People generally know Kip Winger as a purveyor of pop metal. Some know of his classical ballet training as a teenager. Fewer know that he is now a classical composer. But that is slowly changing.
The bassist, guitarist and singer, who still records and tours with the band that bears his name, is increasingly making the move into the classical world, with his first major work Ghosts premiering to critical acclaim at the San Francisco Ballet earlier this year. (Take that, Beavis and Butthead.) Like fellow rock musicians Duncan Sheik and David Bryan, Winger is finding new musical avenues to express himself in.
While touring in Europe last month, Kip sat down to chat with ADD about his life in rock, dance and classical and expand upon the dual life he has been leading all of these years. (Part One can be found here.)
I imagine that this has been an interesting transition period for you because you’ve been known mainly for your work with Winger, and even though you have this ballet and classical background, there are probably people in the classical world who knew very little about what you have done there. You surely have surprised fans in both worlds. Have you met classical people who had no clue about that side of your life?
Most of them. Maybe there’s one or two [who [knew]. It was amazing in San Francisco, by the way, because I walk in and people think, “What’s this going to be like?” I actually read a couple of reviews that said when they heard Kip Winger did the music, they thought it would be blues or rock, and they were really into it. They were very shocked by it actually because it’s very organic classical music. I was actually considering changing my name to Charles, which is my real name, thinking that would give me a little more credibility. Kip has been a nickname since I was a kid, but I called that off because what ended up happening was I got more press for the San Francisco Ballet than they’ve ever had for one of those ballets.
Do you think that was part of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon‘s decision to work on Ghosts?
He didn’t even know who I was. The first time he realized I was famous was when he saw Rock Of Ages, and [the narrator] Lonny said he was going to beat up someone for dissing Kip Winger. He didn’t know. He totally didn’t get it. It was amazing, which was great for me because he chose it [Ghosts] off the merit of the music.
I’m a big ’80s fan, and I embrace music from my past, even if some of it is considered to be cheesy. Some people refuse to acknowledge that aspect of nostalgia in a positive way, as if liking it in earnest is bad.
It’s no great mystery that I was at the scene of the crime of that whole thing. I went through a whole period of being publicly stoned to death. When the grunge thing happened, it really fell out, but on top of that I was singled out, which ironically turned out to be great because it gave me a lot of time to go back to the books and study and do what I really wanted to be doing.
What was the inspiration for you to create Ghosts?
Writing a piece for Chris Wheeldon. I wanted to write a legitimate piece that would hold up in any arena. I was living in Nashville, and still do, when I was writing it, and I didn’t know where I was going to go with it. It’s kind of a bizarre story actually. I was working [on the music] in an old hospital in Nashville that had been converted into office space and recording studio space, and the place just had the weirdest vibe. There was a mystical thing about it. I just kept hearing strange noises and stuff. I kept hearing this one theme that starts in the cadenza of the first violin bit at the beginning of the first movement. The place was not like a haunted house, but there was this strange, mystical essence around the studio, and the word “ghosts” came when I was writing that little bit there. It just stuck, and I used it as a working title. The further that I went into writing the piece, I started seeing different personalities that were popping out of the music and started developing the characters in that way. When Chris heard the music and heard the title, there was really no turning back. Usually choreographers name their piece whatever they want to, even if the music has another working title, but he stuck with that. There are 17 dancers I believe, and he made the ballet like a mass of souls after a tragedy, all trying to find their way. It works so well. I couldn’t believe how he did that, almost like it was a shipwreck or something. There’s a big piece of wreckage above the stage that continually moves throughout the piece, like the wreckage of a boat, and the dancers are below it. Sometimes it looks like they’re underwater. What he did was unbelievable, and the costumes were amazing. The whole team was exceptional.
One thing that he did that was very interesting was that I wrote the piece in three movements — misterioso, largamente and the adagio — and in ballet the adagio is usually in the middle, but the arc of the piece fell into this form I did. He got the piece, and a month before he went to San Francisco he called me and asked if I could make it longer. He needed about four more minutes. After messing around with it, I decided to write another movement. I wrote another movement that was about four minutes and squeezed in there. When I went to watch the rehearsal, he rearranged all the movements where my second movement went fourth, my third movement stayed third and he stuck the new movement in second, and it’s awesome. I don’t have an actual recording of the second movement. It’s on iTunes in the way I [originally] wrote it, which is why I called it “Suite No. 1”. So I’ll record the other one and call it “Suite No. 2” and arrange it in the order that he did. At first there was a little voice in my head that said, “Wow, he changed it. Is that good or bad?” But then I thought that this is what art is. You get the other guy who’s doing his vision. He grabbed the piece and turned it around into what he saw it as. He’s a master, by the way. He rearranged the whole piece, and it was better. It was really an amazing experience. It’s very satisfying and gratifying.
Is classical music something you’re going to be transitioning to in the years ahead?
After all of these years — having reunited Winger, recorded and toured again, and having completed your first classical ballet — do you feel vindicated?
Yeah, I do. I feel like now people are starting to understand [it]. The most painful part about getting booted out of the business back in the ’90s would have been — and I don’t know if they did or not — if people didn’t think I was a good musician. That was always the most important thing to me. Now that my career is basically living off of the good musicianship, that is really the vindication for me because that’s the most important thing.
What are the most underrated Winger songs?
It depends on what level you’re talking about. We did some really deep stuff on Winger IV. It was our first record in 10 years, and a lot of people didn’t get it because I was in the throes of this explosion of music theory and chromaticism. I jam packed that record with a lot of heavy duty music. People just didn’t connect a song like “Right Up Ahead” and “Blue Suede Shoes”. Actually, the State Department gave me an award for “Blue Suede Shoes,” so I did get recognized for that. Musically, even “Headed For A Heartbreak” had a different approach to it. It [also] had a huge guitar solo. We were very proud of the fact that we always had these ripping guitar solos on our hits. I think when musicians hear it they go, “Wow, these guys are really happening.” The general public either likes the songs or they don’t. In pop music you could be doing computer music like Britney Spears and still could be great or could be shit. There are a few of our tunes that I would say [are underrated] like “In For The Kill” and “Under One Condition,” or “Witness” on Karma. People get it if they like it. I don’t really pay attention to that stuff anymore.
All of you have strong musical pedigrees and went on to other solid projects. For example, Reb Beach played on Dokken’s Erase The Slate, which is a great album.
He did, and he’s been in Whitesnake for six years. He’s got an amazing career — he did Alice Cooper, Dokken, Whitesnake and Night Ranger. He keeps getting better, man. Our drummer Rod Morgenstein is now a full professor at Berklee, and the other guy John Roth is the lead guitar player in Giant. Everybody has their own thing going. Like I say, honestly, we get together to do this to hang out with each other and make a few bucks. We just all have too much going on.
Are there any other projects that you’re working on?
It’s funny, because I’m actually writing another ballet. I’ve got sketches for four movements. Again, this stuff takes a really long time because it’s just a deeper art form. I don’t mean it in an egotistical way, but to not sound dorky you have to really flesh it out. It’s like a movie script — you’ve got all the different characters, and they all have to develop. It’s like the difference between you writing an interview and a short story. Seeing the whole thing simultaneously from beginning to end — if that muscle memory is not developed — it’s hard to develop that, where you can grasp something so much bigger simultaneously. That’s been a big challenge for me. I’m getting better at it, but it really just takes practice. That’s what guys like Beethoven did. There was no Internet, no TV. They would just do that until that part of the brain was working all the time. I’m trying to wean myself into that whole world, and it’s definitely different.
Some rock musicians and bands want to change and evolve, and some don’t. Some don’t need to change to succeed if they have a winning formula.
We were one big album away from headlining arenas and making shitloads of cash. My band came too late. We hit that genre about four years too late. Bon Jovi is obviously the one who nailed it. But had I done that and been making all that money, it does get addictive, man. I’m just happy that stuff turned out the way it did for me. I’d love all the money, of course, but if I had the choice I’d rather be in the position I am in now with the music I’m able to write. One of my biggest templates is to seek out this mentor program that I do. I find somebody that whoops my ass, and I go study with them. I continue to do that.
Do you mean that they’re mentoring you in music?
Composition, man. Right now I go to Michael Kurek. I’ve been going to him for a long time. He can still pull my head out of my ass, and it’s not like taking lessons. I’ll go three months and get stuck and go to him. He’ll look at it and give me a clear picture of what I’m doing, and so far he’s still inspiring it out of me. I was with a guy in New Mexico for four years and got everything I could out of him and moved on. There have been a couple of very famous composers that I’ve met, and I am working on maybe going to work with them a little bit, just finding people that are better. It’s kind of like skiing. When there’s somebody better than you, you go down the black diamond and watch them do it and you get to get better, rather than hang out with the people that are worse.