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The Indie Perpetual Engine
Another Lost Year are four guys from Charlotte, North Carolina who in 2011 decided to get together and form a band after a chance meeting at a local open mike night. Lead guitarist and singer Clinton Cunanan and bassist Adam Hall met at that open mike night, and they just hit it off. To round out their new association, Cunanan and Hall recruited guitarist/vocalist Jorge Sotomarino and drummer/vocalist Nathan Walker to join their musical cause.
In 2012 Another Lost Year was signed with Mirage M’hal Records and teamed up with producer Jose Urquiza to record “Better Days,” their 2012 debut album that featured their hit song, “War On the Inside.” The album was well received by fans and critics alike, and is reminiscent of bands like Three Doors Down, Bridge to Grace, Breaking Benjamin, and Shinedown. Two years on, the band recorded and released their six-song EP, The Revolution, Pt. 1: The Other Side. The band followed up with The Revolution, Pt. 2: It’s a Long Way Home in May of 2016, and a month later with their latest album, Alien Architect. They’ve shared the stage and toured with the likes of Candlebox, Sevendust, Sick Puppies, Trapt, Hinder, Saving Abel, Saliva, Devour the Day, Nonpoint, and more.
Fast forward to now… Somewhere on the road in Colorado a few hours outside of Denver and with a couple of days off from touring before their next gig, Clinton Cunanan pulled off on the side of the highway to give me a call…
McKinny: Hey man, thanks for taking the time from driving to take my call, I appreciate it. You guys are from Charlotte, North Carolina. How was the music scene there when you were starting out? Was it a supportive scene for new live music?
Clinton Cunanan: Back home in Charlotte, we kind of started out a little later in life than most bands, in our late twenties and early thirties. We were just really trying to rely on making good music. The venues really didn’t know anything, and Charlotte’s a really tough scene. I was promoting for a while, trying to help it out, but it’s tough when you’re touring and you’re trying to make all that stuff happen. It’s cool now. It’s kind of rejuvenated a little bit, and I would like to think that we’ve helped to make it happen. It’s an interesting scene… One of our old venues, we just played it for the last time because it’s closing at the beginning of March, and it’s pretty sad to watch your hometown venues closing, but I guess it’s kind of the way things are going right now.
McKinny: I understand what you mean. A lot of places I played in the Northern Virginia/Washington, DC — the Sunset Grille, Little Italy, Sully’s — have all closed since I moved from the area. Hope it wasn’t my fault!
Cunanan: Yeah, it’s tough, alright. Really tough, but then there are other parts of the country that are really thriving now, so it’s cool. We just got to play The Whisky A-Go-Go and the Viper Room on the same day, a couple of legendary clubs that were pretty decently packed, and I was pleasantly surprised about that, especially in such renowned clubs.
McKinny: Yeah, it’s the same status as a Stone Pony or CBGB’s back East. Legendary clubs for sure, but when you get there, they’re the same dive bars as everywhere else! But then again, what makes them legendary are the bands that made their splash there, or took up residence – like at The Whisky with The Doors practicing there every Friday in the sixties, or bands like Motley Crüe making their entrance… It’s all about the history, for sure.
McKinny: So when did your band actually come together, and who started the band? I know you said that you got into the band thing a little later in life than others do, which I think is probably pretty smart because a lot of guys when they get into it, they’re just a little too young to really have a good idea of where they’re going, what they’re doing, or how things actually work in the music business.
Cunanan: Yeah, man. April will be six years old, and as it is with anything, there’s always someone out there trying to work harder than you, so we’re out there just trying to work harder than anyone else. As far as who started the band, I just kind of gathered some acoustic stuff and Adam was like the only original member that’s with me. I met him at an open mike night, asked him out on a “man date” and he stood me up, and the rest is history…
McKinny: What are some of the biggest shows you’ve played so far?
Cunanan: That’s hard to say. We just got through doing “Shiprocked,” which was a five day cruise to the Grand Turk Island out from Miami with Breaking Benjamin, Papa Roach, Sevendust. There were something like twenty bands on that cruise with about three thousand people, and it was sold out a year in advance. It was pretty cool to be a part of that. I mean, these people spend a ton of money and take a week out of their lives. It’s not like driving to a show a few hours away, because most of the people are flying in from all over the world, so it’s really cool to be able to hang with them and do our shows in such a small, intimate venue as onboard a cruise ship.
McKinny: What’s your favorite part of touring?
Cunanan: Being able to connect with people from all over the country, and the fact that we get to do the stuff and see the people we get to, it’s pretty cool. Jorge, our lead guitar player has a bunch of friends and family in Los Angeles, so it’s a different side of things that we get to do when touring. It’s a good time, connecting with different people and seeing different things on tour. It’s one of the benefits of being on the road.
Editor’s Note: Insert ALY’s “Wolves” Video HERE: https://youtu.be/0qtWwrWVbgs
McKinny: Tell me about your new album, Alien Architect.
Cunanan: Our new album we actually self-recorded, self-produced, and recorded it in an abandoned house in Illinois. It debuted on Billboard at number eight, and we’re super excited. We released it on our own record label with distribution on eOne, which is really awesome.
Before we started our own label, in 2012 we were on Thermal/Megaforce Records – we had two number one hits off that album (Better Days) — we had the number one single for 256 consecutive days running, and we actually ended up knocking ourselves out of the number one spot with the second hit from that album, so it was pretty awesome. But we ended up leaving our record label, parted ways because they wanted us to do different things and we wanted to do different things, so we decided to go out on our own. We did another single deal with Warner Brothers — it was alright, but it wasn’t what we really wanted, so we started our own record label and started releasing our own stuff, and when we had the new album, Alien Architect ready to go, we got with EMT and had distribution through eOne, which we thought was a great deal, so we self-released and we did it all ourselves, and debuted at number eight on Billboard, which was pretty fantastic because Adam called me up and said, “Hey man, you should really check your email.” I was like, “Yeah, I’ll check it in a while.” He said, “No, man, you really need to check your email!” And so there was this email from Billboard asking for more information from us because it was looking like we were going to chart, and we didn’t really think anything about it, thinking “Yeah, right. We won’t chart, and if we do, it’ll be something like 200.” But when it hit at number eight, it was a pretty special day for us because we had spent well over forty thousand dollars on albums prior to this release, and we didn’t spend anywhere near that amount on this album on our own, so it was pretty fantastic.
McKinny: I’ve spoken with a lot of indie bands in similar positions who have struck out on their own, and it seems to be working out rather well for most of the ones I’ve spoken with, and are much happier doing everything on their own. It’s a little imposing at first, being responsible for everything a record label would normally handle, but the learning curve for most bands seem to be pretty small and the bands are generally up to the task.
Cunanan: True, but even with a record deal, a band is still responsible for everything, so why not cut out the middle man and the outside influences and just do your own thing. So that’s what we did, because at the end of the day, record deal or self-released, you’re still paying for it.
McKinny: Tell me about the guys in the other bands on tour with you. Who are they, and do you guys find the time to hang out together and socialize, or do the bands tend to stay to themselves?
Cunanan: We’re touring with a band called Lullwater, from Athens, Georgia, whom we’ve toured with before. They’re sort of a Seven Mary Three-ish kind of sound. And the other band on tour with us is called Never Say Die, and they’re from Canada. So we’ve got bands from North Carolina (us), Georgia, and Canada on tour, so it’s been kind of cool with the crazy kind of ridiculousness that follows on tour. We hang out when we can, you know it’s a big tour going over the whole of the US, and we got to hang out in Las Vegas, which was really fun, had a great time hanging out together there. When we get back out into the Midwest on tour, we’ll get to hang out more.
McKinny: Where do you guys go from here? What regions of the country will you be hitting next, and when/where can we expect to see more tour dates?
Cunanan: Well, when we come back we’ll be concentrating on states east of the Rockies – Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Texas, Kansas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky, etc…
McKinny: What’s next on the band’s agenda? Are you guys working on booking summer dates for the tour yet?
Cunanan: Well, once this leg is done, we’ll take a couple of weeks off, and then we’ll start back at it with shows starting around the first of April, and then we’ll work our way back to Las Vegas for a music festival there, then we’ll shoot back down through the southwest which will take us into June, pretty much. And then doing the summer festival circuit, doing one-off shows in between, which should take us into the fall tour. You know we’re on the road for about 250 days a year, and last year we took a little time off – not too much, we just didn’t tour as extensively as we are now. I mean, it’s already the end of February, and we’ve already played outside the country and toured coast to coast, so we’re on pace to go back and forth across the US a couple more times before the year is out.
McKinny: So is there anything else you’d like to say before you go?
Cunanan: We’re going to be releasing some new music soon – we’ve got a ton of stuff recorded and ready to go, and we’re working on even more new stuff all the time. We’re also touring all over the country, so come out and see us! If not, go out and see someone else, because we’re watching venues die all over the country, and they can’t stay open if the people stay home. So go see a show! If it’s not us, go see someone else, because the venues and the industry need you.
This rock band is making a mainstream splash with their latest release, “Exhale.”
Trevor McNevan grew up in the blue-collar, bedroom community of Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, not too far north of the bustling metropolis of Toronto, Ontario. McNevan and his longtime friend and guitarist, Dave Smith came together after the demise of Oddball, their previous musical endeavor fizzled out in 1996 after releasing only a single album (“Shutterbug”), which also featured future Three Days Grace drummer Neil Sanderson and bassist, Tim Baxter.
It was at this point when McNevan came up with the idea for a band and a name that symbolized the point in their life where “we realize we can’t make it on our own strength.” It was a cathartic moment for the singer with the melodic rock voice and hip-hop influences of his youth. It was a moment of inspiration that drove McNevan and the band forward to do their own kind of thing – Thousand Foot Krutch.
I got to speak with Trevor McNevan, singer and founding member of TFK during Christmas week, while he and the band were on a break for the Christmas and New Years’ holiday, and also a break from rehearsals for their new North American tour starting in early January 2017.
Brian McKinny: So tell me a bit about your background. You’ve spent the last ten years or so with your wife and kids in Nashville, but you’re originally from Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.
Trevor McNevan: Yep, born and raised here in Peterborough. I started a band at the end of high school – that would’ve been 1996, and it’s been an incredible journey, brother. I’d made some records before that, actually, when I was younger. It was mostly a lot of hip-hop stuff – I think I was one of only two people in my whole town who listened to hip-hop! We had one classic rock station in our town, and hip-hop’s always kind of been in the bloodline, my musical DNA since then. I started the band at the end of high school, and have had a few different members over the years. I’m the only original member, but my bassist, Joel Bruyere, and drummer, Steve Augustine, have been with me for a long time – fifteen years, so that’s a long time.
McKinny: When did you first get into playing music, singing and performing?
McNevan: I guess when I was eight, my mom tells me I sang at my aunt and uncle’s wedding, and later that same year, they had bought one of those old one-ton wooden stereo cabinet units that has speakers and a turntable built into it with a 2-inch mic cord – well, we had one of those, and they bought me Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” record, and it was just on from that point. It became my life; I just wanted to sit there in front of that thing and listen to everything I could, until I was completely worn out from singing along with it. Yeah, not to sound dramatic, but to be honest, I didn’t really feel like I started a band, but more like I had answered a calling. It’s just that music’s always really spoken to me and communicated to me. It’s been a blessing to be able to kind of turn that into an outlet and to use my voice to communicate to others my music in my songs, so it’s been a really cool journey.
McKinny: Tell me how you started the band. It wasn’t your first project – nobody seems to be so lucky as to hit the ground running, to have their first foray into music be successful.
McNevan: That’s so true! I had a hip-hop tape – back when people made tapes – but I was thirteen years old then. And then I was working at McDonald’s, actually, when I was fifteen… It’s funny how many bands have come out of this town —My Darkest Days, one of the guys from Art of Dying… A whole bunch of us used to work at McDonald’s together, so I met and worked with a lot of musicians there. I did a record when I was sixteen, called “Oddball.” It was kind of power rock. We had 27 songs – the first part of it was hip-hop and then the record stopped — it had this sort of applause track, and then the rest of it was rock. It had a sort of eclectic mix of things, and then I started TFK the next year.
It’s always been kind of a melting pot of what inspired me musically, what inspired me to write. Our records have always had diversity, a variety of styles and influences to them that takes the audience on a kind of musical journey, so that’s been a common thread throughout our records. It’s been a natural progression along the years, stylistically speaking, so it’s always been a bit of a broad spectrum of — not necessarily genre, but a sense that we don’t really want to stay on the same thing for too long.
McKinny: What was the music scene like when you guys were coming up outside of Toronto? What were some of the other bands you guys were friends with or played with before you got signed to a label?
McNevan: Actually, in my hometown of Peterborough, and also in Toronto, we had a really good music scene coming up. It’s funny, because it’s not that it’s not great now, but today it just doesn’t seem the same, you know? It doesn’t seem as if there’s as much of these days in terms of newcomers, which is funny because there are so many more people — it’s more populated these days, in terms of artists and bands. The scene has changed so much, but it was so great when we were coming up, honestly. It was just a different time though, too. I wouldn’t have traded it for the world, but with CDs and tapes, I would literally take a hundred down and hand-deliver them or stuff envelopes and mail them to every record label or to radio programmers to get the music out there. I’d go make up posters for our shows and spend days putting them up all over town. It was just a different era.
Today, there are so many apps and tools to help you do all those things without having to leave the house – you can make a video and then upload it to YouTube, and everyone else has that same opportunity, so it’s even more important how you separate yourself from the rest, how you grow awareness to what you’re doing. But it’s a pretty amazing deal these days that we have all of these tools to do that with. Modern technology has been a beautiful thing, but in some ways can be such a destructive thing if you’re not careful, and we’ve had to figure that out along the way.
The whole “do-it-yourself,” has been pretty successful, and have been doing it our way for a long time now. We ended up selling 80,000 records out of our van, and that got us some attention, and record labels started to call. I signed a bad record deal when I was seventeen, kind of learned a lot about the business side after thankfully getting out of that (deal), then started making records for EMI — Tooth and Nail Records, actually. We spent a decade with those guys, and had an awesome time; loved those people and had a great run with them, finished out our deal with them. We had some very exciting deals on the table, and we were at the height of our career then, and we really felt that the right thing for this band was to go independent again. Thank God our audience — it’s really always been about them, such an amazing, powerful experience that they’ve rocked with us. So we removed the middle-man, so to speak, and it really was the right move for this band. It’s definitely not the right move for every band, but it’s worked out really great for us. We’re still very inspired, and it’s empowering because we make the decision on how we make the music and how we release it. We have a small team of people, we started our own label, and we cut our own deals with Walmart, Best Buy, and Target, and our small team of people is really passionate about it, and we all have the same vision. It’s been a very unique situation, but a very refreshing one.
McKinny: It’s good to hear, because a lot of bands will see some initial success, but don’t know how to capitalize on that success and keep it going as independents.
McNevan: We’ve been fortunate. We’ve made a lot of mistakes and learned from those, and we have also made some good choices as well, and have been fortunate to have some great people working on our team, and can draw from a wide variety of experience. It’s been a good thing, for sure.
McKinny: How important has it been for you to have, not just a good marketing effort, but how important is it today for a band like yours to have good entertainment attorneys and a good grip on your intellectual property to ensure that you get your due when it comes to dealing with vendors, distributors, and the like? Is that something you’ve had to place a particular focus on as a business?
McNevan: It’s definitely something you need to have in place for if and when you do need it. The really cool thing I’ve seen in our experience of going back to being independent is the sort of “underdog story” that we’ve been able to do these things for ourselves, especially with regard to the “big box” stores like Target, Walmart, and Best Buy — they’ve honestly been like champions for the band, very aggressive in promoting our brand and our music. I would’ve probably been skeptical about that before going forward, but it’s honestly been almost the exact opposite experience. I mean they’ve been really supportive — we work hard, they work hard, and it’s been a really cool situation, so we haven’t had to really worry about much of that, thankfully. But to answer your question, yes, it is important to have that support in place in case you ever need to use it. Nobody wants to find themselves in that unfortunate spot and then not know who to call for help. It’s important to have people you can trust to have your legal back in those kinds of situations. I will say that we have an awesome manager who is a partner on this stuff. His name is Tony Potato, and his company is called The Fuel Music & Management, and he’s just been awesome – we couldn’t have done this without him and his help.
McKinny: Where did you record this last album, and who produced it?
McNevan: I actually produced the record, along with my friend, Aaron Sprinkle. He’s kind of a long time producer, and that’s how we’ve made the last handful of records since we went independent. Actually, a long time ago we started investing in home studios and really good gear so we could have world-class signal change, and over time we’ve built some great studios that have enabled us to make some great records at really low cost and do them in our own time, in our own homes, so we make our records remotely, ourselves. Each member will record their tracks themselves, and I oversee the process. It’s been a pretty amazing situation for us – it’s not for everybody, though; not everybody would want to do it that way, but it has been a really cool thing for us, because we’ve always lived in different cities and we all dig that side of it, too. I’ve been busy songwriting for most of my career for other bands as well, so it gives me the autonomy to work on several projects at once without keeping other people waiting. It cuts down on travel time and expenses, and everyone really just digs the way we work together. It allows each of us to work at whatever capacity we want. The coolest thing is that instead of spending a couple hundred grand on a record, catering budgets, hotels, and all that kind of thing, we are able to make a really great record at an amazingly low cost and our sound quality doesn’t suffer at all.
We talk about this sometimes, because there’s a piece of it that you kind of miss – something special happens when you stop life for 8 weeks and head into a studio somewhere and everyone’s in the same room focusing on the same thing — those are great times, too. But looking back, I’m glad we’ve done it the way we’ve done it for our sakes, because everyone has families now, and it’s amazing to do this and still be able to be with our respective families and children and have a part in their lives, and it’s not as hard a thing when we have to leave for two or three months to go out and tour for a new album because we’re not gone so much as we would have been if we were also taking time out of our family lives to produce, record, and mix/master an album on top of it all.
McKinny: When you guys go out on tour, do you bring your families — wives, children — with you?
McNevan: You know, the wives used to come out a little bit, and then they kind of found that it was just easier for us to come home on weekends or whenever we had a break for a couple of days and then head back out for the next leg of the tour. It’s really easy for things to sort of turn into “Groundhog Day” when you’re not busy out there on the road. I mean, we love what we do, and there’s a reason why we’re out there every night on stage, but it’s not the same for the wives who come along for the ride. There’s not a lot to do unless we’re someplace fun, like Vegas where there’s something going on that they would really dig, then they’d come out and have a little fun with us for the weekend or something, which is cool. But they’ve all got things they’re into doing, and then add the kids into the mix and priorities change. It’s pretty understandable, really, and things have worked out well for everyone concerned. We all try to make the most of the time we have together when we’re on tour, and the same applies when we’re at home.
McKinny: When do you start this latest tour?
McNevan: The latest Winter Jam 2017 Tour started on January 6th. We did our first production rehearsal for this tour in Charleston, West (By-God!) Virginia, at the Civic Center, and we hit the ground running there for the first show of the tour on the following night, a Friday! It’s gonna be a blast, really! The rehearsal is just to shake out the cobwebs and make sure that everything is keyed in and ready to go with our lighting, sound, and the band. This tour will run from January through April. It’s a 60-city tour in major cities across the country, so we’re really looking forward to starting out.
McKinny: Which acts will be supporting you on this headlining tour?
McNevan: There are quite a few bands on this bill, which is the way we like it; it gives us a really wide variety of different bands for us to check out and play with. There’s this hip-hop artist called Britt Nicole, and this new contemporary rock band called Tenth Avenue North. And there is this really cool rock-folk sort of band called Crowder out of Texas that really mixes things up – you’ve got to check them out… Also on the bill is Colton Dixon from (Season 11) American Idol – there are a couple of other acts that are on the bill as well — just check the tour schedule for a complete list of all the acts on the tour.
McKinny: It must be a nice change of pace to be touring with so many different artists and musical genres to keep things exciting and fresh.
McNevan: Yeah, it’s a blast, man! This whole tour, just the way they’ve put it together… We did Winter Jam one other time about three years ago, and it’s a really good community to be a part of. It’s almost like family, you know? There are a couple hundred people out there just touring together, making music and putting on a great show. What more could you ask for?
McKinny: Regarding touring — what are the best and worst parts of touring for you now?
McNevan: You know, most of it is great. I’m not just saying that. I still love most of it, just as much as I did when I was a sixteen year old kid. The part that gets old, I guess, is the travel. It’s that piece that just comes with the territory, though, where you’re away from your family and your kids. That can get a little crazy when the schedule gets kind of nuts — you lose sleep for long periods of time, and the older you get, the harder that stuff gets. But I’m not complaining. I love it, and I feel blessed to be part of the band and get to do this for a living. That’s the only thing that really gets a little old is the travel and losing sleep.
McKinny: Anything special you’d like to say to your fans as you guys head out onto the road for your latest tour?
McNevan: We just want to say “Thank You” honestly for your love and support, and for walking this journey with us, and for continuing to believe in the band, our music, and what we do. We couldn’t do this without them, so we’re thankful for them and humbled by their continued love and support. We truly appreciate it, and we want to wish a Happy New Year to all our fans, friends, and family out there!
You can find Thousand Foot Krutch on the road from now through April at a music venue near you by going to http://2017.jamtour.com/ to find show locations and dates, as well as purchase tickets.
You can find Thousand Foot Krutch online at the following links:
Metallica’s tenth studio release, “Hardwired to Self Destruct”, produced by Bob Rock, James Hetfield, and Lars Ulrich, has made band history with their sixth number one album on the Billboard 200 chart, and it’s number one with a bullet for good reason. In my opinion, it’s their best release since the Black Album, 1991’s eponymous album. It also contains quite the large song list (with 26 songs on 3 discs), including original releases and live versions of a combination of their new material with venerable live Metallica show staples like Creeping Death, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Fade to Black, and some live deep tracks like Hit the Lights and Jump in the Fire. It’s a mixture of new and old that’s sure to please everyone and anyone who calls themselves a fan of Metallica.
Since there are just so many new songs to review on this release (and my managing editor would kill me if I turned in a 13-page music review!), I’m going to focus on the five songs that, for me at least, are the best of the new releases of the album, and I’ll just leave the rest up to the fans to choose which songs reach out to them the most.
To start out my top five songs of “Hardwired” in no particular order, the one that immediately comes to the forefront of my mind is “Spit Out the Bone,” a throwback to early Metallica thrash ditties that includes some of the dark imagery and break-neck riffage that we’ve come to expect and love about Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield’s guitars, Hetfield’s vocals, and the band’s overall head-banging output. As a self-proclaimed huge fan of Metallica, but not so much of drummer Lars Ulrich these days, I find myself grudgingly giving props to Lars for his performance on this song, if merely for the fact that he finally employs some of the interesting and blazing-fast double bass riffs that I knew and loved about his playing way back in my high school youth days. Hetfield brings the anger and the throaty growl to fill out the thrash-banging goodness that is this song.
The next on my list of five best is “Now That We’re Dead.” This song just grooves. It’s as simple as that. The mid-tempo and heavy ‘chunka-chunka’ of the guitars with the rumble of the bass ensures that this song should be getting lots of radio play from everything to classic rock stations, metal and thrash stations, to straight-up rock radio. It’s also a song that showcases Hetfield’s apparent ease with his vocal abilities. The man has come a long way from Kill ‘Em All’s monotone grunts and screams, and has positioned himself as one of the premier heavy metal vocalists of all time. Kirk Hammett also shows his fluidity, his aggressiveness, and deft handling of his guitar in the raw power of the guitar lead on this song. In simple terms, he shreds the fuck out of the lead on this track. It’s inspiring to hear him play that guitar the way he does these days, but particularly on this track.
“Confusion” is very martial sounding in its beginning, with the ominous drone of the guitars, the synchronized thumping of the bass line with the staccato notes of snare and bass drums in the intro. It’s another mid-tempo offering, but it’s full of cut times and syncopated guitar riffs that when thrown together bring a dark tone, but somehow upbeat feel to the accompanying lyrics. Again, Hetfield shines with his powerful vocals, and his unique phrasing lends itself to giving this song a feel of tightness in your gut. It’s a frantic, panicked feeling without the frantic tempo, which in itself makes for interesting listening, as well as a deeper emotional reaction to the lyrics combined with the music, which encourages a physical reaction in the listener as well – a tendency to bang one’s head and pump one’s fist in the air. No confusion about that…
My next pick,”Halo On Fire,” includes some of the coolest dual guitar riffs in Metallica’s repertoire. The dynamics of this song are like a hypersonic rollercoaster ride, with ups and downs that throw you right and left, up and down, and make you hold on for dear life. But there are valleys, especially during the sweet-sounding vocals of the verses. Hetfield really shows off his vocal versatility on this song, smoothly transitioning from soft verses, jumping into the fire of the choruses with the power and grit we expect from him. Drums and bass both serve to drive the bottom end of the song with authority and a smooth, yet thumping groove that keeps things moving. This song combines all the elements of what make a great Metallica song – outstanding vocals by Hetfield, inspired and inspiring leads by Hammett, intelligent and intelligible lyrics, and thunderous grooves from Ulrich and Trujillo on drums and bass, respectively.
My fifth and last pick from this latest Metallica release may or may not surprise you. Nonetheless, these are my personal picks, and inevitably someone will be shocked, or even more than a little butt-hurt that I didn’t include their picks on this list. That’s life, folks. Get over it. My fifth and final pick off this album is “Murder One,” a tribute to one of metals’ “gone, but not forgotten” gods, Lemmy Kilmister, of Motörhead infamy. This song has Lemmy written all over it, and it just fucking rocks from the word “go!” “One crown shines on through the sound. One crown, born to lose! One man does not give a damn. One man, no excise! Aces wild, aces high… All the aces; Aces ‘til ya die!” We still hear your thunder, Lemmy… The man in black, born to lose. This song has all the attitude of Lemmy with a lot of Metallica thrown in for good measure. For me, it’s as fitting a tribute to one of the kings of heavy metal as you’d ever hope for, and in my book, Metallica did the man in black a real solid with this tribute to who and what Lemmy represented to metalheads all over the world.
“Hardwired to Self Destruct” is truly a fantastic album, through and through; a real home run for not just the band, but for their fans in particular. I can’t imagine anyone savaging this album in any way, shape or form – unless they’re just an asshole. Only an asshole could dislike this album… Seriously. And with that, I’ll leave you with a salutation reserved for Metallica fans the world over – “Metal Up Your Ass!”
Metallica is back with a vengeance… Sweet!
Honorable mention (Songs that were very close, but didn’t make my top five songs for this review):
– Am I Savage? (closest to making the cut!)
– Dream No More (second-closest…)
– Hardwired (third-closest…)
– Atlas Rising (fourth-closest…)
– Moth Into Flame (“last, but not least” fifth-closest…)
You can catch Metallica on tour by clicking on this link to find out when and where they’re going to be playing at a venue closest to you. Their last North American show of 2016 will take place at The Fox Theater in Oakland, California on December 17th. This is a sold out show. Metallica will be spending the first months of 2017 in the Far East (all shows are sold out) – Seoul, South Korea (Jan. 11th), Beijing, China (Jan 18th), Hong Kong (Jan 20th), Singaport (Jan 22nd), and on to Europe for shows in Copenhagen, Denmark (Feb 3rd – 9th), and back to this side of the Atlantic with shows in Mexico City, Mexico (March 1st – 3rd – limited “enhanced experience” tickets are still available – all gen. admission tickets are sold out) and South America through April, 2017 (all sold out shows).
If you plan on seeing Metallica at any of their North American shows, you should get your tickets now, as they’re selling out about as fast as they can be printed. The first show in the United States is in Columbus, Ohio (Rock on the Range, May 21st), and tickets are available NOW!
Cowboy Songs, Patriotism and Politics
Charlie Daniels will soon be celebrating his 80th birthday. That’s a big milestone for anyone to reach, even in this time of modern medicine, health and fitness gurus, and tofu burgers… But Charlie Daniels is celebrating his 80th birthday in a manner more befitting a man of his legendary stature, by hosting the 2016 Tennessee Volunteer Jam at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena in November, along with a few of his closest friends: Chris Stapleton, Travis Tritt, Kid Rock, Larry the Cable Guy, and many more special guests soon to be announced, as well as plenty of surprise guests popping in on the night of the show.
You’d think that the concert would be enough for Charlie’s 80th birthday celebration, wouldn’t you? Not for this hard-charging good ole boy from Wilmington, North Carolina. No, siree! Along with his Volunteer Jam concert, Daniels is releasing a new acoustic album that features some of the most beloved cowboy songs of all time — with a Charlie Daniels twist, of course. The new album is called “Night Hawk,” and it’s a collection of ten cowboy songs that are some of Daniels’ favorites that are straight from the cattle trail.
I had the honor and privilege to sit down and speak with Mr. Daniels about his new album, and what it means to him to be able to bring these revered cowboy songs to his fans in a manner befitting his love for the genre. We also spoke about the upcoming 80th Birthday Volunteer Jam, his supportive foundation for military veterans, and the current political climate and upcoming election in November, as only Charlie Daniels can define it.
Brian McKinny: Let’s talk about your new album. Why is this album so special to you, and what made you decide to record and release this project now?
Charlie Daniels: Gosh, twenty years ago at least, I guess — maybe longer… But I have loved that (song), it’s one of my favorite cowboy songs, and I have wanted to record it. But it’s such a unique song that it wouldn’t fit too well on one of our regular albums. So I decided to set it up with all these cowboy songs — my favorites — until I got to the point where I had enough for an album. We finally got to that point, and we recorded it.
McKinny: Did you record this album in Nashville?
Daniels: We recorded at my studio. I have a studio in Wilson County outside of Nashville. We’ve been recording there for years, and we’ve been adding equipment over time, and it’s become a pretty doggone good studio out there. Nobody records there but us, so we just leave the drums set up, everything can stay the way we left it during the last session, so we can walk in there and be ready to roll in a couple of hours, once everything is set in the control room; it’s really the most convenient, efficient manner for us to record. I don’t have to watch the clock; I don’t have to drive 30 miles to get home after a session at two o’clock in the morning.
McKinny: Tell me who’s playing on the album? Is it your regular band, or did you get outside musicians to play on it?
Daniels: It’s just myself, actually, and three of my guys. We wanted it to be acoustic — it’s kind of “back porch” music, if you will. It’s like a ranch hand type of thing with just a few players, and a little more intimate, because of what it would have been with the whole band – drums, keyboards, etc. Basically, we went in and picked these songs as we went — “hey, let’s try this, or let’s try that…” until we could get enough of them to fill an album. I’m pretty happy with it, I’m pretty happy with the material. Like I said, there’s things on there that I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time, and I finally got around to doing it. Good things come to those who wait, I guess!
McKinny: As you said, projects like this can take a long time to come to fruition, especially when you’re targeting a special niche genre, in this instance, cowboy songs. I’ve enjoyed listening to all those old cowboy songs since my dad used to play them for us at home when I was a kid growing up. But most of what people think is “cowboy culture” comes from Hollywood, and the movies and TV Westerns, and that’s not real cowboy culture.
Daniels: Yeah, this is a whole other thing. This is more working cowboy songs. Of course, there’s a song on there that mentions guns and that sort of thing; all that sort of traditional stuff. But there’s a song on the album called “You Can’t Beat the Damned Old Machine,” and it’s just an old cowboy talking about how the West had changed since he was a young man, with the land all being fenced off, civilization creeping up on him, and how his world had changed because of it, and all of a sudden there’s no place for a man like him. I mean, you just can’t beat the damned old machine!
There’s another song, the title track, “Night Hawk.” It’s one of my very favorite songs, and it’s a story of a bunch of guys driving cows, looking for water, and a guy rides up and says he’s looking for a night hawk. It’s just a story about traveling at night. And then there’s “Big Balls in Cow Town” and “Stay All Night,” which are probably two of the most classic cowboy dance songs of all time. Stay All Night (Stay A Little Longer), that’s a Bob Wills type song, like something you’d hear at a barn dance, and we just put it all together and really enjoyed doing it.
McKinny: I noticed you have “Ghost Riders in the Sky” on the album. Is this going to be a more traditional rendition, or is it scaled back from the big production treatment that song usually gets?
Daniels: Nah, it’s pretty straight, especially since we’ve done it with acoustic instruments. It’s kind of hot; I mean, it’s got some hot acoustic guitar parts on there that are pretty smoking for acoustic guitars, but there’s no way, I don’t think the traditional ways it’s been done before with bands like The Outlaws — it’s quite a bit different from that. It’s kind of our way of going about doing it in a different manner and style.
You know, I did a whole album of Bob Dylan tunes a while back, and we’re all so familiar with Dylan songs — we’ve heard them done by so many other artists over the years, and I wanted to do them completely different. I once did a Dylan song and treated it like it was CDB song, like it was something that we had written; just did it our own way. This cowboy thing is kind of the same in that regard; it’s songs that we went into the studio with — ideas that we bounced around off each other, trying things different ways until we found something we liked, and then we just went with it. The whole album feels that way, and I think it just worked for us, that method of writing, arranging, and recording.
McKinny: There have been a lot of changes happening in country music in the past decade or so, with much more of the new music expressing pop culture and pop music influences. It’s nice to see some country artists such as yourself releasing albums that are more roots-oriented than a lot of what’s out there today. Was this a conscious decision on your part with the release of Night Hawk to do something different?
Daniels: Well, this is definitely that way. This is cowboy roots; there’s nothing very modern about it. The material doesn’t lend itself to being done in a modern way — it’s more of a throwback to a simpler era, with a few old cowboys sitting out in the middle of nowhere around a campfire, or a crusty old cowboy talking to someone at a train station just because he’s lonesome.
There’s a place I used to go to down in Texas called the Four Sixes Ranch that raises legendary Quarter Horses and Black Angus cattle, and I’ve gone down there to do what they call “Spring Work,” where they go out and brand the cattle. And there’s so much land in our part of the country, where you are in Arkansas and where I live in Tennessee, that the rule of thumb for cows is one acre of grazing land per head of cattle. But out there in Texas, I mean, wow. It’s just unbelievable how much space there is, so about the only way you can gather ‘em is to get out there on horseback and get ‘em out in the middle of nowhere. You literally go out — well, it’s done by pickup truck nowadays as much as on horseback — but you’d go out with the chuck wagon, and you’d live out there on the trail. You’d take your bedroll, and you’d have a cook out there with the guys to take care of feeding them and keeping up camp. You’d get up in the morning, grab your horse, saddle him up and go out to a certain area to find your cattle and bring them in and brand them. That still goes on, and it’s the practical way of doing it — everything can’t be mechanized.
So it’s a way of life that still goes on with these working cowboys, and with these songs, that’s the kind of mood I wanted to create. There’s still that cowboy way of life that’s very much alive, and there’s still a lot of good people doing it, and this is their music.
McKinny: It sounds like a really great kind of tribute to the cowboy way of life. I don’t think that too many people realize that these cowboys are also the ones that help feed the nation, just as much as any dairy, corn, rice, soy or wheat farmer. Their job is just as hard and just as important as any financial manager, IT consultant, lawyer, or marketing genius. They’re the guys who literally put meat on the table.
Daniels: Oh yeah, that’s absolutely correct. Man, I’m so glad I did it, too. I went out with these guys in Nevada one time, and I went out with the guys in Texas, and it’s fascinating because it’s so different from our part of the country with the lush grass and plentiful water that we don’t have to have all that acreage. When we think about raising cows, we think about getting a couple of 50-acre pastures and put a hundred head of cattle in it, and you’ve got no problem with rounding them up. But out there in the wide open West, you’re talking about thousands upon thousands of acres, with canyons, mountains, and ravines — all kinds of places for cattle to get off to, and it’s quite a job! It’s a hard day’s work, but it’s really fun because it’s so unique to me; a way of life that I had admired and to have actually been able to participate in it was such a pleasure. It was eye-opening to me, and I really enjoyed it. I’m also glad that I was able to do it when I was young enough to keep up with it, physically. That kind of solitary lifestyle really gives you a whole different perspective on things: you don’t have TV, radio, you don’t know what’s going on in the world and it doesn’t make any difference, anyway. You’re just out there doing your job with a bunch of guys you see in the morning at breakfast time; you see them at lunch time, and again at suppertime.
After the day’s work is done, you sit around drinking coffee and telling stories before heading off to your bedroll. It’s really neat — you run into some real characters; people who have stories to tell about cowboy life and other things… It’s a real Americana experience, and one I’m so glad I got to witness firsthand. I learned so much from those professional cowboys; it was a real learning experience for me.
The whole album is really a tribute to a lost breed, a solitary way of life. We wanted to keep it simple, because we didn’t want to lose that flavor of sitting on the back porch or around the campfire with two or three guys, just telling the story.
McKinny: So with your concerts, are you going to be doing things acoustically?
Daniels: No, we’ll still be going full-bore with the whole band. In fact, I probably won’t be able to add any of these new songs to the show for a while because we just don’t have the time to rehearse. Right now we’re in the middle of our hard core concert season, and we just don’t have the time to break the songs down and rehearse them to put them into the set, but rest assured, we’re still going balls to the wall with our regular concerts.
Daniels: We’ve been there in Branson doing shows for the last two or three years. We’ve played a couple of time there where we stayed for more than one day. I don’t like doing that — I like one day in and one day out. But we’ve been playing at the Oak Ridge Boys Theater in Branson the last two or three years now. They’re such good guys, and it’s a really nice venue. I’m so glad they went into the Hall of Fame this last year, it was such a nice thing to have happen; they really deserved it.
McKinny: Speaking of the Hall of Fame, you were inducted into the Country Music HOF this year. What did you think about that?
Daniels: Go figure, right? Well, you know, that’s the one you absolutely have no control over. The voting membership, nobody can lobby for, because the voting membership is kept secret. You know, it was such a surprise, I mean I still haven’t learned to live with it, yet. I keep thinking I’m going to get a phone call from someone over there, saying “Charlie, I’m really sorry, but we’ve made a mistake, you’re really not in the Hall of Fame, we mixed you up with somebody else…” Not really, but it’s almost that unbelievable to me. It’s a real honor to be inducted.
McKinny: Well, you’re in some incredible company with fellow inductees this year, the inimitable Randy Travis and legendary producer and record company exec, Fred Foster. That’s got to make it special as well.
Daniels: Yep, two thirds of this year’s class in wheelchairs, man. I’m saying that to be positive about it, especially with Randy. It’s hard for him, talking and walking; it took everything he had to walk up to that microphone with his lovely wife to say “Thank you.” It was such a touching moment. We played the… Hell, I call it the “CMA this/that Festival” — the real name’s so convoluted nobody uses it… Anyway, we brought Randy up on stage just as a walk-on, and the crowd in that stadium just loved him. You could see and feel it from the crowd, and Randy, too. He’s the real deal. You could see how wonderful it was for him to realize that people still remember him, still love him for all he’s done. I was able to introduce him at the concert, and it was just great to be able to be part of it. I keep telling him, “Man, you’re going to be okay, you’re going to come back.” Pray for him, if you will. He deserves it.
McKinny: When something like that happens to someone like Randy Travis who is so universally loved, it really drives home the fact that something like the stroke he suffered can happen to anyone of us, at any time, and that we can’t forget people just because something happens to them that may make us feel uncomfortable about our own future, or our own vulnerability as human beings. I know you are all about making people feel special who may be in rough waters, and you especially support our military and our veterans. Tell me about the project that you’re involved in that helps veterans readjust to civilian life back home.
Daniels: We have an organization called “The Journey Home Project”, and its main mission is to assist men and women, most of which are coming back from their service in war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, to make the adjustments to get back into civilian life. It may seem simple to people who have never done that. But the kind of life, especially those who were in combat zones getting shot at and dodging IEDs, you put them folks right back into civilian life, and there’s some adjustments that they need to make; needs they have.
Our government is doing a lousy job of taking care of these guys and gals of attending to their medical and educational needs, and all the other things that need to be done, so that’s where we come in. We made a substantial contribution of having a Veteran’s Center at Middle Tennessee State University. They have a pretty good-sized veteran student population enrolled there, and these guys walking on campus there after returning from overseas service and being among the regular student population is like men walking among boys, or women walking among girls. I mean, college kids are mostly concerned with things like who they’re going to date this week, and these guys and gals have been dodging bullets and stuff, so they really don’t have that much in common, except maybe their age. So this Veteran’s Center gives them a place to go to where they can be together, spend time together with fellow veterans. And we also have video conferencing facilities, health care specialists there if anyone is experiencing any mental health issues, they can talk to someone there.
We do job placement there; we help people buy furniture; we help them get college educations — whatever the need happens to be that we have the money to do it with, and we can do it, we take applications and have a board meeting, and once we decide to do it, it gets done. We’re trying to help these good people reintegrate back into society with the compassion and support they need. A lot of people are making the efforts to help our veterans — there are a lot of good people who support our vets that are making life for these people who sacrifice so much on our behalf just that much easier for them, and I’m honored to have some small part in that with all those wonderful people trying to do something about it.
McKinny: I was at last year’s Volunteer Jam show at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. I’m a really big fan of Blackberry Smoke, so I just wanted to thank you in person for inviting them to be a part of the show — it was my first opportunity to see them perform live, and boy did they sound great! So thank you!
Daniels: Well, we wanted them on, we wanted badly to have them on the show. We’re doing it a little different this year. What happened last year, I know you know this with all the artists we had on, was that we sent invitations out, and of course what usually happens is that a lot of people can’t accept the invites for various reasons, but usually it’s because of already scheduled shows they’re doing. But we started getting RSVPs, and it was just so many people accepting, and it was so crazy busy that we only had time for people to do one or two songs. So what we’re doing this year is less artists and more songs from each. We’ve got Larry the Cable Guy, who’s always a hoot, and we’ve got Kid Rock, Travis Tritt, Chris Stapleton, and we’ll have some people that we’re not naming yet, and some special guests that’ll pop in as well. So it’s going to be a really nice show, a big event, and that’s happening in November on the 30th. We’re also celebrating my 80th birthday that day…
McKinny: I can’t believe that you’re 80! You sure don’t look or act like it!
Daniels: I can’t believe it, either! Seems like just last week I was 50, and all of a sudden I’m 80! I’m happy; I’m happy to be 80. I’m just happy to have been at this for so long and still in good health.
McKinny: I know you love the road and playing music for folks all over, and after all these years performing out on the road, how do you cope with the road, and some of the monotony that being on the road can bring?
Daniels: There’s no monotony to touring for me, actually. It’s all still exciting to me. I do it because I love to be on stage in front of people; I love to entertain people. I’m addicted to it. That’s the reason I’m here, that’s the fascination for me, what it’s all about. If I ever got to the point to where I felt I was not doing a good show, if I felt like I was putting on a sub-standard show, or that my health was preventing me from feeling like I was doing a good job, I would quit. But man, I’m still doing it, and thank God I’ve still got a voice left, and I’m just living the life, and that’s what keeps me going.
McKinny: Let’s switch gears for a moment because you’ve been very outspoken about your views on social issues and politics in particular especially about things like the Second Amendment and freedom of speech issues. What are your general observations and opinions on the way this current presidential election cycle has played out, and what do you think the ramifications will be, one way or the other?
Daniels: I think that the stakes are the highest they’ve been in a long time. I think that we have a pretty clear cut decision to make as far as some of the rights that people like you and me treasure — if you’re hunting, fishing, and like the outdoors, and if you enjoy your personal freedoms, I think we have a very real danger of the Second Amendment being tampered with, much more so than it already has been.
You know, what the scary thing about it is to me is one of the things people don’t think too much about, of course they’ve made a big deal about in this election, is the Supreme Court. Once they do something, once they make a decision, it’s done. We could wake up one morning and hear that they’ve ruled one way and that they’re going to come and confiscate your firearms; or that you can’t own anything larger than a .22 caliber rifle, or you can’t own handguns… And once they do it, it’s done, without as much as a vote from the people. What do you do then? What do you say, where do you go for recourse?
So the best thing you can do to keep that from happening is to elect people who promise —of course, the danger there is that people’s promises aren’t always good —but our best bet is to elect people who promise, and have a track record of protecting the Second Amendment. And to be honest with you, I just don’t see that in the Democrat Party at all. I see danger, and I think right now that the whole thing has become a three-ring circus, and I think it’s time for the both of them to get their fingers out, and to stop messing with the Constitution, and to start addressing the issues that we all care about.
We’ve heard enough about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to fill the Grand Canyon. I mean, come on! What I want to hear, and what I think the American people want to hear from these candidates is not what they SAY they’re going to do about these issues that are facing our country, but tell me HOW they’re going to tackle these problems from a realistic standpoint. What are they going to do about the almost twenty trillion-dollar national debt? How are they going to pay it back? Tell me about what you’re going to do to rebuild our military, which is at its smallest since before the Second World War. What are they going to do about entitlements?
How can we continue to keep putting out so much money on programs we can no longer afford, while we’re not taking proper care of our veterans who’ve earned the right to our help? What’re you going to do about the coal industry, and why does Hillary want to destroy an entire industry that could help make us energy independent and create jobs for people in the coal producing regions of the country like West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio? What are you going to do? TELL ME what you are going to do. Tell me HOW you’re going to do it. I don’t want to hear anymore about Hillary Clinton’s email. I know she screwed up, and I know she needs to pay for that. But I don’t want to hear about it anymore. Time is getting short. I want to hear some real solutions from both candidates, because that’s what’s important right now.
If I were running, I’d say something like, “Listen, we’ve said enough about each other. I don’t know what he’s going to do, or she’s going to do. But what I am going to do to fix America.” Then I’d lay out my plan in plain, simple terms so that everyone could understand exactly what I meant when I say I’m going to rebuild our military, or I’m going to make us energy independent, or I’m going to help our economy create new jobs through less government regulation, or I’m going to encourage corporate expansion and growth through cutting corporate taxes, or this is how I’m going to repeal and replace the disaster that is Obama Care.
Now can you imagine what would happen if a candidate actually did that, and laid out their plan to fix the problems we face for all the American people to see? The last time a candidate did that was Ronald Reagan, and he won the election in a landslide. He stood up there, told people what he was going to do, and he did it. These politicians promise things that they have no idea on how to deliver, and the American people are just fed up with it. I want to hear something real from our politicians. Gimme something, man!
This country is starving for leadership. There’s no reason a group like ISIS should even exist, if we had leaders who knew what they were doing, what the score is, they would all be dead. The only reason that they exist is that the world does not get together, there’s no leadership; nobody to respect and to stand up — they don’t care what Obama says in any speech — they don’t believe him, anyway. They think he’s a liar, and they believe he’s gone soft on Muslims, and I think he has, too. It all boils down to a country and a world that is starving for leadership – American leadership. If someone stands up and starts acting like a leader, it would be so great.
I don’t know what the hell’s going to happen, I really don’t. But I know that four more years of what Obama has done, the hole he has dug for us… I mean, most people can’t even comprehend just how much money $20 trillion dollars is. That’s a number with eleven zeros behind it. We’re talking about a number that sometime in the near future will take 100% of our GDP to just pay the interest on our debt. When that happens, what’s going to happen to the Dollar? What’s going to happen to our economy, with the rampant, runaway inflation that will be sure to follow? People just don’t realize how big the problems are that we face, because they’re not looking at that. Somebody’s got to do something, or we aren’t going to be here much longer as a nation, especially if it’s left to the current bunch of people up in Washington, DC.
McKinny: It’s a horrible, frightening thought when you try to wrap your mind around the fact that what we owe as a nation, and what we’re doing — spending more than this country has in the previous 100 years in the last decade. I mean, we’re talking about a time since 1900 when we got through the Great Depression, fought two World Wars, the rebuilding of Japan and Western Europe after WWII, then fighting Communist expansion in Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, South America, the Middle East and Africa —and we’re STILL spending our nation’s future like a high school kid at the mall with a stolen credit card!
Daniels: How many people do you think in this country see the fiscal problems we face as you just laid them out now? Because a lot of the politicians and the liberal media are telling us, “Oh that’s not a problem. We can take care of that.” And, a lot of the people want to believe it, because the alternative is just too scary or too hard to contemplate.
McKinny: What are your thoughts on the current situation with race relations in this country? Do you believe that there is systemic racism still in this country as people like Barack Obama, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Hillary Clinton would have us believe, or is the problem based in something else?
Daniels: The president is a black man. A great many of the top athletes in America are black men and women. We have black entertainers, black congressmen and congresswomen. We have black governors, black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Minorities in America have accomplished great things, and have done so in all walks of life. But people need to stop giving credence and listening to the likes of the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons of the world. Those are people whose entire reason for being is to stir the pot, create dissention and animosity where none existed before. If the problem doesn’t exist, they’ll create it. They’re nothing more than plantation owners of today. They’re carpetbaggers.
Basically, what they’re telling people in the minority communities is, “Oh, you’re not capable, and it’s not your fault. It’s someone else’s fault. Someone else took it away from you.” They’re not telling people what they need to hear, which is the truth, and the truth sounds a little something like, “Hey, it’s out there, go get it.” You may have to work a little harder to achieve what you want, but look at what so-and-so’s doing — look at what this minority congress person, or this minority business person, or this minority scientist is doing. Look at these successful people. Where in the hell do you think they came from, and how did they get to where they are? It takes hard work and dedication; sacrifice. But they went to school, they got the education and the grades, and they made something of themselves. So pull your pants up so we can’t see the crack of your ass, show some personal pride and a little bit of work ethic, and you can start working towards being whom and what you want to become.” Those successful people, minorities or otherwise, they all went to work on themselves. They got the education, they worked on their personality and their social skills, they stopped trying to speak and act like gangsters, and they went to work to build a career for themselves. So you’ve got to ask yourself this: where do you want to be twenty years from now? You’re going to either be dead or in a prison cell if you keep on going like you are now.
That’s what the truth sounds like… But nobody is talking like that to those who need to hear it, and something has to be done to change that. And not just minorities – white people, too. We’re all in the same boat.
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Character is Power, a long road ultimately leading to redemption and a new lease on life.
Billie Pulera is, if anything, a survivor. He’s been a musician all of his life, following in the footsteps of his brother, who was a drummer in bands before him growing up. Pulera is a former addict, who has endured many tragic events that most of us wouldn’t wish on our worst enemies, and he’s come out that much stronger on the other side.
Part of what has kept him sane and alive in this crazy, mixed up world is his passion for the music he and his band mates in Electric Revolution create and bring to their fans across the Midwest. Theirs is a musical style that mixes old school classic rock with a touch of the modern, full of aggressive guitar riffs and heavy funk and soul-inspired grooves that all melts together to form what is their unique style today. Most music today, especially popular rock and pop is full of vapid, incipient lyrics that actually contribute to the dumbing-down of today’s music – music that’s created for the lowest common denominator.
But that’s not the case with the music coming out of this power trio-turned-quartet from the upper Midwest’s Kenosha, Wisconsin, the home of companies like Jockey Brand underwear and Snap-On Tools, and actors Don Ameche and Mark (The Incredible Hulk) Ruffalo. Electric Revolution’s music is complex and interesting, and the lyrics are intelligent, deep, and meaningful. They create the kind of music that comes from the hearts and souls of real people living real lives, full of happiness, heartbreak, and regrets, outside the hustle and bustle of the big cities.
I recently sat down for a chat with Billie Pulera to find out about what his origins were in music, what drives his passion for the band and their music, how he got to where he is now in his life with the band, and where they’re going next. So sit down, grab a drink and get comfortable. It’s going to be an interesting ride.
Brian McKinny: You and I are both drummers who sing, but we’ve never really talked about it, so tell me how you got started out as a drummer.
Billie Pulera: Well, when I was a kid, my brother was always in bands in the late Sixties, and they used to practice in our basement. My brother had a drum set, and of course I’d sit down there, and listen to and watch them, and I fell in love with the music and the life. And one day he quit, and his drums were just sitting there in the basement, in a corner. When I was in fourth grade, this friend of mine I met in school happened to play guitar, and we liked the same bands. My brother had turned me onto Grand Funk Railroad, Deep Purple, and all that kind of heavy blues rock – the Zeppelin stuff. So I said to my buddy, “Hey, come over and bring your guitar. I’ve got some drums set up in my basement, so let’s jam.” I didn’t even have any cymbal stands – I had to hang ropes from the ceiling to suspend the cymbals over the kit! That’s when I just started jamming with my friend, and having a turntable next to me, and I’d put on Black Sabbath or Deep Purple, or Zeppelin, and we’d just jam along, and that’s how I taught myself to play.
I play differently than most drummers. I’m right-handed, but I play drums with an open-handed technique, using my left hand to play the hi-hats, and my right for snare beats, but I play on a right-handed kit. By the time I was seventeen, my dad bought me a really killer drum set, a beautiful Slingerland double bass kit with three concert toms, so that’s when things really got serious with my playing, and I’ve been playing ever since.
McKinny: Who were your musical influences when you started playing music and what was it about them that reached out to you?
Pulera: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Grand Funk Railroad, Deep Purple – even when KISS came about I became a big KISS freak, in the Seventies, you know? The Euro stuff in the Eighties – Scorpions, UFO – I was a huge UFO fan; Accept, bands like that. But then, I like the bluesier stuff, too; Pat Travers, who we’re booked to play a show with in August, which is going to be awesome. Also, Y&T! When their first album came out in ’76 I believe, I was a big fan of that, and back then they were called Yesterday & Today. Leonard Haze and that crazy foot of his on the first album, remember that? It was just unbelievable! It was like meeting Jesus for me when we played with them back in March!
McKinny: You grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin. What was the music scene in the Kenosha area like when you were starting out, and how has it changed between then and now?
Pulera: Well, Kenosha is right in the very southeast corner of the north side of the state line, right on Lake Michigan, just about an hour or so north of Chicago, and about 45 minutes south of Milwaukee. The music scene in Kenosha during the seventies and eighties, and into the mid-nineties was pretty happening. There was a lot of good talent, a lot of good venues, and a lot of really gifted players in town. There still are, but over time people move, get married and have kids, or literally die off. Now, it’s turned into – the venues – there really isn’t a good venue to play here for local, independent bands to take advantage of anymore. There are a lot of corner bars – Kenosha was in the Guinness Book of World Records because of American Motors was here and in Racine, where they made the Pacer, the Gremlin, and the Ambassador – all those ugly cars they made back in the seventies. So my dad, being a factory worker, bought a house right down the street from the plant and walked to work every day.
So all these Italians moved from the same spot in Calabria, and ended up in Kenosha to work in the factories, and we all lived in that little neighborhood, which was awesome to grow up in. But the scene now is overrun by open mic nights and blues jams. So there’s no decent venue to play unless you go out to the interstate, which is out west – it’s out on I-94, a place called Brat Stop. It’s a huge place, where Cheap Trick used to play all the time back in the day. And then there’s a place called the Route 20 Outhouse, which is in Racine, just north of Kenosha. Those are the only decent venues; but in the city (Kenosha), it’s all just open mics and blues jams. There aren’t any paying gigs locally – it’s always just “play for the door charge” kind of stuff. The days of the rock venue just aren’t happening here anymore, and that’s pretty sad.
McKinny: Tell me the story about how Electric Revolution came into being – who founded the band, and what was the original concept for the music?
Pulera: Electric Revolution was started the summer of 2013. I had stopped playing for somewhere around six or seven years, something like that. And finally, I did this Johnny Thunder tribute thing with this local punk guy and Steve Crucianelli, who’s my bassist now. They asked me to play, so I dusted off my drums and did this thing, and I fell in love with my drums again. And then from there, I tried to get my old band back together, which was Br6ther — which was all Steve’s family. I was the only one in the band that wasn’t family. There were six people in the band, and if that band had stayed together we would have been huge.
So I tried getting that going again, but trying to get five brothers and myself in the same room again, and it was just impossible. I tried to get a meeting together, and it didn’t happen. At that point, I was just like, “Fuck it; I’m going to start something of my own, man.” So I contacted Josey G, he is a guitar guy from Racine that I’ve known since he was a little kid. His mother and father used to take him to all of our (Br6ther) shows, and he was the kid who was always in the corner at the music store.
We used to go to this music store every Saturday, and he was this kid that was around eleven years old, and his dad was totally into everything he did, very supportive guy. His father bought him a Marshall stack and a Les Paul when he was that young, and this little kid could do all the Van Halen stuff – Eruption, and all the Uli Roth leads and Michael Schenker stuff, so this kid could really shred and we thought he was pretty awesome. So he kept playing, and I kept in contact with him through Facebook. I had thought about it for a while, and I decided I was going to put together a power trio. Steve was on board, so we contacted Josey G and just took it from there.
We started out trying to toss around some covers at first, thinking that we’d do some covers, maybe redo them a little bit, but after a while, Steve was like, “Fuck these covers, man. Let’s just write some stuff, you know? We can write better songs than this.” So we started writing. And by the beginning of February of 2014, we had our first six-song EP out, released it, and did our first gig as a band with Gilby Clarke of Guns N’ Roses at the Metal Grill in Milwaukee. It was a pretty good first gig, that’s for sure. And then I took on singing duties because there was nobody around that could sing in that bluesy style that we wanted, we wanted to go back to that soulful, bluesy, Grand Funk/Deep Purple kind of thing. With most of the rock music that’s going around today, I feel like it’s lost complete touch with the blues, which is a large part of what gives rock and roll its heart and soul; it’s where rock and roll comes from, and it’s just a bunch of screaming and stuff now, and I can’t handle some of that new shit. I guess it’s my age, or whatever the case may be.
But I figured, “I’ll take on the singing duties.” I never was a lead singer, so I taught myself how to play and sing at the same time, and we put the EP out and people really seemed to dig it. So a year goes by, and we go back into the studio again, and we’re ready for our first full album release after the EP. I laid down most of all the tracks, had all the lyrics written and everything. I did most of the singing, and around that time, everyone was like, “You know what, man? You need to get a lead singer. It’s just too much for you.” And you know I really couldn’t play how I want to play, either… You know what I mean — with the abandon that I do when I don’t have to sing at the same time. It really kept me confined, unable to open up and play how I’m really capable of playing I’d have to stick mainly to the groove and not do too many intricate fills. To be able to sing and play is akin to rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time – you know all about that, you do that. It’s tough enough having all four limbs of your body doing different things at the same time, and then to throw singing on top of that, and having to keep your vocal pitch and phrasing in time with the lyrics and the melody — it’s not exactly a walk in the park.
So I thought, there’s only one guy that I know of that’s a badass singer, sings the same style, has a killer voice, and has better range than me, looks good on stage, and he’s also a guy who I used to be in a band with back in the late eighties/early nineties with – we were in a band called Nick Fury back then, and we had gotten a gig backing up this local band called Bad Boy, which were signed to Mercury Records at the time, I believe. So we booked the gig and didn’t even have a name for the band. So I had a stack of comic books in my basement, and I saw the character in one of the comics, and I just spouted off to the other guys, “Hey, let’s call the band Nick Fury.” So they liked the name, that’s what we called the band, and that’s when we got Dave Lawson as our singer.
At first, he was singing a bunch of covers with us – Y&T, Iron Maiden, UFO, Scorpions – all the shit back then that we were into. After Nick Fury, we even had a project called Crucial Nelly – a play on Steve’s last name, Crucianelli – and we went out to Los Angeles and did a showcase at The Whiskey with that band for a bunch of A&R people, but it just didn’t happen. It was a bit of a bummer, because Dave is a recovering alcoholic, and the day of the showcase he fell off the wagon and sort of ruined it for us.
So, now here it is, 2016, and Dave’s clean, has his shit together, and is a very successful guy. So when I was thinking about someone who could sing in Electric Revolution, I called him up, and said, “Hey man, do you want to try singing with us?” Because he wasn’t singing – he did some cover stuff for a little while, but he was mainly concentrating on his business and stuff. But when I turned him onto the music we were making, as soon as he heard it he said, “I’m in, brother. I’m on board for sure!” So we brought him into the studio, and he basically copied everything I had already tracked out. He said, “I’m not changing that shit one bit; it’s great the way it is.” He just redid my vocals, put his touch on it; of course, I let him do what he wanted to do, but it was basically just re-cutting all the vocals with him singing, and that’s what is on the album. And now he’s our lead singer and everything’s groovy!
McKinny: Yeah, Dave’s singing style, and even his vocal sound is very similar to yours. When I was listening to the new album again earlier today, I was reminded of that fact.
Pulera: Yeah, we get that a lot. He’s got that whisky, 6 am voice. He’s got kind of like a gravelly thing going, sort of like a Rod Stewart in a way, but with more power behind it, which is really cool. He has one hell of a register, and a crazy range. I think him doing all those Iron Maiden and Judas Priest tunes back in the old days when we were doing covers really helped him build up the strength and range of his voice. It took a lot of gut, a lot of vocal fortitude to sing those songs back then, and he’s still got it today, if not even more so, because he has even better control of his voice now. We’re writing some new stuff right now that’s really cool, and it’s going to showcase his vocal abilities very forcefully.
McKinny: A modern band that Electric Revolution reminds me of in some ways is Winery Dogs, especially with the guitar leads, melodies, and rhythm tracks. You have very much a layered, intricate sound for what was once a power trio, which is quite an accomplishment from a performance and recording standpoint.
Pulera: It’s funny you said that, because I’ve heard that from people quite a bit, too. That’s a definite compliment, man! I guess it’s because of our aggressive style that still manages to maintain the bluesy soul influences in the music as well, especially in the vocals and rhythm section.
McKinny: Yes, we need to talk about your guitar player, Josey, here. Because he’s not just a scale-shredding, “how many notes per bar can I cram in here” kind of player, although he does have some lightning riffs on the new album.
Pulera: Dude, let me tell you! Josey is so bad ass, I don’t care! I’ll put him up against anybody that’s out there, brother! He’s such a versatile guitar player; he does everything. His roots are in the same kinds of shit that we were into back when we were growing up and learning to be musicians. He’s younger than the rest of us in the band, too. He’s the kid who grew up watching us play in the bands we were in before, back in the old days. Like I said, his folks used to bring him out to our shows when he was just barely a teenager, and now he’s shredding on stage with us. He’s really a bad ass motherf$%er, who can play with the best of them, and I really mean that. I couldn’t be more serious about it. He’s an amazing finger picker who can play any country or bluegrass stuff you like. He’s got feel and soul, too. He doesn’t just riff all the time; he plays for the song, no more, no less. Exactly what the song needs is what he produces, and we’re lucky and happy to have him in the band with us. He just brings so much to the table, even some amazing jazz and killer blues feel in his licks, and it makes us that much better as a band to have him with us.
McKinny: Well, let me ask you this, because this kind of gets back to an earlier question: Since adding Dave as the band’s full-time vocalist, which allowed you to go back to putting all your attention and efforts into playing drums, has the addition of a fourth member to the band changed the dynamic of the band’s music or of the band itself, as far as how you write music, record, perform live on stage, or conduct your interpersonal relationships?
Pulera: Well, the dynamic has changed in certain ways. It gives me the chance to open up and play, like we discussed before. But now we have some really solid harmonies and backing vocals as well, and we really didn’t have that before – it was just me singing. But now they’re even stronger with Dave’s addition to the band, because we can now do real harmonies, and it adds a dimension to the vocals we didn’t have before, because Steve and Jo don’t sing… Plus, Dave plays guitar as well, so we’re going to add that into the mix on some stuff, too. So yeah, musically it has changed things, but the core is there, and the changes have been for the better.
McKinny: What has it meant to you, personally, to have put this band together and to have set it upon the course that it has taken now? How has the band affected your life?
Pulera: It consumes my life, it keeps me going, and it drives me. I went through some times when I didn’t have music, and that was a pretty dark period in my life. I had health issues, and mental issues to go along with it, and to be able t use music as a way to move forward has been a real plus for me. It’s kind of like my baby. I do all the interviews, all the social media stuff; I promote the band and book the shows. The guys just need to show up for practice and gigs, and I’m happy to take care of everything else. I write the lyrics, too, so yeah… I’d never done all that before – I was always just “the drummer.” But now, this is kind of huge for me, and that’s what I keep pushing it, because I think we’ve got a really good thing going here, that’s for sure.
McKinny: You mentioned that you’re the lyric writer in the band. Does anyone else in the band write?
Pulera: Steve does. He’s got some stuff that he brought to the table. There’s a song on the new album called “You are here” which is his song. That’s the only song on this album, but yeah, he writes, too. He’s written songs for the band before, so I’d say it’s like an 80/20 thing. The cool thing about this is that Lawson is super cool with it. He’s like, “That’s great! You guys do it, write whatever you want, and I’ll sing it.” He doesn’t want any part in writing lyrics or whatever, because his opinion is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Still, it would be cool to get someone to do the groundwork of marketing and publicizing our album and our shows so that I could just concentrate on the music portion of the gig. I’m still looking for someone who can fill that role to free me up for other things.
What I’m really looking to find is a way to open the door to get us out on tour with some of these established classic rock bands to provide us with the opportunity to gain wider audience exposure, and to get our music out there to the kinds of music fans who already appreciate that genre of music, but with a modern twist. Like what we’re doing now with the Y&T thing, the upcoming Pat Travers gig, Wishbone Ash – if we can do shows opening for these kinds of bands, because that’s our genre, too – I mean the bands we’ve been opening shows up with have really liked us, because we’re like them; we hit it hard, you know, with lots of energy and stage presence. I’d really love to be able to get slots on Pat Travers or something like that where we could do four or five shows with them in the region, opening shows. But these buy on tours, or pay to play schemes just aren’t financially feasible. I’d love to just do our own thing, put on a festival and call it “Electric Fest” and just go with it. Who knows what could happen! Aside from that, I know if we could just get ourselves a good booking agent, we could open up more of those doors for the band to play in front of the right kinds of larger audiences.
McKinny: Tell me about your new album, “Character is Power.” What was it like to come up with the material, the concept for the album, and then the recording of it?
Pulera: Well, the songs that we had already written, we were playing live, the majority of them before taking it into the studio to record them. The song, “Character is Power” is really the perfect title track because it explains the whole album; it’s what the album is based on, with the whole positive message thing. The message in each song – a lot of it is about my own kind of rebirth, you know? It’s my life’s story set to music. It has substance, depth, and meaning behind each song, stories behind each one – every song on the album has a story, actually. I could go through each song on the album and tell you what it’s about.
For instance, the song, “Killing Me” is about what I think my kid was going through before he committed suicide. You’ve got a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, and one’s saying “Do it” while the other’s saying “Don’t do it,” and being under the influence of drugs while dealing with that shit. That’s what that song is about; making the decision within a tortured mind, consumed by fucking drugs and having it all become so heavy that you want to kill yourself. But then again, the song, “Forgiveness” is about my son, also. It’s a song about very August 15th is the anniversary of his death, and the flowers in my backyard remind me of that time, and there’s always been that question, “Will God forgive?” Because in the Christian religion, if you commit suicide, it’s a mortal sin so you can’t enter the kingdom of heaven. So it raises the question, “Am I going to be able to see my son in heaven when I die?” That’s what that song is about. It’s about God forgiving my son for doing what he did. So every song is about something. I had a lot of heavy shit to write about on this first album.
The song “Character is Power” is a song that was written in about fifteen minutes – it’s just a funk groove that I sort of ripped off from Marvin Gay’s “Inner City Blues,” with the falsetto of one guy singing higher, and the other singing the low parts. So we used that technique in the verses, just that whole seventies inner city soul and blues kind of groove.
We write our songs usually off of grooves, Steve and I. We’ll jam, and then we’ll record it, and Jo will add the guitar parts, and then it all comes together. But mainly it’s all drum and bass grooves that we start out with. Steve and I have been playing together since day one. He’s always been my bass player; when I was fifteen years old, I met Steve, and we’ve been playing together ever since. I mean, he knows when it comes to any kind of fill or matching a bass run with a fill – he knows what I’m going to do and the same goes for me about him. It’s like clockwork. He’s very percussive, too, in the way he plays that bass. It’s almost like a different drum, and it sounds that way when we play.
We recorded the album at Belle City Studios in Racine. Racine used to be called Belle City. They used to make church bells there, so that’s what Racine was referred to, “Belle City.” The engineer/co-producer is Chris Wisco. He doesn’t use his real last name – it’s Yugoslavian, and very hard for most people here in the US to pronounce, so he just goes by the name “Wisco,” short for Wisconsin.
He’s done a lot of great stuff with national acts, and he gets a great sound out of his studio. He’s a good friend, too, so what was cool about that whole thing is he let us make payments on the studio time, so the recording sessions wouldn’t end up being this whole huge up-front cost for us, so that’s how we just nailed it and got it done. I’ll put this album up against the production values and quality of the recording of any national act’s album out there. Chris did a fine job for us, and we’re grateful for his help on this project. The album really sounds amazing!
McKinny: You guys just recorded a new video for the “Here we go” single. Where did you shoot the video? It looked like an old vaudeville style theater that would be awesome if it were restored.
Pulera: It’s the most beautiful place that “could be,” let’s put it that way. It’s called The Kenosha Theater, and this guy, Jeff Baas – he’s the guy who did the video, and he owns it. You would not believe this place when you go inside of it. It’s like Dracula’s castle, man! It’s old Spanish plaster work and architecture, and it’s just unbelievable. He’s in the process to get funded to restore the place. It’s one of the grandiose old theaters of yesterday, and believe me, it’s huge! But right now, it’s a diamond in the rough. If you were to walk into it now, it looks like… Say, if you were in Dresden in 1944 and it got firebombed by the Allies and you just discovered the place now… That’s the impression you get at first – what it looks like inside. But they put a new roof on it and took all of the old, decrepit plaster work off the ceiling and walls. It has a real, serious potential to be an amazing new venue for all kinds of stuff – live theater, movies, and live music, once the money for the restoration has been raised and the work completed. It’s the biggest place between Milwaukee and Chicago.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the riverside in Milwaukee, but it’s like that. It could be gorgeous, man. All the original architecture is still there, and you see bits of it in the video on each side of the stage, all that plaster work and those little opera boxes – like where Lincoln got killed in the Ford’s Theater in DC. It’s just so cool. The Three Stooges played there, Abbott and Costello played there as well during the vaudeville days. So there’s lots of history to the place, and they’ve done all they can to keep the place from falling into further disrepair, but the city won’t lift a finger to help. They’ll put money into other bullshit, but this beautiful place with so much potential is just sitting there, and it could bring so much revenue here.
I mean, if they could finish the restoration, they could book some really good acts to come through here – it’s such a nice venue, someone like Cher could book shows here, you know? That’s the kind of place it could be. Think of the revitalization this kind of place could bring to downtown Kenosha! But this town is so screwy when it comes to things like this. In the seventies, when malls started happening in the suburbs, downtown Kenosha was thriving. It was a beautiful place to live. Everybody hung out down here; the businesses were going crazy with good revenues. But when malls became the popular places to hang out, they blocked off the streets and made it into a kind of walking mall. But as soon as they did that, everything went downhill. Many of the downtown building ended up being abandoned, left for dead. Recently though, they’ve started revitalizing the lake front, so things are starting to slowly come back around; they opened the streets back up again, and there are some businesses down there that are happening, but then again there are still these empty spots – some buildings that have yet to find their place in the community and good businesses to take them over. I just hope that the Kenosha Theater will be a big part of that revitalization of the downtown area that I love so much and really miss.
McKinny: So what’s next for the band?
Pulera: I see a great follow up to Character is Power, an even better album. The stuff we’re writing now is really coming together nicely. I’d like to get hold of a real old school, John Lord kind of Hammond B-3 player to play with us that looks the part and just rocks the B-3. I think that would really add the finally dimension to our sound that we’ve been looking for. It would be a good addition to the band, and aside from that, we’re just going to keep flowing along, see what happens, and try to score a good agent who can book us some good gigs, and then do another video. I’d really like to do a video like those old Deep Purple videos where they’re playing in the studio, and then they cut in live shots of the band playing with all this psychedelic imagery on the screen behind them – I’m into all that nostalgic imagery for videos. But the goal right now is to keep scoring good gigs, keep writing and get back to recording. Who knows what the future holds, but we’re all really looking forward to finding out where this particular road leads.
A man at the top of his game
Tommy Tallarico is nothing short of a phenomenon . Over the past 25 years he has carved out a very special niche in the music industry — one that he has built and grown over time. He has built a successful career composing and performing his original orchestral rock compositions as musical scores for some of the most successful video games in history. He is perhaps also best known as the creator of the immensely successful touring concert series, “Video Games Live.”
As a true pioneer of the video game music industry, he’s practically single handedly written the book about how to be a successful musician and composer in this huge, albeit not often considered career path as video game music composer. He has made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the person who has worked on more video game titles than anyone else in history. That in itself is quite the amazing accomplishment. His list of credits is far too long to be listed here, but you can find a complete list on his website.
Brian McKinny: This first question I had for you was originally going to be the last question I was going to ask in this interview. However, after thinking about it further, I decided that it would be the perfect way to get this interview off to an impactful start, so here’s my first question: What advice would you give to any aspiring video game music composers who are seriously interested in breaking into the musical part of the gaming industry?
Tommy Tallarico: The answer to your question is actually quite simple. The game industry, unlike film and television is a lot easier to get into. It’s almost impossible to become a film or TV composer today, but in the game industry, it’s simple for a number of reasons. One reason is that everybody doesn’t hold their cards so close to their vests; they don’t view each other as competition. In game music, the simple answer is that it’s all about networking. Talent is about fifty percent of the equation, and the rest is networking. That part is what is most like working in film and television composing or scoring in Hollywood. However, it’s a lot easier to network in the game industry.
The quick answer is that you have to go to the Game Developers Conference. Their website is www.gdconf.com. That happens in March, every year in San Francisco. It’s a week-long event, and they even have a job fair with over two hundred booths, and they’re all game companies looking for artists, programmers, developers, and musicians — everything you can imagine that it takes to create a successful game. It’s unbelievable, and it’s a whole week full of workshops with the biggest names in the industry that come from all over the world, about twenty thousand people. If you’re serious about breaking into the industry that is the place to be, because it’s the one place where you can network the most successfully with the biggest names in video games the world over.
In keeping with the networking theme, there’s also the International Game Developers Association, the IDGA. They’re a non-profit organization, and their website is www.igda.org. They have chapters all over the world, and they all have monthly meetings, so again, the networking thing – you want to be going to these meetings and meeting people in your area who are doing the things you want to do in games. And the great thing about the industry right now and why it’s so easy to get into is because of the explosion of mobile gaming. There are literally thousands of games and programs being released every week! We’re talking about tens of thousands of smaller developers. You know, you can have a couple of college kids in a dorm room making money by creating video games.
It harkens back to when I first got involved in the industry in the late eighties, early nineties when back then, teams were small. You had a programmer, an artist, a sound guy, and maybe a designer. So you had teams of three, four or five member teams and that was it, and we were making games for Super Nintendo, or Sega Genesis, or whatever the new platform was at the time. Now, things have kind of come full circle. Here it is almost thirty years later, and you’re seeing the same kind of resurgence in that form – the small game development team. Granted, there are still teams out there, of course, like World of Warcraft with Blizzard Entertainment having hundreds and thousands of people who are working on these games. So the big game development teams still exist out there, but now the majority is made up of the smaller teams, so now the smaller teams have become much easier to access to get to all of these folks.
Now, once you’ve got your foot in the door after meeting these people, how do you go about getting directly involved? Offer your services for free at first. Say, “Hey, let me do one song for your game. I’ll do the first one for free, and if you like it, you can hire me to do more.” Don’t be afraid to ask people what they need, because the reality is that every game developer out there, like most everybody else in any industry you can think of, especially the entertainment industry, is just too busy. Everybody has too much stuff on their plate, right? So just by getting in there and making friends with people, ask them, “Hey, is there anything I can do to help?” or “Can I intern at your place for a couple of weeks for free? Just let me show you my worth – I’ll take out the garbage, I’ll bring your coffee, or sweep the place out!” Whatever it takes to get the foot in the door and show people your worth, and that you’re serious.
And now that you’ve gotten in through the door and proven your worth, then you can start talking about getting paid and playing a bigger role, depending upon your skill set and experience level. I’m not advocating for people to work for free for any great length of time or to become someone’s slave, because there’s a whole other dialogue about that. But I am advocating doing something for free in order to get a foot in the door. It’s funny, because there are two sides to this argument, and each side hates the other. “You should never do any work for free!” I don’t agree with that, either, because I can tell you my story about how I got into the industry, and why that strategy works and has worked for so many people who are successful in the industry today.
There’s an amazing website called gamasutra.com that’s run by the people who put on the game developer’s conference. It’s a website that’s been around for fifteen or twenty years, and they have tons of great information about the gaming industry, from articles to advice, as well as industry job postings, and it’s all broken down by subject – audio, arts, programming, music, producing – every aspect of the industry is well represented. And, since you learn so much – it’s free, just go on there and start reading – they literally list every single game publisher and developer in the world. You can even search for people in your geographical area so you can find the people who live close by who are working in the industry for you to network with. It’s an absolutely indispensable resource.
The final thing I’d tell folks who are interested in the game industry in general, is to go on Amazon.com and search for the topic that interests you, whether it’s game audio, development, art design, producing… Whatever it is, someone’s written numerous books about it so jump in and pick a topic and start reading the stuff that’s being written by the people who are in the industry. It’s the cheapest way I know to learn about the industry in depth. But if you’re specifically interested in the music side of the industry, there’s a whole website just for that, called the Game Audio Network Guild, or GANG. It’s a non-profit organization that’s dedicated to the game music industry, and in the interest of full disclosure, I was the guy who created it, and I’m on the board of directors. It’s an incredible resource that anyone who wants to find out more about music in gaming should definitely check out.
McKinny: What about the musician who isn’t schooled in music or orchestral writing?
Tallarico: The reality is that any musician is going to be like, “Hey, I never thought of that! I could write music for video games!” And the great thing about that makes it different from film and TV it is that when you think of film or TV music, you think about big, orchestral things — and they have that as well with games like Halo, Warcraft, with these big film-like stories. But again, if you’re talking about apps and stuff, especially mobile platforms today… Look, if you only play the accordion, there’s probably an app out there that an accordion would be exactly what they’re looking for! Or if you only play slide guitar, there’s probably a great fishing game out there that would be awesome for some bluesy slide work to accompany it. Whatever it is, there’s probably some game or app out there that your music would be perfect for you and needs your stuff. The film and TV industry can’t say the same; it’s all pretty formulaic and mostly orchestral, but games are rock and roll, electronic music, orchestral, or a combination of all those things and more.
As a musician, you’ve got to be looking towards games, because it’s the easiest music-related performance and compositional industry to get into. And by the way, it pays great for entry level people! Once again, in the film industry, it’s quite the opposite. In the film industry, you’re doing work for free, just trying to cover your expenses, and you’re working your ass off for six months or more at a time just to get a credit. And then maybe after doing that for ten years, you’ll finally get to do the score for a B-rated film. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll be one of those ten or so people like a Hans Zimmer, or a John Williams who makes a million dollars a year (or more) if you work for ten years or more for free. In the gaming industry, the average person is making $60k to $100k a year, so our income average is a lot higher, but the highest paid guys in the industry are only making a couple hundred thousand a project or so, as opposed to a million or more in film — if you’re one of the lucky few.
It’s a bit of a trade-off, but most people find that the odds of sustaining a steady income and flow of opportunities in the game industry are a much better bet in both the near and long term, and the work, the outlet for musical creativity is just as rewarding. We’d rather have the higher average for everyone.
McKinny: Where did you grow up, and where did you go to school, and how did you get involved with the conjoining of music and video games?
Tallarico: I never went to school for music, I’m completely self-taught. I grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts on the east coast, and I was always involved – my two greatest loves were always video games and music. My cousin is Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. His real name is Steven Tallarico, so I grew up going backstage to Aerosmith shows, and I always tell Steven – in fact, I’m seeing him later today, he’s playing in LA tonight – but I always tell him that the greatest gift he ever gave to me was, when I was growing up – eight, nine, ten years old — when you see this person who’s your cousin, you see him at summer barbecues and not as someone or something else, and then to see him on stage with Aerosmith, performing in front of twenty-five thousand people… It just seemed normal, you know? It wasn’t the impossible dream to me. To me, I always thought, “Wow, what a great time he’s having on stage, and what a cool job this is! That’s what I want to do when I grow up.” So it never seemed like it was something that was too difficult or impossible to achieve. You give a lot of people that idea, and in their head they say, “Oh, I could never do that.” To me it was like, “Well, he’s doing it, so why can’t I?”
So, while I was growing up in Springfield, the two greatest loves of mine were video games and music. So much so, that in the late 70s, when I was 10-11 years old – maybe your family was like mine, where we had the rip-off Pong machine – mine was the Coleco Telstar, where you hook it up to the back of your TV, put it on channel 3 and you’re done. And of course in the seventies there was the arcade explosion – Space Invaders, Pac Man, and Missile Command – all the stuff that was coming out in the late seventies, and then there was Atari…
During that time, I used to take my dad’s big-ass cassette recorder – it was huge – and I’d take that down to the local arcade, which was actually part of a pizza shop, called “Papa Gino’s.” And we also had a huge arcade at the mall down the street, and that’s where all the new arcade video games would come out, and the place was called “The Dream Machine.” “Here’s the latest game, kids! It’s called Donkey Kong!” And we’d all line up with pockets full of quarters, ready to play!
So I’d take my dad’s cassette recorder down to the arcade and I’d record all my favorite game sounds and game music, and then I’d do the same thing at home with my Atari or my IntelliVision. I mean, it was just a lot of bleeps and bloops; there wasn’t a lot of music back then in video games… But I’d take that tape, and I’d splice it together to keep the original quality rather than making copies of copies, and then I’d grab a guitar, I’d invite all my neighborhood friends over, and I’d charge them a nickel and I’d jump up in front of my television set with the video games playing behind me on the screen, hit play on the tape and I’d jump up and start playing guitar along with it and put on a video game show. That was the first iteration of Video Games Live. The whole show manifested out of the mind of a ten year old. Still today, I mean just last week we played to 60 thousand people at two shows at the Birds Nest (Beijing National Stadium) in Beijing, China, their national Olympic stadium, the largest stadium in Asia. We did two shows there, and it was me running around on stage playing music with video games on the big screens behind me and the Beijing Symphony, and I was telling my conductor, “This is just like when I was ten years old, running around my house, and now I’m just doing the same thing on a bigger scale at the Birds Nest, so it’s kind of crazy how life works out.
McKinny: The shows you just did at the Birds Nest in Beijing; were those shows part of a game convention, or is that part of a tour?
Tallarico: We’ll do two or three of those a year, we’ll play in association with a gaming convention. For example, the biggest video games convention in the world is called GamesCom, and it’s every August in Cologne, Germany. They get somewhere around five hundred thousand people all over Europe and the US attending that convention. The biggest one in the US is called E3, and they draw about one hundred thousand people. The second biggest game convention in the world is in Japan, and it’s called Tokyo Game Show (TGS), and has roughly around three hundred thousand in attendance, but GamesCom is the biggest one by far. For that one, we’re doing two shows right in the game convention on the Blizzard Entertainment Stage, because we’re going to be performing Blizzard games, and introducing brand new world premiers of both games and music that no one has ever heard before, so that’s pretty fun. So we do about two or three conventions a year. But the thing in Beijing, that was just a show, and in fact, we’re going back to China for thirty-six days in September, where we’re playing sixteen shows in fifteen different cities, including Beijing again where we’ll do two more shows there. And that shows how crazy the gamers there are in China!
McKinny: What kind of issues have you encountered with intellectual property and licensing your music in overseas markets, such as Asia and South America, and has the large black markets in those regions caused you to do business differently there?
Tallarico: Yeah, I would say to get as much money up front as you can. I mean, there’s two things here: there’s my show, Video Games Live, and with me getting the music from the publishers to use in the show – the images, video, and all that, and then there’s me as a musician licensing my music to the publishers, so I play both sides of the game. I have to ask permission, and then I have to give permission. I’ll tell you both sides so you can figure out which one you’d want to use, or maybe use both.
As a composer, most of the work that we do is a work for hire, and it’s a buy-out, for the most part when you work on the bigger games. This works more like the film industry, because, by the way, Danny Elfman, John Williams and Hans Zimmer – none of them own their own music, either. They’re work for hire. Now, just because it’s a work for hire, doesn’t mean you have to give up all of your financial rights at all. The only reason a work for hire is a work for hire is because that company has created something that they own the intellectual property to, and they need to be able to control it. They don’t want to have to come to you and ask if they can use the music they hired you to create for their movie trailer, or whatever. Also, they don’t want the music that you wrote for their film to end up in a beer commercial without their consent, and then they get pissed. So I get it. It totally makes sense why they need to own it and control its use.
The control is the thing they most desire, especially when they do all these deals globally. Say they do some sub-licensing deal with a DVD manufacturer in Bucharest, and they can’t pay the same amount as they’d pay you if you were doing something in the US. They need to control it; they need to be the one to make the decision, not you. They can’t be held hostage to your demands. But just because they control it doesn’t mean you don’t get paid! So when I do my contracts with game companies, I put specifics in my agreements – and this is all on Audiogang’s website that I mentioned before – we even have example contracts that people can download, we’ve made that available to the world. I’ll put things in my contracts like every time the music is used on a different game platform, I want to get paid.
For example, if you’re doing music for a game on Playstation 4, let’s say they use the same exact music on Xbox, then they use it on Nintendo, they use it on PC, Droids, or iOS platforms, and then five years from now some new stuff comes out and they release it on that new platform we haven’t even heard of yet, I get paid. I can put that in my contract, and I can come up with whatever dollar amount I want, whether it’s $5000 dollars, $10,000 dollars, or whatever. I’ve gotten paid as high as $50,000 dollars per platform. And there is stuff that I worked on twenty five years ago and I have it in my contract where, oh look, it’s super popular again and now it’s on the Android platform! Boom! I get paid. I mean, who knew 25 years ago that people would be playing games on their cell phones? Nobody! But, who knows what’s going to come around the bend twenty years from now? As long as you have one line in your contract stating that every time the music gets ported to a new/different platform , I get “X” amount of dollars. So you’re covered for the rest of your life, right? So that’s a smart way to do it.
The other way is to be paid on bonuses. For example, a cumulative total of all of the sales of the product – you can go “per platform” or better yet, put all of the platforms together. So you say to the publishers, “What’s your breakeven point?” They might say, and make no mistake; every company knows what their breakeven point it. They may not want to tell you, but they know the number, and all you have to do is be a little bold and ask. They may say, “Well, it’s a hundred and fifty thousand units.” Okay, great. So if your breakeven point is 150 units, at 250k units, you give me a bonus of ten grand. They’re making tens of millions of dollars at that point, so “hey, kick me down ten grand!” That’s fair, isn’t it?
And then there’s music publishing as well. The other thing I say is, “Look, if this music makes any money outside of the video game industry, or the video game – the specific thing you’re hiring me to do – we split that money 50/50. So that’s generating income for you. If they do a TV commercial for the game, and the music plays in the TV commercial, that’s a public performance on television. And if it’s on a major network and it’s played in rotation fifty times a day in a high market, that’s going to generate money from ASCAP and BMI, for both you and the publisher as well. So the publisher is getting a sort of rebate back from the ad on the money spent to create the music. It’s a win/win, and you’re splitting it 50/50, and that’s fair, isn’t it? How can anyone argue against that sort of arrangement being equitable? And if a company were to argue against it, well then that’s a company I wouldn’t want to work with, anyway.
Those are the things I laid out for the big companies. Now, if I’m talking to students, and I’m talking to people looking to get into the industry, or just lower lever game developers, then I structure it a little differently, because you can’t just walk away from the project. You can’t say “Hey, this isn’t what I want or else.” They’ll be like, “See you later. We’ve got fifty other guys waiting in line behind you.” So what you want to do in that instance is say to these smaller companies, the ones that are doing mobile apps or whatever, “Look, you can’t afford to pay me $100k for the music,” and none of these apps can – they might have a five thousand dollar recording budget or something like that – say, “Okay, I’ll take your five grand, but I want to own all the music – it all belongs to me, so I’m going to license you the music for five thousand dollars, and because I’m going to spend a lot of time, and I may not get my money back at all, I want to take part in the royalties from day one.
So, because I’m going to take the risk and work my ass off, just like everyone else on your team, the difference is that I’m not getting paid a salary. So that puts me in the royalty pool, and maybe that’s just ten cents a unit, or whatever. But that’s an arrangement that’s very fair and negotiable, and can be very lucrative as well with a successful, popular app or mobile game.
If these companies want me to pour out my soul as a musician, as an artist for their game product, then they don’t get that for free. People need to understand that music has value, especially in movies and most especially in video games, where one third of the total experience is the music. So again, that’s my negotiation tactic when I talk to these folks. I say, “So, how much are you spending on developing this game? Oh, ten million dollars? That’s cool. Hey, I’m excited to be a part of it. So, let me ask you this: of those ten million dollars you’re spending on this game, why is there only fifty thousand budgeted for music, when it’s a third of the overall experience?” Now, I’m not asking for a third of the budget, three and a half million bucks, but half a percent of the budget is stupid. By the way, the film industry does the same thing… “So I’m not asking for a third of the budget, but I will ask if we can get one hundred grand from a budget so large. Could we get one percent instead of point five?” It’s all how you talk to these folks, and making friends with them.
McKinny: Do you conduct your own contract negotiations, or do you have an agent do that stuff for you now?
Tallarico: I don’t have an agent for my composing career or contract negotiations. I do for my touring career, but those are two different animals, touring and composing. I tell people all the time, when they’re looking to get into the video game industry in general, but especially for music – people put too much time into honing their talent and their craft — and that’s a horrible thing to say, especially to a musician’s magazine, my god! I mean, I can hear people saying, “What the hell is this moron talking about? Is he telling me not to practice as much?” Yes, I am. To really be successful – if you’re a piano player, and you’re practicing ten hours a day, and you are honing your craft to become the greatest piano player on the planet, that’s fantastic, that’s great. I applaud you for your talents. But, the guy who’s practicing five hours a day, and the other five hours are spent on himself to better his business acumen, to better his networking, making calls, or reading a book on how to win friends and influence people – there’s a million of them out there to help educate yourself about business. All that knowledge is just as important as knowing your C scale back and forth, so I think that it’s important for people in the 21st century to realize and understand that.
Another thing is, with YouTube and all the other digital outlets around the Internet, you don’t need a big record label these days to get recognized. You don’t need TV anymore. One of my friends, Lindsey Stirling, is a violinist who became famous through YouTube. She’s played with Video Games Live before, and now she’s so big that I can’t even afford her on my own show. But she’s amazing because she’s built this incredible crowd and this incredible multi-million dollar career through YouTube!
So again, spending those five hours a day creating a video and putting it on YouTube, and how you’re going to market that video – spend a little money on Facebook to market that video, and it all starts to go from there. But just sitting there in your room practicing your instrument for ten hours – again, kudos to you – but take half the time and spend it on yourself; marketing yourself, improving yourself in regards to getting to understand what your positive things are, what your weaknesses are, and then improving on those weaknesses, whatever they may be. Maybe you’re terrified of public speaking/talking to people – guess what… You’re not going to get a lot of gigs. You have to become friends with the people who are going to hire you, and if you’re not good at doing that, take a course, read a book, go online and watch some videos that will instruct you on those things – there’s just so many resources out there to take advantage of, and most of them are free for the asking/taking.
That’s the thing that the musicians I talk with fall down on. A lot of guys/gals just want to be on their own, and don’t want to deal with all it takes to be successful from a business standpoint, and that’s great if that’s all you want, but you can’t be successful financially if you take that approach. Your chances will improve exponentially though, if you’re actually out there making connections, networking with the people in the industry you need to meet in order to get work and get paid. It’s a great industry, with millions of opportunities for anyone who wants to try their hand in the game music industry.
Tommy Tallarico website
Tommy Tallarico on Facebook
Video Games Live clip at Beijing China’s Birds Nest National Olympic Stadium
Video Games Live on Facebook
Game Audio Network Guild website
International Game Developers Association website
Michael John and Michael “Sheep” Gooding, the core/founding members of Arcane Saints, have done it once again. They’ve survived in spades yet another major shake-up in the lineup of Arcane Saints, with the departure of the drummer and bassist at a critical point in time for the band; right before the scheduled start of their Australian tour. They quickly found and recruited drummer Gary Drain, and bassist, Drew Dedman (formerly of the Aussie nu metal band, Superheist) into the band just before they started their last Australian tour. But as fate would have it, just as they were writing and recording demos to get ready to go into the studio to record a new single, both Drain and Dedman left the band for personal reasons.
These are the sort of recurring, untimely events that usually do more than temporarily derail the plans and aspirations of a band. They’re the kind of thing that usually destroys a band outright. But that didn’t stop Michael John or Michael “Sheep” Gooding from finding new members committed to the band’s successful future and going back into the studio to record their new single after a successful Crowd Funder campaign online to generate the necessary funding for their next studio adventure. Those new members who were up to muster according to Michael and Sheep’s reckoning are Tim White on drums, who joined the band in February of 2016, and Mike Lyons on bass, who hitched his wagon to Arcane Saints a mere week before going into the studio to record the new single. According to Michael, “Tim and Lyons just crushed it in the studio, and Lyons did it with less than a week to learn the song and prepare for recording in June. That really shows great enthusiasm and commitment. We couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.”
The new single, “Black Limousine” was produced by Ricki Rae at Lighthill Studios in Riddells Creek, Victoria, Australia. I must say, the overall production and sound quality is outstanding, and is a marked departure from 2013’s “Turning the Tide” and 2015’s “In the Shade of the Juniper,” the two previous releases by the band, giving this single a brighter, more upbeat feel to the song.
For me, this latest release from Arcane Saints seems to be a natural progression and evolution of the outstanding writing skills of Michael John, whose musical growth in the areas of lyrics and arranging is apparent over the course of their discography and various member changes in the band. Despite using numerous rhythm section players over the years, the core of this band continues to manifest their strengths as an effective and unique combination of songwriter/singer and lead guitarist that proves the old adage that “two heads are better than one.”
The beginning of the song harkens back to a very Beatle-esque style and sound in the verses, with dreamy sounding vocals in the verses, and some nice guitar layering and simple bass lines that lay down the melody. The chorus is where the song brings the guitar punch and rhythm section power that Arcane Saints fans have grown accustomed to, along with the strong, yet somehow soft, slightly gravely vocals of John. The bridge contrasts well with the rest of the arrangement, bringing a slightly darker, heavier tone to the song, before going into the breakdown that’s soft and showcases the dynamics of the arrangement, particularly where John’s vocals and Gooding’s guitar work are concerned.
The overall interplay and dynamics of the lyrics, vocals, guitars, rhythm and arrangement are much more complicated than the whole suggests. Each instrument and vocal part adds precisely what is needed for the song, and no more. This is the hallmark of a talented writing and producing team that is highly effective in the studio. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to, and absorbing the intricacies of this recording. I see it as a wonderful, natural evolution of Michael John and Michael Gooding’s partnership as a writing team. They’re no Lennon/McCartney, but who cares? We’ve already had one of those, and I feel that with perseverance, the right timing, good media exposure, and a bit of luck that these guys could be as good as a Lennon/McCartney duo on their own musical plane, and in their own right.
All that being said, I can honestly say I highly recommend this new release to anyone who is a current fan of the band, and to anyone who isn’t, but is looking to hear the next great band to come out of Australia. This song should garner some serious airplay in OZ and America if only the radio stations will take a listen. I give Black Limousine by Arcane Saints 4.5 out of 5.
WRITER’S NOTE: Black Limousine will be released to the general public for purchase/download on iTunes, Amazon.com, and the band’s own website (www.arcanesaints.com) on August 6th, 2016 to coordinate with the band’s new single release show and birthday party (It’s Michael John’s birthday – you guess which!) at the infamous Whole Lotta Love Bar in East Brunswick, Melbourne, Victoria, AU. If you happen to be in Melbourne in the first week of August, tickets are still on sale, and available at the door the night of the show.
Living his life in the song
Blackberry Smoke, the down-home juggernaut from Atlanta, Ga. is on everyone’s music radar these days. From country to rock and blues, this band is getting noticed, and for all the right reasons. The band makes some of the best, authentic Southern music out there, and there’s no end in sight.
With every album released, from Blackberry Smoke’s first album, 2003’s “Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime,” to 2009’s “Little Pieces of Dixie,” 2012’s game-changing “Whippoorwill,” to last year’s blockbuster release, “Holding All the Roses,” the band just keeps evolving, getting better and gaining new fans with every album release.
Blackberry Smoke has worked and toured with such Southern rock and country music giants as George Jones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Marshall Tucker Band, ZZ Top, Zac Brown Band and most recently with Gov’t Mule. The band sells out shows wherever they go — from the House of Blues, to The Georgia Theater, to the venerable, hallowed walls of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. The band constantly tours, playing upwards of 250 or more shows a year, so you can imagine just how busy a life like that can become.
Sitting down to talk with Charlie Starr, I was pleasantly surprised that my conversation with him was relaxed and unhurried, especially given his hectic, busy schedule, not to mention that he had a show to do in just a few short hours.
Having just come back from a short stint in Australia at the Byron Bay Blues-fest a couple weeks prior, Blackberry Smoke — my current favorite band — afforded me the pleasure of speaking with the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist Charlie Starr. I was so excited to sit down to an interview with him, because he is the engine behind what I believe to be the most exciting country/southern rock/blues band to come along since Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd hit the music scene in the late 1960s-early 1970s. They are a wonderfully accessible, down-to-earth, redneck version of Zeppelin and Skynyrd, rolled into one big, giant fatty of smokin’ musical goodness. For me, there hasn’t been a band as exciting as Blackberry Smoke in several decades.
When I spoke with Starr in New Braunfels, Texas (just outside of San Antonio), I wanted to find out directly what his musical beginnings were like, what his original musical influences were and what they are today. We also talked about what makes a song great and what he sees in the future for him and the band, as well as the changing music industry.
Brian McKinny: You come from a musical family. When did you first realize you wanted to make music your life’s work, and were there any other aspirations for you?
Charlie Starr: Not really. I think I always just kind of knew. In my teen years, it became a reality, “I’m gonna do this.” Before that, when you’re a kid, you don’t know shit. So it took some time growing up to figure out it was really what I wanted to do, what I was meant to do. I knew that I could do it, early on with a guitar. I wasn’t good at throwing a baseball and too old to play football, but I knew I could make it with my instrument. I think that if you’re wired that way, you just kind of know what you’re good at and want to do.
McKinny: Do you remember your first guitar? What was it and how did you acquire it?
Starr: My first guitar was a little, cheap acoustic by a company called Global, and it was an old, gut string guitar.
McKinny: What was the first band you played in and what kind of music did you play?
Starr: When I was in the eighth grade, my buddies and I started a band called Malteze. When you’re a kid, and you get into your first band, obviously, it’s horrible, but you come up with all these things — a little symbol and all that stuff, and then you start drawing out the name of your band, designing whatever font you want, or whatever. Well, my buddies and I came up with a logo that used a Maltese cross with the name on the bottom.
We were doing songs by Aerosmith, Metallica and Guns N Roses, which had just exploded onto the music scene at the time with “Appetite for Destruction,” but we didn’t have a singer — nobody was gutsy enough to get up and sing! So we just did instrumental versions of all the favorite songs we had from bands like that, and we played my 16th birthday party; we played a couple of friend’s parties, people’s backyards … It was a pretty typical beginning, doing stuff we all do when we’re that young and starting out playing in bands.
McKinny: When did you decide to get up and sing in front of the band? What was the catalyst that got you to move up front?
Starr: I wound up playing in different bands as I got older, playing in cover bands in the beginning from about 18 until my early 20s, playing in bars around the southeast. I was in one particular band where we played three sets a night, and our singer quit. We had a gig booked at this little honky-tonk bar in Georgia, and I was singing harmonies, and it was really just out of necessity; I was like, “If we want to get paid, I have to sing, I guess.” So I did.
I sang around the house with my guitar and starting to write songs, but when I was forced to get out and sing in front of people I realized, “Shit, I can do this. It’s not that hard.” Back then, I was just starting to drink, and that was really to make sure that I wasn’t too nervous — it’s just what you do when you’re starting out in a bar band. But that’s really when I learned how to sing in a band, playing in those bar bands.
McKinny: I know your father is very musical, and I’m sure he had a lot of influence on the types of music you listened to growing up, as well as you getting into playing music. But who were your first musical idols — the pickers, singers and bands you listened to and admired when you were learning to play and sing, and who are your idols now that you’re successful?
Starr: From an early age, Bill Monroe, (Lester) Flatt and (Earl) Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers and all that bluegrass stuff, and Hank Williams. That’s what I heard a lot, and the radio, of course. My mom loved rock and roll; she loved The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. But when I really got serious, I was into Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers, and all that kind of rock and roll. I never really clung to just one.
The Stones were huge to me and a lot of people my age — they’re the greatest rock and roll band in the world. Then I got into Little Feat, Marshall Tucker and later into songwriters — Van Zandt, Guy Clarke and Steve Earle. I take a little bit from everybody, you know? I can’t pick just one — it’s like the impossible question. I mean, one day I’ll wake up and think “AC/DC’s the greatest band in the world.” And the next day it’s “Led Zeppelin is the best band in the world” or Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Grateful Dead … It’s just an ongoing thing.
McKinny: You’ve said before that if there was one person you could get a guitar lesson from, that person is Merle Travis, one of the best finger-pickers of all time. Who have you met that just blew your mind?
Starr: Derek Trucks. He didn’t take me by surprise, because I already knew how incredible he was. But man, when we were jamming and to watch him play guitar, it was incredible. He is, without a doubt, the best guitar player I have ever seen in person.
McKinny: When did you first have the feeling that Blackberry Smoke would be a success, and how long did you play and perform together, before you started to realize some of that success?
Starr: The first time we sold out a show of our own, the first time I thought, “Okay, this is starting to work” was a few years into our band. Success did not come quickly. There was a lot of playing, traveling and promoting. But that’s when you first start believing it, if you didn’t before, that this may actually work. All this hard work is starting to pay off. And it’s been like that ever since.
McKinny: I find it interesting that I’ve never talked with anybody — not one — who has said, “Yeah man, from the beginning everything just clicked.” That never happens.
Starr: Yep, I’ve heard people say to me before, “One of these days, I’m gonna write that one song that changes everything, becomes so popular and just explodes.” And I always think, “I’m not so sure I agree with that.”
I think I would rather write an album full of songs that are not necessarily a huge pop hit, but I’d rather have our fans be happy with an entire album full of songs that they love. I wouldn’t want to have a song like “Honky-tonk Ba-donk-a-donk” that I wouldn’t be happy singing, like, forever! I don’t wanna be 60 years old saying, “Do I have to sing this song again?”
McKinny: When you’re ready to head back into the studio to record, what do you look for in a producer? What factors into your decision to hire a producer?
Starr: Well, it’s a little bit of all that. It’s definitely a “feel” thing, but it’s also about the type of records they’ve made. I think that’s the biggest thing right there. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to work with Brendan O’Brien, because of the records that he’s made.
Sometimes we produce it ourselves, because it feels right. We just finished the new album coming out probably in September, and I made a bunch of demos with new songs, and I was like, “I really think that we can go in and do this,” and everybody agreed, “Let’s go in and do this, and let’s turn it into a monster!”
There is literally a little bit of something for everybody on it. It has some massively heavy songs that will freak people out, it has some funky stuff, some total Macon, Georgia kind of stuff, and it’s really kind of different, but special.
McKinny: A mutual friend of ours, Anthony Byrd, asked me to ask you this next question: Do you or the band have any pre-show rituals you perform before a gig?
Starr: Oh yeah, we love Anthony and his family! Great people! I look forward to seeing them again real soon. But to answer your question, no, we don’t. We just do a head count to make sure everyone’s in the same room and is ready to go (laughs)! That’s our ritual – “Is everyone here?”
McKinny: You’re the main songwriter in the band; most of the stuff you guys play comes from your head and heart, so in your estimation, what is it that makes a song great?
Starr: For me, if you’re talking about one that’s my own, it’s one that I want to keep singing and playing over and over. If it has something, a quality that makes it stick to my ribs, then I always hope it’ll be the same for other people, and that’s not always the case. I’ve got tons of songs that I thought were good, and I’d play them for other people, and they’d be like, “That’s alright …”
Obviously, they can’t all be winners, but I think that if it’s something that you’re comfortable revealing about yourself, if it’s very personal, it’s a very enjoyable art form. You can take it any direction you want to.
McKinny: Is there any subject matter that’s off limits for you as a songwriter?
Starr: I don’t have any real desire to write a protest song or anything like that about the goings on in the government, or stuff like that. I’ve written songs about the state of the world, “the world’s going to hell” kind of songs, and life can often inspire those kinds of songs. There’s one on the new album that’s kind of like that, but never anything that’s in any way political.
It’s a polarizing thing, too, whether you agree with it or not. It’s like “okay, this is not what I paid for,” especially for the fans at our shows, specifically. They don’t pay to come see us preach or to listen to me get up on a soapbox and give a dissertation on how the government is screwing us all. We already know that!
They come here to escape all that, and besides, it’s a slippery slope to start down. A band of our stature has to tour to make a living, so it’s best to entertain with our music and not piss people off with political b.s.
McKinny: How has your songwriting and the band’s music evolved since “Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime” hit the shelves back in 2003? What’s changed about your sound and the way you write music?
Starr: I hope that I’ve grown as a song writer; I think all writers hope to do that. Being able to incorporate different types of textures in our recordings and adding Brandon Still on keys with the beautiful piano and B3 (Hammond organ) for the keyboard stuff opened it up a lot. You know, “The Whippoorwill” was a turning point for the band I think, because we were starting to play a lot of our own headlining shows, we had the time to stretch out and jam, and his addition really let the show breathe. “The Whippoorwill” album reflected that, I think. It opened things up; it was warmer.
I remember, one day a few fans came up and said, “It’s not heavy!” I was like, “When have we ever really been heavy?”
We’re just a rock and roll band – we’re not a metal band. But you know, each time we put out an album, it sounds different. Some people will always be like “This one doesn’t sound like the last one!” And that’ll happen – people don’t like change. But when you’re in the band and creating the music, you don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over. You want to grow, and our true fans want to grow with us.
McKinny: Are you a techie/gear head as a guitarist, a grab-it-and-play-it kind of player, or are you somewhere in between?
Starr: I’m somewhere in between. The older I get, the more I get into the gear nerd aspect. And I’ve got my share of, well, let’s say I’m building a nice collection, much to the dismay of my wife (chuckles). But, it’s an addiction, you know.
McKinny: What are some of the things you do as a performer and as a band to show appreciation for your fans?
Starr: We’ve been doing “meet and greets” after the shows for several years now, and we donate the lion’s share of the proceeds from those to charity – such as the Children’s Hospital in Atlanta. Brit, my drummer’s daughter was diagnosed with neuroblastoma a few years ago. She underwent treatment, and it was a long, hard road for them, but bless her heart, she’s cancer-free today and healthy as can be. I think that was really not just for Brit, but especially for him and his wife to say “thank you” to all the people who supported them through that.
It’s our way as a band to sort of give back to the fans to say “thank you,” and the fans know that, because they continue to buy the meet and greet passes, and to shake our hands for the 100th time! We’re always accessible, and the fans do that, because they know it’s going to a good place.
McKinny: What have been the biggest changes you’ve experienced in the industry, since you started out?
Starr: Well, you sell fewer records, because of streaming and the digital marketplace, of course. And that means everyone. It doesn’t rob us of any excitement, when it comes to making new records, because we get excited regardless of how many copies we’ll sell. But that’s changed the world – the way that we listen to music, the way that we purchase it. That’s probably the biggest thing, I would say.
McKinny: How have you adapted to some of those changes? What are some of the things you’ve done to take advantage of the changes in the music industry?
Starr: I’ll tell you this, it makes us tour more. Everybody’s touring more, because we all have to make a living. But that’s good, because people like live music. It’s a different animal.
As far as adapting, what you have to do is go after it on social media and make sure your music is available and accessible digitally to anyone who wants it. Some people are even just giving their records away. I mean, it’s cool if you can do that. Okay, U2, Bono! You’re a billionaire (laughs)! I agree with what he was saying, though, about this being the devaluation of music. It’s like, “Okay, my song’s all of a sudden just worth a dollar, or even less than a dollar.”
He’s got a good point. He’s saying it’s a pretty sad thing that this song I’ve poured my heart and soul into — about my child, my grandmother or my father — is, according to the marketplace, worth exactly the same price as a fart sound. It’s so sad.
McKinny: What about commercial music licensing? That’s always been lucrative, and today it’s even more so. Have you and the band licensed any songs for commercial use by other companies?
Starr: Yeah, we had a couple of songs in video games a million years ago, funny enough. And the latest Madden NFL football game has the song, “Holding All the Roses” in it. We had our song “Good One Comin’ On” in that Kevin Costner movie, “Swing Vote.”
McKinny: You have a new album coming out in September. Do you have a title for it yet, or are you keeping that hush-hush?
Starr: I’m going to keep that hushed up for now, because we haven’t decided between the two or three titles we’ve come up with for it yet. That’s something for our fans to look forward to later this summer.
McKinny: Anything you’d like to add before I let you go?
Starr: I’d just like to say thanks to the fans, always! They are the reason that we continue to do this, thanks to them!
You can find Blackberry Smoke on the Internet at the following links:
Pandorica is an original sci-fi adventure film by director by Tom Paton. After a mysterious, disastrous event occurred approximately 150 years earlier, the world has changed drastically, forcing the surviving peoples to return to a simpler, tribal way of life. The story follows the leadership trials of the Varosha Tribe, with three young rivals – Eiren, Ares, and Thade the next ones in line to lead the new generation of their colony.
The three initiates embark upon a journey away from the safety of their home towards a remote forest and their current leader, Nus, who will choose his successor by trial. Only one of them will become leader, but in this post-apocalyptic world, who will it be, when their trial is interrupted by the arrival of another tribe, and a mysterious horror they must face together to conquer? The courage, friendship and loyalty of these three rivals for leader of their tribe will be tested under conditions that are far more difficult and dangerous than they ever could have imagined.
Pandorica stars Jade Hobday, Marc Zammit,Luke D’Silva, Bentley Kaluand Adam Bond and is directed by Tom Paton. Pandoricais at Cinemas and Digital from April 1st, 2016.
For publicity information, contact Witchfinder PR:
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