Interview | Chuck Billy of Testament | “We have to stay on the path that we started”

Chuck Billy of Testament in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Three decades on from their debut album, Bay Area thrash metal heroes Testament are still killing it both on record and on stage. One might argue that they are better than ever. “It is what it is now. I’ve done this long enough and I have nothing to prove,” says Testament frontman Chuck Billy as he talks to Roppongi Rocks.

Testament on stage in Tokyo in Feb 2017. Photo: Mikio Ariga

When Testament returned to Japan for yet another successful Japan tour, Roppongi Rocks sat down with vocalist Chuck Billy to talk about the band, where they’re at and what’s coming up.

With a fab new album out (“Brotherhood of the Snake”, released in October 2016) and successful touring across the globe, the current line-up of Testament – Chuck Billy on vocals, Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnick on guitars, Steve Di Giorgio on bass and Gene Hoglan on drums – is one of its best to date and they are tight. It seems that the band just keeps getting better after all these years. “It’s like wine!” laughs Chuck Billy as we sit down at the band’s Japanese label’s offices the day before they are due to play in Tokyo.

Chuck Billy of Testament in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

One of the weak points for some thrash metal bands, is that they often fail to match their musical skills with a vocalist on the same skill-level. That is not the case with Testament. The veteran Bay Area thrashers have one of the best vocalists in the thrash metal business. Chuck Billy outclasses most of the competition. And it is quite obvious that he enjoys what he does for a living and he is very confident.

That is quite a comeback for someone who in 2001 was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. “As I had my illness and literally thought my music career was done. I looked in the mirror, I was bald, no eyebrows, ballooned up on steroids. I was like: OK, that’s it. I’m done.”

But as Chuck was in the middle of his cancer battle, his friends in the music business put on the now legendary Thrash of the Titans benefit show to raise money for his career treatment in August 2001 with bands including Anthrax, Exodus, Death Angel and Heathen on stage. The evening also saw a reunion of the band Legacy, the forerunner to Testament who had Steve “Zetro” Souza on vocals.

“The whole scene – it was just a weird time for us. After that – the cancer and the Thrash of the Titans benefit show for me – it was the first time we all were on the stage together at the same time for fourteen years or something like that. That kind of opened the door. I think once that door was open, then we had our reunion, the original with everybody, and played for about a year. Something at the point just kind of… There was confidence, being comfortable. It is what it is now. I’ve done this long enough and I have nothing to prove,” explains Chuck.

Chuck Billy and Eric Peterson of Testament on stage in Tokyo | Photo: Mikio Ariga

“Beating the illness and then: Wow! This is trippy. I am getting a second chance here. I am gonna finish what I started with these guys. It is something about that that planted a seed of confidence, made me relax. I didn’t feel like I gotta write heavier than that band, I’ve gotta do this bit… You know what? I couldn’t care less. As long as I am having a good time and I am feeling it with these guys, we’re doing it. And like you said, we’re doing it well together.”

“I think the very first rehearsal we all had back, it was a little rough the first day, but the second day, it was just like BAM! Like we hadn’t missed a beat almost. That to me was like, this is it! Cool! It was really just a comforting feeling. I think that played a big, big part for me personally. Maybe even to this day: stay focused on Testament, what we do and what we did. There are so many bands out there that I love, and love the music and come out so heavy, so new and fresh. But  we can’t do that, we can’t change and shift gears now to do that, or we’ll get criticised. We have to stay on the path that we started or we’re gonna get criticised and then it’s done. So, at that point the confidence kicked in and maybe it focused on the songwriting maybe a little bit to more not trying to write what everybody’s gonna think or to keep up with that band. It’s just what feels good for us. That’s what it came down to I think. Something about that made the record special and unique. The songs stood out on their own. None of our records are the same. They always seem to change and shift in a little way but you always know it’s Testament if you hear it.”

Testament on stage in Tokyo | Photo: Mikio Ariga

“I think it just kind of grew and I think up to this record… From ‘The Gathering’, wow! We really got praise for that. Man, those were good songs. It was really a turning point where I felt like all the stuff we had before, it was a combination that we finally found a good combo of thrash, blast beats, a little bit of everything. Wow, cool. This is it. How are we gonna top that? Then we kind of strung it out with the reunion and at one point when we were all playing together, I think three years went by – because it was only supposed to be one show, the reunion, and it turned into five years – three years later we said: OK, so, do you guys want to write a record? Yeah, we’ve done enough time together now, a couple of years, let’s do it. And we wrote ‘Formation’ and that came out really strong. I thought we topped ‘The Gathering’ in a sense. Having the other guys be part of the new Testament was right on. Everybody’s finding their way, because with Alex and everybody coming back, they had to train themselves to catch up to speed with us. Then we did that tour and everything was going great and then stepped into the ‘Dark Roots’ record. And again, those songs came out really good, but the record’s a little more polished. Songs are a little mid-paced, it wasn’t as thrash as I would’ve liked it. Then going into this record, that’s when we said: We gotta improve. What do we need to do? I thought: Thrash! There’s got to be a little more thrash! Faster, pick up the tempos. That’s when Eric really kicked in and started gearing up the songs, the tempos.”

Finding that delicate balance between melodic and heavy that is Testament’s signature sound can be hard, but on the latest album they seem to have achieved it. “That was the challenge for me. On this new stuff, the songs were faster paced. The typical Chuck would go: OK, it’s a fast song, I’ll sing fast. I wanted to totally challenge myself and go: Don’t do what you normally do. So on the fast songs, I would say: If it’s shifting, go the other way. Try to find the mid-tempo melody over something fast. Or blasting but I am singing something melodic over it. So that was the challenge for me. I lived these songs for so long. We worked on that thing for like two years and had battles. I had that thing absorbed in my brain but never did the demo, never demoed them up. We did the record and that’s when the lyrics and all the parts and the melodies really came to life…in the studio. That’s when we all kind of went: That was painful…writing this record. I don’t ever want to go through this again. But if it guaranteed the result, I’d give it a shot!”

Chuck Billy of Testament in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Having seen Chuck perform three gigs in Japan since 2015 (two with Testament and one with Metal Allegiance), I am amazed that his voice keeps evolving and getting better. “It’s the relaxing and the confidence. In the early days, it was more melodic singing, carrying the note and the tune and the melody. After that it was more Whaaa! I started singing different and using my voice probably wrong and doing more damage. I noticed after the ‘Demonic’ tour. I’d thrashed my voice, it really bashed it. Thinking: This ain’t good. I really wanted to stick to what I do. Over the years, especially this last one, I really wanted to go back to just be comfortable being me, that’s it. That’s what I just tried to accomplish. And I think I did it. I listen back and I do enough in the right spots, not overdoing it. Everything has its place.”

Chuck’s voice is somewhat more prominent in Testament’s music than is the case with vocals for many other thrash metal bands. “Sometimes I do think about it. I did a soundcheck yesterday. I sat and listened for about a half hour while they just jammed and performed. Man, I gotta go and sing. I don’t want to fuck it up. I got up there and was thinking: You know what? I do add my own thing to the sound of the band live. It’s a whole different thing than in the studio, when you’re getting on stage and you’re in the moment. I don’t know, maybe it’s a natural thing or instinct, I guess.”

Chuck has been fronting Testament ever since he in 1986 replaced Steve “Zetro” Souza behind the mic. It was actually Zetro who recommended Chuck to replace him in the band Legacy, which at that point became Testament. “Yeah, I knew Zet since… He grew up two-three blocks from where I grew up. He was my younger brother’s best friend. They were best chums. When he was in Legacy, all of us friends that grew up in Dublin, went to see Legacy play. Let’s go and check out Zet’s new band. We went down there and we were blown away. Holy shit! Those guys were good. To me the songs were beyond… Are we having an earthquake?!” says a surprised Chuck as the building we’re sitting in starts to sway and shake.

Indeed, Mother Earth has decided to add some rock’n’roll of her own during Roppongi Rocks’ meeting with Testament in the form of a decent-sized earthquake.

Once the shaking stops, Chuck continues: “Zet, he decided to leave and at that time, I‘d just finished taking about two years of vocal training in San Francisco, private lessons. I was like: Yeah, I’m ready! I’ve gotta find a band. The timing was perfect. He was like: I’m leaving to join Exodus. Here’s this guy, Alex Skolnick, call him up. You gotta go and join these guys. After seeing Legacy, those guys were good. I got the demo and really studied the songs lyrically, cause I wanted to audition.”

