It’s been several years since Graham Russell and Air Supply cohort Russell Hitchcock came to town, but now the duo is prepping for a return to America with a string of shows at midsize venues and concert halls. The two friends have collaborated for nearly forty years, hitting a hot streak in the early ‘80s and maintaining success overseas with albums like The Vanishing Race, News From Nowhere, and Across the Concrete Sky. They scored another minor hit in “Dance With Me,” from their 2010 effort Mumbo Jumbo, and are poised to strike again: Air Supply will have a brand new track available for download by the time they play the Akron Civic on January 31st.
The forthcoming single (and proposed new album) puts Air Supply in the rare company of “legacy” acts who’ve issued original material over the span of five or more decades. But—like The Rolling Stones and Rush—these guys refuse to rest on their laurels, perennially returning to the studio between tours to embrace their muse and record fresh tracks, many of which end up joining classics like “All Out of Love,” “Lost in Love,” and “Every Woman in the World” in concert sets.
British by birth, Russell immigrated to the “land down under” as a teenager. He met Hitchcock on an Aussie production of an Andrew Lloyd-Weber play in the mid-‘70s and gigged with the operatic Afro-haired singer around Melbourne as an acoustic combo before cutting their first album. Early incarnations of Air Supply opened for Rod Stewart, Boz Scaggs, and Chicago (with Divinyls guitarist Mark McEntee in the lineup)—but it wasn’t until the band’s Arista Records debut that the troubadours found global success, cracking Billboard charts with its first three Top 10 hits.
1980’s triumph Lost in Love was followed by the equally impressive The One That You Love and Now and Forever, with both LPs yielding additional smash ballads. For 1985’s Greatest Hits, the band teamed with Meatloaf writer Jim Steinman on the cinematic “Making Love Out of Nothing at All.”
But Air Supply’s light romance music wasn’t for everyone. Subsequent albums (CD’s, by this point) were overlooked in the United States. Event “soft rock” Adult Contemporary radio started giving Air Supply the cold shoulder, and the band was lost in a tidal wave of dance (Michael Jackson’s Thriller), bubblegum pop, and patriotic roots-rock (Springsteen’s Born in the USA). Russell and Hitchcock enjoyed further success overseas—particularly in the Far East—but the ‘80’s biggest balladeers never lost their affinity for American audiences.
Russell assured us that Air Supply will effectively bridge past and present with its Akron show, uniting Ohio “Air Heads” with a hits-plus marathon that’ll be equal parts novel and nostalgic—all rendered with Air Supply’s trademark passion and finesse.
CLEVELAND MUSIC EXAMINER: Hello, Graham! It’s great to be speaking with you, and thanks for taking the time. How was the Asian tour, and how were your holidays?
GRAHAM RUSSELL: Oh, it was great. Sold out every show. But it was great to get back. We were there a month and glad to be back in time for Christmas. So it was nice, thank you!
CME: You guys hit China, Korea, and….
GRAHAM: We did Korea, China, Japan, Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand.
CME: And now you’re back home in Utah?
GRAHAM: Yeah, I am. We’re off another three weeks.
CME: Air Supply was recently inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association’s Hall of Fame, with you and Russell receiving ARIA awards last month. That must’ve been gratifying, even if it felt to fans like it was long overdue.
GRAHAM: Oh, it was a wonderful thing, and some great artists performed, some international artists. And it was nice to get that recognition finally from our home country, you know? We certainly achieved the criteria necessary to get that award, but it’s nice to get it!
CME: Sure, you’ve been around for nearly forty years.
GRAHAM: Yeah, we have (laughs)!
CME: Can you talk a bit about what’s new in Air Supply camp? You issued a single called “Sanctuary” a few weeks back, but apparently there’s another new song—“Desert Sea Sky”—in the pipeline.
GRAHAM: Well, “Desert Sea Sky” comes out in two weeks, and we’re expecting great things from it. It’s the first real dance track we’ve ever released as a single. It’s kind of full-on dance, remixed by two guys in England who do a lot of the big artists like Madonna and Beyonce, and they wanted to remix one of our tracks. So we gave it to ‘em, and it sounds amazing. I think it’s going to pop a few eyes open—a dance track coming from Air Supply. It’ll be interesting to see what the reaction is. But the track sounds fabulous.
CME: Your website also mentions a new live CD / DVD compilation. You’ve done a few live albums before. Is this the big show from Hong Kong?
GRAHAM: The new one is Hong Kong. I think it’s coming out after the Chinese New Year, near the middle of February. We did one in Israel four years ago, and then this one suddenly came up with only a week’s notice. Our Chinese promoter asked if we’d like to do one in Hong Kong. So we said “yeah,” and it sounds great. It’s 5.1 Surround Sound and will be available on Blu-Ray, which is our first Blu-Ray DVD.
CME: Can you talk a little about how you and Russell first teamed up? It’s fairly common knowledge amongst Air Heads that you met as cast members in an Australian production of Jesus Christ Superstar back in the mid-Seventies.
GRAHAM: We did, yeah. That’s where we both met. We became great friends, and had so many things in common. It was almost like it was predestined that we work together. We both had a great love of The Beatles and had both seen them live when we were fourteen in the other side of the world. We were born in the same month, and share the same name. So I think the universe channeled something there, like “You guys need to work together!” So we did!
CME: I’m inclined to agree. It’s not often in popular music that you encounter vocal harmonies like yours. The Beatles, Beach Boys, Bee Gees…and yourself and Russell—the kind of vocals and harmonies that can give chills, and get stuck in the brain forever.
GRAHAM: Thank you, that’s very kind. The thing with Russell and I is, everything we do, we don’t have to work at it. I mean, we work very hard, but the harmonies come very naturally. It’s never a case of planning it, where “You sing this, and I’ll sing that.” When I present a new song, Russell just starts singing it. And if he’s singing the melody, I’ll sing the harmony, or vice-versa. So everything falls into place, like it always has. We’ve very fortunate in that respect.
CME: A lot of people don’t know about the different versions of your break-out hit, “Lost in Love.” There was one version on the Life Support album, but then you guys gave it a makeover to help break into America and the rest of the world with the Lost in Love album a year or so later. Is there a preferred version for you? Or perhaps a live version you’re fond of?
GRAHAM: Well, the two recorded versions—the Australian one is quite different from the American one. It’s not as lush, and there aren’t those background singers in back going [sings] “Lost in love and I don’t know much.” They’re not Australian one. That’s just Russell. But when [Arista Records president] Clive Davis heard the track in 1979, he said “I want to put some female voices on.” And we said, “Alright, we’ll put them on.” Because Russell was doing all the voices, but he wanted that, to make it a little catchier. But whatever he did, it was right. Clive always seems to make the right decisions! But as far as which is the best one…they’re both slightly different. If you listen to the Australian one on headphones, you can actually hear us talking in the background on the track. And that’s not on the American one. They took that off.
CME: Clive mentions a lot of that in his autobiography, The Soundtrack of My Life. He’s got almost an entire chapter devoted to you guys.
GRAHAM: Oh really? I didn’t know that! I’ll have to pick that up. That’s cool.
CME: One of my favorite Air Supply releases from the last five or ten years is The Singer and The Song, which features stripped-down acoustic versions of some of your biggest hits. Listening to those raw spins on “Love and Other Bruises,” “All Out of Love,” “Yours Truly,” and the rest…it’s kind of like hearing you and Russell doing a campfire session. It’s very intimate, with no clutter. How did that project come about?
GRAHAM: Yeah, it’s quite interesting, actually. We were in the studio at my house working on other tracks, and we were just waiting around. Something had gone wrong in the control room. Some piece of equipment had gone down. So we were sitting in the live room talking. And I just picked up the guitar and started playing “Lost in Love.” And Russell just sang it, and we both said—almost at the same time—wouldn’t it be fun one day to record all the big songs the way they used to be, with just the one guitar and two voices? And he said, “That would be great!” So I said, “Well why don’t we just try it right now?” So while they were fixing the other piece of equipment, we just sat around the mic and figured out what songs we were going to do. And then we did them all, in about an hour and a half! There are no overdubs, and there’s no patching anything up. We just sang it from top to bottom, and that’s the album. It was cool. I think we just wanted to prove we could still do it, you know? That we still had those chops.
CME: The original versions are great, but it’s a real treat hearing the songs like that, with your voices panned right and left and the guitar in the middle. The songs really hold up well without the ornamentation.
GRAHAM: Yeah. I think with me being the songwriter in the group, my criteria for being a good song is that it must stand on its own with just a guitar and a voice. I mean, a lot of people will say to put drums on, or strings. But for me it’s got to sound great on its own with nothing around it. Because when it does, then when you do put everything else on, it’ll sound incredible. That’s something I learned very early on.
CME: I recall David Bowie—I think it was Bowie—said something like that. He’s known for dabbling in so many styles, but he once said that his measuring stick for a good song has always been whether it played well with just voice and guitar, or just voice and piano.
GRAHAM: Well, exactly! I didn’t know David said that, but that sounds like him! That’s great. Everything begins with the song—even before the singer gets it. It’s got to have that hard foundation and has to be solid. I’ve always believed that.
CME: Two years ago Russell worked on a solo album that indulged his country side, Tennessee: The Nashville Sessions. Meanwhile, you worked on a joint project with singer Katie McGhie.
GRAHAM: Yeah, I did. The great thing about Air Supply is that we both encourage each other to do different things. Being a songwriter, I write songs every day. Air Supply does an album every three or four years or so now, and I need to use those songs. Russell wanted to do the Tennessee album, and I wanted to do the Of Eden album with Katie, so we did them. And now we’re back—not that we went anywhere—and we’re in the middle of a new Air Supply album. It really fires us up and gives us a new perspective on everything, you know.
CME: You mentioned The Beatles earlier. You’re a left-handed player, like Paul McCartney. Do you have any other favorite southpaws?
GRAHAM: No, the funny thing is, I am left-handed. And when I first started playing guitar, I didn’t have one. I borrowed a guitar from a school friend across the road from where I lived. And when I got it, I simply put it up the wrong way. And I didn’t know, until about eight or nine years later, that I was playing it upside-down. I learned all my chords upside-down, and was playing them backwards! But it gives me a unique sound. And I didn’t learn that way by design; it was by default that I learned that way. Of course, by the time I figured it all out, it was too late to go back the other way! But it does give me a different sound.
CME: Ugh, yeah! I recall learning my first few chords. The hand positions feel so awkward at first, and I can’t imagine having to relearn them. Some of the more elaborate chords are still uncomfortable.
GRAHAM: You can’t change it! Exactly.
CME: It’s been a couple years since Air Supply played Ohio. I remember you did a show at House of Blues Cleveland in 2005 or so. Can fans here expect a good mix of old and new at the Akron Civic?
GRAHAM: Yeah! We do a smattering from all the different albums. Of course, we play all the hits—and there are a lot of those, fortunately! But we’ll play a brand-new song in Akron, maybe two. But people always love our show. It’s a very audience-generated show for us, and we have so much fun.
CME: Who’s in the band these days?
GRAHAM: We have Aaron McLain on lead guitar. He’s been with us about two years. We have a young guy on drums—Aviv Cohen. He’s only 29. He could be my grandchild! We have Amir Efrat on keyboards, and Jonni Lightfoot on bass. He’s been with us fifteen years.
CME: I wanted to make a point of asking, because you and Russell always surround yourselves with great players. And I suspect that people less familiar with the band tend to think an Air Supply concert would be all light and fluffy, when in fact you guys are pretty dynamic. Your drummer hits hard, and your lead guitarist rips with the best of them.
GRAHAM: Oh, yeah. The ballads are something we do. We do them in the show, because we do all the hits—but you’re right that people who haven’t seen us will assume it’s kind of soft. But our live show is very intense. It’s loud, and it’s rock and roll. It gets to you. It makes you do something. It’ll make you laugh or cry, but it’ll make you do something. That’s for sure!
Air Supply. Friday, January 31, 2014 at Akron Civic Theater. 8:00pm. Tickets available here: http://www.akroncivic.com/site/page.php?id=422&eventid=1566