Friday, January 13, 2017

Beyond Ratt & Roll: Stephen Pearcy Gets Deep




“Every now and then, you’ve got to step outside of the box to stay in the game.”

These wise words were spoken to me a few days ago by Ratt frontman Stephen Pearcy while he was discussing his new solo album, Smash. Out January 27 on Frontiers Music Srl, the 13-song release features some of the most varied and unexpected music of his career. While tunes like “Ten Miles Wide,” “Jamie” and “I Can’t Take It” boast the same vibe that characterized Ratt’s ’80s heyday, it’s left-field tracks like the brooding “I Know I’m Crazy,” the Folky “What Do Ya Think” and the intense ballad “Summer’s End” that give Smash its edge.

Two years in the making, Smash was recorded during breaks on the road and originally conceived as a series of EPs. After being approached by Frontiers, Pearcy jumped at the opportunity to turn the tracks into a full-length record.  

“There are great songs that didn’t even make it on the record,” Pearcy says. “I still have one in the can with [legendary Ratt producer] Beau Hill, mixed and mastered.”

While Smash certainly boasts plenty of moments that celebrate what Pearcy calls “the three Ps” (pussy, party and paycheck), the album also features a surprising number of darker, more introspective moments.

“There’s some heavy stuff in there. Consciously, and especially lyrically, I really wanted to touch on certain things. Open you eyes, look up at the skies and take a look around; it’s not all what it seems to be. There’s an underworld; there’s other stuff going on.”

This outlook comes through loud and clear on Smash’s best moment, “Passion Infinity,” a complex number that offers a considerably more cerebral take on the world than most Pearcy fans might expect.

“We’re being led around; nobody wants to talk about things and speak up,” says the singer on the song’s subject matter. “The arrangement’s just crazy; it’s just in your face... It was one of the later ones we got into. My guitar player brought me that music, and I wanted to really talk about something interesting.”

For the first time since Ratt’s 1990 Detonator album, Pearcy included lyrics in Smash’s liner notes.

“I really didn’t want to [include the lyrics on Detonator], but [Frontiers] asked me to do it with this one, and I happily agreed and said, ‘Yeah, I think I need the lyrics in here. There’s too much going on here; I want people to kind of understand what’s happening.’

The album’s musical strength is due in large part to guitarist Erik Ferentinos, who’s been Pearcy’s co-writer and right-hand man for the past 15 years.

“It’s almost like he’s channeling [late Ratt guitarist] Robbin Crosby throughout this record,” offers Pearcy. “It just blows my mind. I mean, ‘Ten Miles Wide’ is a Robbin Crosby riff; it’s crazy.”

Smash also benefits from powerhouse performances by former White Lion/Anthrax/Rik L Rik & the Holy Riders/AntiProduct drummer Greg D’Angelo and Rough Cutt bassist Matt Thorr. Additionally, the record features a guest appearance by Rough Cutt guitarist Chris Hager, who (like Thorr) did time in Pearcy’s late ’70s/early ’80s band, Mickey Ratt. Recently, Pearcy welcomed former Arcade/Sea Hags six-stringer Frankie Wilsey back in the fold for his upcoming solo band live dates.

Smash is an intriguing new adventure for a man whose life in the music business spans nearly four decades. Pearcy first gained attention as the leader of Mickey Ratt, which originally operated in San Diego for a handful of years before relocating to Los Angeles in 1980. In addition to Pearcy, Hager and Thorr, Mickey Ratt’s extensive list of fluctuating members included future Ozzy Osbourne/Badlands guitarist Jake E. Lee and late drummer David “Rock Vodka” Thum (Tex and the Horseheads/Funeral/The Celestials). By 1982, the band had shortened their name and morphed into a preliminary version of Ratt, later solidifying their “classic lineup” of Pearcy, guitarists Warren DeMartini and Robbin Crosby, bassist Juan Croucier and drummer Bobby Blotzer in 1983. The ensuing eight years saw Ratt sells millions of albums on the strength of MTV staples including “Back For More,” “Round And Round, “Wanted Man,” “Dance” and “Way Cool Jr.” At the end of ’91, Ratt experienced the first of many breakups. The next quarter-century saw the band reform numerous times, both with Pearcy (on 1999’s Ratt and 2010’s excellent Infestation) and without him. In addition to an ongoing solo career, Pearcy’s non-Ratt activities have included fronting the bands Arcade (with Fred Coury of Cinderella/Chastain/London), Vertex (with Al Pitrelli of Megadeth/Trans-Siberian Orchestra fame on guitar and the great Bob Daisley on guest bass) and Vicious Delite.

