John Gallagher Interview
2nd October 2020
Q: So, I have to say, a killer album!
JG: Oh yeah. We knew we had a good one just from the songs and it was just climbing literally to the top of the mountain to get it done. The stars were aligned but we had to get the JCB out and kick them down the road a little bit. It was long and involved but well worth the effort I think. I think it's the best thing we’ve ever done.
Q: I would certainly say it’s in your top three and don’t ask me to name your top three because I’m not going to do it.
JG: No no no. It’s a no-win situation when you’re going up against people who have got albums that they’ve grown up with for thirty or forty years and they think they are really really good. You know, imagine if Zeppelin got back together right now; it might be great but realistically, would anyone go ‘It’s better than anything they’ve done before.’
JG: It’s very hard to go up against that but I just think that for a band that’s been around for donkey’s years like we have, to come up with something this good at this point is...aah...unusual! (laughs) Let:s put it that way.
Q: Well I listened to it again this afternoon and the elements that bring it together are quite incredible. Mike’s drumming is sublime in places.
JG: Oh yeah he was completely nuts on it which was the direction from the get-go with Mike. It was ‘Go nuts, we can always pull you back if we think it’s too much’ and to my mind, it works. It sets the pace, initiates the energy and I like to hear music where the drummer is actually doing stuff. I like Fusion, I like Rush...all the classic bands I grew up with, the drums were not just playing 4/4 through a bunch of samples you know. (laughs)
Q: We can go into that in depth at length - and we will do one day - about Carl Palmer, Bill Bruford and Alan White and their peers so I understand what you are saying.
JG: Absolutely and even when people would go ‘Well John Bonham, he’s just a bruiser...’ no, there was finesse, technique, light and shade and parts. You would wait for the parts just like you would wait for the guitar solo, you would wait for those fills. It’s like the Rush thing with Tom Sawyer (John sings a couple of phrases from Tom Sawyer), those are the fun parts. To put signature parts in, that’s very much part of what Mike does and a big part of what we needed with these songs and it took them to somewhere else.
Q: It certainly did. You’ve done an awful lot of publicity for this album - I think I read fourteen interviews before tonight...
JG: Oh there’s more than that and there’s probably thirty or forty reviews and one of them runs hot and cold - one of them! (laughs) I remember way back when we did Rock Until You Drop (1981) and we got a 5 Star review in Sounds and I said to Mark ‘ We should enjoy this right now because I know for a fact we will never see that again’. I was thinking that there was nowhere to go but down (laughs). We are a little polarizing usually so to get this is icing on the cake.
Q: Researching for this interview, because you have already done so many it’s difficult to find something you haven’t been asked so the I’ll just go with this; is there anything you haven’t been asked about this album that you thought you would have been asked?
JG: Ooh...a lot of the questions have been pretty samey. One or two of the guys was more of a podcast thing where it was open and more of a conversation which is usually better because you get better stuff.
Q: Glad you said that as that’s exactly what I want to do here. Before we do that that though, on the album, I adore the artwork.
JG: That was a thing from the get-go as well. I thought the artwork on the last one was pretty good, we did well and Mike had the idea for a T.shirt, a kind of comic book thing with us running and a city exploding behind us and this guy was drawing it and every time he did it, it looked like Mike but it didn’t look like Mark. Mark looked like the Hulk and I looked like somebody else. I’d say ‘That’s not his face’ and the guy would get all stroppy and upset. He was an artist, being contracted to do work and we said ‘Just do what you’re freaking told!’ but no, it was temper tantrums and stuff and eventually we said screw this guy...’do us all a favour and take your easel to the left bank’. So that went away and then we were thinking about the album and Mike said we should revive the idea and do it like a comic book. ‘That’s brilliant! I’m into that!’ and we all just chipped in a bunch of ideas. Again we had to go through a bunch of artists to find a couple that were at least amenable to suggestion and it was a little bit of backwards and forwards but we came up with the concept of a piece of artwork for each song and then the ‘Thank You’s’ as an advert page like in the old Marvel comics so I got to do little doodles of the X-Ray Specs guy and and Explorer guitar and a bass drum and it’s ‘Wow! I’m actually drawing on an album cover for the first time in ten thousand years - that’s fun!’ We saw it but to actually get the finished product, I was blown away! It’s different, the colours pop, it stands out, it’s not another dreary cover with some skeleton on a horse cutting up something.
Q: Spot on John.
JG: Those Power metal covers are so interchangeable within bands, it’s crazy. It’s like there’s just one guy drawing them all.
Q: I got the vinyl version and the quality of everything is gorgeous, right down to the paper of the inner sleeve and there’s so many little things on there that you spot the third or fourth time around looking at it. This is in the old fashioned sense, artwork.
