RAVEN are an icon of Heavy Metal, end of the story. Younger fans of the genre may not know them very well, but if you are into Metal for some time, you probably either heard them, heard about them, or most likely you have a couple of their records in your collection. Pioneers of Heavy Metal, godfathers of Thrash Metal, originators of the Athletic Rock (alright, don’t take this third term too seriously). Vocalist / bassist and founding member of RAVEN, John Gallagher, was kind enough to answer this long, nerd-made interview – as it’s no special secret that RAVEN is a band very close to my heart!
John, you started the band in 1974, together with your brother, Mark. Did you use the name RAVEN from the very beginning, or did this idea come later? Did you or Mark play in any bands before 1974?
"No, we started before we could really play! Mark and our friend from the next street, Paul Bowden, came over and said "we are starting a band and you can play bass" which suited me fine. We had ONE acoustic guitar between us and I was tuning it down to play bass parts! The name came later that year… We had lists of names and RAVEN was the one no one actually hated! We played our first gig in December 1975 at our school. Half covers, half originals… and at the end of the set …we trashed everything!"
Talking about family, I always wondered if you are related to the famous Irish Blues guitarist, Rory Gallagher?
"Only in spirit! I was lucky enough to see Rory live 3 times and he was amazing every show, very inspirational. We did name our son Rory… of course!"
Do you remember what inspired you to start playing (girls, like in most cases)? Did you start from bass guitar, or as most bassists you started with a guitar?
"I was fascinated (still am) by the sound… But the fact that you could create sound… Notes… Noise… Songs! I started on guitar, but got a cheap bass pretty quickly – I always played both however. It took a while to find out girls were impressed!"
The very first line-up featured additional guitarist Paul Bowden, but he didn’t appear on your first single from 1980. When and how did you decide to proceed as a trio, with only one guitar?
"Back in 1979 Paul was pretty much too interested in going to the local workingmens club, drinking. Our rehearsals were getting in his way, I guess. It blew up one day and we decided to part ways. We did try another friend on second guitar, but it did not work. Rob suggested we go as a 3 piece and we have never looked back! Immediately each instrument has more space… More responsibility… And oddly enough, if done right its more powerful!"
Sean Taylor, the drummer known from other NWOBHM acts such as BLITZKRIEG, WARRIOR, and first of all SATAN, was also a member of RAVEN, between 1977 and 1979. Do you remember why he left the band? Do you guys keep in touch?
"We were working with that other second guitarist. It was not working and Sean basically said "I’m outta here"! He’s a great drummer and it’s great to see SATAN back together…I saw them play here in the States and we did a festival with them in 2015 so it was great to reconnect."
That’s right, and the albums they did after their comeback are awesome. So, how did you find Rob "Wacko" Hunter, who joined you in 1979?
"We had put an ad in the local music store. The drum guy Des, who used to play with Gary Moore, said "I have the guy for you" and he hooked us up… Rob came down to our rehearsal hall… Mark was a bit late… I plugged in and we jammed… It was instant, I knew we’d found the guy!"
If I have correct information, your very first demo with 2 songs, ‘Don’t Need Your Money’ and ‘Wiped Out’, became your first single. Is that correct, were songs from one recording session used both on the demo and on the single, or were there two separate sessions?
"No, we did a live to 2 track demo of ‘Money’, ‘Wiped’ and ‘Let It Rip’, I believe… We then went in weeks later after Neat agreed to a deal, and recorded the songs on multitrack, and did some work on the arrangements. ‘Wiped Out’ in particular had some extra riff parts, which at the suggestion of producer Steve Thompson, we cut them out – and learned a lesson – keep it simple if you can!"
And how do you remember this first "professional" recording session?
"It was very interesting and fun. We had only done one demo before and it was pretty spartan stuff. So, we had a lot to learn but knew it was all about the energy from day one! We played the basic track, and overdubbed the vocals and a guitar solo. Actually on ‘Wiped Out’ we had that little descending guitar harmony… Mark and I did it together to save tracks!"
I assume the debut single had good sales, as you got an offer from Neat Records, and you next did a few studio albums for them. How did it happen that you inked the deal with Neat?
