RAVEN is back with a new album entitled “Metal City” and it showcases the band in better shape than ever before! It seems that new drummer Mike Heller (ex – FEAR FACTORY) injected some new energy into the Athletic Rock of the Gallagher brothers Mark (guitars) and John (bass and vocals). We hooked up with the latter for the following interview, so fasten your seatbelts, stop smoking and join us on a Hell Patrol…
Greetings John and thanks for taking the time to answer a bunch of questions about the latest RAVEN album “Metal City”… But before we really start, I’d like to know something which I always wanted to ask… what made you move from the UK to the States several years ago? Was it a pure business move or did you have personal reasons as well? How long do you live in the States now, in which area do you live exactly and do you miss the UK once in a while or is the US simply a better place to live for you?
“It really just happened! In 1984 we had decided we would tour until we got a major label record deal and a major booking agency deal. By the end of the year, we had both. We went home to England for Christmas, came back to the States and that’s what we did until we ended up just staying there. I’d got divorced and then married an American girl. Right now my significant other is in the U.K. so I spend time there and time here in Florida. Both have their ups and downs and I enjoy both… however you can take the boy out of Newcastle but you can’t take Newcastle out of the boy!!”
The last time I saw you guys overhere in Germany was when you supported DIRKSCHNEIDER… How were the reactions from the crowds on RAVEN on that tour in general? Did you get the impression that some of them were already familiar with RAVEN because you have a similar long history?
“That was a fun tour… they (DIRKSCHNEIDER) had a lot of days off, so we actually added a ton of extra dates to that to “fill the holes”. A lot of the dates were in places we had either never been, like the Baltic’s and Denmark… or countries where we’d maybe played one festival gig or some one off show, like the Czech Republic, Poland, Finland, Sweden etc. So it was really good for us to break new ground there. Of course in Germany, NL, Belgium, France, Spain, where we had played a lot, it was also excellent!!! What was also great was going back to these places a year later opening for SAXON in the newer countries and seeing rows of people this time with our shirts etc going crazy from the first notes!”
I was hoping that you would use this opportunity to play ‘Born To Be Wild’ together with Udo, but at least at the Bremen show that unfortunately didn’t happen. Did you play that song at any other show on that tour together or was that never an option anyway?
“We left that one for Udo… if he had been up for it I’m sure it would have been fun!”
How do you write songs these days? Do you still meet the old school way at some rehearsal place and jam on basic ideas or does anyone of you write on his own at home or in a private studio and then you send files back and forth?
“Since we live all over the place it’s rare that we get to “jam out” songs like that… although the 3 of us did just that with the Japan extra track for “Metal City” called ‘Rock This Town’. It’s usually us coming up with ideas individually, then bouncing them off each other either by sharing files or getting together during off time on a tour etc. I’m always writing, so I’m excited for the next album too!”
How does a new RAVEN song usually come to life? Does Mark come up with a riff and then you develop it from there? Or is it also possible that you personally have some ideas for lyrics first that lead to a song idea or that Mike has a certain drum beat that inspires anyone of you to build a song around?
“We wrote a lot of songs for this album. I must have done 30 + songs alone. Mark had a lot too. So we were in the great position of being able to choose songs that naturally complimented each other and to pick 10 great ones that worked as an album! We both come up with riffs and then play them off each other.”
When and how did you exactly get together with Mike? I mean, he has a lot of experiences already, played in a whole bunch of bands before RAVEN and even works as a drum teacher… So, did you simply audition a bunch of drummers and he showed up and ended up being the right guy or was he recommened to you?
“In May 2017 we had 4 US dates, then a Swedish festival, then an 11 date Euro tour. Joe had his heart attack 2 days before the first show in Chicago, so we were freaking out. We wanted to honour the dates and move forward. There were issues with Joe before the heart attack that had slowly developed over the years. Basically he was done, did not want to tour hard anymore and wanted to spend time at home, so in a way we all got what we wanted I guess. We got a number of guys to fill in on the dates, Jimmy Mess from Chicago did the first, after a 4 hour rehearsal and did a great job. Then this guy, Mike Heller, did the next 3 shows and just blew us away. The first show we arrived at the gig, met him, talked for 30 minutes, then did the gig. No rehearsal! We had instant chemistry and by the third gig it was like we’d been doing this for years together. We used Fabio from ANNIHILATOR on the festival and a guy called a Dave Chadwick in Europe – both great guys and players, but we wanted Mike as we had that chemistry which was plugging into the old feel.”
Was he involved in the writing process for the new album or did you and Mark work out the basic songs with a drum computer and then he went from there, adding his own ideas here and there?
“We had all the songs but that extra track already written. Mike just helped to take what was potentially a very good album into being a great one!”
With all respect to Joe and his playing in the past, I must say that Mike’s drumming on the new album is really not of this world. It seems to me that he’s like a breeze of fresh air for RAVEN and really added the icing on the cake to songs that are already great in their own rights… Do you agree with that?
“Absolutely. His technical ability is scary. Anything we throw at him he throws back us harder and faster lol! These songs really needed that frantic “balls out” approach and Mike delivered… in spades!”
Is it pure coincidence that “Metal City” marks the return of the more crazy side of RAVEN in some of the songs or did Mike’s abilities and fresh input were a result of that?
“It just happened. We wrote the songs that way and adding Mike just pushed them more in that direction… which spurred us into raising our game too. There’s some really stellar playing and arrangements on this album, but the key thing is the songs are top notch.”
Talking of drummers… whatever happened to your old drummer Rob “Wacko” Hunter? Are you still in touch with him? Is he still involved in music these days?
“We trade comments and silly stuff on Facebook. Rob’s an incredibly talented guy and became a studio and live sound engineer. He works with the Jazz sax guy Branford Marsalis. He actually won a Grammy a few years ago, so he knows what he’s doing!”
At which point of time did you decide that it would be a good idea to work with Michael Wagener again? How big was his influence on the new songs? Did he give you any suggestions in one way or another, like how you could improve certain parts, or was he just responsible for the good sound of “Metal City”? On the album it says “produced by RAVEN” and “recorded by Michael Wagener”, so does that mean he was basically the engineer of “Metal City”?
“Yeah, we produced the album. Mike Heller recorded his drums at his studio and we did everything else at Michael Wagener’s place in Nashville. So writing and arrangement wise… no, he had no input there, but he gets such killer sounds. It’s such fun to work with him and that all made a big difference in getting great performances out of Mark and I. It was pure chance, we ran into Michael on the Monsters Of Rock cruise and asked if he’d mix the new album when it was done… he said “sure!” And then he called, asking when we would be done, as he had to go into hospital for a major thing and we had planned to record at Mike Heller’s new studio. But it wasn’t ready. So Michael said… ”So come up to Nashville and record here” and that’s how we ended up adding that country & western spice to the album lolololol!!!!!”
You had already worked with Michael again on the 1999 album “One For All”… How do you judge that album in retrospect? Do you think it was really a good idea to use a title, that directly points to one of your best albums from the past and that was also produced by Michael Wagener? Do you think “One For All” can compete with “All For One”?
“We thought it made sense. It was a good album in its own right. I do think we dropped the ball on the sequencing of the songs, but it had a few killer tracks on it! Can it compete? No… strictly speaking, it’s not quite as good. It’s a tough thing to go up against yourself, to compete with a classic that people have grown up with. We have strived towards that over the last few albums and with “Metal City” I believe it’s a better album than anything we’ve done… it’s that strong. For a band that’s been around as long as we have… to come up with this album? It’s a really good feeling! Especially when so many older bands are putting out “ok” albums – this is not an “ok” album… it’s a fuckin’ great one!”
On the “All For One” album you have this song ‘Athletic Rock’, which was often used to describe what RAVEN is all about. Who actually invented that term? Was the song first and then fans and journalists went from there or did you write those lyrics because you thought it fitted the band just perfectly?
“That term is printed on the sleeve of “Don’t Need Your Money” and that was the first time we had heard it! We thought it was funny… but why not? We were jumping around wearing running tops… an energetic show, so it fit. Mark came up with the song when we did “All For One” and it fitted in perfect!”
You already mentioned, that Mike recorded his drum parts at his own studio, so were you already finished with Michael Wagener at that point of time or did Mike record his drums first and then you went with his recordings from there?
“Mike did his drums first. We’d wanted to do everything together as we’d always done in the past, but Mike said later “gimme some demo tracks and I’ll show you what I can come up with”. And we were astounded and said “go ahead!!!!” He had the ability to play the song nite the natural ups and downs in tempo and feel… craft a baseline click track to reflect that, then go through the song and try stuff until he got a great overall take. Same as we do with vocals, guitars and bass. We would listen to what he had done and maybe change our parts to fit his interpretation and that bouncing of ideas off each other worked! We actually had to abort a studio session in another studio before we hooked up with Mr. Wagener as… well, let’s just say things did not work out. So the whole thing has been a long process. Once we mixed the album, we were not happy so we auditioned a whole bunch of guys until we found Zeuss, who did a killer job keeping that old school chaos and feel, but also giving it an awesome modern production that’s real… not fake!”
Who came up with the comic style design of the new album and how did you hook up with the artists Alan Robinson and Shawn MacCauley for it? Are they usually working on any comic books? Did you send them music and lyrics or basic ideas or did they come up with the stuff totally on their own?
“Mike had the initial design idea… we went through artists like cannon fodder until we found guys who would listen to what we wanted… and these guys killed it! We told them what to do… they would send sketches until we liked it… then they would finish it up. I actually have no idea if they have worked on comic book stuff or not, but I certainly would assume so!”
The front cover looks like the band is leaving the US (with the skyline in the background), while the backcover, that shows a couple of major cities in the world, is where you’re heading to. Does that mean that every city where you’re playing is a “Metal City” for you or was it just meant to show that RAVEN is a band that really enjoys touring around the world?
“It’s indicating that “Metal City” isn’t just about Newcastle. It’s wherever Metal fans get together, so they are all “Metal City”! That back cover city is a fantasy city with buildings from everywhere in it: Newcastle, London, Barcelona, San Francisco, Tokyo, Rio… the lot!”
Is anyone of you into comic books or graphic novels? If so, which are your personal favorites? The design of the “Metal City” cover is pretty obvious based on the typical Marvel Comics look, so do you like Marvel Comics?
“Who doesn’t? We all loved them as kids… X-Men… Silver Surfer… Nick Fury… the whole aesthetic. It was our window into America as kids along with TV. So the idea of doing this was an instant “yes!” moment. We all chipped in ideas for the song art and came up with using the advert page for the thank you list… it was a lot of work but so worth it.”
Is ‘Motorheadin” your personal tribute to Lemmy? How good did you know him personally? Did RAVEN get to play any shows with MOTÖRHEAD back then? Any cool memories you can share from that time?
“Yes, a tribute to the spirit of the man and the band. I had the riffs, played them to Mark and he just said “Lemmy tribute!” I had the pun ‘Motor Heading’ so wrote a biker song! We played with MOTÖRHEAD quite a few times… twice on the “Iron Fist” tour with the original line-up, in America while we had METALLICA opening and Robbo was on guitar and pink shorts(!) and a few times in Germany. He had a fast wit and told great stories!”
Is it pure coincidence or did you include some riffs from classic RAVEN songs on purpose, like in ‘The Power’ (‘Break The Chain’) or ‘Not So Easy’ (‘Don’t Need Your Money’)?
“Err… no… we didn’t!!! Some of the notes follow similar patterns but they are certainly not copying those riffs… especially ‘Not So Easy’. If you listen the guitar plays a descending figure and the bass plays an ascending figure!!! But hey, if they remind you of those songs and that feel, that’s also great!!!”
There’s 10 songs on “Metal City”, while some of your previous albums, like “Extermination”, “Walk Through Fire” or “Everything Louder” still had 15 on offer… Were you lacking in more material this time or was it meant to be an album in the good old vinyl tradition, where each side usually had 5 songs, with a total playing time of approximately 40 minutes… more like “all killers, no fillers”?
“Yeah, we could have had a zillion great songs on this. It could have been a triple album! But we had decided very early on to go with a 10 song album, not too long and not too short… absolutely all killer no filler, that you could get your head and heart around and wanna play it over and over. It was the one fault in “Extermination“ as it was just… too long… I think this flows beautifully!”
Every band with a long lasting career as RAVEN has its ups and downs, with some killer albums and some that could have been better in retrospect. Which albums are your personal favorites and which could have been better? Even though each of your albums has some killer tracks on it, to me it seems that RAVEN is totally back on track again since your last studio album “Extermination” (from 2015), which was strong from start to finish. Would you agree to that or are there albums before that, which you think had as many strong songs already as those last two albums (apart from the old classics of course)?
“Absolutely! As they are my “kids” I like them all to varying degrees. I’m not gonna be listening to “The Pack Is Back” too often, but even that has a few great songs. “Glow” was kinda experimental in a different way, but most of it worked well. “Nothing Exceeds…” and “Everything Louder” just needed better sounds. And the running order on “One For All” did not help. But there are absolutely killer songs on them all – it’s one thing we certainly can do – and that is write good songs consistently. We really knuckled down starting with “Walk Through Fire”. We upped our game on “Extermination” which was a big step and then really took a quantum leap forward on this one.”
“Stay Hard” and “The Pack Is Back”, your first releases that were released through the major label Atlantic Records, showed a more commercial side of RAVEN. Did Atlantic Records refuse a bunch of songs that you had written at the time and demanded more commercial sounding stuff, or was it your own decision at that point of time, because you wanted to go into a more melodic direction?
“”Stay Hard” really wasn’t THAT different to “All For One”… it was a natural progression. It was heavy, it had hooks, it had great songs. “The Pack Is Back” was different for every possible reason… and mainly negative. A band that was a live band recording for weeks on, end one at a time to a click track? Using a producer (Eddie Kramer) who was famed for getting a live sound in the studio for this techno Pop Metal thing? Not a smart concept. There was pressure from the label to be more commercial and we initially had no problem. We thought we could do “heavy / commercial“. But no, the RAVEN sound is an amalgamation of many things and they have to be in balance. Order and chaos, melody and noise, structure and improvisation. The click killed the feel, in places the sound killed the song… and some of the songs were… trite. So we learned a long expensive lesson… just to make music that we liked and ignore what record company idiots told us. Of course there were many, many bands that went through similar problems. SAXON, JUDAS PRIEST, TWISTED SISTER… and how about METALLICA in the 90s? But we made a course correction, did the ”Mad” EP and continued on our merry way!”
Unlike many other vocalists that have been around in Metal as long as you have, it seems you never really had any problems to still sing all the high notes… how did you keep you voice in shape all those years?
“Copious amounts of good British tea! I can hit pretty much any note I have ever done on record… and like most things the longer you do it the better you get. But if you add drinks / drugs / no sleep into that equation you get problems. I really don’t drink at all… never smoked… never took any drugs… and when on tour try to get as much sleep as I can and that way I’m in top shape! We have often done 10-15 shows in a row on tour and I’m fine!”
Can you give us a little overview about what the lyrics on the new album deal with in general this time? Do you draw many inspirations from what’s going on in this crazy world right now?
“Oh, I pull inspiration from everywhere. It’s a crazy world, filled with crazier people! So you have music business politics framed as “Game Of Thrones” in ‘The Power’… a treatise on good advice in ‘Top Of The Mountain’… the politics of gambling (or the gambling on politics) in ‘Not So Easy’ and the end of the world macro style in ‘When Worlds Collide’… and of course anthems in ‘Metal City’ for our hometown people and ourselves in ‘Battlescarred’.”
What can you tell us about the “Party Killers” album, that came out in 2015, but only as a limited vinyl edition and CD-R? Why wasn’t that released the regular way? I mean, I can imagine that a lot of RAVEN fans would love to have that in their collection as well, at least I would ; – )
“Because we had spent so much doing production for “Extermination”, we did the crowd funding as a way of covering our additional costs and a good excuse to do a fun covers album. So, it was limited to a small number of copies, limited to the people that contributed! That’s what made it special. We are planning to do it all over again probably in 2021… “Party Killers Part 2” will be a project!!!! We will press up the first one again at some point.”
On your latest live album “Screaming Murder Death from Above: Live in Aalborg” there’s this guitar solo from Mark which you entitled ‘A.A.N.S.M.M.G.N.’… What does that stand for?
“I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you!!! Lol. It’s “All Aalborg And No Sleep Makes Mark Go Nuts”.”
Ok John, I hope I didn’t bore you too much with all these questions. Thanks again for this interview and all the best for you guys in the future. I’ll leave the closing comments to you…
“Thank you sir! And thanks to the fans… we think you will love this album like we do and we will be touring Europe in February in order to play some of it… see ya there!!!!”
Interview and all live pics: Frank Stöver