TR+ extended interview – class of 2015: rival sons

No stopping them. So ran our cover line last June, when an insolent and immaculately coiffed Jay Buchanan and Scott Holiday stared out from Issue #199. We were right, too.

In the four years since Rival Sons pricked up our ears with_ Pressure & Time_, the Californians have broken into the kind of imperious hot streak that modern bands rarely muster, raising the stakes with 2012’s Head Down, then burning off the few remaining dullards who viewed them as a knock-off Led Zeppelin with last summer’s Great Western Valkyrie.

Do you think it’s important that the rock scene champions new blood?

It’s vital. It’s vital for Classic Rock’s survival. Because if not, your entire readership’s gonna be dead before too long. If you don’t diversify, what service are you really doing for rock’n’roll? Are you just looking at a high-school yearbook and saying, “Those were the days”? There’s a huge amount of people that would love nothing more than to just do that. They want to one-up each other on the details they know, and the memorabilia, or the bootlegs they have from 1972. And there’s nothing like the good old days, y’know, when we used to ride horses and bob for apples and we all got rickets and died of polio. But what service is that to the art? If rock’n’roll is to be a living, breathing thing, there have to be new bands carrying the torch.

Have you been pleased with the reaction to Great Western Valkyrie?

It’s been even better than I would have ever hoped. It’s a record that continues to grow on people. People cultivate a relationship with the record and for me, it’s very gratifying to see that happen. The response just seems to get more and more fervent. It makes you feel like you did something right.

Do you think people are starting to realise you’re not just ‘the new Zeppelin’?

To some people, I don’t know that we’ll ever transcend that moniker. But it’s like, you gotta play by the law of averages. A certain percentage of people are gonna see it that way, because that’s what they want to hear. And so you still get it. But also, in my opinion, our music has grown and we’re making more of our own sound. I think our long-term fans – the people that have really invested themselves – they see it. Despite obvious nods on this last record, like the drum part for Open My Eyes: that’s obviously a homage to When The Levee Breaks. But the rest of the song doesn’t sound anything like that.

Did you care how much Valkyrie sold?

Of course I care how much it sells. But when you’re making the record, that never crosses your mind. When we’re in the studio, recording these songs, it’s like we’re in the delivery room, trying to have a baby, so all you’re thinking about is checking the vital signs. Are we dilating? Do we need a painkiller? What’s the heart rate of this baby? What’s this baby gonna be? You’re just thinking about letting this thing be born and walk around out in the world.

What have been the biggest highs in the last twelve months?

The gratification of things like meeting celebrities is fleeting. Without a doubt, the greatest moments we’ve had in the last year are the shows. Those are the things you don’t forget. Even though the gratification of the show is fleeting too, because we’re playing every night. In effect, you’re born anew and then dead at the end of the night. Sometimes there’s a collective energy that’s conducted. It’s just so powerful. It’s indescribable.

You toured recently with Black Stone Cherry and Halestorm. How was that?

The best thing was the sense of fraternity. Their version of what rock’n’roll should sound like is very different from ours, but with both of those bands, they’re putting the pedal to the metal. They’re really playing. There’s a very small amount of vaudeville going on. As vocalists, both Chris [Robertson] and Lzzy [Hale], they’re straining themselves to fatigue every night. What they’re doing is real. They’re giving everything they’ve got, and the majority of people are pulling their punches. In rock’n’roll, the war is gonna be won on the streets. The war is gonna be won one battle, one night at a time. That’s what’s gonna keep the torch lit. It’s not about smoke and mirrors. To keep this fire lit, you gotta sacrifice stuff. You gotta light yourself on fire, every night.

What would I have seen if I’d stuck my head onto the tour bus?

What you would see is people drinking beers and really talking and relating to each other. Because it’s such a strange vocation that unless you live it, you don’t know what it’s like. There’s a camaraderie and a respect that you have for each other, because this shit is exhausting. It’s taxing on every level, from how athletic it is as a vocalist to how emotionally draining it is to miss home, and the confusion from living this FedEx package lifestyle. You’re never at rest, y’know? Even on your days off, you’re moving. You can’t talk with people that don’t understand. And they get it.

Was there a sense of competition on tour?

With Black Stone Cherry, it was great because we headlined that tour, coming down from Toronto, Canada, into the Eastern United States. So we got to play for their fans, and they got to play for ours. At every show, the energy was shit-hot. Black Stone Cherry, they know we work really hard, so every night they were killing it, putting that bar as high as they can. When we came back and opened for Halestorm on the West Coast, we were doing the same. The crowds just seemed to be getting crazier and crazier, especially here in the United States. We’re giving a little bit more attention to the States right now. I think they’re feeling a bit of a sense of ownership, instead of us feeling like we’re an import that’s come back home to play for a little bit.

How does your Stateside profile compare to Britain?

You have to look at the size of the country, the per-capita aspect. We have a huge audience in the United States, but it’s dispersed and, unfortunately, we don’t have the time to hit all of these cities. We try to do enough shows in the year to service the US. But I think the profile of rock’n’roll in general is stronger in the UK. Ever since my first interview with you guys, several years back, I’ve said that I feel like rock’n’roll is moving into the national fabric. It’s woven in there. Because we invented rock’n’roll. But you guys refined it, and you haven’t forgotten that. There’s a huge sense of pride in that, y’know, in the cultural appropriation of a bunch of saucy young white boys grabbing this blues music. That changed the face of rock’n’roll.

What would it mean for you to be massive in the States?

Well, it would mean a lot to be massive anywhere. Massive in the States: great, I’ll take it. To get the recognition here, on the home turf, I don’t know what that would entail. I don’t know what that would feel like. I don’t feel like we’re massive in the UK. I feel like, in this archaic genre, we’re doing well. But we’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got a lot more records to make. Y’know, right now, we’re a large theatre band, we’re headlining 3,000-seaters. But that’s small. At some point, we need to graduate to being an arena band. The energy between those two things is totally different. I remember, when we started out, we’d only played a handful of shows in smaller clubs around Hollywood and LA. And we went from that to opening for AC/DC in Las Vegas. Suddenly you’re in this arena and it’s filled with tens of thousands of hungry, crazy fans. And, boy, that has nothing in common with a club. I knew at that moment, like, “Wow, this is gonna be an education here.”

Would you like to take it to that level?

My first priority is the art. If the public wants to take us into a 40,000-seater, we’ll do it. But we need to be deserving of that. The worst thing would be to be deer in the headlights, to get these gains before we’re deserving of them. Because we would squander it. You see bands that do that. Are we capable of these things? Yes. I believe we are. I have a tremendous belief in this group of people. I believe we’re just getting our artistic momentum. I feel like we’re just hitting that stride. We’re hopeful for the future, and I think we can make some really good records, that we’re capable of making songs, and refining and improving ourselves without losing the blood and guts and grease.

Do you have the kind of personality that could handle fame?

I was talking to someone the other night – she’s a therapist for different celebrities, and she was asking me about fame. And I was thinking, the challenge to keep any amount of authenticity intact with yourself is a struggle that everyone has. When you tack on being super-famous and the projections of all these people, it can only be negative. So I think the people that are successful at dealing with fame are the ones that refuse to carry that. People say, “Hey, carry this title. Carry the unrequited dreams of my youth.” Well, if you pick it up, you’re gonna have to carry it, and it’s a long road. And for me, I have no intention of doing that. I’ve done a pretty good job at rejecting fame, for the very small amount that has been heaped on me. It just isn’t real.

The British press love you. How are you treated by the US media?

We do get good reviews in the US. But there’s no doubt the UK press has been very good to us, in general. The UK press, it’s always a double-edged sword. It’s respectful, and then totally snarky. Y’know, it’s like a soft hand, a firm handshake – and then a slap in the face. I remember when we first came over, it was always, “They did a really good job at the show, but…” There’s always that asterisk.

Do you think there’ll ever be a rock scene again – like grunge, say?

Well, when you look at it, when grunge started blowing up, all these bands started getting labelled as ‘grunge’. They were calling Smashing Pumpkins grunge. It was like, what the hell is grunge? It was the publications that were doing this. It was as if a cook was trying to plate these different dishes and saying, “Here, I’m gonna serve all of these different foods on a platter to you and we’ll call it the grunge meal.” Those bands were very different. You want to tell me that Pearl Jam were anything like Nirvana? No, sorry, I don’t hear it. Alice In Chains didn’t sound like Soundgarden. On a smaller scale, I think there are scenes going on, even now. But you gotta dig a little harder.

Did you enjoy playing at the Classic Rock Awards?

Yeah, of course. You can’t think about who’s in the audience when you’re playing. It’s like, the music consumes all. But I remember looking out when we started our second song and going, “Look at all these guys.” Eric Burdon. Eric Idle. Brian May. Gregg Allman was there. Ozzy. Sharon. You feel so honoured, but when you’re playing, you can’t think about it. We walked offstage and got outside, like, “Boy, that was a burner.” But I was told we got a standing ovation, and to know that happened, that you made some sort of an impact – it just makes you feel like you must be doing something right.

Is there any country where you’re massive that we wouldn’t expect?

Norway continues to grow for us. In this last year, we’ve put a lot of effort into France. If France is an animal, then it’s a cat. Because a dog just wants you to pet him, but a cat is like, “Who are you? Should I let you pet me? I don’t know if I’m into this.” We played the Monsters Of Rock in São Paulo, Brazil, and that blew my mind. I didn’t know what to expect, but the way that audience responded – the chanting, the energy – was a real surprise. When you talk about feeling hopeful for the future, that was a real shot in the arm. It made me feel like, “Well, if this metal audience is responding to us this way, maybe we’re gonna be alright.” That was a show where it was like the heavens opened up. That was a big one that stays with you.

By this point, are you pretty wealthy?

God, no. I’m able to cover some bills, but you don’t make money from record sales. So then you’re looking at ancillary income from things like licensing out songs to fast-food chains or whatever. You have to draw the line somewhere, of what’s in good taste, so we don’t go too far in that zone. Bands make money on tour, but for us, as the venues grow, our overheads and expenditure grow. We do okay. I have big dreams for my family and I want to be able to provide for my children’s educations. And I feel like we’re at that precipice now, where we might just be able to make this really happen. If we were having this conversation thirty years ago, yes, I would be very, very wealthy. But that’s not what’s going on now. The climate has changed.

Everyone wants to be a rock star. In 2015, is the job all it’s cracked up to be?

Well, I don’t consider myself a rock star, really. Because first of all, I’m not wealthy. It’s hard to feel like a rock star when you don’t have the Rolls-Royce and the big circular driveway. So I’m not feeling that. I’ve got to go out in the back yard now and prune some trees and rake the leaves. There’s a fence in the yard that I gotta go fix. Y’know, those things keep you humble and they remind you that, no, you’re not a rock star. But I am a musician, and I am an artist, and those are the things that gratify me.

Class Of 2015: The New Generation Of Rock Stars

Henry Yates

Henry Yates has been a freelance journalist since 2002 and written about music for titles including The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar and Metal Hammer. He is the author of Walter Trout's official biography, Rescued From Reality, a music pundit on Times Radio and BBC TV, and an interviewer who has spoken to Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Kiefer Sutherland and many more.