Their names are familiar to anyone who grew up on SoCal rock. In various combinations, guitarists Danny Kortchmar and Waddy Wachtel, bassist Leland Sklar, and drummer Russ Kunkel contributed to countless albums by James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Carole King, and Don Henley, among many others.
What they’ve never done is make a record on their own, but after nearly 50 years of playing together, these veterans have finally done just that. Calling themselves the Immediate Family, a nod to their connections to classic-rock all-stars, the band — which also includes singer, guitarist, and fellow Los Angeles resident Steve Postell — has recently toured and released music in Japan.
Today, the group premieres its first-ever U.S. release, the video for the Kortchmar-sung shuffle “Cruel Twist.” A preview of an EP coming in October, with a full album next year, “Cruel Twist” is accompanied by a now familiar sight in the coronavirus era: a video shot separately in each man’s home. “I haven’t seen anyone in the band except on Zoom in three months,” says Kortchmar. “We’re all in the area, but we haven’t seen each other in a long time. We miss playing together.”
The concept of the Immediate Family emerged when Kortchmar was approached by a Japanese label to make an album of his songs old and new. Since his fellow session veterans were all in town, Kortchmar recruited them as his band. But as he says, “While we were recording, it was obvious that we should keep it going, so we made it a band at that point. It just all fell together.”
As “Cruel Twist” shows, the Immediate Family doesn’t revel in the mellow balladeering associated with many of the musicians they once supported. Ever since at least 1979, when most of them backed James Taylor on his unusually raucous Flag tour, they’ve been itching to turn up their amps.
“That was an incredible tour,” Kortchmar recalls. “It was rocking out a bit more than James usually does. James is a terrific rock & roll and blues singer, but he doesn’t want to do it much. When we were young, we were both in a band called the Flying Machine and we would play clubs with no monitors. James had to yell over the band, and it was too much for him. When we did ‘Summertime Blues’ [on the Flag tour], he kicked the crap out of it, and it reminded us that he can do that shit. He may not choose to, but he can, for damn sure.”
The Immediate Family also won’t revive the instrumental fusion made by the Section, the Seventies band that included Kortchmar, Sklar, Kunkel, and keyboardist Craig Doerge. “Different music, different personnel,” says Kortchmar. “This is about the songs.”
Speaking of songs, Immediate Family gigs feature the musicians singing and playing tunes they co-wrote, produced and/or played on: “New York Minute” and “Dirty Laundry” (with Henley), “Somebody’s Baby” (with Browne), “Lawyers, Guns and Money” and “Werewolves of London” (with Warren Zevon), and “Honey Don’t Leave L.A.” (with Taylor).
“By the end of the shows, people who don’t know go, ‘Wow, these cats have done a lot,’” says Kortchmar. “And not just as session guys but as writers and producers. But we don’t want to wave our flag that much.”
Their just-completed album will include a remake of the Zevon-Wachtel co-write “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead,” but will largely focus on new songs they’ve written and a harder sound. “We’ve been doing it a million years,” Kortchmar says. “When you know cats this well, I won’t say it’s effortless, but you find new ways to do things. Waddy and I always find the parts that complement each other. Russ’ drum sound is bigger and badder than it’s ever been. I never thought Leland would get any better than he was 50 years ago, but he keeps improving all the time. Steve plays in a finger-picking stye that’s different from us. So we’re all still growing.”
Kortchmar hasn’t yet seen Alison Ellwood’s two-part docuseries on the Laurel Canyon scene, although he did catch the Jakob Dylan co-directed Echo in the Canyon, also about that still-resonant era in rock history. “It’s nice that there’s still interest in that period,” he says. “It was a golden age of pop, and it hasn’t really been replaced by anything. Every song was good. And the people who did it had a certain glamour and it attracted people who were fun and smart. You talk to David Crosby and he has a vast education — largely self-educated, but he read. Justin Bieber, what is he talking about? ‘Yummy, yummy?’”
Kortchmar acknowledges that fans of Eminem and Taylor Swift know every word of their songs as much as Carole King fans once memorized each of hers. Still, he still misses the sound of musicians playing together on record.
“There are no bands anymore,” he says. “Tame Impala — they’re great, but that’s one guy. They don’t have a band sound because they don’t get in the studio and play like a band. Greta Van Fleet — the much-maligned Greta Van Fleet — are a band. They play together. That’s what I miss. We have that, but we’re old. I’d like to hear some young guys who sound like a band. Hey, I’m an opinionated motherfucker.”