Keifer Sutherland | Six Strings No Trigger
Kiefer Sutherland has a new record coming out. it’s called Reckless and Me. It’s his second, a follow-up to 2016’s Down in a Hole. Prior to working on this story, I didn’t know Kiefer Sutherland had a second album coming out. I, if I’m being honest, didn’t know Kiefer Sutherland had a first album either. When I was first asked to interview the 52-year-old, I assumed it had to do with a new film or his show Designated Survivor, whose third season is soon to be released on Netflix.
Kiefer Sutherland knows that’s probably your reaction too, and it doesn’t bother him one bit. He’s doing what he loves. He’s staring down his past. He’s staying busy. And though he’s admirably open, honest, and friendly with me, you can tell he can’t wait to add to the 300-plus shows his band has played around the world over the past few years.
Sutherland smokes as we hang out in the music room of his Los Angeles house, surrounded by drool-worthy vintage guitars and an immaculate Hammond organ. He has a tendency to clutch a pillow to his chest during pauses. There’s an ever-so- slight Canadian lilt to his accent when he talks, particularly in words like “ago” and “so.”
Sutherland’s been playing music his whole life, keeping a guitar with him in his trailer as he grew from teen heartthrob in films like The Lost Boys to starring as Jack Bauer on 24, the role with which most people continue to associate Sutherland. “Especially on a set,” he tells me, “a guitar’s a companion. There’s so much downtime. Some people write diaries, some people play cards, I always played guitar.”
It wasn’t until his mid-thirties that he started taking it seriously, writing his own songs, and picking up tricks from the songwriters at Ironworks, the label he started with long-time friend and musician, Jude Cole. He put together a set of songs he hoped he could send to labels for other artists to record. Cole told him he should record them himself. Sutherland demurred.
“I said absolutely not. I was completely aware of the stigma of an actor doing music. I didn’t want to go there,” Sutherland laughs. “Fortunately, Jude knew me well enough. He said, ‘Okay I get that,’ and we went to a bar and after about three or four drinks it sounded like a better idea.” They recorded a few that Sutherland was proud of. “When they were finished, I had my ‘come to Jesus’ moment. I just really liked them. I realized I was at a place in my life where if everybody made fun of them, there was nothing I could do about that. I had a moment where I knew I could stand behind them.”
Reckless and Me, out late April, is better than you might think. Better than I thought it would be, certainly. You can hear his love for Tom Petty in the chord progressions and his love for Merle Haggard in the lyrics. He’s quick to modesty. “Out of all the genres of music that I know, Country is the most direct. But there are some people who can put together an idea or a thought so eloquently, and I think you have to strive to get to that. Guys like Bob Segar or Tom Petty—they’re quite direct, but there’s some poetry in their phrasing that I aspire to graduate to one day. I don’t personally believe that I’m there.” He ravishes over a Paul Simon verse he’d listened to earlier in the day. “If I wrote those three or four lines,” he says, “I’d quit.” As a songwriter Sutherland sticks to the personal—true stories about himself, people he knew, people he lost. If you didn’t guess from the albums’ titles, these are songs in the grand country music tradition, typically about a cocktail of bad decisions, heartbreak, drunken regrets, and grieving.
“When I started writing the first record, it was all about the stuff I either wish I had done better or the better things I wish had happened for some of my friends,” he says. “You never sit down at dinner and talk with friends about how fucking great everything is.” Compared to the first album, Down in a Hole, there’s a more topical diversity on Reckless and Me, and a greater sense of optimism, which Sutherland credits to his collaboration with Cole. “Jude’s been a professional, consummate singer- songwriter for 30 years. He’s writing about much more abstract stuff that’s not connected to him, more observations about other people. I took some songs that he was working on or got to a place he was stuck with. Then I would finish it. I was more collaborative on this record than I was the first. So it has more shades to it.”
When I tell Sutherland I notice he’s chosen art forms defined by collaboration, he readily agrees. “I’ve never done a one man show. The experience of doing 24 was so profound for me, because it just went on and on and on. It was the first time that I felt like I was on a team, because films are too short to develop that. It makes it a lot easier if you know that about yourself. You’re inviting people in instead of fighting people off who want to help. It’s very lucky that I’m at the age that I’m at now. I don’t know if I would have had the wisdom or maturity to do that in my twenties.”
Sutherland’s voice came honestly by its bourbon and nicotine-drenched scruff. He has an admittedly limited range, better on the snarls and the quieter moments than the anthemic choruses. But, unsurprisingly for someone with his background, he conveys emotion easily and earnestly. Produced by Cole, the backing tracks’ engineering is bright and spare roots-rock, leaving room in the middle of the mix for Sutherland’s vocals. The album is engineered to sound like the band does live, which is exactly the point. “As much as I loved making the record, it was the touring that I really love,” he says. “The whole record was informed by what I really wished I had in my set—more up- tempo numbers, a couple of other holes.”
I ask him how he’d sell someone on seeing a Sutherland Concert. He’s blunt in response. “Come on out and have a drink and I’ll tell you some stories and play you some songs. It’s not complicated.” He admits he was nervous when they started touring, sharing stories about himself that he’d protected for years. “I thought mistakenly that my 30-plus years of acting on stage and in front of a camera would somehow give me an edge in what I do on stage as a musician. It didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t have a character between me and the audience.”
The response he’s received from this unmediated connection with the audience has been transformative. He tells me about a woman he met after a show, who told him that hearing “Truth in Your Eyes,” a song Sutherland wrote about a friend who died, helped her feel less alone in the wake of her husband’s death. “One of the worst pains in the world is loneliness, a sense that you’re the only person going through something,” he says. “When you sense other people are going through it, it doesn’t take it away, but it makes it more manageable.”
And beyond that, he just loves touring. Playing the actual shows. Hanging out on the bus. Getting dinner and getting drunk with his band. He knows a lot of people are there to see Kiefer Sutherland rather than the Kiefer Sutherland Band. And he figures some of them are probably rooting for him to fail. “There’s something exciting about knowing that a lot of people are coming to watch a car wreck. But man, I’ve got a kind of confidence about what we’re doing. It makes going out there exciting. Instead of leaning back and worrying about what someone might say, we’re leaning in so far the other way now that it makes us laugh.”
Right before I leave, before Sutherland walks me through the guitar collection, I linger on something he said a few times—that he knows he’s the luckiest man alive. It’s not that I don’t believe him, or that I think he’s wrong. Rather, when he says it, you can tell that being the luckiest man alive doesn’t bring Sutherland much joy. When I remark that he must like being busy—working grueling 12-hour days on set and squeezing in world tours on the side—he calmly responds, “Sadly, I’d probably drink myself to death if I wasn’t.” There’s a lot of booze pouring through Sutherland’s songs. “Not Enough Whiskey” was his first single. “I’ve found that if I have too much time off...” he laughs wryly. “Well, let’s just say, I’ve made some poor choices.”
But being lucky does have its advantages. “I get to do the things I really want to do,” he says, pulling on his cigarette. “And as much as I’d like to go play golf for three months—and I really would—I would rather play music with my band.