Monday, May 25, 2015

INTERVIEW - Still Hard: Raven's John Gallagher on Living the Metal Life

Left to right: Mark Gallagher, Joe Hasselvader and John Gallagher of Raven. (Courtesy of Freeman Promotions)

Never judge a book by its cover.

I see John Gallagher's name come up on my phone, and I pick up the line fully expecting a chat with the crazed Metal Maniac of Raven. (Cue devil horns and a blazing guitar riff!) What I got instead was a humble, soft-spoken and incredibly friendly man who was more like the kind of person you'd have coffee with at a quiet cafe than a guy you'd hit up to trash a hotel. It was definitely a surprise considering that John's musical career has been and continues to be the embodiment of Heavy Metal.

For more than four decades, John and his brother Mark have stayed true to their over-the-top brand of “Athletic Rock” through incredible highs (including 1983's classic All For One and 1984's Live At The Inferno) and near career-ending lows (including an ill-fated mid-'80s run on Atlantic Records and a freak 2001 accident that saw Mark's legs crushed when a wall collapsed on him). Along with long-serving drummer Joe Hasselvander (Pentagram/Blue Cheer), the brothers continue to deliver true Heavy Metal that is immune to trends or popular opinion. Love 'em or 'em, Raven do what they do without apology.

The band's bulletproof new album, ExtermiNation (Steamhammer/SPV), is the latest in a series of high-profile events to impact the band in recent times. In addition to the release of the career-spanning Rock Until You Drop DVD in 2013, the band joined Metallica – who toured with them way back in 1983 – last year for a show in front of a crowd of 70,000 in São Paulo. 

Currently living in Virginia, John was very happy to discuss Raven's current place in the world of Metal, his thoughts on some of his peers in the scene and what it was like to cut his teeth in the British club scene of the mid-to-late '70s.

You're 41 years into this. How does it feel to be spending your day doing interviews about an album in 2015 with Raven four decades after you started?

It's pretty amazing. These are the things you can't even dream of when you're trying to project into the future what could be going on. The fact that we're still around and doing it is pretty amazing as it is, and everything else is gravy - the fact that we're still pushing the envelope, still raising the bar and still kicking ass live and making it happen.

It's been five or six years since you've done an album, right?

Right. We technically released Walk Through Fire in Japan in 2009, and then it came out in the States and in Europe in 2010.

What accounted for that kind of timespan between releases?

Obviously, it took a lot longer due to Mark's accident in 2001. It took something like nine years to put Walk Through Fire out. We had a lot of catch-up to do out there...The album had a great reception and did very well for us, and we wanted to get out there and basically milk it. We had the ability and the offers coming in, so we went out and toured with it. When that was winding down, then we did the DVD, Rock Until You Drop, which is the retrospective on the band. That came out in 2013, and we ended up touring on that. Then, we figured it's about time to get our asses in gear here and work on a new album.

In this day and age, you're not putting an album out every year. You want to try to make it an event; you want to try and it make special. It takes a little longer. The actual recording process for us is always very short, but the work before that – the pre-production, the writing, the re-arranging, picking the right songs, all that kind of stuff – is time-consuming and basically takes as long as it takes until you're happy with what you've got. You finalize the arrangements and try to make it powerful. No extraneous parts and notes; you just want to boil it down to the essence of what you want to do, then get in the studio and do it live. We go in, we play it as a band - no click tracks, no tricks, no nonsense – and capture that raw energy.

You can definitely feel that on this album.

Yeah. It's sad; the more I talk to people, the more I learn that nobody records this way. Everyone is just file-sharing, or you see videos of these bands recording their albums on YouTube, and you're hearing [makes sound of a click track] and the guitar player's playing away to it. No! We don't need a click track – we've got a drummer! We have a Joe Hasselvander! He provides the beats. He's the percussionist. We don't have a click track, because that's how you get a real feel; that's how you get that edge...that little bit of danger in there. Tempos push and pull, and it's organic. There isn't a button for that in ProTools, you know? (laughs)

Speaking of the drums, the “new guy” in Raven has been with you –

28 years!

Exactly. And that's a rarity in this business. With a lot of Metal acts I see, especially those playing festivals in Europe, it's the bass player and the triangle player from the original band, and everybody else is new. What is it about Raven in particular that has enabled the three of you to stay together and work together as well as you have for so long?

It's chemistry. It's like a marriage; it's mostly about personality and being friends and going through thick and thin. That translates into the music. We're not a corporation; we're not a football team. So many of these bands are like franchises; they're almost completely faceless. It's like, 'Okay, who's playing lead guitar this week? Who's the drummer next week? Who's the bass player the week after that?' The team will change, but the name on the fascia will remain the same. Well, we're not like that; we're old school friends, and we stick to it.

I know you're based in the States and have been here for a long time. The US market for Metal has had its ups and downs over the years. What are your goals in terms of America?

