BONFIRE – Casting Classic Pearls
Celebrating their 30th anniversary as a band, Germany’s Bonfire are firing on all cylinders with their solid melodic hard rock style. After long-time singer Claus Lessmann retired from the group in the fall of 2014, veteran vocalist David Reece stepped into the band and didn’t miss a beat. Last year’s new studio album "Glorious" was hailed as one of the best in their career (gaining high marks in major metal/ hard rock publications) and their subsequent touring proved that a band that first hit the scene in the 1980’s through "Don’t Touch the Light" and "Fireworks" can still be relevant in today’s market place.
"Pearls" is the newest double album, chronicling the history of the band with some re-arranging and new elements including David’s vocals. For those of you who haven’t really been following the band for some time, it’s a great primer to get you up to speed. Chatting with David through Skype one mid-week afternoon, his engaging tales that cover his entire career kept me riveted – and you are assured to learn a thing or two about Bonfire, Accept, Bangalore Choir, and his solo outings. So read on melodic hard rock followers – and catch the band live all across Europe over the rest of 2016.
Can you tell us about your childhood and early memories surrounding music growing up? How did you make the transition from music follower to singing and eventually playing/ performing with bands?
"Oh. I was born in Oklahoma. My grandmother was an avid country music listener and follower. In the old days we had the console with the television, turntable, and the 8-track – remember those things? Every day she would blast Charley Pride, Conway Twitty, Hank Williams Sr., and George Jones. She would carry me around as she cleaned the house and sing to me. And I just loved those albums, the way they smelled, the way they sounded, the lyrics. That’s where I started loving music and it touched me- and then I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. My parents thought they were disgraceful, they said ‘who are those idiots’ and I was stunned, I stood staring at the television as I didn’t know what it was. At about 5th grade I had joined a choir at school. The teacher’s name was Mrs. Harnick, she put me on the lead chair. My first performance was "Yesterday" by the Beatles, for about 250 people and kids. Back in those days when you sang in choir you got beat up- so that crushed my ambition to be a singer. She would come to the house and say he has to come back – I was actually frightened because the bullies who would come and pick on me, call me a sissy for being in the choir. So I set it aside- and she said I would regret this, I needed to work on this because she saw I had the talent.
Out of survival I chose not to get my nose broken. The years go by and I was a big Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin fan, Alice Cooper, Aerosmith. I left my home at 15, moved into an apartment with a bunch of people and one of the guys who lived there was a guitarist. I had to work two full-time jobs just to survive, I’d come home in between jobs and the house would be full of people and chicks just partying. He was a cool guy, he played clubs- so one day I was taking a shower before work and singing a Zeppelin song so he pulled the curtain open and said, ‘Dude, you can sing- you want to join my band?’. I was about 16 and I said yes, so at our first gig we learned 4 songs at a beer party, we played them over and over again and I loved it. That’s how it all began."
With a rich history as a hard rock/ metal vocalist – can you let us know how you ended up becoming the new vocalist in Bonfire a couple of years back?
"I knew Michael Voss, I did the Voices of Rock thing back in 2008.(Guitarist) Hans Ziller was looking for a singer to do EZ Livin’ again, I was pretty much doing solo records at the time and living in Montana. So Voss gave him my e-mail and he reached out to me, Hans, and asked if I would be interested in doing an album. I was working out of a little studio in Billings, Montana- I said yes. When we finished he asked if I wanted to do some shows- and to be frank everybody says that. Everybody says they will finish an album and then go on tour, and that never happens. In two weeks the guy sent me an itinerary of 20 shows and we got Ronnie Parkes from Tango Down, Paul Morris from Rainbow, and Harry Reischmann from Bonfire, and we played those shows and they went well. I went back to Montana, he flew me back again for three more weeks of shows, and the third time we did this he told me that Claus and he weren’t getting along very well, he wants to leave Bonfire. His last show was in November of 2014 – he announced this and he wanted me to be the new Bonfire singer. I said sure. That’s how it happened, Harry was in the band at the time and of course I brought Ronnie, Frank Pane was the replacement guitarist – so that’s how that came into being."
