Eagles: Timothy B. Schmit

Call him Dr. Schmit. Eagles bassist Timothy B. Schmit, closest to the camera, receives an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music in 2012, with (l-r) bandmates Joe Walsh, Glenn Frey and Don Henley alongside him.

Timothy B. Schmit (the “B” stands for Bruce, something it never occurred to me to find out until now) is best known as a member of the Eagles. For some reason (trademark confusion with the Eagles football team?), the band omits the definite article from its name, but I don’t care for that. Schmit joined THE Eagles on bass and backing vocals in 1977, and was stunned to find himself jobless when they split up acrimoniously in 1980. When “hell froze over” and the Eagles reunited in 1994, Schmit was back on board. The band has recorded one album and toured fairly constantly since then, even after the 2016 death of founding father Glenn Frey.

But Schmit has an illustrious musical history that predates the Eagles. You could say he was the Ronnie Wood of the band (as we discuss below). He first came to public attention in the country rock band Poco, where he put his golden throat to good use on the acoustic tune Keep on Tryin’, the band’s biggest hit.

Schmit, aged 73 as at 2020, released six solo albums between 1984 and 2016. The fifth one, Expando, was the subject of our phone conversation in October 2009. The low-profile folk release, brimming with high-profile friends, is definitely worthy of consideration. We spoke about the album, his life, and the Eagles. I’m not a huge Eagles expert, but I’m really pleased with the way this interview turned out. Schmit appreciated one or two of my questions. Or seemed to.

When did you find the time to make this record?

I found the time in between my activities with the Eagles. It’s been pretty busy the last couple of years. We were touring roughly every other month for about a year and a half. I would come home and gather my thoughts and my senses and go to work here.

Did you do any writing on the road? 

I used to be able to write on the road. I don’t do that very much anymore. I’m pretty much focused with one project or another. Years ago, I would stay up a lot later basically.

Were all the guests (i.e. Van Dyke Parks, Benmont Tench, Kid Rock, Dwight Yoakam, Garth Hudson, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Graham Nash, etc.) in the studio or were you emailing computer files to each other?

Everybody was in the studio. I didn’t want us to send files. I actually missed out on a couple of artists that could have been on this record that I really wanted on the record because they were so busy and I could have sent files. As corny as it sounds, I wanted to keep it as organic as possible. Everybody who did appear on the record came through my studio doors here at my home studio, including the Blind Boys of Alabama. When they came driving up in the van somebody was driving them up in their van I could hear the song they were gonna do coming out of their CD player and them singing their parts. They were practicing on the way over. That was really great. The entire thing was done here, in person. That was really the way I wanted it.

How did you get Garth Hudson? I don’t imagine he does much travel to the west coast? 

Probably not, though he did live here once. That was a fortuitous event, actually. He was already in town. I happened to find out about it. I was actually sitting at lunch with Van Dyke Parks when he was here. We were having lunch, taking a break, and a friend of his called who happened to be sitting with Garth Hudson in Los Angeles, because some of the members of the band were here for a Grammy award. The guy actually said to Van Dyke, “Garth’s here and he likes to work if you know anybody.” My jaw dropped, and I was all over that. By the next night or two he was at my house.

How do you remunerate these guys? A bottle of whisky afterwards? A pat on the back? A big check? 

I like to pay. I pay people. This is our work. Years and years ago when I was starting to do a lot of singing on other people’s records on the side, because I was very busy with Poco at the time I was young and having such a great time and so thrilled that people were asking me. It didn’t even matter to me about getting money. I loved doing it. Until I had a talk with my old friend J.D. Souther. He said, “Hey man, this is what you do. This is your work. You need to be paid.” And it really made a lot of sense. It’s true. Just because I was having a great time, didn’t mean that it was putting food on my table! I compensated everybody who would take it. Some people wouldn’t hear of it.

I’ve never heard a bad thing said about Graham Nash*. I imagine he’s probably one of those guys?

He is one of those guys. He said, (in English accent) “Fook, no!”

[* Actually Nash’s ex-wife and David Crosby might have something to say.]

How does it feel to be the boss this time around? 

