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Interview: The Bad Examples

| December 1, 2010

Put The Kids To Bed

This article is an accident. It was spawned by a chance encounter with the FitzGerald’s Web site, where the words “The Bad Examples (Record Release)” were spied on the December schedule. IE’s instinct was to sneer, “Hasn’t anyone in Berwyn ever heard of updating a Web site?” and navigate away.

Appearing: Friday, December 17th at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn.

But editorial inertia and offhand condescension dropped like a brick when we figured out that the last time The Bad Examples released a new album, no one knew what a Web site was. As Rob Gillis at the band’s Waterdog record label jokes, Guns N’ Roses made a quicker return.

Preferably, this much time wouldn’t have elapsed, but the members were busy. Frontman Ralph Covert – so distinguished in the band name not because of vanity, but a pre-existing German outfit sharing the moniker – became a kids’-rock juggernaut as Ralph’s World, a Disney-approved/adult-friendly machine that has occupied most of the Examples for more than a decade. The calendar just got away from them.

“We’ve stayed close and continued to get together to make music and work on stuff between other projects,” Covert says from his west-suburban home. “We didn’t feel any pressure to cut corners or make any artificial timetable. We worked on music when we could – did it out of love and for the fun of working together. Right around this fall, this particular batch really seemed to coalesce as a unit.”

He’s referring to Smash Record, a dozen tracks assembled from nearly 15 years of work: unfinished ideas, live staples that never made it out of the studio involvng the core of Steve Gerlach, Tom O’Brien, Pickles Piekarski, and Larry Beers with alumni Terry Wathen, John Richardson, and Steve Wozny. As a collection, it runs the BE’s gamut of taut rock (“Big E Chord,” “Kill Amanda”), bratty Replacements-isms (“Your Problem Now,” “YourEx-Girlfriend”), and semi-baroque/Cheap Trick-weaned power pop (“Pictures Of A Masquerade,” “In Another Life”).

“The first song on the album,” he points out, “‘Big E Chord,’ seemed to summon the other songs and they flowed. It was like, ‘Wait a minute, guys: these songs just fixed each other.’ The record just found itself. It was really a neat experience to have all of a sudden the magnetic charge of the songs spinning around each other.”

Questions are bound to surface about whether material was first tested for Ralph’s World, or if the band’s laissez-faire approach could possibly yield compelling art. Covert understands the concerns, but insists that The Examples were finally in their element for Smash Record.

“The luxury of the process that we had,” he says, “like our own studio? We could go in and work on songs for the songs’ sake because we had the desire to do it without feeling the pressure of, ‘Oh God, this session’s costing us $500 so we better get the guitars done and get the record out.’ As a result, it allowed us the opportunity the explore the songs on their own terms and not worry about it. As far as finding the spirit and spontaneity: nah. For us, you throw the tracks up and you enjoy the process. Between The Bad Examples and Ralph’s World stuff, we’ve been making music for 20 years. Ten Ralph’s World records: that’s a lot of growth and experience. I think all of the things we’ve learned through the years really have been brought back into the mix.”

Unexpectedly, Ralph’s World remained completely separate. Unlike the Good Examples Of The Bad Examples compilation created to introduce parents to Covert’s older canon, nothing has been watered down and reapproached. According to Gillis, producers on the RW side have begged Covert for Examples demos that were clean enough for kids, and Covert says classic cuts like “Sammy The Dog” made the transfer, “Though we omitted the last verse, which had his decadent fall from grace. The kids can go dig it up late one night when they’re teenagers and find out how Sammy really ended up. No need to burst their bubble when they’re 4.”

For Smash Record, “One of the things I started doing was bringing the different lineups of the band into the studio to track/record different songs that never made albums but felt were really good songs. [‘Big E Chord’] was from one of those sessions and so we revisited it and hearing it really sparked. Ralph’s World is more like parenting: you do things with your kids that create the right world for them. The boundaries of imagination you get to play in are so wonderfully broad: tap-dancing elephants, rhyming circuses. With the Bad Examples, the thing that really excites me is being able to delve a lot deeper in the emotional and lyrical depths.”

Covert doesn’t specify angst, but there is a darkness running through the tracks that’s clearly been lingering somewhere. “You Don’t Understand Me” lashes out at a suffocating relationship, “Pictures Of A Masquerade” admonishes “You lied when you could have been true to your word,” while “Your Problem Now” could be about the frustrations of domestic parenting if you omit certain details. Though to Covert, the galvanizing track is “Big E Chord,” a song about the joy of strapping on a guitar and playing music.

“Fundamentally, for The Bad Examples, it was very truly about the music and the fans,” he says. “For a time in the early ’90s, we were one of the most popular bands in the clubs, packing smaller places like FitzGerald’s and Schubas up to the Park West and Riviera and touring coast-to-coast in America and having radio and TV things in Holland. We played consistently entertaining shows, were always a great live band, and I think the albums we put out are pretty timeless. A lot of the Ralph’s World success was on the shoulders of The Bad Examples.”

He continues, “One of the things about The Bad Examples that’s always been great is the guys in the band genuinely love each other and genuinely love making music together. Even when guys have gone in and out of the band, it’s been done with respect. Every single person who left the band came back and subbed and covered a show or did something later when it was needed. Tommy O’Brien always joked that The Bad Examples are like the Army Reserve. You can get your discharge, but that call will come and you’ll be reactivated and serve with pride.”

Though he has some nagging curiosity about the more conventional rock success that evaded them, Covert likes having two careers now, neither of which is a hindrance.

“Obviously, all the things we did have going for us did not coalesce into Pearl Jam superstardom,” he laughs. “Who knows why? There’s a lot of bands for whom that doesn’t happen. The Bad Examples were a great band, and it’s a damn shame that it didn’t. But, on the other hand, it did in that it grew into and sparked Ralph’s World – and that’s been a great journey – and as musicians and friends we did not crumble into bitterness and regret where everybody hates everybody and nobody’s talking. It’s a trade I’ll take. Did we work our asses off? Yeah we did. At the height of things we were playing 250 shows a year, and we did it because we believed in it. And that’s why we did this record.”

Call it a happy accident.

— Steve Forstneger

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  1. MichaelB says:

    Thanks for this interview. Been listening to the Exams since 93 or so, drove from Texas to see them (twice, now), and am eagerly awaiting the new stuff.

  2. Jimmy says:

    Used to catch these guys at Orphan’s on Lincoln back in the day. Exciting to hear some new material from Ralph and Co.

  3. P J Johnson says:

    One of THE BEST Pop/Rock bands ever in Chicago! The live show that Ralph Covert puts on is always fun because of his great lyrics and endless energy that the crowd cannot resist. I have seen over 20 of their gigs.
    Jim Derogatis (past Sun Times critic) was the only guy in town who did not support the band. Dero was the worst critic in Chicago history who supported lame bands that tanked. He could never understand the appeal of the best bands in Chicago like Bad Examples, Insiders, Enuff Znuff & Michael McDermott. These 4 will always live on with their timeless music that holds up perfectly today.
    I really think the death of John Duich(heart failure) was the reason the band ended the hardcore touring schedule. He really could play the blues and was such a nice guy.
    Taking over for John was Steve Gerlach. This guy had a band called Mystery Driver and put out one excellent CD. I have no idea why this guy has not continued to be a major player on the music scene. He should be touring with the big names becuase he has it all!
    Pickles Pickarski is still playing bass for the Bad Examples. It’s always fun to watch a guy who really loves what he is doing in life and Pickles has been around forever. He played with the late Mike Jordan and if you never saw Mike Jordan you missed a Chicago gem that left the earth way to early.
    I cannot wait for the party to begin at Fitzgeralds and I will be looking forward to that new CD and an update on Sammy the Dogs heroin use ahahahahahhahaahha!!!!!

  4. Chris Hayward says:

    First time I saw the Bad Examples was at the old China Club in Chicago. Since then I have always tried to make the shows. These are some of the best guys, musically AND personally, in the business. Glad to see another record (can we still call them that?) is a about to hit the shelf.