Far Behind On Candlebox’s Career? This Interview Will Catch You Up.
Starting out in the early-’90s grunge scene, Candlebox lead singer Kevin Martin didn’t feel like a soon-to-be rock star. “I wasn’t living the lifestyle of the other Seattle musicians,” he tells me over Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. “I wasn’t a bike messenger like [Pearl Jam’s] Jeff Ament was, and I didn’t work at a coffee shop like half the other musicians in Seattle did. I worked at a shoe store. Then I went and worked at a really nice shoe store and I had to wear suits and nice shoes and stuff.”
And yet, fame found him. Along with guitarist Peter Klett, bassist Bardi Martin, and drummer Scott Mercado, Martin sold four million copies of Candlebox’s 1993 self-titled debut — which housed early hits like “Far Behind” and “You.” They toured with everyone from Radiohead to Rush to Metallica. They were the first act to sign to Madonna’s Maverick Records label, which would later sign decade favorites like Alanis Morissette and the Prodigy.
Still, the Seattle quartet arguably suffered from a bout of bad timing. Formed in 1991, Candlebox began releasing albums a few years after Emerald City peers like Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, and Soundgarden. Boasting a studio-slick sound and imbuing their melodies with elements of blues and glam-rock, Candlebox were dismissed as poseurs by authenticity-obsessed fans who also called them out for an apparent lack of Seattle roots (Martin was born in Illinois, grew up in San Antonio, and moved to Seattle in the mid-’80s). Even Courtney Love famously attacked Candlebox, accusing them of “riding the coattails” of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. Undeterred, the band hit back, dressing up like Love on a 1995 cover of local newspaper The Rocket.
The band eventually parted ways after releasing 1995’s gold-certified Lucy and 1998’s less successful Happy Pills, but Martin has sporadically returned to Candlebox, releasing 2008’s Into The Sun, 2012’s Love Stories & Other Musings, and 2016’s Disappearing In Airports, on top of fronting two other bands, the now-defunct Hiwatts and the Gracious Few, which also featured members of Live. Later, in 2018, the band’s original lineup finally reunited in Seattle to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its debut album, and now Martin is prepping the release of Candlebox’s seventh studio album, Wolves, arriving Sept. 17 via Pavement Entertainment.
Featuring collaborations from Chris Cornell’s older brother Peter Cornell, who contributed to the blues-rock jaunt “Let Me Down Easy,” and Blind Melon’s Christopher Thorn, who co-wrote the wry-sounding “All Down Hill From Here,” Wolves is largely Martin’s attempt at making sense of the sociopolitical whiplash the country has experienced. “The record has a movement to it where there’s beauty, there’s pain, there’s manic highs, there’s incredible lows, and there’s aggressiveness,” he says. “I just felt that the title not only represented the songs, but represented my emotions and my experiences over the past five years of watching this society sadly crumble in front of me. It scares the shit out of me. I don’t know where we’re going.”
In the lead-up to Wolves‘ release, Martin hopped on a Zoom call to walk through Candlebox’s latest release, what he remembers about Candlebox “being the redheaded stepchild of Seattle” in the ’90s, and — speaking of Seattle — why the Nevermind baby’s child pornography lawsuit is “ridiculous.”
When did you start writing Wolves, and what was behind the decision to release it now?
KEVIN MARTIN: We recorded this in August 2019. It’s been that long that I’ve been sitting on this record. I finished the vocals in January 2020 and the record was mixed and mastered in February. It was supposed to come out last August, so we’ve been sitting on it for two years now. The nice thing about that is we’re really been getting to know the songs and getting acclimated and know that we made the right record for us right now.
I don’t really ever know if it’s time to release an album. I’m not the most prolific musician. I’ve got guitars sitting here [Kevin motions behind him], but I’m not constantly writing. So when I feel like it’s time to make a record, I feel like it’s time to make a record. I really, really wish that this had come out last year when it was supposed to, but of course with the pandemic and everything, it’s just not feasible. The songs aren’t fresh to us, they’re fresh to our audience. We’ve been playing five songs in the set live from it, and the audience is enjoying them, so I guess there’s no better time than the present really.
In a recent interview, you were really honest about having different kinds of income streams, unrelated to Candlebox. That stood out to me because a lot of career musicians I’ve talked to over the years can be a little coy about the kinds of jobs that they’ve had that are unrelated to music.
MARTIN: Yeah, sure, I’m happy to talk about it. The rise and fall of Candlebox in the ‘90s was, I think, inevitable. And I think we all knew as a band that the success that we had with the first record, we were never, ever going to see again. You cross your fingers, you hope it’s going to happen, but the reality is, we knew that we were a Seattle band that came along years after everybody else. So we knew that other things in our lives were going to have to sustain us, and I’ve always been a bit of an entrepreneur when it comes to investing in upstarts.
When my wife started discussing doing a clothing line, I had come home from a tour, I think it was 2010. I was just miserable and I was sick of paying this exorbitant cost of living in Los Angeles. I just said, “Listen, we’re moving. We’re moving to Texas or some place where we can afford to live,” and she’s like, “Well, I want to start this clothing line, and I need to be here in Los Angeles.” So I funded that for her and it took off.
For me, getting involved in outside businesses keeps my life interesting. I’m a very normal, if you will, rock star that doesn’t really live his life that way. I love being home with my family, I love hanging out with my son and doing things that normal people do. Music has always been secondary to me. I don’t know if that’s the right thing to say, but I’m very lucky that I’ve had this career, and I don’t take it for granted, but I also understand that I’m not John Lennon or I’m not Eddie Vedder. I’m not one of these musicians that is constantly playing music and constantly producing music, constantly creating. It’s just not who I am as a musician, and that was a hard thing to accept, I think, for a while. Certainly in the early 2000s, when I was trying to start my other band, the Hiwatts, I had hoped that I was a little bit more prolific, but it’s just kind of who I am.
I much more prefer the outside workings of Kevin Martin’s life than Candlebox, which I think is strange. I mean, it should be the only thing I focus on, but it’s just really not. That could be a fault of mine as well: If I focused a little bit harder, maybe my career would be at a different place. But I really love my life. I love my son, I love my wife, I love everything that’s happened to me.
You have a couple of collaborations on Wolves — “Let Me Down Easy” features a co-write from Chris Cornell’s brother, Peter Cornell. What’s your history with the Cornell family, aside from the fact that you all started in Seattle?
MARTIN: I knew Chris [Cornell] when I was working [at a shoe store] in Seattle. I actually just found out the guy from Walking Dead, Negan, is that his name? He used to work there as well, it’s called Fluevog Shoes. I was 16, I was traveling to downtown Seattle when I’d get out of school. I was in an advancement class program, so I would get out early and be at Fluevog by one o’clock. I actually met almost all the singers of rock bands in Seattle from that shoe store, because Susan Silver was managing Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, she was also Chris’s girlfriend at the time and became his wife later on.
She’d make the flyers up and the guys would come in for the flyers. In the ‘80s, Seattle was a city where you could still tag telephone poles, so that’s what they would do. They’d all come in to get the flyers, and that’s how I first met Chris and Layne [Staley]. And Chris and I just kind of had that connection through Susan for years, up until unfortunately when they got divorced and then I didn’t see him for a while. But then I ran into him about five years ago down here at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and he was in the parking garage waiting for his car, I was like “Hey man, how are you?” He’s like, “Oh my god, I haven’t seen you in how many years?” I was like, “It’s been like fucking 10 years.”
It was nice to see him. I hadn’t had a conversation with him in probably 15 years. The last time I saw him was 2005 when he was on his solo tour. It was strange to reconnect with him. And then when I saw Pete in Seattle, we went back to play these two reunion shows for the 25th anniversary of the debut album, and he was there with my now-manager, Amy — they’re married now. Amy used to manage Chris, so it’s kind of a strange circle. I was just talking to [Peter], I said, “Man, I always loved what you produced back in the day.” He had a band called the Inflatable Soul which was really, really cool. And I said, “I’m looking to expand my songwriting on this album, I want to start collaborating with more musicians, would you be interested in writing something for me?”
And he said “Yeah man, I’d love to. I haven’t really written anything since Chris’ passing, but let me see if I can dig something up.” So I daresay that this song for him was perhaps an opportunity to exorcise some emotions that he had. Because when he sent it to me, it felt exactly like it feels on this record, but he sent it to me on an acoustic guitar with a slide, and it had so much attitude. It was so aggressive and painful and bluesy, it’s like you and I are sitting on a tree stump next to Robert Johnson talking about some bad decisions we’re about to make.
Likewise, how did you end up connecting with Christopher Thorn of Blind Melon for the track “All Down Hill From Here”?
MARTIN: I’ve known Christopher since 1994. He and Brad Smith from Blind Melon moved out to Seattle, I want to say in 1993? They had recorded their debut album at London Bridge Studio, and I think the two of them fell in love with Seattle. We actually had Christopher and Brad play on a couple of B-sides on our Lucy record, which was a treat for us. Christopher’s house was about six blocks from mine in Seattle, so I would walk over there and have coffee with him in the morning. We became very, very fast friends.
And then he started building a studio in the basement of his house. I used to be a builder-contractor, and I was like, “Well, I live down the street, I’ll come help you build it.” Now he lives out in Joshua Tree. I was out there looking at properties that I wanted to buy, and I stopped by his studio. We wrote two songs, and it happened very fast. The conversations were just about life and our experiences and careers and what we’d both gone through. Of course there’s nothing worse than losing a musician in the middle of a tour, and Shannon [Hoon] was somebody I had never met, but [was] an incredibly special human being, musically. So our conversation lent itself to these two songs that we wrote, which are “Don’t Count Me Out” and “All Down Hill From Here.”
I’d like to go back to something you said earlier, where you describe yourself as a less-than-typical rock star. How did that feeling show up for you during the peak Candlebox years? Did you always feel that you differed from your peers when it came to the rock band lifestyle?
MARTIN: Oh sure. Well, I’m super OCD, so I’m constantly picking up and cleaning and straightening and moving. I mean, even our rehearsal studio, it looked like a recording studio because it was just so set up to be what I felt was conducive to our working environment. The normal messy rock star that has shit everywhere — I’m not that guy. Everything is very precise with me. And I also was a drummer. I mean, I never wanted to be a singer in a rock band, I kind of got stuck with this gig.
So I knew I wasn’t the guy that was living in my mom’s basement, taking drugs and drinking alcohol and having his girlfriend drop him off at band practice. I had other aspirations that were financially very beneficial to me. So the thought of being in a rock band and not having any money and not being able to do what I wanted to do and live in a nice apartment or a nice house, I think maybe set me apart from them. But that’s not to say that those guys weren’t able to have an incredible life living that way, I just wasn’t that guy. I’ve never been that guy. I remember Bardi [Martin] and Pete [Klett], our bass player and guitar player, lived together in the University District and their apartment was just horrible. I was just like, “Man, how do you live like this?” They’re like, “What, we’re musicians?”
So I think that the fact that I didn’t really want to be the singer in a rock band maybe sets me apart from everybody else. Because everybody wanted to be a singer in a rock band in Seattle, or at least in some sort of successful rock band. Being a singer always seemed to be the gig that everybody wanted, and it certainly wasn’t what I wanted.
Sometimes, people who deserve to be king are the ones who want it the least!
MARTIN: Well, thank you. I remember there was an article in The Rocket one year, it said “Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder are the golden throats of Seattle,” and I chuckled at that because I just was like, “They’re both great singers and brilliant musicians, but there are so many other singers in this city that have brilliant voices.” And I thought it was so strange that they would make these guys pin-up boys. I was like, “Man, that’s an odd thing to do, to sell a magazine or to give a magazine away.” But then of course we got on the same magazine covers dressed up like Courtney Love and it said “The boys who love cake,” so maybe it was tongue-in-cheek, I don’t know.
But I just thought that was strange. I think that it was an incredibly beautiful city musically, and certainly the talent there is undeniable. But for me, singing in a rock band just was not what I wanted. It just wasn’t what I wanted, and I’m very lucky, I’m so fucking grateful that I still am able to do this and I make a living doing it.
Was there anxiety among the band’s members around how you were being perceived? Compared to contemporaries like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, etc.?
MARTIN: Yeah, I’m certain that there was anxiety in the band, because when we made the Lucy record we made a conscious effort to [make] as far [a] right turn as we possibly could from the debut album. And we’d also grown a little bit as musicians at that point as well, so we were trying to push ourselves in a different direction. I think the most anxious thing about being a Seattle band like Candlebox was that we weren’t in that first rung, the first tier of bands that everybody had considered to be [grunge] … They lay the groundwork and here you come and just reap the rewards.
That was a really hard thing for us, because we were four guys that didn’t know one another but happened to make a really brilliant first record, if I do say so myself, that 30 years later has stood the test of time. I don’t think we knew what we were doing, but we were capable of working that well together and the anxiety that was created around us being the not-from-Seattle band wasn’t really put on us by our label, it was really the city of Seattle and the music scene of Seattle that did that to us, and it’s a very cliquey scene. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the book Everybody Loves Our Town, but there’s a story in there about us and there’s a lot of shit-talking that goes on about Candlebox not being from Seattle or not being worthy of the Seattle music scene. And that was really where the anxiety came from. The pressures of us feeling as though we needed to prove them wrong.
Ultimately what we did was, we just said “Fuck it, let’s just make the music we want to make and who cares if our peers from this town that we grew up in like us or not? We have a fan base, we have an audience that loves what we do, and that’s really what matters.” And once we accepted that, it made it possible for us to get through the failure of our second album, Lucy, and focus on our third record, Happy Pills, which is a really extensive album for Candlebox. I guess the pressures of being the redheaded stepchild of Seattle really didn’t stop us from creating music — it just kind of hurt our feelings a bit.
As a band who did play Woodstock ‘94, I wondered if you’d a) seen HBO’s Woodstock ‘99 documentary, and if so, what did you think about the way the filmmakers contrasted the two festivals’ energies? Woodstock ‘94 was said to echo the original festival’s peace and love vibe, but ‘99 was, well, ‘99.
MARTIN: Yeah, I remember when we pulled into Woodstock ‘94, the environment and the casual nature of the backstage was really nice. We had toured with Living Colour, we’d toured with Rush, we’d toured with Metallica at that point and we’d seen great landscapes of different types of fans of music. We had really enjoyed that opportunity to play to these different music fans. But then you get to a place like Woodstock, where everything from Deee-Lite to Henry Rollins to I think it was the Chemical Brothers on one stage, Crystal Method, of course Green Day, the list goes on.
There was an honesty to all the music that was represented in that ‘94 Woodstock. It was different from the aggressive “me, me, me” of ‘99. I was most taken by Jewel’s assessment of the show, when she’s talking about the energy that she felt. There was no negative energy like that at the ‘94 one. It was really very gentle and peaceful. Of course, you had the mosh pits and stuff for the bands, but there was a camaraderie that I felt, not only from the bands backstage and the dressing rooms and the artist area, but when I went out to front watch other artists, it felt really communal. I had friends whose bands played ‘99 who said it was fucking mayhem.
I think that there was that switch from ‘96 on, where the bands that were coming out were trying to find their footing in a world that had been turned upside down by the grunge movement — that sincerity, the honesty of those fans that came out of Seattle I think is what attracts people still to that music. It was a zero-fucks-given city. We don’t care what you think, this is the music we’re going to produce, and if you like it, you like it. If you don’t, you don’t.
So that switch from ‘96 on, with Korn and Limp Bizkit and all that sort of thing, that “I’m going to get mine regardless of how you’re going to give it to me” attitude was strange to experience. When I got the first Korn record, I was like, “This is some intense shit.” Then we played a show with them in ‘98 in Chicago and I was blown away by their performance. But I can certainly understand how the audience was really attracted to that type of music because of that disenchantment of things moving in a different direction from 1994 on. Politically and socioeconomically and social anxieties, all sorts of things incorporated into that.
Listen, as long as we’re talking about the grunge era, I have to ask: Had you heard about the Nevermind baby suing Kurt Cobain’s estate and the remaining members of Nirvana? What did you make of that?
MARTIN: I remember thinking when [Nevermind] came out, it was like, “Oh this is going to bite them on the ass at some point.” Because art gets lost on a lot of people.
I think this lawsuit is ridiculous. But I guess he’s saying that his parents weren’t paid for it and he didn’t authorize himself being photographed that way. We all have bad photos out there. There’s a ton of photos of me on the internet that I’m not happy about, but they’re out there and unfortunately the concept of that album is being lost on society now because we live in a subculture environment. Everybody’s opinion matters and everybody’s a scientist and a doctor and a legal analyst and a journalist. The list goes on and on about how many of us are the most brilliant fucking people in the world.
I think that the irony of that album cover is being lost on maybe even this kid. But that’s just my opinion. If it’s because his penis is showing on the cover, I’m sure that it’s grown since then. And I wouldn’t be really that concerned about it. Is this just an opportunity to grab some money? I mean, I don’t know. It looks like that, unfortunately. Maybe this kid’s entire life has been affected by it — I don’t know because that’s never happened to me. There’s no pictures of me floating around in a pool with my penis hanging out. But I think it’s a bit frivolous and a bit sad that this is the type of thing that can happen in this country.
It is a piece of art. I’m sure that those cherubs that have sculptures made of them in the Renaissance period aren’t happy about their penises floating around either. But it is art. And if the label never paid the photographer or the family of the child, that’s an issue that can be taken up because you have to pay for those photos and you have to have the written approval.
If it were me, I would never have told anybody I was the baby on an album cover. That’s how I would have done it. I would have just been like, “No, that’s not me. I heard it’s you?”
Wolves is out 9/17 via Pavement Entertainment.