AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH
When legendary rock drummer Lee Kerslake left Uriah Heep years ago due to his health, many fans wondered when we’d get to see or hear something new from him again. But this year’s biggest and best surprise so far has been Lee’s return to writing and performing with his new project – The Berggren/Kerslake Band.
Along with former Company Of Snakes frontman Stefan Berggren, the pair have written and produced a fantastic classic rock album – “The Sun Has Gone Hazy”. It’s a great mix of blues rock, hard rock, ballads and various things in-between, and reviews have been very positive. Not only is Lee back, but he’s back with a top sounding release, and is happy and enthusiastic talking about it. Here is my conversation with the legend on his return and his new masterpiece as well as some recollections of his Heep days.
You can check out my review of the album and interview with Stefan Berggren elsewhere at Universal Wheels
Visit the official Lee Kerslake website: http://www.leekerslake.com
I want to talk about the new album, I think it’s great.
Thank you. We're getting great reports about it. It's wonderful to get the reports and people are saying how good and honest it is, and that's exactly what we wanted to be.
For all the people you and Stefan have worked with you don't have a big guest list or anything. It's just yourselves, and it's very well written and everything else.
Yeah, basically we did all the playing ourselves between me and Stefan and Pomma - he's on bass. Myself and Stefan did all the vocals, the keyboards, the drums, some of the strings, and the guitars - we did it between us. And that's what we wanted to do, because we wanted the control. The only thing that we didn't do is the solos from the mini-moog, they're Joakim's, the guy's an absolute genius. He did those 2 parts, which set the songs on fire.
Now I'm wondering from the time you met Stefan to how it all developed into a whole album?
Well, we first met each other ten years ago, when he was with Bernie Marsden in Company Of Snakes, but we didn't hang on to that because it was just in passing in the hotel. But later on my boy Steve Kingston Kerslake, he got a band together and he asked me to be the drummer, and Stefan to be the singer. So we both agreed, and we joined up, and I found that I got along so well with Stefan that we continued to work. And it was the fact that we went through about 5 bottles of white wine at my friend's summer house in Finland that we started writing the album; we wrote about 6 basic tracks while we were there. It was just a wonderful magic.
Do you recall the first song or 2 that you put together?
Yeah, “Walk Tall” and “The Sun Has Gone Hazy” were the first 2 we did.
Those 2 really stand out for me. I think Walk Tall really surprised a lot of people - it's such a great song.
That's what we wanted to do; we wanted people to realize I'm not dead (far from it), and Stefan's certainly not. And we felt we had a magic together, and we believed in it, and figured let's take a chance and go ahead and do it, and it's paying off. I am getting some fantastic reviews from people who haven't heard from me for so long, the last 5 years. They're absolutely knocked out with the songs, the sound, and everything - which is a wonderful compliment to get.
From the time you left Heep until this, there was a long time 5 - 6 years, so are you surprised to be back at this point, or relieved?
No. I had to leave Uriah Heep, I didn't want to and I didn't want to believe that I was as ill as I was. It was a multitude of things, tinnitis, I was going deaf in both ears, arthritis in the knee, arthritis in the elbow... all those things were taking a toll, and I wasn't sleeping, and it was time to own up. It broke my heart, and Mickey Box's, because we were so close, but I had to be honest and I had to stop. And the honesty was going to the hospital and the doctor went "My God you've got some things wrong with you!" So I said "Right -time to heal them up!" So in course, I didn't do anything for a year and a half. Then I was invited by a Uriah Heep fan club to play in the band "The Legends", which consisted of Paul Newton, Ken Hensley, John Lawton, and me, and that's how I got started playing again. And then I went to Finland a lot because I was writing a rock-opera there, with some friends. And I just started to ease in to playing again, and it was wonderful. I didn't realize how much I missed it.
You've always written on the piano. How do your songs kinda' develop about lyrically and musically?
Well, I write on the Hammond as well; I write on the strings, the piano... I've got what they call an 'all-purpose' keyboard, I've got so many sounds, and I play around with them, and I get an idea in my head, and I play around with the type of sound I want. The funny thing about these keyboards today is that they're very exciting, you know with the different sounds. They start you off, so they get ya' buzzing.
I used to have a Baby Grand piano in my house, that was before they had these keyboards they do now; the most you could do was a mini-moog.
What do you draw from for lyrics, ideas?
