Actor Kevin Bacon and his film-scoring brother, Michael, formed the Bacon Brothers band in 1995. Despite their busy separate careers, they keep their Americana, rock, country, singer-songwriter band going.
The Bacon Brothers released their seventh album, 36 Cents, in 2014. They recently returned to the studio to record a new song written by Kevin Bacon, “Broken Glass.” A 14-date spring and early summer tour will bring them to the Joy Theater in New Orleans on June 5 and the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette on June 6.
Kevin and Michael Bacon grew up in Philadelphia with their four sisters. Their parents’ tastes ranged from the Weavers folk group to Broadway to the renowned Philadelphia Orchestra. Michael Bacon, nine years older than his brother, formed a jug band with his sister, Hilda, when they were high school students. The brothers’ musical partnership began after their sister left for college.
Good News, one of Michael Bacon’s early bands, signed with Columbia Records in the 1960s. He later performed as a frontman, sometimes with his brother as percussionist. In 1972, Michael Bacon moved to Nashville. He worked as a staff songwriter at a music publishing company and recorded two solo albums. Meanwhile, Kevin Bacon moved to New York City to pursue acting.
Michael Bacon eventually moved to New York, too. He has since composed dozens of film and TV scores and won an Emmy award for the 2009 American Experience documentary, The Kennedys.
Kevin Bacon made his film debut in 1978’s Animal House. His more than 70 films and TV series include Apollo 13, Diner, Footloose, Tremors, A Few Good Men, X-Men: First Class, last year’s Patriots Day and the New Orleans-filmed JFK.
In advance of their tour, the Bacon Brothers spoke to OffBeat.
You formed the Bacon Brothers band in 1995, after you’d making music together offstage for decades. Why the long wait?
Kevin: Michael has always been a full-time professional musician. We’d been writing stuff to try to get other people to record it. And then a friend of ours from Philly heard some of the demos we made to try to get other people to record the songs. Our friend said, ‘Come down to Philly and play a Bacon Brothers show.’
I was between jobs and thought that could be fun. Mike said, ‘You’ll play guitar and I’ll play guitar. We’ll get a bass player and percussionist.’ I said, ‘I don’t play well enough to stand in front of people and play guitar!’ Mike said, ‘Yeah, you can do it.’ So, I immediately started woodshedding. We pulled up old stuff and a few covers that had relatively simple changes, things that I could handle.
We went down to Philly and played the first show. That was it. Everything else has been an evolution of that. The reason we still play is because we started writing songs for us to play ourselves, as opposed to writing stuff for other people to play.
With Kevin’s acting work and Michael composing and teaching film scoring at Lehman College in New York, has it been a challenge to keep the band going for 22 years?
Kevin: It is a long time. It’s always challenging to carve out the time to continue doing it. And I’m someone who wants everything to be a smash. But we’ve done really well, yet we haven’t cracked the mainstream. Many places where we go no one even knows that we have the band. That’s sometimes frustrating for me.
But I always like the playing. It’s a cliché, but I always like the making of the music. The rest of it—and I feel the same way about acting—my tolerance for travel and press, soundchecks and hotels and buses, that kind of stuff, that’s something you have a lot of patience for when you’re 19. But the playing is always fun. Even if a show does not go well, there’s a good one right behind it.
Are you comfortable being called an Americana band?
Michael: That’s a good word. In my mind, Americana is the Band and the Jayhawks, two of my all-time favorites. The difference, though, at least for my brother and I, is we’re not reminiscing about a time long ago. I was always Americana. It was acoustic guitar, Hammond B-3 organs, drum sets, percussion and electric guitar. Even the Jayhawks, who are younger than I am, they’re going back and trying to grab something. But this is the music I’ve always done best. If you listen to my records from the late ’60s and through the ’70s and ’80s, I’ve never deviated from that kind of song.
There’s a nine-year difference in age between the two of you. When you were still at home with your parents in Philadelphia, did you sing and play music together for fun, before there was a Bacon Brothers band?
Michael: My sister and I had a jug band together. We rehearsed in a basement. At that point, if I was 15, Kevin was 6. He sat at the top of the stairs and listened. It was a really a fun band. After my sister went away to college, Kevin and I played music and wrote songs.
What sort of ambitions did you have for the songs you wrote together?
Michael: We tried to write songs that we could cash in on what was happening at the time.
You wanted to write a hit?
Michael: Exactly. We still do. But we found out that we were better at writing more personal songs. Those are the songs that people respond to.
Your father was a nationally known architect and city planner in Philadelphia. Did he set an example for you guys?
Kevin: That’s our roots—building something, playing something, writing something, drawing something. Those are the things that we were expected to do.
Michael: In our family, creativity was ingrained in us. And once you create something, you want to make it great. You don’t do it just to get through it. You do it because you dream about how good it can be.
Many younger brothers look up to their older brothers. Is that true for you, Kevin?
Kevin: Yeah, definitely. Mike was cool and creative. He played music and wrote songs. I would go to see his shows. Girls were into him. I looked up to him.
Michael: Kevin didn’t need much teaching. When he first began, he didn’t play an instrument, he had no technical understanding of music, but I can see talent in people immediately. I knew that Kevin had enormous talent for music and acting.
Did you want to be a pop star, Kevin, when you were a kid?
Kevin: I wanted to be a star anyway I could get it. I was into the Beatles and the Monkees, the Partridge Family and David Cassidy and the Jackson 5. Sometimes music and acting overlap. The Beatles made three movies. I would have been happy if my way to acting had been a hit song. But I started taking acting classes. I got serious about it.
There’s a great history of brothers making music together. The Beach Boys, the Kinks, the Jackson 5, the Everly Brothers, the Stanley Brothers, Oasis, etc. Do you guys have that special sibling chemistry?
Michael: What makes us different from all the groups that you mentioned is that those groups had enormous success early in their lives. We’re kind of backwards. We have to move forward without people coming to the shows because they want to hear a hit song we did 20 years ago.
Many bands out there now have careers that peaked a long time ago. Our career is still unfolding. That’s exciting. Anticipation is a fantastic thing. The main thing that I love about our band is that we’re getting better. Kevin’s development as a musician, in the past 20 years, is amazing. And I’m a much better singer, player and songwriter now.
Kevin: When we started playing with the band, I had very little experience playing live and even less experience recording. It was sort of like doing theater your whole life and then setting foot on a movie set for the first time. But now I really like the studio and feel comfortable there. Working on this new song has been really fun.
How is the new Bacon Brothers recording coming along?
Michael: The new single is called “Broken Glass.” We’re really excited about it. We were playing it live, but we changed it in the studio. Kevin said it wasn’t dark enough. As soon as he said that, it became the same conversation I, as a film composer, have with a client. That’s an exciting process for me.
Kevin: When Michael and I write, we usually start with guitars or, sometimes, piano. We tend to do demos. But with this one, we didn’t do that. I just played it for Mike and the guys. It’s turned into something that I didn’t ever envision. I like it.
Do you guys have a method for writing songs?
Michael: No. In all the years of us writing songs, we haven’t found a time of day to do it or room to write in. We don’t sit somewhere for an hour and make a song. The more successful writing is about responding to the feelings, moods and experiences we have.
Is there an advantage in being an actor who’s also a songwriter?
Kevin: When you’re playing a part, you’re ripped opened emotionally. You have to keep yourself in a vulnerable place. Oftentimes, depending on the part, you are more open to songs finding their way to you.
Here’s a question for Kevin. How serious about acting were you before you moved to New York?
Kevin: It started coming on in Philly. I was apprenticing at a few small theaters, hanging out with older actors and seeing the actor’s life. The romance of staging a play and being backstage became super desirable to me. Moving to New York was a way to fulfill that need to be part of the theater.
Here’s a question for Michael. Did you think Kevin might be a professional musician?
Michael: To me, he always was a musician. I was probably in Nashville when I heard he’d been auditioning for acting parts. The first thing I saw him in was Animal House, a huge hit. After that, we saw him in Diner. People were lined up around the block. I knew something was going on. Whatever musical thing we had was on the back burner then, but we never stopped writing together.
Here’s one more question for Kevin. You filmed JFK in New Orleans. You were in the city for only four days to film your role, but what did you take away from the experience?
Kevin: I loved doing JFK in New Orleans. JFK was a real turning point for my movie career. And I love the history of New Orleans and the architecture and the culture and the music and the food. After Hurricane Katrina, my family and I came down at Christmas. We rolled up our sleeves. We didn’t change the world, but it was a good, positive Christmas experience to see what we could do to help.
The Bacon Brothers will perform June 5 at the Joy Theater in New Orleans and June 6 at the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette.