INTERVIEW WITH FIREHOUSE GUITARIST BILL LEVERTY
Date: June 7, 2022
Interviewer: Jeff Onorato
Photos: Joe Schaeffer Photography (first photo), Jeff Onorato (other photos)
Hard rock and metal remain a mostly glorious epoch of the late 80’s/early 90’s, with a constellation of stellar new bands and musicians ascending into the limelight and wedging their way into the hearts of millions for years to come. Despite a mostly rocky road through the fad-imposed fog of the 90’s, many of these artists endured and came out on the other side of that dry spell thanks to talent, perseverance, and devout fanbases that still, to this day, cherish the music of those times. FireHouse are one of those bands that broke out in a big way on the strength of their outstanding debut album and platinum sales only to face hard times as the suits and ties of the industry attempted the force feeding of a new flavor onto the record-buying populous. In spite of that attempted coup, FireHouse soldiered on and have seen an ongoing resurgence which can be attributed to lasting songs, talented musicianship, and an ostensibly unbreakable bond with devotees of their legacy. Following their recent, packed show in Leesburg, Virginia, I caught up with guitarist Bill Leverty to discuss his latest of five solo albums and all things within the world of FireHouse.
Sleaze Roxx: Hey Bill! I want to first thank you for taking the time out to talk with us. FireHouse is always busy and 2022 is right in line with that with lots of big shows coming up. You played Monsters On The Mountain in 2021 and will be appearing there again this summer. With this still being a new event, what were some of your favorite aspects of performing there last year?
Bill Leverty: Thank you for having me! Monsters On The Mountain’ is a great festival. It was so well organized with so many great bands. We were really honored to be there. The fans make these events really cool. These are the fans that really love this genre and they travel from all over the world to be a part of the experience. I really enjoyed getting to meet Pat Travers. He’s one of my influences and such a great all-round artist. He and his band were incredible!
Sleaze Roxx: FireHouse also cut the ribbon on the RokIsland Festival back in January, with this being the inaugural year for that brand as well. Everyone that I’ve talked to has had high praise for the event and how well organized it was. Where there any highlights that stood out and what was the experience like?
Bill Leverty: This was another show that was put together so well. The weather was perfect, and the audience and production was amazing. Again, people coming from all over the world to rock with the bands of our genre. We got to play with some great bands that day in Key West [Florida] which is a tropical paradise. I would highly recommend everyone checking it out next time they throw this party.
Sleaze Roxx: With so many new rock festivals popping up in various parts of the country and at different times of the year, I would think that’s a very encouraging sign for rock music and the business in general. There’s also Rock’N The Bayou, which the band has done a few times. Do you think that big events such as these have, in general, helped this genre of music?
Bill Leverty: Rock’N The Bayou was another top shelf event that we were really proud to be a part of. These events definitely help our genre. They’ve all seen great ticket sales and the fans walk away happy. That’s what it’s all about.
Sleaze Roxx: I caught the band’s show in Leesburg, Virginia. With Richmond being so close by, was that concert something of a homecoming?
Bill Leverty: It’s far enough away from Richmond so we’re drawing an audience from a different part of the state. Having said that, we saw quite a few people who we see at many of the shows we do in the mid-Atlantic region. I love the Tally Ho Theater. It’s in a beautiful part of the state and the people who run that venue are consummate professionals.
Sleaze Roxx: A lot of work and planning goes into touring and, more specifically “fly dates”. These types of shows entail a lot of hours spent preparing, rehearsing, and traveling. What are some aspects of that process that the average music fan might be surprised to know?
Bill Leverty: You’ve got to pack light. You’ve got to be prepared. The traveling can be brutal. People see you onstage and might not realize that you woke up at 3:00 am that morning to get the 6:00 am flight so that you could physically get to the gig. Flights cancel, flights run late and you’ll miss your connection, luggage gets lost or re-routed and you’ll experience travel rage just about every weekend, but it’s all worth it when you get up on that stage and feel the energy of the audience. When you’ve got three or four fly dates in a row, you’ll find that your body can handle sleep deprivation pretty well, but you do lose focus sometimes. The fans assume you’re well rested!
