INTERVIEW WITH ALCATRAZZ AND MICHAEL SCHENKER FEST SINGER GRAHAM BONNET
Date: August 13, 2020
Interviewer: Ruben Mosqueda
Photos: Alex Solca via New Ocean Media (first photo), Joe Schaeffer Photography (third and seventh photos)
What can I say about Graham Bonnet, other than he has been on my bucket list interview list for years now. The man has played with some of the best guitarists in the music business — Ritchie Blackmore in Rainbow, Michael Schenker in MSG and currently in Michael Schenker Fest, Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai in Alcatrazz, Chris Impellitteri in Impellitteri, Bob Kulick in Blackthorne and currently he’s got Joe Stump on board for the relaunch of Alcatrazz. Bonnet and company have just released a new album via Silver Lining Music on July 31st, 2020. Bonnet spoke with Sleaze Roxx on August 13th, 2020 and he didn’t disappoint.
Sleaze Roxx: You’ve been doing Graham Bonnet Band for sometime now. What was the inspiration to relaunch Alcatrazz?
Graham Bonnet: I thought that by doing so, we would probably get more interest. The name Alcatrazz has more recognition than my name I think. A lot of people don’t know who I am! They’re like, “Who is this Graham Bonnet person?” [Laughs] I think unless you’re a hardcore follower of what I have done over the years, I’m not a recognizable name. I have some of the guys back in the band that were in the band before, except our drummer who has completely retired from the music business. He doesn’t even play drums anymore. We’ve had so many guitarists over the years that I wouldn’t want to ask any of them anymore, because they have their own careers. Well two of them at least! Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai. So, to answer your question, I figured that if we used the Alcatrazz name, we’d do better when we went out and played live.
Sleaze Roxx: When you set out to relaunch Alcatrazz, was it hard to convince [bassist] Gary [Shea] and [keyboardist] Jimmy [Waldo] to be a part of it?
Graham Bonnet: Jimmy had been playing with me already with The Graham Bonnet Band, but Gary was semi-retired, but he was asked to come with us to Japan to do a couple of songs with us. We did some Alcatrazz songs. He loved it so we took it a bit further. It’s ‘almost’ Alcatrazz but not quite. I think this is as close as we’ll get at this point. Now, will we ever play live with this line-up? I don’t know when that would ever be at this point with the virus still around. Gary didn’t play bass on the album. Other people did that on the album. He knows the songs. We may have to wait up to a year to book shows! Who the hell knows with this virus [laughs]!
Sleaze Roxx: Leading up to the release of the album, you released a couple of clips for the title track “Born Innocent” and also one for “Polar Bear.” These songs on the album, were they new/fresh ideas specifically for the album or was there stuff from the archives or that were going to be used for The Graham Bonnet Band?
Graham Bonnet: There were all created for this band. I worked the majority of them with our guitar player Joe Stump. There’s different guitarist guests on the album as you know.
Alcatrazz‘s “Polar Bear” video:
Sleaze Roxx: I have followed your career since ‘Assault Attack’ [Michael Schenker Group], then worked my way back to Rainbow, then forward with Alcatrazz. One of the things that has caught my attention is how you phrase things on the recordings. How did you develop that? Regardless of what band you’re singing for or what the song is you’re singing, you have this unique way of phrasing things on the albums.
Graham Bonnet: [Laughs] Thank you! I don’t know how that happened actually, I think it has been subconsciously done. People have said to me, “Your phrasing is so unusual. You’re coming in too late there or you’re coming in too early [laughs]!” When I’m writing the words / lyrics for the song, I like to make sure that they work. There’s some songs that sound absolutely stupid as you sing them. Some words just don’t sound right! Sometimes you just have to pick a different word. I always make sure that the words can be read just like poetry. I like to tell a story. It’s got to work as a song. One of my favorite lyricists is Chuck Berry. His songs are the same, in the same key and everything. The words are incredibly ‘fluid.’ The way he put the words to song is just something that I just admired a lot. I have tried to sort of do that, but I’m not quite as good as he is.
Sleaze Roxx: The one thing that sets you apart from the other hard rock singers early in your career and even now is that you had this different image. You had short hair and a clean cut look. I remember as a kid I was talking with this friend who had seen a music video, but he had forgotten the name of the band, he said “Yeah, it’s this guy with short hair and [he] looks like he was the guy from ‘Miami Vice.’ I don’t recall the name of the band, but it was awesome.” I said,”Oh, that’s Graham Bonnet. It’s Alcatrazz.”
Graham Bonnet: [Bursts into laughter] I must have been wearing my Beach Boys shirt [laughs]! That or it was the suit with the thin tie [laughs]!
Sleaze Roxx: In retrospect, it worked because it gave you an identifiable trademark. You have the voice and you have a unique look. Was the ‘image’ done by design? I know prior to getting recruited by Rainbow, you had a career doing music that was on the ‘lighter side.’ So was that Graham Bonnet bringing that ’50s-’60s image to hard rock music?
Graham Bonnet: It wasn’t my plan to be weird or anything like that. I cut my hair at the suggestion from my then girlfriend. She said, “Why don’t you do something different?” My hair used to get in the way when I was recording, and I was using headphones, so I went for it. I went for the button up shirt with jeans. It was a very 1950s style, which fit in the sense that it was the music that I grew up on. When I was a kid, I would listen to Little Richard, Buddy Holly. I’ve always liked that kind of music and the style of the time or fashion if you will. I stuck with it because it’s what I was I was comfortable with. When I went for the audition with Rainbow in London, I said to my manager, “You know, I’m not going to fit with these guys. I just don’t think I’m the right guy for this.” They looked different than I did and I really didn’t think I was ‘right’ for that band. I had never heard of them because I was in my own world. I never listened to hard rock or heavy metal or whatever.
Sleaze Roxx: I was wondering going into Rainbow, how familiar you were with them and Blackmore’s work in Deep Purple, and with Schenker, were you aware of his work with Scorpions and UFO?
Graham Bonnet: I think by the time I went to work with Michael, I had heard of UFO and Scorpions, but they just weren’t my thing. I loved The Beatles, The Beatles were my thing, also The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, that kind of music. It wasn’t anything heavy or of a particular genre, The Beatles did everything from “Helter Skelter” to “When I’m 64” for God’s sake. That’s how I styled myself for my solo albums, so I was doing this R&B sort of pop stuff. Anything that I recorded as a solo artist in the beginning, I recorded because I liked it not because it was a particular style of music. Getting back to Rainbow, I didn’t think I was going to fit because they were in one drawer and they wanted to stay there. My manager had me work with Roger Glover and the rest is history, I guess.
Rainbow‘s “All Night Long” video:
Sleaze Roxx: Going back to ‘Born Innocent,’ you have some guests and some guest songwriters. Steve Vai, Chris Impellitteri and Bob Kulick contributed and performed on the album.
Graham Bonnet: Yeah, correct those three guys contributed to the album.
Sleaze Roxx: Was it hard to get those guys that you worked with in the past to either contribute or play on the record?
Graham Bonnet: It was actually easy! All three of them said they’d absolutely do it but none of them wanted to be in the band [laughs]! I understood. They all have their own thing going and they are doing quite well on their own. I asked Steve if he could write something and he sent us 60 songs! That’s right 6-0! They were arrangements and we picked out one song from him and went to work. Bob Kulick sent us three to four songs. We picked two of his and Chris sent me one and it made the record. It’s good to have friends like that. It’s like old times when we got together with them.
Sleaze Roxx: How long did it take you to sort through 60 Steve Vai arrangements?
Graham Bonnet: [Laughs] The guys in the band listened to a lot of them, I listened to four and I then picked the best out of the four.
Sleaze Roxx: Bob unfortunately passed [away]. He sent you the three to four songs and you picked two of them. Have you kept in touch with him over the years?
Graham Bonnet: I got in touch with him again when we were playing in Vegas. I heard that he was living there and I asked him to come up with us to do a couple of songs. He did and after that I asked him if he had any songs and he sent me the songs and he was featured on the record. It was as simple as that. I just can’t believe he’s gone. I had known the guy for such a long time. He was just such a lively and interesting chap. He was always so full of life. He always had problems with girlfriends and whatever, he seemed a bit depressed… I often wonder what really happened to him. It was unexpected and shocking when I found out that he passed.
Sleaze Roxx: What was it like working with Bob in Blackthorne? ‘Afterlife’ was an underrated group and a ‘super group’ of sorts.
Graham Bonnet: Well, yeah… It was a ‘group’ [laughs]! It really wasn’t very ‘super’ because I remember we played in front of practically nobody, when we went out on tour! There were like three people at times or something, some nights! I’m being sarcastic, but there weren’t many people there from night to night. It was hard work and in the end that is why I left. I was like, “Well, nothing is happening here!” It was fun while it lasted. The songwriting was good and making the album was good, but touring was just terrible. It wasn’t very good at all, unless we were opening for a bigger act.
Blackthorne‘s “Afterlife” video:
Sleaze Roxx: You covered Rainbow on ‘Afterlife’ [“All Night Long”] and you did that too with Impellitteri on ‘Stand In Line’ [“Since You’ve Been Gone”]. Did you suggest recutting those or was it the guitar players in those bands that suggest it?
Graham Bonnet: [Laughs] What do you think? Llaughs] It wasn’t me! I didn’t want to record any of that stuff again. It was the guitar players that wanted to show me how they’d do their version of those songs. That’s pretty much what happened! I didn’t want to record “Since You’ve Been Gone” again or “All Night Long” or whatever! To me, the first is always the best! You can’t improve on it, or at least I can’t, unless someone else records it. If I record something that I have already done, I can’t make it better because it’s still me on it. It’s still the same frickin’ voice and I happen to like the way the originals sound to begin with.
Sleaze Roxx: You covered an album’s worth of material from your entire career on a recent Graham Bonnet Band album. It was a bonus disc worth and not a stand alone album. How did you feel about that? It was a companion CD on for ‘The Book.’
Graham Bonnet: Well, I wasn’t too keen on the idea. It was a label thing.
Sleaze Roxx: So when Impellitteri and Kulick approach you about cover songs you’ve recorded and it comes time to cut it, how did you pump yourself up to do a respectable rendition of the song? You don’t want to phone it in, right?
Graham Bonnet: [Laughs] It’s very hard! [Laughs] I keep remembering how I sang it in the first place. I try to sing it close to the original, but you always wind up changing the melody a little bit. I try to keep it as close to the original but it’s very difficult to do that. As time goes on, you sound a little bit different… When Bob suggested we record “All Night Long”, we took it up three to four keys! It was higher! Bloody hell, are you kidding me [laughs]? To me, that song lost the vibe. Recording that in a higher key made it lose that ‘personal touch’ if you will. It wound being a falsetto! I can’t sing falsetto to save my life! That lost the soul and the feel of the song. One thing that Cozy Powell did, he always held the song back. He ‘played’ the song. When you go back to try to do it again, it loses the vibe that was there in the first place. I’m not doing covers or remakes of stuff that I’ve already recorded again [laughs]!
Sleaze Roxx: I wanted to ask you about your time in Impellitteri. I’d like to refer to that as another ‘super group’ but you might think that wasn’t so ‘super.’ Did you guys do any live performances? There was a line-up change after ‘Stand In Line’ was released. The rhythm section was different.
Graham Bonnet: Oh, God yes! He and I were the only originals. We had so many line-up changes leading up to the recording of the album and after its release. We didn’t do very much. We did a couple of festivals and then a tour of Japan and that was pretty much it for the band. I left the band and everyone went on to do other things. I did another record later on with Chris, which was a studio project.
Sleaze Roxx: I do recall the second album but that was more like Graham Bonnet ‘special guest’ vocalist type of deal.
Graham Bonnet: Yeah, that’s right.
Impellitteri performing “Tonight I Fly” live with Graham Bonnet on lead vocals:
Sleaze Roxx: How did you land on Michael Schenker’s radar for the ‘Assault Attack’ album?
Graham Bonnet: I was ‘dragged’ into that band by Cozy Powell! I went to see them play after I had left Rainbow. I wasn’t doing much at the time and I went to a club here in LA. MSG happened to be playing and after the show was over, Cozy asked me, “Hey what did you think of the band? Did you enjoy the show?” I said, “It was great. You’ve got a great band there.” Cozy then turns to me and says,”Would you like to be in it?” I said,”Doing what?” He said,”Singing!” I said, “Look you’ve got a singer!” He says,”I think he’s going to go.” I don’t recall the reason why he was going but he was leaving. I asked him, “When would you need me?” He said,”As soon as possible!” So a couple of months went by and I got a tape! A cassette tape, remember those things?
Sleaze Roxx: I try not to.
Graham Bonnet: [Laughs] So I got a cassette tape in the mail. It had four songs on it that Michael had recorded with Cozy and Chris Glen. I listened to the songs and I got to work on the songs. I flew to London and there was an argument between Cozy and Michael and then Cozy left, so then Ted McKenna came in, who is someone that we lost recently too. I loved working with him. I love him! I really do. May he rest in peace. Great drummer and [an] even better person above everything else. He made anything he did an interesting story. He knew how to tell a story. I miss that. It’s been great playing with Michael again after being a part of an album that has received so much praise over the years. I have to say why [laughs]? I always find myself saying what’s so great about it? I had to go back and listen to the album now that I’m doing some of these songs live with him and I have to say that it’s a real treat. Michael Schenker Fest has been doing very well for us, it’s a fun show nearing two hours. We’ve had to put that on hold for the time being due to the virus.
Sleaze Roxx: My favorite on ‘Assault Attack’ is “Desert Song.”
Graham Bonnet: Oh, that’s probably my favorite too. Thank you. In fact, that’s one of the songs that we played with Bob Kulick when we invited him on stage with us in Vegas.
Sleaze Roxx: I have to hit you with another loss but how was it working with Martin Birch on ‘Assault Attack?’
Graham Bonnet: That’s so sad. WhenI see these things, I ask, “Is this a joke?” I couldn’t believe that Bob is gone. Maybe I still don’t want to believe that he has passed. You were telling me about your love for this great album that Martin Birch produced and today, I agree with you, it’s a great MSG album. I was even thinking about talking to him about producing some of the material that I have been writing with my other band, not Alcatrazz. I don’t know what happened to him or how he passed? This is a tremendous loss to hard rock. It was a pleasure working with him.
Sleaze Roxx: Last thing and I’ll let you go. Back when you were in MSG, you had a bit of a debacle onstage which resulted in you leaving or being asked to leave the band. How did you overcome something like that, which took place in a public setting like that and got press coverage throughout the world? An incident like that could have ended your career.
Graham Bonnet: [Laughs] It absolutely could have! That’s why I immediately had to do my own thing. I can laugh about it now and think it’s a little bit funny. We were headlining a festival, I think it was Donnington. When I got back to London, my manager told me that they’ve fired me. I looked at him and I asked, “Well, if they do that, who’s going to do the show?” He says, “They’ve got Gary Barden back, he’s going to do the show. You’d better go back to L.A. and think about what you are doing.” I went back to L.A. and thought about what happened and put together Alcatrazz and moved on from that. Over time, we’ve made amends and now it’s just great to look over at Michael and see him smiling. It’s priceless.
Michael Schenker Fest performing “Desert Song” live in or about 2017: