Wednesday, 28 March 2018

White Lion: Two Interviews For The Price Of One!

Originally published in Rave-Up #15 (1988)

Interview/s by Devorah Ostrov

If things had gone as planned, you would have been reading this interview with White Lion's Mike Tramp in two separate issues. The older one would have been printed some time ago, when White Lion were a relatively obscure band with one import album. The newer one would've been a nice little follow-up feature on the band after they'd signed to a major label and become relatively famous.

However, because of Rave-Up's charmingly unpredictable publishing schedule, the first interview hadn't been printed by the time of the second. So, I've seamlessly mashed the two together as if I meant to do it this way.

RAVE-UP: Hi Mike. This is Devorah from Rave-Up magazine.

MIKE: Well, how are you?

RAVE-UP: Just fine. It's good to talk to you again. You must be pretty happy now. White Lion is signed to a great label [Atlantic Records] and you're on the road with AC/DC!

MIKE: Yeah! And our album [Pride] has gone platinum and everything!

Mike Tramp
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
RAVE-UP: Really? Congratulations!

MIKE: Yeah, Pride sales have just been going up, up, up... and "Wait" [the first single from Pride] is just letting go now on the charts, leaving some room for the new single, "Tell Me."

RAVE-UP: So, how has it been playing with AC/DC?

MIKE: Well, we've only done one show so far. But taken from that show, it looks like it's going to be a major, massive tour.

RAVE-UP: Great!

MIKE: Yeah... We finished two days before with Aerosmith and just went right on to AC/DC. Tonight, we're doing a second sold-out show in Cleveland.

RAVE-UP: Well, I'm really happy that things are going so well for you guys. I know you've been through a lot, and you really deserve some good luck.

MIKE: Thanks! I'm glad that somebody else shares it with us. That's nice to know. We're just gonna watch out that we don't waste it. It's always been our goal to make sure that wherever we play, you always get the feeling that you came to see a concert band.

RAVE-UP: I promised your manager that I would keep this short. I know you're not feeling well...

MIKE: Yeah... I had to cancel a couple of interviews yesterday because I took a day off and rested in bed. I had a slight flu and I'm trying to get over it because we've got the next five days on the road.

RAVE-UP: Well, it'll be great to see you guys again when you get to the Bay Area. It'll be so different from the last time I saw you.

Fight to Survive CD - back cover photo 
Grand Slamm Records (1986)
MIKE: It is different! You'll see the difference. You'll also see the different reaction from the crowd.

RAVE-UP: I'm sure... From the number of times that "Wait" is on MTV, the audiences are probably going wild!

MIKE (very humbly, actually): Yeah...

RAVE-UP: Well, get some rest. I hope you feel better soon. I'll see ya later!

MIKE: Take care!

* * *

But things weren't always this much fun for White Lion. The first time I spoke to Mike, before their signing to Atlantic Records, all was not so cheery.

Fight to Survive
Grand Slamm Records (1986)
RAVE-UP: I've just acquired an import copy of your album Fight to Survive, which I was surprised to find had actually been recorded in 1984.

MIKE: Yeah, it was a long time ago.

RAVE-UP: I understand that Elektra Records had signed the band, agreed to release Fight to Survive, and then changed their minds and shelved the album. What's the story behind all that?

MIKE: Well... After me and Vito Bratta [guitarist] put White Lion together, we went over to Germany. We figured that instead of waiting for two years to get a record deal, that we would finish an album by ourselves and sell it to a record company as a finished product. We had the studio time through the producer in Germany, we recorded what we wanted to, and when everything was ready we came back to America. This was the end of April [1984]. We shopped it around and within a month we had a deal with Elektra for $200,000. They promised us everything... The tour was ready. They'd spent $70,000 for a one-song video. The album was supposed to be released in October. When October came around they informed our management that they weren't going to release the album and that they were dropping us from the label. That's all we ever heard.

RAVE-UP: They never gave you an explanation?

MIKE: They never said why. They still haven't told us why. I just can't understand why someone who pays for something doesn't want to release it. It isn't like they got their money back. They paid us, and they own the [U.S. rights to] the album.

White Lion - publicity photo
RAVE-UP: I know that eventually you were able to release Fight to Survive through a Japanese label. How did that come about?

MIKE: Our manager got a hold of them somehow and they offered to buy the album from Elektra. Even at that point Elektra gave them a hard time, but eventually it did work out — and the album sold 30,000 copies in Japan. From there it was imported to the rest of the world. In France it was the #1 "Heavy Metal" album for three weeks in a row. And in England it was #1 on the import charts for three months!