Chuck Billy of Testament in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

“Understand, I was In some other local groups, nothing serious.  I was more rock’n’roll, like a Dokken or a Ratt, or something like that was more my thing. And the way I dressed and had my hair looking, so they were: I don’t know about that guy. I showed up to the audition. They knew who I was and it was probably a bit intimidating to them. I remember I was 21 and old enough to buy the beer. They weren’t old enough, so I came with a case of beer. Oh, great. He’s in, he can buy us beer! Haha!!”

Chuck’s audition took place in a “little tiny rehearsal room. I had to sing in the hallway because there was no room for me to sing in the same room. It went great, singing three songs and a couple of days later: Alright, got it. Cool. Then we reached out to Megaforce.”

Megaforce Records, headed by Jon Zazula (aka Jonny Z), had released Metallica’s first album and would also later work with artists such as Anthrax, Overkill, Ace Frehley and Manowar. They had already offered Legacy a record deal. Now with a new singer, the band asked if the deal was still valid. “They said: Send us a demo, let’s hear it. So, I did my three-song demo, the same ones I sang, and sent to them. We got a deal  They flew out to see us rehearse all of the rest of the songs. We’re all fired up and excited. Got to the rehearsal the next day and everybody was just shocked, they had been up all night. They had found out that Cliff had passed away the night before,” explains Chuck how the accidental death of Metallica’s bassist Cliff Burton impacted the whole scene.

Chuck Billy of Testament in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

“From that point on, once Jonny took us under his wing, it took off from there. When I look back and… What was it about those early days? We put a record out every year. ‘87, ’88, ‘89, ’90, then ’92. We were going, man. That’s what I tell Eric now: We need to do that again. We gotta cut more records as part of this contract. We just keep knocking them out. We start writing right now  I am still kind of in a writing mode a little bit from this record.”

In today’s Testament line-up, there are three members who have left the group and come back: Alex Skolnick, Steve Di Giorgio and Gene Hoglan. Kind of bringing in new old blood, or perhaps old new blood, to the band’s creative process. “Everybody’s bringing their own style to this group. They all have their own thing. But when we perform as the band Testament, we play these songs, it’s something different. Me and Eric create a lot of it, it’s basically: here’s a lot of the tracks, especially on this record. Gene, he hadn’t even heard me sing a song going into record this record. Haha!!”

Testament has now released eleven studio albums. With such a vast and great back catalogue, it can’t be easy to pick songs for the gig set lists. “It’s very tough. When it comes down to it, it always goes back to these old songs. Today we were saying: the American tour is coming up, we’re going to play some songs we haven’t played in a while. I’m sure that’s the intention, but I’m sure we’ll go back and play what we have done… Yeah, it’s really tough. You gotta take that seat that if I was watching a band I was paying to go and see, I would wanna see those classics. If that’s what you grew up with, that’s what you wanna hear. You gotta do that. No matter how many times you’ve played them. You have to.”

Chuck Billy of Testament in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Testament has been touring regularly in Japan for three decades. Their first Japan gig was in front of a seated audience. “It was our first time having an audience sitting. We’re up there, young and thrashing. They’re just sitting there,” laughs Chuck who also remembers that many of their fans came straight from their office jobs with briefcases and everything. “I guess you can’t judge a book by its cover.” Since that first encounter with Japan, Testament has focused on playing clubs and festivals in Japan where the audience can be more lively.

With Eric and Chuck the only two constant members of the band, many members have come and gone over the years. Testament has had people from other bands such as Anthrax, Exodus, Slayer and Megadeth in the band. “We’ve been a stepping stone for drummers!” says Chuck. “At some point we just had a revolving door, I guess me and Eric just keep playing. We’ve been fortunate to have great guitar players and drummers as fill-ins along the way. We have fun.”

Chuck Billy of Testament on stage in Tokyo | Photo: Mikio Ariga

With a successful Japan tour completed, what’s next for this hardworking thrash metal band? “Right after we get home from this, we start writing. We have all of March off and then April we hit the road. 37 shows. Us, Sepultura, Prong. It’ll be a good package,” says Chuck of the line-up for the US tour. “Then, June we will have off, somewhere in July we will continue writing. We got a couple of shows in July in Europe and then a short run in August. Then we’re doing a major headline tour at the end of the year in Europe. We haven’t done that in a while, so it’s something I’m looking forward to.”

Testament fans can expect to hear the results of the band’s songwriting sometime in 2018 when the new album is expected to be released.

www.facebook.com/testamentlegions

www.testamentlegions.com

Interview: Gus G will return to Japan to perform a special career retrospective

Gus G and Elize Ryd

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Guitar hero Gus G is about to return to Japan for a couple of very special solo gigs in Tokyo and Osaka on 22nd and 23rd March. Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson checked in with Gus G, perhaps most famous as Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist, ahead of the tour.

You are about to return to Japan for some solo shows. What is your best memory from previous visits to Japan? “I have so many great memories from my visits in Japan. From the early days of Dream Evil, to Firewind‘s headline and co-headline runs with Kamelot, then my own clinic tours and of course two amazing visits with Ozzy. Every time has been memorable and special.”

Gus G

Japan adores guitar heroes. Do you find the Japanese fans different in any way from your fans at home in Europe? “Japanese fans are very loyal, polite and show their appreciation in a way I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world. They show up at the hotels and train stations when we travel from city to city with special gifts, they’re always very discreet and cool. And they know their music too, they love the details.”

What can the Japanese fans expect from your Japan shows? “I think for those that plan to attend, they’re in for a treat! This is more than just a solo show, it’s a career retrospective. My show will run almost two hours and me and my band will be playing lots of stuff from both my solo albums, lots of Firewind material, Dream Evil, Ozzy and maybe some surprises as well! You definitely shouldn’t miss out!”

Your band Firewind has a great new album out and you have a few Firewind members in your solo band. Thus, can the Japanese fans expect to hear some Firewind favourites during your Japan gigs? “Absolutely! We will play some older Firewind material, but also songs from our new album “Immortals”. And as you said, we have a new singer, his name is Henning Basse. Henning will be fronting my solo band in Japan as well. He toured with me before he joined Firewind, but since he joined the band, this will probably be the last time he will play with my solo band, as he will be concentrating on Firewind’s shows and I’ll be using different singers. So, I think this is another reason why these shows in Japan will be special.”

You are bringing Elize Ryd as a special guest for the Japan gigs. How did your cooperation with her come about? “I’ve always loved her voice, her presence and her band Amaranthe. We collaborated on my solo album ‘Brand New Revolution’ on a song called ‘What Lies Below’. We’ve always wanted to play that on stage together and now we finally will have the chance to do it for the first time in Japan!”

Gus G will perform at Club Quattro in Tokyo on 22nd March and at Club Quattro in Osaka on 23rd March. http://www.mandicompany.co.jp/gusg.html

Interview: Nils Molin of Dynazty

Nils Molin of Dynazty in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Nils Molin of Dynazty in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

When Swedish melodic metal band Dynazty finally came to perform in Japan, Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson sat down with vocalist Nils Molin for a chat about the band’s journey so far.

Sweden has a long and proud tradition of bringing melodic metal bands to the world. Ever since the early 80s when Europe first won the Japanese fans’ hearts, Japan has been a special place for many of these melodic bands who have built up a loyal following here. Dynazty fits in very well in this tradition. With five studio albums below their belts, they recently came to Japan to perform for their fans for the first time. All of the band’s five albums have been released in Japan, licensed by local record label Marquee (who has also released albums by other Swedish bands such as H.E.A.T. and Soilwork).

Nils Molin of Dynazty in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Nils Molin of Dynazty in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

On the Dynazty’s two most recent releases, 2014’s “Renatus” and 2016’s “Titanic Mass”, they have refined their sound and become a bit heavier while still remaining melodic and catchy. It feels as if they have found their place now. “These latest two albums naturally fit together. The latest, ‘Titanic Mass’, feels like a natural follow-up. Whether or not we’ve found our sound now, one can really never know. We will for sure continue in this direction, but we’re probably going to continue to develop,” says vocalist Nils Molin as we meet backstage a few hours before the band is due to perform in Japan for the very first time.

Has it been tough to find a balance between melodic and heavy as you write new songs? “There are obviously those that have abandoned us. But they were surprisingly few and it was surprisingly many who welcomed our change. We almost expected a bigger backlash from our early fans. There are of course those that want us to go back but we won’t be doing that. It’s in the past. Development goes forward, not backward. Haha!!”

Nils Molin of Dynazty in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Nils Molin of Dynazty in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

In recent times the band has taken a bigger role in the production of its music. The latest album was produced by the band with assistance of Swedish production giant Peter Tägtgren (Amon Amarth, Marduk, Kampfar, Overkill, Children of Bodom, Dark Funeral, Pain, Enslaved, Belphegor, Amorphis and many more). What’s behind the band taking more control of production? “It’s for several different reasons. First and foremost it is the way we work when we write songs and demo them at the same time. The whole process is part of the production. When we present the demos they are in principle already produced. They barely change at all when we then record them properly. Additionally, we are protective of how we express ourselves. We feel that we stand on our own legs and that we are realising our own plan to a hundred percent” says Molin, who together with the band’s two guitarists, Love Magnusson and Mikael Lavér, write most of the music.

Nils Molin of Dynazty in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Nils Molin of Dynazty in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

With the band having released five albums, there is now a decent back catalogue to choose songs from when set lists are decided. Is the focus now on songs from the latest two albums? “Yes, it is, mainly. When we choose songs, the important thing for us is to think about what kind of dynamics you want at the gig. Thus, the odd song from the old albums may sneak into the set list because it fits nicely with the dynamics when you want to take down the tempo and the intensity. But mainly we now play songs from the last two albums as that is the sound we represent nowadays.”

Nils Molin grew up in a small, rural town. How did he end up in an internationally successful rock band touring the world? “I definitely had dreams when I was younger. Mainly I dreamt about playing music. Whether or not I would become successful or famous, that wasn’t so important. It was more about being able to get out there and play music, to be able to professionally work with what I was passionate about. That was the dream. After senior high-school I travelled, went to Australia. Just as I got home I was contacted by these guys in Dynazty who had just formed the band. They had listened to a few demo songs I had put up on Myspace as they were looking for a singer. They contacted me and asked if I was interested in coming down to try out and if I would be interested in moving down to Stockholm to work on this band one hundred percent. I tried out and it felt really good. Then I packed up my things and moved.”

Nils Molin of Dynazty in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Nils Molin of Dynazty in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Nine years, five albums and countless gigs. What are the highlights and low points so far for Dynazty? “Overall, I view all the mishaps and land mines we have walked on as good things in the end. Highlights? I don’t know I feel like everything is part of a journey. To get to go to Japan is some form of a milestone. It’s the kind of goal one sets up. I guess most rock bands do that – that one day we will get to go to Japan. It’s not something I’ve been thinking about all the time, but now that I am sitting here, sure, it’s a highlight” says Molin with a smile as he’s clearly happy to finally be able to bring the band to Japan. “It’s obviously a market we want to get into properly. Now we’re here and we’ll start to work hard on this. I think it’s important, obviously. Here there’s a kind of enthusiasm and gratefulness for music that unfortunately is missing in many other places. No countries named…”

Nils Molin of Dynazty in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Nils Molin of Dynazty in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

As often is the case in Japan, Dynazty did a signing session in record shop the day before their Tokyo show. “It’s a way to be able to meet fans and communicate with them. In the hard rock genre, it has always been a great thing that artists often has a really good relation with their fans, more so than in other genres. We have no problems with meeting and talking with fans. That these meetings with fans still happen is very important to me.”

Dynazty’s latest album was released in April 2016 and the bad has been doing a fair bit of gigging since then. What’s next? “We’ll be doing some gigs during the spring and then a few festivals during the summer. Then we’re planning to tour in the fall. During the spring and summer we will also start writing new material and work on a new record.”

Catch Dynazty on tour and expect another album to be released in 2018.

Dynazty – band members

Nils Molin – vocals
Love Magnusson – guitar
Mikael Lavér – guitars
Jonathan Olsson –  bass
Georg “Egg” Härnsten – drums

Dynazty – albums

  • Bring The Thunder (2009)
  • Knock You Down (2011)
  • Sultans of Sin (2012)
  • Renatus (2014)
  • Titanic Mass (2016)

www.dynazty.com / www.facebook.com/dynaztyband

Interview: New England “It’s great to be rocking again!”

img_5638By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Classic American rockers New England are better than ever. It took them four decades, but when they recently came to Japan for their first-ever Japan gigs, Roppongi Rocks sat down with the band for a chat about what sets this band apart from bands with revolving doors.

Initially active in the late 70s and up until 1982, and releasing three terrific albums during that time, in 2016 classic American rock band New England is better than ever. They are playing great gigs and creating new music, still with the original line-up of John Fannon on guitar and vocals, Jimmy Waldo on keyboards, Gary Shea on bass and Hirsh Gardner on drums and vocals. New England is a classic American rock band of the best kind. They have it all: the songs and the musical talent and to top it all off, the band members are bloody nice too. What’s there not to like about this band? In November the band released the magnificent “Live at the Regent Theatre”, a live album recorded in the US in 2014.

new-england-promo2

While several of the members have played in Japan on other occasions, such as several successful Alcatrazz tours and John Fannon as a solo artist, the two gigs at Club Citta in Kawasaki in November in conjunction with the release of the live album, were New England’s first-ever Japan gigs. The day after New England’s first Japan gig, I sit down with the whole band at their hotel.

Jimmy Waldo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Jimmy Waldo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

The night before our chat the band has delivered a flawless masterclass in classic American rock. The band knows it. They looked liked they thoroughly enjoyed themselves on stage. “Oh, yeah! We were having a ball!” says Jimmy Waldo. “You see people getting every lyric, really understanding the music and being into the music and the details. It can’t get better than that! I mean, it just doesn’t get better than that. And the club is amazing! The production, the feeling when you’re on stage, the way it sounds and the way it looks. What I really enjoy is being able to see the audience. A lot of places you play, the lights are such that you’re kind of blind. You can see a few people in the front row, but you can’t really get a sense… Last night, whatever they were doing with the lighting was really cool, because I could see people all the way in the back. It’s great!” Hirsh Gardner continues: “It’s great to be rocking again! It’s all there is to it. Rock’n’roll!”

It took New England some four decades to get to Japan and play shows, despite having loyal Japanese fans for many years. “We always wanted to come because we never got a chance to come before,” says Gary Shea. “Everything was based in North America, never got to Europe, never got to Japan. We always felt shortchanged that we couldn’t do that, continue and meet everyone in our musical world, our fans. Now we get a chance to do that, bring it to more people.” Hirsh Gardner explains how it all happened now: “King Records obviously heard the ‘Live at the Regent’ tracks and immediately wanted to sign the band and did. We are very, very grateful for that. Even from back in the early days, in 1979, ‘80, ’81, people actually wrote letters back then. We were getting letters from Japanese fans. Unfortunately we didn’t get to come over here back then, but like you said, for 40 years we’ve been hearing that the band is well respected and well known in Japan. We re-released ‘Explorer Suite’ and ‘Walking Wild’ and then another album called ‘1978’, which was all the demos of the songs that got us our first record deal. At that point we noticed a tremendous resurgence of interest from Japan which started the ball rolling. And the ball kept on rolling an rolling and King Records picked it up and here we are! It’s been awesome”. John Fannon continues: “Last night, at the meet and greet especially, these were the loyal fans, passionate fans who have been with us all these years. It’s kind of remarkable, where we sort of disappeared for so long, yet they remained fans with the only product that they had, the three albums and now with a fourth album of course.”

New England: Gary Shea, John Fannon, Hirsh Gardner, Jimmy Waldo. Kawasaki, Japan, Nov 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

New England: Gary Shea, John Fannon, Hirsh Gardner, Jimmy Waldo. Kawasaki, Japan, Nov 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

In classic American rock, there is somewhat a tradition of using geographical locations as band names, such as Boston, Kansas and Chicago. The band New England was formed in the New England region of the USA, but there is also another spin to this choice of band name as Hirsh explains: “We got a bit of flak back in the day. The name New England really doesn’t have much to do with the fact that we lived in New England. Of course we lived in New England, we all recognise that, but for us our influences were all early English bands. We love those bands and we wanted to present a new English style, based in America, New England. I think that the band name had much more to do with the new English style of music that we were presenting as an American band. So you get the name New England and that represents the American thing and the New England new English style of music.” Fannon continues: “It’s kind of a play on words. It works!’

John Fannon. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

John Fannon. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Chatting to the band members and seeing how they interact with each other on and off stage, it is obvious how strong of a quartet this is. New England is one of those bands whose four members can’t be replaced. When New England’s main vocalist and guitarist John Fannon left the band in 1982, the remaining members replaced him with Vinnie Vincent of KISS fame. They decided to change the name of the band and the musical direction. As can be heard on the legendary Warrior demo tapes, which sound great, it was no longer New England. It couldn’t be. Each of the four original New England members brings a unique part of the puzzle that is New England. “That is true. We are kind of irreplaceable. Otherwise it wouldn’t be what it is,” agrees Fannon. Hirsh adds: “The individuality of those songs begins when John brings a song in, we kind of just instinctively all know what our parts are gonna be. I have my personality in my drums and Jimmy’s got his personality with the keyboards. We hear a song, we hear a song idea and then – BAAM! – it’s just…all that personality is in that song. The real true test for the audience: to hear what John does with ‘Turn Out the Light’. That’s just the basic song with the lead vocalist and that’s just how he wrote the song. When you listen to that song on the record, there is a completely different personality to it.”

Jimmy Waldo continues: “Testament to the fact that it’s all about the song. He goes out, by himself, no microphone, a guitar, plays and sings and the crowd’s all over it. The lyrics they know, the melody. I think that’s just the best. Such great respect for the song.”

New England: Gary Shea, John Fannon, Hirsh Gardner, Jimmy Waldo. Kawasaki, Japan, Nov 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

New England: Gary Shea, John Fannon, Hirsh Gardner, Jimmy Waldo. Kawasaki, Japan, Nov 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

The band members have over many years played in many other bands and projects where members come and go and where things are much more temporary and work in very different ways from New England. “This band has a history, “ says Gary Shea. “We played in the bars when we were 25 years old, more or less. We played in the bar scene on the East Coast, Boston area. We were just struggling and went through a lot of changes. Eventually we got our record deal and became New England and everything. But we’ve also gone through other things in life now, but we’re back together again. It just feels good because we’re good friends. In other bands you don’t get that. A lot of bands in Los Angeles are just project bands, you know? Not to mention names, but some guys do a different record every month with some other guys. And the band is OK, but… ‘Get the money and run’ kind of projects and it happens a lot. So it is really hard to find guys that are your brothers. We’re family. We know instinctively what each other is thinking. Even when John writes songs, he knows what we’re gonna do and has in mind parts that we can do. We talk about that and we embellish on things.” Jimmy Waldo continues: “I’ve been involved with other things and, most of the time, everybody in the band has got all these ulterior motives and doesn’t respect you as a player. They know they have to play with you and they’re maybe polite and gentlemen, but in truth there is no respect there. They think they’re better. The attitude thing never quite meshes. Sometimes that can work for people, I don’t like it myself. I need more than that. I like playing with these guys, it’s fun, just feels natural.” Gary adds: “This is not a stepping stone for another band. This is the band! This is the band we wanna be in. We’ve stepped on the other stones to be here.”

Gary Shea. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Gary Shea. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

John Fannon has always been the main songwriter in the band. “I have written most of the songs but when I was writing the songs I always had the band in mind. I certainly wanted a certain emotion to be portrayed, but I always had the vision of how to best utilise their talents. On ‘Explorer Suite’ I knew from the beginning that we gotta get Jimmy doing all this stuff and getting Hirsh to sing solo vocals. Getting spotlights for Gary. For me it was always just looking ahead. But then we had this natural chemistry that once the song came in my vision actually…most of the time I didn’t even have to tell them, they just did it. I would just tell Jimmy: ‘Jimmy – this is what I am hearing. Go do your thing!’ We just had this chemistry. To that point, too, we hadn’t played together in at one point for about 23 years literally. We got a rehearsal hall together so that we could play, literally for the first time and we just counted in ‘Alone Tonight’ and it was like 25 years ago. It was so impactful. I was like ‘Well, there it is! This is what we do’.“

New England reunited over a decade ago, initially for a special performance at a benefit concert. Gary explains: “There was no looking back. It felt great, like we never left. That was a great feeling to know that we could pull it off after so long.” Hirsh adds: “Steven Tyler was there and he was blown away”.

One of the things about New England is that their material is very consistent. One might imagine that they write many songs that are then rejected in the process of creating an album full of great songs. “Let’s just say that there wasn’t a lot of rubbish,” says Fannon. “I was just on a roll. I was always into songwriting. I think there was a growing period for a few years but once New England started, it just kind of happened.” Waldo fills in: “If a song didn’t make the record, it wasn’t because it wasn’t a good song. It just for whatever reason didn’t fit that particular puzzle that day.” Fannon adds: “I think typically for each record we had 10 or 11 songs and that’s what was written. It was those songs.”

New England is a guitar-based band with very prominent keyboards. John Fannon explains: “I always think orchestration. It’s always all about the full arrangement. So, it’s just natural. I would never think that way about not using the keyboards.” Waldo adds: “I am a guitar freak. I love good guitar play. John – I love that kind of guitar play.” Gary continues: “He knows all the holes to play. Some keyboard players are like ‘I’ve got a synthesizer, watch this!’” “We were talking about this a couple of weeks ago,” says Waldo. “About how little that we’re actually playing sometimes. If you really break a song down live, there’s not a lot of covering up or things being played because we don’t use Pro Tools or anything live. So, it’s kind of interesting – we’re playing these lines together but there’s no big rhythm guitar behind it or anything like that and it stands up.” Fannon explains: “The era we were in, you know, synthesizers… Guitar, bass and drums is guitar, bass and drums, but every time Jimmy got some new toy, we immediately ‘We gotta make that part of the sound!’ Or a Mellotron or tons of synthesizers. When you heard them you just wanted it to be part of the music.”

new-england-live-at-the-regent-cover

Live New England sounds more rock than on the studio recordings. “That’s always been the case,” says Gary. “We’ve never got our true live sound on the records. The records sound great, great production, but it never captured the right depth.” Fannon continues: “I think really it’s that extra energy that you get from the audience. It just steps it all up, the live performance.” Now with a live record released that really captures the live band New England, this can be heard by all. “Holding Out On Me” – one of the band’s rockier songs with an almost AC/DC touch to it – is one of the highlights of that album with some great drumming and lead vocals by Hirsh. “We were having a vision, I envisioned that song when I was writing it of this guy singing it,” says Fannon while pointing at Gardner. “Because it is perfect for him. I think it is always wanting to try different things. If you really go through all the New England music, even though it is New England, there’s so many different directions and different kinds of songs – whether it’s acoustic or AC/DC or ‘Explorer Suite’ or… I was always a big fan of The Beatles and of how, even though it was always The Beatles, it was always something new.”

Hirsh Gardner. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Hirsh Gardner. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

The combination of the distinct voices of Fannon and Gardner is one of New England’s trademarks. “We really work on the blend and how our vocals come out,” says Hirsh. “We’ve done that for years, we’ve had vocal rehearsals all the time. I’ve got to mimic the way he’s phrasing his notes and then if I get that, then Jimmy can try to mimic the way we’re both singing. That’s hard to do and make it sound like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, that’s really hard to do.” Fannon adds: “We just happen to have voices that blend well together.”

On its early records, the band worked with big name producers Paul Stanley and Todd Rundgren – both of them famous artists and musicians in their own right. John Fannon explains: “They were very different. Paul Stanley, what was really cool about him was that, who knows what level of producer he is, but for us he recognised that our songs were all really well-arranged. I think that was one of the coolest things that he did as a producer, not adding stuff just to add stuff. He just kind of let us do our thing.” Waldo adds: “He didn’t try to put the KISS stamp on us.” Fannon continues: “One of my favourite comments is that our demo of ‘Don’t Ever Wanna Lose Ya’ didn’t have a guitar solo in it. He said ‘This is a rock song! You gotta have a guitar solo in this!’ But for the most part we were so well rehearsed and arranged, that there wasn’t a lot to do. That was one of the cool things about how he produced the record.”

“One of the comments I get a lot,” says Hirsh, “people play the first New England album today, and they say ‘Man! This stands the test of time like nobody’s business’. One of the things I got from Paul Stanley… This is our first album, we’re all excited, we’re on a major label, we’ve been working for this for a long time and Paul Stanley is in the room! Holy crap! You’re working with one of the biggest guys in the industry, so you feel like, ‘OK. You’re a rock star now’. I use that term in the best sense, that you’ve got to live up to that, you’ve got to perform. Yeah, the record stands the test of time because of that.” Fannon continues: “With Todd Rundgren, I think that the album was done so quickly we didn’t have the time to do what we would do and really fine tune all the arrangements. We were thinking ‘That’s Todd Rundgren!’ So, we would let him in gradually – ‘Come on in, boy!’ – and he had all kinds of great ideas, harmonies and it was really fun working with him. He’s an artist.” Waldo adds: “He didn’t try to change the band. You could tell right from the get go, as much as he would help on any given harmony, he just let us do our thing. Sometime he got more involved, he wrote lyrics on a song and he certainly directed us.” Fannon explains the fact that Rundgren can be heard playing guitar on the album: “We had him play guitar on one song, I just wanted him to. We did a solo and harmony on ‘Don’t Ever Let Me Go’. What was very cool was I played the solo and I said ‘Todd, this would be really cool if you played the harmony’. I don’t think he thought about it for 30 seconds and then he picked up the guitar and played out this harmony perfectly!”

new-england-promo

For  period of time New England had the legendary KISS manager Bill Aucoin as the band’s manager, something which among many things led them landing the opening act slot on the North American “Dynasty” tour in 1979. Some commentators think that Aucoin was perhaps too busy with KISS to have time to really break New England. “It kind of evolved to that at one point,” says Gary. “In the beginning we wanted to have a big manager with three or four names in the hat. Someone from Bill Aucoin’s staff heard us and we got connected and we went with Bill and it was great. It really helped us out, to get the ‘Dynasty’ tour and the Paul Stanley-Mike Stone connection. And down the road through the second record it hurt a little bit when you have a famous manager who has other major clients and they’re in Germany and can’t get hold of you. You can have your cousin be your manager, but he doesn’t have any power to do anything. So you have to weigh when you’re a band, what kind of manager do you want? Do you want someone that is not so powerful but will work really hard for you or a guy who is really powerful and just picks up the phone and make things happen but you can’t see him every day? It’s a give and take thing. It’s tricky. But Bill was a great guy. When it was happening it was happening! We got to experience some amazing things through that.” Waldo adds: “He was a pick up the phone and make it happen guy. He was incredible!”

