Saturday, May 6, 2017

A Conversation with Val Vigoda

Val Vigoda, the star of the current off-Broadway smash musical Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, has carved out quite a remarkable, uncommon musical career. This pioneering singer/songwriter, armed with her 6-string Viper violin, spent close to two decades with her band mates in the theatrical pop/rock trio GrooveLily, creating album after album of smart pop music and theater productions. Along the way, Val also scored arena-touring gigs with Cyndi Lauper and Joe Jackson. When “rock theater” juggernaut Trans-Siberian Orchestra first split into two touring casts, Vigoda secured the role of Concertmaster of the West Coast troupe. After a recent split with her longtime husband and musical partner, along with GrooveLily going on hiatus, Val has come out swinging. She recently released her empowering new live-looping solo album, joined up with the innovative Electrify Your Strings music education program and has landed in New York with her long-in-development epic musical adventure about Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. While Val points out how inspirational Shackleton was on his voyage, we learn here how inspiring Val herself is. In this in-depth chat, we touch on all of that and more.

Dan Roth: How did you come to choose the violin as your instrument of choice?

Val Vigoda: I have music in my family going back many generations. My grandfather was a cantor and my Dad was a wonderful jazz pianist. From the time I could walk, I was sitting on the piano bench with my Dad and starting to read music. By the time I got to elementary school, I wanted to play an instrument and I really wanted to learn the trumpet. I had just lost my baby teeth so they wanted me to wait a year for the trumpet, but they needed violinists in the orchestra. Instead of waiting a year, I decided to go with the violin and I fell in love with it. I am so glad that I did not go with my original instinct to play the trumpet because I would never be able to do what I do today.

DR: Who has inspired you musically along the way?

VV:  From the classical side of the instrument - Nathan Milstein, Jascha Heifetz, Itzhak Perlman, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Joshua Bell, my teachers Ed Johonnott and Danny Heifetz. As far as violinists from outside the classical realm, musicians like Mark Wood, Joe Deninzon, Julie Lyonne Lieberman, Christian Howes, and so many others...all really joyful players using the instrument in such diverse and creative ways.

DR: I had read that it took you a decade or so to rid yourself of the "violin face". What did you mean by that?

VV: Ah, the "violin face"! We are taught as classical string players in such a fear-based way. (And to be clear, I’m not referring here to my specific teachers, but the overall gestalt of classical learning.) It is all about precision and hitting that right note and God forbid you tap your foot. As students, we are taught to practice putting our fingers in the correct place on this weird instrument that is very unnatural and counter-intuitive -- and then, if you get really good, you get to go play for the “jury.” (!) I remember playing for the jury and I couldn't stop my knees from shaking, being so concerned with how they would grade me. It was really the opposite of what music should be about.

I found that I could not smile and concentrate on playing at the same time. I looked like I was stern, almost angry when I played. It was not until I started getting into bands and playing music that wasn't classical that people started to notice and would tell me that I looked like I was not having fun. It was a physical reflex - I was so used to concentrating on playing correctly, with a certain grimness associated with that, that it took me a long time to relax, enjoy and re-engage with the simple joy of playing music.

DR: You are also that rare violinist that sings lead as well. Since you do both beautifully, tell me about that journey - did that come naturally? What are the challenges?

VV: Well thank you for those kind words. For most of my early life, singing and playing the violin were two very separate activities for me. I have always been a singer; I think it probably came from my grandfather (a renowned cantor with a gorgeous tenor voice). I was always in choirs, and in college I was in an a cappella group. When I was eight years old, I started playing the violin and got serious about it pretty fast. I got involved in chamber groups and orchestras. It wasn't until I was a teenager and started writing songs that I even thought about combining these two skills. 

When I first tried to do it, it felt like my brain was being split apart in this incredibly uncomfortable way. Just singing one note and playing that same note at the same time was so difficult and very unnatural. One night at The Bitter End, I saw Allison Cornell sing backups and play the violin with Rachael Sage. It was my first time seeing someone multi-task like that and it really inspired me. I spent a couple of years making my brain hurt, trying to sing and play at the same time. After a while, I could sing while playing a simple part on the violin, Over the years, it's just gotten easier and easier to the point where it now feels natural to me and I can do different counter-meters and odd rhythms and different kinds of harmonies with myself.

The biggest breakthrough for me on this journey was finding the Viper, which is designed and built by Mark Wood.  Playing a violin that has a chin rest means having your neck area squashed a bit. That meant to me that either the singing suffered or the playing suffered. As soon as I discovered that I could have this different design with the harness and the freeing nature of the way that the Viper is designed, it really changed my world. I could sing better, I could play better.

DR: It really seems like the perfect instrument for what you do. I have seen it noted that you were the first female Viper player. Do you like that pioneering moniker?

VV: Absolutely! I was Mark's first female client and I am honored to hold that distinction. That instrument really has defined what I do going forward.

DR: How many strings does your Viper have? And do you enjoy the extended range?

VV: It has six strings and Yes! I love having those fifth and sixth strings. For so long, as a member of GrooveLily, it was mostly just the three of us - keyboard, drums, and electric violin. So when performing we had to fill up as much musical space as we could, and having that low C and low F string for power chords and rhythm-guitar-esque sounds while I am singing is just perfect. It really helped fill out our sound and I love being able to roll full arpeggios.

DR: When you compose songs, do you write them on a piano or on the violin?

VV: Both; it depends on the song. I do more and more on the violin - I have had it for so long and I can think more chordally and harmonically on the instrument than I used to be able to. I used to always write on a keyboard first and then try and translate it to the violin, which was a bit of an unwieldy process.

DR: When you write, are you more lyric-minded or music-driven?

VV:  I am such a verbal person. I almost always will start with the meaning, the content, the lyrics and then the music. For many years, I was collaborating with my "wasband" [Laughs] and we used to say that our skill sets were almost like a graph. I think in terms of melody and words (linear, X-axis) and he is a "chord" person, thinking harmonically (vertical, Y-axis). Together we worked very well that way. For a time, we were incredibly prolific; we were churning out writing assignments as quickly as possible and we found that my verbal facility and his harmonic facility made for a fast, efficient way of composing. I would be being more of a lyricist for a time, while he stuck to the music. It is only lately that I am finding my way back to writing more music again.

DR: In May of 1994, you released your first album, Inhabit My Heart, with the single "Raindance". This was before you had formed GrooveLily and before your Viper even?

Raindance - Music Video

VV: Yes, though we did eventually re-brand it as a GrooveLily album and we as a group would perform some songs from it in concert.

DR: From there you formed the trio, GrooveLily, with whom you released ten or so albums. Where did the name come from?

VV: When I was thinking of band names, I knew I wanted one word and I wanted that word to represent what we were about, which was the combination of rhythm and beauty. This image of a dancing flower came into my head which is a GrooveLily! I had a friend who is an artist and I asked him to draw that and he came up with our logo. It was this flower with a blossoming top and then petals and stem akimbo, which I loved.

If anyone is looking to name their band, don't name it something that is hard to say or hard to pronounce or hard to spell. [Laughs] That was a big issue.

DR: Most artists aren't crazy about having their music labeled or put into a defining category, but it does become necessary to help sell and promote the band. GrooveLily, at least in the first few albums, was difficult to categorize. You were playing both the college circuit and folk festivals with this unique instrument lineup playing a jazzy, pop, smart blend of pop music with an occasional theatrical feel as well. How did you see the band? What was GrooveLily about?

Breathe-In Breathe-Out (2002)

VV: That's a really good question. We always had a lot of trouble with this. We were always a theatrical pop/rock trio. We always had a branding and marketing problem. We would try to explain our sound by saying ridiculous things like: if Steely Dan, Paula Cole and Bruce Hornsby got stuck in an elevator together and they had a baby that played the violin... [Laughs] I always thought of us a combination of head and heart; smart, well-crafted songs that are real. We always got the same reaction from the industry, which was "This is interesting, this is original, this is refreshing, I would love to have this music in my library, I don't know how to describe it, I can't sell this." [Laughs]

DR: The band was unique in being a violin/keyboard/drums trio. Did you ever think about expanding the sound with other instruments?

VV: We did. For a while, we became a 5-piece band with guitar and bass. It was great but it was also expensive, quixotic and great fun. [Laughs] The violin can be a rock instrument but there is something about a guitar that cannot be replaced. I loved adding the sound of a guitar and bass to fill it out but I also really liked us as a trio.

DR: There definitely was a noticeable shift in what GrooveLily was doing in their first five or six releases and the release of Striking 12: The New GrooveLily Musical in 2004.

VV:  We tried being a square peg in a round hole for years when we were trying to make it in the "music industry". We kept trying to do things that were radio-friendly and come up with that elusive hit song. We tried to smooth out our rough edges. We were quirky as hell. We had three lead singers from three different backgrounds. I came from a classical background and listening to singer-songwriters, Brendan came from the world of ‘80s pop and musical theater, and Gene was a jazz drummer. There was no other band for us to follow or say, "We want to be just like them" [Laughs] It wasn't until we did what seemed like a thousand unsuccessful showcases for record labels that we took what they said to heart. We would always hear, "You are a little too theatrical. You sound like Broadway." so we finally decide to treat that as a feature instead of a bug. To make that turn into the world of theater was what made our career take off. When we wrote Striking 12, we knew we had found our niche. 

The timing was such that the trend to have musician-actors hadn't happened yet. We were really pioneers in that way. The John Doyle production of Sweeney Todd hadn't happened yet, for instance. When we showcased our Striking 12 show in 2004 at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, it was a bit of a shock for everyone. We came out on stage to our violin and keyboard and drum set in front of this audience filled with all of these New York and regional theater movers and shakers and they were waiting for the actors to come out. We proceeded to do the whole thing ourselves. We were literally swamped with offers and that changed our lives. We were not only gaining notoriety in the theater world but also as writers for others.

Caution to the Wind (2005)

DR: The band continued in that musical theater world, creating A Little Midsummer Night's Music, Sleeping Beauty Wakes, and Wheelhouse. Looking back, do you have a favorite album that really still resonates with you?

VV: Tough question. I feel like Striking 12 is when we let go of all of the anxiety and said, "This is who we are." For that reason, I love that record. I love looking back at the early stuff and finding the seeds of what we were able to do later. As far as quality of songs and recording, I would have to pick the Sleeping Beauty Wakes album.

DR: Is GrooveLily on hiatus? What is its status?

VV: We are definitely on a hiatus right now and I do not know if there will ever be a reunion. Brendan has said he is not interested in performing anymore.Gene and I have been talking about doing something together. Here is my dream: Striking 12. 2018. The 12th anniversary of being on Off-Broadway. Me, Gene, Ben Folds.

DR: Does Ben Folds know about this dream?

VV: No. [Laughs] That's why I'm putting it out there.

DR: In the late '90s, in addition to GrooveLily, you were touring arenas with Cyndi Lauper and Joe Jackson.

VV:  Playing with both of them were such fantastic and different experiences. With Cyndi, it was really trial by fire. My first performance with her was live on a big-time morning drive radio show here in New York City and I was playing mandolin for the first time. I didn't even have my Viper. I was there with this strange instrument playing live [Laughs]

Cyndi is so great about having female musicians in her band and really championing them. I got that gig after someone that worked for her saw me at a GrooveLily showcase and they called me because they were looking for a violinist/vocalist. It was my first time playing arenas; we opened for Tina Turner on one tour and then a couple years later we were opening for Cher.

Cyndi Lauper performance with Val Vigoda (1997)

I toured with Joe Jackson in 1998 and 1999, in between the two Cyndi Lauper tours. He was touring his Heaven and Hell album that Sony Classical released. That same violinist that I mentioned earlier that I had seen at the Bitter End playing with Rachael Sage all those years ago was now Joe's violinist but she couldn't do this tour. Joe flew to New Orleans to see the Cyndi Lauper concert and auditioned me afterwards. It was a real departure from what he had done before. For the tour it was him, Elise Morris on keys and me on violin and vocals. So in addition to all of great rock and roll songs that he is known for, we were also doing this classical song cycle.

DR: On each of those tours with Lauper and Jackson, many of their classic songs were presented in a different way. Did you have some input in to how you would be playing them at all?

VV: Somewhat, yes. Both of them were interested in re-imagining the songs that they had played thousands of times.

DR: Let's chat a bit about your time with Trans-Siberian Orchestra. After an initial tour in 1999, they split into two touring groups in 2000. Mark Wood was the original and founding String Master and went to the East touring group after they split into two. You took on that role with the West touring group for the 2000 and 2001 tours. Tell me how you became part of this.

VV:  Mark Wood told them that he had just the right person for the West Coast cast and here she is. There was no audition. I was hired, given the music to learn and told where to show up for rehearsals. Boom.

DR: Were you familiar with TSO before this?

VV: I had actually played in the "local strings" section when they played the Beacon Theater in 1999.

DR: Did you work with Mark at all during the rehearsals?

VV: A little bit. I was mostly on my own. I had the music and I really concentrated on that so I would be ready by the time we got the first string section that I would have to lead. I remember the tours were a really grueling routine though for the concertmaster. I was given two hours to rehearse each string section, for the two-hour-and-twenty-minute Show! And then part of the gig with TSO is the autograph line and that is like a whole other gig. [Laughs] It was 90 minutes or so of signing and talking with fans. After that we would finally get back on the bus, drive overnight and then be at our next gig in the morning. I would always make a point of hitting a gym first thing - even if it was just for six minutes so I could work out a bit and move. Then it would be on to the two hours with the string section, then the show, then the autograph line. Rinse and repeat. [Laughs]

DR: With TSO having been around for so long now, I think most string players that are interested in playing at their Shows have a good idea what they are getting into.

VV: These people did not. [Laughs]

DR: 2000 was the first "West Coast" TSO tour so they were hitting areas outside of the East for the very first time. Were you getting a lot of classically-trained musicians?

VV:  All classically trained. And they varied widely in their ability to pick up music quickly. My favorite group of all were technically possibly the least-skilled players that we had hired for the tours but they were so wonderful - I don't want to say anything bad about them. I am talking about the El Paso string players who were almost all family and they were so happy to be there. They had the best attitude and were joyful; they did not have "violin face"[Laughs] They were so excited to be part of the Show and they were an absolute pleasure to work with. They did not hit their high D's, I didn't even care because they were so joyful. Then you go to big cities like Chicago or Minneapolis-St. Paul where you are drawing on musicians from major orchestras and some of those players who were technically amazing were such a drag.

I spent a lot of time in the rehearsals getting the players used to working in this new environment. I worked with them on getting them not to put their violin on their knees. Classical violinists aren't used to working with amps and mics and feedback. Often they would play and then at a rest, place their violin right in front of the speaker causing terrible feedback. Also, the mic attached to the instrument would pick up their breathing, which we would have to work on.

I am so glad that I had the opportunity to have that gig. It was great for practicing, flexibility and leadership skills. It was also a great help in developing my stage presence; jumping on things, waving my bow around and feeding off of all that rock energy. The whole job as their concertmaster is never-ending, just constant motion.

DR: Did you get much direction during your time on how they wanted you to look or perform?

VV: Oh no. I just played, ran around the stage, jumped on things, waved my bow around and riled people up. [Laughs] It was a great time, especially on songs like "Mozart". I basically followed Mark's lead on what he was doing with the East group.

DR: I’ve interviewed other performers from those early TSO casts and many of them – particularly on the West – have mentioned that those early tours had more of an emphasis on their performance and personality and chemistry with the audience rather than the effects and spectacle that is there today. I have heard fun stories of rubber chickens, silly string and much more on stage. Can you speak to that?

VV: Oh yeah. It was so much fun touring with those guys. I remember vocalist Kay Story was singing that heartfelt Stevie Nicks song "Landslide" and they would torment her trying to get her to break character, One night, I think it was a little toy mouse on a string that was creeping along the stage and Kay kneels down and starts petting it, completely unfazed; it was awesome. [Laughs] There were so many pranks being played. They were such a wonderful group of people but I was somewhat apart from them because I was always running off to do rehearsals with the strings.

I had such a great time. I had never before really had the experience of almost commanding the audience to applaud, gesturing in that almost-pompous way to the audience while performing. [Laughs] It was a lot of fun.  Mark was great at that because he naturally does it without being pompous.

DR: The cast was really a melting pot – metal rockers, Broadway performers, journeyman rockers. Anyone you really connected with?

VV: Oh sure. Malcolm Gold who was the bassist on the 2001 tour later toured with GrooveLily when we went to a 5-piece. John Margolis wound up being my neighbor in NYC and we did a gig together. So many great people - I loved Sophia Ramos - she is just an amazing, fierce vocalist. And of course Michael Lanning, Paul Morris, Kay Story, Damon LaScot, Rebecca Simon, and I loved touring with Al Pitrelli and Jane Mangini. Everyone on the bus was just so much fun.

DR: So after the 2001 tour, you were gone from the TSO stage.

VV: Yes, though they did ask me back to tour the next year. I will always be grateful to TSO though - because it was around this time, as I mentioned earlier, that we, as GrooveLily, decided as a band to move into more of a theatrical mode and TSO was the inspiration for us to write our own holiday concert with a story, Striking 12!

DR: Over the last few years, there has been a bit of a "Val Vigoda Renaissance" – The Ernest Shackleton Loves Me musical, your new solo album Just Getting Good, and your recent work with Mark Wood's Electrify Your Strings! music program. What prompted this flurry of activity?

VV: It's so interesting. Both Ernest Shackleton Loves Me and Just Getting Good were precipitated by the fact that I love performing so much and I get such energy and exhilaration from it. Brendan, who was my collaborator for so long, couldn't care less if he ever steps on to a stage again. He much prefers now to be behind the scenes, writing and arranging. Musicals can take a long time to ripen; we have been working on Shackleton since 2009. This all came about with us trying to write something together where I would perform and he wouldn't have to.

We had just seen this incredible museum exhibit about British Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton that really inspired us. Shackleton has to be one of the most inspiring, optimistic heroes ever. That exhibit just blew me away and really stuck with me. We then got the opportunity to write something for me with the amazing playwright Joe DiPietro. Joe asked, "What do you want to write about?" . I told him that we had seen several one-person shows that were autobiographical and I really didn't want to do that. I remember telling him, "I want to do something big, something epic and adventurous, I don’t know, like, Ernest Shackleton!" [Laughs] We told Joe the saga of Shackleton's trip to Antarctica as well as the story of how he insisted that this 14-pound banjo be carried along their trek and be used to keep up the spirits of his men. Joe came back to us with an outline of a one-person show called Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.

DR: Was it similar to where you are at with it today?

VV: In a way. We brought a director in and we did a read-through. The director liked it but said, "You are singing about Ernest Shackleton. You're telling us the story of Shackleton. Where is he?"  We realized that this really needed to be a two-person show and that's when things really took off. One of the big aspects of the show was that my character is a modern composer that plays electric violin, very much like me [Laughs], and this character was using live looping. Again, musicals take a really long time. We started this in 2009 and here we are in 2017 finally hitting New York. While we were waiting for this to get produced, we decided to use this looping technology that we were learning to create something that we could be in charge of, so Just Getting Good was something that we created together as well. The themes of both projects are all about spreading your wings as a self-reliant, empowered, courageous human being. Ernest Shackleton Loves Me is really a feminist manifesto of hope, optimism and not relying on others. So these themes were all there as we created them together, but now that both are seeing the light of day and Brendan and I are no longer together, it sort of all makes sense in hindsight.

DR: I find it interesting that you had this theme, particularly on Just Getting Good. It is such an empowering album lyrically. The title track speaks of “just getting good” and standing your ground. “If You Believe” talks about doing what you love and believing in who you are. “Level Up” talks about overcoming feeling alone and afraid. “Larger Than Life” talks about helping yourself and leaving the past behind.

VV:  All of the songs on this album are in alignment with that theme.

DR: Was it challenging to start working without a band?

VV: Hugely challenging. It was the same "My brain is coming apart" feeling that I had long ago when I first tried to sing and play the violin at the same time. [Laughs] For such a long time, I was one who did not embrace technology, but for performing with live looping I dived in. It was a steep learning curve but eventually it got easier and I became more comfortable with it all. I keep a picture hanging up for inspiration; it is a woman embracing a man who is entirely made up of images from the Ableton Live music production software. It reminds me of falling in love with technology and that's what I have been doing for the past few years. It's really all about planning and multi-tasking and is another approach to creating music.

DR: Do you rely on a lot of foot pedals when performing this way?

VV: Yes, mostly as navigational pedals. The patch changes are in the computer so it does involve some pre-planning.

DR: This album contains some of your songs from your career but here in fresh new arrangements. For instance, I noticed that you re-did "If You Believe" which is a song that you wrote for one of the Tinkerbell movies and "Thaw" which was on an older GrooveLily album. How did you pick which to tackle?

VV: I looked at many of the songs that had become favorites in their new arrangements over the past five years. I had done a version of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" early on and that didn't quite make the cut because the arrangement was not that interesting. I did go with "Thaw" which you mentioned but it was a new arrangement that I put together in memory of my mom. I mashed it up with "Irish Lullaby" which she used to sing to me. Thaw is such a meaningful song to me and I feel like adding in the "Irish Lullaby" portion has made it even better.

But we chose songs that thematically were in alignment. We wrote "Just Getting Good" and that was the name of this concept so they had to fit. This was recorded in concert and the concert was actually longer but we discarded a couple songs before we arrived at the eleven on the album.

DR:  Another interesting song choice is a song that dates back to the 1850’s: “Hard Times Come No More”.

VV:  That is just a beautiful song that was on our radar for a while. Eastmountainsouth does a great version of it as does James Taylor.  My version has Brendan's arrangement and has some beautiful reharmonizations in it that I love.

DR:  Let's talk a bit more about your musical, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me which you are now starring in at the Tony Kiser Theatre here in New York. You mentioned earlier that it has been in the works since 2009?

VV:  It was first commissioned by TheatreWorks in Palo Alto and La Jolla Playhouse came on board as well. It has gone through readings, several workshops, three developmental productions and here we are finally in New York!

DR:  Do you enjoy acting along with playing, singing and composing?

VV:  I love it!! I used to have a fear of it because I am not necessarily a trained actor. But really acting is really just an extension of communicating with your audience, and it’s all about presence. I have been taking some Meisner classes in Seattle which have been super fun.

DR:  Has the show's story changed at all for this New York run?

VV:  There have been some tweaks along the way, and yes, for those that have seen any of the prior productions, there are some changes that you will pick up on. I’d say it’s 30% different from our last production. We’ve been doing a lot of work over the past month!!

DR:  I don't want to spoil it for anyone that has not yet seen it, but does Shackleton still make his entrance to the stage in the same fashion as the 2015 New Jersey production?

VV:  He does! [Laughs] I think it is one of the great musical theater entrances!

DR:  You are playing a Viper on stage. There is a second Viper on stage during the show. Is that a backup?

VV:  I do play both of them in the show, mainly for logistical reasons. One is upstage and one is downstage. I use one for the opening number and the other for the rest of the show. Superstitiously, I always have two with me though. When Striking 12 opened Off-Broadway, during opening night with all of the press there, I was using one but I had a second one on the stage purely as set dressing because my director liked the look of it.  In the middle of the show, in the midst of the most exposed moment as I was soloing, the violin stopped working. There was complete silence on stage as I was mentally running through what could have happened - volume, battery - and I was trying not to show in my face what was happening. I very calmly walked over, grabbed the other violin and started playing. It had turned out that a piece of solder had come loose and there was no way that I would have been able to continue on. That was a life-changing, career-defining evening. We ended up with rave reviews from the New York Times and it all worked out well, but now having two just makes me feel better.[Laughs]

DR:  Similarly to your past work, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me is uniquely tailored to you and your talents. Striking 12 certainly has continued on with various casts performing it. Can you see Shackleton without you?

VV:  We totally want to license the show and we will. There are definitely ways to do that which we are going to explore. We have already seen that the show can go on without me as we had the wonderful Angel Desai step into the role for some shows during the New Jersey run. We have also discussed making the lead character of Kat not necessarily be an electric violinist. She would still be a musician but maybe she plays a different instrument. At the moment, there are some very specific gestures and dialogue moments that are about the spark that comes from the electric violin but those could be adapted if need be. But at the moment, we are just making the show as good as it can be with me on the Viper.

DR:  Tell me about your co-star Wade McCollum. He has been in this musical with you for some time? Do you enjoy working together?  Was he been the only person to play Shackleton so far?

VV:  I love Wade! He is not the first to play that role though. The first actor to play Shackleton was Will Swenson who is a fantastic Broadway star (he did an early reading with us). I had met Wade through our work with Disney. We had written Toy Story The Musical and Wade was our first Woody. When the opportunity came up for Shackleton, we connected again. He is such an inspirational, buoyant person and perfect for this role.

DR:  The story of the real-life Shackleton was so resilient and inspirational and I feel like in the musical, Kat is inspired by him as much as he is inspired by her music and it ultimately is a love story. How would you describe this to someone who has not yet seen it?

VV:  It's an adventure love story across a century of time. She finds self-reliance and hope and optimism from him and realizes that she can be "Shackleton" for her son. She doesn't have to settle and she doesn't have to be beholden to someone who doesn't respect her and that she can do this on her own.

DR:  What kind of audiences have you been seeing? Besides fans of musicals, have you captured the interest of history fans as well?

VV:  We started the show in Seattle and we found that not only were we getting fans of tech and games, but also Coast Guard members and people on ice-breaking ships! We are even doing an event at The Explorers Club where they have Shackleton's original sextant and some of his family are going to Skype in for it. So we have been seeing the Shackleton people, the gaming people, the electric violin fans, fans of musicals.

DR:  You had quite an active fan base from your GrooveLily days called the Petal Pushers.

VV:  Yes! And I have seen many of them at these shows as it has developed. It is very heartening to find that what I am doing now is still resonating with them as much as GrooveLily did. Many of them continue to be in my world, not only as fans but also as friends.

DR:  A couple of years ago you started working with Mark Wood at his Mark Wood Rock Orchestra Camp and in his Electrify Your Strings! program. What led you to reconnecting with Mark?

VV:  I did stay in touch with Mark over the years but not very actively until two years ago. I had some upheaval going on in my life and I finally was looking up and out again,. It is very easy when you are married to your collaborator to be sort of hermetically sealed while working and not be as connected to the other people in your professional sphere as much. I realized that I was not part of the electric violin community and I reached out to Mark and Laura [Kaye] and asked if I could just come visit their Rock Orchestra Camp and immerse myself in that community. I went there just as a 'camper' and met all of these wonderful musicians there to learn and the talented faculty that they have.  Afterwards, Mark brought me on board for his Electrify Your Strings! music programs and as a faculty member for the camp.
Val Vigoda at the Mark Wood Rock Orchestra Camp Music Festival 2016
Photo Courtesy of Heather Cobb Isbell

DR:  At his camp, each of the faculty members focuses on different aspects while teaching. What is in your "curriculum"?

VV:   I love working with students, particularly there where they are so eager. I work with them a lot on presence, improv and full engagement. I play some theater games with them and we break out of that fearful stance - that "violin face". We reconnect with the joy of doing what we do. Simultaneous singing and playing, lyric writing...we get to do a lot over a short period of time!

DR:  You have so much going in your life right now, is there anything that you still have your sights set on?

VV:  Even though it has been eight years in the making, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me is such a huge passion project for me and is just hitting New York now. That is my focus for the moment. and who knows what its future may be? Once it is open and off the ground, I am adding on a project in the world of motivational speaking. It will include some of my work with Just Getting Good, some of what I present in Electrify Your Strings. It’s all about peak aliveness. I hope to incorporate stories from Shackleton, stories from my Army training, working with Cyndi Lauper - all things that have brought me to where I am today.

DR:  Sounds wonderful! Thanks so much for taking the time today.

VV:  My pleasure!

For more information:

Val Vigoda

Val Vigoda Twitter:

Val Vigoda YouTube Channel:

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me:


Mark Wood Rock Orchestra Camp:

Electrify Your Strings:

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Conversation with Fred Gorhau

Hailing from the fertile musical ground of New Jersey, guitarist Fred Gorhau has been a constant fixture on the New Jersey/New York metal scene for over twenty years.  Though steeped in the long tradition of '80s Power Metal, for the last six years Gorhau has been spreading his wings musically and geographically as part of the Yuletide rock ensemble The Wizards of Winter. I caught up with Fred as he and the band are rehearsing for their upcoming 2016 holiday tour.  Fred talks about his history with The Wizards and what it's been like working with many of the former members of Trans-Siberian Orchestra as well as being managed by metal legend Jon Zazula.  We also discuss his long association with the Power Metal band Exxplorer, his current work with Dark Sky Choir and Living Colour's Corey Glover.  

Dan Roth: When did you start playing guitar?

Fred Gorhau: I was about 13 years old. My father lent me the money - $45 at the time - and I paid him back $5 a week out of money from my paper route.  I would say it was well worth it.

DR:  Any particular bands or albums that inspired you early on?

FG:  KISS was probably my favorite band growing up. They were just so influential. As I got older I started getting into Rainbow, AC/DC and bands like that.

DR:  Do you recall what the first song was that you learned to play on your guitar?

FG:  "Day Tripper" by the Beatles.  My neighbor at the time had a nephew that had already been playing.  He came over to her house, was playing and I said, "I have one of those!" [Laughs]  He taught me how to tune it and how to play "Day Tripper" and I never looked back.

DR:  From a technical standpoint, is there one guitarist that influenced your playing?

FG:  Although I was a KISS fan for the longest time, I quickly gravitated towards Ritchie Blackmore. His classically influenced sound, alternate picking and his use of modes really sounded different to anything I had heard. As a teen, I got into Rainbow with Ronnie James Dio. Blackmore wrote a lot in harmonic minor and Dio's writing really complimented that.  After Blackmore, I gravitated towards Eddie Van Halen which was a game changer and then of course Yngwie Malmsteen.

DR:  Do you still practice and work on your scales?

FG:  Yeah, I do.  I think it's important.  When Randy Rhodes was touring with Ozzy, he would still stop and take lessons when he had a day off.  I still take lessons when I can.  There is always room to learn new things and make yourself better.  As recently as 2015, I was taking skype lessons from this monster guitar player in California named Dave Nassie. He really helped me out a lot.  But yeah, I still practice my scales because you can lose some of the control and attack if you don't practice them often.
Fred Gorhau with The Wizards of Winter
Count Basie Theater, Red Bank, NJ  Nov 2015
Photo Courtesy Sean Tobin

DR:  Starting in the 1980's, New Jersey had a large presence on the metal scene, with Jon Zazula's legendary Rock N Roll Heaven record store, his label Megaforce Records, Metallica recording and living there, and the incredible support that the area gave to metal bands.  Were you involved in that at all?

FG:  I wasn't part of the original Old Bridge Metal Militia, but that scene definitely was huge in my life.  I would go to Jonny Z's record store and pick up all of the import metal records that were coming out at the time. I remember picking up the new Angelwitch record, the new Accept record, the new Motorhead record.  That scene with Jonny's record store and then his label being at the middle of it all was what we knew growing up here.

DR:  Were you involved in a lot of different bands as you were spreading your wings with your playing?

FG:  I was in a few different cover bands.  I was in a band called Push in the '80s and we had a pretty big following.  We did the whole [legendary Brooklyn rock venue] L'Amour scene and opened for many of the national acts that came through L'Amour. We opened for Kix, Extreme, Dangerous Toys, Kings X.  We must have opened for Blue Oyster Cult a dozen or so times.  Push was pretty much my first venture to playing outside of the basement.

DR:  For many metal fans outside of the NJ/NY area, their first taste of hearing you play was when you joined Exxplorer. They had an interesting but sporadic history. You joined them for their third album?

FG:  Exxplorer were local heroes when I was growing up. They were the first band that I knew the members of that got a record deal. By the time I joined the band, they had already released records on Black Dragon and MetalBlade Records. They were quite a big deal in Europe and have a nice following.  I joined the band in 1993.  They had just released their second album and were booked for some shows in Europe when they found themselves in need of a guitarist.  At the time, I was teaching at the drummer's music store and he asked me if I was interested.  Of course I said, "Yes" and he says, "Great, Your audition is tonight.".  So I pulled out their classic Symphonies of Steel album; I had eight or nine students that night and each one of them got to learn an Exxplorer song. [Laughs]

I auditioned that night and got the gig.  We then went into the studio to record the band's third album, Coldblackugly. That album featured a new lead vocalist and the songs on it were not classic-style Exxplorer.  I like the music on it and I like the vocals, but looking back on it, it probably should not have been an Exxplorer album. It was a lot closer to a Tool or Marilyn Manson record than it was Exxplorer.  The album was well received to those who like that style, but it did not go over well to Exxplorer and Power Metal fans.

They were a great band though.  I was with them for twenty years and played in Europe three different times with them.

DR:  It often seems to be the case that metal bands have larger followings in Europe than here in the U.S.  Was that true of Exxplorer as well?

FG:  Oh yeah.  When we played here, we would play for 200-300 fans. In Europe, we were playing small and medium-sized festivals with thousands of metal fans.  In Europe, music is part of their lifestyle. They book their vacations around the festivals - the small ones and the big ones.

DR:  You mentioned that  Coldblackugly got away from the Exxplorer sound, but it seemed to be back with a vengeance with the 2011 album, Vengeance Rides an Angry Horse.

FG:  We had taken a bit of a hiatus - 10 or 12 years and getting back together was all because of some renewed interest in the band over in Europe.

DR:  The reviews for that album were great. Comparisons were being made to Omen, Jag Panzer, Accept. Possibly most importantly, it was being favorably compared to the band's original sound.

FG:  Musically it definitely was in the right direction for the band and even the production resembled the earlier albums.  It's honest, it's raw - all in all I think it's a very good record.  Songs are really strong and it's complete old school '80s metal.

DR:  Is Exxplorer still active today?

FG:  I'm not sure.  They did a festival a year or two ago.  I'm no longer with them; they are back with their original lineup and I think that's the way Exxplorer should be.  I think they are a better band without me in it.

DR:  That's a surprising and honest thing to hear.

FG:  Well, I ran into some over-playing things with them. I don't think they always agreed with how I played or do things that I thought belonged in the songs.  It's a little different with the Wizards where I can work on a song or a riff, send it to Scott to see what he thinks and often I will get a message back that says, "Sounds great!  Can you do it in harmony?" [Laughs].  I can spread my wings with The Wizards where I felt a little stifled with Exxplorer.

DR:  Speaking of The Wizards of Winter, tell me how you came to be a lead guitarist with them.

FG:  I was looking for a side project and stumbled upon their ad.  The first time I contacted them, it didn't quite work out because they were just rehearsing and I was looking for a paying gig.  As luck would have it, about a year later after their first tour, they put another ad out.  At that time, I was a little better financially and could afford to do a side gig and not get paid.  Of course, they started out as a charity and there was no money.

DR:  This is when they were still strictly a Trans-Siberian Orchestra tribute band?

FG:  Yes, mainly a tribute band and we were playing churches to raise money for food pantries and the like.  It was a great gig because I always loved TSO's music and this was a cool opportunity to play some of it for a good cause.  Plus, available gigs tend to dry up a bit around the holidays.

DR:  Is there any TSO song that you particular enjoyed playing?

FG:  Nothing stands out.  I enjoy playing most of them really.  They are fun songs to play and well-written.

DR:  The Wizards of Winter are now a full-fledged original act.  Talk about that transition.

FG:  We were getting so many requests from fans at our shows asking where they could purchase our album.  Of course there wasn't one.  Scott Kelly, our keyboardist and musical director, had already been working on some original demos to mix in to the show so we started working on those.  It was really a natural progression. We released our self-titled album in 2014 and everyone seemed to like it.  We went right back into the studio and started work on the second record, The Magic of Winter.  That record took us seven months to write, record and release it.  We felt that was pretty good because there are some bands that take years to release albums.  I am really proud of it.

DR:  Your original music is a mixture of metal, progressive rock, and even some ballads.  As a long-time metal guitarist, do you enjoy playing such a diverse set of genres?

FG:  I actually do. That diversity helps keep me interested and enthused about playing this music. For example, there is a beautiful ballad on the The Magic of Winter that Mary McIntyre sings ("I Am Here") that is primarily piano and flute and then the bass and drums kick in. I had to write a solo for it and it was a great opportunity for me to write just a nice melodic solo that fit the song. It wound up being one of my favorite solos on the record.

DR:  The band has certainly grown over the years to the point now where you are on the calendar for many concert-going fans during the holiday season. Have there been many growing pains?

FG:  Well there is always the comparison to TSO and that's fine.  I know from talking to some of the original TSO members that they went through a similar thing with Mannheim Steamroller when they were first coming out.  They had people telling them that they were crazy for trying because Mannheim Steamroller had the Christmas live scene locked up.  Plus, trying to expand geographically gets expensive. Even though we don't have the huge production that TSO has, we still travel with a crew of twenty and you can't just easily throw the guys and equipment in the back of a van and head out.  We are still self-financed and pay our own way. We don't have an investor that dropped six zeroes on us.

DR:  You have mentioned how much you like TSO and enjoyed playing their music. Even though you got a great response from the audience doing that, is it more satisfying playing your own guitar parts rather than Al Pitrelli’s?

FG:  Absolutely. It's always better playing your own stuff.

DR:  Starting with the 2013 tour, you caught the attention of many of the legendary fan-favorite performers who were part of TSO for many years. So far, five former TSO members (Tommy Farese, Tony Gaynor, Michael Lanning, Guy LeMonnier and Joe Cerisano) have toured with you. What have they brought to the table? Have you enjoyed working with them?

FG:  I have enjoyed working with them, for sure.  One of the main things they brought to us besides their talent was their experience.  Not all of the Wizards members had a touring background.  The former TSO guys were all there on those early TSO tours and they had gone through it with them, so they helped us navigate what to expect a bit.  They also helped us with some of our live sound expectations. Most bands tend to speed up a lot of their songs when playing live.  Tommy Farese in particular helped us realize that we need to slow down the TSO songs a bit because of how the sound comes back at the audience in the larger theaters we were have been playing. If you play it too fast, the audience winds up hearing a mish-mosh, especially with two keyboards, two guitars, flute, violin, and the rhythm section, not to mention the multi-part vocals - there is a lot that can get lost and by slowing it down just a bit, it helps it to be a bit more audible to the audience.

DR:  TSO certainly has the reputation for slowing the tempo of their songs down a great deal when done live.

Photo Courtesy Vicki Bender
FG:  When playing their songs, we try not to slow them down too much. But we consciously like to play them at the original tempo that you would hear on the record, and not let the song take off.

DR:  Guy and Tony eventually became very integral to the band, with Guy taking some lead vocals on the albums and Tony getting very involved with his narration of the concerts.

FG:  They have meshed so well with the rest of the band.  Almost instantaneously, they were excited to be playing with us and playing our music. The funny thing is when they first joined the band, we looked at them as the "rock stars" amongst us, so we almost felt that we had something to prove.  Now we are all friends and bandmates and have such a great camaraderie; it's a great place to be. And we are reminded at every rehearsal and concert why they got the gigs that they got - they are supremely talented guys.

DR:  I understand that there is a core of the band that creates your original songs – Scott Kelly, Sharon Kelly, Steve Ratchen and yourself. How does the songwriting and arranging process usually go for you guys?

FG:  More often than not, Scott will bring an idea to the table and describe what he was hearing and what direction the song could go in. We get together and hash out the various parts, making suggestions, reworking or adding parts.  Scott and I have a unique musical relationship that I haven't had with anyone else.  When he starts playing something, I immediately know what the pulse of the song should be. We have a real symbiotic relationship that way and I immediately can get an idea of where we are going with the song and what it needs.

I've also come down with ideas for songs and the process works the same way. Often we will wind up with various musical parts and phrases and we collaborate on tying them together.

DR:  I would like to get your thoughts on a few particular songs from each Wizards of Winter album.  First up, let's talk about "March of the Metal Soldiers", which has that huge majestic, regal feel to it. I recall this song was released on Memorial Day 2014, before the rest of the album.

FG:  Everyone in the band has a real affinity for the U.S. Military.  If they don't do what they do and make the sacrifices that they have, we couldn't have the lives that we have. This song is dedicated to them.  It's based on the old classic "March of the Toys" and we wanted to rock it up a bit. When Scott started playing it, it felt natural to throw the guitar harmonies on to the beat.  The vocal break in the middle is actually the mottos of the four branches of the military sung in harmony in Latin.  Towards the end of the song, I came up with the idea to add in some fast guitar runs.  Like I mentioned earlier, I recorded these runs and the engineer sent them to Scott to see what he thought about adding them in.  Scott loved it and asked to have them done in harmony.  It gave me chance to show some of my versatility and it came out great.

DR:  "Just Believe" is a real fan favorite and sung beautifully as a duet by Mary McIntyre and Guy LeMonnier.  This one is such a great power ballad that is really telling a story between the two vocalists and then all of a sudden there is this somewhat unexpected two-minute guitar break that winds up fitting really well within the song.

FG:  I grew up on so much of '80s rock and you couldn't escape hearing those power ballads that had a killer solo.  Here we are doing something reminiscent of that and I wanted to do a solo that followed the chords instead of running scales in one key. There is a lot of string-skipping and tapping that follows the song's chords and once again recorded them in harmony.  When playing live, we are lucky to have TW Durfy also on guitar to help bring these harmonies to life.  He is such an awesome player that there is nothing where I would have to worry about having written something and wonder if he could play it, because he definitely can.

DR:  There is a bonus track on that first album entitled "Ode to Eisenach" which is a solo classical guitar piece.

FG:  That is Bach's "Chaconne", which was originally written for violin but transcribed for guitar by Andres Segovia.  There are actually two parts to that piece and when played in its entirety is about fifteen minutes in length, so that wasn't something that would have fit on the album. I edited it down to about three minutes and I made sure to use the cadence at the end of the first movement because it is so brilliant.  To me, that piece is the sound of a guitar crying. It is such a perfectly written piece of music and it fit in well with what we are doing.  It doesn't necessarily sound Christmassy but I thought it fit in with the mood and I am grateful that it is on the record.  As for the name, Eisenach is a town in Germany where Bach was born, which is why I called it "Ode to Eisenach".

DR:  One of the instrumental highlights of the second album is "Seasons Lament", which has elements of "Coventry Carol" with a little Paganini thrown in. Walk me through that song; I feel like there is lot of you on this song in particular.

FG:  Yeah, this one does have a lot of me.  When we were creating The Magic of Winter album, I had this idea of wanting to combine two darker pieces, with one being Christmas and one Classical.  "Coventry Carol" is this 16th century piece that was based on the time when Herod was ticked off about the birth of Christ.  He ordered all male children under the age of two killed.  "Coventry Carol" is the lament of the mother's sorrow over the death of their children. If you listen to the words - Bye bye, lully, lullay - it is heart wrenching to hear when played really slow.  Annie Lennox actually does a rendition that is amazing.

I looked at this piece and realize that if you put some heavy guitars behind it and sped it up just a bit, it sounds very, very metal. Of course, I love Paganini and his wonderful Caprice Number 24, so I looked for a way to tie that in. Scott, Steve and I collaborated on tying those two pieces together and I think it came out great. It's short and to the point and it gave me a chance to lay some good guitar parts down.

DR:  "Flight of the Snow Angels" is song that Guitar World seized upon and highlighted when the album came out and I find makes a superb opener to your shows with the elements of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" incorporated in.

FG:  That song was Scott's idea, as well as bringing that "Ode to Joy" bit in there. There is a lot of bouncing, back and forth between the guitar and keyboard parts. This one winds up being a good guitar/keyboard duel, if you will, especially with the climbing arpeggios towards the end. Even though it is an instrumental original, it sounds Christmas. When it first starts with Scott's keyboard playing, it just brings to mind some of those old Christmas kids' specials that we used to watch on TV.

DR:  "The Spirit of Christmas" is one of the more melodic, poppier Styx-like songs that features a lot of keyboards out front and of course Guy's vocals.  Though you get your guitar licks in, it is not one of the heavier pieces that you are used to.  Do you enjoy a song like this where your metal style isn't called for?

FG:  I do! It is such a well-written pop song and so much fun to play. Initially we weren’t discussing having a guitar solo in it. Scott was working with such a cool keyboard sound - that reminds me of the sound that was used in the old Rockford Files TV theme. I loved that sound in the context of this song so much that I wanted him to have that solo instead of a guitar riff. Eventually we decided on both guitar and keys during the solo. Scott takes the first solo on his keys and then we play together for the next one in harmony. Then the solo gets handed over to the guitar. I initially had some shredding ideas that ultimately did not fit the song, so I borrowed a musical idea from .38 Special. If you listen to the end of the solo just before it goes back to the chorus, you will hear me holding a note out and that is completely borrowed from .38 Special. I don't even know of a particular .38 Special song that I am thinking of there, but it is more their feel instead of an Yngwie Malmsteen feel.

DR:  Earlier you mentioned some of your overplaying issues with Exxplorer and here is an example where you pulled back from that and certainly gave a more restrained, complimentary solo.

FG:  Yeah. and ultimately shredding guitar would not have fit that song and I think what we all came up with there worked out really well. Sometimes you can challenge the listener too much by saying, "Watch how many notes I can play!" You know what? I can play three and that's all it took because four would have been too many.

DR:  You filmed a music video for that one, directed by Tommy Jones.  Jones regularly works with Testament, Slayer, Lamb of God and so many others with their video work.  Did you enjoy working with Jones?

FG:  I had a blast making that video.  Tommy Jones is a complete pro and his staff was fantastic. It was 100 degrees out the day we filmed that and probably 108 on the stage with the lights and everything. [Laughs]

DR:  A couple years back, the band got noticed by and subsequently signed with Jon Zazula (Jonny Z) for management. Zazula has such a rich history in the music business, with discovering and signing Metallica and so many other legendary bands.   Tell me about that experience thus far. Does it change things for the band working with someone that legendary in the music world?

FG:  Yeah, it was a little bit of a full circle for me - I used to ride my bike to his record store! But no one is more respected in the business than Jonny. It is actually he, Chuck Billy of Testament and Maria Ferrero from Adrenaline PR that make up “Breaking Bands”, and they are a great management company to work with. They have done a great job in increasing our footprint and our name recognition. We used to be primarily a Northeast US band. We haven't gone completely national yet but with their help and guidance, we are establishing ourselves from Florida to the Midwest.

Being involved with them and getting our name out there certainly has helped forge the sponsorship that I have with ESP Guitars.  I recently spent some time with Chris Cannella of ESP at the NAMM conference and he has treated me fantastic. I really have to thank him and all of ESP for the amazing level of support.  Chris actually told me that he is honored to have me on their roster and I am having a blast playing their incredible guitars.  And beginning with this year's tour, Blackstar Amps is now sponsoring me as well.

DR:  How many guitars do you bring on tour?

FG:  This year I will have five with me.  Fortunately, we do not have a lot of alternate tuning stuff, but certain guitars have their own very distinct sound. Depending on the mood and sometimes even the room that we are playing in will dictate which one I use.  Sometimes I might want one with a meatier sound and sometimes I go for a smoother sound.

I've got two guitars with EMG pick-ups, one has Duncans and one has DiMarzios. I also have an older ESP that I have had for 25 years that has Seymour Duncan super distortions in it so if I want a good, solid flat-out metal sound, I will grab that one.  I usually switch between two or three a night and then have a couple for back-ups.

I will be bringing out a brand new ESP USA model that they just built for me.  It's got a quilted maple top - it is just beautiful.

DR:  This will be your sixth year touring with the Wizards.  Any favorite venue or crowd over the years?

FG:  I love the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, NJ because it's a hometown gig for me and it is always exciting to play there.  As for crowds? I have to mention the audience we had in Maine a couple years ago.  They were insane!  They were so excited and loud - it was bedlam.  After such a long drive up there - and that time the band was still helping with setting up the lights and stage - we were exhausted.  That audience at the State Theater in Maine definitely fueled us that night.

DR:  Any fun memory stand out from your concert experiences so far?

FG:  Oh yeah! A few years back,  as I was playing I spotted a woman in the second row talking on her cell phone. I kneeled down at the edge of the stage and pointed to her, while I am still playing with my left hand. The woman's friend took her phone away and handed it to me and though I couldn't hear the person on the other end, I said to them, "Do you realize that your friend is at a concert and trying to enjoy herself?" [Laughs] That was pretty funny.  The audience got a kick out of it because they all saw what was going on. And luckily the woman was great about it and we all had a big laugh in the signing line afterwards.

DR:  How far in advance do you start getting in the Christmas spirit and working on Wizards music.

FG:  All year round.  It never goes away completely for us.  Once the tour ends, we usually take January off and then we wind up back together working on new song ideas, set list changes, and ideas for the next tour.

DR:  As the theaters and venues continue to fill and your audience has grown so much, do you feel the band has solidified its own identity?

(L-R) Greg Smith, Fred Gorhau, TW Durfy  -  The Wizards of Winter 2015
Photo Courtesy Linda Suz

FG:  There will always be that comparison with TSO because we started out playing their music and that's fine. We are thrilled that we now have our own identity and such a nice, growing base of fans that like what we do and enjoy or music and concerts.  Unfortunately, there are some TSO fans that are dead set against any other band other than TSO doing Christmas music. The only thing I would ask them would be "If you liked the Rolling Stones, did you automatically dislike Aerosmith and Guns 'N Roses?"

DR:  Any changes or something new for the 2016 tour?

 We are once again performing a complete Christmas set of our original music and we will have a couple TSO songs thrown in.  

DR:  In 2015, the bass duties were split between Steve Ratchen and Ted Nugent's bassist Greg Smith.  What can we expect this year?

FG:  Greg is now our full time bass player and will be playing at all but one show, which Steve will be playing.  Greg is such a consummate pro; he is solid and always has the material down. He has played with so many - Ted Nugent, Rainbow, Alice Cooper and so many others - we are thrilled that he wanted to be part of our band.

DR:  The band is supporting high school marching bands this year?

FG:  Yeah, we never got away from the charity aspect and we always want to keep giving back.  With a lot of schools, they don't always have the money in their budget for instruments and uniforms so we are doing some benefit concerts at some schools to help them raise money to keep their music programs going.

DR:  Let's talk about what else you are doing outside of the Wizards world. Tell me about Dark Sky Choir.

FG:  Dark Sky Choir is a band I co-founded whose original plan was to play out and perform some classic old school metal covers; we try and focus more on deeper cuts and some classics.  The response from the fans has been overwhelming.  We have even started writing our original stuff and we'll see where things go.  We will continue booking gigs and playing out but we may also be in studio in 2017 if everything falls right.

What has also been great and a bit humbling has been the great response from the metal community.  Derek Tailer of Overkill joined us at one show and we did an Overkill song with him and Chris Caffery joined us at another show and we performed Savatage's "Sirens" with him.

DR:  You also have been playing guitar for Corey Glover of Living Colour.  How did you get involved with him and his band?

FG:  I met Corey at NAMM and we hit it off pretty well.  He is pretty busy with Living Colour right now - they just kicked off a European tour with Alter Bridge.  But when he does his solo stuff, I get the call. His solo concerts are a blast. Typically we will do "Cult of Personality", "Middle Man", a bunch of songs from his solo repertoire and usually throw in a couple covers. He is such an incredible singer.

DR:  What guitarists on today's music scene do you admire?

FG:  I love Alex Skolnick.  I also love Michael Romeo - I grew up with him actually. I have to throw in Jeff Loomis, Steve Vai and of course Yngwie.

DR:  What is one thing about Fred Gorhau that most people wouldn't know?

FG:  I'm the class clown. I am the guy who the teacher always told, "Sit down and shut up!.  [Laughs]

DR:  Thanks for taking the time today, Fred!

FG:  No problem.  Happy to do it!

L-R: Joe Stabile, Hollywood How, Fred Gorhau (Dark Sky Choir)
Stone Pony, Asbury Park, NJ
Photo Courtesy Diana L. Zavaleta

For More Information:

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The Wizards of Winter:

Dark Sky Choir:

Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Conversation with Bill Hudson

Hailing from Brazil, guitarist Bill Hudson has been a steady fixture on the metal scene for the last decade. Since 2006, Hudson has been recording and touring with numerous bands in the Melodic and Power Metal genres and has appeared on some of the biggest concert stages, including Wacken Open Air and ProgPower USA. I recently caught up with Bill to discuss his musical journey: from taking lessons from Angra/Megadeth guitarist Kiko Loureiro to becoming an in-demand musician-for-hire to his recent involvement with Circle II Circle, Jon Oliva and Trans-Siberian Orchestra to his forthcoming solo album. We also discuss his "Rock Star"-like story that culminated with Hudson playing guitar for his boyhood musical heroes, Savatage.

Dan Roth:  Where did your inspiration come from to play guitar in the first place?

Bill Hudson:  When I was about eight or nine years old, I saw the music video for "November Rain" by Guns 'N Roses. Watching Slash soloing outside of that church was about the coolest thing I had ever seen. And it still is the coolest thing.   I didn't come from a family of musicians.  It all really started from seeing that video. Up to that point, I don't know that I cared that much about music really. That is really my "Point Zero" in my involvement with music.

DR:   I had read in an interview with Brazilian guitarist Kiko Loureiro (of Angra/Megadeth) that he started with an acoustic with nylon string classical, that's more like the Brazilian tradition. Did you start with one of those as well?

BH:  I did. In Brazil, it's kind of a tradition that everyone has a nylon sting acoustic in their homes. I did start out with one, trying to learn and play on my own. Once I got to taking lessons though, those were on an electric guitar.  I even wound up taking lessons from Kiko back when I was starting!

DR:  With Brazil being so well known for classical and bossa nova guitarists, did you always know that you wanted to go in a metal direction?

BH:  No, at first I just wanted to be Slash. My relationship with music back then was very egotistical. It was more of "I want to be a guitar player" than "I want to play music".  Now, over time, I started falling in love with music itself.  I recently read that whatever kind of music that you were listening to at 13-14 years old is what stays with you forever.  Between the ages of ten and 13 or so, I really got into heavy metal. I discovered Iron Maiden - that was a game changer. That is the music that moves me and really enjoy listening to.

In Brazil, we had the band that you just mentioned - Angra.  They really opened up the market in my country for Power Metal in the early to mid-90s. That’s how I got into bands like Helloween, Stratovarius, Blind Guardian, Gamma Ray, Savatage - that is how I got into Savatage, really! It was all somehow lumped into a style we called “melodic metal” back then. I know now Savatage doesn’t fit that genre, but back then I kinda of got into all this bands at the same time. Because of that, the mid-90s were ridiculously good for any band in that genre in Brazil. Savatage came there TWICE in 1998, the second time to play Monsters of Rock in 1998. I was in the audience, at age 15!

Up until that point, Sepultura had broken big out of Brazil.  They are great and they are national heroes and celebrities.  But when Angra came along, it was like "here's the other side of metal - the kind that your mom can listen to".  [Laughs]

I was getting into all of these bands at the same time that I was learning guitar.  This is how I really got into Savatage. There is a video of them performing "GutterBallet" from the Sao Paulo Monsters of Rock concert and you can actually see me in the crowd!

I also saw Gamma Ray when I was 14, Stratovarius and Halloween too. It's funny, because in America those bands are still not popular. That whole genre never caught on big over here, but in the '90s in Brazil?  Those bands were living off of playing there for us.  This time is when I really got into metal. I was always having these game-changing moments around that time.  I saw Yngwie Malmsteen, when he came to Brazil in 1996 - I was like "Holy Shit!  That is what I want to be now! That guy is fucking wild!”. I also saw Satriani and Steve Vai and started getting into the whole instrumental thing then. Jason Becker, Paul Gilbert, Greg Howe, Vinnie Moore…Cacophony…I really got into that for a while! I still play some of those songs sometimes just to keep the chops up! I recently had to learn a bunch of Greg Howe’s parts for Vitalij Kuprij’s show! 

DR:  With Angra becoming so huge in this power metal scene there, how did you wind up taking lessons from Kiko Loureiro?

BH:  Before Angra got big, Kiko was already a well known guitar teacher in my home town. He was actually my second guitar teacher.  When I first started taking lessons - my first lesson - was October 17, 1993, which of course is the day that Criss Oliva died. At that point, I had no idea who Savatage and Criss Oliva were - I didn't find out about them until 1997 or so, when Wake of Magellan came out.

Anyway, my first teacher had been a student of Kiko’s. He was an acoustic player and was trying to teach me music properly.  All I wanted to do at that point was shred, so in my mind, I felt that getting taught by Kiko directly would be different - which it really wasn’t, I had to learn the basics. So since I wasn't connecting with my first teacher, I went right to Kiko.  Angra had just released their first album, Angels Cry (STILL my favorite album by them) and they weren't real huge yet.

DR:  I have read that you attended a music college in Brazil, in pursuit of a classical composition degree.

BH:  Yes, I did. I was right out of high school and at that time I was interested in becoming a conductor. I was two years into this six-year program and realized that I did not like it at all, so I dropped out.  From there I moved to the States and attended the Musicians Institute.

DR:  That was in Hollywood?

 Yeah, Their approach was the complete opposite from what I had just come from in Brazil. For example, in Brazil, you take piano lessons and you lose points if you don't sit the right way. With M.I., they had classes like "Led Zeppelin Bass Lines" or “Let’s write a song in the style of No Doubt".  At the time, this approach also didn't work very well for me. I had a weird mentality at the time, and I didn't think I was into the courses they were offering.  Alas, it was a good time!

DR:  I'd like to skip ahead a little bit and talk about the band that got you into the United States - the power metal band out of Omaha, Nebraska - Cellador.  How did an aspiring guitar player from Brazil wind up in a band based in Omaha?

BH:  As we talked about earlier, Brazil was this huge market for power metal.  I wanted to be a guitarist in one of these bands that I was listening to: Helloween, Gamma Ray, Savatage. But my country doesn’t really nurture its own talent, so to speak. You can be Sepultura and Angra and receive respect, but any other Brazilian band does not get any credit. Even Krisiun, as huge as they are worlding, I feel that they don’t get as much credit in Brazil.  So, I knew in my head that I wanted to get out of Brazil and be in an American or European band.

I had just come back from studying at M.I. and I was browsing through MySpace and found this band Cellador from America. They were the exact kind of Power Metal I was looking to play, and they were looking for a guitarist!  I started reading about them and found out that they had just signed to Metal Blade Records! I sent them an email and told them that I would like to try out for their band - at this point, I didn't mention that I am sitting at home in Brazil [Laughs]. They wrote back that they had found someone.  I wrote back to them and told them that unless they had Steve Vai in their band, I was a better choice. [Laughs] Chris Petersen, the leader of the band, sent me some songs with drum tracks and asked me to send it back with my playing on them.  I spent the next ten hours learning those songs.  

Once they heard me play, they wrote back and asked me to come for an audition.  At this point now I explained to them that I didn't live in Nebraska [Laughs].  I wound up selling all of my stuff and booked a flight to Nebraska, booked a rental car and a hotel room.  Never told them I flew from Brazil. I showed up at the audition and got the gig. When they offered me the job, I finally explained that I live in Brazil and will move to Nebraska for this but would need their help. The band freaked out for a minute, but after a week or so, I had the job.  I wanted to live in America really bad, and that was the perfect opportunity.

The band got a lot of push from the label. We toured with Trivium, Bullet for My Valentine, and All That Remains.  We went to Japan and played with Heaven & Hell, Blind Guardian, Marilyn Manson and a bunch of other bands at the LoudPark Festival in 2007. We did a lot of big time things, but ultimately the band just wasn't ready. Everyone in the band, including me, were all alcoholics.  We spent all of the tour support money on booze. We were just a bunch of stupid kids at the time. But we had so many opportunities - being signed to Metal Blade, touring with big time bands, played the ProgPower Festival, we even had a music video that was featured on Headbanger's Ball, etc.

DR:  Looking back, that is a pretty nice introduction for your first band - eleven weeks on MTV, touring with these musical heavyweights, signed to a major metal label.

BH:  You have to understand, that people in Brazil do not believe that what I am doing is possible.  Kiko, being now in Megadeth, is the only other Brazilian musician making a name for himself in the U.S. and he already had a name in Brazil. When I would tell others about my hopes to make it, they would tell me things like "Are you going to be delivering pizza in America?" because no one thinks that we can make it.

What you just said is what I would tell people: I am touring the world with a band signed to Metal Blade, I was in rotation on MTV, I was - at that time - endorsed by Ibanez Guitars.  I used to buy Ibanez Guitars and now I was doing a signing session for them in Japan, all within one year of being in America!

DR:  Let's talk about your name for a moment.  You have been pretty open about "Bill Hudson" not being your given name.

BH:  Well, first off, I don't like the sound of my real name, so I never use it. Secondly, no one ever calls me by my real name.  Not my parents, not my siblings, not my friends - nobody. I've always been "Bill". Even when I was little and learning to speak, I used to say "bill" all the time, but in Brazil it would be spelled "Biu".  I think the first time I saw it spelled "Bill" was from a note that my Dad had left me, telling me where he was and he wrote it that way.  So I have been "Bill" since I was a little kid.

My last name is very much a stereotypical, common Latin name which I have no problem with, but I used to hear from so many in Brazil that it will be tough to make it once people hear my real name.  After hearing that so much, I decided to come up with a new last name. For that, I looked at my original guitar hero, the one who inspired me to do this to begin with, Slash.  Slash's real name is Saul Hudson, so I just started using his last name. [Laughs]

DR:  Did you actually move to and settle in Omaha once you got the gig with Cellador?

BH:  Yes!  I even married a woman from Omaha who is still my wife! I lived there for three years.

DR:  It had to be somewhat full circle in 2015 when you were hired by Trans-Siberian Orchestra and returned to the Omaha area for their rehearsals.

BH:  It was crazy!  I got to spend time with my wife's family and got to see so many of my friends while I was out there again. I got to hang with my father in law and eat my wife’s grandma’s food! I totally plan on doing it again this upcoming rehearsal season.

DR:  I had read that, besides guitar, you also contributed vocal harmonies to the Cellador record?

BH:  I did.  I don't remember if I sang them on the record, but I did write them. Some keyboard parts too, but they got erased. I probably did not sing the vocal harmonies, though. They knew I had the experience from the college in Brazil with choirs and multiple vocal harmonies.  I definitely did provide the arrangements and conducted the singer when doing the demos.

DR:  We do see occasional credits that list you contributing "Backing Vocals".  Are you an accomplished singer at all?

BH:  No, and that is the problem of my life. [Laughs]  I always say that if I could sing, my career would be much further along.  Starting with Cellador, every time things didn't work out with a band it was because of a problem I had with the singer. Except for Zak Stevens and Jon Oliva, I have had nothing but problems with singers in my career. Good thing it works with those guys! [Laughs]

DR:  In 2008, the stories came out that you had left Cellador.

BH:  Well, I just told you about the problems that I have with singers.  We had so much going for us, but we took it all for granted.  The label wanted demos for the next album, so I had written twelve songs and sent them in without vocals because I couldn't get the singer to sing on them. The guy just wouldn’t show up to record!  The label had paid for studio time for us to complete the demos and the singer didn't show up. It was about then that I just left the band.

DR:  Did you have anything else lined up at that point?

BH:  No, but I started talking to people and making myself available. That's really where I have started my current career as a "hired gun" of sorts.

DR: I also wanted to ask about your contribution to the Stevie Wonder tribute album – "Superstition". How did this come about?

BH:  That was right after I quit Cellador and I was trying to work with that singer, Carlos Zema. We did that track online - we each recorded our parts at our homes and sent them in and it turned out cool. My friend Vernon Neilly was putting together this tribute to Stevie Wonder, and I really had no experience playing that kind of music. When he told me who all was going to be on it, I knew I couldn't compete with any of them doing something funky or fusion. Greg Howe, Kiko Loureiro…are you kidding me?! I knew that if I did a really heavy version of the song, at least I would stand out. That's really how it came about. Vernon gave me a few choices of songs to pick and "Superstition" was the one I knew the best.

DR:  In this new career as "guitarist for hire", you have played with a score of bands, more than we could chat about here. Power Quest, Vital Remains, Nightrage, Emphatic. Do you enjoy this role of playing guitar for a group but it's not really your band?

BH:  I don't know if I enjoy it as much as I think this is what works for me. I've never been able to take a band of my own from the ground up because I have always had problems with the singer. I see myself putting in all of this work and then watching it crumble.  As a hired gun, I know that I will be able to do what I do best - play guitar.

Another very big part of it is the part that musicians don't like to talk about - the money thing. Once you are in a band, that is an investment. I would like to start my own band again someday, once I find the right singer. I haven't met that star singer of the future yet. I know many singers that are amazing - Zak Stevens, Russell Allen, Jeff Scott Soto.  But those guys are established and are freaking legend!!. I have not yet gotten to that status, or found that singer that I can invest in and make a totally new thing, someone that no one’s heard of it. But as a hired gun,  I just try to provide the best service possible for the people that hire me.

Quite honestly, it can be hard. I worked for a band last year for several months that toured a lot, didn't pay a lot, but they did pay enough to keep me working. And this was a band that I really, really didn't like to play with [Laughs]. I had to be thinking, "I could be sitting at home right now and not have this money coming in" while I was playing to get me through the concerts. But you also wind up in situations where you are headlining Wacken Open Air Festival as part of your favorite band, as I did with Savatage and TSO!  It's a way to stay grounded, because at the end of the day, it is a job.

DR:  Almost all of the bands you have played in have more than one guitar player. Do you enjoy that sort of lineup, playing with another guitarist?

BH:  Honestly, I don't get to choose. I am hired to fill a role and if there is another guitarist in the band, so be it.  There are actually very few guitar players that I have clicked with while playing.  I am not competitive at all and it makes no difference to me. You may remember that gig that I did with Vitalij Kuprij this past Spring. I was the only guitar player in his band and that was a really, really hard gig. That may have been the hardest gig I have ever played; I wish there was another guitarist at that one! [Laughs]  But then again, if there was another guitarist and he sucked, he would have made us both look like shit, which often happens too [Laughs]

DR:  Let's talk about the first time you played with Zak Stevens and Circle II Circle. The Fall of 2008 and they had just lost guitarist Evan Christopher and had a tour coming up with Jon Oliva's Pain.

BH:  This point in my life is where I feel like my life started being like the Rock Star movie. I had played the Prog Power Festival in Atalanta with Cellador in 2007 and I met Zak Stevens at that festival. Zak was backstage for an All-Star jam and I went up to him like a fan and introduced myself. It was great meeting one of my heroes! I asked him for a photo as a fan. I still have that photo [Laughs] And then we hung out a few times that weekend and really bonded. I gave him my phone number and told him to call me if he ever needed a guitarist. He eventually called me and told me that they had a tour booked with Jon Oliva and asked me to tour. I was psyched - this was the first time that Zak and Jon had shared the stage together in a really long time.
Bill Hudson and Zak Stevens meeting for the first time
October 2007
Photo courtesy Kristy Katz

I was still pretty inexperienced and young and had a serious drinking problem.  It was on that tour that I first met Jon.  That was such a cool tour. Now, today, this is my reality.  But at that time, as a huge Savatage fan, to be playing on stage while Jon and Zak sang "Chance" every night?  That was pretty mind blowing. Like I mentioned before, I saw Savatage in 1998 and I also saw them in 2002 with Damond Jiniya singing, so this was a dream come true to be touring with these guys.

You know, when I was in high school and Al Pitrelli quit Savatage, I had my girlfriend who kind of played my “PR person”  [Laughs] - write a letter to the Savatage fan club and tell them that I was interested in playing guitar for them.  A lady even wrote back and told me to send in some material.  The problem was that I was only 16 or 17 at the time and had no material. I was lucky they didn’t call me for an audition, or I would’ve blown it [Laughs]!

DR:  This was your first stint with the band.  Did you leave for other opportunities?

BH:  Both the drummer (Tom Drennan) and I were let go from the band at the end of the 2009 tour.  Considering the drinking problems I had at that time, it's not hard to figure out why.  Zak re-hired me in 2012 after I got sober, and the funny thing is that between 2008 and 2011, my drinking had gotten progressively worse and I really did not have a career. I stopped drinking in January 2012 after a disastrous tour I did with Firewind and Nightrage where I went through a full week drinking binge after, just sitting at home.  Then six months later, Zak called me again for another shot with Circle II Circle.

DR:  You play on Circle II Circle's Seasons Will Fall album.  Tell me about that experience.

BH:  When Zak called me again to play with Circle II Circle, it was initially just talk of playing live at Wacken, which was another dream of mine. The band were doing an all-Savatage set of Wake of Magellan at Wacken! But after some discussion, Zak invited me to be part of the band once again.  The Seasons Will Fall album was basically done at this point, but they sent me some of the songs without vocals and without titles even and told me to play lead guitar on them.  My favorite solo - which also wound up being the favorite solo of Zak's mom! - is from "Epiphany".  I play the second solo on that song. the slower one. I usually am very meticulous in the studio - I do several takes in the studio and take the best parts. This one was recorded all in one take. Funny how those things happen, but I just played and this is what came out.

DR:  After the Seasons Will Fall, the band released the Live at Wacken 2012 album, which you of course are on. With the 2015 release of their latest studio album Reign of Darkness, you are listed as playing guitar on the album. Do you have a favorite solo from this album?

BH:  I am glad you asked, because I always wanted to put this on record.  I did not record anything on that album. My picture and name are in the credits and I did the tour but I have nothing to do with the Reign of Darkness album.  In 2014, I had another falling out with the guys and I was out of the band for a year.  That also happened to be the year that I was working with Jon Oliva's Pain. So, in that year that I was out of the band, they recorded Reign of Darkness with Christian Wentz and Marc Pattison working together on guitars.

As for the Live at Wacken 2012 album, I have never heard it. [Laughs]  I have signed countless copies of it while on tour in Europe and have seen the video on YouTube, but I have never listened to the album.

DR:  When Circle II Circle plays live, most of their setlist is made up of Savatage material.  I totally understand why - there is still such a demand for their music and Zak was their vocalist.  But, do you ever feel compromised as an artist that you don't get to present and play as much original Circle II Circle music in the live shows?

BH:  I don't, and I will tell you why.  First, I don't ever write any of the Circle II Circle music so it doesn't bother me. Secondly, as you pointed out, most of the fans who come to see Circle II Circle are Savatage fans. On this last tour, we made a point of playing a full Circle II Circle set and played Savatage only in the encores. That was the biggest mistake.  The way we got into the Savatage set was as I was ending my guitar solo, we would go into the riff for "Jesus Saves".  That opening riff got a better crowd reaction than anything we played for the entire hour leading up to that.

Those songs are classics. I don’t mind playing Savatage - ever. I love that music and have an incredibly deep connection with it.

DR:  Have you gone back to Brazil on tour as a member of Circle II Circle?

BH:  Yes sir!

DR:  Do you feel like a conquering hero returning to Brazil with this band and not delivering pizza?  [Laughs] 

BH:  [Laughs] No. It's a funny thing.  For example, we played two sold out shows in Sao Paulo. We had just completed that tour in Europe, playing to small to medium crowds. When we come to South America, every show was huge! The really odd experience was fans coming up to me and speaking English and I would respond in Portuguese. At every show, I would speak to the audience for a bit and I would speak in Portuguese, and then play the Brazilian National Anthem during my guitar solo. It was a lot of fan!

The Sao Paulo venue, Manifesto, I used to go there as a kid to see bands play. I still hang out there when I go back home, I know the owner, Silvano and all of the people that work there.  The security guy who once kicked me out because of being drunk was now my security guy!  [Laughs] It was pretty surreal. My family was in the VIP section and I needed his help to get to them and this guy who used to throw me out was now helping me.  Another thing that makes me feel accomplished is that I would see guys in the audience that used to go to Savatage concerts with me. If I wasn't on stage playing, I would probably be with them in the audience to see Zak.

So to answer your question, yes! It was very fulfilling to me!

DR:  You alluded to this a bit earlier - In 2014, you were announced as the new guitarist for Jon Oliva's Pain for their performance at the ProgPower festival. Did you get that gig through knowing Zak?  Or did Jon remember you from that 2008 tour?

BH:  I saw that Jerry Outlaw had left Jon's band and I sent his drummer, Chris Kinder, a message letting him know that I was interested in playing if Jon was going to tour at all. Chris asked me to send in videos of me playing a couple of the songs from Streets.  I decided to record videos of me playing all of the songs from that album.

DR:  Being such a Savatage fan, were you already familiar with that album?

BH:  I already knew most of the songs, yes. But, there were a few that I had never played, although I had listened to them obsessively as a kid. So I learned the whole album and sent in videos. Eventually it got to the point where Jon was happy with what he heard and we had to get ready for the ProgPower Festival. I flew in and stayed at Dr. Dan Fasciano’s - the keyboardist for this show. We rehearsed at Doc's place for six weeks to nail that Streets performance. And that was really the beginning of me working with Jon.

DR:  So about a year after that Jon Oliva performance, you are on the Wacken stage once again, this time with Savatage.  You mentioned how surreal it was to be playing with Circle II Circle in Brazil. This had to be a bit mind blowing.

BH:  Man, I don't even remember most of it. I remember everything around it - the flying, the hotel, the rehearsals, even the soundcheck. I spent a lot of time with Kyle Sabel during that time, he is one of my best friends and a huge part of the TSO family who recently passed away. He was Chris Caffery’s tech for 17 years and we had become really good friends years before I ever got involved in TSO. The Wacken rehearsals in Tampa really was the first time I did any “work” with Kyle, even if he was working the other side of the stage. 
Kyle Sabel and Bill Hudson
Wacken Open Air  - August 2015

I really don't remember playing the show, though! That was just ridiculous and surreal.  Here I am playing "Hall of the Mountain King" as a part of Savatage?! Hang on… how did that happen!?! So many incredibly talented guitarists have played Savatage music, but I was ON STAGE with them. I still sometimes watch the YouTube videos and try to fathom what happen. And I know most of the people on those stages feel the exact same way.

DR:  You certainly have had a long history with the band both as a fan and now as musician.  Was it sort of a natural progression that you wound up touring with TSO in 2015?

BH:  You know, TSO is actually the second concert that I ever saw in the U.S.  I saw them back in 2005 and remember thinking even back then how cool of a gig that would be to get.  I remember even when I worked with Zak for the first time back in 2008, asking him for help to get me into TSO.  With Jon, I didn't really have to ask. The entire time I am working with Jon and rehearsing for ProgPower, this is when Joel Hoekstra got into Whitesnake.  I was working with Oliva as it happened.  He started bring it up casually, telling me that there might be some opportunities for me. When they realized that Joel couldn't do the Wacken show, they invited me to do it!

DR:  Did that directly lead to the TSO Winter Tour gig?  Did you still have to go through the TSO audition process with Paul O'Neil?

BH:  I played for Paul before Wacken, actually. I think that landed me the Wacken gig, but the way I see it, Wacken was my real audition for TSO.

DR:  Do you recall what you played for Paul?

BH:  I played "Believe", "Sparks", and a bunch of random Savatage and TSO riffs.  I also did "A Last Illusion" with just me on guitar and Al Pitrelli on piano - THAT was fucking awesome. When I went to the studio, I spent more time playing with Al than I did playing for Paul. Al spent time showing me the ins and outs of the songs as well as his style too.  Sometimes I feel that I am really good at emulating other player's styles and I was alot more proficient at emulating Criss Oliva's style than Al’s, and I’ve learned so much just watching the way he plays even ONE note. He’s so ridiculously amazing! I spent a lot of time just jamming with Al and I feel like that the time that I spent with him was better for me than any guitar lesson that I had before.

Al couldn't be more of a different player than I was at that point.  He shared with me a lot of the things that he does that make up his style. He would show me things that would sound incredible when he played them but sounded like shit when I tried!  [Laughs]  I got to spend time with him and ask him what he was doing that made these parts sound different. So many guitarists will ask a mentor, "How do I play more notes?  How do I play this scale? How do I play this lick?"  Al is not about that at all.  Al's playing is about being Al and I got to spend some valuable time playing with and learning from him. I hope I can do this again this year… he should start charging me for guitar lessons [Laughs]!

Cris Lepurage and Bill Hudson, TSO tour 2015
DR:  Touring as part of a Trans-Siberian Orchestra Show is a lot different from gigs that you have had previously.  I don't just mean in terms of power metal vs. the TSO brand of metal but more so the staging and blocking.

BH:  I don't think I "got" the stage thing until about a week or so into the tour. It is second nature to everyone else on stage who has been there for a while.  "Should I stand here?  Should I play here?"  I felt like I was annoying everyone.  You also have to remember that by the time that we got to the point of working out the stage, we have spent weeks getting the music down.  So now, that I can play all of the music, I have to know where I am going to stand and where I will be going on stage.  It is less choreographed than people think. I used to think that the stage direction and moves were very exact.  Then I realized that it is more like this:  They give you an idea and you run with that do what you want.  If they don't like it, they'll let you know.  They will pull you aside and say "Hey that one thing that you did there didn't work, lets try something else."

It's definitely a learning curve to get comfortable. There was one part during "The Mountain" that I was standing in front of a laser and it burned me. It takes a while with so much going on - not just other musicians but the effects too.  At the end of "O Holy Night", that last note is supposed to ring. It is very hard to find the spot on stage where it actually rings.  Every night, I would be out standing by myself in the center of the stage trying to get that note to ring.  It was so nerve wracking because you never know if it's going to work or not.  Finally I got my tech Cris Lepurage (dude, I love you!)
 and we would try it out in soundcheck at each show, find the spot and mark it with an 'x' on the stage.  That didn't happen until one or two weeks into the tour. [Laughs]

At one point during rehearsals, I wasn't used to where the pyro was coming out yet and I was standing right where the fire was going to come out during a song we were doing. Then I hear some yelling "Get the fuck off of there!" [Laughs]  and seconds later pyro came shooting through where I was just standing.  That was close, but I also think they have some safeties built in so it gets killed if someone is standing there.

DR:  Was this the first time that you played to a click track?

BH:  No, I've been doing that for a long time.  With Power Metal bands, their music has to be precise and is normally played to a click so I was used to that. 

DR:  Three guitarists have had that role on TSO East before you: Alex Skolnick, Tristan Avakian, and Joel Hoekstra. Were you given board tapes of any of them to listen to to get an idea of how they wanted things played?

BH:  I did some research on YouTube just on my own and watched a lot of Alex Skolnick. Joel is actually a good friend of mine; we go back a long ways. I probably have known Joel for longer than I’ve known most of the people in TSO. Joel is always someone that I will look up to because I feel like he took similar career path to the one I took. I am big into the two-hand tapping thing and I don't know anyone that does that better than he does. I didn't do much of the tapping with TSO because unless you can do it as equally good or better, there is no point. And I have been a fan of Alex since I was a kid with his work in Testament. I see Skolnick and Pitrelli as separate from us. Those two are just on a different level.

I watched a lot of videos for where they were on stage and also watched recent videos with Joel to see how he played certain parts.

DR:  Were you given some latitude to make some of these songs and solos your own?

BH:  To a point. You have to remember that I am playing these guitar parts that were originally played by Al - a guitar player that I love and I wouldn't want to change alot from what he did with them in the first place. That’s how I like to listen to those songs! A good example is "Christmas Jam". Joel's version is different from Al's version and I wanted it to kind of have my own style. I based mainly on Al’s performance, but tried to make it sound like me. I had all the room to play, until they said they wanted something different.

DR:  Alex Skolnick in particular was known for adding his own special flair on "O Holy Night", where he would jam for a bit on that last note.

BH:  That was something I wanted to do but they had a different vision for the ending.

DR:  Joel of course was known for his finger apping in songs like "Faith Noel" and "Christmas Canon".

BH:  The only tapping that I did in the entire show was on "Christmas Canon" and that was because it was recorded that way.  It's a simple one-finger thing.

DR:  Was there any one song that you were trying to make your own?

BH:  Well, with "Christmas Jam", I feel that its a very "Al" song and I was trying it to play it more like Al than how anyone else has played it.  I guess I was trying to play it with Al's notes but in my own way, if that makes any sense.

DR:  How much did you rehearse with Caffery to get comfortable trading parts with him? How was it worked out which songs you would be playing lead on and which Caffery was?

BH:  I just respected what was done before.  I learned most of the songs off of watching YouTube videos and showed up at rehearsals knowing the parts that Alex and Joel were playing. Now, there were a few parts that I ended up taking on lead that I wasn't expecting, like on "Prometheus."

DR:   You are endorsed by ESP Guitars.  Did you play ESP models on the TSO tour?

BH: Oh yeah. I have the best relationship in the world with those guys. The vice president, Jeff Moore is a very close friend of mine and my brother from another mother Chris Cannella is the best Artist Relations in the business today. They get me WHATEVER I NEED WHENEVER I NEED, no questions asked, ever. I LOVE them to death! I’ve been on the cover of the catalog twice and at this past NAMM, there was a huge banner of me as you went into their booth. I love their guitars! I had four ESPs that I used on that tour. I had the white one which is the M-1000. I asked Chris Cannella for a guitar that looked like Criss Oliva’s for the “Streets” show and he picked me that one. It’s amazing! I also had the blue ST-1 model, which is kind of a slicker stratocaster, kind of! And I had two black Eclipses - one that is an LTD Elite with a hipshot (thanks Kyle!) which is probably my favorite and the other is a German ESP with the 4 knobs. 

DR:  How do you decide which one you use on each song?  Are they tuned differently?

BH:  Some songs require a different tuning and I do change guitars for that.  For others, I just like the sound of the guitar better in a particular song.

DR:  You play the first half of that show wearing that tuxedo jacket. As someone who is well known for always going sleeveless or shirtless when playing, was this tough? Happy to shed it in the second half?

BH: [Laughs] Yeah, I guess. At first, I wasn't sure if I was going to take the jacket off because Chris kept his, I didn’t know what to do. But I have lots of tattoos that I love showing them off [Laughs] so I decided to do it. It is more comfortable, that's for sure. But I do love that tuxedo jacket look. In some places like the Air Canada Center in Toronto they’re actually a necessity [Laughs].

DR:  One moment that I thought was very cool in last year's Show - and it is almost a photo-op moment - is during "Christmas Dreams" where Zak poses between you and Chris while you are playing that solo.

BH: Think how I feel at that moment. I grew up watching those two play. I still have a Jackson Randy Rhoads Guitar that my parents bought me when I was 15 because of Criss! That's how big an influence those two people were on me. Then I’m looking at these shots and I go “really?! is that me?

DR:  And then you got to play with Zak in Circle II Circle, Jon in his band, and then finally with Savatage on the Wacken stage.  It's almost like your own Steel Dragon story.

BH:  It really is. I tell everyone now that literally anything is possible. Here I am playing and making music with my idols. There is nothing that I wanted to happen in my life that hasn't happened.

DR:  Were there any songs from that tour that really stood out to you – any one or two that you especially enjoyed playing?

BH:  My favorite song from that tour was "Madness of Men".  I also really loved playing "The Lost Christmas Eve" where I am also playing the 12 string acoustic.  It is a lot harder to do than it looks because you are playing both guitars (electric and acoustic). When you are playing the acoustic, it's just you. You have to be very precise and very exact. To go from that to the energy of the electric and back to the acoustic was very cool.  I would love to play that again.

DR:  We didn't see you go up in the cherry picker lifts.

BH:  David Z actually offered his spot to me in rehearsals.  He told me, "Since it's your first year, if you want to go on the lifts I will give it up.".  I tried it out but it really freaked me out. Roddy took a video of it!  I play the lead part on "12/24" and there was no way that I could be playing that lead while up on those lifts.  [Laughs]
Bill performing with TSO
Fort Wayne, IN  12/3/15
Photo Courtesy of Shane LaRene

DR:  Have you done meet and greets with other bands and their fans before?

BH:  I have done signing lines before, but never anything like the TSO signing line.  My autograph used to be somewhat complex but I had to make it simpler as the shows were going by.  I still try and keep the guitar drawing in there, but sometimes I would hold up the line as I signed my name. [Laughs]

DR:  I wanted to ask about the fan experience with TSO. Probably more so than any of your previous bands, there is a particularly ravenous fan base, with some fans getting very attached to certain performers. There certainly was a vocal contingent of fans that were unhappy that Joel wasn’t there. At the same time, you certainly won over a lot of fans to where there are a very vocal group of Bill supporters. Ever experience something like this? Did you pick up on any of those positive or negative vibes either at the shows or on social media?

BH: It is weird in a way.  That is the unsettling thing about TSO, in my opinion.  It is a rock band and it is a multi-million-dollar tour but we're not celebrities. But, to some people we might as well be. It's not like I go out on the street and people stop me because I played in TSO.  It seems like most fans are attached to the TSO name and brand and they know who we are.  It is crazy how certain fans can get attached because it doesn't happen all of the time and I just don't understand.

As for the Joel fans, that whole competition that some fans created online was weird to me. Remember, Joel and I have been friends for many years, but some of the fans really took sides and I didn't get it.  I even got some hate mail at the beginning, from people that I now see on my FanClub page, so I’m glad at least I’ve been able to convert some fans. But there is not competition between Joel and I and the “Bill supporter” and “Joel supporter” thing really doesn’t make a lot of sense… ask Joel and I guarantee you he’ll say the same. 

DR:  Between you and Joel, both of you guys recently announced that Joel is returning to the TSO East Cast for the 2016 tour and that you are still part of the TSO organization but will be working with them at rehearsals and then in the studio for now.  Can you expand on that a bit?  Any idea what your role will be at rehearsals and what you will be doing in the studio?  Are you excited for this new chapter?

BH:  Well I can’t say much about that at the moment, mainly because I don’t know, [Laughs]! I know I will be a sort of back up guitarist, so I have the set list and am already working on the songs, making sure I learn all parts. At the same time, Jon Oliva and myself will be going over stuff for the recording projects I will be doing once the band goes out on tour. Jon and I will be in Florida at the studio during that time.
Bill performing with TSO
Columbus, OH  12/26/15
Photo Courtesy of Gloria Moore Suiter

DR:  You certainly seem to spend an enormous amount of time on the road. Will you miss the road with TSO?

BH:  I’m already having withdraws, seriously! I haven’t done a whole lot of touring this year, except for the May-June thing with Circle II Circle in Europe. But I am doing a lot of writing for different things and I’ve spent also some time with family in Brazil both here and there, so I’ve been trying to occupy my time [Laughs]!

DR:  Can you tell me about the solo album that you have been working on?

BH:  I have been working on it off and on and in different places with various people.  The latest tracks that I have been working on have been in a town in Sweden called Gävle with a producer named Per Nilsson from the band Scar Symmetry.  Per is one of the best modern guitar players in the world.  He and I have written two songs so far. I also have several other songs that are halfway done.

The thing is, I have this idea to release an instrumental solo album.  The more I work on it, I realize that I write better vocal songs. At this point, what I have are a bunch of good vocal songs and I plan to release them as singles. I always thought that it was really hard for guitar players to come out as solo artists, but I see it happening more frequently.

The album will have different guests on it with vocals and is pretty heavy - lots of lower tuning, 7-string guitar stuff. I am finally happy with what I have together so far; I have been working hard and been pretty unhappy with what I was writing. [Laughs]

DR:  You did that one solo track a few years back to demonstrate a guitar for ESP, "E.G.O."

BH:  It's funny because I don't really like that song anymore. I like the idea of what it could be. I don't think it's quite as good as the stuff I am doing now.  Now that you brought it up though, I might go ahead and write a new song based on "E.G.O." - just from what I am saying in this interview.

DR:  I look forward to that!  Any timeline on when the album will be ready?

BH:  Soon, I hope. 

DR:  All of this talk about playing guitar and writing songs, we haven't touched on your acting career. You were recently in an episode of Castle (ABC TV).

BH:  That was funny. I met this actress while I was in L.A. and her agent happened to be looking for someone that spoke Portuguese for another project entirely. I talked with the agent and she told me about the job, which I ultimately did not get. But she also thought I was perfect for this role on Castle. I got hired for that pretty quickly and I had never even heard of Castle. But it was great, they took me out to teach me how to shoot a gun, had my own dressing room. It was very cool.

DR:  Might we be seeing you in anything else?

BH:  The agent who got me the gig still works for me, so you never know.  Not sure how many times a TV show will need someone who plays the guitar.  That was the thing for Castle - they wanted someone who could play this guitar piece,  I learned the part but when you watch the show, it's not like you can see my fingers so in the end, it didn't make a difference that I know how to play guitar.

DR:  If you were not making a living as a musician, what would you be doing?

BH:  I don't know, man.  That's a good question because I never wanted to do anything else.  As I was telling you, I had a few bad years there because of alcohol and I went back to Brazil and tried working with my Dad.  I realized that I just don't know how to have a job. I'm not good enough on focusing on anything other than playing guitar. I took my first lesson when I was ten, so this has been my goal since then.

DR:  So you are really living the dream, not just with Savatage, but in general.

BH:  Yeah.  I also have endless support from my parents. They have always been "Go after what you want and we will support" and that is such a big part of it.

DR:  Thanks for taking the time today, Bill.

BH:  Thank you!  It's been great!

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