Q&A with Exile: See them Dec. 30 at The Mint Event Center

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Video interview

FRANKLIN, Ky. — The ageless Kentucky-bred band Exile performs at The Mint Event Center on Dec. 30 on the heels of the late August release of its 60th-anniversary album A Million Miles Later.

Believed to be America’s longest-running self-contained band, Exile launched in Richmond, Ky., in 1963 as the pop-rock and starving garage band The Exiles, a group of Madison County high school students playing at small clubs. With the addition of new members a couple of years later, Exile’s big break was their No. 1 hit Kiss You All Over in 1978 that rocketed them to the top of the pop charts and national prominence. Five years later, seeing their songs The Closer You Getand Take Me Down top the charts with Alabama, Exile crossed over to country and quickly had three chart-topping singles: Woke Up in Love, Don’t Want to Be a Memory and Give Me One More Chance. The band, which has had 10 songs overall reach No. 1, was inducted in to the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in Renfro Valley in 2013.

A Million Miles Later is the band’s first album of original songs in more than 30 years, showcasing the variety of music, lyrics and instruments that has been a key to Exile’s longevity. Among the 16 songs: the recently released single Rough Around the Edges.

Jennie Rees, publicity director for Kentucky Downs and the track’s sister Mint Gaming Hall properties, interviewed Exile founding member J.P. Pennington (guitarist, co-lead vocals), Marlon Hargis (keyboards, joined in 1973) and Sonny LeMaire (bass guitar, harmony vocals, joined in 1977) in a Zoom call on Dec. 8. The other band members are Les Taylor (co-lead singer, rhythm guitar) and Steve Goetzman (drums). The following Q&A excerpts have been edited for length and at times clarity:

What brought on your first album in more than 30 years (not counting your “Joyful Noise”Christmas album that includes the catchy “Big Rig Santa”)? Reaching the travel landmark of a million miles or the band’s 60th year?

Pennington: “We’ve been anticipating our 60th anniversary. We thought a good idea for a signature song on the album would be in order.”

LeMaire: “The title I came up with was A Million Miles. As soon as I said it, J.P. goes, ‘Hey, A Million Miles Later.’ I went, ‘That’s it.’”

Pennington: “From there, the writing sort of took a turn toward a focus on our fans, who have supported us all these years. The song is about and to our fans, although some could interpret it as a romantic song as well, which is fine.”

LeMaire: “It’s about relationships.”

Pennington: “Probably 10 million miles would be more accurate. But we felt A Million Miles Later sang a little better.”

There’s a lot of diversity among the album’s songs. Is there any way to define you guys, or is the defining that you can’t define?

Hargis: “That’s a good way to put it.”

Pennington: “We’ve been trying to come up with a definition for 60 years. The fact that the five of us all have different sensibilities as far as genres of music goes – we like pop, rock, country, bluegrass, gospel, rap – we like all kinds of music, and we like to include a little bit of that in every project we can do. Just to see if we can do it. That has led people to wonder what Exile really is.”

Hargis: “I think when we were putting together the songs for this album, we didn’t think, ‘Well, this song has to fit in a certain format.’ If it’s a great song which J.P., Sonny and Sharon Vaughn (Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member and a co-writer of many Exile songs) brought in, let’s record it. It doesn’t matter what style it is.”

Pennington: “Our rule of thumb is there are no rules.”

LeMaire: “People have mentioned through the years that we have a very distinctive vocal sound. But also, the way the five of us have always played together, that gives us a very unique sound. So it’s a combination of that: vocals, musically how we play together I think that really sets us apart. Now what you could call it, I don’t know. But it’s very Exile, is all I know.”

How did you all hook up?

Pennington: “I’m actually the only original member now of all the high school kids who formed the band in 1963. But Les is the member with the least seniority, and he’s been here for like 44 years.”

Dick Clark early on told you all to never forget that you’re not playing for yourself but for those who bought tickets. Put that in perspective.

Pennington: “We never forgot that. It made a whole lot of sense, especially coming from someone so successful in the business. We did several tours of his package shows, called the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars in the ’60s. Our job was to open the show and do about 15 minutes, then when the single acts on the package show were introduced, we’d be their back-up band. People like B.J. Thomas early in his career. Freddy Cannon, Tommy Roe, Brian Hyland — they were very significant in their day. Then the headline act would come on. In several cases it was Paul Revere and the Raiders. That was our first taste of the big time, really. The first time we played shows in arenas packed to the rafters — usually with about 90 percent screaming teenage girls.

“But we never forgot that. He made us realize that we’re not there for our own particular enjoyment and fulfillment musically. We’re there for all of those people who paid hard-earned money to get in that seat.”

Tell me about the upcoming documentary.

LeMaire: “KET, Kentucky Educational Television, has opted to do a documentary on 60 years of the band. So we have all individually, plus some of the older past members have done interviews. We also recorded a concert we played Nov. 4 in Renfro Valley, Ky., that will be part of the documentary and probably later on the full concert will be released by itself as an addition…. It’s the history, of course, and how we all are a family. These guys, we’ve been together more …”

Hargis: “… than with our real families.”

LeMaire: “We’re definitely family: our wives, our kids, grandkids. It’s quite amazing they’re going to do this. And I think it’s going to be released March of next year.”

So what is the key to staying together and getting along for so long?

Pennington: “Well, we don’t have any choice because we don’t have any other jobs, so we have to stick together. No, I think we really got lucky in that we have five people who all respect each other, and that goes a long way. If there’s a secret to our longevity, I think that’s it.”

Hargis: “As each member was added to the band through the years, musician ship is important but also how well you get along with other people is just as important. So we all sort of picked personalities we got along with. If you couldn’t get along with anyone, we didn’t want you in the band, because you spend a lot of time together.”

Pennington: “We had one band member who lasted one show. His rehearsals were so great, we were so excited. We did this one show with him and he just lost his mind on stage – was jumping around, doing somersaults and trying to steal the show away from all of us. We said, ‘outta here.’”

How do you keep your voices going? I’d think that would be tough decade after decade?

LeMaire: “It is. I think we’re lucky that genetically somehow we’re able to continue on and sing the way we do. We’ve had to lower keys in some cases, that just comes as part of the deal. But we’ve been really fortunate to take care of ourselves well enough that we can sing the way we do.”

Pennington: “Everybody is really healthy, knock on wood.”

Hargis: “And we all work at it. I work out every day. At some point we figured out you have to take care of yourself to keep up the schedule. Because this year is our busiest year we’ve had in decades. So you have to be in good shape to do all those shows.”

Pennington: “Our mantra leading up to the 60 years was ‘We’re going for 60!’ Now our mantra is like, ‘Going for 61!’ ‘Going for 60 and six months!’”

Hargis: “Yeah, we’ve kind of slowed that down a little bit.”

Seriously, is there any limit to how long you think you’ll an active band?

LeMaire: “Obviously no one knows that, of course. But we are tied together by our collective health. That’s a fact. Like we said, we try to be as healthy as we can be. Right now nobody has put on the table an end date, an expiration date. I think right now we just have to play it by ear. We’ve got things lining up for next year, and I think everybody is excited about that. We’ll see how that goes and act accordingly.”

Pennington: “We don’t talk about the end. We talk about what’s the next thing in front of us.”

LeMaire: “I think I speak for everybody: We love what we do. It really is a cool job to come out on stage and not just entertain people but to see people having a blast, a great time, smiling and singing. That’s an amazing thing to watch and be a part of.”

J.P., put in perspective going back to being a kid in Richmond: Who’da thunk?

Pennington: “Our main thing from Day One was, ‘Are they actually going to pay us tonight?’ That and, ‘I hope we get to meet some girls and I hope we get to make a little pocket change.’ That was what was in front of us.”

You also are celebrating Kiss You All Over’s 45th year. How did that come about? Because you all are songwriters but you didn’t write that song.

Pennington: “No. If we had, we’d be on a yacht right now.”

LeMaire: “Our former producer, Mike Chapman and his songwriting partner, Nicky Chinn, wrote the song. We learned so much from Mike Chapman. I don’t throw out the term genius, but he was darn close to it. He was an amazing song writer, an amazing producer.… They had huge success in England with acts they produced and wrote for. That’s one of the reasons he wanted to come to America, to try to break into the U.S. market.”

Pennington: “He picked our tape out of a stack of tapes off his desk…. A representative did it for us, knew of him and somehow got it in his hands. Next thing we knew, he came to Lexington, Ky., to see us play. We were playing at the grand opening of an apartment complex, a pool party.”

Are there any concessions you have to make to being in your 70s?

Hargis: “We’ll limit the number of shows we’ll do in a row. We don’t want to do more than three nights in a row — a few things like that but not a lot.”

Pennington: “We don’t drink and party anymore. That’s long, long gone. That’s a big concession!”

I was going to ask if your non-performance life is pretty boring.

LeMaire: “Tell you something funny: We were all sitting on the bus, and we have satellite TV. So we’re watching TV, and we realized at one point that all of us were watching House and Garden TV. That’s what has happened! We’re all milk and cookies and watching HGTV.”

Hargis: “Now the drugs we discuss is usually Tylenol.”

What are you most proud of with the band?

Hargis: “We’re members of the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, and that’s a pretty select group of musicians and entertainers.”

LeMaire: “We’ve got a good body of work that I think we’re all very proud of — and the fact that we want to continue to be creative. I mean, we’re going to play the hits as long as we can play them, but to keep moving forward, like Clint Eastwood said, ‘Don’t let the old man in.’”

Pennington: “We stay very curious. When that stops, I think it’s time to hang it up.”

The people watching you Dec. 30 at The Mint, it will be almost all original material, right? Do you do any covers?

Pennington: “As songwriters, we’ve had hits by other artists, in a lot of different genres. There’s a five-song medley that we do of country artists who have had No. 1 records with songs that we wrote…. It’s a cover of our songs covering them. There’s a Diamond Rio (Beautiful Mess) that Sonny wrote, and he also wrote When She Cries (recorded by) Restless Heart. Les wrote It Ain’t Easy Being Easy (recorded by) Janie Fricke.”

LeMaire: “Of course, he (Pennington) wrote Take Me Down and The Closer You Get for Alabama, those two monsters.”

Hargis: “I think the audience will know (almost) every song we do, either one of our hits or hits our guys have done for other artists.”


(Exile, from left: J.P. Pennington, Steve Goetzman, Marlon Hargis, Les Taylor and Sonny LeMaire)

Let’s hear it for 60 years of Exile!

“Kiss You All Over” promo video

“A Million Miles Later” video

New single “Rough Around the Edges” video

In the spirit of Christmas: Exile’s holiday single Big Rig Santa

Q&A with Exile: See them Dec. 30 at The Mint Event Center - Kentucky Downs