"The single did well, we then sorted a deal for an album. Things were difficult with Neat as David Wood was extremely cheap and doing anything that involved money was almost impossible… Put it this way: all the 2 inch master multitrack tapes were just wiped off and reused over and over again… Just a travesty! But again, we were very, very lucky – the Neat thing got us up and running."
You had different producers of the first three studio albums. How do you remember the co-operation with them? Was it more like the final word had to belong to you anyway?
"In a way yes, it was our final word… We learned a LOT from Steve Thompson & Mickey Sweeney… We then did a Radio One BBC session in London in 1982, which was a "real" studio. Coming back to Neat to do "Wiped Out" was not something we looked forward to, but I guess you can hear the anger and energy! Keith Nichol was a bit out of his depth as it was his first project… So we basically took over. With "All For One" we wanted to work with a REAL producer – and Michael (and Udo) did a wonderful job."
Yes, your third studio album, "All For One", was produced by the famous Double Trouble team – Michael Wagener and Udo Dirkschneider. How did this co-operation happen, and how do you remember this recording session?
"We liked the "Breaker" album by ACCEPT and told Neat "we want the guy who did this!" – so we got him! We did 2 weeks of pre-production in Newcastle, going over the arrangements. Then recorded / mixed in a studio in London for about 15 days I think… It was the best – we built this sonic monster up day by day and were very excited of how it was coming together… A REAL album! We spent a lot of time with the sounds – making everything as powerful as possible and it paid off."
"All For One" is often labeled as the most successful RAVEN album. Do you agree with such opinion? Do you think it’s because of the Double Trouble team?
"I think it’s a number of factors… The songs… The performances… The SOUND… And it was just one of those magic times when it all came together… Mike and Udo did a killer job of getting the best out of us and we laughed constantly! We learned a lot about song construction…. and working with tones… this was before the common digital effects we have now… Michael set up a huge rack of delay units and calculated actual virtual rooms for the reverb sounds!!!!"
Your next studio album, "Stay Hard", had only 2 songs produced by Michael Wagener, and had 3 executive producers being listed, what’s quite unusual…
"Initially this album was started in order to get away from Neat… We were holding back a number of songs! We were working with our live sound guy Norman Dunn as engineer… Then came the Atlantic offer… So we then recorded ‘On And On’, ‘Extract The Action’ and ‘When The Going Gets Tough’ – when it came to the mixes, they were not happening… So we called Michael back in. The label wanted a re-do of ‘Hard Ride’, so Michael recorded that and we re-did ‘On And On’, which was just a pain to do… A lot of work BUT it came out great. The executive producers? They are not "producers", they are people kicking in money!!! We basically did this with their money and got the advance off Atlantic after the deal was done!"
Your song ‘Hard Ride’ was released by the world famous Pop star Samantha Fox, as ‘Giving Me A Hard Time’. Do you remember how did it happen?
"No!!! I found out maybe last year!!! Crazy!!! (Where’s my lawyer…)" In the middle of the ’80s we could witness a slight change in RAVEN’s music style. Was this change suggested by your new label, Atlantic?
"Partially… I guess management and label saw us as KISS meets BON JOVI or some shit… A big part of what we do is melody and songs… But when the raw edge gets dialled back… Then it’s not us any more. I like "Stay Hard" but "The Pack Is Back" was not what it should have been… Some great songs, some really bad ones. Great sound, but Rob insisted on playing to a click track, and that sucked the life out of the band… We learned a lot doing the album – a lot of what NOT to do! It was a great experience working with Eddie Kramer, but this kind of album was not his forte… Or ours!"
How did you actually switch from a typical Heavy Metal label, Neat, to a major one, Atlantic?
"Neat was not doing anything for us… In order to move up the ladder, we needed a major. We toured all 1984, and finally got the deal in December 1984."
Did they also suggest who should produce your albums?
"I think they were happy with Eddie, but it was not their choice. I do remember Gene Simmons being asked by our managers, and he wanted $100,000 before he would consider it!!! (laugh) We had the conversation on tape and he was… entertaining!"
You did a clip for ‘On And On’ (from the Atlantic album "Stay Hard"). How do you remember filming this video, was the scenario the band’s idea?
"It was a lot of fun to do, the director and us brainstormed the "plot"… Basically it’s the band story… Broke, looking for a deal… Then bang! On stage! We actually bought JUDAS PRIEST’s "Screaming For Vengeance" staging and lights, so it looked pretty cool once we messed with it…! It was done at an old roller rink place in Staten Island NY over a very long 24 hours…"
When exactly did you move to the States, and why? Classic economy reasons?
"What happened was after the Kill Em All For One Tour we discussed with our managers (Jon Z and Tony Incingeri) coming back to the USA in 1984… Touring until we got a agent deal, and a major record deal. So we came over in early ’84 and basically did that! We went home for Christmas and were back in the USA in ’85 and did it all again… And again… And at a certain point you realise you have actually moved to the USA! None of us moved with "family" – we pretty much broke all ties in the UK in order to do this…"
Was your removal the reason why Rob Hunter left the band? Or did he leave earlier?
"Rob got married in ’87 – you would have to ask him, as he never actually told us, but I believe his wife was not happy at the prospect of him being away on tour. Also he was happier with the more commercial approach… Atlantic basically did not know what to do with "Life’s A Bitch", and he figured it was time to quit, I guess. I did not talk to Rob for about 5 years when we had a long phone call and wished each other well…"
Was it hard to establish this new incarnation of RAVEN on the US soil?
"No, we’d done the "Kill ‘Em All For One" tour with METALLICA opening in ’83… In ’84 we took out another young band, ANTHRAX, and toured the USA again to an even better reception. The States is just SO big… It does take a lot of very hard work to make a dent here!"
How did you join forces with Joe Hasselvander? And how do you remember your first rehearsal session with him?
"So… We tried a few guys… None of them "clicked", you know? And then Mark said "why don’t we try Joe?". Joe was playing in SAVOY BROWN and had just quit them… He had been staying at the same house we were at in Upstate NY… He was a friend and turns out a fan of the band since day one! So we set up rehearsal at Bearsville Studios, and brought Joe down and demoed a few things – he was perfect! We jammed in some great ideas… We already knew he’d done solo stuff with him playing all the instruments, so like Rob, he wrote as well as being a drum monster!"
Did you try playing with any other drummers before Joe joined the band?
"The only one of note was Reed St Mark late of CELTIC FROST, it unfortunately did not "click"."
Was working with Joe in the studio different than working with Rob? They both play in totally different styles…
"Not too different… Joe likes to try a few approaches then we all go for it… The 3 of us together doing the basics, which is how we did it with Rob, except on "The Pack Is Back". Joe plays deceptively… It may look like he’s not smashing the cymbals etc. but he’s hitting CORRECTLY which gets the most out of them… When he hits the snare… Jeez, EVERY hit is a rimshot!"
I was recently listening to the "Destroy All Monsters" live album, recorded in Japan. I noticed your voice sounds a little bit different there, did you have any throat problems that night? How do you remember that night in general?
"(laugh) Throat problems? I had laryngitis! I could barely talk before we started… As soon as I hit the first few notes of ‘Victim’, I figured I could get through it! We did the initial mix in Japan and I wanted to redo some parts, but could not – my voice was totally shot after doing the show… So it is what it is!"
Did you consider naming this live album "Live At The Inferno II"? I ask as your first live album is known as one of the best Heavy Metal live albums ever made, and you know – KISS did "Alive I", then "II", then "III"…
"Nah… We had the idea for a long time… Japanese live album – destroy all monsters!"
You joined Paul Di’Anno’s new band KILLERS as their live bassist in 1991, how did it happen? And how do you remember this tour?
"Actually I got the offer from a friend of mine who was managing Paul. They asked me to play bass as they were doing showcase "gigs" in a rehearsal hall in order to get a record deal. So, the band played Di’Anno songs, MAIDEN songs… No new songs… And conned a company into getting a deal! A mobile recording truck was hired and the "set" played live with very bad audience noises added later… This was the "South American Assault" album… It’s live as it went direct to 2 track… But its not in front of an audience! I did 2 weeks with them for a tidy sum of money and that was that, back to my boys!"
You have one unusual release in your discography, the "Devil’s Carrion" compilation. Weird cover artwork, no original band logo, unknown label… Was it a bootleg?