Shortly after Smash arrives in music stores and online platforms, fans will also be able to experience Pearcy’s latest return to Ratt. Currently based around the vocalist and fellow “classic-era” members DeMartini and Croucier with later-period Ratt guitarist Carlos Cavazo (ex-Quiet Riot), the band will be making their return to the stage on February 11 at the Treasure Island Resort Casino in Welch, MN. Pearcy says that a drummer for the rejuvenated band will be announced shortly.

Of course, fans have been seeing a completely different version of Ratt – led by classic-era drummer Bobby Blotzer and featuring a revolving door of members – hit stages across the country since the fall of 2015. The media hoopla and legal warfare between the two camps can fill a book, but the short version is that Pearcy and Co. are carrying on as Ratt and intend to record a new album in the not-too-distant future.

 “The dust is settling; it’s pretty much settled. We’re moving forward as the real band – thank God – in every aspect…I don’t need to bad rap, bash or even dwell into it. We’re just letting the dust settle, and so be it. It is what it is now, it’s the real deal and we move ahead.”

The fact that Pearcy, DeMartini and Croucier have been able to regroup for yet another round of Ratt is a miracle considering their decades-long history of bust-ups and personality clashes. But at the end of the day, Pearcy believes that what this often combustible combination of musicians is able to produce together on stage and in the studio is still worth the craziness that has occurred between them throughout the years.

“[If] there’s one thing that keeps us coming back for more – no pun intended – it’s the music, but it has to be the right time and place. That’s why when somebody stepped out of bounds and went off running doing what they did, it was inappropriate…Ratt has been around a long time, so we tend to like to do things a little carefully these days [and] not just throw it out there and grab a buck, so to speak. There has to be some kind of reason for it. If we don’t do it collectively, then there’s no reason to do it. It has to be done right. Just going out there and doing it just to do it doesn’t really make sense. We know that people still want to hear it, but it has to be the right time. That’s why we took some hiatuses and regrouped. Fortunately, the three of us were able to see eye to eye on this and where we were going and what we wanted to do. That’s why we’re here again – the music.”

No matter where the latest Pearcy-fronted incarnation of Ratt ultimately ends up, he anticipates a comfortable and casual experience for all parties involved. 

“It almost killed us [doing] the same thing for 10 years. That was the first sign of implosion for Ratt in ’91 – not giving ourselves the time to unwind, regroup and think. I’ve learned that if you’ve got to step outside of the box to get your ya-ya’s out, do it. It doesn’t mean we’re going anywhere because we take a break; it doesn’t mean it’s over. Although some people may go out there and try to preach that, it’s not the facts. The fact is we’re ready when we’re ready. We have that opportunity; we have that privilege. We’ve been doing this [so] long that we can actually say, ‘Hey, we’re not doing something for a couple of years.’ Is that cool? Well, it’s cool with us. (laughs) If it makes things better for us, it’s better for you when you get it the next time around.”

Smash and the Ratt reunion is not all that Pearcy aficionados can expect from the man in 2017. At the time of this writing, he was putting the finishing touches on the upcoming third volume in the Before & Laughter series of odds-and-ends compilations from various eras of his musical life. The collection will be released on Top Fuel Records, the indie label that Pearcy has run since 1995.

Thirty-four years since the formation of Ratt in Los Angeles and nearly four decades since the early days of Mickey Ratt in San Diego, Stephen Pearcy remains an enthusiastic songwriter and performer ready and willing to hit as many stages as he can.  

“I still get excited to go out there and have a good time and see the smiling faces. I don’t go out there for adulation; I go out there to get off and get you off. As long as people want to keep hearing it, I’ll step up.”



Photo credit: www.stephen-pearcy.com/photos



                                           
PURCHASE JOEL'S BOOKS
EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Never Enuff: Why Chip Z'Nuff Ain't Slowing Down


Photo courtesy of Freeman Promotions 

In 1993, Enuff Z’Nuff – a band nine years into their career – found themselves at the peak of their powers as they tore the roof off the place during a live appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. The spot was in support of their third album, Animals with Human Intelligence, which was released on industry powerhouse Arista Records. Fast-forward 23 years, and Enuff Z’Nuff – now with only founding bassist Chip Z’Nuff remaining from the glory days – are playing in front of a small crowd at a bar in Haverhill, MA on a Thursday night. The many events that transpired between those two moments could fill 20 books, but the highlights include major label woes, debt, changing musical tastes, frequent lineup changes, death, burnout …and some of the finest Pop-infused Rock songs you’ll ever hear.

Sure, Enuff Z’Nuff are commonly (and unjustly) lumped in with the Glam Metal fad of the '80s, but if you strip away the makeup and assorted trappings of the time, their 1989 self-titled debut album is basically the best Squeeze album that Split Enz never wrote. Subsequent releases (including 1991’s stellar Strength) demonstrated that the band could maintain high songwriting standards even as the Grunge movement pushed them out of the spotlight. In a perfect world, Enuff Z’Nuff's stadium-worthy songs would provide Chip Z’Nuff a life of riches; instead, he’s a middle-aged musician currently traveling to club after club in a van. Enuff Z’Nuff should have sold millions of albums; instead, Z'Nuff tells me that the band’s two records on ATCO/Atlantic back in the day somehow left them $750,000 in the hole despite going Gold. When the band’s time with their second label, Arista, resulted in only modest album sales, they began a second life as an indie label act and have existed with varying success to this day. Along the way, both ATCO/Arista-era guitarist Derek Frigo and longtime drummer Ricky Parent passed away. It certainly hasn’t been a smooth and happy ride for this bunch.  

But despite the constant shit thrown their way, Enuff Z’Nuff have never stopped putting out amazing music. Nearly 20 albums later, the band is still as active and creative as ever. In fact, Z’Nuff and singer Donnie Vie have more original songs just sitting around than most bands compose in a lifetime.

“Donnie and I probably have six albums in the can,” explains Z’Nuff. “We’ve written more than Zeppelin, more than Queen - all of them bands. We have tons of stuff. I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging, but my fucking band – Donnie and I – have been very prolific. We’ve written a lot of songs, in the early days all the way through our career.”

Of course, being able to produce such an extensive repertoire requires considerable focus, which Enuff Z’Nuff has been able to maintain despite the common – and often very fun – distractions that come from indulging in the Rock ‘n’ Roll lifestyle.

“In the old days, my band partied our asses off. We did more cocaine than Guns N’ Roses! We fucked more chicks than you can imagine on tour. We were out of control, but one thing we never shortcutted anybody on was the songs. We always focused our attention on great songs and strong performances, and that was the most important thing in Enuff Z’Nuff. The trim and the substance abuse was secondary.”

Unfortunately, years of band life have taken a heavy toll on Donnie Vie. Worn out, he stepped away from Enuff Z’Nuff in 2013. Z’Nuff insists that Vie is still an important part of the group.

“Donnie is not kicked out of the band; Donnie chose to get out because he was disillusioned by the business and he’s dealing with health issues. Maybe it was time for him to take a break, but he’ll always be in Enuff Z’Nuff.”

With long-serving guitarist Johnny Monaco taking over on vocals, Enuff Z’Nuff soldiered on as a trio until Monaco’s health precipitated his own split from the group. Undeterred, Z’Nuff decided to take over fronting the band himself. 

“I’ve dedicated my whole like to Enuff Z’Nuff; it’s my job,” he says. “When Monaco said he was leaving because he had some issues with his hands, and I guess he wasn’t interested in singing the songs anymore, I decided that maybe I’ll give it a go. I talked to Donnie, and he said, ‘Look, you wrote these songs with me. You go out there and sing them. People will know it’s Enuff Z’Nuff if you’re in front.’”

In addition to Z'Nuff, the current incarnation of Enuff Z’Nuff includes guitarist Tory Stoffrege, drummer Daniel Hill and – get this – former Ultravox frontman Tony Fennell on guitar. (A brand-new interview with Tony regarding his time in Ultravox and membership in Enuff Z’Nuff is available HERE.)

“These fucking guys can sing,” says Z’Nuff of his current bandmates. “They really play their asses off and sing well, and they believe in the legacy of Enuff Z’Nuff.”



Photo by Joel Gausten

As tight as the band is at this stage of the game, Z’Nuff acknowledges that he has a steep hill to climb if he is going to re-establish Enuff Z’Nuff in today’s marketplace.

“It’s a tough time right now. We’re in a time in the music business where there’s too product and not enough demand. Everybody’s got a fucking band; everybody’s trying to sell records and get out there. We’ve got a name, and we’ve got some big fans out there who love our band. Besides the rock stars like the Cheap Tricks and the Aerosmiths, we’ve got guys like Green Day and Foo Fighters saying nice things about us. Howard Stern is a big proponent; he still loves the band and still talks about us. I know millions of people know who the band is; we said, ‘We’ve got to give it another chance.

“Here I am playing a club tonight, and 200 people are there, but they all love the band and the band sounds strong,” he adds. “It’s a good show; I’m focusing on the first three records, which sold the most for us. There’s a lot more material in the kitty, but if we're going to play an hour-long set, I want to focus on those early songs…If it gets bigger and grows, I’ll put more songs in the set and I’ll mix it up.”

Of course, writing a great song (or 60) is only half the battle. In order to find the right ears for their tunes, Enuff Z’Nuff needed the right label to help them move forward. Enter Frontiers, the well-respected Hard Rock/Metal label overseen by former ATCO CEO Derek Shulman.

“[Frontiers] came to us and said, ‘Do you have anything for us?’ I gave them a three-song demo. The next day, they called back and said, ‘We fucking love it! Let’s do an album.’”

Out December 2 on Frontiers, Clowns Lounge is a collection of (mostly) previously unreleased material from the Enuff Z’Nuff archives. Ten of the record’s 12 songs were recorded circa 1988/1989 with the ATCO-era lineup of Z’Nuff, Vie, Frigo and drummer Vikki Foxx, while a brand-new tune called “Dog On A Bone” gets the whole affair off with a rousing start.

“The diehard Enuff Z’Nuff fans and the people who have been following the band for years are going to be so happy with this album. Most bands couldn’t do what we do; we’re putting an album out with the original guys. It’s an archival record with the original cats – Vikki Foxx, Derek Frigo, Donnie Vie and myself. It’s a rock-solid, 12-song masterpiece, I think. It’s got tons of energy; we were full of piss and vinegar at the time. They were such good songs; we were writing so much that we just let them sit in the can.”

The remaining Clowns Lounge track, “The Devil Of Shakespeare,” was recorded circa 2004 to promote the novel of the same name by former D’Molls drummer Billy “Dior” McCarthy. The song features Z’Nuff, McCarthy, Styx’s James “J.Y.” Young, Ron Flynt of 20/20 and the late Jani Lane of Warrant.

“I went to the studio and wrote this thing in fucking 10 minutes [and] recorded it in an hour,” Z’Nuff recalls. “Then, we decided, ‘Hey, let’s get Robin Zander to sing on it.’ We went to go see Robin Zander and handed him $3,000 at a concert in Rockford. As I was handing him the money, his manager came over and said, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ We said, ‘We’re gonna give Robin an advance, half the money. We’re going to give him $6,000 to sing on a record. He’s going to sing on one song.’ The guy said, ‘Hang on a second. Let’s talk about this. I want to hear the song.’ The manager was a real fucking prick. He gave the money back to us, and then we waited for about a week. He eventually got back to us and said, ‘Robin’s not available.’ Our next choice was Jani Lane; we loved him dearly. He was a friend of ours and a great singer and songwriter. We asked Jani if he would be kind enough to sing on the track, and he accepted. I was producing it; Jani says, ‘Chip, I’d like to take a different approach. I want to sing it like Bowie.’ I said, ‘Jani, any way you want to sing the song, go right ahead. I just want to have your beautiful pipes on here.’ In one or two takes, he nailed it. It’s not necessarily an Enuff Z’Nuff song because Donnie’s not on it, but I sang and played on it, and I wrote it. I thought it would be a nice thing for Jani Lane’s family to hear and for Warrant fans to hear as well. It was one of last tracks Jani Lane sang in a studio, and he sang it effortlessly. He sang his ass off and loved doing it because he loved Enuff Z’Nuff and loved Billy.”

After 32 years in the game, Chip Z’Nuff still approaches his career with the enthusiasm of a young kid penning his first song in his garage. With Clowns Lounge about to rekindle the public’s interest in Enuff Z’Nuff, he’s ready to take his rejuvenated band as far as he can.   

“Not many guys have been doing it as long as I've been doing it. I’m very lucky, and I thank the fans for sticking with the band and being supportive all these years. I’m not going to let you down; we’re going to continue to put good music out there.”


  
Photo courtesy of Freeman Promotions 


READ JOEL'S BIO
PURCHASE JOEL'S BOOKS
EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

From New Wave to "New Thing:" A Chat with Tony Fennell of Enuff Z'Nuff



Tony Fennell (second from left)  on stage with Enuff Z'Nuff (photo by Joel Gausten)

For Birmingham-born singer/guitarist Tony Fennell (or Fennelle, depending on which album credits you’re reading at the time), recently becoming a member of Enuff Z’Nuff is an opportunity to be part of a band he’s loved for nearly three decades. He first met the band's incomparable leader, Chip Z'Nuff, in 1987 when his old band Big Noise was signed to Enuff Z'Nuff's then-label, ATCO/Atlantic.

“I’ve hailed this band forever,” he says. “I remember being in the offices of Atlantic and Derek Shulman, the guy who signed them, played me these two songs. He played me 'Fly High Michelle' and 'New Thing.' I was like, 'Holy fucking shit! You’ve got gold.' It was mind-blowing.”

Like other hardcore Enuff Z’Nuff fans, Fennell believes that the group was unfairly pigeonholed as part of the Hair Metal genre.

“The record company signed them because they had great songs, but the record company needed to make money, so they put them in the same bag as anybody else. [Original Enuff Z'Nuff singer] Donnie [Vie]’s songwriting and Donnie’s voice superseded all of that shit.”

Fennell's love for Enuff Z’Nuff remained so strong over the years that he simply couldn’t refuse Z’Nuff’s offer to join the band. Before he knew it, he was sitting next to his new bandmates in a tour van.

“We had two run-throughs in a rehearsal room, and we went, ‘Fuck it; we’re out,’ and that’s it. We’ve never rehearsed since. We learn songs in soundchecks. We’re all old school pros, and [Chip’s] the best Rock bass player I’ve ever played with… He loves this band; he’s never, ever given it up. He’s the same guy who, 30 years later, will put a sticker on a toll booth. He’s that guy.”

Fennell’s arrival in Enuff Z’Nuff is a bit of surprise considering that one of his best-known endeavors was fronting the '90s reincarnation of New Wave giants Ultravox. In 1992, he stepped in to replace former singer Midge Ure in an Ultravox lineup helmed by sole remaining original member, Billy Currie. The Fennell-fronted version of the band released an album, Revelation, in 1993.




“I was in a studio in England, and I was working with the guys from Soul II Soul – a guy named Will Mowat and a guy called Nellee Hooper,” Fennell recalls. “Ultravox were upstairs, and I had met Billy years and years before. He came down and he was like, ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ He said, ‘Look, we’re auditioning singers; Midge is out. What do you think?’ I went, ‘Okay.’ I went upstairs and auditioned in front of the wives and the girlfriends in a studio booth with headphones; it wasn’t even a rehearsal room. It was as nasty as you get; I either fucked up or I got the gig. I walked out and they were like, ‘We go on tour in three weeks. Are you in?’ I went, ‘Fuck yeah!’ I knew the songs anyway because I loved the band.”

Of course, stepping into the singer positon in Ultravox meant following in the footsteps of two of the New Wave era’s greatest frontmen.

“[Midge] is a great guy and an amazing singer, and I was lucky enough to sing some of his songs,” Fennell says. “For me, John Foxx was better than Midge Ure. I love Midge; I adore Midge, but John had that skeleton face; he looked like he hadn’t eaten in 200 years. ‘Slow Motion’ and all those songs were just game changers for me. I was an Ultravox fan; I used to watch them every Thursday on Top of the Pops.

Not surprisingly, Fennell initially faced tough crowds who were not ready for a new vocalist.

“In Germany, [on] the first day of the tour, we finished [Ultravox's 1984 hit] ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes,’ it went quiet and this guy in the front shouted, ‘That is not Midge Ure!’ I said to him, “Listen, do you want your money back? I’ll give you your money back. Let me do the gig, and I’ll meet you afterwards.’ He came back afterwards, and he went, ‘All good.’ It wasn’t that I was going to carry the mantle, because Midge Ure is Midge Ure – one of the greatest singers I’ve ever heard. ‘Vienna’ is one of the hardest songs to sing ever because you’re going from [sings ‘...walked in the cold air’] to the big notes. I used to dread that every night, because it’s difficult. Somehow, I pulled it off, and I pulled it off because I love the band.”

Although Fennell was involved in the early songwriting stage of what eventually became 1994’s Ingenuity, ongoing personality clashes with Currie led the singer to part ways with Ultravox.

“It was too much for me. I think at that point, he was trying to carry the Ultravox name and I had enough of trying to fill those shoes. As much as I loved the band – and I love the songs dearly – it was just time.”

Looking back, Fennell is proud of his time with the group.

“I genuinely, genuinely loved that band. ‘Sleepwalk,’ ‘Slow Motion,’ ‘Vienna,’ you fucking name it.”

He remains particularly fond of  “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes,” even though replicating the song’s high-register vocals was far from an easy task. 

“I loved it as a kid, but when I started singing it, I hated it! I was like, ‘Oh, God, please!’ The lights would go down, and I'd go, ‘Oh, God. Here we go!’ It would kill me. But I was in the band, and it was wonderful.”

Following his stint with Ultravox, Fennell got involved in music publishing, eventually leaving his life as an onstage performer behind.

“For me, it just felt right… I decided that I didn’t want to do music anymore. I wanted to write, and I wanted to be in the business, but not play anymore. But [Chip’s] been hounding me for about 15 years, and he’s a hard man to say no to!”

With Enuff Z’Nuff set to release a new album and currently tearing it up in clubs around the country, Fennell is enjoying the best times in his career in the here and now.

“I’ve be blessed. I’ve been with Ultravox, and I’m now with one of my closest friends. I’m having the fucking time of my life, and I’m grateful to be doing this again.”

Chip Z'Nuff Interview

Official Enuff Z'Nuff Website



READ JOEL'S BIO
PURCHASE JOEL'S BOOKS
EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com