Kiefer Sutherland: “The Truth Is I’m Not Jack Bauer…”

kiefer sutherland
kiefer sutherland

Photo Credit: Beth Elliot

With over 30 years’ experience and more than 70 film and television credits, Kiefer Sutherland has become arguably one of the most recognizable actors of our generation.

Known for his roles in films like Stand By Me, The Lost Boys, Flatliners, as Jack Bauer in the lead role on FOX’s 24 franchise and now as President Kirkman in ABC’s hit Designated Survivor, it would be difficult to believe that such an accomplished star would still experience stage fright. But that’s exactly what Kiefer Sutherland experienced last year as he stepped onto the stage for the first time and premiered tracks from his debut music album, Down In A Hole.

Recently, in preparation for his upcoming 2017 US and European tour, Kiefer Sutherland sat down for a telephone press conference with multiple news outlets from across the globe to discuss his fears, his upcoming tour and the inspirations behind his debut album. AltWire was there in attendance, and below are some memorable moments from the press conference.

[Editor’s Note: The quotes shown below have been condensed down and edited for clarity from much longer responses. The artist’s original meaning and intent have not been altered]

On how being an actor prepared him for his music career:

Kiefer Sutherland: I thought I was going to be able to use thirty years of working as an actor and that certainly that was going to help me on stage, but I was wrong. The one component that I left out was that for thirty years I’ve been able to work as an actor and have a character, but when I go on stage with the music the songs are very personal and they’re mine.

I leave myself in a more open position than I think maybe I ever have before. So they ended up being incredibly different for me and it’s almost impossible to compare them except for the fact that in most circumstances I’m telling stories.

On why he decided to tour:

Kiefer Sutherland: We played 75 to 85 dates last year and it became one of the most exciting things that I ever had an opportunity to do. As I intimated earlier, it required opening up in a way that I haven’t done before, and by that I mean in the context of explaining where I was when I wrote ‘this’ song, and that between the audience and I, we may have this one thing in common. I just enjoyed it immensely.

Certainly, at the beginning, I doubt that anything probably ever made me that scared in the first few shows, and by that I mean maybe twenty! For a variety of reasons, it ended up becoming a whole new way to partake in telling a story about something. And that really is the driving force of what excites me about working as an actor as well.

There was something about the excitement and the newness of it, and really in some ways, it’s transferred over into the acting as well. I think I approached Designated Survivor with maybe a more open sensibility than I have before. It kind of re-energized me in a creative way.

On what he’s learned about himself being on the road:

Kiefer Sutherland: I think the biggest thing is that I won’t quit. The first few shows it was not easy, and I had to force myself to get out there and do it. I was very nervous and I did not know what the outcome was going to be, but I pushed through it and that’s something that I have done all my life.

I got to a place where I really enjoyed it, and I can’t say enough about the audiences that we got to play to over the last year and a half… I guess the thing I learned about myself the most was: that if I task myself with something, I’m going to follow it through, for better or for worse.

On playing Stagecoach / The Great American Music Hall:

Kiefer Sutherland: I live in Los Angeles and we would play everywhere but Los Angeles… we would play south of here. This is where for me it started and I cannot say how generous, kind, and supportive the audiences have been.. With regards to playing something like Stagecoach, we were just so thrilled to have been invited! 

When you take a look at the acts that are on the list, to have been given an opportunity to play for an hour or 45 minutes is just a real privilege. So for that kind of thing, we’re just grateful for the opportunity to play something like a little bar or the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. That gets to be a really, really special thing because those are much more intimate experiences.

The thing that I’ve enjoyed about our shows the most is that at the end of the show, whatever preconceived notions that I might have had about an audience, or whatever preconceived notions they may have had about me, hopefully at the end of it we start to realize that we have a whole lot more in common than you would normally think. I think that shared experience has been amazing certainly from my perspective, and again that started in California, and we will always be grateful for that.

On playing a character on screen VS portraying himself in his music: 

Kiefer Sutherland: I’ve spent a lifetime playing characters…. When I started writing a lot more, the things I would draw on were the personal experiences I had gone through like anybody else. They were kind of general things: loss of love, finding love – I unfortunately over the course of my life have lost some really good friends way too early, so I would write about that, it just became the easiest thing.

I think the only song on the record that is really not a personal story is a song called ‘Shirley Jean’ which is about a man’s last night before his execution in prison.  But everything else it was just what was in front of me and maybe I wasn’t or am not evolved enough as a writer to spend a lot of time trying to craft a story when I never kept a diary in my life and this ended up maybe becoming that for me.

That was the thing I wasn’t expecting. I figured that with thirty years of being on stage or in front of the camera, I would be able to go out and figure out how to perform and that would be that. But all of a sudden when I would start to say “I was in this place when I was writing this song and this was what I was writing about…” I was talking about my life.

I put myself in a position to open up maybe in a way that I wasn’t prepared for, and that took a little bit of an adjustment. I have to say when I finally did, and came clean that “this song is about this” etc, that it was a really freeing experience for me and I think that’s part of why I enjoy doing this as much as I do.

On his influences on Down in a Hole:

Kiefer Sutherland: Well, gosh, I’d have to go all the way back! Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Even though the production of a lot of their music was really big, the lyrics were really intimate. That’s what I was starting to listen to when I was 8 or 9 years old. Tom Petty is probably my favorite American artist.

I don’t think he’s ever written a bad lyric and if you listen to his records there’s an incredible amount of diversity, where he can go from a real rock song to a country-feeling song, to very bluesy stuff as well. I would never put myself in the same sentence as those people but they’re certainly people that I have listened to over the years that have really, really inspired me.

If we could ever get a sound that kind of warm and sophisticated, well that’s something I’d give my hind teeth for. It really crosses a wide spectrum. When I think of writing I think of Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. They told really linear stories and I think that’s my attraction to country music.

On how he manages coming down from hectic shooting schedules:

Kiefer Sutherland: During the course of doing 24 it was a very intense schedule, and I did it for nine years. You end up living in your trailer for the most part, and you’re there for 16 to 17 hours a day… I would play guitar a lot and I would write songs – I found it to be incredibly relaxing. It was also quite cathartic because I was writing about things from my own personal life that I hadn’t resolved, dealt with, or put in their proper place. I think songwriting helped me with that a great deal.

kiefer sutherland“I think all of the songs were poignant moments in my life where I had to figure out something in order to move forward, and writing these songs were very helpful for me for that…”

On living a public life, and fears of opening himself up to the world in his lyrics: 

Kiefer Sutherland: I’m certainly aware of the stigma of an actor doing music, but I probably wasn’t smart enough to realize the potential position that I was putting myself in until I actually got on stage. Regardless of the fact that you may think I’ve lived a public life (I have), I’ve always managed to know that a lot of stuff that is said is simply not true and I would know the truths simply for myself.

When I start explaining the truth in the middle of a concert I feel really exposed – I remember it making me feel very guarded and uncomfortable at first. I think it was a show in Ann Arbor and maybe it was because the audience was sitting down and thus a little more quiet, I just ended up having more of a conversation with this audience in the middle of these songs.

And it was one of the most freeing and enjoyable experiences that I’ve ever had. It was kind of having to push to a point and then you either have to break through that barrier or you don’t, and lucky for me I did.

You can never control what the press is going to say or not say, but I do think you have some control in the context of a show and for the people who have chosen to come to that show.

That experience, I have to be honest, has been one of the greatest experiences of my life – to be able to tell stories in 3 or 4 minutes and point out that if there’s anyone in the audience who has lost someone they loved way too early in life, it is a shared experience… or that if you’ve had your heart broken in this fashion at a really young age then we have that in common… that for me is a really special experience.

On which personal moments fueled the lyrics on this album:

Kiefer Sutherland: There was a lot of stuff in my forties that I was trying to come to terms with, and stuff that I maybe had not dealt with even from my early twenties. There’s one song on the record called ‘Calling Out Your Name’ which was about a personal breakup… it was the first time in my life that my heart really got broken.

