William Tells all to Philip Bashe
Idol by name, idol by nature, Billy doesn't like to work to deadlines. Here Sweet William and last remaining band hand Steve Stevens explain why their soon-to-be-released album isn't being released quite as soon as expected.
Billy Idol arrives late, which seems to be the order of the day. On the wall of his management's lower Manhattan office shines a gold record for British sales of White Wedding, originally released three years earlier. Idol's third album, Whiplash Smile, already behind schedule, was dealt a serious setback when equipment problems at Electric Lady studios caused producer Keithee Forsey to pull the plug on the project until another studio could be located. Release date has now been pushed back to late summer, more than two years after the multiplatinum Rebel Yell.
And technical problems, apparently, weren't the only cause for delay. Electric Lady's studio manager concedes that there were technical malfunctions when Idol, Stevens, Forsey and engineer Dave Concours moved from studio B to studio A to record drummer Thommy Price.
"However," he contends, "my opinion is that progress on the album wasn't developing as fast as they would have liked, and so there were increasing personal tensions within the sessions."
Price, who felt that the quintet was really jelling toward the end of the Rebel Yell tour, was disappointed that the band didn't go into the studio right away, and was even more disappointed when it became apparent that his input on the new record would again be limited.
"I was hoping that there'd be some real band input," he says wistfully, "but it's Billy and Steve once again."
Told of Price's remarks, bandleader Idol was empathetic. "When it's the beginning of an album," he says, shifting in his seat, "and people aren't totally involved, it's hard for them to see that what we're doing is getting things to a stage where they can be a part of it. Later it will make sense to them.
"But even though Thommy might not have been there all the time, or it's not always him who was programming the LinnDrum" — which has been integral to the recording of Whiplash Smile — "we're all thinking in terms of the type of drums he would play and the type of attitude he'd bring to a song.
"It takes time, and you need the right personalities around you, people who understand that. Keith does and Steve does and I think Thommy understands that as well; it's just his impatience, which is natural."
The album is taking time — probably too much as far as the record company is concerned — but it is a crucial record for Billy Idol, who with it seeks to change certain perceptions about himself.
Perhaps the most personal record of his career, affected largely by his breakup with dancer/model Perri Lister after several years, Whiplash Smile shows a side of Idol few knew existed: vulnerability.
"When you have things troubling you, it can make you fucking insecure. Because people have been telling you, "I'll always be there," and you've been working on that assumption. I always have an idea about what I want to do, but I still need support. This is my third solo album in America and a lot of my fans want it to be good. And so do I. Meanwhile, the manager stops having an interest. Me and the girlfriend were breaking up all the way through this album. It was like hell. But that's what I wanted. I wanted to live."
He seems to be enjoying this new life: dressed flamboyantly in black leather, black cape, black steel-tipped boots and black beret, which covers the famous dyed-blond protopunk spiked hair, he is in an expansive mood. "You need antagonism some times. It gets the music going." He smiles. Dangling chains clatter noisily, and one hand bears enough silver rings to warrant being registered as a lethal weapon. The preponderance of black sets off his chalky complexion, yet Idol, a vegetarian, looks as healthy as he looks jovial.
"I'm after the best recordings. I want people to be able to listen in 10 years and say "Hey, still sounds kind of good."
With Whiplash Smile, I've had the usual things to think about. Like, "Christ, there's only five songs and they're all 20 minutes long!" We've been fighting the usual battles, but with no help. It causes things to be slow. I'm only a normal person. I can only write songs, as fast as I can, which is not that fast. But when I get going...
You see, I just won't accept anything that is not what I would want to listen to. If I did, I'd end up hating myself. Sammy Davis, Jr. said that he made 40 albums, but he only liked four of them. And then he said, "I wish I had that studio time again."
I don't ever want to say that."
But the album has taken a very long time to make...
"One of my biggest problems is people don't realize that I have never worked with a deadline in my life. Since I am not rooted into one spot, I live an unregimented life, and nothing bothers me about time. I always think "No deadlines, only headlines."
The singer is philosophical when asked if the problems with the studio were demoralising, especially since momentum was just beginning to roll.
"Naw," he says in his guttural accent, "not at all. We were going to have to take time off at some point anyway, just to get out and study what we've been doing. Plus, it gives me time to write more songs."
Most of the songs co-written by Billy and Stevens in the past have been either war cries (Rebel Yell), or cynical observations of romance (Eyes Without a Face). Idol attributes his new first-person writing to, simply growing up.
"There comes a time, when you've lived a certain number of years, that those things come out." he says thoughtfully. "The difficulty I'm finding in writing like that is getting the songs to be confessional without sounding like... slop. There's a huge difference between being honest and being some sort of wimp."
Luckily, Idol has his songwriting partner to help prevent that from happening. His and Stevens' creative relationship is one of a series of checks and balances, though ultimately it's Idol who has the final say. As for the sort of things they tend to disagree on, Stevens replies, smiling, "Oh, the usual, where I want to play 100 notes in four bars, and he wants only 40. That's when Idol becomes the 'Punk Police,' a nickname coined by Forsey. "The Punk Police?" says Idol a trifle sheepishly. "Yeah, But," he adds, "it's not like it's the Punk gestapo. We're both critical of each other, and I think Steve accepts it."
He does, in fact. Gratefully.
"Most guitarists need someone to force them to play something really memorable," asserts Stevens." Many times I'll look to Billy for the final say, especially with him being the lyricist. Often songs are constructed before all the lyrics are finished, and I'll ask him what the mood is going to be, the attitude."
Attitude is something Billy Idol knows about in spades. He plainly admits that "I'm more of a songwriter than a musician, so I see things in terms of moods and feelings." Yet, though Stevens can run rings around him technically, Idol takes some responsibility for helping to shape his protégés direction between the time of 1982's Billy Idol and Rebel Yell, on which Stevens became more than a highly capable Hard-Rock guitarist, but a circus ringmaster of tones, colours and textures.
"Steve always wanted to use all of his effects," says Idol, puffing placidly on a cigarette. "I told him to just make noise, like sound effects. Fuck the guitar. Fuck playing music. Let's have some fun.
"And Steve was able to put a level of musicality into my songs, to make it more than just a three-chord bash, even though," he says self-effacingly, "it doesn't always sound like it. "
Steve Stevens' musicality is considerable, and is especially evident in his highly compositional soloing. His playing is informed by the many different styles of music he listens to, from Bartok to Rhythm & Blues to Jimi Hendrix, the latter, oddly enough, only a recently acquired taste. "I never listened to him until about three years ago," he shrugs, adding, "I don't listen to guitarists per se. I'm aware of them and I appreciate them, but I don't look to them for ideas."
Mostly he looks inward, not only for musical ideas but for technological innovations. Says his guitar tech, Jon 'J.D.' Dworkow: "Steve's motto is 'Have soldering gun will travail." When he was just 13, Stevens built the first of many homemade pedalboards, basing it on that of Yes's Steve Howe. " I got a copy of the Yessongs album." he explains," and they had a photo of his pedalboard, with a Maestro fuzz-box and a Showbud volume pedal. I built my own."
He continues to do so, even though now he certainly has the financial resources to have one built to his exact specifications.
"But I can never find anybody who understands what I want to do," he complains."
For the last Billy Idol tour, Stevens' complex setup consisted of two pedalboards, with momentary switches for turning off his digital delays and for engaging his repeat-hold functions "so that I could find a note, hold it and put whatever else I wanted on top of it."
The other pedalboard contained mostly Boss effects: CE-2 chorus, OC-2 octaver, CS-2 compressor, PV-1 Rocker volume pedal and Rat distortion unit.
In his rack were two Lexicon PCM41 digital delays, and also set up separately was a Boss GE-10 graphic eq, though for the 1986 tour Stevens'll substitute a parametric eq that will be switched in and out electronically. Another change he's considering is putting the majority, if not all, of his effects in a rack, "but how do you put the electronics to a Cry Baby wah-wah in the rack?" he asks rhetorically.
Stevens' floor setup was completed by a Roland RG-700 synthesiser, a Cry Baby rewired for him by Roger Mayer and a Roland SDE-3000 delay, and for the GR-700, a Roland SRE-555 echo/reverb/chorus, a Roland Dimension D chorus and an Eventide 999 harmoniser.
Stevens may use so many effect pedals live that he sometimes appears to be tap dancing across the floor of the stage, but he records straight into one 100-watt Marshall head and a 4x12" Marshall cabinet stacked on top of another cabinet for clarity. "That way," he explains, "you're hearing the sound at ear level, as is the microphone, so you're not cranking up the treble because the sound is going by your knees."
Clarity is also the reason why he refrains from effects, for "a purer sound. For example, on the new album there's a Heavy Rock tune called World's Forgotten Boy for which I recorded the main guitar without effects. Then I decided which effects wanted to use, and on the second verse, for instance, I overdubbed a guitar track recorded with a 16-millisecond delay. I usually use effects just for solo parts."
