JOHN FOWLER INTERVIEW:
October 21, 2006
The Steelheart name may be resurrected, but it is without original drummer John Fowler. Instead John is concentrating on his current three-piece The Voodoo Jets (www.thevoodojets.com) and his heavier band Smoke (www.smoketheband.com). In this exclusive interview John talks about his recently released album, his views about Steelheart’s new music and living with the success of I’ll Never Let You Go.
SR: You just released an album with The Voodoo Jets, how did this band come together?
JF: Francesco and I were playing in a blues/funk band together (the Swag Hooks) and we got a nice thing going. During this he would tell me about this ‘guy’ writing these great songs. After awhile he convinced me to come up to listen (they were writing songs with a drum machine…GRRRRRRRR), so I had a djembe in the car and I got it – We jammed that night – been there ever since (water seeks its own level if you know what I mean). Those guys can really PLAY!!!!
SR: How pleased are you with how the album Supersonic turned out?
JF: VERY HAPPY. With STEELHEART it was pretty much someone else’s vision, but with the VOODOO JETS I genuinely feel I got to put my heart and soul into a project…singing/writing/production input…right down to assisting the mix. I am a full part of this vision.
SR: One thing I found strange about the album was that there are no guitars, but it sounds like a guitarist is playing. How did you manage that sound?
JF: Micah used to play in Boston and he once shared a practice space with Joe Perry. When Perry wasn’t there he used to plug his rig into Joe’s tube amps and experiment. Over the years he refined his style, and with some help from ROLAND, he has the JAN HAMMER-ish rig from hell. He can wah wah, bend notes, makes that thing cry…he is the WIZARD of the WEIRD THING!!!!!
SR: For those who have yet to hear the Voodoo Jets, how would you describe its sound?
JF: I guess you have to consider the influences of the members, Micah (CHEAP TRICK), Francesco (THE BEATLES and PRINCE) and moi (LED ZEPPELIN, RUSH and KISS). As Pink Floyd said, “all you touch and all you see is all that you (life) will ever be”…or…try to imagine…hard to describe, but I really love that about this band. I really feel we are unique…1 part Beatles, 1 part Deep Purple, with a splash of Bowie.
SR: Do you have anything set up in the way of live shows?
JF: Selective shows here and there. Our latest thing is doing two sets…one, the first album…the next, the second album or certain ‘backburner’ songs. WE HAVE A LOT OF FUCKIN’ SONGS!!! We wanna do more in NYC and Boston…whoever will have us.
SR: I assume Supersonic is your debut album, so does that mean you have a second album almost ready to go?
JF: I will make this simple. I have NEVER been in a more productive band than this. We have, at present, more than 50 originals…all strong…20 of them hits waiting to happen. That’s not cockiness…the songs are STRONG. Lately, we have been doing the first set the record, our 2nd set we play what we think will be our second record. It’s nuts…we just put out our debut and we got enough killer shit for a BOX SET!!!!
SR: What makes this band so much more productive then your other ventures?
JF: WATER SEEKS ITS OWN LEVEL!!!! We are simply 3 guys that are focused, hard working and have a constant drive to refine our craft. If you were making songs like this, you would want to write all the time too!!!! In all fairness though, a majority of our inspiration is the sonic wizardry of Micah…BOY HAS GOT SOME FUCKIN’ SKILLS.
SR: Are you still working with the heavier band Smoke as well?
JF: Yes. We opened up for Drowning Pool at the Webster Theatre in Hartford a few months ago. It was fun…we hung out after with them…nice guys. I like bands that can hold their WHISKEY!!! heh heh heh.
SR: Are you also writing and recording with Smoke then?
JF: The Smoke CD was done in ’98!!!. The singer had meltdown…never finished it. Now he is back, so the emphasis is really on shopping the finished CD and playing some dates.
SR: Is it hard focusing on two separate bands that play such different types of music?
JF: Playing two genres is not hard (both rock really), but I was raised on AM radio pop right along with Iron Maiden so it actually feels kind of natural. Don’t know how long I can keep it up for…at times it can be too demanding schedule-wise.
SR: How did you first get involved in music and when did you realize you wanted to make a career out of it?
JF: Too long of an answer is required for the full story, but in a nutshell, the two major influences on me were my father and June 24th, 1979. My father was a BRILLIANT organist and tenor who exposed me to jazz, opera, bluegrass, as well as having a slightly twisted way of looking at the world which I gladly inherited. All I am I owe to my father. The other…the date of my first real show…KISS at Madison Square Garden. I walked in a human, walked out a freak…forever changed (my mom took me…I guess she helped me a lot too).
SR: What were some of your early bands prior to hooking up with Steelheart?
JF: Back in the day I was in local bands like Sweet Cheater, Roadrunner, and Spectre (all CT. scene), this goes back to early 80’s. In ’87 I had A band called Rage Of Angels and got signed to an indy label, but just as album came out a certain band named Red Alert came calling (I know an opportunity when I see one). They later changed their name to Steelheart…the rest you know.
SR: What was it about Steelheart that made you decide to leave your band Rage Of Angels?
JF: They asked me to fill in for a week and then go back to Rage, but when I got home the first night and put in the demo to learn the originals I heard Never Let You Go for the first time. I have instincts and gut feelings and I KNEW that song was gonna score. It was difficult to make the choice, but A or B…you know?!
SR: Was I’ll Never Let You Go a double edged sword for the band? Because you were able to rock as well, but Steelheart will always be remembered for that tune.
JF: I guess in the end being remembered for anything like that is pretty cool. That tune gave me a great life experience and, indirectly, my son, so I really have nothing negative to say. I also don’t feel “attached” to that band. I am very into what I do now, but still, one night I remember meeting a couple that had gotten married to that tune…that was cool to know. Between grief and nothing, I’ll take grief…know what I’m saying (stole that from Ed Rooney of Ferris Beuller’s Day Off).
SR: It seems lots of 80s rock bands are reforming. If the offer was right would you be willing to reunite with Steelheart?
JF: Sure…why not? When I see a bootleg or hear a track…we were good at what we did…I think it would be a kick after all these years. It would be a good opportunity to resolve some bullshit as well, and reconnect…time will truly tell.
SR: What was it like working with famed producer Tom Werman, any stories that stand out?
JF: I never got to know him on a deep personal level but hw was a nice enough guy…good Brando impression. I grew up with his records (Dream Police, Motley Crue, Ted Nugent, etc.) and was excited to work with him. I am impressed by anyone who sat in a studio with the Crue during their most notorious period of excess…AND FUCKING LIVED!!!! You gotta respect that.
The two things I remember the most was being jealous of his original Escher lithograph in his home and being grateful for creamed cheese in my scrambled eggs which he showed me and I still do to this day. Plus we made a fun record but…SIGH…he never calls…SNIFFLE…oh well.
SR: Speaking of excesses, did Steelheart or your other bands lose control of their vices like so many from the 80s scene?
JF: We all had our moments but we were a pretty level headed group as far as rock bands go. We had one 12 stepper, 4 drinkers, and 2 potheads (one pretty chronic – pardon the pun!). We actually kicked 2 hotties off the bus cuz we found them doing blow. We ALL hated that shit…what a waste of cash and time. We were pretty boring.
Hey, I actually saw Mike last night…came out of blue. He played me 2 new tracks off the new Steelheart…fuckin heavy!!!
SR: I was gonna ask that, what do you think of the Steelheart music Mike has done on his own and do you mind him using the name without the original band?
JF: I hold no animosity towards Mike…I wish him the best of luck. I think Mike has a lot of European influence in his music…i.e. melodic changes and shifting time signatures…he also loves to ROCK! I think he is closer to what he wants than ever…be it commercially succeeding or not. I think HE is succeeding in what he wants to be…wasn’t that deeeeep!!!! The new stuff is pretty epic and he told me HE did all the guitars himself (except leads…old hammerhand likes to break strings…old band nickname).
Speaking of names, I always disliked it. We were forced to come up with name…the record was done and we had no name. It makes me feel like I should be riding a fucking horse in full armor to the local joust!!!! MIKE IS WELCOME TO IT!
SR: Were you upset with how Tangled In Reins was handled? I thought it was better then the debut, but it seemed to go unnoticed.
JF: Thanks for the compliment dude. We worked hard on both records and I just don’t think our label was that excited anymore. Our first was a slow burner…took over a year to go gold. In the meantime Nirvana and Pearl Jam were roaming the earth…brilliant, new, and the inevitable sign of our imminent demise. We did not get as much tour support (rock band on a predominantly R&B label…hmmmm), but the clincher was that accident Halloween ’92.
We did the best with what we had. I am glad you liked the record though…I liked my drum sound on both but a little more on the second (although on the first session Paul Northfield worked my sound…the same guy who recorded “Permanent Waves”, “Moving Pictures”, etc. – and for a Peartian disciple like myself, that was as good as it gets. Total gentleman that guy). Sorry I rambled…it’s smoky in here…HEH HEH HEH.
SR: I’m not sure I’ve heard about the Halloween accident, what happened?
JF: Dude are you kidding? That was last gig as the original lineup. We opened for Slaughter at McNichols Arena in Denver…1st AND LAST arena show for us. Mike climbed a vertically strung side lighting rig and, as he got off and danced away from it, it came down and crushed him to the stage. It’s on fan video. Not as frightening as from my angle that night…terrifying…I thought Mike was dead. It was the last song too…nothing was the same after. The band separated a few months later…sad quiet end…sucked…that’s life.
SR: I see Steelheart just announced they are going back on tour, were you offered the chance to rejoin them?
JF: No…but Smoke is opening for Steelheart at the Webster in Hartford on November 14th. It might suck…it might be fun…I hope it’s the second one. He never even asked, so what can I say…maybe he thinks I SUCK!!!
SR: What did you do with yourself once Steelheart split up?
JF: That is a BIG question. Within a year of the split I found myself bandless, married with a baby and dealing with the death of my father from cancer…I refer to it as my character-shaping period. I don’t like painting or roofing (which I had to do at one point – people gotta eat), so I got Baby Gravy together. A great band with complete freedom. It went nowhere, but got me rolling. I did Swag Hooks (a blues band), put out a CD, but nada. In between I taught and did sessions that came along (I have jammed with others since the day I picked up sticks and people skills you HAVE to have to get regular studio work!!!). Also, SMOKE was happening before we took a seven year nap until now. I am a single full-time dad and VERY PROUD of my son Sebastian…he is amazing!!! He just got the lead role in his school production this year…BIG SMILE. Hope that helps a little.
SR: What is it like teaching others your craft? Maybe someday the next big drummer will be saying, “John Fowler taught me that!”
JF: It feels really good. I only had one instructor but I feel he gave me a really sound foundation to expand through my particular experiences…can you tell I was a victim of private school?!!! Actually, just recently I got a call and visit from one of my first students. He is grown now and recently applied and was accepted to Berklee…HOW COOL IS THAT?!! We hung out, played a couple of djembes, and just caught up and then he headed straight to Boston from there. He wanted to come by and thank me…that felt really good. I was able to thank my teacher awhile back by hooking him up to see a show in N.Y.C…YOU CAN’T PUT A PRICE ON EXPERIENCES LIKE THAT.
SR: After all these years playing music, what are some of the craziest things you have seen?
JF: Anybody that lives long enough has seen weird shit. Being in this biz just assures consistently weird shit. I played a lesbian wedding once…hottest girls you EVER saw in combat boots tearing it up together on ATV’s…ever see Demi Moore in G.I Jane, you get the picture. A club owner in Europe once came to our show in a blonde wig and a hot pink jumpsuit…his beard didn’t quite fit. He said he felt comfortable…good for him. My manager drunk sliding down a six story waterslide in Germany with no pants (we found out you could go three times as fast that way…no friction!!!) and knocking himself out and almost drowning in the process. Too much to list…in the end though, all you have is the experience.
SR: Any last words?
JF: Last words? They can have my sticks when they pry them from my cold, dead fingers (was that over the top?)…oh…CRISP. I love that word and I don’t really know why…
Thanks to John Fowler