On the technical side, fly dates are very challenging because you’re usually playing on rental gear. Playing on rental gear has its challenges. To combat this, I’ve started playing through Fractal Audio gear. The Fractal Audio FM-3, which I bring with me, gives me a very consistent guitar sound. Before I found Fractal, I was a nervous wreck wondering if the amp was going to sound right or not. I’ve never had a problem with this Fractal Audio FM-3 pedal. I bring my own guitars with me. They are made by CR Alsip Guitars. Playing my own guitar is pretty crucial. Not a showstopper but really important. Michael’s usually playing on a drum kit that he has never played on before. Most backline companies are getting really good at providing quality gear, but it hasn’t always been like this. We occasionally get thrown sub-standard gear but not as often as we did in the olden days. We’ve been doing a fly date business model for over 20 years.
Sleaze Roxx: With the band members located in different parts of the country, does that ever make it difficult to get together to rehearse?
Bill Leverty: Yes, but we have a little time during soundcheck to work on things and we also have a couple of places that we can go into and do proper rehearsals. It’s important to me to practice a lot before I fly out. If I don’t go through my stuff, I’ll forget it. I’m one of those people who needs to practice a lot. I also need to have my voice in shape. The only time I have trouble with my voice is when I haven’t been singing, unless I’m sick of course. I really need to do my homework. Ha!
Sleaze Roxx: CJ [Snare] was temporarily sidelined from FireHouse earlier this year due to a medical issue and the band brought in Andrew Freeman to fill in. How did those shows go over and was it difficult to hear those songs being performed by a different vocalist after performing alongside C.J. for so many years? His voice is so identifiable and a key component to the songs.
Bill Leverty: Yes, CJ is back in the saddle and singing better than ever. Andrew did a fantastic job and brought a different style to the vocal delivery and it was very cool. I can’t thank Andrew enough for stepping up on such short notice and bailing us out. He was under quite a bit of pressure and he knocked it out of the park.
Sleaze Roxx: ‘O2’ is the most recent FireHouse studio album [of new material], released way back in 2000. I’ve always thought that latter albums [‘Category 5’, ‘Prime Time‘, ‘O2’] in your catalog are hugely underrated. I think that’s mostly due to the times that they were released in and the musical climate being what it was. What do you attribute it to?
Bill Leverty: Actually, ‘Prime Time’ is our most recent studio album. It came out after ‘O2’. Anyway, yes, I do think that the way that the industry changed made it very difficult to let people know that we had a new album out. There were no more rock magazines. Radio stations and MTV weren’t playing music from bands of our genre anymore. If there’s no way to market your music, you’re probably not going to have many people knowing it’s there.
Sleaze Roxx: The ‘O2’ album features one of my favorite songs by the band, “Call of The Night”. It’s got that classic FireHouse sound and I’ve often thought that this song would be the perfect opener to a show. It’s got that moody intro that builds into your heavy guitar riff and CJ’s soaring vocals. Not to mention that blistering solo and Michael’s attack on the drums. That’s one that I’m always telling people to check out.
Bill Leverty: Thank you! We’ve played that one live before and it goes over well. Maybe we should bring it back. I’ve always been fond of that song. CJ and I wrote it way back in the late 80’s. It took a while to get it on an album, but we finally did it with ‘O2’.
Sleaze Roxx: Do you foresee any of the songs from the ‘O2’ record making their way back into the live line-up at some point?
Bill Leverty: Now I do! “Call of The Night”!
Sleaze Roxx: In 2011, you released ‘Full Circle’, which had re-recordings of all the classic FireHouse songs (plus “Christmas With You”) that fans would want in one compilation. What prompted the band to re-record your hits as opposed to just using the versions of the songs that were already out there? Was that a creative move to update elements of the original recordings or a contractual necessity?
Bill Leverty: We just felt that the songs had evolved since we had originally recorded them, and we wanted the fans to hear the updated versions. After playing the songs for so long, we found ourselves saying, “I wish I had played it like I do now.” That’s why we re-recorded those tunes. “Christmas With You” was released but not promoted by Sony. We wanted it on this album.
Sleaze Roxx: ‘Category 5’ features some of my all-time favorite songs by the band. “Have Mercy”, “Acid Rain”, “Bringing Me Down” and “The Day, The Week, And The Weather” stand the test of time and still sound relevant today. This was also your first release following the band’s departure from Epic and the band recorded it entirely autonomously. Looking back, do you think that the album being released independently possibly hindered it from reaching the level of success that the previous albums attained?
Bill Leverty: It was that decade when bands like us weren’t getting any airplay. We were in the middle of that decade, not knowing when it was going to end, and we just decided to write and record what we wanted. The marketing of the album was out of our hands, but we really had a great time recording that album in my studio in Sarasota, Florida.
Sleaze Roxx: When you initially released that album, the cover was the satellite image of a hurricane and then you later changed it to the band photo. What was the reason for the alternate cover?
Bill Leverty: I honestly can’t remember what the reason was. I’m guessing that there was a band meeting and we changed our minds!
Sleaze Roxx: Your album ‘3’ spawned a huge Billboard hit with “I Live My Life for You”, which was unheard of in 1995 for melodic hard rock bands. That had to give you a feeling of vindication given that the album had been delayed a few times by the label before it was ultimately released. It just shows that a good song is a good song and cream will always rise to the top. Do you remember what the band’s reaction was to the news of the single’s success?
Bill Leverty: We were all really happy that the song did so well, but we were disappointed that the label decided to not give us one penny in marketing that album. The label felt the pressure of the industry against bands of our genre. It was the label’s radio promo staff who made the song’s success possible. They gave the song to radio stations that had success with us in the past and the listeners did the rest by calling in and saying they wanted to hear it again. That song went to number one in a few markets. It was a tough time for us out there, but that song helped get us some gigs in the USA. That song got a lot of traction overseas, so we went out of the country and played gigs wherever that was happening.
FireHouse‘s “I Live My Life For You” video:
Sleaze Roxx: I once read that Epic Records wanted to call the band “Daddy’s Girl” prior to the release of your first album. Say it isn’t so…
Bill Leverty: When we got signed, we were called White Heat. After the label offered us a deal, it was discovered that there were a couple of other bands out there who had prior usage of the name “White Heat”. It was determined that the best course of action was for us to change our name. We worked on coming up with another name and we weren’t getting anywhere. As things started progressing with the recording of our debut album, we were getting desperate and then there was a deadline imposed on us coming up with a name. There were several suggestions that were suggested by various people. “Daddy’s Girl” was a suggestion by a label executive. We adamantly declined. Thankfully, Michael suggested “FireHouse”. We all liked it and the trademark was available.
Sleaze Roxx: Jon Bon Jovi had a hand in the band’s early development. Can you explain what role Jon had in helping the band get their start?
Bill Leverty: I gave Jon a demo tape in Richmond, Virginia and he liked it enough to have a meeting with us at his next show in Hampton, Virginia. He sent a copy to the A&R guy who signed him at Polygram and that guy said he heard some good songs but no “killer” songs. They all eventually lost interest, but we kept going. A couple years later, we finally got a deal with Epic. I think back to that time and it seems to me that Jon gave us confidence in ourselves when we needed it most. He didn’t get us a deal but he saw potential. He’s definitely part of our story.
Sleaze Roxx: It’s hard to believe, but ‘Hold Your Fire’ is turning 30 this year. Does the band have any plans to do anything in the way of commemorating the album’s anniversary such as a vinyl re-release?
Bill Leverty: If we had the power to re-release it on vinyl, we would. Sony owns those rights and it’s up to them. We’ve asked and they’re giving it “very careful consideration”. We always try to play songs from that album. Maybe we’ll add a few more.
Sleaze Roxx: Metal Edge magazine editor Gerri Miller (R.I.P.) was a tremendous supporter of the band, particularly early on. When Gerri passed in 2021, she received a small fraction of the memorials and tribute that other heavyweights in the industry receive. Is there anything you would like to say about Gerri and Metal Edge?
