In a year in which one of the most famous rock stars in the world declared that “rock is finally dead”, a year in which the album, as a sellable commodity, was also pronounced dead, Rival Sons made a great rock album. For the LA four-piece it was business as usual.
When Gene Simmons made his controversial proclamation he wasn’t dissing Rival Sons or their contemporaries. He was talking about how hard it is for this generation of rock artists to make enough money to survive in the age of streaming and file sharing; an age in which only one album from this year, Taylor Swift’s 1989, sold a million in the US.
By contrast, Great Western Valkyrie didn’t even chart in the band’s home country. It did, however, make the Top 20 in the UK and across Europe. Above all else the true measure of this album is in the purity of the music. What Rival Sons proved with Great Western Valkyrie is that the album as an art form is not dead.
The Californian band’s music has always been rooted in the classic rock of the 60s and 70s. That was evident throughout this fourth album, from Electric Man (shades of Led Zeppelin in its heavy riffs and singer Jay Buchanan’s raw blues wailing) to the epic finale Destination On Course (a weird trip that sounds like Zep fronted by Tim Buckley).
Elsewhere there were traces of The Doors and Black Sabbath at their funkiest. And also an echo of Zeppelin in the way this album was crafted: the shifts in mood and dynamics – what Jimmy Page likes to call “light and shade”.
Rival Sons will never sell the millions Zeppelin did. Those days are gone. But what they created in Great Western Valkyrie – the depth, the power the soulfulness – is music of a timeless quality.
How do you look back at 2014?
Jay Buchanan (vocals): It started in Nashville in the first week of January when we began recording Great Western Valkyrie. We went straight from there to making a video and hitting the road. It was our busiest year so far.
We’ll get on to the highs, but what were the year’s low points?
Buchanan: Oh, there are always lows. In a touring band, having no time of your own can be frustrating, as can the travelling. But it’s worth it to play a great show. A couple of weeks back we played Silver Spring, Maryland which was magical. The energy in that room was very special.
In October, you flew in especially to perform three songs on the BBC’s Later… With Jools Holland. How was that?
Buchanan: Being invited onto such a respected show was a personal landmark.
Mike Miley (drums): It’s a show that we can get on cable in the States, and I’ve coveted a spot on it for ten years.
It’s rare for a rock band to appear on such a mainstream programme. Did you feel out of place alongside Sinead O’Connor, Holly Johnson and Labrinth?
Buchanan: Yeah, but I also appreciated the contrast. I would much rather people looked at us and asked: “What are you doing here?” I was happy there were no other rock bands on the same week as us.
Are you aware yet of positive feedback?
Buchanan: Social media isn’t my thing but apparently our Twitter account went wild and there was a spike in album sales. The previous week we also had the opportunity to be on Late Night With David Letterman. Reaching millions of people all at once when you’re used to playing to 1,800 fans a night in a theatre is quite a surreal experience.
Getting your foot in the door with the BBC won’t have done any harm.
Miley: Exactly, man. It could really help take us to the next level.
**All the same there’s a whole debate about what kind of a band Rival Sons are. The Classic Rock cover story called the band purveyors of The New Rock‘n’Roll. **
Miley: What we play is rock‘n’roll, but Jay is a soul singer. He comes from Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Steve Marriott.
**That story was laced with provocative quotes. For example, guitarist Scott Holiday claimed: “Rock‘n’roll has lost its heart and identity”. **
Miley: I might not have worded it that way but he has a point. Prepping this interview I was pre-warned that I would be asked about my favourite album of 2014, but my answer is that I really don’t have one, and I feel bad about that. I’m a premium member of Spotify but Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam  has been stuck in my car for, like, nine months. I miss the visceral angst that came out of The Who and the Small Faces.
Buchanan: I’m not about trying to fit into the rule book of some club. What I care about is this band making the best music it can. But, having said that, rock‘n’roll won’t ever slip from people’s consciousness. It’s not in any danger at all.
Jay, have you heard anything this year that made you optimistic about the state of rock‘n’roll?
Buchanan: Yeah. Our record is a step in the right direction.
How very modest of you.
**Buchanan: **Actually, it’s me being objective. I’m only one part of this band, but I look at the achievements of the other guys on this record and that’s real rock‘n’roll. I’m full of pride for my bandmates. Dave [Beste, bassist] is, along with Miley, at the very top right now. I can’t think of one drummer that could cast a shadow over Miley. What Scott’s doing… he’s a guitar hero, and there really aren’t many more of those left.
The bottom line is that Rival Sons are ending 2014 in a much stronger position than they began it.
Buchanan: That’s a true statement. We keep staying in the ring; we might get knocked down but we get back up again. With each record that goes by we become closer to securing a spot for ourselves at that hallowed round table of the bands that preceded us. There are times when we become tired and ask ourselves: “Are we really making a difference? Do we really have momentum?” And yes we do. The audience has grown thanks to Great Western Valkyrie. The gains we have been made are undeniable, but nobody is fooling themselves. We still have a long way to go