PURE ROCK ‘N’ ROLL AMMUNITION – AN INTERVIEW WITH VOCALIST ÅGE STEN NILSEN
The hugely talented Norwegian vocalist Åge Sten Nilsen not only possesses a godly voice that will make the hair on your sloppy arms stand up, but the great man is also involved in a number of interesting and most worthwhile bands and projects, namely Ammunition (whose kick-ass sophomore record is out now) and the Tony Carey’s Rainbow Project. While Ammunition’s debut offering was a competent and entertaining mixture of classic rock, hard rock, and glam, the brand new 2018 opus is an insanely potent and utterly energetic slab of brilliant rock music that will leave you begging for more. As to the aforementioned Rainbow Project, which is spearheaded by the living legend that is Tony Carey from Rainbow’s classic "Rising" line-up, Åge does the old Rainbow classics proud and those of you who have witnessed Carey’s ensemble live on stage know what a treat it is to experience something as bone-chillingly awesome as that. On top of that, Åge is currently touring his epic "Queen – The Show Must Go On" show in Norway for the tenth and last time, which is to say that this year marks the farewell tour with respect to his tribute to the old gods of pioneering rock music that are Queen. Eternal Terror Live were given the opportunity to interview Åge Sten Nilsen about his musical past, present, and future, and if you have yet to acquaint yourself with his highly captivating endeavors, you need to get off your ass and start digging into his discography as soon as fucking possible! Ladies and gentlemen, read on and enjoy our chat with Mr. Nilsen.
Hi Åge, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions of mine. I can imagine that you must be quite busy these days now that the new Ammunition album is out not to mention that you have a number of Queen "The Show Must Go On" tribute shows lined up across Norway in February/March. But first of all, how are you doing?
Åge: I’m having the time of my life, really. Of course, a little exhausted from promoting our brand new album while constantly touring my Queen show etc. but hey, I’ve been quite busy since 2001, really. If I wasn’t busy, I would have been a little bit worried. I mean, it’s my job, so I guess being busy is good thing. Everyone should be busy doing what they do.
I am curious as to what bands you were into when you were a teenager and what bands and artists inspired you to become a musician yourself. Could you tell us a bit about your musical upbringing? Did your parents play any instruments and did you grow up in a musical household?
Åge: My father was into Elvis Presley, so we always listened to Elvis in the car and he made a big impact on me; the larger than life persona combined with the silky voice, the rock ‘n’ roll attitude and his charisma. What’s not to like? I remember crying my heart out the day they announced that the King had passed away. I was at my grandparents, 8 years old, and I just couldn’t believe it. I had just discovered the Beatles when I saw "Help!" on TV, but to me they just couldn’t be compared to the King. Now, I know who the real kings are of course ha-ha. Later on, I discovered Nazareth, Sweet, KISS and then AC/DC…and Queen. And I soon also discovered Thin Lizzy, Hendrix, Zeppelin, Purple, etc. It was a BIG world out there in music and I was absorbing everything. The very first cassettes I bought were Boston and Thin Lizzy ("Chinatown").
My parents didn’t play instruments, but there was a whole lot of singing going on in the house, mostly Elvis songs of course ha-ha. My grandfathers played clarinet and organ, so while at my grandfather’s house I was usually spending most of my time playing the organ. It had rhythm patterns and I would sit for hours making my own music and melodies rather than trying to copy my favorite songs. After a while, I picked the guitar as my instrument and started to daydream about being a guitar hero, you know. Not a singer.
Ammunition promo – photo by Sten Nilsen
The brand new self-titled album by Ammunition is a highly enjoyable affair and contains a lot of anthemic and fist-pumping tunes that reek of passion and feeling. What is the feeling within the Ammunition camp like these days now that you have a new album out to promote?
