Kiefer Sutherland interview: I was an embarrassing dad
Kiefer Sutherland’s second career as a country rock singer has taken some audiences by surprise.
In between shooting his Netflix show Designated Survivor, in which he plays US president Tom Kirkman, he’s been on the road for the last few years with his band and he’ll be in Cambridge next month with a tour for his second album Reckless & Me.
The actor himself acknowledges that the first surprise for many in the audience is that the band is actually good and the music is more than just a vanity project.
“Certainly in the beginning and arguably even now a lot of people come because they are curious or they were a fan of 24,” says Kiefer.
“I don't care why you come. I'm just so grateful you do - thank you very much. But whatever preconceived notion they might have of me or I might have of them when there is a really good show at the end of it we realise we have probably got a lot more in common than we ever imagined.
“I think when people start to realise there's a lot more sympatico about them I think those are great moments and that's something I have experienced musically immediately; whereas with 24 I understood people had enjoyed it because I had run into someone on the street but generally it is about six months after you did the thing they are talking about. So there is something very dynamic about this experience and that is something I have loved about it as well.”
At first the actor had no intention of releasing his own music, even though he had always played guitar and he owned a recording studio with his musician friend Jude Cole, but he did like the songs he had written and was hoping to sell them to a record company for another artist to play.
“During the second year of 24 and I just started writing a lot of songs. It was a great way to spend the time in between shots and things like that, then about ten years ago I had lots of songs and I actually got to a place where I really liked these songs so I recorded a few with my friend Jude.
“I was interested in maybe other artists recording those songs. I didn't have anyone in mind, you just sent them off to BMI and I thought it would be amazing if other artists responded to the melody or the lyrics, so I didn't have an artist in mind.
“But Jude was the one who convinced me that he really liked the way they sounded and that I should release them. So, that's what I did and the thing I wasn't expecting, because I loved the writing of the music and recording of the music, I did not expect that the touring would be the thing I would really fall in love with.
“When an actor is doing a play there are rules - you are supposed to sit in your seat and be relatively quiet and if you appreciate the performance you show your appreciation at the end. Don't interrupt. You play a music show and you want them out of their seat by the first downbeat - you want them involved. And so there was a kind of kinetic energy I experienced playing music live not only between myself and an audience but between myself and a band.
“That was just different from anything else I had experienced. So the second album was really putting together songs I felt would help our live show and that record came together really quickly.”
Many of the songs appear to be deeply personal, especially Song for a Daughter, which is dedicated to Kiefer’s daughter Sarah Sutherland who is a successful actress, best known for her role of Catherine Meyer in the comedy, Veep.
“I wrote it specifically for her… there's a line in it ‘when I’m long gone know that you were the one that made the love in my heart last’. I wanted her to know that she can take this with her to the day she dies how much she meant to me and how much she meant to my life.
“You know I was so young when she was born. I was 20 years old and there's a wonderful moment, it was kind of the thing that triggered the song. I found some pictures of the day she was born; I had been doing Designated Survivor in Toronto for three years and I was having that kind of awkward moment when you come home and you can't remember where you put the pots versus the pans and I was literally going through my kitchen trying to remember everything and I found these photos and I remembered a thing from when she was about 12 or 13.
“We would have dinner every Sunday night at this place not far from where she and her mom lived and as we were walking out we had had a very funny dinner and I looked at her and said I'm so sorry that we had to raise each other. And she laughed and she took my hand and said she wouldn't have wanted it any other way. That to me is my daughter. That's an incredibly generous thing to say to someone who is trying to express ‘I know it hasn't been easy for you all the time’.
“So I wanted to write the song. It's my way of answering that back in a thank you.”
Does he have regrets about things that happened when Sarah was younger?
“Oh my gosh, yeah. I mean I have done some pretty stupid stuff and I know, even though she would tell you differently, I certainly know that some of my less brighter moments have been embarrassing, have to have been embarrassing for someone that age in a school and my life being that public.
