INTERVIEW WITH BILLY MORRIS OF TUFF (PART 3 OF 3)
Date: October 8, 2015
Interviewer: Greg Troyan of Lipstick
IN SLEAZE ROXX’S LONGEST AND MOST COMPREHENSIVE INTERVIEW EVER, GREG TROYAN OF LIPSTICK INTERVIEWS HIS GOOD FRIEND AND TUFF GUITARIST BILLY MORRIS. PARTS 1 AND 2 COVERED MANY OF THE WELL KNOWN BANDS THAT BILLY HAS PLAYED WITH INCLUDING WARRANT AND QUIET RIOT, AS WELL AS ARTISTS SUCH AS PAUL GILBERT (MR. BIG) AND FRANK DIMINO (ANGEL). PART 3 OF SLEAZE ROXX’S INTERVIEW WITH BILLY COVERS HIS TIME IN GLAM METAL BAND TUFF, PLAYING ON LIPSTICK’S DEBUT SELF-TITLED ALBUM AND TOUCHES UPON SOME UNRELEASED SONGS FEATURING A WELL KNOWN BUT UNFORTUNATELY DECEASED FRONTMAN.
Sleaze Roxx: Tell me about working with Tuff.
Billy Morris: Sure thing. It goes back to the early ’90s when Tuff was touring. Tuff were a couple years too late. They came out right around the time of Nirvana and all that grunge stuff. They were touring out of a van, and they were playing shows where they desperately needed good support bands to fill the clubs. So, once again, the touring band comes through town and who do they call to open for them? Billy Morris and Kidd Wicked!
So, I met Stevie and we hit it off immediately. He’s a Wisconsin guy, a Green Bay Packer fan. I’m a Cleveland guy, a Browns fan. We’re both BMX riders. We’re both long haired rock n’ rollers. We had a lot in common and we hit it off and became friends right away. I think he stopped doing Tuff for a while, and I did the Warrant thing, and just recently, three or four years ago, he called me and said, “Hey man, I’m gonna do this Tuff thing. Do you wanna play?” And I went, “Hell yeah!” So I learned 12 Tuff songs and was ready to go.
And we had the same attitude about things. First off, Todd Chaisson, the founding member of Tuff, is back in the band. We can’t go out on the road for two, three, four or five weeks at a time. We have families. We have children we need to take to school and raise. We’ve got our foodtruck business here. It’s just not part of our lifestyle anymore. We do, however — as the rockers that we are — we do need to get on airplane and do a metal festival once every six months. That’s what we do. We don’t practice. We talk on the phone once in a while, and then I’ll get a call saying we have a festival gig. We played in Denver this past weekend and played with L.A. Guns, Faster Pussycat, Killer Dwarfs and Pretty Boy Floyd. We’re really looking forward to October 15th, 16th and 17th when we’re at the Rock And Skull Fest outside of Chicago. Lots of great bands like Steelheart and Winger are playing. It’s headlined by Firehouse, Trixter, Ted Poley, Tuff, Hurricane Alice, Lilian Axe, Loudness, and a bunch of others so that’s going to be awesome!
With Tuff, Todd and I have this foodtruck business together, so that works well with our schedule. Stevie and I are such good friends, so I look forward to when I get the call to go out for a weekend once every few months, and rock some great shows. It just so happens that this month, we’re going out for two weekends — this month of October — and then they’re coming back to Cleveland in December for another run. I love playing the Tuff songs. It’s a blast playing with the guys, and it’s just a thing that allows me and Stevie and Todd to continue to go out and continue to play great glam rock music for people and still maintain our lifestyle we have at home. Stevie has kids. I have two kids… I have Todd! He’s my third kid [laughs].
It’s such a good time, man. I’ve met so many good people out on the road touring with Tuff, and I get to reunite with people I met on the road with Warrant. Stevie treats me like royalty and introduces me the right way onstage and respects me a lot. He’s also a great performer. If you haven’t seen Stevie Rachelle onstage, you have to go see it. It’s part rock n roll, part standup, but it’s 100% entertainment and I’m really glad to be involved with it.