Åge: Camp AMMUNITON is pretty psyched on touring the new album these days. I can’t wait to get started. We are working on a brand new set list and now we finally have two albums worth of live material. We are extremely proud of the album and the fact that it’s receiving these awesome reviews from all around the world, especially outside of Norway. In Norway, journalists still seem to be annoyed by my past as the former Wig Wam singer and don’t think I’m credible, especially the hardcore rock journalists. For crying out loud, I’ve had my photos in the tabloids…God forbid! What they don’t seem to understand is that I’m not seeking those articles. Very often it’s a bargain. "We’ll write about you anyway, either you collaborate or we’ll print whatever…we have photos and stories you DON’T want to be published…", so you might say it’s kind of a blackmail-thing. But hey, it’s show business and do I care about not being credible? No fucking way. I hate cred. Cred very often means being poor, being an addict, being miserable, or simply not being allowed to do the things you wanna do because someone else is running your life. Or else you are not credible to THEM. I’d rather be credible to ME.
How did the deal with Frontiers come about? When taking the rest of the Frontiers roster into consideration, Ammunition certainly seem to fit right in there with your excellent blend of classic rock, hard rock, and glam rock. Are you satisfied with the cooperation and press campaign and all of that so far?
Åge: Frontiers wanted to sign us for "Shanghaied" too, but I turned down their offer. I wanted to create this band without any pressure and rather have full control over the development. So I used every penny I earned from my non-credible work doing corporation gigs and my Queen show to finance the first album. The guys were employed and got paid for every gig we had even when we weren’t making money at all. Sometimes I lost a lot of money on gigs we did, just to get this train rolling and keep the spirit within the band intact. When we finally knew what AMMUNITON was, had a solid line-up and had most of the new songs in our pocket, we started to deal with 4-5 different labels. Big ones too, but the Frontiers executives are very hands-on and can make decisions on the spot and that’s a good thing while other companies will have to conduct a hundred meetings before they can make any decision at all. I hate bureaucracy and at the end of the day, Frontiers proved to us how much they wanted us to be a part of their family. So far, they have been great.
To my ears, it sounds as if the new album is more of a band effort in a sense. The songs have a more organic and natural flow to them compared to the ones that constituted the first album. I like the first record as well, but "Ammunition" sounds more coherent, cohesive, and well-crafted somehow. Would you agree? Was it a more collaborative effort or am I just imagining that?
Åge: You’re not just imagining this. You hit the nail on the head for sure. Still, the songwriting process was pretty much the same with Erik and I writing all the songs more or less from scratch, but we both knew what the band was all about this time around, so I guess we had each guy in mind while writing the material as well. And of course, when the rest of the guys were brought in to record the songs, they all brought their DNA to the sound. On "Shanghaied", our former bass player didn’t even play a single note. It was pretty much an Erik & Åge album, if you like. What’s exciting these days is that we have brought in the rest of the band to be a part of the songwriting as well. Erik and I will still write together like we have done on the previous albums, but you’ll hear songs from all members on the next one. We’re a band!
Did any of the songs come about rather intuitively and spontaneously while working in the studio or was everything written and carefully planned out before you even entered the recording facilities?
Åge: ALL the songs were created spontaneously, really. Two guys with acoustic guitars strumming away while having a beer or two…or three. A very social setting. The songs just seemed to come to us. Then of course, later after having made the foundation for a song we would re-write it, shape it, edit it and AMMUNITION-ize it, you know. If a part was doing nothing for the song, we’d edit it out. Erik and I both hate transport legs.
As to the lyrics, are there any interesting anecdotes or stories behind some of them that you would be willing to divulge here? Personally, I really dig the thought-provoking ones for "Eye for an Eye", especially that part where you go "It’s an eye for an eye that makes the whole world blind".
