Born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, Tom Scholz, 70, founder of the rock band Boston, spent his childhood playing classical piano and tinkering with anything motorized. He came east to attend MIT, where he graduated with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. He began working as an engineer at Polaroid and taught himself to play guitar, bass and organ. In a basement studio he built himself, he worked with drummer Jim Masdea and singer Brad Delp to create a demo tape that launched Boston. Released in 1976, their self-titled debut album (with hits like “More Than a Feeling”) went on to sell more than 17 million copies. A Grammy nomination, a world tour and five more albums followed. Scholz is also an inventor with nearly three dozen patents to his name, and the DTS Charitable Foundation he established in 1987 to protect animals, combat world hunger and aid the homeless has donated several million dollars to those causes. He lives in a suburb of Boston with his wife, Kim.
Jonathan Soroff: Favorite Boston song of all time?
Tom Scholz: I really love “Higher Power.” I get to do the God voice. And by the way, I can only sing that part in the morning. When I do it on stage, I have to fake a couple of the low notes.
Best sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll story from back in the day? Y’know, I hate to burst that bubble, but I missed that whole phase. I’ve sort of made it my mission to reverse that perception, with minimal success. I certainly enjoyed being on tour in the early days [laughs]. I remember flying on a 727 to the first show where I was going to be a paid musician, thinking, “Holy crap! I can have a drink on the way to work!”
Strangest place where you were going about your own business and suddenly a Boston song came on? My house. At the end of the day, I have to find a half an hour to sit down in front of the TV and vegetize so I can sleep. I was surfing through a bunch of crap on TV, and there was nothing that I even remotely wanted to see. Then I went past South Park, which I hadn’t seen in two or three years, and I stopped. And I got the opening chords of a song, and I go, “Holy crap! This band is good. Wait. That’s me!”
Strangest place you’ve seen the Boston spaceship logo? There have been some pretty unusual body parts it’s shown up on. It usually looks pretty good, though, I have to say.
Were there bands you welcomed comparisons to? There were a few that I was flattered by, but I did think Boston was unique, in that it was strictly my vision of music. Just to step back a minute: When I created the songs and the sound that would turn into Boston back in 1974, ’75, I’d basically given up on any chance of having a career in music. This was my last shot, and it was music exactly the way I wanted to hear it. Brad Delp came in to add vocals, which he did in spectacular style. But the music that ended up being signed by Epic Records in 1976 was music the way I wanted to hear it, and I didn’t think there would necessarily be 10 other people in the universe who wanted to hear it. I didn’t expect it to sell any records. In fact, I went back to work at Polaroid as soon as I finished making that record. So the whole experience has been one of shock.
You’re the most meticulous and exacting rock band, but you made it look so easy. How? I drive myself crazy. It’s like freestyle skating. The objective is to do things that are impossible and make it look like you’re not breaking a sweat. It’s the same approach with my music. It’s friggin’ impossible to play. So we rehearse and make sure we cover all the things that people expect to hear and then add some new stuff they haven’t heard. It’s really demanding. Backstage, there’s no partying or people talking or hanging out. Everybody is warming up, going through these musical calisthenics so they can go onstage and make it look easy.
Do you prefer creating an album or performing live? Performing live is instant gratification and an incredible kick. It always was the motivating reason for writing songs and recording music. I never got into music because I wanted to be sequestered alone in a studio. My goal was to be a performing musician. Not a rock star. Just a guy in a band.
One concert or gig that stands out to you as the best? After doing it for 40 years there were so many, but I’d say maybe it was a toss-up between the Worcester Centrum, where we were the house band for 11 days back in 1987, or the Quebec City festival we played in 2015. I swear the entire city was there.
Do you prefer playing huge stadiums or clubs? Stadiums are too big. We’ve played a bunch of them. You’re so far away, and the echo’s so long, you’re listening to the song you played just before. I have to say small arenas are pretty good places to play these days. I kinda rate things by what gives the best sound for the audience. The whole objective is to deliver the absolute primo experience of listening to music, and so I like those small arenas. Even if the acoustics aren’t that great, the size creates a good ambiance. And again, I’d come back to the Worcester Centrum as one of my favorite places.
So do you still play classical piano? Only when nobody’s listening. I’ve gotten really bad at it now.
How do you feel that your classical training informed your music? First of all, I got that ingrained muscle memory that makes it so easy for me to play keyboards. In comparison, I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 20. I can not touch a keyboard for six months and step up to it and play it without even warming up. Guitar? It takes me 30 minutes just to be able to put a few notes together without sounding like a beginner. The other thing is that as a kid, I would listen to a lot of classical music. I’d blast Beethoven or Rachmaninoff. So I have all this classical music in my mind and was always heavily influenced by it when creating a melody.
Are you still a tinkerer? Right now, I’m sitting in my favorite spot: on the floor of what I’ll grandiosely call my recreation room/laboratory. What it really is is a huge pile of junk. I have crap all over the place. I’m staring at the interior of an Echoplex that’s been very resistant to me trying to solve a problem with the output level.
Are you the only rock icon with two degrees from MIT? I don’t know of any others. But MIT was full of really talented musical people. There were some amazing musicians there. The talent there is phenomenal.
What do you think is the current state of rock ’n’ roll? Really abysmal. I’m not impressed. It’s taken a dramatic downturn and I won’t go into all the reasons, but it can be traced primarily to the invention of very poor digital distribution. Here’s an observation you didn’t ask for: When I was in school, college kids were at the forefront of super high-quality sound. They were buying kits and building really great equipment. Everyone was obsessed with really excellent audio quality. Within the last 10 years, college kids embraced the most hideous-sounding means of audio distribution, MP3 files. I wish I’d never heard the term. Combined with the internet, I think it actually damaged people’s ability to enjoy music.
Can you name three current bands you listen to and respect? That’s presupposing I can name three current bands.
Beatles or Stones? Neither one. I was not in the mod category. I was on the edgier side. I liked the Kinks. The Yardbirds. The Animals. Steppenwolf. The Stones wrote some great songs, and I respect Mick Jagger. He’s a very smart guy, but that’s about it.
Person you want to collaborate with? There are many, but I’m so hard to work with, I wouldn’t even try it.
Weirdest fan encounter? That would be too scary to relay over the phone. Of course, after 40 years, there have been a few. But on the other side of that coin, there have been some incredible stories. People who decided to go back to school or into rehab because of something I wrote.
Favorite use of a Boston song in a soundtrack? I enjoy them all, and I hate to say it, but I think it was Madagascar 2 [laughs].
Where do you keep all the platinum records and all that stuff? Primarily in the bathroom on the first floor.
Do you think there should be a mandatory retirement age for rock bands? Yeah, and I passed it like 10 years ago.
The last time I saw the Stones, I was like, “This show should be sponsored by Depends and denture grip.” It’s true. [Laughs] But I’m on a mission to do two things at my age: mount a kickass tour and land a double toe-loop.