Joel Ellis Interview
JOEL ELLIS INTERVIEW:
March 7, 2006
Joel Ellis was the vocalist for the half-American and half-Japanese sleaze band Cats In Boots and also fronted one of sleaze rock’s first ‘supergroups’ Heavy Bones. Last year he launched his official website, www.catsinboots.com, and was also included on the Hollywood Rocks boxset which featured the original self-produced version of “Her Monkey”. In this interview with Sleaze Roxx he talks about his days with Cats In Boots, both the fun and disappointment associated with the music business and what he has planned for the future.
SR: Cats In Boots recently reformed for a tour of Japan, who was in the band and how did the shows go over?
JE: The shows were in 2003 and it went really great. It felt good to play some of the old material with the guys live.
Randii, Jam and I got together with some new players on bass and keys. The piano and keys added a dimension to the songs I liked.
SR: Will there be any new Cats In Boots material or live releases in the near future?
JE: Not likely from CIB as a band, although there is an entire body of songs Jam and I wrote from my home studio during the months prior to the tour. No plans to release it yet.
I’ve been writing again with some guys out here since I moved back to L.A.
SR: Has Cats In Boots ever released live material in Japan?
JE: Well a couple of songs that were bootlegged and not recorded very well from the 2003 Tokyo shows made their way onto a live CD that we now have possession of, and I’m offering it to CIB fans off the CIB website as well. But I plan to eventually take some the best classic live footage from over 100 shows recorded throughout 1988 to 1990 and 2003 Tokyo shows and master it into a live CD eventually.
I also have a ton of great behind the scenes and live video footage through those years that I want to edit into a DVD as soon as I find someone with video editing capabilities out here to help me with it. It’s going to take some time to do it right, I mean, there’s boxes of VHS tapes that me and the crew took.
SR: You started out in a Cleveland band called Merri Hoax, what were those days like and what led to you leaving?
JE: There was never any question if we would leave Cleveland or not, Cleveland was a great place to come from but we always knew as kids we’d end up rockin’ in L.A.
The Hoax was a heavy band with influences from Sabbath and Zep to Metallica and early Motley. We played a lot of parties and clubs in Cleveland and in L.A. we did a lot of recording and shows on the strip in Hollywood, got a lot of attention and signed with Atlantic and then sat waiting for Atlantic to push us but they never did… So as the rest of the band got caught up in the local scene I took off to Japan with CIB.
SR: How did you hook up with Cats In Boots?
JE: Like I said, Atlantic was taking forever to decide what to do with us so we kept playing shows around L.A., Jam was in Hollywood looking to meet up with an American bluesy rock singer and was showing up at our shows with a recorder. He finally approached me and we started talking about doing this Japanese tour thing together. I guess the timing was right for me to move on and Japan sounded like a cool gig so we started writing. The song’s direction at first wasn’t as heavy as I wanted but he explained Japan’s love for pop-rock and so we compromised and the result kind of unique.
When played live our shows got heavier and heavier and eventually I thought we’d progress into darker material with each record. It would have given more years together.
SR: It seemed like Cats In Boots had a huge following in Japan but never seemed to break into America, why was this?
JE: We sold enough in the U.S. for gold status and had a pretty dedicated following, but paled in comparison to our Japan and United Kingdom following and sales.
People need to try to understand how big an impact CIB made on the Japan music scene by considering that our first self produced record was the highest selling record of the year when it came out and the E.M.I. Record’s follow up was a Top 3 selling record of the year in ’89 behind Prince’s Batman soundtrack and The Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels at #1 and #2 respectively. So our label and management focused on these markets. In the U.K. we were also bigger with a Top 10 selling rock record together with Motley, Faith No More and Skid Row etc.
I think the U.S would have broken open for us with a second effort from E.M.I., but there were internal problems with the band needing a rest after two years straight of non stop endless U.S. shows and a recording, then the label began to push right away for the second record and I guess Jam was a little burnt out and longed for a rest in Japan.
SR: With Cats In Boots being half American and half Japanese was communication and writing ever a problem?
JE: Yeah it wasn’t as easy as the alternative. Language barriers can become more difficult as the need for better expletives arise. I knew a handful of Japanese and they knew a handful of English words. But when we started to play it all merged into the universal language of good’ol Rock and Roll. Jam had an amazing talent to proliferate in an original way paying homage to a lot of classic blues greats in a way I didn’t see in any other Japanese players, it was like he was an old blues soul trapped in a Japanese guy’s body. He’s a truly great artist, not just a player.
SR: What are some of your fondest memories of recording and touring with Cats In Boots?
JE: Wow…some of those dates on the first tour when we called our own shots and toured in a little bus from north to south, east and west for the better part of 1988, just us and our fans and there were mobs of fans at every show.
It really was a non-stop dream ride. I couldn’t begin to explain here in just a few words.
SR: What happened with Tom Werman producing Kicked & Klawed?
JE: Tom was kind of hard to deal with in pre-production, I always thought he was cool until we worked with him, I dunno what happened we just didn’t click. We brought a great sax player into the pre-production practices for the follow-up record with E.M.I., it was really awesome, had a vibe between Aerosmith/”Get Your Wings” and early Roxy Music. Werman hated it, I think it would have been genius for the time. The producer I was talking to for a next record was Rick Rubin, he would have made us a great third record and I’m sure American would have been the label to take us to the top, but unfortunately, Jam’s head just wasn’t in the right place to make a new record…sucks, I know.
SR: Why did Cats In Boots disband?
JE: Well, it had a lot to do with the fact that the label wanted us to continue to rehash a lot of the same material that we’d been pounding out in Japan before coming to the states. We needed to move into a more creative writing mode and that meant taking some time out to think and rest and create, etc… we weren’t given that luxury, the label wanted to push for the next record to sound like the last or be dropped. It led to confrontation with management and some short sighted decisions on both ends.
SR: How did the Heavy Bones project come together and how was it working with Gary Hoey and Frankie Banali?
JE: Gary was living in the apt building next to me and Stephen Pearcy in the Hollywood Hills when CIB was in limbo with E.M.I. We started writing great stuff right away and the rest was history. Gary is an amazing guitarist with a lot of talent and energy. But I think our relationship became taxed when our manager Dave Kaplan and Warner Bros. began to dabble in the creative process. They wouldn’t allow us to just bang out a great loud and live recording. They pushed us to make the next Huge Great Monster Production Mega Hit Producing record of all time…greed and corporate mentality destroyed this band. I would love to record again with Gary, just the two of us producing our own RAW loud and proud record. If the label and Dave would have left us alone I believe we would have created a classic rocker to last years.
Frankie? What can I say that hasn’t been said about Frankie Banali? He’s got to be one of the single greatest drummers to bless the airwaves. He’s got the most amazing work ethic and focus when he’s 100% into it. He’s unbelievable when he’s in the same room with you behind his kit…it’s like bombs and thunder in an extremely musical way. I can’t say enough about his playing. Again I really think that if we did not have the pressure of the label and Dave to make some kind of Historic new Def Leppard sounding thing when Nirvana was breaking the music world wide open, then I think Heavy Bones would have been known and appreciated for what it was, a truly great, amazingly talented, very loud rock band. Someday I hope to be able to get a hold of the original Warner Bros master tapes of the H.B. sessions and remix them the way Bill Kennedy had wanted to…very Raw and very loud.
SR: What was it like living with Stephen Pearcy?
JE: Ratt Bone!! Stephen was an awesome roomie, cool as F**K, we had a blast.
When CIB came back to the states in ’89 to make Kicked and Klawed for E.M.I., I got this big top floor flat in the Hollywood Hills above Franklin and Fuller and he had a house near San Diego, it looked like a castle. We would hang out a lot around town, he got tired of driving up from S.D. so he just started renting half my place to have a place to hang in Hollywood.
Between the two of us there was always something off-the-hook going on, the hottest girls you could imagine, a lot of great friends and good…uh…things to do. Famous players like Jason Bonham and Eddie Van Halen were always around, I had more than a few fun nights with Eddie. We would have late night jams after the clubs closed, a lot of people would call or show up at our place to hang into the morning hours playing music or partying between my apt and the rooftop swimming pool and hot tubs, you could see out over the entire Los Angeles skyline from the pool.
At one point my bedroom was full of recording equipment from wall to wall with a giant bed in the middle, it worked out because the bed was always full of girls just hanging out and then we’d all be playing guitars and singing, Jason would grab a set of bongos and I had an upright piano in there so Brian Johnson from The Bus Boys or somebody would be bangin’ on the keys and the place would be on full tilt till the sun came up.
Oh and my neighbors you ask? Did the noise bother them? We had great neighbors too! Taime Downe (Faster Pussycat) lived down the hall, Mitch Perry (Michael Schenker Group guitarist) and the whole building was chock full of local dancers, Playboy, Penthouse and Hollywood Tropicana girls, Krista Phlanzer, Cindy Margolis, Brandy Brandt, Brandy Downs the list goes on…Sharise Neil (Vince’s wife, lived there until she got married and went to live with Vince). Our neighbors were friends who usually ended up hanging with us anyways, and the security guards were usually in there from time to time with us as well…or we’d pay them to keep quiet. The whole building lit up after dark, I don’t think there were ever any complaints…but we recorded a lot of really great tapes during those times. Maybe one day when I put a DVD together I’ll include some video footage of those days as well.
SR: You have been a session vocalist on several albums, what were some of your favorite artists to work with?
JE: I was just actually lucky enough to be hanging out in the studios when great people were recording and ended up behind a mic. I dug being in the studio around Aerosmith, Steven is a class act words can’t describe. The Rolling Stones was definitely an unforgettable experience as well. Motley Crue was fun, Gary Hoey and I sang the backgrounds with Tommy Lee, Tommy Shaw and Jack Blades for the Decade of Decadence release. My ultimate favorite sessions though was when I worked for months on end with the legendary Bobby Womack, Bobby is a great bud and an extremely influential guy to work with, he’s truly underrated and overlooked, he’s a soul God and a grandfather to all rock.
I worked with Bobby on his Resurrection CD release and he came to sit in on my solo recording “Ellis Island” with Ron Wood and Keith Richards around at the time, these were my favorite days.
SR: What have you been doing musically since the Heavy Bones days?
JE: Trying to spit the bad taste for the music industry out of my mouth. I really wanted nothing to do with professional recording business for years until Jam shook me out of my comfortable house in the country in 2003.
But now I’m back in Los Angeles with my son Joey, who’s an awesome songwriter, drummer, aspiring guitarist and he’s only 10 years old, the kids got it going on I tell ya.
We’re up in the West Hills above L.A. living easy. I’ll probably be putting something out soon but have no plans as of yet.
SR: Rock ‘n’ roll is sometimes a cutthroat business, has there ever been times when either labels or other musicians ripped you off?
JE: HELLO? I count and appreciate my blessings over the years but seriously, it is a hard business to be in. Especially today, because of the corporate and commercial restraints on the music and what little creativity artists are allowed express. I feel sorry for young artists today, they have no idea of what being a recording artist was for a lot of us.
Personally my only regret was the dealings in Heavy Bones, I really felt that we had made a huge mistake when Gary and I signed our enormous contracts to Warner Bros. and Dave Kaplan almost immediately afterwards. We’d write and write and write and it was never good enough, the songs had to be “hits”. Kaplan was overbearing and manipulative on the creative end of things when he shouldn’t have been. The huge amounts of money being moved with the band’s name was embarrassing, we never saw any of it though, but Dave’s got himself a pretty cushy seat in life through deals like this. But it’s a common story, never just take what’s needed to record a truly raw talent record, but lets take millions and everyone representing us, 20% here 10% there 15% over there and then the band’s in debt up their grandkid’s eyeballs… please. Heavy Bones (the CD cover art sucks, Dave Kaplan forced it on us, I had a cover designed with an Earth shaped rib cage and flesh as the continents…was way cooler) could have been a rock standard if we, the payers and writers were to actually been able to be heard above the over-production. Cats In Boots recorded our first record in one week with $6,000. It made over $1 million the first year for Jam and I. Cats In Boots made the E.M.I. follow up CD with around $200,000 in 8 weeks and it sold millions. Heavy Bones was dragged out close to 1 year giving me a stifling case of cabin fever and boredom and raising tensions between all members of the band and Dave Kaplan failed to do a thing with the record after it was finally released, not even a Japanese tour….you figure that one out.
Enough of the negative shit…
SR: What about the rumor of Bon Jovi lifting a song from you?
JE: Yeah, my band “The Hoax” was recording demos with Atlantic Recs back in the mid 80’s and we ran out to The Rainbow Bar and Grill next to The Roxy after the sessions one night and Johnny was there with Doc McGee and a few other guys at the back corner table where we always sat with Sam Kinison.
I had a cassette copy of the mixes that night and Mario Sr., Michael and Tony would always let us guys play our tapes over the sound system there anytime we had something new. So we put it on and were giving it the “Room test” when Johnny asked if he could have the tape to play for his record label, being young and naive we let him run off with our tape of fresh demos from that night. One of the songs on that tape was called “I’ll be there for you”. A few months later I heard a song from Bon Jovi that sounded like a John Lennon/Beatles rip off of the verse in “Don’t Let Me Down” then my blood ran cold when I heard the chorus “I’ll be there for youuuuuuuuuu”…yeah well.
When his song finally came out I was already moving on, my manager for CIB Stan Poses wanted to sue BJ and Richie but I wasn’t hip to all the fanfare and hype with the Bon Jovi comparisons etc.. so I said to let it go, it’s a compliment. Later towards the end of CIB I started dating Richie’s ex-fiancee Lehua Reid, one night we were laying around listening to old tapes of The Hoax and that song came on and she lit up and looked at me saying “…this is you??!!” “I remember John and Richie sitting at the piano for hours with a box full of tapes they got from people and going through the songs looking for stuff they could rip off and laughing about it, your song was played over and over and over….” Well, the rest is old news.
SR: Have you ever thought of releasing the Merri Hoax stuff?
JE: Yeah, in fact the original guitarist Denny Holan is flying out here to start work on a new record with me and part of that will be some of The Hoax songs re-worked. I’m also going to be offering the original early demos and the Atlantic Recs sessions on a remastered CD off the CIB website store pretty soon.
SR: What was it like being involved in the L.A. strip scene when hard rock reigned?
JE: How do you expect me to put this in words? It was a magical time, guys would be on the street drinking with you one day trying to make it and the next minute they were millionaire rock stars. It was a wild time, a time when creativity ruled and A&R guys actually let artists write and create and paid for that artistry. I was blessed to be a part of it.
SR: Do you think we will ever see a scene like that in L.A. again?
JE: No. But we’ll never see the 50’s or 60’s or 70’s again either…so what’s next??
SR: Were there any bands from that era that you felt deserved more success, or bands that became huge and you couldn’t understand why?
JE: Oh hell yeah… Cats In Boots and Heavy Bones both could…SHOULD have been much bigger bands…I’m sure anyone would agree. I can say the same for a lot of our friends, L.A. Guns, Faster, Mother Love Bone, the list goes on.
I can’t knock anyone’s success, they got there and good for them, I won’t name artists who I thought sucked and got a free ride…I’m sure they’re aware of who they are.
SR: What bands have you toured with and which did you have the most fun with?
JE: CIB did mostly headlining shows, but we did some shows with Loudness and Earthshaker in Japan that were a blast. Heavy Bones got to do shows in Hawaii and witness Pearl Jam’s awakening at the Oahu State football field, that was fun. Aerosmith at the Budokan in Japan…intense…Mick Jagger in Nagoya.
One great thing about international touring is that you get to see a lot of unusual billings that you don’t see in the U.S.
SR: You fronted Rough Cutt for a short time, tell us about that.
JE: Oh yeah, that was fun…jeeeze way back in…??…1986-87? I love Paul Shortino’s voice, he and I had a similar thing going on with the Janis Joplin influences in there, wonder what Paul’s doing now, great crooner you are my friend. But David Alford and Amir and Matt approached me one night at The Bow, it was during those wasted days with Atlantic Recs when we all partied hard on the Strip every night. I was doing a lot of those Jam nights at The Whiskey and The Roxy and they dug my voice, so when Paul stepped down I stepped in. I also wanted to record with Dweezil Zappa and Steve Vai at the time hoping that would take shape (Dweezil and I had a cover band we did a couple of shows with…great fun that was I gotta tell ya). I was also talking to Steve Stevens and Billy Sheehan about forming something, that almost became The Atomic Playboys line-up but I decided to do CIB in Japan instead. Anyways, so I started practicing with Rough Cutt in their garage on Sunset, I thought it was a great line-up me with them, but I wasn’t digging the way David always kept talking to other singers about trying out for the band…but I was the guy in there and our first show was at Irvine Meadows Amphitheater in Costa Mesa. We were opening up for a huge afternoon festival for Children of the Night. DIO was headlining and we were on the bill with great bands like Great White, RATT, Quiet Riot, DOKKEN, The Michael Schenker Group and I don’t remember who else.
But we got a few songs into the set, and because there were so many bands playing there was all this gear and equipment and cables and STUFF going across the stage, we started into a cover of Aerosmith’s “Nobody’s Fault” from the Rocks album…the first lyrics are “Lord I must be dreaming!!” and that’s what I sang with a ton of conviction right after I spun around, got my heel caught on a cable or something and completely ripped my left leg in half at the knee…oh my God I can still remember the gut wrenching sound of my leg grinding in half over the stage volume, I mean I tore it in HALF!! I was in so much pain and my head was spinning and there were 27,000 people screaming and…well it was f**ked. I had Don Dokken and Frankie Banali and Jack Russell and George Lynch carry me stretched into the ambulance, it was an All Star Paramedic Crew, funny too because before I went on stage those guys were all telling me “break a leg!!”. They knew I was nervous going in front of my first huge audience like that, then after it happened they said to me “I was just kidding!!” Frankie called me the “break-a-leg kid” and “Hoppy” for a long time. So I decided that this was an omen not to stay with Rough Cutt… I still remember Dave Alford calling me in the hospital after I had surgery, I told him I was out, so he starts going off on me “you CAN’T quit, you’ll never find a gig this good ever!!”…but then I went to Japan, ate lots of Sushi and went to #1 on the Japan charts. Amir is a great guitarist, I think Rough Cutt was another one of those under rated L.A. bands you asked about.
SR: Jack Russell is a good friend of yours, what are your thoughts on the Rhode Island nightclub tragedy?
JE: Jack is a good bud and a great guy. All of my thoughts regarding that tragic accident are in prayer for those guys and the families who suffered. I saw Jack recently at a Great White show in Cleveland, OH and I have to tell you the guy is a true Rock Star. To be able to carry on and take the stage in the aftermath had to be difficult. My hat’s off to him.
SR: Do you have any regrets regarding your career or anything you wish you would have done differently?
JE: I have only a lot of great memories and blessings to count, I had a great ride and I don’t see it as being over. I’ve just been very comfortable raising my son and giving all of my days to raising him. It’s been way more exciting than any tour or recording I can ever remember. I coach Little League baseball for kicks and hang with my little guy traveling, surfing, playing ball, all the things I want to do while he’s still young. My music will always be there and people will always have great recordings, but these days are to be treasured while they’re here.
…No regrets. If I don’t ever release another great rock record…that will be a regret, but I highly doubt that won’t happen.
SR: How much of influence has drugs and alcohol been for yourself and others you’ve worked with? Have any of the people you’ve worked with succumbed to their demons?
JE: Cats In Boots was a drinking band! …Big time…there wasn’t much to drink in Japan other than bourbon…the water was shitty and we didn’t like coffee much…so…beer and whiskey…constantly. Our Japanese fans would throw full bottles of gift wrapped Jack Daniels by the wheelbarrow full on stage every night. So we’d drink it…every night. Then it was gin…a lot of gin…and on the first U.S. tour we discovered Jagermeister…it was only sold in 4 states at the time because of the Opiate ingredients, which the US FDA I think had them mellow out on before allowing distribution to the rest of the U.S, I heard that somewhere…and I believe it because the high we got from the original Jager-Monster was way better than what you get now.
…the Japanese guys were funny when they drank…they’re faces would turn real red and they’d all get the same silly-ass smile on their faces…it was a beautiful thing…no problem.
SR: What ever became of the Ellis Island project? Is there any chance it will ever be released?
JE: Ellis Island was the last collaboration between Jam and I, I also wrote with Jimmy Zollo, Phil Chen and others on that one. Bobby Womack and Ron Wood are there as well. It’s a great alternative bluesy rock thing. You can buy it off my web site at www.catsinboots.com
E.M.I. Blue Note in NYC had a copy of it for A&R review but I don’t know if they’ll ever release it.
SR: Are there any plans to reissue to Cats In Boots or Heavy Bones albums?
JE: Yes, these records have been reissued in Japan by E.M.I. Toshiba but not in the states. Again, you can get copies from me at www.catsinboots.com.
SR: Are you currently working on new material or have any plans to put a band together?
JE: I am, in my own time, if that changes, you’ll be the first to know Sleaze. Thanks for the interview.
Thanks to Joel Ellis