Singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer
After working for years paying his dues as a side-man, New York’s Kevin Salem emerged as a powerful singer-songwriter and guitarist in the mid 1990s, regularly drawing comparisons to the legendary Neil Young, among others, for his talent. Salem possesses an ear for melody, fills his songs with spirited lyrics, yearning, heartache, and stark observations about life, and knows how to cut loose on his instrument without sounding chaotic. “It seems like a guitar thing,” Salem explained to Boston Globe staff writer Jim Sullivan, “but it all ties into lyrics more than people would suspect. I think one is not above the other. There’s another voice beyond the ’sung’ word, a note that’s played. Two verses might make sense and the third one comes from nowhere, but if you’re lucky you’ve got 25 seconds to tie them together with a guitar line. That’s what’s important about the use of guitar, the energy and dynamics.”
Indeed, Salem’s personal list of favorite albums all contain a certain degree of edginess. They include Young’s Tonight’s the Night, Lou Reed’s Berlin, Iggy & the Stooges’ Raw Power, and Wire’s Pink Flag. However, Salem also counts a range of other artists as significant influences: Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Keith Richards, Bob Mould, Son Volt and Wilco, Patti Smith, Patty Smythe, Guided By Voices, Ween, Steve Earle, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Last Poets, Public Enemy, Hank Williams, and Ozzy Osbourne. Through the years, in fact, Salem earned the opportunity to work with many of these artists, either as a sideman, producer, or both.
A man who truly lives to make music, Salem takes the spirit of his records onto the stage. During performances, he loves to play requests and appreciates fans telling him how much they enjoy his music. “This is the corner I’ve been painting myself into from the time I was five years old,” Salem said in an interview with Michael Henningsen for the Weekly Alibi. “I quit working so that I wouldn’t have an income, so that I would have to keep doing music until I could earn a living from it.” Whether co-writing songs for artists such as the Courage Brothers and Butch Vig, producing albums for Madder Rose, Yo La Tengo, or Lisa Loeb, or recording and performing his own work, Salem has succeeded in fulfilling his lifelong dream.
Despite the critical praise awarded to his two solo albums, Soma City released in 1994 and Glimmer released in 1996, Salem hasn’t yet become a house-hold name or a regular on pop-rock radio. But he has allowed neither the lack of popularity nor the state of the music industry itself to bother him.“This is the most gratifying way to make a living I can think of,” he told Sullivan. “Any b****es I have about the lifestyle are minor compared to what I get back from it. I get to play every night, make a record once a year, help other people make records and, at the end of it all, there’ll be a body of work, and I’ll be happy to have that.”
Born in 1960, Salem spent his childhood in the small mining town of Johnstown in rural Pennsylvania where he discovered rock music in spite of the isolation. As a teen, he would make trips to Pittsburgh to buy records, picking up anything that came out of England. “When I was a teen-ager and first heard Television’s Marquee Moon,” he recalled to Rolling Stone’s Robert Gordon, “it was like somebody plugging me into the wall.” Even today, Salem, like his predecessors, continues to favor unencumbered instrumentation over the use of modern technology, allowing the music’s own presence and integrity to dominate. As Gordon noted, “You can practically see your reflection in the guitar’s glare.”
In the early 1980s, Salem finally left his hometown and headed for London. Sharing a windowless apartment with 14 other people, though, soon became tiresome, and Salem returned to the United States and ended up in Boston, Massachusetts. “That was about 1984, right when Mission of Burma called it quits,” said Salem, referring to the seminal punk band. “The scene was really happening. The Pixies always had cool guitar textures, and I did some work with Charles—Frank Black, rather.” A few years later, in 1987, Salem joined the moderately successful Boston-based indie band Dumptruck “because they gave me room to stretch out,” he explained to Gordon.
After three years as Dumptruck’s rhythm guitarist—during which time Salem recorded with the band what was arguably their best album, For the Country— Salem grew weary of the group’s legal troubles and
Born in 1960 in Johnstown, PA; married Kate Hyman, 1999.
Joined Boston, MA, garage band Dumptruck, 1987; released solo debut Soma City, 1994; released Glimmer, 1996. Salem has also played on records by Chris Harford, Yo La Tengo, Freedy Johnston, Marc Cohn, Matt Keating, Buzz Zeemer, and Pooh Sticks. He has produced records for various artists including Madder Rose, Scarce, Grover, the Courage Brothers, and Giant Sand.
