Uriah Heep interview (10/2008)
|With:||Mick Box [guitars]|
|Conducted by:||GRIGAL (phone)|
AWAKE, ALIVE & RELENTLESS
- Armed with a determination to make Rock Music his bread and butter, guitarist Mick Box co-formed Uriah Heep way back in the early 1970s while the cultural world was undergoing some dramatic and revolutionary changes. Today, according to my (unscientific) reckoning, half the world must have heard at least one song from Uriah Heep.
Fast forward a few decades.....following the release of "Sonic Origami" - Uriah Heep's 20th studio album - the band encountered some unforeseen label problems. Eventually a new home was found at Sanctuary/Universal Records but the 10 years that lapsed since then got some people wondering whether the Heep had sailed away beyond the last horizon. Nothing could be further from the truth - as their new baby "Wake The Sleeper", released earlier this year, testifies. It's an album that, typically from UH, seems yes to dabble in mystic symbolisms but, as Mick seems to suggest in the following interview, it's simply a celebration of Rock.
UH was born and bred in London, though with all the time spent on the road you'd struggle to actually pinpoint their 'home'. So I start by asking Mick a question about the band's touring 'inactivity' prior to the release of "Wake The Sleeper". With hindsight it was a highly naïve of me to even contemplate any 'inactivity'…
Mick: We've been touring constantly! Throughout 53 countries in 38 years…..we've never stopped touring. We're a road warrior band. [laughs]
- [At the time of writing Uriah Heep are touring Germany with another stalwart of Classic Rock - Thin Lizzy. This tour seems to be going marvellously well. What are Mick's memories of the Phil Lynott-era Thin Lizzy and what does he think of their current line-up?]
Mick: That era was fantastic! They've got some great songs and it was really a top band. Certainly now with Scott Gorham keeping their name going, they've got some great players in there. They've got songs that have stood the test of time.
- Chris: Let's focus on the new Uriah Heep album: "Wake The Sleeper". The first thing I'd like to ask about concerns the meaning of the sleeve artwork and how it is linked to the album…
Mick: There's a saying in English that is 'wake the sleeping giants'. Since it's been 10 years since our previous studio-album, we felt that that was exactly what we were like. So we just reduced the words to "Wake The Sleeper".
About the idea of the cover artwork…..well if you look at the female Buddha depicted on the front artwork, she's just coming out of a meditative state. In her hand is the afterglow of what she's been meditating about so it's kind of a reference to 'wake the sleeper'. In fact the light in her hand is like an enlightenment, if you know what I mean.
- Chris: In my opinion there are some very strong melodies in the album, a perfect example of which is the entire 'Tears Of The World' song. This 'upbeat' approach contrasts with the melancholy of several early Uriah Heep songs, such as 'Lady In Black' or 'July Morning'. Does this suggest a more positive attitude to life by the band?
Mick: I think that we're very positivist people. So yes, I think that's definitely true. As writers, I think we just write the best songs we can as well as a very strong lyric. We're not the sort of band that can have a song with a 3 or 4-word hook with nonsense in the verses. We actually take our lyrics quite seriously. Some of the songs have got messages within them, some reflections…..there's a pretty good cross-section [of themes].
- Chris: I reckon that the crowning glory of "Wake The Sleeper" is the song 'What Kind Of God'. Since we're on the subject of lyrics, what were the lyrical inspirations for this particular song?
Mick: My second wife was an American Indian…..while in America with her, I had read this book called "Bury Your Heart At Wounded Knee". Phil Lanzon, our keyboard player and my writing partner, recently read that book too. It had a lot of reflections we could use in the song. An example is the lyric: "I stood by the river; breathing the air that is life; within the black hills" - a kind of reference to the story of the American Indians. They were spiritually living off their land.
Then came the [European] soldiers on their horses and they started killing the Indians, taking away their land and telling them what religion to follow. If you had been an Indian, you'd be saying: "What kind of god do you worship?" It's a sort of reflection from the Indian standpoint.
- Chris: 'What Kind Of God' is also an excellent illustration of the brand of Progressive Rock that Uriah Heep has often indulged in…
Mick: It's as close as we got to an epic song.
- Chris: That's what I myself thought, in fact. Was it intentional to include such an 'epic' song in the album or did it just emerge that way without any pre-conceived plan?
Mick: When I had started writing it, the verses were more of a folk thing with a rolling picking. It was only when I took it to rehearsals that we started giving it that military feel and getting the essence of what the lyrics were all about. It took on another form when the band got at it but really it had been written on acoustic guitar with a very rolling picking.
- Chris: Earlier on you referred to the songwriting partnership of Phil and yourself - you seem to have established a good songwriting chemistry with him…
Mick: Yes, we're good as writers - we work very quickly together. In fact although we had a stockpile of ideas that had accumulated before recording "Wake The Sleeper", we ditched them all and actually wrote the first 5 songs of the album 2 weeks before rehearsals. Sometimes it works great to have a deadline and a momentum to manage something.
- Chris: Yeah, sometimes the human mind works better when we're with our back to the wall.
- Chris: How would you compare Phil's songwriting style with that of Ken Hensley?
[Ken Hensley, played keyboards with UH from 1970 until 1980, during which period he wrote or co-wrote many of the band's great successes, such as 'Easy Living', 'Lady In Black' and 'Stealin''. He joined around the time the band-name was changed from Spice to Uriah Heep. Before playing with UH, Ken also had a band with Mick Taylor, the latter subsequently joining the Rolling Stones.]
Mick: I think we're totally different. [pauses] Ken was a great writer for the mid-1970s. I think the songs he wrote have withstood the test of time and they're great songs, although I don't think he's actually produced much since. I think we [Phil and me] have got more relevance because we're still doing it and producing what people seem to regard as good quality, which is great.
- Chris: I believe that Ken has, until recently, been gigging with a solo group.
Mick: He does have his solo group going now and he's quite happy about it.
- Chris: I'd like to focus on Uriah Heep's back catalogue, particularly those released in the 1980s. Albums such as "Headfirst" and "Abominog" reflected the boom of British Rock in the early half of that decade but they also represented a change in Uriah Heep's sound. How would you describe the spirit of the band during that period?
Mick: The spirit was still very good but we were at a time that a lot of technology was being thrown at people for recording purposes. There were the Mutt Lange [AC/DC, Foreigner, Bryan Adams] type of producers. For example, Matt had produced the Def Leppard albums which were all very clean, precise and calculated. Although we sort of fitted into that decade, it was for our own benefit. Whereas the best for us at the moment is the way we recorded "Wake The Sleeper", which is very natural very honest, and we're all in the same room at the same time playing at the same time. I think that's how you get the best out of our band because we're a band that works on one course together.
- Chris: You indirectly refer to some of the issues the band might have had in keeping abreast of the times…..but what issues did UH face through its history as a result of its efforts to keep developing the sound of the band?
Mick: I think we always went for the fundamental things of trying to get a good melodic song with a strong lyric.
We had Pete Goldie in the 1980s, whose vocals were very 1980s-like and he was up there with all the Dios and the Coverdales. It was very 'current' and…radio-friendly, should I say. Consequentially "Abominog" went to the top 40 in America [U.S.A.] and a high rotation on MTV with that album's related videos. It was a very great time for us - a real resurgence.
- Chris: In fact, throughout its career UH enjoyed several chart successes. On the other hand, do you think that there are any albums that remain underrated?
Mick: That's probably more a question that a fan could answer. I'll tell you something though, it's amazing how there are albums like "Salisbury" [1971 UH album] that so many people tell me what a great album that is and how much they love it more now than they did back then.
- Chris: What was it like to perform with an orchestral ensemble, as you did for the "Acoustically Driven" album?
Mick: It was wonderful. It was something we had never done before, the acoustic side of things. That was a new venture for us. It was also interesting because a lot of the songs had originally been written on acoustic guitar. We embellished it with still guitar, 3 girls who were singing with us, pipes, percussionists, a string quartet…..it was great to give the songs that sort of treatment. Then the cherry on the cake was to have someone like Ian Anderson [of Jethro Tull] to play the flute in them. It was really exciting to do and in fact the acoustic set is now something we do [regularly] and we're quite comfortable with it.
- Chris: Who co-ordinated the orchestrations of that project?
Mick: We did, all together, though a guy called Pip Williams was also very much involved on it. Pip writes scores for everyone and is a very well-renowned producer. In fact he had produced "Sonic Origami" for us. He's very in-tune with all that. Phil Lanzon, our keyboard player, wrote some parts too.
[Mick refers to Grammy Award-winning producer Pip Williams, who produced and composed the orchestrations of many hugely successful albums. Amongst the bands he has worked with are Status Quo, The Moody Blues, Ringo Starr, Barclay James Harvest as well Nightwish -he did the orchestrations of the 2 most recent albums from these Finns.]
- Chris: Having toured and gigged for so many times, you must have amassed quite a few memories. What do you remember, in particular, from the early UH tours of the 1970s?
Mick: They were amazing times. We were becoming successful across the world, playing at 20,000-seaters every night in America and at the major festivals in Europe. It was just a wonderful time. We had the Learjets, the bodyguards, whole floors on hotels with bodyguards outside each door. It was all madness really but they were very exciting times.
With all that going on, we had a saying within the band, that if the people can't come to the music, then we'll take the music to the people. So we always spent time going to places like Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia (as it was called before it split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia), Hungary, South Korea, East Berlin…..all places that were really difficult to get into, but once you've got there, the reward was seeing the people's faces who didn't believe they'd ever get a chance to see the band live. So we always invested into that side of our career. Now that people can move freely, or more freely, our music has almost become part of that folklore. And that's what enables us to play 33 countries around the world.
- Chris: That strategy must have been particularly vindicated in today's economic climate as the live events industry is overtaking sales of CDs as a major source of revenue for bands.
Mick: Yeah, the live thing is important for us. We were also the first band to play in Russia - in December 1987, when Glasnost was formed and Gorbachev and Reagan were having their talks. We had played in Moscow in front of 180, 000 people which was just unbelievable. The success we had there made room for others to come in after us. In fact the Scorpions played there the following year. Then of course there was the big peace festival with Motley Crüe, Bon Jovi, Ozzy and the rest.
- Chris: How do you feel about that, about having paved the way for other bands to access large audiences and fans?
Mick: I think it's fantastic, you know, and we feel really blessed that we've done that.
- Chris: The band's long career has seen it through various socio-political climates. Do you think that the music of UH was directly affected by the environment in which it was written?
Mick: I don't see it that way. I think that some countries that were under the communist regime probably saw some positivity in our music which they liked very much. It's really funny, you know, when you write a song we have on "Innocent Victim" [1977 album] called 'Free Me' and you write it in London with nothing on the agenda but to write a good song. It then takes a whole new meaning when you take it to South Africa during the apartheid era. It was a big single out there and you can understand why too. The same thing happened in East Berlin - 'Free Me' was very big there.
- Chris: I'm surprised the authorities had let you play songs such as that, considering their draconian legal system.
Mick: Yeah. The funny thing as well is that 'What Kind Of God' is now being associated with the religious wars that are happening in the world today. Obviously people read something into them.
- Chris: Mick, I'm not aware of any solo releases of yours although there had been talk of solo material from you back in the early 1980s. Do you plan you release some of your own material in the immediate future?
Mick: Probably in the future, yes. I have been managing Uriah Heep for about 20 years now. When I was not playing with the band I was setting up all the tours and everything else. As you can imagine this involves many hours in the office to get this stuff sorted out. I've only recently handed over the management role to a guy called Simon Porter, who used to be a PR in the 1970s in the Bronze Records days in London. He now also manages Status Quo. We've also very recently appointed a tour manager to the band. All this has freed up a lot of my time so in the future, who knows what will happen. [laughs]
Keep in mind that besides the band I also have a family to care for, with a boy who's 7 years old. Sometimes I have to take off the Rock 'N Roll hat and put on the 'dad' hat.
- Chris: How do your children feel about having a Rock musician for dad? Are they also into music?
Mick: Oh yes, absolutely. My little boy is having drum lessons now and he's doing great. He's quite a physical lad and he's also quite a musical lad. I've also got a 31-year old boy who's living in America and he's in a band called Words Like Knives and another band. He's a great drummer and everyone loves his playing.
- Chris: So many bands have covered Uriah Heep songs in their releases. Some bands that come to mind are WASP, Vintersorg, DC Cooper, Sacred Steel, Lana Lane and Smashing Pumpkins. Does this phenomenon surprise you?
Mick: I think it's the greatest form of flattery, really. Our songs obviously inspired those bands all along their musical lives and they felt the need to record it [the cover], which is wonderful. Also Tesla recently did a cover of 'Stealin'', haven't they, so that's brilliant too.
- Chris: Do you hear all these UH covers?
Mick: Oh I get sent them all the time from their webmasters. Probably half my iPod is full of Heep covers right now.
- Chris: Some fans and critics agree that despite the band's influence, Uriah Heep remain relatively underrated. But are you, Mick Box, satisfied with what you've achieved?
Mick: I'm very satisfied. I've always wanted to be a musician and I'm still out on the road doin' it. We've sold over 30 million albums, played in 53 countries all over the world, many times over. So there's nothing for me to be sad about. It's down to everybody's individual perception on whether you've underachieved or not but I can't possibly see it in those terms because my achievements are a million fold.
- Chris: Will the world have to wait another decade for the next studio album?
Mick: Absolutely not. With the success of "Wake The Sleeper" we've obviously talked to Universal about doing another album and in fact we've already started writing songs for it. We certainly won't be waiting another 10 years too see it out.
[Mick then proceeds to outline Uriah Heep's touring plans for the immediate future.]
Mick: We're looking into another tour of the States for around mid-January, so that would be really cool. It's been 8 years since we've last played there.
- Chris: What are you expecting from that tour?
Mick: Well, the album was made for America - it's a solid and honest British Rock album and as proven over the years, America loves that type of thing. From the reviews we've been getting it's caused some strong reactions so I'm hoping that will be transferred onto the fans and we'll do some great shows there.
- Chris: Mick, thanks for your time in doing this interview. I hope to see you at Uriah Heep's UK leg of the current tour, towards the end of this year.
Mick: Fantastic. We'll look forward to that, my friend. Thanks for you help. We do appreciate your support.
Interview by Chris Galea (luciferlament(at)yahoo.com) for Metal Storm.ee
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