Black Swan – Ready to Shake the WorldSunday, 23rd February 2020
The coming together of four guys that have had their foot in the hard rock window for decades, vocalist Robin McAuley, Reb Beach, Jeff Pilson, and Matt Starr have crafted Black Swan into something that goes beyond the usual ‘classic rock’ vision. Infusing a knack for big melodies, solos, and choruses, they have also imbued it with a more modern heaviness and swagger. Shake the World should do exactly that – full of top-shelf performances that will leave a lasting impression after only the first listen. We got to speak with McAuley just prior to the album’s release last week to discuss his health, how he keeps his voice sharp, and plenty about the potential of Black Swan.
Dead Rhetoric: Before we get into things, are you feeling better after last month’s medical issues that happened just before 70K Tons of Metal Festival?
Robin McAuley: I feel fantastic, thank you for asking. I feel as good as I did right up until that moment – I was feeling great and my family and I had been out to church that morning and we got home and had breakfast. It was an hour before I was supposed to drive into LA to take the flight to Florida and I suddenly became extremely cold. It was about 80 degrees outside, but I was extremely cold. Within a 20 minute window, my body went into shock. I was shaking, and I could barely speak. One of my sons jumped on the phone and called 911. By the end of the day I was in an ICU unit and was in a 12 hour critical window. When I came to, everyone was telling me it was a lucky one! I was like, “What just happened?”
The long and the short of it, is that you can be feeling really healthy – I had no symptoms, and I felt really cold. The end of the day results were that I had somehow contracted the e. coli virus, which became a UTI/bladder infection, which then become septic and got into my bloodstream, beginning to poison the crap out of me! The ICU unit worked extremely hard – thank god for our medical staff, and they were pumping me with antibiotics. It took them from Sunday until Wednesday before the CDC had located the exact type of bacteria it was, so then they could use the antibiotic to best take care of the infection instead of a more broad one. As soon as I started taking that one, the world turned around and I said, “I think I just missed the boat, let’s go [laughs]!”
I swear to god, I’m a great believer in keeping healthy and staying fit, so that if there’s something wrong you’ll know about it, but it seems not necessarily so. I thought I would get some sort of warning but I did not. People have come up to me and asked how I am going to know next time – I said, “Maybe I’ll get a memo next time [laughs]!” I don’t know the answer to that. The good news is that I’m here to tell the tale, and it’s a good thing I wasn’t actually on the cruise ship [when it happened].
Dead Rhetoric: How do you feel that Black Swan is different from other bands that you have been a part of?
McAuley: Straight out of the gate, as a vocalist, it’s by far the best produced, most real sounding that my vocals have ever been recorded, thanks to Jeff Pilson. It’s fresh, it’s very powerful – I think people will be impressed with how heavy and powerful it is, yet we can turn out your typical classic rock ballad with the same freshness. It just came together really easily. No one came in with a blueprint of how we needed to make the record. That said, Frontiers said, we love classic rock so I said that we shouldn’t just make ‘another one.’ We wanted to make sure it wasn’t the same old, same old. While it’s a classic rock record, there are elements that are current in terms of lyrical content, the melodies are strong, and it’s got a firepower to it. I’m really proud of it. I love it. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I know a lot musicians say that the last thing was best they’ve ever done, but that’s how I feel about it.
Dead Rhetoric: Are you cognizant of all of the inevitable ‘supergroup’ tags that are going to be attached to this?
McAuley: I hate that – I really do. As soon as I saw this, someone said, “Oh boy, a supergroup!” I was like “No!” What is a supergroup? It’s just something that a person wants to call it. What it is, is a phenomenal person, Jeff Pilson. I’ve known him for a very long time, and he was on the last McAuley/Schenker album together with James Kottak, who played and perform on some of the earlier parts of the McAuley Schenker Unplugged, and he was best man at my wedding, and I’ll be married 27 years this year. I’ve known him all of that time – he’s a great friend. Reb Beach I had met before. Reb is a phenomenal songwriter and a killer guitar player, in his work from Winger to Whitesnake. I think when you hear him on Black Swan, he has a nastiness to him on this that I’m not sure he has really dug into in any other record he’s done.
I think that made this record a little bit different. I think we saw an opportunity to do a little bit more than we had done in the past with bands that people were familiar with. Then Matt Starr came in at the end, which was an unusual process because Jeff never wanted to play bass on this. But he called me and said that Frontiers wanted him to put together a project, and he jumped at the opportunity because he knew he wanted to call Reb first, because they had worked together on the Dokken records, and he called me. We got together and had a chat. They sent me some music, and I came in with the first melody and lyric that I offered to them and it was eventually “Big Disaster.” I remember Reb looking at me, because I had only met him once before, many years ago in my Survivor days, and he started laughing and said, “Probably not the best title for a new project!” [laughs] Then the irony of that is the song came out the day after I came out of the hospital as the second single. People are going to start thinking this was a crazy publicity stunt, but I can assure you it’s not.
So that was the first song that was written. We kind of beat Jeff up, as the recording process was at his house in his studio, and he would lay down the bass parts as a guide. He had a bunch of names, really well known bass players, that he had queued up for the project. But they became less and less available before the time schedule to put all of this together was stupidly crazy. Reb and I always had the idea that Jeff would be the bass player, and we wouldn’t give up on it. We told him, “C’mon dude, you are going to have someone in the studio saying that these are the parts you put down and want to keep it the same.” We knew he’d play bass, even if he didn’t want to. In other projects I suppose, you are in the asshole of the world and you record your vocals and they just stick it on. That’s not how this was. Matt came into the studio, after Rebs, mine, and Jeff’s parts were done, and we played the drums over the top of all of the music, with Jeff’s production guidance. He did a powerhouse job. He came in very strong with some good ideas, and it worked our really, really well.
The supergroup element is just an easy title for those who want to call it something else. I wouldn’t call it that as I don’t like the term. It’s four guys who were fortunate enough to put it all together and we had an absolute blast. For us, I don’t want to call it a super group, I want to call it a kick ass rock band – that’s what it is.
Dead Rhetoric: Given the busy schedules of everyone involved, how much room will there be for live shows from Black Swan?
McAuley: That’s the million dollar question, because Reb’s Whitesnake/Winger schedule is to say the least, is to the wall. Jeff is very similar although when the two of us were doing an interview together last night, he mentioned that come September, Foreigner will be somewhat free of live performances. I have a very busy schedule because I perform 5 nights a week in Las Vegas with the Raiding the Rock Vault show. But in the next few weeks – the first week of March I head out to Japan with Michael Schenker Fest. Very soon after that, we head into the UK and the rest of Europe. There’s the very strong possibility that there is another US leg put together. So that’s a little bit crazy.
But now that I know that Jeff will be available after September [laughs]. Ideally, because we’ve all spoken about this, it will take work but nothing is impossible. The making of this record, we thought it would never happen. We loved the idea of working together and we went, well, if we could get together and write a song, it would be a lot of fun. Well, we did it! Reb lives in Pittsburgh – he’s not up the street. Jeff and I live in LA, and so does Matt. I can get to either Jeff or Matt really easily. The parameters there are pretty easy, and the 3 of us have decided that we aren’t going to Pittsburgh because it’s too damn cold [laughs]! It will take planning, and I absolutely hope that this gets a shot at doing a bunch of shows. So fingers crossed!
Dead Rhetoric: You’ve been in a lot of bands over the years. Do you tailor your voice to the guitarist/band?
McAuley: People have asked me that about Michael Schenker because he has a unique style. But the thing about him is that Michael has a real depth of melody. He plays really fast, and there’s no other guitar player like him. But it’s his depth of melody that I personally have always loved. And I get that with Reb. He’s an amazing guitar player, and his depth of melody and sense of melody really jumps out at you.
I’ll tell you a really short story – they had sent me some music, which is what they do, and then I write lyrics and melodies and that sort of stuff. Then I came back to Jeff. I’m a big vampire buff – I love vampire movies and that sort of stuff. So I came to him and I asked if Jeff could hear all of the tones in the intro to the song. Jeff looks at me and goes, “Did you have too much coffee this morning?” So I pointed it out to him. This whole song is structured around the love of vampires, and the resurrection of vampires who lost his love 1000 years ago. Jeff said, “Dude, it’s a classic rock record. That’s all it is.” And I explained it more to him and he started to hear more of it. We structured this whole song around this stupid idea I had around vampires and it became “Immortal Souls.” He’s looking at me and was like, “Holy shit, what are you going to come up with next?”
Believe it or not, the song that came up next, which really touched home with me, was “Johnny Came Marching.” Which is really “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” which is about a soldier returning home and things are not the same as when he left and he’s a different person. So this song was based around the Borderline Bar and Grill massacre that took place not too far from my front door. I was actually in Poland at the time, doing a tour with Schenker Fest. My son Casey, who is a great guitar player and sings back up on like four songs on the record – he got to sing with his old man and get his feet wet – he had been to the Borderline Grill the week before, and was on his way that night. Thankfully he works a part time job and got called in.
But unfortunately for a dozen plus people and a sheriff, there was a soldier who didn’t have a good evening, and shot the place up. So I was very influenced by that, and when they sent me the music, they had a completely different idea of what the lyrical content would point towards. As soon as I heard it, I heard that disgruntled soldier who didn’t get the proper treatment and wasn’t properly acclimated, which is unfortunately the deal. When we talk about soldiers, we think about men, but these are kids. Same age as my son. They are sent out with not enough training, and a gun in their heads. They come back, and their heads are where? We think they have psychological issues and this and that – we are quick to blame, and that’s not to take away from the horrendous loss that these poor families suffer. But we need to look into this. When Reb heard it, he said we couldn’t call it, “When Johnny Came Marching Home,” just call it “Johnny Came Marching.” But I said, “Where is he marching too? He has to be marching somewhere [laughs].” It’s a very strong song on the album. We jumped around with what’s going on lately in the world.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you keep your voice in tip-top shape after so many years of singing?
McAuley: I’m a real miserable, anti-social S.O.B. I don’t really go out that much. My voice is my instrument, and I work it very hard 5 nights a week, every week. Raiding the Rock Vault in Las Vegas is going into its seventh year, with almost 1500 shows under our belt. You get tired – so you have to train like an athlete. If your voice is your instrument, you have to make sure it’s ready to take to the races each night and go the distance. It’s not always easy, because you get tired and fatigued. Casinos are not the easiest place – there’s no smoking in the showrooms, but when you come out from meet & greets and signings, people smoke in casinos. Smoking is public enemy #1 for me. I’ve never smoked in my life and I’m not going to start now. So I never smoke; I love a glass of wine, but I never drink when I’m working. It’s a bit like Superman – I never drink when I’m flying [laughs].
I have a responsibility. When we travel to Europe and I’m doing shows with Schenker Fest, sometimes I’ll fly into Japan and we’ll have a show the next night. Your voice better be ready for it. There’s lots of soundchecks, and your voice is always working. You have to be very careful in how you treat it. I still have my voice in a good place – it’s pretty strong. I know how to use it, I know all the tricks of the trade and how to duck/dive when it isn’t where it’s supposed to be. Also, with the Vegas shows – we don’t use any tracks. It’s 100% live. It is a classic rock show. We cover from the ‘60s to the ‘80s and we do 35 songs in 90 minutes. There’s a lot asked of each single artist on stage, and we pride ourselves on being able to cut it. We work hard and we try to maintain that level of greatness. It’s difficult, but not impossible. You love what you do, and do it well. I’m Irish, and I’m very stubborn. I want to maintain a level of dignity in the performance. I don’t want to walk out there and have someone think, “Oh, this dude really needs to give this up.” I don’t ever want people saying that.
Dead Rhetoric: What is the difference in doing the Las Vegas show versus going out on tour with a band?
McAuley: It’s very different. It is a show – there’s dancers and choreography involved. Plus we are doing other people’s music. There’s a show around it, with backgrounds and screens that tell the story of classic rock. We are actually telling a story while we perform. There’s voice-overs and actual video and photos flashed onto the screen showing where a band was at that time. It tells a story of how people were at that time, and segway into whatever song it is – be it the Doors, Hendrix, or early Who. We have Hugh McDonald, the bass player for Bon Jovi, and Howard Leese, our musical director, who has been with Paul Rodgers for the last 15 years now and was of course, Heart’s guitar player. That’s the caliber of people in the show.
We’ve got Doug Aldrich, who rotates – we have Tracii Guns and Jay Schellen, who is now out drumming with Yes, and we have Rowan Robertson, who played with Dio, and Paul Shortino who you may know from Quiet Riot, Todd Kerns also comes in as a vocalist. Andrew Freeman and Mark Boais were also involved. Dweezil Zappa is our main female vocalist, and Megan Ruger who was on The Voice. It’s a revolving door because we all tour, and we need a huge cast. Everyone really has to be ready to step into someone else’s role. In any given week or night, someone might get sick. You have to know their songs and moves.
There’s a lot of work in it – you have to be on your toes. We are performing other people’s music, but we learn it exactly like the record. People come to the show and hear Hotel California, for example, and all the guitar parts are exactly like it was recorded. It’s not like someone just playing it at your local club and hacking it up, it’s note for note. With the singing, no one is Robert Plant or Don Henley, so we share lead vocals. We are always bouncing off of it to give it the extra texture, but the integrity of the songs are 100%. That’s what we strive for.
Dead Rhetoric: What are your plans for the year, either with Black Swan or anything else you are involved in?
McAuley: Vegas will continue, and I will leave for Japan with Schenker in March, and then into the UK and Europe. Hopefully we will find that spot you were asking about and take Black Swan to the stage. The album is out on Valentine’s Day, and hopefully we will be shaking it up a little bit.