Firewind – Practice, Discipline, and PatienceSunday, 5th February 2017
If you’ve followed the hard rock and metal realm since the early 2000’s, there’s a solid chance you are familiar with virtuoso guitarist Gus G. His extensive discography includes work with Mystic Prophecy, Nightrage, Dream Evil, and some singer named Ozzy Osbourne- who you may know beyond his bat biting, reality show antics. After spending the last few years working on a couple of solo records and touring the globe in support of the endeavors, he returns to his mainstay melodic power metal band Firewind who are up to their eighth studio album in Immortals.
The first concept record for the group, Immortals relays the 480 BC Greek historical battle of Thermopylae and Salamis during the second Persian invasion of Greece. One of history’s infamous last stands, the band felt the music side needed the return to power flourishes that the faithful expect – and Firewind deliver from the first double bass /tom roll of opener “Hands of Time” on through to the more somber, emotionally driven “Lady of 1000 Sorrows” among others. It also helps to have the seasoned vocal prowess of ex-Metalium’s Henning Basse taking over for Apollo Papathanasio – reassuring that the focus is back on strong songwriting and exciting performances even with a significant lineup change.
Calling from Greece, Gus handles my quick queries like the veteran he is – willingly discussing everything from Henning’s push to get another Firewind album out after so many years away, what failures have taught him, and the desire to combine Iommi and Malmsteen into his playing/ songwriting outlook – as well as a healthy amount of career talk.
Dead Rhetoric: Immortals is the first Firewind studio album in five years. It’s not like you haven’t been busy in the interim with two solo records and touring to support them, but is it true you weren’t going to ever do another Firewind album until new vocalist (and longtime friend) Henning Basse pushed you into giving this another go?
Gus G.: That’s kind of true, yes (laughs). I was just happy doing my solo stuff, actually. I still am, of course. I had Henning on the road with me for that solo tour, and we just started talking about things. He kept saying that it was a shame, you have to do another Firewind record. I was like, “I don’t know, man!”. He definitely kicked my ass a little bit about that, so that when I came home after the tour I thought about it. I’ve always been writing stuff for Firewind on the side, I didn’t really pay attention to it. I would have an idea whenever I would have some down time from the tours, and I would make a demo of maybe a verse and a chorus and I would mix it quick to have in my demo folder. So, I opened that Firewind riff folder and I realized I had seven or eight really cool ideas that I could work with. And then slowly the spark came back and we went on from there.
Dead Rhetoric: Are you still on good terms with Apollo – as it had to be frustrating through numerous tours to have to get other singers to fill that role?
Gus G.: It definitely was frustrating for everybody. It’s not the nicest thing to happen to you when you are in the middle of a tour, the singer gets off stage and says, “see ya, I’m going to the airport.” He definitely was giving us a lot of stress, I think it was also giving him a lot of stress. I think it was better that he quit. I haven’t spoken to Apollo since 2012, we didn’t split on bad terms but we just moved on and we haven’t talked to each other since then.
Dead Rhetoric: How did the process work this time around as far as recording and songwriting- especially working in conjunction with experienced producer Dennis Ward? Did you know right from the get go you wanted to make a conceptual album – and if so, is it storyline first, music second or both concurrently?
Gus G.: First it was the music, the music always comes first. Originally, I revisited some ideas that I wrote with Dennis back in 2009 but we never completed. The whole idea was similar, those ideas were for a project we had planned in 2009 – it was going to be about ancient Greek battles. In its nature, it sounded very epic, but at the same time they sounded very much in the Firewind vein. Those songs are pretty cool, so we decided to finish those up. And just working with an outside producer, it was so much smoother for me. When all the band members get involved, everybody wants to have their own thing and people get very emotional about stuff. Whereas working with an outside producer or co-writer, it’s very strict in the sense that you do what’s best for the song, that’s the agenda. So, in that sense it was very smooth.
Dead Rhetoric: Were you always a fan personally of bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Rainbow, Thin Lizzy, etc. who would often throw in history or literature-related themes in the lyrics, which helps differentiate the genre from the norm?
Gus G.: Of course, I am a huge fan of all those bands that you mentioned. First and foremost, I was a fan of their music to be honest, not so much of the lyrics. Of course, I pay attention to the lyrics, but I was a huge fan of the songs themselves. But of course, as you dig into the lyrics like for example Iron Maiden had an epic song called “Alexander the Great”, it was always cool to hear. And Thin Lizzy with some of their Celtic themes, it’s all cool.
Dead Rhetoric: Are you conscious of what the fans expect from Firewind based on your long discography? Is this why you wanted to get back to some faster material after the more modern, experimental sounding Few Against Many?
Gus G.: Absolutely, yes. I think I know by now what our fans want to hear from us. I just wanted to make this record for the fans, first and foremost, not so much for me. I wouldn’t necessarily play power metal in this day and age, I like to experiment with different types of songs as of late, especially on my solo records and going in different paths. But I realize what is important for Firewind and what our fans want and would like to hear from us. I decided to give it to them, there’s no room for experimentation in this band. Firewind is a melodic, heavy power metal band and that is what we should sound like.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you approach live performance nowadays compared to your early years on stage? And what is your stance on backing tracks versus everything being real when it comes to playing live, especially in the metal genre?
Gus G.: A lot of bands have been using (backing tracks) more and more these days. I don’t know man, nothing against that but we were always a band that has an old-school approach when it comes to our live shows. What you see is what you get- we are five guys up on that stage and that’s what you hear. The backing vocals are done by me, we don’t have laptops running to have all these choirs in the background. We are a rawer version of what Firewind is on the record, and in fact I’ve heard a lot of people say they prefer the live aspect of Firewind over the records. It just sounds more raw and punchier, for lack of a better term. A lot of people have told me this in reviews too over time, and I guess that’s a good thing because it means we are a good live band.
Dead Rhetoric: Looking back at your guitar playing, can you think of particular advances or headway you made at certain times where you knew you could take things to another level?
Gus G.: I think that goes back to when I was 14 years old and I heard an Yngwie Malmsteen tape from the album Trilogy. Even though I was into heavy metal already, listening to Black Sabbath and Metallica, it was like a life changing moment. I thought to myself if I could combine the heaviness and riffs of Tony Iommi to play solos like this Yngwie guy, that would be my mission in life. So, I started working towards that right away.
Dead Rhetoric: When discussing guitar technique these days with younger musicians, what one or two areas do you commonly find they want to learn more about – and do they differ from what you think more players need to focus on?
Gus G.: Everybody wants to know how to play fast right away. Guitar players get fascinated with technique, obviously. I get it, because I am as well. There comes a time where you can do all that stuff, it requires a lot of practicing, discipline, and patience. But you find out at a later point that it’s as hard to play slow and say something meaningful musically with a few notes as well. And a lot of guitar players forget about that stuff, they just like to noodle around. And I include myself in that category, I love playing fast but when it comes time to create a solo I think about the whole spectrum of it.
Dead Rhetoric: If we were to be honest in assessing the music business, how much emphasis these days is on the music end of things versus the business end – or so you believe things are evening out on both aspects?
Gus G.: The thing is today artists can have a bigger say on the business part and how they construct their business, presenting themselves in the right way through all of the platforms that are available on the internet. It doesn’t all have to be so traditional these days, you know what I mean? I think you still need a good team around you to help you propel and develop as an artist. That’s something that almost is disappearing, this thing called artist development. Speaking for myself, even at an early and younger age I was interested in the business part of it. I wanted to know what publishing means, know where the money goes from a song that I write, and what kind of rights are those, am I entitled to this or that. I wanted to see where all this money goes and who takes care of it. You find out there’s a lot of bullshit in this business as well, at the same time you still have to stay creative and if you love music enough it will overcome all this business stuff. In the end, it’s all about making the songs.
Dead Rhetoric: In your life or music career, what do you consider your favorite failure that you learned the most and recovered from?
Gus G.: I have had many failures actually, not just one. For a while I tried to be a label guy. (laughs) I released a couple of records in the United States through a distribution deal, on the one album I made good money and on the other I released I lost a lot of money. And I’ve placed budgets where I shouldn’t have, I took chances but I think it’s important to have failures, for every artist. To make mistakes, but you should be making the mistakes that you choose, and not someone else’s so therefore you can learn from them.
Dead Rhetoric: You plan on doing touring and festival runs for Firewind in Europe, the Far East, and South America – but have admitted that North America appears to be a tougher marketplace to crack in previous interviews. From your perspective, why do you think that is?
Gus G.: I don’t know. We’ve done a fair amount of North American tours- not a lot but five or six by now including some mini-tours. This kind of music, European power metal as a tag, it just doesn’t work as well in North America. Sure, we can pull a decent crowd in New York and Los Angeles, or in Montreal. You have three or four great cities, but what about the others? It’s rough sometimes going into the mid-west and all these smaller places. It’s just a very small market for this kind of music at least. I just don’t know these days when we are going to come back to America and what it’s going to look like. If we would be there for a festival, if it’s going to be for a few select gigs, we have to wait and see how the album performs, really.
Dead Rhetoric: What are some activities, hobbies, or interests that you enjoy when you need that recharging of batteries so to speak from music?
Gus G.: Just staying at home, relaxing with my wife and my cats. Taking long walks in the woods, going to movies and hanging out.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the horizon for Gus G, Firewind, and Ozzy in the coming 12-18 months?
Gus G.: A lot of stuff. Obviously, we are promoting the new Firewind record. I’m doing some solo stuff at the same time. I will be doing a tour in Japan and a tour in Europe in April with Steve Stevens. Firewind will be doing festivals, and we are talking about going to some territories we have not been to before like South America and Russia. I’m not sure it’s going to happen, it’s all in the talking stages at this point. A lot of exciting stuff, and at the same time I’m writing for a new solo album that will be released next year.
Dead Rhetoric: Will it be a similar situation of having multiple vocalists for the next solo record or are you hoping to nail down one vocalist?
Gus G.: That is what we are trying to find out right now. I don’t know if there is one singer that could do the full album and tour behind it, if I can’t find someone to commit I will probably have to use a few guests. I have to discuss this with my record label and my booking agents and see what are the next steps for us to build this up to the next level. We’ve created a good foundation already with the two solo albums so we’ll see what the next step is.