RAVE-UP: It's quite impressive that White Lion achieved so much early success as basically an "independent" band with no major label backing.

MIKE: What's funny about this band, now that you've mentioned independent labels, is that we did actually come out of the underground scene, although we're not really that kind of band. A lot of people thought we'd be put out on a major label and become an overnight success — because that's the kind of image we had. But we didn't go that way, and I think we have a very different crowd following us because of that.

RAVE-UP: It seems to me that several of the songs on Fight to Survive are very politically minded. "El Salvador" is obvious, and there's also "All the Fallen Men" which refers to Vietnam, and "Cherokee"...

MIKE: Without a doubt! It's funny how these things come about. I come from Denmark, which is a tiny country, but you follow what's going on around the world from wherever you are. You can't escape from what's going on.

Pride - back cover photo
Atlantic Records (1987)
RAVE-UP: Do you think White Lion will take a more aggressive political stand in the future?

MIKE: No... I just felt we needed this song. It was on my mind.

RAVE-UP: I do think it's good that you're doing these songs, as well as the more standard rock songs. Maybe the kids who listen to White Lion will come away with ideas which they normally wouldn't think about.

MIKE: I like to do both types of songs because you have different moods on different days. One day you're happy, but another day you might look around and say, "Hey, what's going on?" I'm a very emotional person. I write that way — very dramatically and realistically. And the more I feel, the more I put into the song.

RAVE-UP: Well, I was very impressed with your lyrics on Fight to Survive. Do you have any influences as far as song writers?

Vitto Bratta
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
MIKE: One of my main influences — my only influence lyric wise — is Phil Lynott [Thin Lizzy]. That guy could put words into a line that sounded so good spoken and had so much meaning... It was like reading a book or listening to someone reading for you.

RAVE-UP: Living over in Denmark, were you very influenced by "American culture"?

MIKE: Well, I was living in Spain for two years before I came to America. That's actually where I came into contact with the American way of life — everything from McDonalds to Van Halen. I'm very fascinated by all that! But I came over here because of the music. I was always influenced by American music — the heavy sound, but with good vocals.

RAVE-UP: As well as the American influences on your music, songs like "Valhalla" also show obvious Danish influences.

MIKE: Oh yeah! I'm Danish born; my ancestors were Vikings. I'm definitely influenced by the survival techniques and the wildness of the Vikings! I love my country. I'm proud of it as a country. But there's absolutely no scene there.

RAVE-UP: Are you living in New York now?

MIKE: No, I moved to New Jersey just south of Jersey City, where there's green trees and the air is fresh. I hate New York. I can't stand it! Eventually, I want to move out to the country and have my own ranch. I like to get away from rock 'n' roll when I'm not playing. Onstage, I give myself 100%, but when I come home I like a quiet place.

White Lion - publicity photo
RAVE-UP: I'm really glad we had this chance to talk. From seeing your early press photos with all the eyeliner and hairspray, and all the early hype, I had a totally different impression of the band.

MIKE: I know we were taken the wrong way with our first photos. We were really just getting together and finding out what our strong points were. It's always hard, at the start, to get a band together and look the way the band really is. Of course, we're a flashy rock 'n' roll band, but we can also present top quality music and put on an energetic live show that can compete with the best of 'em. I feel that as long as the music is good, you can always change the other things slightly.

RAVE-UP: That's true. Even though I wasn't thrilled by those early photos, I was interested in your music.

MIKE: You know, we just do what we feel like. I would never do something just to please a record company. Sure, we write melodic, heavy metal music which has potential for radio airplay. But that's the only music I can write. I can't write Black Sabbath-type music. Some people say we're trying to be "commercial," but we're not. That's just the way we are!

Thursday, 15 March 2018

The Dead Boys: Brand New Band, Same Old Stiv!

The Dead Boys 1980 lineup: (L-R) David Quinton,
George Cabaniss, Stiv Bators & Frank Secich
Photo: Vicki Berndt 
Originally published in Idol Worship #4 (1980)

Interview by Devorah Ostrov
Many thanks to Vicki Berndt for the fabulous photos!

A year ago, it was thought that the Dead Boys were finished. Lead singer Stiv Bators was moving to LA to sing pop and the rest of the band sort of faded into oblivion.

Watching the newly re-formed Dead Boys climb out of their car in front of San Francisco's Warfield Theater, it wasn't hard to see that the original band was gone forever, having been replaced by nice-looking rock and roll boys. Even Stiv, the only original member left, looked clean!

And even after rolling around in slime for an hour onstage, Stiv proved to be a real swell guy, quick with rude answers to innocent questions...