The new live album that came out in November to rave reviews is a triumph for the band. Fannon explains the thinking behind the album: “I think part of it was certainly when we did the show, we did record it almost for historical reasons and to see how it came out. We had such a great night, we played so well. We felt like we wanted to have something out there, some new product. That was what we had and it was representative of the band so that was how all that happened.” Gary adds: “We’ve had live recordings, radio show recordings, but we’ve never had a live album, a real live CD. This was a chance for us to do that and have something in the interim until we have more music coming up, bridge the gap to the future.”

New England: Gary Shea, John Fannon, Hirsh Gardner, Jimmy Waldo. Kawasaki, Japan, Nov 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

New England: Gary Shea, John Fannon, Hirsh Gardner, Jimmy Waldo. Kawasaki, Japan, Nov 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

So, is there a new studio album in the works? “I know we’ve been saying this for a while, but yes, I think we have to have a new studio album and we’re committed to doing that,” says Fannon. “How quickly that happens, I’m not sure, but I know I’m inspired. I’m gonna go home and start writing like crazy. I am a believer of inspiration. I think that’s why we were so prolific in the early days. Just playing and you’re so inspired by the tour. I’m feeling inspired right now, for sure.”

Gary Shea and Jimmy Waldo will return to tour Japan in March with Graham Bonnet Band and Alcatrazz, but I think we will also see them return to Japan with New England in the not too distant future.

“I get up in the morning with the same passion that I had 40 years ago. I can’t wait for the day to begin, I can’t wait to get into the studio. I think that is why this is all going to work” says John Fannon with a big smile across his face.

Read Roppongi Rocks’ earlier interview with Gary Shea here.

Read Roppongi Rocks’ New England gig review here.

Read Roppongi Rocks’ New England live album review here.

www.facebook.com/newenglandtheband / www.newenglandrocks.com

Interview: Brian Ross of Blitzkrieg talks about true British metal and the blessing and curse of Metallica

Brian Ross of Blitzkrieg on stage at Japanese Assault Fest. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Brian Ross of Blitzkrieg on stage at Japanese Assault Fest. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

During a recent visit to Japan by British metal band Blitzkrieg, Roppongi Rocks sat down with legendary frontman Brian Ross to talk about the blessing and curse of Metallica, keeping a consistent sound, the decision to re-record the band’s debut album and how to juggle two bands.

Brian Ross of Blitzkrieg in Tokyo in November 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Brian Ross of Blitzkrieg in Tokyo in November 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Formed in Leicester in 1980, Blitzkrieg was one of the early heavy metal bands in Great Britain. They remain a very active band today, still touring and releasing new albums. The band’s mainman and vocalist Brian Ross is also currently fronting another of his old bands, Satan.

Two things make Blitzkrieg stand out from many of the other early British metal bands: their new music is as good as their classic songs from the 80s and frontman Brian Ross has kept his voice intact. Blitzkrieg are better now than they ever were. 

Biran Ross, Alan Ross and Matt Graham of Blitzkrieg in Tokyo in ov 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Brian Ross, Alan Ross and Matt Graham of Blitzkrieg in Tokyo in Nov 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

The current Blitzkrieg line-up, consisting of Brian Ross (vocals), Ken Johnson (guitar), Alan Ross (guitar), Bill Baxter (bass) and Matt Graham (drums), has managed to keep the signature Blitzkrieg sound alive and well. Some people consider the band part of the original NWOBHM scene as well as early influencers of what became thrash metal. “It’s not that I don’t like the New Wave of British Heavy Metal per se,” says Brian Ross as we sit down at the band’s Tokyo hotel ahead of their second Tokyo gig. “It was a very important movement, but I never kind of ever saw Blitzkrieg as actually being part of that, believe it or not. Because we were around before that began.”

Brian Ross of Blitzkrieg on stage at Japanese Assault Fest. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Brian Ross of Blitzkrieg on stage at Japanese Assault Fest. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Blitzkrieg and Satan are not only sharing the same frontman, the two bands have also shared some other members and guest spots as well as songs (the Satan song “Pull the Trigger” is played both on record and live by Blitzkrieg). “Usually it is very separate, but it can get really confusing,” admits Ross who insists the bands are very different. “I class both Satan and Blitzkrieg as what I call True British Metal. If you kind of look at the likes of Judas Priest, I would say that Judas Priest was probably the first true British metal band. That’s kind of where I would place it. Not to say that Blitzkrieg and Satan are identical, because they’re not. They are very, very different entities. Although the voice is the same, the lyrical content is different for both bands and also, the actual sound of the band is quite different. This is not my analogy but other people have said that they liken Blitzkrieg to Judas Priest and Satan to Iron Maiden. It’s just to show the difference between the two, really. I don’t actually agree with that but it’s not for me to say.”

Brian Ross and Ken Johnson of Blitzkrieg on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Brian Ross and Ken Johnson of Blitzkrieg on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

With two active bands, how does Ross prioritise between them? “I’m not going to answer that! Because if I answer that Blitzkrieg is more important, then Satan are going to get upset. If I say that Satan is more important, these guys are going to get upset,” says Ross and points to Blitzkrieg’s guitarist Alan Ross (Brian’s son) and drummer Matt Graham who are sitting next to him. “I don’t see it that way. To me, I’m kind of balancing the two things. They’re both very different entities and they both demand different things. Ironically, the three of us sat here, all three of us are also in an Alice Cooper show. I really like Alice. I have a lot of respect for the guy! It’s kind of just a juggling thing, just balancing one against the other. It’s not prioritising, it’s whoever gets the gig first.”

Blitzkrieg on stage at Japanese Assault Fest. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Blitzkrieg on stage at Japanese Assault Fest. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Brian Ross is the only member still in the band from the 80s, but somehow he’s been able to keep the band’s signature sound. “I think the reason for that is because, mainly, as people have left the band I have tried to replace them with a guitar player, drummer, whatever it might be, that kind of complements what they are replacing. When Blitzkrieg was originally set up, the whole idea of the Blitzkrieg sound came from two kind of corners, if you like. Jim Sirotto on one hand was greatly influenced by Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page. And Ian Jones, the other guitar player, was greatly influenced by Judas Priest. When you put those influences together, that is what made Blitzkrieg sound like Blitzkrieg. That’s what it was. It’s kind of a mix of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Judas Priest. That kind of is what it is. So, throughout the years, I’ve tried to maintain that kind of feel. It’s quite easy in some respects because Alan here has worked with pretty much every other guitar player that’s ever been in Blitzkrieg, because he’s been around the band all of his life,” explains Ross the advantage of having his son as the band’s current guitarist. “He has jammed with pretty much every guitar player that’s ever been in Blitzkrieg, including Jim Sirotto.”

Brian Ross of Blitzkrieg in Tokyo in November 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Brian Ross of Blitzkrieg in Tokyo in November 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Many fans have discovered Blitzkrieg thanks to Metallica. Metallica recorded a cover of the song “Blitzkrieg” already back in the 80s and has also played the song live on many occasions. Metallica’s drummer and co-founder Lars Ulrich has also mentioned Blitzkrieg as a major early influence as Metallica developed its own sound in the early 80s. “It’s a double edged sword. On one edge of the sword, obviously it was an honour for them to do that. It was really nice for them to say that we influenced them in their early days and actually still do influence them apparently, because every time a new Blitzkrieg album comes out, Lars is on the phone saying ‘Can I get a copy of this, please?’ It’s nice from that angle, but on the other side of the sword, it’s kind of been difficult in that there is an awful lot of Metallica fans out there that actually think that ‘Blitzkrieg’ is a Metallica song. That is not really where you want it to be. Not that Metallica has ever claimed that the song is theirs, they haven’t. They quite strongly said ‘No, it’s not our song’. They promoted it quite well.”

Bill Baxter of Blitzkrieg on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Bill Baxter of Blitzkrieg on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

One evening back in the 80s, the phone rang at Brian Ross’s house. “He said ‘Hi, this is Lars Ulrich from Metallica!’ I said ‘Yeah, right!’ and I was gonna hang up,” explains Ross his first contact with Metallica. Ulrich stopped him and asked permission for Metallica to record ‘Blitzkrieg’ which Ross agreed to once he realised that this was for real. “I spent ages on the phone telling him what the lyrics were, what the chord progressions were and everything and they still got it wrong! Hehe!! But, hey, they did their version of it and that’s great. People often ask me what I think of their version. Although it isn’t technically right, musically or lyrically, it’s very Metallica. I think that is great because that is the way it should’ve been. Similarly, when we did our thank you to Metallica, finally, after years of wanting to do a Metallica song for that very reason, as a thank you. We did our version of that song and it was kind of: this is the way we would’ve done it. Lars actually loved it! That was nice.”

Blitzkrieg has also recorded covers by bands such as Venom and Judas Priest, including recording Venom classic “Countess Bathory” together with Conrad “Cronos” Lant. “The Venom one came about because we were actually in the studio recording the album ‘Unholy Trinity’ and Conrad came in. He sat and listened for a while and he was tapping his foot, nodding his head and stuff. He said ‘This is great! This fabulous!’ And I said ‘Oh! Do you want to do a guest spot on one of the songs, do a song together?’ We were just sitting having a cup of coffee and talking it through and then we decided to do ‘Countess Bathory’ instead because that is actually my favourite Venom song. So, we did ‘Countess Bathory’ and the interesting thing is that now when you see Conrad’s version, they actually do a cover version of Blitzkrieg’s cover version of ‘Countess Bathory’, not the original Venom one. Because we did it slightly different.”

Ken Johnson of Blitzkrieg on stage in Tiokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Ken Johnson of Blitzkrieg on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Blitzkrieg’s legendary first single, “Buried Alive” (with “Blitzkrieg” as a B side), was released in 1981 but it wasn’t until 1985 that the band released its debut full-length studio album. “Once we split up Blitzkrieg in 1981, I thought that that was the end of it. I put together another band which I called Avenger and we actually recorded what was originally meant to be Blitzkrieg’s second single, ‘Too Wild To Tame’. That became Avenger’s first single. It really wasn’t sort of working my way and I wasn’t happy with it, so I joined Satan. Then there were problems with Satan, so I moved on from that. I started to get to the point where I was getting lots of mail from people saying ‘What happened to this elusive Blitzkrieg album that people talk about? Is it true? Does it exist? Was it recorded?’ So, I spent a lot of time answering all of these questions. ‘Yes, the album exists, but only in my head because that’s where the songs are’. Only some of them were recorded. The rest of the songs were possibly on rehearsal tapes and stuff. I kind of thought what I will do, just to set the record straight and lay the ghost of Blitzkrieg forever, I’ll pull all of these songs together on an album. It was going to be a Brian Ross album. When the press got hold of the idea they reported it as Blitzkrieg are reforming, they’re putting out a new album.” Ross’s plan then changed and he released the album as a Blitzkrieg album. “It was meant to be a stand-alone thing and I was going to move on to do something else. But then Metallica covered ‘Blitzkrieg’ and then the whole thing just became a circus. Everybody wanted Blitzkrieg: ‘When are you touring? When are you doing this? When’s the next album?’ In the end I thought: this is what people want. I’m not going to stand in the way of that. It would have been stupid not to”.

Biran Ross, Alan Ross and Matt Graham of Blitzkrieg in Tokyo in ov 2016.

Biran Ross, Alan Ross and Matt Graham of Blitzkrieg in Tokyo in Nov 2016.

In 2015, Blitzkrieg re-recorded the band’s classic 1985 studio album “A Time of Changes” and released it as a 30th anniversary edition with two bonus tracks (“Too Wild To Tame” and “Jealous Love”) in addition to new recordings of the nine original songs. This was a result of Ross not being able to buy the rights to the original record from Universal in the USA. Ross thus decided to re-record a new version of the album in order to make the music available to Blitzkrieg’s fans. “I own the songs just not the physical media” smiles Ross. And there may possibly be more re-recordings of some of the old Blitzkrieg albums. “They own pretty much all of the other back catalogue as well and we are going to have the same problem with them all the way down the line.”

Blitzkrieg, who came to Japan to headline Spiritual Beast’s Japanese Assault Fest, were very well received on the-band’s first-ever Japan visit in November. “Having been here with Satan already, I knew how dedicated these fans are.” 

Brian Ross of Blitzkrieg on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Brian Ross of Blitzkrieg on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Re-recordings of classics aside, there may be a new Blitzkrieg studio album in the making. The band’s latest proper studio album, “Back from Hell” came out in 2013. “Alan is working on some ideas for some new songs. Ken is also doing the same thing” explains Ross. The band will now work on developing these initial ideas to see where that takes them. Hopefully that will mean a new studio album soon.

www.blitzkriegmusic.co.uk / www.facebook.com/blitzkrieguk

Interview: James Michael of Sixx:A.M. “This is us being a band”

James Michael of Sixx:A.M. posing for Roppongi Rocks, backstage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

James Michael of Sixx:A.M. posing for Roppongi Rocks backstage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

California rock band Sixx:A.M. – featuring Nikki Sixx, DJ Ashba and James Michael – has a new album out and are on the road on a successful tour to back it up. Roppongi Rocks met the band backstage after a gig during their recent Japan visit for a conversation with vocalist James Michael about the evolution of Sixx:A.M. – from being a soundtrack, to becoming a side project, to now emerge as a real band touring the world. “We’re just getting started!” says James Michael with a big smile.

Nikki Sixx and DJ Ashba of Sixx:A.M. on stage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Nikki Sixx and DJ Ashba of Sixx:A.M. on stage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

One thing that stands out with Sixx:A.M. in 2016, both live and on the new album, “Prayers for the Blessed, Vol 2”, is DJ Ashba’s guitar playing. It seems that his six years of service in Guns N’ Roses have seen him develop. Now that he is no longer in Guns, he can focus on Sixx:A.M. and help the band stand out from other bands by having a guitarist that is above and beyond what most of the other bands have. “Thanks for noticing!” says Ashba backstage when I congratulate him on his fine guitar playing. “We’re a real band now,” says Ashba of the fact that he and bassist Nikki Sixx now can concentrate on this band as they are no longer touring with Guns N’ Roses and Mötley Crüe. “DJ was always a great guitar player, but, boy, after his six years with Guns N’ Roses, it’s a joy to record him! He is one of the most underrated phenomenal guitar players out there. I can’t wait for the day that the world really get the chance to understand how great he is,” says Sixx:A.M.’s vocalist and producer James Michael as we sit down backstage after their gig at the packed Saitama Super Arena outside of Tokyo.

James Michael of Sixx:A.M. posing for Roppongi Rocks, backstage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

James Michael of Sixx:A.M. posing for Roppongi Rocks backstage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

On parts of the new album and certainly during the band’s live shows, we are treated to a heavier-sounding Sixx:A.M. “I think it was something that happened right around the ‘Modern Vintage’ tour. Because obviously ‘Modern Vintage’ was a little bit of a departure for us. It was a lighter record, I think in a lot of ways. It didn’t have the weight of a heavy rock record. So, when we went on and did that tour, we really got a sense of what songs worked well live and what songs didn’t. It typically tended to be the ones that had a heavier, more weighted feel to them. So, as soon as we got off the road, which was in April of 2015, we immediately started writing both ‘Prayers for the Damned’ and ‘Prayers for the Blessed’. The first thing that we decided was let’s make this a record that will translate well to live arenas, to big live rock shows. Also, because we knew we were gonna be out touring, doing a bunch of festivals with a lot of heavy metal bands. We didn’t want to show up there and kind of be the lightweights! So we really intentionally did that. We really made a very guitar heavy record, very drum heavy, very bass heavy record. It’s served us well. Now we have a nice collection of songs that we can go either open up for Disturbed or Korn, play on the same stage with those guys, or more of the melodic type of bands. I think what we are doing is starting to shape this thing into something that could potentially have multiple formats that it would work at. Fingers crossed! We’re loving the heaviness of it. It’s just so nice to be able to come out to rock shows and really deliver!”

James Michael of Sixx:A.M. on stage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

James Michael of Sixx:A.M. on stage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Sixx:A.M. has appeared at many rock festivals (such as Loud Park during this Japan visit), where there is a mix of all kinds of hard rock and heavy metal acts performing. “That’s what I love about things like this. I think bands quite often will underestimate their fans. Fans like a lot of different stuff. They can palate a lot of different stuff in one night. It’s exciting! For as much time as we all spend in this business, I’m sure that you do all the time too, hearing that rock is dead. Well, record sales are dead, but rock isn’t dead. When you come to a show like this, OK, I get it. These people get it.”

James Michael of Sixx:A.M. posing for Roppongi Rocks, backstage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

James Michael of Sixx:A.M. posing for Roppongi Rocks backstage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

With Sixx and Ashba no longer in Mötley Crüe and GNR, Sixx:A.M. has become more of a proper band than just a project. “For the three of us, we are incredibly inspired now, so it’s exciting. We really felt we had our hands tied for so many years and it still is a labour of love for us. But now we are seeing the fact that this is a real band, this has a real future. We’re just glad now that the three of us can bring it to the forefront of our lives and really give it the energy and the passion and the time that it needs. Next year is the ten-year anniversary of ‘The Heroin Diaries’ soundtrack which is kind of crazy to even think of. For a band that has done very little touring in that ten years, we have such a loyal fan base. It surprises me because fans also need to know that you support your own project. Are they gonna dedicate themselves to a band if they’re not sure if the band itself is dedicated to the band? It’s kind of amazing that we’ve got this far with the loyal support of our fans. Because they could have easily turned their backs: ‘You guys don’t tour. You’re not really a band.’ Because at the beginning we weren’t really a band. It has definitely evolved. We are very, very grateful for the fact that fans have stuck with us. All three of us feel like we are just getting started. In a way we are a baby band. We’re just getting started, but we have now five studio albums and a string of hits to kick start this thing.”

Sixx:A.M. on stage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Sixx:A.M. on stage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Sixx:A.M. is focused around its three founders but they now have a proper touring band (Michael refers to them as Sixx:A.M.’s “extended family”) consisting of drummer Dustin Steinke and back-up vocalists Amber VanBuskirk and Melissa Harding. “We actually brought them into the studio for these two records. Because we wanted these records to feel live and sound the way that we sound live. Nikki, DJ and myself have put in ten years of blood, sweat and tears into this project that we are incredibly passionate about. We birthed this band. We will always be the parents. It excites us to bring in new members and get that new energy and get that new thing, but at its core, the core family is the three of us and always will be.”

DJ Ashba of Sixx:A.M. on stage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

DJ Ashba of Sixx:A.M. on stage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

In 2016, the band has released two albums, “Prayers for the Damned, Vol 1” in April and “Prayers for the Blessed, Vol 2” in November. They are related but were not released as a double album. “In our minds it is a double album. I think that arguably over the years double albums have gotten kind of a bad reputation. We could list a few where you just get a sense that they went into the studio to record a record, they had a couple of extra songs left over and they figured, fuck it, if we polish these up and put a few more together, we can have a double album and charge twice as much and all that. That was obviously not what we wanted. We went into the studio and said: ‘Let’s write two records.’ There’s a reason for this. We wanted to have two full albums that were related to one another. But we didn’t want to release them at the same time because 24 songs is a lot of music. Especially when you’re dealing with Sixx:A.M. music which is very heavy. The subject matter is very heavy, there’s a lot to absorb in a Sixx:A.M. record. I would say that with any one of our records, it’s a good one-listen record, it’s a better two-listen record and it’s a fantastic hundred-listen record. So, if you live with the record for ten years, now you’re really getting a sense of what this record was intended to be. We want these songs to be so important in a person’s life that they kind of become part of the soundtrack. When we got off the road from the ‘Modern Vintage’ tour, we made the decision: we’re gonna tour a lot, we’re gonna treat this like a real band now. What better way to do that then give our fans a lot of music to start? Here’s the other thing about it – as I was producing this record, my mindset was this: hopefully more people are going to learn about Sixx:A.M. with volume one and volume two – these two new records – than what we’ve done in the past, because now we are gonna be touring, no we’re gonna be doing what bands do, really working these records hard. Getting around the world, playing these shows, doing a lot of shows. If the theory was then that more people are going to be introduced to Sixx:A.M. now, then we need these two records to really, really reflect who we have become as a band, really reflect the best of us. Then what we hope will happen as people – like all the people we just played for – hopefully for everyone who maybe have heard Sixx:A.M.’s name or knew of us because of maybe one song or two songs. Now they will be able to go back and binge listen to all of our records if they’re streaming. I approached these two records as a starting point for us. This is who Sixx:A.M. is now. Then people can go back and listen to the other ones and moving forward hopefully we’ll bring them with us. That was really the mindset of these records. Everything up until now was us getting to know each other, it was us becoming a band. This is us being a band. Does that make sense?”

James Michael of Sixx:A.M. posing for Roppongi Rocks, backstage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

James Michael of Sixx:A.M. posing for Roppongi Rocks backstage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

On the new album, lyrically it is a mix of standard rock themes and some more serious, existentialist themes. “Messaging has been incredibly important to Sixx:A.M. from the very beginning. We’ve always spent a lot of time writing the lyrics. We have evolved as songwriters to a point where we are now taking on global issues. We will never be a political band! But right now there’s so much shit going on in the world.”

James Michael is evidently very proud of the band’s latest album. “We really love it. As a band I feel like it represents what we’ve become. Because I’ve produced and mixed the records as well, for me as a producer I feel like I’ve finally accomplished a few things on this record that I just wasn’t skilled to do in previous records. So for me personally, it was a bit of a landmark for me. I’m very, very proud of it for many reasons that probably no one will ever be able to hear.”

James Michael of Sixx:A.M. on stage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

James Michael of Sixx:A.M. on stage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Sixx, Ashba and Michael are very hands-on with everything to do with the band, from production to album cover art. They’re a bit of a deluxe DIY band. Are they perhaps control freaks? “I thought it was because we just kind of complemented each other, but now that you’ve mentioned it, maybe we are complete control freaks! No, both! Actually, at the end of recording and mixing these records, I made the decision that I’m not gonna produce any more Sixx:A.M. records. I really want to bring in a new producer. I want to bring in an outside thing. Part of that is because I want to test that theory that you just proposed. I’m excited, we’re all excited about the idea of bringing in another producer. We’re also probably very terrified about it. Because we are all to a degree control freaks and we’ve established this process that works so well. Nikki and I have had a lot of conversations about it and I think he’s apprehensive about it as well because I have developed such a good, solid production working relationship with DJ and with Nikki. We’ve just figured out how to do this. To dump that task on somebody else, it’s gonna be tough. I’m just excited about being able to come into the studio as the artist only and not having to work two hats.”

Nikki Sixx of Sixx:A.M. on stage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Nikki Sixx of Sixx:A.M. on stage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

James Michael has not only produced himself – something he finds easy to do as he has established a routine where he records himself all alone in the studio – he has also produced other major artists during his career. “I love the record I produced for Papa Roach. I love the connection so much. I spent around nine months living with them, making that record. They are my dear friends. They are family to me, they are my brothers. We went through so much turmoil personally during the making of that record, that it can’t help but to be a very dominant memory in my life. When I get to the end of my career and look back, that will just be one of those beacon times. I love the work I have done with Mötley Crüe, I love the work that I have done with the Scorpions. Each project is so different. I have been so blessed with the fact that almost every band that I have ever produced, I am still friends with. That is a rare thing in this business. It’s a thankless job sometimes, but I have been very blessed to consider almost everyone I have produced as a friend still to this day.”

James Michael of Sixx:A.M. posing for Roppongi Rocks, backstage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

James Michael of Sixx:A.M. posing for Roppongi Rocks backstage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Sixx:A.M. has already toured Canada and Asia and they are currently on a big US arena tour in support of the new album. “Beginning of next year we have a couple special surprises. We’re gonna go into the studio to do something cool. We’re also going to start writing the next record. So next year, 2017, we will probably spend a couple of months on the road, but we’re going to be off the road, in the studio for the rest of it.”

