Martha Davis, the charismatic lead singer of the Motels, was more than willing to open her California home to the crew of VH1’s “Where Are They Now?”
They spent two hours interviewing her and her current band members and stuck around long enough for a sound check.
“They were doing this whole big thing and I was so excited, because for me it’s always been about the music,” Davis said recently. “So when I was telling them how great it was to be back in action, that I was writing all this new stuff, blah-blah-blah, then they cut to the early segment, it’s about a minute long and they said ‘Martha Davis had cancer,’ then they go to me and I had said, ‘Yeah, it kinda sucked.’
“Why did they stay up there that long if that’s all they were going to do? People just need that sensationalism. I have a life that can get on daytime television with no problem, but I’d rather be known for music than for some crazy life experience.”
Davis survived that crazy life experience in 1987 – the same year the original group disbanded – mostly because she refused to let it consume her.
“When they told me I had cancer, I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll be dying now,’ ” Davis said with a tender, schoolgirl laugh. “It was totally scary, and it still is, but I’m a true believer that the more you say something, you take the power away from it. As we all know, there’s nothing more powerful than the imagination; if you think your boyfriend or girlfriend is having an affair and your imagination’s just going with it, you’ll come up with a scenario that’s 10 times worse, when actually they just went to get milk at the supermarket. The human mind is an amazing thing and we tend to take the ball and run with it.
“If you don’t have facts around cancer, like hearing from other people ‘Oh, yeah, I had cancer and I survived,’ then your mind is going to go right to the dark side. I’m such an optimist, I can’t ever believe anything is all bad, because I don’t believe that’s how things work. We have some good and have some bad, and that’s the way it is.”
Davis is positively giddy about “Anthologyland,” a long-overdue two-disc Motels retrospective out Feb. 6 on Oglio Records. The 35-track collection includes rarities, B-sides, live performances, soundtrack cuts and a new hidden bonus track (titled “Coco & John”).
“I don’t live in the past,” Davis said. “I get nostalgic like the next guy, but I’m always on to something new. I’m always writing, I’m always creating and going forward. I’m always dangling a carrot in front of myself, so I don’t take a lot of time looking back.
“But doing this project was very cathartic and crazy. I had to get in touch with a lot of people I hadn’t talked to in years, and that was wonderful. One of the things that was fun about it was there was more than just the Motels signed to Capitol; there were the previous Motels. The first track (‘Every Day Star’), I really wanted to include that band, when we were called the Warfield Foxes, because if it hadn’t been for that band I never would’ve moved down to L.A. and gotten into the Motels in the first place.
“In talking with them, we all have different memories; somebody will remember that and I’ll remember something else and you’ll go, ‘Oh, yeah, I forgot about that.’ You piece it back together. It’s a very collective memory. Nobody remembers everything.”
Among her own memories:
Apologizing to Roy Orbison for using the title “Only the Lonely” – “He was recording at Record One, which is a studio that my former producer-manager, Val Garay, owned. I saw him and went, ‘Oh my god.’ The first thing I could say was, ‘I’m sorry I used your title, but you can’t copyright titles.’ He said, ‘It’s all right, Martha. It’s quite all right, I liked that song.’ I was like, ‘Oh, god, the great one talked to me.’ “
Doing a duet with Sly Stone, a cover of Joan Armatrading’s “Love & Affection,” for the 1986 film “Soul Man” … but never meeting him – “They wouldn’t let me work with him. Never met him, and I’d idolized him. I said, ‘Look, I want to work him,’ and they said, ‘No, you don’t.’ I said, ‘Yes, I do. Shit, I’m no angel. I don’t care, I can take it.’ But he was, at that time, not a prime-time player, I guess. So we did it separate days and I never met him. It is so sad, because I truly believe he’s one of the greatest contributors to modern music today. I really do. I think he changed music. He brought in funk in a way that nobody had done before. I was so crushed when I couldn’t meet him. What’s he doing now? I just want to go shake him and say, ‘Goddamnit, what have you done to yourself?’ “
The No. 1 that got away … losing out to Berlin to do “Take My Breath Away” for the “Top Gun” film soundtrack – “It was one of two songs I heard where I said, ‘That is a hit’ (The other being The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’). You can say, ‘That sounds like a hit,’ but very seldom do you go ‘That song is a hit.’ Giorgio (Moroder) called me, ‘Martha, I have this song for this movie, can you come over and see me?’ I said sure. I sang it and he gave me a cassette of what I had done that day. That very cassette is the only remaining copy. No one has the actual reel-to-reel of it. (For ‘Anthologyland,’ they used the best technology to give it a rich sound.) Next thing I know, Teri Nunn had it and I was like, ‘C’est la vie.’ I’m a writer, and I’d much rather be known for something I had done. What if I had been known for doing ‘Take My Breath Away’? Would I have been overlooked for the other things that I do? So maybe it’s better that it happened that way.”
There’s plenty more music in Davis. When she’s not touring with the Motels – Mick Taras (guitar), David Sutton (bass), Fritz Lewak (drums) and Nick Le Mieux (keyboards) – she’s holed up in her studio.
“I still have a whole career ahead of me,” she said. “This year, be careful – Martha Davis is cutting loose. I have so much new product that I’m about to unleash on the planet. I’ve got a kids’ album that I’ve finished – 17 songs worth of hilarity, all songs about different animals. I’ve got what I call my country album, because it’s my way of saying pop and not feeling too guilty about it. It’s a country-pop album. Then I’ve got a jazz album that I’ve written, and I’ve got a crazy rock album. I’d like to get it all out this year, because I have too many songs at home and I’m tripping over them.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: ” ‘Moonlight Sonata’ by Beethoven. Didn’t you know he recorded? He was on the charts. No, seriously, I remember buying it and being so excited and I took it to school for show-and-tell in second grade and I left it in the car and it got warped. I was totally crushed.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “When I was 11, the first show I saw that knocked me out was ‘Bye, Bye Birdie,’ which of course was a musical. That had singing and dancing. I had the weird life where I got married when I was 15, so I wasn’t seeing a lot of shows. Probably the first show I saw was in Berkeley when I came back from Florida, and I can’t even remember the band.”
THE LAST CD I BOUGHT: “I bought the new U2, but I really don’t like it that much. I love Bono and I’ve met him and he’s a sweetheart, but it seemed like he had a rhyming dictionary. It hit me as something forced. Maybe it’s just me, maybe I should listen to it again. And I also got ‘Kid A,’ which I absolutely went crazy over. Radiohead right now is my favorite band. They’re brilliant. We saw them at the Greek Theater and it was so amazing.”
BWF (before we forget): The Motels are open for business on the Web @ www.anthologyland.com. … The Motels album discography – “The Motels” (Capitol, 1979); “Careful” (1980); “All Four One” (1982); “Little Robbers” (1983); “Shock” (1985); “Policy,” Davis solo LP (1987); “No Vacancy: The Best of The Motels” (1990); “Anthologyland” (Oglio, 2001); “Clean Modern and Reasonable” (2007); “This” (2008); “Apocalypso” (2011, originally recorded in 1981).
More updates: Joe Henry, Marcus King, Lily Kershaw, Poliça, Sarah Brightman, Jerry Leger, Simple Minds, Grateful Dead, etc