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

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

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview: Riot vocalist Todd Michael Hall discusses his solo album

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

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

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

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

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

Todd Michael Hall. Photo: Doug Julian

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

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

Todd Michael Hall. Photo: Doug Julian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview: Urban Breed of Serious Black

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

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview: Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth of Overkill: “We don’t want to be considered the old dudes on the block”

Bobby Blitz of Overkill backstage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

New Jersey thrash metal veterans Overkill are still at it and they’re better than ever. Roppongi Rocks met vocalist Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth when Overkill recently visited Japan for a chat about staying relevant and what drives the band some 37 years into their career.

Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson and Overkill’s Bobby Blitz in Tokyo.

Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth is in a great mood when I meet him backstage when Overkill recently returned to Japan for another terrific performance for its Japanese fans. Clearly this is a man who loves what he does and it is an interview filled with laughter.

Formed in 1980, Overkill is still a hungry band that always delivers a great show. Its latest album, the Andy Sneap produced “The Grinding Wheel”, is its 18th studio album and it is one of the band’s best ever. The current line-up of the band – founding members Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth and DD Verni plus long-serving guitarists Dave Linsk and Derek “The Skull” Tailer and new drummer Jason Bittner – is ridiculously good.

Overkill sounds better than ever. What’s the secret behind staying relevant and on top of your game after all these years? “I never spend my money on street drugs. I go right to the pharmacies. Haha!!! I do think there’s still obviously a huge excitement for us internally. We’re New Jersey guys. I am sitting about ten feet from my partner,” says Blitz and points at bassist DD Verni, before he continues, “who is probably thinking the same thing I am: Today is a great opportunity for us. I think that if you take that opportunity, and an opportunist attitude, for 30 plus years, you’re making the best out of every event that comes your way at every opportunity. So I think that sounding better is always about challenging yourselves, always trying to make it a little bit better, not releasing the same thing, not mailing the record in saying: ‘Hey, you know, we can make some money on the road so just mail the record in’. It’s really about having that pride and making the most of the opportunity.”

“The Grinding Wheel” is your 18th studio album. How do you think Overkill’s music has evolved over the years? “I think that’s the challenging that I mentioned from the inside. We don’t want to be considered the old dudes on the block. We wanna be able to come out with that spunk that we had back then, but let’s say a reinvented version of it in the present day. Reinventing it is taking what we’ve learned along the way, or that maturity or growth, and applying it as time goes on, to know that it’s not just being the fastest, heaviest band, but to say ‘Hey, we have many tools in the tool shed. Let’s break out the groove again. Let’s break out the slow and heavy. Let’s change the tempo. Let’s get thrashier.’ If these are all the things we have experimented with and have become the things we are notable for, it’s not wrong for us to use our own things. But to only mix that puzzle up and do it a little differently. That becomes a challenge in itself, so therefore you get a fresher kind of vibe.”

Bobby Blitz of Overkill backstage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Andy Sneap worked with you on the latest album. Did that have an impact on the result? “I do think that probably one of the things we learn along the way is that when we decide to mix things ourselves, there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians in the room. So it’s nice to have an objective opinion, especially from a guy who has got THE set of ears when it comes to mixing. Andy sees things different through his ears than we would see things through our ears. We will do the production all the way through. And production to us at this point is very simple: It’s about getting good tones, about getting great performances and staying fucking organised! That’s what makes a great record. When you hand it to someone like Andy he says ‘Jeez, everything is lined up for me perfectly. All I can do now is make it sound better’, not do all this kind of engineering type things, moving things around and making edits. He got to spend an entire month mixing this record that we had all organised for him. So I think it’s a neat thing to have objectivity even this late in our careers. To be able to, let’s say, even get that vision a different shade of black. Haha!!”

Bobby Blitz of Overkill backstage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

You and your band co-founder DD Verni are still going strong. How would you describe your relationship? “Well, he doesn’t speak any English so he doesn’t know what the fuck I’m saying. Haha!!  He’s been yabbering in Italian and Spanish for 30 years! I think that our relationship is really kind of an unspoken type of bond. We come from the same background. Our parents are both first generation Americans. Our grandparents were immigrants. We understood the same shit. We came from Irish and Italian neighbourhoods originally out of New York. One of the great things is that that melting pot gave us principle. His uncles are mine. Mine being Irish uncles and his being Italians. Work hard and keep your fucking mouth shut and don’t let anybody know your secrets. We’re the same guy in two different things and I think that’s why it works for us. And I love that about this band. The only people I know longer than DD are my mother, father and siblings. To have a relationship for almost 40 years with the guy and still be writing songs that we’re proud of, that’s pretty special. I think that comes from the principles we learned as kids.”

You’ve survived a cancer scare and an on-stage stroke. Is there anything that can stop you from performing? “It’s not those things. Everybody has their own crosses. You have things, your family has things. Mine just happened to be publicised. Haha!! That’s really all it is. And I remember this guy saying to me: ‘It’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you can get up after you get knocked down.’ Because then you have the opportunity to continue doing what you’re doing. I think, in my case, I wasn’t just lucky, I had great support. Whether my wife or my band, the band I’m part of, not my band. It’s what you believe, that’s what makes it happen. They could’ve been career-ending things. But obviously they weren’t. If you live to fight another day, you make the best of it.”

Last time you played Japan in 2015, it was as part of a killer bill with Exodus and Sodom. “Sodom is one of my favourite German bands. I just love Tom. He just doesn’t give a shit and that’s what I love about him. He’s like: ‘I’m here to play if you like it or not, I’m doing it!’ Haha!! I love it!”

Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth of Overkill on stage at Loud Park. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

You have a new drummer in the band since you last played Japan. What has Jason Bittner, who has played with Flotsam and Jetsam, Toxik and Anthrax, brought to the band? “He’s an edgy kind of guy. You know, it’s a drummer’s band when you’re on stage. I’ve said it to every drummer in this band: ‘This has nothing to do with me. This is all about you. Don’t worry, I’ll hang on.’ Haha!! You steer the ship, captain. Haha!! And Jason knows that from the get-go. I love the fact that he’s edgy. I love the fact that he’s from my area. He understands our sense of humour. I’d rather tour with guys that can make a great band, instead of coming in being great. But Jason kind of have both. Jason has kudos from other drummers even before he got into this band. That kind of an addition always raises the bar for us. Because you have to keep up with the new guy’s energy. You wanna see if you’re getting old and that? Try staying up with Jason! Haha!! I think that says it all, right there. He was the natural choice. We’ve known him for years. He was hanging around our shows when he was a teenager with drum sticks in his back pocket, trying to get a gig, hoping that somebody would drop dead on stage, obviously the drummer. Haha!!”

You have a very loyal following here in Japan. What does Japan mean for Overkill? “We obviously identify with them. I think that one of the beauties of this music is its purity. I think that when people recognise that purity they keep it for life. Whether they come or not, this many years later, it’s touched them in a way that it can never…that scar will always be there. I think Japan always open your arms to that purity. There is a serious honesty about this. This is one team, one fight. I think when that’s recognised, it’s not individuals in the band, but the band has always been presented as a band, no matter who is in that band. That Overkill is more important than the individuals. I think that’s where we connect with people and I think the Japanese specifically are very keen on that presentation. 1988 is my first year here, so 29 years later and now we’re playing a bigger show in Japan, it says something for that principle. I think we connect on that level.”

