Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Lord of the Wasteland: A Chat with Kevin Starrs of Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats

Photo courtesy of Freeman Promotions 

Any band can play music, but only a truly special band can twist music into something utterly refreshing.

Led by sonic visionary Kevin Starrs, UK cult heroes Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats recently unveiled their fifth album, Wasteland, on Lee Dorrian’s Rise Above Records – and it’s one of the most exciting releases to hit this writer’s desk in ages. If Space Ritual-era Hawkwind decided to take on the brightest moments from the Phil Spector catalog, record whatever happened and then blast it to the world through broken speakers, you might have an idea of what this sounds like. Or maybe not. Maybe youll hear and experience things on this album that will prompt you to come up with your own colorful descriptions. Thats the kind of magic these songs possess. 

Wasteland is a gorgeous mindfuck – and a clear sign that there are some serious creative gears spinning in Starrs’ head. I recently tracked down the man himself to get inside his mind and explore Wastelands creation. 

What brought you guys to Los Angeles to record this time around?

Partly out of convenience. Our bass player [Vaughn Stokes] lives in Western Canada, and our new drummer [Jon Rice] lives in the States. It was easy enough for me to fly over rather than bring both of them over here. Of course, the other reason is the quality of studios in Los Angeles is incredible. The equipment they have there is being used all the time, whereas a lot of the great classic studios over here have all shut; they’re long gone. It’s a shame, really, but it was great to be able to record in a legendary studio like that.

It’s interesting that you mention the quality of studios, because one thing that really strikes me about the sound of this record is that it has a lot of lo-fi elements to it. How did using equipment of such high caliber aid in getting the raw sound that you ended up actually having on the record?

It got us part of the way there, but really a lot of that comes down to the mix. I’ll run all of the guitars over the mix and into various preamps and just crank up the gain – crank everything up into the red to make it as offensive as possible for people. I want to be the exact opposite of whatever the current modern production style is. At the moment, it’s all very clean. You can hear every single element, and everything is perfect these days. I really dislike that style of mixing. I wanted to go the exact opposite way and make something that’s really offensive and really dirty-sounding. It’s just basically trying to destroy what was created in some ways. I think we did quite a good job of that.

You guys are with Rise Above. They’re kind of an interesting label in that there seems to be a general aesthetic among the bands, although each band is really quite different when you unbox what they’re presenting. What makes them a great label for you not only musically, but also with what you’re trying to project with the overall vibe and look with the band?

Lee gives the bands the freedom to do whatever they want. That’s all you can ask from a label. He doesn’t interfere; he just lets us get on with it. He’s always there to offer advice when you need it. Of course, because he’s played in bands, he understands what it’s like on this side of it as well. It’s really the perfect label for a band like us. I certainly couldn’t take direction from a label boss or anything like that; that wouldn’t work out too well, I don’t think. So to be able to just do whatever we want is perfect.

As far as the image of the band, if I had to pull out my box of descriptions, I think the easy one to use – and perhaps the one you’ve heard more often than not –  is “’70s Occult Rock.” There’s a certain Hammer Horror aesthetic and vibe in what you’re doing. What was it about that particular visual representation that most appealed to you as you were developing what ultimately became the band?

For me, it sort of started very much like that. Volume 1 [2010] and Blood Lust [2011] were very Hammer Horror and that sort of 60s and 70s thing. I wanted to sort of move on. Mind Control [2013] was nothing to do with Hammer Horror; it was more of a 60s Charles Manson thing. With The Night Creeper [2015], we moved on to film noir and that sort of thing. For me, it’s been a constantly evolving thing. If you look at pictures of us, we don’t dress up. We don’t wear flares; we don’t dress up like it’s the 70s or anything like that. It’s just black jeans, black shirts – and that’s the way it is. For the videos and things like that, we can edit a lot of different clips and stuff together because we just don’t have the budget to film something that would be suitable for us. We’re not the sort of band that can just go out with an iPhone and film a quick, cheap digital video and put that up. That’s not our sort of thing. We need that sort of analog film quality to go along with our music. For me, it just all fits together. You’ve got the analog sound mixed with the analog visuals as well. That’s something that I’ve always been more attracted to rather than this sort of cold, sterile digital stuff.

In the past, you’ve talked about some of your influences that may be surprising to some. I know you’re a fan of Neil Young and Girl Groups. There are shades of those things in your music - along with plenty of other things. Obviously, you’ve talked with a lot of journalists over the years, and you’ve spoken to fans who may have offered you their thoughts on where your influences come from. When they’ve commented on your sound, have you ever encountered someone who’s suggested a certain artist as an influence on you that completely blew your mind because you would never have imagined they would have drawn that from your music?

That’s a tough one. Stuff like Kyuss and a lot of those Stoner Rock bands gets thrown at us as an influence. That was never really my thing grown up or even now. Kyuss is a good band and everything, but it’s not really the sort of music I listen to. When people start saying, ’Oh, yes, it’s a real Stoner Rock/Doom thing,’ I can’t really trace much of that into the music personally, but other people can hear it. It’s difficult, really.

You’re a consistently touring band, and you have put out a number of albums. Both of those things can be difficult in the music industry in 2018. How would you define “success” in the music world under the Uncle Acid banner?

I think just the fact that we can earn a living out of it. I’m very grateful to be able to tour the world, see all these places and play live. That’s what we all wanted to do growing up, so to be able to do that is great. You don’t make a lot of money out of it, but if you just earn enough to keep you going, then I’m pretty happy with that.

Next year is the 10th anniversary of this band. Looking ahead, what might be your goals for Uncle Acid within the next five to 10 years?

Just keep going, really. Keep touring. Keep recording albums every other year or whatever, keep moving forward and keep spreading the word. It’s a slow process; we’re slowly getting a little more recognition. A band like us isn’t going to get a lot of mainstream press coverage – or any sort of coverage. It can be quite difficult. It’s hard to get the word out there, but you’ve just got to keep going. I think that’s all we can do, really.

*Portions of the above interview were edited for clarity. 

Official Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats Website

Uncle Acid @ Rise Above Records 

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

Monday, October 15, 2018

Forever After: James Kottak on Resurrecting Kingdom Come

As previously reported on this site, four members from the classic lineup of Kingdom Come – James Kottak, Danny Stag, Rick Steier and Johnny B. Frank – have reunited to take their eponymous 1988 debut album (as well as material from 1989’s In Your Face) on the road for an extensive US tour. Veteran singer Keith St. John (Montrose/Lynch Mob) has stepped into the all-important frontman spot left vacant by longtime Kingdom Come leader Lenny Wolf.

I recently got in touch with Kottak – an accomplished veteran drummer also known for his time in The Scorpions – to discuss Kingdom Comes decision to return without Wolf, the reunited groups plans for the future and how to maintain a commitment to sobriety in one of the most demanding professions in the world.

Obviously, you’ve had a life and career beyond Kingdom Come. You’ve worked with a lot of great musicians over the last three-plus decades. Now that you’re back with the other three members of the original band, what do you think it is that makes the combination of you four guys so special and worth revisiting?

Because we’re friend. Me and Rick Steier, the guitarist, are both from Louisville, Kentucky. We’ve been friends since 1980. We’ve been in countless bands together, and he played on all four of my Kottak solo albums. We’re friends, and that’s what makes it special. Danny and Johnny have been friends since the early 80s. When you put the four of us together, we all get along, and we’ve all stayed in touch over the years. Music is super important and all that, but if you’re not friends and you’re playing music, it doesn’t always work. That had a lot to do with the first and second [Kingdom Come] albums. We all jelled like crazy, and we still do.

You have a new member of the family on this tour. What makes Keith the right frontman for Kingdom Come in 2018?

He’s totally awesome, and he looks cool. Me and Rick had a band called Wild Horses, and we auditioned 50-60 singers here in LA. The one I wanted was Keith St. John, because he came in and had a cool vibe and everything. We’ve been friends over the years. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the vote; the other guys wanted to go with somebody else, and the producer had a say in it. We didn’t get to do that, but over the years, he and I have had a kindred bond because he was the singer for Montrose for over 10 years and I played on the Montrose Mean album.

Obviously, Lenny’s not involved in this current incarnation. I do know there have been some positive statements made on his behalf online wishing you guys well. For the benefit of those fans who have that initial question of where he is, where does Lenny stand with you guys? What’s the current relationship like?

We have an understanding, and everything’s cool. He got sick of it, and he’s kind of had some bad breaks in the business. It’s a sucky business; it’s terrible. We talked from last September through Christmas. In January, he called and said, ‘You know what? I just don’t want to do it.’ He announced a year ago that he was retiring and putting Kingdom Come away. I was going, ‘Come on, dude. Just one last hurrah, at least for a year.’ When Lenny says he’s made up his mind, that’s it; there’s no talking him out of it. We’re still friends; everything’s great. It’s just that he doesn’t want to go through all of this madness again.

Where does Kingdom Come go from here? What are the band’s future plans beyond this tour?

We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves. We’re using this as a launching pad; we’re going to get the vibe and see what our friends, family and fans and everybody out there says as feedback. But I know so far from doing interviews with guys like you that the reception has been wonderful. I have no idea; we’ll take it from there. If you plan too far ahead, you don’t live in the now and you end up screwing now up. Now is all we have today. There’s a million ideas floating between the band, journalists and fans online. We’ll get to that next and see what happens.

What happened after In Your Face that resulted in that version of the band not moving on to a third album?

It was a combination of things. It kind of just imploded. It’s hard to describe, because bands work in mysterious ways. But I had been working on Wild Horses just for a side project. Then, all of a sudden, I got a record deal with Atlantic. Things were not really kosher with the [Kingdom Come] situation. The manager was having some problems, and it was just a combination of things. I said, ‘You know what? I’ll go with this Wild Horses thing.’ Also, I had a gig with Alice Cooper for a few days, which was wonderful because I love Alice Cooper. He was auditioning guys, but I went with that Atlantic deal and Wild Horses came to be.

To your credit, you’ve been very open with discussing your efforts with sobriety. How are things going for you right now?

I’ve struggled off and on for years. It’s not like I was falling down drunk; it was just steady drinking. That’s all I knew for the last 35 years. Then, it stops working when you get to be a certain age. I stopped for a couple of years around 2010 and started up again. Then, I stopped for another year and started up again. I trekked down to Antigua at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads in April 2016. I stayed there for like 90 days. It was incredible, awesome and educational. With sobriety, you have to be honest. I made it about 11 months, then I had about a week or two where I really screwed up. The whole time, I was hitting AA meetings. For anybody out there who knows anything about AA, it’s not an evil cult. It’s so awesome; it’s a lifestyle more than anything. Once you’ve gone to meetings, you have so much guilt if you start drinking that you don’t wanna. It’s really hard to explain unless you’ve been through it, but those out there who have know what I’m talking about. I don’t preach it to anybody; I don’t say, ‘Hey, man. You should go to AA.’ That doesn’t work; you have to want to go.

That’s kind of where I am right now. I’m feeling great; I’ve really taken care of myself over the years. Being a drummer, you have to. I think that’s why I’m ready to go. Things are good.

I talk with a lot of musicians who are beginning to get sober or who have been sober but have gone back and forth for many years. For those people in this business who are starting at the beginning, what words would you offer to help them avoid the pitfalls if they have a major tour coming up while being sober for the first time?

Go to AA meetings – they’re everywhere – and get a sponsor. A sponsor is somebody who checks in with you every day. If they’re somebody who’s been sober 10 years, they know the ins and outs. I would start there, because AA doesn’t cost anything, but you do have to give back and be of service to other people. That’s super important. Again, I’m not preaching. You don’t have to go, but it works for me and I’m enjoying it.

You know, family is affected so much by this disease. It’s not your fault; you’re just born with this gene. Some people aren’t, but they’re still alcoholics because they want to be. None of us really drink in Kingdom Come, and that’s a great thing. You have to surround yourself with positive people. If you’re used to hanging out in a bar being around a bunch of drunks or you play every Friday or Saturday someplace, maybe you have to take a break and not do that. I’m not really good at giving advice about stuff. I can only talk about my experience, but that worked for me.

You were doing things in the industry long before Kingdom Come, and you’ve certainly done a lot since the bands original run, including having a great career with The Scorpions. You’ve been around a long time. What was the biggest lesson you’ve learned about the music business since the first Kingdom Come album that you’re applying to your work with the band now?

You have to be willing to do a lot of work on your own. We work as a group, and then of course we have a manager, a lawyer, an agent and all that stuff. But that only goes so far. You really have to learn the business. It’s like with Gene Simmons – what an incredible businessman! He’s one businessman who’s been totally active with KISS and has taken it to a much bigger level. Whether you like the guy or not, I don’t care. I love Gene Simmons. He’s just a smart businessman and a really smart guy and very nice. I would say get everything up and running, get your music together, do everything you can possibly do on your own and then start seeking out big-time management or this or that. Or if you’re really good like a Greta Van Fleet, look what happens – people come to you.

Your career has spanned decades at this point, which is rare in this business. You’ve worked with big acts and have been able to maintain that. Since you’ve been through it and are still in it and thriving and doing cool stuff, what has been the key to longevity and surviving in this insane business we’re talking about?

Work. You have to get up and do the work. You have to show up on time. I’m not perfect; I’ve been late for many things, but you have to be willing to work. A lot of times, what happens with many bands is they put out an album, go on tour, put out another album, go on tour and they’re pretty successful. They’re coming up and blah blah blah, but then they get lazy because they’ve made a little bit of money after being broke for the previous five years. You have to continue, and you’ve got to love it. Like I said earlier, you’ve got to work with friends. They can’t always be your best friends, but it makes life much more enjoyable when you have to go to a restaurant and sit with these people not once or twice but maybe thousands of times. 

That’s the the key to The Scorpions. Everybody goes, ‘What’s the key to longevity?’ [Scorpions guitarist] Rudolf Schenker’s answer was always, ‘Friendship and love of Rock N’ Roll.’ It’s so true. I just went and saw Scorpions about a week ago here in LA, and they sounded phenomenal. [Singer] Klaus [Meine] was killing it, and I got to hang with the boys and say hi to all the crew guys; I’ve been friends with some of those guys for twentysomething years. That’s the good part of Rock ‘N’ Roll, then you’ve got the bad part. I tend to be a glass-full kind of a guy – no pun intended! (laughs) That’s the most important thing. If you’ve got to go to a rehearsal five days a week and do two months of shows with somebody you think is an asshole, then quit. It will never work.

*Portions of the above interview were edited for clarity. 

Kingdom Come perform this Sunday at the Tupelo Music Hall in Derry, NH. Go HERE for more info. 

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com