Graham Bonnet Band – Mirror of ExcellenceSunday, 15th May 2022
One of the most distinctive voices in heavy rock and metal, Graham Bonnet continues to amaze and astound fans through his powerful range that is as soulful as it is majestic. You only need to look through his history with Rainbow, Michael Schenker Group, Alcatrazz, Impellitteri, and his solo outings to know that he has delivered some potent, classic material that stands the test of time. His third album with the Graham Bonnet Band is Day Out in Nowhere – including all shades of his songwriting abilities, surrounded by stellar musicians and special guests who put their all in for the greater good of the final product. We reached out to the affable Graham who brought us up to speed with the work on the new record, special guests, thoughts on the great guitarists he’s worked with over the years, how his voice is holding up at 74, plus significant memories and future hopes in developing a non-heavy music record down the line.
Dead Rhetoric: Day Out in Nowhere is the newest Graham Bonnet Band record. You mention in the background information that this album encompasses different eras of your career, but with a twist. Can you discuss where you wanted to go with the material this time around, the songwriting sessions, and did the downtime with the pandemic aid the process with more time to reflect and work on the record?
Graham Bonnet: This whole thing took about a year to write everything, because we have been out of work for almost two years. We have been pretty much sitting at home doing nothing- except, well – writing songs and making this album. I am not making any political statements on the album, but there is one song in there about Donald Trump – and if people can recognize it, they’ve won a competition. Most of the songs are about stuff that I’ve experienced, seen on tv, but nothing deep.
It’s been interesting to work on this album, because I had a lot of time to spend on what I wanted to write about. Sometimes you run out of subjects, can you really write about a carpet, or a cloud? It’s really difficult to find something new. We’ve come up with something interesting for everyone to enjoy, really.
Dead Rhetoric: How was it working with drummer Shane Gaalaas this time around- he has a lot of seasoning and experience with many metal/hard rock acts over the years?
Bonnet: Yeah, he’s amazing. We had Shane come in because our original drummer said he wanted his tracks back, after he had recorded them over the year. We are waiting for money to come in from him, he needs to return the money that we paid him I should say. When Shane came in, it was 100% better anyway. He’s just amazing. We did a video at his house a few weeks ago, got to see his studio, and he’s just incredible. What an energy that guy has got – he brings everything to life. Fantastic drummer. Since Cozy Powell, it’s been hard to think of somebody that’s as good as him, but Shane has a similar sort of feel. He plays the songs very, very well – especially on the song “Uncle John”. He gave that hell – there’s some different time signatures in there, and it’s really interesting the parts that he plays.
Dead Rhetoric: Beyond the long-time bandmates that contribute to the album, you had special guest appearances with members of Arch Enemy, Nevermore, White Zombie, Powerman 5000, and former bandmate in Rainbow Don Airey among others. Do you enjoy this collaboration and additional coloring process that takes certain songs to another level – and what did you think of these specific performances?
Bonnet: With Don, I had never written a song with Don Airey, ever. When I was in Rainbow for that one album, it was always writing with Roger Glover or Ritchie Blackmore. I got in touch with him to see if he had anything he could send me. He sent me a song with the arrangement, took it from there and wrote the lyrics with the melody. The track he sent me was very Deep Purple-ish, it’s a song called “It’s Just a Frickin’ Song”. I was frustrated, what can I write about? I could have written about the carpet, how clean it is, how dirty it is – but it’s got to have something that’s interesting or amusing. What can I write about – the blank page is there and it’s making fun of me. Okay – do something. I’ll think of something in a minute. I think he likes it.
When Jeff started playing, he sent a track for the song “Jester”. I like the way he plays; his time signatures are much like Shane, weird. He doesn’t necessarily come in on the one, where a vocal would appear. I was a little bit confused as to where to start the vocal, because it was strange timing. It came together pretty well – that song is about Donald Trump, the Jester.
Dead Rhetoric: Were there any songs that were a bit more challenging for you on the vocal side of things?
Bonnet: Only the ballad, the very last track. It meant something to me because it was about someone I knew, a friend of Beth-Ami and mine. Beth-Ami asked me to write a song about her. I didn’t think it would fit on a so-called heavy rock album. I did another song for my brother a while back we used horns, trumpets, for a ballad we did on another album. I thought we should use some brass players again, Conrad our guitar player suggested strings, like a big orchestral thing. I was blown away when I heard the parts. That was difficult because the emotion within me when I was singing it, I said to Conrad I wrote the song in a certain key, and it starts off on a very high note – I wrote the whole melody around that. Conrad asked me to do it down an octave, but at the same time it sounded more honest. I spoke to her husband on the phone, and some of the lines were taken from him – ‘she smiled at me, one time, and then she was gone’. And that’s a line in the song. So, there are things in a lower register, even though it’s the same notes I intended on singing in a higher octave. At the end when the orchestra ends, I come in with the high note and go into my range. For me on that track, it’s almost spoken because it’s so casual. A lot of people that have interviewed me over the last couple of days have said that track seriously, we love it. This was a devastating loss to both of us, and that track is “Suzy”.