Bobby Blitz of Overkill backstage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

What’s coming up next in the world of Overkill? “We’re gonna finish the touring now. We’re gonna go over to Europe with the Cavalera boys. We’re gonna eat rodizio and they’re gonna do the ‘Roots’ thing and we’re gonna be on that show with them. That’s about 20 shows or so, 17 shows. Then an Australian run once the beginning of the year comes around. Probably call it quits right around that to go back into the cycle. Part of our visibility is rags like yours, internet like you guys, but also do a record every couple of years. We don’t really let shit sit around and get stale, you know? We’re not doing it to get rich, we’re doing it because we still can and we can still do it at a high level. So, 2018 is going to be a writing year for us.”

Ladies and gentlemen: Overkill is still relevant, they still have spunk and they’re always putting on a great thrash metal show.

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Interview: Dani Filth of Cradle of Filth

Dani Filth of Cradle of Filth in Japan. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

British extreme metal band Cradle of Filth recently returned to Japan after a 16 year absence to do a great gig at the Loud Park festival. Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson had a backstage chat with frontman Dani Filth where they discussed band chemistry, the brilliant new album, the creative process behind it (“a very prolific writing session slash team building exercise slash drinkathon”), the role of visual and lyrical themes, soothing the soul by getting demons out and much more.

Cradle of Filth likes to be controversial. But behind the sometimes provocative images and lyrics that have been constants in the band’s career, there is an intelligent and hardworking rock band. Dani Filth, fearless leader and frontman, is still going strong 26 years after founding the band. Over the years there have been many line-up changes. However, in the last few years Cradle seems to have found a stable and terrific line-up consisting of Dani Filth on vocals, Martin “Marthus” Škaroupka on drums, Daniel Firth on bass, Lindsay Schoolcraft on keyboards and guitarists Richard Shaw and Marek “Ashok” Šmerda. The Japan visit is the start of a new world tour which will see them return to Japan in May.

Dani Filth of Cradle of Filth on stage at Loud Park. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

“It’s brilliant being back. We haven’t been back for 16 years apparently,” says Dani Filth as we meet a short time before Cradle of Filth is due on stage at the Loud Park festival in Saitama outside of Tokyo. The band’s latest album, “Cryptoriana – The Seductiveness of Decay”, was released in September and has been favourably received. “We’re particularly proud of it, yeah. Much of this year has been spent in the studio. Since we finished in the back end of May, we’ve been constantly entrenched in interviews and continuing to do so.”

With such a fab new album just released, the Japanese fans are hoping for some of the new material to be played at the festival. “We’re only playing for 50 minutes, so it’s really gonna be a cross-section of fan favourites. When we come back in May, we’ll have the opportunity to play for an hour and a quarter, so you can introduce more tracks from the new album. Obviously people expect new stuff, the last record, a cross-section of fan favourites and then we want to put some stuff we haven’t played for a while. If the drummer had anything to do with it, the gigs would be three weeks long each.”

Dani Filth of Cradle of Filth in Japan. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Drummer Martin “Marthus” Škaroupka joined Cradle in 2006 as the replacement for Adrian Erlandsson. He has taken on a leading role in the band, adding keyboards and orchestration to his drum duties. “He’s obviously the backbone of the band. Everybody has contributed a lot to this record. When it came to the writing session, we went to the Czech Republic, to the hometown of Ashok and Martin. We were playing a festival in Slovakia at the end of a two-week period, so we thought, without sounding too profane about it, it was obviously going to be cheaper doing it with everybody meeting in the Czech Republic than it would be somewhere like London. Basically, everybody came together to create ideas. We didn’t really think that we’d come away from that with pretty much 90% of an album written, but we did because everybody had done so much pre-production. They came with whole songs and bits of songs and then riffs, pieces of the puzzle to put together. It was just a very prolific writing session slash team building exercise slash drinkathon.”

Dani Filth of Cradle of Filth in Japan. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

The British band is now rather international with members from all over the place. The current line-up, perhaps the band’s best ever, is solid and there seems to be great chemistry. “Yeah, it’s very strong. We’re very close… Well not close geographically, we’re literally spread across the known universe. But when we get together, like yesterday for example, we all went out together on a sightseeing trip. We walked around the whole of Tokyo. When we’re on tour we spend a lot of time together. Everybody is very appreciative of one another. We have a good laugh together. There’s a good connection. That’s very important. My other band, Devilment, played this year at Bloodstock. Fortunately Richard, the guitarist, lives a couple of stops away, up the motorway from the venue. So I stayed around his for four days.”

Cradle of Filth has always been a theatrical, cinematic extreme metal band. But its sound has evolved over the years and taken twists and turns. “That’s important obviously, because you don’t want to make the same record twice. Although, obviously, the building blocks of the band are there. You don’t want to stray too far away from the blueprint of what makes the band what it is. It’s like picking a set list for a show. Although you literally don’t write a game plan out, it’s a bit more natural than that. But you’ve gotta look at, also, the fact that you don’t want to stray too much away from the beaten path. But it’s gonna be novel enough that it’s new: new elements, old elements. You can make some big mistakes writing an album. This one, because the way the band gels, we literally just wrote… Some of the songs we developed on previous records. There is some stuff that didn’t make this record that might make another record. Some were whole songs which people introduced at the writing session. Others were just composites of lots of different ideas. I think that the only important thing is it sounds very British, it sounds Cradle of Filth, very cinematic. But at the same time, slightly different from everything else we have done.”

Dani Filth of Cradle of Filth in Japan. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

How important are the non-musical parts such as visual and lyrical themes to the overall Cradle package? “I always do that off the back of the music. I think it would be very selfish and I think it limits the scope of… When you’re trying to write material, if you’ve been told how it’s going to be… I mean, if you’re going to do a full concert record, it would be good sometimes to come up with the ideas beforehand, so people got parameters to work within. But for this album, I wanted to… It came so swiftly off the back of the last record as well. I just wanted people to come up with their own ideas and bearing in mind it is going to have a common theme, it’s going to be quite concise and I can come up with ideas from that. The songs gave a flavour that enabled me to come up with a concept.”

In addition to new Cradle songs, the new album contains a terrific cover song, Annihilator classic “Alison Hell”. “We’ve been wanting to do it for absolutely ages. I think the catalyst was the fact that we bumped into Jeff Waters from Annihilator on a couple of occasions recently, mentioning to him our desire to do it and he was ‘Yeah, man. You guys would do such a good job with it’. We felt compelled to do it. And also, because the nature of the song, it’s very ornate and creepy and very musical. I think it sat very well with the rest of the album. Strangely enough, a lot of people have said ‘Oh, I really like that track’ without even realising it’s a cover version, people who weren’t familiar with Annihilator. Jeff’s heard it and he loves it, which is good. He actually put on his website that he thought it’s the best cover version he’s heard of an Annihilator track.”

