DAVY VAIN INTERVIEW:
December 4, 2011
Vain was founded in 1986 in the San Francisco area by singer Davy Vain, but even if the look of the band was similar to groups like Poison the song material was a bit different. Not just straight-ahead pop rock tunes, Davy Vain tried to write songs with a groovy background, and along with his unique vocals it created a suffering soul vibe. In 1989 Vain released their debut album ‘No Respect’, and at the time no one could have known that the epic album would later be named one of the top five glam/hair metal records of the ’80s by iconic British music magazine Kerrang!. The band made videos for the songs “Beat The Bullet” and “Who’s Watching You”, and other great tracks from that debut include “Secrets”, “1000 Degrees”, “Without You” and finally “Smoke And Shadows”. If you’re really into glam and sleazy hard rock that debut album is your salvation to dream away the average normality of everyday life.
In 1991 Vain recorded another great piece called ‘All Those Strangers’, but it was never released (until recently) because their label Island Records was sold and then grunge rock finally killed hair metal, resulting in records labels dropping most ’80s hard rock bands who had previously earned them millions of dollars. Failing to find success, Vain had to regroup and released two albums in Japan, 1993’s ‘Move On It’ and one year later ‘Fade’, which both contain the typical Vain trademarks but ones that never found their way to your local record store.
In 2000 Davy Vain recorded a solo album called ‘In From Out Of Nowhere’ which featured rock songs with depth but without the kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll we came to expect from the band Vain. It took another five years for Vain to return with ‘On The Line’, featuring the original line-up, and it seemed Davy Vain was back in the limelight. But in the meantime he was also engineering and producing other artist’s works, like Christina Aguilera’s song “I Am Beautiful”, and even provided some songs for the 2009 Delany album ‘Blaze And Ashes’.
It took about six years for Vain to record the follow-up to ‘On The Line’, the recently released ‘Enough Rope’ on Jackie Rainbow Records/Music Buy Mail. The disc features the classic Vain line-up of Danny West and Jamie Scott on guitars, Ashley Mitchell on bass, Tommy Rickard on drums and Davy on lead vocals. ‘Enough Rope’ simultaneously takes the band back to the ‘No Respect’ era and into the future with its timeless classic hard rock sound. While Davy Vain was on a European promo tour Sleaze Roxx had the honor to interview the legendary rocker face to face in Berlin, Germany. While chatting, Davy all of a sudden played an acoustic one-song set of “Treasure Girl” at the local record store, and blew away the diehard fans that had appeared to get an autograph from the seasoned veteran.
Sleaze Roxx: How did the new album ‘Enough Rope’ come together?
Davy Vain: I’ve been working on it quite a while and how I like to record lately is I work on two or three songs at a time instead of the typical thing of going into the studio with a certain time limit — doing all the drum tracks because drum tracks are so important to get the right groove and feel. If you have that it is like the foundation of a house, so if you have that everything sounds great, which is what you are looking for in the initial first recordings. If the drums are right everything else falls into place.
I think by working on two or three songs at a time I can focus on getting great sounds and great performances on those tracks. Then we do that session, then come out of recording mode and work on the vocals or something else, then I work on writing some other songs, then we do another session. So that is why it took so long to make. During those sessions I did some traveling and other stuff. Finally I recorded the last half of it quickly and went over everything and made sure it was all what I wanted without overdoing it — keeping it raw and keeping it produced too. I had somebody else mix this record which is what I didn’t do on a couple of records. I thought it was time for me to let somebody else do it. Most great new albums are mixed by somebody fresh. This album has other people involved and I think that kept it really heavy and in your face. I think the guy listened to ‘No Respect’ before he mixed it.
The mixing engineer listened to it and thought, ‘this is pretty in your face’. I think the songs are like that too. A lot of that has to do with playing for so many more young kids. When we toured 5, 6 or 7 years ago we were playing to 35 year old people who were there for ‘No Respect’. All of a sudden on the next tour there were more new kids. Now when we tour it’s all these kids dressed like the Sunset Strip in 1989 and they are 16 years old. We are a new band to them — they love the stuff that rocks. I can still rock too so I put an edge on it. When someone does a drum track I go, ‘don’t get too tricky’. I’d say, ‘do it like ‘No Respect’ — kick ass like that’. Even a couple of songs were written during that era that I never used.
Sleaze Roxx: How come you used some old Roadcrew (the band Guns N’ Roses drummer Steven Adler) and Vain songs, like “Cindy” and “Worship You”, on ‘Enough Rope’?
Davy Vain: We did some masters for that but never used them. Whenever I play them people are, ‘wow that kicks ass’. But most people have bad bootleg versions that got leaked out, so when I was putting the record together I thought maybe I should put one of those on — just mix it so it sounds fresh… If I think it is a better song. It doesn’t matter when I recorded or what happened, it’s going to make the album sound better.
It still sounds like us, and if we mix it with the rest of the batch it will have the same sound. I was thinking more for kids now that never heard it and for the fans that have a bad bootleg they can hear it like it should sound, it’s live off the floor in one take. I wanted the record to be pretty heavy so that is how those songs came to be on there.
Sleaze Roxx: What songs from ‘Enough Rope’ are you most proud of?
Davy Vain: It changes every day. “Treasure Girl” came out so amazing, it’s a true story about this Russian girl I met. I said her eyes were green and she would always say, ‘sometimes they are a little blue’. I thought that sounded great because there is a double meaning, like blue as in sad or blue as a color. That song I’m pretty proud of but I love “Greener” too, speaking of green (laughs). That means a lot to my lyrically — it’s kind of encoded, you might not know what I’m talking about on the verses, but it’s an experience I had. There are different moments on the CD, and the more I listen to it I’ll have a new favorite. Right now it’s “Hot Stage Lights”, there are few things on the verses that I did that was a little raw. I kept thinking, should I fix that, because I did it in one take and had so much attitude. Once I did it perfect, I thought no, I don’t really feel it, screw it, I’ll use the original. Better doesn’t always sound better so I like the way that all came together. It’s always changing. “Triple X” seems to be everyone’s fave so that was fun too. So I like them all.
Sleaze Roxx: You are working with the original band members on ‘Enough Rope’. How have you to keep the band intact for so many years?
Davy Vain: Vain has always been important to everybody. We don’t spend that much time doing it full time, so when it’s time to do a record people want to be involved. I don’t think there is enough time for everyone to do everything. Sometimes when I tour now I call it my first string, like a sport or soccer team. If I have to do something, I let people know. If they can’t do it I have another person that can do it. I used to wait for the original guys, we are all best friends and grew up in the same little town, but I had to keep moving forward too and couldn’t wait for someone who could only tour for a week because they have another company or business. So, how we did the record was if you wanted to be on the record, come up — so they did. Live I have a new young band, the guitar player is 22 and Swedish. It keeps it fresh for the new people too, but if one of the original guys wants to go of course they can go. But the last tour I did I had a lot of other people in the band that could have been in the band in 1989 as they were the same age as us. It makes it fresh and interesting.
Sleaze Roxx: There was big hype surrounding Vain when you appeared on the scene with the first album, why do you think you didn’t reach bigger commercial success?
Davy Vain: We should have been bigger. I think everybody thought that. It was the record company pretty much, a double edged sword. They were great for giving us the freedom and creative control to do ‘No Respect’ — no other record company would have let us make that album. We were going to get signed before but they wanted to interfere a lot, with outside song writers, look cool in a video, and play some stupid pop songs. We always wanted to be a serious real band. We finally signed to Island Records and right after we were signed they were sold to another company and we were lucky ‘No Respect’ even came out. Even on our first tour the distribution switched — there weren’t records in the stores, it was a mess. Rick Rubin said to me before we even made the record, when asking what Vain was up to, and when I told him we just got signed to Island Records he said, ‘they have terrible promotion’. So I don’t think that helped. I think we did better in Europe because the record company in Europe was better than the American side of it.
Melissa Etheridge was really big in America, she had her own record out at the same time as us and that was the only record she had go gold because of the record company. You can only get so much and we were a little bit late by coming out in late 1989 when already there were a lot of L.A. bands that were signed. Our first record was designed to be a first record. The record company purposely sat us down and said, “we don’t want you to go into the studio and be the biggest band in the world. We already got them and they are called U2. The reason they are so big is they have done all these records and tours and you are not going to top them anyway.” Experience is how you make a great record and having a fan base who grow with you. They said, “we just want you to go into the studio, make a sleazy record that sounds like a bunch of kids from the streets ready to tear the world apart and fuck everything that moves. Guess what, U2 can’t make that record.” I was like, ‘that is the record I want to make too!’
The plan was to do three albums and slowly build it. When we were doing ‘No Respect’ I had a rule in the studio that we never wanted to get too slick or produced. I wanted the Sex Pistols’ ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ album and if I thought it was getting too staid I’d throw that on. If it made our stuff sound really shitty then we knew we went too far. I wanted to make sure we didn’t sound too gigantic or too ’80s. I know Skid Row, for example, is a big band with “Youth Gone Wild” and it sounds like a big giant production, but we did not want to sound like that. We never did anything quite that extreme. When I listened to early Aerosmith records, or AC/DC’s ‘Highway To Hell’ and ‘Back In Black’, they were kind of like watching a band play live and we wanted to sound like that.
Sleaze Roxx: Your debut album was released later through a British label…
Davy Vain: We had nothing to do with that. I thought they were completely lame, they never even talked to us and put on these weird liner notes. They didn’t ask or check with us or say, ‘we are re-releasing your record, do you want to write some liner notes’. They had some critic write the liner notes and it’s on the insulting side, I’m not sure if you’ve read it but it’s kind of weird. I don’t know if they even had the rights to do it. At that time I wasn’t worried about little stuff like that. It helped in a way because a bunch of people got it who couldn’t get it.
Sleaze Roxx: Was there a specific time you were upset with the music business?
Davy Vain: No, never. I’ve always done some kind of music thing. When the whole Seattle thing hit everyone thought anyone who did anything before that was terrible. I laid low for a little while, wrote songs and worked with other artists. I got better at learning the art form of recording which I’d always been interested in.
Sleaze Roxx: You’ve worked with people such as Christina Aguilera.
Davy Vain: It’s a job, something I was passionate about. I could stay in touch with the music business and also have income and not have to worry about my records making money. That way I could still do my records the way I wanted rather than having some guy pay me to put out a record that would be something shitty — I never had to do that. I just had to find a different way and get experience too. Working with Don Weiss was great, as were Linda Perry and Christina. I’m always trying to learn and get better at everything.
Sleaze Roxx: How would you describe Vain in your own words?
Davy Vain: I guess passionate, emotional and original — hard rock with more of our own sound. I always thought Vain would be like AC/DC or Van Halen. How could they explain their sound, they just sound like them. My friends that are musicians are always, “you don’t know how lucky you are. I can give you any song and you can sing on it and it will sound like Vain. I could give you a disco song and as soon as you start singing it would sound like Vain.” I guess I’m lucky enough to have an identifiable voice and style. When I write I don’t really think I’m going to write this sort of song — I just jam on the guitar and I can write a million good riffs, but all of a sudden I hear a certain chord progression or a certain something and that will be the song. The verses are more important to me than the choruses. I write the verses first. I know I’ve got something good when I feel a certain something, then I can put myself into the music.
Sleaze Roxx: The song “1000 Degrees” for example has a special atmosphere and has that trademark sound Vain has with their slower songs. On all your records you seem to have three or four songs in that vein.
Davy Vain: The slower songs are interesting. Vain don’t have as many fast songs as some bands, it’s more mid-tempo. Even “Secrets” is really fast but I’m not singing it like a typical fast song. I’m not screaming the whole way, I’m singing my way. So I don’t really think about it, it’s how it makes me feel — how the melody and key of it feels. It’s an instinctual emotional thing. I think that is the hardest thing. I work with singers all the time with amazing voices. I guess I’m lucky that people believe what I’m saying and that is what makes a good singer. Not how great they are, but how believable they are and how they make you feel what they are saying.
It’s funny you mention “1000 Degrees” because that was supposed to be the first single. The most work was put into that song in the studio and the mix was the longest mix. The record company thought that was Vain’s hit song. That is the song that got us signed. Then they were paranoid that there were two bodies lying naked and that the radio wouldn’t play it. It was really uptight in 1989. Even when we released the video for “Beat The Bullet” the original clip had two girls rubbing against each other in the crowd and they thought it looked like lesbianism so they re-edited it and it came out later — five years later MTV thought nothing of showing gay people. So we never had that as a single and it was always intended to be the first song.
Sleaze Roxx: How did you start as a singer?
Davy Vain: As a little kid I listened to all black music. My favorite bands were the Isley Brothers, Fire… all Motown stuff. My mother bought me a Beatles album and I heard it and, not that I didn’t think they were great, but there was something missing, probably because they were white. They had a thing in America, like a record club, and you paid a penny and got 10 free records and every month they would send you are record. If you didn’t send it back you had to pay. Every month a record came and one month I opened it up and it was Aerosmith’s ‘Rocks”. I put it on the turn table and boom, that was it. That was when I started discovering rock. I didn’t have big brothers or friends who liked rock, so I went to the record store saying ‘I like rock’ and the guy said ‘get this album it’s called Jimi Hendrix ‘Are You Experienced”.
My mom was a singer, so was her sister — they sang in Germany quite a bit. They were professional singers for 10 years then met American guys and moved to America. My cousin sang her whole life. I didn’t get into to it until I was about 17 then I joined a band with two other kids. We used to play with this old guy that nobody wanted to play with, a stoner guitar player. We’d go to practice every day and he’d be super stoned, so that was my very first band. I was the singer with two other kids and this old guy. What was cool about it was we would do only original music so I sang whatever I wanted to — I didn’t really know what I was doing. The older guy had been in a lot of bands and he said, “you’ve got such a special sound to your voice, there is something golden about it.” So he gave me confidence. Singing is a very hard thing to do but I was, ‘ok… he thinks I’m good’. He was great compared to us, he had been playing for 20 years and we were just starting. After a while we got in a fight and the other kids in the band kicked me out. I started playing guitar more and practicing and writing songs.
I was a guitar player in a couple of bands until I did a little demo of a song I wanted the band I was the guitar player in to do. I sang on it to show them this is what I want to do. My manager heard it and said I had a unique voice. She was friends with Kirk Hammett of Metallica so she played it for him and he said, ‘this guy’s voice reminds me of a guitar, like a whammy bar’. So I did a demo with him. After that I thought it was time to get my own band. The band I was in found out about it and said if we, me and the drummer, went and to do that demo we were kicked out of the band. We said ok, we weren’t going to pass up doing a demo with Metallica so we were out of there.
When I put the band together I found the coolest musicians that looked the coolest and wanted to do what I wanted so I wouldn’t have to compromise. If I didn’t make it, at least I knew I did it exactly my way and didn’t have to fight with anyone because my way was their way. If you really want to have your own band you have to be the singer. Kirk Hammett helped because if I go, ‘Kirk Hammett did my tape, want to hear my band’, everyone is yeah! Especially in the little town we were from. We got the band together and I wanted to have a super over the top image. Everyone thinks it is some kind of glam music but we didn’t listen to glam music really. We didn’t have Hanoi Rocks albums, we didn’t know who they were. We wanted a crazy image like the New York Dolls, but wanted to be a band more like Judas Priest. We wanted to be a great hard rock band. Our first pictures were very stylish and sophisticated. Our manager, who was a girl, said ‘don’t wear that, wear this’. We put our first flyers out for our first show and we were backstage nervous and a guy came out back and said, ‘congratulations it’s a sellout’. Everyone was pretty shaken and thinking maybe those pictures were too cool. It went well and we didn’t have anything go bad. It went up like a sky rocket — every time it was sold out and more people. We were lucky to be one of those bands. We played in Chicago at the biggest club there and the club owner would go, ‘you guys are going to be the next big band’. We’ve always been told that by people like Kerrang and anyone that knew anything. What turned out obviously wasn’t that, but it doesn’t make any difference now. Now we get the respect for being more underground and more cult. A lot of bands that sold a lot of records, like Warrant, I wouldn’t change places with them. I didn’t want to do that kind of music, I wanted it raunchier — more in the AC/DC category. More old school and a rock n roll band, not a pop commercial kind of band.
Sleaze Roxx: During the last years Vain often toured Europe, what do you like here most?
Davy Vain: Besides the girls (laughs) just about everything. I love the European lifestyle. I lived in Holland a lot as a kid because my mom went back. I was recently living in Cologne, Germany for 6 or 7 months. I think people are more passionate for music. I think they read more interviews, go out to gigs more, and do more things. In America I think people stay in the house more. The distance between things is closer. In America you drive five hours and you are barely in L.A. or the desert. Here you drive five hours and you’ve hit three beautiful cities. We’ve always been appreciated here. Although we have a lot of American fans it’s a big spread out place so I’ve really been concentrating my efforts here the last couple of years.