Me & Stiv at Aquarius Records 1977
IW staffer Lindsey: "Do you have a lot of spare time?"

Stiv: "Why, whatcha got in mind?"

These days the future certainly looks brighter for the Dead Boys. Doing pretty much the same songs with pretty much the same sleazy attitude as the original band, they live up to a reputation that draws new fans and early fans alike to see them.

Life wasn't always this easy, though. When the Dead Boys first formed in Cleveland back around 1975, it was tough to find work.

"The Ramones weren't around then or anything," says Stiv. "It was like pre-punk. Back then you had to dress like an 'English fag glitter band' and play Aerosmith songs."

So, determined to get a gig, the band that would become the Dead Boys did just that. Calling themselves Frankenstein, they dressed up like the New York Dolls and played on Halloween for a goof.

The band that would become the Dead Boys
is hardly recognizable in the photo Stiv sent to 
Rock Scene magazine's "New Bands" section.
With hair nearly to their waists and guitarist Cheetah Chrome sporting a zebra-print jacket, they were hardly recognizable in the photo Stiv sent to Rock Scene magazine's "New Bands" section.

But according to Stiv, the glitter gimmick paid off. "We did 'Sonic Reducer' and 'Down in Flames' [both songs from the band's first album] and some people liked the music, so after that we got to play certain places."

Legend has it that after two gigs as Frankenstein the group got frustrated and broke up, with Stiv and Cheetah going to New York. Being loudmouths, they soon talked their way into a gig at CBGB and had to quickly call the other guys to get the band back together.

With new haircuts and scruffy clothes, the Dead Boys hit the New York scene with a vengeance. Unfortunately, they found themselves getting lost among all the emerging English and New York punk bands, and the press couldn't decide whether the Dead Boys were an imitation of the Ramones or an American version of the Sex Pistols.

Stiv Bators backstage at the Warfield - 1980
Photo: Vicki Berndt
Of course, they were neither.

"We weren't copying the Pistols or the Ramones," says Stiv. "What we did was cut our hair short and started dressing up instead of wearing ripped jeans and leather jackets." (Which he insists the Dead Boys were doing before the Ramones.)

Stiv adds, "Then the Pistols came out right after that and they hit the press before we did. That's always been our problem, we always hit the press too late."

They released two albums, but a combination of bad timing and the near-fatal stabbing of the band's drummer Johnny Blitz led to the breakup of the original group in 1979.

Then, a few months later it was announced that Stiv was moving to LA "to sing pop."

"I went to LA with Cynthia from the B-Girls," he explains. "We were hanging around with Greg Shaw [from Bomp! Records]. He heard the tape of 'It's Cold Outside' [a cover of a song originally recorded by the Choir in 1966] and wanted to put it out. I've always liked 'It's Cold Outside.' It's one of my favorite songs."

"It's Cold Outside" b/w "The Last Year"
Stiv's solo 45 released on Bomp! Records - 1979
Stiv continues, "In Bomp [magazine] it said I was moving to LA to sing pop as a joke. It pissed a lot of people off and that's what I like to do most!"

With renewed determination and flair, Stiv is now working at pissing people off even more. A solo album of pop-ish tunes "like the single" is being recorded for Bomp. Several of the new songs were co-written by current bandmate Frank Secich (aka Jeff Jones/Frankie Fiend). "He wrote all the lyrics and I stole 'em," quips Stiv.

The Dead Boys at the Old Waldorf in 1977
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Stiv is also set to star in two B-grade movies. The first film is a new John Waters' movie with Devine (lots of gasps and gee-whizzes from the IW team) in which Stiv plays Bo Bo Bellzinger, leader of a teenage gang.

The second is a "sci-fi rock 'n' roll flick," which he describes as being "a lot different than my real lifestyle; we get drunk a lot and get in fights on stage!"

So, what's his real lifestyle like?

"I sit at home and drink warm milk at night while watching Father Knows Best reruns." ✥

Circumstantial Evidence: Frank Secich's autobiography (published in 2015 by High Voltage Australia) presents a candid look at the longtime rocker's storied past, including untold tales of his rock 'n' roll journey with Blue Ash, the Dead Boys, Stiv Bators Band, Club Wow, and his current outfit, the Deadbeat Poets.

Filmmaker Danny Garcia has recently finished the first cut of his documentary feature, Stiv: The Life and Times of a Dead Boy. The film (which incorporates archive footage, photographs, music and interviews with Stiv's friends and fellow musicians) is scheduled for release summer 2018. Garcia's previous rock 'n' roll documentaries include Looking for Johnny, The Rise and Fall of the Clash, and Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy.

* You can read my other interviews with Stiv here: