John Lilley learned to play the guitar at nine years old after he saw The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. He initially learned to play jazz and folk music, with his first teacher being folk and bluegrass expert Jerry Ricks. He eventually studied jazz improvisation with Dennis Sandole and then jazz, theory, orchestration, composition and arranging with Calvin Harris. Lilley also participated in visual arts, drawing voraciously while in school and mostly painting as an adult. In his twenties during the mid-1970s, Lilley got involved in the local Philadelphia rock music scene, as the manager and guitarist of the Get Right Band and later became the original guitarist for Robert Hazard and the Heroes, who went on to write Cyndi Lauper‘s hit “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Following his departure from Robert Hazard, the Hooters, who were on the verge of breaking big nationally, enlisted Lilley’s talents. He appeared on the band’s 1983 independent debut Amore, followed by national releases Nervous Night (1985), One Way Home (1987), Zig Zag (1989) and Out of Body (1993). As a Hooter, Lilley performed at the original 1985 Live Aid concert in Philadelphia, the Amnesty International Concert at Giants Stadium in 1986 and 1990’s Berlin Wall concert in Germany.
Nervous Night, The Hooters‘ 1985 debut on Columbia Records, sold in excess of 2 million copies and included Billboard Top 40 hits “Day By Day” (#18), “And We Danced” (#21) and “Where Do The Children Go” (#38). After releasing six albums, The Hooters obtained a large global following throughout the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, they were asked to open three major musical events of the late 20th century: Live Aid in Philadelphia in 1985, Amnesty International Concert at Giants Stadium in 1986, and Roger Waters‘ The Wall Concert in Berlin in 1990. In 1995, The Hooters went on hiatus. When The Hooters went on hiatus in 1995, Lilley left the music business and concentrated on a career in landscape gardening. He started his own company in the Philadelphia area, Avantgardeners, which evolved from a one man operation to a full-time business employing several workers and having its own nursery.
Lilley reunited with The Hooters on successful headlining European summer tours in 2003, 2004 2005, and 2009. 2007 saw the release of Time Stand Still, their first album of new material since 1993.Lilley has also composed and performed several theatre and dance scores. Sister Carrie, adapted by Louis Lippa and based on Theodore Dreiser‘s novel, was performed at the People’s Light and Theatre Company in Malvern, Pennsylvania in 1991 and included over 125 musical moments and themes throughout the 6 hour play that Lilley contributed to. At the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1992, Lilley contributed to Collecting Gravity by the Terry Beck Dance Troupe. Currently, Lilley is releasing his first solo album, Lucky Kinda Guy on Oct. 6th, which that he describes “as a blend of rock and country with an Americana edge,” and performing live with the band he used on the record. Lilley also teaches guitar lessons to students in the Philadelphia area, both at his home and through Rock & Roll After School in Phoenixville, PA. He currently lives in West Chester with his partner of 30 years.
PHAWKER: First of all, what is a Hooter and why was it the name of the band?
JOHN LILLEY: Oh that’s a good question. That’s a question that has haunted us for a long time cause people want to know what that is. Years ago Rob and Eric, Eric Bazillian and Rob Hyman were putting together a band. They were working with an engineer in the studio, it was John O. Senior, he liked the O in the middle. They were using an instrument called the melodica which is made by the Hohner company in Germany that makes harmonicas, accordion stuff, and Prince’s guitars. Rob was really influenced by reggae music a lot and there was a guy called Augustus Pablo, a reggae artist that used the melodica and it’s very cool, he dubbed it out and put echo on it, so they were experimenting with that. That was their logo when they started and John, the engineer, said “well why don’t you just blow into that hooter and I’ll get some levels on the microphone on that hooter.” I guess a light bulb went off in both of their heads and they said “lets call the band The Hooters.’
PHAWKER: Was there any copyright run ins with the Hooters restaurant chain when that came about?
JOHN LILLEY: Yeah, yeah there was at one point in time. As we became successful and the Hooters chain started spreading out from Florida, I guess that’s where it really started, a few years ago we used to do radio promotions for these radio stations “Come Meet Hooters at Hooters.” We did a few of those and it’s kind of funny. As it turns out, from what I understand, that the two names could coexist because there’s two different kinds of copyright. There’s a restaurant copyright and an entertainment copyright. I never really knew what happened with it, we just kept the name and they kept the restaurant. That investment of mine that I made in the Hooters restaurant has paid off immensely. I’m kidding.
PHAWKER: If you could go back in time, back to the 80s, and change any one thing about The Hooters, what would it be? The haircuts? The outfits? The production values?
JOHN LILLEY: I’d probably say the outfits. It was all about hairdos, shoes, and shoulder pads and lots of mousse way too much make-up. I mean, it was the 80s, we’re all embarrassed about the things we did in the 80s. Everyone else was doing it, so we thought we all were cool.
PHAWKER: The mid 80s was a obviously the time of the Hooters commercial heyday and the infrastructure of the rock industrial complex was arguably at its peak of efficiency. There was a vast retail network and they had a lock on radio and MTV, I’m wondering if the band was coming up today and given the music industry’s vastly diminished state, do you think the results would have been the same?
JOHN LILLEY: It wouldn’t have happened the same way. It really wouldn’t, because that was a machine back then for many, many artists and many artists were broken by this mechanism that was in place that seemed to be working for everybody. It’s a whole different ball game now and you can’t compare it. The 80s were the 80s and right it’s night and day. I think now it’s hard because of the dissolution of the record companies and I think it’s more significant for people to put their music out and be true to their art, put it out themselves, go as far as you can. The viral marketing is just very significant and there’s no rules yet. I mean, there’s sort of some rules but not, “you have to do this, you have to do that” but do whatever you want to do. I think it’s exciting.
PHAWKER: Congratulations on the solo record. Can you speak to that a little bit? What was your intention when you started out? What did you want it to sound like? How did it wind up turning out in your estimation?
JOHN LILLEY: I’m really proud of the record. I am really very proud of this record. It’s something that I never thought I wanted to do until the last few years and I guess I never really had anything to say. I was writing some tracks for the Hooters last record and I plugged the microphone in and… Well you know, I just had to do that and all these ideas came out and I guess kind of like, there’s a lot of things I experienced in my life and I just gotta a lot to say. I just wanted to do this, I’ve never done my own solo record, so why not?
PHAWKER: And the sound of the record, has this always been the John Lilley sound or did you sort of make a conscious effort to lock onto that Americana vibe?
JOHN LILLEY: I never had a John LIlley sound, because I never made a John Lilley record, so how could I have a sound? I have a style of the way I play. I played with the Hooters for nearly 30 years and there’s a lot of elements that come into that band from different influences of all the fellows of the band. My roots are in American, traditional music, in blues, finger picking, flat picking, traditional American music, that’s where I started. As i got older I got involved in jazz. As I got older I ended up standing in front of a Marshall amp for Robert Hazard, as I got older I ended up playing a million instruments with Hooters, So, all these influences come together for this record and when I was constructing it I wanted to make it as simple as possible and it’s really easy in the studio to add a million things. I just spent a good month just picking stuff away so the record would breathe.
PHAWKER: I love the slide guitar.
JOHN LILLEY: Me too. I got the buzz last year after doing the Hooters record and I spent all summer on YouTube learning how to play dobro. Then I met all these guys online that were German dobro players and I figured I was going to be on tour for a month so I found all the best ones and I emailed them. I said, “hey I play in this band that’s going to be on tour, you might know the band called The Hooters and I’m going to be in Hamburg this night and this specific night I’m going to be in Hanover. Would you consider coming to the show and bringing your dobro, so we can maybe hang out on the tour bus and show me some stuff?” These guys came and I learned a lot of stuff from them. It was great. I finally bought myself a proper dobro last summer.
PHAWKER: Excellent. One last question, I wanted to ask you about the evolution of social attitudes regarding sexual orientation and the music business. Are you cool with that? Do you mind if we tackle a gay issue for the last question?
JOHN LILLEY: Yeah, I don’t see why not. It doesn’t really matter, I’m the straightest gay person I know.
PHAWKER: You and your partner have been together how long?
JOHN LILLEY: Thirty years.
PHAWKER: Thirty years, that’s incredible! Congratulations on that. I’m wondering if, when back in the day, back in the 80s, I’m guessing that back then it would have been bad for business for John Lilley to be openly out and gay in the Hooters as opposed to circa now John Lilley, solo guy, and who cares?
JOHN LILLEY: Yeah, it’s kind of like it was an image thing back then. I wasn’t out, and I’ll admit it, much to my boyfriend’s disappointment. It was just kind of weird and I was really conflicted about it. There was a point in time where I just started meeting a lot of gay people in the music industry and other gay artists and it was like, “what the fuck?” It doesn’t matter, you gotta be who you are no matter what they say. You just have to. I think as the times changed it became a lot easier and it was never really a hardship to be gay at all. I wasn’t people afraid of knowing it, but it was like an image thing. It’s an odd situation, I don’t really think about it to be honest with you.
PHAWKER: Well, even Michael Stipe didn’t even come out in the 80s. He didn’t come out until well into the 90s.
JOHN LILLEY: I loved how he came out. What was that YouTube thing that he outted the drummer as being straight or something? It was so funny and it was obvious to everybody. I mean, if you’re in the business you know who is and who isn’t and does this and who does that and you really know what people really do. We’re all human, we all just bump into each other every once and a while and sometimes we don’t. I had a lot of friends in Europe when I went over to Europe, people that worked with us with record companies and promotion, still good friends of mine that are gay that I always see when I go over there. It’s like, so what, who cares? Europe’s a different mind set anyway, but I think the people who live on the Left and Right coast in the bigger cities have it a lot easier than the teenager growing up in the middle of America, where they’re not thinking as forward thinking as the the Left and Right coast are and I think that’s very, very hard. I think that’s really important that people should embrace that, because you have all these families that you know there’s gotta be somebody in your family who’s gay and you either like it or you don’t like it. Hopefully the people who like it embrace it, not make an issue out of it. Some people still do and I find that, I don’t know feel good about that. People can’t be who they are, it’s just not fair.
PHAWKER: I really do feel like we’ve come a long way on this though, in general.
JOHN LILLEY: I think so, I really do. Really significantly to me for Bobby, Bob Lohrmann, who’s my partner to celebrate 30 years together I have friends that haven’t been together that long, I have friends that have been married that long, too but I think it’s really significant. At the same time it’s just like, yeah so what? You look in the back of the New York Times and you see couples, you see gay couples and lesbian couples being married. That just warms my heart to see that. I hope that at some point in time Pennsylvania gets their mindset changed that allows us to be a real couple., because I get pissed off every April 15. I really do, I get pissed off for about 2 or 3 weeks.
PHAWKER: Just confirm this, you’re playing World Cafe Live on Saturday night?
JOHN LILLEY: I chose the upstairs because it’s more intimate. I just recently toured this summer and we were playing from like 2000 to 130,000 people and I could do that, but I really like the intimate thing, so I’m trying to make it like a living room, really bring everybody together kind of thing. I tend to tell a lot stories, I’ll probably run my mouth far too much.