Squeeze Me, I’m Yours – an interview with Glenn Tilbrook

Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze in his dressing room at Billboard Live in Tokyo in May 2018. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Formed in London in 1974, British rock band Squeeze is still going strong. “We needed to justify being a band now as opposed to being a tribute band to our own past,” explains Squeeze’s founder and frontman Glenn Tilbrook as he sits down with Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson at Billboard Live in Roppongi.

“It’s good to be here. It’s really great to be here. One of my favourite countries in the world!” says Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze as we sit down in the band’s dressing room before the first of two shows at Billboard Live in Tokyo.

Tilbrook’s Squeeze co-founder Chris Difford is missing from this tour but the rest of the members of the latest line-up of Squeeze are here: Stephen Large (Pete Doherty, Babyshambles, Johnny Depp, Duffy) on keyboards, Simon Hanson (Death in Vegas, Hall and Oates, The Quireboys, The Dogs D’Amour, Rick Wakeman) on drums, percussionist Steve Smith (Dirty Vegas) and, the latest addition, bassist Yolanda Charles (Paul Weller, Robbie Williams, Aztec Camera, Mick Jagger, Dave Stewart). It’s a terrific version of the band.

Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze on stage at Billboard Live. Photo: Masanori Naruse

Tilbrook has toured in Japan numerous times, sometimes with Squeeze and sometimes as a solo artist. “We didn’t come here until 1993 the first time. Difford and I came back once, I think -97. Since then I’ve come back… I’ve done a lot of solo work here. I really enjoy doing that but it’s lovely to be able to have the band too.”

Squeeze formed in Deptford in the southeast part of London in 1974. The band’s local DNA seems to have shaped the band’s look and sound as well as its song lyrics in the early days. “Yes, that is what shapes us. It was a very different time. It was economically quite depressed. Where I was growing up, there was still a lot of bomb sites around and they didn’t all disappear until late seventies, early eighties. It’s an atmosphere, let’s put it that way. I think that that time informed our writing a lot in the early days.”

Musically Squeeze is all over the place – rock, pop and much more. It’s a band that is hard to define. “I think that there was all sort of stuff that went into Squeeze. I mean certainly, for instance, my favourite guitarist and one of my favourite songwriters from that point will be Jimi Hendrix. Something not a lot of people would link with Squeeze, but I think he had a wonderful melodic sense and also the tone of his playing. His playing is just amazing. I still think he’s amazing. I think that Squeeze has always drawn on the different characters in the band and everyone’s different taste has always made it something different.”

Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze in his dressing room at Billboard Live in Tokyo in May 2018. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

You have a long-standing creative partnership with Chris Difford. Do you write together or separately and then send ideas to each other? “We always write separately. Since the band’s been back together, I’ve been more involved lyrically. I wasn’t involved lyrically at all previously. Normally I would start off with a lyric of Chris’s and I put a tune to it. It’s always lyric-driven.”

That’s a bit different from how many other songwriters work. “It is, I found out. But, you know, if you learn to use a knife and a fork a certain way and it turns out not to be the way everyone else does it, that’s just how you’re stuck. Well, it works for us.”

You’ve had other strong creatives and musicians in the band in the past, such as Jools Holland, Gilson Lavis (Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dolly Parton) and Paul Carrack (Roxy Music, Roger Waters’ The Bleeding Heart Band, Mike and the Mechanics, Nick Lowe, John Hiatt, Ringo Starr). How did that impact the creative dynamics for you and Chris? “They brought really fantastic things to the table. I still love what they did. Gilson, our original drummer, was an incredible drummer. But they couldn’t do what this band does today. The band has moved on and I believe that change is always good and necessary. When you hear the band, you’ll see what I mean. It’s a proper band, it has a force and a dynamism all of its own, that Squeeze has never had before. It’s been different and really brilliant, but it’s never been like this. It’s great to be in this band. I’m really proud of it, still.”

Squeeze’s newest member is splendid bassist Yolanda Charles who joined last year. Was she a deliberate choice to make Squeeze relevant, contemporary, groovier and funkier? “It really is down to her playing. The fact is, she can do anything. She has her roots in jazz, really. Although I am not a jazz player, I love jazz and some of my writing sometimes veers that way. To have that informing how we play stuff is amazing. For instance, we play ‘Annie Get Your Gun’, which is an old Squeeze song. Squeeze didn’t play on it, we just sang on it. But Yolanda’s bass playing really drives it along. It’s the best version we’ve ever done. We’ve been through a few changes. We weren’t gonna make them but just found out that we had to because people couldn’t be there. And then it’s worked out. It’s been really good.”

Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze and Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson at Billboard Live in Tokyo in May 2018.

In recent years you’ve produced some great new music with Squeeze. Were you ever tempted to just keep touring with the old hits? What drove you to write new Squeeze material? “I think that we needed to write, we needed to prove ourselves. Certainly, to me, we needed to justify being a band now as opposed to being a tribute band to our own past. I am immensely proud of our past. I love it. But if we were just doing that, I think we’d go stale.”

The new material is fab and fits in well with the classic songs. “It does work. The sets now feel like completely integrated between new and old. That’s the aim, to say: Look, we were there then and we are here now and it’s all good. That’s what’s so exciting about it. You can take the audience with you or, there have been a few times in the past where we’ve left them behind and that’s not a good thing to do. So, yeah, you have to find the balance and that always takes a while when you have a bunch of new songs to see how they integrate into everything.”

You have been doing gigs in Australia, Singapore and now Japan on this leg of your tour. What’s next for Squeeze? “We have some dates in the UK in summer, we’re doing some festivals, and then going back to the drawing board.”

So, will there be a new Squeeze album next year? “There could well be. I just don’t know until we sit down and chat about it.”

You’re 60 years old now. How do you deal with the pressure of life on tour? “I just have to look after myself and get plenty of rest, otherwise I can’t sing. My voice is in good shape and vocally, this Squeeze is such a strong line-up. Everyone can sing and it sounds fantastic.”

Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze in his dressing room at Billboard Live in Tokyo in May 2018. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

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Interview: H.E.A.T | Into the great unknown soundscape

H.E.A.T in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

When Swedish melodic rock band H.E.A.T released its latest album “Into the Great Unknown” last September, they divided their fan base with a partly new musical direction. Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson sat down with the band in Tokyo to discuss the thinking behind the album and the return of original guitarist Dave Dalone.

Following the 2015 “Live In London” live album, which featured quite a lot of rock’n’roll, H.E.A.T’s new album, “Into the Great Unknown”, the band’s fifth studio album, is more focused on melodic rock and even some pop. The new catchy side caught some fans by surprise.

Erik Grönwall of H.E.A.T in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

“We were aware that there would come a reaction once we were finished with recording the album,“ says vocalist Erik Grönwall. “Personally, I don’t think we planned too much about the direction. It was more because we, during the break, all sat and wrote new music on our own. When we are around each other all the time and write music as we did with the previous albums, we inspire and influence each other. Now spending time with different groups of friends, we get introduced to new kinds of music, get new influences. Then we jointly put together the new album.”

Bassist Jimmy Jay continues: “You almost fight with yourself to not limit yourself. You don’t want to be boxed in. A fan should be wondering ‘What’s next?’. I think that is fun with this album.” Drummer Crash adds: “It’s boring to set limits. It’s fun to do whatever we want to do. I think we have done that.”

H.E.A.T in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

“I was the one who was the most sceptical towards this album. I was siding with the not-yet-convinced fans,’ says Grönwall. “When the reactions started to come in, I was like: I knew it! Then when the fans started to come round and like it and the reviews were great, I thought: It’s not that bad after all. Now I think this album’s great!”

Were the band members worried about how the new album would be perceived by the fans? “I’ve been worried ahead of all the album releases,” says Crash. “When we released ‘Time on Our Side’ as the first single from the album – it stood out a lot. That single probably set the tone for what impression people would have of the album. Had people heard ‘Bastard of Society’, the opening track on the album, then there may have been a smoother transition in some way. Now it was like a bomb going off. It is a fantastic song, it’s nothing we regret, but I can understand the initial reactions. But it feels great that we are engaging so many people.” Grönwall adds: “I still claim that ‘Time on Our Side’ is the best release we’ve done when it comes to its reach. It became a talking point.” Jimmy Jay continues: “A lot depends on how one chooses to package things. If you take ‘Time on Our Side’ as an example. At the demo stage that was more of a hard rock song. It had several different shapes before we chose to package it in the electronic style that we did on the album.”

H.E.A.T’s live set now contains more and more newer material. “Naturally we now play more from the three most recent albums with Erik. We’re playing fewer and fewer songs from the first two albums. We do play quite a lot from the latest album. It’s fun playing new stuff,” says Crash. “It’s becoming harder for every new album,” says Grönwall of choosing set lists.

What musical direction will the band take from here? “It’ll be a surprise. For us too!” says Crash, who then adds: “We have a rough sketch of a plan to get back into the studio and record already this year. We want to keep the tempo up. No more two-year breaks!” The latest album was recorded in Thailand and produced by Swedish producer Tobias “Tobbe” Lindell, best known for his work with bands such as Europe, Sister Sin and Hardcore Superstar. “The reason it was recorded in Thailand was that we had a great budget! Haha!!!” jokes Grönwall. Crash continues: “Tobbe, the producer, lives in Thailand and had some connections. It’s not that much more expensive and so it’s not as if we went out and wasted loads of money.”

Crash of H.E.A.T in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

“We also got quite a lot of time to let things settle in and we could continue to produce at home. It was more detailed,” adds Jimmy Jay about the production of the album. “It is in contrast to how ‘Tearing’ was. That album sounded very ‘live’. On that album, we tried to retain the live feeling. I can catch myself sometimes when I listen to ‘Live in London’. On, say, ‘Inferno’, it’s hard to know which version is studio and which one is live. It is a very similar sound,” says Crash.

With guitarist Eric Rivers exiting the band as they began the work on the new album, original guitarist Dave Dalone returned to the band after a few years of absence. “It just kind of happened,” says Dalone. “From our side, when there was a need for a guitarist, we went through what alternatives there were. We realised that Dave is the best!” says Jimmy Jay. Crash adds: “Keep it in the family! An hour after Rivers said he was leaving, I finally realised that he’s gone. Then the four of us sat down and the first thought that came up was Dave. Should we ask Dave back? That’s how we started to discuss.” Does Dalone see any difference with the band this second time around? “Yes, it feels a bit different now. Personally, I think I needed that break. It feels better now,” explains Dalone. Most of the material for the new album had already been written by the time Dalone was back in the band but he added his bits and pieces where he saw fit. “Someone writes the basic outline and then we all sit and create together in the studio. All of us are involved in songwriting all the way,’ explains Grönwall.

H.E.A.T will now continue to do more gigs during the spring and summer. “And we will perhaps go out on another tour in the autumn,” says Crash, before they start to properly work on the next album. Who knows what we’ll get next time? No doubt it will be quality, no matter what genres H.E.A.T decides to tackle.

H.E.A.T in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

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Interview | Venom Inc: “We can only be who we are”

Venom Inc: Abaddon, Mantas and The Demolition Man in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Venom Inc talks to Roppongi Rocks about an unplanned reunion, being cheeky, writing very long songs and staying relevant.

Venom Inc on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Mikio Ariga

What a comeback! When the classic “Prime Evil” era line-up of VenomTony “Abaddon” Bray, Jeff “Mantas” Dunn and Tony “The Demolition Man” Dolan – reunited as Venom Inc a few years ago, I think many people saw it as a fun and nostalgic thing. Venom was founded 40 years ago in Newcastle in the north of England. It not only pioneered extreme metal, the whole black metal sub-genre was named after its second album. In August last year Venom Inc released the fantastic album “Avé” on Nuclear Blast internationally and Ward Records in Japan. It was one of 2017’s best albums and it became obvious that Venom Inc is much more than just a reunion and a celebration of the past. Venom Inc links the past, the present and the future. When Venom Inc recently returned to Japan for a second tour, I sat down with the band backstage before their Tokyo gig.

While a bleak Cronos-led version of Venom has been out there playing shows, the proper legacy of the band seemed to have died. But then guitarist Mantas and vocalist and bassist Dolan reunited in 2010 in the band M:Pire of Evil and that was the beginning of something which in 2015 led to a proper reunion of a vital Venom under the name Venom Inc.

“It was always a good version of the band,” says drummer Abaddon. “It wasn’t a short stint of the band. People tend to forget about that a little bit. Good albums, some good tours. We went to some places we hadn’t been to before. So, it was a good thing to reunite, it wasn’t a ‘let’s get some random guy back in the band and hope it works out’. It was a good version of the band to start building from. But it wasn’t meant to be a band. It was just meant to be a one-off thing for a festival in Germany. It was meant to be these guys playing as M:Pire of Evil and I was going to join for five songs, six songs.” Dolan adds: “Just to go ‘Surprise! There you go’.”

The Demolition Man backstage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Abaddon continues the story: “There were a lot of…I guess what you call hardcore Venom fans there anyway. It’s very central to where a lot of people live, handy for the French people, the Swiss people and obviously the Germans. So it was always going to be a hardcore group of people there. This just kind of added a bit of spice on that cake and it made it a bit more exciting for them. Right from the beginning, right from the first chords of the first song we played, you’re getting this wave happening… You only really get that with some of the bigger bands, like when Deep Purple getting someone back in or Black Sabbath getting Ozzy back in and you get that really big wave.”

“It felt unusual, not regular,” says Dolan and continues: “Not just another band. Even the signing. There was 20 minutes allotted for the signing and after like 35 minutes they were going: ‘You know you guys can stop now’. But there was still a line. I mean there was over a thousand people, I swear to God, lining the hall while the bands were still playing. And I said: ‘But there is all them.’ It was crazy. At 50 minutes they went: ‘Look, I think you guys should probably just…’ and I said: ‘Well, when they’re finished, if we can get to every fan.’ There were other bands signing their things and leaving and we were still there. That’s just how it is.”

Abaddon backstage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

What prompted the reunion of the “Prime Evil” era line-up? “There is a festival in our hometown Newcastle,” explains Abaddon. “Tony’s band Atomkraft was playing and he spoke to Jeff about getting to do some old tune in a very similar sort of way but in our hometown. I was there just watching what was going on as a fan of the music. I had been there maybe a couple of years in a row. I’m standing at the bar and a couple of these big German guys with ‘Black Metal’ on their backs, they turned and looked at me when these guys were on stage.”

As Mantas appeared on stage next to his old Venom bandmate Dolan, the Germans looked at Abaddon in the audience and said: “What the fuck! Why aren’t you doing this?” Abaddon was taken by surprise: “I was like: ‘I don’t know.’ It turned out that one of them was the promoter of the show. He does a few big festivals. The one in Newcastle I think was in February and the one these guys were going to do in Germany was in April, so it was a kind of a natural. ‘If I can make this happen, would you be up for it?’ Like I said it was ever meant to be that quick couple of songs.”

After the Newcastle festival the promoter approached Dolan: “He literally after the festival said: ‘That was really great to see all that and you got Mantas up and that was brilliant. Why don’t you get Abaddon and do some Venom stuff?’ and I was like: ‘Well, it wasn’t that kind of thing and I don’t know if that could happen’.” The promoter pushed on and got Abaddon to agree to turn up at the festival in Germany after being promised flights, a nice hotel and a bottle of whisky. “It was quite a shock. We all just had a giggle,” says Dolan about the one-off festival reunion in Germany. But by the next morning, says Dolan, “We had two or three management offers, we had four or five promoters worldwide go: ‘When can we book the band?’ We’re not a band, we just did that. ‘No, no, you guys should do this’.” Abaddon adds: “We got an offer for a live album, an offer for an album.” Dolan continues: “So we just said: Why not? But the misnomer is that we went out there to cash in and play the catalogue. It kind of wasn’t like that. We agreed to do a lot of stuff so the first thing was to go: ‘What would people like to hear?’ And they wanted to hear every single song that’s ever been done!” Abaddon adds: “Funny enough one of the first places we came to was Japan. We went to China and then Japan. The Japanese were some of the first people that saw this.”

Mantas backstage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Since the initial touring after the reunion, the band then went into the studio and created nothing short of a masterpiece. A new album with new terrific music. Did the band members know that they had such great new material in them? “There was no plan,” says Abaddon and Dolan adds: “No plan to do anything. We just went: ‘OK’. To make it legitimate, I personally felt we should go back to the first single and then come as fast through the catalogue of Venom because it’s such great songs that lots of people hadn’t actually heard. They never got a chance to see the band. Make our way right through to where we are.”

Abaddon continues to explain: “Me and Jeff were founding members of the band but Tony is a fan of the band. I think it’s fair for me and Jeff to say that we’re not particular fans of Venom’s music. You can enjoy playing it and enjoy writing it and enjoy taking it out on the road, but would I have bought ‘Black Metal’? I would have bought ‘Prime Evil’ after I heard it, but I don’t think I would’ve then gone back to the back catalogue necessarily. But to have somebody in the band who is a fan of the band and who gets the band, knows about the songs.” Dolan originally joined Venom as a replacement for Cronos in the late 1980s.

Venom Inc with Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson in Tokyo.

Venom has a proud legacy with some classic songs, but the new Venom Inc album beats the whole back catalogue. “That’s a big thing to say. That means a lot,” says Abaddon. “The one thing that we discovered,” explains Dolan, “because I didn’t want to go towards an album, I really didn’t. The live album, we talked about it, people were asking about it. A live album though? Maybe later once we’ve done… But there’s no new music. Do you want to give that to the fans? The same songs but just in a different configuration. Is that not boring? But there are collectors and they want it. An album brings a whole load of stress. I don’t want to get into politics anymore. I don’t want to do that. And then selling it to who and getting the best deal and publishing… You think: ‘Oh my God!’ We were having so much fun just playing the music to fans who wanted to hear particular songs. That’s what I want to be able to do, to just play the music that is there. With the way we feel, there’s something special with it. The first three of them had something and we have something. I don’t know what it is, it’s just something. Let’s just have fun with this. We’re too old to get into all that bollocks again. But, they kept pushing, they kept pushing, they kept pushing. So it was like: ‘Well, what is the best thing about us? Apart from we’re good-looking of course, we’re sexy, we smell pretty good’. If we’re going to do it, how do we take who we are in a live situation and put that on an album without it being a live album?”

Abaddon continues: “The big thing that is different, I suppose, now is social media. The way that bands are perceived, the way bands can build something or change something. It’s different now. We didn’t grow up with that. We grew up with tape trading and phone calls and word of mouth. We weren’t very good players. The interest in the band grew outside of how good we were and what we did. We relied a little bit on… You learn all this with hindsight. We were allowed to grow into what we were supposed to be. By the time we got the band there, when Tony came in, we could actually play a little bit and we knew a bit about what we were supposed to be about. Don’t forget that it was fucking five, six albums in or something! You know bands have that tricky third album? We had to go to six before we could put a good record out!”

Venom Inc: Abaddon, Mantas and The Demolition Man in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

While working on the new album, did the band feel any constraints to fit in with the Venom legacy? “When Jeff was composing this stuff, he’s constantly writing stuff,” says Dolan. “He was sending things through that I had to be thinking about vocally. I see music in images. When I hear the piece, I see whatever it is. If I don’t see anything then it needs something else. I don’t know what it is. But, OK, we’ll think about that. But if I see it, there it is. Anything sent through I kind of saw.”

“I think that the one thing that we all kind of agreed on, how the album came together and how it was done, was that we weren’t gonna go back and say: what made ‘Bloodlust’ good? Let’s do another one!” says Abaddon and Dolan adds: “No plagiarism!”

Abaddon continues: “I think that’s fair to say, we all thought: Right! ‘Witching Hour’ was great. People love ‘Witching Hour’. Let’s do another one! That was never gonna happen. Whether it was going to sound sonically like ‘Black Metal’ or whatever, or played like ‘Prime Evil’, it was never gonna be: ‘Just take that because it worked’. That was never gonna happen!” Dolan adds: “Not on purpose. That was the key. Jeff was like: ‘Do you think I am going in the right direction?’ I went, this is the direction you need to go in: You were Jeff Mantas, you are Jeff Mantas and you will always be Jeff Mantas. And I and Tony are the same. That’s what we need to record. Us! You don’t have to be that guy, you don’t have to be anybody! We don’t have to try and be that other thing. We just have to be us, the way we are. That’s what’s working and that’s what should happen. For me I think that’s what happened. It’s honest because that’s who we are. When we play the tracks live, people have been saying the same thing. When we play the new tracks, on one of the shows we did not so long ago, a festival show, I’m singing ‘Avé’ and when I was singing the chorus it sounded funny. Something weird happening. I’m getting some kind of weird reverb. And then I realised, the audience were all singing it! They were all singing it back. Wow! It was amazing to do those new tracks. That was always a Venom thing, when people would be singing the lyrics as loud as they could while we’re doing it. That’s a testament I think. But that comes from the other thing: plagiarism would have been death to us. Trying to be something we aren’t. We can only be who we are. That’s what works!”

The cheeky side of the Venom Inc boys is always present which is evident when we discuss how much of the new material the band now typically plays in the current set list. “Eh… Jeff plays all of it, I play some of it,” says Dolan with a big smile across his face. Abaddon continues: “I play about two-thirds of it. Hahaha!!” And the banter goes on: “So, it depends on where you are in the audience. Haha!!” laughs Dolan and Abaddon adds: “If they’re at the back it’s a right fucking mess!”

Venom Inc: Abaddon, Mantas and The Demolition Man in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

On a more serious note, Abaddon explains: “It kind of depends on how long the sets are. You have to give a crowd-pleasing performance. As people want us to play the new stuff anyway, so it’s a kind of give and take and find what fits. There are certain songs on the new album that fit well in with a classic set. One of the things I used to love about band, the bands I was into, would change up songs when they played live. One of the big things that we’ve done, there are no actual changes in the song, in parts of the song, but the way we play parts, is ‘Warhead’. We used to play ‘Warhead’ all the time, you know with the other guy and it was always good and it was heavy. It was great. But somehow it’s become this thing which is central to the set, almost every night. It’s like you just get into a fucking groove and it really becomes massive. It’s a great song, there is nothing wrong with the song. We played it pretty much every time we played but it was always just a song.”

Dolan continues: “‘Sons of Satan’, it’s kind of become an anthem for the fans and us. When we play it, it’s like the punkiest punch in the face you’re ever gonna get. And it means something now. Before it was just another song, but it means something now. Like ‘Warhead’, stuff like that. We play with it. We want to put the new stuff in, but was is amazing is that a song you may have composed forty years after that song and we put them back to back and they sound like they could…all of the songs from ‘Live Like An Angel’, the B-side of the first single, to ‘War’ or ‘Bloodlust’ in the middle, they could all be on the same album. That’s amazing to have stuff like that. That shows great songs. That’s always something I’ve said about the legacy. Most bands might go out… If you went to see Europe, tell me five Europe songs! ‘The Final Countdown’…” Abaddon adds: “Ha! I couldn’t tell you two!” before Dolan makes his point: “’The Final Countdown’! Now if you went to see Europe and they didn’t play ‘The Final Countdown’, you’d be going: ‘Ah, I’m gutted!’ To be in a band where you have got more than one and you’ve got ten and we could play 30 songs over two hours, three hours and still people go: ‘You didn’t play my favourite song! Why didn’t you play that one?’ That’s that richness of the legacy and that’s what is really special about this and really wonderful. Every night is a different night. We have that flexibility because of experience and because of everything else. Each night is not the same night. A thousand years ago, if you came to see the first night of a 30-date tour, the guys on the last night didn’t know what was gonna happen. The reviews wouldn’t be coming out until later. They might see a photograph, but rarely. They might have had a friend who went to the show. These days, before we finish the set, everybody on the last date already knows because they have taken photographs of the set list, there’s video up. In a way it’s kind of like a spoiler to a movie. I’m dying to see this movie and then someone post it and tells you everything about it. No! So I’m trying to encourage people to wait a little bit so that people can enjoy that. But because of that it means that we have that movement so we don’t give you the same show. In Osaka it won’t be the same show as tonight so that people can feel it’s special.”

The Demolition Man backstage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

On the new “Avé” album there are some very long songs. Mantas, the main songwriter, explains: “There’s a couple of songs I actually had to strip back. They were even longer. ‘Forged in Hell’ was about a minute longer than it is on the album. I was listening to it and it was just… When I’m writing, I am all about hook lines and choruses and where can the audiences join in? And this particular song, to me it seemed it was taking too long to get to the ‘Forged in Hell’! It was taking too long to get to that, so it was about a minute cut out of that.” Dolan adds a cheeky: “And then you gave yourself a good talking to, didn’t you?” Mantas continues: “I did. But a track like ‘Avé’, that comes in at… even ‘Dein Fleisch’, that comes in at seven minutes. But the thing is, when I construct the songs, when I am listening back to them, the first time I have a song fully constructed, I press play and the stop watch and I see what it comes in at. Then once I have got all the parts together and it’s still the same length, even without vocals, if it’s not doing it without vocals, because the vocals are the key on every song. That’s it, that’s the storyline for it. But as an instrumental piece, if I’m sitting there going: ‘For fuck’s sake! Fucking hell, when is it going to end?’ But with both ‘Dein Fleisch’ and with ‘Avé’ and with ‘Blood Stained’ as well, it was like I didn’t notice that because I felt the arrangements and the parts were keeping the attention. Then I thought: once the vocals go on top and the story’s told, then you’re not gonna notice. Seven minutes is going to pass like that. We had to do an edit for ‘Dein Fleisch’ for some strip clubs in America. They wanted a three and half, four minute edit for pole dancers. So, I did that and then listening back to it, it actually sounded weird. It was ending too soon.”

“The thing about radio play,” explains Dolan, “‘Dein Fleisch’ was on radio constantly in America. Nobody was going: ‘It’s a bit long, isn’t it?’ They were just playing it. If it works, it just works and people don’t notice the length of it.” Mantas continues: “Purposely, that’s why the album ends with ‘Black N Roll’. Because you’re getting commentary on world, fucking shit that’s going on and you’re getting the usual stuff from Venom, you’re getting the song about metal and the fans and all that kind of stuff. And it is a pretty dark album at times. Some of the songs are long and then it just needed a good punch in the face to finish it off! With a bit of humour which we have always been known for. It was a tribute to everything we love really.”

Dolan makes a point about the cheekiness of the band: “I think that’s a highly important point as well. That humour thing is something – we always had that cheeky humour thing. Venom always had that. I think it lost itself somewhere. That is part of whole thing. To me having that cheeky side back in there, I guess was important. It’s part of the identity.”

Well, folks, the Venom Inc boys are here. They have a past, present and future together. They’re relevant and they’re better than ever before. Shortly after our chat they walk on stage and deliver a devastatingly terrific metal show. Metal we bleed indeed.

Venom Inc: Abaddon, Mantas and The Demolition Man in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

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Interview: Jonas Björler of The Haunted | “We’ve always had thrash elements in our music”

Jonas Björler of The Haunted in Tokyo. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

When the extreme metal band The Haunted from Sweden returned to Japan for some shows in support of their latest album, Roppongi Rocks had a chat in Tokyo with co-founder and bassist Jonas Björler.

Jonas Björler of The Haunted in Tokyo. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

Jonas Björler, how do you feel being back in Japan with The Haunted? “It’s nice to be back in Japan. This is like the fourteenth time. I’m always looking forward to Japan,” says Jonas Björler with a big smile as we sit down at Liquidroom in Tokyo during soundcheck.

The Haunted has fantastic thrash metal-style guitars mixed in with your extreme metal. Would you say that it is the thrash guitars that define your signature sound? “We have always had our roots in thrash metal. You’d notice that on the first album. We have never really left thrash metal behind us. The album where you have the least amount of thrash probably is ‘One Kill Wonder’ and perhaps also ‘The Dead Eye’ when we started to experiment with more prog and heavier things. But we’ve always had thrash elements in our music.”

Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson and Jonas Björler of The Haunted in Tokyo. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

The Haunted’s members are busy not only with this band but also many other bands and projects, including At The Gates and Witchery. How do handle all the commitments? “We try to have a shared calendar and make it work somehow. It’s first come, first served, kind of. If someone has something he really wants to do, then we let him do that and we plan everything else around that. We all have jobs back home, so it becomes a bit hard to plan things. That’s why we book things a year in advance. At the moment we’re booking January and February next year. We have to be ahead in order to plan things,” explains Björler who, together with drummer Adrian Erlandsson will return to Japan already in May for gigs with At The Gates.

With a fantastic new album, “Strength in Numbers”, released in August last year, it must be tricky to put together your set lists? “We will play four or five of the new songs. We try to mix all kinds of songs, trying to include something from every album. I don’t think we will play anything from ‘Versus’ today, but other than that we have things from all our nine albums. You can’t please everybody. We just play whatever we want. Play something from all albums, except one perhaps, but with emphasis on the new album.”

When you write music does it differ between the different bands? Do you compose for a specific band or do you just write new music and then use it where it fits? “I have just finished the new At The Gates album. I did all the music for that one and thus I kind of feel like I am out of ideas. Let’s see. Often when I sit at home riffing I normally hear that this is probably cooler for that band. My wife also has opinions: ‘That sounds like that band’ and so on. It can be a bit tricky. I am one person with my influences. I think that with both bands… Sometimes things overflow the borders between the bands. With At The Gates I try to make it a bit more death metal with a melodic atmosphere. With The Haunted it’s more thrashy. That’s kind of how I think about it.”

Jonas Björler of The Haunted in Tokyo. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

For many years you played together with your twin brother Anders Björler in both The Haunted and At The Gates. But Anders is no longer a member of the bands. Do you miss him? “I am used to it as he left The Haunted in 2012. I’ve gotten used to it. I miss him on stage and playing together, but we see each other quite a lot privately. Perhaps we get less tired of each other now.”

Danish producer Tue Madsen has produced many of The Haunted’s albums, but the latest album was done by British producer Russ Russell who famously has worked with Napalm Death. Was he chosen because you wanted to make a really heavy album? “Yes. Tue has been great on the earlier albums, but we felt that Russ has even more of the sound that we want, the brutal kind. Yes, we wanted something new after Tue. He has done all of them really since ‘Revolver’. Thus we thought it was time for a change, to try to get some variation in the sound.”

Do you feel any constraints when you write music? Do you feel that what you write has to fit within certain parameters or external expectations? “No. We have never written music in that way. At least not me. I don’t start the work on a new song with ‘What will people think?’ or ‘How will they react to this?’ I can’t work like that. It’s better to just write freely and not have any ulterior motive. Otherwise I think one will hinder one’s creativity and get stuck. It’s better to do as we have done with The Haunted where we have at least tried to expand the sound and the ideas. With ‘Dead Eye’ and also on ‘Unseen’ we took a step to make it progressive and darker. Many people didn’t like that, but we did it anyway. We felt that we wanted to do it. Try it out.” You kind of did an Opeth! “Yes, but perhaps not completely, just a bit. We have been sniffing at a few things. I really think that ‘Dead Eye’ is one of our better ones, even if not everyone likes it. Music is about feelings, I think. If you’re not communicating something, a good feeling or something that makes people react, then there is no point in creating music. Even if you do grindcore and that kind of music, you have to deliver some kind of feeling.”

Jonas Björler of The Haunted in Tokyo. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

Apart from founders Jonas Björler and Patrik Jensen, The Haunted has had quite a few line-up changes with people coming and going and returning as well. Drummer Adrian Erlandsson and vocalist Marco Aro are both on their second stints in the band while Ola Englund joined in 2013 to replace Anders Björler. With these personnel changes, how do you maintain the band’s sound? “I’ve played with Adrian in At The Gates too and Marco has been in the band before. Because we know them and how they are as musicians too, it is kind of easy. Ola is a great guitarist too and that also makes it kind of easy to work with these people. It hasn’t been any problem.”

The Haunted has a great history with Japan. You’ve recorded a live album here (“Live Rounds in Tokyo”, recorded in 2000 when on tour in Japan with In Flames) and you’ve also had great success with At The Gates here. “We like coming here whenever we get the chance. We have been here with all the album releases with The Haunted, I think. Yes, we have and even one year I was here three times, two with The Haunted and one with At The Gates.”

The latest album was released in August last year and you have been out playing to promote it. What’s next for the band? “We played Sweden, Norway, Finland and now we’re here and then we’re doing Spain and Portugal. After that we have a few festival gigs in Germany and such. We take it as it comes. We don’t do any long tours as we have jobs back home. We’ll see what happens. We’ve had a few offers for the autumn, some bigger things as well such as support slots for tours.”

The Haunted is closely associated with the Swedish city of Gothenburg. That is where the band formed in 1996 and the band and its members have also to some degree been part of the legendary Gothenburg Sound scene. But nowadays the band has left Gothenburg. “No one actually lives in Gothenburg anymore. Before we all lived in Gothenburg, apart from Marco. I moved to Örebro. Adrian lives in London. Jensen has moved to Helsinki, Finland. Ola and Marco live in Stockholm. It’s a bit spread out now and thus we don’t rehearse much. Hahaha!! We have to rehearse at home and at soundcheck!”

Jonas Björler of The Haunted in Tokyo. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

As mentioned The Haunted’s Jonas Björler and Adrian Erlandsson will be back in Japan already in May to play with At The Gates. And no doubt they will return with The Haunted at some point.

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www.the-haunted.com

Interview | Minoru Niihara of Loudness: “We can’t stop being creative”

Minoru Niihara of Loudness. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Japanese metal veterans Loudness have a terrific new album out, “Rise To Glory”. Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson recently sat down for a quick chat with vocalist Minoru Niihara in Tokyo to talk about the new album.

“Rise To Glory” is Loudness’ 27th studio album since they debuted in 1981 with “The Birthday Eve” and it is the first album released by Japanese label Ward Records. “I’m very happy that the album is finally out. I’m very proud of this new one,” says Minoru Niihara as we meet in Tokyo.

Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson and Minoru Niihara of Loudness in Tokyo.

Niihara is Loudness’ original vocalist. He first became known as a member of the band Earthshaker, before his first stint with Loudness which lasted from 1981 until 1988. Loudness then brought in American singer Mike Vescera as a replacement for a few years before they were fronted by former EZO singer Masaki Yamada. In 2001, bandleader, guitar wizard and main songwriter Akira Takasaki reunited the original line-up with Niihara, bassist Masayoshi Yamashita and drummer Munetaka Higuchi. They have stayed together ever since, with new drummer Ampan Suzuki being the only change (he joined a decade ago as replacement for Higuchi who passed away from liver cancer).

“It’s been four years since the last album and Akira Takasaki had lots of ideas. After the original line-up got back together, it’s been 17 years and the band has made many albums. There have been really good ones and some experimental ones. On this new album, all the songs were carefully written, I feel good about it,” says Niihara.

Minoru Niihara of Loudness. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Niihara makes it clear that Loudness has no interest in being a mere nostalgia act touring around and just playing their hits from the 80s. Creating new music is very much part of today’s Loudness. “We started making the album last March. It’s in our nature that when we start making something new we are on fire. We can’t stop being creative. We enjoy the creativity. There was an explosion of creativity in the studio! Creativity is the most important part of the band. If we stop being creative we should split up.”

Minoru Niihara on stage with Loudness in Japan in 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

In the past, metal bands would often spend months together in a studio somewhere in order to produce an album. Nowadays that has changed into many albums being created in the different members’ home studios. Loudness is originally from Osaka but nowadays all the members of the band, apart from Akira Takasaki, are based in Tokyo. “The way we recorded this time around was like a mixture of the past and the present. For the rhythm section, drums and bass, it was more convenient to record in a big studio. The vocal takes, because it is time consuming with doing things over and over again, it was easier for me to do it in a home studio. Akira’s guitar parts were done in his home studio in Osaka.”

Loudness famously used Max Norman (Ozzy Osbourne, 220 Volt, Y&T, Armored Saint, Megadeth) as a producer on a few albums when they were starting to make it internationally. This time around, Akira Takasaki produced the album himself. “Yeah, he did. We brought our own ideas to him and he produced it,” explains Niihara. Is there a big difference between having a band member like Takasaki producing the album rather than an external producer? “Ask him! Haha!! We were considering getting an external producer but decided not to. Maybe we will do it again, but this time Akira was a perfectionist working with the album. He could become demonic as a producer, but things worked out OK.”

Some international editions of the new “Rise To Glory” album come packaged with the bonus disc “Samsara Flight” which consists of re-recordings of old Loudness songs from the early years. These were re-recorded and released in Japan in 2016 to mark the 35th anniversary of the band. “Because we have released over 25 albums, we wondered which area should we recreate. We finally settled on the earlier albums which were recorded when I was 21 years old. Haha!! How would the songs sound when sung when I am 55 years old? Also, there are lots of Loudness fans around the world who are not aware of the earlier works. The younger generation of fans don’t know what the band sounded like when we debuted. That’s why we decided to recreate the early tracks. We didn’t rearrange the songs too much, we played them in the original keys. It’s being released in Europe and the States and I’m very excited!”

Minoru Niihara of Loudness. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Loudness has in recent years been busy touring around Japan and other parts of Asia as well as Europe and North America. Niihara, who turns 58 in March, says the band will continue to tour as much as they have. “Yeah, I think so! We will tour while we can, while we are still healthy and fit to do so. We haven’t toured South America yet, and we will tour all over the world to see the smiles on the fans’ faces.”

With 27 studio albums below their belts (“No kidding! Really? OK!” says Niihara when reminded of their huge back catalogue), they have an enormous number of songs to choose from when putting together set lists. “We’re fighting a lot! Haha!! No. We start by thinking of the concept of the tour and the shows. When we toured Europe last time, there were requests that we should perform more songs from the 80s, so that’s what we did. For the next tour in March, many of the songs will be from the new album.”

Over the past few years, Loudness has performed some special anniversary shows, such as “Thunder in the East” 30th anniversary shows and “Samsara Flight” 35th anniversary shows and even a “Solider of Fortune” reunion show with Mike Vescera. There may be some additional special shows coming up. “Maybe we will do a ‘Hurricane Eyes’ album show, maybe…There are so many albums! Every year there are album anniversaries. But still, we have a new album now. As long as the fans enjoy what we play, we will do different types of shows and keep them happy.”

Minoru Niihara of Loudness. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Loudness fans do not have to fear that the band won’t continue to write new music and continue to tour. Other veteran Japanese metal bands such as Anthem, Outrage and Earthshaker are also still going strong, leaving less room for newer Japanese bands. Niihara keeps an eye (and two ears) out for newer Japanese bands. “Galneryus! But I can’t pronounce their name! Haha!! We’ve played with them at Loud Out festival. They are awesome! Incredible. Also, I enjoy ONE OK ROCK. I like his voice. I like his father’s voice as well. They’re cool,” says Niihara in reference to ONE OK ROCK’s singer Takahiro Moriuchi and his father, Shinichi Mori, a famous Japanese singer and one of Japan’s biggest-ever selling recording artists.

Loudness new album “Rise To Glory” is out now via Ward Records.

Loudness on Facebook / www.loudnessjp.com

Interview: What rattles Dirk Verbeuren’s cage when he’s not Megadething?

Dirk Verbeuren of Megadeth backstage in Tokyo in 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

2018 marks 35 years of Megadeth. Roppongi Rocks decided to check in with our mate Dirk Verbeuren to see what he gets up to when he’s not behind the drum kit in Megadeth.

Recently you were a guest DJ at a club in California. How did that come about and how did it go? “A friend of mine named Jason Todd, singer for Spades & Blades, is the house DJ at the Slide Bar in Fullerton. He has a guest over once a month and in November I happened to be the lucky guy. It was a ton of fun, just a chill night, lots of drinks and loud as hell metal!”

Do you often do guest appearances as a DJ? “This was a first. I’d be happy to DJ on a more regular basis. When something new catches my attention I always feel this irresistible urge to play it for everyone and DJ’ing would definitely scratch that itch. I used to co-host an extreme metal radio show many years ago and that was a total blast.”

Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson and Dirk Verbeuren of Megadeth backstage in Tokyo in 2017.

Do you ever spin any of your own records when you’re DJ’ing? “I spun a couple of Megadeth and Soilwork tracks because I figured people would expect me to. And I was right because I got requests for more. You can’t escape playing some classic tunes but hopefully those in attendance discovered new music as well. I know that’s what I would want.”

You’re well-known for your work in extreme metal. But I also know that you listen to many different kinds of music. How does your diverse music taste show in what you play as a DJ? “Well, this particular night was metal themed. I had to resist playing Run The Jewels or Autechre. My tastes are all across the board and tend to include a lot of weird stuff. A set spanning my collection would probably frustrate the hell out of some folks so I should totally go for that one day. Haha!”

Current favourite tracks that you like to spin? “Dodecahedron‘s album “Kwintessens” is my number one record of 2017. These guys are pushing the black metal envelope in a fascinating way. New Godflesh and Portal are high on my list too. There’s a Swedish band named Chronus which is killer on all fronts, and I’m not just saying that because my wife and I manage them. Other than that, let’s see… Dead Cross, Aevangelist, Ho99o9, Satyricon, JK Flesh… Those are just a few of the artists I’ve been hooked on this past year. I have an ever-growing list of new music to check out.”

Dirk Verbeuren of Megadeth backstage in Tokyo in 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

How do you deal with ridiculous requests from guests when you’re out DJ’ing? Do you sometimes feel forced to play some shite music you don’t like because you receive requests? “If I’m the DJ you’re not gonna hear anything lame. Shite requests will go right where they belong: down the crapper.”

Your wife Hannah Verbeuren is a talented photographer. I know she took some terrific photos for your Bent Sea records. How involved are you in each other’s work? “Thanks! Her work amazes me time and time again. She has an incredible eye and manipulates light as if it was the easiest thing in the world. We tend to do our own thing because it’s best to separate business and marriage. Every now and then we’ll collaborate such as for Bent Sea. I entirely trust her judgment and sense of composition. That goes for the layout of those records as well. Whenever I work with graphics or pictures, I always go to Hannah to make sure what I’m doing visually is cool.”

Apart from DJ’ing and doing session and guest appearances as a drummer with other artists, what keeps you busy when you’re not occupied with your day job in Megadeth? “I teach drums in person and online. It’s fun and keeps me on my toes. I also do drum clinics and workshops for Tama, Meinl and Roland. Outside of the musical realm, we have two dogs and two cats we spend a lot of time with. And with friends as well of course. I’ve been a video game fanatic ever since my folks got me a C64 back in 1982. It’s the perfect destresser for me. When there’s free time I’ll usually be toiling away at ‘Dark Souls’ or some other ridiculously intense game.”

Dirk Verbeuren of Megadeth backstage in Tokyo in 2017. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

You have always been involved with multiple projects and bands as well as teaching. In recent years you have been rather busy with Megadeth. Do you still have time for as many outside projects as in the past? “My focus is on Megadeth. I’m in the midst of assembling ideas for the follow-up to ‘Dystopia’. It’s very exciting to be a part of that whole process for the first time along with Dave, David and Kiko. It’ll be a great learning experience. My time for other projects has always been limited because Soilwork was super busy as well. But I always make it work. Speaking of which, there’s some new Bent Sea stuff on the way. There can never be enough music and drumming in my life!”

Dirk Verbeuren in Tokyo in 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

Cheers. Keep grinding. “Cheers Stefan, you can count on that!”

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Interview: Epica’s Simone Simons talks about combining metal with anime

Epica’s Simone Simons in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Dutch symphonic metal band Epica is a bunch of hardworking musicians. 2017 saw them release two EPs and tour the world in support of their “The Holographic Principle” album. “In 2017 we toured a lot. We toured our asses off!” says vocalist Simone Simons when she meets Roppongi Rocks in Tokyo.

Following on from last year’s first and very successful Epica tour in Japan, the band recently made a very shrewd move for the Japanese market: combining metal with Japanese anime. The “Epica vs Attack on Titan songs” EP, released in Japan on 20th December via Ward Records, features covers of the soundtrack to Hajime Isayama’s popular Japanese anime series “Attack on Titan”. The band recently followed that with a return to Japan for a one-off show in Tokyo where they, in addition to a best-of set, performed three of the four songs from the new EP.

Epica consists of guitarists Mark Jansen and Isaac Delahaye, bassist Rob van der Loo, keyboardist Coen Janssen and drummer Ariën van Weesenbeek in addition to vocalist Simone Simons. Simone is in a good mood when we meet her and she is clearly very happy to be in Japan again. “Thank you very much. Arigato. I am very happy to be back here,” says the singer who is actually celebrating her 33rd birthday when she meets us.

Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson and Epica’s Simone Simons in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

It took Epica some 15 years before their first Japan tour, but the Japanese fans did not have to wait long for the follow-up visit. The first Japan tour in 2017 made its mark on Simone. “We did three shows: Osaka, Nagoya and Tokyo. I fell in love with Osaka. That’s where we had the most time to do sightseeing. The sunset was making the city look yellow and golden. It was amazing! I really liked the culture, the people, the food. We struggled to get to Japan. We had some offers from promoters and then we had to wait if it would all happen. We were always pulling the short straw, so to speak. Now we made it and shortly after we got the opportunity to cover the ‘Attack on Titan’ songs. So, I guess it was worth the waiting. It was 15 years. Because now we got back here in nine months and we got this amazing opportunity.”

Is this perhaps a start of frequent visits and an intense love relationship between Epica and the Japanese fans? “Hahaha! That would be nice, yeah. That would be appreciated. I can’t say how excited I am for tomorrow to actually play those songs live. It’s different from what we normally do with Epica. So it’s going to be something new. And I’m ready for it!”

Epica’s Simone Simons in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

Epica’s new EP combines two lucrative cultures with strong and loyal fans: metal music and Japanese animation. The EP features four cover songs where Epica has recorded Epica-style versions of songs from the “Attack on Titan” soundtrack. “Our Japanese fans love it! The ‘Attack on Titan’ fans love it we’ve been told earlier, so we’re very relieved. It’s not an easy task to cover cult tracks like those. It’s so huge in Japan and a little bit scary! Dangerous territory. I guess that’s the greatest honour for us, that they are happy with how it sounds and that the fans of ‘Attack on Titan’ love it too. And people all over Europe have been asking us: ‘When is this EP being released in Europe?’ because Japan gets the first release. Some of our fans have the CD already because they have some friends in Japan that are willing to ship the CD to them.”

Epica’s Simone Simons in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

While Epica’s sound somewhat keeps evolving, they have established a signature Epica sound which combines symphonic and melodic metal with occasional growls and plenty of heavy guitar-based riffing. In addition, they have a world-class singer. Simone Simons is leagues above most competitors and that sets Epica apart from many other bands in the same genre. “Well, thank you for the compliment, first of all. I think the ‘Attack on Titan’ songs really do have the Epica… They are wearing the Epica dress, so to speak. But it was really new for us. We’ve never had any super-fast songs as these ‘Attack on Titan’ songs. We had to slow them down a little bit in order for us to play it and not have them computer programmed. It’s not a style we’ve worked with before, so that was the great thing about it. It was a challenge, like how can we fit all the pieces of the puzzle together? How does the original composer think about it? We’ve been given, really, a lot of freedom to make it our own. We recorded demos and we sent them to Japan. We had the lyrics in Japanese translated to English. It was quite one on one, so it didn’t work with the vocals anymore. So then Mark, Coen and I divided up the four songs and rewrote the lyrics. Everything went really smooth. I am myself a huge soundtrack fan, so this was a great opportunity to do something on my wish list. Still, I would like to work more in this field because I enjoyed it immensely.”

For the new EP, Epica once again recorded with producer Joost van den Broek, someone they seem to have developed a very close working relationship with. “Yeah, he’s now a little bit the seventh band member. He guides us through the whole process, from the beginning to the end. He is very organised, which is a great thing, because not all musicians are like that. He really makes sure that everything is really streamlined and that we don’t cross any deadlines, that we are all well prepared. We recorded professional demos – that almost sounded like they only had to be mixed and mastered and they could also be on the EP – for us to get the material in our bones, in our systems, so that when we recorded for real it would be really natural. We approached the whole writing and recording session exactly the same as we would do with normal Epica material.”

Simone Simons in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

Epica seems to be a bit heavier live than on record. I love that extra heaviness we get from Epica on stage. “That’s the energy that gets out when we’re all together, I guess. When you’re in the studio, everybody is just on their own. Drums, bass, guitar, the choir and then the vocals come in the end, the arrangements. Then when you’re on stage there’s a different energy. I’ve been told that before that Epica sounds great on record but live it’s just a different experience. That’s why I always tell people to come and see our shows and not watch it on Youtube with crappy audio.”

Having released two EPs during 2017, when can we expect the next full-length album? “I cannot put a date on it because we are still touring until the end of the summer, August. Then, after, we are going to take our time, enjoy time at home and let creativity flow, whenever it hits us. And get together a couple of months after that and see how many songs we have, how are we going to plan the year. In 2017 we toured a lot. We toured our asses off. It’s a great thing for a musician, but it’s the only big thing or downside of being a musician is being away from your family. Some of us are parents, we all have partners, wives… I have a husband, I don’t have a wife! It’s hard to be away.”

Epica’s Simone Simons in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

Simone’s husband is German musician Oliver Palotai. He’s a member of Kamelot and have also played with Doro, Uli Jon Roth, Circle II Circle, Blaze Bayley and others. The couple has a young son together. “Luckily he doesn’t tour like crazy. He’s going to tour now, in this year. But we make sure that our schedules are not blocking each other, so one of us is at home. There sometimes is an overlap of a couple of days, but we have great family that helps us with that. 2017 was a little bit too much for all of us. Not to sound ungrateful, but it got out of balance. We were all missing our families a little too much. We want to still appreciate what we do. We know it is very special and we want to live it as long as we can. That’s why we are going to take it a little bit easier, writing and recording a new album. Not putting a deadline on it, because we don’t want to become a music-writing machine. We want it to come organically. And spend some more time with family and friends as well.”

Epica’s Simone Simons in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

In addition to her main job fronting Epica, Simone has made many guest appearances with other artists, most recently with Exit Eden, Arjen Lucassen’s Ayreon project and Tarja. How does she manage to fit all this into a very busy schedule? “I don’t know! I must have more hours a day, I think sometimes. Exit Eden I recorded with Joost as well. We did that in one day. And Ayreon I recorded in Arjen’s studio in one day. So, that’s only two days basically. And for Tarja I recorded it at my husband’s studio in five minutes.”

Her past guest work has also included work for her husband’s Kamelot. He has also been a live member on an Epica tour. “I’ve sung on three Kamelot albums, I think five or six songs in total. I’ve sung with Leaves’ Eyes as well. I’ve sung on MaYaN also!” says an excited Simone about all the interesting studio work she’s done. But all these projects are basically studio-based. She doesn’t go on tour with any other artists. “That would be an exception if I were to do that because we’re touring so much with Epica. I have a second company that is my blog and photography website. Sometimes I go to events, but that is also hard to plan because Epica is often away. So I try to not be more away apart from touring with Epica and the occasional event I have to go to. So I get to spend some time with family.”

Epica’s Simone Simons in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

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Interview: Paul Stanley and Eric Singer of KISS talk about three decades of playing together

Eric Singer and Paul Stanley in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

KISS legends Paul Stanley and Eric Singer recently sat down with Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson in Tokyo to talk about their nearly three decades of playing together, their love for Motown and Philly soul and much more.

Sitting down to talk with people who essentially wrote and performed the soundtrack to one’s youth is both exciting and scary at the same time. The reason for our conversation this evening in Tokyo is that Paul Stanley and his KISS colleague and former Black Sabbath drummer Eric Singer, with their current side project Soul Station, are revisiting the soul music of their youth. Thus, here we have a combination of the music of my youth and the music of their youth.

We kick off our meeting in Tokyo the evening before they start a 12-gig residency at Billboard Live in Tokyo and Osaka with their Soul Station band by chitchatting about timepieces (”I like your watch,” says Eric Singer who in 2015 was elected to the jury of watchmaking’s highest awards, the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève) and modern art (“Kind of Basquiatish. It almost looks like Basquiat,” says Paul Stanley, who is also a painter, of my original hand-painted art t-shirt by Aussie artist James “The Walking Creative” Smith), but we soon focus the conversation on music.

Prior to Eric Singer joining Paul Stanley in KISS in 1991 he played in Stanley’s solo band in 1989 and now they are also playing together in Soul Station. The now nearly three-decade long partnership started when the former Black Sabbath and Lita Ford drummer Singer was in the band Badlands in the late 80s (which also featured Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Jake E Lee and Singer’s former Black Sabbath colleague Ray Gillen). They recorded their debut album in 1989.

Roppongi Rocks Stefan Nilsson centre) with Eric Singer and Paul Stanley of KISS in Tokyo in January 2018.

“That’s actually how I met Paul. I was in New York recording that record. And the bass player Dennis St James, who was playing bass with Paul, he was managed by the same management people. He went to the office one day and he said: ‘Hey, what’s Eric doing? Paul Stanley needs a drummer.’ ‘He just finished his tracks. He’s going home. He’s done for like a few months’ So, I think he recommended me as well as some other people. I got a call from Paul’s office, from Derek Simon. He called and said: ‘Can you come over and meet Paul?’ It goes to show you how fate works. Literally my hotel was one block around the corner from the KISS office. I walked around the corner and went to meet Paul in his office. I remember I brought him a couple of Black Sabbath albums and some stuff I had played on. Then we just chatted. I was going home the next morning. That night I was going to the Record Plant. I was just hanging out. They were doing overdubs and Jason Flom, the A&R guy who had signed us, shows up in the studio very late at night, about midnight. He goes: ‘I heard you’re playing in Paul Stanley’s solo band.’ I go: ‘What!?’ Nobody had told me anything. ‘I just saw Paul Stanley at the China Club. He told me you’re playing drums in his solo band.’ That’s how I found out.”

“Amazing!” says Paul Stanley before Singer continues: “I remember it like it was yesterday. This was early, like January of ’89 when that happened.” Eric Singer is now well established in KISS where he replaced Eric Carr who died of cancer. “Other than Gene and Paul, my time in KISS has been the longest of anybody.” But Stanley’s working relationship with KISS co-founder Gene Simmons beats the relationship with Singer by about two decades. “With Gene it is about 49 years,” says Stanley. “What year did you meet him?” asks Singer to Stanley who replies: “Well, I was 17.” “On that fateful day,” comments Singer before Stanley adds, tongue-in-cheek, “That day that will live in infamy.”

Eric Singer in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Now, 29 years after they started playing together, Stanley and Singer are still at it. In addition to playing with KISS, they are both members of the 13-person strong soul collective Soul Station.

Singer explains how the idea of Soul Station started a few years ago. “The school where his children go, once a year they do like a fundraiser. A lot of the artists’ and musicians’ children go to that school. One day Paul said: ‘Hey, I’m gonna do a cool gig where we’re gonna play classic rock, like Led Zeppelin and Free and stuff like that’. He put together a cool band and played at the museum, the history museum downtown LA, a really cool vibe. Then the next year they wanted to do it again. So Paul said: ‘I want to do something different. I always wanted to do this Motown stuff. So he put this band together. And it was so much fun and so cool that it basically, kind of fed on itself and here we are a couple of years later. That day we played at the school, the Foo Fighters played and Bush, because their kids all went to the school. So for the parents that had children at that school, they got one hell of a concert. It was only like a 150 people there. It was on the school grounds, on the football field. It was really cool.”

Was soul music the obvious thing to do when Stanley and Singer wanted to do a side project for when KISS is not touring the world? “For me,” says Stanley, “my roots are much more diverse than some people realise. And Eric too. So, I think that is very much something we have in common. I grew up with classical music, Broadway and opera. When I got a little older, I saw Otis Redding, The Temptations. My roots were as much Philly soul and Motown as Led Zeppelin. And I think really that what you bring to your music, that’s unlike your music, is what will make your music different. If you just feed on something similar, it becomes redundant. It becomes almost incestuous. Whereas, when you have roots that are outside of your genre, you have something extra to offer. For me, there’s two kinds of music: good and bad. There’s good rock’n’roll and there’s some awful stuff. There’s jazz that is horrible. I’ve played with Eric so long that I really think, as will happen with people who play a long time, we instinctively know, without speaking, what we’re thinking. I know that Eric knows what I’m thinking.”

Paul Stanley in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Singer continues: “And what you want! I think that’s even more important. I know how he likes certain things. I am good at following, or taking his lead and anticipating how he’s feeling about something or an ending. Like we talked today in rehearsal, I am able to follow you obviously better than the other guys because I am used to it. I have a sense of how he will naturally feel things.”

Paul Stanley has much admiration for his rhythm anchor: “But Eric is also, he’s so much more than… Eric, I believe, is very, vastly underappreciated or thought of in music circles. He is right up there with the best. He’s a phenomenal drummer, not just because he plays rock, but because he comes from a background that’s far beyond rock. To think that somebody could come in and play this kind of music, to play Soul Station, would be insanity. To think you could take some guy out of a ‘hard rock band’, it just wouldn’t happen. You know, Eric really is well schooled and really understands music. On top of that, the bonus, that we didn’t even know when he joined KISS, is he is a great singer. And let’s face it, as time goes on and our voices aren’t what they once were, as any athlete’s body isn’t what it once was, Eric can do some of the lifting, so he’s great. I would say that with him here or not. He’s a terrific guy and a great person to play with.”

Two famous rock stars seemingly suddenly playing in a soul band might be somewhat of a surprise for some people. Were they at all nervous about how things would be perceived when they first performed with Soul Station? “No, I don’t think so,” says Singer. “Because, like Paul said, there’s sometimes more than meets the eye. If you only know somebody from how you first discovered them, either as a band or individually, like we always tell people: Everybody in LA only knows me as Eric Singer – a rock drummer. They don’t realise that when I grew up, in my formative years I played in my father’s band, I’d play all the standards and was exposed to opera, community theatre. I then was a band leader and they used to take me to the symphony and the opera. I was exposed to lots of stuff and played other types of music. In fact, I was really not a rock drummer originally. I was more of that type of a drummer because that’s what I did since a young age. But I always wanted to be a rock drummer and I always thought I could do it, I could be good at it, if I just had the opportunity. Once the opportunities presented themselves, I was able to take advantage of them. I always believed that I could do that. People always asked me when you’re a kid: ‘What did you think?’ or ‘What did you feel?’ All I know, I used to go to concerts and I used to have the posters on my wall and buy the magazines. I said: ‘I didn’t just think I could this, I always thought you’re supposed to do this’, if that makes sense. I know it is easy to say because I have had some success with it, but I truly believed that since a young kid. I just thought I need the opportunity and then I know I can take advantage of it. Once those opportunities manifested themselves, I was a quick study and I learned very quickly and adapted. At least I feel like I did.”

Eric Singer in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Stanley continues: “I wasn’t nervous the first time we were gonna play. I knew we were great. Whether or not people would come is another thing. Look, when you say to somebody: ‘Hey, you know the guy who sings in KISS is going to do Motown and Philly soul’, you’re gonna go: ‘What?’ And plus, in the beginning and even now, I try to make sure people know, look if you’re coming to hear ‘Love Gun’, it ain’t gonna happen. If you’re coming to see me play guitar, I’m not playing guitar. So, that very much changes the rules and the dynamics. If I put together a solo band and, honestly, just to side track, I don’t think of this as… This isn’t a back-up band for me. I’m in this band. I’m not interested in having guys play behind me. I think the reason we have so much fun as a band is because I want everybody to be featured.”

Singer explains: “Everybody’s integrated in this. There’s no doubt about it. All the singers, everybody gets to shine. But the music is so great that, as long as you stay true to the music, everybody shines because of that. Because the material is so strong. It’s undeniable.” Stanley continues: “We’re not up there rearranging these songs. Our cause is to go out and play them the way they were recorded. It’s really disappointing, unfortunately, when you see some bands from that era doing sped-up versions and Vegas arrangements. I wanna hear those songs, we all wanna hear those songs played reverently with the respect of them sounding like they should, the way we remember them. Again, for me, there was talk when we first talked about the first show: OK, the band will play and then I will come out. I come out with the band. We’re in this together. It’s not: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please…’ You know? I want everybody here to feel, not only appreciated, but essential. Somebody else said: ‘Oh, you could do some shows this summer and there’s musicians available in this country or that country.’ It’s not like that. This is a band!”

In KISS, Stanley is always playing guitar as well as singing, whereas in Soul Station he is fully focused on vocals. One might wonder if this makes a difference to how he performs on stage. “There’s no problem,” says Singer. “Because he always could dance. He’s a good dancer, a performer. So to me it’s like, instead of having a guitar, he’s got a mic stand. And he’s got the girl background singers, so he’s got the props around him!” Stanley continues: “Eric is essential, because I can lean on him. I think a great drummer is somebody who you can almost physically lean on. He’s not stiff, but he’s dependable and he’s in the pocket.”

Paul Stanley in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Singer cuts in: “One thing I was going to point out, not to interrupt you, but you made a good point before. One thing I found pretty eye opening, was when we learned the songs, I always make sure I do my homework, because while the guys in the band, they’re really more schooled about charts. They could literally show up and they would show up with the charts. They’re sitting there reading their charts all the time. I think that you should know… Paul taught me a lesson a long time ago and it applied to singing, so I applied that theory to playing. Know what you’re playing, like, know the song. Know what you’re singing so you can mean it. So I applied the same thing. Know the material so you can really play it, not just reading it like a book. The eye opening thing for me was that so many of these artists, even the bands themselves, the way they play the songs… They don’t really play the stuff faithful to the records. They play all the tempos really fast, the drummers don’t play the beats like on the albums. It’s pretty surprising. So we try to go: ‘Let’s be faithful and play these songs, the parts and stay in the pocket, the tempos, the way these songs were written.’ I think it comes off better that way. I believe it does.”

Stanley continues: “For vocalists, I think, particularly in bands where vocalists have been replaced over the years, I kind of go: ‘I don’t think you understand the song you’re singing. You might as well be singing in Chinese, because… Have you ever sat down and read those lyrics? You’ve memorised them, but what’s the intent of the lyric? What’s being said?’ Otherwise, that’s one of the problems I have with some of these talent shows on TV. I’ve said to my wife: ‘This guy might as well be singing in Latin, because he has no idea what he is singing about.’ So, it’s not a matter of the melody. It’s not a matter of memorising a lyric. You gotta know what you’re singing!”

“I’ll be honest, I get off on the vibe of a song,” says Singer. “I really love guitar, so it’s all about the vibe and the riffs. That’s what I’m attracted to musically. But these songs, the lyrics really are great lyrics. The songs are great but the lyrics have a lot of depth to them. They are a lot about relationships, about emotion. They’re great. They really are great. Like ‘Let’s Stay Together’, what a great lyric!”

Eric Singer and Paul Stanley in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Japan and KISS have had a loyal relationship ever since the 1970s. Not only KISS, but also side projects such as Soul Station, Gene Simmons Band and Eric Singer Project have done well here. In 2015, KISS last did a major Japan tour and also had a number one hit single (a collaboration with Japanese pop group Momoiro Clover Z) and in 2016, there was a successful KISS Expo Tokyo which was opened by Gene Simmons. What is this long-lasting Japanese fascination with everything KISS built on? “I think,” says Singer, “just like we were fascinated with British rock – basically they took our music, repackaged it and sent it back over – but I think the same way that we have always been fascinated with the British invasion, I think it just kept going west, across the ocean. And the fascination is there for the fashion, just the whole overall culture.”

“I think it goes beyond that,” says Stanley. “I believe that our connection to Japan is based upon their knowing how much we love being here, how much we appreciate them. A great relationship is based on reciprocity. A great relationship is based on the give and take. I think that over the years we’ve shown ourselves to be truly enamoured with everything here. So, I think it’s reciprocal. It’s not just about music. It’s not just about a culture. We’ve gone beyond that. We’ve made it personal.”

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Interview: Riot vocalist Todd Michael Hall discusses his solo album

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Having recently reviewed Riot vocalist Todd Michael Hall’s beautiful solo album, Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson decided to check in with the American musician during Christmas to discover more about the thinking and work behind the album. “I am a bit nervous about what some people might think, but then again, it is impossible to make everyone happy,” says Hall.

Todd Michael Hall started playing with former Virgin Steele guitarist Jack Starr in Burning Starr a decade ago and a few years later joined the latest version of the classic American hard rock band Riot. Recently he released his first-ever solo album, “Letters From India”. Hall’s album is quite different from Riot’s hard rock music, but the album features several hard rock-related guests: Francisco Palomo of HolyHell, who has also played with Manowar and Jack Starr’s Burning Starr, and Riot guitarists Mike Flyntz and Nick Lee.

You have been in the music business for many years and released albums with several different bands. Why did you decide to do your first solo album now? “I don’t think it was possible for me to release a solo album before now. At least not a true solo album where I wrote all of the music. I have learned things over the years that made me more capable of doing a solo album, but I also started working with Francisco Palomo and that was really the biggest thing that made it possible for me. I took piano lessons when I was very young, so I can read sheet music, but I am not much of a piano player. In my first original band, Harlet, my brother Jon and others wrote the music and I concentrated on lyrics and vocal melodies. In 1996, when I stopped working with my brother on music, I decided to take guitar lessons. I had musical inspirations, but did not feel capable of writing music for myself. Unlike my earlier years when I took piano lessons, this time I forced myself to study the theory behind the music and learned how keys were constructed. I also learned about chord extensions, i.e. adding other melody notes to chords. Both of these things made writing and playing my own songs much easier for me. During this time, I was also corresponding with Lumpeny, who would later become my wife. I wrote my first song, ‘Kathmandu’, within a few months of starting to take guitar lessons. In fact, 8 of the 12 songs on my album were written during the later 90s while we were corresponding, which is why I decided to call my album ‘Letters From India’.”

Francisco Palomo seems to have played an important part in making this solo album happen. “So I had these songs, but never really had any musicians to help me bring them to life, until I started working with Francisco. I met Francisco in 2008 when I was recording the ‘Defiance’ album for Burning Starr at Magic Circle Music studios in Auburn, New York. Francisco developed the harmony guides for the album and I had heard him solo on a keyboard, so I knew he was well-trained and incredibly gifted. I never really thought about working with Francisco again until November of 2015, when I approached him about turning my guitar demo for ‘The Best I Can’ into a choir piece so that I could record it, like I do for SATB (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) 4-part choir pieces every year for Christmas. I asked Francisco to create a beautiful piano line for it as well and I thought the resulting piece was incredible. I did a second choir style song with him, ‘From The Father’, and it turned out really nice also. At that point, I started to think about the songs I had written back in the 90s and I asked Francisco if he could program drums and bass. He said yes and we worked on ‘Whole Again’ together. Once again, I thought it sounded great, so we just kept going. I was so inspired by Francisco that I actually wrote two more songs, ‘If Today Were My Last Day’ and ‘Open My Eyes’, during 2016 while we were working on all the other songs. These songs are special for me, because they are the first songs that I ever wrote on the piano. I normally play guitar. When I first started working with Francisco, I was recording all of these songs primarily for my own enjoyment. It is difficult to describe the joy I experienced after having these songs in my head for all these years and finally getting a chance to hear them come to fruition. At the end of 2016, I had a set of 12 songs recorded and that is when I started thinking that it would be fun to release a solo album. I spent most of 2017 getting a final mix of the songs, shooting a couple of videos, and arranging the things necessary to do the release. Albums take time when you only work on them as a hobby. I had no specific time line and I just wanted things to be right.”

Todd Michael Hall. Photo: Doug Julian

You are well-known as a hard rock vocalist, but your solo album is more of a singer-songwriter kind of ballad album. Was it an obvious style choice for you or were you a bit nervous to face the feedback when performing a different style of music? “This may sound a little silly, but I never learned how to play hard rock music on the guitar and definitely not power metal. Metal sounds like a wall of noise, but often there is picking of one or two strings in the middle of all six strings and you need to be really accurate with your strumming and picking. In addition, there are lots of little techniques and riffs that need to be part of your skill set, and this is not something I have worked to develop. I really only play an acoustic guitar and I am mostly a strummer, so when I write it tends to come out sounding like singer-songwriter kind of stuff. I actually hear metal songs in my head, but I don’t have much ability to play them, so it is difficult for me to finish the ideas. I am a bit nervous about what some people might think, but then again, it is impossible to make everyone happy. My songs were written and performed with passion and come from my heart, so I hope people can hear that and it resonates with them. The interesting thing is that after years of writing metal, this different genre of music, as well as the inspiration from working with Francisco, has really opened the floodgates for my creativity. I have written about 20 more songs just in the last year.”

The theme behind the album is an intriguing love story of how you met your wife: letters, many trips to India and, eventually, marriage and kids. Was this inspiring story the basis for your songwriting when you started out the work on this album? “Lumpeny was definitely the inspiration for these songs and you can tell in some of them it is my family as well. I was raised Catholic, but had quit attending church. When Nono and I were engaged, she asked me to consider becoming American Baptist, so that we could be married in her church in Kohima, India. I joined a church near where I live and the pastor at that church really helped me resolve some of the issues I had with the church and made me see value in it again. Consequently, I see the Christian themed songs on my album as being inspired by or at least a product of my relationship with Lumpeny also.”

Todd Michael Hall. Photo: Doug Julian

Did your wife know about the theme of the album and that you would share part of your private lives before you finished the album? “Lumpeny was certainly aware of the songs, because I had played them for her on guitar for years. She is actually quite private and prefers not to be in the spotlight, so she has actually been incredibly tolerant of me doing this project. She did not want to be in the videos, which is why I hired a model for the two videos. When I gave Lumpeny the first official copy of my new album, she opened it and said ‘I didn’t know you were going to include photos of me.’ And I said: ‘Exactly, because I knew you wouldn’t let me do it.’ She wasn’t really upset, but she is shy about people seeing her photos. Handing her the album was a very special moment for me and for us.”

You have two of your band mates from Riot guesting on the solo album. Obvious choices, shrewd marketing move or something else? “Well, it is not exactly a shrewd marketing move, because I’m not really leveraging that so much in trying to promote the album. Although, I suppose that is not a bad idea and perhaps I should. More than anything, I just wanted the songs to be great and I knew they could do an awesome job on the guitar solos. I play acoustic guitar on the album, but the piano and all other instruments are by Francisco. His musicianship is incredible and he does some unbelievable piano playing on the album. When it came time for guitar solos, Mike was an obvious choice. On two occasions, I had the band at my house, because we were playing shows near my home. I ‘forced’ Mike and Nick into my studio and they laid down solos really quickly and they had only just been shown the songs. These guys are incredible guitar players.”

Are you doing any live performances with your solo material or are you too busy with Riot? I think this could work very well in a scaled back acoustic setting. “I doubt I will play live shows any time soon as a solo artist, because I don’t have a band of musicians organised to help me do so. I don’t really want it to be just me and an acoustic guitar, because I would prefer it to sound more complete like the songs do on the album. Although, if you ever catch me with an acoustic guitar in my hand, then I would gladly play a song for you. Just ask Mike. During rehearsals, when I stay at his house, I am constantly showing him my latest songs. I’m not sure he is so appreciative though…”

You will return to Japan for two gigs with Riot in March. How do feel about the loyal support that you and Riot enjoy in Japan? “Getting the opportunity to play shows in Japan is an incredible blessing in my life. The Japanese people are very kind and I definitely feel the love when we are there. I am certainly looking forward to returning in March.”

On 10th and 11th March, Todd Michael Hall will perform with Riot at Club Citta in Kawasaki. Get your tickets here: http://clubcitta.co.jp/001/riot-2018/

www.toddmichaelhall.com / www.facebook.com/toddmichaelhallsolo

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Interview: Urban Breed of Serious Black

Urban Breed of Serious Black on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

While a relatively new band, European melodic metal band Serious Black has some serious pedigree and has already released three studio albums. Roppongi Rocks met Serious Black’s Swedish vocalist Urban Breed when the band recently played in Japan for the first time.

“It’s the first time for me in Japan and for the band, but not for all the members. We have a few members who have been here previously,” explains Urban Breed as we sit down the day before the band’s first-ever Japan gig.

In its short time of existence, the band has seen some top-level members departing, including Roland Grapow (Helloween, Masterplan), Thomen Stauch (Blind Guardian) and most recently Bob Katsionis (Firewind). But the band has survived those potentially career-ending departures and is stronger than ever. “The question is what we would’ve been without these departures. We might have been even better, or worse. Who knows? We’ll never find out,” says Breed.

Urban Breed of Serious Black with Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson in Tokyo.

Vocalist Urban Breed is a fabulous frontman who, prior to relocating to the US, fronted several Swedish bands such as Tad Morose and Bloodbound. Bassist Mario Lochert (Emergency Gate), guitarists Dominik Sebastian (Edenbridge) and Christian Münzner (Obscura, Necrophagist, Alkaloid), keyboardist Jan Vacik (Dreamscape) and drummer Alex Holzwarth (Rhapsody of Fire, Avantasia, Blind Guardian) make up the rest of the current line-up of the band.

“I don’t think we noticed that big of a difference,” says Breed about the departures. “Too bad the way it happened, but I don’t think the workflow changed that much. It didn’t. It’s been the same from the beginning. It’s been a fast tempo from the start. I joined in September and in January the album was out,” says Breed about working on the first album, “As Daylight Breaks”, which was released in January 2015. “As it was such a fast tempo, we didn’t have too much time to think about things. We just got in there and got it done. That’s why we haven’t had a chance to really think about what has happened with the line-up changes.”

So how did Breed go from being a local musician to fronting Serious Black? “I think it was Thomen that suggested I should be in the band. Actually, it was Thomen’s drum tech who suggested me to Thomen when they were looking for singers when the band was being put together. That’s how it happened. Then Mario had to track me down. When he got hold of me I told him: ‘Yes, as long as you’re prepared to get a stubborn singer. I sing whatever I want!’ Haha!! He said yes. He didn’t really then know what he was committing to.”

Urban Breed of Serious Black. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

While Breed nowadays live in Alabama, USA, Serious Black is a European metal band and they often get lumped in with power metal bands. But that’s not exactly a great categorisation for this band. “It’s interesting that you bring that up. It’s not that much power metal, really. We do have some power metal songs too, but we have a very broad spectrum. We play everything from straightforward hard rock via AOR to power metal. When it all started, it was Mario’s dream to put together a power metal band. That’s kind of why it was launched as a power metal band. That’s why we get called that and that’s perfectly fine. I have realised that most people who listen to power metal also like almost any kind of hard rock. That makes me feel free to do whatever I want. If a song demands some more hard rock groove, well, then we can do that.”

Bob Katsionis from Firewind was only in the band for a brief period, but he stamped his mark on the band with his songwriting. “Absolutely. Bob and I have had a really close cooperation. It has worked very well. I would’ve been surprised otherwise as it was me who suggested that Bob should play with us. Funnily enough I saw him perform with Firewind many years ago at ProgPower in the US. I then said: ‘I want to play with him, none of the others. It is Bob I want to play with’. And then that happened which was kind of fun.

Urban Breed of Serious Black. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Having a band with members from different backgrounds and based in different countries and time zones is not always easy to manage. “If we fight it tends to be because of the time difference. I am six hours behind all the others. So, often when I get things sent to me, I am already in bed. If they expect a quick answer they usually have to wait. That’s the kind of things we fight about. Often when we write songs, we do so together but from a distance. Not always, but often. It’s kind of peaceful as one has time to calm down whenever there are differences of opinion. We all record in our own studios. That is a much smoother way of working. You get a bunch of demos in a Dropbox that you can look at when you’re sitting around and thinking about ideas. On the latest album we also have songs written in a completely different way. For example, the last song Bob and I wrote in a hotel room without instruments. We didn’t sing anything either. We just said: ‘This how we will do it!’ Then Bob laid down the basic production while I wrote the lyrics and sang the melody. I only had to ask for another four bars in order to fit in all the lyrics! Haha!! It was almost the same with ‘Serious Black Magic’. I woke up on the tour bus when we were in Stuttgart, I believe. I had the chorus in my head. I presented it to the band who were about to get going with soundcheck and thus didn’t pay attention. Then at a place called Backstage in Munich, we were backstage at Backstage! I grabbed Bob and said: ‘This melody and these lyrics. This is the chorus.’ Then Bob said: ‘I’ve got the riff!’ Then we had the whole song. I told Bo when we wrote it: ‘This is it. This is our ‘The Number of the Beast’ or our ‘Balls to the Wall’. We’ll always have to play this song.’ We’re having a lot of fun with it live.”

Urban Breed of Serious Black on stage n Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

The band’s creative process seems to work well as the band has released three full-length studio albums in little over two and a half years. “It’s been sort of planned. But exactly when a record gets released is mainly based on the tour schedule. We know we have to write new songs all the time. It never ends. When you have many songwriters it’s not that much of an issue. It would’ve been different if it’s a band with one songwriter. I do all the lyrics and vocal melodies and that’s quite a big workload, but I enjoy it. And I don’t have to deal with too many of the other things. When it comes to the business side, I don’t have to deal with it.”

“I think the next album will come a bit later. It has nothing to do with us having run out of new songs or anything like that. No, it’s all about the touring cycle. The next album will appear when we have a tour planned. It would almost be stupid to do it any other way. To release an album and not follow it up with a tour is stupid. Why not book a tour and release an album, in that order? It is great having people who can deal with everything around the band. Because even if one realises it is logical to release an album and do a tour, it can be hard to make it happen. It is a lot of work. That is one of the strengths of this band. We have some creative people but we also have Mario who is an engine that drives our bookings and gets everything organised. Without Mario everything would fall apart. He can take time off when we’re writing songs, it’s OK. But there is no point in us writing songs if he doesn’t also do his job.”

Since the latest album, “Magic”, was released in the late summer, the band has been touring in Europe and Japan and then also Mexico as opening act for HammerFall. Then there will be a bit of a break at the end of the year. “Alex might need a break from flying. He’s been out with Rhapsody as well. He might want to stay home for a little bit.”

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