"That was exactly what we thought Neat would do… Put out a "best of". It’s also why we did "Live At The Inferno", to beat them to the punch. This album had zero input from us…"
Looking at your discography it’s easy to notice this huge gap between 1999 and 2010. Is this when Mark had the accident?
"Yes… We were ready to start work on an album in 2001 when our Dad passed away… Then Mark had the accident."
What exactly happened, if you don’t mind talking about it? I know a few stories, but the most common one is this one about a brick wall falling on Mark…
"A few days before Mark had a car accident… His head bashed into the windscreen, and he had a big lump on his head. A few days later he went to visit a friend that owed him money, I believe at a job site where they were building a big drugstore. To get on the site you had to wear a hard hat… Mark could not, due to the lump on his head, so he just worn a baseball cap. He was standing next to a wall that was about 100 meters long, 20 meters high, and 4 meters thick… The wind blew his hat off, so he went after it. Then the wing blew it further away, so he went after it, then the wall fell down on him, crushing his legs. If it had not been for the hat it would have certainly killed him. As it was, he had a metal bar through one leg, the calf muscle ripped off the other, both feet dislocated… Rips, cuts, blood loss, etc. etc. The doctors wanted to amputate both legs… Then one leg… Then it was "you will never walk again" – he proved them all wrong but it took about 3 and 1/2 years before we played again, with him in a wheelchair… In 2005 he was able to stand with a leg brace and we did Keep It True and Bloodstock. Right now you would never know that it had happened… It’s pretty amazing!"
Yes. Was there a moment you thought there is no more RAVEN, that the band won’t survive? Or you both refused to give up and there was no option you won’t play again?
"We were really thinking more about my brother and if he could even walk again… I knew he could do it… So I just kept writing…"
Your show at the Keep It True Festival V in 2005 was amazing, and Mark was a beast. Why did it take 5 more years to complete and release a new album?
"He still had more operations… I found Kevin 131, our engineer, on the internet in 2006… Loved what he did and the studio… Brought the guys up to demo a few songs and it worked great… We then started looking for a new label and working on songs for the album… We finally recorded in 2008, the album came out in 2009 in Japan, and we waited for SPV to sort out their financial issues – they finally released the album in 2010!"
You did a 4 track demo in 2006, were there no labels interested in having RAVEN on their roster? I always thought bands like you don’t need to record demos, except for own, internal pre-production use, to listen to own songs etc. Did you actually send this demo to labels?
"Yes we did… It’s never as cut and dried as you think! We did actually use those recordings on the album… We just added / changed a few small things. We needed a good Japanese label to get funding, so we could actually record the album… Then got deals after for Europe, USA and South America."
You returned for good in 2010, with "Walk Through Fire". I guess the title refers to this period we just discussed?
"Yes, that’s it! After our Dad… Our Mom… Joe’s Mom… All passing away and Mark’s accident… We had been through the mill!"
Did you worry how your fans would react on this new album? Your previous one came out in 1999, and a lot of both good and bad things happened in Metal during that time…
"We learned a long time ago to please ourselves… If we like it, the fans will probably like it! To me in that period there were just more cookie monster shit bands than ever before… And the whole EVANESCENCE rip off bands with the operatic girl singer, coupled with the cookie monster… And more clicky loud kick drums of course! So, we ignore all that and do what we do to the best of our ability and go from there… And for whatever reason the stars alined and the album turned out really, really good. We planned a heavy album with great songs – kinda "Architect Of Fear" beating up "All For One" in a back alley… And it worked! Our fans know we are THE best RAVEN style band out there!"
That’s correct! Your new album, "ExtermiNation", was financed through a Kickstarter campaign. Do you think crowd funding is the future of music?
"It’s certainly a viable method if you have a rabid fan base… And we do! From my view point the fans LOVED the whole concept, all the goodies… And want us to do it again. It enabled us to do the album the way it had to be done… We took a lot of time writing and rehearsing… In the same room… And that’s why the songs came out so strong."
The idea behind your crowd funding campaign was simple: doing a new album, and backers that support you got both the new album and a compilation with cover songs. But how do you feel when you see bands gathering money for some weird projects which haven’t much to do with music, or when musicians give for example away their lingerie through the campaign (yes, it actually happened), or offer things such as date or evening in their companion?
