Kevin Bacon and brother Michael on music, family and arm wrestling women
The veteran actor and his brother formed their musical group, the Bacon Brothers, in 1995. “One of the bands I played in, at 13, was called Footloose!” Kevin recalls.
There is one degree of separation between Kevin Bacon and his older brother, Michael. And that’s a very good thing for these siblings, who — as the Bacon Brothers — have recorded eight albums and performed an average of at least 50 times a year since launching their band in 1995.
Indeed, had Michael not signed a record deal at the age of 20 and toured the country as a member of the folk-rock duo Good News, Kevin might well have become a musician, not an actor.
“Oh, yeah, that was huge for Michael to go out and have a career,” said Kevin, 61, who performs Monday at the Belly Up with Michael, 69, and their Bacon Brothers band. (Ticket information appears below.) The two Philadelphia natives spoke for nearly 30 minutes in a recent joint phone interview, with Kevin calling in from Los Angeles and Michael from New York.
“As far as acting goes, I think that besides the fact that I was good at it — well, I was OK — I liked being an actor,” Kevin said. “Part of becoming an actor was (driven) both by my own sense of self in the family and (because) it was kind of assumed that, since Michael was a musician, I should probably do something else.”
There was one other key factor for the Bacon brothers, two of five siblings in a Philadelphia family with several musically gifted members. That factor was their mother, Ruth, who had a very clear sense that her children should each chart their own path.
“My mother definitely steered me towards a career in acting and got me into theater,” Kevin said. “She pushed me into whatever theater options she could find in Philadelphia. And part of that was: ‘Your brother is a musician; you (don’t) follow in your brother’s footsteps.’ I think I was more drawn into the songwriting part of it, so I started writing songs when I was really young.”
Michael helped aspiring troubadour Kevin set his first batch of lyrics to music. But before he emulated Michael by picking up a guitar, Kevin gravitated toward another instrument and joined a band whose name seemed to anticipate the 1984 movie that remains one of the best-known of his career.
“I played percussion and I had a drum set; I wasn’t a guitar player,” recalled Kevin, who now shares vocal, songwriting and six-string duties with Michael. “I played in bands in Philly. Surprisingly, one of the bands I played in, at 13, was called Footloose! It was a backup band for Chet Brown, who changed the name to Jet.”
Kevin’s success as an actor is a matter of record. So is his wide dramatic range, which has been showcased in such films as “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “A Few Good Men,” “Mystic River,” “Frost/Nixon,” “X-Men: First Class,” “Apollo 13" and “Patriots Day.”
Emmy Award-winning composer
Less known to the general public is the career trajectory of his brother, Michael, who started off singing jug band-styled music with their sister, Hilda. He eventually went on to become an Emmy Award-winning TV and film composer.
Good News, Michael’s folk-rock duo with Larry Gold, released its self-titled Columbia Records debut album in 1970. They then toured the country, opening concerts for Chicago, Mountain (which Michael recalls as “the loudest band in the world, without doubt — it was not a good fit”) and other top bands of the day.
“That was my first move into the commercial music industry,” Michael said. “I was a very eager young man and the group did well very quickly. It was really a seminal point. Before I joined Good News, I was a college student and about to go back to my senior year at the University of Denver as an International Relations major. And Larry said: ‘I’m putting this band together. Why don’t you be the lead singer and guitarist?’
“I jumped at the chance, packed my van up and went into the music business, full-time. That was a critical time. A lot of it has to do with that era of the late 1960s, when people said: ‘Just do what you want to do for fun.’ And the economics of the country at the time gave you the opportunity to say: ‘Well, I’ll do that now, and then I can get a straight job for the rest of my life.’
“Unfortunately, I don’t think kids feel that way now. Back then, you had the hippie movement and the Vietnam war, and the economy was strong. That made it a perfect time for someone like myself, who did not have a lot of confidence, to say: ‘Why not try it?’ And Larry had confidence that rubbed off on me. I found myself on stage, singing for a lot of people.”
Michael subsequently made two solo albums during a period that saw Kevin briefly join his older brother’s band.
“When Good News broke up, Mike — do I have the timeline right? — decided to do a solo thing and started playing gigs as Michael Bacon,” Kevin recalled. “He put together a band I was part of, with Michael on guitar and vocals, a bass player, a woman on background vocals and me on percussion. I was 13 or 14. We played some gigs. We played at the Main Point” (a storied music club in a Philadelphia suburb).
After his solo career concluded, Michael laid the foundation for what would become a fruitful career composing music for movies and TV shows. His Emmy win came in 1992 for his score for “The Kennedys” and Michael has specialized in writing scores for historical documentaries for PBS and HBO. For good measure, he has written songs that have been recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis, Peter, Paul & Mary alum Peter Yarrow and Carlene Carter, among others.
Strong Philadelphia roots
Michael now teaches film scoring as a distinguished lecturer at Lehman College, where he studied composition and orchestration with Pulitzer Prize-winning contemporary classical composer John Corigliano.
Does Michael use the scores to any of Kevin’s movies in his class?
“Um, I’ve never included any,” Michael replied. “I teach a class about highlights in film scoring history and I include a lot of music by John Williams, Bernard Herrman, Ennio Moriccone and Jerry Goldsmith. But, so far, none of the scores to Kevin’s films have been used in my class.”
