About three hours before he’s set to take the stage for the third show of his 2011 tour, Bob Seger is in his dressing room backstage at the Huntington Center in Toledo, Ohio, smoking Marlboros with his feet up on a coffee table. There’s another pack of cigarettes nearby, as well as bag of beef jerky, a black three-ring binder containing all of his lyrics, a keyboard, a couple of acoustic guitars and three ashtrays within close reach – one of them shaped like a Goodyear tire. “I’ve got a Ford GT with no ashtray,” Seger says. “This fits perfectly between the seats.”
Over a 30-minute conversation with Rolling Stone Seger talked about the difficulties of touring at this stage of his life, his next studio album, his upcoming collaboration with Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow and how he lost nearly 30 pounds before this tour.
It looks like you’ve lost some weight.
I worked hard. I lost 28 pounds in the last three months.
How did you do it?
Nutrisystem. And playing with the band. We rehearsed for about seven weeks, two to three days a week.
Yeah, I saw some photos of you golfing with Tiger Woods and you’ve clearly really slimmed down since then.
Oh god. I was huge. I think I was close to 247 there, and now I’m down to 220. And I’m going to go lower. I’m still on Nutrisystem. I had it today, and I’m going to keep going until I get to 205. That’s my target weight, and I’ll be real happy there. I’ve got to lose 15 more pounds. I don’t think I can get much below 205. I’ll look stupid.
How’s the tour going so far?
So far, pretty good. Our biggest problem is that we have too many songs. I worked up 36 songs and I can’t fit them all in. We did 26 songs in Saginaw the other night and it was just too long. We’re cutting it down to 24… But it’s real fun up there. I’m paying the price though. I’ve got a real stiff neck and sore back. Other than that, I’m enjoying it.
I knew you took off that decade between 1995 and 2006 to raise your kids. Are you touring because they’re older now and don’t need you at home as much?
I think so. I also really think I’m doing it because it’s good for them to see their dad work hard. My son’s just getting ready to go to college and my daughter is a junior in high school. So I thought I’d set a good example and work real hard, and show them that if you’ve got a future you’ve got to work real hard for it. I thought that was a good time to do it.
I know you fly home after most shows. Is it weird transitioning back to your home life right after playing a huge concert like this?
A little bit. The big thing is that I just need a lot more rest when I’m home. I do try to go home as much as possible after each show. I’ve got my own plane. I’m very fortunate. I’ve done well in my life, so I’ve got a small jet and I’ll be right out the door at 11 o’clock. I got them up this morning for school at six.
We’re just doing three shows a week because of my age. For the first time I’m sitting when I’m playing guitar. It hurts my back. I play two or three songs at the piano, but unusually, my back hurts worse at the piano. It’s really strange because it never did before. It’s just age. I’m getting up there.
How did you pick the setlist for this tour?
We’ve changed it about 50 percent from the last tour, but they’re mostly old songs. We’re basically in Michigan right now and they really know all the old stuff, so it’s fun to play it for them. When I get out out of here I might play some newer stuff.
I had a dream that I’d start the show with “Feel Like A Number.” We hadn’t done that in 25 years, but I’m afraid to hit it with them first instead of “Roll Me Away.” That’s what they really want to hear. We just did “Shining Brightly” for the first time in 31 years. We haven’t done “Her Strut” in maybe 25 years, or “Come To Papa” in about 30 years.
Most people know us from our greatest hits though. If we don’t do “Travelin’ Man” into “Beautiful Loser” they’ll throw stuff – at least around here. We’ve got to do “Roll Me Away” and we’ve got to do “Night Moves,” we’ve got to do “Against the Wind,” we’ve got to do “Hollywood Nights,” we’ve got to do “Rock & Roll Never Forgets,” we’ve got to do “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man.” There’s just certain ones we’ve got to do…“Mainstreet,” “Old Time Rock and Roll.” We just cannot get away without doing them. They want to hear them.
You usually don’t go on tour without a new album to support. What made you want to head back onto the road right now?
Last fall I put out this album Early Seger Vol. 1. It was a real rush job, but it got me looking through all this old stuff. I found that I had 45 to 55 things that no one had ever heard of before. All last summer I was working on Volume 2 because the first one just had 10 songs on it. That wasn’t my idea. It was management, but we won’t go there. Anyway, as I worked on them I said, “You know, I’m going to put the band together and see what these would sound like if we played them live.” As we played together it just kind of kindled the old flame.
One of the last things I found going through the archives was “Downtown Train,” which we cut in 1989. We put that together and I re-sang it and edited it a little bit and we added timpani and the girls and everything, and it really sounded good. So about two months ago I said to my manager, “If you put this on the radio, is that enough for me to go do a couple of months and see if I still like touring?” In May, I’m going to be 66, so I don’t know how many more years I’ve got a chance to do this. I thought if they played “Downtown Train” on the radio we could buy some time for a new album perhaps in the fall.
How far along are you with the new album?
I’d say it’s half-done. I have three other brand new songs on it, and then I’m torn, because I really like some of this old stuff, “Downtown Train” being one of them. I’m thinking about maybe a mix of old and new for the next record.
Tell me more about these older songs.
There’s one called “Sunset” that I wrote that’s really good. We can’t even find the master. I have to put it out the way it is. I can’t do anything with it. It’s from 1982. The oldest one is from the Pontiac Silverdome in 1974. We played it the night we cut Live Bullet, but the tape got mangled and it’s unsalvageable. So eight months later we played it again at the Silverdome. It’s called “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home.” It’s by Albert King.
So you’ll actually include these older songs on the new album?
I hope so. If I write some really good stuff this summer, the newest stuff is always the stuff I want to put out first. But I like some of this old stuff a lot. I always say to myself, “Why didn’t I put that out?” When you rediscover something it’s a lot of fun.
Most of your peers tour every few years. You really take your time between these tours…
I’m not a tour rat. I’m not crazy about it. It’s a challenge, though everybody in the band is telling me that I’m singing better than on the last tour. Again, it’s a challenge to sing good up there for two hours when you’re 65. I’m really minding my Ps and Qs. I know I’m still smoking and that’s bad, but I’m gargling and I’ve got a lot of lozenges. I pop one every 45 minutes.
I get Soundscan reports and your catalog just sells like crazy, even though you aren’t on iTunes or anything.
We’ve been really lucky. We’ve gotten a lot of airplay over the years. I guess people keep requesting our songs on the radio, because lord knows I don’t do a whole lot to promote myself.
Why is that? Most of your peers work very hard at promoting themselves and maintaining their legacy with box sets and documentaries and other projects.
For a long time, I thought when you do a box set you’re giving up, you’re saying, “OK, I don’t have anything left.” But now I’ve listened to some of the old stuff I haven’t heard in 20 to 40 years with fresh ears. It’s like, “Oh yeah, I can see where people might want to to hear some of this stuff that didn’t make it onto the records.”
But my career’s winding down. What can I say? I can’t do this much longer. My manager is 70. We’ve been together for 45 years now and we need to stop pretty soon and turn it over to the Kid Rocks and Eminems. I guess we’re in the final stages here. When I got offstage the other night I said to my security guy, “That was surreal. I can’t believe I just did a full-on rock show.” It’s just surreal.
A lot of your fans are frustrated that many of your old albums are out of print and that none of your catalog is on iTunes.
It’s an ongoing thing. All I can tell you is you’ve got to talk to management. I’ve been with the guy 45 years. I’ve never crossed into his area and he doesn’t tell me what to play onstage or what to put on albums…even though he tries. But…I don’t understand why nobody can download anything of ours. I don’t understand it. It’s a standoff between Capitol Records and my manager. I hope it gets smoothed over soon. I think we have a very good rapport lately with Capitol, and I think that’s where we’re headed. It’s just…I can’t tell you where that stands.
You seem to be one of the only major rock star who has refused to reissue their catalog with bonus tracks and whatnot.
Well, they’re always trying to get me to do it. For instance, before this tour they called me a lot around Christmas and New Year’s and said, “Can’t you just put the two greatest hits together as a reissue?” I said, “You know, that’s just cheesy. Here’s another greatest hits, and another free lunch for me.” They’re out there. People can buy them. If there’s one thing that’s available, it’s Greatest Hits 1 and 2. So I don’t see a reason to package them together. It doesn’t seem right to me.
Tell me more about the new album. How many brand new songs have been recorded?
Six. I figure there needs to be 12.
So the new album might be all new songs, or it might be a mixture of new and old?
I haven’t decided. I can tell you later in the summer. I’ll start writing again around June 1st. If the song-writing gods smile on me, it will all be new. If they don’t, it will be a mixture of new and old – and the best of the old. That’s what it will be, whatever the best songs are is what I’ll put out. Old or new.
Do you think all that smoking hurts your voice?
It can’t help it. The coffee, smoking… Thank god I quit alcohol in the Nineties, so that’s not a problem. But it’s really coffee, cigarettes and milk. At least I’m down to skim milk now, but they’re all drying agents. I try to hold each cigarette as long as I can without smoking them. I’m trying to cut down.
Tell me your routine before going onstage.
I play songs on the piano. Because I’m 65, I’ll be reading lyrics that I screwed up the night before. They’re all here in this binder. I’ve got my acoustic guitar and usually I’ll play “Night Moves,” “Against The Wind” and “Mainstreet” on guitar. Then I’ll play three on the piano.
Is Kid Rock going to be on the next album?
I recorded a new song with Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow just a month ago. I was recording in Nashville and it happened to be the night that Rock was playing in town. I texted him and said, “After the show, if you and Sheryl want to come out and sing, come over.” Sheryl lives in Nashville. They came by and did a beautiful job on a song called “Hannah.” It’s a pretty little song. It’s not a hit or anything, but it’s a pretty song with a nice melody. It’s a father to a daughter song.