BLACKHEART ON FIRE – An interview with an Irish Legend
I am sitting here pondering how to come up with a cool introduction to this rather in-depth interview with legendary guitarist Bernie Tormé, but I keep thinking to myself that the very name "Bernie Tormé" speaks for itself and that it should not, strictly speaking, be necessary to write an introductory piece. You hard rocking fucks out there ought to know who this great man is! Not only was Bernie an integral part of the Gillan band back in the late 70s and early 80s, but he also replaced Randy Rhoads in Ozzy Osbourne’s band following the tragic death of Randy and helped Ozzy complete his US tour at the time. But there is more. Much more. Tormé also worked with Twisted Sister main man Dee Snider in the band Desperado, not to mention the British rock band GMT (also known as Guy McCoy Tormé). He has also released a whole bunch of insanely good solo albums, the latest of which is entitled "Blackheart" (2015). We are talking about a brilliant musician here, ladies and gentlemen, and one hell of a nice guy too. Enjoy the interview and do not forget to check out Bernie’s websites once you are done reading this.
Your new album entitled "Blackheart" has this really raw and organic feel to it that I love. It pretty much sounds like it was recorded live in the studio? Was it?
BT: It was pretty much recorded live, but not entirely. The difficult bit is always trying to get the dead bits to sound live! (By dead I mean overdubs!). I think the secret is not to do too many takes. It’s okay to revisit something the next day, but doing endless takes one after another just kills the spontaneity for me. In the past I used to record (like we all used to) with endless overdubs, but it struck me a while back that the 1950s overdub magic of Les Paul and Mary Ford’s "Tennessee Waltz"/"Little Rock Getaway" magic had kind of run its course for me. That million overdub thing that evolved into "Bohemian Rhapsody" and lots of other great records, but it didn’t work so well for me or my style of playing. I am a pretty all-consuming wall-to-wall player, and these days I like leaving it as it is; pretty naked. It may be more of a classical music and jazz/blues or early rock ‘n’ roll ethic than an 80s rock or pop ethic, but it works better for how I play and write. It is more natural and real. I am very lucky to have two great players in Chris Heilmann on bass and Ian Harris on drums that enable it all to work. To do it like that you really have to have great players.
BERNIE TORMÉ "Blackheart"
It is also a very diverse and dynamic album. It has this unique atmosphere to it that I haven’t stumbled on anywhere else. Where do you find the inspiration to compose and write music?
BT: Just anything and everything can be inspiration, life or music or anything, but musically I try not to listen to people doing the same kind of thing as me. I just try to listen to anything I don’t do. I suppose that makes the influences more diverse. But because I play it and record it the way I do it all sounds like me anyway, so pretty basic and raw. But the influences are pretty diverse. I’ve always written stuff. In the past it was often harder to get it recorded because of the costs involved, or even band or record company politics, but it is what I do, almost more than being a ‘guitarist’, so all in all it’s a good situation for me at the moment being able to record and release stuff.
To me, "Blackheart" sounds like it was meant to be played live. No studio trickery or any shit like that, just pure rock ‘n roll with a heavy edge to it performed by three veterans who have been around the block a few times. Would you agree?
BT: Agree completely. This album has been great in terms of tracks that work live, more so than "Flowers & Dirt", which had a few that were not easy to make work live. A couple from "F&D" did work great, but most tracks on "Blackheart" just fit in so easy for live performances.
Speaking of performing live, how do you feel about touring nowadays? I am guessing that it’s a lot of fun being out there promoting and playing your own material? That must be very rewarding, even though it is probably also an awful lot of hard work putting together a tour.
BT: Hey it’s great, I love it! As long as I can keep doing it I will! I was lucky enough to get a good agent a few years ago to put the UK tours together. No luck so far in Europe though we are hoping for some around early/middle of next year. I feel very lucky, very blessed, to be able to still do it. I think a lot about Rory Gallagher and Gary Moore who both inspired me. Rory was a few years older than me; Gary was a month younger.
How was the UK tour in October and November this year? How did the audience respond to your new tunes off "Blackheart"?
BT: It was really good. We did well and the band played great. We did not have a bad show, and that’s what I love about Chris and Ian. It’s consistently good. Such a good band live. I’ve never been in a better one, and that’s saying something, having been in a few! The "Blackheart" tracks kicked ass live and went down really well!
BERNIE TORMÉ on stage
Where and when did you hook up with Chris Heilman (bass) and Ian Harris (drums)? They play great on the new album.
BT: I’m glad you said that. They’re solid as a rock! Great people to be in a band with. I’ve known Chris since ‘84, just after the Electric Gypsies, when I was looking for a band to do a tour early on that year. Chris was suggested to me by John McCoy, who I had originally asked. John did not want to do it because it was my name on the posters! Chris played with me through that tour and later through Tormé with Phil Lewis. Chris then departed for LA and joined Shark Island and stayed with them for quite a while and did lots of other stuff before coming back to the UK about 10 years ago. We always kept in touch and in fact I stayed at his place in LA when I was doing the mix of the Desperado album with producer Peter Coleman. Chris has just got better and better over the years: great timing, great ideas and solid as a rock, and a lovely guy to work with. I met Ian through a good friend, Baz Nicholls from the band MORE (great band, I think they are now called MORE 2012?). I was looking for a drummer and Baz said to me that Ian would be perfect for me. I tried him and he was. Just bang on, the right guy, great player. It helps that he plays good guitar too. He understands how I think. He lives about a 20-minute drive away, which is another plus. Ian and Chris really locked in together immediately, just a killer rhythm section.
That song entitled "Flow" off the new album is pretty melancholic and haunting. That is probably one of my favorite Bernie Tormé tunes. Did you perform that one live?
BT: Yes, we did, and it was really good. We had to re-arrange the end slightly differently, not having a couple of hundred people chanting at the end meant we had to have a different kind of climax, but it worked so well live, really a stand-out track I think. A lot of people said the live version was better than the recorded one, which was very cool to hear.
With Retrowrek Records, it seems as if you have taken complete control of your own work. It must be a great feeling being in charge of things yourself. Am I right?
BT: Yes, it is, but like all good things in life it also has a bit of a downside: you have to kick your own ass repetitively, which is not easy unless you are a contortionist, and manage your own business, which is even less easy and not even as interesting as kicking your own ass! But I do love having no record co telling me what to do, although that still doesn’t mean that I know what to do. No idea, man! I just like to make music.
What are some of your thoughts on how the music industry has progressed/evolved (or regressed) the last 5-10 years?
BT: I wouldn’t exactly call it progress. Mind you, it was always shit! I kind of think it has reverted to the early recording era when recordings were purely promotional. You can’t make money out of records any more unless you are Adele. Unfortunately, ‘live’ is currently equally difficult, so we are honestly back to the world of penniless musicians and bands. Of course, the media tells you otherwise, but they never told the truth anyway. Does it matter? I don’t know if it does in the great scheme of things, but music matters, and music at ground level is a crucial part of our community DNA. The world changed because of Dylan and the Beatles and the Stones in the 60s. I think that has gone to a huge overblown level; big gigs with stupid ticket prices. People go to big festivals nowadays for the communal experience, not for the music. It’s like a huge social comfort zone with a soundtrack that could be almost anything from Metallica to Jay-Z. I don’t know how the music is going to become the most important part again, given the way the industry has gone. It’s totally centred on money. I hope music does become central again. It needs to start again from small roots.
BERNIE TORMÉ BAND
Your last two albums, "Blackheart" and "Flowers and Dirt", were partly funded by PledgeMusic campaigns, which I think is a great idea because it also allows the fans to be a part of the making of an album and somehow be involved in the process. In a way, those people will end up with a pretty personal and intimate relation to those two albums, which I think is great. What made you decide to try PledgeMusic out?
BT: I spoke to Ginger Wildheart (who is the Buddha of crowdfunding/pledging around these parts), and also to Arthur "I am the God of Hellfire" Brown, who had both done it. I wanted to do a ‘big’ album. I needed to have some budget to do that, and while there were some record companies there making offers, given my past experiences that really did not appeal to me, apart from the offers being shit. I thought I would give Pledge a try. I really had no idea how it would go and thought I would struggle. I didn’t know if anyone out there would remember me! It went amazingly well. It was a great experience. Amazing both times actually. It was also great having the hands-on communication thing with fans. That’s a really nice aspect of it. In the past you were pretty distant and separated from your fans with a record label in between. I like being able to communicate directly much more.
Your solo records are available via Bandcamp and I must say that there are some truly great ones to be found there. I was listening to the live album the other day ("Live"), and it sounds absolutely wicked. How do you feel about that one? I find it really intense and awesome.
BT: I’m glad you like "Live", I was very proud of it, it didn’t make much of a splash when it was released, but over the years it has been hugely popular with a lot of people.
Do you like live albums in general? Have you considered recording a new live album containing songs off "Flowers and Dirt" and "Blackheart"?
BT: Yes, I do like them, but they can be difficult to get any attention on. I don’t know why that is, but it is my experience that the magazines and media often ignore them. Well, they often ignore everything, but they ignore live stuff even more so. We have also done a few live-in-the-studio tracks with video from "Blackheart" that are up on YouTube, namely "Pain Song" and "Dirt". They worked well. We also got "Golden Pig" in the can so maybe we should do the others too. That sounds like a good idea.
Bandcamp is great, don’t you think? Personally, I love it. I have uploaded all of my stuff to Bandcamp as well. It’s a great place to discover good music. Do you ever use it for checking out other bands?
BT: I think it is fantastic. It is as you say a great way of discovering other bands too. It’s just a great site, a great idea, and from an artist’s point of view it’s really easy to do. And again, you have that hands-on communication thing. That’s cool.
Do you ever put on some of the old albums such as "Demolition Ball" and "White Trash Guitar" when you are at home and listen to those? Do you ever feel nostalgic or sentimental?
BT: I must admit that I don’t do sentimentality or nostalgia. I would never sit and play one of my own records. The only time I listen is when I’m thinking about doing an old track live and I need to remind myself of the arrangement and what I did on it. Once they are finished I don’t really ever want to hear them again. When I have heard tracks and albums again sometimes I’m surprised by how good I think they are (obviously I am biased!), other times not so much. Complete opposite in fact. But it is what it is. After it’s out there it’s not yours any more anyway.
How do you feel about meeting fans, hanging out talking, signing autographs, and so on and so forth?
BT: It’s part of the job, man, and I love it. You meet lots of nice, interesting people. To me it’s essential, and they deserve it if they come to a gig. They are paying my wages, so it’s the least I can do; to talk to them and sign stuff. I have been asked to sign all sorts of weird stuff, clothes, footwear and disturbing bits of female anatomy. It’s quite hard, and skin can be quite stretchy! It is only a pain in the ass when you get extremely drunk people who ask you the same question 25 times. That gets boring!
BERNIE TORMÉ with Ozzy
When you joined Ozzy Osbourne’s band back in 1982, it must have been both exciting and awful at the same time for you. The band was grieving the loss of Randy Rhoads and yet they wanted to complete the tour. It must have been nerve wrecking for you.
BT: It was a pretty awful experience. It was not pleasant, though everybody involved was very good to me. But even if you did a good show you could not be happy. The elephant in the room was Randy, who had only passed on a few days before. No one, including me, wanted me to be there. All of us wanted Randy to be there. But no one could say that. It was not much fun.
How and why did you get the gig with Ozzy? I mean, did you know any of the band members beforehand, or was it perhaps through Jet Records that the Ozzy management reached out to you and asked for your help?
BT: Through Jet Records and because I was a known guitarist in the UK and Jet knew me personally, and they thought I was out of a job. When I went to the US there were 3 others auditioning, and I suppose the band felt safer with me because I had a track record and did an okay audition.
I was listening to a few tracks on YouTube that were recorded at Madison Square Garden in New York back in 1982 when you were touring with Ozzy, and they sound great. I love your take on those classics. Do you ever perform any Ozzy tracks when touring as a solo artist?
BT: Thanks for that. I did my best and definitely tried to put my stamp on it. Some liked that, others didn’t. I’ve played "Mr. Crowley" a few times since. The last few times were with GMT. People always liked it at gigs, but I won’t play it anymore. Since the advent of universal camera phones you get 50 people filming and sticking it up on YouTube, and that’s just like a snake pit! You then get millions of narrow-minded bedroom-Randy-Rhoads-bigot-wannabees calling you names and saying very insulting, ignorant and personal things. It’s sad, and completely unnecessary. If people don’t like it it’s fine, but if they don’t recognise it as a heartfelt tribute to Randy from me, who was in the trenches as his replacement just after he died, just fuck off. They are also doing the total opposite of what Randy would have liked from what all the people I know who knew him well tell me about him. I play things my way. If another guitarist plays my stuff, such as Satriani did on "Unchain Your Brain", I expect them to do it their way. Satch did a great job, and he didn’t sound like me. I don’t do imitation and I don’t have any regard for it.
I was glad that you were part of the Randy Rhoads tribute that was recently released ("Immortal Randy Rhoads"). The version of "Flying High Again" with you on guitar is absolutely killer. You guys (i.e. Rudy Sarzo, Brett Chassen, and Tim Owens) were never in the studio together, were you? Did you mail the files back and forth with you recording the guitars in the UK?
BT: Thanks for saying that, Jens, much appreciated. No, we were never together and I never heard Tim Owens’ great vocal until it was released. It was all done at a distance, me in the UK, everyone else in the US. I really only had any communication with Bob Kulick who was producing and Kelle Rhoads. But it was really nice for me to play with Rudy Sarzo again, even if we were not in the same room or even on the same continent. One world, baby! He’s my brother.
BERNIE TORMÉ with Ian Gillan
As to the Gillan band, how do you look back on those albums that you made with that band? I think some of them are underrated. I like "Mr. Universe" a lot. Which one is your favorite? Did you have a lot of say in the musical and creative direction of the band? I noticed that quite a few of the songs were co-written by you, but I was just wondering as to whether you felt that you could really express yourself, musically and emotionally, through those songs?
BT: I am very proud of the albums and of the band. My favourite is "Mr Universe" followed by "Glory Road". "Future Shock" not so much. Creatively it was a very democratic band. The co-writes were really often political co-writes. I recently found my demo of "Unchain Your Brain" and it’s all there, arrangement and all, everything barring the lyrics and the verse melody. But then again "Are You Sure" was originally McCoy’s bass riff and was built on that, as were others. "If You Believe Me" was music, arrangement, and chorus melody, entirely mine again. Ian wrote the verse melody and lyrics. And yet d’oh! There are four names on the publishing. We were all in the room when I played it, and everybody played along. Nice guys, my mates, not worth having an argument. But, lesson learnt! So it was the most democratic band ever and even more democratic than that provided you shared the writing credits. I like writing lyrics, but it’s obviously different writing stuff for a singer, most of them like using their own words, good or bad. So, for example, Ian would rarely use other people’s lyrics, so in that case I didn’t even bother trying. Dee Snider similarly, though he did use some of my lyrics in the end on the Desperado album. Phil Lewis was usually happy to use my lyrics. But yes, the lyrics are very important to me, and I like being able to do the whole thing. It means more to me, definitely. More therapeutic too.
Are you proud of what you achieved with the Gillan Band?
BT: Absolutely! Great band. Great days! Love them all. They are all still crazy though. It is still a troubled situation.
Do you still perform any Gillan songs when touring nowadays?
BT: Yes, I always do "No Easy Way", "Trouble" and "New Orleans" if it’s a full set. If it’s short then sometimes "No Easy Way" goes out, but I always do the other two. Last year I did "Vengeance" as well a few times. In the past I’ve also done "Secret of the Dance". Sometimes, very occasionally, I do the Gillan version of "Smoke on the Water", though it’s not my favourite.
I remember reading somewhere that while the Gillan band did really well in terms of touring and selling records and so on, the whole thing was in actual fact a financial disaster. Any truth to that?
BT: The Gillan band was total managerial and financial chaos. It ran well at the beginning when I joined. Colin Towns was running it then, but that all changed as soon as we got the Acrobat recording deal and it was taken out of Colin’s hands. We had no management up to when I left the band, and it was totally unclear as to where money was being spent. It was basically all being filtered through Ian’s companies by various dodgy people who may or may not have been working in their own interests more than Ian’s. Apart from that Ian also had big personal money problems at the time and was not averse to regarding all money as solely his and nothing to do with the band. It was a complete mess. There were also some people in the band just out for their own good at the expense of others. It was the worst run situation imaginable. Just before I left Ian appointed his agent, Phil, who had never managed anyone, as his manager. Not as the band’s manager, we were never asked, just as his manager (though some members of the band seemed confused about that). The blurring of the distinction between Ian and the band was something that was continually used to give reasons as to why there were no royalties as had been originally promised and agreed. Phil’s main skill to qualify as Ian’s manager seemed to me to be that he said ‘yes’ to anything Ian wanted. He was nice guy and did his best, but it was a complete joke; he would literally say one thing to us and the opposite to Ian. He’d make you happy for a very short period of time until you realised it was total complete bullshit. He was in truth completely out of his depth, up shit creek without a paddle, trying to please everybody and pleasing no one (apart from Ian, understandably enough, because Ian was paying his wages!). There was no management there running anything. It was stupid and short-sighted, but it is all a very long time ago. We all had lots of fun. I made a name out of it for which I am eternally grateful to Ian, so all of this is water long gone under the bridge now, and all the money is long spent and life is too short to be bitter. Who cares?! I have no hard feelings against anyone, and I consider all of Gillan my good friends, though I do see some of them more often than others, but I love ‘em all. It was a great experience, wouldn’t have missed it for the world. You haven’t asked about this but I’ll say it anyway: I’ve often said in the past that I would be happy to do one reformation gig or maybe even two as a thank you to the fans, but there is absolutely no chance of that happening or of a reunion. Ian won’t do it, and to be honest, at this stage I think he’s right. We had a moment of brilliance and a moment of creativity, and that was the only reason for any of us doing it at the time. That is long past, there is absolutely no reason to recycle it other than nostalgia for fans, and a paycheck (which isn’t a good reason for doing anything). As I said, I would have liked to do a show or two for the fans’ nostalgia as a thank you, but that would be pretty logistically and financially impossible really, and also probably total shit because we are in no way the same band as we were. It was an explosive band on stage, but no reunion would be, so I’d really rather keep the memories than drag the memories through the sewers as so many other once great bands have done. It’s over. Nothing to see here. It won’t happen, and apart from that, whatever you believe or have been told, it’s really not because of me guv! So on balance these days I would have to say I agree with Ian; no reunion. I’d rather have the memories of the band on stage than watch a bunch of sad old fucks (including myself) tottering round and sounding crap, but if everyone wanted to I would do it.
What was touring like back in the late 70s and early 80s compared to now?
BT: Well, it was pretty shit before Gillan for me, but there was lots of it. There were far more gigs then than there are now. In Gillan we did a 30 date UK tour in 1980. That’s impossible now. I suppose it was better organised back then; more infrastructure, easier to find crews and all that. That’s all changed. There is very little there now if you are not doing enormodomes. It was also a lot easier to get gigs in the old days, and you also didn’t have to book it up 12 months in advance, which seems to be how it is in the UK these days.
Is GMT still an active band?
BT: Not at the moment, no, but I would never say never.
BERNIE TORMÉ on stage
When looking back on your career, do you have any regrets?
BT: I regret leaving Gillan in the way I did, all a bit too emotional and dramatic and a bit shit to the band to be honest. I regret how I left, but I don’t regret when or why.
Were you born and raised in Dublin, or did your family perhaps move there when you were a kid? Where do you live nowadays? Do you miss Dublin? I went there last year and I loved it. Beautiful city and extremely nice and welcoming people. That was a great experience.
BT: I was born and raised in Dublin. It is a good place. Moved to London when I was 22. Currently I live in the UK in Kent out in the wilds with a studio, so it’s good. I do miss Dublin, but it is so expensive these days compared to the UK. I go back as often as I can. Can’t beat a good pint of Guinness! It’s comparatively crap in Kent, but I do keep testing though.
What was the music scene in the UK like when you got into music back in the day, and what were some of the bands that inspired you and made you decide to pick up an instrument?
BT: Well, I started playing in Dublin in 68/69 when the local heroes were Skid Row with Gary Moore, and later Lizzy with Phil Lynott and Eric Bell on guitar, another great player. Rory used to play there a lot. There were so many great guitarists and bands to watch, and lots of others too who did not become household names, so it was a good place to be an aspiring guitar player. Apart from those above (though I was already playing at that stage), the stuff that inspired me to play started at Elvis and Chuck Berry and went through the Beatles and Stones and Who and on to The Yardbirds with Jeff Beck and Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton and later Peter Green, Jimi Hendrix and the Cream. All big influences. And I was a big fan of Purple later on. By the time I came to the UK in 74 I pretty much knew what I liked and what I was into. I would say the Pistols and punk in 77 were a big influence too.
Well, Bernie, I think that was basically it. Any final words or comments? Anything that you would like to say to the faithful readers of Eternal Terror Live?
BT: Thanks for the interview Jens, and I hope all your readers have an Eternally Terrorising Christmas and New Year! With a bit of luck I’ll get up to Scandinavia in 2016.