Sleaze Roxx: So, let’s talk about Lipstick.
Billy Morris: Well, my good friend, Greg Troyan, junior [laughs].
Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs]
Billy Morris: Greg Troyan [you] contacted me, and he said, “Hey, I’ve got these rock n’ roll songs. I’m gonna do my band. I’m gonna do this record. Would you like to co-produce it and record it and play guitar on it?” And I said, “Sure, yeah. I’d love to.” So, we went into the studio with a slew of drummers, and a slew of different ideas, and we would do one or two songs at a time. It took us about a year to do the whole thing, and we moved around between a couple different studios. It was a very fun project with a very good friend of mine that gave me carte blanche to play. And I think some of the cool things were when you would say, “I want a bit of Ace Frehley in this solo, or can you approach this solo in a George Lynch or Eddie Van Halen kinda way.” [Interviewer’s note: check out Lipstick’s “The Flash”]
Sleaze Roxx: Right. And for “The Conan Song,” I said, “Dude, this is power pop. Just be you.” And you nailed it in like two takes [laughs]!
Billy Morris: Yeah. Those were the fun days man — just two buddies in the studio having a great time. I know you guys are recording a new CD. I’d love to do a guest guitar solo on that. You should send me over a track and I’ll send you back over a solo.
Sleaze Roxx: Alright. I’ll send you over one of the songs!
Billy Morris: Sweet.
Sleaze Roxx: Speaking of the studio, back in the days when I had keys to the recording studio and I was digging through the files on the computer, I found a bunch of unreleased demos that you did with Jani. There are some great songs out there, and they haven’t been leaked in any form as of yet. I have them, and I haven’t leaked them or anything like that out of respect for Jani, but I want to get your thoughts on those. Do you think those will ever see the light of day?
Billy Morris: Well, one of those songs did see the light of day. I think Jani did a record with Keri Kelli and Bobby Blotzer…
Sleaze Roxx: Yes. Saints of the Underground. “Signs of Life”. It even has the “co-written by Billy Morris” thing in the liner notes.
Billy Morris: Haha, nice! You see that? We have the demo of that. That was definitely gonna be a Warrant song, because we WERE writing original songs. So, I don’t see those demos ever seeing the light of day because there are a lot of different camps out there. When I was gearing up to do a Jani tribute show, I was getting a lot of different phone calls from a lot of different family members, so I think for now those demos are best off staying in our computers and playing them for our close friends, but I don’t think those are going to see the light of day anytime soon.
Sleaze Roxx: So, that ties in a bit to my next topic, which is the tribute to Jani you’ve been doing. You did a show with Tom Keifer a few months back and are doing another one soon.
Billy Morris: Yeah. A local promoter named Randy Arehart, from Taphouse Concert Productions, has been a good friend of mine for a long long time. He does concert promotion and he was like, “Hey, I’ve got Tom Keifer coming in. Why don’t you come and open up?” And when we were talking about me opening up for him, I said, “Well, I’ve been thinking about doing a tribute to Jani Lane, so why not just do an entire Warrant set?” So that turned into, “Well if you’re gonna do a Warrant set, you’ve got to get Mike Fasano from LA in!” So, we decided to [do] an entire tribute to Jani Lane and his music. We put the band together — the band with Mike Fasano, the former drummer of Warrant, and Shawn Zavodney, the former keyboard player of Warrant. We also then had my lead guitar player Aaron Adkins and my other lead guitar player Rob Samay and my bass player Paul Lewis. We played our first show at the Akron Civic Theater for a crowd of about 1,300 people. Jani’s ex-wife Rowanne was there, and a lot of his family members showed up.
It was a very classy tribute to Jani. I talked a lot and said a lot of the things that Jani used to say in between the songs and I came out and just fronted. Dave Brooks, one of Jani’s best friends, came out to the sing the ballads. I think a few people may get the wrong idea about those tribute shows and may think I’m just trying to cash in, but if you look at the timeline, we did two shows last year: the one in Akron and one in Iowa a couple weeks later at a motorcycle show, and that’s it. And we have two more coming up, because it’s the same promoter and Tom Keifer, and I’m gonna do it again. I’m not making any money, and it’s not like I just put this together to be my livelihood. I’m doing this because I feel that Jani Lane was the best songwriter, vocalist and frontman of the ’80s. He was one of my best friends. I tell everybody all the time that he made my rock n’ roll dreams come true, and I don’t want his legacy to die or be forgotten. I want him to be remembered. I think I’m one guy, the guy who stood next to him onstage for five years, that watched him entertain, and it was just a natural thing for me to be influenced by Jani. I watched the way he fronted a band and how he carried himself, how he ran the set and how he was an entertainer, and that’s what I am now. And, I’m not as good as him, but if there’s anybody who’s going to be playing a tribute to him, I’m the guy.
So, we have a couple more of those shows coming up. November 13th, we’re playing at the Northfield Rocksino and the next night, we’re in Evansville, Indiana, and both nights are with Tom Keifer. And the one in Cleveland, the Rocksino show, is going to be hosted by Rikki Rachtman of Headbanger’s Ball.
Sleaze Roxx: So, I wanted to toss out to the Sleaze Roxx readers something real quick. You’re a guy who does a lot of charity work and are pretty humble about it and don’t go blabbing about it much, so you tend to keep quiet about things like that. However, I want to make the point of saying that the show you did with Tom Keifer was actually a charity show where the money went to Jani’s kids. I wanted to let everyone know you’re a guy of integrity.
Billy Morris: Thank you for that. The integrity thing — you know — like any fundraiser or benefit, there are costs involved. The room itself costs money. The help were union stage hands and that cost a lot of money, Tom Keifer costs a lot of money, the sound costs a lot of money, the insurance costs a lot of money, so there’s a lot of costs involved. Everybody got paid, but not my band. We gave money to his daughters, we gave money to his ex-wife and we gave as much money as we could.
I will be the first one to make the announcement that Randy Arehart — look up Randy on Facebook with Taphouse Productions — he lost money and paid money out his pocket to send money to Jani’s little girls. Nobody made any money on that except the money we sent to those little girls and some of the family members. No one’s getting rich off this, and I wouldn’t want to. I make more than enough money with my music career and my food truck, and so the proceeds from that show went to his daughters.
Sleaze Roxx: I want to also toss out to the Sleaze Roxx readers that you have been in the Jani camp for a long time. When we were recording the Lipstick album, I remember you were gearing up to be Jani’s guitarist for a solo tour. I remember we were driving around in your van and we got the call from Jani’s management telling you about the press release. I also remember when we were recording the Lipstick album, Jani left his acoustic guitar in the studio one day, and you sent him a text asking him if we could use his guitar and we recorded “Love One Another” from the Lipstick album on Jani’s guitar.
Billy Morris: Yeah, that’s right! I remember that!
Sleaze Roxx: So, I just want to let everyone know that you have been far in the Jani camp for many years.
Billy Morris: You know what? We were brothers, man. We were really close. We’d done so many things together. He’d slept at my house, he’d slept at my mom’s house, I mean, we go back, man. I took him to his first Cleveland Browns game in 1993 — in a rainstorm. We were those kinda friends. But, I also want to make mention that he left behind another close friend in Shawn Zavodney, the keyboard player, who was on every level the same type of friend to Jani that I was, and even more so towards the end because they were golfing buddies and they were such close friends. Shawn should be mentioned in the same conversation as me because of the Ohio connection and somebody that Jani could really relate to. And there’s a lot of other people in Akron and Cleveland and his area that were in love with him as a person and close to him and obviously we’re all devastated that we lost him so soon, but he was surrounded by some really good Ohio people.
Not to take anything away from the LA people, but I’m just talking for us Ohioans here, us Ohio State Bukeyes fans, us Cleveland Browns fans, that — you know, that was one of our things. Jani and I would watch Ohio State games together. We’d watch Browns games together on the tour bus by ourselves and drink beer afterwards because we were sad that we lost.
Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs] Ugh, as another Cleveland guy, I know how that’s pretty much every Browns game.
Billy Morris: I know, man. Us Ohio people understand each other.
Sleaze Roxx: So, to a lighter subject, I’ve got some questions I traditionally ask, and one of them is what are your top three favorite albums?
Billy Morris: ‘Van Halen I’ — that was my first album. Probably something like Ratt’s ‘Out Of The Cellar.’ When I first heard Ratt and heard Warren DeMartini play guitar, that was pretty moving as well. Maybe Kiss’ ‘Alive!’ which I must’ve listened to a thousand times. I have to put in Ted Nugent’s ‘Double Live Gonzo.’ I listened to that ten thousand times. All the early Lynyrd Skynyrd albums, I listened to ten thousands [of times]. I could even go back and mention a bunch of the songs that I was raised on like “Pablo Cruz.” Grand Funk Railroad — this is the stuff that my Dad’s band played when I was a kid, so I would either hear my Dad’s band learning it and practicing it or when I was out to one of his gigs, I’d hear it at the show. I was in his practice room, breaking the needle off his record player, listening to all the stuff that my Dad did.
Grand Funk Railroad — if you look at some of the youtube videos of that band playing “We’re An American Band” — that was one of the first American glam rock heavy metal bands. Mark Farner had the hair. He wore tight spandex pants with no shirt on. He was the first real headbanger in America, and the drummer Don Brewer, he sang “We’re an American Band” and he had big hair and hit those drums hard. That band really is under appreciated, but not from me, because that’s my roots. I just gave you a few, but oh my God, I listened to all that stuff growing up because my Dad was learning it, and I heard him dissect that stuff. It just goes to show you how sad of a state music is in nowadays. It’s just awful. I mean, there’s great music out there, but you’re not hearing it on the radio.
Sleaze Roxx: I know. I remember when we working on the Lipstick album, you and I would kick back while listening to Kissin’ Dynamite and Reckless Love.
Billy Morris: Yes [laughs]! Are you turned on now to Santa Cruz?
Sleaze Roxx: I like them. I’m not a diehard, but I like the guitar tone and think the songs are okay.
Billy Morris: Well, I’ll tell you what, I like Santa Cruz. They’re one of my favorite, new up and coming bands, because of the guitar playing and the guitar tone. But if I had one message to give to those kids, because they’re kids, I don’t think that they really get it from an American standpoint, but their new record is amazing but they swear too much. There’s too many f-bombs in every song. If I was the manager or producer of Santa Cruz, I’d be like, “You know what? You’re getting your point across, but let’s settle down on these f-bombs. Because while it works for rebellious young kids, it doesn’t have staying power.” And when they hear this stuff when they’re 45 or 50 year old, they’re going to go, “Oh my God, why did I swear so much?” They won’t think that right now, but perspectives and values change as you get older.
Sleaze Roxx: I think Dirty Penny had a bit of that problem too. That’s actually something Lipstick generally avoids, because that hurts the commercial appeal of your stuff.
Billy Morris: Exactly. And then, if you look at your music 30 years from now, you won’t be digging all the f-bombs and “muthafuckas.” [laughs]
Sleaze Roxx: So, that brings me into my final question, which is, “What is your advice for all the young kids in bands out there, other than don’t say the f-bomb too much?”
Billy Morris: Well, I gotta say, I think that kids nowadays need to understand that if they wanna start a band and get in the clubs and play the clubs and play out live, it’s all about the cash register of the bar. So, if you’re gonna go into a bar, even if you’re the best band in the city playing the perfect songs, singing the best and nobody comes and sees your band play, you’re not going to be invited back to play that club. You have to do your promotion, you have to do your homework, and you have to bring people out to pay money to see you play, or you’re not going back to that club. Now, it’s a two-way street. You need to be able to bring it onstage, so that when all your friends and family come out, they’re entertained. It’s two-ways. You need to bring the people to the bar to spend money so that the bar owner can pay his bills and feed his kids, but you also need to put on a hell of a show so that all those people who come to see your band come back to see your band again and again.
Sleaze Roxx: Agreed. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Billy. So, do you think we got enough material for the interview?
Billy Morris: For Part 1.