“And whether she wants to acknowledge it or not there are a lot of things I look back on as a parent and wish I had done better. Yes, absolutely, as I look back on my life and how much my daughter means to me, I would have done anything for her. And although there were certain moments in my life where I was thinking very much about myself and not the things that mattered to me like my family, my daughter and friends as well. So, yes there always a moment where I will wish I could go back and do things differently but the truth is you cant so for my daughter to say something as generous as what she said when she was 12 really stuck with me and in many ways I kind of grew up at that moment. You get to my age that's all you get, tons of perspective!”
Other songs have also drawn on emotional moments from his past, he admits. “They are absolutely about my life. I've just actually started writing songs for this third record that are actually made up stories and that takes a level of confidence that maybe I didn't have certainly for the first two records.
“But there is a lot of stuff that if I was going to write something I felt was going to be impactful and worth taking up three to five minutes of your time I was going to write something that came from a place that I knew, absolutely.
“So whether it was struggling with the loss of a mother or a song for a daughter or about having a laugh about when you went into a bar for the first time when you were 15 or, from the first record, the first real heartbreak of my life. You can write a song that is personal like that and it might not be a perfect song but because it's so personal to you something will come out of it. Certainly there are very, very personal songs that are from my life experience on both those records and there will of course be some on the third record too.”
Now he has been touring with his band for months at a time over the past five years but reckons he loves this new aspect of his life, even though it is not how he imagined it would be at first.
“It's ironic it's certainly not all the stuff I thought it would be. You know, I certainly love to have a whiskey - I have never lied about that - but that is the one thing I can’t have at night if I have a show the next day because it will mess up my voice.
“So all the fun and the partying and all of the things associated with a band on the road, there is still some of it but if that's what you got into it for its not going to work out. Because we just play too many shows in a row we will do 17 shows in 20 days.”
Instead of propping up a bar, he’s found a new reason to love being in a band.
“For me, there's something about feeling like you are in a gang. By that I mean the two other guitar players, a drummer and a bass player. We can all go to have dinner together. We can all enter a venue together and we have got each other's backs and in many cases, even if we squabble amongst each other, if anybody else interferes with that they are in really trouble. There’s something about that. I don't remember ever feeling that way as a kid but there's something about just having a group of friends that you are with all the time.
“I hear about bands who don't even do sound checks any more because they have got it so dialled in but that moment is a time when you get to play songs that aren't in the set and try other stuff I just really like playing . Having said that, I have been touring for five or six years. I think a lot of the bands that really don't like it much anymore have probably been doing it for 20 years. We will do 100 shows plus a year and I really love my band and it is hard to express the generosity I have experienced and this band has experienced from the audiences that we played to.”
This begs the question whether he wishes he had launched his band earlier or even chosen this as a career rather than acting.
“This is something I love to do but I'm the luckiest person I have ever known. I have been fortunate enough to do things I have loved all my life. I absolutely love being an actor and I love the process. So being able to get together with a group of actors and a director and telling stories is for me a dream thing and is a very natural extension into the music,” he says.
“I will write a story together with the band. Then it’s ‘Let's figure out the best way to tell this story,’ so what excites me and drives me through that is a common thread.
“But I have been able to do this my whole life. I have had other friends who've told me, and I've got eyes and have watched other people, especially when I was doing the rodeo circuit in the United States, travelling everywhere from Oklahoma to Texas to Arizona and poorer parts of California, people work hard and I have watched people my whole life sacrifice for their family and friends. I have watched some of my friends in that position look back and realise, you know, they are doing the math and it is coming to an end and they realise they haven't done anything for themselves.
“So, even if it is just an hour a day it can be painting, it can be building a model it can be yoga it can be meditating, it doesn't have to be a career, just find moments for yourself. Because I have watched a lot of people sacrifice a lot for really noble reasons for people around them and this is really just a plea to those people to find moments for themselves.”
Kiefer Sutherland is playing the Cambridge Junction on February 26. Tickets £26. Box office: junction.co.uk.
More by this authorAlex Spencer