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INTERVIEW: CHIP DAVIS of Mannheim Steamroller – December 2015

| 16 December 2015 | Reply

It’s that time of year… Ho, Ho, Ho.  Peace On Earth.  Holly Jolly.  You get the point.  Well, the Christmas Music juggernaut known as Mannheim Steamroller has once again revved up their engines and are in the middle of a tour that will see two different teams of musicians travel the country, playing over 90 shows in under 50 days in 80 different markets.  At the helm of this mighty machine is its founder and driving force Chip Davis.  In the midst of the holiday season, we were able to wrangle some time with him via phone from his office in Nebraska to discuss the tour, the latest disc, and his current project with NASA…


Toddstar:  Chip, thank you so much for taking time out for us, we appreciate it.

Chip: Oh, happy to do it.

Toddstar: Especially this time of year, you’re a very busy man.

Chip: It’s pretty busy, I mean the tours are out and I’ve got two tours that are traveling. I think at last count, we’ve got 96 concerts, something like that, between the two touring companies. Now, I don’t go, I’m not with those constantly, I sometimes I go out and just show up to welcome the audience or to see the players and take them out to dinner just to have some interaction, but myself, I’m doing, I do the Grinch that stole Christmas down at Universal Studios this time of year. I have an orchestra made up of Orlando symphony type players and then I’ve got a small group of Mannheim, three players. We perform the Grinch that stole Christmas, like a 20 minute segment of that and then other music of my own that’s more Christmas oriented. Including I have a young daughter who’s 16, that’s a heck of a singer and she… her name is Elyse, and she sings two cuts with the orchestra and being young as she is, pretty much steals the show. They always say don’t take kids or dogs on the stage. She does a really good job and so that makes it really fun because I have some of my family with me during the weekends. As I say I just do weekends in December, and I’m home in Omaha right now just between concerts and then I’ll be going back out to visit the tour tomorrow actually over in Grand Island Nebraska.

Toddstar: Okay, there’s so much going on, but let’s talk a little bit about everything. Mannheim Steamroller, when you mention them everyone says, “Oh that Christmas band”. You guys are so much more but this is certainly right, especially this time of year where you guys are being, I don’t want to use the word “pigeonholed” because it seems so negative but you’re definitely in the forefront when it comes to Christmas music.

Chip: Yeah, I mean I guess we’ve been recognized as… my stuff has been said to be the largest on Christmas music in the history of Christmas music. We’ve outsold pretty much everybody as far as sales. We’ve got a very loyal audience but it seems to be growing. I was just talking to one of my promotion people that have been with me for years, this morning and it’s like you’d think at this stage in the game it would be slowing down, but it’s not. It appears to be growing. I think part of the reason for that is that the moms and dads today were the kids yesterday. Now that their moms and dads themselves they’re bringing their kids. It seems to be passed on generation to generation.

Toddstar: It’s hard to argue with that, especially when it’s something that parents and children can share together and it’s kind of wholesome, you never hear about a mosh pit at a Mannheim Steamroller concert.

Chip: Yep, absolutely, absolutely, it’s a whole family thing, in fact many times I’ll walk out onto the stage to welcome the audience and you’ll see the grandparents, the moms and dads and the kids. I see three generations sitting together, it’s wonderful.

Toddstar:  Since the beginning, you have engaged your customers, as recently discussed in a recent Forbes article, you kind of built the idea of a street team, and really took this to the next level. How hard was that in the beginning and how hard is that to maintain now?

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Chip: Well, in the beginning it was just me inventing this record label called American Gramophone, and my big artist was Mannheim Steamroller, you know, and so to get out and promote it and get in to stores. You probably know the story but I came in sideways through the HiFi industry. Because HiFi stores were using the quality of my fresh air albums to demonstrate turntables and speakers and so forth. It got its start in the HiFi. Then it spread through the various stores by going to the CES, the Consumer Electronic Shows. Once people caught on they became the street teams, where the HiFi owners. We didn’t have independent promotions too much then, until once I saw that something was really happening with this, I went after major retailers. The Targets and Walmarts, the big box guys, Best Buy and all them. Back then we had more promotional teams on the ground that would go check, almost like merchandisers, we’d go to check inventory quantities and see what… a lot of times stores would have the inventory, it would show on their computers but it was in the backroom, it wasn’t out on the shelves. That’s where the street teams became very important, was going out and being merchandisers and make sure our stuff was on the shelves where it was supposed to be and not in the backroom. If it was in the backroom take it out of the backroom, go put it where it’s supposed to be. That’s where the street team notion came in. Now today, it’s a little bit different because we’re with Red which is a division of Sony and then they have their own teams that go out so I’m not managing that as American Gramophone anymore. Our distribution labels doing that part now.

Toddstar: Okay, well speaking of releases and pushing everything, Mannheim Steamroller recently issued their first live release in 18 years, how’s it feel to get more live music out there?

Chip: It’s really cool and I’ll have to say that idea kind of got stimulated by a year ago PBS came to me and wanted to shoot a one hour PBS special which they did. Nine cameras, digital cameras, shoot two nights so they had an 18 camera shoot and cut together a magnificent PBS special. That sort of started to stimulate the live notion, to take that and put it out as just like as it is, as you’re hearing it with the room ambiance of the venue and the crowd response and so forth. It kind of came as a result of something else, the whole PBS thing.

Toddstar: Well, its fun listening to it.  The beauty of the collection is it’s so seamless, even though you’re moving from Christmas music to Fresh Aire material, back and forth to other arrangements. How much input do you still have into the set list and arrangements.

Chip: Oh, I do it all. I do it all myself, the band, the multiple bands and the studios and everybody for hire, and I put everything together myself. In fact I was just doing another interview earlier today; it was a PBS radio interview, about how the tune stack goes. The sequence of the tunes becomes very important in an album and also a concert because that’s where you push around the feelings and the emotions of the crowd. Whether they’re aware of it or not, you’re doing it. I literally draw out on a grid how I want the feelings to go and I usually build it down towards a certain place and like with the first Christmas album I left the end with “Silent Night” in a very beautiful nostalgic tone, that made you want to turn around and listen to the album again. Sometimes I’ll leave it with a really big upbeat, so the cut before the end becomes very important that it’s not an upbeat thing because you won’t get the impact. I sequence the albums and the concerts that way before I even finish it in the studio.

Toddstar: It’s something that’s been done forever, so you’re taking it and putting it more in a commercial level.  It has been discussed how in grocery stores they play certain kinds of music at certain times of year to keep you shopping or to get you out of the store…

Chip: Yeah, exactly, in fact I have marketed stuff in grocery stores and also I have, besides Christmas and the Fresh Aire, I also have a Halloween series and I market those, to get them into the candy aisle. Because moms are in there buying trick or treat bags of Snickers and candy corn and all that kind of stuff. I buy the end cap, they’re like chip clips where they usually hang potato chips. We designed a little thing that goes on the back of the CD that we can put it on a clip hanger. I would market the Halloween stuff in the candy aisle instead of in the music because it made more sense there. As people are buying the candy it’s like “Oh, hey, here’s an album for trick or treat too.” I kind of plan out where it’s going to go from a merchandising standpoint, but then like I say where it becomes important for as you’re calling them, the street teams is to make sure that it’s actually there.

Toddstar: We spoke about tracks and earlier you mentioned your youngest daughter Elyse, the first vocalist to appear on stage with the group, whose idea was it – your or hers?


Chip: Mine. When we first, the first cuts I did, I’m working on an album with her and it’s taking a while but, the first cut, the first three cuts we did, she was just 14. She’s blow people off the map with how good she was. I did “Scarborough Fair,” “A Time for Us,” and “Greensleeves,” which Greensleeves is on that live album. What you’re hearing her sing right there, she was 14. Then the next cuts I did, I did 3 more she was 15 and then 3 more at 16, we’ve got about 3 or 4 cuts to go and then we have a complete album. The repertoire is identified but now school’s in session, there’s all these things going on, it’s difficult to get the time to just get her in the studio and get it done.

Toddstar: She’s sitting among lofty names that have recorded with Mannheim – Johnny Mathis, Olivia Newton John.

Chip: Absolutely, yeah absolutely, I haven’t thought about it that way but that’s really true. There are some major hitters that have sung with the band.

Toddstar: This machine is rolling through Detroit this weekend, what’s the link between Mannheim and Detroit? You guys always sell well and you’re just a recurring theme here in Detroit which I mean is great for us.  What is it about Detroit that keeps you guys wanting to come back?

