Sunday, September 4, 2016

Living the Heavy Metal Dream: Geoff Thorpe Talks Vicious Rumors

Name a Metal band formed in the late ’70s that is still creating relevant music in 2016. If you’re having a hard time coming up with a reply, I have two words for you: Concussion Protocol. That’s the name of the recently released 12th studio album from Bay Area Power Metal stalwarts Vicious Rumors, and it’s an absolute killer.

Founded by guitarist/sole remaining original member Geoff Thorpe in 1979, Vicious Rumors have spent nearly 40 years churning out consistently strong music. The band grew to international prominence thanks to a trio of now-classic albums (1988’s Digital Dictator, 1990’s Vicious Rumors and 1991’s Welcome To The Ball) as powerful today as they were decades ago. Those last two records came out on Atlantic Records, which introduced the group to a wider audience of headbangers. Although the Atlantic era was followed by years of ups and downs (including the 1995 death of singer Carl Albert and numerous lineup changes), Vicious Rumors never let internal issues diminish their power in the slightest.

Released on August 26 on SPV/Steamhammer, Concussion Protocol finds the band (currently comprised of Thorpe, singer Nick Holleman, guitarist Thaen Rasmussen, bassist Tilen Hudrap and long-serving drummer Larry Howe) maintaining their trademark brand of energized Metal. Fans in Europe will soon experience Concussion Protocol-era Vicious Rumors live when the group hits the road October 31 – December 17 with legendary former Accept singer, Udo Dirkschneider.

I recently touched base with Geoff to discuss Concussion Protocol, the ongoing relevance of the Bay Area music scene and the key to survival for a band that was around long before the Big 4.
In the press material for the latest video [“Take It Or Leave It”], you’re quoted as saying that this record was the most intense recording project of your long career. What made this album something that stands out to you in that way?

Just the fact that before we even went into the studio, we rented a house so that we could all be together and write songs. I spent probably a year before that making digital recordings of parts. Sometimes it was just one part; sometimes it was two parts or a whole song. I just stocked up ideas. Because we’re so spread out right now with our singer in the Netherlands, our bass player in Slovenia and Larry, Thaen and myself in the Bay Area, it was important for us to get together. We didn’t just want to rely on emails and things like that; we wanted to be able to talk to each other and look at each other in the eye and get a feeling [of] the energy we’re throwing back and forth at each other. So we rented a house; we got together and recorded. We made this crazy little demo, and then I went back to California and demoed the whole album based on all the work we had done at the rental house. Then we took that and sent it to the guys, and then we had another sort of quality control level. The process that went into this record for a year and a half was unlike anything I had done in the past. After spending three months on the demo, we went and started basic tracks like 10 days later. We were just in the studio working together, and it was also the most time I’ve ever spent in the recording studio making a record. I’m really proud of the way it came out and the amount of effort that went into it. I think when you hear the album, you just hear a band firing on all fucking cylinders, working together and just kicking ass together. That was our goal.

This is your first studio album with Nick on vocals. What makes him the best frontman for Vicious Rumors circa 2016?

He’s just a natural talent; he’s got an incredible range. We need a certain kind of voice for Vicious Rumors – a guy who can sing low, a guy who can sing high, a guy who can sing aggressively, a guy who can be melodic. It’s a very difficult job to be the singer in Vicious Rumors. We need a multifaceted guy, and Nick has all those natural abilities. The great thing about it is, this is Nick’s first studio album, but Nick’s actually been in Vicious Rumors three years now. We’ve been able to establish a chemistry together; we’ve been able to work on customizing his sound to be today’s sound of Vicious Rumors. He’s also incredible at recreating the Carl Albert classic-era stuff; he can just make those songs come to life again. We really have the best of both worlds right now.

What led to Brad Gillis (Ozzy/Night Ranger) and Steve Smyth (Nevermore/Testament) coming on board to do the guest solos?

Vicious Rumors has always been a band that has many guitar solos all over the album – like way more than maybe most. Just for that reason, about 10 years ago, I starting thinking, ‘We have so many guitar solos. Rather than just hearing me and my [other] guitarist in the band, let’s bring in some people from our history.’ We have such a long history in Vicious Rumors, and I think that each time these guys come in and I have guests on the album, it just gives the album a little extra flair; it gives it a little something extra to listen to. There are so many solos and guitar sections throughout the album that I think it’s more fun for the fans to listen to. That’s what it’s all about for us, man. It’s not about the industry; it’s not about the record company or the press – even though you guys are all very valuable to us. It’s about the connection that we have with the fans, so we like to have those guest appearances to make the albums more exciting. Brad Gillis has now been on every studio album since [2006’s] Warball, and it’s become kind of a tradition. It was just by chance that I ran into Steve Smyth at a Queensryche show. We were cutting solos that week, and I just invited him to come down, so it just worked out perfect. It’s kind of a 20th anniversary of [our 1996 album] Something Burning [which Steve played on] and a 10-year anniversary of the Warball album, so it’s just real special to have those guys come in and contribute. They both did amazing solos.

One thing I love about this album is the fact that it’s strong throughout – it’s solid from start to finish. For example, my favorite song on the album is the last one, “Life For A Life.” That’s a pretty dark song. How did that particular tune come to be, especially in the vocal department? It's pretty intense.

You know, I get really flattered and really excited when people mention that song. In a lot of interviews I’ve done, people have been like, ‘Wow! What’s with this creepy song at the end?’ It’s real different for Vicious Rumors, but I think it fits great on the album. It’s the song that I wrote to end the album. The album actually tells the story of the world being wiped out by a global killer asteroid. It’s the first type of a concept album we’ve done like that. On the packaging, there’s a story that goes with every song, on the top of the lyrics. ‘Life For A Life’ is the last part of the nightmare, man. That’s my kind of main song on the album. I did the vocals and all the guitars. It’s just a very different, creepy song, but I think it fits on the album. I’m glad that people noticed it as being something special.

Geoff Thorpe of Vicious Rumors (photo courtesy of Freeman Promotions)

I was first introduced to Vicious Rumors through the Atlantic albums in the early '90s. Since we’re roughly at the 25-year point since that experience, what are your thoughts on those records today and being on a major label with Vicious Rumors?

Well, it was an incredible time. When you’re a young musician and you have the chance to sign to the same label as AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, it’s a dream come true. There’s no doubt it was a special time. It was a magical time full of a lot of hopes and dreams. But also when you’re on a giant label like Atlantic, with these multi-platinum bands, you’re a small fish in a very big pond. I have no regrets, I have no apologies and I have no excuses. It was a great time, and it enabled Vicious Rumors to be able to continue through that time and have the fanbase that we have so that we can still move forward. The band has changed a lot over the years, but we’ve also retained a lot of our classic sound. When you listen to the power and energy on Concussion Protocol… Wow, those albums are almost Pop albums compared to this one. But at the same time, this one still has all the traditional elements of Vicious Rumors, but it’s with so much fire and power. I love that, because after 37 years, no one can accuse Vicious Rumors of slowing down.  

Vicious Rumors maintains a very solid following in Europe. Why do you think that audience is always so receptive to not only Vicious Rumors, but a lot of the bands that could be classified as Classic Power Metal or Thrash?

It’s an interesting question. I think that the European audience just tends to, when something new comes in, rather than completely switch to it, they just embrace new things along with things that they’ve always liked. Maybe that could be part of it; it’s hard to say, really. I’m just very thankful that Vicious Rumors can have success in all parts of the world. Europe is our number one market, but [there’s also] the United States, Asia, South America…There’s really no boundaries, no limits.

Udo Dirkschneider is obviously a legend in this scene. What is your experience with Udo and Accept, either as a fan or as a peer?

I’ve gotta tell you, I’m a huge fan. I’ve always loved Accept. During my early days in California when I first discovered Accept, a lot of my friends didn’t know who they were, so they were even more special, like, ‘This is my band.’ I’ve always loved Accept’s music, and we’ve been fortunate enough to have a history with them. We toured with Accept in ’94 and in ’96, both when Udo was the singer. Not only am I a fan, but we’re colleagues and we have a mutual respect for each other. It’s a dream come true for me to have Mr. Dirkschneider invite Vicious Rumors personally to join him on this tour. It’s just an honor… Talk about living the dream of your life; in 37 years, that’s what I’ve been able to do with Vicious Rumors.

Obviously, you guys were around during the original glory days of the Bay Area scene. One of your first shows was with Exodus, so you were back there at Ground Zero. In terms of Metal, how do you think that area has changed over the years? How would you compare what’s there today to what was there back in the early '80s?

That’s a great question. The thing for Vicious Rumors is that we were very lucky and it was very special for us and all those bands. Testament, Exodus, Vicious Rumors, Megadeth, Metallica – of course, Metallica is hard to compare because they’re Led Zeppelin now; they broke it so big. But with the Bay Area sound that came out of the early '80s, we didn’t know at the time that we were going to be looked at worldwide for something this special and this unique. We were just all local bands trying to do our thing. But the fact that it turned out to be this thing that the world has looked to and reveres has really made it possible for all those bands I mentioned to still have great careers and still work 30 years later. As far as the difference between then and today, it is quite a bit different. The scene is not nearly as big, and there’s not nearly as many places to play. But you’ve still got great bands coming out of the Bay Area and pushing the envelope of classic and futuristic sounds of Metal and music, and there are a lot of great musicians in the area. I think the San Francisco Bay Area is just one of those places in the world, like London and a few other major cities, that just has this creative output. Every few decades or so, something really special happens, and we were just lucky enough to be a part of that in the '80s.

You’re 37 years into this with Vicious Rumors, and you’re one of the few bands in the scene that has consistently put out strong material since your first album. Since you’ve been there since day one, what has been the key to keeping this band alive for so long?

Man, it’s the fans. Without the fans, there’s nothing. It’s just fire and passion and loving what we do. If I didn’t, I’m pretty sure I would have got out a long time ago. It’s a vey hard business; it can be a very cold business. But the reaction and response that we get from the fans when we meet them... We’re not the type of band that stays in our dressing room or in our hotel; we’re very accessible to fans and it’s very easy to meet us. We thrive on it; if we didn’t have the fans’ support, there’s no way we could have done it all these years. It’s really just about fire and passion, man. And when you have a chance to live your Heavy Metal dream for 37 years... I consider myself one of the luckiest people in the world.

Vicious Rumors (photo courtesy of Freeman Promotions)

*Portions of this interview were edited for length and clarity. 

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