Dead Rhetoric: What can you tell us about the video choices for “Imposter” and “Uncle John” from the new record? Where do you see the importance of videos in this social media driven landscape compared to the visual medium and its impact during the 1980’s/90’s when MTV and video channels showed actual music videos?
Bonnet: Yeah, it’s strange that has disappeared. I miss MTV, VH1 and so on that showed videos – it was a great advertisement for the songs. When I did videos for MTV, I had just come out of Rainbow, so it was with my band Alcatrazz and that was cool. To do a really good video, we found a guy who did both our videos. The first video was “Imposter” – it’s about aging, about me looking in the mirror and seeing myself, and seeing my father, Lou. My dad was 92 when he died. I look like my dad now, it’s so incredible. He was a very handsome man. He inspired for this particular thing. I used to dye my hair dark – I dyed it blonde when I was a younger man, and then when I got older, I would dye it darker to hide the grey. Why did I do that? I’m proud to be 74, still working, and still doing the same job I always loved since I was a little kid. I am glad to be here. I look in the mirror and everyone does this, it doesn’t look like me, I feel like the other guy. The guy who played the younger me, he did all the same movements, copied what I did. He was very cool, and he was great, watching all my mannerisms.
And then we did the second song, “Uncle John”. It’s about a story that happened when I was at school. We had this substitute teacher come in for about 4-5 months. Everybody loved this guy – all the girls and guys liked him. He was very friendly with all the kids. Suddenly he disappeared one day, and he wasn’t taking class. We wondered why – we heard he had been fired. He left the town that I lived in, and he went to another town up north in England. I looked at the newspaper one day, and there was an article about this guy being arrested for pedophilia. It was him! It was John Smith (laughs). Get out of here. Anyway, that’s where the story starts. I remember hearing stories about kids trusting this really certain kind of person, called them their uncle. Creepy guys we’ve heard about, but never actually met. Well, I met this guy, John Smith, he was very likeable. But that wasn’t his real name, as we know. That is based around two different stories.
Dead Rhetoric: Where do you think you’ve seen the greatest changes in your voice and delivery from the early years to your current output? Do you have any specific tricks of the trade or rituals that you need to engage in to get the best out of your voice?
Bonnet: (laughs). Drink with bleach! (laughs). I don’t know. We are going to be playing some shows soon, and I have to warm up my voice because we haven’t done anything in two years besides recording. During the recording, I was on it. We finished songs in a day instead of a week. Now we’ve finished the album, we have to rehearse properly to sing. I don’t know how I still have the voice that I do, considering how I abused my voice with alcohol when I was a younger man. I was always drinking on stage, off the stage, when I was 30 in Rainbow for instance. It was my way getting through the day. It was more accepted back then; it was the law almost. People would ask, ‘what do you want – scotch, vodka?’ It was all laid on. I didn’t smoke, the drinking was the thing. My doctor told me if I kept drinking, I would lose my voice, destroy what I had. I don’t drink the hard stuff anymore; it was burning my vocal cords.
I went to a doctor about seven years ago, because I was getting a bit croaky, tickle in my throat. He said my right vocal cord is slightly damaged from the years of singing. It’s lost its power; it wasn’t pumped up like it’s supposed to be. He put some cortisone into my vocal cord and got my voice back to where it was before. Nice and clear, all the lower notes were there, all the high notes were there. You have to have the vibrato, that makes things interesting. You need that control, and I lost the lower range because of the tickle. Luckily, it’s been fine since there, there is scarring there, but the muscle is a muscle. I’m very pleased with the way it is. A lot of my friends have had to give it up. Singers especially, as they get into their sixties, you do lose things. Apparently not, I’m still sounding the same as I did back then. I love it! (laughs). It can always be ruined by bad habits, which I don’t ever want to do again.
Dead Rhetoric: Looking back at your vast musical career, what are some of the benchmark, highlight reel moments that stay forever embedded in your memory bank – where you knew you were doing some special with your work? Be it specific albums, videos, touring situations, festivals, etc.?
Bonnet: The first thing I ever did was a song with Barry Gibb back in 1968 with my cousin. We were called the Marbles – a terrible name. That was Robert Stigwood’s choice, of all people. We went through a load of different names. That meant something to me, sitting there with the Bee Gees and singing songs on our acoustic guitars, Stevie Wonder songs, The Beatles songs, Beach Boys songs, in perfect harmony – that was amazing. That was one of the most special times – if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. I made a record with my cousin Trevor, it went into the British charts at number three, we were given praise. Who are these guys? If it wasn’t for Barry, Robin, and Maurice – I wouldn’t be doing this. Because I did that song, it got me jobs later on – with Rainbow especially. Ritchie knew what I had done, and then I got the audition. One of the songs they liked was “Only One Woman”, sort of an r+b song.
