. “He is such a great writer and producer.”

Typically, Waybill says, his songwriting process with Marx is, “He’ll send me an email or a text that has a track on it, and he’ll say, ‘Here’s the song, it kind of goes like this.’ He’ll play the track on an acoustic guitar and he’ll sing ‘la la la’ kind of lyrics with it.” Then, in order to write his part, Waybill says he’ll “play it a thousand times, and then it just comes to me: ‘Okay, this is a happy song, or ‘This is a sad song’ or ‘This is a relationship song’ or ‘This is a rant about society song.’”  Listeners get a glimpse into their method on the track “Don’t Want to Pull the Trigger,” which starts with a snippet of Marx’s original demo.

Waybill co-wrote eight of the album’s nine songs with Marx. The only track they didn’t compose together, “Still You on the Inside,” was one that Marx originally wrote for himself. But, Waybill says, “When we started doing my record, I said, ‘I want to sing this song, too. I love [it]. It sounds like a country western song.’ It really struck a note in me.”

It’s not as incongruous for Waybill to do a country song as some people may think. “That’s my roots,” he says. “I grew up in Arizona. My family was into horses. My dad was a riding instructor. I dropped out of college and worked as a cowboy on a cattle ranch back in 1968, ‘69. I was a hippie. I had long hair. Everybody thought, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ But I had grown up on a horse and I could ride the range. It was great.”

Waybill says he had no inkling then that he’d ever become a professional singer – even though he grew up in a very musical family in Scottsdale, Arizona. “My mother was actually a singer. Before she got married, she lived in Omaha, Nebraska, and she used to sing with big bands that came to town. So we were always singing in our house. There was always music playing. We used to listen to show tunes and opera and all kinds of stuff.” At this time, Waybill showed the first sign that he’d become a songwriter one day: “It’s funny, when The Beatles first came out, I used to rewrite the lyrics to their songs. Just for myself.”

In high school, Waybill took another important step in his evolution into becoming a performer when he began singing in musical comedies. He enjoyed acting so much that he has continued to do it ever since (his first notable role was playing a rock singer in the 1980 film Xanadu, but now he focuses on theater work). He says acting helped him become good at memorization, which is useful in his musical career: “It’s easy for me to remember lyrics.”

Despite showing such aptitude for performing during his early years, Waybill says he’d switched to becoming a spectator at shows by the time he was working on the ranch. He’d often go to see his friends Roger Steen and Prairie Prince perform with their band, and it was that friendship that finally led Waybill into a music business career.

“Out of the clear blue sky, [Steen and Prince] said, ‘We’re going to move to San Francisco because Prairie got a scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute. Do you want to drive the [moving] truck?’” At that point, Waybill says, “I had been a cowboy for a couple of years, and I loved it, but I was getting pretty tired of making $50 a month. So I said, ‘You know what? I’m in.’”

Once they arrived in San Francisco, they rented a house together, where the band rehearsed in the garage and Waybill worked as their roadie. When lineup changes created an opening for a backup singer, Waybill began joining their practice sessions. He says it felt like an easy fit, thanks to his musical theater background and familiarity with the group’s material. “I had heard their songs for so many years,” he says.

However, his new bandmates didn’t initially appreciate Waybill’s contributions to this early version of The Tubes. As Waybill recalls with a laugh, “They kept saying, ‘You sing too loud! Stop!’” Finally, it became clear that Waybill would be better suited to the lead singer role.

Even though Waybill turned out to be a natural frontman, he shied away from doing more than singing in the band’s early years, though. “The first Tubes album [1975’s The Tubes], I didn’t write a note or a word. I was not a songwriter,” he says. There were a couple of songs where all the members are listed as songwriters, “but it was only because we were a bunch of hippies and we wanted everybody to get a little piece. But I actually had no real writing credit on it.”

Things went the same way with their second album, Young and Rich (1976). But by their third release, 1977’s Now, Waybill was ready to contribute as a songwriter – and he has continued in that capacity ever since. The band went on to enjoy enormous success with their albums The Completion Backwards Principle (1981) and Outside Inside (1983), which contained the massive hits “Talk to Ya Later” and “She’s a Beauty,” respectively.

Waybill says he and the other members of The Tubes are currently writing songs for a new album, but he is realistic about how fans’ nostalgia will always be a factor at any shows they play from now on. “People grow up listening to you. People pay money, they want to come to see and hear those songs,” he says. “You’ve got to give them what they want, and I’m happy to do that.” He says he’s sung the hits “a thousand times. but every time, I love it because you see people’s faces, you see the joy in their eyes when we play [them].”

Still, as Waybill contemplates Fee Waybill Rides Again, he says, “I hope, down the road, that people will get the same kind of joy from my new songs. That’s my purpose: bringing joy.”

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