Awards: Rolling Stone critics’ poll, Best New Male Singer (shared with Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day), 1995.
inward disputes. Thus, he decided to relocate to Brooklyn, New York, to pursue a solo career. Writing and performing his own music, Salem, by now well-known for his spiraling guitar playing for Dumptruck, soon became a mainstay on the New York scene. He also caught the ear of fellow songwriter Freedy Johnston, who tapped Salem to record and perform with his band for four years. “I’ve always been an admirer of Kevin’s intensity and the way he loses himself onstage,” said Johnson, as quoted by Gordon. “The notes just vibrate from his arms to the guitar, through the chord and out the amp.”
During this time, Salem also played gigs with the likes of Yo La Tengo, Miracle Legion, and the Pooh Sticks and drifted toward producing for others. During breaks from his various projects, he coached his former girlfriend Mary Larson’s band Madder Rose, and produced the group’s first album, Bring It Down. Subsequently, he added recordings by Lisa Loeb, Cheri Knight, and Scarce to his growing list of production credits.
All the while Salem managed to find time to concentrate on his endeavors as a solo artist as well. Throughout the early 1990s, he wrote and recorded several songs as a band gradually fell together. He received offers from several record companies, including bigname labels, but ultimately decided to sign a deal with Roadrunner Records, an odd choice given the fact that Roadrunner boasts a roster comprised mainly of heavy metal acts. “I think at first it was maybe some kind of obstinance or rebellion on my part,” he explained to Henningsen regarding his decision to take Roadrun-ner’s offer. “I thought, ’Well, if this works, it’s going to be genius.’” Besides the novelty of a no-nonsense rocker signing with a metal label, Salem also felt that the other deals seemed too standard. “Everything else just sort of felt about the same, sort of predictable to me. And I look at (the contract with Roadrunner) as an experiment. I can’t tell you whether it’s going to succeed or fail, but it’s going to be interesting.”
Much more than an object of interest, Salem’s debut album, Soma City, won positive responses from established rock critics and listeners alike upon its release in 1994. Recorded in five days, Soma City included the droning seven-minute “Diviner,” a restrained song that ends with a blissful guitar solo, as well as upbeat numbers such as “Will” and “Remain.” Soma City producer, Niko Bolas, offered his help to Salem in between jobs recording for Rod Stewart and Billy Joel. “[Bolas] walked past a club and heard me playing,” Salem recalled to Gordon about how the two met, “then introduced himself and said he’d like to record me sometime. I didn’t know he did Neil Young records.” Eventually, Salem discovered that he and Bolas shared common musical interests, including a preference for a raw sound in the studio and a willingness to push the envelope.
In recognition of his talent, Salem was named by Rolling Stone in its 1995 critics’ poll as a finalist for Best New Male Singer, an honor he shared with Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day. Following a tour in support of Soma City, including several dates opening for Wilco, and the loss of rhythm guitarist Todd Novak, Salem returned to New York to work on a follow-up effort with Bolas. Glimmer, a collection of 12 songs that includes “Run Run Run,” “Destructible,” “Innocence,” and “Underneath,” a ten-minute jam with Crazy Horse rhythm guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro and pedal steel guitarist David Mansfield, a Dylan sideman, also won critical raves. These and other tracks were recorded in one take, with “Underneath,” incredibly, written just ten minutes before it went to tape.
Since Glimmer, Salem has yet to release another solo album, although he continues to write and produce for others. Among other projects, Salem produced Favorite Waste of Time in 1997, a debut effort by Todd Thibaud (formerly of the Courage Brothers); produced Selfish Propensities for Nana the following year; and co-produced the acclaimed Giant Sand album Chore of Enchantment in 2000. On April 22, 1999, in Treasure Beach, Jamaica, Salem married Kate Hyman, an A&R executive for V2 Records.
Soma City, Roadrunner, 1994.
Glimmer, Roadrunner, 1996.
North By Northwest, North By Northwest, 1991.
Naked Rhythms, Steam, 1993.
Safe and Sound: A Benefit in Response to the Brookline Clinic Violence, Big Rig/Mercury, 1996.
Billboard, June 15, 1996; August 3, 1996; February 22, 1997; February 21, 1998; May 15, 1999; February 26, 2000.
Boston Globe, May 5, 1995; May 18, 1995; September 12, 1996; July 5, 1998.
Magnet, October/November 1996.
Rolling Stone, January 26, 1995; February 9, 1995; September 19, 1996.
USA Today, November 12, 1996.
War Against Silence, Issue 81, August 15, 1996.
Weekly Alibi (Las Vegas, NV), September 11-17, 1996.
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