JG: Yeah we’ve all had albums like that where it was an immersive experience. You’d sit and listen and look and read the lyrics, look at the photographs and you appreciated that whoever it was who put the effort in. Usually the best ones were the live albums so you had Rush (All The World’s A Stage), Uriah Heep Live with the program in ...those kind of things. Otherwise you would see one or two items and you would look at it and it would spark your imagination slightly but to have a stand-alone piece of art, it just adds to the whole thing.
Q: Well it’s tangible and I’ve seen a couple of reviews that say you could be back in 1982 with this record and I think that’s a fair comment in some ways but I also think that it misses a couple of things in that you wouldn’t have drumming like that in 1982 and that although this is Raven , it’s a much more...I’m not sure mature is the right word - learned maybe - Raven.
JG: Yeah it’s us further down the road. Like fine wine that hasn’t been opened, we’re just a little better at what we do. With the speed of some of the songs and the arrangements, we let them go a little crazy but they are reigned in. There is only one song of any length - one of them is two and a half minutes - but even with the three and four minute songs there are a lot of twits and turns and that was our mission from the get-go, hit them with hooks and structure and then reel them in and hit them with some left turns because if you hit them with left turns all the time, it becomes Jazz Rock and if you don’t put any in, then it’s just four-on-the-floor boom boom boom which is great but how many people are doing that? We like to play, like to have fun and it just translates into that. So there is a spirit and a feel that has been plugged into 1982 but you wouldn’t get a record that sounded like this anywhere back then. The great thing is as well, it’s transparent. It’s not like an obvious :this is produced’ which is one of the things of Extermination (2015); it was a little heavy handed on the compression and the reverb. To me, when I hear something new, your brain is thinking ‘What does it sound like?’ and if it’s a good album, that lasts for a second or two and then I think ‘Ok, they’ve got it together, now let me listen to the music.’ The only thing that distracts from good music is bad production and everyone is a critic, an engineer or a producer saying ‘Oh I don’t like the drums on this’ but you have to get past that and the best way to do that is to have a good sound and this sounds real. You can listen to the live album we did last year (Screaming Murder Death From Above 2019) and hear this and there are parallels. Yes it’s cleaner and more produced but it’s the same animal.
Q: Produced by Raven is the credit on the album and it opens with that terrific drum bash panning right across the speakers but it also has depth. That’s pretty hard to find someone who can do that in this day and age.
JG: It is! Our initial mixes didn’t sound anywhere near as good and we were kind of down in the dumps about it so we needed to spread our wings and look outside where we were. Michael Wagner did an awesome job of engineering the stuff and then the mix just wasn’t there. It’s an intangible thing but it didn’t have that kick in the booty that you want so we farmed it out to bunch of people and asked if they could do a test mix on it and a couple of guys were good but this guy Zeuss was really good. We went and forwards with him a little bit but without discussing a great deal, he kept that old school feel but brought it into the 21t century without being heavy handed so it’s not the loudness wars, it breathes, it’s got dynamic range and it just sounds really really good!
Q: I have the vinyl and it’s top notch even on that.
JG: That’s good. Doing the mixes, we stuck it on a boombox, played it in the car, burned it to a CD, iPods, Laptop and it even sounded good on iPhone speakers. You’ve got to play it on junk and if sounds good on junk it will sound amazing on the good stuff. You’ve got to play it on all those things because it’s very easy to get locked in a little bubble. I remember when we recorded Architect Of Fear (1991) in Germany and the engineer did his mix and we took it to a kind of club-pub-restaurant and he put it up on the DJ thing, the big speakers and he was mortified! There was way too much low end and he was blowing stuff up! He went out on a bender, he was persona non grata for eighteen hours, lying under the mixing desk saying ‘I couldn’t belieeeeve! I couldn’t belieeeeve!’ It was like somebody had shot his daughter or something and we were just like ‘It’s just a freeking mix mate...let’s just fix it and move forward.’ Mixes are very technical but at the end of the day, it’s the organic factors that makes them good. A lot of people will do a mix and it’s very stagnant with the drums here and the guitar there and in a snapshot, that’s great but through a whole song, if you leave it like that, it’s as boring as shit. My thought is, there’s a bass fill so feature it, a guitar solo, feature it; this part is heavy so bump the rhythm guitars and you may have to do things to initiate that. You may have a third guitar that will just play on the chorus or the big heavy riff but a record has to be active and moving, flowing up and down in the same way you sequence a record, it’s got to have flow.
Q: I was going to ask you about that. We are from a generation where you had a beginning and an end of side one and a beginning and an end of side 2; both beginnings and endings being very important as the beginnings had to grab you and the endings had to make you want to flip the record over. When I listed to the album (vinyl as I mentioned earlier), I thought you had sequenced this, for vinyl, rather than CD. Am I right?
JG: Not 100% but the lengths and ten tracks automatically makes it fall into 5+5. Going back to Extermination, it was technically a double album with the amount of music on it which is nuts. I think you can only sustain a double album if you have some sort of concept going on, a narrative to make you go through that. I’m not a great of the Red Hot Chili Peppers but they put out an album called Stadium Arcadium (2006) and it seemed as if it would take six months to get from one end to the other. In small bits, they were all really good songs, good playing but it just went on and on and I can’t be dealing with that and that was the one complaint we had about Extermination - it was a few songs too long. Initially I was defensive of that but it sits and I thought ‘Maybe they’ve got a point’. There’s a comfort factor and also the attention span and it’s also as you were saying, a throwback to when we were kids when albums were 35 or 40 minutes long, you could get your hands around it and when it finished, you wanted to put it on again. So yes we had that from the get-go that it would be ten songs and since we had so many songs written, we were able to pre-sequence it. What’s a great opener? Well have this one, this one and this one so we chose one and see how it flowed. We wanted a 1-2-3 punch at the front by starting hard, going harder and then backing off a little bit, change pace, go back, etc and then the big epic song which just had to finish it because if you stick it in the middle, it sucks the life out of it and if you put at the end where it belongs, everything builds up to that. We always have a lot of songs and we are lucky and prolific that way but for this one, we had an awful lot of songs! (laughs)
Q: You say lucky; I’ll say fortunate because you have all that experience to write.
JG: Yeah I was just writing like a crazy man! There was brand new ideas and I just kept rattling them out but there were also a couple of older ones. Top Of The Mountain was one of those that had been floating around for a year or two and I just couldn’t finish it. I had a couple of great riffs, didn’t have a chorus and it was frustrating because I knew there was a really great song in there. I’d play like the 49th version to Mark and he’d say ‘Are you still trying to finish that damn song?’ but then I played it to Mike and he said ‘That’s awesome. That’s your blueprint right there - the old and the new.’ Then we played it and it was like woooah...and so when we started touring with Mike and decided to play a new song that will be on the record, we decided on that one and it’s a good way to see how the engine is running by seeing what the reaction is. There’s an honest reaction right off the bat and when you get to the second chorus and everybody’s fist in the air you know you’ve done the right thing.
Q: I want to move on to a couple of other things John. First up, what’s your opinion of analogue vs digital?
JG: Yeah back when Diana Dors ruled the earth. Well digital is just so much easier. Literally, just before I talked to you, a friend of mine is doing a tribute thing for some sick kids and he asked if I would play bass on it and I said yes and did it in five minutes because I have my little box here, a laptop, digital audio workstation program so I plugged it in and boom boom boom. I had made a couple of mistakes but you can wind back hit record and boom it’s done. You couldn’t do that before. Maybe you could have a Revox in your house or something but for the convenience factor, it’s astonishing. They have got the all sounds that with a competent engineer who knows what he’s doing can nail it and Michael Wagner will tell you that and he was Mr Analogue through and through! He’ll tell you ‘No, why would I want to do that when I can get all the sounds I want from this?’ It’s just another tool and you can get all those fat analogue pushing into distortion sounds. I remember when we did Stay Hard (1985) and Michael comes in with his china-graph pencil, goes to the VU meters on the Studer 24 track recorder and he puts a line on them which was like +9db (laughs) You know you had the black line and then the red and he was half an inch past that saying this was where it had to go for the drums. You have to hit the drums that hard to get that natural compression but you can do all that with these plug-ins that imitate it and do a great job. Then there is the dark side which is that everything is gridded out, the autotune factor where you are out of tune but the attitude is ‘I can fix that later’. That happened a few years ago when I was singing something a little flat and the guy said ‘just hang on a minute’ and he fixed it and I thought ‘Oh...that’s not good’ because it was perfect! I got him to take it off because I wanted to say that I did it and not that it was twisted into form but they’ve been playing with this stuff for years. I remember hearing that there was a Pretenders album with Bob Clearmountain working on it and he had an Eventide Harmonizer which is low-tech compared to what they have now and Chrissie Hynde was a little out of tune and he was just riding it - here and there bending her into pitch. Ouch...no no no no no. Then there is the easiness of something like say if in a recording, you think you played guitar on a verse 1 really well, then you think ‘Ok, let’s just copy that and put it on verse 2’ because we are on a click track and on a grid’. Now, this album was done on a click track but the way Michael does a click track is that we send him guitars playing to a click so he can hear what the hell is going on and he will play it and go ‘Well naturally this should be faster, this should pull back, this is the exciting part and this is where it is going to stop’ so he builds all that in to a framework. Then I go ‘Ok, I don’t like this part, I’m going to do it again’. I might try fifteen different things then and it’s basically what bass players, vocalists and guitar players have been doing for years. The poor drummer had to play all the way through right or at least close to right so this way it gives the power back to the drummer in order to be creative.
Q: That’s a very interesting way of doing it.
JG: We were hesitant because we wanted to go in the studio but Mike wanted to do the drums at home. We’d been through all that with The Pack Is Back (1986) when the dynamic in the studio was the push and pull between Rob’s drums and Mark’s guitar which was then all of a sudden removed and the drums just went tok-tok-tok and it killed the feel on many of the songs. Anyway, he said ‘Send me some guitar stuff and I’ll show you what I can do’ and we got these three songs back and we were blown away. At that point I said I didn’t care if he had his mother’s panties on his head and his feet in a bucket of custard while doing this - just give us more PLEASE! So Mike sends the drum tracks and we went to work with a guy who unbeknownst to anyone else decided he would play producer taking out drum fills because he thought they were too busy and he made the huge drum fill in The Power sound like oranges falling down the stairs - every other hit was taken out and we hadn’t heard the original files so we thought Mike had played it terribly so we had to put a gap in. Mike came to the studio after a week because he was busy and said ‘What the hell happened to my drum fill?’ ‘Well what do you mean - its sucked!’ ‘ No it didn’t!’ says Mike and he sends us the original file of what he did and we said to this guy ‘How come it sounds like this from Mike and this from you?’ ‘Oh I don’ know...that’s really odd’. Yeah it was really odd and he was doing shit like that everywhere so we said ‘You know what? This ain’t working, thank you and goodbye’. We scrapped all that but in some sense it was a validation of what we were doing. We didn’t want bum-tap-bum-tap, we wanted to kick what we were doing into another dimension which is what we heard on those original three demos and than we can bounce off what he was doing. Then he has the ability to go ‘Oh that’s even better! I ‘ll change this bit here’ and it becomes almost like you are in the same room bouncing it off each other. That of course is the ideal way to do it but that’s time and money and it’s difficult to do that now. We did get to do a writing session; we played Japan and then went to China and after that flew back to L.A. and there we hired a studio, shot some video and wrote some songs and debated the songs we were going to do on the covers album. There was some really off-the-wall choices which were fun and we did a lot of work in a week and a half getting down some scratch guitar and vocals if I had lyrics. Five or six songs came out of that.
Q: Another thing I’d like to ask you John is that when we were kids, it was basically Rock, Soul or Pop at school with Rock being Prog, Heavy, or Glam, etc - it was just Rock to us. Metal emerged but now Metal has fragmented into so many different Metal genres and I’ll be honest and say 95% of that sounds the same too me...
JG: Yeah it all sounds the same and it’s like fascistic. You know, ‘You can’t stand that way’ or ‘You are not supposed to play that guitar’ and this has been boiling for a while. When Mark was getting his health back together and we started doing a couple of festivals around 2005, we did Bloodstock and back then it was indoors and outdoors and the indoors one was in Derby. We came onstage and people were taken aback because...there were three of us! We were literally told that - that it was weird because there were three of us because it had to be five. You had to have two guitar players, you had to wear chain mail, wave a sword and all the songs had to be about Vikings. Half the people in the audience had plastic swords and helmets on; it was ridiculous, utterly ludicrous and you would read the message board and it was all ‘Raven...oh I don't know about them guys...they didn’t have a lead singer...one guitar player...’ and all this shite. That has just got worse and worse and of course with the introduction of the extreme vocals which is like wrapping duct tape around the guitar strings and just keep hitting it. I honestly think there is a subset of the general public that like Heavy Rock but are literally tone-deaf so it doesn’t matter if someone is playing Smoke On The Water or some noise, as long as it’s powerful, noisy with a beat. I hear some bands and I don’t honestly understand what they are playing. There’s an opening and then the guy comes in growling, there’s no melody, no riff, the sounds are horrible and the drummer is usually going ape-shit which is probably the only thing you can hear. The solos can be wonderful on a technical level but it’s like somebody reciting the dictionary to you at 500 words a second.
Q: I have to agree with all that.
JG: Yeah there's not telling a story, they are not giving any emotion it7s :Look at me and how fast I can play’. In the greatest excesses of Jazz-Rock and Fusion, nobody ever got to that. People used to accuse ELP of that but that’s ridiculous; some of the greatest music ever written. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes, you know, ‘These guys are a great band’. No they’re not - they suck! (laughs)
Q: I’m with you all the way on that John. As ever, always good to talk to you and we’ll catch up again soon.
JG: You bet mate, great to hear you.