On the Line with Eric Stuart

Coming straight out of Brooklyn, Eric Stuart has been able to live his dream by getting into the worlds of music, voice acting and directing. He made a massive impact as a voice actor over fifteen years ago when he provided the beloved and classic voices for Brock and James on Pokémon for the first eight seasons. His time as a musician predates that and he’s had some amazing opportunities and experiences like opening for Ringo Starr and collaborating with Peter Frampton. He currently fronts The Eric Stuart Band, who came out with an EP entitled Character earlier this year. We had an enlightening discussion about the worlds of music and Pokémon and what they both mean to him. Learn about his connection with the Ramones, getting the opportunity to open for major acts, his signature look, providing the voices for various Pokémon, why Team Rocket isn’t necessarily evil and much more.

Seeing as though you are a musician and a voice actor, how do you feel one helps the other?

I was a singer long before I was a voice actor. I think that being a singer helps in voice acting in general because inflection is pitch. When you need to stress certain words, you’re actually modulating your pitch. Having a good year for that makes conversation a lot easier when you’re reading a copy off of a script. Someone might say, “Hey, could you go for that word?” Really go for that word means “Can you use your pitch on that word?” So that was helpful. Also with pace, I think that having a sense of rhythm and timing is very helpful when you’re doing commercial copy where someone says, “This is a thirty second commercial and we need you to read it in twenty nine five.” You sort of get a sense of how fast that means. If you’re watching ADR, which is of course matching the lip flap, which I do so much of, seeing the pace of the ADR, the lip flap and being able to match it pretty quickly because of the timing of it. Being a musician and a singer has helped me a lot.

Singers will have vocal warm-ups they do before performances. Is there something you might do prior to a day of voice acting?

I treat my voice like any sort of athlete would warm up and stretch because without my voice, I really can’t do anything that I do for a living. Sometimes I’ll be on panels with fellow actors who say they drink tea and do all these sort of vocal exercises. My main thing is that when I wake up in the morning, my allergies are usually pretty bad. I have a cup of black coffee and I usually don’t do voiceovers before 10:00 in the morning so I can get the cobwebs out. I drink a lot of black coffee, which is not really the greatest thing in the world because caffeine can actually dry you out. I do also drink a lot of water. But I don’t really do a whole lot of serious vocal exercising. I sing in the shower, I do that a lot. I gargle a little bit in the shower too, just to warm things up. I don’t have anything in particular that I do that I would recommend.

As it goes for your concerts, you have shows with a full band and then some acoustic performances, what is your approach for each?

As a songwriter, I sit down and I write solo. I sit with my guitar and that’s how I write a song. What’s nice about the intimacy of an acoustic show is being able to hear the core of where that song came from, stripped down to the melody and the lyric and just the single guy doing it. With the band, the more things you add, the more things that can go wrong, but there’s more dynamic. People can take solos and it’s a challenge of steering the ship. When you’re doing a solo show, you can wing it a little bit more. You can switch the songs around and at the drop of a dime, you can decide that you’re gonna change an arrangement without having to cue anybody else on the stage. I love both dynamics. I love to rock with the band and I love the camaraderie of working with other people like that. It’s a very organic experience to have four or five people working as one. You want to get that magic for the night, but someone might be in a bad mood or a pumped up mood, you’ve gotta get everybody in the same place and that’s a great challenge. Solo stuff is cool too. When I do the conventions, I like to introduce the anime fans to my music. When I do the rock shows, I will make the announcement to the audience about the other thing I do. They think it’s cool that I do both things.

What was it like to grow up around the New York City music scene?

I just got finished recently playing a show at The Bitter End, which is a place that I played when I was in my teens. I’ve gotta say, there’s a big difference of what New York is, in terms of music, compared to what it was when I was growing up. Of course all cities change, rents and leases go up more and more in price and they price people out. That’s when your great rock clubs get replaced with banks and Starbucks. Not that there’s anything wrong with a Starbucks, I need coffee just like everyone else. It was really neat growing up there because we had some great venues like The Bottom Line, The Bitter End, Lion’s Den, CBGB’s, places like that. The Mercury Lounge was a great place I played as a kid. So many great places and so much music going on, you’d walk down the street and say, “One day, I’m gonna play here.” And of course a year later, you’d be playing there because you would develop an audience and people would come out and support the music. It’s changed a lot. It was definitely a very cool place to grow up and play. I snuck into so many clubs when I was underage just to see cool rock bands. The Ramones came out of CBGB’s, that was a cool time.

Did you get to see the Ramones play?

I didn’t get to see them at CBGB’s, but I saw the Ramones when they came to my college in D.C. I went to American University; they came and played a show my freshman year. I got to see them really up close and personal. Strange thing though, I taught tennis during the summers from probably my late teens into my mid-twenties. One of the people I played tennis with was Joey Ramone’s dad, which was kind of funny. I remember meeting him for the first time and he said, “What do you do when you’re not playing tennis?” I was like, “I play rock ‘n roll.” “Ah! So does my son!” Of course, I didn’t know who he was talking about. And he’s like, “But you seem to get up a lot earlier in the day than he does.” (laughs) I thought that was great. Of course I realize he was talking about Joey. I bet he doesn’t leave the house until eight or nine o’clock at night! (laughs)

While developing your music career, you’re opening for these major names. Who did you take the most out of opening for?

I was playing a couple times a month to maybe thirty to fifty people. That was a good-sized crowd for me. My first big opportunity was getting to open for Chicago at PNC Bank Arts Center in New Jersey, which was called The Arts back then. It was about ten, twelve thousand people that night and it was an acoustic show. The reason that that show means so much to me is that before I went on the stage, I said to myself, “Okay, so if you go out there and you freeze up and it’s a horrible experience, then this is not what you’re supposed to be doing. If you go out there and you love it, then this is what you should be doing.” So I went out there and after the first song, the sound of the audience cheering was delayed because it was such a big venue. The last chord and then it’s like a beat, then you hear the fans cheer. I thought it was fantastic because the thrill of live theater and live playing, it’s like a drug. Once you get hooked on it like that, it’s very hard to quit it. That was a huge show for me. And then of course, I got the chance to tour with Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band. I had submitted my music through my management. They didn’t want to tell me what they were submitting it for, but they said, “Listen, we’ve got this interesting project that’s going on and they’re looking for an acoustic opening act. You think you can give us just some guitar/vocal rough demos so that we can send it to somebody?” I was like, “Sure.” And at the time, I didn’t really have anything that wasn’t with my band. I got into my walk-in closet and closed the door. Back in those days, it was cassette players. I stuck a little cassette player on the shelf and recorded four or five songs of me just playing guitar and singing. I sent it to my management and about a week later, they said, “Okay man, you’re gonna be flying off to Seattle next week and they picked you to open for Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band.” So that was very exciting.

These were the people that I grew up listening to. You had Peter Frampton, Jack Bruce from Cream, Gary Brooker from Procol Harum, Simon Kirke from Bad Company, Ringo was there. Classic rock is what I grew up listening to, so this was very exciting for me. I also made sure to do my research. I bought two encyclopedias of rock ‘n roll and I read each chapter that was on each one of the acts that I was gonna be working with. I wanted to also pay respect to them by being knowledgeable about their background, their history and their careers. If I did get a chance to talk to them, I didn’t want to sound like an idiot. And that’s great because that’s exactly what happened, I was able to chat with them. They saw that I really was a fan and wasn’t just some young kid that was on the tour. I paid my respects to my elders every night and finally, that led me to working with Frampton and having him produce me and also touring with him. That was a huge moment for me in my career, getting the opportunity to work with Ringo and those guys.

Did Peter Frampton give you a particular piece of advice or remark that has stuck with you since?

