Thursday, May 28, 2015

INTERVIEW - Jeff Scott Soto Takes Us 'Inside The Vertigo'

Left to right: Jorge Salan, Edu Cominato, Jeff Scott Soto, David Z and BJ (Photo courtesy of Atom Splitter PR)

If you are a serious Hard Rock and Metal fan, you've definitely heard Jeff Scott Soto's voice.

First gaining international attention in the mid '80s as the singer for Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force, Soto has built a name for himself as the to-go guy for powerful lead vocals. In addition to an extensive solo career, Soto's virtually endless discography and performance history includes work with Talisman, Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO), Axel Rudi Pell and dozens more. He is perhaps best known to mainstream Rock audiences as the lead singer of Journey in 2006-2007.

Of course, one of Soto's most esoteric (and least discussed) endeavors was his stint as the singer for Kryst The Conqueror, the sword-wielding late '80s Christian-themed Metal band featuring former Misfits members Jerry Only (then calling himself “Mo The Great”) and Doyle. Soto's involvement in the short-lived group resulted in the 1990 EP Deliver Us From Evil and a still-unreleased full-length album. (The uninitiated can find plenty of Kryst The Conqueror music on YouTube.)

Naturally, Soto is doing quite a lot in the here and now. After spending decades as either a solo artist or a contributor to outside projects, Soto has decided to put his talents into fronting his own band, the appropriately named SOTO. One of the year's strongest releases, SOTO's Inside The Vertigo finds the journeyman taking charge of a band with inspired results. In addition to full-time SOTO members Jorge Salan (lead guitar), BJ (keys, guitars), David Z (bass) and Edu Cominato (drums) – all of whom have served time in Soto's solo band – the album boasts an impressive array of guest collaborators including Gus G (Firewind/ Ozzy Osbourne), former Talisman contributor Jason Bieler (Saigon Kick), Mike Orlando (Adrenaline Mob) and Joel Hoekstra (Night Ranger/TSO). The album was one of many topics Soto and I discussed when I recently phoned him in LA. 

You've done a lot of records in your career. What were your primary goals going into this particular project?

I kind of wanted to go back to form, so to speak. I haven't really done heavy music in a while. A lot of time, especially the past decade, has been concentrated on Melodic Rock or Melodic Hard Rock. I kind of missed the heavier end of things. Unfortunately, the label I was working with wasn't interested in me kind of going back to my roots; they wanted to keep me in this sort of Melodic Rock/AOR direction. It was just kind of getting stale for me. I don't mind this music; I love this music and was weaned on it. But for the most part, I thought I had pretty much said and done it all at this point. Even though I was doing some other projects on the side – a band called W.E.T. and some other things – it just sounded like I was competing with myself. For me to do another solo album in this format just wasn't interesting to me.

The Inside The Vertigo album actually started off as a solo album; midway, the manager I was working with just decided, 'I can't market and brand this as a solo album. It's sounds too much like a band album. I think it would be wise of we actually branded this as a band.' I really wasn't interested in throwing another new project name into the hat. He said, 'Well, if you just name it SOTO, it's still associated with you; people know it's you as the main figure behind it all, but we can brand it as a single name the way many before have done, from Dio to Van Halen to Daughtrey, Winger – the list goes on and on and on.' So many bands were named after one person, and this is the direction we took with that.

One of the real exciting things about the albums is the number of collaborators you have involved. That includes Mike Orlando and Gus G., who are certainly very key players on the scene right now. How did they impact the proceedings?

Not only have these guys become very dear friends of mine, I knew musically – and just what they do personally – they would be able to help me hone into the direction I was heading on this particular record. That being said, they were more than happy to create and be a part of this with me. On the other hand, once it became a band entity, I didn’t want to remove the work they did on it. As they're co-writers, I wanted to be able to keep their performances on the songs they co-wrote with me. Once we decided that it was going to be a band thing, it was kind of a mutual decision that there was no need to re-do their parts. Their parts actually work for a reason. They wrote the songs; it was good to actually be able to keep them on there.

Jason was involved as well, and you have a pretty long history with him. Describe the experience of having him work with you in the present tense.

I've known Jason since like 1989. Especially ever since the Saigon Kick days, we always talked about doing something together. We had kind of a false attempt in '94, I think. We got together and co-wrote something that didn’t really pan out; I don't think we ever used it for anything, but our friendship has lasted through all these years. I finally went back to him again, knowing where I wanted to go direction-wise with this album, and said, 'Give me your heaviest riffs. Just give me something that would sound like it's even way too heavy for Saigon Kick.' What he gave me was probably one of the heaviest riffs I've ever heard come out of him. From that, I knew I could make something really melodic out of it the way he used to be able to do with Saigon Kick. He always had the coolest riffs, and it was something blistering and heavy, but melodically it always sounded like something The Beatles would have written. I went into that same kind of mind frame when I was writing the melodies for 'Karma's Kiss.' I didn't know I wanted to make it sound like a Saigon Kick song, but I knew naturally because of the influence of the writing that it was going to kind of turn out that way.

