The following is an excerpt from a series of interviews I conducted with people who gave everything they had to their creative passions. In spite of attaining various levels of success, they aren’t household names, don’t regularly walk red carpets, nor do they consider themselves rich and famous. Yet they continue to pursue excellence with everything they have. And most importantly…they’re happy with who they are and content with exactly where they are in life. I published all of these interviews in a book called “How To Succeed In Show Business (Without Making It Big).”
Jeff Whalen is a rock vocalist and guitarist who rose to L.A. infamy as the flamboyant frontman for rock band Tsar. They released two major-label studio albums that were critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful. The band performed on the “Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn” and “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.” Tsar’s music has also appeared on the TV shows “Veronica Mars,” “NCIS,” “Party Down,” and the feature films “In the Land of Women” and “American Psycho 2.” They have toured with the New York Dolls, Social Distortion, Duran Duran and other famous bands. In 2018 Jeff released his first solo album ever,“10 More Rock Super Hits.”
Was music your major in college?
I was a Creative Studies major with a literature focus—but the college experience was key in learning about being in a band. After my freshman year, I transferred to UC Santa Barbara where there was a fun, vibrant band/party scene. Lots of backyard parties with bands. You’d walk around and hear some band playing and walk in and check them out. Joke bands, stoner bands, cover bands, art bands, punk, and metal bands. Most of the groups did originals and the songs were surprisingly good, or so it seemed to me. It all felt arty and fun and rock and roll and I wanted to be part of it.
Do you have a day job or are you making a living with music?
Where does creativity come from?
I have no idea!
Describe your creative process.
I pretty much just pick up the guitar and start putting random chords together and mumbling a melody over it and hope it’ll all work out. And sometimes it does. Sometimes I’ll stumble on some different thing—writing on the piano, say—and it’ll work the once and I’ll go, hey! Right on! Let’s do that again, just like that! But it can’t be repeated. I’ve tried in many, many ways to figure out some kind of trick or routine or something that would increase the chance that I’ll come up with something good, but for the most part, none of that stuff works for me. It has to be organic, built from the ground up each time, usually with the guitar and the mumbling.
How much has the music industry changed since you started?
Well! It was pretty screwy when I got there, but now I think it barely exists at all. The thing that I had wanted to do—make records, put glitter in my hair, do a bunch of drugs in a hotel room, make videos, do a bunch of drugs in a limo, go on Saturday Night Live, do a bunch of drugs in a gutter somewhere—was still kind of going on, but it was definitely wrapping up. We came in right during the height of the rap-metal era. When the era passed, rock was dead, pretty much, or at least it was no longer the thing it had been.
Certainly the internet played a part, too, in making music free, but also in acting like rock bands were supposed to personally be responsible for every aspect of the endeavor—not just writing and recording and playing, but also printing their own t-shirts and booking their own tours and being their own publicist and generally just turning being in a band into a search for new, lame ways to get fans to give them money.
And it’s just continued down that road more and more, and now it’s all different than the thing I’d wanted to do. I mean, yeah, I could go do a bunch of drugs in a gutter somewhere, but it just wouldn’t be the same, you know?
How much have you grown over the years?
I think my priorities have changed from total rock stardom and endless glory to just having a good time and doing work I’m proud of. I’ve done work I’m proud of, but I think I could’ve had a better time doing it, especially in the early days. In the end, I think my priority is to create a body of work, enough stuff so people can say, “Hey, did you ever check out Jeff Whalen?”
Did you ever consider tossing in the towel?
I’ve never given up, though I’ve definitely wanted to at times. Whenever I’ve put out an album that bombed—which is every album I’ve put out—it’s taken me several years to recover each time. Yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, I somehow still—still!—think it’s going to work out in the end.
I have enough material out there that I think is pretty good. Somewhere inside, I’m kind of just waiting for it to kick in, you know, on a global scale.
Do you feel like you’ve “made it”?
I’m not sure anybody ever makes it. I certainly haven’t. Look, nobody wants to toil in obscurity—that’s a painful experience. But even bands that have huge careers, I don’t think they’re ever happy with it. Like, I bet REM or somebody huge, I bet that they think they fucked up at some essential task they were trying to do. Or not. I dunno.
It seems like every rock autobiography I’ve read has the guy being deeply unsatisfied when achieving his dream. Though they always seem to have a good time in the early days on the way up. Maybe that’s how to do it: never get there, but always be slightly moving up.
What gets you out of bed each morning?
Well, a person has to do something from the cradle to the grave, and there are a lot of worse ways to spend your time than making records. And if you make good ones, they last. And even if you never get huge, you know. You don’t know it all the time, but a lot of times, you do.
Has Jeff Whalen taken the right approach to life and career?
I wish I’d been more in control of my doubt, my nervousness. Pretty much every time something significantly good has happened to me, it’s happened during a period in which I was feeling calm, happy confidence. I don’t know where that confidence comes from or why it goes away. You can’t fake it, you can’t manufacture it, you can’t decide to have it. Even so, I wish I had more control over it.
Define your idea of success.
I dunno! That fucker’s slippery. I think you just keep moving the goalposts—whenever you achieve something, you find that you didn’t really get there yet. Like, I remember a time when I sincerely believed that all I wanted was a good recording of the band, that that would be enough for me. Then you do it, and it’s not enough.
It’s weird. If you were to able to visit 13-year-old me and tell 13-year-old me that he was going to be in a rock band and put out albums and go on tour and perform on TV and all that, I can guarantee you that 13-year-old me would jump for joy. It would be the greatest thing that kid had ever heard in his whole life.
He would view it as success, without a doubt.
If you would like to experience Jeff’s brand of revolutionary music, please visit https://www.thisisjeffwhalen.com/
Check out these other selections from Manopause:
How To Succeed In Show Business (Without Making It Big) by Brandon Beckner
Unsung Heroes Of The Entertainment Industry: Jack Plotnick by Brandon Beckner
Too Old To Rock? by Richard Jones