Dio Wanna Rock?
The world-conquering sound of Ronnie James' band rests on its rock solid rhythm section. Tony Reed talks to the men who make the Dio metal machine move
Dio consider themselves a global band. Drummer Vinnie Appice plays a unique 360° kit. Tony Reed goes round to talk to them.
Fact: Dio, the American Heavy Rock outfit headed up by Ronnie James Dio, are a Global Phenomenon:
"The Present tour started at the Arctic circle, and we're making our way down... Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Britain, America, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore... each global segment as it comes along. You've got to be global these days – the kids in Tokyo want to see you as much as the kids in Helsinki."
The speaker is Jimmy Bain, the band's bass man, and Ronnie James' most frequent songwriting partner. Once upon a time, Jimmy came from Scotland. But now he's a citizen of the Global Gig, and speaks its inevitable lingua franca, compounded of too many late nights, too little good food, and too much of everything else, all bound up in mid-Atlantic American, seasoned with just a pinch of his original Celtic burr. He looks beat.
Fact: Jimmy Bain owns a nice house in Twickenham. He doesn't get to use it very much.
In contrast, Vinnie Appice, brother of Carmine and sticksman with Dio, is a man who has elevated living out of a suitcase to an art form.
Fact: Mr Appice books into hotels under the Pseudonym Norman Bates.
It is not known whether he has a mother fixation and a penchant for wigs, frocks, and long knives, but like the hero of Psycho, he has more than his fair share of nervous energy, rattling off opinions to the dozen with a wholly – American – enthusiasm:
"We did that TV show – The Toob? Boy, was that an experience... We just got this new guitar player in, uh, Craig, Craig Goldie? And, uh, all of his guitars, and amps, and everything got held up at Customs... So by the time the guys at The Toob had rented some stuff in, we didn't have time for much of a soundcheck, and it was the first time Ronnie had sung for about two months, and it was the first time the new guitarist had played with the band live ever!"
So how did it go?
"Oh, we enjoyed it!"
Dio are now on the second leg of this latest global marketing exercise, having spent the recent half-time break working on material for a new mini-album. 'So we've got something to tour with', and breaking Vivian Campbell's replacement Goldie in on guitar chores. What's the story behind that, Vinnie?
"Well, for some time now, Vivian had been wanting to play other types of music, to form his own band – and to be in Dio at the same time. But it got to the point where it seemed like he wasn't interested in Dio anymore... Ronnie was dissatisfied with his attitude, we all discussed it – it seemed like the best thing to do was for him to go his way, and us to go ours..."
Was it an amicable split?
"Yeah, well – sorta... Funny thing is, we'll be seeing him in a coupla days at the Hearing Aid thing... we're still friends."
(Goldie, while still in the band, and together with Ronnie and Jimmie, co-wrote the song Stars, performed by a gathering of top Heavy Rock bands from both sides of the Atlantic, as the latest installment of the USA For Africa charity appeal.)
"...Anyway, Craig lives in LA, y'know, played in a band called Roughcut, and one called Driver... we knew him already, knew he was a great guitar player, that his style fitted in with our sound. He's under the same management as us. When it came to audition new players, he was at the top of our list – just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. He started when we were working on the mini album, so he's already had a chance to put some creative input into the band..."
I wondered about that 'creative input', given that Jimmy and Ronny actually work out most of the songs between them.
"Yeah, they do, but there's always a coupl'a band songs in there too – someone comes into a rehearsal with an idea, we play around with it, come up with something."
How does it work out between you and Jimmy – are you conscious of yourselves as the rhythm section, a unit within a unit?
"Oh, yeah. We talk a lot when we do a song: 'why don't you put something there. I'll play a fill and you follow it' – we stick out a little bit more than just plain bass-and-drums. Like, for this tour, we're trying to work out a little bass-and-drums solo thing, get it tight with the lighting director, make it real special..."
Jimmy breaks in:
"I can still remember the first time – we were thrown together, checking each other out at the same time as trying to check out a new guitarist... but I'd only been playing with him for about 30 seconds when it happened – very instant, very powerful. I think it's a matter of feel, of taste. Like, Vinnie's got a lot of technique, so it'd sound wrong for us, for this music, if I tried to use a lot of technique as well. Obviously, there are times when I can be flash, and Vinnie steady – you just have to give each other space..."
"I think the thing is," adds Vinnie, "We don't conflict."
Interesting that you raised the point about technique, Jimmy. How important is good technique to the overall effect?
"Well, obviously you try to improve yourself – in the studio, you're more concerned with the changes, the arrangement and stuff, getting it right, so you play a little bit safe, but on stage, you can afford to take a few chances – even if it doesn't work, you can get a good laugh out of it, but you might get dagger looks from, er... you know."
