Ahead of Kiefer Sutherland’s appearances in Yorkshire with his band, he talks to Duncan Seaman about music, life and Hollywood.
Kiefer Sutherland is recalling his first song writing experience, back in adolescence. “I was about 15 years old,” the star of Hollywood films such as Stand By Me, A Few Good Men and Flatliners and the worldwide TV hit 24, remembers. “In fact I played one of those songs for a friend of mine the other day and I don’t think me and that friend, who’s a guitar player, have laughed that hard in the ten years that we’ve known each other.
“It was so bad it was endearing. It was about my mom and it was called Mother Won’t You Leave Me Alone, I wrote that when I was 15 in kind of a very punk way. Oh gosh, I just started laughing.”
Fortunately in the intervening years the actor-turned-musician has become considerably more accomplished. Indeed, last year his second album of country-rock, Reckless & Me, was a top 10 hit in the UK. Still, he remains modest about his abilities and aware of public scepticism towards well-known actors doing music. The first show he performed in London, he remembers, “my right hand was shaking so much, which isn’t good for a guitar player”.
Songwriting, he says, has become easier over time. “It used to be like the skies would have to part and something would fall in my lap, like a melody idea or a line that would start something going.” Then, when he and friend Jude Cole acquired Ironworks studio in Los Angeles, he was able to observe other artists at work. “Everybody would come in and they’d start writing and they all had different ways of going about it. I learned a lot watching people try to figure out how to start a song.
“I started in my early 30s trying to take some of those ideas that I had learned and I became a lot more prolific with it but even then it took ’til I was 40 before I had a group of songs that were worth recording, hoping to get another artist to want to do them and of course that never happened.”
The friend who produced those demos said he should put them out, but Sutherland said ‘no.’ “He knew me really well and he took me to a bar and waited ’til I’d had a few drinks and then he brought it up again and I said, ‘Well, why don’t we do four more songs and I’ll see where we’re at?’ And the truth is we got to seven or eight songs and I loved the way he made them sound, and I was proud of the songs, so we went forward with it.”
Bearing in mind a piece of advice from his father, Donald – himself a famous screen actor – who once told his son, “Don’t let them catch you lying”, 53-year-old Sutherland sees songwriting as a search for personal truth. “I go back to the first record (Down In a Hole), there are a few songs on that that are really dealing with things that had happened to me almost 25 years ago,” he says. “It’s a dangerous thing if you’re starting to write stuff and you’re being really cathartic about your own life, but there is a place for it and there’s a balance to it.
“At least from the first two records, I wrote about my own experiences and I think the trick to playing those songs is not lying about it, that’s where the piece of advice that my father gave me has really run true, saying, ‘Look, I made this terrible mistake, I was in jail when I wrote this’. And it’s amazing if you’re straight with people how much more understanding they’ll be than if you’re trying to get around the corners of something.”
In the past three years Sutherland has fitted 500 gigs with his band in between his acting work, that most recently included the TV political drama series Designated Survivor.
The entertainment world, though, was not one his father Donald and mother Shirley Douglas had wanted him to go into, despite being successful actors themselves. “I hated school even by the time I hit Grade Eight, and I only had to get to Grade 12 – that’s four years – and I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m getting there’,” he says.
“I had a couple of bands in high school, but I’d done a professional play called Throne of Straw at the Odyssey Theatre when I was 11 years old and I remember the big deal at that time was I would have to give up playing hockey for a whole season in order to do the play and I agreed to do it, and it was honestly the first thing anybody told me I was really good at. The adults in the play treated me with a lot of respect, I responded to that and the fact that someone tells you you’re good at something, it makes you lean into it.”
His first acclaimed screen role was in the 1984 Canadian drama The Bay Boy; two years later came his Hollywood breakout in the coming-of-age film Stand By Me. Starring alongside him was the late River Phoenix, an actor who Sutherland remembers fondly.
“He would come to my motel room and ask incredibly heavy questions that actually freaked me out for a 13-year-old, and he went on to do some really interesting stuff. He never just went with what was on the page; even though he did the words that were on the page, the character that he was creating was just not what was meant, and so I think he was a great loss.”
His own defining role was Jack Bauer, the US counter-terrorism agent in the long-running TV series 24. Latterly there has been speculation about a reboot. “I’ve learned to never say no,” he says. “After the eighth season I said, ‘we’re done and that’s that’ and ended up doing a ninth one. It would have to be a really smart story and certainly if it was going to be a longer-running show you would have to figure out a way to develop the younger, cooler generation coming up, but you could certainly do that utilising that Jack Bauer character. It’s not something that anybody has talked to me about, and certainly no one has said, ‘I’ve got a great idea, I’m going to send you something to read’, so there is no plan to do anything that I’m aware of. Having said that, I think after being wrong once I’ve learned to say, ‘Well, you never know.’”
Sutherland once admitted his greatest fear was “being a disappointment”. “I think I meant that more on a personal level than professionally,” he says. “At the end of the day, look, we’ve all done films that have done well, we’ve all done films that had all of the hope in the world but didn’t realise themselves for whatever reason, you can fix that in your head. And ‘oh gosh, I thought that was going to be a great song but it didn’t work out, OK, move on to the next one’.
It’s the stuff in your life, how are you as a father, how are you as a husband, how are you as a friend, and you know, I certainly don’t get an ‘A’ on that report card. So there’s a constant effort to try and figure out ‘OK, those things matter to me, how do I get better at that?’ I think some of us at times have used careers as a way to run away from that.
“I think at the end of the day if you get to a place where you look back on your life and it’s come full circle and that you feel proud of who you are then you can go out. If you go out on the other note where you know for a fact that you didn’t fulfil your potential as a person, then that’s problematic.”
Reckless & Me is out now. Kiefer Sutherland plays at The Leadmill, Sheffield on February 25 and Leeds University Union on March 1.