Kiefer Sutherland has played a wide range of characters in 35 years of acting in film and television, from John “Ace” Merrill in “Stand By Me” and David Powers in “Lost Boys” to Jack Bauer in “24” and, most recently, Thomas Kirkman in “Designated Survivor.”
Lately, Sutherland, 51, has been playing himself in a role separate from acting. Friday night, Sutherland will perform at Knucklehead’s with his band, singing the songs he wrote and recorded for “Down in the Hole,” the country/Americana album he released in the summer of 2016.
“Our goal every night is to give you a $100 show for a $25 dollar ticket,” said Sutherland, who talked to The Star on Thursday about his life as a musician. Here’s what he had to say about touring, songwriting and performing at the Grand Ole Opry.
You performed this week at the Grand Ole Opry. How was that experience?
The Opry is phenomenal. It was the third time we’d been invited. Every time it feels like the first.
I’ve played Opryland and the Ryman (Auditorium). At Opryland they have a circle where they’d cut out the centerpiece of the Ryman stage. It’s been there since 1972, I think. I was standing outside that circle looking in at that wood, which was clearly 80 to 90 years old, thinking of all the musicians who had played on it. And one of the Opryland musicians walked by and said, “Go on. Step in it. It won’t bite you.”
I felt like a kid that dipped his toe in the ocean for the first time. The thing that takes me aback — and this isn’t a criticism of the film industry; it is what it is – but there’s such a sense of community at the Opry that I’d never experienced before. It’s a revue so five or six artists are playing on any given night.
All the dressing rooms are open so everyone is milling around, talking to each other. And the level of support everyone shows each other is extraordinary. The artists genuinely want you to have a great show.
That hasn’t necessarily been my experience in the film industry. I’ve seen a lot of photographs over the years of, say, Judy Garland and Jimmy Stewart and Humphrey Bogart all sitting around a piano and singing. This is back in the days when they had that sense of community to protect themselves from the power of the studios. I’d always dreamed about that, so it’s interesting that the first time I really experienced that was at the Opry.
It’s a humbling experience to play there but something I’ve really look forward to each time.
When did you start writing songs and playing music?
I played violin from the time I was about 4 to 10. When I was about 7, I really wanted a guitar. So my mom made a deal with me.
She said if I’d play violin until I was 10, she’d get me a guitar. So she got me a guitar when I was 10 and I put the violin down and never picked it up again.
The (guitar) went with me everywhere. It was an incredible companion. Going from 10 to 15 years old is tough and I used the guitar as a way to spend time with myself. If you got a lick down to a popular song, you could play it in front of your friends and they would like you for it.
So the guitar was an ally and remained so through all the times I spent in trailers waiting to shoot. I started writing songs when I was 14 or 15, none of which I’d play today. I started a small label, Ironworks, with one of my best friends, Jude Cole.
We signed a bunch of artists right around when the record industry was starting to change. And they all wrote different ways and had their own shortcuts. … And from watching all these other people I started learning how to write songs in different ways. And I started to find a way that if I wanted to I could sit down and write a song and I’d mess around with chords and find a melody I was comfortable with and start writing lyrics.
In many cases I’d bring it to Jude and we’d abandon that melody and take it to a different place. Like with anything, once you learn how to start you’ve cleared the biggest hurdle. So I was probably around 33 when that happened and probably 35 when I’d write five or six songs a year that I would hold on to.
How did the recording of the album happen?
I’d accumulated about 20 to 30 songs and I really liked a couple of them. So I went to Jude Cole and said I wanted to record some demos and send them off to BMI and see if anyone would like to do them. So we recorded them and he ended up really liking them.
He invited me to listen to them and said, “They’re clearly your songs and you deliver them in a way I don’t think anyone else would, and I think you should consider doing more and maybe doing an album.” And I said absolutely not. I was so acutely aware of the stigma of actors doing music and I did not want to wade into that.
So he took me to a bar and we had a couple of drinks and it started to sound like a better idea. So we struck a deal where I’d record two or three more songs and keep recording until a decision was made. I think it was around the fifth or sixth song where I really started to like them and how they sounded and were produced.
I had that kind of ‘Come to Jesus’ moment. And I decided I’d stand by them. And if someone made fun of me for doing it, so be it. It was a liberating moment. And I owe it all to Jude Cole.
Was it assumed that you would tour after the album was done and how did you adjust to that?
Well, the great benefit I got from (the album) was something that wasn’t expected: how much I fell in love with touring. I love that kind of visceral exchange with a live audience.
I’m not naïve about why, in the beginning, people would come to see a show. They were looking for a car wreck and it was our job to turn it into a really good race. … I was writing about really personal experiences and the powerful moments in my life.
Life is tricky and not easy to get through. And most of the things I write about are very broad-based: the loss of someone, falling in love, falling out of love — flagpole moments.
I found that people really related to it all, like, “Oh, that’s cool. He has to go through that shit, too.” So we all walk away from the show realizing that despite any pre-conceived notions the audience might have had or I might have had about the audience, we all had more in common than we thought.
And that’s a great night for me. It’s really exciting.
What do you get from music and live performance that you don’t get from acting?
It’s a completely new way of storytelling, which is what I like about acting to begin with. Plus all the side-benefits. I love my band and spending time with them. Some of my favorite times are sound check, where we’ll start working on a new idea.
But it’s not for everybody. I have musician friends I’ve known for 20 years who can’t understand why on earth after doing a television show for eight months I’d want to go do 70 dates in three months. … Because I really, really love it.
What songwriters did you listen to growing up?
The Beatles, Elton John and Bernie Taupin. I’ve known Bernie Taupin and also Elton John, but really Bernie Taupin for a really long time. His lyrics are so extraordinary.
I was a big fan of the Band. … Billy Joel. Bob Seger. Bruce Springsteen. Johnny Cash. Waylon Jennings. Kris Kristofferson.
In the rock world, I’ve listened to Aerosmith and AC/DC forever, like since I was in pre-school.
How did you end up writing in this country/Americana/roots style?
I started listening to a lot of country music when I rodeo-ed, which was through the ‘90s. I went to the (United States Team Roping Competition) national finals around ’94 and I got exposed to a lot of country music then.
There was a simplicity to it, and it allowed me to write the stories I wanted to tell. … So that music kind of found me. It lent itself to the lyrics I wanted to write and the way I wanted to write them.
As much as I love the writing process and the touring process, it’s the touring I love the most. It’s also what scares me the most.
How have you evolved as a live performer?
The biggest change for me, which got me out of being scared to death and desperately hanging on to get through it, was a show in Ann Arbor (Mich.). It was the first seated audience we’d ever had.
I don’t know whether it was because I’d done 10, 15 equity plays but it felt like I needed to talk more. So I explained where I was when I wrote “Calling Out Your Name” and what I was going through and what a cathartic relief it was when I finished.
And all of a sudden I could tell they were listening to the song differently and there was this shared thing going on and it really put me at ease. So that was singularly the biggest thing that made me realize, “OK. Take a deep breath. They aren’t here to kill me.” It wasn’t like that. And once I trusted that I felt a lot more comfortable.
What can you tell us about “Designated Survivor”?
We’re getting ready for the third season. The things I know have to happen are that President Kirkland …has to choose whether or not to run for office again and if he does, why and those circumstances.
The one thing we’ve been very conscious of is we want to start to delve more into the characters and not be so plot-driven and really get into the personal lives of the characters. So we have talked extensively about how we want to approach the show in a different way but in a positive and exciting new way.