I think we fill a niche there that's not being catered to. There's Death Metal and the Hard Thrash and all this symphonic European nonsense. Where's the heavy Rock? That's where we are. Obviously, we got our roots firmly from where we started, back in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, but we're not stuck there. We've got one foot in our roots and one foot moving forward. We continually push the envelope and bring out new ideas, as we have on this record. There aren't many of our contemporaries who are doing that, if indeed they're still around.

The more I hear Thrash albums, and the more I hear the Death Metal albums, they all sound the same. They're all using the same producer. It all starts getting very samey...You form the bands to play the same kind of music, and they're all playing with the same gear, so it's all going to sound the same. God bless 'em; let them get on with it, and we'll continue to try to be as original as possible.

This year is kind of an anniversary for Raven. Exactly 30 years ago was the first time a lot of Americans got to hear the band to begin with through the single “On And On” and the first Atlantic record, Stay Hard. When you look back now, what are your thoughts on that era's place in the history of the band and the effect it's had on you even today?

It didn't do us any favors. Stay Hard was a great album for us; it was the logical next step after All For One. We had no problem; the album was done before we finalized the deal with Atlantic. They had input on the next one [1986's The Pack Is Back], and obviously made our lives miserable one way or another. We had to climb back from that, and we got a lot of flack for that [period], but a lot of other bands made much more grievous errors. Judas Priest did at least two horrible albums, and Saxon probably did two or three. It happened to a lot of bands where the record companies were meddling and pushing...They wanted KISS meets Bon Jovi or something, you know? You're young, impressionable and naive, and it takes you a while to wake up sometimes. And we did, and we moved on from that. It's water under the bridge. You live and learn. We learned that when we did The Pack Is Back, it's not the best way to do a record – using click tracks and going in and doing it one [track] at a time and spending eight to 10 weeks doing a record. It drove us crazy.

When we record, we spend all the time with pre-production and writing and getting it the way we want it, and then we bang it all out in like five or six days live in the studio. No click track, no nothing – just boom. You fix whatever you need to fix, but you've got to capture that energy. That's what it's all about – capturing the feel.

How would you define the relationship you have with labels today? SPV put out this new album.

SPV are savvy; they know what's going on and are in touch with the scene, as it were. They've been partners with us off and on for many years, basically for 15 years straight or something like that. They're great guys; we're in contact with them constantly. They're really happy with this one because they kind of got the last album secondhand because it had been out for about six months in Japan. They really wanted to build a concerted effort around the release on this, where it's a worldwide release. They're doing a bang-up job; they got me working my ass off for the last few days here! (laughs) So that's a good thing.

Going back to the start of the band for a moment, you did some shows in the early days with a band I’ve done some writing about, The Stranglers -

Yeah! We opened for a couple of Punk bands. We opened for The Stranglers in '76 or '77, and we also opened for more of a New Wave band called The Motors. Both of those shows were notable in that the main bands would not let us use the PA system, which is like so weird. It would be ballsy to say, 'Hey, can I use your backline?' But to say, 'No, you can't use the PA...You have to bring your own PA in'? We did on both occasions, and did really well. The great thing about the Stranglers show is the original guitar player, Hugh Cornwell, came up to a bunch of us before they were going to play and said, 'Does anyone got perfect pitch?' I said, 'Yeah!' He said, 'Give me an E,' so I went [does the sound of an E]. He tuned his guitar and walked on stage and started to play! (laughs) And if that's not Punk Rock, I don't know what is.

You were playing at a time before the New Wave of British Heavy Metal really took hold in England. What was it like being a band at that time playing music that really, to a lot of ears, was a new thing that was not widely known or accepted at that point in time?

The people that we were playing to got it, because we were taking the Rock of the day – the Deep Purple, the Sabbath, the Zeppelin, the Montrose, the Budgie – and taking the more hyper aspects of that. Back in those days, it was half originals and half covers...We had been playing 'Breaking All The House Rules' by Budgie or 'Highway Star' by Deep Purple, and we did a couple of Judas Priest ones – 'Hell Bent For Leather' or 'Victim of Changes'  – and a couple of AC/DC songs. They were all the uptempo stuff; as we started feeding more and more of our own songs [into the set], the audience went along with it to the point where we were playing some of clubs in 1980 and it was totally original [material]. I think the last one we played, we had the honor of being paid off...You used to do two sets, and if the committee of the club hated you, they would give you half the money and say, 'Go home!' That was the ultimate badge of honor, because we had started a riot at the [club] when we didn't get to play the second set! (laughs) You heard people screaming for their money back and threatening to kill the committee. It was great.

