The countdown has drawn to a close, and the annual M3 Rock Festival, the late Spring celebration of the hair metal glory days of the ’80s, begins this evening with the “Kix-Off Party” at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD.
Leading up to M3, we spoke first with Lita Ford, Sebastian Bach, and Brian Wheat of Tesla. Next, we had a chance to talk to Michael Wilton of Queensryche and Michael Sweet of Stryper.
For our final M3 interview, we to talk to former Ozzy Osbourne and Badlands guitar hero Jake E. Lee. Jake has been laying low for a while, but has returned in a big way with his new band, Red Dragon Cartel. We talked to Jake about Hendrix, sampling, M3, and of course, vinyl.
See you tonight at M3!
What have you been up to lately?
I just finished a leg of the American tour. We hit the east coast, down to Florida, did the Monsters of Rock Cruise, on the road for about five weeks. We get a week off, then start back up with the M3 Festival. Then over to Europe.
Give us your thoughts on playing the M3 Rock Festival.
I really don’t know anything about festivals. We’re doing some over in Europe too, and I’ve had people come up and congratulate me for getting on these festivals. I am completely unaware of what any of this is. I haven’t really followed what bands do. So, playing the festival—I don’t know. I’m not even sure…how many people is it?
It’s an amphitheater, typical summer “shed” venue. I’m not sure of how many it holds.
Hmm…yeah, see, I wouldn’t even know. It looks like it’s the same bands that were on Monsters of Rock, a lot of whom I know, so that will make it fun. I’m assuming it will be to a fairly decent-sized audience. That will be different, especially for the rest of the band. Me, it’s a festival, which is different from playing a club. A club is more intimate, and maybe is more conducive to musical exploration onstage, whereas at a festival it’s more a physical expression, I guess you could say. When you play festivals, it’s more of a bigger-than-life scenario.
Tell us about forming Red Dragon Cartel.
I was lured back into the studio by Kevin Churko and Ron Mancuso to just write songs and see what it felt like to be in the studio writing songs again. So we did that, and it felt good. Once we started writing the songs, we figured we should get somebody to sing them. At first, particularly with the very first one, “Feeder,” my first listen back to the song with melody and everything intact, I thought of Robin Zander [of Cheap Trick] right away. It was exciting to actually have him do that, so we were gonna continue along those lines, of doing a Slash/Santana style record with guest vocalists.
The further it got along, it became more obvious that if we were ever going to tour, we would need a band, and if we were gonna have a band, it would be nice to have a band that was part of the record as opposed to forming one outside of it. So halfway through the record, we started auditioning, via the internet, singers. Through those auditions we found Darren [Smith], and we also found Jonas [Fairley], the drummer who actually auditioned as a singer, but he happened to be playing drums in the video he sent.
Although I do like his vocals, I like his drumming better, so that’s how we got them. The first time we actually got together and played was just in December. I think it’s safe to say we’ve just finally gotten our tour legs. No more mistakes, no more travesties. I think you know what I’m talking about. [laughs]
Is the Red Dragon Cartel material all new, or is some of it stuff you’ve had stashed away in the vaults for years?
It’s both. The oldest song on there would have been the piano piece [“Exquisite Tenderness”], which I wrote when I was, I think, 14. I’m 57 now, so that would be…hmm…44 years ago. One of the songs is 44 years old, and that would be the oldest. The newest would have been “Deceived,” which I wrote just a few months ago. I was driving to the studio, “Bark at the Moon” came on the radio, and I recognized the fact that I haven’t written anything in that vein since I wrote “Bark at the Moon,” so I thought it would be fun to write another song sort of based off of that rhythmic pattern. The songs range from 44 years to just a couple of months old, and everything in between.
Is it a little strange to hear yourself come on the radio like that, with a song from way back when?
No, I’ve been doing this for a long time, even though I didn’t do it for a long time. It’s not strange to hear anything on the radio for me anymore. I remember the first time I heard it when I was in Ozzy, the first time I heard myself on the radio. That was a real head-turner. I think I’ve gotten used to it by now.
You mentioned Robin Zander from Cheap Trick. You had a few other guest stars on the album, people like Rex Brown from Pantera and Scott Reeder from Kyuss. What was it like working with all those varying musical personalities?
To be honest, most of it was done without my presence. The way things are done these days, you get on the internet and transfer files, then they can record in the comfort of their home, or wherever they want, then they just send them back. It’s not like the old days, where they would have come down to the studio, and you’d be there with them. Now, it’s a little less hands-on.
Tom Petersson [Cheap Trick] did come down to the studio and I got to be there while he was doing his parts. That was sort of exciting, because I’ve been a Cheap Trick fan since the ‘70s, when I was a kid and used to listen to them. The times that I have been in the studio with them, it’s been exhilarating, but to be honest, most of it was done somewhere else then sent back to us.
Is there anyone you would like to work with in the future?
Yeah, but it gets into really my quirky side. It’s Bryan Ferry. I wanted Bryan Ferry to sing on one of the songs on the record.
Yeah. It isn’t an obvious choice. We tried to find him, and that was right around the time that we started realizing that we should just get our own thing going. It’s Bryan Ferry’s fault then! Bryan Ferry helped form Red Dragon Cartel cause we couldn’t get ahold of him, and we wanted him to sing a song, so he can take credit for that. [laughs]
You’ve spent some years kind of flying under the radar, as far as the music industry is concerned. What did you do in that time that you were away from the spotlight?