Jimmy laughs, on the brink of heresy, the absent Ronnie is not noted for his indulgence of other peoples' onstage egos. Word could get back...
Vinnie to the rescue:
"Good technique doesn't necessarily make a good band, anyway. Everybody's fast now; so what? You can get really bored with that. Nobody ever accused the Stones of being too technical, did they? I think perhaps we're more technically orientated than a lot of bands; the thing about technique is you've always got it down, if you're playing a simple song, you can always just throw in something, 'hey, here's a bit of technique for you', but it's basically down to feel."
And to showmanship. Throwing titbits of technique to the audience is part of it. A rather more substantial part is Vinnie's incredible on-stage Tama kit, an almost spherical construction featuring custom aerial stands which give a whole new meaning to the term hanging tom, some of which are all but up-ended above Vinnie's head. Contrary to popular belief, incidentally, he does play two bass drums, albeit not at the same time – a second 14"x24" sits directly behind him, part of the kit's amazing 360° set up: "So instead of just doing a fill, I can do a fill all the way round and back in one. But that can take an awful long time, so often for a solo, I'll go halfway round, and then stay in back, playing around on the aerial toms and back bass drum – if you've got two, you'll only play both together about 10 percent of the time anyway, and for those times, I'd rather make just one foot work twice as hard!"
So does this 360° bit mean you've got a bigger kit than your brother?
"Yeah! I've got a bigger kit than anyone at the moment, I think."
And is it all absolutely necessary?
"Well, I hit 'em all – at least once, in case anyone's watching..."
But basically it's a bit of showmanship?
"Uh-huh. I guess it kind of started when I joined Black Sabbath, using a kit with just four toms. They said to me, 'Well, you're in the band, but the kit's too small, you wanna add another bass drum?' Well, I didn't want to do that if I wasn't going to use it, but I did want to add something visual... that sparked the idea of the aerial toms, and then I just kept adding to them... now we've got such a massive show that it'd look silly to have just an ordinary kit. People see this, and go away saying 'what the hell was that?'."
What if someone off the street wanted to put a kit like yours together – could they do it?
"Well, not very easily – I made up the aerial tom stands myself, out of various parts of existing Tama hardware, so if they wanted to do it, they'd have to work out how I did it first. But I am talking to Tama about it, as an endorsee, trying to persuade them to do something, because they do sound – and look – great."
The importance of visuals have also played a part in Jimmy Bain's on-stage set up, a stripped down, massively powerful, yet basic Rock'n'Roll combination of amp, cabs and instrument. No effects, no MIDI. Just a lot of bass:
"For the tour I'll be playing a Yamaha 3000 series bass, maybe a BC Rich for some of the show, and an eight-string, for solos, going through the Gallien Krueger stacks – I've done three heavy tours with 'em, and they haven't let me down yet. The cabs are loaded with ElectroVoice speakers, and I haven't managed to blow them yet either... indoors I have six stacks, outdoors 12 – I don't have to push them too hard to get the sound I want.
"...As far as effects and stuff go, well, I played some keyboards on the first album, but we've got a keyboard player for the tour, so it seemed pointless to tie myself down with effects, and pedals and all that. I'd hate to be like Geddy Lee (of Rush). Much as I admire the guy, he's tied by his gear to a more or less static position. I'd rather have the freedom to concentrate on my on-stage presence; you can't throw too many shapes when you're playing half a dozen things at once!
"In any case, I go for the straight ahead, plug it in and turn it up approach – the harder you hit it, the better it sounds!"
Offstage, Jimmy has been working with a variety of Yamaha instruments (he's an endorsee of theirs), and other famous names. Nady, the wireless people, are building him a bass with an integral transmitter and BC Rich are making him a custom Signature series.
"But not one of those extraordinary nine-sided jobs – more like a cross between a P Bass and a J Bass. It'll be a bolt-on neck too. I've played through-body basses for so long that I feel like experimenting with necks I can switch around."
Despite the welter of freebies, Jimmy has also recently reminded himself what it was like to buy something, via the purchase of a Factor, a custom guitar built by Philip Kubiki of Santa Barbara. In so doing, Jimmy is keeping company with John Taylor from Duran Duran. What's so special about this bass, Jimmy?
"Well, it's a high and low impedance bass, with two active and three passive pickups, which you can pan between, instead of just switching. It's also got an extra two frets so you can get down to a low D on a standard tuning... It's just a beautiful instrument, especially in the studio. Not very Rock'n'Roll though..."
A PR Person sticks her head round the door. The band's meal has been arranged. Dutifully, Vinnie and Jimmy rise. Really, is this any better than working in an office?
Vinnie turns, smiles:
"You get longer lunchbreaks."
Interview by Tony Reed
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