"Glorious" as your first studio album with the band really put Bonfire back on the map in terms of respect and songwriting output – how do you feel about this record in relation to the back catalog of discography? What highlights stand out regarding those recording/songwriting sessions?
"I jumped into it head first. Hans gave me about 30 pieces of different songs, and what’s on that record I chose from and wrote to it. I’m proud of that album- I was familiar with "You Make Me Feel" from "Don’t Touch the Light" in their catalog, the (songs) that everybody knows. I actually saw Bonfire open for Judas Priest in Germany in 1988 and they killed it, the crowd went crazy- but I never really followed the band. I knew about them and some of their songs, they were fairly popular in Europe. I listened to what he did and I thought he is great at what he does and he loves what I do. So I just put the David stamp on it- Hans stayed with some of the riffs that are classic Bonfire like "Can’t Break Away" and "Remember", songs like that. "Fallin’ Outta Love" is one of my favorites which we don’t play live, "Shooting Star" is another, I love "Put Out the Flames", "Nothin’ At All". I’m actually at home in rehearsal for the upcoming Bonfire kick off tour so I’m listening to all these songs again. Those would be my standouts."
Were you and Hans surprised by the critical acclaim for this record? It seems like for a lot of people it was their favorite melodic hard rock record of that year…
"I was honored. I tell you what- I did the Accept thing and I’m kind of like another replacement guy in a German band again. You either get murdered or you get accepted – people just wrapped their arms around this. It sold great- it’s still in the top 100 in the European charts. Very much surprised."
"Pearls" is the latest double album from Bonfire – featuring a look back at the history of Bonfire in addition to some re-arranging of classic songs. How much planning and brainstorming took place regarding the selections, and which ones stand out in your eyes from a vocalist perspective?
"Planning was done by Hans, honestly this is his band. He picked the ones he wanted to do – I recorded all the vocals with Mario Percudani in Italy. The way that happened is Alessandro Del Vecchio had (produced) "Glorious"- so I started hanging out with Mario because he was jamming with Ally and I really liked his guitar playing and the way he did vocals. I just started doing songs with him last June on time off from the Bonfire tour. As we started writing he started producing my vocals, he would tell me where things would sound better. I’m finally being produced again- because a lot of times when you do these albums, you have a limited budget and you do things over the internet, which I hate. To actually have a guy that wants to produce you- and I’ve been produced by Dieter Dierks, Max Norman, Jim Barton- all great guys – was awesome. If you produce yourself, the lines all tend to sound the same- you think you are doing something world changing but you are not, so you need that outside influence. Mario really put me to the test on each track, we did some interesting harmonies at Tanzan Studios. He also has a music school, so you have all these singers going for lessons there, a lot of great younger singers and we asked them if they wanted to be on an album. We spent time arranging the vocals, to make it me. We could have followed the same ball and done a Claus repeat, by why? I’m the new singer of Bonfire. Hans twisted around a lot of keys, he got some keyboard players involved, strings, a little guitar. For standout tracks – "I Need You" on the ballads record and "Who’s Foolin’ Who", I absolutely love those two songs. I re-wrote the lyrics to "Proud of My Country", I like "Down to Atlanta" and "Good Time Rock ‘n’ Roll", I actually have a side project called RPG with Mario, the Reece Percudani Group and we played some of those songs last weekend in Switzerland and they went over great. Certain songs like "You Make Me Feel" and "Give it a Try" came out okay, I think they are better for me live- but that’s just me being critical."
Reading back in other interviews during your Accept days, you mention that producer Dieter Dierks really helped shape your voice due to consistent coaching during those recording sessions. What do you think are a couple of aspects that he helped you realize that have benefitted you ever since either from a recording or live show standpoint that you took for granted before?
"The way I could answer that is when you go into something at the age of 27 and you have only been hitting nightclubs for ten years and you are doing cover songs, you have to sound like everybody to get paid. I pretty much didn’t have an identity, I hit all the notes and had the power. What Dieter did was work on the character in my voice, he emphasized the right keys and what suited my voice, what wasn’t too under or over my range. He taught me that- taking care of myself. Sleep is a huge asset to a singer, probably the most important thing you can do is sleep and not talk all night after a gig and party with the guys. I basically stepped out of no man’s land and hit the big leagues overnight. It was culture shock for me- he was very tough on me. He would sing a melody that would work good in the verse, I’d write the verse and sing it my way- he would go no, pull out a Casio keyboard and show me what he wanted. I couldn’t repeat it because I didn’t have the musical training, I was more of a follow along singer. He taught me how to express melody and inflection and words. The song "Still Loving You" by the Scorpions, that first word ‘time’ took 18 hours to get right. And that was the story he told me, that Klaus (Meine) collapsed on the couch and he got it, he overdid things and pushed Klaus. He wanted that ‘time… after time’ to be perfect, and the song went on to sell just in France alone 750,000 singles. It worked, it’s a little over the top but the German way to push things to death.
That hard work ethic is what it’s all about. Accept is a working machine- when I toured with those guys it was 33 shows in a row without a day off, and I could do it because I’d been singing from 1 in the afternoon until about 1 in the morning, 6 or 7 days a week. It’s all about staying healthy, running, not smoking, and doing all the normal things you should do. It’s your voice, it’s your job."
Are you able to make a successful living purely as a musician these days? If so, how much hustle and advance planning take place to accomplish this- is the workload busier than say during the 1980’s and 1990’s?
"I am very lucky with Bonfire- the workload is heavy. We have 72 confirmed shows this year. In the 1980’s we could do 300, so it’s a little different that way. And yes it’s a hustle- you are selling yourself. I just went to the Czech Republic with my solo band, we played a room with a max capacity of 80 people and we had 65 people in it, which is considered a success. That dynamic has changed- the next night we played in a room that held 100 and we had 85 people paid through the door, the club owner was doing backflips he was so happy. Back in the 80’s if you didn’t go platinum you were history the next week- now if you sell… "Glorious" has done about 7,000 units in physical sales, that is way over the norm for success in this climate, an average successful record I’m told right now is 1,500 copies which I can’t get my head around. Bonfire tours, we play all the time. We are on top of the videos, the networking, we’ve got a new label with UDR Music. They are really honest and pushing us in every market available."
What would you consider some of the personal highlights in your career – memories that will stay forever embedded in the brain for a lifetime?
"This is going to sound dorky, but of course doing the Accept thing. Shooting my first video in New York was amazing- I’d never been to New York. That was a magical experience- now I go back there and I can’t wait to get out of the city (laughs). I go there for a few hours and I feel like I have to run and hide. Riding on my first tour bus, that was cool and something you always fantasize about. Then reality sets in and you are trapped on a bus with 12 people and they smell, everyone is irritable and the novelty wears off. I’d go back and do it again though. When you lay a song down, I just laid down a ballad called "I Know It’s Love" and I played it to three different women and they all started crying. So that works, that to me is memorable. To see people in the audience accepting me as the new singer of Bonfire. At first they had their crossed arms and they were staring at me, but after two or three shows the halls were filling more. Especially towards the end of last year we were selling out every venue that we went to, and that’s great. I don’t take anything for granted- there are a lot of us out there like Jeff Scott Soto, guys I highly admire that are pounding away. Trying to stay relevant, because we are relevant- it’s just a whole different ball game."
If you had the opportunity to be a coach in a music business capacity for younger musicians coming up in today’s scene, what aspects would you like them to learn more about and take serious consideration for?
"I teach vocals sometimes- the hard part for me is that I’ll get fans that want to come in. You asked me earlier if I was living off of music- yes I am. I do also teach because I get to sing with the students. Typically, what happens is you get a fan that wants to come in, and he just wants to ask you about who you’ve met and what you’ve done. You spent an hour talking about that and say ‘hey, do you want to work on your voice?’ and they say, ‘no I’m cool’. I kind of got away from that because it’s irritating, but I would offer to a young person what happened to me in Accept. In Accept I’d had vocal training prior to that but while I was in the band they put me in more training for three months. I learned with a woman named Sigrid Mayer. There’s 5 basic steps that I give people singing- sometimes students will learn number one, come back to learn number four. I won’t bore you with the explanation, but you need to work on your voice because it’s an instrument, it’s a muscle. You have to sleep, and if you are wanting to be a singer it’s a full contact sport because there are a lot of great singers out there. Not many people get to be on stage and use it. You have to be pretty thick skinned to take the hits because they come a lot more than the pats on the back. Even myself, I get knocked down every week, something stupid happens with promoters or band fights. If you catch a cold you have to know how to sing so when you are sick you can continue to do the show. The crew and band members are relying on you to get through that night because everybody has to get paid, and the audience paid to see you.
I would also say to abstain from bad mouthing other people in the industry. It doesn’t do anybody any good to shoot your mouth off and run your mouth about each other. I used to think it would work, but it doesn’t work. Take the high road."
What are your thoughts on bands that end up using backing tracks for certain music or vocal elements in a live situation?
"There are only a couple of average background singers in Bonfire so we have to use backing tracks. In some cases it helps me when I’m having kind of a rough night, the backing tracks and certain harmonies that I can’t hit that are already on the track help me. I wish we had 4 background singers in the band- because in Bangalore Choir, the reason we called it that is for the explosive vocals. Everybody sang in the band, it was all real and we would do a 30 minute warm up in the dressing room before the show. We really worked on our harmonies. We use backing tracks and some people criticize us for the backing vocals and keyboards, but hey it’s what is on the album. I wish we didn’t to be honest, but we do."
At what point did you move to Europe – as I imagine it’s easier to keep your music career going there in comparison to the tumultuous business landscape for melodic hard rock/ metal in the United States?
"That’s the truth, isn’t it? I moved to Germany in 2008, then I went back to Montana in 2012, and I flew back to do this thing with Hans. It makes things a lot easier to be here for flights. We have one member Ronny who comes from New Jersey, so it can be hefty for flight prices. Flying in Europe is 100 Euro roundtrip for a lot of the guys, so it’s cost effective. I’m here so I can work with the guys, as opposed to what I talked about in our earlier part of the conversation at a screen and writing/ rehearsing a song over the internet. I like to work more organically."
What do you see as the major differences between the European scene and the American scene, now being a part of it even though you grew up in America?
"Bangalore Choir was dropped, we were told it was over, get a day job and the music industry has changed. I went over to Europe with Bangalore Choir in 2010 to do the Firefest festival in the UK. That was 19 years after we lost that deal. Everybody knew that record, word by word, everybody had that record for us to sign. If I had known that Europe was so loyal and the UK was into us, we would have jumped on a plane and been gypsies sleeping on floors and played clubs. We were very successful here and nobody told us. I’ll say one thing about the Europeans- they do not forget you, if they take you in, they wrap their arms around you. In America, it’s here today, gone later today. Bonfire is celebrating 30 years, we’ve got people coming to our shows that are in their late 60’s, you know. Following the band since their mid-30’s- it’s night and day. They are real fans- they have your name embroidered on their jacket, things that you did that you forgot you’d even done, they remind you of. They really care."
What do you consider some of the best hard rock and heavy metal albums of all-time – as well as what were some of the best concerts you took in from purely an audience member perspective?
"The first concert I saw I will never forget, I saw Peter Frampton on the Frampton Comes Alive tour, J. Geils Band opened with another band called Ruby Star. The cousin of Jim Dandy from Black Oak Arkansas was in that band. I remember watching people throw the Frisbees in the auditorium, that was amazing. I was 14. Another one I remember was Aerosmith on the "Rocks" tour. Steven Tyler, still he’s killing it. I lived in Minnesota in those days and Aerosmith used to come through and tour the Mid-West literally every four months, touring on a bill with Ted Nugent or Heart. It was general admission shows, you’d pay $5 and as soon as the gates would open everyone would run to the front. You’d see Boston, Starcastle, Starz, Rainbow with Dio was another memory that stays with me. I didn’t even really know who he was, but I went out and bought the album the next day. UFO- I saw the "Strangers in the Night" tour and I literally went to the record store and bought every UFO album I could find. I went to see that concert on a whim- there was a radio station in Minnesota called KDWB 63. I think it was a 63 cent concert – so of course we are going to go to the State Theater in downtown Minneapolis to see this British band. We go there and Rick Derringer is opening and he’s killing it- Rick was great in those days when he was hard rock and boogie. And then UFO came on, this magical guy with blond hair and a flying V called Michael Schenker played, and I said ‘who in the hell is this band?’. I bought every album and I studied them- I still use Phil Mogg as a heavy influence on my vocals.
Albums would be "Strangers in the Night" by UFO, "Rocks" by Aerosmith, "Dog and Butterfly" by Heart, I also love Steely Dan. I’m a huge Steely Dan fan. My first two hard rock albums were "Schools Out" by Alice Cooper and "Machine Head" from Deep Purple. I wore those out to death. And AC/DC – "Back in Black" those records are timeless."
What worries you most about the world that we live in today?
"God, what doesn’t? I’m living in Europe, we are inundated with this refugee crisis. It’s so scary of what’s probably going to happen. The Isis infiltration, there’s no record of these people from Syria and where they are coming from. What happened in Paris last year, I believe it’s going to keep happening to be honest. Just in Germany alone I think over 100,000 people that actually came into the country and signed on, they’re gone- nobody can find them. Today it’s a weird time, a lot of politicians are trying to cowtow towards interests to stay positive. I watch what’s going on in America on television, and it seems like they want more for their own country. I just think something strange and bad is going to happen. There are people in this world who want to kill everybody and people in this world that don’t want to realize it. Some people are going to hate me for saying that, but the facts are the facts. When you have 90% of these people that are coming over are men in their 20’s, I understand the children being saved as you want to get them out of the bomb zones- but we don’t know what’s happened. I won’t let terrorists scare me."
What’s on the recording and touring schedule for David Reece beyond activities in Bonfire in 2016?
"Yes, thank you for asking. Again with Mario, he produced me on the Bonfire re-recordings, and we were writing songs before that happened. So we decided to put RPG together, we have Alessandro Mori from Glenn Hughes on drums, he played with Bernie Marsden and Steve Lukather, a great drummer- and we have Stefano Scola on bass, he played with Mario in another of his bands Hungryheart. I have a record written, in between all these tour dates we are going to track as many of these songs as we can. Given that my voice has the rest time- sometimes we play 5-6 shows in a row with Bonfire and I need 2-3 days to recoup. The plan is to release that in November. Bonfire is my priority and a lot of these songs are kind of "Glorious" based, so they could end up on the next Bonfire album. We are going to start recording the next Bonfire album next fall for a March release in 2017. I could write another 10 songs in the interim. It’s more of a hard rock, blues-based record- I forgot to mention that I’m a huge Bad Company fan, Paul Rodgers is my hero as a singer. It’s a very organic, three-piece band- all live vocals, as Mario is a great singer in harmonies with me. It’s not European rock, it’s more American mixed with that. We are doing 72 dates confirmed with Bonfire, Vasby Festival in Sweden, some shows in the UK- markets like Belgium and Luxembourg that we didn’t touch last year. I think Russia is in the headlights- but until this thing settles down between Russia and the US I’m not sure I’m into it! (laughs). I do a lot of travelling so I pay attention to this. Graham Bonnet’s manager is talking about me going out with my solo thing in the United States maybe, February of next year. That would be a cool double bill kind of thing."