Welcome Back: Raven

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Mention the Gallagher brothers and most people will likely think of Noel and Liam. But loyal rock fans will always favour John and Mark Gallagher over the Oasis siblings. The Geordie duo have been mainstays of New Wave Of British Heavy Metal legends Raven since 1974. Forty-one years later, they’re still going strong with new album ExtermiNation. “We’re making music to smash your face in,” says bassist John, “and we probably always will.”

What was it like growing up in the early days of the NENWOBHM (offshoot the North East New Wave Of British Heavy Metal)?

With twenty-twenty hindsight and all that, it’s very similar to what happened in Seattle with the grunge thing. The North East of England was an outpost, a total backwater. It had nothing to do with the mainstream music business. But all of a sudden a bunch of bands – kids, actually – just got together and started playing heavy music. We had no intention of performing at Madison Square Garden or wherever,– we were just happy to get out there and make a racket. The weird thing is, although these bands shared same kind of energy and drive they all sounded totally different. Which was excellent. It was a really cool, very organic thing, you know?

Are you surprised that people are still excited about the NWOBHM (as a whole) today?

No. Because good music is good music, period.

Does it annoy you when bands come out of the woodwork and claim to be NWOBHM legends, when in actual fact all they did back in the day was release a couple of singles and then disappear?

I’ve got a funny story about that. We just played a festival in Holland and we were hanging out with Tysondog, Satan, Tokyo Blade… all the old guard was hanging out. I got talking to Kevin Wynn [Tysondog bassist] and he was at some show [Brofest] where Mythra played. Some guy from Mythra turned around to him and said: “Don’t you know who we are? Don’t you know what our legacy is?” Ha-ha! And of course Kevin replied: “Yes, I know what your fucking legacy is: you once fucking played a thirty-minute support set at the Newcastle Mayfair, you twat!” I had to laugh. Here’s Mythra, four guys who thought about making a demo in 1981 but never really did, and now they’ve re-formed.

Which are your favourite bands to have come out of the NWOBHM, apart from yourselves?

When we started out we were so up our own behinds, doing our own thing, we very rarely got to listen to rival bands. But a lot of the NWOBHM is very iconic. I was very late to the table with Diamond Head, but they’ve got great riffs and really good songs. It was fun touring with those guys a year-and-a-half ago. There was a little bit of argy-bargy between us and Venom – the playing was atrocious and it was so noisy – but the attitude and songs like Die Hard were always great. Tank had some excellent tunes. Iron Maiden didn’t grab me at first but they were definitely different, and they led the pack when all this started. I first discovered Saxon when they were called Son Of A Bitch; they’re always a lot of fun to see live.

Raven’s new album,_ ExtermiNation_, stays true to your classic in-your-face approach while also sounding thoroughly modern.

It’s definitely contemporary as far as the technical specs are concerned. Kevin 131 [Gutierrez] did a beautiful job producing and mixing it, and Bill Wolf did a wonderful job mastering it. Audiophile-wise it’s killer. So it worked out great. You’ve got our roots and you’ve got a cutting-edge, great-sounding record.

Can you explain to the uninitiated why Raven’s music is often described as ‘athletic rock’?

It was an invention of David Wood [boss of Neat Records, Raven’s first label]. The first we heard of it was in an advert that said: ‘Athletic rock from Neat’.’ It is kind of descriptive, compared to a lot of other music genres. Even in our advanced age we still run around like we’ve got crack-crazed ferrets down our trousers. We probably always will. For some reason we even recorded a song called Athletic Rock [on 1983 album All For One].

Given that Raven are now in their forty-first year, is there any danger that your music might soon be dubbed ‘arthritic rock’?

No-no-no-no.

Raven have been based in the US since the 1980s. Does that work to your advantage? Do you miss life in north-east England?

Well, yes and no. We’ve lived in the US since 1984, permanently, when Johnny Z [head of Megaforce Records] brought us over. It was never our intention to live there, it just kind of happened. In 1989 I got married and we had a family, so it made sense to stay. Still, as the old adage says, you can take the boy out of Newcastle but you can’t take Newcastle out of the boy.

There’s a bonus track on ExtermiNation called Malice In Geordieland, on which you pay tribute to your roots.

That’s me and my brother [Mark, guitar] just clowning around. We had these riffs in the rehearsal room and we needed a couple more songs, so we said: “Let’s just rev it up.” I was singing nonsense, and Joe [Hasselvander, drums] said: “Why don’t you do the whole song in Geordie? It’ll be brilliant.” So we sat down, and I came up with the lyrics pretty quickly. The song mentions all the bars we used to go to, the Mayfair Ballroom, the girls we used to chase, some of the trouble we used to get into… It’s just a funny song. It probably needs some translation software for most people to understand it. But it still kicks, it’s still a goodie. It deserves its place.

Raven went on hiatus for a large portion of the 00s, when a building collapsed and fell on Mark. What happened exactly?

The year 2001 was a pretty shitty one for us. All kinds of crazy nonsense went on. Mark got stuck in Canada for three weeks after nine-eleven, and right after that he had a car accident that put a big lump on his head. Shortly after, he had to visit some guy at a construction site down in Florida – I guess he owed him money or something. So Mark went to the site, but he couldn’t wear the hard hat because of the lump on his head so he kept his baseball cap on. But there was a strong wind which kept blowing his hat off. He kept chasing his hat and the wind kept blowing. Then an entire building fell down. If Mark hadn’t been chasing his hat, the whole thing would’ve collapsed on top of him. As it was, it only got his legs. Ten feet further back, it would’ve smashed him totally.

Mark called me on the phone. I said: “What’s going on?” He said: “I’m lying here with a building on top of me.” I said: “Bugger off. You’re crackers.” And he was just laughing. He was delirious. Both his legs were crushed and they didn’t think he was going to make it. They were going to cut his legs off, then they were going to cut off one leg, then it was: “You’ll never walk again.” It took him three years but he proved them all wrong. He started off by wearing leg braces on stage, but he doesn’t need to do that now. Although if you get your ear to close to his knee it’s not a good thing to listen to.

We even went out and played a few shows with Mark in a wheelchair, while was still taking painkillers. Every now and then he’d throw up in the wheelchair, which was lovely. But he played guitar like a demon, and I thought: “Well, if it’s going to be like this, then that’s how it’s got to be.” But gradually he got better. So it was a big deal for us to get back together and release the Walk Through Fire album [in 2009]. The title tells the tale.

The band’s original drummer, Rob ‘Wacko’ Hunter, was certifiably bat-shit-crazy. Yet he’s now a Grammy Award-winning jazz producer, working with the likes of Harry Connick Jr.

Rob’s a very talented guy – always has been, always will be. And he’s doing doing his jazz thing now. He’s travelling around the world. Which is crazy, because back in the day I think that was one of the things that led him to leave the band. He hated all the travelling; when he quit he told a roadie who told the manager who told us. But we never really knew why. We’re in touch occasionally on Facebook.

Raven embarked on their first ever US tour in 1983, with Metallica as the support act. Could you have envisaged how big Lars and co. would eventually become?

No, no way. But they did change. They changed big-time. They made it very clear that they enjoyed what we did on our album _All For One _[1983], following on from Wiped Out [1982]. We didn’t change flags or anything but we adapted, slowed down the harum-scarum approach and became more powerful. There was a little bit more craft to what we were doing. I’m sure that played a small part in influencing Metallica to change their entire thing when they went into their second record. If you compare Ride The Lightning [1984] with the first album [Kill ‘Em All, 1983] it’s almost like listening to two different bands. The first album was this punky thrash thing. The second album has elements of that but it’s a lot more heavy metal.

It was really great to reconnect with Metallica last year. We were playing in Brazil, and our agent said: “Metallica’s playing this football stadium. Are you still in touch with them?” I said: “Well, kind of…” Lars had helped us out with the DVD we did [Rock Until You Drop – A Long Day’s Journey]. He very graciously did a long interview piece on that. So I got in touch with Lars’s people and they said to come on down. So we got to open for Metallica in Sao Paulo in front of seventy-thousand people, which was incredible. And we got to hang out with them and reconnect, which was pretty emotional, really. It was very cool. It was like… here we are, we’re all still breathing. I have a lot of respect for them, and what was really nice was that they showed a lot of respect for us too.

You’ve a son called Rory, don’t you?

Yes I do. And he plays guitar, a Strat. He’s twenty-four. He does some backing vocals on the new album; I roped him in to do some chanting on Battle March/Tank Treads. I named him after the late, great Rory Gallagher himself. One of the true greats. I was very lucky to see him three times, and he gave every show a hundred per cent. He was very influential in that manner, definitely.

How has your vocal approach improved over the years, insofar as it’s not all about the screaming now?

There’s a little bit more restraint. I think at this point everyone knows I can scream. I love to do it, and I can probably do it better than just about anyone, especially at my age, fifty-six. I’ve still got all the notes I had when we started.

You started very young, in 1974, didn’t you?

Me and Mark decided to form a band, and all we had was an acoustic guitar between us. We got some second-hand instruments for Christmas and started in earnest then. I couldn’t sing to save my life – but I could squeak. You learn as you go on. But as far as the new album is concerned, the screams come when they’re needed. We fit them in. If they’re not needed we don’t use them. Sometimes I used to get a bit of flack about my screaming. And it was like, really? The people who were criticising me were the same people who loved Ian Gillan, David Byron, Rob Halford – all the people I grew up on, even back to Arthur Brown. So I didn’t listen to the adverse comments. The screaming is part of what I do and it always will be.

One thing we wanted to do on the new album was to put together a cohesive collection of songs that also had their own identities. So I tailored my voice for a little bit of light and shade. Remember Rob Halford’s performances on [Judas Priest’s] Sad Wings Of Destiny, Sin After Sin and Stained Class? He would change from song to song. It would be awesome. He’d change from album to album, totally. There’d be a little bit of character, maybe even a little bit of playacting, in each song. So that was always an inspiration from the get-go.

What about Thunder Down Under, your tribute to Bon Scott?

Mark said: “I’ve got some great riffs here, they’re a little AC/DC-ish.” So I said: “Why don’t we do a tribute to Bon?” I wrote the lyrics in about five minutes, boom-boom. I did get to meet Bon once. We saw AC/DC at the Newcastle Mayfair and I got to meet Angus, Malcolm and Bon, and I got their autographs. I was amazed how small they were, even Bon. They weren’t a hair over five foot, any of them.

River Of No Return, another track on ExtermiNation, is a little bit of a departure for you. It’s slow and doomy.

We’ve actually touched on stuff like that before, even on the first album [Rock Until You Drop, 1981] with Tyrant Of The Airwaves. So, yeah, we can be more melodic, slower… I hate the word ‘prog’, but there are little elements of that kind of stuff too. _River Of No _Return is almost Robin Trower-y on the verses – we tried to get that wah-wah-wah guitar sound happening. It’s very powerful, very heavy, very atmospheric… and I got to go nuts with the vocals at the end. It worked out really well and it bookends the album nicely. And of course we have Malice In Geordieland right afterwards to put the smile back on your face.

There’s also a brief acoustic-guitar workout, Golden Dawn, which reminded me of what Tony Iommi used to do with _Fluff _and suchlike on Sabbath’s classic albums.

Yeah, exactly. Golden Dawn harks back to the first two albums, and tracks such as 3940 and 2021. I bought a twelve-string acoustic and, you know, every guitar’s got a different song in it. That’s why I own a lot of guitars – you pick one up and another song falls out of it. Golden Dawn was the first song that fell out of this twelve-string acoustic. We figured we needed a little intro for Silver Bullet, so there it was – a good little interlude before you get your face smashed in.

How do Raven approach the recording process?

When we record an album we do so as a band, as an entity. We don’t use click tracks. That’s why our stuff has so much energy. I’ve got my own personal crusade against people using click tracks – especially using click tracks on stage, backing tracks, all that other nonsense. If you want it to sound real, you’ve got to do it real. That’s what made heavy metal sound like heavy metal when we were kids.

What have you got planned to promote the new album?

We’ve got all sorts of nonsense going on. We’re off to Japan in July, and then we’ve got a couple of weeks in the States, and following that it’s Europe, starting in September. It’s pretty extensive, and we’re railing against our agent to put some gigs in Blighty. We last played the UK in 2013 when we toured with Girlschool opening. Looking back now it’s amazing. Here we are, still doing it, and doing it better than ever.

ExtermiNation is out now via Frontiers Records. Check it out below…

Classic Rock 211: News & Regulars