"I guess it depends on the band, it’s kinda all up for grabs, but when I see "pay $500 and get a 15 min guitar lesson from Mr. X", that’s gouging! We had a sliding scale and the big contributors got unique rewards AND all the other stuff… You have to make it work with cool stuff… It’s like those VIP packages, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth…"
The mentioned compilation with the cover songs, 11 remakes – how did you choose them? Can we say that "Party Killers" include personal favorites from the band members?
"Yes, although Mark wanted to contribute more as I picked the ones he wanted to do (laugh)! We had about 6 that were easy choices, then we added the LIZZY cut… The SWEET cut… The EDGAR WINTER, the NAZARETH, and the BOWIE… Boom! All done in 3 days!"
You promoted the new album on a US tour with NIGHT DEMON, then on a European tour. Touring these days is way different than back in the ’80s, and it’s no secret bands hardly make any money on tour… So, how did it go?
"After an argument with a agent in the USA, I booked the USA tour. 43 dates. And we made money… Although it’s tough playing some no-name town in the Midwest on a Tuesday night in winter with -15 degree C temperatures! We run lean and mean and make it work, we have to!"
You are no beginners, and it’s fair to call you a classic band. I wonder where do you find or where do you look for inspirations, when you work on new songs? New bands, new music, new movies? Or do you try to think the same way like back then, when you were doing your first albums?
"We get inspirations still from the classic stuff we listened to as kids… And some new stuff too… If it’s good – it’s good – there’s no need to parse that. I loved the last RIVAL SONS album… And the MUSE album… And my YES bootlegs from 1976!!!"
So, any favorite young bands? I’m sure you will mention NIGHT DEMON, haha…
"Yes Jarvis and co.! Good guys and flying the flag for sure… Also CAULDRON, ENFORCER, HOLY GRAIL, BAT… Some good acts out there doing it right!"
There are many young – and not only young – bands that keep on listing to RAVEN as their influence, incl. METALLICA or KREATOR. How does it feel when you find RAVEN cover songs performed by other bands?
"I do not see that many, but I know there’s a tribute album coming out soon. I heard AVENGER doing ‘Inquisitor’. I also heard HUNTRESS do the same song – crazy!!! Looking forward to hearing the whole album…" (DECEASED also did a killer version of ‘Wiped Out’ on their 2015 cover album "Cadaver Traditions" – Frank)
As I mentioned METALLICA. Any dirt from the famous "Kill ‘Em All For One" Tour, when METALLICA opened for you? Alright, maybe no dirt, but how do you remember that tour?
"It was insane… Guerrilla warfare… 17 people in a 6 bed bus! We introduced America to our own hyped up rRock’n’Roll, and influenced probably every Thrash band that followed. I have great memories of Cliff, he was an old soul on young shoulders…"
Two years ago (or it was three years?) you opened for METALLICA, and I know you met the guys… Was it more like a reunion of old friends and you had an occasion to talk, or was it just saying hi on the corridor, playing the show and going home?
"It was quite emotional… 30 years since I had seen James or Kirk (we saw Lars briefly the year before) and we did get to hang out for about 20 minutes before they went on. It was great to re-connect. James was actually on stage videoing our show and giving us the thumbs up… During that show he took the time to tell the audience about us and thanked us for giving them their 1st tour… All very cool."
At the end of December 2015 we lost one of the most iconic persons of the Metal and Rock scene, Lemmy. As I recently realized, most of touring bands, managers, producers etc. have some MOTÖRHEAD related stories to share… How about you? Ever met Lemmy, did you guys share the stage with them?
"Yes, we played with MOTÖRHEAD about 5 or 6 different times… Lemmy was such a character, always full of jokes, we caught him taking a box of pita bread from a walk in fridge in Buffalo… When questioned he muttered "Well… You gotta steal SOMETHING, doncha?" The world is a sadder, smaller quieter place without him."
What are the plans of RAVEN for 2016?
"Looks like we are going on one of the cruises in a few weeks, then South America in the spring, and working on Euro festivals… A tour… And then the USA!!!"
Interview: Bart Gabriel
Live pics: Frank Stöver