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Kiefer Sutherland on gigs, playing guitar and 6 songs he fell in love with: “This interview is doing nothing for my reputation, is it?”

Kiefer Sutherland
(Image credit: Mickey Bernal/Getty Images)

“Can I remember the first gig I ever went to? Yes, I can. Oh god… you’re not gonna make me talk about it are you?”

Kiefer Sutherland’s unmistakable, gravel-coated drawl suddenly pauses. The next time he speaks, he sounds hesitant and embarrassed. Not the sort of thing you expect from the man who played FBI/Counter Terrorist Agent, Jack Bauer, in the high-octane TV drama, 24.

“C’mon, man. I have gotten so much shit for this!”

My first gig? C’mon, man. I have gotten so much shit for this!

Now you’ve built it up so much that you have to tell us. How bad can it be? Was it Donny Osmond? The Bay City Rollers? David Cassidy?

“It was Styx.”

What’s the problem? A bit of ‘70s FM rock never did anyone any harm.

“It’s comforting to hear you say that, man. Most of my friends laugh themselves stupid when I tell them.”

Admittedly, it’s difficult to imagine Bauer playing air guitar to Styx’s 1979 lighters-in-the-air hit, Babe. Altogether now: ‘Cause you know it’s you babe. Whenever I get weary and I’ve had enough. Feel like giving up.’

“That’s the thing,” Sutherland laughs. “You mention Styx and the only song people think about is Babe. But take a listen to those albums from the early-70s. Great band led by a great singer, Tommy Shaw. Great guitarist and great songwriter, too."

Sutherland - the son of movie legend Donald and Canadian actress, Shirley Douglas - was born in London, but spent most of his childhood in California, before moving to Canada after his parents divorced.

His mother loved music and signed him up for classical violin lessons at the age of four. Although he enjoyed playing an instrument, his musical tastes were already being shaped by his older brother.

“Tom is eight years older than me,” explains Sutherland. “He was the cool guy I wanted to be. What he was wearing, I wanted to wear. What he was listening to, I wanted to listen to. He had an incredible collection of albums… Deep Purple, Boston, AC/DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd. I’m pretty sure I was the only kid in kindergarten who was wearing an Aerosmith T-shirt!

“Then, when we moved to Canada, I started listening to Rush, of course. And a fantastic Canadian band called Triumph.”

We ask if Sutherland knows that the opening track on Triumph’s 1976 debut album, In The Beginning, is called 24 Hours A Day?

“Ha ha! The circle of life, man. Circle of life.”

Understandably, Sutherland was keen to swap the violin for a guitar, but his mom wasn’t taking the bait.

“I kept dropping hints and telling her how much I loved the sound of the guitar, but she was convinced it was just a passing phase. In the end, she said, ‘OK, if you stick with the violin till you’re 10, I’ll get you a guitar’. So, I stuck with the violin and, true to her word, she got me a guitar. And I never picked up that damned violin ever again.”

Sutherland quickly corrects himself: “Actually, that’s not true. When I was 11, I went for my first theatre audition. While I was there, they asked if any of the kids could play the violin because there was a piece of music that opened the first scene. I got the part and I fell in love with acting. Technically, I owe my entire career to the violin. This interview is doing nothing for my reputation, is it?”

We’re not sure about that, especially considering what Sutherland has to say next: “Hang on, I did see the Ramones at the Mad Monk in Wilmington, North Carolina. I was never really a fully-fledged punk, but I loved the fact that punk took music back to the bars and the small clubs. I love rock music, but those stadium gigs aren’t where I feel most comfortable. If you’re in a bar and you can see the sweat on the walls… that’s my kind of gig. Which is why I ended up drifting towards country music.”

If you’re in a bar and you can see the sweat on the walls… that’s my kind of gig.

Sutherland was first introduced to country music when he was a full-time rodeo rider in the late-’90s. No, that’s not a typing error. After filming The Cowboy Way in 1994, Sutherland took time off from the film world and ended up winning the United States Team Roping Championship.

“I was living with a bunch of cowboys, driving from town to town, and all they listened to was country. When you’re out in the middle of nowhere and you’re riding horses every day and you can see those beautiful Western skies, country music begins to make sense.

“There was also the whole first-person narrative thing you get with country. The songs tell a story. They have a beginning, a middle and an ending. When you start listening to a lyric, you immediately want to know what’s gonna happen to this guy. Where’s his life headed?”

Warming to his theme, Sutherland continues: “Let’s take a song like Black Dog by Led Zeppelin. I’ve been listening to that song for more than 40 fucking years, but I don’t have a clue what it’s about. Country music isn’t like that. The Bottle Let Me Down by Merle Haggard. A Boy Named Sue by Johnny Cash. The story hits you the first time you hear it. As an actor, that really appealed to me.

“Writing my own songs just seemed like the natural next step, but it took me a long time to get around to it because… well, we all know the stigma that’s attached to an actor who decides to make music. I didn’t want to be ‘that guy’. Even when I started playing gigs, I made sure we were at least 50 miles from LA. I was not looking for attention; I just wanted to hang out with my buddies.”

Explaining how he eventually made his way into the studio, Sutherland says: “A friend of mine, Jude Cole, has been involved with the music business for a long time. He came to one of the gigs and said, ‘Man, I liked that more than I thought I would’. We talked about recording a few songs, had a few beers, talked some more and went in the studio.

“Jude brought up the idea of an album, but I remember saying, ‘Over my dead body’. But we recorded a couple more tunes and a couple more. In the end, I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna put out an album. If nobody else likes it, fine’.”

His 2016 debut album, Down In A Hole, wasn’t a commercial success, but people did like it, and reviews favourably compared it to Springsteen and John Mellencamp. The 2019 follow-up, Reckless & Me, even made the UK Top 10.

Calling myself a musician would feel phony. I was an actor yesterday, I’m an actor today and, as long as they still want me, I’ll be an actor tomorrow.

“With Down In A Hole, I was trying to make my version of a classic country album. Americana, country… call it what you want. On the second album, the songs felt a lot more ‘open’. Plus, we’d done a whole bunch of live shows, which helped me gain confidence as a singer.

“Hopefully, this new album [the just released Bloor Street] will keep moving things in the right direction. It’s certainly more of a band record than the other two. Again, that’s maybe a confidence thing. Not needing to be in control all the time.”

If it became a multi-million seller, would he give up the acting and get out on the road full-time?

“You gotta be kidding. I get a huge kick out of making music, but I’ve devoted my life to acting and I cherish that feeling of being on a set and knowing that I’m in the right place. Calling myself a musician would feel phony. I was an actor yesterday, I’m an actor today and, as long as they still want me, I’ll be an actor tomorrow.’

Kiefer Sutherland’s new album, Bloor Street, is out now. He’s touring the UK from Jan 28. (opens in new tab)

Kiefer Sutherland: 6 songs that I fell in love with

Marvin Gaye - Inner City Blues (1971)

“At the same time as I was listening to AC/DC, I was also hearing Stevie Wonder, the Commodores and, of course, Marvin Gaye. Arguably the greatest American political song ever written."

The Beatles - Oh! Darling (1969)

“I could have picked a hundred songs from the Beatles. This one gets me because it’s such a powerful song, but it’s also a great love song. So much emotion in Paul McCartney’s vocal.”

James Taylor - Fire and Rain (1970)

“He’s writing a song about losing someone, about someone dying. And he’s got that beautiful lyric: ‘I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song. I just can’t remember who to send it to’. He captures the disorientation of loss. It’s the kind of lyric that takes your breath away.”

Tom Petty - Refugee (1979)

"The perfect rock song. Say no more."

Lynyrd Skynyrd - Simple Man (1973)

“A complicated band. They wrote songs about guns, but they were anti-gun songs. The problem was that they had long hair and they were from the South, so no one gave them credit for that. Simple Man is their softer side. If you think they’re just party band, you’ll be surprised.”

Talking Heads - Psycho Killer (1977)

“David Byrne is one of those artists that’s always pushing music into different spaces. A real innovator. But the main reason I included this track is ’cos he manages to play along with that shitty little cassette machine in Stop Making Sense.”

With contributions from