Interview with the Legendary Michael Monroe (ex-Hanoi Rocks)
Photo by Ville Akseli Juurikkala
-Words by Tommy Hash
It’s March 1984, winter is beginning wane in New York City’s chilly climate. Yet something is heating up in the Big Apple’s Record Plant Studios. In comes a band from Finland called Hanoi Rocks who have just snagged a deal with CBS/Sony Records with the wizard known as Bob Ezrin awaiting to cast his spell upon the band as he did with KISS, Alice Cooper, and Pink Floyd. The influence of Punk is still lingering in the air from the city’s Bowery Distinct (say CBGS’s), seeping into the control room from several blocks away. Sadly, tragedy would strike the band with the tragic death of drummer Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley and hence, it was the end of and era, but a new beginning.
Through the years, post-Hanoi Rocks, the band’s frontman Michael Monroe has remained an active player on the rock and roll scene. Adored my metal fans and punk rockers alike, his solo career has spanned ten albums and has proven a consistent delivery. There has even been brief reunions of Hanoi, unleashing an album or two to the masses.
Blackout States, the new record from Monroe beholds that enigmatic glory of rebellious essence and spirit where even Guns N’ Roses can claim a massive influence and even mentorship from the frontman. His solo outing hasn’t been without its hardships, including record company squabbles and musical styles taking over the mainstream, yet his consistent delivery of what we know as rock and roll has never floundered under drab circumstances.
“It’s authentic high energy rock in roll straight from the heart,” says Michael Monroe from his Finland home. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves when referring to the former Hanoi Rocks singer’s latest solo album Blackout States. Yet at the same time the frontmnan never liked being pigeonholed into any particular category; never mind being coined a hair metal. However Hanoi Rocks were fueled by the influence of the high octane sounds of The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, The Rolling Stones, and The New York Dolls rather than the putrid aerosol of Aqua Net or the rancid wax of Loreal lipstick; again their sound and attitude predated Guns N’ Roses by many years, setting the tone for that band along with many other groups that told the fashion police to fuck off. Regardless brief reunions, frontman Michael Monroe has led a solo career that has kept him in high profile. Often armed with his red sax, playing many solo dates around the world and surrounding himself with a plethora of top dog musicians, Monroe looks upon his career and speaks in depth about Blackout States and what keeps him rolling non-stop.
TOMMY HASH: This marks your tenth solo album overall. This album shows consistency in your mantra for rock and roll after all of this time; how did this get off the ground?
MICHAEL MONROE: For the last album Horns and Halos, the band had a chance to get together at a rehearsal place, jam a bit and start songs from scratch; but this time we really didn’t have the opportunity to do that. Everybody just wrote some stuff on their own and I wrote some things at home here. (Bassist) Sami Yaffa also wrote on his own. Steve Conte (guitar), Rich Jones (guitar), & Karl Rockfist (drums) actually got together in New York for a few days to work on ideas. So we were writing separately for this album. Then all of us got together in our rehearsal space in Helsinki for about a week, put some demos together and worked on the songs together. Plus we had that Dee Dee Ramone song that I wanted to do for years called “Under Northern Lights,” he also me to cut it. I heard it in the 90’s when the both of us were hanging out together in New York. Me and the band rearranged it, worked on it a bit, rehearsed it and it was perfect. We put all of these ideas and songs together ending up with eighteen songs. For the last album we had fifteen, but only recorded eleven for the album. Nowadays you have to have bonus tracks; for example, Japan wants the extra tunes (on their releases). To me eighteen was more than enough, almost like making a double album. But we ended up recording everything, and thirteen were chosen for the album.
TH: You guys were on a roll writing material.
MM: Some of the songs were not finished lyrically, “The Bastards Bash” for example wasn’t. I had the music and the melody for that song, but I had written five or six different sets of lyrics and titles. In the studio I said to Steve, “I’m stuck with this one, feel free to help me out if you like.” Both of us ended up finishing the lyrics for that one together. Another song called “R.L.F.,” it was Sammy that had the music for that and the working title was “Fuck Shit Up.” So I said, if we are going to swear on it we need to make it real and blatant so we came up with the line “Rock like Fuck.” I’ve been using that phrase of years, since the 80’s and it’s about time we wrote a song like that (laughing). Of course that wasn’t going to be the single obviously, but that would be the title so people don’t get offended right off the bat until they read the lyrics. A song like “Permanent Youth,” when we put the band together in 2010, it was in those days when Todd Youth (Danzig) was in the band originally, he had some music and he had that he thought sounded like “Permanent Youth” and I didn’t think it sounded anything like that. As I worked on it and it was “Permanent Youth.” In the studio Steve thought the lyrics could be improved upon, so we worked on the lyrics a bit more. Sami emailed me one day as we were putting the album together and it still didn’t stand out enough, so I took another look at it again and I realized The problem with it to me was that the Chorus didn’t light up enough. The whole song was in A, be if we realized we did it in C, it lifted it up. As for “Good ‘ole Bad Days,” that just came to me one night in a stream of consciousness. It just got it in my head. I thought, man I’m going to have to record this or else I wont remember it in the morning. So that just came to me in a flash. 13 songs fit well with versatility while being consistent. A bit more punky with a bit more melodic flavor than the last album.
Lend me a Tenor (photo by Tuomas Vitikainen)
TH: One thing about Blackout States is that the first three songs are straightforward rockers, but the fourth tune, “Keep Your Eye On You,” goes into a slightly lower tempo, trotting the lines of AOR, rather than the punkish vibe possessed for the majority of the record. That song, not only has a inspiring tone musically, but the lyrics strike a nerve as well.
