Interview With Blackie Lawless for House of Hair Online
By Ray Van Horn, Jr.
HOUSE OF HAIR: I’d like to start by talking about you growing up on Staten Island. There are so many notable musicians from the area I feel like there ought to a book written on it! Maybe it’s the across-the-pond element from Manhattan…
BLACKIE LAWLESS: That’s exactly what it is. It’s the redheaded stepchild of New York City. When you talk to people there and ask where they’re from, you hear ‘Oh, I’m from Staten Island…’ Well, it’s almost New York City! (laughs) I mean, it’s all so biased, man! The folks in New York City are far more provincial than they even realize! I didn’t realize that until I moved away. They’ve got their own ideas.
HOH: I’m sure you get this asked this frequently, but how many scars do you have from those sawblades in the old days? I’m happy your identity today is more about being a respected metal songwriter, but how intense was it trying to make a mark with WASP in the eighties? Did you reach a point where you might’ve been thinking along the way, ‘Man, I can’t wait until we make it so I don’t have to bleed to death onstage?’
BL: You know, the old joke was when I had the exploding codpiece. It blew up on me on opening night in Dublin, Ireland in ’86. We had tested that thing for months and it came off without a hitch. What happened was the explosives were flown over for the show and they became compressed because of the altitude. All this we figured out later once we pieced it back together like an air disaster, trying to figure out what went wrong! When it went off that night, it literally picked me up about 4 to 6 inches. I was airborne and it burned all the hair off my legs! The hair never grew back to this day! I remember being in the dressing room—and you’ve got to remember, this was opening night—and everybody’s thinking the tour’s all over. I was in pretty bad shape; I was burned pretty bad. I had to do something to break the tension, and that’s when I made the famous statement, ‘If we wrote better songs, I wouldn’t have to do stuff like this!’ (laughs) And everybody realized by me cracking a joke like that, I was okay and everything was going to be alright. It was one of those kinds of things where the whole room erupted with laughter, but it was nervous laughter! Plus I’ve got a couple of gouges on me from the subways!
HOH: I’ll tell you what; I used to have WASP: Live at the Lyceum on VHS back in the day and I spotted some of that footage on YouTube recently. As a teenager watching that video, you just got sucked into it and you don’t realize the full impact of performers dicing themselves up to entertain their audiences!
BL: Yeah, somebody asked me what I thought about Mark McGwire and I said, ‘Well, you’ve also got to understand that we’ve got a pretty good basis of knowledge of that type of medication!’ (laughs) There’s more rock bands using that stuff than you might think. We’ve definitely used it over the years. It’s not like you’re trying to get bigger or anything, it’s just the road will kick your butt over a period of time. You go out on tour for a year, year-and-a-half and the only way you can keep going sometimes is through some help! People don’t understand, when you’re doing a tour that lasts a year-and-a-half and people find out months ago that you’re coming into their area and they’ve got it circled on the calendar waiting day after day after day, they don’t understand that’s just one show of what may be 150 to 200 shows on that tour. To continue on night after night like that, sometimes you need a little bit of help!
HOH: That’s a good point, and after reading Nikki Sixx’s Heroin Diaries, which presents a crash ‘n burn aspect from the other end of the spectrum, I can imagine the physical hell you all collectively went through given metal became such an in-demand commodity.
BL: Yeah, but even now people walk in to one of the dressing rooms, you see guys taping themselves up. You smell liniment (laughs), you see guys injecting themselves with B12 or other stuff. It’s a part of being out there and it’s a side of rock ‘n roll nobody ever talks about.
HOH: What’s your ritual these days to get prepped for a live gig?
BL: It depends on how long you’ve been out. The best form of maintenance is to take care of yourself in the first place. Don’t let yourself get too far down. People ask me ‘How do you keep your voice in shape for so long a period of time?’ Well, you’ve got to maintenance it. It’s a muscle like anything else. You take care of it, it’ll take care of you, so you’ve got to really pay attention to what you’re doing. There’s a big myth about the whole sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll thing. Bands who are doing it, a lot of them don’t last very long. The object of having a long career is kind of looking at a circle; everything starts at zero and the object is to get back around a full 360 to go again. In the middle of it is a big swamp. The problem is, a lot of guys go down that swamp and never come out again. You’ve got to really pay attention to what’s going on. Rock ‘n roll is full of casualties.
HOH: Some of the younger bands I’ve interviewed, if a lot of them aren’t sick in the regular sense from colds or stomach flus, they’re not talking about what’s making them sick. I haven’t seen a more tight-lipped bunch in a long time. They keep most of it behind closed doors, but what I think you’re pointing out is accurate. They’re all just trying to keep themselves psyched to go—whatever it takes—before they burn out.
BL: We just did three months in Europe and we were doing six nights a week. Occasionally you’ll get into a stint where you’ll do 20, maybe 25 in a row. Those are long hauls. Doing a show’s kind of like running a basketball game. You’re out there for an hour-and-a-half and you’re really humping it while you’re there, but it’s not so much the shows; it’s the travel. Ray Charles used to say ‘I don’t get paid for performing, I get paid for traveling.’ If you’re going to do 25 shows, you’re not doing them all in the same place. That represents 25 different towns, and so you’re going to do that in a three-to-four week period. By the time you get from Point A to Point B, your brains are like scrambled eggs! Then you realize why bands get punchy and singers walk out onstage and say ‘Hello, Idaho!’ when they’re in Baltimore. It happens man.
HOH: What’s your rogue’s gallery pestering you to play live lately? If I was there, I’d be yelling for “Chainsaw Charlie” or “The Titanic Overture.”
BL: Well, “Charlie’s” part of the set, because what we’ve been doing on this tour is a combination of the old promo videos. We have a giant movie screen and it creates kind of a 3-D effect which is pretty cool, because we’re playing in-sync to those films. So what you see is me singing in the video, but you also see me standing in front of you singing. It’s pretty neat to watch the audience while the show’s going on because they’ll watch the video for a few seconds then they’ll look at me, then look up at the video screen then back at me. It kind of turns them into the RCA dog, you know? (laughs) There’s a look on their faces saying something like, ‘How are they doing this?’ It really does create a cool effect.
Somebody says ‘You’re doing 150 shows on this tour; how do you go out and do that night after night, doing the same old show?’ I’ll tell them it’s never the same! The object is to get your head and your butt wired together at the same time to make that the best show it can be. If you’re singing live and you’re playing, the object is to try to be perfect. There’s only been twice in my life where I was actually perfect. The rest of the time is that constant quest to get it perfect, to be the best you can be. To me, that’s the challenge.
HOH: Are there still any moments for you during a set where you’re thinking ‘Crap, man, I tanked that one!’?
BL: Oh yeah, everybody does, but here’s the thing: you know what I was talking about trying to be perfect? You can actually achieve that and nobody knows it. In a professional forum of anybody that’s doing this, if they’ve been doing it for awhile and they’re actually professionals, they’re going to average through 100 percent of what they’re capable of doing on any given night maybe 92 or 93 percent. On a really good night, they’re going to get maybe 95, 96 percent and on a really horrible night, they’re going to hit maybe 88 or 89, where they’ll just want to quit and walk away. Because that little 5 or 6 percent is so minute, the average person will never notice the difference! So that’s the reason you can have a really horrible show and you come off with people patting you on the back telling you how great it was, and you’re thinking to yourself ‘What show were you watching?’ All performers will tell you that. They can’t understand why people are doing that. The differential of that point spread is so minute that you can think you’re great but nobody sees the difference, because you’re going to be consistent. I don’t care how bad or how good you feel you are, it’s going to be consistent.
HOH: Instead of asking the tried and true question of how you perceive today’s metal scene, I’m more curious to know how you view today’s scene’s appreciation of you and WASP. These kids are really starting to get what’s going on, the old school bands are rising up together. For me, I’m loving the hell out of getting to see all the bands I grew up with coming out with strong albums and better yet, today’s kids getting it.
BL: Well, I think just by virtue of attrition of sustaining yourself, lasting as long as you have, a newer generation of fans come along and go, ‘Hmm, where’s the roots of this stuff?’ They look at it and it’s pretty easy to decipher after awhile. If you’re one of those 20 bands who’ve sustained themselves for 25 years, you start becoming an endangered species. It’s also because the industry has changed so much—the record companies have imploded. Those things we referred to as ‘evil empires,’ they’re all gone, man. But the one thing they did really, really well was delivering new music to the people and in the process gave bands a chance to develop. They gave frontmen a chance to develop. I had someone ask me in an interview, ‘Where are all the great new frontmen coming from?’ I said, ‘There ain’t no more, man! There ain’t going to be no more!’ What you’re seeing right now is what it is. You want to see Lemmy, you’ve got to buy a ticket to Motorhead. You want to see Geoff Tate, you’ve got to buy a ticket to Queensryche. When those bands are gone, they’re not coming back! There is no delivery method out there anymore that was like the major record companies who gave their bands the chance to develop. These frontmen or any of these bands who are capable of headlining festivals or filling up stadiums, you’d better go see them now, man, because then you won’t see that again! It’ll all be over and it’s sad to say that, but it’s a fact. I’m not making this up. It is what it is and I wish it wasn’t that way! Unfortunately that’s the nature of what this business is.
