A Exclusive Interview With:
It has been 10 long years since the last Uriah Heep studio release – “Sonic Origami”. Since then the band has released a pile of live albums, hosted a number of yearly Magician’s Birthday Parties [featuring former bandmates as ‘guests’], toured relentlessly, more importantly signed on with new manager [and former Bronze PR man] Simon Porter, and more recently replaced long time drummer Lee Kerslake [who retired last year] with Russell Gilbrook. The band’s new album on Universal [overseas and in North America] is a straight ahead set of Heep rockers, with the band’s heavy sound featuring the Hammond organ and original member Mick Box’s ‘wah-wah’ guitar.
In this interview with guitarist Mick Box and keyboardist Phil Lanzon, each offered their input to my questions [and might I note at separate times]. Anyway, enjoy.
First off, Simon Porter, who was a Bronze Records press guy for years, came back in to the Heep picture recently as management. What can you tell me about Simon and how he came back in to the Heep camp? [BTW, I met him in 1997 in Toronto when he was doing press for Status Quo.]
MB: Yes I have known Simon for many years. When I was looking for a manager and I found out Simon had moved into that area with Status Quo, I could see he did an excellent job for them so I approached him and he saw the value in the idea and we moved on from there.
PL: Mick was getting weighed down with the running of the band, quite understandably, so we looked around for someone to take over in this field. Simon's name was brought up, he was approached, he expressed a great interest and that was that and Mick was relieved.
It has been 10 years since Sonic Origami. I won't bore you with the "what took so long" questions, but as far as the songs on Wake The Sleeper, is there any that have been sort of kicking around for a while in whole or in part that you were excited to finally record?
MB: Most of it was written 2 weeks before we went into the rehearsal studio. At least the first 5 songs were. Phil and I looked at all of the ideas we had accumulated but decided to write fresh songs and capture the excitement and energy that was evident when Russell joined the band. The music to ghost was pretty much there but no lyrics.
PL: For a start, no material from the Sonic era was used in WTS. Over the many writing sessions that me and Mick have had since then the oldest track would be a tune that ended up being called Ghost in the Ocean. Another, which kept our interest over the ensuing years, was What Kind of God. Each time we revisited it, we knew it had something.
Wake The Sleeper is one of [if not The] heaviest Uriah Heep albums ever. There are no real ballads and very few softer moments [no acoustics, no pianos], mainly Hammond and guitar driven songs and Trev's bass is turned up. How important and deliberate was it for you guys to write and record a heavy rock album, as opposed to something more varied and commercial like Sonic Origami?
MB: We wanted to record a rock CD that showed everyone after our 10-year hiatus that we still had the passion and energy for our music as we always had. I am sure the softer moments will appear on the next CD.
PL: It was a very deliberate decision. We wanted it to be raw but sophisticated; solid without frills. However, just because it's a heavier album doesn’t mean the songs are less commercial.
Russell Gillbrook has come in on the new album and really adds a tremendous amount of energy to the band with his drumming. What can you tell me about working with Russell and his input and enthusiasm in working on this album?
MB: He heard the songs and adapted his part to them. He added some areas of drumming that we had not been to before, which was very exciting. He also added some good vocals too!
PL: He's brought an enormous amount of energy into the band, which is of course reflected in the final result. His input from the early stages of routining gave some of the songs a new light and helped the sleeping giant to wake up!
Mick and Phil wrote the vast majority of songs on WTS, and Trevor contributed a couple. Did you guys have an abundance of songs to choose from or did you basically work with what you had? As a fan of Trev's writing in the past, why were there only 2 of his on WTS?
MB: We had an abundance of ideas for sure but nothing was complete. We started afresh as explained above. We just went with the momentum. Trevor brought 3 songs to the table so that is what we recorded.
PL: We work through songs until they take on the shape we think is right. If a song is proving too complex, or hasn’t got the right feel then it will be ditched but this doesn’t seem to happen too often. As I'm always writing songs myself, I've always had a wide choice of ideas to dip into when it comes to new material. We recorded a third song of Trev’s, which will be used on the next release or as a special.
Lyrically, you guys have steered away from the whole relationship type song ideas, and write more about more worldly issues and some almost historical themes. First, what is the writing process when you guys collaborate, and 2nd - what ideas and sources influence the lyrics these days?
MB: Speaking for Phil and myself we usually write the music first and then the lyrics.
PL: We don't actually shy away from love/relationship songs, we've written a few. To write a good effective love song is probable the hardest lyric to get right and not sound dated, hackneyed, typical. So we choose all other topics, and there are a few to choose from. As for me and Mick, we always start with the music. We are musicians first and foremost. The lyric writing as done after the music is set. Because I'm an avid reader I get through a lot of books, three of which have influenced songs on WTS: What Kind of God - Bury my heart at Wounded Knee. Ghost in the Ocean - Women Pirates. Wake the Sleeper - The Sleeper Awakes by H.G.Wells. This is the story about a man who falls asleep for two hundred years; because he isn’t dead people invest in his recovery. Time passes by and after two hundred years of bank interest he wakes up to find he is the richest man in the world. So I told Mick this would be a great theme for a Heep song. We wrote it up but it never sat well, there was always something not right about it. So it became one of the songs we ditched. But the title was always hanging around in my head. A couple of years down the line with a new drummer routining the new album and a high speed guitar riff we were full speed ahead into a high powered track without a title. Then the penny dropped, I said, There can only be one title for this song....Wake the Sleeper...none shall sleep while it is being performed. In the studio me and Mick poured over the lyrics, it was a tough cookie, so tough that Mike Paxman intervened at the last hour and suggested it be an instrumental except for the chorus. And that’s the story behind Wake the Sleeper.
"What Kind Of God" is a track that really stands out - lyrically and musically. Love the bass solo and organ after the last vocals. What can you tell me about this song - as far as the writing and the recording of it went?
MB: Lyrically it is influenced by a book called Bury Your Heart At Wounded Knee, which both Phil and I had read independently. I personally think it is one of our strongest lyrics and that is reflected in Bernie's performance.
PL: The book was the inspiration behind this lyric. Again, the music had already been written long before. I didn't really want to write another tribute to the American Indian thing unless we could, as they say, push the envelope a little and make it a highly charged emotive statement, which I think we have achieved. Our fans have singled it out as one of their favorites and indeed to become a Heep classic.
Can you tell me a bit about a few other tracks - how they came together, lyrical ideas. > "Overload" - the lead off vocal track, with a modern age lyric, and a song that featured in the live set before the album's release.
MB: Overload's lyric is about the computer generation and where will it go when it all implodes.
PL: 'Overload' materialized in the rehearsal studio. In fact, we were actually writing the chorus as Mike Paxman walked in on us. The lyric is directed at our computer generation and how we are on the slippery slope to becoming automatons.
"Book Of Lies" - what exactly is the book of lies? This would be a candidate for a single [...if we still had 45s...] IMO.
MB: This is about a guy who breaks up from his girlfriend and after a while decides to buy a book. As he is reading it he recognizes himself as each page turns. He then looks to see who the author is and it is his ex girlfriend.
PL: 'Book of Lies' is about a guy whose ex writes a book. He picks it up one day and thinks she's written it about him but he wants to make it clear that it's all lies. However, '...the essence of how well the story's told.' is it's success.
"Ghost of The Ocean" - a big guitar track, and a lyric about female pirates!?
MB: This was Phil's idea lyrically and once we started there was a lot of inspiration to draw upon. This was the most complete track musically that we had prepared in the can so to speak.
PL: 'Ghost of the Ocean' is from the Women Pirates book. A fascinating read about headstrong women who refused to be under dogs of their day and took to the sea. Bold and vicious they were.
Any other tracks that stand out for you guys?
PL: Yes. All of 'em!
MB: Tears of the World is about the damage we are doing the planet...they are all pretty self-explanatory.
Any interesting tales about other tracks?
PL: Not that I can think of right now.
Bernie Shaw doesn't contribute to the song writing, but really seems to stretch out a bit vocally on this album with tracks like "Angels Walk With You", "War Child", and “What Kind of God"... What can you tell me about Bernie's involvement once a lyric is given to him and how he works with it?
MB: We present him with the lyric and he sits with it for a while and then try's to get into it to the point that when he sings it he believes it. This is very important so that he produces the right delivery.
PL: There are certain words that Bernie won't sing...anything slightly left of field or risqué, as they say, so we tend to keep the lyrics within those confines because after all it's not fair to ask a singer to sing a lyric that they cannot deliver with passion.
Wake The Sleeper features some great artwork, one of the coolest Heep covers ever. It also looks great as comes in the gatefold on vinyl. What can you tell me about how you guys selected the artwork and what's your take on the whole resurgence in vinyl?
[BTW - that means only Sonic Origami is the only Heep studio album not on vinyl!...any chance..?]
MB: The artwork was done by Ioannis. We gave him the title and he came back with a couple of ideas and immediately everyone liked the one we chose. It was unanimous and very quick. He has done a wonderful job and we are all very happy with it. Vinyl SO!? I do not think there is a chance as we are not with the record company anymore.
PL: It's funny how things came together so quickly. The title was given to Ioannis, and in a short time he came up with the artwork and we all said yes. It was one of the first examples so we didn’t have to wade through tons of stuff. There were a couple of minor alterations and that was it.
With the previous 2 studio albums, a number of songs featured in the live show. How many [and which ones - if you can tell me] do you foresee playing live on the upcoming world tour? And will there still be a number of songs from Sea Of Light and Sonic Origami in the live set?
MB: We are presently in rehearsals so we have not fine-tuned the set yet. We will hopefully strike the right balance between new and old.
PL: Tonight we have a show in Warsaw and it’s the middle of a seven-week tour of Europe and we are, believe it or not, playing the whole album. At the outset we never thought we'd be doing it all but the new songs just seemed to slot in perfectly with the old. It's a seriously value for money show. So good, the people should pay twice! Only kidding, of course. Unfortunately, there is nothing from those two albums in the show.
Anything else you guys wish to add about the recording of the new album and any future plans? [Any plans to record again - sooner, or tape any live shows on this tour?]
MB: We are hopeful that with the success of WTS we will record another CD. We have the template to do this successfully now so there is no reason that there will not be another recording.
PL: Keep taking Wake the Sleeper all around the world to the fans. No need to make live albums any more.... just go to YouTube.
Not to beat a dead goat, but what is the status of a North American tour? What factors have to fall in to place in order for Heep to tour here?
MB: We would certainly hope that if the talked about USA tour happens next year we will tour North America.
PL: We are at the moment looking at something around the end of January kicking off in.... CANADA! But the main factor that will get us out there is purely, sales, sales, sales. That is all the promoters are interested in so get all the good people of North America together and tell them to go out and buy Wake the Sleeper so we can come and play for you guys... shouldn't be too much of a problem eh?
There are currently new releases from former members like Ken Hensley, John Lawton, Asia [w/ John Wetton], and an archive release of David Byron stuff. Do you find all this Heep-related material something of a distraction, detraction or competition to what you're doing? Do you bother to keep up with any of it and/or - do you find it even relevant?
MB: What will be will be! Yes I do listen to it and I cannot see it as competition, distraction or otherwise. I have no problems with it at all.
PL: I have never
felt any need to compete, now or at any time since I've been in the band.
The activities of former Heep musicians is of no concern to me, other than a
brief mention in passing. They achieved a unique high standard and made
their mark at the time they were in the band. A standard which continues
Review: © Kevin J. Julie /
Thanks to Rodrigo Werneck and to Ron Mann.