Dani Filth of Cradle of Filth in Japan. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

With a new album out, Cradle is also starting a new touring cycle with Japan being the first gig on the new tour. “Yeah, this could be considered the first show. In a couple of weeks’ time we’ve got a UK tour. Then we’ve got a couple of things pencilled in that haven’t been totally confirmed. The main bulk of the world tour starts mid-January and literally goes right through till the end of June. We’re only doing a handful of summer festivals because we’re concentrating on winter festivals next year, so that in 2019 we can do the whole run. Otherwise we would just be sitting on our asses in 2019.”

With a busy schedule for Cradle, does Dani have time for Devilment and other projects? “Yeah, absolutely. Well, not any other projects. I am still starting my novel, but every time the opportunity comes around, there’s something else to fill it. ‘We gotta do a new album.’ That’s what sucks the life out of that. But Devilment, people are saying ‘It’s just putting more on your shoulders’, which is true, but it’s also like an escape valve, pressure valve. It’s something I can do that kind of soothes the soul. Because you get a lot of demons out that get in the way elsewhere.”

Dani Filth of Cradle of Filth in Japan. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Cradle of Filth will return to Japan in early May for three headline gigs in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. Get your tickets here: https://www.creativeman.co.jp/event/cof2018/

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Interview: David “Rock” Feinstein of The Rods

David “Rock” Feinstein in Tokyo. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

By Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

David “Rock” Feinstein made a name for himself in the late 60s and early 70s when he played with his cousin Ronnie James Dio in Elf. He then continued his career with the hard rock band The Rods during the 80s. When The Rods recently came to perform two sets at Spiritual Beast’s Japanese Assault Fest in Tokyo, Roppongi Rocks’ Caroline Misokane sat down with Feinstein to talk about his years in Elf, what led The Rods to stop with music for a while, the band’s first time in Japan and, of course, his cousin Ronnie James Dio.

You first shot to fame as a member of Elf where you played with your cousin Ronnie James Dio. What can you tell us about your years in Elf? “The Elf years were really great because Ronnie asked me to join him. At that time his band was called Ronnie Dio and The Prophets and they were like the best band, although they were local. I was in another one and there were many bands around that area. I was just out of high school and I was the drummer of my band. My best friend was a guitarist, so I knew how to play a few chords. When I went to see Ronnie Dio and The Prophets, I met Ronnie and he said ‘Hey, you know how to play the guitar?’ and I said ‘Yeah, I know about three chords, why?’ He said that their guitar player was leaving the band and asked if I’d be interested in joining them. I hesitated because I was playing drums, but slowly I started being part of it. Ronnie and the other guys were like five years older than me, so I was kind of learning from watching those guys. It was all a learning experience. I could spend hours talking about Elf. We spent a lot of time writing songs for The Prophets. When we wrote our first album, we became The Electric Elves and then Elf. We went for an audition for that album, with Columbia Records, in a rehearsal room in New York City. At the same time, Ian Paice and Roger Glover from Deep Purple were thinking about getting into producing bands and they came to check us and see if they would be interested in producing us. So, we were in this big room with five or six people and then we played our songs and they loved it. We didn’t know that, but in a few days we knew that the label wanted to sign with us and that Roger and Ian wanted to produce us. Then we recorded our first album with them. After that we started touring with Deep Purple because of the association, as in that time they were probably the biggest band in the world. We were playing in arenas with them. It was a great experience, as we started as a bar band, to play in arenas.”

Soon after you left Elf in the mid-70s, the core of the band were invited to join Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. Did you see that as a missed opportunity for you or how did you react to it? “No, actually I left the band before that because I felt I had to do something different, as when I was in the high school I never had any regular job, I was always only a musician. Then it became a career and it got to a point in my life I had to try different things. That’s why I left the band and I thought I’d leave for a while and then come back, but I wanted to try other things. I worked with many other things and during that time Ronnie and the rest of the guys had the opportunity because Ritchie had left Deep Purple to form his own band and he just took the Elf band with him. Their guitarist soon left the band, then the other guys too, but Ronnie stayed with Rainbow until the next step, which was Black Sabbath. I always followed his career. I always followed Ronnie and the band when we weren’t together. I always supported him because Ronnie was such a great talent. He really deserved to reach higher levels. I think if the Elf band had stayed together, we would have reached a greater success, because there was a certain magic about the original line-up of the band. Ronnie was destined to fame because his voice was so amazing. He was so versatile and he could have sang any other style, but he chose heavy metal and he was awesome at what he did.”

David “Rock” Feinstein in Tokyo. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

How would you describe how The Rods’ sound has evolved? Initially it kind of had more of a bluesy 70s hard rock feeling and then became more 80s American metal. “After a while I just felt I had to go back to music, because being a musician is something that stays with you, no matter how much time passes. I wanted to put a band together and play some bars, because I had done some other jobs and I knew I didn’t want to pursue those jobs anymore. But I needed to make some money and I thought if I’d put a band together I could play in some bars and earn some money. That’s how The Rods was formed,“ explains Feinstein how he formed the band together with drummer Carl Canedy. “We had two different bassists until we found Garry Bordonaro, who was the right person for it. Elf was more bluesy, kind of my musical background. I was influenced by people like Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Ritchie Blackmore. Their styles are more of a blues base, and that’s my style. I’m not a technical guitarist, I can’t even play a scale. I don’t know any. When The Rods was formed, we started as a cover band, until Carl started writing songs and we recorded a demo to send to some people to see if someone was interested in signing us. We just started as a bar band, to play and make some money and all of a sudden we were making records and touring all around. So, it kind of happened because we didn’t start thinking about getting this big. The Rods happened to start at the time of the new wave of heavy metal, it was just the beginning of it. Bands like Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax were all friends of us and we played jobs along with Metallica and all those bands back in the days when we started. We kind of led the way for these other bands to carry on. But we got to a point in our career where we had so many bad business dealings with management and record labels, so when we stopped playing it was not for internal problems, as we stayed friends. However, we just got tired of the business and that’s why we stopped for a while. In a general way, we realised that The Rods was the beginning of the new wave of heavy metal. There are so many genres inside of metal, and people call our music classic rock, but in my opinion we are a rock’n’roll band. Our songs are not a commercial thing, it’s more like an AC/DC thing. So, I call us a rock’n’roll band.”

David “Rock” Feinstein in Tokyo. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

The Rods was formed back in 1980. What motivates you to perform with the band in 2017? “I started playing again because, like I said, music is in my blood. I recorded a couple of solo albums released by a German label called SPV. Then I got a call from Carl saying he listened to my stuff and that he liked it a lot and made him want to play together again. We had not seen each other in a long time and he proposed a reunion of the band. Then we played two shows, one in a bar in my hometown and another in Garry’s hometown. Today it’s all because of the internet, that’s how people notice you nowadays, and they come to the shows. We did not have any idea that people still cared about us and then they were there watching us again, bringing their old albums for us to sign. Thus we realised that people still remembered us. It’s been ten years now since then and we have been playing eight to ten shows a year; most of these shows happen when people contact us asking if we could play in their town. We don’t have a booking agency or a management, it’s all directly with us. We try to keep playing only a few shows a year, but sometimes it happens to be more, like in 2011 when we did a European tour supporting Dio Disciples. In these last ten years we have been in places we have never visited before, like Brazil, and now Japan. It’s our first time here and we always wanted to come to Japan. Because of the internet we know now that we have fans all around the world, in places we have never thought our music would reach.”

Your last studio album came out six years ago. Do you have any plans for new albums? “We will record a new album as soon as we come home after this tour. The songs are all written and we hope to release it in the first half of 2018. Personally I think these are the best songs we have written in our career, so it’s going to be a great record.”

Ronnie James Dio reunited with you on the fabulous The Rods’ song “The Code”. What brought that about? “This was a song written by Carl and at the same time it was a song written by someone in the band. It sounded totally different from what we are used to do. Me and Garry are the singers and we write more energetic songs, which are the styles we can sing and also songs that fit into our singing style. So, when we had a song like that we knew we couldn’t do it, we are not capable of singing that type of song. When Carl came with ‘The Code’ we were recording a new album and thought that it was a great song, but not for me or Garry, and it coincided with when I wrote ‘Metal Will Never Die’, which was more The Rods style, but not that much. Also, me and Ronnie were talking about making an Elf reunion album and then he offered himself to sing on a The Rods song. We gave him these two songs, because I knew they needed a really good vocalist, they were very different from what we are used to. We recorded those two songs three or four years before Ronnie passed away. He probably didn’t even know he was sick and it ended that ‘The Code’ featured on a The Rods album and ‘Metal Will Never Die’ made up part of a Dio album.”

You are now playing Japan for the very first time. How does it feel being here and what are your expectations? “It’s been so great being here. We have been here for a couple of days and we have been walking around, checking around, meeting some fans at the hotel and on the streets, people are so nice. Everything we have seen is so clean. The hotel accommodations are the best we have seen in years. We don’t have any expectation of what it’s going to be, no matter where we play. We just do the same thing if we are playing for ten people or ten thousand, it does not matter. We will hit the stage tonight and do our thing. I think people like us here. We’ve met many fans, they greeted us very well. We are loving being in Japan. People are very nice here and we hope that after this weekend we will be able to come back soon.”

Last year at Wacken Open Air, Dio Disciples played with a hologram of Ronnie James Dio and Wendy Dio has already announced a world tour for the hologram show. What do you think about it? Would you be part of it if invited? “For me there’s two different sides of it. I think it’s a great thing because of the technology evolved to make it happen and I want to go and see it live. I know there are a lot of controversy. Even not being too much on the internet to see all the comments, I know there are a lot of people who are against it. But I think no matter what you do, in anything in your life, there will be people against it and people for it. I just hope that when the band will go out on tour, they be well received by the fans. I hope that people understand what it is. Many bands are doing it and not only bands, but people like Michael Jackson performed as a hologram and it was really cool. I know many other bands will do the same in the future. It’s technology, something new. Personally I think it is a cool thing. I’m looking forward to seeing it. I would be part of it and that’s the way I feel about it.”

This year marked the tenth anniversary of the last time Ronnie James Dio sang in Japan (the Black Sabbath/Heaven & Hell tour of 2007). What are your greatest memories of him? “I could talk about it for five or six hours. Haha! I got asked the same question many times. It’s probably because of the beginning, before he was famous, when we started in a band and there are a lot of memories from that time. Also, I have so many memories from his last ten years, where we spent so much time together, with him visiting me in Cortland, where his parents live too. Ronnie was a very funny person. The thing I miss the most about him is that when you were around him, he was making you laugh. He was a naturally funny person. And he lived for his fans. They came first, always. I have seen him very ill, coughing, breathless and going to the stage and singing for two hours, like nothing was wrong. And after that going out to hang out with the fans, take pictures, give them autographs. He could spend hours signing things for the fans. He would never cancel a show, he would never disappoint the fans. He lived for them, it’s a very honourable thing to do. He knew how much he mattered to those people and how much they meant to him. In general, he was a very modest person, for being a superstar. Of course, he lived in a beautiful house, but he was a simple person, just like you and me. He was a very brilliant man, with a great mind, a great vocabulary. That’s why his lyrics are the way they are. He had a huge imagination, so when you hear his lyrics, you can clearly see where he was at the moment he wrote it. I miss many things about him. I miss being around him, but I guess I must stop now because I could spend a lifetime just to tell you about him. Haha!”

David “Rock” Feinstein in Tokyo. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

What’s next for The Rods? “One step at a time. Haha! Like I said, as soon as we get back to the United States we will start recording a new album, which we hopefully will release by the first half of 2018. We want to play more next year. We want to play at bigger festivals in the summer. But we take it easy, we take one day at a time. Also, we really hope to come back to Japan very soon.”

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Interview: Ronnie Romero of Rainbow and Lords of Black

Ronnie Romero on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

“I always try to sing the songs in a Ronnie Romero way,” said Rainbow vocalist Ronnie Romero when he recently visited Japan again with his band Lords of Black.

Ronnie Romero in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Legendary guitarist Ritchie Blackmore reformed his band Rainbow, one of the most classic hard rock bands of all time, in 2015. He surprised many by choosing a relatively unknown singer to front the new line-up band. Young vocalist Ronnie Romero was suddenly in the limelight as he stepped into the role of Rainbow frontman, following in the footsteps of Ronnie James Dio, Graham Bonnet, Joe Lynn Turner and Doogie White. Not the easiest gig to take on for an up-and-coming vocalist. But Romero took it on and he delivered. The man can sing and his voice is a good fit for Rainbow’s material.

Ronnie Romero and Tony Hernando on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Ronnie Romero is a 35-year old singer from Chile. He grew up listening to Deep Purple and Rainbow. In his twenties he moved to Spain. “I met my wife nine years ago via the internet. She lives in Madrid and I lived in Santiago de Chile. We met once in Santiago and once in Madrid and then I decided to follow her to Madrid,” says Romero as we meet in Tokyo during Lords of Black’s second Japan visit in a year.

Ronnie Romero on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Lords of Black is a Spanish power metal band formed in Madrid by Ronnie Romero and guitarist Tony Hernando (ex-Saratoga). So far the band has released two studio albums. “I met Tony almost five years ago. He’s been working as a promoter of a Ronnie James Dio tribute concert with many local artists in Madrid. Then he invited me to sing a couple of songs in that show. We fell in love musically. We have very similar points of view and taste in music. We met at the Ronnie James Dio tribute concert and then we decided to put a band together,” explains Romero how Lords of Black formed.

Ronnie Romero on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Lords of Black played the Loud Park festival in Japan in October 2016 and then came back recently for a couple of very successful club gigs. The band enjoys local support from Japanese label Ward Records. “It’s one of the most important markets for us. We felt the support from the Japanese fans from the very beginning when we put the band together four years ago. Even with the first album, without any label support. Obviously this Rainbow thing happened and made us more important in the Japanese market, of course. We were really surprised about the support because we played at Loud Park less than a year ago. Then we have our first couple of headline shows. The Japanese fans, they loved the band from the very beginning. Besides the UK and probably Germany, Japan is very important for the band.”

Ronnie Romero on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Ronnie’s Rainbow role has meant a lot of publicity for Lords of Black which has helped the band sell records and concert tickets. But is there any negative side for Lords of Black to all the publicity surrounding your Rainbow role? “No, it’s really great. Everything’s positive from the Rainbow camp because… The Rainbow tour was just at the right time. When Ritchie called me for the first time, we were already working on the second Lords of Black album. We had already got the agreement with Frontiers. Everything is positive. I can’t imagine anything negative about Rainbow. There is nothing,” says Romero with a big smile. He clearly loves being a Rainbow member.

How do you prioritise between the two bands and other work as well? “In fact it’s really easy. We are really synchronised about the schedules. I’m always talking with Ritchie’s management. Everything is great with the Rainbow camp. There isn’t any problem with that.”

Ronnie Romero on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Nozomu Wakai is a great Japanese metal guitarist who has been playing with Paul Shortino Band and also his own band Nozomu Wakai’s Destinia. Over the past year he has collaborated with Ronnie Romero and also appeared as a special guest during Lords of Black’s Japan shows. “I met Nozomu last year at Loud Park. He was backstage and the guys from Ward Records introduced me to this amazing guitar player. Then, at the beginning of this year, he told me about the possibility to sing a couple of songs on his new record. I ended up singing all the songs! The songs are really great. They’re strong songs, heavy metal and rock songs. He plays really well. It was really great to work with Nozomu. This project is a little bit on standby at the moment because we have this new Lords of Black release. Then we had this idea to invite him to these shows to play a couple of songs and have fun on stage. People here will love it!”

Ronnie Romero in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Lords of Black has already established a signature sound. How has it evolved and will it keep evolving from where you are now? “We know what kinds of weapons we have in the band. My voice is not the best or the worst. It’s just my particular way to sing. Then we have this strong songwriting from Tony Hernando and the way he can play the guitar. We have this other element, on the drums with Andy C. He’s a really great and strong drummer and he can write lyrics and melodic songs. We try to put together all this in a big mix in the Lords of Black music. It’s distinctive kind of music. I think with the third album, we’re just trying to fill the empty spaces between the first and the second album. On the first album, we didn’t have any fan base. On the second album, you have a fan base because people start to know the band. On the third album, we need to fill the space between the people who love the band and people who know the band. You’re gonna hear the Lords of Black sound, but you’re gonna hear something different, something new, because we have these progressive elements and heavy metal, classic. We have a lot of things to show the people there.”

Ronnie Romero on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Power metal legend Roland Grapow has produced the first two Lords of Black albums. How important is he for the band? “We feel that Roland is kind of the fifth member of the band. He knows, he has this background from Helloween and Masterplan. He knows what we need to do with the music, with the sound. He’s been working with us from the very beginning on every album, on the songwriting process. He helps us choosing songs for the final track list. We love to work with Roland.”

Ronnie Romero on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

In Lords of Black you are singing songs you have helped create, but in Rainbow, so far, you are singing classic rock songs shaped by industry legends like Ronnie James Dio, Graham Bonnet and Joe Lynn Turner. Do you feel pressure when you perform their songs? “Not really. I prefer to sing the songs in my own way, in my own style. Obviously you need to show some respect when you do those kind of songs with vocalists that I love, of course. But I always try to sing the songs in a Ronnie Romero way. So, pressure, nothing! And with Lords of Black and the sound, it’s just about fun.”

Ronnie Romero on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

At Lords of Black live shows, the band has mixed their original material with performing some well-chosen rock classics. “We always try to choose songs that we love. I started to listen to Rainbow and Deep Purple when I was seven years old. So, I really love to sing Rainbow songs, even with my band, not just with Ritchie. But sometimes we play Queen songs. Even on the last album we recorded a Bruce Dickinson song, ‘Tears of the Dragon’. And we recorded ‘Innuendo’ from Queen and ‘Lady of the Lake’ from Rainbow,” explains Romero who also reveals that “we have an Anthrax song!” which has been recorded but not yet released. “For the Japanese fans we have a special set list with a special encore with special covers.”

Ronnie Romero and Tony Hernando on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

While Lords of Black keeps busy with gigs around the world, they have also started work on the next album. “In fact, right now we are recording the album. We are recording the vocals. We have these Japanese shows, then we go back to Madrid to record the vocals. And then we need to go to Atlanta to the ProgPower festival. Then we have a mini tour with Voodoo Circle. It’s five or six dates around Europe. Then probably we will go to Russia in December. It’s not done with the dates, but probably we will make a couple of shows there at the end of the year.”

Ronnie Romero on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

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Interview: Marty Friedman | “I don’t really have any kind of genre that I’m shooting to make sure I fit into”

Marty Friedman in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Guitarist Marty Friedman recently sat down with Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson in Tokyo to talk about his new album “Wall of Sound”, his band, working in Japan, his new signature Jackson guitar and much more.

Having first played in Japan in the late 80s with his band Cacophony, Marty Friedman then became a regular visitor during his decade as lead guitarist in Megadeth. Shortly after leaving Megadeth, Friedman relocated to Japan, a country that had fascinated him for quite a while.

Having already self-studied the Japanese language, when he arrived in Japan he established himself as an artist, songwriter and TV personality. He played with Japanese acts and also as a solo artist. Many of his new Japanese fans did not know anything about his Megadeth past.

His fabulous new studio album “Wall of Sound” (released in Japan in August via Ward Records), the follow-up to 2014’s “Inferno”, is an explosive and genre-bending solo album.

Currently you are so genre-bending that I want to know how you actually create this music. Do you just cram great stuff in there or how do you create this kind of cross-over music? “When I am writing any particular song, the arrangement starts to present itself. There is really no rules at that point. When I hear the song that is coming out, I think ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to step up a string section here?’ or ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to de-tune the guitars here or add piano there?’ It all just comes along as the song gets written. I don’t really have any kind of genre that I’m shooting to make sure I fit into or anything like that.”

How is the new album “Wall of Sound” different from the last one? How have you evolved? It is very diverse with slower music, almost ballad-like with beautiful guitar parts, but then also some heavy stuff with some 70s touches to it. “I think the cover looks really 70s. I don’t know what part of the music sounds 70s, but certainly possible. I just think it is deeper, hopefully better, definitely more intense, more grotesquely romantic, dark and, in Japanese you would say ‘setsunai’. I don’t know how to say that in English. Even though it is happy, there is like an undercurrent of ‘setsunai’. [Editor’s note: “Setsunai” is a Japanese expression that is hard to translate, but it’s sort of a mixture of painful, trying, bittersweet, heartrending, miserable.]

“Wall of Sound” features some fab collaborations. You have Jinxx form Black Veil Brides, Shiv Mehra of Deafheaven and Jorgen Munkeby of Shining. How do you choose which musicians to collaborate with? “It’s really just an honest…like what I like. I like this music so let’s see if that guy would be interested in doing a collaboration. Just throw it out there. In Japanese you say ‘damemoto’ [Editor’s note: “Damemoto” means giving it a shot even if you’re unlikely to succeed.] You never know. I’m a huge fan of Deafheaven and all of a sudden, out of the blue, Shiv calls me up and says ‘Dude! I’m in Tokyo!’ We had never even met before. Somehow he got my info from someone at the label or something and gets in touch with me. I was in town so we headed out and had sushi. Things just really clicked and it was like ‘We got to do a song together. Yeah!’ Very organic way. Jinxx is the same type of thing. Well, a little bit different, because Jinxx is a guitarist in Black Veil Brides, but he’s also a violinist. When I heard that I knew that I wanted to do something that was going to shock a lot of people. Because he doesn’t really get to show his violin side in his band. So I wanted to kind of like blow minds with that and I just kind of create a monster of that thing.”

It has become rather difficult to define you musically now. “That’s all good!” says Friedman with a big smile.

Apart from the guest stars, what can you tell us about the musicians in your band? Are they the same on the album and for the tour? “This time I’m using my touring bassist Kiyoshi. She’s insane! By far the most aggressive female bassist I’ve ever heard of. Maybe the most aggressive bassist period. Drums were done by the same guy who did ‘Inferno’, Anup Sastry, who’s a monster. He’s like 24 years old and is really an innovator on drums. Yeah, it’s basically that core band and everybody else was pretty much cherry-picked. I had five different piano players, keyboardists. Their personality fits particular songs. It’s kind of like that member process is almost like pop albums. You know when you get Lady Gaga or Britney Spears, look at each song and there’s 50 different players and different studios and different producers and all that. That’s the way I did this album. Each song has particular people that I thought fit that song the best.”

Is it possible to recreate this and your earlier albums live? “Live is a different animal. Live is that interpretation. In the studio you just make it exactly… Like you’re painting a picture and it has to be exactly that way. Live, you’ve got your band and you just do it the way that band does it.”

On your own albums, you are mainly focused on instrumental music. There’s only one track on the new album with vocals. How come? Do you prefer the guitar speaking to the audience rather than having vocals? “There are very few vocalists that really fit into my radar as far as the sound that I like. I am not particularly a fan of instrumental music as a genre. I need a vocalist there, but since there are so few… The music I play is really aggressive, heavy music. I find that there aren’t a whole lot of singers in that genre that… Maybe there is, I just don’t know that, because there probably are a ton of them out there that I might like. For example, Jorgen’s got a voice that I just absolutely love. I think, as a fan I prefer vocal music by far. But, as it turns out, I wanted to be the lead vocalist on guitar which has its own challenges for me that I like. My main goal is when you’re listening to the music, you’re thinking…you’re not thinking ‘Oh, I miss the vocalist. This would be so much better with a vocalist.’ So that’s my main objective with this stuff.”

Do you still have time for other musical projects and TV work now that you have a new album out? “Not really as much when I am touring and things like that, but I still do other projects that I am committed to. I don’t have any regular television program right now, so the TV I do is all one-offs. If they fit in my schedule, fine, if not, that’s totally fine with me. But when you have a regular TV show, it really bites into any kind of time for touring and stuff like that. I had to slip this month and a half of touring in before any kind of regular TV stuff got decided. That’s all good. Right now, I’m really focusing on my album and touring and playing live.”

Marty Friedman. Photo: Takaaki Henmi

You’ve done so much in the past three decades. What’s the highlight of your career so far? “It’s coming up. I don’t even remember what I did yesterday. It’s not important. Every time I do something really cool, I think ‘This is so cool!’ and a week later, or even less, I’m just not high on that any more. Last year I played at the Hollywood Bowl. That was a big deal for me because growing up with Bugs Bunny at the Hollywood Bowl with that opera singer. That was a big one for about a second. Of course, playing in Budokan in Japan so many times is big. But I’m way too busy thinking about what I’m gonna do next. The highlights are yet to come!”

I understand that you are working on a biography. Is that in English or Japanese? “Yes. Right now it’s in English. We are also doing a documentary film and been working on that for about a year and a half now. The biography is actually done, it’s being edited right now. Full life, everything, so far. That’s the hardest thing with the biography, because there are things coming up that I’m gonna definitely wanna add in. When we finished the actual manuscript to the biography, I had yet to do this Ambassador for Japan Heritage. It didn’t even have that chapter which is starting now. That is in insane contrast to everything I’ve ever done. Coming up with an ending… How do you end it? It’s kind of right in the middle. Either way, it’s done for the most part and we’ll see where it goes.”

When will the biography be released? “That I don’t know yet. I would say probably middle of next year.”

Tell us about your recent appointment as Japan Heritage Ambassador by the Japanese government. “It blew my mind! A foreigner! The only foreigner. They appointed like six other people and they’re all Japanese. I really was blown away by that. Even more so that they asked me to play the Tokyo Marathon as a foreigner. There are so many Japanese artists they could have had do it. It just blew my mind. I think everybody can learn a little bit about immigrants from that kind of treatment. If people come into the country and they don’t break any laws and try do something nice, it’s a nice thing.”

Your guitar solo on Megadeth classic “Tornado of Souls” has been called one of the best guitar solos of all time. Do you agree? “I don’t really look back at things like that. I definitely don’t get caught up in what people think is better than another thing. If I do that, there’s no end to it. With that I just think maybe they like it because it’s long. All the big, when it comes to guitar solos, it’s like ‘Free Bird’ and ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and all these songs with long-ass solos.”

Is there any guitarist in heavy metal today that you are impressed by? “Oh, lots! There are so many great things happening in metal. That’s why metal still exists now, because metal is like a guitar genre, obviously. We thought that metal… In the old days, we thought Metallica was never even going to get signed. So when they got signed, we thought metal is going to last for a good three-four years. And here we are, with more metal than ever. There are so many guitar players that really are coming to the party and doing cool stuff. A lot of great guys. The first guy that comes to mind is the guitarist in Skyharbor, a guy named Keshav Dhar who I have worked with a lot. This guy is a stud. He’s a star. I think that he’s awesome.”

Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson and Marty Friedman in Tokyo.

Here in Japan you have played everything from J-pop to metal and performed with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. Which artists and musicians in Japan are you appreciating at the moment? “I’m always a big fan of stuff like Mr. Children and Flumpool. And obviously a lot of idols, like Momoiro Clover, AKB48 and Nogizaka and all that stuff. And Perfume and pretty much anything that Nakata-san does and Hyadain and anything that he does. I’ve had the honour to work with him many times. I like all that stuff. I like a lot of the current Japanese music a lot. [The Nakata-san mentioned by Friedman is Yasutaka Nakata, the producer behind J-pop group Perfume and Hyadain is Kenichi Maeyamada, a songwriter for various J-pop acts.] The thing about Japanese pop music, it has so many elements into it and they all serve the song. It’s not just a pile of garbage. It’s not ‘Let’s mix anything up’, it’s ‘We’ve got this song. How do we interpret it in a unique way?’ That is very Japanese. There are no genre lines like back home: metal is metal, R&B is R&B, hip hop is hip hop. They don’t mix it as much. It’s frowned upon so to speak.”

Tell us about you becoming a Jackson-endorsed artist again and your new Jackson signature guitar. “It rules! I’m going back to Jackson. So, if I am gonna go back, it better be a damn good reason. Jackson has supported me even in the years I wasn’t with Jackson. The people there have never abandoned me and never not been there to help in many capacities. They always said ‘Look! Door’s open.’ When I started working on ‘Inferno’ and toured ‘Inferno’, I was thinking I really need a heavy metal work horse to do this tour. They were ready and willing and definitely able. They built me a bunch of guitars as prototypes to kind of work with on the tour. Once we started to decide ‘OK, now we are going to make a signature model’ then I started going over details with them during the tour and giving them critiques on the guitar. Over about two years of hard work on their part, they came up with a total beast. Yeah, it’s a beast!”

Marty Friedman in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

The album release was immediate followed by a North American tour. What’s next? “I’m recording a new project. I can’t even talk about it. I’ve got commitments in Japan for all of September and then the tour will resume, whether we’ll play more Japan shows or more America shows. I’ve got to do tours in one-month chunks due to a lot of Japanese work and stuff.”

Will there also be European shows? “Hopefully. They have been asking and I’m interested and would love to play in Europe. Always done Europe. It’s about going to the next level. I’m really actually so busy I don’t want to do anything that is a lateral movement. Often in the world of touring, when you’re gone for a year, it’s really hard to move up. You get a lot of offers that is kind of lateral to what you already did. I’m kind of too busy in Japan to really entertain that, without sounding like a goofball. What I really want to do is reach a larger audience in Europe. I love headlining, but I would rather be a support act first to someone who is much bigger than me so that I can reach some new fans. When that happens I’m gonna play Europe.”

After the previous album, “Inferno”, you did a successful package tour in Europe. “We did Shining and Arch Enemy and Kreator was on that bill too. It was great because I played some of Shining songs and they played some of my songs. It was interesting having an all-Norwegian band play my music. Usually I have an all-Japanese band. I’ve had an all-Israeli band, I’ve had an all-American band and now I’ve had an all-Norwegian band. It’s so interesting to peek in different cultures, everybody playing my music. I’ve played in an all-Chinese band and Chile, South America. It’s so interesting the cultural differences that I’ve been privy to see. I’m thankful.”

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Interview: John Corabi | “It’s very easy to put a band together until you get into a tour bus”

John Corabi in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

When former Mötley Crüe singer and Ratt guitarist John Corabi recently visited Japan with his current band The Dead Daisies, Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson sat down with him in Tokyo for a chat about his career and what’s coming up.

Vocalist and guitarist John Corabi is perhaps best known as the former lead singer of Mötley Crüe, but he has been involved in numerous bands over many years until he joined The Dead Daisies. He first started to make a name for himself with the band The Scream in the late 1980s. Here he briefly played with drummer Scott Travis who would soon go on to join Judas Priest.

In 1992, Corabi joined Mötley Crüe to replace the original singer Vince Neil. He remained in the band for several years, recording both the full-length studio album “Mötley Crüe” and the “Quaternary” EP and touring with the band. After Mötley, Corabi teamed up with former KISS guitarist Bruce Kulick in a band called Union. The band released two studio albums and a live album. During a Japan tour in 2005, Union used KISS drummer Eric Singer as a fill-in. Corabi, Kulick and Singer also played together in the Eric Singer Project. Corabi, did a stint with Nikki Sixx and Tracii Guns in Brides of Destruction and joined Ratt as a touring guitarist for a number of years. In early 2015, he was invited to join The Dead Daisies as its lead vocalist. In The Daisies he fronts a band formed by Aussie guitarist David Lowy that now consists of a seasoned bunch of pros: guitarist Doug Aldrich (Dio, Whitesnake), bassist Marco Mendoza (Whitesnake, Thin Lizzy, Ted Nugent) and drummer Brian Tichy (Whitesnake, Ozzy Osbourne, Billy Idol, Foreigner).

John Corabi in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Sometimes a lead vocalist, sometimes a guitarist, sometimes both. Do you miss the guitar when you’re focusing on singing? “I think I am OK, yes. The thing with me…there is a left brain, right brain thing. I think when I am playing guitar, I’m not as good vocally. Something’s gonna suffer a little bit. It’s not like ‘Oh my God! That guy sucks!’ So, I love the fact that I am just able to focus. Being a frontman, your job is to connect with the audience and be visual, you know, ringleader at the front. So I’m able to do that a little better without the guitar.”

“I have way too many guitars already. I’m always playing at home,” explains Corabi about his love for the guitar. But Corabi always seem to keep himself busy, with or without guitar. “We’re getting ready to go back in the studio in November to do a new album. And I have a solo record to do as well, contractually.”

The Dead Daisies is a hardworking band. As part of their touring around the world, they have played twice in Japan in the past year and released a fabulous live album, “Live & Louder”, which basically contains the show they are now performing around the world. It was recorded during a co-headline European tour with The Answer. “When we were out with The Answer, we only did a 60-minute set. So we were kind of changing songs around, so that we could have everything. We recorded, I think, all the shows in the UK, Germany, we did one in Paris. Then Doug did an amazing job going through all the different versions of everything and finding the one, like ’OK, this one’s really good. Everyone’s playing great, so let’s use that one.’ He kind of went through everything and then we gave it to our buddy Anthony Focx. He mixed it for us.”

John Corabi and Marco Mendoza of The Dead Daisies on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

The Daisies is a band full of talented rock stars with strong wills. How does the creative process work in such a situation and how does it differ from you writing your solo stuff? “The funny thing about it is… I’ve got solo record to do. So, if I want to wank off for eight minutes – y’know what I mean? – I can save it for that record. The cool thing about it is…nobody really comes in… We know that we’re gonna write and the way we write is everybody grabs an acoustic guitar and we all sit in a room together, including Brian, who is an amazing guitar player. We all sit in a room together. ‘Hey, we’ve got this riff’ and we just starting jamming the riff. We’re all throwing shit in at the same time. It’s a very collaborative thing. Nobody really comes into the band, for the last two records anyway, with full songs. It’s just a riff or an idea. It’s just a very primitive, loose idea, where everybody is like ‘OK, what do you guys think of this riff?’ ‘Awesome, let’s work on that!’ Then everybody starts to throw their ingredients into the pot. As far as my solo thing… That will be something where I’ll focus more on finishing the songs and having set finished songs before I go into the studio pretty much on my own. So I’m not worried about the process in this, it’s really easy. I’m more worried about doing my solo record than having to actually finish a fucking song. It’s crazy.”

John Corabi in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Having played in so many different bands over the years, Corabi has had a career taking him on a roller coaster journey around the world with some great highlights. “All the bands, for one reason or another, were… Each one had an individual characteristic about it. It was like The Scream, for us it was a first record deal, like a major record deal, for all of us. It was the first trip to England and Europe. It was our first big tour, first tour bus… I’m pretty sure 20 years from now, you’re gonna sit back and you’ll remember your first blowjob. You know the girl’s name, what she was wearing, what you were listening to… So that’s The Scream. Mötley, obviously, everything just got shifted into a way higher gear with those guys. They are all great musicians but crazy. That was five years of my life that was a blur. Then the thing with Union was equally… I thought the band was a great band, there were talented players in it. But I think Union was kind of a…it was almost very therapeutic. Because Bruce and I were going through the exact same fucking thing at the same time. He got the boot from KISS so that they could do the original line-up with make-up and he split up with his wife of like 10 or 15 years. I went through the exact same thing. They were getting back together. The band’s getting back together, I was on the out. The girl that I was engaged to for years decided…whatever. So for Bruce and I, it was just therapeutic for us. The Ratt thing was just basically me giving myself a bit of a mental break without really having to get out of the business. It still allowed me to go out and do music, travel the world, play my guitar. Not be in the limelight, just be back here. Like anybody else that has a job, on Friday I just put my hand out and I get a cheque. I didn’t have to worry about t-shirts, tickets, nothing. I just did that for a while until I’d cleared my head and I was like ‘Alright! Now it’s time to get back to work’ and I started trying to put a band together. It took me forever.”

John Corabi in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

“It’s very easy to put a band together that looks great on paper until you get into a fucking tour bus with people for like six months at a time, or three months at a time, a month at a time! Then you start seeing people’s idiosyncrasies, their quirks and… ‘Oh my God! I’m gonna fucking kill this guy’, do y’know what I mean? That was part of my process too. Once I decided I wanted to do my thing, it took me a while… I had three or four drummers, I had a dozen guitar players. ‘Til I found the right combination I didn’t want to do anything. Then I finally got it. Now my son is my drummer, so it’s pretty cool.”

“With The Daisies, there was just like ‘OK, let’s go tour on this record’. David and Jon Stevens actually just wrote a bunch of songs and went into the studio and recorded it with session guys. And they decided to go on tour. Whether someone’s schedule or somebody not getting along, or whatever, there was a bit of a turnover there because they were growing in public. Well, here we are. Everybody seems happy. Everybody seems reasonably happy with our turnout here in Japan and record sales. So, onward and upward, Johnny!”

John Corabi in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Corabi seems very comfortable in Japan. Having played here twice with The Daisies, he has also performed in Japan with Ratt, Mötley Crüe, Union and ESP. “Japan has always had… I don’t know what it is. I just remember reading magazines growing up as a kid. The Japanese audience. Cheap Trick live at Budokan. Just all these great records. Mötley, when we came over here, they were like ‘Dude! You’re gonna fucking lose your shit in Japan. You’re never gonna believe it! The fans they come out in droves and they come bearing gifts.’ My first trip here and they were right! I was like ‘Holy fuck! These fans are unbelievable.’ You go to the hotel, there’s a hundred of them in the lobby. They just want an autograph and they are very polite, have a picture. ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry!’ I just kind of fell in love with it the first time I was here. The fans, I don’t know how they do it. My first trip over here was with Mötley. I showed up and these two fans came and they gave me Converse sneakers. I was like ‘Oh, wow!’ I’ve always been a Converse guy. So they gave me these Converse, I guess they were made for Japan, you wouldn’t get them in America. The thing that freaked me out… Now you can go on Google or Wikipedia and it’s got like my birth date, my shoe size, everything is there. I’m talking 1994, when shit was dial up, fax… These fucking people showed up with two awesome pair of Converse high tops, in my size! How the fuck do they do that? What used to amaze me, we would get on the bullet train, because we hubbed out of Tokyo for like six days, seven days. And we would go to Sendai and back or we’d go to Yokohama and back, Nagoya and back. I would get on the train and we would take off and I would see them on the platform as we were pulling away and then we would get to Nagoya and we would get off the train, and I would see that person… ‘How the fuck did you guys get here?’ Even today when we went to the train station, there was a bunch of fans from the show last night. How the fuck do they know that we’re on this train and this time? It’s like a mystery to me. It’s amazing to me, it really is. I love it, man. I’ve never met anybody that I had to get verbal with. Never aggressive, they are always apologetic. Like last night when we got in from the gig, it was like ‘Aargh! OK.’ We just did a signing. We did the gig, we did the signing, we changed, we came back to the hotel. I was starving and then, you know. But it’s part of the gig. It’s amazing to me. I’ve always loved Japan and the fans, their affinity and love for what we do. It’s awesome!”

John Corabi in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

While The Daisies keep Corabi quite busy, he still has a bit of time for side projects. In addition to the solo record he has in the works, he also plans to release a special live version of the 1994 “Mötley Crüe” album he sang on. “I didn’t even know it was the 20th anniversary. I did a show, I forget where I was. With my band, we were doing a little bit of Scream, Mötley, Union, new stuff, whatever. Somebody in the audience yelled ‘Happy anniversary!’ I was looking around, I thought somebody was in the audience. I’m looking around and they’re like ‘Happy anniversary, Crab!’ And I go ‘It’s not my fucking anniversary! What are you talking about?’ And they’re like “Nah, dude. It’s 20th today! It’s 20 years since the Mötley ’94 thing came out.’ I was like ‘Cool’ and my manager, he actually set it up where we went and we learned the whole record and we went out and did some shows. Then I really wanted to bring it over here, to bring it to Australia, to the UK and all these different places because – well, Japan we played – but we didn’t play a majority of the United States, Canada, South America, Europe. We never played one note of music. This could be cool. It was funny – I was doing that and we were continuing to roll it into 2015 when The Daisies called. So, I had a break and I went home and, not to bring up business or whatever, but I started to research bringing my band to places like the UK, Europe and even here. I started to realise the amount of money I would have to ask for. Like the UK now is…it’s not just about hotel rooms and flights and food. There’s visas and they don’t do the band visa any more. You’ve got to do individual ones. It’s like 700 or 800 bucks a guy. I’m like ‘Fuck! I’m going to have to ask for an astronomical sum of money to make this work.’ The crew guys, the band – it’s five guys, then there’s the merch and… I talked to my manager about it and I said ‘Let’s go in.’ We went into a club in Nashville, where I live. I literally called the club owner, it was like two weeks out. I go ‘Do you have a day available?’ He goes ‘I can give you like a Tuesday.’ Fine, whatever, it doesn’t matter and I promoted it for two weeks really hard. I probably had 300 or 400, 500 people in the place. I just set it up, we recorded everything and videotaped a bunch of shit from the show. I basically gave it to Michael Wagener. I asked him to do his thing. He was like ‘Do you want to fix anything?’ I’m like ‘No! As is.’ That’s actually coming out, it was gonna come out last year, but ‘Make Some Noise’ was coming out. We were literally the same week. So I pulled my record and then I figured I was going to put it on in January and Daisies were like ‘We’re gonna do a live album’. So, I said ‘Alright, I’ll hold my live record ‘til The Daisies’ comes out, runs its course.’ I’m gonna release mine probably sometime between September and November. We’re gonna take a break mid-September, we’re gonna write for a couple of weeks and then we’re in the studio November 1st. That’s a perfect time to do it. Then the first quarter of next year, I’ll have off probably with these guys so I can go out and do some shows if I have to. I just put that record out and that way everybody can hear what it would’ve sounded like.”

John Corabi in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

“For me, I did some of the shows and inevitably there’s still that huge conglomeration of fans that are still kind of pissed at me for even thinking of joining Mötley. So, I was out doing the 20th anniversary thing and some of the people are like ‘Ah! Riding their coat tails again’ and I’m like ‘No. Actually I wrote this stuff. I do whatever the fuck I want.’ I’m not gonna do the shows anymore, let’s put the record out and now I can go out and go back to what I was doing with Scream, Mötley, Union. The last show I did, we were on the Monsters of Rock Cruise in March, we actually did some Daisies stuff, some new shit and we had some fun.”

The Dead Daisies on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

At age 58, John Corabi is clearly enjoying himself and has a bright future with The Dead Daisies and his side projects.

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