For this album, those solos are played almost exclusively on a Hamer Steve Stevens model, of which Stevens owns several and its prototype. The guitar was co-designed by Stevens and Hamer co-founder Jol Dantzig, who describes its Honduras-Mahogany body shape as "a cross between a Les Paul Junior's and a Melody Maker's," with the thickness of the former and the symmetrical horns of the latter. The 24¾", 22-fret neck is made of Rock Maple and comes with either Ebony or Rosewood fingerboards. Electronics are one volume control, one tone control and two-way and three-way pickup selector switches, while pickups are Hamer Slammers: a humbucker in the bridge, and single-coils in the middle and neck positions. Except for some specially wound DiMarzio pickups on his black-metal-flake 'Raygun' guitar, and Seymour Duncans on some of his others, there are no differences between Stevens' personal models and those sold in US stores. The guitar is continually being refined, says Dantzig, "because Steve is not easily satisfied, which is one of the reasons he's such a joy to work with."
According to JD Dworkow, the guitarist is involved in research and development with both Grover Jackson and David Williams of Charvel Mfg, and Seymour Duncan. But surprisingly, Stevens gripes that he rarely gets approached by manufacturers for input.
"I find that musical-instrument companies don't really communicate with players enough, and when they do, they tend to pigeonhole musicians. Like the Japanese companies: 'Ah! We gotta get a lock stah!' You know, I still don't have an amplifier endorsement."
The logical choice for one would be Marshall, which Stevens has employed for years, varying between the new (two JCM 800s) and the old: an EL34 from the late 1960s that bears Jim Marshall's signature, and a Mark II. Not surprisingly, all have been hotrodded with special circuitry, and Stevens runs them into a Vari-ac, which, Dworkow explains, "takes in the voltage and distributes it through an ac box. It boosts the voltage from about 80 volts up to about 130 or 40 volts and really gets the amp cooking."
While Stevens primarily purchases guitars from the new generation of manufacturers, Billy Idol favours Gibsons, his main model a 1957 Les Paul Junior that he bought at an American pawnshop for $475 two years ago. Amplification is a Fender Twin Reverb amp with Gauss speakers, and effects are, in contrast to Stevens', minimal: an MXR flanger and an MXR analogue delay. Idol, whose first guitar was bought for him by his grandfather when he was 10, says he prefers the Gibsons "for their grittiness and depth. They go with my singing better than a top-end guitar like a Hamer or Fender."
Idol's singing is distinguished by his resonant lower register, which provides him with a greater dynamic range. On an ominous, impressionistic song such as Flesh for Fantasy he'll intone the low notes to menacing effect. Or he'll vault a couple of octaves into a full-bodied scream, as he does to ignite the choruses to Rebel Yell. On stage, however, that low range can prove problematic, making it difficult for him to hear himself.
"I've always had that problem, and sometimes there's not much you can do except to work with your soundman," says Idol. As mobile as he is on stage, he still handles a Shure SM58 rather than a wireless mike.
"We talked about using one of them, but you have to be such a pansy with the goddamn things," he says disdainfully, "I like the 58, and not just for its ruggedness. It gives me a lot of sound without the guitar pouring through it, and it's a mike I can work with, using the bass-proximity effect, techniques like that."
Just as he's remained with the SM58 on stage, in the studio Idol has always sung into an AKG 414 dynamic multidirectional mike.
"We've experimented with others but always come back to the 414. You can move around a lot while using it, and I find that with my vocal range I can get a lot of sounds out of it. Sometimes my voice sounds muddy in the studio, and the only thing that can clear it up is the 414."
Except for continuing to use the 414, little else has remained the same for the recording of Whiplash Smile, including the band.
The tension between Idol and drummer Price resolved itself with the departure of Price from the band shortly after this interview was concluded; at the time of our meeting bassist Steven Webster had already been replaced by Carmine Rojes and keyboardist Judi Dozier had left to pursue a solo career, leaving Steve Stephens with much of the remaining keyboard work.
So, Billy — you've sacked your band, split up with your girlfriend, and are months behind with the album. The record company must be going apeshit. Are you frightened?
"All of those business people should be fucking frightened. They don't think that I am anything much. I am not stupid and they should be scared of me. And worried."
Why worried? What power do you have?
"I think real power is my own individual power. The power to be able to say, "Yes, I can do it," even if I am not sure that I can. You can't just think that everyone else knows more than you do all the time. Because they don't."
A pretty confident statement for a man in Billy's position to make. But then, as he points out: "I am the person you never believed would still be around anyway!"
Mr Idol is still around — and despite, or perhaps because of the set-backs he has faced — looks likely to remain so.
Interview by Philip Bashe
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