CRYSTAL BALL – Model of Consistency
Switzerland has a long running history of hard rock appreciation- thanks to the universal appeal of Krokus during the 1970’s and 1980’s, and subsequent impact Gotthard made from there in the 1990’s. Add Crystal Ball to that list of melodic hard rock/metal bands that have been impressive since their late 90’s beginnings. Synthesizing a lot of the US hard rock that made an impressive mark on an international scale during the 1980’s heydays, the quintet has weathered a number of changes in a music business model through label changes and personnel moves to come out stronger, wiser, and better.
"LifeRider" is the band’s eighth studio album, and possibly their strongest because of the tighter songwriting and dynamic diversity on display. Anthems abound, special duet action, and hooks fly at you from a musical and vocal perspective. Discussing a host of topics regarding the past, present, and future of Crystal ball is one of its founders, guitarist Scott Leach – happy to participate in a Skype chat while on vacation in Las Vegas, Nevada.
What brings you to Las Vegas, Nevada as a musician in a Swiss melodic metal/ hard rock band? Business, pleasure, or a bit of both? And is this your first venture to the USA?
"It’s a bit of both, mainly vacation but also making some contacts. Meeting some people again, it’s my third time in Las Vegas already so I knew some people. I’ve made lots of new friends, it is a really good time."
I’m curious to know your first memories surrounding music in your childhood – what influenced you to pick up the guitar and then start forming bands? Have you always had a supportive family to nurture your musical aspirations?
"I started playing piano when I was five years old- my father taught me that. I didn’t play for very long and I didn’t like the music that I was taught. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I picked up the guitar actually. My older brother played the guitar also, when I heard Yngwie Malmsteen play the song "Black Star" that was the key that inspired me to play the guitar. He expressed exactly what I felt, and I knew I wanted to do that too. At first it was picking stuff up from my older brother. I then studied at an institute in Vienna which was kind of a copy of the Musicians Institute in Hollywood. Some guys that used to work there made one similar in Vienna, Austria. There I learned a lot about theory and a little more background information. I’m very grateful that my father played piano and my mother was playing the guitar and singing, they could understand what I felt and supported me."
Starting out in the summer of 1995 as the cover band Cherry Pie, you played around 150 shows in the first 3 years. How did this seasoning benefit Crystal Ball when it came to developing originals and your stage performances?
"I think it helped a lot by playing those covers, you learn how to structure a song, come to the point really quick. There are all kinds of songs but we played mostly the hit songs, get a feel. You bring across the hook pretty fast. It glued the band together and it was a great foundation for playing live. You get a routine, a lot of people were surprised when we started playing our material how well rehearsed and professional it sounded and came across."
Marcel and yourself are the lone original members left – can you explain to the readers the challenges faced in keeping a band alive for all these years given the curveballs and individual life experiences that unfold?
"I can try to do that, it’s hard. The first lineup stayed together for more than ten years, which is not that bad actually. I’ve seen a lot of bands going through changes in that amount of time, and we were stable. But of course, band members get around 30-35 years of age, some of them decide that they have kids, and families make things a little more complicated because it’s hard to make a living solely off of music. Their focus shifts to a more secure income and they want to do that. That is one of the biggest challenges a band has to face, going through those changes in life with four to six different people depending on the band. Now with the new lineup we have five guys together again wanting to do the same thing."
Do you still get along with all the former members of the band?
"Oh yes, we don’t get to talk daily but we see each other and talk about the old, good times."
The new album "LifeRider" is quite a versatile top to bottom effort – including more commercial numbers like opener "Mayday!", a special duet with Battle Beast’s Noora Louhimo on "Eye to Eye", and just blistering anthems like "Take it All" and "Antidote". How did the songwriting and recording sessions go for this- any special insights or challenges take place that you’d like to share?
"The songwriting process was really, really quick. After the first album we made ourselves a schedule and when we wanted to release a second album. We calculated backwards so I knew when we had to finish the songwriting. I had a maximum four month period to write the songs, but with that pressure in mind it went on quite quickly. Maybe because of that we didn’t think too much about it, I just did it in a way. We didn’t go into details that much, try to focus on the main idea and if that didn’t work we put it aside and took on the next idea. Maybe the duet with Noora is something special- we planned that from the beginning to do a duet but we didn’t know with whom at first. She was one of our first choices, we got in contact with her through the management. As soon as we got in contact and she heard a demo version of the song, she liked it and gave us a go. The whole collaboration was really easy and fun- actually, she played with us live on our CD release show, she came to perform with us and it’s a friendship that came out of this. We might play again together in the future."
Ex-Accept/U.D.O. musician Stefan Kaufmann has been your producer for a few records. What do you enjoy about his methods – and do you ever discuss any killer old Accept stories during down time?
"We did actually. What we enjoy about working with him is that he’s an incredible musician. He’s the former drummer for Accept, so obviously he’s a drummer, and he used to play guitar with U.D.O. – he can sing. He has a big knowledge of music, I’m amazed every time and I can learn from him every time we are in the studio. Fresh ideas, and really gets the best out of each musician and the best out of the songs. So that is a really good working relationship. Over time you hear a lot of stories from Accept and out of other bands- he saw so much as he joined Accept when he was like 17, he has a long history. I don’t have a particular story I would want to share, some of them are delicate too. It’s interesting though, believe me."
How do you believe the long-time fan base has accepted Steven and Cris into the fold over the past few years?
"As far as I can tell and from the reaction of the fans it’s been really easy. They have had a warm welcome, I’ve never heard a bad word about the new members. Maybe people could feel that the band is really a band and not a project. We like each other, we are having fun, we bring across a good vibe and I think people can feel that especially live. To people who see us live they believe us with no doubt that we are good friends and have a good time. We can convince people that this version of Crystal Ball is the best era."
What do you consider some of the game changing moments in Crystal Ball’s career- either in terms of albums, videos, or particular tour/ festival appearances where you definitely felt the band reached a new level of respect, admiration, or felt personally satisfying?
"The first is the first record deal we signed. To me that is a huge step, and then the first international tour with the band Pretty Maids. That was a dream come true because I’ve been a fan of that band since my teenage years, and we did more tours of course but it was not new. So those firsts are the milestones. The band grew with every tour and with every album. Especially now with the new lineup, the last two records we’ve done "Dawnbreaker" and "LifeRider", those are big steps in the history of the band. This gave this band a new identity and the overall level of the band took a big step forward."
Being on a number of different labels through the years from Point Music to Nuclear Blast, AFM and now Massacre Records – where do you see the major differences in terms of their responsibilities and what the band needs to concentrate on, especially given the power of the internet to level certain playing fields?
"The thing is, we’ve been with many different labels but the music business changed so much during that period, so it’s hard to draw a conclusion out of that. Back in 1999 the music business was so different than it is now. Of course it has benefits to be with a huge label like Nuclear Blast, they have great distribution and promotion- but then again, we were one of 200 bands. We were not the high priority band. Now being with Massacre Records which is a smaller label, there we are one of the most important bands on the label and I see that as a benefit in a good position for us. Especially now with that business that’s so different now, because they are small they can act fast to new business models and challenges."
There’s always been a strong appreciation of melodic, classic hard rock in Switzerland, given the success of Krokus and Gotthard as two of the biggest exports. Why do you think that is- especially considering the first album you ever bought was "Headhunter" from Krokus?
"I can’t really give you a good answer for that. Of course there are other Swiss bands in other music styles that have made a splash, but growing up Krokus was a must have obviously. They were the only band at the time that played that style of music, so it was obvious to pick up on them. I don’t know why melodic rock seems to be the favorite genre of bands, even though there are bands like Celtic Frost who made quite a big impact internationally in extreme metal. There is a scene for that too. Switzerland may be more influenced by the US than say Germany. Melodic rock/metal came over from the US more so than Germany who has more of the traditional and power metal styles."
Are you always growing and learning in terms of your personal abilities as a guitarist and songwriter? Who (or what) do you look to for creative inspiration- and are you consistently working on your craft or are you the type of person that needs to block out time for this?
"I try to learn all the time, I hope it is the case. I get influenced by many things- it can be rock bands, I can get influenced by film score music, books, everything I see, hear and read. It can be different styles of music, classical music and movie soundtracks are the biggest influences outside of rock music for me. When it comes to songwriting, I do both. Sometimes when things come up in the moment, I will record the idea on my mobile phone. Other times I block out time- sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t."
Which do you gain more satisfaction from these days: recording or live performances? Or are they equally important to your life as a musician?
"I would say today the live experience is much more satisfying and much more important. I do like the studio work and the creative process, but if I had to choose I prefer the live experience. The magic happens where it comes alive, it’s raw, natural and that’s just more exciting playing live."
Speaking of playing live, what are some of the best concerts that you’ve seen purely as a music fan?
"That’s a hard one. One of the first concerts I saw was Queensrÿche on the "Empire" tour, where they played the whole "Operation:Mindcrime" album. I was really impressed by that tour, I was 17 or something. Other bands that impressed me were Europe when I saw them live, I’ve been a fan since I was 12 years old but I never saw them until maybe 6 or 8 years ago. They are a great live band. Seeing Queen last year was a big experience for me, of course I would have loved to see them with Freddie but we know that is not possible. I have seen at least two of the original Queen members, I would like to mention "Love of My Life" which Brian May played by himself on acoustic guitar and the whole stadium sings it along, it was a really amazing moment."
What’s left on your bucket list of aspirations and goals as far as Crystal Ball or personally?
"That’s a very long list actually. We would like to tour even more around the world- we mostly play around Europe but we would love to play all the festivals, all the countries we’ve never played. We’ve never had a hit, that would be really cool. It would be nice to have that happen in the metal scene. We are still very hungry."
What does the next 6 to 12 months look like for Crystal Ball activities?
"We had planned to do a tour in the autumn but that didn’t quite work out, so we will do something in early 2016. We don’t know with whom yet, we will probably hook up with a bigger band in Europe to do a support tour. We will start writing our new songs, I don’t know when the new album will be ready but I would guess by the end of 2016. We definitely want to do more festivals next summer, so prepare for that too."