By Joshua Maloni
With new TV documentaries and creative concert events, the 1990s are all the rage once more.
Some of the most interesting musical pairings include Everclear with Hoobastank, Living Colour and Wheatus (from 2021); Vanilla Ice with Rob Base, Young MC and C+C Music Factory featuring Freedom Williams (this year); and the upcoming “Summer of ’99 Cruise” (aka “Creed Cruise") with a reunited Creed, plus 3 Doors Down, Vertical Horizon, Fuel, The Verve Pipe, Tantric and Dishwalla (2024).
A little closer to home, the OLG Stage at Fallsview Casino welcomes Gin Blossoms, Sugar Ray, Tonic and Fastball at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 7.
“It's going to be a lot of hits,” Tonic frontman Emerson Hart said in a phone interview Monday. “Those are the kinds of shows I enjoy bringing my friends to, and those are the kind of shows I enjoy seeing. And I guarantee you nobody's going to walk away being like, ‘Oh, what a bummer. This show was not great.’ That’s not going to happen. I promise you that’s not going to happen.”
Hart has performed solo at Artpark and inside the Hard Rock Café in Niagara Falls, and with his band, Tonic, at the Albright-Knox Art (AKG) Gallery in Buffalo on a bill with Collective Soul and Our Lady Peace. Hart said he’s excited to reunite with some old colleagues.
He’s also looking forward to sharing hit songs including “If You Could Only See,” “You Wanted More,” “Open Up Your Eyes” and “Take Me As I Am” – even though he’s performed these classic cuts a bazillion times.
Hart shared more in this edited Q&A.
Emerson Hart, center, and Tonic (Photo by Catie Lafoon // provided by Milestone Publicity)
Q: Correct me if I'm wrong, but it's 8:30 in the morning where you are right now.
Emerson Hart: Yes, it is; right on the nose.
Q: Is that not a little early for a rockstar to be chatting with a journalist?
Emerson Hart: (Laughs) No, it is perfectly acceptable, and I'll tell you why. Because I have, since the beginning of my career, I've always had what is called “the cursed farmer gene.” No matter what time I go to bed, I'm always up at the crack of dawn.
Q: To what do you attribute that?
Emerson Hart: I don't know, man. I just have always been that way. But also, now, I've got a 16-year-old daughter, I have a 10-month-old son, and a 3-year-old son. So, needless to say, my house is either very busy with hormones, or very busy with early risers. This is the job.
Q: You and I have chatted a number of times, but a lot of those shows have been solo, or you’re doing the Ezra Ray Hart thing. It's been a while since I've talked to you about Tonic. Tell me a little bit about the magic that happens when you and Jeff Russo and Dan Lavery get together to make music.
Emerson Hart: Well, I mean, it's the OG, isn't it? I mean, it's how it all started. And I think that the best part about Tonic, in this kind of format, No. 1, we're out with a bunch of friends. So, the atmosphere is already amazing, with Sugar Ray, Gin Blossoms – the Gin and Tonic days, like all the stuff that we've done together. That adds to it.
And No. 2 is that we really get to lock into the nostalgia and what we have created over the years, and deliver it directly to people as a piece of work. It's live. There’s no tracks, there's no nothing. We do it as it should be done.
And I think, to be able to still do that now – I mean, we're not old guys, but we're not young bucks in rock ‘n’ roll, that's for sure – but still be able to do that, that comes through – that energy comes through.
Q: I'm wondering, those (hit) songs are so meaningful, so impressionable. It's, as they say, “the soundtrack of our lives.” Those songs are so well written, and so well received. Certainly, the emotion that you had when you wrote and created those is not necessarily the emotion that you have today. Things in life change – as you said, you've got a lot of things going on in your house right now. So, how do you approach those songs in a way that presents them in the most optimal way for fans, does justice to the lyrics, but also does justice to you as a musician and as an artist in 2023?
Emerson Hart: Well, I would say look at it this way. Let's say that you're driving down the road, and a song from the radio comes on from your youth, right? And you hear that song, and what's the first thing it does? It takes you back to where you were. And so, it's no different for me.
Yes. Have I played these songs, hits and album tracks over a million times from creation to now. Absolutely. But it doesn't matter. Because it's an even better experience in the way that, yes, as soon as I start playing the song, I reconnect to the moment where I was in my life when it was written. And I live in that moment.
And also, I get to look out in front of me, and I see other people reliving that moment that they had with the song. That's powerful medicine. That, I think, is really the crux of it.
I told the story before about being in Poland and playing in front of 350,000 people. We played their Woodstock over there. A 19-year-old girl in the front row is singing “If You Can Only See’s” words back, which is not her language; and she's having that experience. That's an idea that I had in my head. Like, “Hey, that’s insane.” It's insane.
It's not hard to connect. It's just not.
Q: So, as you said, Gin Blossoms, Sugar Ray, Fastball: Tell me a little bit about these bands, and what impresses you with them.
Emerson Hart: Well, let's start with Robin (Wilson) from the Gin Blossoms. I mean, obviously, those guys are still out there crushing it, still doing it, still on every radio station. They made such a huge dent in that timeline, back in the day, and they still sound great. I've never seen a bad show from them, and I’ve toured with them off and on for many years.
Sugar Ray is a great band, but Mark (McGrath) is just – as you know, we do a side project in Ezra Ray Hart with Kevin Griffin from Better Than Ezra, and Mark McGrath and me – and he's just a consummate showman. He always delivers. You want to talk about a nostalgia machine. He knows how to drive that thing like nobody's business. And it’s an exciting, still great, fun band to watch.
And Fastball, it's been so many years since I've seen Fastball. I'm sure it's going to be great, because I love Miles (Zuniga), and he's a super good dude. And I'm looking forward to actually spending some time watching their show. For some reason, we didn't do a lot of shows together coming up. It just kind of didn't work out that way, because we were kind of already on our path and then they showed up.
I just think it's a really interesting night of music, because we're covering a lot of genres. A lot of genres.
Q: I know Mark is very involved with the ’90s in different capacities. I was talking to Art from Everclear, and he also does a ’90s show. There's a lot of documentaries that have aired recently about the ’90s. A lot of the music from that decade seems to be shaded, to some extent, by “TRL,” boy bands, that kind of thing, which happened toward the end of that decade.
That was a really good decade of music. Do you think that decade and your contemporaries and you get the just due you deserve; or do you think the ’90s are a little bit misinterpreted, and people are sort of pleasantly rediscovering what that decade brought forth musically?
Emerson Hart: It's a tricky question, because, obviously, I was in that, and I was in the later part of the ’90s and into the 2000s.
So, when Mark hosts “The Dark Side of the 90s,” was that a reality of our business? Yes, absolutely.
When I talk about it being the best decade for music, I don't know if I'd say that. I mean, I think that we made some unbelievably honest songs, which is great. But who am I to say that? I used to talk about this – let's go back to hair metal in the ’80s. We won't go there for a long time. But let's talk about bands that had unbelievably gifted guitar players, but they will never get their due because of the style of music. That's a drag, because a lot of those guys were just so, so talented, but they got lumped into this thing, you know?
And so, hopefully, in the ’90s I think that was kind of a breakout, back to honesty in songwriting, as much as it could be. And then, yeah, the boy bands came along. But you know, we got to give them their due, too, because they made a lot of great pop music. That, certainly, has always been a huge part of our craft, is pop, and that's OK.
Those were great songs written (by great writers). Max Martin is not a dummy. He's written some unbelievable songs. And as a writer, I have to respect that.
But the ’90s, I personally, if Mark and I sitting down having dinner, yeah, we're going to put our weight on that bet.
Q: Beyond this tour, what does the next year look like for you? What are some of the projects you'll be working on?
Emerson Hart: So, looks like we're going to be busy. Obviously, this run is a pretty busy run.
I'm kind of digging back in. You know, when you have an infant in the house, it slows you down a little bit when it comes to creative time. I’ve got that run, and then I'm kind of digging back into writing.
I just found and am kind of remastering a Christmas song that I recorded back in 2007. I'm going to release that this year, for Christmas.
Ezra Ray Hart has a ton of stuff on the books, and we're going to be busy doing that stuff.
Then we're going to be doing the Creed Cruise, which is going to be like a ’90s explosion. Late-’90s, early-2000s. That goes out in April. Scott (Stapp), obviously, the lead singer of Creed, is a good buddy of mine. He’s actually my neighbor. He lives about a half a mile from us.
We're looking forward to doing that, and being back out with some of the old guys. Verve Pipe and 3 Doors Down – a lot of the anchors of ’90s rock ‘n’ roll. It's going to be fun.
So, it's going to be a busy year and I'm looking forward to it. And I thank God for it, man, that I could still do this. It’s amazing, and I still love doing it, and I could still do it well.