Over time you realize how young you were and how young the other person was, and I guess I was just trying to put it to rest and it ended up coming out in that song. I realized looking back that there were so many factors, but going to write that song actually forced me to look at it in a different way, and put that experience to bed if you will. I think all of the songs were poignant moments in my life where I had to figure out something in order to move forward, and writing these songs were very helpful for me for that.

On writing new material: 

Kiefer Sutherland: We’re quite well into the second record! [Laughs] Whenever I stop writing about a personal experience of mine, I start writing about personal experiences of my family. So I don’t know how appreciative they’re going to be of that! But I’ve got about five or six songs that we kind of have bed tracks for, we’ll finish this tour and I’ll go back to Toronto to start filming Designated Survivor again, and then maybe in Illinois we’ll start finishing up the record – hopefully it will be ready by the spring of next year.

On what introduced him to Country Music in the 90’s:

Kiefer Sutherland: I was rodeo-ing, I bought into calf roping and team roping, and I would tour California, New Mexico, West Texas, sometimes into Utah… I would travel with two cowboys: a guy named John English and another guy named Steve. And we would haul all of our horses together from one roping to another, and country music was on the radio. 

That was really my first exposure to it in a heavy way, as we were driving sometimes six, seven or eight hours a day. So I was listening to it all the time and that’s when I really started to get into Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Weylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. The reason those people stood out to me was just their songwriting. They told linear stories that were had a simplicity to them and they were so direct and it just became a style of writing that I really respected and really understood.

I really believe very strongly that one of the great things about a great novel or a great film or a great song is that whatever you might be going through in your life, you realize that you’re not the only one going through it. There’s some real comfort in that. And country music, from a lyrical point, has been my strongest kind of identity towards that than in any other genre.

On whether being a musician gives him a more personal connection with his audience than acting:

Kiefer Sutherland: I think that goes both ways. To be able to put a face to the numbers of people who watched 24 and hear how much they liked that kind of experience is one thing… but the truth is, I’m not Jack Bauer. So I think on some level that might be disappointing to them. But over the hour and a half that we play, I feel like we get to have a real conversation and at the end of it I feel it’s a much more honest relationship. Hopefully at the end of the show, whatever that connection was before is much stronger and much more honest.

On composing for soundtracks:

Kiefer Sutherland: I probably wouldn’t do it for something that I was involved in, but oddly enough, with the whole making of a record I didn’t sit down and say ‘oh my gosh, I want to make a record’. I had written some songs that I really liked and I took them to my friend Jude Cole, and all I wanted to do was record them and see if another artist would be interested in doing them. At that point certainly if there was a film or a show that would’ve liked to have done that, I would’ve been thrilled… I would always be open to something like that!

On his musical evolution throughout the years:

Kiefer Sutherland: Well, it’s different. My evolution as a listener would be that I now listen to a great many more genres of music than I did. When I come home at the end of a day or when I’m making dinner I’m not going to play the same records over and over, which I certainly would have done in my twenties.

As a writer and as a player… I’m excited that I feel I’ve got so much to learn, and I think one of the interesting things for me after seventy some odd films and 216 hours of 24 and other series as well, I feel I’ve accumulated a lot of information, that I feel very confident – and I don’t want to say settled – as an actor, but I’ve seen a lot and I really do have a process that I feel is quite evolved.

Musically, everything feels really fresh and new and exciting. I feel I’m an evolved listener, but as a writer and a performer I feel I’ve just gotten started and I have so much to learn, and that is a really exciting prospect for me.

On balancing the workload between acting and music:

Kiefer Sutherland: The experience of playing live shows and touring ended up being the thing I loved the most. And you have to understand I really loved writing and making the record. But touring it kind of woke something up in me.

If something matters to you, you just figure out a way to do it. I’m sure I’ve taken a couple of years off of my life because I haven’t taken a break , but right now this is exactly what I want to be doing. So you just figure out how to do it, and it’s hard to explain but I just feel so lucky to have this opportunity. The last thing I’m going to do is complain about the hours.

Kiefer Sutherland’s Down In A Hole is out now via Iron Works/Warner Brothers Records. For a listing of tour dates and when Kiefer will be in your area, check out his official website here.

Kiefer Sutherland – “Not Enough Whiskey”:

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