Born to Perform: Dr. Joe Burns
Born to Perform: Dr. Joe Burns
Mar 9, 2023
Not a Rock and Roll Loser
Influence … what is it, really? We all have people, places, things, or ideas that influence us in life via various forms, and this next musician I’m going to tell you about is no exception in the realm of inspiration and influence.
I first met Dr. Joe Burns when I was a student of his at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, La., back in the early 2000s. I graduated from SLU in 2005, so it was a long time ago, but when I was reacquainted with Joe, it felt like no time had passed at all. One of my favorite memories of Dr. Burns is when he would stand in the front of the class and tell a rowdy bunch of kids to pay attention to him by stating, “Pay attention to me, because I have a tie,” as he pointed to the necktie he was wearing with his collared shirt. He taught me so much, and as a Mass Communications major, I took so many of his classes, that most of my college memories include thoughts of happenings from within his classes. In fact, I credit Dr. Burns as being the one who truly taught me audio and video production because without his instruction, I would not know all I know today—of course, the hands-on experience I had working at 90.9 KSLU FM might have helped a tad bit, too. Back in the day when I called SLU home, the Mass Comm. department was small, and we were like a family of sorts. I miss that time, and most of all, I miss that era. It truly was much simpler then.
Going into this interview, I knew three things about Dr. Burns: he loved Eddie Van Halen, he had previously worked in radio full-time, and he had a great sense of humor. After speaking with Dr. Burns for over an hour and a half (because neither of us could shut up), I learned there is so much depth to his identity and the things he has accomplished and continues to accomplish is just plain remarkable. As one who has led an amazing life, he remains deeply humble.
First and foremost, Dr. Burns is a communications professor at SLU, but he also is a father, a husband, a producer, a musician, an author, a podcaster, and a master woodworker. He even built his own recording studio, which he aptly titled Loser Studios as a nod to one of his albums, “Rock and Roll Loser.” Joe’s quirky take on rock music is entertaining, comedic, and sincerely authentic. Take a moment to read this interview, then go check out his latest music release “Tools of the Trade” via all streaming platforms. It’s very nostalgic for me to hear, because many of my old college buddies make guest appearances on the album in various forms, and it’s just a damn enjoyable album, as all of his releases are. Joe Burns is the epitome of the modern-day Renaissance man.
JB: You called a little early!
MaM: Well, according to my phone, it says 14:00 on the dot … 2 o’clock!
JB: Nicole, my gosh, Nicole! I haven’t seen you since you actually were in my classes. How have you been?
MaM: Man, life has been crazy. I want to tell your story, though. You have one of the most distinct voices I have ever heard, and I can always tell it’s you, no matter what. Give me a little background info about where you were born and raised, because I remember you saying you were from Ohio back when I took your classes, and I know you went to Bowling Green University, correct?
JB: That was for the Ph.D. I was born in Flint, Mich., actually … back when you could drink the water. It seems that I was always in a new place growing up. In 5th grade was when I made my way to Ohio—specifically Solon, Ohio, which is a suburb of Cleveland, and I grew up in Cleveland through the formative years: 5th grade all the way until the end of high school. That’s my Ohio connection, and I consider Cleveland, Ohio, home.
MaM: That’s cool how you have that Ohio connection. My mom is from Ohio, too. She is from a little town called Ashtabula, Ohio, which is right there on Lake Erie. I had the pleasure of visiting up there in 2009 and just fell in love with the area. When did you first pick up guitar and start playing? If I remember correctly, you are a music junkie just like me, and I know you like Steely Dan and Van Halen. Give us a little more info about your music background.
JB: Well, my mother put a gun to my head and made me play saxophone (laughs), because that's what a young boy should play … something to be in the high-school band. And, well, she decided one day to play guitar. So, she took lessons at the local cooperative, and we had this really piece of crap Stella guitar that my dad bought, probably from Sears. And she kept coming home with her lessons, and I would have the lesson in 10 or 15 minutes, and my dad finally said after a couple of months, ‘Why don't you just give the guitar to the kid because you're not getting it, and he's got it in about 10 minutes now?’