It was strange; back in those days, you really did your apprenticeship and learned how to engage an audience, how to play to them, how to entertain them or how to antagonize them. There was a lot of rivalry between Newcastle and Sunderland, which is only 10 miles away. So if you were playing south of Newcastle, inevitably [the emcee] would be saying [in a deep DJ voice], 'And next up, it's the boys from...Newcastle!' and the crowd would go, 'Boooo!' They used to bring the beer mats – the coasters – and have their song requests on them and they'd put them on the stage. Inevitably, down there they would have 'fuck off!' written on them! (laughs) So it was tough; you played to punks and skinheads and learned to fight you way through it. If they weren't with you, you'd make sure they were damn well against you and just antagonize the Hell out of them. That's served us in good stead over all these years.

Obviously, Heavy Metal as a genre has taken a few hits over the years in terms of public opinion, but it always seems to come back. It's a style of music that has always proven to be incredibly resilient. The press doesn't get it and record companies don't always get it, but the fans always seem to understand. What do you think it is about Heavy Metal that has allowed it continue to grow to the point where it's still very much a worldwide phenomenon in 2015?

It's part of the spectrum of music; it really is. It's bright red; it's right there. Your laid-back Jazz is a kind of purple, and the Blues is the blue, but Heavy Metal is full-out red. Because of that, it will never go away. It's like a beacon for people who have been through some hard times or whatever. It's a release – the glorious power of just hitting a big power chord. That's what it's all about – the energy that's in that. To my mind, it's obviously more than that. There's melody, there's songs. It's energy viewed through that prism as opposed to the nonsense which a lot of bands call Heavy Metal these days. I've seen that so many times when we were on tour in the states last year: [Mimicking redneck voice], 'Oh, you guys are in a band? What kind of music you play?' We go, 'Heavy Metal,' and we see the face go urrrr...We say, 'Our roots are in Deep Purple and..' They go, 'Oh! That's great! I love that!' You know what I mean? They think they're talking to some guy with a white face playing a chainsaw guitar and making a complete racket. I think the term's been corrupted by all that down-tuned, Cookie Monster stuff that's not Heavy Metal. It really isn't, so we need to claim the term back. (laugh)

Who are some bands you're seeing today that really do earn the name 'Heavy Metal' and are doing things the right way or maybe even pushing it forward as a genre?

There are obviously still the bigger bands like Metallica and Megadeth...As far as the younger bands, we had a band out with us called Night Demon. They're great and have a lot of roots in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. There's a Canadian band called Cauldron, and my friend Ryan from Municipal Waste has a couple of projects – Volture and BAT – which are both heavily influenced by the New Wave of British Of Heavy Metal. Bands over in Europe...we have Air Raid, a Swedish band. There are also Rock bands which merge into the heavy territory, like the Winery Dogs...It's real guys playing real music. The California Breed thing that Glenn Hughes did was awesome, and there's a band we love from California called Rival Sons that are really cool. There's good stuff out there.

You mentioned Metallica. I know you guys kind of had a full-circle moment with them last year when you played with them in front of a pretty big audience – I think about 70,000 people in São Paulo.

Yeah, it was insane. We did the DVD, and a friend of a friend asked Lars if he wanted to contribute. He very nicely did like an hour's worth of interview, which we used quite a lot of. When we played California in 2013, he came down to the show and we saw him for like five, 10 minutes...In 2014, we were setting up some dates in Brazil, and my guy down there said, 'Hey, Metallica's playing a soccer stadium down here. Are you guys still in touch with them?' I said, 'Well, I can get a message to them.' He said, 'Well, why don't we ask if we can open up?' (laughs) Hey, if you don't ask, you don't get. I put the message through, and it came back, 'Yeah, let's do it.' So we went, and it was mind-blowing the amount of people and the size of the hall. It was crazy.

Metallica were delayed...What happened was, we were able to play an extra song, which turned out to be 'Break The Chain' for about 12 minutes! (laughs). It was funny as hell, as James [Hetfield]  was on stage videoing us, headbanging and giving us the high five. It was really cool. We hung out with them for about 10, 15 minutes before they went on stage. We had a bit of a reconnect there, which was awesome.

Tour rider for the Raven/Metallica "Kill 'Em All For One" Tour, 1983 (Source:

What are your plans as far as touring in support of this record, especially stateside?

We're starting to get that together. We're going to Japan in early July. When we come back from that, we're doing a couple of weeks of dates in the States at the tail end of July. We have a full European tour we're building for September through October, then we'll be looking to do more US dates after that.

As we mentioned at the start of this conversation, it's 41 years into your career. You have this great new album in your hands. What are your ultimate hopes moving forward for this band?

Basically just to continue pushing the envelope. We’ve still got a lot of great music in our heads. We're playing live better and crazier than ever, and there are still lots of places to play. I did interviews with guys from India today. There's a whole untapped market for us in places like that. We've never been to Australia, and we've never been to New Zealand, Malaysia or Indonesia, and there are a lot of countries in Europe we haven't hit, even after all these years. We'll be hitting a bunch of them later this year. Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, stuff like that. It's definitely all good.

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

Raven's Official Website


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.