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Jimmy DeGrasso, Black Star Riders interview

I spoke to Jimmy DeGrasso late last year to talk about Black Star Riders with a new album, Heavy Fire, due out on 3rd February followed by a UK tour.

We finished recording, I think it was the third week in September, but there’s so much else that goes on like the artwork and all the credits, the photo approvals, the artwork, going to print, having approval for print.  We wrapped that stuff up in mid November.  Now fortunately we’re able to do that stuff a lot faster, with the internet.  We used to have to have board meetings about that stuff, but now files come to your phone – we need to approve ten photos now, so you scroll through and approve them.  Mixes as well, we need this mix approved by midnight, ok, so you download it and you’re listening to it on your earbuds or in your car or on our home stereos.  People don’t realise I think, how much work we do to get a good product out there.  Then we do interviews.

It’s all those little things that can make a huge difference to the finished product.

Absolutely, I still think most fans care about the packaging, the photos and so on, and we take a lot of time trying to make that really special for them – the whole fan experience, and as well we spend a lot of time sonically making our records sound good.  We don’t just do the first thing, our first mixes come in to mastering and we go through everything with a fine toothcomb many times and even when we think it’s great, we’ll go back and work on it some more because we really do want to provide the best product we can for people. Face it, people work hard for their money so we spend a lot of time writing good songs and putting this stuff out, it’s not as fast as you think it is.

It must be hard when you’re going through different mixes of a song, hearing multiple versions with slight differences, to know when it’s actually finished because it must be easy to keep fiddling and actually make it worse.

We do live with things for a few months while we’re working on it.  The song starts from the initial tracking, al the different instruments get built on top of it, then we’ll go to rough mixing.  we’ll mess with that a bit and then we might even do some more overdubs depending on what we might think we don’t have.  Everyone’s got an opinion and we try and get together to discuss what we think we need to do with this song or that song.  We were right before mixing and thought “you know, I think we need a different guitar on that one”, so we had to go into another studio in Los Angeles to do some more guitar overdubs, or we might have a percussion overdub I missed or forgot to do, so I’d have to go into another studio to do those.  Even in matering there might be something we hear.  We take pride in doing the best work we can.

All of us have collectively and separately been doing this a long time, so I think it’s professional pride. We want to do the best work we can.  At the end of the day if we’re not proud of it thats really the main thing because we do this for ourselves really.  I want to be able to put the record on in a year and listen to it and say, Yeah that’s killer.  I hate going back to records two or three years later and going “Oh, we should have done this or that”.  It doesnt always happen but it has certainly happened in the past where you don’t have enough time or enough budget, or you don’t spend enough time on it or you got pushed through it because of a deadline.  There is always a deadline – you can’t just take forever. If you’re doing a record for a label, they’re supporting you and you have to give them viable product so you can’t screw around forever, not anymore.

After the album is out you’ve got a UK tour in March.  Do you prefer playing live or the studio side of things?

I prefer playing live.  I like the studio to be sure, I like the craftmanship of it, but I prefer playing live because when you play live you see people’s reactions. When you cut a good track in the studio, it’s like “hey, great, whatever” or the producer says “ok it’s a take”, but when you play live you get the immediate reaction from the fans whether they liked the song or didnt like it. I like travel and meeting people, I like being out and take the music to different people and travel to different parts of the world. It can be challenging sometimes – the travel, lack of sleep, lack of healthy food, but it is what it is – we’re all big boys and live with it.

It must be frustrating sometimes visiting a new country and all you see is the airport, the hotel, the venue and then back to the airport.

That’s hard and that happens quite a bit – for instance, the last couple of times we’ve been to London which is one of my favourite cities, we played Shepherds Bush and we basically will get into town early in the morning, get dropped off at the hotel for a couple of hours, go and sound check mid-afternoon, then go do press, go back and play the gig, back to the hotel and leave. I don’t see anything of London except walking around Shepherds Bush.  This time I’m over here doing press for a couple of days and I’ve got time to walk around and go shopping, go for a curry, it’s a great experience.  I like the area we’re in right now (Soho), it’s great coming here.  Sometimes you blow through town so fast, last time we went to Tokyo we had press all day, soundcheck, gig, leave – I saw nothing.  I saw the drive too and from the venue.  Yeah it’s a little disheartening, but it is what it is because we’re out there working, but days off are fun.

That’s probably assuming the day off is somewhere worth looking round rather than the middle of nowhere.

I’ve had that happen quite a bit, being somewhere where there is abslutely nothing.  “What’s here?”, “Nothing”, “Why are we staying here?”, “No idea, call the travel agent”.  So yeah I’ve seen that happen a few times.

