Interview: Graham Bonnet and Conrado Pesinato | A future built on the past for Graham Bonnet Band

Graham Bonnet and Conrado Pesinato in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

When Graham Bonnet Band recently returned to tour Japan, Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson sat down with Graham Bonnet and guitarist Conrado Pesinato in Tokyo to chat about using the past to create a future.

Conrado Pesinato and Graham Bonnet on stage in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Graham Bonnet Band has released a terrific album called “The Book” and has finally got a stable line-up which enables them to tour properly around the world. Veteran vocalist Graham Bonnet has a very loyal fan base in Japan built up with bands such as Rainbow, MSG and Alcatrazz. He has been playing gigs in Japan for many years and now he is back just half a year since his last visit. Then he was here as a guest of Michael Schenker, now he’s here on a headline tour with his own band. The band’s debut album has done very well in Japan as is evident from the packed venues that the band is performing for. “It’s always great to be back here because the audiences are so great. The fans are amazing. They are very loyal. We always look forward to it being a good show because they are so enthusiastic about seeing the band” says Graham Bonnet and Conrado Pesinato adds: “Best crowd in the world!”

Graham Bonnet on stage in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Having performed in Japan with Michael Schenker both in 2015 and 2016 has not exactly hurt Graham Bonnet and the interest in the Graham Bonnet Band. Schenker is a major star In Japan and his fans are an obvious target for Bonnet’s music. “No doubt! He has a big following here and we lashed onto that and why not? I was in the band for at least a week… Haha!! So, it was a little reunion but not quite. But it was fantastic to do the show with him. We all respect his band and I love his music” says Bonnet with a reference to his very short original stint as MSG vocalist in the early 80s.

Graham Bonnet in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By now, Bonnet has a tradition of doing special things for his Japanese fans. For this Japan tour, Bonnet brought something very special indeed. Not only did his current band, Graham Bonnet Band, perform songs from their new album as well as old hits from Bonnet’s career. We also got treated to a special Alcatrazz set featuring the three Alcatrazz founders – Bonnet, Jimmy Waldo and Gary Shea. “It was put together by our manager and the record company, I believe. It was a good idea because Jimmy Waldo is now part of the band, it was like a natural thing. ‘What happened to the other guys in Alcatrazz?’ That’s when Gary came in and we thought ‘Well, what about Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai?’ I don’t think so. I don’t think they will do it. And Jan Uvena, our old drummer, definitely didn’t want to do it. He is completely out of the business. So we have at least two of the guys to do an Alcatrazz set. So, that’s what we’ve done. Half the show is us, our stuff along with a mixture of a bit of Michael Schenker and whatever and obviously Rainbow stuff from my past. Then we do a separate show with Gary and Jimmy, all the Alcatrazz things we wrote together. It’s kind of cool.”

Graham Bonnet has had some of the most legendary guitarists in the world in the bands he’s fronted, names such as Ritchie Blackmore, Michael Schenker, Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai and Chris Impellitteri. His latest lead guitarist Conrado Pesinato has big shoes to fill. “Yeah, I do. I do my best and have fun, that’s kind of how I take it” says Pesinato. “Right now I feel more honoured than anything else. You know, to share the stage with him, playing songs he played with all these great guitar players. And with all the rest of the band, Beth-Ami, Gary and everybody. It’s been very fulfilling. The best thing I get out of it, as far as my personal interest, are the songs that we co-wrote, some of the riffs I wrote, being performed together with riffs those guys wrote. For me that’s kind of the main thing. Playing the old stuff is very challenging and I feel honoured to play, but I get more enjoyment out of playing the new stuff that we all put together.” Having seen Pesinato perform with Bonnet in Japan both in 2015 and 2017, it is clear that he’s up to the task. He not only gets the job done with classic material, he’s also showing his brilliance with the new songs. In the past Pesinato played with Graham Bonnet Band bassist Beth-Ami Heavenstone in the LA band Hardly Dangerous which is how he got asked if he was up for joining Bonnet. “First I was like ‘Yeah, if you guys think I can do it. Yeah, sure, I’ll give it a shot’. Beth-Ami is a good friend. It’s always fun playing with her. She’s a great bass player, she’s got a great feel” says Pesinato.

Conrado Pesinato and Graham Bonnet on stage in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

“It was a natural thing” says Bonnet of the choice of Pesinato as the band’s guitarist. “He came in and the three of us got together and started making songs.” The trio got on well from the start but it took them some time before they could find the right drummer for the new band. “Eventually we found a drummer. Drummer number one. We’ve had about ten drummers so far. And finally we’ve found Mark over there” says Bonnet and points to the new drummer Mark Benquechea. “He is the best one. And we are gonna make him stay. We gotta tie him up, beat him up or whatever!” Beth-Ami Heavenstone weighs in on the conversation: “He can never leave!”

Bonnet continues: “He brought the band to life! The first rehearsal we had with him was incredible. It was like he’d been playing with us for years.” Pesinato continues: “I knew him for a couple of years in LA. Playing the same clubs in different bands. He has a killer feel and I know he’s a big Rainbow fan. He loves Cozy and that was the big selling point for me.”

Graham Bonnet and Conrado Pesinato in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Clearly the band is delighted with their new drummer, but it seems that he wasn’t too confident about getting the gig when he auditioned. “I think that he was thinking ‘I’m not gonna get this’, because he brought an album with him and he got me to sign it! Haha!! It was ‘Down To Earth’, wasn’t it? So, he got me to sign ‘Down To Earth’ just in case I never saw him again” explains Bonnet. “He’s the guy! Mark, no doubt. He was so bloody good. He blew the other guy away basically. As soon as he started playing one of the songs which every drummer has a bit of a problem with … When he started playing ‘Lost in Hollywood’, that was like the clincher. It was just unbelievable. He’s really the driving force behind a lot of the songs now. Really, really good and I applaud him, I really do. He does a great job every night. We’ve got a great band, that’s all I can say. Having Mark in the band now is so refreshing. It’s really good.”

Graham Bonnet on stage in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

The band’s album “The Book” was released about half a year ago and has done really well, winning both critical acclaim and selling well. “Yeah, it feels great” says Pesinato. “I’d say, especially for me, because before I have been touring with him and you see everybody with Alcatrazz records to get signed, all his previous stuff, Rainbow… There’s one here that I made! It feels good. It especially feels good to be part of the heritage and the great catalogue that Graham’s had with this amazing body of work with brilliant musicians. It just feels great to be part of that somehow. It feels pretty good to know that people are liking it. Like the past few shows we have been playing in Japan, to see everybody singing the songs, the new stuff”. Bonnet continues: “Last night they were getting up for the new stuff. You can see them mouthing the words. There’s nothing more gratifying than to see somebody actually singing your song. It’s a great feeling. Conrado put a lot of work into this, we worked for hours and hours and hours. And after I finished working with him, he would go home and work for another 20,000 years putting all the stuff together. We all worked very hard”. Pesinato  worked hard to address the pressure of doing a Graham Bonnet album: “For me it was, even psychologically, recording guitar solos by myself. ‘It’s a good solo but is it good enough to be on a Graham Bonnet record?’”

The end result is great and a perfect follow-on from Bonnet’s legacy. All the tracks are strong, there are no fillers on the album. “I know!” says Bonnet. “That’s what a lot of people say. I got a message from one of my friends the other day. It says: ‘Every track is like a single’. I think they all have that sort of immediacy. You can sing along with them after you’ve heard them once. The big chorus or whatever. And the story, people like the stories, so it’s kind of cool. To see people singing in the audience, every damn verse. The audience knows the words better than I do, I always forget the words!”

Graham Bonnet on stage in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

While the band is now doing a fair bit of touring, they have already starting to think about the next album. “I’ve got some more stuff ready” says Bonnet. “It’s in the works already. We both have guitar parts, ideas. I’m sure that Jimmy has some ideas as well. Keyboard ideas. He’s played me a couple of things and I’ve played some stuff to Jimmy. That’s what we do right now. It’s the beginning of the next thing”. Pesinato continues: “Even on this record, it was an interesting process. It was a little, how can I say, unusual? Jimmy kind of jumped in towards the end but he helped a lot with some arrangements and he started some ideas and he co-wrote some stuff.” Creating music is very much a team effort with the whole band contributing to writing, arranging and recording. “It was definitely a joint effort” says Pesinato of the work behind “The Book”.

With a great new album out and an incredible back catalogue going back to the late 60s, it can’t be terribly easy to put together set lists for the gigs. “It’s really difficult. There are so many bloody songs to choose from” says Bonnet. “Obviously we have to do the well-known ones. The Rainbow ones and the Alcatrazz tunes. But there are so many other songs that I have recorded over the years that were singles, on my own. There’s a song called ‘Night Games’ which they know in Japan. A Japanese guy did a version of it here years ago. So, I know we’re safe to put that one. But sometimes it’s difficult because it depends on the territory, what country we’re in. I’ve been lucky, I guess. People have listened. All the songs are not necessarily the same genre. ‘Night Games’ is very poppy and ‘Since You Been Gone’ is poppy. But then there are other songs which are kind of heavy and nasty. Haha!! It’s a good mix. We have 22 songs in this set. So it’s a long thing and everybody I’ve heard from so far, they’ve liked every damn song. Because they sort of know them.” Pesinato adds: “It’s a good problem to have, for sure!”

The band is keeping busy in 2017 with quite a bit of touring and some summer festivals. “We’ve got a lot of gigs coming up” says Bonnet. Pesinato says about what’s next for them: “Start working on a new record! Next year it’s gonna be out. And we have a live DVD coming out even before that. One we recorded in Italy last year.”

The band is signed to Italian label Frontiers Music. “We thought they did a great job promoting this one” says Pesinato. “We are definitely grateful to have them onboard. Really good.” Frontiers is a label well-known for AOR and melodic hard rock. Graham Bonnet Band is a bit different from the typical Frontiers band. “I think ours is a little sort of proggy in parts” says Bonnet. “Or just different. We have a different sound. I think that once we did this album, with these players, we suddenly found out a new sound. It is very modern. When I make up tunes… I have Conrado in the band, who’s a lot younger than me, and Beth-Ami and with Mark. Jimmy’s my age, so me and Jimmy is a bit 1980. We have to be careful. But at the same time, I have a modern way of looking at songs. Conrado helps bring that out a little bit more. The next album I think, it’ll be… If people like this one, I think they are gonna like the next one too. It will be very sort of in a similar vein.”

Graham Bonnet on stage in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Bonnet’s music has always had a sound foundation in melodic rock, but at times the latest album is quite heavy and aggressive. A bit of flashback to the MSG album “Assault Attack” which Bonnet did with Michael Schenker in 1982. “Yeah, it’s aggressive but it’s not annoyingly aggressive” agrees Bonnet. “It’s something you can listen to and sing with it, sing-along with. You can listen to the story. There is some hard-hitting stories in there about real life. It’s not made up of dragons and dungeons and whips and chains and stuff. It’s about real things. I have always made up lyrics about real life and experiences that I’ve had. People identify with certain songs and that’s really good. I can’t identify with songs about sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, if you know what I mean. Those sort of silly lyrics. I won’t say who writes silly lyrics. But there are a lot of bands out there if you read the lyrics: Are you kidding me? How old is this person? 12? I like to make up intelligent words along with intelligent arrangements.”

Graham Bonnet on stage in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Conrado Pesinato co-produced “The Book”: “I was trying to capture like the vibe of his past catalogue, even referencing… this part is a bit more like MSG, or this part a little more like Alcatrazz. Even referencing that but definitely bring in a more modern approach to it. We try to find a balance and you know, so far we’re successful at it, because it does have the element of the classic Graham Bonnet sound and those beautiful harmonies, the nice melodies. It does recall some Rainbow, it does recall some Alcatrazz, MSG, his solo stuff. But at the same time I think there is definitely a touch of freshness there. I think we have achieved something cool.”

Graham Bonnet on stage in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

The album stands up on its own, even if it didn’t have the Bonnet name attached to it. “Great! Thanks, that’s cool. I appreciate that, because it was a bit scary” says Bonnet. “I thought: is anybody gonna go ‘What the hell’s this?’ or are they gonna go ‘This is great’? And luckily the reviews and the comments from people are just amazing. I’m surprised, pleasantly surprised. I think we all are. I’m really happy. Very happy about the whole thing.” Pesinato continues: “Surprised for sure, but in a way – I don’t wanna sound cocky – I remember when we finished the record and we got the first mixes and stuff, we were talking with our manager Giles Lavery: ‘Wow! This is cool!’ I wasn’t sure what people would think, but I was personally – I am very self-critical about stuff that I do and that I’m involved with – I remember hearing the master… Wow! I think we did something cool here. I was personally very pleased with it. And I am glad people were too.”

Graham Bonnet may be a seasoned veteran who debuted in the 1960s, but with Graham Bonnet Band he also has a future. And his guitarist and co-producer Conrado Pesinato will ensure Bonnet stays current and relevant.

Graham Bonnet and Conrado Pesinato in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

www.facebook.com/grahambonnetmusic

www.grahambonnetband.com

Interview: David Ellefson talks about Megadeth’s upcoming Japan shows

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Thrash metal legends Megadeth will return to play three shows in Japan in May as part of the Asian leg of the “Dystopia” world tour. And they are bringing the mighty Anthrax with them to Japan as special guests. That’s half a Big Four show! Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson checked in with Megadeth’s co-founder and bassist David Ellefson during the band’s tour rehearsals to see what’s cooking in the Megadeth kitchen.

What can the Japanese fans expect from Megadeth’s upcoming shows with Anthrax? “It’s a really heavy and diverse set list of music from ‘Dystopia’ as well as the classics. Plus, the fans have not heard Dirk in Japan yet, so they will see Megadeth really firing on all cylinders in a really energetic way.” 

Since you last played Tokyo, in October 2015, you have released a great new album, “Dystopia”. Is it difficult finding a balance of including enough of the great new material versus playing old favourites in your live sets? “Sometimes when you release a new album, you only get a few songs deep into the record with the live show. But, with ‘Dystopia’ we have seven songs in the show already! The fans expect the classics, which we will play, and we have our favorites, too. It’s a very diverse set list.”

You have recruited the fantastic and energetic drummer Dirk Verbeuren from Soilwork as a new member of your rhythm section. Does he fit in well with you and the rest of the band so far? “He’s fantastic! He brings such a great energy and technical expertise to the band. He’s really the best of the best from the grindcore genre so it’s great to have him bring that skill into Megadeth. You really hear a new energy to the band with Dirk.” 

At Loud Park in 2015 we had three of the Big Four thrash metal bands on stage and now you and Anthrax are playing together again. Do you think we will ever see some more Big Four shows? “Let’s hope so! That was such a great moment for all things in thrash metal. I think the fans would love to see that again.”

Following the Asia tour this spring and summer festivals in North America and Europe, you have something very cool happening: the Crazy World tour with Scorpions! What a cool and unexpected combination. How did that come about? “Yes, it is really a cool bill to play with Scorpions. A promoter friend in Arizona brought the idea to us and right away it seemed like a great idea. We have played festivals with them over the years and it’s a really good fit musically between the two bands and our fans. Plus, I think every metal fan loves a Scorpions song! Dave and I have always been fans and they are one of Kiko’s favourites, too. They are a real guitar player’s kind of band. In fact, when Dave and I first met in 1983, we had a friend who was attending the school Musicians Institute in Hollywood and would come over to our place and jam early Scorpions songs. We always studied a lot of the European guitar players, because they had a different influence that worked well in metal…mostly classical inspirations. In a way, those jam sessions were inspiring in the development of the earliest Megadeth compositions, especially the complexity in the solos and riffs. It was a really creative and innovative period that defined some of those earliest songs for ‘Killing Is My Business…’ and even ‘Peace Sells…’. I think the tour is going to see a lot of us reliving some cool memories from over the years.”

What’s next for Megadeth? Have you started work on the next album? “We have some plans for exciting things later this year and into 2018. Stay tuned!”

Megadeth will perform in Osaka on 17th May and in Tokyo on 18th and 19th May. www.hipjpn.co.jp/archives/43543

www.facebook.com/davidellefson / www.facebook.com/megadeth

Interview: Alcatrazz – No parole for Gary Shea

Gary Shea on stage with Alcatrazz in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

With the three founding members of Alcatrazz – Graham Bonnet, Jimmy Waldo and Gary Shea – back on stage together, Roppongi Rocks sat down with Gary Shea to talk about the past, present and future of Alcatrazz.

Last year we interviewed Gary Shea a couple of times around the release of New England’s live album and their Japan tour. Gary might be a 66-year old music industry veteran, but he is young at heart and loves performing for his fans. “I want to play bass. I am not staying home. I’ll stay home when I am 85! We rock! So we’re here!” says Gary as we meet when he once again turns up in Tokyo to perform with Alcatrazz on the recent “Parole Denied 2017” Japan tour.

Alcatrazz released three splendid studio albums in the mid-80s: “No Parole from Rock’n’Roll”, “Disturbing the Peace” and “Dangerous Games”. Apart from the core line-up of vocalist Graham Bonnet, bassist Gary Shea, keyboardist Jimmy Waldo and drummer Jan Uvena, the band was also home to the budding guitarists Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai and Danny Johnson. Bonnet had made a name for himself with Rainbow and Michael Schenker Group, Uvena had played with Alice Cooper while Shea and Waldo had been members of New England and Warrior with Vinnie Vincent. The band had all the ingredients to make it big and they did rather well for a few years, but having a new lead guitarist for each of the three albums disrupted things and eventually they disbanded in 1987.

Alcatrazz in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Recently the three founding members – Bonnet, Shea and Waldo – have been performing again as Alcatrazz, this time with guitarist Conrado Pesinato and drummer Mark Benquechea from Graham Bonnet Band. The current Alcatrazz line-up, who has been performing jointly with Graham Bonnet Band, sounds amazing. Perhaps there is not only a glorious past but also a future for Alcatrazz?

How did this special Alcatrazz set with Graham Bonnet Band come about? “Graham’s manager Giles Lavery suggested it. Jimmy has been playing in Graham’s band. Giles and Jimmy worked on another project and then Jimmy got back together with Graham – they live in Los Angeles. He joined the band, playing on the last record and everything. Then they said ‘Let’s get Gary and do some Alcatrazz stuff as well. How about two bands and two shows? That might appeal to a lot people.’ So, here we are! I am really happy about that,” says Gary as we sit down at the record company offices the day before the final gig on the Japan tour. “There were some other renditions of Alcatrazz there for a minute with some other guys. This is a chance to play it correctly! To really nail it!” explains Gary referencing the fact that for a few years Graham Bonnet performed using the Alcatrazz name but with no other original Alcatrazz members involved.

Graham Bonnet and Gary Shea on stage with Alcatrazz in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

What about the absent former guitar heroes of Alcatrazz Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen – are they in touch at all? “Jimmy was at Steve’s house last week to work on some tracks. He was helping Conrado get a few things from the vault, some of the songs, to learn the proper bits. And Steve’s more than happy to help him out. We talk to Steve all the time. And Yngwie is no stranger, just he’s doing his thing and, of course, Steve is doing his thing. They’re doing the Axe tour. We’re all in touch. Over the years we’ve tried to put together the band again a few times. It would be great if we could get Steve and Yngwie and play all the stuff together, but that’s never gonna happen with those guys! That would be my dream if we could do that. It would be kind of fun. So, we’re in touch, it’s good vibes. Things got blown out of the water back in the dark ages about us hating each other and all that stuff. That was more the manager’s publicity stunt than it was the actual people. We’re not hating, we had a good time. It’s just that we disagreed, so fine.”

Gary Shea on stage with Alcatrazz in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

The reunited Alcatrazz has recently performed some US shows as well as the Japanese tour, but the future is still uncertain. “Nothing’s booked right now” says Gary who clearly seems keen on doing more Alcatrazz shows.

Japan loved Alcatrazz from the start and this is also where the band recorded the live album “Live Sentence” as well as the concert videos “Metallic Live” and “Power Live” – all recorded during the band’s two Japan tours in 1984. Gary has fond memories from Japan. “Obviously playing for the first time on the first tour when Yngwie was in the band. We played at the Sun Plaza. It was amazing. It was my first time in Japan. To see how Japanese people are with music, it’s unlike any other place on Earth. There’s no other country that rocks like Japan. They can talk about Detroit and all that stuff, not even close. People love music here, they listen to music and they have much respect for the artist, the musicians, listening to them play. They really respect the acts they know, the artists that play. That was a great time, an eye-opening experience, a whole culture shock. I love Japan.”

According to several sources, former Iron Maiden drummer Clive Burr was an early member of Alcatrazz. Not the case says Gary who explains that Burr’s involvement lasted for about “two minutes or one day”. “He was just one of the guys who auditioned for us. We had Aynsley Dunbar, we had Bill Lordan from Robin Trower’s band. Who else came? We had Ed Cassidy from Spirit who played for us. That was different. Bill Lordan was in the band for about a month, but he wanted to do a religious retreat in Jerusalem or something and off he went. And Clive came in, he flew in from London and played. It was OK but we just thought it wasn’t the guy, we wanted to keep looking. But somehow somebody said he was in the band and all this stuff. Great publicity, you know. The manager wanted him in the band so he could say ‘Iron Maiden and Alcatrazz’. We had to tell him: ‘Stop!’ That’s where the rumour came from. There was never anything more than one day. Great guy, it just wasn’t the right guy for it at the time.”

Alcatrazz in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

The Alcatrazz manager was a guy focused on getting publicity with little regard for building a proper band dynamic. “Oh, yeah! The same manager wanted us to get Laurence Juber from Wings for Alcatrazz. That’s not going to work. You can say, yes Wings is famous and Rainbow’s famous and New England is famous. But Wings? The guy wasn’t the right guy. The first thing he said when we played was: ‘Can you turn it down?’ I said: ‘That’s the wrong answer.’ He knew. Then we had this business guy saying ‘It’s business’. No, it’s not just business. The band has to have the blood and the brotherhood to persevere all the things that go on, go out as a team and work really hard. And go out in public and help you perform it properly, how you want it to be. You’ve gotta have the right guys. Some people don’t realise that. That’s why there are a lot of bands, ex-name bands, especially in LA, there is a million of them, ex-this and ex-that” says Gary in reference to bands based on people’s former achievements rather than what they are capable of doing here and now. Past success doesn’t guarantee a great future. “To make that next project better” says Gary, you need to ensure that “they really are on the same wavelength and they play great and people like them. It’s not easy. It’s not anything you can project, it’s nothing you can predict, it’s very unpredictable so it kind of keeps the blood moving.”

Gary Shea in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Following the first Alcatrazz album and tour, Yngwie was out of the band and was replaced with former Frank Zappa guitarist Steve Vai. “We found Steve. Steve’s phenomenal. We auditioned Steve without Yngwie knowing that and wanted to make the change earlier. The record company convinced us that we were gonna do a 40-city Ted Nugent tour of North America and not change guitar players, keep the guy that is on the record, especially as we were a brand new band. So we had to go through four months of arguing. But we had Steve already locked in, so by the time we came back from that tour, Steve had written a whole bunch of songs. We changed to Capitol Records and put together ‘Disturbing the Peace’. I am really proud of that. The first album was great because we had just met each other. Everybody was really hungry and worked really hard at that and did well. On the second record we had a chance to fine-tune even more and have someone like Steve that was really involved in the overall…not just be the guitar player, but overall production and concept and everything. Unfortunately our manager kind of left the scene and promoted Yngwie and went off with Yngwie’s record. He was actually offered an EP because he was in Alcatrazz. We thought ‘Great, more promotion for the band’. They turned that into an album, they forced that. They made it sound like he quit the band, got offered mega million dollar deals by some company in Japan. It didn’t happen. So we had no manager, we lost that record. As that was all going on, we played a few gigs and Steve was asked to join David Lee Roth and make a million dollars overnight, what are you gonna do? Who wouldn’t go and do that? So, we’re still friends, it’s all good. And we’re friends with Yngwie too. Yngwie is a great guy. He’s funny. We disagreed on a few things. He’s kind of self-centred and he doesn’t bend. If he wants something, he can’t change.”

“We felt that we had our style at that point. We were not Rainbow Junior anymore. It wasn’t Michael Schenker or any other band or something. It was Alcatrazz. That’s what we wanted to be. We didn’t want to be a hair metal band or a long list of Sunset Boulevard guys in California that went to high school together. None of us were from LA, but we’re an LA band, but we weren’t an LA band, we were more international.”

Gary Shea on stage with Alcatrazz in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Gary Shea was the one who came up with the band name Alcatrazz after they had spent time thinking about what would make sense. “We argued with Yngwie, actually. Hehehe! Yngwie wanted to call the band Excalibur or Crusader, a Knights at the Round Table name. That is so overdone. We don’t want that.” The founders wanted “something that sounded tough but no dripping blood on a sword. It would be nice if some girls liked our music” explains Gary. They eventually looked at different names beginning with the letter A, in order to be at the front of the queue. They figured that In record stores people would go to browse the A section looking for AC/DC and stuff. Once Gary suggested Alcatrazz the band and the manager loved it. They extended the choice of band name into a whole concept around the famous Alcatraz prison in California with titles, lyrics, photo shoots and music videos.

Gary Shea on stage with Alcatrazz in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

So, is there a future for Alcatrazz now that the three founders are reunited? “Jimmy and Graham are writing for the Graham Bonnet Band, so they’re busy with that. That is going to take up some time. They are going to spend the next few months and work on that. They have a bunch of festivals lined up in Europe for the summertime. Maybe next fall or next winter we can do this again just for fun and I can be involved again. I can hang out. It’s more about the hang than it is anything else. I’ve had my fun, fun in the sun. I want to keep busy, so it’s good to get me out of Florida, off the beach and play some music” says Gary who clearly enjoys playing with his old Alcatrazz mates again. The two new additions to the band, Conrado Pesinato and Mark Benquechea, have been a good fit. “They’ve learnt the Alcatrazz stuff and the five of us play that together. Great musicians, young guys, eager to play. We’re getting along great. We’re having a good time. Hang out together.”

In addition to Alcatrazz, Gary plays in New England with Jimmy Waldo and is involved in several other projects. He’s also back doing some music with Cooper Shea, which is a continuation of the UK-based band that he played with in the 70s that included David Cooper, Peter French and future Scorpions and Michael Schenker drummer Herman Rarebell.

Alcatrazz in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

At the end of our conversation, Gary reveals that when he lived in England in the 70s, he auditioned for the mighty Trapeze, the great British band whose members went on to join bands such as Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Whitesnake. He got on the short list but didn’t get the gig, returned to the US and achieved success with New England instead.

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www.garyshea.net

Brand New Conversation: Backstage with Gus G in Tokyo

Gus G backstage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Greek guitarist Gus G has had a phenomenal career with Firewind and Ozzy Osbourne. When he recently came to Japan to play a few solo shows, Roppongi Rocks sat down with him backstage for a catch up before his first solo show in Tokyo with Elize Ryd as a special guest.

Gus G on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Yuki Kuroyanagi

Gus G is best known for being Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist and for his work with his own band, Firewind. But he has also played with bands such as Dream Evil, Nightrage, Arch Enemy and Mystic Prophecy. As many other gifted guitar wizards, Gus G has released some solo albums, the latest being 2015’s “Brand New Revolution” which featured guest vocalists such as Jeff Scott Soto (Talisman, Yngwie Malmsteen, Journey), Mats Levén (Candlemass, Krux, Therion, Treat, Swedish Erotica) and Elize Ryd (Amaranthe, Kamelot).

Performing as a headliner under his own name rather than as a part of something else is relatively new for Gus G. The Japan shows, together with a show in Korea, form Gus G’s first-ever Asian solo tour. “I’ve been trying to build that over the last couple of years. It’s a new thing for me, still, but I enjoy it. It’s a different kind of freedom. It’s still kind of a small project , it’s baby steps. I am very grounded about it. Yeah, I enjoy it. I get to collaborate with a lot of great people, like Elize Ryd and lots of other singers. It’s cool, man” says Gus G.

Gus G backstage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Having just watched him doing a soundcheck with Elize Ryd, the two talented artists seem to fit very well together. It looks as if they’ve been working together for a long time. But that is not the case. They have never performed together until now. They didn’t know each other before they collaborated on the song “What Lies Below” in 2015 and met for the first time during the music video shoot. “I knew who she was. I was a fan of hers actually, of her voice and what she did with Amaranthe, I really enjoy it. But I never met her before. We wrote the song and I was thinking of her. I thought it would be cool if we had her on this. I didn’t know if was going to fit her range or style, but I just sent her the song I said ‘Hey! This is what I want to do and I like to have you on this.’ She liked the song very much and said ‘I’m gonna sing this’. It’s a good combo. Hopefully we will do some more stuff.”

The two Japan gigs marked the first time ever that Gus and Elize performed live together. “It was just timing. She’s very busy and I am very busy. It just didn’t happen in the past. She’s always somewhere with Amaranthe, running around the world and I am doing the same. I remember when I got these shows offered I thought it would be a cool idea if she came out as I was looking to bring a special guest. I just hit her up and said ‘Hey! What are you doing in March?’ It just happened that she had a few days available and she accepted to come.”

Gus G backstage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

The short Asian tour will be followed by a European tour together with Steve Stevens (Billy Idol, Michael Jackson, Vince Neil, Sebastian Bach) where Gus G will perform an acoustic set. Apart from that he has no specific solo shows planned this year. “Not in the plan so far. Because this year was planned originally to be a Firewind year, because we just released an album and basically my solo tour finished last year. But, OK, when Japan comes up, you don’t say no to that! Then another great opportunity to go out with Steve Stevens came up, so I am doing that. I am not sure if I am going to do any more solo shows later this year. I’d like to focus on writing another album to be honest. I’m gonna go back and do the rest of the Firewind shows that we have booked, all the festivals and then hopefully go back in the studio and finish up a new solo record and come back in 2018 and then do a full show like this again.”

Gus G on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Yuki Kuroyanagi

The set list for the Japan shows are sort of a career retrospective for Gus G. “That was the idea with this. We’ve done all these songs in the past. Every time I’ve changed the set list. Now we had a wide catalogue to choose from. Actually, it wasn’t that hard to put it together, surprisingly. I just said that I’d do a few Firewind tracks, I want to do one Dream Evil song. Sometimes we did two Dream Evil songs on one of my tours, but if you start adding too much, you’ll need a three-hour set list. Plus I do a lot of stuff from my solo records. I want to cover a little bit of everything and now we have a new Firewind album so I wanted to play a couple of new songs, because I am sure some fans would expect that.”

Gus does not only have some new Firewind songs with him on this tour. He also has two of his Firewind bandmates – Henning Basse and Johan Nunez – in his solo band. “Henning originally was touring with me before he joined Firewind. So, he knows both sets. Now of course when he’s with Firewind, he’s gonna be more established and known as a Firewind singer than a guy who does sessions. I think we probably have to separate it after this tour. I am thinking of getting somebody else to fill this spot and then Henning can focus on Firewind. But it is like an open family, if I ever need help and I have no singer, I am sure he’s gonna come out. Because he knows all the songs, he knows the set. On this occasion, it really made sense to bring Henning out to Japan because not only can he do all my solo stuff, but as we just have a new Firewind album, it just made sense for him to come out here and we can do a few Firewind tracks as well. Other than that, on the Steve Stevens tour I am going to have another singer.”

Gus G backstage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Like Michael Schenker, Gus G has found a middle ground between guitar tricks and creating great music that is not destroyed by too many guitar tricks, unlike what sometimes is the case with guitarists like Yngwie Malmsteen. “Yngwie is Yngwie, he is a good example. The whole idea with him is to be extreme and with other guys the idea is to play the right notes for the song. That’s two different things. I understand it is not for everybody, the extreme stuff. But for me it’s like, I like to do extreme stuff on the guitar but I like to put it into context. Everything has to have some sort of order in my mind at least. That’s probably why I write so many songs with vocals and I don’t do too many solos. I mean, there is going to be plenty of guitar wankery tonight, believe me. But it’s not gonna be to a point where everybody stops and goes for a couple of pints at the bar and then I keep playing. We don’t have those situations. It all fits in a certain frame within the show.”

Gus G backstage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

With Black Sabbath having recently finished their massive “The End” tour, does Gus have any Ozzy-related work coming up? “I don’t know yet. There is always talk and stuff but I haven’t heard anything from the camp. I am just giving them their time to figure out what he wants to do. I am sure he will let us know. He just finished and I am sure he wants to take a break to think things over how he wants to continue with his solo band. Not just me, but everybody in the band, we’re just waiting to hear what the next thing is.”

Shortly after our interview, Gus G walks on stage and delivers a great career retrospective featuring much of his best work to date. But I am pretty certain his best work is still to come.

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Backstage with Elize Ryd in Japan

Elize Ryd backstage in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Elize Ryd talks to Roppongi Rocks about working with Gus G, the idea of a solo career and the possibility of Dynazty’s Nils Molin joining Amaranthe.

Elize Ryd and Gus G on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Yuki Kuroyanagi

I have met and interviewed Elize Ryd on multiple occasions since her band Amaranthe first visited Japan in 2011. Amaranthe has not only had great success in Japan, they have done well globally with hit records and constant touring. This time Elize is in Japan as a special guest vocalist with Gus G’s solo band. The Ozzy Osbourne and Firewind guitarist is performing two career retrospective shows in Japan covering his solo material but also music from Ozzy, Firewind and Dream Evil. On Gus G’s latest solo album, 2015’s “Brand New Revolution”, Elize Ryd sang on the phenomenal track “What Lies Below”, which Gus and Elize at these special Japan shows are performing live together for the first time.

Observing Elize during the soundcheck with Gus G and the band, it sounds great but it is obvious that she’s not feeling great. All the travelling is taking its toll on the star, although she’s a pro and shows no signs of not being all-in when she walks on stage that evening. After the soundcheck, we sit down with Elize backstage as she’s getting ready for the gig.

Busy schedule for hardworking artist

Fresh off the plane from a major North American tour, Amaranthe did a string of gigs in Sweden before Elize boarded another flight to Japan. It is a tough schedule that she can’t possibly keep up in the long term. “No, it has to stop,” says Elize. “I think that I’ll have to start making some demands. For example, it’s not good to schedule Swedish gigs directly after we return home from the US tour. All of us in the band would have needed at least seven days off. Morten Løwe Sørensen looked like he was dying. All of us were completely destroyed. But somehow we managed. We did three gigs in Sweden but only had two days off during that time. We were laughing at how extremely worn out we were. But that is not something we show while on stage.”

Elize Ryd backstage in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Cooperation with Gus G

Gus G has known Elize’s Amaranthe co-founder Olof Mörck for many years, which is how he started to appreciate the Swedish singer’s talent. “But I didn’t know Gus. He wrote me and asked if I wanted co-write a song with him. But I was so busy that I never had time to participate in the songwriting process. Then Gus and his songwriters sent me a song that I thought was cool, just like I think that Gus is cool. Then, at the music video shoot, we met for the first time. We immediately clicked and became great friends there and then.” Are we likely to see the duo do more things together sometime soon? “Not that I know. But it feels like we should do like a kind of Tina & Ike thing, do more things together. It would be so much fun. He is such a talented guitarist. We became such great friends and we had so much fun together during those two days,” says Elize when she thinks back to the 2015 video shoot. “We felt that we need to play together more.”

Elize Ryd backstage in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Thoughts on possible solo career

Last time I interviewed Elize in Japan (in September 2016 during the Helloween/Amaranthe tour), she said: “If the band at some point decides to take a year off, then I’ll immediately make a solo album. No fucking question about it. Haha!” Where does she stand now on the thinking about a possible solo album? At the Gus G shows in Japan they sell Elize Ryd t-shirts at the merch booth, perhaps a sign that Elize is stepping up the game as an artist in her own right? “I am keen on it now that everyone seems to be doing solo stuff. I have been thinking about it for a long time. Even KISS did solo albums – all of them sounding very different which I thought was funny. Perhaps I should start my own band? I have been thinking about cool band names but then I thought that I should perhaps just use my own name, just like Gus is performing as Gus G. And now with Alissa White-Gluz too. That inspires me. She works as much as I do with Amaranthe. She’s doing so much with Arch Enemy. I am thinking that if she has time to do it, then I should be able to find time somewhere to do it. And I want to get out and perform. I assume that I can’t just release an album. I probably have to think about doing some gigs as well. I don’t think I have to tour all the time, but perhaps do a few gigs depending on the demand. I have an unlimited supply of ideas for this.”

Changes in Amaranthe’s line-up: “Nils Molin is top of the list”

Recently Amaranthe co-founder Jake E decided to leave the band. Elize says she was not expecting Jake E’s departure. “No! The way I feel for the band, this was shocking. I would never want to leave my baby. But I understand that if he has other musical ideas. It’s up to him. No one’s forcing anyone to do anything. It’s like everything in life, you take risks. If you feel that you’re prepared to go for it, then that’s what you should do. If you feel that you have nothing to lose, then it is nothing to dwell on.” Having earlier used Chris Adam from the band Smash Into Pieces as a stand in for Jake E, on the recent Sweden gigs, Dynazty’s Nils Molin has stepped into that role. Based on the first three gigs in Sweden, Molin seems to be a great fit for the band. So, will he now join Amaranthe as Jake’s replacement?

“I hope so!” says an excited Elize. “Nils is top of the list. We had fun with these gigs in Sweden. It was so much fun! He’s a cool and great guy. Thus it would be great to have him in the band. Exciting! It’s great with some new blood.” As is the case with Chris Adam, Nils Molin has a permanent gig as frontman of another band. “That’s the problem. He’s awesome. It sounded really great. His voice fits us really well. He can even reach the high octaves together with me. That was cool! We want him! We obviously would like to have him. We’ll see what happens. We’ll find out. He’s coming with us for the Finland tour.”

Elize Ryd backstage in Tokyo in March 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Amaranthe, who released their latest album “Maximalism” in October 2016, keeps on touring around the world. “I look forward to returning here to Japan to play our new songs. It’s a bit more party like. It’s a different mood on the new songs. It is a great feeling playing them live. They’re supposed to be loud!” says Elize as she’s starting to apply her stage make-up. Soon after our interview ends she walks on stage and delivers another great performance for her Japanese fans. She is a great fit for Gus G. Hopefully we will see more of this cooperation between two terrific artists.

No rest for the wicked. This talented artist will no doubt keep busy with Amaranthe and plenty of other projects. “I’m still young!” says Elize with a big smile.

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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.

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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.

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