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Interview: John Gallagher (Raven)

Photo by Jay Thornton

The New Wave of British Heavy Metal spawned a multitude of great bands and timeless albums. Of those bands, my favorite is easily Raven. There’s always been something delightfully kooky about this power trio. There’s a hyperactivity that one can sense on every one of their records, and that whacked out energy is something that’s drawn me into every one of their records, even their supposed “sell-out” albums in the mid-’80s.

Like nearly every other band remaining from that era, Raven have to hit tiny clubs, bars and other odd venues when touring across America. I had the pleasure of conversing with bassist and lead vocalist John Gallagher on Monday, October 20 at the Whisky-a-Go-Go in Hollywood. The man onstage was no different than the one I got to chat with face-to-face, as the goofy and charismatic Gallagher filled our talk with an abundance of silly sound effects, a David Bowie impersonation and a genuinely amazing reverence for rock and roll. We also had a total nerd moment over Made in Japan by Deep Purple, which probably made my week.

—Avinash Mittur

You guys are on one of the more extensive tours that I’ve seen any metal band take in a good while. At least in North America.

Yeah, it’s rather insane but we just felt it if we were going to tour… Well, part of it was a reaction to having agent difficulties. I said “Sod it, I’ll do it myself.” The way it was stretched out, we had a bunch of holes to fill, so we’ve been playing some crazy places. Midland, Texas? Really? But it doesn’t matter. We’re getting out there and we’re reaching people that haven’t seen us in thirty years or seen us at all, and we’re winning them over. That’s just part of the momentum, keeping things going.

You even played a garage in Santa Barbara the other night!

Yeah, what were we going to do, have a day off? Jarvis from Night Demon says, “Hey, I got this gig but let me warn you, it’s in a garage.” I don’t care! Well, a hundred people turned up and that was awesome. It was insane, it’s like playing in the hottest sauna you could ever imagine. They loved it and they thought it was cool. A band like us, it’s like to hell with it! That’s what we do, we play to people. There’s no airs and graces about that, I don’t care.

Have the audiences been made up of older folks then? Fans who never got to see you when they were young?

There’s been a mix of people! A lot of, “I’ve waited thirty years to see you,” and all this stuff. Then there’s a bunch of young kids too. We played Houston—all young kids. Great, a new generation! They’re listening to their parents’ albums and what have you, and they’re knowledgeable. They know their stuff and they really get it into it. To us, it’s full circle. It’s like 1981 all over again! [laughs]

Funny you mentioned full circle. Thirty years ago was the Kill ‘Em All For One tour, where you took out a new young band on a huge run through North America. Back then it was Metallica, and now it’s Night Demon.

We’ve written in the contract that if Night Demon make any kind of money like Metallica, they have to give us 50%- we’re covered this time! [laughs] They’re a great band, they’re good guys and they got the right attitude. They just want to get out there and rock, and that’s what it’s all about. That was Metallica, they just wanted to get out and rock. So do we, and that’s the right thing. It’s awesome for us, because the crowd’s all goosed up and ready. Then we can do our thing.

You’re calling this tour the ExtermiNation tour even though the record isn’t out yet.

Yeah, we’re doing two new songs at the moment and the reaction has been awesome. We’re doing “Destroy All Monsters” and “It’s Not What You Got”. The album is kind of just passed off, we’re done writing it and we’re doing a Kickstarter program because we spent so much money doing pre-production and on the writing end of things. We didn’t want to short-change it by renting the studio and doing it in three or four days; we’d be doing it a disservice because the material is so strong. We wanted to do it the right way. It’s a curious beast, because we don’t record the way other bands do. Michael Wagener said that he’s only worked with three bands that record as a band, and we’re one of them. That’s what we do—granted, we’ll replace guitar or bass tracks if we feel the need to do it, but we record with all three of us physically in the room playing the music, and that never happens these days. Never! There’s a committee that picks the correct beat times, beats per minute and the click track is built. You see videos of these guys doing guitar and they’re going [pokes cheek and makes clicking sound, then imitates guitar sweep picking sound] and they’re playing along with a metronome. And then they have the drummer come in at the end! That’s not rock and roll. Rock and roll is a bunch of guys jumping up and down, getting sweaty and making a racket. Maybe there’s a few notes off here and there and stuff, that’s okay. Maybe it speeds up and slows down, that’s okay. We don’t play to a click track. If you needle drop on the first song, it might be faster by the end. So be it. That’s life. It’s supposed to be like that. It’s not supposed to be like a robot all the way through. Because we do it like that, it’s got a different feel. That’s what we do, and that’s just one of the things that makes us different from a lot of other bands, for better or worse!

That’s funny though, so many NWOBHM bands released kind of commercial albums back in the mid-‘80s. Raven’s first commercial record from that era, Stay Hard, has a manic kind of zaniness going on though, and I think it’s characteristic of the band.

The one album we did do to with a click track was The Pack is Back. It does suffer for it. It does. To me, there’s three or four decent songs on there, three or four that are okay and three or four that are horrible, because of pushing the whole commercial aspect. But Stay Hard was done organically, and it’s a good album! It’s got melody, it’s got some commercial appeal to it, but those songs, especially when played live, are great. We still play “On and On”, we play bits of “Stay Hard” some nights. We may do that tonight.

I watched the band’s documentary, Rock Until You Drop, about a year ago. There’s a section in the movie where a bunch of people that are interviewed talk about how awesome “Faster than the Speed of Light” from the Wiped Out album is. I then later saw a video with Gene Hoglan where he talked about how he took stole bits from that album, from Wacko’s drumming style.

Yeah, which of course was cribbed from people like Terry Bozzio, Phil Collins and Billy Cobham [raps table like a snare roll], all that kind of flams, paradiddles and nonsense like that, you know? So that’s great. That was very much a part of what we did with Wiped Out-“Let’s be fast, let’s be crazy, let’s up the ante and push it as far as we can.” And then we said, “Okay, well we’re not going to do that for the rest of our lives, let’s switch gears and do something different.” There’s still the common thread for all that stuff though. We’ll always do fast stuff, but always do powerful stuff too. You’ll hear that with the new songs that we’ll play tonight. One’s kind of a fast double-kick thing, the other is more of a rock and roll thing. We just really pushed on the riffs, the riffs, the riffs and then having strong vocal melodies to go along with them. The combo is what we’re all about, having it in balance, having the chaos and the order.

5:54 of this video

Even though Raven is a NWOBHM band, all the members actually live in America now. How did that happen?

Yeah, we’ve been over here since ’84. Nothing was happening in Britain. We were on Neat Records, we was getting maybe 20 bucks a week if we were lucky. It was one of those things like, “We’re making all this money, we’ll buy you a car! Don’t worry about the rest of it, we’ll take care of it.” There was money being made and we didn’t see any of it. We toured with Metallica opening for us and it went down great. We said we wanted to come back the next year, and tour and get an American agency deal. It took all year of ’84, but we did it. So we spent all year over here, we went home for Christmas, came back and spent all of ’85 here. It just kind of happened!

As a resident of Richmond, VA, are you in tune with the metal scene there at all?

Yeah, I’m good friends with Ryan Waste, who is in Municipal Waste and Volture, who toured with us a few times. BAT, they’ve opened for us and they’re great as well. Ryan’s a force of nature, a great player and a smart guy. There’s other bands from there, Humungus are a great band from ‘round there too. There’s a little scene going on there and it’s a pretty vibrant area. There’s a lot of art, a lot of music, a lot of culture, which is so much better than where we were.

It’s like there’s a cool new crop of bands that play more old-school more rock and roll based songs. You can see it in Night Demon, Volture, BAT.

Cauldron from Canada, same kind of deal! Bands that play songs with riffs that make you jump around and kill your neighbor’s lawn or something, you know? None of this downtuned, morse-code [makes djent noises], all this nonsense. That was passé by about ’86, but people keep running it into the ground. Dude, Slayer did it first and did it better. Don’t bother, do something else! I don’t get it. That’s what was so cool about the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. It wasn’t uniform at all, it was a bunch of guys who were dissatisfied with punk and new wave and they liked heavy music and they made their own version of it. That’s why all those bands sounded different. Iron Maiden was not Angel Witch was not Raven was not Fist was not Venom. What they did have was the energy and the feeling, that was common. All those bands had something to offer, you know? And then it was, “Oh these guys are doing well, let’s copy that.” That’s what usually happens with everything else.

Just take a look at thrash, it’s basically NWOBHM on crack.

Yep, exactly. They just took that and pushed it up. And then really, death metal took thrash and put shitty vocals to it and made it faster again. It’s the law of diminishing returns, at a certain point you can’t go any more. You have to fall down and start over. That’s music, it’s very cyclical in nature. It’s good that it happens though, you get some new blood, some new ideas or at least a new way of looking at something.

I always thought NWOBHM was incredibly interesting because it was arguably one of the most influential eras of metal music, but only two bands from that era and scene blew up on a commercial level: Iron Maiden and Def Leppard.

