Q&A with Steve "Lips" Kudlow from Anvil
Anvil (due this Sunday, January 31 at the Gothic Theatre) wasn't exactly a household name until this past year, despite having exerted considerable influence on bands like Metallica, Guns 'N' Roses and Slayer. In the early '80s, Anvil developed a sound that was faster and more aggressive than most of the heavy metal and hard rock of the time. Rob Reiner, the band's drummer (not the actor and director) took the pace of earlier drummers and effectively doubled it, thus creating an aesthetic that became the backbone of speed metal.
Being a pioneer, however, doesn't always mean you're materially successful immediately, and Anvil, after some moderate initial success, stayed an underground, even cult, band for almost its entire existence. With the 2008 release of Anvil! The Story of Anvil, directed by filmmaker and former roadie Sacha Gervasi, Anvil has enjoyed some of the fame and fortune it has long deserved. We spoke with singer and guitarist Steve "Lips" Kudlow about Gervasi, about the band, its gear and its recent opportunities born out of the recent notoriety it has received.
Westword (Tom Murphy): What about Sacha Gervasi appealed to you to bring him on board as a roadie, and did you learn anything from him much as he learned from you?
Steve "Lips" Kudlow: When we met him, he was a kid. We took him out on the road and gave him the time of his life, basically. To us, taking a fifteen-year-old kid out on the road was sort of a great thing to do because it was kind of giving back, or giving the opportunity to someone that we wish we'd had ourselves.
That one good deed deserved another, I suppose, and twenty years later he contacted us. He had never forgotten what he'd experienced and lived through at that particular time, and decided he wanted to find his friends again. He realized and found out that we'd never stopped and had kept on going, and it was an inspiring story to him and that's what made him decide to make the movie.
He was a very interesting kind of kid. He came from a very affluent family and he as very well educated and a real metal head. What seemed very special about it was the fact that he was a kid, not some guy in his 20s, someone who was actually buying the CDs and being inspired by the music.
Plus the fact that he's the kind of character who is very comical, and we had a good time having him around. He became like the band mascot. He was a special kid, and we felt that and we had a lot of things in common. He was a drummer, a musician himself, he came from a Jewish background, he had family in Toronto, yet we met him in England. There were a number of things that made it possible for all of it to happen.
WW: When you started to pioneer that fast and aggressive musical style for which you've become well known, what artists first inspired you to play guitar and what specifically lead to that sort of sound?
Lips: Being born in 1956, we grew up with the renaissance of the electric guitar. Pretty much as it happened, we were playing and being musicians all through it. Everything from the Rolling Stones and the Beatles on, we were musically aware. I guess it was around the late '60s when it really clicked into high gear, once guys like Hendrix came out, Grand Funk Railroad and Cactus -- of course the onslaught of rock and stuff that happened all through that time.
Some of our favorite stuff, of course, was Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin -- those kinds of bands. Deep Purple and Black Sabbath were probably our favorites. Deep Purple songs like "Highway Star," "Hard Lovin' Man," the Deep Purple in Rock album, in particular, were extraordinary influences on us. I think one of Rob's all time favorite drummers is Ian Paice. I think that they were really, in the truest sense, pioneers of speed metal. Although they weren't quite doing what we were doing, they certainly inspired us to do that.
What we did was instead of playing a single bass drum in a tempo like, let's say, "Highway Star," we used double bass drums and played double time on the guitar. So that the guitar and the bass drums were matched up doing sixteenth notes and even thirty-second notes, for that matter. And no one had been doing that up until that point, and it really had an incredible effect on musicians that came after us. Of course you do it in innocence. We didn't realize that what we were doing at the time would have such an impact, but it obviously did, and we left an incredible mark in the music genre of rock.
Unfortunately, being signed to an independent Canadian label, we were never able to break out and get the big opportunities you really need to make a band big. We didn't get record deals in the United States, we were pulled out of the Canadian label between the years of 1983 and 1987. We didn't record anything during the most important years for metal, and we basically fell back into the underground and have survived there for thirty years.
WW: One thing I liked about your interviews is how you talk about having a dream and aspirations. Can you tell me why you think having a dream is so important and what are the dangers of not having one?
Lips: You have to have a dream, man; you have to have a goal. Basically, Rob and I made the decision at a very young age that this was something we were going to do for the rest of our lives. It wasn't some sort of, "Well let's go make it big." It was really about watching our favorite bands put out albums, go commercial, burn out and break up.
We swore that we would never do that. And we've kept to those sort of childish aspirations. Unfortunately, life really can put you through the wringer. For most people, it burns them out. For us, it was very much the fuel of failure in the sense that, "You're saying we can't? Oh yeah? We'll show you!" We didn't quit or give up on our dreams. It's really not about the money. It's about doing what you love and getting away with it. That's what it's really all about. I didn't want a one-hit wonder, make it big and be over.
My whole thing was that I wanted a career. In a certain sense, by staying in the underground, I've fulfilled my dreams. I've always looked at myself as a success. And that's true if you think about it. We're certainly not going on national radio and TV and telling everyone about it. It's kind of word of mouth. The movie triggered it, and it's a wonderful place to be.
It's not like we wrote a hit single, we wrote twelve albums of hardcore metal, and now we're celebrating the fact that we never sold out. It's an incredible story, really. It's pretty much a one-off deal. It's not like it's going to happen again.
In order for a story like this to transpire, a band would have to exist for thirty years, they would have had to have made an impact at a certain point in their career to the point where major musicians that have made it would give testimonials saying the band was great and influenced them.
WW: What was it like being approached to play live in The Green Hornet and may I ask what song it is you perform?
Lips: Michel Gondry, the director of the film, had come to the premier of the Anvil movie in Los Angeles. He was virtually in tears when he came out. He walked up to Sascha and said, "I'm going to throw away my cameras, I'm going to start all over again." He was really blown away and about a couple of weeks after that, he wrote us into the script. We were asked to perform in the movie, we did "Metal on Metal," and it was great. We're playing in a club, The Green Hornet comes in, there's a confrontation, and the club blows up, and we play until we blow up.
WW: What sort of guitar rig do you use when you perform live, and is it different from that which you use in the studio?
Lips: I use custom made guitars I had made for me back in the early '80s. They're basically semi-hollow [Gibson] Flying Vs. They don't exist, of course, at least not yet. Gibson has given me an endorsement, but they're such a big conglomerate and slow to the draw -- it's not a complaint but just a fact.
But what happened is that there's a company in Maryland, I believe, called October Guitars. Right now they're working on building semi-hollow Vs. I've received the proto-type, which is very nice, but I'm hoping to get the one I actually ordered, which is going to be a really fancy version of what I've already got -- a curly maple and blonde guitar.
I've been using Fender amps my entire career, since I was a kid, and I still do. I use a distortion pedal. I've got to tell you, man, Fender Twins are the loudest amps you're ever going to use. You don't turn the thing past three unless you want to drown out everything on stage.
Because they're open back amplifiers, the sound is dispersed all over the place. They're not really unidirectional; they're omni-directional in a huge way, so that anywhere you go in the room you can hear it.
As an example of this, we were playing theaters all over the United States when the movie was released -- playing in the cinema. We'd get a couple of monitors to just project my vocals and we'd use four microphones, two on the drums and two for vocals.
Because the amplifiers are so loud and so dispersing, we didn't need to mic them. Of course the rooms are so acoustically designed, it didn't take a hell of a lot to fill the room with sound.
Many years ago -- the first time we went to Japan, I guess it was '83 -- I went to the local music store, and I tried out every distortion unit that they had. The reason I was doing that was because I had bought a battery-powered amplifier, and I was looking to get it so I could play it on the tour buses and in the hotel rooms.
So I tried all these distortion units and I found one made by the company Tokai, and it made the little amp sound amazing. So when I got back from Japan, I wondered what it would sound like through a Twin.
Up until that point, I was using the Fender Twin, but there was this little device called an Ice Cube that plugged in to the reverb section in the back of the amplifier that turned the reverb into an overdrive.
So when I tried the distortion unit in comparison to the Ice Cube, I was like, "Oh man, I'm using this!" And that's what I've been doing ever since. I still have the same distortion unit, and I still use it today.
WW: What has been the most gratifying moment for you so far in this renaissance of interest in your band?
Lips: Probably playing Conan. Playing on The Tonight Show. I mean, come on, man, think about it: In ten minutes, we were seen by more people and heard by more people than in the thirty years all put together. It was unbelievable.
When you're doing it, you're playing live to a studio audience but in the back of your mind you're thinking, "There's ten million people watching me!" It was a really good thing for us, and more importantly, I think it was a really great day for the metal genre -- an underground band playing on The Tonight Show.