Firewind – Have Axe, Will Travel

Sunday, 31st March 2013

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Not many metal guitarists have recorded so many albums in their early 30’s like Greece’s Kostas Karamitroudis – otherwise known to most people as Gus G. In his early years, he had four recording bands going in addition to touring obligations – between Dream Evil, Mystic Prophecy, Nightrage and his very own power metal outfit, Firewind. Eventually something had to give and Gus put his hopes and dreams in establishing Firewind as a premiere act.

Thanks to an opportunity to fill in for Christopher Amott on an Ozzfest tour with Arch Enemy in the summer of 2005, Gus would gain the coveted guitar slot for Ozzy Osbourne a few years later, as Zakk Wylde attended to health issues and would concentrate on Black Label Society. During his down time though, Firewind still is a priority – developing the band into a headline attraction in all corners of the globe.

Their seventh studio album Few Against Many represents a heavier, much crisper guitar attack from Gus and fellow guitarist/keyboardist Bob Katsionis than 2010’s Days Of Defiance. In preparation for its imminent release, I gained the opportunity to speak to Gus who has quite the quick-witted gift of gab, and remains quite humble considering the opportunities he has making a full-time living as a musician. The new album Few Against Many came together quickly after your last bit of North American touring in support of the last album. What were the songwriting and recording sessions like for this record- did you go in with a game plan to make things a little more expansive and heavier this time?

Gus G.: Yes. We actually toured pretty late in support of the last album, we did a tour in the fall in the US but the album was already a year old, Days of Defiance came out in October of 2010. All this time we had to put together this material, the plan was to go back out there as a band and play for our fans. Build the hype again for the band because we hadn’t toured together for a couple of years. We capitalized on that to go right into the studio and record this album. While writing all of this material, I noticed a lot of this was more guitar-orientated, back to that sound again – there were a lot less keyboards this time around, so it’s a much heavier record. Was this also the first time you premiered a couple of new tracks prior to their official release? I saw some YouTube footage from Los Angeles and Greece of “Wall of Sound” and “Losing My Mind” – how did this go?

Gus G.: Yeah, when we were at the Los Angeles show we did a new song. And in Greece earlier this year we did a headlining show where we performed two new songs, just to see what the fans’ reaction would be and what the vibe was to get people excited about the new material, and it was really good. You have a new drummer, Johan Nunez, who you were able to break in on the last touring cycles in Europe and North America. Are you hopeful you’ve found a permanent drummer now for Firewind, and has it been difficult to keep most of the same lineup given your outside responsibilities as the guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne?

Gus G.: Of course I hope with every lineup change we have I want to be the last one, but then again we can never really take these things for granted. People change, and people might want different things down the line or what not, ultimately this is my band and I know this lifestyle is not for everybody. With that said, I should say that four out of five in the band have been together for the last seven years or more – it’s become like a family. Even though I was away with Ozzy, I said to the guys I will be away for a year and a half, they can do other projects, jam, do whatever they would like and then when I am back I would call them, jam and make another Firewind record, which is what we did. I hope by bringing Jo in the band he’s going to be that fifth member that will hang out with us for many years to come. He’s a very young guy and hungry for the whole thing, he’s very excited to be able to do this for a living. Will he still be performing double duty with Nightrage, as I know he’s been drumming with them for a while?

Gus G.: Yes, he’s still in Nightrage and I didn’t want him to leave Nightrage because they are a great bunch of a guys and a great band as well. They actually let us borrow him for the tour and they were really cool about us asking him to do the record with us and being a full-time member. We would never want Jo to stop playing in Nightrage. You secured a new label deal with eOne stateside while re-signing with Century Media Records in Europe. Do you think this is better for Firewind to be a priority for separate independent record labels, given your frustrations over the Days Of Defiance promotion schedule here?

Gus G.: Actually the eOne deal is a distribution deal, I formed my own record label for the US… eOne is a fairly large company and I know they distribute a ton of other labels. What led to that decision is I knew a band like Firewind is hard to break into the American market- almost impossible with a lot of US labels understanding how to work a record like ours. I thought instead of giving it to somebody and maybe they do a half-assed job and I end up being frustrated and angry about it again, I would just do it on my own. That way I have full control over the masters, the promotional budget, the marketing- everything. It’s a new experience for me and it’s a lot more work but it’s been a lot of fun so far.” How tough was it to decide what material would appear as bonus tracks for the digipack version of Few Against Many?

Gus G.: Well, we had… not that hard. The bonus track “Battleborn” is one of my favorite tracks on the record, but in the end while we were doing the final masters together I realized that song had a bit more of an old-school traditional vibe as opposed to the other material which sounds a bit more modern. So I decided it would be best to leave that for the digipack. The other bonus is an acoustic version of the track “No Heroes, No Sinners.” I went to the Frets of Fury tour date at Wally’s in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, and despite the small turnout you guys still put on a killer performance. Apollo’s [Papathanasio] vocals in a live situation come off a little rawer yet still exude the class and power we’ve come to know and love. Have the earlier personal issues with him touring for Firewind on a regular basis been resolved, as I know you’ve had to have Henning Basse [Metalium] step in a couple of times through the years?

Gus G.: Well, Apollo has another job outside of being a rock ‘n roll singer, his other job back home is being a music teacher at a school back home, and he has obligations there. Other times he’s had personal family issues to settle, these things are a part of life. After him skipping the last European tour we sat him down and talked to him. We told him he really had to make a choice here, if he was going to follow the recording of the album, he needed to do the whole world tour. We needed him to do things 110%, and he chose to go for it and continue. You kept the merchandise prices reasonable which I think is very welcome in today’s economy- where do you stand on the quality versus quantity when it comes to not only merchandise, but overall sales and fan base for Firewind?

Gus G.: I make sure, I am aware of what’s going on in the world with the economy actually better than others because I live here in Greece and things are pretty bad here. The last couple of years we just kept prices lower with the merchandise – if I remember correctly we were selling t-shirts at $15 or something, and hoodies at $25. It could have actually cost a lot more to manufacture but I thought I would rather take a cut on our merch profit and have more people buying and wearing our t-shirts than making a few more thousand dollars in the long run. It’s worked out well – even at shows that didn’t have a lot of people for a turnout, it’s a win-win situation. More people walk away with the t-shirts and they promote your band, I’d rather have people wearing the Firewind merchandise. Even in restaurants, or if you are selling toilet paper or something, these kind of days it’s good to reconsider and take a small cut on your profit. I think people in the end do see this and appreciate this. How far in advance do you plan your musical endeavors with Ozzy and Firewind? Did you enjoy your touring with Ozzy where you’ve been able to play a variety of Black Sabbath songs and material from all eras of Ozzy’s solo career, including some Jake E. Lee songs not heard in a couple of decades?

Gus G.: Ozzy’s schedule always changes at the last minute, and in the beginning when I joined the band I didn’t really understand how that would work because I thought it was a really big machine – Ozzy Osbourne – but lots of changes do happen and you have to be prepared for that. I’m all cool with that of course right now – we are doing this “Ozzy and Friends” tour in Europe and that was not originally planned at all, it was supposed to be a Black Sabbath tour. You have to be prepared for anything – I am prepared for a phone call tonight if things change. This business is not for everybody – it’s why lineup changes happen because not a lot of people can take that kind of pressure with scheduling. Going back to enjoying the material – what can be said about that? Playing the bible with the man, what a feeling. People ask me all the time what’s your favorite song to play? How can you choose one? “Paranoid” over “Mr. Crowley,” or “No More Tears” over “Shot in the Dark” – it’s all classics, man. I am privileged to go out there and do this.

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