I didn’t do a whole lot. I continued writing, especially with computers. Back in the ‘90s, starting there, you can do everything at home, you can do everything yourself, so I continued writing music, but I did it for myself. I just had that need to make music, I didn’t have the need to make other people listen to it. At the time I didn’t particularly think anybody’d want to hear it. So I just did it of myself.
That took up a good portion of my time. I had hobbies. For a while there was cars, I got really into getting old muscle cars and restoring them and hot-rodding them up. After I got tired of banging my fingers, I got into computers for a while. I’d hot-rod them—I like hot-rodding stuff, I guess. I would hot-rod computers for my friends so they could play games faster and better. I was very fascinated with that for a while. After a while, that became tiresome, so I got out of that. Other than that I just watched a lot of TV. [laughs]
What differences have you seen or experienced playing and touring in the heyday of the ’80s and early ’90s vs 2014?
The main difference I’ve noticed, and it’s pretty much a widespread development, is not as much actual live playing as there used to be back then. Back then, you would maybe have a tape for your intro, and maybe you would kind of cheat a little bit by having a singer behind a curtain to help with chorus parts and shit like that. That was pretty much as far as it got in the ‘80s, when I was last doing this. That was as far as you would go to kind of “fool” the audience.
Today, it seems like almost every band that I’ve talked to, and almost every band that’s come through Kevin Churko’s studio and Ron’s studio, rely heavily on samples and parts that are already played, with the people just sort of mimicking it live. It seems to be every band’s goal today to sound as much like the record live, and that’s just not the way we did things back in the day. It’s still not the way I do it, for better or worse. Everything that Red Dragon Cartel does, every sound we make, is being played. The audience is seeing it. We don’t use any samples, any tapes, we don’t even use a click track to help make sure the beats per minute are the same in every song. Which isn’t much of a cheat, but every band I’ve talked to, they do that. Before the song starts, the drummer listens to a click track so he knows he’s playing it at the correct tempo.
To me, a live concert should be a live band, and if the song is slower one night, maybe that’s the way the song should be that night. If it’s faster the next night, maybe that’s what it called for that night. I like the variances. I like the possible mistakes, ’cause a lot of times, the mistake turns into something wonderful. It’s not like that so much these days. I can’t name bands, I can’t name names, but it seems to me like everybody’s trying to make it a perfect replica of the record, whereas to me, a live performance is a chance to perform these songs in a similar manner, or in a completely different one. You make it work because it is a live situation, and you have a certain amount of instruments, and I like that. I like if the song is different live than it is on the record. That’s what I see missing a lot today. Maybe it’s just cause I’m an old coot. [laughs] I would like to see it go back to that, where it’s not like going to a concert and watching MTV or something.
I think you’re definitely not alone in that sentiment. The same thing is starting to happen in recording. Before, you had tape, and you had to get it right or you had to do it over and over again. Now, you’ve got ProTools and the like—you just fix it.
Yeah, and you had to be able to actually sing. It’s not in one take or a couple, but there was nothing there to fix it other than you. Like I said, it’s probably just cause I’m an old coot, but just the way it advances, because even my earliest recordings with Ozzy, it was 24-tracks, and you could go back 25 years and talk to the musicians then. You had to perform it live in the studio and have it recorded, and until everybody did everything right, you had to do it over cause you only had the one take. So they, the people of my era, would have thought that was cheating. Who am I to say that today’s version is “not right”? Although it’s not. [laughs] I’m thinking that the next Beatles, if there is a “next Beatles,” is somebody who takes it back to its’ basics, and isn’t so reliant on shit that makes everybody sound the same.
Give us your stance on vinyl—not interested, casual listener, or total junkie?
I don’t own any anymore, but I love that fact that it’s still out there. We’re hoping to put Red Dragon Cartel on vinyl. Of course it’d be red vinyl. What I miss about it more than anything is when you bought it, you had something significant in your hand. The artwork meant something, because it was large enough to appreciate. Even the other senses…the smell of a record when you took the cellophane off and opened it up. I love that smell. It seems like there’s a resurgence in vinyl, and I’m glad about that. I myself haven’t gotten into it, cause I’m afraid if I did, I might go crazy.
There’s your next hobby!
[laughs] That sounds like a decent one, man!
Since you don’t own a collection now, think back to your younger days. What’s one album that sticks out in your mind or brings back a great memory?
I’d probably have to say Jimi Hendrix, Band of Gypsys. That live recording, I must have listened to…I can’t even calculate how many times I listened to it. I think it was Hendrix at his peak, as far as playing live. Every time I listen to it I hear something else that I hadn’t heard the time before. It was a very inspirational record, and it still holds up today as probably the best live rock guitar playing, ever. I would say that record.
That’s such a great album. That’s what got me into Buddy Miles.
Ahh. Yeah, Buddy. He was cool!
What’s next for you after M3?
Well, immediately after that, we’re going to Europe, which I assume is going to be a lot of fun. It better be a lot of fun! I get to go to Italy and Spain. We get to spend a couple of days in Italy, and I’ve never been there. For some reason, when I was in Ozzy, he refused to play Italy and Spain.
That’s a shame.
Yeah, I guess it was a bad experience or something with Black Sabbath. So I’ve never been to those two countries, now I get to go there. I get to have a couple of days off in each country, and I get to spend them with the woman I love. She’s coming with me, so this looks like it could, hopefully, be one of the highlights of my twilight years. [laughs]
We’ve got a six-week tour of Europe, a lot of places I’ve never been to. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and it should be a blast. If it isn’t, then I guess I’ll just quit doing this. [laughs]