“Older than I used to be, younger than I’m gonna be, fewer things puzzle me than when I was young”. I guess there’s no better gift for the man of the hour than quoting his own lyrics for his birthday! Today we’re throwing a happy seven decades on the planet blog party for a man that’s one of the very best songwriters and performers you’ll ever come across – Bob Walkenhorst!
Bob has been internationally known and beloved since 1986 as frontman of The Rainmakers, but he began his musical journey way before then. We caught up with Bob last week for a little Q and A about his journey on life’s road to 70 which we’ll share here interspersed with some audiovisual content for your entertainment. So join us in saying happy 70th birthday and thanks for all the great music to Bob – may he keep on rockin’ for many more years!
Here’s what Bob had to say when we ran him through the Norwegian Inquisition:
DOD: What was it like growing up in a small rural community, and how was your interest in the arts both painting and music sparked?
BW: I first performed in front of people when I was 3 years old, at a Farmers Cooperative banquet. I sang “16 Tons”, which I still perform, and the Rainmakers recorded that song for our Cover Band album. I have a very slight memory of that first performance. I think being from a small town was a good starting point for me, because there was lots of encouragement from my family and the community, and with such a small population – very little competition.
DOD: How easy/hard was the choice between painting and music as the point on your artistic horizon?
BW: I think every kid starts off singing, dancing, drawing pictures, pretending and imagining. But if you get positive reinforcement at the right times, you keep on doing some of those things. Music was always something I got attention and encouragement for doing. When I started college, there were no courses in rock n roll, or studio recording, so I went into visual arts. But music was always there. And when I finished college, music was not only an easier way to make a living, but also the more exciting lifestyle when you’re in your early 20’s.
DOD: Could you put together a timeline of first bands, collaborations, inspirations and influences that would shape your path as an artist and performer?
BW: Like I said, being from a small town, there was very little competition. So if you loved music and could find 3 or 4 friends to play with – you had a band. And really – the only band in town! My first bands were psychedelic cover bands, but we also started right in trying to write original songs. Those first bands were heavily influenced by King Crimson, Moody Blues, Beatles. The leader of the band was a guy named John, who was several years older than me, and very well versed in music, poetry, politics, counter-culture activities. He would write poems and lyrics, and I would write the music. He put lots of work and importance in the lyrics to the songs. Which, when I became a lyrics-guy myself, really influenced me to make the words count.
DOD: Your thoughts on the transition from Steve, Bob & Rich to The Rainmakers. How did it happen and how did it affect your mindset, ambitions and goals regarding creating and performing music?
BW: Steve Bob & Rich, the trio that morphed into the Rainmakers, was such a fun band – for the guys IN the band, and everyone who came to hear us play. It was all about energy and attitude. We would play 3 to 4 hours a night with no breaks, just to prove we could do it. Again, we started out as a 50’s and 60’s cover band, but immediately began writing songs, recording, made an indie album when we had only been together a year. As I took on the role as the main songwriter and vocalist, I needed to get out from behind the drum set, and become a front man. Enter Pat Tomek. We never even auditioned anyone else. We knew Pat was the guy.
DOD: Thoughts on how the initial run signed to a record company panned out?
BW: We signed with Mercury/Polygram Records in 1985. After living through the “major label experience”, and hearing other bands tell of their struggles with record executives, managers, promotions, etc. – I really feel like the Rainmakers were treated very well by our record label. They liked who we were, they liked our songs and sound. They really didn’t try to change us. They encouraged us to be exactly who we were – goofballs from the middle of the US. And so many people worked very hard to promote our band. I’m still in contact with many people we worked with in the music business – good people who dearly loved music, and gave us a fair shot.
DOD: How was life after breaking up The Rainmakers the first time?
BW: We toured almost constantly from 1985 through 1990. Things went well for us in Europe, and we started building a solid following in England, Germany, and Scandinavia. But our record company started having financial difficulties, and they basically ran out of money to support their newer acts, like us. We were not selling millions of records, so we got dropped. And we were pretty exhausted by that time, so the band stopped for a while.
DOD: What was your reaction when Polygram Norway asked for a new Rainmakers album?