MM: To me, that’s one of my favorites on the album. Steve had the idea saying that you probably won’t want to do this, this is kind of mellow. But I was like, “no this is great, I would love to do it. It was fantastic, I love that song!” To me vocally, I always like to improve stuff when it comes to performing. When it comes to making records, I want expand my vocal horizons. On that song I’m singing in a way I have never sung before. There is similar song called “Stained Glass Heart” from the last album. Even more so I like this one even better, it basically says to keep your eye on the goal, don’t get distracted by other things and you’ll be alright. Somebody said it sounded kind of Aerosmithy with the Sh la la background vocals, and I thought, “Oh yeah, that’s true.” It was Steve’s idea for the backing vocals; it has this kind of like a Steven Tyler thing. But really, I feel that it’s an outstanding song, really one of my favorites that’s for sure.
TH: You also worked with producer Chips Kiesbye who also was part of the solid sound.
MM: It was great because he has the same kind of tastes, he’s from our generation and he knows our kind of music we do. If we refer to a particular song or to a band, he knows what we are talking about. Like “Old King’s Road,” was kind of in the style of Steve Jones band after the Sex Pistols, The Professionals. So when we presented all these ideas to Chips, he knew what we were talking about. He didn’t get involved in arranging the songs because we were already finished, but be gave his opinion and knew to leave them be. There was no reason to change the songs or the arrangements; he mainly concentrated on the sound. For the first time there was no need to mix samples with the drum sound, the drums are completely organic and still kick ass. That was an accomplishment in having a guy who can mic the drums right. with the previous albums, even with Horns and Halos, we had to fix things here and there. Of course who ever is the drummer isn’t happy about that, but if there is not enough punch in the drums you have to do that. Chips had a great approach for us to get the sound engineering wise. In fact his band Sator did an album called Musical Differences; it’s the one that critics hate and fans hate, but I think it’s the best thing they ever did. He was a good choice as a producer, his price was reasonable. All of us can produce records ourselves, we just like to have an extra pair pf ears, another point of view on the whole thing; it makes sense. It was a great collaboration.
TH: Do you feel like you were unfairly coined within the hair metal scene?
MM: First of all I never felt like I was part of that hair metal scene, I was blamed for it. I got blamed for it a lot, I said don’t blame me. I didn’t do that, I couldn’t relate to a lot of that stuff. Those guys were into posing; sex drugs, rock and roll stuff. They guys were so wacky; partying, chicks and booze that always seemed more important to the music. To me it was always about music and the attitude. Hanoi Rocks was always more about punk. I think any words such as glam, punk, or grunge or whatever, as soon as something has a name, it’s over. The cool thing about Hanoi rocks is that it defied all categories. Nobody could categorize us because we played everything from Punk to calypso, I think OK what do you call Aeorsmith? Are they a rock band? I never liked being put into categories. The hair metal thing was ridiculous. Most of those bands played their hair spray cans better than they did their actual instruments. That was why I was almost embarrassed to say I was a rock singer.
TH: I remember in late 1989, when that decade was closing, you released the album, Not Fakin’ It. I remember it was really touted as adding fuel to the fire that a new era of heavy metal and hard rock was arriving, particularly after albums such as Appetite for Destruction had made it’s mark, kind of reshaping things away from hair metal. It was a big record in the press for some time at that point.
MM: As for Not Fakin it, what happened with that was this stupid advertisement was run on MTV during every commercial break especially during Headbangers Ball. It had that saying “Michael Monroe, He’s not fakin it, he’s the real thing; the brains behind Hanoi Rocks.” I freaked out when I heard that. I was like what the hell are they doing. It was so misrepresentative of what Hanoi Rocks was about. We were spontaneous and the commercial made everything seem like it was all calculated. Maybe I cared too much. I called the label and I asked, “who the hell put this commercial together, why didn’t you let me see it first, it was full of clichés.” And they said, “Oh You don’t like the commercial, Okay, we’ll take care of that.” Well Mercury Records pulled the plug on the album saying, “when you sell millions of records, then you can make demands like that.” I told them I would rather be less famous and do things on my own terms rather than sell out, become a joke and mislead people. It was just unfortunate because it was a great record and it was on it’s way to selling well. But it was a good time, like a second chance for me.
TH: The album still features go to singles for a couple of Sirius/XM’s channels. It does have that staying power.
MM: Looking back in hindsight, You never know. Good record, but it went to waste maybe because I was stubbornly sticking to my principles. Some people were saying I was crazy and I should have let go, but I didn’t care. I didn’t care about the money that much, I wanted to do it the right way and not let people think I was like one of those hair metal bands.
TH: Going back to that 80’s hair metal era, do you feel that it was more so the saturation and the homogenized content of the music by the record industry that killed it more so than the grunge scene?
MM: It was ridiculous. Everybody tried to have that big hairdo, I never wanted big hair myself, because back then in LA, everybody had to have that big head of blond hair – even if they were 300 pound truck drivers. Some people look cool with just jeans and a crew cut. I always encourage people to be themselves and not try to be everybody else. There is a big problem with trends and fashions. For example, Nirvana were a brilliant band that came out of nowhere and became huge. The next thing you know they came up with the grunge phrase and there is a million of other bands trying to sound like Nirvana; you then had all these poor man’s version of that band. Therefore, the record companies encouraged that because they love categories, they have nice packages where they can sell the product saying, this is the heavy metal, this is the grunge, the latest thing, you’ve go to check it out – buy, buy, buy. That kills creativity and the music suffers for that. In the 60’s, 70’s, and early eighties, bands didn’t really think abut what genre this music they were going to fit in, how much is the album is going to sell, or how much we are going to market this. That’s why back in the day, bands had more personality, they did their own thing and not giving a shit about the money so much.
Copyright & Publishing: 2016 Tommy Hash for Ytsejam.com