HOH: Absolutely, and what’s sad to me is a lot of bands I may touch base with on one tour and one album cycle, the following year I’ll get press releases indicating they’re on a different label, under different management, the whole nine yards. A lot of today’s bands aren’t given the chance to develop as you’re saying. It’s like they’re rope-skipping to different labels to the point some may burn out altogether, some may keep putting out music and lose members in the process, but none of it is the same.
BL: The industry feeds on itself. You’ve always heard the expression that ‘one in a million get a record deal…’
BL: It’s actually about one in twenty million ever did get a record deal. I’ll give you an even more alarming statistic; of all those one in twenty millions that ever got a record deal, less than two percent of all of those will actually make any real money. What I’m talking about is degrees of success now. The things consumers focus on as to what’s really happening out there is such a small amount of the people who are actually trying to do it. It’s staggering! If I would’ve known then what I know now, I probably would’ve done it anyway because I discovered as my life went along that I didn’t choose it; it chose me. I was going to have to do it no matter what. It was just part of my destiny, but I would’ve been a lot more afraid, I’ll put it that way.
If I had a kid now who came to me and said he wanted to be a ballplayer or he wanted to be a musician, I think one of the mistakes people make with young kids is they try to browbeat them down into taking their dream away from them, saying ‘No, you can’t do this’ or ‘The chances of success are so slim,’ or ‘You’re never going to make it.’ I don’t think that’s the way to approach it. What you should do is tell them, ‘You know what? If you want to get out there and work harder than everybody else, you have a chance where you might be able to get your foot in the door.’ But here’s the problem: even though you may be successful, how long then can you sustain yourself in that forum? That’s where the test of attrition comes. If you cannot sustain yourself for 20 or 30 years doing it, you’re not going to make any money! You will eventually be back in the place where you were before you started doing it to begin with. Again, you don’t want to try and strip them of their dream, but you do want to show them the reality of ‘even if you do get there, then what are you going to do?’ That’s where the rubber meets the rug. That’s where the trick lies. It’s a daunting task.
HOH: A lot of WASP’s albums from the late nineties on like The Headless Cross, The Crimson Idol, Unholy Terror, The Neon God couplet and now your latest album Babylon have received good press. I’m sure it’s had to have been a little frustrating trying to maintain an audience in this climate of apathy before metal broke out again in North America.
BL: That goes back to the test of attrition. That’s a lot of it, but you don’t do it because you’re necessarily looking for that pat on the back. You’re doing it because it’s something you have to do. Here’s the thing: when it comes to show business, show business is not looking for people who want to do this; it’s looking for people who must do this. There’s a quantum divide between want and must. Everybody wants, but few are willing to pay that gargantuan price that accompanies must, because must is a monster! If you do this, your life isn’t going to be your own. It will end up belonging to the business and whatever your creative process is. If you’re the kind of person who’s okay with that and you understand to check your soul at the door when you come in, it’s okay. Kids ask me all the time, ‘Hey, man, give me some advice! What do I have to do to get from where I’m at to where you’re at?’ Well, can you live without this? Depending on what their answer is depends on what I tell them. If they tell me that no, they can’t live without it, then I go, ‘Okay, fine, go for it. Give it a shot. Better to try and fail than look at yourself in the mirror at age 40 and say you didn’t have the guts and that’s why you failed.’ But if you have the slightest inkling even for one moment that you can live without this, I strongly encourage you to seek another line of employment, because you will not make it. They look at you like you’re being cruel, but I’m doing it for a reason, to tell them that show business doesn’t want people who want to do it; it’s the people who must do it. That’s how it weeds out what should be there versus what only thinks it wants to be there. So that’s how you answer the question of ‘How do you keep cranking out music?’ It’s because of that. What do you believe in? Are you writing something that you believe in? If you do that and it’s good, then it’ll eventually find an audience.
