More than Jack Bauer with a guitar: Kiefer Sutherland on 24, his musical reinvention and his Norwich gig
- Credit: Beth Elliott
The star of hit TV series 24, Designated Survivor and Hollywood blockbusters, who has successfully dodged the pitfalls of actors doing music to refashion himself as country-rock troubadour, tells us about bringing his band to Norwich.
'Oh I was acutely aware of what the reaction might have been,' laughs Kiefer Sutherland about the mixed track record of actors dabbling in music.
'I don't even think it's mixed, I think it's bad,' adds the Hollywood star who may be best-known for roles in TV series 24 and Designated Survivor, but who this week will bring his band to Norwich in his other guise of a singer-songwriter.
Breaking conventional wisdom, he has successfully dodged the pitfalls of actors doing music to refashion himself as a bona fide country-rock troubadour.
His debut album, Down In A Hole, a collection of heartfelt songs that moved between fiery Southern rockers and old-school smoky country ballads, was well-received by critics. His gravelly growl brought just the right amount of authenticity to the tracks.
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'I liked the songs and the album that we did, but I think I when you're dealing with something that has historically not been received very well, it is best to prepare yourself,' he says of the reaction he had expected. 'But it was quite generously received and the audiences too have been fantastic.'
With a new album in the offing later this summer, the 51-year-old actor arrives as part of a tour that kicked off with a performance last month at Nashville's legendary Grand Ole Opry.
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But he is under no illusion that most of the audience will be there because of his acting rather than his music, though he hopes it will go beyond the novelty of seeing Jack Bauer with a guitar.
'I'm aware of the fact that 98% of the people who are showing up have never heard a single song,' he tells me down the phone from New York. 'That doesn't bother me at all, I'm just grateful that anyone shows up. By doing that you've given us an hour and a half to try to get you to like some of the music. And I do promise people that we do put on a good show.
'So whatever preconceived notion the audience might come to the show with, when it works we all walk away at the end of the night happy.'
Kiefer's love for music goes back to childhood and was encouraged by his parents, the actors Donald Sutherland and Shirley Douglas.
He said: 'I started playing violin when I was four but I made a funny deal with my mom because I wanted a guitar when I was seven. She said if you play violin until you're 10 I'll get you a guitar. She was true to her word and I never picked up the violin again.'
Though he eventually became an actor, breaking through in a string of 1980s classics from Stand By Me to The Lost Boys, Young Guns and Flatliners, music was always in the background.
He name checks a long list of British bands and musicians as early loves, from The Beatles, The Who and The Kinks to Elton John, though he later fell for the music and storytelling of country artists such as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.
'I grew up listening to rock, country kind of found me later, but I found that it really suited me as a writer,' he explains. 'I was trying to find the common denominator between why I love music like I do and what I love about acting. The truth is that it is telling stories.'
In 2001 he and a friend, singer-songwriter Jude Cole, set up the independent Los Angeles record label Ironworks and this eventually led to the release of his own songs, though he had to be persuaded.
'I was writing a lot of songs at that time, not to record but to send to publishers to see if any of their artists would like to do them,' he says. 'But Jude just liked the way I was singing and playing them and said I should make a record.
'Obviously I'm aware of the incredible stigma attached to actors doing music, so I said absolutely not. But then we went to a bar and had a few drinks and he kept pressing on it and I got a little drunk and then it sounded like a better idea.
'I made a deal with him that we'd do a few songs and I really liked the way he made them sound. Then, I think because I'm at this point in my life, I thought so what if someone is going to say something mean about it, who cares?'
Playing songs pulled from personal experiences proved to be a liberating experience. 'It is the closest thing I've ever had to a diary. What I wasn't prepared for with music, but which I ended up loving, was that sharing. For 30 years I've kept my life as relatively private as I can in the circumstances, but now I find myself in front of several hundred people a night sharing intimate tales because the songs are mine and they are personal. Once I got over the fear of that, it really became one of the most freeing experiences I've had.'
He adds: 'When I started writing it was at a point in my life when I was looking back on a lot of it. Things I wished I'd done better or that had caused me pain or that were hard to get through. There are things that a lot of people could relate to.
'I've always considered myself the luckiest guy on the planet but it doesn't mean that you're not going to have your heart broken.'
Telling stories is what also drew him to acting and though touring with a band is very different — 'apples and oranges' — it does capture some of the spirit of what he loved about being on a film set.
'Back in the day when you would actually travel to work to do a film it was great,' he recalls. 'You'd all check into a hotel for three or four months and you'd make your movie and everyone would meet in the bar. That was when I really loved the film industry. It was a lot of fun and it had a real character for me in the 1980s and 90s. Now it is more like factory work.
'Touring with a band you're travelling with 15 people in a bus in really tight quarters and we played 45 shows in the States in 50 days, so it is a grind. It is work, but for me, if I could do 300 shows a year I would.
'I couldn't have imagined the depth with which I have fallen in love with it. To have the opportunity to convey intimate, personal stories to an audience, for me, has proven to be priceless.'
Being on the road hasn't been about rock'n'roll party excess though. 'Not as much as I would have hoped for,' he laughs, though he doesn't rule out hitting the bars of Norwich after the gig.
'You might see me, it depends whether we have a show the next day. When we do get time off we make the most of it. We're certainly not a choir group, though the idea of emulating Keith Moon and TV's being thrown out of hotel windows, those days have gone by, certainly for me.'
After the end of his most recent TV show Designated Survivor, music is his focus this year with a new album out after the tour — 'I keep doing this dumb thing of touring before the record comes out, I've got it the wrong way round again'.
Beyond that he has no acting roles lined up, though he remains open to reviving his most famous role as the counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer in 24.
'I've learnt not to say never with 24. I didn't expect us to do the ninth season in England that we did. It's a character that I absolutely love but Howard Gordon, who was the lead writer on the show, and I both felt that how many bad days can one guy have?
'But if there is a really interesting story to tell you never know. But 24 as a whole changed my life. I did it for a decade, but I did it that long because I loved it.'
• Kiefer Sutherland plays UEA LCR, Norwich, on June 22, 7.30pm, £30.25, 01603 508050, ueaticketbookings.co.uk