Kevin and Michael first teamed up as the Bacon Brothers in 1995 to perform at a charity event. They had no plans to work together after that. But their artistic chemistry was as undeniable as their passion for Americana music and the classic rock and soul of the 1960s and early ‘70s both grew up embracing.
Their first album together, “Forosoco,” was released in 1997. Their most recent, “The Bacon Brothers,” came out just last year. Both brothers grew up in Philadelphia, the hometown of Jim Croce, the Todd Rundgren-led band Nazz, Hall & Oates, the stable of fabled Philly Soul artists and Da Pliars, to cite just a few examples.
“The difference between my influences and Kevin’s is that I started out as a huge folk-music fan and was pretty much a folkie until The Beatles and the British Invasion, and then I switched gears completely,” Michael said. “I would guess Kevin feels he grew up post-British Invasion and that he heard less of the Broadway, folk and jazz our parents exposed me to.”
“Yeah,” agreed Kevin, who is married to actress Kyra Sedgwick. “My parents, by the time I came around, weren’t playing so much classical music and show tunes in the house. The one thing I’d say about Philly is that it was a great music town. I listened to the radio all the time and there were DJs who were very influential.
“Growing up there, we were very entrenched with all kinds of music. All those bands you just mentioned, except for Da Pliars, were important to me, and — later — (Bruce) Springsteen. We saw him kind of as a hometown boy, because the Jersey Shore is Philadelphia’s riviera!”
In the Bacon Brothers’ 2010 song, “New Year’s Day,” which was written by Kevin, he sings: The endless summer / Sometimes it seems these California dreams are just one long bummer / And I was born the son of a Mummer.
Was the Bacons’ father really a Mummer (a reference to the brightly costumed celebrants who parade through Philadelphia each Jan. 1)?
Or was using the word “Mummer” a convenient way to rhyme with “summer,” as Beach Boys-styled falsetto vocals soar in the background of “New Year’s Day?”
“The latter,” replied Kevin. “Out father was anything but a Mummer. But ‘Mummer’ is a tough word to rhyme. We did march in one parade and we did a fundraiser for the Mummers.”
Making music while making movies
Making music and acting are two very different crafts. Is it possible for Kevin to work on his music when he’s on a film or TV set?
“It is,” he said.
“I keep a guitar in my trailer or dressing room. Like most people, my (recording) studio situation is just a computer and a microphone. And those are easily portable. It kind of depends on the job, whether it’s a type of role where I want to step out (of character) and play music. There are times when I do, and times when I don’t. It depends on the role.
“The other thing I’d say is that, in acting, it is very important to emotionally be in touch with what you’re doing. As an actor, you’re called upon to play these parts. And, sometimes in acting, that digging into things, emotionally, ends up being valuable, song-wise. So I have written a lot of music while I’m working (on set).”
Kevin and Michael write separately, rather than together.
“We’re constantly surprising each other with the songs we come up with,” Michael said.
“In a funny way, we’re in the best situation, creatively, that we’ve ever been in. We’re about to go on tour the day after tomorrow, and we have seven brand new songs we’re eager to get into the set. In past years, we maybe had one new song. I’m pretty excited what I’m hearing out of my brother’s brain, and mine. ... Even though a song may not be based entirely on your personal experience, I find they are based on at least partly on your experience and then you follow the song wherever it takes you.”
In that case, how autobiographical is Kevin’s 1999 song, “Arm Wrestling Woman,” from the Bacon Brothers’ “Getting There” album?
“You’re funny!” Kevin said. “You know, that’s a perfect example of a fantasy song based on reality. I was at a street fair in New York with my wife, Kyra. All of a sudden, I turned around and she was up on the back of a truck in an arm-wrestling contest. She made it to the second round. And I thought: ‘This is an interesting idea for a song!’ But elements of the song are like her and personal to who she is. ...
“One thing I would say, though, is that you do have time with a song to get it right. Maybe it’s a little bit different in filmmaking, because you have that schedule and only have so much shooting time each day and have to get the thing done. With a song, a new song, if you want to take some time and live with it a while, you can. ... So I think there’s a little less pressure with music, deadline-wise, especially since we don’t have a record company to report to. As long as we keep writing new songs, that keeps our motors running.”
Kevin and Michael Bacon on their first concerts
Kevin: “Wow, it’s hard to remember. And I’ll tell you why: My best friend’s father was a rock promoter, so I started going to concerts when I was very young. I saw Janis Joplin, Delaney & Bonnie, B.B. King, (Led) Zeppelin and the (Rolling) Stones. I can also say I saw Michael Bacon! I had the benefit, as a child, of having a lot of live music experiences, and it was great.”
Michael: “I went to a concert. I don’t recall if it was at The Spectrum, but it was an all-British Invasion lineup, with the Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits and Gerry & The Pacemakers. I went by myself and picked up a girl, and I dated her for a year.”
Kevin: “I never heard that.”
Michael: “There are many stories you’ve never heard.”
Kevin: “That’s a song right there!”
The Bacon Brothers, with Cindy Alexander
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Where: Belly Up, 142 South Cedros Ave., Solana Beach
Tickets: $45 (general admission), $79 (reserved loft seating), plus service charges
Phone: (858) 481-8140
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