HOH: I want to touch on The Who for a minute. Obviously you’ve always had an affinity for The Who given WASP’s cover songs over the years, but one thing I always look forward to on your albums is where you’ll have one, maybe two Tommy or Quadrophenia build-up moments. What is your fondest Who experience live?
BL: I was friendly with John Entwhistle when he was alive and I remember one night standing on his side of the stage behind the PA and just watching him. He was probably the best on any instrument I’ve seen from anybody. The guy was unbelievable. He’d get both hands going and it was like typing a letter! I remember standing on the side stage and I just started laughing at him because he was so good I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was comical. You didn’t think anybody could play any instrument like that, he was so good. He was a real treasure to watch. I hate he’s gone.
HOH: I agree, man. Getting into Babylon, this really isn’t so much a concept album as it bonding glue between songs. Is that correct?
BL: I would say, yeah.
HOH: You have the Babylonian times referenced on the project, but I also draw what’s been going on in Iraq on this album. There’s been a lot of damage done over there, like the Ishtar Gate and a lot of archeological digs were messed up through the war. Whether it was intentional or not, it sounds like WASP is taking a swipe at this new-day torching of Babylon…
BL: Well, I’d say really where the idea of “Babylon’s Burning” came from was me watching t.v. at the end of the last year Bush was in office and this whole supposed global financial crisis was going on. You hear that word ‘crisis’ that’s a politician code word for ‘we’re getting ready to take some sort of freedom away from you in some way because we’re going to scare you into allowing us to do whatever we want.’ I was also watching what was going on in Europe at the time. The guys in the EU in Brussels were talking about what they said was this meltdown we were having and they thought, ‘Well, maybe it’s time we thought about a one world system,’ like a one world government. Then another guy says ‘If we’re going to have a one world government, then we should have a one world currency.’ Then the third guy speaks up and he says ‘In addition to all of that, we believe if we had that one world system, we could have the EU and all the people in the European Union microchipped by the year 2017.’ I’m sitting there and I’m listening to this guy and my jaw’s hanging open. I’m thinking to myself, ‘Do these guys understand what they’re saying?’ I mean, this is potential 666 this guy’s talking about, you know?
So I went on the internet and I Googled microchipping in humans… Don’t take my word for it; just take five minutes and look this up! You will be astonished at what is actually going on out there right now. It’s more widespread than even I had any idea. It’s really frightening. It’s knocking on our door right now. 20 years ago when I wrote “Headless Children,” there’s a line in the song that says ‘Four Horsemen sit high up in the saddle and waiting and ride the bloody trail of no return.’ I’m listening to these guys in the EU talking and I’m thinking to myself, ‘We’re closer to that Armageddon type of concept now than we were then when I wrote that song.’ So that was really the basis of “Babylon’s Burning.” I went back and did a detailed study of the Book of Revelations in the bible and some other parts of the bible as well. It was astonishingly accurate in describing what these guys were talking about in the EU. That was really the foundation of this.
HOH: Since WASP has always played in a trademark galloping tempo, I think songs like “Babylon’s Burning,” “Live to Die Another Day” and “Into the Fire” roll perfectly as soundtrack to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Do you see this primary tempo roll WASP utilizes perfect for Babylon’s creation from cover to its contents?
BL: You know, I had a guy ask me awhile back, he says ‘Are you Irish?’ I said ‘No, why do you ask?’ So he says, ‘Just by the music that you do. You guys have that gallop too; it’s like an Irish jig on steroids!’
BL: I thought about it for awhile and I said, ‘Hey, he’s right!’ (laughs) I’d never thought about that, but who knows?
HOH: Babylon is thought to be the biggest city of its time from 1770 to 1670 BC and 612 to 320 BC, I believe. You’ve lived in New York and Los Angeles, so you’re naturally familiar with the big metropolis. Given what Babylon was in its day, do you see a parallel between the mindset of the big cities you’ve lived in and that which is historically reported to be the one-time biggest city in the world? Speaking in terms of this album’s primary inspiration, I mean.
BL: It’s a metaphor. When you look at the original Babylon, it was like you’re saying, the New York City of its time. In biblical reference when it talks about the new Babylon, it talks about what will come out of that whole scenario before an Armageddon type scenario occurs. It talks about the rise of the new Babylon as the city on the Seven Hills, and there’s only one city fitting that description, which is Rome. Take all that and you put it all together, that’s a lot of what went into my thinking, of what the lyrics are.
HOH: Let’s talk about the two cover tunes on Babylon, Deep Purple’s “Burn” and Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land.” I especially thought “Burn” was an interesting choice to cover. You guys nailed it to the sheets, but I’m not sure if it was supposed to intentionally fit in with the underlying themes other songs or if it was a chance cover. What’s the story?
BL: I’d love to take credit and say it was part of the master plan (laughs) but it wasn’t until we got into mastering—which is like a last chance gas station to repair any sonic things you might want to do before it goes to the factory where they make CDs—and I was sitting there. While we were making the record, I hadn’t looked at the album as a whole. I hadn’t thought about all the songs as a complete piece of work because we made the record so fast I basically didn’t have time to do that. It wasn’t until I got to mastering when I started looking at all the titles of the songs. As I looked at the titles I went ‘Wow, there’s a lot of fire on this record!’ (laughs) We had played around with the idea of “Burn” on the Dominator album but didn’t get too serious about it. I thought it would work perfectly on this one, so we went back and finished it off real quick and put it on the record.
HOH: On the other side, you have “Promised Land” following all of this intensity throughout Babylon. For me, the vibe was a light closer, kind of your “Blind in Texas” for this album. I like the duality it presents; you have all of this blazing power and drama, then it’s like, ‘let’s check out with a cool little ditty.’ Was that the intention?
BL: That’s precisely what it was. Again, I would love to take credit to tell you that it was part of this big master plan when we started it, but I’m not that good! (laughs) “Promised Land” was the first song we did for this record and I honestly didn’t even think it would make it on the record, because we hadn’t been in the studio for awhile. For people who don’t know, being in the studio and playing live are two completely different universes. They don’t have anything to do with each other. If you haven’t been in the studio awhile you think, ‘Okay, let’s just do something to ease us back into things. Let’s put on the training wheels and get ourselves acclimated to it. So that was the first song we recorded and I just put it aside and didn’t think much more about it. When we got to the end of the record, I looked at it as a whole and I thought ‘This is taking you to this very dark place. Why don’t we do something at the end that’s got a little glimmer of hope? I know what we’ll do; we’ll take you to the Promised Land!’ Like I said, I would love to tell you that was the master plan from the beginning, but it wasn’t. It ended up being a mistake, but it was perfect. I thought, ‘Man, this is a gift and I’ll take it!’
HOH: I used to play the first two WASP albums on my Walkman on the train tracks home from work. I was the pinhead teenager screaming “Widowmaker” and “Jack Action” to nobody and everybody, but we’re talking cassette version, man! You’ve been around to see all of the different music formats from the eighties-on and Babylon to my ears has that classic analog sound. What’s your take on this digital age of MP3s and downloads?
BL: I couldn’t tell you! I have no clue! I’m one of those guys that is in the stone age when it comes to that kind of stuff. The way I write is extremely primitive. When people see the way I do it, they’re stunned because I still use a mono cassette player. I use it because it’s very fast and the only thing I’m trying to do is to capture ideas. I’m not interested in technology. I have a recording studio for that. So when it comes time to doing things for real, fine, we’ll get into the bigger stuff, but for the moment, when I’m writing, I’m looking for the simplest, the most direct way that I can capture that idea. For me, that’s the way I do it. I have a cassette deck that I bought new for the beginning of The Headless Children record and I’ve used it ever since. All of The Headless Children was written on it, all of The Crimson Idol was written on it and everything thereafter. This thing was a $39.00 cassette deck! It ought to be in the hall of fame.
It’ll be 20 years ago this June when we started building this studio together. We built it right as we were getting ready to doThe Crimson Idol record. When we built it, it was state-of-the-art, but it was a tape-based analog system. As we went through the next ten years, we started getting into digital and things like that. It was only about six or seven years ago I got rid of all the digital stuff and we record in a very old school way now, all on tape. It’s more expensive to work like that but tape gives you a sound and a thump that you just cannot get on digital. If you want to make a really expensive-sounding record, there’s only one way to do it, so when you listen to what we do, you can hear it on those records. When somebody says ‘Oh, that’s a lot of money to do it,’ well you know what? I’m doing these for me, not for anybody else! It sounds good to me and that’s what I want. Everybody says ‘Why don’t you do it on Pro Tools? Kids can’t tell the difference!’ Yeah, well, I can tell the difference. There’s a dimension and a thump that comes out of those records you just don’t get any other way.