Åge: The lyrics I write for AMMUNITION are quite different from the ones I write for my solo songs. For my solo songs, I can be a little bit more personal, you know. And most of the lyrics will be written while writing the songs, in that specific mood I’m in while the music appears. For the AMMUNITION songs, the lyrics are more second-rated in a way. The groove, the riff, the beat and the melodies have the major focus, but very often words and themes will appear while in that zone. When I wrote lyrics for Wig Wam, I needed to keep the lyrics within our fiction world. These days I feel a lot freer to write lyrics that fits the music. Very often, I kind of visualize the lyrics, like "Virtual Reality Boy". I just saw this video in my head about this digital love affair, this guy who was totally obsessed with this girl and had the ability to hit on her in this virtual world; "Tonight we’re getting sexual, purely digital…". The lyric you mention is probably the strongest one, I guess. "Eye For An Eye" is a standout track, and the whole lyrical idea came to me with the melody. The title is an old Gandhi quote, and he was damn right. Look at what hate, greed and jealousy do to people. In 2018, we might expect human kind to have learnt a thing or two, but we keep walking down the path of revenge and xenophobia. "Freedom Finder" really is about our guitar player Jon. He has lived in a caravan for 3 years, even through our rough Norwegian winters. Never complained once. Living day-by-day, even borrowing friends’ sofas for a warm night once in a while, traveling through the US playing with different blues bands. He can carry all his belongings in a plastic bag, except for his Marshall stacks and guitars of course. Some might feel sorry for him, claiming that’s no way of living, but who’s to defy his personal freedom. If that’s how he wants to live his life, so be it. We all seek freedom in different ways. Having a house, car, 9-to-5 daytime job…well, some call that freedom. Some don’t.
When it comes to writing lyrics, what inspires you? Do you ever watch a movie or read a book and go "Wow, that would be a cool idea for a lyric" or are you more inspired by the things that you encounter in everyday life?
Åge: Sometimes the music just triggers some feelings, issues or themes that I crave to write about, and sometimes I get inspired by things I see on TV etc., even by hearing phrases in a movie or whatever that I write down just like you mention. It can even appear at night when I’m half asleep and I just have to get up to write down or record whatever popped up. At least then I can get back to sleep knowing the idea is there. Sometimes it can really be a pain in the ass, always thinking about lyrics or melodies. I remember driving to a corporation gig when the agent called me to check where the hell I was; I was working on a song in my head and had been driving an hour in the opposite direction ha-ha.
The album was recorded quite a while ago, right? Have you guys already started writing and arranging new material for a third record? How often do you get together to write and rehearse now that you all have other bands and priorities outside of Ammunition?
Åge: I write songs every day, really. Some that are obvious Ammunition songs and some that are obvious solo songs…and some that are just songs that I might use for other artists or projects in the future. As a band, we just got together (Victor, Lasse, Jon and I) at Victor’s place up in Selbu. We camped there for some days and wrote like 6 songs together and quite often I’ll tape riffs coming from Jon’s guitar during our Queen show sound checks. Jon and Lasse and I see each other quite often these days doing our "The Show Must Go On" farewell tour, so ideas are constantly floating around. We’re not the rehearsing kind of band that rehearse on a regular basis. We team up when there is work to be done, so we’ll join forces soon to prepare for the upcoming tour. I’m pretty sure some jamming is going to happen as well, creating new ideas for songs. It normally happens when we get together. Then I will record it on my iPhone and we’ll work on it later when we are more focused on new material than on rehearsing already released songs for a tour.
Tony Carey`s Rainbow Project
Photo by Anita S Andersen
What about touring the album? Any plans? Perhaps a select number of festival dates in Europe later on this year?
Åge: We’ll kick off our TEAR OUR CITY DOWN TOUR in Barcelona on March 21 and work our way through Spain and then Germany. Then we’ll do the Frontiers Rock festival in Milan before we continue to Denmark, Sweden and then finally Norway (Oslo and Trondheim). Then we’ll do the summer festivals before we continue on the road in the fall. We’ll do some autumn festivals as well, one in the UK. In between the legs of the tour, we’ll write some new material. Erik and I are planning to get together during the spring to write some songs together again and we’ll get back to Victor’s place again. Life is good and creative. I’m also starting to record a new solo album. I have like 20 songs to choose from already.
I love and cherish the Tony Carey Rainbow Project. You guys sound great in a live setting and you really do manage to conjure up and evoke that magical atmosphere of the first few albums by Rainbow. How and where did you hook up with Tony and where did the idea to perform classic Rainbow material from time to time originate from?
Åge: I met him some years back at a gig in Hamnes in Trønderlag, Norway. I was doing some songs with his Norwegian band and I had just recorded some songs for his bass player Jan Erling Holberg’s solo album. So had Tony and I guess that’s how he got to know who I was. I already knew who he was of course. He was performing in Hamnes too that same night and we hooked up backstage. Then we both went to this motorcycle club for some late night drinks. He was pretty messed up back then. He was sick and miserable, really, and in bad health, but we connected. The next time we met at an airport and he was a new human being. He had found the love of his life and gotten rid of his disease and looked a lot healthier. That’s when he told me he really wanted to work with me, so we exchanged mail addresses etc. and he invited me to do a "Rainbow workshop", just jamming over the backbone of the old classics he recorded with Rainbow, you know, and we just had that chemistry on stage that you just can’t neglect. Therefore, we decided to do this project more often and develop it a bit. I have learnt so much from this fantastic man and I’m both humbled and proud to work with such a legend and master. What we’re trying to do is to create magical moments here and now, improvising and making the instant atmosphere take us to places we never could have planned or rehearsed…with the Rainbow classics as the theme for our musical adventures. I know some journalists, like Jan Dahle etc., doesn’t quite appreciate the jamming part. They will rather have us perform the songs, number by number from A-Z, but that’s not why we do these shows. We do it for our own pleasure. We don’t wanna do a "Rainbow show". Tony has his own career now, a successful one too, doing his solo stuff and performing with legends like Peter Maffay in the biggest venues in Germany. This is supposed to be a fun thing to do for him, for me, and for the band. And hopefully the audience ha-ha.
Tony is very much about that 70s hard rock vibe, right? You have never performed any material off the Graham Bonnet or JLT albums, is that correct? How do you feel about the Bonnet/JLT/Doogie White eras?
Åge: Tony is so much more than the 70s hard rock, really. He’s more into pop music and not so much the hard rock scene. He just happened to be a part of the original Rainbow line-up. But hey, it’s a major part of his legacy. I know Tony for one hates the pop version of Rainbow, though. Me, I enjoy the Dio years, the Bonnet years and the Turner years, but I have to admit I haven’t heard much of the Doogie stuff. I had lost interest in Rainbow by then, but Doogie is a great guy and is an excellent singer too. I just had the pleasure of getting to know Doogie when we did Moscow together.
There was recently a gig at Olsen på Bryn in Oslo. How did that go? How do you go about rehearsing before your live activities? Do you meet up two or three days beforehand and then run through the set list a number of times…or perhaps you guys have a different approach altogether?
Åge: I’m almost embarrassed to answer that question. When we did the last Olsen gig, I returned from two weeks in the Caribbean the same day as we were having the gig. I arrived at 7:00 in Stockholm and then 15:00 in Oslo. I had to dig my car out of the snow and get directly to the sound check at Olsen, did half a song and an interview and then directly to a sound check and meet-and-greet at the theatre in Lillestrøm close by. I did my Queen show and was rushed to Olsen while the band was still doing the outro for "We Are The Champions", did the Olsen show and was back on stage the next morning at the hotel at the airport in front of some 2000 people at 10:00! Welcome to my life 😉 I was catching up on the Rainbow songs on the plane back to the cold north.
Speaking of Rainbow, there is an absolutely killer rendition of "Tarot Woman" out there on YouTube that was captured on tape at the Sweden Rock Festival in 2015. I can keep listening to that one over and over again. Was that one ever released digitally and officially on any platforms out there?
Åge: Thanks. Yeah, I like that version myself. It came out great and it’s included on Tony Carey’s live DVD. I believe it’s even out on iTunes etc. as a live single.
What does Rainbow’s music mean to you on a personal level? To me, it is the greatest hard rock band of all time and especially the first two masterpieces changed my life forever. So many timeless tunes that just rule beyond belief and still sound amazing today.
Åge: Well, welcome to the club. I grew up on Rainbow, but when I was 10 and had just started to discover rock ‘n’ roll, Rainbow had just released "Down To Earth", so that was my first encounter with the band and I friggin’ loved it. When Turner joined the band, I loved it even more. I simply loved his voice. Still do. I even bought his solo album, but then I discovered Black Sabbath with Dio and started to explore his back catalogue…some boys discover God in the heavens, I discovered the God of vocals and I feel privileged to be doing those songs with one of two living members of the original line-up. I’m even more happy to call Tony a friend. He’s really one of the nicest persons I have met in this business.
Are there any specific Rainbow tracks that you are particularly fond of performing yourself when on stage with Tony and the others?
Åge: I love doing "Tarot Woman" and "Stargazer", but what I enjoy the most is the new music that we make on the spot, really, because it’s fresh. It’s in the moment and that music will never appear twice. It’s here and now. Like a conversation between some good friends, only with music.
You know, you guys should release a live album containing a full show by the Rainbow Project.
That would be brilliant! Has that ever come up in discussion? That would be a cool souvenir to those of us who have been lucky enough to catch one of your gigs 🙂
Åge: We are talking about setting up an intimate stage somewhere, like a live studio, and have like 50 persons in the audience, to capture the here-and-now concept that we are doing. We’ll probably make it a three-night thing…and yes, we are seriously planning it sometime soon…
You had a gig in Russia with Tony Carey, Don Airey, and Doogie White. I love the fact that three former members of Rainbow are touring together. Have you toured Russia before and if so, what is it like over there? Many musicians have told me that the fans over there are extremely grateful and give it their all when bands and musicians that they never really got a chance to witness live on stage previously come and visit.
Åge: It was my very first time to Russia, so I didn’t know what to expect. It was great apart from catching the flu before going there of course. Coming off my Queen tour, like 20 people on the night liner, flu was spreading like wildfire. When I got to Moscow, I could hardly talk, so we tried to get some pills to be able to sing. Then a medical team appeared. No pills but some kind of breathing machine was placed on my mouth for me to inhale something. I had no idea what they were giving me as they didn’t speak English, but it sure as hell didn’t work. I probably did my worst gig ever on bad wedges and literally no voice ha-ha, so I thought, "Hey let’s put on a show and give them something to talk about anyway", brought a bottle of vodka on stage and even had a cigarette during one of our more lazy moments. It just so happened that the secret police were taking pictures of our performance and I was lucky to leave the city before they were able to arrest me, but I paid the penalty (20.000 NOK) and hey, I was re-booked with my Queen show two days later. The Russian fans are extremely dedicated. I actually brought some AMMUNITION vinyls and some T-shirts as giveaways…That was the last time I saw grown men and women cry. They were so thankful for having these gifts I was almost feeling embarrassed. Don Airey didn’t show up, though. He was rushed to the hospital after having a stroke, I think, at the airport in LA. I hope he’ll recover soon. From what I’ve heard they have canceled the Deep Purple tour now…That’s sad.
The Rainbow Project live activities have been sparse, but I think that also makes them so much more special in a sense. This is not something that one can just watch every Friday night at the local venue. Will you continue to do just a few shows each year and then keep it at that?
Åge: Oh yeah. We’ll probably do more, but in other countries than just Norway. After all, Ritchie’s return to rock didn’t exactly turn out as great as we had hoped for, so there are a lot more requests for our Rainbow project these days.
Going back to Ammunition, there are so many songs off the new album that are bound to go down a storm at any concert due to them being so catchy, fist-pumping, and riveting. Will your new material figure prominently in the set list for any future live activities of the band’s or will it be a mixture of old and new stuff and perhaps some songs from other bands projects?
Åge: We are preparing the new set list as we speak…and it’s really hard, but there will be loads of songs from the new album for sure. It’s exciting for us to take on the new material, plus I guess the new album is doing a hell of a lot better than "Shanghaied" due to better promotion. However, there are songs off "Shanghaied" that we simply need to keep in our live set. And yeah, I hope there will be room for some Wig Wam songs as well, and maybe a cover song or two…We’ll see ha-ha. What I would like is to have some new songs in the set list every night to keep us on our toes and to avoid being too predictable. The "seen one gig, you’ve seen them all"-thing isn’t for me. I don’t want our fans to know the set list until they hear it, you know. At least that’s how I as a rock fans would love to experience my favorite bands live.
As to the Queen tribute shows of yours, people absolutely love them, and the idea that you are out there keeping those classic songs alive and visible in Norway is awesome! Who came up with the idea to stage something like that? Was it something that you had been thinking of doing for years? These 2018 shows will mark the end of the whole thing, right?
Åge: Well, back in 1999 I had given up the dream of making it with original music. Back then, the labels only pushed artists at 15-16 years old ha-ha. And I was oooooold, so "old" artists like me were determined to record music in the mature segments; safe radio pop without an edge, easy listening stuff. I didn’t want to do that, so I released my album on my own label and experienced firsthand how hard it was to shift albums. So I started to produce Tribute shows. I produced a Creedence show with the legendary Aunt Mary singer Jan Groth. He was only doing Christian music back then by Åge Samuelsen, but I pursued him to get back to rock ‘n’ roll again. Then I produced an Eagles show with Jørn Lande, Paal Flaata and Eirikur Hauksson. Then I was about to produce one for myself as well, a Queen show, but before I knew it Wig Wam was getting busier and busier and I just never had the time; not until 2007 when the Wig Wam guys wanted us to take a break. Without a time limit. I was devastated. It was my job and my major income, and then all of a sudden I had no plans for God knows how long. Bernt and Øystein both had daytime jobs and Trond was busy producing other bands in his studio. Me, I was dependent on live gigs, so I brought my idea to a friend of mine that was running this live place in Fredrikstad, and he loved my ideas. By then I had everything planned; the costumes, the Freddie mask, the set list, the dancers etc. Now 10 years later, we are on our farewell tour, and yes, we are ending it now. It doesn’t mean that I will quit singing Queen songs, though. It’s THE SHOW MUST GO ON that is being put to rest. The big production. I guess I will probably do some Queen-related concerts in the future, but not with the kind of show we have put on for 10 years. I’m so focused on giving my own music more focus these days and the Queen show really takes a lot of time with respect to planning and running it.
Queen – The Show Must Go On – DVD cover photo
Having never experienced it in a live setting myself, I am extremely excited about attending the show in Bergen in February. What can we expect and will the set list contain some surprises? Or should we just refrain from revealing any secrets or surprises here? 🙂
Åge: Good to know that you are actually gonna see it before we close it. Grieghallen in Bergen is one of the best venues too, and we haven’t played there for quite a while. I guess I’ll rather let you enjoy the surprises when you see the show ha-ha.
For the record, what is your favorite album by Queen?
Åge: Hard to pick a favorite really, but "A Night At The Opera" is a classic of course. However, these days I actually spin the "Cosmos Rocks" album. I love Paul Rodger’s voice. It doesn’t sound like Queen of course, but right now I enjoy that album. Next week I’ll probably give you another answer…
I think that was more or less it. Thanks once again for answering these questions of mine. Any final words or comments to the hard-rocking readers of Eternal Terror Live?
Åge: Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed doing this interview. You had done your homework 😉 Hopefully your readers will let the music do the talking this time and not be blinded by the things that don’t mean shit in this world of illusions.