It feels really great. This didn’t really start out to be an album project. I would write these songs and then I would get my engineer friend out here and we would record them. Pretty soon I had three, four, five tunes. I was having such a great time doing it I was doing it as a hobby, really. And I was really liking having zero pressure, and not having to be scrutinized or please anybody else. That’s why I think it came off really well, at least in my mind.

What was the first song you wrote and recorded? 

That’s a really good question. I think that that song called “Compassion” is pretty old.

Were any of these songs ever considered for the Eagles album? 

Umm, I played a couple things here and there. They were never swooped up, so I thought, “OK, put another one in my hip pocket.” Everything has a purpose, I guess . . . Either somebody shows incredible enthusiasm or not. That’s really it. The band thing is way different, and I’m grateful and happy to be part of that band. It’s been a wonderful, wonderful part of my career on many levels. But it has a life of its own, and when we walk away from it we have our individual lives.

I guess that explains why there are no other Eagles on this record? Have they ever appeared on your records? 

Henley played drums on one cut on my very first album . . .  And Joe played on my last record, a quick little solo on something. But not a lot. I actually on purpose didn’t involve those guys, didn’t ask them. It’s kind of a private thing, and I was really having a great time, and thought I’d just keep it separate, just kinda have the best of both worlds.

You’re like the Ronnie Wood of the Eagles? A known commodity from a previous band whose talents might not get the right platform in the new band because it’s already got its own momentum? 

I don’t know how to comment on that  . . . I have never said this to anybody but I’ve oftentimes related to Ron Wood on that very same level. But nobody’s ever said anything, and I’ve never said anything, because it’s like who cares? But it is an interesting observation . . .  I get what you’re saying, definitely. I definitely felt making this batch of songs here on my own and not collaborating with anybody, doing them myself, it definitely was some moments of music freedom. I didn’t really care if anybody else liked these things. It’s turned into an album, I obviously care now. But I’m satisfied so far. I’ve already got one song to record for the next one. It’s just another pearl on the string.

I assume with your first couple of albums there was some pressure to have some hits because you had no other source of income? Not so much this time around? 

On my first few albums there’s a lot of stuff that’s different. I was a lot younger and I wasn’t really tapped into what I do best. It’s really obvious to me now when I hear those old records. I was writing with a lot of people, and going all kinds of directions. I didn’t feel like there was a thread. It’s like I’m still searching around in hindsight. There was definitely more pressure in the past for various reasons because of being younger, because of record label pressures. I definitely settled for stuff back then that I wouldn’t settle for now. I can barely listen to some of that stuff. Some of it I can listen to, but some of it I go, “Jeez, what was I doing?” This time I was really literally doing it for my own pleasure. I’m gonna play a ukulele on this, I’m gonna play my banjo, I’m gonna put the amplifier in the bathroom and see how that sounds. Whatever, you know?

I guess after the Eagles broke up you were basically unemployed so you had to do what you could to put bread on the table? 

I started touring in ’78 and made a record (The Long Run), and I was having the greatest time. Then it just stopped. It just completely stopped, and I was pretty shocked. At the same time, a series of other events happened to me. I was going through a divorce. I lost a lot of stuff, and I had a lot of financial responsibilities because of the divorce. I had to keep working. I told myself, “I’m not gonna take on some other vocation, I’m gonna do whatever I can, but stay in music.” I did a lot of stuff. I sang on Japanese products not that that’s bad, it’s just that some of the things I would have never touched, normally. I sang on more like yelled on a Twisted Sister record. I sang on a Poison album. Plus other stuff that might be more apt for my voice. I went on the road with several different people. I stayed afloat. I started a new family. Things were a little iffy, as far as my career, for a while there in the ’80s into the early ’90s. But I was also very happy on other levels. I’m surrounded by a great family. I’ve been with the same woman for 31 years. I have three children. A lot of good stuff.

Timothy B. Schmit (center) at the Kennedy Center Awards in 2016, accompanied by (l-r) son Ben, daughters Jeddrah and Owen, and wife Jean.

Did you lose your royalties from “The Long Run” in the divorce? 

I don’t want to get specific into that. Everybody knows in California, pretty much half of it’s gone. I was able to fulfill all of my obligations and stayed afloat, sometimes barely. I kept working, I kept writing, I kept trying to do what I do, and I’m still doing it, thankfully.