Now that the album is here and you have the SOTO brand, what are your longterm plans moving forward? Do you anticipate doing this band direction in the foreseeable future, or will you continue doing more of a project-based approach?

Once we decided this was going to be a band, it was absolutely decided that, first of all, I was going to turn down all the other side things and offers and things I would say yes to, or squeeze them in or add them to the repertoire. This time around, I said, 'If I want people to take this seriously, they're going to have to know that I'm not just doing this to see if it sticks, [like] 'Well, if it does, it does; if it doesn't, I'll move on.' I have to finally commit to one thing for people to finally take seriously that I'm actually into it. There are so many projects and so many bands... If you look at my discography, it's actually funny at this point, with all the different bands and different things I have done. I wanted to actually see this one through. My artist shelf life is shortening; if I want to do something, I gotta make that big move now. That's what the SOTO band is.

What are your touring plans moving forward?

Touring is a difficult one, because the album has to be pseudo-successful for me to even contemplate a tour. In the past as 'Jeff Scott Soto' the solo artist, I could do a tour without even having an album out and just do it based on my past. For the SOTO band and for putting SOTO on the map, I don't want to take this on the road doing a kind of nostalgic trip; it's gotta be focused on the band and what we're doing on this album; it's got to be genre-driven. I can't go on stage doing a song like 'Wrath' and then sing the Talisman hit 'I'll Be Waiting' or something that just doesn't fit in the same musical category. It'll be kind of silly, and it won't make the right statement. Because SOTO is a heavier and harder entity, I've gotta make sure that when we go out, we only go out as that entity. I don't want to confuse the factors of my solo thing compared to this as a band. I kind of equate it the same way as when Dio did his first tour on Holy Diver. He didn't go out there doing covers from Rainbow and Black Sabbath albums. He maybe ended the set with 'Long Live Rock 'N' Roll,' but a good chunk of the set was from that first Dio album. That's the only way he was able to sell people on that as his new thing. He wasn't going out there as a solo artist; he was going out there as an entity.

Looking at the current band you have now, what makes this combination of musicians stand out and be the one to make you think, “I'm going to be taking the next step with these guys?”

First and foremost, the skills have to be there. Everyone in my band are lead singers in their own right. Anybody who's ever followed any of my albums or any of my shows or tours realizes how vocally-driven my material is, whether it be the solo stuff or the stuff I've done with Talisman. Overall, it's very vocal-driven, and not just on the lead vocal end. It's not something where like with Ozzy Osbourne, he can go up and nobody has to be able to sing background – he can pull off the whole show with him just in front of the microphone. My stuff has always been driven by the fact that I love harmonies and big backing styles like Queen and Journey and even Van Halen; it was always very strong in the vocal department. So I needed that reinforcement, knowing not only that these guys are ridiculous players, but they also have the vocal reinforcement that if we're doing something where the guitar parts are too difficult for those guys to sing with, I know I can turn to the drummer and he can pull it off. All around, I have that side taken care of, but just as important are the personalities. I've been in this business for over 30 years, and you have so many different personalities and characteristics and things that could ruin a band, either because they're headstrong or they just want things a certain way or they're not hungry. There are just so many different factors that can take away from the personality of making a band work. 

That's what I love about these guys; as my touring solo band, everything about their personalities – musically, personally – fit like a glove. Those were the first guys I went to knowing I was going to make this into a band. I wanted to invite them into the fold and turn this into something that we're going to share in now as opposed to them just backing me up.

When considering your past work, there's obviously a pretty long list to draw from and mention. There is one artist in particular that's always been of interest to me: You worked with Jerry and Doyle in Kryst the Conqueror. There hasn't been much said about that over the years, so I'm curious if you could shed a little bit of light on how you became involved in that project, that album and how that all came together.

When those guys parted ways with Glenn [Danzig], they wanted to do something a lot different. They wanted to draw from a different perspective from what people already knew them from. I think it was Mo who came up with the idea that they wanted Kryst the Conqueror to not only come out on a more positive level, but they wanted a kind of science fiction/comic book edge to it. So they wanted to turn that band basically into a comic book. They had the whole idea that it would be a comic book Heavy Metal band. Musically, I was never a big Misfits fan. I love the attitude, and I could watch and listen to the band, but they weren't on my playlist; I wasn't listening to them in my car. The same had to be said about Kryst the Conqueror. I wasn't really a big fan of what they were doing musically. I wasn't about to quit my day job, so to speak. I wasn't about to walk away from what I was actually chasing to do something like this, but they were very coercive to the point where they were giving me a good chunk of money to come down and do the studio stuff with them and hang out with them. I had a really good time with those guys; I love them to death. They're the nicest guys; to this day, we still have a very strong friendship. But musically, it just wasn't for me. We did our thing, and that was pretty much it. They did everything they could to coerce me to stay or to move on with them, but it just wasn't for me.

How long did you work with them in the studio?

I was out there for maybe two weeks, maximum.

Were the lyrics already written?

Everything was written; even most of it was demoed. I think it was Mo who did most of scratch vocals, just to give me an idea melodically of how the lyrics fit into the music. I just had to make it my own and put my own stamp on it. But I just wasn't ready to put on an armored suit and a codpiece as the future of my frontman career.

The legend goes that the vocals were credited to 'Kryst the Conqueror' because you were under contract with Yngwie at the time.

No, that's absolutely false. It was credited to 'Kryst the Conqueror' because that's how the character was supposed to be written. Everybody was supposed to have comic book names, so they gave the lead vocalist that character name. It had nothing to do with contracts; I was under no contracts or binds with anybody at that time. This is back in 1988; I was long gone from Yngwie's fold by then.

Do you still listen to the Kryst the Conqueror recording?

I haven't heard it in decades. If I listened back to it, it'll probably all come back to me, but I couldn't even sing you a melody from it because it's been so long.

Ad for Kryst the Conqueror's Deliver Us From Evil, 1990

Another experience from your past I thought to ask you about – since it's actually the first band that you were involved in that I ever heard – is Eyes. I always really dug the song “Calling All Girls,” which I heard a lot on the radio back then. Eyes was kind of a short-lived thing. Was that intended to be a band project that was going to last longer than it did?

It's tough to give the truth without selling it too short. I love the guys in the band; they became and remain really good friend. But it was yet another situation where I was hesitant to quit my day job and give my full commitment... They basically paid me to be in the band. They paid me to be a part of the fold, and it was only for a certain amount of time they were going to have my likeness, so to speak. During that time, I think it was literally on the 11th hour that they finally got the deal for it. It wasn't the perfect deal, but it was nonetheless a deal and was binding to the agreement I signed. They were just paying me basically to be their singer; by the end of the term, if they didn’t have a deal, I would be free to move forward. I was thinking, 'It's taken this long, so I'm going to be moving forward soon.' But when they got the deal, I was kind of stuck. I don't want to discredit them by saying I was stuck in the band, but I basically was. I had to see it through, and that's when we did the debut album with 'Calling All Girls,' and I tried to make it the best I could for the situation at hand, but the whole time I was thinking I'd really like to have a band with the level and the skills of, say, Talisman, which eventually came. That came during the time I was doing Eyes, but I couldn't do Talisman full on because I was contracted with Eyes. It wasn't until we finally got dropped and we were basically starting over that I said, 'I'm out. I'm going to take this time to actually join a band that I know I'm going to be able to keep up with musically, and they're going to keep up with me.' Again, without discrediting the guys, the skills just weren't there musically. I would look at what they were doing, and I kind of felt like I was in college and hanging out with some elementary school guys – that's only when it comes to actual musical skills. When you're 18 years old and you play with Yngwie Malmsteen and Jens and Anders Johansson, the bar is so raised. It's almost like – and I mean no disrespect – but it's like everyone's more like Poison, where everything is just more basic chords/basic structure. You go from this ridiculously Classically-oriented band... Musically, it's just another level. That's kind of where I was at mentally. I wanted to be in the room with people at that level.

Wasn’t there a second Eyes album?

It's completely confusing because of the way it was marketed and promoted. The second Eyes album was actually originally the first Eyes album. When I was under contract, we made a full album that was financed by the band themselves. Once they got the deal, they wanted the album to be done. They said, 'Okay, we've got the deal. The album's already done; we'll just put it out.' The label we signed with didn't like 75 percent of the album. They signed us based on two or three songs on that particular recording. They said, 'Guys, we want the band, but you've gotta go back in. We want more Hard Rock songs.' Based on the times, they wanted more of a Def Leppard vibe or whatever we went for with the debut album. So the other one was kind of scrapped and kind of sat there. When I was out of the band, they decided, 'Well, this thing is just sitting here. It's got two songs from the debut album, but the rest of the album is songs nobody's ever heard. Let's release that as the second album.' But that was originally the first album that got scrapped.

Obviously, this is not the easiest line of work. Every year, it gets harder for people to last, let alone have decades of experience. Having done this for as long as you have, what do you consider to be the keys to longevity in this business?

You have to want it so badly that you know nothing else. That, to me, is the key to me even being here now and even talking to you. It's a very fickle industry. As most know, it's not going to work for everybody, especially today. One out of every 5,000 to 10,000 is going to get a chance to do anything in a real way. Those odds are not very good. You have to really want it; you have to really be hungry for it and you have to stick it through. My persistence is one of the things that got me most of the gigs, whether it be singing for Journey or singing for Trans-Siberian Orchestra currently or any of the other things I have under my belt. My persistence has been above and beyond most people that I know in this industry, and that's the only thing that got me here. I'm still eons away from where I aim to be and where I ever wanted to be. I'm still hungry for it as if I am starting today, like it was 1985 all over again. That's another thing that keeps me here. So if you really want it, it will happen. That's the only advice I could ever give to a new musician; you've gotta stick with it. If you don't stick with it, then that means you never really wanted it.

*Some portions of the above interview were edited for clarity.


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