Chip: I’ve done a lot of concerts in Detroit, in fact when I went to the University of Michigan, right down the road, but by the way, my daughter Elyse, I’m pretty sure she’s going to end up going there to study voice. When I was in Ann Arbor, I used to come over, do you remember there was a show called Hello Dolly; Carol Channing was in it. That was running at the Fox and that was my first experience with the Fox and I was about a senior in college then. A bunch of us drove over to see that and I saw the Fox and was in there and all that. I loved it; I thought it was a beautiful theater. Later on in life it’s like I started doing things around in that area, remember the Meadow Brook Festival are you familiar with that one? I was doing stuff at Meadow Brook and we did some other things in Detroit. I thought it would be really cool to go back to the Fox, because the venue itself fits perfectly with the image that we’re projecting now with Mannheim. More, not the arenas, but the more intimate kind of settings and the Fox fits that like a glove. As I say, we’ve played it in that past and it’s a great connection for us. I think you’re asking the connection there, is really back in the early days discovering it right on and continuing the relationship.

Toddstar: Excellent, one more thing for you Chip before we let you go, I know you’re busy. With everything you’ve done, everything you’ve achieved, this isn’t your first rodeo. You’ve been doing this a long time; you’ve created a multi-million dollar brand at this point. Looking back at all of your achievements, what is the couple that you want to be remembered for professionally?

Chip: I’ve done a couple of things that are not in the mainstream Christmas stuff, I mean bringing Christmas music back is in the very top of the list, but you may not be aware of this but I do work with NASA also. I have developed a program for long range space travel and I have a nice relationship with the Space Docs, they call then, down at Johnson Space Center. That’s something, if I can contribute to mankind quest to go into space, and the programs I developed, I call them “psychological normalization.” What they’re for is on long range space travel to be a touchstone so the astronauts have some sense, they can put on a pair of headphones and all of a sudden they’re in a Midwest forest, or they’re at the ocean in Oregon by Haystack rock. I’ve got different environments, I’ve gone around for 2, 3 years just recording environments and then putting a little bit of music that comes in and out, that’s called ambiance. Now that also is being used in healthcare, Mayo Clinic uses it at the Walter Reed at the Intrepid Center. It’s used in hospital rooms to help for when people are there with claustrophobia and they just don’t want to be in the room anymore. Another way it’s being used is I’ve come up with a program for Sundowner’s Syndrome, that’s when people, elderly people particularly get freaked out and they don’t know day from night. I developed a program that wakes you up in the morning and puts you to sleep at night. It’s a 24 hour program that runs on a box that’s called an ATS that I developed and I have patented. All the music comes from this one specific box and you can sequence it anyway you want. You talked about sequence albums; this sequence is a 24 hour day of your life.

Toddstar: Amazing. It’s nice to know that some of your personal milestones are less about accolades and furthering of your own career and more about humanity.

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Chip: Well, you know I grew up in a small town in Ohio, you know where Toledo is of course, and there’s a small town about 50 miles south of there called Handler, it’s over by some of the other bigger towns like Napoleon and Deshler and stuff, they’re all small towns too. Handler is only 500 people and I grew up in that little town, my grandfather was a horse and buggy country doctor and my grandmother taught piano, so I grew up around medicine and around music. I think that was instilled with me at an early age but I didn’t know that I’d end up using it to try to help people later in my life. I was exposed to it honestly.

Toddstar: Again Chip, we really appreciate you taking time out for us today and we wish you well with both of the tours you’ve got out on the road and we wish you well with the Grinch program down in Orlando and with everything else you’ve got going on.

Chip: Well, that’s wonderful Todd. I sure appreciate the interview and the opportunity to talk about some of the stuff we do and some of the unusual stuff.  I’m glad that you brought that up because it’s something I’m real proud of being involved with. As is my staff.  My staff, some of the guys that do the road stuff, they all work on the medical stuff too. It’s a rewarding thing for my whole company.

Toddstar: That’s great.  Happy Holidays to you Chip and be safe and enjoy the ride.

Chip: That sounds terrific, thanks again Todd for everything.






Category: Interviews

About the Author ()

ToddStar - that's me... just a rocking accountant who had dreams of being a rock star. I get to do the next best thing to rocking the globe - I get to take pictures of the lucky ones that do. I love to shoot all genres of music and different types of performers. If it is related to music, I love to photograph it. I get to shoot and hang with not only some of my friends and idols, but some of the coolest people around today.

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