SPACE VACATION – Cosmic Metal Attack
No matter what boundaries seem to be pushed in regards to the heavy metal genre in terms of extreme vocals, speed riffs, blinding technicality, or melding sub-genres, there will always be a love for the classic true, traditional sound. Melodies, harmonies, and hooks that make you want to punch your fist in the air, bang your head, and scream the lyrics aloud with your favorite friends. This is where San Francisco, California’s Space Vacation come from in their sound.
Inspired by the NWOBHM framework and classic twin guitar harmonies, they’ve created three albums to date, the latest being their best yet with "Cosmic Vanguard" on Pure Steel Records. I reached out to vocalist/guitarist Scott Shapiro one Friday afternoon recently to get his thoughts on this quartet – and you will find that his passion for the cause is unwavering. Fans of High Spirits, Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden – here’s another band to add to your collection.
Tell us about your first memories surrounding music- and how quickly you gravitated to picking up an instrument, writing original material, and playing in a heavy metal band?
"Sure, I have been singing on stage for as long as I can remember, since I was 3 years old. I just always loved music, it was always a part of who I was from my early childhood. My earliest childhood memories were of me sitting in my room, singing to myself, and strumming a little toy guitar. I would sing songs about how I was feeling at that particular time. It just grew over time, by the time I was 12 years old I had solidified the idea that I wanted to play music, specifically heavy metal.
Space Vacation formed in 2008 out of a need to give California a heavy metal band that embodied the spirit of NWOBHM past along with some killer melodic vocals that encourage audience sing-a-long action. What were those early years like – did you jam out covers at first before deciding what direction you wanted to go in with your own material?
"No, we were not good enough to play covers! (laughs) We figured the only way we could get to hear the music that we wanted was to write the kind of music ourselves. The band got together and right away we started writing and playing originals- we didn’t play a single cover for the first several months we were playing together. We may have jammed to an Iron Maiden tune just as a change of pace to keep things moving along. The early years were very interesting because the San Francisco music scene was very sludgy and heavy, there was nothing really for us to get stoked about. We wanted to play music that our friends would like- music that you can listen to, drink beers, and have fun getting excited. The music was really slow and sludgy, much more methodical than the music that we wanted to hear. We decided we needed to do this ourselves.
You’ve released two albums prior to the latest: a self-titled independent full length in 2009 and "Heart Attack" on Pure Steel Records in 2012. What do you think about the recording and songwriting sessions for each, and what do you consider the highlights and/or things you would like to change about the recordings if you could?
"The first record, it’s really funny, but it sounds like we were trying so hard but we weren’t quite there. It was the first real pro studio recording that two out of three of us had done. I think the songs on there were really catchy, but we were still trying to find our sound. Lots of weird influences on that first record that didn’t really carry over onto the next record. I think in hindsight I would have liked to spend a little bit more time in the studio figuring out how we could get the sounds we really wanted to get. I think that first record really solidified what the band was going to ultimately become, specifically because we were a three-piece at that time and I had to work around the fact that I did all the lead guitar and lead vocals on there- and my guitar playing is mediocre at best. We developed our own style within that, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal vibe. The first album was figuring out what we were doing. "Heart Attack"- we had that album pretty much written by the time Kiyoshi Morgan came into the band. Once he joined the band everything changed- a lot of the onus was off of me to play all the leads, and he is supremely talented to take that role instead. So this album is a culmination of all that we wanted to do but couldn’t due to being restricted talent wise.
How do you feel about the lineup right now- as you’ve gone through a few member changes recently in the rhythm section over the past year, and you’ve moved back to guitar after being on bass for a little while? Are these natural growing pains Space Vacation has to go through to see who really wants to stick it out for the long haul?
"The original lineup with Jay and Andy was great, it worked out for a number of years. Jay started his family and they moved away from the area- I’m pretty confident that he would still be playing with us if it weren’t for that. Andy just wanted to do some different things music-wise, it’s the type of thing and style of music wasn’t in line with what we were doing. Andy was such a unique talent- but if you aren’t really into it, it’s time to move on. We are still friends and a great player. The lineup where I was playing bass was just out of necessity to support the "Heart Attack" record while we were trying to figure out what we were going to do next. I don’t like playing bass, I can do it in a pinch- and Kiyoshi is such a talented player where he was covering the lead and rhythm guitar parts in a Michael Schenker style, the harmony leads on one guitar which was fascinating to watch. On the other hand I’m happy to be back on guitar.
The new album is "Cosmic Vanguard" – and I feel it’s one of the best traditional metal albums in 2014. Songs such as "More Is More", "Get Down", and "Battle Jacket" just ooze the best aspects of this genre: exciting double bass passages, hot rhythms, strong vocal harmonies, and those twin guitar parts that are textbook 101 heavy metal. Were you confident this would be a breakthrough/ pinnacle release for the band?
"We just keep writing and hope for the best. I think a big part of the record is we put a lot of thought and design into the songs. The first two records were finding our sound- the second record most of the writing had been done before Kiyoshi got in the band, he just added some flair over the top where he could. We worked with Kiyoshi from the onset of "Cosmic Vanguard", along with Mark and Cubby, so it was more of a unified collaboration. We put out the best of what we had, we wanted the record to sound fun, and we didn’t want it to be like anything else out there. You are always looking for a breakthrough album, but I just think these songs are the best elements of what we did on the first two records. The more melodic stuff off the first record, and obviously the twin guitar elements of the second record.
Was it important to road test some of this material- as I’ve seen some YouTube clips of a few of these tracks?
"Yes, we really wanted to work through all of these songs the best we could as a band, and we could gauge the best way to play this stuff live. If it goes over well live, then it will go over well on the record. There were a lot of changes- "More Is More" probably had 4 different vocal lines and melodies before we settled on what ultimately ended up on the record, because it just sounded better live."
Is songwriting an easy or difficult process for the band? Especially considering the emphasis on hooks and melodies – I would think some ideas may come spontaneously while others take a while to develop just right?
"Yes, that is totally accurate. I would say songs like "Rolling Thunder" we came into really quick, "More Is More" the guitar hook was there from the very beginning, but the vocals took a while to match up to it. So I think you are right, some of it is totally spontaneous where we say ‘that is totally rad, let’s do that again’, and sometimes you are hammering out things forever. This record was really unique as we were trying to work really hard at getting everyone’s take on how we should play these songs, so the writing took longer than the previous two records, as well as the two lineup changes.
Also, is it a difficult process to get more of an analog production value in this digital age?
"In 2014 it’s crazy hard to do. Our last record "Heart Attack" was 100% analog, no computer touched that at all until it got turned into digital for CD’s. And that was like an art project, very difficult to record and expensive. Ultimately it could have sounded a bit bigger. We used digital production methods this time, but we wanted it to sound as organic and analog as possible. Right now all the current modern heavy metal records, the guitars are right up in your face and there’s no distinguishing of sound, it’s like a brick wall. You can hardly hear the bass at all- we would rather keep the 1980’s production sounds, where you can hear the two guitars not being played through the same amplifiers so you can hear the distinction between the two. That was really important to us, I think it’s a lost art these days. If you approach a digital studio the same way you would an analog, I think the results can be really good.
How would you describe Space Vacation when it comes to the live show? What do you hope to get across to the audience when you’ve played locally in the San Francisco / Bay Area as well as out of state gigs?
"We just want to have fun, and if you see a Space Vacation show it’s about having a good time. Putting your fist in the air, it’s about seeing a group of your friends, and a gathering of awesomeness. You just want to have a good time- we are there to entertain, we don’t take ourselves too seriously or stare at our shoes. We aren’t reinventing the wheel with what we are playing. We hope the fun carries over to the crowd.
Where do you see the state of heavy metal in 2014? Is it still hotter in terms of fan support abroad versus in the United States? And do you think the quality of the audience/ fan base matters more than the quantity these days?
"I think you always want to play to a big crowd. We just opened up for Satan at a sold out San Francisco gig and I can tell you that was a lot more fun than the show we played a month prior where it wasn’t sold out. That energy gets contagious, the screaming builds. You don’t necessarily have to have the biggest crowd to pull that off but obviously ‘more is more’.
Your preference when it comes to listening to heavy metal: physical mediums like vinyl, tape, CD’s, or digitally through MP3’s or WAV files? And can you name your top 5 albums of all time (be it metal or non-metal)?
"Vinyl for sure, but I do listen to digital all the time. You need something to carry with you in your car, you can’t exactly bring vinyl into your car and go for a drive. I don’t know how well that would work these days. Especially in traffic. Top five albums of all time? Iron Maiden- Killers, Van Halen- 1984, that was one of the first albums I ever bought and that just kind of changed my whole perspective on hard rock. Queensryche- Operation: Mindcrime. Judas Priest- Screaming for Vengeance. It’s hard to get another one, I love all these records so much. Def Leppard- High And Dry, the vocals on that really grabbed me when I was a kid. It’s another lost art, bands that can sing using vocal harmonies or strong hooks melodically. People get so stoked about the riff and the double bass but forget about the melody itself, and to me Def Leppard was pretty awesome at that.
How important is imagery and artwork in terms of the total package for Space Vacation? Do you think people sometimes do judge who you are by the initial presentation and cover art – almost deciding ahead of time whether to take you seriously or not?
"I don’t know, that’s kind of for those individuals to answer. Image for us has been the same- we are a straight heavy metal band, we don’t have a lot of crazy flair. We all think about Lemmy from Motörhead. As far as the album covers- the first one we like a lot, the second album cover we caught a little flak for that, we liked the simplicity of it. This particular album cover for the new one, the label picked for us.
What are some of the great lessons your friends or family taught you that have been key to leading a successful life now in adulthood?
"Never give up. Anything that is worth doing is never going to be easy. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. Stick to your guns, do what you are passionate about, don’t stop because other people think it’s stupid. I don’t know how many times people in life have asked me when I’m going to stop playing music – that maybe I’m getting a little old for that and find a backup career. Well, in 2014 playing heavy metal isn’t necessarily going to pay all the bills but that doesn’t mean I’m ever going to stop doing it.
Another thing I hate is when people ask me if I’ve outgrown this music because of my age, being in my early 40’s… as if there is supposed to be a timeframe when you can enjoy and appreciate heavy metal…
"There is a discussion I had with a good friend of mine in a band called Hot Fog, we were talking about how long we would be doing this, or maybe when we are older starting an outlaw country band. My friend said something very poignant, that Lemmy is almost 70 years old and he is still doing it. It’s all a matter of what we grew up on at the time- if you grew up on rock and roll, it’s not going to matter how old you are while you are still playing it. If it’s good, it’s going to be good.
Have you been able to develop a certain level of acceptance due to as you stated before the level of doom/sludge style bands in the Bay Area today?
"It was really tough for the first 3 years. We didn’t have any contemporaries at all doing what we were doing, at least at the street level. We played with a lot of bands and crowds that weren’t interested in what we were doing. And then after a few years bands like Hellfire came out, a NWOBHM style band, and Awesome Party, who changed their name to Midnight Chaser, so we would play shows together and bond. This drew the scene together, but things are changing again, going more into a Black Sabbath direction such as bands like Orchid and Lord Mountain.
How do you handle the real life work versus band duties that I imagine all of the members of Space Vacation need to juggle?
"Well, you have to pay the bills. So it’s difficult for us to go on long nationwide tours. We can up the West Coast, or the East Coast- where we just played last September. New York was a little different because we didn’t get on stage until around a little after 1am. You have to really watch yourself with these all- nighters. It really does restrict our ability to tour the way I really want to, but that’s okay because we get to do the shows we want to play. We can’t go on the road for three months all over the states or in Europe to build the brand at this point. We have been working on festival dates in Europe, we would be happy to get out there.
You have a chance to step into Doctor Who’s Tardis and take in three of the best bands that no longer exist in concert? Who are your choices (and which lineups would they be in)?
"Oh man, Van Halen with David Lee Roth and Michael Anthony, for sure. I would love to see the original version of Iron Maiden, that would be phenomenal. And The Who."
Where would you like to see Space Vacation over the next year or two?
"I would like to get to Europe, start playing bigger festivals. We can now play with bigger acts that are more well-known, and I’d like to see that continue. We have so many fans in Europe that have asked to see us- and it’s a mixed blessing because we get a ton of press due to our label being in Europe, but it’s a question of getting there to take advantage of it."