Amazing things come in to my head. I sit there, and I've sometimes written about 3 or 4 different lyrics and then I've thrown them. I've written them out, sang them to a song and all that crap, thrown them away, re-written, then I'd phone Stefan, and he'd say 'what about this verse? I've got this...' and then he'd give me a line, and I'd go 'yeah, perfect - that'll do!' And that would start me off on another verse. And that's how I do it.
I love writing lyrics, because they have to mean certain things to me, and also to the whole world; I want the rest of the world to understand the way I've written it, so they can say 'yeah - that's what I'm about, that's what I understand... that's me' .. you know!?
Can you tell me about some of the new songs - what they're about? What inspired them?
"Super Sonic Dream" is basically an uptempo heavy metal rock track that we wanted to cover for those heavy metal fans of myself and Stefan. And I have a lot out there, not just for fans of Uriah Heep and it's entirety, but also for rock fans from Ozzy. So we wrote together this track Super Sonic Dream to show what we can do and to show how different the music can be. And we wrote another one called "My My", and basically My My was what my mum used to say to my dad when she lost her temper. It used to be ya' know - "shut up Eric" - and she'd go "my my, my my", and I used that as the verse, the hook.
The other track I really like is the last track "Born Again". It's mostly a vocal track on that.
Yes, it's ideally about people that get a second chance in life - the people that take drugs and nearly die and get a second chance, they're born again. It's not based on any form of Christianity or religion; it's based on the fact that people are being given another chance to live. It's about someone who's pulled their socks up, stopped taking drugs, or stopped being a thief, going to prison, and basically they've cleaned their act up. You know, it's many more things than that, but that's part of it.
The Sun Has Gone Hazy is a great song, where did that come from?
That came again, when we were in Finland. We had a couple of bottles of wine, and Stefan started playing the guitar and I said [sings] 'the sun has gone hazy, I'm gettin lazy', and it kinda just clicked, it melted into the track. And that's how it started - we got the title and hook of it first, and then wrote the lyrics later.
You mentioned Super Sonic Dream already, and that's probably my favorite; your drumming on there is outstanding, it's right out of something from the early Heep stuff.
Well this is what we tried to do...myself and Stefan, we listen to a lot of music in our days now, and it's all fabricated off a conveyor belt to me, it's all pre-meditated and pre-made, neat and tidy in boxes, and I think - where's that raw - where's the Smoke On The Waters, the Gypsys, the July Mornings -- and kids don't hear that, so they don't know anything about it. And so we wrote with those ideas (and I'm sure you noticed) - every song is a different kind; it's right across the board. There's a couple alike, and then there's all different ones because we wanted to do a complete contrast. The songs from Bernie Taupin and Elton John - they write so many different tracks; we wanted to do that on the rock n roll side. But we also wanted to prove the point with our harmonies and our arrangements that we can do exactly the same, as with the qualifications of Uriah Heep.
“As Time Goes By” is another one; there is a couple of ballads on there...
There again it was about the gospel, where we said you know we're good enough - you and me should just sing multi-track gospel harmonies.
Do you have any personal favorites?
My favorite is The Sun Has Gone Hazy, I love it! and then I like My My, because I just love that commerciality - that hook line, and the way it was written, and Stefan just sang it fantastically well. And I love Walk Tall because it's a rocker. And from then on I like them all; I like Super Sonic Dream. “Free” - I Love, again that's another statement for me, that's our modern day July Morning, to bring it up to date. But again, we had someone really get behind it and mix it because there's a lot of tracks on that, and he spent a lot of time mixing it, and when it came out - I was absolutely knocked out with it.
With Stefan having worked with the Whitesnake guys and his voice, he really brings a definite blues-rock, an early Whitesnake / Bad Company feel to it in his playing and his voice.
And you see, there's no bands out there like that today. And his voice, I mean he's got his own identity, and he can sing Whitesnake, that's why they got him in to the band. But his own voice, with the songs we wrote together is another leaf in his book, another quality, another style again. And he's a great guitarist, I mean he knows how to fit parts in; he's a very talented guy.
What's the plan for promoting this? Are you guys booking any shows or anything?
We're looking for an agent to take us to America and Canada, especially Canada - I love working in Canada, I always have; it's one of my favorite countries. But we just got feelers out for agents. We're managing ourselves at the moment, but we're talking to other people who are interested in managing us. But we'd like to play in Canada and America, but it takes time, and we've got to get this album released over there.
There's 10 tracks on the album. Was there anything left over?
No, we put all 10 tracks in. We had one short, and I said "well I've got one that's half-written called 'Out On The Road Again.' And that's just a very commercial rock n roll track.. 'I Wanna Tear Down Park Avenue, one last dream.' And it's all just basically about a guy who's in the music business and wants another crack at it before he dies of old age - kinda' like me! [laughs] But yeah, it's basically about that - he wants one more crack at being on top, one last time - and then he'll be a happy man!
How different was it this time around compared to your time with Heep?
Oh a hell of a difference! Because this was more like my freedom, like I had when I wrote with Ozzy and Randy and Bob, and did Diary Of A Madman. We wrote those tracks with the same freedom that Stefan and myself have got, and that allows me to not be caged. When I wrote with Uriah Heep, it was the producer who would go "oh we need another one of these and one of these", and I don't work that way. And I felt really clammed up and crammed in, and I stopped writing with Heep.
I didn't write anything for 7 years. And what I did when I was with Stefan, it just poured out of us. We wrote some of the songs in about 8 minutes; ya' know the basic idea, then we just had to do the lyrics. And that is the magic I love; I love that spontaneity, and Stefan's got it as well - if it doesn't fit - drop it and move on! We don't stick around one track and go 'oh it'll work, we'll make it work'. We drop it and move on and try another one, and then come back to that later...maybe. And that's how it works; that's the wonderful magic we've got, I love it.
Through all your years, and in writing with Heep, do you have a backlog of stuff to do something with?
It depends, we'll have to wait and see. We're writing new stuff now, and it's on a roll.... There's a couple I’d like to put on, one's a ballad called "Squish", and it's about Bob Daisley's daughter - when she was a young baby. I wrote it 25-30 years ago, but I'm told it's a fabulous song, and it should be recorded. But it would take a lot of arrangement, but I know Stefan could see it perfectly, but we'll see.... We're writing new stuff all the time, so we'll wait and see; it all depends... We might take a bit out of one song and put it into another.
Well I’d definitely like to hear more from you guys. This album has nothing but positive reviews.
It proves the point of what we set about to do is working. We did the whole budget on our own; no one else paid for it - just him and myself, and it worked. Let me interject in this - the one we did enjoy, we had so much fun doing it, And that is the major important factor in today - if you enjoy what you're doing than it's going to come across in the music, and people are going to appreciate that. It's when it's cold hard professional, done to perfection, like it's out of a film track, then I think it loses a lot of feel. I like a bit of imperfection; because that's what you need, you're a real person.
Being your project with Stefan, I know you sing - going back to The Gods you did a couple of lead vocals. Did you think about doing any lead on this project?
No. I will do on the next one. I sang some of the guides for Stefan; but his voice is a lot more suitable to the tracks than mine. But I sang the middle 8th verse vocal in "as far as I can tell, we need a wishing well..." [ed; from As Time Goes By]. And it's basically getting the tracks with his vocals, my drumming, Pomma's bass playing, and Joakim's keyboards and moogs.
On the track “Rock n Roll Gangsta”, that moog he's playing is like Manfred. There's a lot of good keyboards...
Yeah, that's a mini-moog, and when I heard it I said "that is fantastic! that's exactly what it needed." And you don't hear that style anymore.
What are you guys listening to these days? You said a lot of stuff inspired you....
For me, basically now I listen to a lot of string music, a lot of abstract bands, and a lot of blues, basically. But I don’t have a lot of time to do that; I get a half an hour a day, if I’m lucky. But I do like Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell,… but I don’t get the chance to play them, I’m too busy writing and answering the 100s of emails I get - from Japan, Canada, America, Israel, Brazil. Since we've started this project it's gone berserk, which I’m thankful for, I'm glad. Now all I’ve got to do is get myself a computer that's up to date because mine's about 12 years old and it's dying of old age.
I want to ask about another project you're involved in and that's an album for Trevor [Bolder] !?
Yes. Before Trevor died he got in touch with his friend - his singer/friend, to get in touch with me so that in his passing - would I come up and do some drums on some of his tracks. and of course, that's what I did. and it's done for charity, for cancer research, and I said "absolutely". I went up there and I did 3 tracks for him. And there's a lot of people; Joe Elliot from Def Leppard's going to be on it, and David Bowie has apparently taken an interest in it, so it's all wondrous stuff.
He was a lovely guy, a real close friend. I went up to the funeral and it hit me like a ton of bricks! At my age, and Mickey's age, you know we don't have that long to live, we're getting old, so let's fill our boots and enjoy as much the years that we have. But he was cut short; he had his children, his wife, he had a fabulous life, but it was a kick in the head, bless him.
It was such a shock. I mean the one minute he was come down and have a pint together, and then I’m told he only had days to live. It absolutely floored me!
Now I know for years Trevor had talked about doing a solo album...
Yeah, these are ones he wanted to do, and he'd already started recording them, but then he went downhill. And this was taken on - he just wanted me to finish doing the drum tracks. Before he knew he was going to die he wanted me to do them anyway, so then I got from his singer - would I come up and do them? I said ‘yeah I'll do them!’ The album's made up of different bits that he's done in the studio, but they got to be linked together, either to put the drums on, or more guitar, or Joe Elliot, or whatever -- they're all going to do bits and pieces to build them up and put it to an album. And that's as much as I can tell you, because they're so busy doing it now.
Now, on your last few albums with Heep the writing really had broken into 2 camps - you had Phil & Mick, and then you had Trevor. And I really liked Trevor's writing, he wrote very different style.
My style didn't seem to fit in to the way they wanted to go, so I stepped down, I didn't want to push the situation, where as Trevor his seemed to fit with the Uriah Heep of that ilk and that time. I just wasn't thinking or writing that way, I was more in to 'hard-ships' - more like the way the original Heep was, with Ken.
Did you have any favorites of the stuff Trevor penned?
Uhm, the ballad... Dream On. That's the one I said to him – ‘put strings on, no band or we'll ruin it.’ Just do it acoustically and/or with strings. So they did it unplugged, and it was beautiful! One of the greatest songs I'd heard in a long time.
I liked when he took the odd vocal as well, like Fear Of Falling...
Yeah. And that's one I did.
On his new album?
Yeah, I did the drums on Fear Of Falling, but in a different way. We've got it the way it first was done, and it's cracking.
A few quotes from Lee regarding his Heep days…
[On his writing credits - Traveller In Time and Poets Justice]
I would've done the lyrics and the vocal; that was my forte in doing lyrics in the raw, and vocal melodies. David and myself would get that together.
[On the track - The Magician’s Birthday]
I said to Gerry Bron, this is going to be good - it's going to be a fight between the white wizard and the black wizard, ya know good and evil. And he said "that's a good idea, have a run through it", and I said "I'll tell ya what Gerry - just roll the tape because the intensity that me and Mick play it - this is going to be a one-off or nothing". and we just played it so on, it was unbelievable; it was just so tight! we were laughing and smiling at each other in the studio, and I went "you've got no chance Gerry!". and he said "I don't need one." that was brilliant, and that was it! So they put that right in the song, it was an integral part of the song, so Ken said "right, you wrote that with me. So me, you and Mick. ...done- agreed!"
[That album being rushed]
We were put under immense pressure to do that. We had to do that, tour England, then tour Italy, and we were coming backwards and forwards, because we had to get it ready before we went to America. So, we were really under pressure.
[You really liked the Sweet Freedom album at that time!?]
I did. I loved it! I thought it was one of the strongest albums we'd done. But, unfortunately we'd hit the peak when they had the oil crisis. But there was an oil crisis in America, where they were running out of oil - they said. It was a phony economy; it was a big lie. but they made it where you could only print so many albums; where you could [before] print a million in advance - this time you could only print a hundred thousand. So it didn't sell as near as many, because they didn't print near as many! It should've done millions, but it didn't because of the oil crisis. How's that for bad luck!?
[With regards to Wonderworld?]
It was a different engineer, a different studio, in the middle of Munich, and it just didn't work. Gerry Bron wanted to do it for tax purposes, but it just didn't work. It was OK, the tracks were good, but everybody was tired; we hadn't stopped, and you can tell it's tired when you listen to it now.
[Memories of Gary Thain?]
He deteriorated quicker than us because of the work factor. You know, he didn't eat a lot, smoked like a trooper, he used to drink, then we found out later he was in to drugs. And unfortunately it took it's toll, he started to not understand or not be coherent.
It's a very strict discipline, in a band - to go on the road and do 11 months a year, and if you don't do drugs - you'd drink - that was me and Micky. We drank. I would put away a half a bottle of Southern Comfort on my own without even flinching. It's nothing to be proud of but that was the way of releasing yourself after the gigs, winding yourself down.
Plus, when you play to 22 thousand people, and they're there with candles and roaring and loving you - it blows your mind! You're just on the most amazing high anyone can imagine.
[On band members socializing]
We (me & Mickey) used to socialize with David. Ken used to socialize on his own because he always had to have women around him - Always!
And then Gary used to hang around with us a bit, then be on his own, in his room watching tv and smoking a joint. When he joined he had such a fantastic sense of humor. He was so funny; and he was one of the boys. But as I said, after a couple of years - a solid 3 years, it takes it's toll.
[On Return to Fantasy]
RTF wasn't the biggest; it was sort of the comeback album, that's why it was called Return To Fantasy because it was in the dreams, the magicians, and the things... and Ken Hensley was writing great material for it.
[On High & Mighty]
It was different. I liked it. I just didn't like the cover; i thought the cover sucked!
[Who's idea was that cover?]
Lilian Bron, the manager's wife, she was one of the heads of the record company. It was her stupid idea. It was a dark period for us. I did like Footprints In The Snow. Again, it was like everything else - we did it, put it out, and moved on.
[On replacing David]
It took forever. We auditioned hundreds, and we weren't getting anywhere. And then a roadie - Del Roll, sent a tape of The Butterfly Ball with John Lawton's voice on it, and we just went "wow! now that is the voice!" And we took him. He agreed and we went on from there. Nobody could take David's place. He was a showman, and a colorful and artistic singer. Where as John was a great singer, forceful. It was like the difference between Paul Rodgers and Robert Plant, ya know!?
He could sell ice to Eskimos, David, because on stage he had no fear. He just came out of his shell, and it was bloody hell [!] It was brilliant.
[On Lawton era albums]
I liked Fallen Angel I thought it was great.
I thought that was an awful album.
[With regards to Abominog & Head First]
Geffen Records wanted to sign us up in America, but Gerry Bron - because he was in financial trouble, and he was so bloody greedy, he apparently wanted Geffen to sign up Osibisa and Manfred, and other bands and they said "no - we just want Uriah Heep." And he turned it down! So much for a good manager, right!? That's what I was told, anyway.
Head First was a good album. It was good singing, good playing and we started to take off again, a resurgence in America, but again, because of the dying of Head First because Geffen didn't sign it, we went back to clubs again, and that was it. And we never recovered.
[On Peter Goalby?]
We got on well, we shared a room together when we went on tour. Funny, it was the same as I did with David Byron, because I was the 2nd singer, so anyone that came in I would teach them the vocals of the songs.
[Thoughts on Equator]
The songs were good, but I just didn't like the feel of it; it felt uncomfortable and ugly to me. I know when I'm playing on a track I'm enjoying it and that comes across somehow, and that didn't, it was an effort for everything.
[On Sea Of Light & producer Kalle Trapp]
It kind of brought us back, but not sufficiently enough. It helped, but we were still doing clubs. Kalle - An absolute perfectionist, genius! He got me a fantastic sound on drums. I remember doing 3 of the tracks in single takes. He really got me the sound that I loved and I enjoyed; it gave me such heart that I did the track in 1 take, 3 different times. The others 2 takes, 3 takes, and that was ok, the songs were really good. Kalle was a genius.... I liked him. great producer and engineer!
[On Sonic Origami]
That was quite good. We played at a place in the country, in Chipping Norton, in South England. It was a good experience, because he [Pip] was a great producer; he had a lot of hits with Status Quo and The Moody Blues... But again, we didn't have the record company so much behind us. They didn't seem to appreciate the songs; I liked them.
[Thoughts on the Ozzy recordings]
Over the Mountain, Flyin High ... - they're great tracks, they're so different. And I was the first to ever put triplets in to an introduction of a song, also a single on Over The Mountain.
[The Little Dolls intro?]
It was just on the spur of the moment. And as we were writing it, and I went 'I've got an idea for this', and i did, as simple as that!
[On the 2 Blizzard albums]
They've stood the test of time. Those 2 have sold more than anything Ozzy's got out. The pity is his wife Sharon didn't have the brains to realize that. Mind you, they made enough money out of us anyway.
[Any contact with Ozzy, aside from court stuff?]
Reviews: © Kevin J. Julie [Universal Wheels] February 2014