Applying their signature horn accents to the classics of the season, the band Chicago has compiled every holiday song they've ever recorded – 34 of them, including Winter Wonderland, White Christmas and Jingle Bells – into a double-disc release called Ultimate Christmas Collection, available in stores and online.
USA TODAY caught up with Jimmy Pankow (trombone) and Lee Loughnane (trumpet, flugelhorn, vocals), two founding members of the band, to discuss their latest release, life on the road, holidays with their families, and the surprise of 45 years of success.
Q. What is it about the Christmas genre that speaks to you?
Pankow: It's a special time of year. We're blessed with the opportunity to arrange these songs in a way in which we've been affected creatively. Not unlike Mannheim Steamroller, we personalize the song with our sound; we change the tempo and introduce instrumental departures, but the songs remain intact.
To be able to record songs that we grew up with in our way and share them is really a fun thing.
Q. When did you first record some of the singles?
Pankow: We were in the studio in L.A. in March 1998. It was 90 degrees out, the palm trees were swaying and we made the studio into the North Pole: Christmas lights, Christmas trees, fake snow – the whole nine yards. People were stopping by – engineers, executives, artists – to absorb some of the North Pole vibe.
Q. Do you have a favorite single off the album?
Pankow: All of the writers grabbed songs they were particularly fond of and brought them to life musically in the arrangements.
Q. What Christmas albums do you listen to?
Pankow: I'm an old-fashioned guy. Bing Crosby's I'll Be Home for Christmas, Nat King Cole's Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire (actual title The Christmas Song) are favorites.
These songs have become a part of people's lives. The work is already done. For us to be able to jump on a song that's already embraced and do our own thing with that is really cool.
Q. How has your fan base changed since the founding days?
Loughnane: It's expanded. When we started, we had the teens and 20-somethings. As our core audience has grown up, they've gotten married and brought their kids to the show. Then they've grown up and (chuckling) brought their kids to the show. Young kids, not even 10 years old yet, are in the front row singing our lyrics. Their parents and grandparents are standing behind them.
We've brought forward songs that struck an emotion in people, regardless of their age.
Pankow: We certainly don't take success for granted. In fact, we scratch our heads at the fact that our music's become a universal thing. Even in countries where English isn't the language, they're singing the songs. They may not know what it means but they know the words phonetically and they're singing louder than the band.
Loughane: During our Asia tour, every audience was singing our songs.
Pankow: Can you imagine how it feels to be standing on stage, hearing an audience sing as loudly as you are? Swaying and lighting their lighters. It's just magical; it's really awesome. We're living the dream.
Loughnane: It's not necessarily the American dream, it's the musical dream.
Pankow: Every artist would dream of this. Give that to One Direction, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry; let them have their time and enjoy it. But to still be doing this today …
Loughnane: For us to have songs that are playing, that people refer to as standards, we could have never guessed that that would happen.
Pankow: It's really something when you hear your music in the bathroom at the airport, or at Home Depot, or at the dentist. My wife will go to the grocery store and hear our music and she'll say, "everywhere I go I hear that damn music." I tell her, "be grateful, that puts food on the table."
Loughnane: You don't get used to it. I feel very fortunate to be a part of it.
Q. How do you manage staying true to the Chicago sound while incorporating new bandmembers?
Pankow: It's about what each guy brings to the table. A song doesn't come to life until each guy brings something to it and that's when it becomes a Chicago song. We encourage everybody to flourish on their own level as long as the principle focus always remains this band. Chicago is the nuts and bolts of why we've been able to enjoy a career for so many years. If these individual agendas become all-important and override the band, then we have to sit down and talk about it.
Loughnane: It's never been work for us. I've never felt like I've had to look for a job. I warmed up for this interview by playing because I feel different when I do.
Pankow: It's a cure-all. It's not only individually therapeutic, but it's the catharsis of doing something that you then share with others. They call it playing music, not working music. That's what makes living out of a suitcase worth it.
Q. Do you tour with your families?
Loughnane: I met my wife 12 years ago. She loved traveling until she came out on the road with me, since there's no staying overnight and sightseeing the next day. She picks her moments to come out and see the show.
Pankow: If we're in New York, it's nice for our families. But 25 cities in 40 days is not a joyride. We come home after 7 months of slamming it out and the wives and kids wanna go on vacation and we want to sit on our butts. But those family trips are fun because they're leisurely.
Q. What are your favorite holiday traditions?
Pankow: (laughs) Putting charcoal in my kids' stocking. I'm kidding.
I sit in the big chair and read The Night Before Christmas and the kids drink hot cocoa. A lot of people think that's corny but I don't care. It's the stuff that I did when I was little and I want to maintain that.
My 10-year-old daughter is starting to ask questions about Santa. She may know that he doesn't exist but she's going to apparently allow me to be Santa. Her mother and I will enjoy this last time. You try and preserve it, because that's the magic. On the other side is the celebration of the birth of baby Jesus and on that level it's even more meaningful. You go to church on Christmas Day and say "happy birthday, baby Jesus" and a lot of people have forgone that but we try to embrace that because that's the goodness we strive for. It's all of the above. And the music celebrates all of that.
Q. What's the most memorable fan gift you've gotten?
Pankow: Walt (Parazaider, founding member of Chicago) wears crazy socks with designs of martini glasses, cards and dice. Now, every holiday, fans send him weird socks. That's about the only regular gift occurrence. Usually it's harmless mementos – a picture, a card during the years.
Loughnane: It's really cool to have so many people come up and say they enjoyed their time with us. So many times you hear about artists not being nice with their fans, and fans remember that.
Q. What's behind your success?
Pankow: There's no smoke and mirrors; it's talent. When we're on stage, people can tell how much fun we're having. We bring the crowd in. It's a communal thing, it's a give and take. People walk away fully entertained.
Loughnane: I want people to say when they leave a show, "man, they sound good." And in order to do that, you have to put the horn to your face because these songs don't get any easier. You have to put the time in.
Pankow: People ask "how do you play Saturday in the Park every night and enjoy it?" It's a different crowd every night. Usually, there is someone there who's never seen us. We try and do the show the best we can do it every night, and if you're focused on playing the music as good as it can be played that night, you're too busy to be bored.
People say, "we grew up with your music" and we say, "so did we." I was 20 years old for God's sake, and now I'm on Medicare!
Q. What's next?
Pankow: The songwriting process continues. Although the record industry is gone, music is alive and well. Now we have the joy of writing whatever we want to write and making it available to our fans instantly on the web. So we are the record company of note now.
There's always more that you don't know and the music continues to evolve. We'll never be satisfied to rest completely on the laurels of what we have done. As we evolve as people and our perspectives deepen, so does the music.