Do you get brownie points from your wife [Jean] when you write a song like “Ella Jean”?

She’s not particularly impressed, in general. The first night I met her, I asked her if she wanted to hear some music. She said, “Sure.” She thought I was going to play her some tapes or something. Well, I picked up the guitar and started singing. She was so unimpressed, which completely attracted me. She’s a great supporter, but she’s not my “fan” not on that level. She’s my loving companion. She’s an artist and several pieces of her work I thought would make great album covers, and I used one of them.

Were there songs that took a long time to come together? 

They all took a long time because I did most everything myself. I started every song on the acoustic guitar, just me playing the acoustic guitar. Except for the first song, “One More Mile,” I just set up a mike and I sang it about three or four times, and picked the best one and just kept it. Everything else has been added. I’m happy to say it sounds like everybody’s in the room at the same time on a lot of these things, but it was never the case. Everybody who came here really worked hard. Everybody got what I was doing.

In “White Boy from Sacramento,” are you being self-effacing by reveling in being “incognito”? 

Sometimes that’s what I am, and the word fit right in the right spot too. It’s definitely an autobiographical song, obviously. I’m telling the truth in a humorous way, hopefully. I’m just saying it like it is.

“Compassion” seems to be one of the more serious or introspective songs on the record?

I guess so. I think that one and that song “Melancholy,” which is a song about being way inward, kind of feeling and wanting to be alone. One of those days, that’s all it is. It’s just a mood.

In “Downtime,” there’s a similar theme of needing to get away 

Yeah, I think a lot of people can relate to that, Everybody has their stuff they have to do and their obligations. Sometimes even when you plan a vacation it might take, if you’ve got a week to actually get into it, sometimes it takes that long. There’s not just a switch. It takes a while to wake up one morning and go, “Aaaah, I don’t have to do anything. Now I’m finally here.” It’s about taking some time off, just making time to relax.

In your case, it must be a bit tough to go from private jets and the Four Seasons to being back at home? 

Poor me, huh? My mother and my brothers and their families still live up in Sacramento so oftentimes I get off one of these tours where I’ve driven up to the tarmac to get on the private plane and I’m living that life for a few weeks. And then I come home, I need to go visit my mom, and I stand in line at Southwest Airlines. Like everybody else. It’s a great hit of reality.

That’s a bit extreme in the other direction 

It’s not hard. You just do it.

Do people recognize you and go, “what the hell?”

Yeah, once in a while.

You have two co-writes on the Eagles record (Hell Freezes Over), including the politically themed title track “Long Road out of Eden.” Were you inclined to put political songs on this record, or do you leave that to the pros?

In the band’s case, it’s definitely especially Don’s forte, both Don and Glenn’s. I think they can articulate that stuff way better than me not that I don’t discuss issues with them on the plane and stuff, because we do. That song, lyrically, Don had in his head. He didn’t have it written down yet how to do it but he knew what he wanted to write about. He’s very tuned in on that. My contribution to that was that I actually started the opening chords one day. We were talking about this song and I picked up the guitar and started strumming it, in the way the guitar strums it’s not me on the record. The original version was me, actually. We cut that a couple of times. That was pretty much my contribution to that.

Have you had any reaction from the other guys? 

I quite honestly don’t know if they’ve even heard it. We pretty much go our own ways. Everybody’s got families. The other guys have children. They started later than me. I think I have the oldest child [Jeddrah], and then I had two children [daughter Owen, son Ben] after that with my second marriage. They have some young kids still now, so everybody goes into dad world, and whatever else they’ve got going on their own musically and whatever else they’ve got going in their lives.

Ben is from your first marriage? 

Ben is my youngest. He’s 19, although when he played on that (“White Boy From Sacramento”) it was a few years ago. Ben’s now a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Was Lost Highway Records involved during the process? 

My whole thing even before I knew it was going to be Lost Highway. I put out my last record in the States on my own, and I didn’t really want to do that again. I just didn’t want the hassle. Oh, that’s right, nobody really wanted it! So I put it out myself. This time, I thought it was good enough to shop around, although that was the label I wanted. I just thought it was the place it should be, if possible. My whole thing was that I financed this entire thing, and I really didn’t need to do a lot of business financially with the record label. I wanted to hand them the entire package and I did, artwork and everything. “Here it is, will you license this record?”

How much did it cost to make the record? 

I don’t really know. I do know but I don’t think I want to tell you! It wasn’t extreme. The studio facilities are here. I know it’s a lot of money to a lot of people, but it was not over the top.

The album has more folk leanings as opposed to Gram Parsons country rock we might have expected 

You’ve got that again, too. When I first started strumming guitars, when I was in early high school, I was totally learning folk songs. That really is where I came from. That’s another thing I kinda said to myself or felt to myself, I’m gonna start with what I do best, and what I know best, and it really comes from a folk background. That’s where the whole starting in with acoustic guitars happens. I listen to a lot of stuff. I listen to a lot of jazz, for instance. That’s where Gary Burton came in, the vibe player. He was great. I did fly him and he came in, and my son and I were here in the room while he played and we were just dazzled. It was great … He’s on “Downtime.”

And you talk about the Kingston Trio in “White Boy from Sacramento” 

The first singing group I was in, we were such fans of the Kingston Trio that we dressed exactly like them and sang their songs. In fact I just found a really great picture. We’re rehearsing for our first gig and I’m 14 years old. I’m looking at it right now because I’ve gotta put it on my Web site. And I’m playing a tenor guitar just like Nick Reynolds of the Kingston Trio did. About 6 months before Nick Reynolds died (in October 2008), I finally got to meet him. I became friends with he and his wife. He was pretty ill and somewhat incapacitated, but he was the sweetest guy. I have his tenor guitar right in my studio here, sort of on indefinite loan for me to keep. It’s the same guitar that he played on Tom Dooley, some of those old hits. Don’t get me started! They were definitely a big influence on me.

Timothy B. Schmit playing Nick Reynolds’ guitar. Source: timothybschmidt.com

When did you realize that your voice was quite the instrument as well? 

I never thought of it as anything like you’re expressing. All I know is people started asking me to sing a lot with them. I sang for Gary Katz, for instance, the producer of the old Steely Dan stuff. I sang for him for another project, not a Steely Dan project. I guess he really liked it and before I knew it they were calling me in to sing on that Pretzel Logic album (1974), and I sang on a lot of it. I was just having a ball. I never really thought, “Gee, I must be special!” I just did what I loved to do.

I think your voice stands out on some Bob Seger songs. Is that you on Fire Lake

That’s the only Bob Seger song I’m on . . . That was a cool song.

You could say “Life’s Been Good” or you’re “Just an Ordinary Average Guy.” But Joe Walsh beat you to the punch 

I think I live a pretty normal life other than when I’m out being an Eagle. You come back from an Eagles show, it’s not like it’s party time like it used to be. I come back and I close the door to my hotel room and I’m by myself. It’s just turned off. Phew! Did my job and now it’s time to rest and visit my book friends before I go to sleep. That’s how it is . . .  My tank is full and I’m good with that.

Will you hit the road promoting it, or will the Eagles get in the way of that? 

The original plan was just to keep going for a while. We did 2 months in Europe in June and July, and then we were going to take a break and start again in September here in the States. But we’d been doing it for so long it was decided that we will take a longer break. Some time next year, I expect to be up and running again with the band. I’m not sure when. But in the meantime it allows me time to carry on with the release of this album and not have other obligations, and that’s great. I’ve been rehearsing here at my studio which I call Mooselodge one word for the last 10 days and now we’re going to the stage. On Wednesday night will be my first show, at the Largo at the old Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles . . . I’ve got a small band put together. We’re just kinda jamming I don’t mean musically to get prepared. I’m just trying to take deep breaths. I want to keep it loose and I want to have a good time. Most of it’s going to be the new album. I don’t have a big solo record of hits. Unlike a guy who’s been around a lot where people are more apt to want to hear the old stuff, I’m only going to give them a little bit of that, that I think would be recognizable to them. I’m going to hit this album a lot, and hopefully have a good time doing it.

You’d be surprised how many people in the audience would know some of your obscure songs 

I was perusing some old Poco records and I was looking to see what I could do without too much work because I want to be prepared. I think I found maybe a song that I could maybe do that an old Poco fanatic would know.

NOTE: If you liked this item, try my gossipy rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles, available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com

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Dean Goodman