Published on March 21st, 2013 | by Jason Cooper0
Chris McLernon Steps Back into a Rejuvenated Saigon Kick
Charleston-based rock musician and songwriter Chris McLernon might be known best around town for playing bass with party-rock acts Playlist, Weird Science, Iron Cherry, Big Mick and the Curl, and the Heavy Metal Karaoke band over the last few years. Some know him as the man behind Two Heads Music, an L.A./Charleston-based company that provides original music and jingles for film and TV. But McLernon also has an authentic metal past as the bassist with Florida-based hard rock band Saigon Kick — and it’s catching up with him this month.
Last fall, Saigon Kick announced that the original members were reuniting for a string of hometown and road shows in March and April. The band formed the Ft Lauderdale/Miami area in 1988 with Matt Kramer on lead vocals, Jason Bieler on guitar, Tom DeFile on bass, and Phil Varone on drums. They signed with Third Stone/Atlantic in 1990 and quickly released a self-titled debut. 1991’s The Lizard made a big splash in the metal/grunge scene with the hit power ballad “Love is on the Way.”
McLernon stepped in to replace DeFile in 1992, just in time to record the band’s third LP Water. CMC International issued Devil in the Details in 1995 by CMC International. After several lineup changes, Saigon Kick released a final collection in 1999 titled Bastards.
A native of Mt. Vernon, Ohio, McLernon spent time growing up in North Carolina, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Saudi Arabia before landing in Florida and California, where he began playing music professionally.
McLernon sat down with local musician and Metronome contributor Jason Cooper (his longtime bandmate in Playlist and Weird Science) and shared his stories and experiences with Saigon Kick, then and now.
Metronome Charleston: What initially drove you from the Midwest to Los Angeles?
Chris McLernon: At the time, the parallel was very similar to the silent movie trek in the 1920s where kids would move to Hollywood and go, “I’m going to be a movie star.” In the early to mid ’80s, that was the last wagon train to go out [during the pop-metal era]. There was only one thing left: keep playing in Madison. I had seen what happened to other bands who did that or move to Los Angeles and roll the dice. Try to get in entertainment, and see what happens.
Metronome Charleston: Before you left, what band were you a part of in Madison?
Chris McLernon: The band in Madison, the last one I was in before I moved to Los Angeles, was Sergeant Friday.
Metronome Charleston: And was there something that was the catalyst or did you see or gravitate toward a band that inspired you to work toward a bigger stage?
Chris McLernon: Well there were two. By watching the Beatles in Hard Days Night, I thought, “Man, this could be fun.” At that point, music was music. I could play guitar, but man, they were having a really good time. Hmmm… I like that, and there’s a lot of chicks. Also funny. They were fun, and they were funny. But when I saw Van Halen in 1981, watching the whole stage and just thinking to myself, “Right! That’s what I want to do.” Literally, like a switch. I could remember where I was sitting in the arena, looking at the whole stage. I can picture the band. I can picture the stage. I can picture everything and thinking to myself, “I gotta give it a shot.” So, that was a huge catalyst, and that would have been summer of ’81, and I was a whopping 19 years old.
Metronome Charleston: After taking the bus to L.A., because — I’m assuming that you took a bus to L.A. like everyone else — what was the first band that you joined?
Chris McLernon: Funny enough, a band called Fryday, which was just a truncated version of Sergeant Friday. Not Fridae, but with two “Y’s.” It was bad. So, that was the first one, and by the time I got signed, I counted 27 bands.
Metronome Charleston: Somewhere in there was a Kiss cover band, but before that it was Cold Sweat, right?
Chris McLernon: Yeah, so Cold Sweat was the first band in the “bigs.” It was the first band where I got a major label. You’re on a record, you’re doing a tour, you’re meeting all your idols, and they’re talking to you as a peer. It was like one of those secret societies. All the stuff you’ve always heard about, and these guys who you listened to their records and listened to them on Rockline, now they’re calling you by your first name and saying, “Hey, how are ya?” And you’re like, “Are you talking to me?” So, that was fantastic. But when Cold Sweat would come home, my brain didn’t stop.
A couple of guys in Cold Sweat and a couple of guys in Black and Blue who were on Geffen at the time, put together a thing called Cold Gin, where we just played Kiss songs. It started at birthday parties because that’s what musicians do; you get to go to the birthday parties. We’d get together and play, and people couldn’t believe how good we sounded. We said, “Let’s book a gig. What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Our friends would all show up and laugh. Well, it went fantastically, superbly well. And the next one was bigger, and then the next one was bigger – still just in t-shirts and just playing. And then finally on a Labor day show, Jamie, who was the singer in Black and Blue but the drummer in Cold Gin, dared us to put on the make-up. He said, “We were either going to be the goats or the kings, and I wasn’t going to be a goat.” So, we all put on the make-up, still with just t-shirts, and then it went one level higher. It was just crazy.
Metronome Charleston: Double platinum?
Chris McLernon: Right. So, it was like, “What do we do next?” We did a Halloween show where I got pretty close to the Gene’s outfit, and it went even crazier. So we thought, “We have to do the whole thing.” We went and found the guy who made their shoes, and we had all the outfits made just like theirs. We went “whole hog” and got Kiss’ blessing. We had to sign a possible cease and desist letter, which meant if they told us to knock it off, we had to.
Metronome Charleston: From Cold Gin, the next step was Saigon Kick. How did you become involved with them or how did the audition come about?
Chris McLernon: A friend of mine who was at Polygram/Mercury at the time, called me up in June of ’92 and said, “Saigon Kick is looking for a new bass player.” There were two bands that I wanted to be in: Saigon Kick and Skid Row. Knowing Rachel Bolan, he wasn’t going anywhere in Skid Row. Kind of his thing, so I was like, “Okay, well that one I can kind of put out.” But I couldn’t believe it. So, he got a hold of me and said Saigon Kick wanted a bass player, and I literally overnighted them a package. They called me and said, “Got it, it’s great. We want you to talk to our manager.” I was in Los Angeles, and they were in Florida. So, their manager was in Orange County, California, and I went down there and met him. I flew in a couple days later, and they told me to know both records. I already had an advanced copy of The Lizard, so I’d been listening to it for a couple months.
While I’m getting ready to fly in, they were editing the video for “Love is on the Way.” They were in L.A., but we didn’t meet up. So, I just tried to tighten my stuff up and then fly out there. We just got along from the second I arrived. It was just like, “click.” It went well, but I was the second guy in. And they felt like they needed to see other bass players, and I understood that. I arrived home and headed out to Blockbuster to get a movie or something and come back, and I get a message that said [Saigon Kick guitarist Jason] Bieler had called. I thought, “Oh well, they found somebody.” So, I called back, and he said, “Hey, how you doin’? How was your trip back?” “Great.” And he says, “Oh, by the way, the gig’s yours if you want it.” And I said, ‘Uhh… yeah. How soon do you want me back?” And he said, “How soon can you get here? We’re going on tour next week.” Shit. “Ummm… now. I’ll pack up and I’ll see you.” And that was that. Out in June and came home the next May for The Lizard.
Metronome Charleston: Are there any memorable tours or places during those Saigon Kick years? I heard somewhere that Saigon Kick was big in Malaysia and that you had your own brand of cigarettes there.
Chris McLernon: Oh yeah. Djarum Super. Super taste for super people. They were clove cigarettes. We had arrived in Jakarta, and there was a police escort. First, we got off the plane, and there were all these people wearing vests with our pictures on them. So, I’m sleep deprived, and I’m going, “That’s me, isn’t it?” on thousands of people. And they’re all lined up as we’re coming off the plane. And we’re like, “Wow. Who’s this for? Who’s here?” We got a police escort all the way to the hotel. At the time, we did a little research, and Indonesia… there were 250 million people here. That was huge! That was the only place that I ever had a bodyguard, and I had to mess with him. He’s a great guy, though. He had Sting and Cindy Crawford as previous clients. And then there’s “this guy.” It was the first taste of real, real stardom. Because it’s a big world, and everyone thinks that the U.S. is it, but when you’re trying to have dinner and you can’t eat because you’ve spent the last hour standing up and down out of your chair, signing something, taking a picture, you start to go, “How does Madonna do this?” Because it was constant. Everywhere you go. We couldn’t go anywhere. The police would get angry with us if we just wandered off because we could cause a commotion. I remember with one gig in Bandung or Surabaya, they had an escape route for us in case of a riot! They were expecting riots. They were fully prepared for it to get out of control. And the funny thing at the time was that we had a big song called, “I Love You.” So, who knew that those three words could cause such a commotion? There were no problems, but it was so strange. In 1992, we did most of it by ourselves, but we did open for Extreme for most of the winter of ’93, which was fantastic. They’re great guys and a ridiculously good band. That was absolutely fantastic.
Metronome Charleston: Fast forward to the end of Saigon Kick. Did you leave or was it a mutual disbanding? What happened?
Chris McLernon: At the very, very last gig, it just didn’t seem to go well. There were, in the words of Han Solo, some “imperial entanglements.” Matt Kramer had already left and come back, and we were trying to work stuff out with that. It really didn’t go well. At that point, both Jason Bieler and I had daughters that were very young. Phil Varone had a daughter who was also very young, and you start thinking. “Is this a young man’s game, and do I really want to be that Dad who hears about something on the road?” Like, “Oh, she lost her first tooth today, or she took her first steps today,” and I’m at a truck stop in Mina, North Dakota. I saw our sound guys and truck guys go through that, and the look on their faces was just like this mix of ecstasy and horror.
Metronome Charleston: It seems like the way things were left in 1993 were not so hunky-dory.
Chris McLernon: No. Let’s just say that we could have done a better job. There were no punches; just lots of awkwardness and things being said that probably shouldn’t have been. Alliances that probably shouldn’t have been there or misguided at the time. But the last step was for us to all get together in one room.
I came back to Charleston in ’97. So, it was one of those things where since the time I was 17 or 18, I had given it a shot, so I kept getting overtures to join the family business. Kind of like Michael Corleone. Finally joined, and glad I did.
Metronome Charleston: Something to fall back on?
Chris McLernon: Yes, but there were things that I learned in the regular business world that I long suspected in the music world, but just couldn’t put my finger on it. Like there was a bad smell in the house and you figure that there might be bodies buried under the porch, but you’re not sure. So, some of the things I would learn with accounting and business law, I would just go, “I wish I would have known that!” And I’ve read similar stuff now with Duff McKagan, who’s gone back and got his degree in finance, and he sits down and talks to people and they have to change their tact because they didn’t know he would be so informed. There’s a lot of stuff that I wish I would have learned. After a while, it went well, because in 2000, we [Two Heads Music] were voted the top 10 emerging businesses in Charleston.
Metronome Charleston: What did you do on the creative side after 1997?
Chris McLernon: It took a while because I got rid of all instruments, except for one bass and one guitar. I stuffed them under a bed, and I didn’t play anything for about seven years. Then, one day, my brother called me and asked me to show him how to play “Foolin’” by Def Leppard. I said, “I don’t have a guitar.” But I had taught guitar in college, which ultimately paid for my trip to Los Angeles back in the day. So, I told him that I would get on eBay and find one. In keeping with the theme here of Andy Garcia and Godfather III, they pulled me right back. So, I’m kind of good at this; I’m kind of liking it. I started playing more and more, but I didn’t want to be in another band and start touring again, so I thought, “What can I do?” And that’s when the TV, film, and advertising beast reared its head. There was no label to say that if I’d written a song, is it any good, can it be on the record? Now, if I wrote a song and ABC says, “Eh,” I turn my head and go, “Hey, NBC, what do you think?” And they say, “I love it.”
Metronome Charleston: And these were 30- or 45-second background music pieces for commercials or TV spots? Who have been some of your clients?
Chris McLernon: I’ve been on anything from a GMC Yukon ad to Ridiculousness, which is Rob Dyrdek’s show. When I would get my ASCAP [American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] statement, I couldn’t believe all the other stuff I was on. Man vs. Food loves me. And That Metal Show loves me. I know [That Metal Show host] Ed Trunk from way back, and it’s just funny to read all your credits. A&E Biography, Toddlers and Tiaras, The Office, and a lot of times, I don’t know about it until I see it. There was one time, I was at home on a Saturday, and I was in the kitchen. My wife was in the living room watching TV, and I heard one of my songs. So, I turn to her and go, “Just got paid. That’s me.” Five minutes later, I hear another song. Same show. Or I’ll be in CostCo and hear something. I’ll just go, “Wow, that sounds real familiar,” because you’re not expecting it.
Metronome Charleston: How did Saigon Kick come back into the picture? Had this been the first contact for a reunion?
Chris McLernon: It started about two or three years ago, innocuously enough. Someone said that we have the possibility of doing a gig. So, we all got on a phone call. A friend of mine who road manages Poison, Cinderella, and a bunch of other bands said, “Okay, here’s how it’s going to go.” And he laid out this recipe of the reunion.
The last time I heard all those voices together in one spot was on a tour bus in 1993. And this all started up in about 2010.
Metronome Charleston: From the first call about the reunion, how did it play out from there?
Chris McLernon: It was that cycle. Someone would bring up something old, someone was still fighting it. I was the contact for Saigonkick.com. All of the emails came to me. So, I got this one email that said , “Hey, we would like to book you for a show, blah, blah.” I got rid of it because I was in the middle of doing this surf rock thing, and I put it off until I got home. I forwarded it to the guys. [Saigon Kick vocalist] Matt Kramer knew the guy and said that we might want to choose other people to deal with. He proved his case, but everyone else was like, “What do you think we should do?” My response was, “We’re not getting any younger, and it’s time to fish or cut bait. Let’s decide to do something or not.” [Drummer] Phil Varone had said something similar. So, we decided to do it. And Jason, our guitar player, who’s still in the business and still has all the connections said, “We have all these opportunities to do this, this, and this.” The people on Facebook, the followers have been teased, like, “Are you or aren’t you?” And they see the band is going back and forth. But we all still get along; it’s just a matter of whether or not we can play music. So, we all agreed: let’s do it, and let’s announce that we were going to do it.
Metronome Charleston: You all decided to move you over to guitar and keep [original bassist] Tom DeFile* on bass, playing as a five-piece.
Chris McLernon: Yep, from “Water” on out, I played guitar on the records and Jason played bass on some of the early ones. He liked playing bass, so that’s not a surprise. It was actually Matt’s idea; “Why don’t we do it with the five of us? The band’s not this or that. It’s everybody. So, what do you think of that?” And we all agreed. Actually, the closest thing to it that I’ve seen is Iron Maiden when [guitarist] Adrian Smith left and came back. But they kept [guitarist] Janick Gers. And it worked. So, that’s kind of what we were going to do.
*Last week, Saigon Kick posted an announcement online that read: “We regret to announce that Tom DeFile will not be continuing with the band. Tom and Saigon Kick amicably decided this is best for both parties, and we wish him nothing but success in his future endeavors.”
Metronome Charleston: Will the reunion shows kick off in Florida?
Chris McLernon: South Florida, because the band’s strongpoint is in Fort Lauderdale. So, it makes sense to do it there. In our heyday, we never played Charleston. We played Myrtle Beach, Atlanta, Charlotte. We played Raleigh, Winston-Salem, Hickory, Charlotte, Wilmington. The only gig we ever played in South Carolina was Myrtle Beach. It would be fun to play here.
Metronome Charleston: Thanks for your time, and good luck with the continued success of Saigon Kick.
Chris McLernon: At this point, I’ll take any success. I’m not sure it’s continued. This’ll be interesting. It’s almost like coming out of hyperspace. Like the Millennium Falcon has been in hyperspace for 15 years. Or we’re on Alderaan searching for the Rebel Base, and it’s not there.
Now that I think about it, there was one time in 1996 were we were all at the Viper Room in L.A. and got in a cab together at the same time, seated all together. And we’re like, “Well! We’ve done this before…” It was fine, though. Everyone was always social. Even when Matt left the band, he would always come to our shows, and he’d be honest with what he thought. Which I thought was gracious of him because he didn’t have to do that at all. So, I’m optimistic, but that’s me anyway. But like my friend Larry said, the tour manager for all those bands, once we start playing those first three or four notes and finish that first song, we’ll be like, “Huh! Okay, whatever it is, we’ll figure it out. Because you can’t replace this.” Whatever that is. It’s chemistry, whatever it is, it’s undeniable. For me, those two guys singing together [Jason and Matt], it’s unique.
I have a feeling that’s what’s going to happen again. It’s going to sound the same. And Phil Varone, the way he plays drums… you throw all of that together, and I’m looking forward to hearing it.
Saigon Kick will perform at the State Theater in St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 22 They’ll play at the Green Room in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on March 23. Additional reunion dates include March 29 in Las Vegas, March 30 in West Hollywood, California, and April 11 in New York City.
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