Once upon a time, not so very long ago, if you ventured into Times Square you took your life in your hands. In the 1970s, and indeed well into the 80s, this area of New York City was a virtual no-go area, a red-light district in all but name, teeming with pickpockets, hookers, junkies and sleazy, sweaty middle-aged men ducking in and out of the various peep shows, porn theatres and X-rated video shops that dominated the Midtown Manhattan topography.
These days, in stark contrast to the district’s squalid past, Times Square looks like Disneyland. College students dressed as Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Elmo, Spider-Man and assorted bright yellow Minions pose for tourist selfies; body-painted showgirls in thongs and stilettos hand out theatre fliers; and that odd (half-) Naked Cowboy character permanently installed in the area walks around in his pants, singing songs that no sentient life form could possibly enjoy.
In the midst of this chaos and colour, dressed entirely in black and sporting designer shades to block out the mid-afternoon sun, Lzzy Hale cuts an impeccably cool figure. Tourists and office workers alike crane their necks and gawp openly as Halestorm’s leader poses for Classic Rock’s camera, unsure as to her identity but aware that the striking brunette in the black leather jacket is someone. “We definitely have a romantic relationship with New York City,” says Hale, unfazed by the sight of a wall of camera phones being pointed in her direction.
“When we started out we’d make trips here every few weeks. We’d save up whatever tips we made at the bars that we played in our home town, and we’d pile all our friends into vans and go up to New York and play at a club called Don Hill’s near Greenwich Village. Ultimately that ended up being the place where Atlantic Records saw us and started this ball rolling. This town definitely has a lot to do with some big steps in our career.” Today the Pennsylvania quartet – completed by guitarist Joe Hottinger, bassist Josh Smith and Lzzy’s drummer brother Arejay – are in Manhattan to take care of business, spending what really should be an ‘off’ day on their US tour talking shop with their management and record label personnel at Atlantic’s plush New York offices around the block from the iconic Radio City Music Hall.
This is very much typical of the group’s work ethic – “I remember a time when I’d say to the guys: ‘Hey, we have a gig this month!’ And now it’s more like: ‘Hey, we have a day off this month!’” says Lzzy – and also a reflection of the band’s importance to their label. These days, Halestorm are very much a priority act for Atlantic Records: if a top five Billboard chart placing for April’s Into The Wild Life album were not sufficiently emphatic proof of this fact, then we know it because it now seems mandatory for label staffers to describe Halestorm as ‘Grammy winners Halestorm’, the band having beaten Iron Maiden, Megadeth, Lamb Of God, Marilyn Manson and Anthrax to pick up the Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance for Love Bites (So Do I) at the 55th Grammy Awards in 2013. It’s an accolade the quartet laugh off lightly, but one that undeniably posits their current status within Atlantic’s boardoom as The Rock Band Most Likely To Succeed. “You know, everyone always talks about the Grammy changing everything,” says Arejay Hale, “but really, from our standpoint, it didn’t change anything. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was an amazing personal triumph for us, we were ecstatic and in disbelief, and it certainly helped raise our profile. For us personally it didn’t add any pressure or change the ground rules – we still just do what we do. But certainly it felt like an enormous vindication for what has also mostly been twenty years of hard work.”
Most young bands when they’re starting out will take on bar work or part‑time retail jobs, or perhaps indulge in some light drug dealing to subsidise the cost of instruments and equipment as they seek to move beyond garage rehearsals and backyard parties. Halestorm sold farm animals. “We started this band when my family lived on a twenty-acre farm in Bethel, Pennsylvania,” Lzzy explains. “We had sheep and chickens and horses and goats and a miniature donkey – it was Old MacDonald’s farm, pretty much – and we would literally end up selling off sheep or hay bales to buy my first guitars or a new PA system. Once the band started, everything else came second.” Pre-Halestorm, Elizabeth Mae ‘Lzzy’ Hale and her younger brother played together as a keyboards-and-drums duo, performing what Lzzy recalls as “psychedelic pop”, influenced by their parents’ record collection: Vanilla Fudge, Deep Purple, Heart, Zeppelin, Cream – the usual suspects. Lzzy and Arejay’s father Roger had played in various rock bands around Pennsylvania in the 1970s before being drafted into the US army, and was delighted to see his offspring embark on their own musical journey. So much so that when the Hale siblings decided to become a hard-rock band, Roger sat in on bass guitar. They must have made a curious sight back then, this Heavy Metal Partridge Family (mom Beth served as the group’s tour manager). Had one stumbled into the Tourist Inn in Red Lion, Pennsylvania – “Where the mullet is very much alive and they’re probably playing Back In Black right now,” says Lzzy – on any given weekend in 2000⁄01, one might have witnessed a tiny 16-year-old girl belting out Dio, Guns N’ Roses and Cinderella songs, flanked by her 50-year-old father, while her 13 year-old brother spun around behind her in a home-made revolving drum kit, aping Mötley Crüe’s Tommy Lee. The group would play four-hour sets, throwing in original material alongside the metal standards, while all manner of drunken shenanigans unfolded before their young eyes. Home-schooled by their parents, this was where Lzzy and Arejay got their true education.“Our parents were crazy to let us do this,” admits Arejay. “But we needed that parental support, because you have to be a hundred per cent committed to get a band off the ground.” “It was a very reckless choice on their part and ours,” Lzzy agrees, “but they were brave enough to let us try, and we’re very thankful for that. When we had our first show as Halestorm, it was almost like a light switch flipped on for us. There was no Plan B. “At one point I got invited to join the band Live [following the departure of vocalist Ed Kowalczyk], but I politely declined; it was always about Halestorm.”
This single-mindedness and determination – allied to a relentless touring schedule that saw the quartet rack up more than 250 gigs a year – is reaping dividends for the band. When_ Into The Wild Life_’s lead off single, Apocalyptic, topped the US Mainstream Rock Songs chart in March, repeating the success of Mz. Hyde from 2013’s The Strange Case Of album, Halestorm became only the fourth female-fronted act ever (joining the Pretenders, Stevie Nicks and, more recently, the Pretty Reckless) to pull off that achievement. At a time when so many rock artists bemoan the state of US radio and music television, Halestorm are proving that talk of rock’s demise as a mainstream force is exaggerated. “If you were living my life, believe me, you wouldn’t have the slightest feeling that rock is less important now than it ever was,” says Lzzy. “We’re on the front line, and being out on tour all the time, playing rock shows every night, there’s definitely a huge appetite for rock’n’roll right now. If I can make another war reference, the morale out there among the troops is very high. There’s so much we see that’s hugely encouraging about the state of rock’n’roll, and the state of live music. I’m so excited about world we operate in. “There’s such a camaraderie. You’ve got Rival Sons, Black Stone Cherry, Shinedown… this little community of people that go out, plug in and play loud, and we’re very much a part of that. No one is trying to save the world, we’re all just trying to bring rock to the people.”
If you want a perfect encapsulation of the mind-set that has propelled Halestorm ever forwards since their formation in 1997, consider this: in March the band sold out the 3,000-capacity Roundhouse in North London, yet when they return for a full UK tour in January/February they’ll be playing third on the bill to Black Stone Cherry and Shinedown on an arena tour. Given that Halestorm are probably ready to step up to headlining 5,000-capacity venues on their own, such a billing is a mark of humility, and an obvious indicator that no one in the band is about to get carried away with their burgeoning success. “There were no lofty ‘We’re going to take over the world’ goals with this band. The plan was always just to continue, to keep moving forward,” Lzzy states. “It was like: ‘Okay, what’s the next Yes or No decision?’ I’m not saying we were always the underdogs, because everyone says that, but we’ve always been doing our thing, and never were that Next Big Thing band. It’s all about baby steps. “The bottom line on that tour is that these are all friends of ours. We’ve known Black Stone Cherry since they were kids, and playing with Shinedown was one of our first national tours. I want to do this purely because these are my friends and it’ll be fun to go around the UK and Europe with these guys. It doesn’t matter to me what slot we’re in, it’s just a show. That’s what it’s always been about – the show.”At the time of writing, there are 69 shows on Halestorm’s docket, taking the band through to the end of that eight-date UK arena tour with Black Stone Cherry. By the time you read this article that list of dates will undoubtedly have lengthened further still. “That phrase ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’? That’s me,” Lzzy says simply. “As a kid I was almost painfully shy, and it took this band for me to figure out who I am. So this band is so much more than a career choice, it’s a part of my identity, it’s everything to me, all I’ve ever wanted to do. When we started this band I was thirteen years old, and in many ways I still feel like the little sister among people like Slash and Corey Taylor when we’re out on tour. I’m still such a huge fan of all these people, and I’m absolutely not jaded or numb to that at all. I’m just trying to keep my cool.” As Lzzy takes our leave and strides along Manhattan’s crowded sidewalks, ready to plot the path ahead for her band, it feels like the world’s fastest-moving city takes a breath and stops to watch her walk by. She doesn’t look over her shoulder once. Halestorm are on the rise, and this lady is not for turning.