Definitely. That’s the way it was. To a degree, that was based on factors outside of the music. Def Leppard obviously wanted to be a pop band and got the right management for that. The same thing happened with Iron Maiden, they got a strong manager from the get-go and they took a different tack in that they were very insular. Steve’s very much, “This is what I do, everyone else can die, I’m going to play the same three riffs ‘til the end of time,” kind of deal. God bless him. They have their thing and it worked for them. What usually happens is the record company comes in and says, “We want an Iron Maiden-type band and we’ll see what happens with it.” It’s got to be right down the line. Unfortunately, you can get a shitty band but with a great manager and a great agent and a great label, you can sell it. You can have the best band in the world, but with mediocre everything else, they’re going to stay in the bedroom. We never really had that! Anything we have to speak of has been from our own hard work, and that’s why it’s taken so long to get where we are [laughs]. A great example of that of course is Metallica. Lars is very astute as far as business matters and knew they needed a manager to get to the next level. It’s history from there ain’t it?

Changing topics here- the cover album Party Killers, it’s a Kickstarter exclusive. Tell me abut the set list.

Oh, it’s great. Me and me brother used to have this red vinyl box that held 45s, and it was like delving through that when we were kids. We do “Ogre Battle” by Queen. When I was a kid, I saw the Christmas concert in ’75 with Queen playing the Hammersmith Odeon. That’s one of the killer songs right there and we have a big jam in the middle. We do “Fireball” by Deep Purple.

Nice! Joe Hasselvander busting out the double bass for that one?

Oh yes, Joe does his best Ian Paice on speed imitation there. We do a Status Quo song, “Is There a Better Way.” We do Slade, a huge band in our development. We do “Tak Me Bak ‘Ome,” we weren’t copying them but it comes out with the same feeling. Thin Lizzy, “Bad Reputation.” The funny thing is that we stretch out some of the songs and Mark does some great solos. We do “Cockroach” by the Sweet, which is one of the heavier tunes off of Give Us a Wink. We do an obscure Edgar Winter track, “Queen of My Dreams” that sounds kind of Zeppelin-y. We do a not-quite-as-obscure Nazareth track called “Too Bad Too Sad.” There’s a David Bowie song called “Hang On to Yourself,” that’s a great rock and roll song. There’s so much character in the lyrics- [does a Bowie impression] “Come on, come on, you really got a good thing going! You think you’re going to make it, you better hang on to yourself!” [bangs table] That was a lot of fun to do. “What do you know how to play? What do you know, Joe? If you know how to play it, we’ll figure the rest of it out. Which key’s it in? Okay, cool.” We did the whole thing in like three days and it is just awesome. It’s a funny story—on the first day of recording we do “Ogre Battle.” We got food and Joey insisted, “You guys eat, I’ll just play the song.” So he’s in there playing “Ogre Battle,” [sounds out “Ogre Battle” drumbeat] and all this. The engineer introduces us to this guy Mark, “Hi Mark! How you doing?” Just an unassuming little guy in long hair and shorts. Turns out it’s Mark Morton from Lamb of God! He said, “What’s going on?” “Oh, we’re doing ‘Ogre Battle’ and we’re doing these cover tunes.” He says, “Nobody else is playing.” “Yeah, he knows the song.” “But there’s no click track.” “Yeah, we don’t do click tracks.” “How’s he doing that?” “Because this is how you play music!” [laughs] He loved the hell out of that.

I love that you’re doing “Fireball”, your voice is perfect for Ian Gillan’s screams.

Oh, that was definitely a huge influence on me. We’ve played that in sound checks for years, it was good to finally get it down. We play another Purple song at the very end, just to finish it off. Purple’s a huge influence, just because they have that spontaneity and they feed off each other like on Made in Japan where all that music comes to life! I heard that album first, so hearing that and going to the studio versions it’s like, “This is okay, but it’s not the live stuff because that’s on fire.” You listen to the studio version of “Highway Star” and it’s great and all that, but you listen to the live one and it’s a different animal. Roger Glover’s all over the place, Ian Paice is just driving it with his fills, Jon Lord’s playing around the riff, Blackmore’s playing really tight for a change… it’s just awesome, absolutely awesome.

Or like in “Strange Kind of Woman” where Ian and Ritchie do that awesome call and response.

[sings back and forth bit from the live version of “Strange Kind of Woman”] All that stuff, yeah! I love the spirit of improvisation—Jon and Ritchie, they never played the same solo twice and that’s what my brother does. He never plays the same solo twice. Never. Maybe he’ll play the one at the end of “Break the Chain” similarly every night, but he never plays the same solo twice. And you shouldn’t have to, this is not classical music. It’s not written out. Yeah, you recorded a solo and it’s great, but take liberties! Play with it. Have fun. Why not?

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