Some Polish last names are an absolute bitch to pronounce.
But despite that formidable string of five seemingly incongruous consonants at the end of his surname, Ed Kowalczyk’s (pronounced Ko-WALL-check) is better known worldwide than most Smiths, Joneses and Wangs.
That’s because, during the sweet spot of the nineties, Kowalczyk was the shaved-pated frontman and primary songwriter for Live, one of the alternative era’s most popular bands. Breaking onto the scene with 1991’s Mental Jewelry, produced by Talking Heads guitarist Jerry Harrison, the band hit it big three years later thanks to another Harrison-produced album. Throwing Copper—armed to the teeth with singles like ‘Selling the Drama,’ ‘I Alone,’ ‘All Over You,’ and ‘Lightning Crashes’—has sold a staggering 8 million copies in the U.S. alone and won the band a huge international following.
“There are songs that if I did not play anymore I’d be OK with, but ‘Lightning Crashes’ is not one of them.”
Unlike the majority of their contemporaries, Live thrived well beyond the alternative moment, continuing to put out successful albums and singles for more than a decade, including ‘Dolphin’s Cry,’ which peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart in ’99.
But a few years after the release of 2006’s Songs from Black Mountain, Kowalczyk had reached the end of the line. “I felt like we were just going through the motions,” he says. So he went solo in 2009. He’s since put out an EP and a pair of albums, dropping his second full-length, The Flood and the Mercy, late last year.
Of all the hits Kowalczyk has penned throughout the decades, ‘Lightning Crashes’ is the dark horse—the one that really didn’t fit so snugly with all the rest. We caught up with him during a tour stop to talk about this oddball, which nonetheless hit no. 1 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart.
So Throwing Copper is 20 years old this year.
Yeah, that the songs are still so relevant to the fans and to me this many years later… is really cool. You know, I see fans [at shows] that are not much older than the album itself.
Some alt-rock fans might be shocked to learn that you’re no longer in Live. Are you still on speaking terms with the guys in the band? Is there any chance you’ll ever get back together?
I definitely came to an end-of-chapter moment in my life about five years ago. I’d really gotten to the end of my interest in playing with the same people and doing it the same way we’d been doing it for so long. In some ways, I’d become a victim of my own success. Just because, in the beginning, it was real creative and [had] a lot of energy, and like anything, [it got] kind of stale. I felt like, as an artist, I had so much more I wanted to do. I made that leap into a solo career, really, for those artistic and personal reasons. There was fallout that I didn’t generate, and I didn’t really focus on it.
Do you know if the Live that lives on beyond you still performs the songs you wrote?
I’m not sure what they’re doing, to be honest with you. My opinion, along with most of the fans I would imagine, [is] that if there were to be a reunion, the fans deserve the original songwriter, melodist and lyricist in the band—which is me. I honestly don’t pay much attention to what they’re doing or what they’re playing.
Let’s talk about ‘Lightning Crashes.’ Something we didn’t know: It wasn’t even released as a [physical CD] single in the U.S.
Well, it was released to radio as a single and it had a video, of course, but it was never a commercial single. That era, that particular few years there, in the mid-ninetiess, as far as I remember, commercial singles really weren’t something that rock bands did that much. You’d do a release and send it to radio and do a video. [So] it was never a commercial single, but it became a massively recognized and singled-out song.
It’s an odd format for a hit song. It’s pretty long, repetitive and the backbeat doesn’t really kick in until the middle.
It’s very odd, yes. I would say that it has more in common with what you would call an ‘album track,’ in terms of its arrangement, than a single. You’re right, the first chorus doesn’t come in with any instrumentation really at all, and it doesn’t come in for about two minutes, which is unheard of in terms of single structure. I remember sitting with the final mixes on a cassette tape in my Honda Accord outside my apartment in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and getting to ‘Lightning Crashes’ and thinking, ‘This is the song that if people get to hear it—if it becomes the released song—it will be the song that people will really connect with.’ I remember having this conversation very specifically with Gary Kurfirst, my late mentor and manager and the guy who signed us to Radioactive [Records]. We were talking about the song, and he specifically remarked—when I told him I really felt ‘Lightning Crashes’ was special—‘Oh, it’ll never be a single; it’s way too long.’
So I think that it says something about that particular mini-era of rock-and-roll and modern-rock radio… where there was even the openness to spin that song. It says a lot about the frontier attitude of modern rock at that time, which clearly is gone now. I was really surprised when I walked into MCA one day and they said, “We’re going to put out ‘Lightning Crashes,’” and I just thought, ‘That’s amazing.’ I can’t even imagine that happening now with the way things have become more homogenized in terms of structure of songs. Most modern rock radio sounds the same.
What, we can’t be rocking out all the time: Live back in the day.
There are some uncited quotes on the web about how the song itself came about, which we’d like to clear up. Do you remember where you were when you wrote it?
I do, yeah. Most of my songs start out with me and an acoustic guitar, and I remember I was still living with my mom and my brother in York, Pennsylvania. I think I’d either just moved out or I was going to move out and get my own apartment, because [the band had] started to make some money. I remember sitting down and I had a little bit of a concept, at least musically. Not singing it full bore from the beginning, but just sitting there and speaking out a story. I wasn’t thinking that it was going to be this big song or anything; I just started out really small; and that’s really the way that the intro starts, which is this intimate, unforced story.
I started to play and the words ‘lightning crashes’ came; and I thought, ‘Let’s go with that,’ and I started to follow that thread with the baby being born, and then within a few minutes, I’d kind of formulated this image or montage of different meanings. I thought about a hospital where you have babies being born—the maternity wards—and then you have, intensive-care units and people passing on in the same hospital. And I thought, ‘Wow, that’s kind of a trip that the entire circle of life happens—at least the ins and the outs, the exits and the entrance—typically, in this one place. I had the ‘circle of life’ thing going on.
I remember getting to the end of it and thinking, ‘Wow, this feels really happy; it feels really uplifting.’ I remember making the video with Jake Scott and getting to the end of the editing process, and Jake saying, ‘So is this a happy song or a sad song? It feels really happy, because I was going to have a baby being born at the end.’ And I was like, ‘That’s exactly it!’ It was interesting because I almost didn’t understand my own lyric until the visual came together for that video.
We always thought it was a dark song. So it’s actually happy?
You know, it’s heavy. The material is heavy. The lyric is definitely not your particular rock fare. You’re probably never going to hear the word ‘placenta’ used in a lyric ever again. But I think it’s a heavy lyric that’s grappling with, in my own terms, this existential question. And trying to use music—and eventually the visual—to answer it or to at least answer it to the dimension of feeling that would maybe give you somewhat of an answer or an open door to another place. That’s what I always try to do in my music; I never know exactly where it’s going to go, but in that sense, I’m always trying to emulate my favorites like Peter Gabriel and people that really do that well. They open up a door to another dimension in the music. You really don’t have to understand exactly what they meant. They kind of let you do that.
Speaking of that ‘placenta’ line, does that really happen in the hospital when your wife gives birth?
Oh yeah, it all happens, man. It all happens. Just about everything in the song. Which was interesting, because I didn’t have any kids when I wrote it either. I didn’t have kids until I was 31, and I was 22 or 23, when I wrote the lyrics to that song and the melody. It’s really interesting for me now: I have four [children], and I’ve been at every one of their births—right there—and the song, when I sing it now, has an extra depth because I’ve experienced it. In some ways, the song continues to self-clarify for me or take shape and teach me as well, because I’m bringing more life experience to it. I’ve met hundreds and hundreds of people who’ve said they’ve had deep experiences related to that song and other songs of mine around births of kids, and it’s really amazing to hear that these songs enter people’s lives at these really deep and important moments.
You recorded Throwing Copper at Pachyderm Studio, where Nirvana recorded ‘In Utero.’ Did the place have a sort of mythical feel to it?
Oh sure. It’s a very unique place. It was in its heyday then. It’s in a beautiful setting. I remember, of course, being a huge Nirvana fan, and [thinking], ‘Why did they come here? Oh, to get Kurt away from the city and the trouble that you can get in there.’ So it’s this kind of retreat, almost, and we just embraced it. We didn’t have a big budget, so we really needed to play live to get good performances, and do it kind of quickly. I think we tracked most of the record in about three weeks at that studio.
Do you remember what you did when you got your first check in the mail from the record company?
I think I paid off my car. No more car payments! Gosh, I was just happy to be able to [play music] for a living. I remember thinking when the record came out, “If ‘Selling the Drama’ could do really well on college radio and we could get on the CMJ chart and we could hear it on WBYC, the York college radio station, then that would be so cool.” And you know, it sold 10 million copies. I had no plan. A part of me felt like… you have to be crazy enough to dream and feel the present reality that what you’re doing is worthwhile and people should hear it, and you need all that so you can get up in the morning and get in the van and keep going. So there’s this mix of you expect it, but then you don’t expect it when it happens. You can never really plan to have that kind of success. You know, what really blew me away was the international response, and the fact that I can now, 20 years later, [still tour in] Europe and Australia.
Do you ever get sick of playing ‘Lightning Crashes’?
There are songs that if I did not play anymore I’d be OK with, but ‘Lightning Crashes’ is not one of them. There’s something about it, because of the uniqueness of the structure, and the fact that you can plop it in a set, and it just changes the picture of a show. As soon as you start those chords … thank goodness it’s timeless for the fans and they still like it, and they still play it on the radio. But it’s even got that timeless aspect for me, too. I don’t get bored with it; there’s so much nuance in it still that I’m finding, and it’s one of those ones that I don’t get tired of. ‘Lightning Crashes’ is still exciting for me to play.
Be honest: Every time there’s a thunderstorm and lightning actually crashes, are you forced to think about the song?
[Laughs] Um, no. If it’s happening at a concert, yeah. It actually happened a couple of times. We did the Tibetan Freedom Concert, and of course we ended the show with the big hit, ‘Lightning Crashes.’ And within about 20 minutes, they started to evac, like, 40,000 people out of RFK Stadium, because there was this crazy thunder cell coming in. It came in, and lightning struck in the stadium. And this girl was standing 5 feet from this metal railing, and she got the arc of the lightning that hit the pole, and it knocked her out. I had just moved to Lancaster from York about a year before that, and I lived on Hamilton Road in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Well, this girl was from Lancaster and she lived on Hamilton Road. And it was just fucking nuts. I got a few chills up the spine when I heard that.