Interview: Nice Box, Dennis Quaid

By Gregg Shapiro


Photos: Greg Allen, Focus Features, Twentieth Century Fox


Is there anything Dennis Quaid can’t do? He can act, and earned himself a Golden Globe Award nomination for playing gay in queer filmmaker Todd Haynes’ 2002 Douglas Sirk homage Far From Heaven. He can do comedy (Breaking AwayPostcards from the Edge) and drama (The Right Stuff, The Big Easy) with equal aplomb. He can look hot as fuck at 64 years old. He can even make selling insurance in TV commercials look effortless and sincere. With Out of the Box (Omnivore), credited to Dennis Quaid & The Sharks, Quaid can confidently add singer/songwriter to his long list of accomplishments.


Dennis, in terms of your songwriting process for the nine original songs on your debut album Out of the Box, what usually comes first, the lyrics or the melody?

The melody usually comes first. It’s actually usually chord changes; intentional messing around. From there I’ll get a phrase. I like for the music to line up with the words emotionally; the whole feeling of it. The phrase is where the song comes from.


Did you take both guitar and piano lessons as a child or are you self-taught?

I’m self-taught. I got a guitar when I was 12 and I started learning chords. I listened to music that I love and tried to match it. The first song I learned to play was (The Doors’) “Light My Fire”.


You play rhythm guitar on all of the songs except “Good Man, Bad Boy”, on which you play piano. Were the songs you wrote on the album written on piano or on guitar or a combination?

A few of the songs that I play guitar on were actually written on piano or at least began on piano. I learned to play piano when I got the movie Great Balls of Fire (the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic). I had a year to prepare for it. That certainly helped! I continued afterwards. Jerry Lee was one of my teachers, in fact. Another teacher I had was Booker T. Laury, an old, black blues piano player. He was missing a finger on his left hand, but he still had the best left hand that I’d ever seen. He came and lived with me for three months; kind of like my second dad, in a way. He taught me a lot about piano. I play the way he played. Out of that, I wrote “Good Man, Bad Boy”.


I like the humorous tone of “Peaches No. 9”. What was the inspiration for that song?

 [Laughs] originally, we were on the road in Texas, opening for ZZ Top. I was looking to write a kind of ZZ Top song. I’m a redneck myself; I’m from Texas. Then it turned into a strange relationship type of song [laughs]. You have the redneck style turned on its head with a woman. I like stories and I thought it made a pretty good story.


One of the things that distinguishes “You’re So Fine” and the title track is the wordplay. How did those songs come to be?

 “You’re So Fine” I wrote for my girlfriend. I’ve always wanted to write a song for a Pixar movie. That’s the kind of feeling I tried to put into it. I imagined a relationship between a dog and a cat in a tropical setting where, in the end, they’re skipping off into the sunset on a beach [laughs]. That’s what it came out of, but it’s still about my girlfriend. “Out of the Box” comes a little bit out of John Lennon. There’s a line in it attributed to Lennon – “while you’re busy making plans/life is running through your hands”. He said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”. They’re all personal, even if they’re disguised as fiction [laughs] which is what I like to say about music. You disguise it in a way so that it’s maybe more universal to people without being self-indulgent on my part. “Out of the Box” comes out of what I’ve been through the past couple of years. Getting out of my old patterns of thinking and all the stuff that holds me back. All the ways I beat myself up in life. You get out of that and move on; be in the moment.


Earlier you mentioned “Light My Fire” and The Doors are among the artists you cover on Out of the Box, represented by the songs “L.A. Woman” and “Riders on the Storm”. Of all The Doors’ song, why did you choose those two?

I guess those are my two favorites of all The Doors’ songs. I really love The Doors and I grew up with their music. We’ve been doing “L.A. Woman” since 2003 as a band. It’s a very difficult song to do, but we’ve had a lot of practice [laughs]. We started doing “Riders on the Storm” about three years ago. They fit together really well. My voice and Jim’s (Morrison) voice and are kind of the same. We’re both kind of baritones.


How did your band, The Sharks, arrive at its name?

We’ve been together since the year 2000. My son is 26 now and he was nine at the time. We were trying to come up with a name during rehearsal at my house. It was my son Jack who said, “How about The Sharks?” We said, “All right.” It’s because it was Shark Week on television [laughs] and he was really into sharks at the time. I like to say, “Thank God he wasn’t into dinosaurs” [laughs].


In the liner notes, you write about your musical heroes, including The Beatles, The Doors, David Bowie, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Buddy Holly and others. Did you ever have a chance to attend a concert by Bowie, Charles or Nelson?

I’ve seen David Bowie in concert. I’ve seen Willie Nelson in concert. I’ve played on stage with Willie a few times during the years. I’ve had a lucky life, musically. I’ve gotten to meet many of my heroes and sit around and play with them in the living room. I remember one night [laughs], back in the late eighties, in my living room was Bob Seger, Chrissie Hynde, and the Talking Heads; just sitting around jamming. David Byrne was there! That’s what my life has been like musically. It’s been such a great ride.


With the release of this album, and now that everyone knows that you can sing, would you ever consider doing a movie musical?

Yes, I would actually. Performing on stage is so much like doing theater, really. I could see that.


As an actor, you are a performer who comes across as comfortable doing comedy in movies such as Yours, Mine & OursIn Good Company and Playing For Keeps as you are acting in dramas including Far From HeavenThe Big Easy and Traffic. Do you have a preference for one over the other?

No, I really don’t. It’s like apples and oranges. It all depends on what the script is, really. When I read a script, it’s the only time I’m going to be an audience member with a first-time experience of it. That’s what guides my decision-making. How do I feel about the story? That’s pretty much it.


You have worked with some amazing actresses over the years, including Julia Roberts, Cher, Ellen Barkin and Julianne Moore. Is there an actress on your wish list that you would like to work with someday?

Nope! I think I’ve worked with all of them [big laugh].


Next year, 2019, is the 40th anniversary of the movie Breaking Away, a film that propelled you to the forefront of young actors. In terms of your favorite movies from your career, where does Breaking Away rank?

It’s right up there in my pantheon. That movie made things a lot easier for me. I was 24 years old when it came out. All of a sudden, I didn’t have to audition so much anymore. I was getting offered things for the first time.


Out of the Box, the debut album by Dennis Quaid and the Sharks, was released on November 30, 2018.

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