He probably paid for that for a year afterwards, but I just started getting better and better and better. And I remember I was invited, because all I had were acoustics, these cheap little things that we got at garage sales. And we—one guy asked me, ‘Hey, do you want to be in this band?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I'd love to,’ and my dad talked to the local music guy because I would always go into the same little music store, and the guy said, ‘Oh, yeah, Joe could play rhythm guitar in a band right now.’ Easy to do. And I had gone in there and apparently picked this one guitar off the wall 10 times. It was a Morris electric in Cherry Sunburst. As a matter of fact, it's hanging on the wall right behind me. It maybe is the most balanced instrument I've ever had. You can't even buy them like that anymore; they don't make them. So, I took it and bought a cheap little amp from a friend, and that's when I started playing it: on my 15th birthday. That's really when it came to fruition. And I remember writing my first song on that guitar. I can remember most of the lyrics. It's really sad. (laughs)
MaM: So, 15 years old was when you decided, “This is it—I really love guitar, and this is what I want to do,” and you’ve just kind of done it as a hobby over the years, or did you want to do something serious with it?
JB: I wanted to do something serious with it all the time. Here's the problem: I'm 6’4” and about 250 pounds, and in Cleveland, when you're that big, you don't become a musician. I was a football player. I was a wrestler. I threw shot put, and music always had to go on the back burner. It's just the way it was. And I mean that; I'm not trying to be clever about it. It's, you know, when you're within the top 10 biggest guys in the high school, you don't get to go play guitar. I played in bands with people now and again, but nothing ever came of it. It wasn't until I got out of college that I started to perform with bands. I was recording with the radio stations, but it wasn’t until I got out of college that I had the opportunity to perform. And, I remember the first real band I was in was a band called Theory. Our first album was going to be called ‘Hypothesis.’ How horrible is that? And then I picked up with a local band that was actually very good, and [I] did a lot of gigging. It was called Rick and the Rockets, and I was one of their rotating guitarists. I was a rocket, and that's pretty much how it went.
MaM: So, you mentioned above that you were working in radio, which I know you had a huge career in, so tell us a little more about that.
JB: I was not going to go to college and my parents said, ‘Oh yes you will,’ and I said, ‘Oh no I'm not! I'm gonna get on a bus. I'm gonna go out to California, and I'm gonna join up with a band.’ So, what they did was bribe me with a car. Now, don't get me wrong—it was a nice car. It was a ‘79 Camaro with a 354 barrel, you know, powder blue interior. Oh, yeah. If I wasn't ugly and fat, it would have brought the chicks a runnin’. (laughs)
MaM: (laughs) Oh yeah, that does sound nice.
JB: And I started playing in little bands in college here and there. But what was wonderful is, I got into radio and then you see radio took over, and I would go out now and again with a band. I would sit in with people. I would do a track here and there. But, you know, for 12 years, I ran radio stations and kept everything up and running.
MaM: Which radio stations did you work for?
JB: I started in Pennsylvania at Titan Radio. That was my college station. I was at two different stations during college—full-time gigs. That was WKST and WFEM. Left there, went to Oklahoma City for KCGK? I can't remember exactly. I don't think it exists anymore. Left there for WQLT in Florence, Alabama. Left there for KG107 in Utica, New York. Left there for 92 Gold in Southern Pennsylvania. It was actually the Hagerstown, Maryland market. And after that, I quit and went back for a Ph.D. I got the masters while I was running the stations in Pennsylvania.
MaM: Wow. How did you end up in Louisiana, of all places, after an incredible career like that?
JB: Simple. I got the masters while I was in … and, and by the way, I got the masters on a bet. I used to use the questions in the morning. One of the bits that I did was … ask trivia questions, but they came from the MENSA book, the genius thing. And somebody joked to me, you know, ‘Hey, why don't you go test MENSA? You think you're so smart and all that.’ So, I went, and I tested for MENSA, and you go through about four IQ tests, and I scored above 140 on each of them. So, they invited me to go to York, Pa., and try out to get into the MENSA Society. I took tests and failed. You had to be in the top two percent. I still have the piece of paper because no one believes me. I scored in the top three percent, and I said to them, ‘Don't you people round up?’ And they said, ‘No.’
It’s just with my master's degree, I couldn't find work as a professor, so I kept calling all the rejection letters, and what I kept getting was, ‘You don't have a Ph.D.’ So, [I] went to Bowling Green. I applied to two places: Bowling Green and Kent State. Went to Bowling Green because Kent State said no. Did three years, because they say the average time to get your Ph.D. is five years, and I said, ‘Well, my wife doesn't want to be here very long.’ Bowling Green is nice, but it's just south of Toledo, so you can tell it's a little grungy-greeny. So, finished that up in three years, as quick [sic] as possible. I won the dissertation scholarship. What I didn't win, though, and this still makes me angry to this day, was ... I was up for graduate student of the year, and the woman who was doing the interview told me that she wouldn't vote for me because I, ‘stalked the students.’
JB: I didn't stand in one place and lecture to them. I walked around and I engaged them, and I made them speak. This woman is just sitting there filled with liberal arts confidence, right, and I said, ‘Radio communication. This is radio. This is television. We don't play well with introverts. You must understand what we do here.’ She didn’t like that very much, and so, I lost.
MaM: I’m assuming getting the job at SLU is what brought you to Louisiana, or was it something else?
JB: Yes. Yeah. Well, no—here’s the thing. I got a job immediately. In fact, I was the first in my graduating class to get a job, and it was at a university I absolutely loved. It was one of these little richie, rich schools, and you would think the kids would all be complete jerks and all of it. No, they were great. And it was a school that had money and gorgeous radio stations. It was everything I wanted. It was two hours outside of New York City. So, this whole time we're trying like crazy to have a kid, and we couldn't seem to do it, and my wife finally said [she couldn’t] go through another northern winter. She's from Alabama. I met her when I was at WQLT. So, I kept giving her the chronicle, “Higher Education.” That's the magazine that tells you where the jobs are, and I applied to everything that she wanted me to. I was given two job offers. One in, I think it was Marietta, Ga., at Southern Polytechnic University. I would have been a computer professor. The other one was at Southeastern Louisiana University, and I took it.
MaM: So that’s how you ended up here. You were all over the northern part of the U.S., and you get transplanted back down here. (laughs)
JB: I don't know what's a better life, and I mean this … I don't know what's a better life because none of my cousins, and both sides of the family—mom and dad—none of my cousins have anything more than a B.A., and I'm not putting that down. Look, a bachelor's degree is, is an impressive thing, but none of them have over that. I am the only one that holds a master's degree. I think one of my cousins does, too, but I'm the only one to hold a Ph.D. … and you ask yourself, ‘Is it better to do what I did and move all over the United States, or is it better to stay put in one place?’ See, all my friends who stayed put in Cleveland all still get together and they all have a good time together. Me, on the other hand, it's a weird existence, and anybody who has had a job where you move all the time [knows] it's hard to make lifelong friends. My wife and I have lived in nine different states.
MaM: I admire the fact that you have lived in so many places and have experienced so much. I can completely relate to what you said, though. I went on Apple music recently, to check out your music, and did you know there are two other musicians with the name, Joe Burns?
JB: Sure … and there is a soccer player and an ex-football player. It is a very common name. I always tell people, ‘You gotta put that Ph.D. after it to find me!’ But the thing is, every time you put that in, it's not my music that pops up; it's my books, because I had a real success for a good, long while there with creating web pages, and [it was] right at the beginning of the internet and teaching people how to make web pages, and it ended up in a series of five books. That comes up long before the music does, but you know … time marches on.
MaM: Refresh my memory on the titles of those books, so I can let our readers know about them. I think it was “HTML for Dummies” or “HTML Goodies?”
JB: It was Goodies. ‘HTML for Dummies’ was some corporate thing, and I always hated it because the idea was you have to admit you were stupid to read the books.
JB: It was ‘HTML’ mainly because, you know, the books were about how to make a website. It was ‘HTML Goodies,’ because the first thing I ever did was put a series of cute little images up online, and my father made the statement that, ‘Oh, look! You got all these little goodies for people to give away.’ So, there you go: ‘HTML Goodies.’ There it was, and now it’s five books. It's been reprinted in at least three languages that I know of.
MaM: Wow, that’s impressive.
JB: One of them is Polish.
MaM: I noticed you released an album in 2017 prior to this most recent release. “One Hell of a Story” was the title, and I was wondering if that was the first time you had released music on your own?
JB: No, as a matter of fact, that was the second album. Here’s the thing … I have always been an extremely pragmatic human being, meaning there are people that if they're not perfect when they come out of the gate, they get very upset and they quit. I put out an album called ‘Rock and Roll Loser,’and you'd have to go to my YouTube channel to hear some of the songs, and there's about three songs on the album, which I think are very, very good, and I'd like to re-record them, but the rest of them are pure crud.
JB: I've had people say to me, ‘I listened to ‘Rock and Roll Loser,’ and it's terrible,’ and I said, ‘You're absolutely right!’ But you see, I recorded that entire album on a laptop, and the drums were all fake and I didn't understand to put in drum fills. It's horrible, and I urge people to go listen to it. If you want to hear a couple of the very good ones, listen to ‘Believe,’ which I really want to re-record, and [then] listen to ‘Misinformed.’ Those are the two that are actually really good songs. They're just not recorded well because I didn't have the equipment.
MaM: So, when you released that, you just released it strictly on YouTube?
JB: No, there's a website: www.RockandRollLoser.com. I refused to put out any music and expect someone to give me money for it. I don't want 50 cents or what have you getting between you and you listening to my song. So, I put it out. I just thought it was the greatest album in the world. This happens constantly. You know, you write something, and you go to bed thinking they're gonna hand me the Pulitzer this week, [then y]ou get up in the morning, you listen to it or you read it and you go, ‘What was I … was I drunk?!?’
JB: I go back and listen. The song ‘Rock and Roll Loser’ is cute, but it's not much … it's not much more than me figuring out what the heck I'm doing. I'm playing in a couple of bands. The big one at the time was called Impaired Faculties. It was all professors from Southeastern.
MaM: I remember hearing about them. Dr. Robison—wasn’t he a part of that?
JB: He was the other guitarist. He's the one that came to me, and we played a little bit together and he said, ‘Okay, you and I have got to play dual guitars. We must.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ So, the whole thing was supposed to be just a fundraiser, and then we discovered we weren’t that bad, and so we kept going.
We recorded a couple of songs that nothing's ever happened with them, and then, I wrote a song called ‘Water Line’ after the floods, and we made a bunch of money by selling at a dollar a pop, but it was a fundraiser. The whole time, I was doing my radio show or, rather, my podcast ‘Rock School,’ and I kept building my home studio and I kept getting better equipment and better equipment. So, when you listen to the second album, which is called ‘One Hell of a Story,’ you go, ‘Oh my gosh, the songs are getting better.’ And then a year later, my wife and I put out a Christmas album called ‘Let's Get the Jingle Bell Out of Here,’ and again, better. We had real success with that. We got on a CD that was sent out, and we were the nobodies next to Sia and Kelly Clarkson and Barry Manilow, and it got sent out to all these radio stations. We had phenomenal success with that album. It got 400 different radio stations to play it. I then started messing around musically with a buddy of mine. You probably remember him: Rusty Gregoire. Do you remember him?
MaM: Sure do! I stayed good friends with him for a long time. Now, we’re just Facebook friends.
JB: He and I started recording together and I think we have five or six songs, and they're really good. We need to record a few more and put it out, but again, with him … better. I hadn't recorded for, it had to be two years, and I finally just had all these songs that I had written for all these other people. By the way, I put out an entire album called ‘My Key’ with a singer named Naomi. If you go to any of the streaming services and you search ‘My Key,’ Naomi - N A O M I, Naomi, you'll find that one, and you'll listen to the other albums … and then you’re like, ‘When did you learn to play piano … and saxophone?’. I brought pros in to do all these things, and I think it’s sonically beautiful.
MaM: We’ll have to check that one out.
JB: I don’t know how to explain it. I guess I don’t sit in a room and play chord after chord after chord, praying that somehow, I’m gonna come up with something. What I do is—in my car—I have found that to be at your most creative peak. Sit still, and let your mind go somewhere. If you sit and force yourself, and you go, ‘It’s time to write a song,’ you’re not gonna do it. Just keep your mouth shut and let your brain turn into clouds, and that’s where the riffs start coming.
MaM: So, you mentioned previously that you build your own guitars. Do you play your custom guitars that you’ve built?
JB: I built all my guitars. Literally, built all my guitars … and I set the whole system up, and that’s what I did.
MaM: What type of blueprint do you use to build your guitars?
JB: See, I buy a kit, and all I use from the kit are the neck and the body. I don’t use the crappy stuff. I do all my own electronics. I buy all different pick-ups. I always make a point of finishing them in different colors, and then I call for them by color when recording.
MaM: Tell us a little bit about this latest album that you have released.
JB: Well, it’s called ‘Tools of the Trade.’ Why? I don’t know. My wife suggested it, and I thought it was okay. When you listen to ‘What Do You Say,’ it goes to a jazz place in the middle, and the entire solo is played note, harmonic note, harmonic note, harmonic. The second song is called ‘Not My Circus, Not My Monkey.’ It has what’s known as a waterfall of harmonics because I want people to go, ‘Wait a minute? What the heck was that?’ It’s a heavy song, but right out of nowhere comes a harmonica. I don’t want to keep playing 145. I want every single song to make people go, ‘What?!? What was that?!’
MaM: I did notice that each track is different and each one reels you in in a different way because of how unique they are. If you were to hear them consecutively, you would not know they are by the same artist.
JB: Yeah, I’ve had people say to me, ‘Hey, look, ‘Not My Circus’ sounds like Nuno Bettencourt.’ If you write a song that sounds like somebody else, you’re not doing it right. I’ve gotta be honest, there is a little bit of Eddie Van Halen in everything I play, but it doesn’t sound like him. I write these songs and put them together and pray they don’t sound like anyone but me. I’ve probably got seven or eight more riffs just sitting in a file somewhere because I’m probably going to do it again. Somebody said, ‘Why would you release 18 songs in a row?’, and I said, ‘Because I’ve got another 18 … just give me a year.’
MaM: Do you have any plans to play any live shows? Have you thought about maybe doing some local gigs in Hammond? I’d come see it!
JB: I’d love to do it, and I’ll contact you when it happens. I want to get out there and do it by myself. I’m not in a band right now, and I think it’s simply because of time. I’d like to get out there like a troubadour. Me and a guitar and do it about once every other week. My wife has even said to me, ‘Why are you not out there playing?’, and I think it’s just because I’m 58 and I’m lazy, but I don’t even need to get paid. I mean, give me some beer and maybe some food. The last time I played a gig, I went three hours straight and didn’t even take a break. I would just like to get up there and strum chords. I can tell you that I’m not a big requests person. I will show up and do a show, and if someone comes up and says, "Play ‘Margaritaville',’’ I guess I could, but that’s not my thing.
MaM: I know quite a few local musicians who get zany requests when playing live. Like, people like to yell, “Play ‘Free Bird’” at live shows. Not sure why, but they just kind of laugh it off.
JB: Wouldn’t it be wonderful to actually learn ‘Free Bird?’ The entire 10 or so minutes of it. Some drunk guy in the audience could go, ‘Free Bird!!’, and I could go, ‘Okay!’, and literally play the entire song.
MaM: And I would love to see that, and I’d be cheering you on! So, Rock School Records is the imprint you are releasing your music under. Have you used that for all of your releases?
JB: Yes, so DistroKid, they wanted a name of a record company, so I had to make something up. I call my studio, though, Loser Studio because the first record was ‘Rock and Roll Loser.’ It was called that on purpose, because I had it in my head that if what I’m about to create is pure crap, then if I call myself a loser first, then you really can’t make fun of it.
MaM: As far as releasing the music, I know you have it on Apple Music, but are you releasing it on other platforms? Where is your music available?
JB: I send it out to every venue that will accept it. It’s on Pandora, Spotify, and Apple, and I use YouTube as kind of a fun thing. The first single off the album, and I’m going to really start pushing it soon—it’s called ‘Tickets Please,’ and it’s got a video. By the way, there is also a video for ‘Bad Idea,’ which is also on the album. There are actually quite a few videos, but you have to go to my YouTube channel to find that. Just know that if you type in “Joe Burns,” you gotta put that Ph.D. behind it. I did have the entire album up there, but once I put it up, I immediately got a copyright strike from a company that makes ukelele music.
JB: I laughed at them and took the whole thing down, and I’m sure once I put it up again, I’ll get hit again. I’ll show them, though, that I have the original audio files and everything.
MaM: So, your “Rock School” podcast / radio show. I know it used to run on KSLU. Is it still going?
JB: Oh no, I’m still doing it. We have won several radio Emmy’s, probably seven, and we’re now on 32 radio stations, two networks, and the NPR network. We’re trying to get on with the Armed Forces Radio Network. Haven’t heard anything about it, and I think our weekly downloads are somewhere between 25 and 27,000. My wife is actually my co-host now. The thing is, we kept running out of studio time, and I brought the whole thing to my studio.
MaM: Ok, last question, are you only using your home studio for recording your personal stuff, or do you plan to open it up to other musicians?
JB: I’ve thought about it. I’ve got some ideas. I’ve thought about running wires to my gazebo and then have them record a show for 45 minutes, and then the band will walk away with maybe a five-song demo and a live recording … put it all on a jump drive for them.
MaM: Any parting thoughts or words?
JB: I really just want, like, 20 minutes of your time. Give my music a listen, and then pass it on to your people. This is a hobby for me. I’m trying really to create some quality music, and I hope you see it that way, too.
To check out Joe Burns and his music, hit one of the links below!
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