EXILE has been topping the country charts for more than 50 years, but this season marks the release of the band’s first-ever Christmas album.
Over the years, the five-piece Kentucky group has toured with Aerosmith, Fleetwood Mac, The Oak Ridge Boys, The Gatlin Brothers and The Judds, consistently producing 20 studio albums and hit singles, such as, I Don’t Want To Be A Memory and Give Me One More Chance.
The original EXILE members, J.P. Pennington, Les Taylor, Sonny LeMaire, Marlon Hargis and Steve Goetzman, reformed in 2008 and have been touring extensively ever since.
I got into the Christmas spirit with Marlon Hargis to discuss the new album, Wrapped Up In Your Arms For Christmas, the meaning behind the holidays and recording festive tunes in July.
Congratulations on the new release, Marlon. Why has EXILE decided to do its first Christmas project after more than 50 years in the business?
Thank you! We’re very proud of it and we can’t figure out why we’ve never done it before – we should have done it years ago. We’ve asked ourselves why we’ve never done one in 50 years and there’s no particular reason. The thing with Christmas projects is you have to really plan ahead. We spent all of last year, throughout the year, recording it and in the past we’ve been busy doing other things and just never thought about it. Also, we started doing a Christmas tour for the first time last year, so we thought the perfect thing to go along with a Christmas tour is to do a Christmas CD. We’ve had a really great reaction to it. We did a fairly small tour last year and it went very well so we’re kind of extending it to over 10 dates this year. It’s the kind of thing that every year hopefully we’ll add a few more dates. The one thing about Christmas CDs is that you can have them out every year, so it’s a good thing that will hopefully last for a while.
Has it been rewarding to work on a completely different project that brings festive joy to your fans?
You know, it is. It’s a different kind of vibe at the shows and it does give you a good feeling. Interestingly enough, we’re going into rehearsals for the tour and it takes a bit of rehearsing and re-thinking the show because we don’t do those songs at other points of the year. The first half of the show we do as many hits as we can, we can’t get all of ‘em in – which is a good problem to have – and we actually do all the songs from the CD in the second half of the show. It’s a nice little break and it’s good to get into that Christmas spirit as much as we can.
How long ago did you have to start the recording process?
We actually started the beginning of last year. We worked on it throughout 2015 and did a limited release last Christmas, just a couple hundred copies. Also, on the album there are three original songs that the guys in the band wrote. Of course, through the years I think the one reason we had a lot of success was because we wrote our own songs, basically. All three songs are good songs written by JP and Sonny and are very enjoyable to do, so we’re excited about it.
Was it fun to take traditional songs and give them your own country and rock twist?
It was, and our whole point. If you listen to the album, I think you’ll agree. We didn’t want to do your normal-sounding album, so we tried to change the arrangements on the stuff and make it our own sound, so that was actually a lot of fun. There’s nothing on the album I don’t enjoy listening to. JP and Sonny write 90 per cent of the stuff in the band and Les writes a bit too. Over the years I realised I wasn’t a songwriter, so I don’t even worry about it.
In terms of songwriting structure, was it a difficult process changing arrangements on the traditional songs?
Not really. EXILE has a particular sound and what we did when we set down to make the album, was everyone brought in two or three songs that we thought would be good to do and agreed on certain ones. Then we just started playing the songs and trying different approaches. It’s actually a lot of fun, it’s not a difficult thing at all, it’s very enjoyable.
Was it tough getting into a festive mind-set throughout the year?
It is a little bit, because a lot of it we were working on in July. I remember when we did a picture for the cover, it was actually August and we were wearing coats and long-sleeve shirts and the air-conditioning had gone out that day. So it was 90⁰F and we were having to wipe the sweat between takes of pictures. It’s a little strange, but it was fine.
Has the current interest and market for Christmas CDs surprised you?
Actually it has for me a little bit, because there are a lot of albums released this year. I think we’re pleasantly surprised. There’s been a much better reaction than we expected. We’ve had to re-order a bunch from web sales. Everyone likes a good Christmas CD and our fans are glad we’ve finally done one.
What’s your favourite song on the album and favourite to perform?
I personally like Merry Christmas From Cancun, because it’s a fun song to play and it’s just different. I like all of ‘em but that would be my favourite, because it’s so different.
And why was it important to you to include live recordings of Go Where I Send Thee and Silent Night?
We did a few dates last Christmas season and our front of house engineer recorded the shows.
We took takes from a couple of the shows and added a bit to them. Go Where I Send Thee is kind of an old, traditional song. We’re all from Kentucky and it’s kind of an old Appalachian song I remember hearing when I was a kid. So really all of these songs bring back memories of when you were a kid, and when you were excited about Christmas, and looking forward to opening presents, and all that sort of stuff. It’s kind of funny, I’ve got a grandson now, he’s two-and-a-half, and this Christmas he’s starting to get excited already. It’s like the music on the CD, it brings back memories of growing up, and it’s a very positive thing.
What do you look forward to most about Christmas?
Well, I just told you, my grandson! There’s nothing I really need or want, as far as things. I think your family and your friends, it sounds corny, but really after a certain point, that is important.
Aside from Christmas releases, what else does EXILE have in the pipeline?
We’re involved in recording a couple of Christmas specials that will be out in later in the month, and we’re filming a couple more in the next week or two. We’re already booking shows for next year, so we’re looking forward to touring. I’m sure during the year we’ll start working on some new material. I think the thing is you have to keep working on new stuff so you don’t get bored or stale. We kind of push each other to do that and, for example, we’re already talking about rehearsals for next year’s show. We’re always thinking how we can make things better. We don’t want to be one of these bands that just gets up on stage and just goes through the motions, plays the hits, because that’s not fair to the audience. If you’re just going through the motions, I think it shows on stage.
When the writers bring the stuff in, it’s always exciting to think what you can do to make it the best you can.
Can you believe the band has been together for more than 50 years?
No! When I started playing music, I started around 1963, I thought if you were playing music when you were 30 or 40 that was old. But look at McCartney. I saw him in concert last year; he’s 73-years-old and still playing a three-hour concert and kicks butt. I don’t think any of us would ever have thought it, and I’ll tell you the truth, every day I think how lucky I am to be making a living doing what I enjoy doing. There’s a lot worse jobs to have than doing this. The combination with the five of us together is something kinda special.
Any chance UK fans will be able to see you in concert anytime soon?
We would love to, because back in the 80s we did Top of the Pops and played at Wembley and some other venues. Honestly, it’s the matter of a promoter wanting to bring us over, so any promoters that are listening…we had a great time, so I don’t know that we will, but I certainly hope so. We would absolutely love it. All our European and British Isle fans, we always loved playing there and loved the reaction. We’re just very proud of the new project and we really hope fans enjoy it as much as we enjoyed recording it.
Wrapped Up In Your Arms For Christmas is available now.