James Michael of Sixx:A.M. on stage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

James Michael of Sixx:A.M. on stage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

James Michael and his bandmates are busy but they are clearly enjoying themselves. “We’re having the time of our lives! Nikki and I was just talking about it, the fact that sometimes we’re so happy, we all love each other, the whole band, the whole crew. Sometimes it just feels like the dream vacation. We get to come to these amazing places, go up on stage, have a freaking blast and just experience all of these incredible people and cities and countries. It’s hard to find anything negative about it. We’ve toured with bands that just obviously can’t get along. I don’t know if it’s the case but sometimes it starts to feel like they just don’t appreciate the opportunity they’ve been given.”

James Michael of Sixx:A.M. on stage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

James Michael of Sixx:A.M. on stage in Japan in Oct 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Read Roppongi Rocks Sixx:A.M. album review here.

www.facebook.com/sixxammusic / www.sixxammusic.com

Gene Simmons of KISS: “Some people think it is just music. It’s not. It’s magic!”

Gene Simmons posing for Roppongi Rocks at the KISS Expo in Tokyo, Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Gene Simmons posing for Roppongi Rocks at the KISS Expo in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

“I’m 67 and, boy, do I look good!” says legendary KISS bassist and vocalist Gene Simmons when Roppongi Rocks meet him at the recent opening of the KISS Expo in Tokyo’s Harajuku district.

Gene Simmons on stage with KISS at Tokyo Dome in 2015. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Gene Simmons on stage with KISS at Tokyo Dome in 2015. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

KISS legend Gene Simmons is in a great mood and jokes around with anyone who comes in his way. Japan is a key market for the KISS band and the KISS brand. Simmons loves Japan. “And good-looking chicks!” as he points out while basking in the attention he gets from the Japanese ladies.

“We love Japan, if you don’t know that, learn it!” KISS and Japan have had an ongoing affair since the band’s early days in the 1970s. Most recently the band toured Japan in 2015. That very successful tour was crowned by a sold-out show at the massive Tokyo Dome where the band performed “Yume no Ukiyo ni Saite Mina” (the Japanese version of “Samurai Son”) together with Japanese pop band Momoiro Clover Z. That collaboration, which earned KISS a number one single in the Japanese charts, is a great example of how KISS, and especially Gene Simmons, get the commercial side of the music business.kiss-momoiro-clover

Gene Simmons is a rock star and a businessman. Probably one of the most successful businessmen in music. He has nailed it when it comes to building the brand and extending it far beyond the band’s music. “We make everything from KISS condoms to KISS caskets. We get you coming and we get you going!” says Simmons while looking very pleased.

The KISS Expo is filled with KISS memorabilia such as stage costumes, instruments, gold records, backstage passes, posters and even the initial band contract between the original members. It’s a combination of paradise and a candy store for KISS fans. “This is a celebration for dreams. Everybody has dreams. You have dreams, I have dreams. KISS is America’s number one gold record award-winning group of all time in all categories. But once upon a time I was a little boy and I had dreams, just like you have dreams. And I would like you all and everybody who comes to the KISS Expo to understand that when you open the doors and come into the KISS Expo, you will be opening the doors to what’s possible with your dreams. So, we all dream. The difference between your dreams and the people that do great things, is that they do something about their dreams. So, go make your dreams come true. Go do it. You can do it. You can achieve great things. This is your opportunity. Let today be the first day of the rest of your life.”

Gene Simmons posing for Roppongi Rocks at the KISS Expo in Tokyo, Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Gene Simmons posing for Roppongi Rocks at the KISS Expo in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

“The offer to come to Japan was for me and the band KISS a great day because we have always loved Japan, ever since our second album in 1974 when we wrote our names in classic Japanese letters, top to bottom, not one side to the other side, as an homage in honour of the culture and the history of Japan. We’ve always been fascinated.”

KISS stage costumes at the KISS Expo in Tokyo, Photo: Stefan Nilsson

KISS stage costumes at the KISS Expo in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

“Most of the things here came from my personal collection. There are some outfits that have come from some fans. Some of our fans have also loaned us their bass guitars that they got from us. For me it’s very personal, because what you see about a band that came to Tokyo to play Budokan and broke the Beatles’ record, which we thought was unbelievable, is for me a personal journey that I took. For me it was only yesterday where I had a dream and all these 43 years later, I can’t believe it. That’s how fast it was. For people who have grown up and have children now and the children listen to KISS and all that, it takes a long time. For me that time just flew by.”

Gene Simmons posing for Roppongi Rocks at the KISS Expo in Tokyo, Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Gene Simmons posing for Roppongi Rocks at the KISS Expo in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

“The most personal thing in here to me is…ME! Because it is people and imaginations, it’s not things. It’s not a thing that makes the magic. Things don’t make magic, you make the magic. Even if you have Aladdin’s lamp it takes a human being to have a dream and a wish to rub the lamp and then make the dream come true.”

The expo also features a virtual reality tour with footage from Gene Simmons’ own collection at his home.

“That’s my house, you’re inside my house, my personal collection. When you put on the virtual glasses to go see this great KISS collection, that’s in my house. For me it’s personal. This journey is not corporate. This journey and this expo for me is part of my life.”

KISS stage costumes at the KISS Expo in Tokyo, Photo: Stefan Nilsson

KISS stage costumes at the KISS Expo in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

With a music catalogue stretching back to the debut album “KISS” In 1974, Gene Simmons and KISS have written many iconic songs that have made an impact on several generations of fans. “It’s all the same for me. When you talk about Nick, my son, and somebody else talks about Sophie, my daughter, I love them all. All the songs are my children. This is part of my life, you talk about my family. You know, these are more than songs. People have been born to those songs. There are children named after our songs, ‘Beth’ and ‘Christine’ and it’s almost culture. It’s like Planet KISS. And, yes, I already trademarked that!” Of course he has. The business savviness sets Simmons apart from many other rock stars.

Gene Simmons posing for Roppongi Rocks at the KISS Expo in Tokyo, Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Gene Simmons posing for Roppongi Rocks at the KISS Expo in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

But the music industry has changed a lot since KISS started out. “It’s so sad today for new bands, very sad. They will not have what I had: a record company that believed in you, that put posters in stores, that gave you money to tour. The internet is the enemy! They will not pay you. You will have to live in your mother’s basement and give away your music for free. It’s very sad. The internet started around 1988. Downloading, file sharing. Let’s play a game: from 1958 until 1988 is 30 years. Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix…a thousand bands, classic, forever. In disco we have Madonna, in pop we have Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5. U2, AC/DC, maybe KISS…a thousand bands. From 1988 until today, who is the new Beatles? That’s the sad part. Because when something has no value, when it’s free, and when people steal your music – not our music, it’s too late for me, I’m too rich – but if you’re a new band, my heart goes out to them. Which is why I want to reach out and help new bands. I produced a Japanese band called EZO, which I loved, because I want to help new bands all the time. I discovered a new band called Van Halen, I wanted to give them a chance, because I already have what I want and it gets bigger and bigger. For a new band today, it is almost impossible. Live shows is the only way to do it. Which is why now that the Yellow Monkey have reformed, go see Yellow Monkey live. Support Japanese bands!”

Gene Simmons posing with Japanese TV stars at the KISS Expo in Tokyo, Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Gene Simmons posing with Japanese TV stars at the KISS Expo in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Music is escapism and Simmons compares it to Alice in Wonderland. “We think that music is just music. It’s not! It is not, because a world without music is mankind without a soul. When you’re a little baby and  you cry, your mother held you in her arms and she sang to you. If there was no music, even that would not be possible. Music is our souls, it’s the water and the food for our souls. Without it we’re just empty. We have food for the body but without feeding the soul, which is music. When you go and see your favourite band – when you go to see Yoshiki and X or Yellow Monkey, or the great Japanese bands, you forget about the traffic jam, you forget about your girlfriend who’s screaming at you before, you forget about everything. It’s magic time! Magic! Like Alice in Wonderland, you go on a trip and that’s the best thing music does for everybody.”

KISS posing with Roppongi Rocks' Stefan Nilsson in Tokyo in 2015.

KISS posing with Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson in Tokyo in 2015.

“Some people think it is just music. It’s not. It’s magic!” Simmons tells me, gives me a fist bump and walks off to have a look around the exhibition. He seems very pleased with the expo. He is a shameless self-promoter. He is his own biggest fan. But he has the talent, drive and success to back it up. He may be 67 years old but he is showing no sign of wanting to slow down. KISS is still in business. The magic business.

Gene Simmons posing for Roppongi Rocks at the KISS Expo in Tokyo, Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Gene Simmons posing for Roppongi Rocks at the KISS Expo in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

www.kissonline.com / www.facebook.com/kiss

www.genesimmons.com / www.facebook.com/officialgenesimmons

A KISS-themed stage at the KISS Expo in Tokyo, Photo: Stefan Nilsson

A KISS-themed stage at the KISS Expo in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson