Interview: Paul Shortino talks about his upcoming Japan shows

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Paul Shortino returns to Japan with a show packed with Rough Cutt, Quiet Riot and King Kobra material.

He made a name for himself with Jake E. Lee in Rough Cutt. He also sang with the Hear ‘n Aid project alongside Ronnie James Dio and Rob Halford before he fronted Quiet Riot and later King Kobra. Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson had a chat with American vocalist Paul Shortino ahead of his two Japan gigs on 21st-22nd June.

What can the Japanese fans expect from your upcoming Paul Shortino Band shows in Japan? “The fans can expect a high energy show with lots of fun and great musicianship. I’m so honoured to perform with such talented and humble musicians. Great line-up with Jun Senoue on guitar and keys, Nozomu Wakai on guitar, Shoyo on bass, Louis Sesto on drums and Shigeki Fujii on background vocals.”

Will it be a set list that spans your entire career? “The set list will be songs from the two Rough Cutt records, the Quiet Riot record I recorded and some songs from earlier Quiet Riot to pay tribute to Kevin DuBrow. We will also be doing songs from King Kobra and ‘Back On Track’. I will perform a duet with Shigeki Fujii, doing “Stars” from Hear ‘n Aid, a tribute to Ronnie James Dio.”

The Paul Shortino Band consists of Japanese musicians. How did this band come together? “My wife Carmen was contacted for me to do a symposium and live performance in Nagoya. Jun put the band together. I had worked with Jun Senoue on the Sega game ‘Sonic Adventure’ and recorded the song ‘Dr. Eggman’. I believe Louis Sesto had a lot to do with this. This band is so amazing. We are planning to do some recording and future shows.”

In the 80s, you fronted a Quiet Riot line-up that while it didn’t have any original members, it featured some serious pedigree and skill in Frankie Banali, Sean McNabb, Carlos Cavazo and Jimmy Waldo. What do you most remember from your time with Quiet Riot? “That was a great band. It’s too bad we didn’t do another record. We spent a year working together on the ‘QR’ record. We all got really close working everyday together. We toured South America and Japan and then the band came to a halt. I only wish we would have toured more and would have done another record. However, the band got derailed somewhere along the way and we parted ways.”

You have performed in Japan before, including with Quiet Riot in 1989. What’s your best memory from Japan? “In 1989 Quiet Riot did a promotional tour with Grover Jackson and Charvel guitars. Then we performed in Osaka and Nagoya and three days at the Sun Plaza in Tokyo, where we filmed the shows that later came out on a DVD. That whole experience in Japan was amazing! Seeing Japan outside of touring and performing. Playing to the fans, then experiencing Mount Fuji was beyond words. Big love for the Japanese people and culture.”

You’ve played with several major acts during your career and also had a prominent role in the Hear ‘n Aid project. What’s your career highlight so far? “I feel super blessed to be able to do what I love to do all my life. I know nothing else, except the song in my heart. So, really every aspect of my career has been a true blessing and highlight. I will say that I was very honoured to be a part of ‘Stars’ with everyone involved and the late great Ronnie James Dio. ‘Spinal Tap’ was pretty cool and followed me throughout my career. Haha!”

You appear in the cult move “This Is Spinal Tap!” How did you end up acting in this movie? “Well the way this came about, Rough Cutt was performing, Jake E. Lee was in the band, at the Troubadour, located in Hollywood. The band ran an ad in a local newspaper that we were performing at the Troubadour. The casting crew for ‘This Is Spinal Tap!’ saw the ad and asked Jake, Dave and myself to meet with Rob Reiner. I showed up first dressed in my white leather. Mr. Reiner and wardrobe said ‘We have Duke Fame. No need to interview anyone else!’”

After Japan, what’s next for you? Are you now mainly busy with the Raiding the Rock Vault show in Las Vegas? “Raiding the Rock Vault is an amazing show! I love doing it and will continue to perform in it five nights a week! I am also working with my Rough Cutt band mates, rekindling our relationship, writing songs and hoping to release another CD next year. I am hoping the Paul Shortino Band will be putting out some material of our own in the near future too, and touring with Paul Shortino Band would be fantastic! The difference with Paul Shortino Band is that I get to perform all of the parts of my musical career. It’s a win for my fans and myself. Big love and see you in Japan very soon!“

Paul Shortino Band will perform in Osaka on 21st June and Tokyo on 22nd June.




Interview: Dirk Verbeuren reflects on his first year in Megadeth

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

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Megadeth are better than ever and new drummer Dirk Verbeuren has certainly been a great addition for the band. Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson met up with Dirk backstage at a recent Megadeth/Anthrax show in Tokyo to talk about the former Soilwork drummer’s first year in Megadeth.

Megadeth has had quite a few terrific drummers in the band’s long career. In 2016, they recruited then Soilwork member Dirk Verbeuren as its new drummer to complement the fantastic line-up of Dave Mustaine, David Ellefson and Kiko Loureiro. Originally it was a fill-in gig as live drummer on part of the “Dystopia” world tour. But after a few months, Dirk was offered a permanent place in the band. A year after Dirk joining Megadeth it is obvious that the Belgian-born and US-based drummer gels very well with the band and has lifted them a level or two.

“It’s been a lot of fun! It’s been, obviously, an unexpected change but a great experience. Like many people who are in this kind of music, I grew up listening to Megadeth, so now to be a part of Megadeth is still kind of unreal at times! Sometimes I’m on stage and I am like: ‘This is really happening!’ Hahaha!” says a very happy Dirk Verbeuren as we meet backstage in Tokyo before Megadeth and Anthrax rock the sold-out venue.

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

Megadeth’s fans seem to have warmly welcomed Dirk without any of the drama that many other metal bands face when they replace some members. “They’ve definitely been very kind to me, they’ve embraced me. The shoes to fill are big, you know what I mean? People like Gar Samuelson, Nick Menza… Even all the other drummers that played in the band, like Jimmy DeGrasso, Shawn Drover, Chris Adler from Lamb of God who recommended me to the band. Those are all top notch people, so it’s… Yeah, I’m doing my best! Haha!”

Stepping into a legendary band with a vast back catalogue of fantastic songs originally played by some rather fabulous musicians can’t be the easiest task. Do you try to copy the original drumming on the classic Megadeth songs or add your own style to the songs when you perform?

“Well, here’s the thing: the goal for me and what the band expects from me, is to be as true to the songs as I can. It’s a song by song case. Sometimes even a section by section case where I try to figure out what I can do, maybe what I would do, maybe what I can do differently. In other parts I am sticking to the original, pure and simple. A lot of the flair comes from the way one person plays compared to the next. And I play the way I play. I can’t sound like… Even though my groove is kind of similar to Nick Menza’s in a way. I grew up listening to a lot of his stuff too, so it probably kind of influenced me in that sense. In the end, I can’t sound like him. Only he can sound like him. Same with Gar and same with all the other guys. I don’t focus too much, I don’t think too much about that, I just try to honour the songs.”

When the offer came to join Megadeth came out of nowhere, was it an obvious thing to accept? “At the beginning it was supposed to be just a fill-in gig. That’s how I was approached. It only overlapped with, at the time I think it was five or six Soilwork shows that I was missing. I talked to the guys: ‘Are you guys OK with me doing this?’ I’m just filling in.’ ‘Yeah, cool, no problem! Of course you should go and do that’. Then as I was on the road, it turned into ‘Hey, do you wanna join?’ So by that time I had already had some time to sit and think about it. What would I do if they asked me? Because you never know. By that time I had had some thoughts, some conversations with my wife and stuff. Then I was like “Yeah! Haha!”

Soilwork mainman Björn “Speed” Strid early on expected that Megadeth would ask Dirk to stay permanently and told Dirk: “When I heard you play with them at Sweden Rock, I knew he was going to ask you to stay.”

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

Dirk was a long-term drummer with Soilwork and leaving that band was not easy but he remains on good terms with his former bandmates, not least because he pointed them in the direction of finding his replacement. “The Soilwork guys have been super supportive about it. That’s cool. No bad blood whatsoever. Bastian Thusgaard recently became full-time, so I’m very happy that all worked out. He’s a great kid, great drummer, very motivated, hardworking. I discovered him because he put on some Soilwork covers online where I was very impressed with his playing. When this happened, I thought of him. I showed the guys a few videos and they were like: ‘Yeah, man. Put us in touch with that guy!’”

In a way it is similar to how Chris Adler recommended Dirk to Megadeth when it became clear he wasn’t going to be able to do that much touring with Megadeth because of his Lamb of God commitments. “Very similar. Also, Kiko as well. I had met him some years ago. I actually saw an Angra show in ’96. At the time I didn’t know him personally. Then he came to see a Soilwork show some years ago in Finland where he was living at the time. We talked a little bit and stuff. So he also, when names came up and stuff, he was like: ‘Dirk is great!’ Yeah, I was warmly recommended. It worked out good,” says a very pleased Dirk.

In my opinion you’re the best extreme metal drummer in the business. Obviously you have the talent and capability to be he drummer in Megadeth, but was there ever any doubt in your mind about your ability to do this with such a big band? Do you feel any pressure in this new role? “Well, thank you very much. That’s very kind of you. Yeah, the first two shows, definitely. There was a lot of stuff going on in your mind. But in the end all you can do is rely on your experience and if something happens, sometimes crazy stuff happens, you trust the fact that you’ll make the right call. Sometimes you have to make a really quick decision: what do I do here? And so far I’ve done pretty good. In the end it’s rock’n’roll, it’s all about having fun and that is still the way I approach it. Actually, it’s even more now than in the past. It’s kind of like I realise how lucky I am to be here doing this, playing music that I like in front of lots of people who are coming to see it. I mean, there really is nothing to worry about, right? It’s not like we’re trying to solve hunger in the world or something. We’re playing music for people to have a good time.”

With a great, and what seems like a stable, line-up of Megadeth, this band can really do something fantastic with the next album. Do you expect to be part of the songwriting from now on? “I don’t know. Obviously I haven’t been in that spot, so I haven’t experienced that. We’ll see how it goes. I’m definitely open to anything. I’ve started recording some ideas, you know, just having stuff in my phone. I look forward to spending time with the guys working on ideas. Obviously a lot of it is centred round Dave. He’s been the main songwriter for the whole time pretty much. Kind of from there we’ll see how it goes. It’s good that I have this period of time, unlike Chris who came in and it was pretty much straight to recording. I think that’s difficult, because you have certain ways of doing things and then all of a sudden there is this band with this whole past. That’s quick adaption. That can be tricky. Whereas with me, I’m probably going to spend at least two years, if not more, playing the songs live. That gives me some time to see the different areas of the band, see the different styles. For example, Gar has a very different style than Jimmy, than Nick, than Shawn and Chris and all the different people. And Chuck! I forgot Chuck Behler earlier. Great drummer too. Actually, I met him. He came to one of our shows last year, on the US tour. Super cool guy. That gives me a chance to take that information in and all these different grooves. Then when it is time to create something, I will definitely tap into that. Because it is a very different way of playing for me than, obviously, Soilwork or any other stuff I’ve done.”

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

Megadeth has an interesting history of the band’s drum techs stepping up to become the band’s drummer. Clearly you thus have ensured that you now have a rubbish drum tech who is not threatening your position behind the kit, correct? “Haha! Well, I have Tony Laureano, so he’s not exactly a rubbish guy. He was Dimmu Borgir and he has played with Nile. I was actually on tour with Tony back in 2002 when my old band Scarve opened for Nile on a European tour. Tony was drumming then in Nile and I was very impressed with his playing. We’ve been kind of friends ever since. I can’t say we were in touch all the time, but we would email ever now and then and I would see him at festivals. I saw him once with Dimmu. He loves teching. He’s a great drummer and he still plays. He still has several projects that are in the works. But he just loves doing this, being on that side. Hey, it’s cool. He’s an awesome guy. Great tech.” (Prior to Dirk joining Megadeth, Tony did a few shows as fill-in drummer for Megadeth, including their headline gig at the Japanese festival Loud Park in October 2015.)

So, what drummers have influenced you? Are you listening to drummer from different genres than metal? “Yeah, I listen to a lot of different things, but I do listen to a lot of metal. I don’t know that I feel that I am the best metal drummer. I like that you think that, it’s very kind, but you know I get a lot of inspiration from metal guys. Like I love Mario from Gojira, I love James from Vader, Tony was a big influence of mine for many years, especially around the Nile years. He was doing a lot of crazy stuff. Sean Reinert. I definitely listen to other styles of music as well. It’s very diverse. If you look at my phone, there’s everything from jazz to electronic to industrial to pop music to rock music, old-school punk. All kinds, even classical music. Sometimes when you come out of a tour or show or something, you just want something completely opposite. Kiko has been showing me a lot of Brazilian cool stuff. He’s a great acoustic player too. Sometimes he’ll sit after the show and just play beautiful things and I just sit there listening to him for an hour because it is so nice and a totally different vibe. The same with drummers. I like to keep things interesting. If you always listen to the same thing, especially as I get older, after a while… I need something else now. So I switch from Napalm Death to Squarepusher to Miles Davis within a few hours.”

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

You have always had multiple projects and bands on the go throughout your career. Now that you’re in Megadeth, do you have time for side projects and teaching drums and such? “The focus is Megadeth obviously, but I have been teaching quite a bit when I am not on tour. I have a few students locally and a few Skype students and I really like that part because I love when younger drummers ask questions and wanna learn stuff. I kind of make myself useful in a different way than entertaining people, passing on some stuff I’ve learned. I’ve been doing this pretty much since I was 18-19 years old, so it’s been a while. And, yeah, some side projects. Pretty under the radar stuff, like Bent Sea. It’s purely for fun. No ambition whatsoever, just making noise. I’m just kind of doing my own thing whenever I feel like it. There’s no schedule or business plan, it’s just the old-school way.”

One of the talented and hardworking musicians that Dirk frequently plays with is Shane Embury of Napalm Death and Brujeria fame, who is also in Bent Sea with Dirk. He is in so many bands and projects that he recently ended up performing three sets in a row with three different bands every night. “That’s Shane for you. Great guy. Super humble. Loves music, loves making music with people. We have several things in the works together. But my focus is on Megadeth. It’s obviously where I put everything in right now.”

Following a very successful Asian tour, more touring is coming up for Megadeth. “We first go to the US with Meshuggah. Really good friends of mine. Great band. Tomas Haake is another big drum influence of mine. We’re going out with them for a month in the US and from that we pretty much go straight into the European dates. Then back to the US for the Scorpions tour. It’s a pretty packed year this year.”

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

The much talked about Scorpions/Megadeth tour will bring Dirk together with another fab drummer, Sweden’s Mikkey Dee, the former Motörhead, Don Dokken and King Diamond drummer who joined Scorpions last year. “I love watching that guy play. It’s energising to see. He’s still on fire, man. He plays maybe better than he did before.”

Megadeth opening for Scorpions was a tour package that was rather unexpected. “Scorpions at the time was one of the biggest hard rock bands before thrash really existed. It’s not often Megadeth will open for somebody. It’s kind of like an interesting bill. I think it’s going to be really cool. Big venues. It should be a really interesting tour.”

It is time for Dirk to warm up for the first of two sold-out Tokyo shows with Megadeth. As he walks on stage a couple of hours later, he is a beast behind the drum kit proving that he was the right pick for the job.

Interview: Mark Jansen on how Epica’s sound has evolved

Mark Jansen of Epica in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

It took Dutch symphonic metal masters Epica some 15 years to get to Japan, but when they did show up they got a warm welcome by their Japanese fans. Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson met with Epica mastermind Mark Jansen before their sold out show in Tokyo.

Simone Simons and Mark Jansen on stage with Epica in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Mark Jansen founded a new symphonic metal band when he left After Forever in 2002 over “musical and personal differences”. As we sit down backstage before Epica’s Tokyo gig Mark explains: “In After Forever there were two captains on the ship. All the time we had different opinions. It was taking a lot of energy. Yeah, I like to be a bit more in control. I am not a control freak but I need to have some control of things to feel happy.”

The new band Mark assembled was originally called Sahara Dust, but as they entered the studio to record they stumbled upon a much better name, Epica, which was the name of a Kamelot album. “We were recording in the same studio where they were recording the album ‘Epica’. We saw the cover. We were called Sahara Dust at the time. The name we weren’t completely satisfied about and we couldn’t find a better name. Then we saw that album cover of ‘Epica’. We already liked the music of Kamelot a lot. We sent them an email: ‘Are you OK with that?’ and they were fine. Not right away but after a while. They said themselves already that Epica would be a great name for a band. But I think it fits really well to us. I think not many bands who have a band name that fits their music so well as we do,” says Mark while looking very satisfied.

Mark Jansen on stage with Epica in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Epica debuted in 2003 with “The Phantom Agony” and rapidly won a loyal fan base globally, including in Japan. In 2016 they released their seventh album, the fabulous “The Holographic Principle”. So why did it take the band some 15 years to come and play for their Japanese fans? “Several reasons. Every time when we tried to come over, the promoters said ‘Look at your CD sales. It’s not high enough in Japan to bring you over. Probably we’re not gonna sell enough tickets’ and that kind of story. We kept trying and then two years ago there was finally one promoter who wanted to get us, but then our management said we should not go yet because if we worked with that promoter we could not play Loud Park, for example. You have these kind of things. Then we said, next opportunity, we go. We can’t wait forever to go to Japan,” says Mark who is very pleased that they managed to come to Japan for a three-city tour and that the band’s first ever Tokyo gig is sold out. “Sold out! To be able to do three shows is already amazing. I’ve never been so relaxed on a tour in a country like here. Strictly on time, everything is well organised. It’s sometimes different in other countries.”

Mark Jansen of Epica in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Epica has arrived at a signature sound which means that nowadays it is rather easy to spot an Epica song. But with such success also comes expectations when new music is created and some artists feel that they become constrained to create music that fits into what is expected of them. “Usually I just start and then whatever feels right, I do it. I learnt to not think inside the box, but to just do whatever feels good. In the end, there is always something happening that makes it sound Epica. Even if you have a piece of music that in the beginning doesn’t fit well, something happens and it always fit in the end. And if it really doesn’t fit I use it for another project. So, whatever I write fits somewhere,” explains Mark his creative process.

Mark Jansen on stage with Epica in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

One part of the Epica sound that sets it apart from some of the other symphonic metal bands, is that they use death metal-like growling or grunting in addition to clean singing. “It’s a funny story how it happened. When I started to listen to metal music, I ran into an album of Amorphis. I was listening to it and as soon as the guy started singing: ‘Oh, fuck! It’s grunts, I hate it!’ Still, I bought the album because the music was so amazing and I slowly got into it. Then with my first band, we started as a melodic band with a grunter as a singer because we couldn’t find a clean vocalist. We were also looking for a background singer. Floor Jansen came to do an audition. We heard, instantly, this is not a background singer. This is somebody who has to be the front. But the grunter didn’t like the idea, so there was some competition going on… He left. Then we decided to do some of the grunts ourselves in After Forever. I kept doing it with Epica ever since. That’s how it started,” explains Mark about how Amorphis has helped shaping the Epica sound and continues: “With the new singer they were back on track. Now I love them again!”

Mark Jansen on stage with Epica in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Mark is clearly the mastermind behind Epica’s music and he pays attention to all the details. On recent albums the Epica guitarist is not even playing guitar on the tracks because he’s too busy with other things. The band’s other guitarist Isaac Delahaye handles all guitars in the studio. “I prefer to focus on the lyrics. That is already so much work. It would take me twice as long as Isaac to record it, so I prefer him doing it, rather than me working my ass off doing all these riffs. When he is done with the songs, I have two-three months’ time to study all his riffs for the tour. In the studio, if I have to work on the lyrics and to study these licks and to record them, I would go nuts!”

On the last couple of albums, Epica has used Joost van den Broek as a producer. Like Mark, Joost too has a past in After Forever, although they didn’t play in the band at the same time. “So I knew the guy and ever since we started working together, we became friends,” says mark about the close relationship. Joost is very involved in Epica’s creative process. “Definitely more than a technician. During the recording process and demo phase, he’s like a seventh band member. He’s travelling with his equipment separately to everybody’s home studios. He asks: ‘What have you got? What did you write? Let me listen to it. Let us work on it.’ Then, when he has the overview of all the music written… Is it enough material or even too much? Then we bring it together and start working on each other’s tracks. Because in the beginning we like to work on our own. There are a lot of opinions in Epica, a lot of strong opinions. When you feel like you cannot bring it any further, then we start working on it together. Then it is also easier to accept criticism.”

Mark Jansen of Epica in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

With a firmly established signature sound, is the Epica sound still evolving? “I started writing music for the next album about two months ago. But it is too early yet to know what direction will evolve. Because I don’t know the music yet of any of the other guys. I know that some other guys have recorded some ideas. So, everybody is already doing something, but it is too early to know where it will go to. But we always try to make things better. There is always something on an album that we think ‘Let’s try it in a different way next time’. That is also how you keep the stuff fresh. When I listen to all the past albums…at that time it was the best we could do then. If we would make it now, we would do it differently. But it wouldn’t necessarily be better. These albums have to be like they are, they have to stay like they are. That’s also why I am still very happy with them.”

With seven studio albums below their belt there is plenty of music to choose from for their gigs. Set lists can’t be easy to compile at this stage. “It depends on where we play. For a show in Japan, we try a little bit of an alternative set list then what we do in Europe. The first was doing well, the second show we were changing some things and now in Tokyo I think we found the right balance between the new album and other songs.” In Tokyo the band performs “Unleashed”, a track no longer featured at most gigs, but a favourite among Japanese fans. “It’s one of the songs people love here. So we decided to put it in the set. So tonight has a very balanced set to keep everybody happy.”

Mark Jansen on stage with Epica in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

In all of his bands and projects, including Epica, After Forever and MaYaN, Mark has been fortunate enough to be able to work with some very fine vocalists. Current Nightwish vocalist Floor Jansen is one of them. She sang in After Forever and also brought in Mark for some cooperation in ReVamp. “She also sings with my other band MaYaN. In the beginning she did even some touring but when she got asked to do Nightwish of course she ‘flew away’! And that was completely understandable, because that was the big chance and I would have done exactly the same. But she sang on some songs with MaYaN and it sounds fantastic. Then she said ‘I want you to sing on my band’s album, ReVamp’. So I did as well. Also with ReVamp, she has no time for that any more for the same reason. Nightwish takes all the time and that is also completely understandable. But it was really fun. It’s always nice to work with her. I’m pretty sure in the future, maybe it can take quite some years, I am sure in the future there will be some collaboration.’

Mark Jansen of Epica in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

German power singer Henning Basse (Gus G, Firewind, Gamma Ray) is also someone Mark has worked with in MaYaN. “He’s an amazing singer. He’s a singer of world class. With his qualities he could be singing in any huge band who needs a big singer. But for some reason it didn’t happen yet. So, he’s still in relatively small bands with all respect. I think if Firewind or MaYaN or Gus G is becoming big in the next couple of years, then he goes fully for them then. But at this moment he’s not yet fully attached to one band because they are all too small to make a living from. I’ve been saying that for years already because when I heard him sing for the first time, it was with Sons of Seasons, I thought ‘This singer is really world-class’. I’ve had the honour to work with so many great singers, like Floor Jansen. It took some years but now she’s the singer of Nightwish. And when I heard Simone Simons for the first time, I knew that was going to be good. In MaYaN we work also with Laura Macrì, who is also my girlfriend. When I heard her voice I also knew that this was top, top quality. I’m in such a lucky position to have worked with all these great singers.”

“There are two things that are extremely important: the singer and the drummer. When there is a shitty drummer the whole band sounds like shit. And when the singer is shit, everybody hears it right away. When there’s like one of the other musicians is not 100%, it still blends into the music. But the drummer and singer they have to be top quality. We’re also in a lucky position with Ariën van Weesenbeek, who is also a machine! Now that we became a big band ourselves…otherwise some band would have taken him, stolen him from us, I’m sure,” says Mark proudly of the drummer of both Epica and MaYaN. /

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

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

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Megadeth will perform in Osaka on 17th May and in Tokyo on 18th and 19th May. /

Interview: Alcatrazz – No parole for Gary Shea

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

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brand New Conversation: Backstage with Gus G in Tokyo

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

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

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

Gus G on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Yuki Kuroyanagi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gus G on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Yuki Kuroyanagi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Backstage with Elize Ryd in Japan

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

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

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

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

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

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

Busy schedule for hardworking artist

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

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

Cooperation with Gus G

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

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

Thoughts on possible solo career

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chuck Billy of Testament in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

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

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

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

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

Chuck Billy of Testament in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Testament on stage in Tokyo | Photo: Mikio Ariga

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

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

Chuck Billy of Testament in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

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

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

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

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

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

Chuck Billy of Testament in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

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

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

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

Chuck Billy of Testament in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

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

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

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

Chuck Billy of Testament in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gus G and Elize Ryd

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

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

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

Gus G

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

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

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

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

Gus G will perform at Club Quattro in Tokyo on 22nd March and at Club Quattro in Osaka on 23rd March.