Gardner Cole, the creative wizard behind Liquid Sol Music Fest, wants you to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Gardner Cole's talent is bigger than his ego. He's penned or produced more than 50 international hit songs, garnered more than 63 platinum album awards and four Grammy nods, and worked with a slew of legendary artists, but he blows away like a wispy wallflower when we arrive at his Arcadia offices to talk about Liquid Sol, the much-anticipated and oft-rescheduled music festival he's helping put on March 15 at Sportsman's Park outside University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.
Tall and thin, wearing stone-washed jeans and eyeglasses, and with his mop of shoulder-length curly hair pulled back into a ponytail, Cole exudes soft-spoken gentility, right down to his handshake, which is surprisingly delicate for someone who started pounding on drums at age 6 and owns 30 guitars. Maybe he's just shy, and it's typical for him to disappear when media arrive. Maybe he wants to ensure his business partner, Victor Wernett, gets credit for this festival, too, and so gives him the floor for most of our interview while wandering off to unload boxes of banners. Or maybe, just maybe, he's tired of talking about how the Liquid Sol festival was hyped months before a single act was announced, and then had to be rescheduled multiple times throughout 2013. There were a few reasons for the delays, Cole had explained via phone, including conflicts over the planned initial venue (Moon Canyon Ranch near Florence, site of the annual Country Thunder festival) and lining up investors and partnerships with charity organizations (including Glendale Firefighters Charities, 100 Club of Arizona and Hope for Hunger). "Putting on a huge festival like this takes time," Cole said. "There's a lot of moving parts. It's not something you do overnight."
Cole, 51, has seen success in the music industry, but has mostly stayed behind the scenes penning hits for other people. He first signed to Warner-Chappell Music as a songwriter and producer in 1984, and signed a new deal in January. His resume includes tunes for Cher, Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, and Tom Jones. Born in Flint, Michigan, he had stints playing drums in English group ABC and keyboards for Norwegian pop band A-ha. He also played in a band called Moulin Rouge with the late Hillel Slovak, the original guitarist for Red Hot Chili Peppers. He recorded two synth-heavy solo albums for Warner Brothers in the '80s; YouTube has video of a young, long-blonde-haired Cole frolicking in water with African elephants, soaked through his shirt and leather pants, for a song called "Live It Up." Some people might feel embarassment at having their '80s style immortalized. Not Cole. "Great memories," he says, when asked about the aforementioned video. "That was such an innocent and fun era."
The closest Cole comes to bragging during our interviews is to say, "I've been blessed to be a part of Grammy Award-winning albums, and to have performed on the 1986 Grammy Awards show [with A-ha, performing "Take on Me"]."
Cole came to Phoenix because of Valley musician, model and artist Cristiana Wiley, whom he married in 2006. They have two sons, Kingston and Jasper. "She grew up living on the Wigwam golf course," Cole says. "I met her while I was living in Los Angeles and grew tired of the commute. I purchased a home in 1994, and I've been very happy with my decision to leave L.A. and start a family here in Arizona."
He's started some businesses, too. He became president of a new, dance music-focused record label called Kaleidosphere in October 2013, and serves as Chief Creative Officer for the Liquid Sol Music Fest, which he says will be a multi-day soiree starting next year. The Liquid Sol offices, located in the large, copper dome-topped Concord Place building at 44th Street and Thomas Road, comprise about half a dozen rooms, all adorned with gold- and platinum-record awards, wall-mounted guitars, and rock band posters (including a Beatles poster, signed by the Fab Four, which Wernett says "sat in Gardner's attic since the '80s"). There's a big plastic Elvis guitar filled with popcorn behind the receptionist's desk. Cole's office, spacious and painted periwinkle, is hung with his multi-platinum awards for Madonna and Amy Grant records.
The first Liquid Sol fest was slated for September 2013 at Moon Canyon Ranch, but those plans were canned after the ranch owner died in December 2012. The festival was rescheduled for November 2013 at University of Phoenix Stadium, and that collapsed, Cole says, because they were finalizing the lineup. In late November, Cole and Wernett announced the March 15 date at Sportsman's Park, and the lineup – a bonanza of bands big in the '90s. Main stage headliners include Gin Blossoms, Fuel, Cracker, Tonic, and Everclear.
Meanwhile, local music media jabbed at the delays. In November, Dan Moore, then music editor at Phoenix New Times, wrote, "Would-be attendees have been worrying about whether they'd have enough time to pull everything off since April."
In a rare departure from his usual zen, Cole expresses irritation at the way media cast doubt on the fest. He says he "felt a little betrayed" by music journos who criticized Liquid Sol when details didn't immediately emerge. He returned few phone calls until he and Wernett finally secured the date. Again, he prefers to let Wernett do the talking.
Wernett says that's not unusual, that Cole is always quiet. "Gardner's a strange bird," Wernett says, "but we like him."
Madonna, "Open Your Heart"
(#1, 1986) songwriter
Amy Grant, "Say Once More"
(#2, 1988) songwriter
Jody Watley, "Everything"
(#3, 1989) songwriter
Giant Steps, "Another Lover"
(#13, 1988) songwriter, producer
Times Two, "Strange But True"
(#21, 1988) songwriter, producer
Michael McDonald, "Tear It Up"
(#27, 1990) songwriter, producer
For the full Liquid Sol lineup, visit liquidsolfest.com