Exclusive Interview: Donovan Leitch on ‘Breaking Band’

Donovan Leitch and Sebastian Bach in Breaking Band

The new music reality series Breaking Band pairs up and coming artists with famous musicians to be their mentors for a day. The new artists include YouTube sensation Andy Case and Finnish rock band Santa Cruz, who get to meet Dave Navarro and Sebastian Bach respectively, spending a day learning tips and ultimately getting to jam.

Breaking Band is produced and hosted by Donovan Leitch. I got to speak with Leitch when AXS had a reception for the Television Critics Association. Breaking Band airs Sundays at 9:30pm on AXS.

Donovan Leitch Interview:

Have shows like American Idol and The Voice made artists more aware of the value of television for cultivating new talent?

Donovan Leitch: “Oh yeah, 100%. Idol and The Voice pretty much changed the music industry completely, and shows like Britain’s Got Talent, X-Factor, One Direction. That’s the new way to break stars today. You still have your traditional ‘go out there, hit the road, our, make a record’ but it’s a very, very difficult, tough road. Exposure is everything so it’s important to get out there and that’s really one of the aspects of this show as well. How to get these YouTube stars with millions of views on their YouTube channels but have never been on television before. It’s a totally different animal and they have to learn. Who better to learn from than people like Sebastian Bach and Dave Navarro and Belinda Carlisle who’ve been doing it for 20, 30 years and can really impart that knowledge onto these young artists.”

The two episodes I’ve seen went well for the artists. What does an episode of Breaking Band look like when it goes badly?

Donovan Leitch: “Every episode had its own drama in it because we shoot over the course of one day. These artists have to learn a song, perform a song. Robin Zander in Cheap Trick played with this band called Set the Charge. When we introduced the song to them, which was ‘Ballroom Blitz,’ kind of a pretty iconic rock song, the band didn’t know the song. I was like, ‘What do you mean you’ve never heard ‘Ballroom Blitz?’ They play it in every single arena.’ Never heard it before so we had to watch them fumble their way through it. At first Robin Zander was pretty nervous about the whole thing. ‘I don’t know if I want to get up there and play with these guys.’ Whether he ends up making it up there or not, it’s almost not the most important part of the show, because at the end of the day there’s such a camaraderie between these two different artists, that all our mentors didn’t want to let the bands down. The only way that I would see a trainwreck happening is if the band literally couldn’t play the song, didn’t know the chords, literally couldn’t play the song. Then you’d have a situation where the mentor would not get on stage.”

I think it’s important to show the day to day troubles you can have in any field. In the Dave Navarro episode, someone should have cleared the song they were planning to sing. But since that wasn’t done, they still had to perform so it was a problem to solve.

Donovan Leitch: “It was a true crisis. We as filmmakers, because my background as a filmmaker is documentary so we just said, ‘Let’s film everything and we’ll just see what happens.’ We ended up getting a song, ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ by The Cure. Again, Andy Case, the artist, was totally unfamiliar with the song. Navarro was kind of pissed off. ‘I came here to have a good time.’ Dave said to me afterwards, ‘You know what? This is exactly what happens. If you’re doing a taping of let’s say The Jimmy Kimmel Show and a song suddenly hasn’t been cleared, what do you do?’ You face those challenges every day in the business.”

What I’m getting at is even when someone else doesn’t do their job, you still have a show to do. Now it’s on you to fix it.

Donovan Leitch: “That’s right, and the show must go on. I think there’s a lot of good inherent drama in each episode. Some episodes go really easy and some episodes are not as easy. I’m a huge fan of The Voice and Idol and all those kind of shows. It’s not really how the music business works. We wanted to show realistically what happens in a day in the life of a band. The mentors can impart their stories.

My favorite story that I heard was Belinda Carlisle from The Go Gos. One of the girls in this band Sick of Sarah asked her, ‘What was your first live TV performance like?’ She said, ‘Ugh, it was on Saturday Night Live. We get to New York. This is huge for us. Go into the dressing room, there’s a big bottle of vodka sitting there. This is before soundcheck and we were nervous. Nobody told us to leave the vodka alone. I ended up drinking half a bottle of vodka and I don’t even remember the performance. My first time on national television on Saturday Night Live and it’s a total blur. It was unprofessional. We didn’t sound great. My big lesson coming out of that was don’t ever drink before you do live television.’ The girls are sitting there. It just so happened there was a bottle of booze in their dressing room and I think there’s a shot of the bottle of booze.”

I think even the Idol and Voice winners realize it’s still not as easy as you win a 12 week competition and then your album comes out.

Donovan Leitch: “I really commend the people that are contestants on that show. It is incredibly, incredibly hard work. They have to sequester themselves and be pulled away from their friends. In many ways, even though it’s a very short amount of time that you’re shooting those shows, the pressure and the intensity is just unbelievable. We’re sort of capturing a photograph of what these bands’ life is like. Life on the road, what the personalities are, how they vibe with one another, what their hopes and dreams are. We really set up a lot of questions for the bands so you really get to know the band. Everything they’re doing just by being on the show, they’re on TV so it really is their first time on television. Then at the end, there’s that payoff of they actually have to perform with one of their mentors.”

What have you learned from the mentor artists that make you reflect differently on your music days?

Donovan Leitch: “I really respect that these guys have been doing it, Dave Navarro’s probably been in Jane’s Addiction 25 plus years. He still has to wake up every day and just deal with crap. It’s tough being in a band for that long. It’s tough dealing with the same people. It’s like a marriage. They still gotta get up every day. You can make more money. You can fly first class, stay in nicer hotels but essentially it’s the same brutal, vicious schedule that you have to be on to stay relevant and to be a rock star. They learn. You slow down a little.

I think another key too is a lot of young artists come into this and they jump in 100% and burn out. You do have to figure out how to pace yourself. That can only really come from experience and falling on your face a bunch of times which is also what Breaking Band [is about]. How do we break out? To me, the most interesting aspect of the show is you’ve got these YouTube artists who, in most cases, have more social media views than the rock stars do. Sebastian’s sitting there with a band, ‘My first question is: how do you get 40 million views on your YouTube channel? How do you do that? I don’t even have a Twitter account.’ Robin Zander doesn’t even have a Twitter account, so he’s learning off of them as much as they’re learning off of him which is, I think, a really neat part of the show.”

How could your own bands have benefited from a Breaking Band back in the day?

Donovan Leitch: “I think just the opportunity to be on television and to show your band’s personality. Rock bands, pop bands, rap groups, whatever, they’re a dime a dozen. There’s hundreds of them out there. But if you had 22 minutes on AXS TV to basically present your band. The music is important but it’s also the personality and all of that. If I had had that opportunity to go on television and present my band, I would’ve jumped in right away to do it because that’s rare, that you get to do that. AXS TV is great. They’re totally behind this. I think it’s the perfect channel to be on. Hopefully we get a lot of reruns and they pick up our show.”

With music in your family, was there ever any chance you would not be involved in music in some way?

Donovan Leitch: “The reason that I’m the executive producer on this show and I created it with my partner is that I love producing. I love creating. I work for a company called Insurgent Media. It’s a TV and film production company so I’m always developing ideas. I really love nonscripted television and docuseries because I love documentaries. Because of The Jinx and Making a Murderer, it seems like a time where people really want to see, life is stranger than fiction and there are so many interesting stories out there. How do you serialize it and how do you format it? That’s really exciting. I feel I get to do all that behind the scenes development stuff. It was only by accident that I ended up hosting this show.”

And you’re not in it that much.

Donovan Leitch: “I’m not in it much but we needed somebody. We were filming and we were like, ‘You know, we should probably have somebody that’s the promoter or meeting the brand band.’ I said I guess I’ll just do it until we figure it out and that just ended up that’s what it was. It was a necessity.”

As far as music being in your family, was Breaking Band a perfect fit?

Donovan Leitch: “It was a good fit, definitely. I know a lot of these guys. We play music together and all the mentors on the show were personal phone calls that I made to personal friends. They all said yes. What’s great is now that we have six really strong episodes under our belt that I can hopefully expand it and go out there and get more people.”

How do you know Dave, Belinda and Sebastian?

Donovan Leitch: “I know Dave Navarro since we both grew up in L.A. together, so since the very, very early days of Jane’s Addiction. Belinda Carlisle also an old L.A. native. I grew up in Los Angeles so I started doing music early and hanging out in the Hollywood crowd and scene. They were just around and now I’m proud to call them friends all these years later.”