As one chapter closes, so another begins…
As classic rock stalwarts Skin bowed out in style, supporting the mighty Judas Priest on July 23 at High Voltage, there was no sense that this was the end of days. Guitarist Myke Gray is ready to launch his new project, the melodic, blues-rooted but insistently hard-driving Red White & Blues. And intriguingly, the band will unite both former vocalists Gray has worked with – the rich, emotional tenor of former Jagged Edge singer Matti Alfonzetti, and the full-blooded rock roar of Skin frontman Neville MacDonald, who also plays bass.
On August 20, Red White & Blues will make their Welsh festival debut with a much anticipated performance at the Steelhouse Festival, in Ebbw Vale, Gwent, alongside such names as the Quireboys, Black Spiders and Tigertailz. After that, they’ll head directly for the studio to lay down their first album. We spoke to Myke Gray to get the full lowdown on the new band, its extraordinary combination of talents, and the forthcoming show at the Steelhouse Festival:
How did the reunion with Matti Alfonzetti come about?
Myke Gray: “I hadn’t actually spoken to Matti for over 20 years. Then by the power of Facebook I had a message from him out of the blue. We started chatting and discussing how our respective lives had gone, wives and kids and that sort of stuff, and then the idea came about for him to come over when Skin were touring and do an acoustic slot. He was living in Sweden but he flew over and it was great – he’s such an amazing singer. A lot of water had gone under the bridge, and I even got up and played a couple of Jagged Edge songs with him.”
Was it an easy decision to ask him to sing for Red White And Blues?
“When the Skin tour came to an end, we kept in contact, and because I write all the time I soon started to think about who I could ask to sing if I wanted to put a new project together. The obvious choice was Matti. He flew over again, and we went into the studio and pushed some ideas around. Before long we’d formulated about 15 songs. The first thing that struck us was that there was a really good ‘band vibe’ going on, which is always a good sign.
“We had barely had chance to demo some songs when we were invited to play at Download. On rehearsing with Nev and Daren (Lamberton – drums) it just came together so quickly that we knew we were onto something. We assumed it would take a good year to get things moving, but within six weeks we had a band, we had loads of songs and we were playing big festivals.”
Although Neville plays bass in the band, you’ve effectively got two lead vocalists haven’t you?
“The idea behind Red White & Blues is that although Matti and I are at the core of it, different people will come in at different stages – there’s no ‘fixed’ line-up.
Nev, obviously, is one of the best rock singers in the world, and he sang and played bass with us at Download, Hard Rock Calling and will also be doing so at the Steelhouse Festival. It’s very much an open door for him – whenever he wants to play with us, he can – but the band will always be built around people’s schedules because obviously everyone’s got other things going on in their lives. It’s all self-financed, it all comes from us.
“We’ll be recording our album in August and September, and who will feature on it will vary from track to track – but if Nev wants to play on the album, he certainly will be!
“It reminds me a bit of when Glenn Hughes and David Coverdale were both in Deep Purple. One of the best things I’ve heard in my life was when those guys sang together. We’ve both something that’s at least akin to that. I genuinely think that Matti and Nev are two of the best vocalists out there, so when they sing together it’s totally amazing.”
How have your past experiences in music – good and bad - changed you?
“I’m actually writing a book about the music industry and have been interviewing people for some time. When you’re young and naïve about the business, you have a different perspective. Eventually you realise that being in a band puts you right at the bottom of the food chain – you potentially have a very short shelf life, and even if you’re successful the people that run things expect it to end and are looking for the next thing.
“When you’re a musician you don’t think about that because you’re so immersed in what you’re doing. And you have to be immersed – having that other, more far-sighted knowledge would actually get in the way of what you’re doing.”
How does the new band’s music compare to Skin?
“Our music is harder and heavier than Skin, but it has a deep rooting in blues. If I had to offer some comparisons, if you crossed Free with Mötley Crüe you’d end up with something like Red White & Blues. For the most part I hate comparing our music to other bands, but that’s the kind of intensity we’re talking about. Matti and myself have always believed that the blues is at the bottom of it all, and that everything in rock ultimately comes from there.”
What about the name of the band – is there an element of patriotism in it?