BW: We took a break from 1991 through 1993. I got married to Michele, we had 2 little daughters to raise. And Steve and Rich also had little kids, so we knew we were not going to do the endless touring we had done before. But Norway had become a solid and lucrative market for us. We knew we could just go to Norway for 2 weeks a couple times a year, and that would be enough. And we could make a new record that Polygram Norway would support. So Flirting With the Universe came together. It was our first recordings to be made totally on our own – no management, no producer, no outside engineer, – just the band. And Polygram Norway didn’t offer any input into the making of the album. They would market whatever we gave them. So there was a wonderful, slightly scary freedom in making records that way. All decisions were just the band. The dynamics of the band had changed a bit. Rich Ruth had moved to Nashville, so he was not around for all of the rehearsing and writing and recording. And we really missed his input at those stages. We were recording at Steve Phillips’ house, and Steve had become quite a good engineer by that time, and we had some pretty good consumer equipment. And all the time in the world! So Steve and Pat and I would work out the arrangements and just hit RECORD. There is a slightly low-fi homemade quality to that album that I just love. We sound relaxed and confident and unpolished, but still a good sounding recording. And a good bunch of songs, if I say so myself.
DOD: What was the creative process for the Skin album like?
BW: There are times in an artistic life where you have to stop playing it safe, take a stand and make a statement about something you deeply believe in. Getting married and having daughters changed how I saw the world. I realized how dangerous and difficult life could be for women. As a writer, I had to address those themes, had to ask myself how I had been so blind and uninformed for so long. I knew it would not be an easy record to make or to market. But I have no regrets about it. I think it stands as some of our strongest work. And even though the audience for that subject matter was limited, I still hear from people who say that record meant a lot to them.
DOD: What was your life like after breaking up the band again and what lead to you putting out a solo album – The Beginner?
BW: The band seemed to hit a wall in about 1997. We weren’t making much money. Family life was getting more demanding. So we stopped. We didn’t really know we had stopped until we realized that months were passing, and there were no plans to do anything. Months became years, and hey – the Rainmakers were becoming a thing of the past. So – a new reality for me – a regular job as a video editor, daytime hours, health insurance! But music keeps playing in your head, and without really trying, pretty soon there was a new batch of songs, and I was working in a place that had good recording gear. So I slowly put together new songs, new recordings. I think I spent well over a year recording that album. The main difference is that I was conscious that I was NOT writing for the Rainmakers. These songs didn’t have to fit that band.
DOD: For fans of your music the most important thing about The Beginner might be that it put you back on a stage for an eternity of Wednesdays. Could you say a bit about how the collabortaion with Jeff Porter came to be, and also how it lead to recording the No Abandon album which in turn sent you back to Norway in 2010.
BW: With new songs comes the desire to play them for people. But with a family, a regular job, a nice quiet life around me, I really needed to figure out an undemanding way to play in public again. Any performance with Steve Phillips or Pat Tomek would be seen as a Rainmakers-related project. So I looked for new people to play with, hopefully people who were in a similar stage in their life, and would have similar restrictions and goals. I had met Jeff Porter and Norm Dahlor back in the 80’s when we were playing the same bars, but really didn’t know them well. So it was a very fresh start, musically and personally. They were very accomplished and versatile musicians, who weren’t very familiar with Rainmakers recordings. So in learning my older songs, the songs took on a new life and approach.
And like all my previous bands, new songs keep coming into existence, get worked into the live performance. Jeff was a good songwriter, I had produced a solo album for him, and it seemed logical that we should make a duo record of new songs. We didn’t write together, but each brought songs that fit the duo-vocal approach.
Since our kids were getting a bit older, it seemed like we could pull off a short tour of Norway without much difficulty. Hey – all we had to take were 2 acoustic guitars!
Our first show in 2010 was at John Dee’s in Oslo. We played all of our new songs, but also threw in quite a few Rainmakers songs. The first one we played was The One That Got Away – and when the crowd started in singing it without me – well, it was pretty much then and there that a Rainmakers reunion was born. Again.
DOD: The 25 On Rainmakers reunion saw yet another change in the line up with Jeff Porter stepping in for Steve Phillips. Were there any other changes within the band dynamics in how you went about recording the album?
BW: 25 On – the title means it had been 25 years since the release of our debut album. Our initial plan was to just go to Norway, play our old songs, play a show in Kansas City, and that would be it. Just a nice short stroll down memory lane. But – being the money-grubbers that we are – we thought we might as well throw together a new album to have something to sell at the shows. Steve Phillips was very busy with his band The Elders, so he declined to join us. Jeff Porter knew most all the Rainmakers songs, so it was an easy decision to have him join. Jeff and Rich had never even met. They met at our first promo photo shoot. We convened at Pat Tomek’s house to record, and things fell into place very quickly. We had no expectations, nothing to prove. And we all wanted to have fun and make something good. I had written all the songs in about 3 weeks, we learned and recorded them all in 5 days. I think that freedom shows through on the album. We just loved making the music.
DOD: The 2014 Monster Movie album seemed to foreshadow the 2016 election, was there a conscious effort to shed light on the darkness that was brewing on the political scene?
BW: I think we went to Norway 4 times with the 25 On album. And we played a lot of shows around the midwest US. So we became a tight playing group again. That really shaped the next batch of songs that became Monster Movie. We had become better players, better friends. We knew what we were doing. There is a certain muscular quality to the playing, the singing, the attitude of the album, that comes from being confident in your skills. The political theme of the album was not really deliberate – just a reflection of the mood of our country at the time. Geez, one song even has the word “trump” in it, long before he was even a candidate.
DOD: It looked like summer 2015 would be the last Norway tour (that short hike you got duped into would have put anybody off ever going back I guess), but then that annoyingly successful at everything he does guy Jo Nesbø wanted The Rainmakers to play at the release party for his 2017 book The Thirst. What are your recollections of getting asked to play at the release party and the gig itself with Jo Nesbø joining on guitar for Small Circles.
BW: But hey – time marches on. We would go to Norway for 2 weeks each year, and play 10 shows in 12 days. After the 2015 tour, I realized that it was more work than I wanted to do. It was still fun, we still played good shows. But the touring had become an endurance contest. On top of the shows and the jetlag, somebody was always getting sick or hurt. So I told the guys after the 2015 tour that we wouldn’t be doing that again. Luckily, we got to go back in 2017 to perform at Jo Nesbo’s book release party, which was a real honor, and nothing but fun.
DOD: Back in the summer of 2019 before the world went sideways The Rainmakers were sweet talked into making one more trip to Norway for “The Final Gig”. How did it feel to say farewell to Norway on an outdoor stage by the ocean?
BW: I’ve never been a fan of “farewell” gigs. It always seems like bands change their minds. But with the changes in travel difficulties, band members stages of life and health, that we could say “farewell” to Norway and really mean it. Our good friend Rune Langfjæran wanted to promote another show at his farm, and all the factors came together. What started out as a single farewell concert turned into a 3-day event with a Bob & Jeff acoustic show, a Rainmakers acoustic show, a discussion of writing with authors Levi Henriksen and Lars Mytting, and finally a concert – with a horn section! Other than being unusually HOT, everything went as perfectly as we could have hoped. It was a wonderful way to say goodbye to the country that had been so kind to us for so many years.
DOD: You’ve always been praised as a great songwriter, and your lyrics manage to say a whole lot about life in a condensed format. How long did you play with the idea of writing a book and when you finally did what was the experience like writing Whirlybird Day?
BW: And then the Pandemic came to town . . . I had always wanted to try my hand at writing stories, but I was always just too busy with music. So with the shutdown of the pandemic, I decided to use that time to give it a try. I am very fond of my little book Whirlybird Day. It was truly a labor of love and memory and imagination. It is partly my memories of growing up, combined with exploring the mysteries of life and time and age. I wasn’t so concerned with completing a book – I just really wanted to know what the process felt like. And it was more mental work than I would have imagined.
DOD: The last couple years you’ve used Patreon as an outlet for new music. How does the process of writing and recording a new song every month compare to how you used to make music?
BW: As marketing music, actually making a living from songs and recordings has become more difficult, Patreon has really saved me the past 3 years. It gave me income during the pandemic, but also gives me reason to keep the old songwriting-wheels turning. I promised people a new song each month, and I have mostly kept that promise. I work well with pressure and deadlines, even though these deadlines are self-imposed, and have no real consequences. Every month I have a moment where I think, “Oh geez, I have to write and record a new song.” Then almost immediately that turns to, “Geez, I GET to write and record a new song!” People have been kind and supportive, and I will keep doing this until no one is listening.
DOD: You’re turning 70 and The Rainmakers retired 5 months ago. One of your songs talk about how life can turn and that you’d best not miss your exit sign, do you feel happy with where the road of life has brought you so far?
BW: If you had told me at age 20 or even 30 that I would still be making new music at age 70, still performing but only doing it how and when I want to – I would have had a very hard time picturing what that would look like. I feel incredibly lucky, and incredibly grateful for the trip I’ve taken, and the life I’ve been given. Music has continued to be magical to me – something I can talk about, but never quite explain. Music has given me wonderful experiences, great friends, a feeling of purpose, and – in the end – a close circle of people that I love and an itchy peace of mind that I’ve done what I was supposed to do.
Once again happy birthday to Bob and if you want to give him a present, head on over to his website and buy his music, book and join his Patreon! https://www.bobwalkenhorst.com/