No doubt the travel agent says “Well it was cheap”

Yeah it’s cheap, but we’re not near anything, we’re not in a town, we’re in the country.  There have been some instances especially in England where we’re staying at some place out in the country, but it actually ends up being really cool, because we were in an old country hotel and there’s a really nice old pub restaurant next door, so it was a great way to spend the day walking around because you’ve got this great pub and hotel out in the countryside, so it’s lovely and quiet, and we all need that sometimes, especially for your hearing.

Looking at the bands you’ve played in – Mamas Boys, Y&T, Suicidal tendencies, Megadeth, Alice Cooper, Dokken, Dave Lee Roth, Ratt, Ministry, White Lion – it’s a very diverse list with no fixed musical style.  Do you have a particular preference as to the style of music you play?

No I don’t, and you’re right, I’ve done everything. I’ve actually done Jazz, I;ve done punk, I’ve done metal, I’ve done classic rock, I’ve done pretty much everything.  I don’t really have a preference right now that I can tell you.  The fact I grew up listening to different styles of music is what enables me to be able to play most styles of music.  I don’t think I’d be happy doing one thing all the time. It’s one thing about Black Star Riders, there’s a certain diversity in our songwriting.  It is classic rock in general, but it’s pop here and there, and the new starts with stuff that’s almost Motown Soul which I also like.
I like doing different things, I don’t want to do the same thing all the time, it’s just boring.  With certain bands I’ve been in, I don’t like making the same record over and over again – it’s boring, like eating the same food every day.  It becomes repetition and there’s no art in repetition.  You’ve got to change things up especially in the creative process, for it to be fun, and if it’s not fun then there’s no point doing it, I’ll do something else.

I think that’s soemthing with the live side – it’s often very obvious to the fans if the band is up there enjoying themselves or if they’re just going through the motions.  When a band enjoys themselves I think it shows and the audience reacts better.

I’ve seen a few bands that were definitely just going through the motions, you can tell.  Certain bands have a vibe, even bands that don’t get along with each other – when they’re on stage you can have a certain chemistry that works, you don’t have to be best of friends for that, and if you look through history there’s a lot of bands that aren’t the best of friends, but when you put them on stage, something happens and it’s sort of magic and thats really what matters.  They may go off stage and never speak to each other but when they go back on stage the magic happens again.  I don’t like seeing bands going through the motions, and some of them are pretty big bands. It’s shocking that bands at a certain level can be so…..uninspired.  That’s the best thing about doing this for a living, it’s inspiring, it’s fun. I’m always excited that anyone even showed up.  You have to realise after doing this so long – it takes a lot of effort for people to go to a show and spend their money.  People are busy and have their lvies going on, so when people do show you that loyalty and come to your gig you better do something special for them.  You can’t just say we’ll play ten songs and get out of here, you’ve got to be on top of your game.

That’s it – you want the fans to go away at the end of the night saying what a great gig it was.

Not only that but they’ll tell two friends and they’ll tell two more.  You don’t want people to walk away saying “that was ok”, you want them walking away smiling.  If we don’t do a good job and they don’t get off on it and we don’t enjoy doing it then there’s no point.
It’s a lot of work.  People think we just record an album and go out on tour but even today I’m getting emails about this proposed tour, and this B track, and this additional artwork.  Every day there’s something going on, it’s not a case of see you in six months when the tour starts, it’s constantly talking to each other on the phone, texting, files coming through “listen to this track”, here’s a new song already.  We’re always doing something even when we’re off.

When you’re not in the studio or on tour, how do you like to relax?

I don’t relax. I’ve got some other business interests too, and I try and do some cycling and snowboarding when I’m up at my house in the mountains.  I’ve got three kids so that keeps me busy as well.  I don’t have a lot of downtime.

Hopefully you’re pretty good at the cycling and snowboarding so you don’t injure yourself just before a tour.

I’ve actually broken my wrist three times during tours.  I broke it in ’93 in the middle of the Suicidal/Megadeth tour I think.  A soft cast and keep going.  I broke it again, I had a pretty gnarly crash, I think it was ’97 and I had to go play with Alice Cooper at Joe Lewis arena, and played with a cast on.  I broke my finger, I crashed during a bike race right before the Megadeth tour in 2001, I don’t know what I did, I crashed and caught my finger on a rock and bent it the wrong way.  A friend of mine was a doctor in San Jose at the time and worked in the emergency room.  I called him from the bike course and said I’d broken my finger, it’s pointing sideways, so he said come and meet me at the back door, so he took me in the back door, x-rayed it and set it.  I think it was two days later that the tour started, so what do you do, you take some aspirin and go.  Knock on wood, I haven’t broken anything in a while, I’ve been dodging that bullet.

Let’s hope it stays that way.  Thanks for your time.

About Ant May

I spend half my life at gigs or festivals and the other half writing the reviews and editing photos, and somehow find time for a full time job too. Who needs sleep - I've got coffee.
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