Chatting Via Satellite and Friends with rock legends The Rembrandts

In my very exciting journalistic career, I have had the pleasure to interview Phil Solem. This name might not ring a bell but you certainly know his work. He is the co-founder of the band The Rembrandts, the pop-rock duo of multi-instrumentalists and songwriters (Phil Solem and Danny Wilde) who co-wrote the effervescent hit TV song, I’ll Be There For Youin the early 90’s for global phenomena sitcom Friends. There are probably very few people on the planet who can’t sing the chorus, a pleasant ear worm that harks back to happy times of the long running series and multiple re runs! For Phil Solem and Danny Wilde, that song is just one small chapter in a friendship and creative relationship spanning four decades, two bands, four studio albums, two greatest hits records, and a catalogue brimming with smart, well-wrought pop gems.

These talented musicians only put out things that have a timeless quality, and their latest album Via Satellite, the first Rembrandts’ studio album in 18 years, is a perfect example of that. The meticulous, guitar-driven songs explore every nook and cranny of the contemporary pop continuum. “How Far Would You Go”i s jangly rock singed lightly with ’60s psychedelia; “Broken Toy” hews towards dizzying power-pop with hollering vocals awash in emotional grit; and “Come to California”is electrified roadhouse blues-rock burnished by glam-soul detailing. Anchoring these songs are Solem and Wilde’s harmonies, which are imploring and tender on the twangy “Count On You”; Beatles-esque on the jaunty “Me And Fate”; and graceful spirals on the chiming mid tempo ballad “Now”.

Via Satellite‘s lyrics are certainly clear-eyed about life’s ebbs and flows—including romantic breakdowns, changes of geographical scenery, unexpected emotional fissures—and the leaps of faith people take in order to pursue happiness. As always, words come courtesy of both Solem and Wilde. The former penned the melancholy “Broken Toy”the lyrical contributions an observational take on the end of a relationship: “Most of the other stuff coming out of me was just how I look at the world” says Solem & Wilde concurs… “Phil’s a quirky guy—he’s the guy that comes up with the crazy lyrics and, you know, borderline genius stuff. I’m more the romantic in the band, and I write more relationship stuff. It’s just my comfort zone. He helps me with that, and I help him with that, and then we come up with a Rembrandts song.”

Via Satellite is out on 23rdAugust 2019. It is already my favourite album of this Summer. Enjoy the full interview here.

Monica:      Why did you call the band The Rembrandts?

Phil Solem: It’s funny because that name wasn’t necessarily on a list of names to use, but I used to have a band that was kind of my backup-band prior to Danny and I getting together for this whole thing. I was trying to find a name for them so I could be Phil Solem and the whatever it was. The guys had never liked any of the names I came up with. Whenever they’d come up with one, it was a complete failure. They were terrible. None of us could agree on anything. And then finally one day I happened to be walking down the staircase into the rehearsal studio where they all were standing. I passed under this light bulb that was kind of hanging over. As soon as I got under the light bulb, it was like the idea that comes on in your head. Literally, the words The Rembrandts. I said, “What about The Rembrandts?”

Monica:      Brilliant. Always the most spontaneous things. And random.

Phil Solem: Yeah. It was a very literal idea like the light bulb going off in your head. That’s what had happened. I didn’t think of it prior to that. After that, I thought, “Well, that should have been an idea on my list in the first place.” The funny thing is that band didn’t last terribly long. We played around for about a year, and then Danny and I decided to get together and work on some music. When we figured that it was really impossible for us not to go out and do something as a duo, we had to come up with a name for it. And we had these lists. I kept churning names out, and he was like, “I don’t know.” He had a new names. Most of the ones that he had were like people’s names, maybe family names, and he said, “Let’s not use our … ” For a while, he wanted to call us Solem and Wilde. He was like, “Well, we need something more mysterious than that.” So, he thought of the Andersons and several names like that. It was family names. Whenever I would even agree on any of those things, he’d say, “Really what we should call it is The Rembrandts.” So it stayed.

Monica:      It’s a great name. I like it.

Phil Solem: Backup band for too long. I’m kind of walking away from that. “Everybody I know says that’s the best name, so I think we should use it.” So we did. You know how Rembrandt is an actual man’s given name, so you wouldn’t think of it in plural, and you certainly wouldn’t think of it as a family name. Rembrandt’s family name.

Monica:      Have you ever seen one of his exhibitions or paintings?

Phil Solem: Oh, yeah. We’ve been to the museum in Amsterdam. And with the television cameras on us while we were going around there.

Monica:      Oh, really? That’s very cool.

Phil Solem:They had to make a big deal about it. So, we’ve never had a chance to just stand there in front of the paintings for any given amount of time, but I’m looking forward to doing that some time.

Monica:      In disguise, maybe. You should buy one of those hats that Rembrandt used to wear. It can’t be worse than during the years when you wrote the song for Friends, at the peak of the fame for The Rembrandts. Talking about that, Friends is the sitcom that people like me have watched over and over. Not just once, the whole series, but over and over again. So, your song is so truly iconic. How has this huge fame for you influenced your music making from that moment? It must have been mind-blowing…

 

“Broken Toy” lyric video

 

Phil Solem: It was pretty mind-blowing because that was sort of a side-project. We didn’t intend to use that as a released song. It was strictly for the TV show because the album that we were finishing up at that time and just about ready to release was kind of a darker sounding record with a lot more kind of rock in it than our first two albums we had done. And those were very sort of poppy in a way, but yet kind of … We explored various musical avenues, but this particular song, we wrote that with the music director of the Friends show. We had to put our heads together like, “How is this going to come off?” Obviously, they wanted something very happy and positive vibes.  Meanwhile, the material on our about-to-come-out album was not so much that. It was a bit on the other end of the spectrum mood-wise. But our record company, when the show started taking off insisted that we included that song and that we actually finished writing it into an entire song because at the time it was only 42 seconds long. A verse and a chorus. So, they said, “You’ve got to make this into a full pop song, and we’re going to put it on your record. If you don’t let us do that, we could drop you.”

Monica:      Oh, wow. Imagine that.

Phil Solem: So, carrying on the moment, he had us like, “So, you want us to put this thing that’s completely opposite of the vibe of the album that we’re putting out?” Well, we managed to get them to put it on the end of the album as sort of a mystery track. That was plan A, and then it turned out that it just exploded. I mean, it already had exploded. There was a DJs-playing-looped version of the TV theme song all over the place. It was undeniable that it was already a hit, so they got it on the record, and then I guess they had to recall a hundred thousand copies or something that they had first put out with stickers on them saying this song was on there. After that, the next reprint of it, they started putting them out with the song actually listed. We couldn’t deny it. At first, for us, it made everything else that we had done on that record almost invisible in comparison. We had wanted to follow it up with other singles and everything, but that song would not go away. And that’s 25 years ago.

Monica:      Yeah, but if you think about it, this song has been played during every episode for 10 years almost every day or every week, many, many times. The series became so iconic. It was good. It is still good. And now it has been passed on DVD series, and then they bring them out on streaming media. It’s been so good, and the song plays before every single episode, so it’s undeniable this is one of the most heard songs by anybody at any given time in the last 25 years. It’s liked even by the new generations … My son is 13, and he loves Friends too. Now, he’s been watching it, and he listens to this every day as well. Every time the song starts, he’s like, “Oh, Friends is on TV.” So, this is the most recognisable song ever. For me, having watched the series when it came on television first 25 years ago, it’s associated to some of the funniest moments of my life. I even used this song to edit the movie of my friend’s wedding because I took some videos of friends talking, and on the back of that, I used this song. No copyright, right? Okay, well. It was their wedding video, and they loved it because I made them pose behind a fountain and stuff like that. It was quite cool. I’m sure people have similar stories about that. This song has become the song of our generation. Many generations, I think.

Phil Solem: Well, it was one of those things-

Monica:      Thanks to you.

Phil Solem: I’m so glad to hear that you appreciate it.

Monica:      I’m not the only one, trust me. So many people have. Thank you for this song.

Phil Solem: At this point in our lives, we’re just super glad that you get it. As I was about it say, at the time, in the music industry, that was not a thing that was cool to do. Our peers made fun of us, and then they turned right around and tried to do it themselves. After they found out that this was the way to make yourself be known.

Monica:      Oh, wow. It’s a good song.

Phil Solem:We got a lot of crap for that at the time, and then here it is 25 years later and it’s a song everybody knows immediately.

Monica:      Exactly. This is what counts really. Now people say the music from the ’80s was kitsch, but everything that’s been done then, now they’re trying to emulate it because it was so iconic whether it was cheesy music or disco. Now they wish they had such hits as we had in the ’80s and ’90s that are now so iconic. Whatever came out of those years, it was good stuff and we have good memories attached to every song that we still play. I don’t believe anything is trash if you have good memories attached to that.

Phil Solem:That’s how it is in this society, in general. People pick their favourite type of thing, and then they have to make it seem like that’s the best thing there is, and if you don’t like it, then I’ll never understand. But then those things kind of cross over, and it seems like all the various things that were considered trashy or a fluke, when you hear them in the future, it’s like, “You know what, that’s actually pretty cool.” We never seem to have any problem with a particular song. Maybe there’s two or three people in the world that don’t like it, but they’re not coming anywhere near me, I hope.

Monica:      ‘I’ll be there for you’ will remain the anthem of an era. Anyway, despite saying all of this, a few years ago, Jennifer Aniston revealed that the Friends’ cast were not big fans of this song after all.

Phil Solem:That was a little bit of a weird thing because we were pretty gung-ho backing up the concept of this show. We had all sorts of promotional things that we did that included the show vibe. We had to do a video … I thought everybody was pretty enthusiastic about it. But, yeah, when she said that about the song, I have a feeling it was after we had done some press and people had asked her a number of questions. All consuming, we didn’t get a chance to spend a day without talking mostly about Friends. We were trying to promote our new album at the time, and all people wanted to talk about was Friends. So, that was kind of rubbing against us. I think I might have said a couple of things in the press, and it’s like, “Well, it’s not like we’re all about doing anything for the show. We’re our own thing.” I have a feeling that she saw the article and reacted like so.

Monica:      Ah, okay. I get that.

Phil Solem: So, yeah, there was just a bit weird.

Monica:      Almost like a retaliation on the comments.

Phil Solem: Ah. It felt like that.

Monica:      Oh, well. The show was good, the music was good. It was all good actually. But let’s put that aside because I like the genre of your music anyway apart from Friends. How would you define your music genre? At some points, your new album especially, reminds me a little bit of the Eagles. Is that intentional?

Phil Solem:No. The Eagles have written some awesome material. I feel it probably runs off of things that I do, and I’m sure Danny can appreciate that. We don’t really have anything that we go out and try to imitate. We think of our genre as melodic and kind of good-feeling in a way.

Monica:      Yeah that’s true.

Phil Solem: It’s song-oriented material. We don’t put things out to specifically be dance stuff. I guess our agenda is that we are song writers, and anything from troubadours back in the 1300s to what we have now, anybody who has a guitar and sings a song, if it fits into that, I guess that’s kind of what we’re all about. But there is a certain vibe that we have musically, harmonically. All those things that add up to what a Rembrandts’ song is. You can certainly write all sorts of other songs, but then they probably wouldn’t fit into what we do as a team.

Monica:      What’s the inspiration behind the new album Via Satellite?

Phil Solem:It’s called via Satellite because we did a lot of the tracking of this record over time, and we did it from long-distance because we live 2,000 miles apart. So, when we’d get new ideas, we’d send them to each other via satellite, really. However, it’s moving at this point, it’s just cable or whatever, but it’s how we send messages transmitted through space and down into the next one of us receiving that information, and then we play along with those tracks or sing along or whatever it is. We do a lot of the material that way. And then eventually we get together in one of our towns and actually finish up the recordings and stuff like that. But there were times where it was very outer space. It would go to space before it would get to the other guy.

Monica:      That’s cool. I like this story. My favourite song, especially the lyrics of this song, is Me and Fate. You talk about going through thick and thin. I really like that song. It’s got something that appeals to me so much because people dedicate songs to people, lovers and whatever or what else, but this one is Me and Fate. Is that almost like talking to fate and destiny? It’s very good and very original. How did you come up with this? This is so inspirational.

Phil Solem:I’m happy to hear that. Thank you. Well, I must say it’s like a buddy song. We all have to deal with fate, right? So, instead of dreading fate, maybe we should just be pals. You know how the spectre of death has sort of a character? You’ve got your grim reaper, and let’s see, maybe upon New Year’s, you’ve got the old man who’s the last year and then the young baby comes in, and that’s the characterisation for a new year. I just took that same concept, and without thinking about it too much, I just wrote a song that is kind of a travelling buddies … Danny as well because we have such a long history together, and it is kind of fateful how we met. It was impossible not to do what we do. As much as maybe we’ve even tried to not make it happen, it just happened. So, it feels like sort of a destiny that we have to deal with. So I apply it to that, and then it’s really just a way of looking at it.

Monica:      I like it even more now with this little story. This is brilliant. It’s a genius idea. And the song is very good. I like finding out about stories behind the songs. That makes it a lot more meaningful to the listeners and people.

Phil Solem:You are the ultimate audience for us. We want people that like to hear it and think about it and actually stimulate their mind because most music, it seems to me nowadays, it just kind of goes in one ear and comes out the other.

 

Monica:      But first of all, I belong to a different generation like you, more or less, your generation. Secondly, also I am a bit of a musician myself. I play in a rock band. It’s just all local and amateur and fun, so I listen to music in a different way maybe from the majority of people. Also young people just listen to music and sometimes it just comes from one ear and goes out the other way and they haven’t even listened to the song properly. It’s just a bit shallow. For me, music comes in and stays in forever which is great.

Phil Solem: Yeah, well, that’s the idea. We want to have stuff that means something and sticks with you and isn’t like fast food. Our songs, when we put an album out, is like a meal.

Monica:      I like that. That’s why I like your music. It’s like meal. It stays with you and you can think about it especially the lyrics. Real meaningful lyrics make such difference.

Phil Solem: It’s important to us, guys.

Monica:      Yeah, and for me as well. I want to listen to lyrics that mean something and inspire me. This song Me and Fate, in particular, really inspires me. Thank you for that.

Phil Solem: We are really pumped to hear that. I’ll tell you there’s this funny thing about some artists. If they put out meaningful songs, it seems like you almost get a sense that it means too much. You almost have to draw a line and try to get the point across without getting “too meaningful.” You know what I mean?

Monica:      Yeah, you’re right. Sometimes it’s too deep and profound, and then it becomes too philosophical and not a song.

Phil Solem:Yeah. I can definitely write in philosophical, twisted lyrics, but you’ll probably never hear those songs.

Monica:      How has The Rembrandts’ music changed over time, if anything, what do you think?

Phil Solem: I’d say, if anything, it hasn’t changed over time. We have achieved a certain type of sound and vibe that we probably had from the beginning. It’s one of those if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, kind of a thing.

Monica:      Good answer. In terms of fashion and styles today and in the ’90s at the peak of when that show and then your music, what do you prefer and why?

Phil Solem:Well, if you’ve noticed how much has changed in the last 25, 30 years, one way to find out about that is to watch the show Friends and watch, even just as the episodes go by, the amount of changes in the ways that people dress and the kinds of things that they talk about. That show demonstrates quite a variety of things happening within 10 years. Now it’s been 30 years since Danny and I put The Rembrandts together and I don’t think we’ve changed our style a whole heck of a lot, although there’s been pretty ridiculous photos that I’ve seen. “We’re on to something here,” and a year later, it’s nutty. We try not to go too far. That is, I hope we haven’t gone too far.

Monica:      You seem to focus more on the music side of things, which is quite right. Sometimes I have the feeling that some musicians overdo the style and fashion side of music because there’s little else behind the music or the music is not very good, so they need to put smoke just to cover some of the less good music. You don’t need to do that, so you focus more on your songs. It’s the right approach. People will love your music for it..

Phil Solem:You see the flash in the pan kind of thing come into play. It’s like a magic trick to get attention, and then 10 years later, you look at that and go, “Oh, my God. That didn’t really happen did it?” In our case, we’re not into trendy things.

Monica:      No, you don’t need to. No, you’re good as you are.

About Monica Costa

Monica Costa founded London Mums in September 2006 after her son Diego’s birth together with a group of mothers who felt the need of meeting up regularly to share the challenges and joys of motherhood in metropolitan and multicultural London. London Mums is the FREE and independent peer support group for mums and mumpreneurs based in London https://londonmumsmagazine.com and you can connect on Twitter @londonmums

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