The first song Kevin Bacon wrote used the first three chords he learned on guitar. Ever since, partnering with his brother Michael, in the band The Bacon Brothers, Kevin has been growing, learning, and maturing as a songwriter. For someone who reads scripts all the time, Kevin never much considered himself a “writer,” indeed such is the case of many burgeoning artists—it can be hard to own that which you aspire to be, even if you’re there already. But now, some few decades into their partnership, the Bacon Brothers are making excellent music together—even if they’re never sure if or where the next song might come from. Part-unspeakable chemistry, part-tension through creativity, the duo is set to release its latest album, an EP called Erato, on July 8, which demonstrates how far they’ve come together and gives a window into perhaps the next generation of Bacon boys making music for the world.
Videos by American Songwriter
“I can play more chords,” says Kevin, highlighting his development as a musician and guitar player, thanks, in part, to Michael’s tutelage. “I say that sort of joking and sort of not joking. The first song I wrote, I used the first three chords I knew. And now I don’t feel constrained by that anymore.”
This growth “feels good,” says the acclaimed 63-year-old actor-turned-musician. For Kevin, life isn’t about looking backward. He says he’s not one to have much of a “rearview mirror,” so looking ahead remains paramount for his creative output and energy. He looks down the proverbial road, wondering about the next song, the next record. It’s what helped him and Michael write their debut album, Forosoco, in 1997, and then continue on, writing nine more records of original music.
“That’s something I’m really proud of,” Kevin says. “I do think the songwriting has grown, I think that the lyrics have gotten better and the music has gotten really interesting. I feel really happy about the new stuff.”
“I think the thing that we have,” says the 72-year-old Michael, “is an enormous amount of respect for each other’s songwriting. I wouldn’t be in a band with anybody if I didn’t think they were a great musician or songwriter… A lot of stuff goes into [being in a band with someone]. And it requires an enormous amount of trust. When you’re with your bother, that’s a given. There aren’t too many relationships like that.”
Family is a hard thing to navigate. Some don’t get along with their family, others are close but compete endlessly with their siblings. For Kevin and Michael, though, their connection through art is therapeutic. Both use the word when describing their relationship to collaboration together over the past 27 years. They each truly care about song. For Michael, music is a way of life. He’s a professor of music at a CUNY school in the Bronx. He’s scored films and worked in Nashville as an artist. For Kevin, who considers himself a “professional pretender” in his job as an actor, the music, even more than the role he plays, showcases who he is. There is nowhere to hide. Yet, the two are also different in how they approach songs.
“My joke is that if you look on a menu—I can look on that menu and pick the one thing in my wildest dreams that I wouldn’t order and that’s what my brother would order,” Kevin says. “That tells you everything right there. But there is a shared experience, even vocally. Our voices sound very different but when you put them together, there’s a blend. When he looks at a song, he thinks about harmony and melody and when I think about a song, I think about rhythm and speed and the more percussive nature of the lyrics. I think about it a little harder and he thinks a bit more romantically.”
But though they work so well together, there is still always artistic trepidation.
“Songwriting terrifies me,” says Kevin. “And the reason it terrifies me is because every time I write a song, I figure it’s the last one I’ll write. But I have to say, when you do take it from soup to nuts and you really feel like, ‘Okay this is done, this feels like the song,’ that’s a really fun and satisfying feeling.”
The duo’s new EP is American rock first and foremost. It’s rollicking and it’s acoustic and electric, it’s touching and guttural, even. But the standout track is the EP’s final one, “Karaoke Town,” which Kevin put together with the help of his son, Travis. For Kevin, a good piece of art comes with connecting to it emotionally. In this way, his acting career has helped to inform his musical one. And perhaps nowhere did that make itself evident than when he worked to record “Karaoke Town” with his son.
“I wrote it about my kids,” Kevin says. “The first verse is about my daughter, the second verse is about my son.”
Both kids were raised in New York but later moved (to Kevin’s surprise) to California as adults. When he wrote “Karaoke Town,” it had a folky, almost Neil Young feel, he says. But he knew it needed some more oomph, a bit of a different direction, sonically. So he took it to Travis, who is a fan of heavy metal. In fact, one of Travis’ heroes is Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. Kevin sent Travis the track and he immediately started to build it up with hefty-though-subtle instrumentation, almost how Reznor sounded on, say, The Social Network soundtrack. Travis added a touch of darkness to the composition. Then, when Kevin went into the studio in Los Angeles with his son, he took direction on the vocal performance.
“Imagine being in the booth and having your son give you pointers on your vocal,” Kevin says. “Like, ‘You don’t have it yet! You haven’t quite gotten it, do another take!’ It was great.”
While Kevin writes music with his gut and ear, Michael does so with his mind and background as a trained musician. With his students, he tells them to find what’s most unique about themselves as artists and to dig into that. With his own music, he’s an expert on structure and theory. He can read music, Kevin can’t. Michael is devoted to the art form, happy if he writes a couple of excellent tunes a year.
“It’s got to be about the song,” Michael says.
Looking ahead, the brothers have tours coming up on both U.S. coasts. And, of course, they’ll be writing more. They already have new songs in the bag that they’ll likely release at a later time, including two tracks about cars (someone tell Pixar). They’re looking forward to playing with their great band of versatile players. Truly, when they’re together, it’s about the music.
“It’s dominated my life,” Michael says. “And I feel very fortunate.”
“I love the fact that usually when people are playing music, nobody gets hurt,” Kevin says. “Well, except for the Sex Pistols.”
Photo by Charles Chessler