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INTERVIEW – John Gallagher, Raven, September 2013

| 13 September 2013 | Reply

By Shane Pinnegar

With a retrospective DVD entitled Rock Until You Drop: A Long Day’s Journey released in July, and countless bands citing them as a major influence, it’s high time we cast our eyes over RAVEN’s long career and find out what makes them tick.

John and Mark Gallagher were average teenagers in Newcastle, England in 1974 when they decided to form a band to pay homage to the bands they loved – playing, in John’s words, things like “Highway Star by Deep Purple, Space Station Number 5 by Montrose, or some fast songs by Blue Oyster Cult or Ted Nugent”.

Neat Records signed the band and released their first single – the 6th issued by the label – Don’t Need Your Money in 1980. Debut album Rock Until You Drop followed in January 1981, one of the most influential albums of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal with it’s raucous, cheap, barely produced proto speed metal.

“It’s kinda hard to get your brain around,” says John Gallagher of the nearly forty years that the band has been around, “it really is. Of course you remember all those parts like it was yesterday. I was sitting noodling on a classical guitar, as I was want at the time, tuning it down ‘cos we only had one guitar, and he comes in – the kid down the street, Paul Bowden – and says ‘we’re gonna form a band!’, so it was ‘well, alright.’ And from there on out, we’ve left a trail of destruction!”

One helluva trail of destruction it was, too, as they released the albums Wiped Out, the seminal All For One, and Stay Hard – their first for major label Atlantic Records. Drummer Rob “Wacko” Hunter routinely destroyed equipment, bones, and, says Gallagher, sometimes opportunities, threatening the band’s future at times.

“It’s possible that no, we may not have been able to continue [as we had been]” says Gallagher. “There were two separate occasions where he broke his arm – we had a big show set up for New York, and it didn’t happen. He actually broke his arm falling over, coming OFF the stage – so that was just a regular accident. Then we played with Ted Nugent in, I think, Dallas… no it was Houston. We were on stage for five minutes, he punches a cymbal and it cuts the main bloody artery on his hand, its squirting blood like on Monty Python! We had to stop the show while it was stitched up, and we were able to play the next night. But those sort of things were [all the time]. The craziest thing was, after he broke his arm, we did a press conference to apologise for cancelling the show, they had those folding trestle tables, [and he was] ‘yeah my arm’s broken’ and he starts punching the table with his broken arm – he broke the table! [we thought] ‘alright, we’re gone now’ “ Gallagher chuckles a little sadly], “It was totally off the rails – maybe it was one or two beers too many before the press conference, I don’t know, but … you know, a lot of it was hype – but a lot of it wasn’t, unfortunately!”

Hunter eventually left the band in 1988, after the band relocated to America and made their most commercial album, the much-maligned The Pack Is Back.

“Rob had that character, the ‘Wacko’ thing with the helmet,” says Gallagher of the split, “but I think to a large degree that boxed him into a corner. After the show, nobody knew who the hell he was. So that kinda got him a bit I think, so it was ‘where do you go from there?’ You’ve got this character which is crazy, knocking everything over, you do a solo, your head explodes – where ya gonna go after that? So I think at that point he was probably very happy to say ‘bye bye’ to that and come back to the real world.”

The Pack Is Back is generally held up as the nadir of Raven’s records, but this writer must confess to still enjoying the admittedly commercialised take on their signature Athletic Rock.

“The Pack Is Back, it’s PART of what we do,” says Gallagher now. “We have a lot of melody in our songs, we have a lot of hooks. But if you take that to the detriment of everything else, it’s no longer a Raven album.

“It’s got an interesting production to it,” he continues, “but the whole thing from the get go was ‘let’s do a high tech heavy metal album.’ And you know, Rob was very much the pop man in the band who really pushed the melody thing… we actually had songs come out of melody lines from vocals before riffs, which had never happened before. But there’s some good songs on there – The Pack Is Back is good, Rock Dogs is good, Nightmare Ride is a good song even though we changed the arrangement for it. There’s other songs like Screaming Down The House that have cheesy lyrics and the thing that kills a lot of it is that it was done to a click track. We don’t play to a click track! And Rob’s the kind of drummer that’s kinda a little behind the beat to begin with, so it gives this leaden feel where there’s no push and pull between Mark runnin’ crazy on the guitar and him trying to hold him back, kind of thing, and that retention makes a big difference. You’ve gotta have some push and pull in the timing of the music otherwise it’s just boring – it really doesn’t work for me.”

“Put it this way,” Gallagher says of whether that album was a worthy experiment at the time, “if we hadn’t have went through doing that, I dunno if we’d be here now. We learnt a lot from doing that. We learnt that we don’t like recording albums with click tracks. We learnt that we don’t like spending 8 or 9 weeks in the studio – it’s detrimental, it’s not what our band is about. Spending the 8, 9, 10 weeks beforehand on pre-production working on your songs or getting your act together is fine, but labouring over every single note and polishing every perfect note… we’re not Pink Floyd. We never should have attempted to even do anything like that – this sort of music is spontaneous, it’s like performance art, you want to capture the moment. You want that little spark that comes out, which is the way my brother plays guitar, he’s the life and soul of the band like that.

“There’s many times where he’s just sat down with a guitar and wrote a song from start to finish, stream of consciousness, and there it is. Like Die For Allah – I sat next to him and he played the entire song from start to finish and I just happened to have a tape recorder and recorded the whole thing and go ‘Jesus Christ, what was that’ – ‘oh no, just noodling’, he says! So you know, more often than not a song that complicated you would sit for days trying to figure the whole thing out but nope, it just appeared. That’s a big part of what we do – spontaneity and bouncing ideas off each other to get it to somewhere else. We learnt from doing that album that that’s not the way to do things, then we did the Mad EP [late in 1986], which was a big step in the right direction, then Life’s A Bitch [1987] which I still think is one of our best records, ‘cos it really has a lot of anger in it unfortunately, but it was channelled in the right way.”

Hunter left after the Life’s A Bitch tour, ostensibly to spend time with his new wife & family, and eventually pursued a more sedate career in music production and engineering, working with Harry Connick Jr and Branford Marsalis amongst others.

“It was a blow obviously, having him depart the band,” says Gallagher, “Especially when you have a three piece – there are no passengers in a three piece band! It’s a triangle – you take one leg away and the whole thing collapses, and that’s what happened. We did the tour for Life’s A Bitch, we did a showcase show for Atlantic Records in New York City, and they didn’t bother to come – that was very depressing – and literally a week later his roadie tells our manager to tell us he’s out – no explanation, no nothing, and we got it third hand. So that kinda made us more pissed off than anything, and we thought ‘well, we had a drummer before ya, so we’ll just have to get another one.’ And so, end of story.”

The search for a replacement wasn’t quick, but it was fruitful.

“Our quest began,” explains Gallagher, “it was difficult because nobody we tried really fit in to what we were doing. We had a jam with one guy and we said ‘Okay, do you know Born To Be Wild?’ and he went, ‘No.’ Hmm – that’s interesting! So, no common ground. And at the time we were living in a house in upstate New York, kind of in a musician’s hangout, and one of the guys who was staying there occasionally was Joe Hasselvander, who we knew right off the bat. He’s sitting there listening to The Groundhogs – we love The Groundhogs! And it turns out he liked all the glam rock stuff that we did when we were kids, he loved Slade and Status Quo and Sweet, he played guitar, he did a solo album where he did all the instruments. Which is basically what Rob did: Rob played guitar, Rob wrote songs – a multi instrumentalist, it’s the same thing. It was like, wow, the guy’s crazy, he’s hilarious, we get on with him, he’s an amazing drummer. Some of the things he pulls off on drums… he was really held back with Savoy Brown when we saw them, but when it came to his solo he’d go bananas and blow the roof off. So, wow, there were definitely possibilities there – this guy just drives the engine. We brought him down the studio, did a demo and ‘you’re in – if you want the job.’

“So,” he laughs, “Joe’s been the new guy now since 1988!!”

At the same time, they extricated themselves from their deal with Atlantic Records, and the new wave of thrash and heavier metal bands – all inspired by Raven, and some of whom had even toured in support of the English Northerners – were taking over.

“Music was changing,” sighs Gallagher, recalling those disheartening times, “and a lot of it is definitely not talent – people can have talent up the ying yang, but it’s 1% talent and 99% hard work – or hard work from having a good manager. We kind’ve didn’t really have that, and we made certain decisions – the way music was changing you were basically gonna [have to] be Slayer or Poison. And we really didn’t wanna be either! So we kinda fell between camps to a large extent. It’s really sad that music got so polarised with that. We obviously had our little [commercial] adventure there where they tried to make us look like Bon Jovi-meets-the hairdressers-meets KISS -that was nonsense, but hey – we were young kids, living in another country, somebody was kicking us twenty bucks a week to live [and saying] ‘hey, do this, do this, do this and you’ll get to the next level!’ And eventually we said ‘alright, we can do this – it’s part of what we do.’ “

Five more albums followed through the Nineties before tragedy struck in the worst possible way when a wall at a construction site fell on Mark Gallagher, crushing his legs. Doctors told him he would definitely lose one or both legs, or at the very best just not be able to walk again, but somehow he got through it with all appendages intact.

“He’s a stubborn bastard!” says Gallagher of his brother’s slow recovery over five years. “Really!! He was just ‘Oh yeah? I’ll show you!’ I mean, somebody just gave me a DVD of a show we did when he was feeling a little bit better. We went out and did this show and he was in a wheelchair, I believe it was 2003 or 2004. He just had an operation two weeks before we went out, so the anaesthetic was still in his stomach and chest, he was acting strange, he threw up, he’d get panic attacks – oh man, it was tough. I mean, who knows which way he was going to go? And then a few months later we had a festival and he had this Mad Max leg brace, and he was actually getting around – and bit by bit he just kicked its arse! It’s like, really inspiring how he managed to pull that together. One of the big things for me was, he wears these hockey pads and he’d always do these knee slides right across the stage at inopportune moments, usually bumping into me! But when we played Japan a few years ago – BAM, there was the knee slide across the stage again. I nearly lost it ‘cos I never thought I’d see him do that again, it was pretty cool.”

It is an inspiring story, and in a show of brotherly love John never abandoned his brother or their band – he had faith and waited til Mark was ready to play with Raven again.

“I teach [guitar],” he says plainly, “so that was pretty cool. There was one of the guys who runs the place where I teach, him and a few of the guys, we put a little band together and played a few gigs, just playing classic rock stuff which is fun – just to get out there and make a bit of noise. But nothing seriously along those lines at all. While we were waiting we thought we’d just write, which we did – we wrote an awful lot of songs. And that’s why the last record [2009’s Walk Through Fire] was so good – we had a lot of songs to choose from, to whittle it down and get the cream of the crop. It worked out really good.”

That album showed Raven to still be an exciting and progressive band – one of the most exciting bands of their generation, in fact. By refusing to repeat themselves they managed to avoid becoming a pale imitation of their former selves like so many of their era.

“We try to stay relevant,” Gallagher says thoughtfully, “it’s interesting to hear you say that ‘cos there’ll be detractors who will say ‘They sound like Raven’ – yeah? no shit, that’s who we are! We spent a lifetime sounding like this, no-one else sounds like this, why the hell would we want to sound like some…” He strums a few grungey chords and grunts death metal vocals, “No thanks! We have our own sound – we may be many things but we are our own men, we’ve got our own thing happening. And we refine it. We have one foot firmly in the past on what we built, and one foot moving forward to try and stretch some boundaries to try and come up with some new ideas. We were really happy with the record – it doesn’t happen all the time where the stars are aligned, you’ve got the right songs, you’ve got the right guy to work with – Kevin 131 – an awesome guy, great engineer, great producer, great set of ears and very quick – and everything just came together. Dead on.”

Gallagher says that Raven’s current tour rider is remarkably healthy for a band of reknowned rock n’ roll maniacs – deli platters, fruit platters, coffee & tea, and only a few beers. Were the early days more hedonistic?

“Oh a little bit,” he chuckles, “There was, I think, a bottle or two of whiskey, maybe a bottle or two of vodka. Mark was hitting the whiskey pretty hard and he realised – he was collecting the bottles – and he had about 15 of them lined up. I think when we went in to do The Pack Is Back, he had them lined up on the mantelpiece, what was left over, and at that point he said ‘I’m done – I can see where this is going. No thanks.’ There’s been occasion… I remember they filled the bus with beer – literally. 72 litre cans of beer, and Mark and Joe drank the whole freakin’ lot on the way down to Greece. Pissed the other band off, something rotten.

“They just drank constantly,” Gallagher laughs loudly, “they were either drinkin’ or pissin’, one of the two! It was quite the feat… but they’re a little smarter with that nowadays, that’s for sure.”

It’s certainly a lot more down to earth than some L.A. rockers very publically celebrated heroin and cocaine addictions!

“Yeah, we’ve never delved into any of that crap at all,” he says with relief, “and I’m really thankful. I never had any inclination for that – I really don’t even drink. That’s probably one of the reasons I’ve kept me voice. Many other people lose it totally – my range is 99.999999% what it was when I was 21, and I’d probably be the only one who could tell the difference – and I aim to keep it that way!”

Gallagher says he doesn’t miss the north of England so much after living in The States for twenty years.

“It’s a different thing now,” he says, “Me Mum died, [both my parents] passed away, so they’re not there. Me sister moved to South Africa, so you know, we have distant family there, friends – it’ll be great later this year when we get to go over there and have a reunion with those guys. And, you can take the boy out of Newcastle, but you can’t take Newcastle out of the boy,that’s for damn sure!”

As for being called a legend, Gallagher is frank about whether it pays the bills.

“It doesn’t hurt!” he laughs, “it certainly does not hurt! And we’re going out doing a whole lot of dates from September, basically ramping it up big time. I’ve been the one holding it back – I’ve been doing basically a steady day job for a long time, but at this point our kids are a lot older so we’re going to make a go of it. So we’re going to be ramping up the touring.”

When Gallagher starts talking about Rock Until You Drop: A Long Day’s Journey, his excitement is palpable – even he hadn’t seen some of the footage they used.

“We did an album a few year back called Raw Tracks,” he explains. “which was a lot of fun, a lot of digging in the dirt, rescuing stuff out of buckets in the bottom of the basement. At the time it was like, it’d be really cool to make a video version of that. And that just went in the bank and gained interest and we started tracking down a bunch of old videos and stuff. Mark wanted to take the challenge and do the whole thing – and he did a really good job of it, I think, strung all the various bits of crazy footage around with the story of us forming the band and being together. There’s some crazy stuff in there and there’s stuff I’ve never even seen! Stuff from the studio that’s hilarious and I’d never seen. Then we got live stuff from ’82, live stuff from ’83 which is pretty rare – well, it’s never been out before! We shot a show in Chicago, with Metallica opening up for us. They used their footage on the Cliff ‘Em All video – when you see Kurt get his guitar pulled into the crowd and our roadies running after it. Our footage was pretty much lost for twenty odd years, and all of a sudden it’s turned up again and it’s great!”

Throw in interviews with the likes of Lars Ulrich, Chuck Billy, Dee Snider, Dave Ellefson and more, and it’s an exciting package documenting a band who were not only massively influential, but were also part of a time when metal became something different, something altogether more epic and exciting.

“Yeah, what happened was,” Gallagher says, “we’d take those songs and rev them up and basically that was where we were drawing our influences from, and we just condensed it down and that’s how we ended up with all this crazy, intense music with lots of parts to it.

“I plug in, and I’m there. I’m that 14 year old being lucky enough to play in a practice room with my best friends. I just do not see that changing – the more we play, it’s really good, ‘cos the way we’re set up in The States, my brother’s down in Florida, Joe’s up in Massachusetts, and we’ll get together after two or three months and go and play a gig – there’s no rehearsal”, he laughs. “It’s just – we just pick up exactly where we left off last time, and it goes up a notch and keeps getting that little bit better. Imagine if we actually rehearsed!!”

Raven enlisted Metallica as support for their first U.S. tour in 1983, and Lars Ulrich pops up on the DVD, talking about the experience.

“It was really interesting hearing his take on that,” says the Raven bassist and singer, “’cos what he says is true – they were very young, it was their first tour, they were very wide eyed and taking it all in. We kind’ve got on well with them, I hoped they picked up a few pointers along the way – and of course they went from strength to strength to strength following that. It was really interesting seeing that. A couple of German journalists [are also] talking on there, [about] one show we played in Germany in ’83, and I think half the crowd started a band!

Gallagher laughs before continuing, “People like Kreator, Doro Pesch, Rage, Coroner – there’s a few more as well. Literally everyone that was from those areas that was into music started a band! And they all cited us as an influence from that show, which is great.”

Lars ended up on the receiving end of the Gallagher’s hazing on the tour when they locked him in the toilet despite the Metallica drummer being due back on stage for an encore.

“Yeahhhhhh,” laughs Gallagher, “he threw a wobbler on that one. Came onto the drum kit, pushed all his cymbals over, and stood [in a huffy pose]. Funniest thing was, James went ‘Lars Ulrich on drums!’ That was funny! We clowned around a bit on that tour – we had to, to keep our sanity. There were 17 people in a six berth camper. Retarded – ridiculous! We spent most of that time in the back of the truck, and it was a really hot summer – so you’ve got like, 100 F, about 40 C – miserable for poor young lads like us who’d never been anywhere hotter than London, that was quite a shock!”

The DVD is available through Amazon, and Gallagher says his brother did a great job editing together live footage from across the years.

“The way its edited is really cool,” he enthuses, “take a song like Faster Than The Speed Of Light, you take the base version of the song, maybe it’s from Japan 2009, then you’re cuttin’ in stuff from over the years all the way through it – so you get an idea of how we’ve changed and how we haven’t changed! It’s kind of interesting to see that.”

Buy the DVD here


Category: Interviews

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