INTERVIEW WITH TODD LA TORRE GUITARIST AND CO-WRITER CRAIG BLACKWELL
Date: March 4, 2021
Interviewer: William Nesbitt
Photos: Courtesy of Craig Blackwell
CRAIG BLACKWELL PLAYED GUITAR, BASS, AND KEYBOARDS ON TODD LA TORRE’S FIRST SOLO ALBUM, ‘REJOICE IN THE SUFFERING.’ HE ALSO CO-WROTE THE SONGS. CRAIG CHATTED WITH ME ABOUT HIS EARLY BANDS, HIS INFLUENCES, AND HIS WORK ON ‘REJOICE IN THE SUFFERING.’
Sleaze Roxx: I read Todd played drums in a band you had called Blackwell and that you all played together in a band called Infrared. What’s the history and timeline of those early bands?
Craig Blackwell: He joined Blackwell around 1988 because I graduated in 1990. Todd was two years behind us. I think I met him in 1987, 1988 — somewhere in there. We did all the stuff at school. Well, once I graduated, Todd was still in school. We were still going and back and playing until about 1992. Then, Todd had graduated high school. After high school, Todd and a couple of other friends got into a band with some guys playing in the club scene here in the Tampa / St. Pete [Florida] area called Infrared. By that time, I wasn’t really too interested in playing live gigs. I was more recording, wanting to produce, and help other bands. Infrared asked me about using a few songs I had written for Blackwell and I said, “Hey, no problem. You guys can have ’em. Cool deal.” Infrared were going into the studio and they had asked me to come in to play the songs with them in the studio, so I did that. Then, they talked me into joining the band to play live with them. We did our thing. We made a dent. It was fun. We did it for a while. Then, I went on to some other professional careers where I really didn’t have time to play music in clubs at night.
Sleaze Roxx: Who were you all listening to back in high school?
Craig Blackwell: [Laughs] Oh, man. We were all over the place. Queensrÿche was one of our big ones. Queensrÿche and Stryper. TNT, Whitenake, Ratt. I was more of a huge Ratt fan than Todd was. Todd liked Testament. We were big into Slayer. We were all over the place. I think our main, real influences were Stryper, Queensrÿche, and TNT. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of a band named Barren Cross.
Sleaze Roxx: I don’t think so. I may have heard the name, but I don’t think I’ve heard the music.
Craig Blackwell: Mike Lee was the singer in that band. I’m not sure what he’s doing now. I could just keep rattling off bands, but that gives you the rough, general idea. Plus, we liked a lot of R&B singers. We love Sade. Even some hip hop stuff. We were listening to everything. In the metal genre, those were our big ones.
Sleaze Roxx: I dig it. I’m in your age range also. One of the things I recall in the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s was a lot of exposure to so many different types of music one way or another. I think the mainstream charts had a greater diversity of music than what we see now. Now, we’re in this era when you can go to YouTube or wherever else and hear basically anything that’s been recorded, but I also wonder at the same time if that instant availability has worked against us. Instead of expanding our tastes, in some ways it’s narrowed them because it also makes it very easy to stick with only what you think you want to hear.
Craig Blackwell: Sure. I absolutely agree with that. You can go on YouTube and find any album that has ever been recorded. I know that’s kind of put a dent in the pockets of the music industry because you can pretty much listen to music for free.
Sleaze Roxx: Back in the day, I’d sometimes buy albums by bands I had never heard or heard of. I’d read a review of them or an interview somewhere. I remember reading an interview with Sanctuary in RIP Magazine and bought ‘Into the Mirror Black’ without hearing it. I still love that album, but I came across my fair share of clunkers, too.
Craig Blackwell: Sure. It’s always a risk. If you can’t hear it before you buy it, you run the risk.
Sleaze Roxx: I feel in a way taking that chance maybe made me give an album more time because now you can go on YouTube and if you don’t like the first 30 seconds of something, you can just give up on it but if I went to the trouble to spend ten dollars or more on a tape and I earned that money at my minimum wage job after school, I’d listen to it at least once the whole way through because I wanted to get some kind of value out of it. And sometimes my opinion would change because I gave it more time and gave it that chance. My understanding is your main band is Disciples of Mayhem. Tell us a little about that band and what they sound like.
Craig Blackwell: Now, I wouldn’t say that’s my main band. I started writing some songs back in 2010. I have a music studio in my home, so I’m constantly recording, throwing down ideas. I had written two or three of the songs that are on that record. I was like, “Wow, these are pretty catchy tunes,” so I started writing some lyrics and throwing down some rough ideas with me singing it. I was showing them to Todd and Todd was like, “Dude, those are some really good songs. You should sing that.” I go, “Ehhhhh.” I’m not a big fan of my voice on recordings. I’m my own worst critic, like most musicians. I kept going. Writing, writing, writing. I started singing the songs, and I was starting to accept my voice on the songs. I thought, “This is coming across okay,” so I recruited a band that I produced back in the early 2000s called Smackhead.
At the time, they weren’t doing anything. The drummer is a good friend of mind. The bass player, the guitar player, and their singer / guitar player are all good friends of mind. So I asked the bass player, guitar player, and drummer, “Hey, you guys wanna play some songs with me here and see what happens?” They’re like, “Sure!” So I sent them over the songs and they’re like, “Holy crap, dude, these songs are awesome! What are we doing? Let’s do this!” So we threw the band together. We finished the record with me and my guitar player, Mark Lair, who I’ve also done a few other things with. We co-wrote the whole record together. He wrote some lyrics and some songs, and I wrote some lyrics and some songs. We track it all, and got it all done.
We started playing out in the scene here, and we were pretty well-received. Queensrÿche was coming through town in St. Pete and I had asked Michael and Todd, “Hey, can we open for you guys at this gig?” They’re like, “Well, we don’t really have an opener, so sure!” We showed up and we rocked the place. It was pretty cool. It was a good show. Right now, the guys are all willing to do stuff, and we’ve got some other songs that we’re thinking about putting out. Mayhemmetalmusic.com is our website. It’s kind of limited. We’ve got to fix up some stuff on there. You can listen to songs there. I think we have some YouTube stuff. The idea I had for the band was bluesy-metal, kind of like Black Label Society, meets melodic, bluesy, metal. That’s the only way I can really describe it.
Sleaze Roxx: I definitely pick up on the Black Label Society sound. I was listening to your voice…
Craig Blackwell: Alice In Chains.
Sleaze Roxx: Yeah! That’s what I was gonna say. Not on all the songs, but on some of them, I was like, “Man, Craig sounds like someone specific who is really familiar to me. Who is it?” I was listening to three songs earlier today that I found over on SoundCloud and one of them made me think, “Jerry Cantrell. That’s who this reminds me of.”
Craig Blackwell: [Laughs] Yup. It was a fun project. I’m proud of that recording and the music that we wrote there. I’m a groove writer. I like writing grooves. I’ve always been into Pantera and Fight. Whenever I heard those bands, I was always like, “Man! I love the groove.” Strumming chords is cool and it’s melodic sometimes, but as you can hear on ‘Rejoice In The Suffering’, I really stepped back and went, “You know what? I gonna write a lot of grooves. I want people to be bobbing their head to this song after song. I don’t [want] anybody to be going, “Ehhh.” I want people to go, “Wow! That’s powerful.” That’s got sick groove to it.” That’s always been my objective there. When Todd and I were writing that record, we were in total agreement that we don’t want any weak songs on the record. No filler. We want every song to be the best it could be. Based on the comments we’re hearing now, I think we’ve achieved that. I think we did a pretty good job.
Todd LaTorre‘s “Hellbound And Down” video (from Rejoice In The Suffering album):
Sleaze Roxx: I agree. I definitely get that sense of groove on there. It’s a record that I’ve been playing a lot. Everybody has their favorite tracks on something, but it’s not been one of those records where I feel like, “It’s not a bad record, but skip tracks two, seven, and eleven. One, five, and six are okay, so only about half the record is really good.”
Craig Blackwell: Right. Right.
Sleaze Roxx: It’s consistent the whole way through. It’s a complete statement. It’s a really solid and great record.
Craig Blackwell: Thank you.
Sleaze Roxx: Well, thank you. Me and the other fans are the ones listening to it.
Craig Blackwell: I’ll tell you — I really appreciate that feedback. I love the hard work that we put in and that everybody is enjoying the record. That’s what we wanted.
Sleaze Roxx: Solo records can be great, but sometimes you hear solo projects from people and… I don’t know how to put it… to put it bluntly, solo projects sometimes suck. You wonder, “What’s the objective here? Would the artist have been able to put this out if this was their debut album and they didn’t already have their reputation made from some other band? Was this material that somebody couldn’t do something else with and it just kind of wound up here?”
Craig Blackwell: They sound like rejected songs, like the labels have rejected those so we’ll put ’em on something else.
Sleaze Roxx: Exactly. Exactly. I listen to ‘Rejoice In The Suffering’ and it’s the total opposite. It sounds like a full release, and its own record. It isn’t an afterthought. When I was asking you about Disciples of Mayhem, you said they’re not your main band. That begs the question — do you have a main band or what is your main band?
Craig Blackwell: The reason I said that was because right now ‘Rejoice In The Suffering’ with Todd is my main thing that I’m doing. Not to discredit Disciples at all because that is a thing that could happen again with some more music and maybe some live shows, but my focus right now is on this record with Rat Pak and Todd to make it be the best that we can.
Sleaze Roxx: [Producer] Zeuss worked on ‘Rejoice In The Suffering’ and the last couple of Queensrÿche records. How did you all hook up with him? Maybe talk a little bit more about him or what the experience of working with him was like?
Craig Blackwell: His skills are topnotch. My connection with him happened through Todd and the guys in Queensrÿche. He’s super-nice and second to none. Zeuss did an amazing mix and mastering job on ‘Rejoice In The Suffering.’ I’ve thanked him multiple times, but I would certainly want people to hear me say it firsthand. Zeuss did an amazing job on the record.
Sleaze Roxx: You’re credited with keys and orchestration on Queensrÿche’s ‘The Verdict.’ Please talk about what you did on their album.
Craig Blackwell: They sent some songs over and said, “Hey, we need some orchestration.” Mark Lair is a phenomenal concert pianist. So I recruited him to help me with some piano stuff, so both of us are credited for the orchestration. I have all the keyboards, plug-ins, and all the virtual instruments for any sound I would ever need. I know [Queensrÿche drummer] Scott [Rockenfield] used to do that. We sat down and we threw some stuff down on it. They were happy with it, and it came out great.
Sleaze Roxx: Is there anything else you want to mention, comment on, or talk about?
Craig Blackwell: I would just like to tell everybody that’s picked the record up and who’s enjoying it that we really, really, really appreciate everybody’s support and all of the positive comments we’re getting. It’s doing way more than we thought it was going to do. Going back to the comments that most solo records don’t do that well, I think with the heart and soul that we’ve put into this record, I think we did a pretty good job. I’m really happy with all of the positive feedback. We’re getting comments from people that were like, “I’m started hating metal. It’s been washed out. This record has rejuvenated my love for metal.” We’re hearing all sorts of really great comments. To me, it hits me in the heart. I really love it. We really appreciate everybody’s support.
Sleaze Roxx: I think that’s some of it, too. When I talk with you and when I talked with Todd, I can tell you guys are really into it. It’s not just a “We’re only going to give it so much time and effort and then we’ll put it out there. It sells. It doesn’t sell. People like it. They don’t like it. Whatever. It doesn’t really matter. We’re not that invested in it anyway.” There’s a deep and sincere passion that comes across in the music and when you guys talk about the record.
Craig Blackwell: Yeah, nothing’s thrown together.
Sleaze Roxx: I think that’s everything on my end. Anything else on your end?
Craig Blackwell: I really appreciate the time and the opportunity to do this. Thank you, my friend.
Sleaze Roxx: You’re welcome, and I appreciate it, too. Thank you so much. Talk to you next time.
Craig Blackwell: Alright, buddy. Bye, now.
Todd La Torre‘s “Vanguards of The Dawn Wall” video (from Rejoice In The Suffering album):