My relationship with Peter is very special. I consider him a dear friend and he is definitely a mentor. He has given me advice on many levels. We talk about personal things and professional things. He is someone who has had such a level of success and traveled through so many parts of this entertainment-crazy world that we live in, the roller coaster ride, the ups and the downs and having a perspective on how to deal with those things. And it all comes from someone who cares; anything that comes from him is priceless. He’s really guided me and I feel like I can talk to him about anything, music wise and personal as well. With where he is in his career now and the success he’s had and the music he’s still making, the fans love him and his live performance is so fantastic, I still learn from him every time I see him. I just saw him play here in Nashville; he was playing a tour with Cheap Trick. The Nashville audience can be a little fickle sometimes since we have so much great music playing every night of the week. But when you see an audience really get into a show, you know that act must be really good. They were really so happy to see him play and so into the show that it just proves me once again that he’s truly a superstar. And a very humble one at that. It’s been an honor to work with him. He produced my first record and we did two tours with him. It was so much fun to play on the road with him, I’d love to do it again.

There are musicians who add something to their look to help them stand out. In your case, I feel as though it’s the hat. What’s the story behind that?

(laughs) I loved baseball caps as a kid, but then towards the end of high school, I bought myself a black leather porkpie hat in the style of Popeye Doyle from The French Connection. I always liked that look. And of course coming from Brooklyn, it sort of fit in with the whole vibe. In my neighborhood, everybody thought I was being like Rocky. However, a fedora is not a porkpie. I’d wear the hat all the time. I’d be running around in the city for voiceover auditions; people would know if I were in the booth auditioning because my hat would be on the rack. So it became pretty much a signature thing. And then when I moved down to Nashville, you can’t really get away with wearing a black leather hat when the summertime is like ninety degrees and humid. I had to find some lighter weight hat that was still kinda cool. I came across this company called Hats In The Belfry. I got a couple of their hats and I liked them. I was wearing them a lot and it’s definitely part of who I am. Now hats are so popular, it’s almost like I gotta stop wearing one because everybody’s wearing one now. I wrote the company and I said, “Listen, I wear your hats all the time. Have you ever thought about endorsing a musician?” At first, they were like, “We didn’t even think about something like that, but that seems like a great idea.” So I actually have a hat endorsement from Hats In The Belfry. I feel like I’m a NASCAR guy; I wear the hats now because they also endorse me to wear the hats. Like any gear that I use or anything that I wear, if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t use it or I wouldn’t wear it. This worked out great. They’re all very similar. People ask if it’s the same one, no, it’s a different one. This is a navy blue one with a dark band, then there’s a black one and then I’ve got another leather one. I try to alternate them around, but they’re all porkpies.

You released an EP this year entitled Character. Can you fill in readers on that?

Not that long ago, we released our last full-length album called Lipstick And Barbed Wire. Peter Frampton plays on that one, which is great. He guest stars on one of the songs. I’d been doing a lot of songwriting since that release, that’s always what happens. You really look at the timeline between writing, recording and then playing live to support an album. By the time that record is done, it could be a year later from when those songs were written. I write, we play them live, we test them out and then we go in the studio and then we go out in support of the record. By the time Lipstick And Barbed Wire came out, we had been playing probably about ten new songs that were not even on any record. And of course, fans say, “Hey, when are you gonna do that song? What is that song gonna be available?” And so I said to the guys, “Look, everybody keeps asking for this one particular song called One Last Dance that we’ve been playing. We should go in and record it.” But since this was pretty much my seventh or eighth, maybe ninth full-recording project, you never go in only recording one song because then you’re putting a lot of pressure on that song. It might come out terrible. What you really need to do is say, “Let’s go in and record three or four songs, throw that one into the mix. We’ll see what happens.” Of course you’re hoping that that single sounds like a single, but just in case it doesn’t, you don’t end up putting that pressure on it.

So we went into do this and I think that One Last Dance came out great. It definitely is a standout single track on that EP. We weren’t ready to do another full-length album, so we did five songs. Four of them are very, very live rockin’ tracks and then the last song is an acoustic track called Tattered and Torn that is going to be used in a soundtrack for a film called Torn. It’s about brain trauma injuries to a soldier that comes home and the lives that are torn apart due to his injuries. And part of the funding goes towards the Wounded Warrior Project. We were honored to be asked to write the theme for that. That song doesn’t necessarily really fit with the other four songs cause they’re pretty rock ‘n roll, but I thought this was too important a song to not include on our next release. And then of course if you look at the cover, you saw that it’s called Character and the cover is a caricature of me and the guys in the band. Where that comes from and this ties into my anime fans is that an anime fan had drawn the badges for the guests at one of the conventions and I loved the style of the art. And so I asked that fan if they’d be willing to draw my next album cover; that’s where that came from. The word character has so many meanings like how you behave, being a character and then of course, I play a cartoon character. (laughs) I thought that made a lot of sense, so that’s really where that little five song EP comes together.

You’ve also had the opportunity to lend your voice to the Pokémon television series. Though you’re best known for being the voice of Brock and James, you also provided the voice for various Pokémon. When they want you to do the voice for one, do they give you a description of how they want it to sound or do you just go with the look and what you think would sound appropriate?

If I was booked to come in and do my Brock and James stuff for Pokémon and they were going to introduce a new Pokémon, let’s say Squirtle, the director would look at the actor’s schedule to come in and play their human roles, they’d say, “Oh look, Eric’s coming in. He probably can sound like Squirtle.” And when I mean sound like them, we would reference the original Japanese. Not that we were speaking Japanese, but we’d listen to the tone and the sounds that the Japanese actors were making to sound like those creatures. Then we say, “Yeah, Eric can make it sound like that so it registers the same as that.” A lot of the high, squeaky ones were given to the women actors who could get up into the higher register. And of course, some of the bigger Pokémon that I do like Blastoise are deeper register things. Certain guys could get down low like that and certain guys can get higher, so it was really based on who it’s coming in. Rarely were you ever to just do a Pokémon. Of course once you became that Pokémon, so like when I became Squirtle, if there was an episode that Brock wasn’t in or James wasn’t in, I’d still be brought in to play Squirtle. So that’s how that happened.

When that show first came together, there were probably six men and four women who worked on the show regularly. So in the beginning, we played everything. It wasn’t like there was a cast of fifteen or twenty people were maybe one guy played five or six Pokémon. I played at least thirty Pokémon in season one. That’s just how that worked. When we listened to the Japanese version, we would go, “Okay, that’s what that sounds like. I can mimic that.” And also, we only use syllables from the names of the Pokémon. We don’t grunt, we don’t scream. I do the Water Gun attack as Squirtle, but the thing that we do is we use the names. The reason we use pieces of the names or the full name of the Pokémon was to teach you each one and what their name was because there were so many. If we were just making noises, you’d go, “Uh…is that Wartortle or Squirtle or Blastoise? Which one is that?” But if I’m saying “Blas-toise!” and I’m doing that all the time, you’re gonna go, “That’s Blastoise!” So it was a way to teach the kids the names of each Pokémon.

But what about those such as Charizard that would roar or something along those lines?

A lot of the Charizard stuff was lifted from the original Japanese. I had played Charizard here and there in some episodes, but a lot of the roars were used because the fire is shooting out for the attack. Pikachu is the original Japanese actor. We would get the music and the effects separate when we’d get the stuff from Japan and every once in a while, they’d mix those together and we couldn’t split them apart. If we couldn’t use the effect that was happening at that one particular placement, so then someone like Rachael Lillis could do a perfect Pikachu. She would impersonate Pikachu in certain spots if we had to do it. But most of the time, I’d say probably eighty five percent of the time, it was the original Japanese actor.

I found it really interesting that a banned episode from season one was dubbed a couple years later and randomly aired during season two. This being Beauty and the Beach, the one that was banned because of the scene with James’s implants.

I remember the banned episode, but I don’t remember dubbing it. It’s interesting because I was also a staff director for ten years as well, so I directed a lot of the shows that I worked on from Yu-Gi-Oh! to Viva Piñata to Yu-Gi-Oh! GX. There’s such a difference between what’s accepted in one culture and what’s accepted in another. Not that one is right and one is wrong, but there’s certain jokes and visuals and things they could get away with in Japan that we couldn’t get away with here. I remember when we first started working with one piece, which I always thought was never a show that should air on network television, especially Saturday morning because it’s too violent. It’s a good show, but it wasn’t right for what we were doing. I remember there was one episode where there was a whole shot of a field of people and they were all being crucified. They were all on crosses. When we got it, we said, “We can’t air this in America! That is just gonna offend too many people.” And we had to turn them into diamonds. They’re still hanging on something, but they’re not hanging on crosses. Now for the Japanese, that wasn’t a big deal. But to the American audience, it was. Subtle things like that. The thing with the breasts was a transgender kind of thing, they thought it was promoting the wrong thing.

That was an American problem. The American networks had a problem with the breasts being shown in a bikini. How many American movies have had men in drag, especially for comedy, in disguise? Mrs. Doubtfire, go back even further, Some Like It Hot with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. There’s Tootsie, which won an Academy Award. There are so many movies where men dressed up like women, especially in disguise. And that’s all that James was doing. But that’s where that all comes from. I do remember the banned episode, but it wasn’t as bad as the one that gave everyone seizures. I think that only aired once. But yes, the breasts were very real. If anyone knows anime, you know that a lot of Japanese culture seems tame and conservative on the surface, but you just go one notch underneath that and so much of the anime is very dirty. It’s very pornographic. I think they snuck a little bit of that into the drawing of James with the breasts. I thought he looked good in the bikini! He’s in great shape! (laughs)

I read that you also provided the voice for Butch. I feel like that’d be a strain on your vocal cords.

I came into do Brock and James and the director says, “Okay, so there’s this other Team Rocket that makes this appearance and we’d like you to play Butch. It’s Butch and Cassidy.” But they’re all talking to each other throughout this episode. I know a lot of the fans don’t know that I’m Brock and James. I pick registers that are so far away from each other and the tone is different. I love when fans come up to me now and go, “Oh, I totally knew you were both Brock and James!” And of course the majority of the fans are like, “I had no idea you were both Brock and James!” But Butch, I had to pick something that was completely different from both of them. I picked my Harvey Fierstein and Selma Diamond voice. Though it sounds like it hurts, it doesn’t really hurt at all. It’s actually pretty easy to do for me. That way, I can have all three of them talking to each other and arguing with each other and also not be distracted by the fact that it was the same actor. The hardest voice I’ve done was playing Dr. Z on Dinosaur King. He gets really high and screams. That was the craziest choice of a voice that I had to do. That I couldn’t do for more than a two hour session at a time or I wouldn’t be able to do anything else for the rest of the day.

You’ve stated in the past that the three members of Team Rocket aren’t necessarily bad guys, they’re just trying to make a living. I’ve seen them take a backseat role in episodes where someone truly bad appears.

I don’t think Team Rocket is evil. I think they are misguided. They have heart. Their friendship is strong and they have honor among themselves. I don’t think they would do anything that was truly evil. They’re trying to capture Pikachu because that’s their job. I think that if they actually did it and thought that Pikachu was gonna be harmed, I think that they would intervene. I think that once they put two and two together, they would be like, “Wait a second, this is wrong.” I never played James as a villain, he’s a comedic bad guy. He was just on the other team. You have your main guys and then you have Team Rocket. I rooted for both of them. Even the same thing with Kaiba. He’s not a villain to me. I’ve always said that I played Kaiba in a way that it’s like Rocky and Apollo Creed, you can’t be the champ if someone doesn’t push you to be the champ and be the best that you can be. If there was no Kaiba, then Yugi would not be the best. That’s how he stays at the top of his game. As an actor, I think that that gives more depth to these characters. You have to approach them with something redeeming. A role that I can relate to is The Joker. He is evil, but there is something in him that we feel for. We know that there’s something that caused this, there’s something behind all of this. If there’s one little grain of a redeeming quality to a character that supposed to be quote end quote bad, I still think we have some sympathy for them.

How did you feel about a major part of Brock’s character being that he became infatuated with most girls that he encountered?

I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t like girls, especially in high school. I definitely was a fan of girls and I was a flirt. Brock is supposed to be fifteen or whatever, I could relate to that fifteen year old boy’s focus. I found it very funny that the two characters he constantly fell for looked identical, Jenny and Joy, but to him, they were completely different in every town. That was funny to me. And also, I like the fact that he could break the tension. There’d be a battle going on, an intense moment between Ash and some young girl. Everyone is worried about what’s gonna happen and whether or not Ash is gonna lose and he’s just wondering what she’s doing after the match. I like that comic relief from him. But he was also a good friend. As much as he was a goofball with the girls, he was also someone you could always depend on. And he was a great cook. That dynamic was a great addition to his personality. I only follow the animation and I follow the way it’s been written. They’re like, “Here’s Brock chasing after another girl.” No surprise, here we go. But it never got old to me. A fan once sent me a link, it was a YouTube thing where they had cut together Brock’s best horndog moments. It was an eight minute sequence of every one of them cut together. I gotta say, even though I’m the actor doing it, I was laughing out loud watching him. It’s one thing when they’re sort of peppered in a show, maybe there’s a moment like that once every five or ten minutes. But when it’s back to back to back to back, it becomes like, “Wow! Doesn’t he ever take a break?” (laughs)

When you brought up the fact that Brock is a great cook, it made me remember the mysterious “rice balls” and the awkward moment of calling them jelly filled donuts.

When 4Kids bought the Pokémon series, what they were doing was they were turning into an American show that can basically be redubbed in other countries so that every country that took on their version of the show could relate to what was going on. The show is Japanese, so the food is pretty much sushi and Japanese cuisine. Well that already makes it seem like it’s a Japanese dub, so we tried to make the food and the names a little bit more universal. If it was being redubbed in Germany or redubbed in France, yes sushi is everywhere, but probably more people know what a jelly donut is than maybe rice balls. That’s what their thinking was. That one is one that a lot of the fans gravitate towards. “Did you make your jelly donuts?” We know they’re rice balls. But yeah, that was the poor attempt. It could’ve been reanimated and turned into a donut, but it had to fit with lip flap. Rice balls is two flaps, so it’d have to be “do-nut”. Maybe that’s what it should’ve been. “Do-nut.” That would’ve been better than jelly donut.

Before we wrap up, with the worlds of voice acting and music that you live, how would you want to be remembered if it all ended today?

You hope that you’ve made a difference somewhere during your time on this planet. You hope that you’ve affected people some way, especially in a positive way. I write my songs and I play my music because I get joy in connecting with people as a musician. I like when people say that songs have become soundtracks to their lives. That is a great way to be remembered. I also feel like it’s an honor to be part of pop culture history. There are fans that come up to me at conventions who say that I’m the voice of their childhood or “I didn’t have friends in school, you were my friend. When I’d come home from school, I felt like I could depend on you guys and you got me through tough times.” Though it might sound silly to say about a cartoon, you’d be surprised, or maybe you wouldn’t be, at how many people have said things like that to me. The message of the show was so positive that I think that affected a lot of people. To be part of that was very humbling. I would hope that people would say, “He was a good guy. I liked his work. He had a good soul. He made a positive difference. The world was better since he was here. We would’ve missed him if he wasn’t.”

I’d love to thank you so much for your time and an informative interview.

Thank you! I appreciate it!

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