There’s no one else in the music world quite like Chip Davis, the colorful and inventive master musician and marketer behind Mannheim Steamroller. Mannheim Steamroller, in case you somehow don’t already know, is the greatest-selling Christmas artist in history, with dozens of albums and a worldwide following for its progressive rock arrangements of traditional Christmas tunes. In anticipation of the Steamroller’s upcoming arrival at the Granada on December 29, I spoke with Davis by phone from his home in Omaha, Nebraska. He was energized on this morning from having seen the group in Lincoln the night before. One imagines him sipping on a cup of artisanal cinnamon hot chocolate as he recalls the many twists and turns of his remarkably successful career. Although Davis does not always travel with the group these days, the Steamroller remains very much a family affair with two of his daughters, Elyse and Kelly, both now singing on the popular Christmas tours.
You’ve had an unusual career and succeeded largely through doing it all yourself. How did you become such an independent artist?
In the early 1970s, I wrote the music for some country songs featuring a character named C. W. McCall. His biggest hit came in 1975 with “Convoy,” and through that success I was able to get in the door at all the big record labels with my new project, something called Fresh Aire, and that was the beginning of Mannheim, but at the time, no one in the music industry wanted to buy it. They said they didn’t know where to put it in the racks in the record stores, so they passed on it. And since I was doing quite well at that point with writing jingles for radio and television, I started trading my services for additional studio time. It was in that period that I decided to create my own label, American Gramophone, and distribute the Fresh Aire records myself.
Now that you’ve established Mannheim Steamroller as an extraordinarily popular brand, what category of music would you put it in?
Some people have called it New Age, and, while I have a lot of respect for people like Will Ackerman (founder of Windham Hill Records), I don’t think that’s accurate. My best reference point would be something like what Emerson, Lake, and Palmer did with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. I think we are closer to that in the way we approach things, although beyond rock, there’s also the influence of the jingles. Writing jingles is the best set of training wheels for a composer because you have to hit your target right away. Four notes and you should recognize it, just like with Beethoven.
With Mannheim you were an early proponent of electronic music, and in particular of the synthesizer. Could you reflect on that aspect of your experience?
I loved the Moog synthesizer and even the mini-Moog. I also had an ARP 2600 that I’ve still got, and you know, it was fascinating to sit down with these machines and try out all the different combinations possible by twisting knobs. In time, I was able to develop my own basic set of procedures for doing orchestration on the synthesizer. You can still get the same sounds in ProTools, but in those days it was like going to a laboratory to invent new sounds.
When and how did you discover that Mannheim Steamroller was such a great fit with Christmas music?
It was in 1984 that we did the first Christmas record. At first I was afraid to do it because in the music industry, doing a Christmas album was a symbol that your career was over and that you were running out of ideas. But I couldn’t help it, because I just really love Christmas. Also I had found this whole other canon of Christmas music from the Renaissance that was less well known and very much suited to my style.
Do the musicians improvise during the shows?
No, they do not. Early on some of the guys would get to jamming, but we quickly discovered that this was not what our audience came to hear. They wanted the music just like it is on the records, and that’s what we give them.
Any exciting new visuals this time around?
Yes, we are always working on the show, and now that the group of between 16 and 20 musicians is backed by a wall of LED screens, we can show the videos we make at home here in Nebraska. Just recently we shot one for “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” where we put a camera on my Jeep and followed my neighbor’s horse around on some trails. He’s all dressed up for it and the whole thing works great. The song sounds just like riding a horse.
Mannheim Steamroller are at the Granada on Thursday, December 29. For tickets and information visit granadasb.org or call 899-2222.