Tommy Kessler is talented, creative, hard-working, and entrepreneurial.
On any given day you might find Tommy playing guitar in front of thousands of adoring fans while on tour with Blondie OR writing music and mixing a new release for a colleague in his studio OR lending his talents to a high-energy theatrical production such as the Broadway smash hit “Rock of Ages” and the “Blue Man Group” (which has played continuously at the Astor Place Theatre off Broadway since 1991) OR as part of the I Love the 90s.com’s utterly awesome Fresh Kids of Bel Air band which performs every Friday night in the Big Apple to upwards of a thousand screaming 20 something year olds.
Oh, and Tommy does all the above and still finds time to mentor up-and-coming artists who are trying to make it in the extremely challenging entertainment industry.
Tommy took time out of his packed schedule to speak with me about everything from his childhood musical influences to “Max” – an adorable stray kitten who was found hanging outside his studio and who Tommy adopted.
Tommy: How did a boy from Ohio wind up in New York City?
I did a regional version of CATS in Ohio with my mom. She played piano and I played guitar. I met some people in the show that were from New York. They were going on tour after the show was over and asked if I would like to check out New York and go stay in their place. It was an easy way to check it out with no pressure or worries.
Describe the influence of growing up in a home with your mother, Linda, who I understand is a classically trained pianist.
It was a big influence to hear her play music all the time. Even before I ever picked up an instrument, I’d hit keys on the piano because that’s what I saw her do. I would always listen to her play classical piano pieces growing up. That’s why when I first started playing guitar I gravitated toward classical music. From there I branched out and learned all sorts of other genres, but the first was classical guitar. That took me down the road towards rock music and everything else after that.
Photo: Eight month old Tommy tickling the ivories. (Credit – Kessler family collection)
Who did you listen to as a kid growing up?
My first memory was of having a Debbie Gibson binder in first grade (laughing). This was years before I started playing guitar. I guess I listened to that music back then. But once I starting playing guitar it was a lot of hard rock and heavy metal. I guess it was a lot of Ozzy…Pantera…Van Halen…I played a lot of Guns and Roses.
Those bands encouraged me to play guitar a lot. I would play through albums. I would buy the tab books and just play the album from start to finish. I’m sure I wasn’t very good but I played a lot (laughs).I went and saw Van Halen and that was it. Once I decided to play guitar, going to see someone play guitar live like that was encouraging. I guess it’s sort of a cliché. But that’s what happened.
How old were you when you decided to play guitar?
I don’t recall exactly. I was around 12 or 13.
Did you take guitar lessons while growing up?
Yes I took lessons for a few years. Then eventually it was kind of like “Okay here’s all the basics. Now you have to go and play music. Go find out what you want to do next.” It’s kind of like the equivalent of going through school and graduating high school and then saying “Now I have all the basics. What do I want to do? Do I want to go to specialty school or college?” It was like that. So then I stopped taking lessons and I started playing with as many people as I could and joined bands.
Did you play with other guitarists to get more skilful at guitar?
I had a handful of friends. One was a piano player, a keyboard player who also played guitar. I had another friend who played guitar. We played a lot of Metallica music. Dressed like that. Acted like that. Played music like that and we loved it. Metallica was huge and that led me to Megadeath. It was a whole lot of hard rock and metal music which is what I got started with.
How did it work with your friend? Would one of you play lead and the other play rhythm?
He would play the rhythm parts and I would play the lead parts. I guess we both knew I was a better guitar player (laughs) but it helped to have him there and it was encouraging because I wanted to play. It was fun to have someone to play with.
Did your mother support you when you ultimately decided that rock guitar would be your primary area of interest?
Yes she did. She was fine with it. She offered to teach me piano. I told her I didn’t want to follow in her footsteps and try to live up to the things she’d done. By the time she was 16 she was amazing already and won competitions. Here I was 12 or 13 and there was no way I was going to be at that level in a couple years. She started taking piano when she was four or five. I couldn’t live up to that and frankly I wanted to play guitar anyway. My mom supported my decision to play rock guitar right away.
To be quite honest, it’s difficult to make a living just playing classical guitar. It’s difficult to make a living playing just one style of music period. Both my parents were supportive of my decision and they helped feed my addiction. They spent some money on music gear which was nice.
The gear that a young guitarist needs can get expensive – can’t it?
Yes it can. When I was 15 I auditioned for this speed metal-like punk band. Everyone was much older than I was. Some of them were 25 to 29 years old and I was 15. I blew up my amp at the first audition. They wanted me to join the band so I think within a day or two I got a much bigger, louder amp.
So after the CATS performance you relocated to the New York City area. Did you like it right away?
I came here with a goal in mind so it wasn’t like “If I don’t like it here I’m going home.” It was about “Can I make a living playing music here?” That was what I was focused on. I kind of went to every Craig’s list audition I could. I spent every day in the city. I took a train in with my guitar because I was living in New Jersey and went to all sorts of auditions and played with as many people as I could.
How did the “Rock of Ages” thing come about?
That came about at the time I was doing “Blue Man Group.” I’d purchased a guitar from a guy that builds guitars in California named Jason Schroeder. Jason called me and told me about this guitar player named Joel from New York (Note: Joel is Joel Hoekstra of Whitesnake/Night Ranger). He said you should reach out to him and say hi. So I sent him a message on MySpace. I sent some YouTube videos to him of me playing Van Halen songs. Back then I think I had two videos on my YouTube page and they were both Van Halen songs.
I didn’t hear from Joel for about six months. Then he called me out of the blue. He said he had this job but he couldn’t do the first show and needed to find a sub and so he called me. He saw I could play and I was reliable. I could show up for a show every day. Sometimes it’s hard to find rock musicians who will show up on time. So that was that. After I subbed for Joel for Guitar 1, a week or two into the show the other guitarist who was from Los Angeles was going back there. So he asked “Would you like to do Guitar 2” and I said “Sure. Of course.” I did the whole run – six and a half years.
“Blue Man Group” has been around for a while in New York correct?
Yes. They started out in 1991 at the Astor Place Theatre where they still are.
Are you still associated with them today?
Oh yeah. Once “Rock of Ages” closed I subbed there. I do one to four shows a week. Even during “Rock of Ages” when I had down time I would go and do shows. There’s a bunch of musicians there. They do a lot of shows. I was originally hired to go to Germany. Then a position opened up in New York so I took that.
I’d like to talk to you about Blondie now. You’re involved with a legendary band that started I believe before you were born. Were you a little intimidated at first or did they make you feel welcome right away?
No, no. I felt really comfortable immediately. Whenever I get into something my personality is that I stay quiet. I listen and see how the whole machine works. When I first joined the band I learned what I needed to learn rather than forcing myself to fit in in a certain way. They made me feel really comfortable about everything. It was not intimidating at all. It was a great situation.
I’ve heard stories about people joining bands and the other musicians in the band are very intimidating. They might even try to haze the new member. There was absolutely nothing like that. It was very relaxing…very nice.
Blondie tours in a bus I believe.
Yes. We do fly (on occasion) but typically we are in a bus all together.
What’s life on a bus between shows like?
We all have TVs in our bunks. I’ll take a video game console sometimes. I have so many video games. I like NES, Super Nintendo, Genesis. I have a big collection and I’m always looking for games. It all depends on where I am before we go on tour. Sometimes I’m in the middle of a game and want to keep playing so I’ll take it with me. In Europe they don’t have TVs in the bunks but they have two lounges so I’ll go sit in one of the lounges and play.
During concerts with Blondie, do you have any preference playing the new stuff versus the crowd pleasers? Do you prefer playing the newer things, the old things, both?
The new stuff is fun because a lot of it is electronic. It’s fun to mold it and figure out how to make it work in a band. Making it work is great in a creative way. But the old stuff is pretty band-driven so it’s pretty easy to figure out. It’s like “Oh I’ll do this and you do that” or “Okay. That’s the guitar piece.” But it’s good to have a blend of each. I will say though the energy you get live from the older songs or the hits is usually better. But people are starting to enjoy the new things as well. There’s four or five new songs the fans know now. Because the fans know them the energy is great. That’s always the test of new material. It’s hard because people want to come and see you play the hits. (With the newer material) they go “Oh. Okay.” They either like the new material or they don’t.
Are you a finger style musician or do you use a pick?
My background is finger style but I also enjoy playing with a pick. I guess if someone would watch my right hand during a show they’d say I do half and half. I have a pick and I use the other three fingers as well. I’m always hyper picking but I do finger style stuff too.
What’s your gear nowadays?
My gear these days is Les Pauls through a Soldano amp with a big pedal board with a bunch of stuff on it.
What’s the “I Love the ‘90s” show you’re involved with all about?
It’s the fun thing I’m doing right now. Every Friday I play in a ‘90s party band here in the city. It’s a two hour show from midnight to 2 a.m. A thousand people come out every Friday. It’s a giant party. We play all the Billboard hits from the ‘90s.
That sounds like fun. Do audience members come in to recapture those times?
You’d think that but actually most of the people that come to it were born in the ‘90s. Our demographic is…mostly late ‘20s would be the oldest there. The energy’s great. It’s a giant party. Then we do 1-2 private gigs. That takes up my weekends. During the week I’m in my studio normally writing.
Tell me about your writing process these days.
Right now we’re writing for the new Blondie album. So I write with a bunch of people and also mix a lot of albums in my studio as well when I can find the time to do it.
Tommy and Chris Stein in the studio working on Blondie’s next album.
Will there be a tour in support of the next Blondie album?
I am anticipating there will be. I’ve heard rumours that we will be doing a much bigger tour but I can’t say officially.
I understand you help mentor other musicians with their work. Is that true?
I kind of help people. I give them advice to help them find their sound or help them polish things up. I give lessons to people who already know how to play but need to work on specific things or need to get better at a certain thing. I assist them. I love doing that.
In addition to all the above, what can we look forward to from you in the next 12 months?
I hope to continue mixing music. I enjoy that. I mixed this album for my friend Joel Hoekstra who got me the Rock of Ages gig. I mixed his most recent “Supergroup” project called “Joel Hoekstra’s 13 – Dying to Live.” There were a lot of great people involved: Vinny Appice of Black Sabbath/Dio plays drums, Tony Franklin (The Firm/Whitesnake) on bass, Derek Sherinian (Billy Idol/Planet X) on keyboards, Joel (Whitesnake/Night Ranger) played guitar and wrote everything. It’s a great album.
Are you doing a lot of mixing these days?
Yes. I enjoy doing that. That’s what I’m trying to do.
You’re also active on social media?
Yes. I do Instagram, Twitter…
How important is it to be active on social media these days?
It’s very important. I try to keep up with it but I don’t do nearly enough.
How would you advise a young artist who was just starting out regarding the importance of on-line communications?
I think it’s extremely important these days especially when you get started. I try to keep up with it but I don’t do nearly enough. But when you’re first starting out and trying to get established it’s very important. This includes posting YouTube videos all the time. I hate to say it but you have to try to be narcissistic about it and put yourself out there.
If you were asked to advise a young performer on how to get started on how to “put yourself out there,” what might you say?
If you’re a singer or guitarist who can play covers you should create YouTube videos of that. Play the top hit songs on the guitar or piano because people will immediately watch those videos. It will drive traffic to the channel. It helps get their names out there which is so important when you are starting out. Also, you have to be able to fit in with a lot of different people. If you get a reputation and nobody wants to work with you or people find out you’re hard to work it, it’s going to be difficult to move forward unless you’re that one in a billion long shot. If you are trying to make a living you have to get along and work with others well.
Last Question: I understand you adopted a kitten a little while ago. So how’s Max?
She’s fine. She’s lying on the couch next to me. I had been talking and thinking about getting a cat for about a year. I believe if you are going to get a pet…go to a shelter. There’s so many nice ones that need homes. I was a little worried about getting one from a shelter. What if it didn’t work out? I found her in the parking lot by my studio. She saw me on the sidewalk…came up and was lying at my feet. She was friendly. I said “Yes, let’s go ahead. This is okay.”
I figure she found me.
All concert photos of Tommy provided by © Mel Smith
WORDS: KATHY B