Bill Leverty: Gerri was a huge part in breaking us and countless other bands of our ilk. She was a wonderful person, a very gifted writer, and she was instrumental in creating a community of people who love this music. She created that magazine and it was a huge hit. We loved Gerri and miss her so much.
Sleaze Roxx: I know you get asked this a lot, but are there any plans for FireHouse to record a new song or album at this point?
Bill Leverty: No definite plans, but we all want to. Hopefully soon.
Sleaze Roxx: Making a new album entails a lot of blood, sweat and tears. That’s not to mention the financial investment that’s involved. What advice do you have for new artists trying to get their foot in the door and survive?
Bill Leverty: Write the best songs you can, make the best recordings of them, and go out and play live shows. Repeat and repeat. Never stop learning. Be as cool as you can to the other bands, fans, and venue operators. Keep your head together. Go to bed an hour late and get up an hour early. While you’re awake, be working on your craft. Practice. Don’t be a screwball.
Sleaze Roxx: It’s commonplace now for bands to release one, two, even three tracks from an in-the-works album months before it gets released. In your opinion, does that marketing practice build anticipation for the full album or diminish the impact of a prospective record when it finally drops?
Bill Leverty: I don’t know. I like to release a song as soon as I finish it. It’s probably my anxiety and inability to wait until I have 10 songs completed. It’s hard enough to finish one!
Sleaze Roxx: In June of 2020, you released your latest solo album ‘Divided We Fall’ (available at www.Leverty.com). It boasts ten songs that, I think, aren’t too far removed from what FireHouse does and most fans of the band will love it for the sheer musicianship that’s on display. Given that you’re a principal songwriter in FireHouse, did you find yourself steering the songwriting in one direction or another to set the project apart from a FireHouse release or did you just let things flow however they came to you?
Bill Leverty: I just write the best songs that I can; and, if they fit my voice, I put them in a pile to work on for my stuff. I don’t think too much about which direction I’m trying to go. If I think something is good enough to pursue, I’ll go for it no matter what the direction or vibe is. It started out with one song, which I released as soon as I finished it, and that led to another song and then to another…
Bill Leverty’s “Strong” video:
Sleaze Roxx: Aside from making a great record, what was your main creative objective with ‘Divided We Fall’? For example, was there a specific sound that you wanted to achieve or a focus on the songwriting and quality of the instrumentation?
Bill Leverty: No, I just wanted to make something that I liked and felt strongly about, showed where I was as an artist at that time, and had the best quality that I could possibly achieve at that time. If other people like it, then that’s icing on the cake. I have really tried to just let the song tell me where to go rather than trying to force it somewhere.
Sleaze Roxx: Both the album title and cover art of ‘Divided We Fall’ boast a positive, uplifting message that’s a much-needed reminder in these times that we’re living in. That sentiment is echoed in the lyrics of the title track, too. The irony that the record was released in such a divisive year of violence and civil unrest was almost eerie. In hindsight, do you agree that it came out at just the right time for the statement that it makes?
Bill Leverty: It was a timely release, yes, but that sentiment “United we all stand tall, but divided we fall” is timeless to me. Things are so divisive now. I would imagine that a year from now, it’ll still be a message that’s relevant. The lyrics don’t take either side of any issue. They just point out what seems to be happening to society as a whole. “We’re better together”.
Sleaze Roxx: Now that the record’s been out for a while and the public has had the chance to absorb it, how has the response been to ‘Divided We Fall’?
Bill Leverty: It’s been absolutely wonderful. I can’t thank the people who have supported my side project music enough. I hope that more people get the time to listen to it. I’m really happy with the way that it turned out.
Sleaze Roxx: One of my favorite songs is “The Bloom Is Off the Rose”. It has a really gutsy vocal and a nice, clean guitar tone. There’s a lot going on musically within that song and the lyrics always have me wondering if it’s aimed at anyone in particular. Was it written about a personal experience or do you prefer not to say?
