Russ Ballard is a man of many talents. In the sixties, he played with the Roulettes and Unit Four Plus Two with drummer Bob Henrit. When ex-Zombie Rod Argent decided to form his own band Argent, Russ and Bob joined and went on to produce some of the best music of the early seventies. Eighteen months ago, Russ broke away from Argent, and came up with his first solo album, Russ Ballard. On this outing, he played guitars, bass, drums and keyboards as well as singing all the vocal parts. Not content with this, he also wrote all the material and produced the album himself. He went on to produce Roger Daltrey and Leo Sayer, and is now working on his second album with his own band, and is also planning to get back on the road. International Musician caught up with Russ recently on one of his rare days off. Why did you decide to do everything yourself on the first album?
Well, it was something I've wanted to do for a couple of years — something I had to get off my chest. If I hadn't done it last year, I would probably have got round to it in maybe four or five years time.
Why the fairly long gap between that album and the new one?
After the last album, I was going to go out on the road and promote it, and then write and record the second album around January, but the Roger Daltrey album came up. He asked me if I'd like to produce his album and I thought it would only take a couple of months.
How long did it take?
It took six months altogether, because he was doing the film and went on holiday, so we were cramming in sessions between all his commitments. It did upset my plans a bit, because I wanted to go straight on the road and just carry on where I left off. But in retrospect, I think it's probably done me a lot of good. It's given me more experience in the studio producing and I feel physically and mentally fit for the first time in about four years. I'm really looking forward to going out on the road now.
Do you prefer being on the road doing gigs or recording?
It's a different scene really. I love writing, recording and doing gigs so I wouldn't place one above the other. They're the three most important things in my life.
Would you say you were a prolific writer?
I think so. I'm always writing, even though I might not finish actual songs straight away. Every day, I get ideas — words or maybe just titles which will trigger off some lyrics. I've got a cassette recorder, which is probably the best way to do it. If you come up with a good idea — maybe just lying in bed — and you haven't got a recorder handy, by the time you wake up the idea's gone, so I put everything down.
Why did you decide to co-produce the new album with Muff Winwood?
Well, I wanted a producer for this album — just someone to be objective, because I write the songs as well as playing them and singing them. I felt that I needed somebody to be detached from it all, and to stand away and look at it because it's impossible for me to do it being so closely involved, and I didn't want to go into the studio until I'd found somebody that I really respected. CBS suggested some people who I didn't think would be very good for me, and then Maurice Oberstein phoned me up and said he'd had a chat with Muff Winwood and he'd like to do it.
I knew Muff but I hadn't thought of him, so I had a drink with Muff and we talked about the ideas I had. He's a great guy personality-wise, and we hit it off really well plus of course he's been in the same position as me, being in a band, so he knows the drawbacks.
When you left Argent, you gave as one of the reasons the fact that their songs were getting more drawn out, including long solos, and you wanted to do shorter numbers. Do you still feel the same?
Well, at the time, I had six or seven songs ready before I started the first album, and they were all short, simple songs and that's what I was into then. I had about four years with a band that did extended solos and things, so I wanted to get away from it. Again, I just felt I had to get it off my chest, and do some short, simple numbers. It was like a reaction to all the stuff I'd been doing previously. I'm pleased with it, and I'm glad I did it, but the new stuff is... well, I don't like to say deeper... slightly more involved, and the songs are more about my experiences, things that have happened to me.
It's been a year since your last album. Are you still pleased with it, or do you listen to it now and think 'I wish I'd changed this and left that out'?
Oh yeah, but that's what's so great about the business really. If you can look back on an album and think it's perfect and couldn't be improved, I think you might as well give up. I mean, I'm pleased with it, but I sometimes think there are certain things I could have changed, but I'll always be like that.
Who's in the band?
Well, there's Al Wickett on drums, Tony Lester on bass, and Jeff Skates on guitar. I was looking for a keyboards player, but the last few weeks of rehearsals have gone so well that I don't think we need a pianist. Anyway, the guitarist plays a bit of piano, and I play piano, so it seemed a bit pointless to get someone else.
It's common for artists who leave a name band to get together a lot of ex-names to form a band, but the musicians in your band are relatively unknown. Where did you get them?
There's a lot of names about not working, but I think these guys are as good if not better than the other people I could have got. How it came together was that I did a CBS convention in Eastbourne, using a band called Curly behind me and I liked Alan's style of drumming — nice and solid, but I didn't want to pull him out of his band. Later on, he phoned me up and told me he was leaving the band and did I want him to be in my band, so I thought 'Great!' Anyway, he brought along Tony Lester who was a friend of his from Birmingham, and Tony suggested Jeff on guitar. They're great guys, and we hit it off well socially which is so important.
Will you still be using the Strat on gigs?
Yeah. Well, it's a Strat cum Tele really. I threw it up in the air on one of the last Argent gigs, and the neck fell off, so one of the roadies had it mended for me and when I got it back, I found they'd put a Telecaster neck onto it. I've kept it like that though because it's a nice neck. I've also got a Hayman, which is nice but a bit too heavy. A lot of guitars are too heavy. I've always found Gibsons too heavy.
You've cut holes out of the body of your Strat. Was that to reduce the weight?
Well, that came into it. A friend did it for me because I just wanted a guitar to look different from the rest. It's made it a lot lighter though. It hasn't made any difference to the sound at all.
The last album was very strong on vocal harmonies. Will you still incorporate harmonies in the new stuff?
This album will be slightly harder than the last. There will be some harmonies but it won't be quite as harmony-orientated as the last one. It's going to be more like what the band are on stage. We want to keep the continuity thing from stage to studio, so I'm not going to use any orchestras or that type of thing.
Is the act going to be tailored around the new album?
Yeah. I think we'll do some of the older stuff as well though. In fact, during one rehearsal, we did 'It's Only Money' which was a song I wrote for Argent, and it sounded so good — really dynamic — it's ideal for doing on stage. I'm also thinking about doing 'Liar' — one I wrote years ago — that might be a good one to do.
When are you going to start doing gigs?
Well, I hope as soon as the album's out, we'll get back to the old routine. I'm really looking forward to it. I think it's good for any musician who's been playing for ten years or whatever, to take a year off. It's good for your health and if re-charges your batteries. I'm hoping that when I get back on the road, I'll be able to have more time to write and just do the best gigs.