Friends Again, or How “I’ll Be There For You” Nearly Destroyed The Rembrandts
When Danny Wilde and long-time collaborator Phil Solem formed the Rembrandts in 1989, the intention was to form a band that reflected their uncannily similar influences and write sophisticated pop-rock with classic melodies • a goal their reunion album Lost Together on Atenzia Records handsomely lives up to. But considering the album is the Rembrandts’ first for seven years, it hasn’t been a trouble-free ride for one of rock’s most talented partnerships.
The pair first got together in the long-forgotten band Great Buildings in 1981 and for the first two Rembrandts albums things went to the original plan. The duo’s debut self-titled album in 1990 demonstrated a unique pop-rock sound that served as an antidote to the trend for hard rock and hair metal, and revealed the pair’s wonderful vocal harmonies in all their glory. It spawned the hit single “That’s Just The Way It Is” and two years later, follow-up album, Untitled enjoyed critical acclaim too thanks to cuts like “Johnny, Have You Seen Her?” and “Rolling Down The Hill.”
Then, shortly after completing work and releasing third album L.P. in 1995, along came a little-known TV show on the NBC-TV network called Friends. And thanks to the unprecedented success of its theme tune “I’ll Be There For You”, things would never be the same again.
Danny takes up the story in-between recording sessions at his Thousand Oaks, CA studio. “Kevin Bright [Friends executive producer], was a Rembrandts fan and didn’t want a generic house band to record the theme for the show,” he says. “He called our management and asked us if we’d be interested. So we watched the tape and thought it was very good for its genre and it had all the right people working on it. We thought it would be fun to do, no-one would even know it was us, and during the first season of the show, we weren’t even listed on the credits as performers.”
Unusually for a duo that always wrote its own stuff, the Rembrandts weren’t even listed as writers on the song, either.
“To this day, we only get performance royalties, not publishing splits for the TV version of the song,” Danny reveals. “I mean, it wasn’t actually a song Phil and I even wrote. We had credit on it, but Michael Skloff, musical director for the show, came up with the tune and Allee Willis, [plus others such as show creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane] came up with the lyrics.
“All they had was a 30-second verse and a chorus, so we tweaked the lyrics a little bit, Phil came up with the signature riff at the start of the song, and we went back a few days later and recorded the verse and the chorus.”
As the antics of Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer et al grew to be such a smash-hit with audiences across America, it wasn’t long before the catchy opening ditty for the show was generating a huge buzz at radio as well. Stations were inundated with calls after they began looping the 30-second clip of the song and pressure grew for a full-length version of the song to be cut.
Wilde and Solem sensed that the momentum of the song was gathering and would surely overshadow an album they had taken two years to write and record. Despite their protestations, EastWest label head Sylvia Rhone ordered the duo to record a full-length version of the song or face the axe. So to avoid a scenario where the Rembrandts’ future was jeopardized, Wilde and Solem agreed. In the studio they wrote more lyrics, added a bridge and completed the song. “Then, of course, it took off and became this huge pop hit. That’s when we became known as ‘the band who sang the Friends theme’,” Danny says ruefully.
Of course, for most bands, a number one hit for 11 consecutive weeks and massive commercial exposure was everything they dream of. It was certainly manna from heaven for a commercially savvy record label. Recognizing the exploitative potential of the situation, EastWest never released “I’ll Be There For You” as a single. Instead, they tagged the song onto a re-released edition of L.P. and sat back as sales of the album went through the roof and far surpassed anything else the Rembrandts had achieved thus far.
But for such a self-effacing duo, the song’s success and two million-plus sales of the repackaged album sat uncomfortably with them. Had they traded the sincerity and the identity of their band for commercial success of monolithic proportions?
“I guess we sold out, maybe we did,” Danny says, before pausing and adding, “But everyone does it now. It’s more acceptable in today’s hit-orientated industry. It was hard to swallow at the time, as the alternative pop vibe we spent six years developing took a back seat. I guess it was our old school attitude, but we weren’t proud of the song. It wasn’t what we wanted to be remembered for. But an unrepresentative legacy wasn’t the only result of the song’s impact — it broke up the band in 1997, as the strain of such massive exposure proved too great.
“Yeah, it broke us up,” says Danny frankly. “We were tired of it being the thing we were known for, and tired of doing matinee shows for 10-year-olds off the back of its success. When we finally broke up, there was no animosity. We were just burnt out in the aftermath of the whole Friends frenzy.”
The fallout from the song was to last several years, but was perhaps most apparent when Danny carried on without his long-time partner to make the follow-up record, Spin This.
“I didn’t want to make Spin This without Phil, but he wanted nothing to do with it,” Danny says. “He wasn’t into making another album at all, he felt like he was losing his mind after the way ‘I’ll Be There For You’ had exploded. As far as I was concerned, I was making a Danny Wilde record but Sylvia Rhone wanted to release it as the Rembrandts. I said no, as I didn’t feel it was a Rembrandts album, and I didn’t want to diss Phil.
“But [Rhone] wouldn’t release it as a Danny Wilde album, so at that point the record wasn’t going to come out unless it had some reference to the Rembrandts on it. So she suggested Danny Wilde and the Rembrandts.”
With three solo albums already under his belt, Wilde wasn’t daunted by the prospect of going it alone, but knew the recent past would prove an almost insurmountable barrier.
“I mean, they even stickered it ‘the band who sang the theme to Friends’!” Danny laughs. “But the people I worked with on the record were great, and it was a lot of fun to make. We recorded it in the Bahamas with [producer] Gavin McKillop. But the politics of getting the most out of the marquee value of the Rembrandts did for it, I guess.”
Between 1997 and 2000 though, enough years passed for Wilde and Solemn to regain a sense of perspective on old events and to start the process of making new music together again. After hooking up via the producer John Fields, a mutual friend of the duo, writing started almost immediately for a new album that would attempt to get back to the original ethos of the band. Lost Together is the impressive result.
“Phil and I hadn’t spoken in like three or four years,” Danny recalls. “He was working on [a side project] Thrush and I was doing some solo tunes. But we spent a month at Phil’s place in Minnesota writing Lost Together then I went back there to record it.
“Honestly, it was like we never missed a beat,” he says. It was like making the first Rembrandts record all over again, we were just doing it for ourselves. We originally released it via J-Bird Records two years ago and wanted to license it to other markets, but it didn’t happen. Then we wanted to remix and repackage it, so it came out again through Atenzia this year.”
So was it difficult to get back on a similar wavelength after such a long time not writing together?
“The chemistry between us is instantaneous,” Danny says. “It’s almost like a brotherly sixth sense. A magical thing happens when we write a song. We never have problems writing together, and normally the way we do it is to finish off each other’s ideas together. There’s never any awkward moments, as if something sucks, I don’t mind telling him and vice versa! Songwriting with a writing partner you are not familiar with is a democratic process, but with me and Phil, it’s no holds barred and you can only do that with someone you know.”
The first song the duo wrote together for the album was “Another Day Down”, a ballsy rocker and a slight departure from The Rembrandts’ signature alternative pop sound, but songs like “St. Paul”, “The Way She Smiles” and “Too Late” are laden with the sprightly melodies and perfect harmonies that have become their trademark. Indeed there’s so much quality on the album it is quite possibly the pair’s finest work to date, and provides proper recognition of the duo’s immense talent.
It’s an album Danny is rightly proud of, but his highlight from the album is perhaps an unlikely one. “I would say [acoustic ballad] “You Are The One”, just for its simplicity,” he admits. “After I wrote it, I played it for the guys and kept saying I wanted to finish it off as it was only two minutes long, and finally John Fields just said, “Dude, it IS finished!” There really was nothing else to add to it.”
“It is nice to still be making records,” Danny admits. “But I really don’t know anything else to do. It’s the greatest job in the world, I love getting up in the morning and going into the studio as I’m a real tech freak.”
And the studio is somewhere Danny can found more and more these days. Between the time spent writing the follow-up to Lost Together and some new solo material, he has come to a new phase in his long musical career.
“Phil and I are halfway through writing the next Rembrandts album, with John Fields producing,” he reveals. “But I am getting more and more into production and A&R, as I love being the engineer and don’t wanna play grotty clubs for the rest of my life! I’ve done that. It’s got me this far, and I’m happy where I am.”
Having co-produced Warner Records’ new signing Strange Celebrity’s recent debut album with former Danny Wilde and the Rembrandts bandmate Nick Trevesick for their production company Submix Productions, Danny is now working with another up and coming young band in the studio.
“DV Rocks, are a glitter, Billy Idol-type thing I’m working on,” he says. “They could be huge, the singer is a cross between Bowie and Jagger, a true rock star, so I’m co-writing with him and his band and producing it and recording it here at my studio.”
Another former bandmate, Graham Edwards, is part of the much-sought after production team, The Matrix who have written huge hits for Avril Lavigne, Jason Mraz and Liz Phair to name but a few. Although his friend’s success inspires him to a point, Danny is not driven by money and knows what he wants to achieve as a producer.
“Graham was my bass player and is very talented,” he reveals. “The Matrix have a magic scenario there, they have a great team. The way they’re writing is unbelievable, it’s beyond anything they’ve ever dreamed of but they’re enjoying it and it’s nice to see it happen to such nice people. I feel like if I stay the course and work with talented people I’ll be OK. If I have 1/100th of the success they have had, I’ll be happy. I always work with someone I believe in, and like other producers, I’m looking for that one song. When it happens, your name gets out there.”
With all his 20-odd years of experience as a solo artist, band member and now producer, Wilde is all too aware of how difficult an industry the music business is in which to survive.
“What the masses hear is so, so sub-standard to how it was when I was growing up,” he affirms. “It’s gotten so bad and people are apathetic to it. I mean, Clay Aiken [from American Idol] is No.1! That’s fucking pitiful. It’s housewives buying it. He’s a good singer, but he’s just a singer. I know there is a lot of good music out there as my kids turn me on to it. There are bands and people who are awesome, but the public never hears them.”
He adds, “I wrote in Nashville once with a buddy of mine, and we had a theory when we were there called the PLS theory • People Like Shit,” he laughs. “It’s like, “Is that a shitty lyric? Yeah, let’s keep it!” That’s why there’s so much crap on the radio. But it’s a no-patience era we live in. Nobody at big labels has time for careers. It didn’t used to be like that, you could work an album. I feel sorry for artists that deserve more than a six-week shot, but labels aren’t about careers now. I guess like “I’ll Be There For You”, it’s all driven by TV and how much they can ram down your throat.”
Some eight years on in a much-changed music industry, has Danny finally come to terms with the worldwide impact that song had?
“Looking back, it is a part of pop culture history, I guess,” he says. “I am old enough now and over myself enough to know the show and the song was bigger than anything else I’ve been involved in. I’m good with it now, but I only wish they’d had auto-tune back then, as there’s a couple of parts of the song that when I listen to now I wince, as I’m out of tune!”
Atenzia Records: http://www.atenzia.com/