Chicago has been playing for more than 45 years now and has never broken up. They’re still doing their thing, making hits, playing for the people, and loving it. Bill Clinton once called Chicago one of the most important bands in music since the dawn of the rock and roll era. They’re No. 13 on Billboard’s list of top 100 musicians. You know them even if you think you don’t know them, that’s how big they are. And they’re going to be playing here in La Crosse during Freedom Fest on June 15. Recently I had the honor of speaking with Lee Loughnane, who has been the band’s trumpet player since the beginning and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.

SS: I’ll start you off with a broad question: How’s Chicago doing nowadays?

Lee Loughnane:
We’re doing great. We’re still doing about a hundred shows a year. And whatever show that we do will encompass our entire career from first album up to present day. We’ve also put together a web platform that started in March 2010, and we’ve built that up to where we’re pretty much a one stop shop. We sell memorabilia, we have memberships, we have premium access which is a subscription to come behind the scenes and watch little videos of us backstage and various other places. There are also soundboard recordings on the website. We did a CD of 15 of our biggest hits and recorded them to try and make them sound like the originals, and we surprised ourselves with how good that came out. We also have a documentary out of our 2011 world tour. So we’re quite busy. And we’re coming to see you guys on the 15th of June, and boy will I be on stage.

SS: You’ll be playing at Freedom Fest, an event held in honor of those who have served or are serving our country. What is the significance of Chicago playing this event?

LL.
It’s always great to give something back to people who are ensuring our freedom, whether we’re at peace or at war. I mean, these guys put their butts on the line every day for us, and a lot of people have lost their lives protecting us. So this is a wonderful event for us. Thanks for inviting.

SS: You also generously support other charitable causes. After so many years in the industry, do you feel musicians have a larger role in society other than just to entertain?

LL:
That’s generally up to the conscious of each individual and each group, but, yes, we have always felt that it is important to give back, and I think, individually, each guy in the band gives over and above what we do as a group. So we kind of keep those things on a personal basis, but as far as the band goes, we take out a dollar of each ticket and give fifty cents to the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation and another fifty cents to Hannah & Friends. That happens all year round. Every show we play, we give to those charities. We’ve also been supporting the American Cancer Society for the past four years. We’ve had auctions in every city that we’ve played in the last four years, and the highest bidder gets seats in the front rows, then they come backstage to talk with us for a while. We shoot some pictures, do some autographs, and then they come up with us onstage and sing “If You Leave Me Now”. So it’s a lot of fun. Each of these people have been affected by cancer in some way. Either they’ve had it, or someone that they know has had it.

SS: That’s great. Now I’m going to turn to talking about the music industry in general. What major changes have you seen since the early days of Chicago?


Lee Loughnane: Well, obviously the computer has come on board, and when we first started, we recorded our first album on an 8-track machine, so that was the best stuff there was. And then it graduated to 16-tracks and 24-tracks and 48-tracks, from analog to digital. Everything’s been moving. We just stay up on things, try out new things and play music. We’ve been doing it for 46 years, and to do what I did when I was 20 years old is pretty cool.

SS: What direction are you taking your music in nowadays?

LL: When we write songs, we don’t have a definite idea of what it’s going to be. There’s just some chords that come in that sound halfway decent, then we start building upon that. Then we have a lyrical idea and we start building on that. But there’s really no specific direction. The direction doesn’t come really until the song is written and then presented to the guys, and they put their impressions and expertise into it. The song sort of evolves then, naturally.

SS: Do you focus more on trying to attract new listeners, or on giving longtime fans more of what they want, or do you try to do both?


LL: Both. I mean, we just try to play music. That is the basic thing we have started from the beginning and that’s still what we do today. We just play, and hopefully everyone will like it, and if it turns out, our audience digs it a hell of a lot. In the beginning we only had a couple of hits. When we recorded the first album we had 12 songs, and when we played shows, those were the only songs we knew, so we would play the entire first album. “Beginnings,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” “I’m a Man,” they were all on that first album, and we tried releasing them to what was AM radio at the time, and they wouldn’t play them because they said that we didn’t have a hit, so it was a kind of catch-22. You know, how are we supposed to have a hit if we don’t get played? But we came out with the second album, and Jimmy Pankow had written a piece called “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon,” and AM radio expressed interest in portions of the ballet, so the first movement of the ballet is “Make Me Smile,” and then it rephrases again at the end. So we took those two pieces out of the ballet, put them together, and that became our first single. So there we had our first hit and we had a foot in the door. Then we re-released the first album, and those songs also became hits. So the significance of the first album was that initially it was underground and very cool, and then when we went back and re-released those songs and they became hits, the same music was looked at as if we had sold out. So we went, wait a minute, there’s something a little haywire here; it’s the same music, we haven’t changed it up. Then we realized: it’s just music. People have their opinions on music and always will, but as long as we get a chance to do it, I’m happy.

SS: Your music has always embodied a wide range of musical forms and genres. Now, with the internet and new technologies that allow almost anybody to make/release music, there’s a huge variety of music out there, especially in the independent scene. What are some aspects you find exciting about the state of music today?

LL: Well, we have become one of the groups in the independent scene because we don’t have a record label supporting us anymore. We’re making a record right now that will be released through the website, and songs are being recorded. We bought the equipment and carry it around on the road, so no matter where we are, we can record. We as well as everyone else in the business know, because of the downturn in the economy, MP3s, file sharing, what they’re calling “stealing the music,” with all of those things occurring, it has completely disrupted the entire music industry, and all of the record labels are trying to figure out what to do next. So we’re taking the bull by the horns, running with it, and we now own everything that we produce. Obviously all of our stuff that we already did with a record company is owned by them. Warner Bros. owns our catalog, but anything new that we do is ours, and we will take full advantage of that.

SS: You have been touring ever since you started. Do you think touring has become more important now that music is so easily accessed otherwise?

LL: I think touring has always had a major value, especially for us. It’s important to take our product and present it to people. That’s one of the biggest benefits of what we do.

SS: Obviously you must enjoy it since you’ve been doing it for over 40 years now. What are the enjoyable aspects of touring?


LL: The actual playing of the music. Traveling across the country, which used to be a lot of fun, is much less fun now that you walk into an airport and you’re guilty until proven innocent. And being away from my family is definitely very tough. The only way to actually play music for people is to be in front of them, and they’re not home, they’re everywhere but home. So the easy part is what it’s always been: I love playing music, I love practicing, all of the aspects of putting the songs together, recording, then playing live. It’s just great.

SS: How do the old days of touring compare to now?

LL: Wait, you mean while we were being young and stupid? Well, first of all we lived, because I used to do a few things that would have affected my life in a major way, and then I stopped. Booze and drugs were definitely things that I had to stop doing. I still had to play music, and when you stop doing those things, you start thinking, well I don’t know if I’m going to have the same caliber or drive or whatever, and I figured out that I might just not need them. I do have those drives and I need to do it with a clearer head.

SS: What’s one of the best memories you have of being in the band this whole time?

LL: We played for 500,000 people in Philadelphia to commemorate our independence in 1976. So that was a very interesting gig with all the excitement there with all those people. There were speakers everywhere. Just people whispering was a loud noise, and once we started playing, we really had to pull ourselves back because there was just this enormous feeling. It was really cool to play for the 200th anniversary of our country.

SS: What do you see Chicago doing in 10 years?

LL: Ten years? I’m not sure. Next year we’re definitely going to be working, and if our manager has anything to do with it, he will keep us working as long as we can stand on our feet, as long as we want to keep working. We will keep our website, chicagotheband.com, whether we’re working or not, and we have every intention of continuing for a long time with the help of our fans. We’re going to keep on doing it.