“The name might suggest patriotism but to be honest that’s not where we’re coming from at all. I just love the Martin Scorsese documentary of the same name, and that’s where I got it from. I’m obsessed with blues music actually, and the story of where it came from and how it has influenced today’s music. I love guitars and I love blues, and that Scorsese film encapsulated it for me. The title just stayed with me and seemed like a cool name for a band.”
Skin was massively successful for you. What was it like reforming in 2009?
“When Skin was asked to reform it was specifically to play Download in 2009. We hadn’t seen each other for eleven years, it was going to take just one week out of our lives and we all thought it would be great fun to come out and play Look But Don’t Touch one more time. Two years later, we’ve ended up playing three Download festivals, putting out DVDs and two albums, plus doing endless tours. We certainly didn’t anticipate all that happening.”
Is it definitely all over for Skin now?
“All the guys in the band have got busy lives outside of Skin, and doing anything with the band naturally involves a lot of time and work. We’re therefore laying Skin to rest for at least the foreseeable future. Whether we do something more at some point will depend on everyone involved. You never know – but for the next few years Red White And Blues is going to be my focus.”
To what extent has the Skin reunion, and Red White & Blues, re-energised you as a musician?
“Prior to 2009, I hadn’t actually played guitar for six years. I had packed my equipment away and given up on music. The huge upside of all of this, brought about by Skin reforming, was that I rediscovered my passion for music. I’ve been working as a martial arts instructor and while I find that hugely satisfying, I didn’t realise until music came back into my life that there was this huge hole that I needed to fill. Now, although I have no ambition to play music on a full-time, professional level, I do have a huge desire to continue writing and playing. I like the idea of writing music because it has such a long lifespan, maybe even beyond the living years of the writer.”
The Steelhouse Festival will be a chance to debut your new music to the famously hard rock loving Welsh crowd. How much fun is that gonna be?
“It’s going to be an unbelievable weekend by the sounds of it. We were asked to do it, which was brilliant. It’s gonna be an especially big day for Nev, because he’s from Pontypridd so it’ll be a sort of homecoming for him, and it’s nice to support a new event like this. Nev is actually very patriotic about things like this. In fact, Nev may even be the most Welsh man in all of Wales!
“This shows you what Wales means to us. One of the last Skin shows we did was actually in Pontypridd. In fact, the first Skin show we ever did was also in Wales, at Cardiff’s St David’s Hall supporting Little Angels. We’ve always loved playing in Wales, and that’s not just something to say – we really mean it.
As soon as I spoke to Nev about doing the Steelhouse Festival, and he found out where it was and what it was all about, it became a top priority for us, a ‘must-do’ show.”
Is it positive that there’s so many new festivals, like Steelhouse, starting up now?
“Back in the day, Skin only ever played at one festival, way back in 1994. This time round, festivals have become a lot more prevalent which is just fantastic. I’m not aware of many that have been staged in South Wales, so I love the idea of going there along with a bunch other bands and just opening up the music for all to see. It’s always been hard for rock bands to get exposure and never more so than today when you’re up against things like The X-Factor, but festivals like Steelhouse are a good way of getting all the music to lots of people.
People in Wales understandably have a deep sense of loathing about having to travel to England to get their music fix. There are so many places in Wales that bands just never go to, so things like Steelhouse are really positive.”
What can fans expect from you at the Steelhouse Festival?
“We’ll approach it a little differently to regular gigs. At a festival you always take a look at who else is on the bill. For example, Skin played with Judas Priest recently so obviously we didn’t bother with ballads. There’s gonna be a lot of good hard rocking stuff at the Steelhouse Festival, and our Red White & Blues set is heavy full on rock n’roll so we think it’ll fit in well. We may tip the hat to the blues genre, but whatever you do, don’t get the idea that this is a blues band – it’s gonna be a heads-down hard rock show and we can’t wait!”
Interview: Steve Beebee
Red White & Blues is:
Matti Alfonzetti – vocals
Myke Gray – guitar
Neville MacDonald – vocals and bass
Daren Lamberton – drums
The Steelhouse Festival
August 19 and 20, 2011
Hafod-y-Dafal Farm, Aberbeeg, Ebbw Vale, Gwent, NP13 2PR.
Advance tickets cost £50 (weekend), £35 (Saturday only) and £25 (Friday only). See www.steelhousefestival.com/tickets.html for more details.
SATURDAY AUGUST 20
Red White And Blues
Tom Hollister Trio
FRIDAY AUGUST 19
Hot Red Chili Peppers