Bill Leverty: No one in particular, but I think we all have met or know someone that the song could be about. I was watching the news and a pundit said “The bloom is off the rose” referring to a political figure. I had the music and was looking for something to sing about. I thought that this was a good hook and I could develop it into something interesting. I’m so glad you like it. My wife shot a video for it and we put it up on YouTube.
Bill Leverty‘s “The Bloom Is Off The Rose” video:
Sleaze Roxx: “Love Is Like a Song” and “The Heart Heals the Soul” are two more favorites of mine. Both of those have great harmonies. They both sound like they could potentially be FireHouse songs and the latter would have fit right in on ‘Good Acoustics’. Were any of the songs on ‘Divided We Fall’ written as potential band songs or were they all newly composed for this recording?
Bill Leverty: All of these songs on ‘Divided We Fall’ were newly composed and recorded as solo releases. As soon as I finished each song, I’d release it as a single, then my wife would shoot a video and put it up on YouTube. Like I said, I couldn’t wait. I had to get each song out there immediately. After I had 10 songs, I pressed up some CDs and I’m happy to say that there are still a lot of people who like having a physical CD. If anyone buys one today, I’m happy to personally sign it to them. “Love Is Like A Song” is about how love and music have a lot of similarities and I sing about them. “The Heart Heals the Soul” is about how we get stronger after going through difficult times.
Bill Leverty‘s “Love Is Like A Song” video:
Sleaze Roxx: You co-wrote “For Better Or Forget It” with your wife, and the song has a slight country tinge to it. I also detected a slight ZZ Top influence with that gritty, chugging guitar riff that kicks off the song. Was this just for fun or are you genuinely a fan of country music and perhaps wanting to branch out?
Bill Leverty: I’ve always loved Southern style music. I did an album called ‘Deep South’ that’s all Southern. ‘Divided We Fall’ has some Southern flavors. Anyway, yes, Billy Gibbons was a huge influence on me and you probably hear that on this song and many others I’ve recorded over the years. I had this song just about finished, played it for my wife and told her that I needed to write a bridge. She went to the grocery store and when she came back, she had written that bridge and sang it to me. It was amazing. Her bridge took the song to the next level. It was exactly what the song needed. The song paints the story of a couple that gets married. At the wedding, the preacher said “for better or for worse” and the bride thought he said “for better or forget it!”
Sleaze Roxx: Michael Foster plays drums on quite a few of the tracks – seven, I believe. With Michael’s involvement, was there ever talk or consideration of turning ‘Divided We Fall’ it into a full-blown FireHouse record or was that idea completely off of the table?
Bill Leverty: I don’t recall us talking about that. I would write a song and then have Mikey, or Andre LaBelle, come over and play on it, then I’d mix it and then release the song. There wasn’t any continuity from one song to the next. After I came up with another idea for a song, I’d get it written and arranged, then do the same thing. I wasn’t really consciously making an album as much as I was recording a new song. I really like doing it this way because each song gets full attention. I wanted to make sure that every song on this album was special to me and worthy of the time needed to see it through.
Sleaze Roxx: How long did it take for you to get ideas together and write the songs that appear on the finished CD?
Bill Leverty: I don’t remember exactly. I just put out one song at a time, and it went from there. The first song I put out was “Ace Bandage”. My wife then shot a video for it and we put it up on YouTube. As I’d finish a song, she’d shoot a video. She shot videos for most of the songs on the album after they were finished. The last song I did was “Divided We Fall”. Since it had been a long time since that first song and I had gotten better as a mix engineer, I decided to go back and re-mix all of the previous songs. I wanted all of the songs to have the same sound quality as “Divided We Fall”.
Bill Leverty‘s “Ace Bandage” video:
Sleaze Roxx: As the chief songwriter, engineer and producer on many of your recording projects, how do you avoid getting too close to the material and losing your objectivity towards the finished product?
Bill Leverty: Time is my friend. I get away from it and come back. I think that living with the material helps me to decide what it needs. I’m not afraid to try something different. I’ll finish recording let’s say a vocal or solo or whatever, think it’s good enough, and then come back the next day and realize that I need to do better. Doing one song at a time helps me a lot because I’m focused on one song rather than 10 or 12.
Sleaze Roxx: With this being your fifth solo album, are there any other types of music that you would like to explore on a future project that you haven’t pursued with ‘Wanderlust’, ‘Drive’, ‘Deep South’, ‘Southern Exposure’ and ‘Divided We Fall’? They’re all kind of different in their own way.
Bill Leverty: I just want to keep going and doing better, wherever that takes me. I love a little bit of everything, but when I pick up my guitar and start playing, it’s usually hard rock that I gravitate towards. I love the sound of big guitars.
Sleaze Roxx: For a while there, you were releasing singles online as soon as they were finished. Are you planning to continue in that fashion, or do you think you’ll concentrate your efforts on releasing full albums moving forward?
Bill Leverty: I kinda’ like putting out one song at a time, then, when I’ve got 10, pressing up some CDs. It works for me. I’m sure there’s a disadvantage to doing it this way, but I’m my own boss and I like it that way. I don’t have to answer to anyone. As an artist, I have complete freedom to create whatever I want, whenever I want.
Sleaze Roxx: In 2019, you laid down the guitar solo on “Same Old Same”, which is a fantastic track on the Jason Mapes album ‘The Devil Plays Guitar’. How did that collaboration come together with Jason being based out of Nashville?
Bill Leverty: Jason’s a cool guy and a great musician. He contacted me and asked if I wanted to play on his song. He sent it over and I liked it and felt that it fit my style of playing. I was grateful to have been offered the opportunity to play on that song.
Sleaze Roxx: As a kid, who were some of the guitarists or bands that initially made you want to start playing and who are some of your favorite guitarists of today?
Bill Leverty: Some of my influences are Stevie Wonder, Simon & Garfunkel, Led Zeppelin, Carlos Montoya, Rare Earth, Peter Frampton, Billy Gibbons, Jimmy Page, Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, KISS, Michael Schenker, UFO, Doobie Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Outlaws, Allman Brothers, Steve Morse and The Dixie Dregs, Pat Travers, Eddie Van Halen, Al Dimeola, Allan Holdsworth, Scorpions, Randy Rhodes, Warren DeMartini and Ratt, George Lynch, Joe Satriani, Steve Lukather, Eric Johnson, Carlos Santana, Neal Schon, and my favorite guitarist of all time, Jeff Beck.
Sleaze Roxx: A few years back, you also had a side project called Flood the Engine. What ever became of that?
Bill Leverty: It started with Jimmy Kunes [singer for Cactus] asking if I wanted to record a song called “All The Girls Are Crazy” which is a cover tune from a band called Back Street Crawler. We both share a love of Paul Kossoff’s guitar playing. We finished that song with Keith Horne playing bass and Andre LaBelle playing drums and it was so much fun that we all decided that we wanted to record some more. We wrote some more songs and also did a cover of “Love Is Alive” by Gary Wright. It was a really fun project and I am really proud of it. It was self-released and you can check it out at FloodTheEngine.com.
Sleaze Roxx: In addition to everything else that you have going on, you also offer guitar lessons via your website and through Skype. Do any of your students ever get starstruck?
Bill Leverty: I don’t think so. There’s always a little bit of an adjustment getting that first lesson started because we’re getting to know each other and playing for someone you don’t know over Skype can feel a little weird, but we usually move right into the things that they want to learn. Whether it’s learning how to improvise over chord changes or how to play a FireHouse song or whatever, I try to let them tell me in advance what they’re wanting so that I can be prepared when we get together.
Sleaze Roxx: I want to thank you again for your time, Bill. The ‘Divided We Fall’ CD is out now via your website, where you also have autographed copies available. It’s also available through the big retail outlets and all major streaming platforms. Fans can check out Leverty.com and FireHouseMusic.com for updated news and happenings within the band. Anything you would like to say to wrap it up?
Bill Leverty: Thank you so much for having me, and thanks to your readers for taking the time. I have CD packages at my website where you can buy my whole catalog if you want. I also have digital downloads available as well. If you get the CDs, I can sign them! Thanks again for your decades of support!!
FireHouse‘s “Don’t Treat Me Bad” video: