Making a living as a performance musician without a record deal and without a resume of original songs would seem to be nearly impossible. For Neill Byrnes lead singer for Draw the Line his band has been defying the odds for 23 years. Recently featured on AXS TV as one of the "Worlds Greatest Tribute Bands" during a March 3rd, 2014 airing it seems they have cemented their legacy in the music industry. That honor however didn't come without a lot of hard work and sacrifice. I had the pleasure of interviewing the Aerosmith tribute band front man and Steven Tyler doppelganger.
The band will be performing April 11th, 2014 in Orlando, Florida at the House of Blues and again on April 12th, 2014 in Brooksville, Florida at the Florida Blueberry Festival.
Following are excerpts from the conversation I had with the look alike and sound alike where we discussed the roots of the band and the dedication required to survive for 23 years in the music business.
Kjelden: You’re a Boston kid born and raised right?
Kjelden: I know the sport’s culture is massive up there. Are you into the sports scene?
Neill: It’s crazy. I’m into all the teams, Bruins, Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics even though the Celtics are losing. It’s engrained in us up here, just like Aerosmith. Aerosmith is like one of the teams. It’s engrained in everybody.
Kjelden: In terms of the city that has spawned several different bands, I know that Aerosmith came out of Boston. What are some of the other signature bands that came out of Boston?
Neill: Extreme came out of Boston; the Cars, the band Boston and the J. Geil’s Band. There were some smaller bands in the 80’s like The Del Fuegos and The Fools that made it but didn’t have a lasting national presence.
Kjelden: What is the music culture like up there nowadays? Is there still an underground rock scene alive today?
Neill: It’s not so much rock. You have two great music schools up here with the New England Conservatory of Music and Berkeley College of Music and not to forget the University of Lowell and their music program. So you have a lot of experimental music up here and a real kind of “avante-garde” kind of scene up here. As far as rock n’ roll goes, it’s really kind of gone by the wayside up here. You have your singer and songwriter’s coming out here to do shows. I would contribute it to a modern type of sound or alternative sound.
Kjelden: You are a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, correct?
Neill: No, I’m not. There’s a conservatory of music in the town that I grew up in. I think that they are all affiliated in one way or another. That’s where I studied music growing up. I also studied music at Northeastern University in Boston.
Kjelden: And that’s where you got your psychology degree from?
Kjelden: Does that come in handy? Do you manipulate the other band members into playing the songs that you want to play?
Neill: (laughs) No, I think it has helped in dealing with band members. Anyone who has ever been in a band knows that keeping a band together is not the easiest task. Being able to know personalities and being able to handle personalities I think that has been a huge asset in the longevity of the band and maintaining it.
Kjelden: How many years have you been involved with the band (Draw the Line)?
Neill: The band was established in 1991, so that puts it around 23 years this year.
Kjelden: You were there pretty much from the genesis of the band right? Because it was a cover band but once you came in they decided to go full bore with this Aerosmith thing?
Neill: Yeah, it was a cover band but they were trying to be mainly an Aerosmith tribute band and they were doing blues songs from groups like; The Black Crowes and Rolling Stones and some Guns N’ Roses, like bluesy rock songs. When their singer left and they were auditioning singers and I came into the fold, they couldn’t believe how much I looked like Steven Tyler and they were like “wow, we should just go for an all Aerosmith show”. I said I agree and we started doing some shows and then we did a showcase for a national agent and the first thing they said was we needed to change our name, and form an identity that’s Aerosmith. We all came up with different ones and “Draw the Line” was the name that won.
Kjelden: You’ve made a career out of this, which is not easy to do.
Neill: No, I’m very fortunate in that sense because if you think of all the musicians across the country there are thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and there are hardly any jobs. If you get a job at any tier making money while making music you’re doing okay and I thank my lucky stars that I’ve been able to forge a career out of it.
Kjelden: It’s not just lucky. I’m hoping that if younger people read this article when it comes out, especially teenagers they realize that music is a great release, a great relaxation technique and a great escape, but it’s not necessarily something that you can pay your mortgage with or pay for your car with for most people. For you it has worked out great, but for an aspiring young person how many hours per week do you think you’ve invested? I think they see the polished product and think, “well I can do that”, but they have no idea how much work goes into it and how much travel is involved.
Neill: In the early days we were rehearsing almost daily. We were trying to rehearse every night we could and we would ask band members, including myself, to take private lessons in order to get better you know. And one more thing we would have to do was watch video and listen to live bootlegs because Aerosmith had such a vast quantity of material. There was so much to listen to and absorb over the years. They changed constantly from era to era to era. So the workload the first few years was enormous so it takes a real dedication and a real drive.
Kjelden: You’ve been doing this for a long time. Is it natural for you to go up there and be Steven Tyler because that’s a character you’re playing or are you still fighting your own personality while performing the Aerosmith songs?
Neill: One of the things I love about this gig is that it’s a challenge both physically and vocally because you have to push yourself to the limits every night and I can’t let my foot off of the gas for a second. I have to always be singing. I sing on a daily basis keeping my vocal chords up to snuff. I have to work out on a regular routine to keep me physically in shape in order to go through these performances, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to keep up with it.
Kjelden: I split Aerosmith into the “pre Pump album era” and the “post Pump album era”, when the MTV generation was getting songs like “Dude Looks Like a Lady” verses “Seasons of Wither”, which is one of my favorite songs. Which era do you prefer?
Neill: I prefer mostly the 70’s stuff like up to the “Draw the Line” album, because that’s the stuff I never got to see. I never got to see this hungry young band coming out of the gates and making it and starting out with all of these other bands that were coming out like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and the Rolling Stones who were on the top of their game. Pink Floyd was coming out. The whole scene was exploding. To be competing with all of those other bands that band must have been on fire. They must have been so hungry. I wish I would have had a chance to see that. My first experience with Aerosmith was on the “Done with Mirrors” tour in 1985 or 1986 and they were trying to come back at that point. It wasn’t commercial back then. It was more like this is what we play. I write a riff and Steven Tyler sings over it. This is how we come up with the songs as opposed to let’s call up somebody like Desmond Child and let’s just write hits. They just have more energy. For any young teenage boy growing up those are the songs they can sink their teeth into because they can really find the adrenalin in them.
Kjelden: I like the earlier catalog but I do like the album with “Pink” on it, “Nine Lives”. I thought there were some good songs on there.
Neill: My preference is the earlier stuff but I like all the later stuff too. When we really started breaking it down and we started stripping it down to learn the parts we realized just how much work they put into making these songs because there’s so many intricate things on them. Little subtleties with guitars or percussion or even vocally; we would have to dissect and somehow replicate and that was the fun part but you just have an appreciation for what they did when you start breaking down those songs because these guys were really breaking their asses to get back on top because the songs were so involved.
Kjelden: With your schedule and so forth are you a music aficionado where you get off and see other live groups or are you so involved with it in your personal life that a night out is not where you want to go and see another band?
Neill: If I were single on my nights off I would definitely be going out to check other bands out but as it is, I’m married with two kids at home and that makes it very difficult for me to get out. I’m away most weekends. My wife works in the business. For me to take extra time out is very frowned upon.
Kjelden: Do you have any newer music that you’ve purchased yourself that you love; newer artists or older artists with new music?
Neill: You know its funny, my wife handles other acts and sometimes I get to hear some new bands coming up and there’s a new band that has come over from Ireland called “The Mighty Stef” and there music is phenomenal. I really like them. I haven’t really latched onto downloading MP3’s yet you know what I mean from the iTunes store
Kjelden: I know. I’m the last of the dinosaurs. My friends are on me all the time.
Neill: Pretty soon you won’t be able to buy it like that anymore (compact disc) it will just all be digital and you’ll just have to download it.
Kjelden: Yeah and then I’ll have to get more milk crates to put all my compact discs in so I can stack them on top of the albums that I’ve still got.
Neill: (laughs) Nice!
Kjelden: And then my wife will be on me about that. She thinks they’re just dust collectors already.
Neill: You should see all the cassettes and 8-tracks and records I have downstairs.
Kjelden: The show is this Saturday night. You’ve played in Florida but never in Brooksville. I think you’re going to have a real good turnout.
Neill: I want to say we played down that way somewhere between Tampa and Brooksville and the turnout was phenomenal and we played further south near Ft. Myers. We played with Def Leppard down there and there were 20,000 people at that show. It was fantastic.
Kjelden: I’ll be there. I’m really excited. I like Aerosmith a lot and they just don’t tour much anymore. I think that you guys are fortunate in that it’s the next best thing.
Neill: They’re slowing down a little bit so us picking up the slack is a good thing. We try to put on the best show possible so people have been latching onto us.
For more information on The Florida Bluesberry Festival go to floridablueberryfestival.org/
Kjelden Cundiff is author of "The Cold Dark Highway" and "The Cold November Son" both available wherever fine books are sold. He is a freelance writer and columnist for www.examiner.com. Follow him on Twitter or join him on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/coldnovember.son