Another special time is joining Rainbow. If I hadn’t joined Rainbow, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now, again. I would have stayed with r+b and pop stuff. I got a new chance to do something new, something to experiment with. I wasn’t used to singing with a heavy band. The first day I met them, Don Airey on the keyboards just blew me away. A semi-classical style, what do I do in this band? I found a way, Roger Glover gave me a lot of help, where to come in on songs – where verses started and stopped, same with choruses. It was a different world for me, but what a great teaching it was from that band. I was taught a lot by Ritchie Blackmore and Roger Glover especially. They helped me get through that album. Roger would come in with an idea and put things down on a cassette machine in the hotel room. They would ask me to ad lib and turn things my way. I would change the melody from Roger to suit my voice, Roger wrote all the words, I wrote all the melodies. Which I didn’t realize I was doing, and I was never credited for that, which is a shame. I didn’t realize I was being a songwriter. I was really green about being in a band.
Of course, the Monsters of Rock show in Castle Donnington was tasseled into my brain. Cozy left the band, we had a great night, considering we were all really tired after months of touring. I remember Don saying before the show, how did I feel? We had to do the show, it had been raining – it wasn’t called off. The whole field was all muddy, the audience of 100,000 people – we couldn’t believe it. That was such a great day. My family was there, my brother, my mother, my dad, my nieces and nephews, they were impressed with Graham and the band. My dad was impressed with how much work goes into the playing. Don and Ritchie did a lot of unison stuff between the keyboards and guitars, he was so impressed.
Dead Rhetoric: You’ve worked with some elite guitarists: Ritchie Blackmore, Michael Schenker, Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai, and Chris Impellitteri among others. Who would you say over your career impressed you the most as far as versatility, creativity, and ability to position your voice best for magical compositions and output?
Bonnet: They were all great – I can’t say that one was specifically better than the other, as they all had their own special ways. My favorite album is the one I made with Steve Vai when he joined my band Alcatrazz with Disturbing the Peace. He was so interesting, when Steve made an arrangement, he always went somewhere you didn’t expect him to go. When someone takes a left turn, we worked together in a separate studio on the guitars and vocals. We had to be so perfect, Steve is a perfectionist. All the guys… no one is better than the other. Chris is Mr. Speed, one of the fastest guitarists on earth. Yngwie was very soulful, heavy rock player. Ritchie is the guy that inspired him. When I saw Ritchie play for the first time, I was amazed with how he played. Those guys, they were all so different, but the best of the best.
Dead Rhetoric: What misconceptions or common mistakes do you see other musicians making in the hard rock scene that you wish they would think about or learn from? How have you handled setbacks and failures at certain times in your career?
Bonnet: I don’t think I’ve made that many mistakes. I had the choice to carry on with Rainbow, which I think was a big no no. I could have done another album with them. I always wanted to go on my own way with different music. Being in a band was an eye-opener for me. I always wanted to be a solo singer. I realized I was where I belonged in a band – a great teaching method.
I’m not putting him down by saying this but Rob Halford when he had that band Fight, it wasn’t him at all. He should stick to what he does best, he’s a fantastic singer. All that high stuff – but with Fight, it was like grunge music was coming out, and he tried to match that. I think that’s a big mistake, never listen to what is current. Do your own thing. But don’t listen to other people. For him, it just didn’t work – and eventually he got back to what he’s best at, I’m glad to say. He’s a good guy. I never try to emulate any other band’s sound. It comes from the voice, the words I make up, and the arrangements. I’ve got great players in my band. We put songs together that I think are interesting. I’ve always said about Alcatrazz that we were the thinking man’s heavy metal band.
Dead Rhetoric: Many have also noted that your wardrobe is atypical for singers in the hard rock/heavy metal genre. Who did you look to for inspiration and guidance in that regard – and do you believe this helped you stand out beyond your obvious stellar vocal abilities?
Bonnet: Yes, absolutely. Before Rainbow I was doing stuff on my own, and I had my own image. I liked rock and roll from the 50’s, r+b, blues stuff. When I did solo albums, I had to have some kind of look. For me it was 1950’s, people like James Dean, Marlon Brando, people like that. I had my suits made in a 1950’s style, my shirts even, my ties I bought. A guy gave me some from the 1960’s. They made the shirt cuffs a little bit narrower than the way they make them today. I wanted to be different, I didn’t want to be like the other guys. I didn’t want to copy other people’s music; I didn’t want to have anyone else’s image.
At that time, I was living in London, punk was just starting. People had different hair styles and were looking a bit different. I had the suit and tie, cuffs on the pants, nobody said much. When I came to the states I saw the fluffy hair people, and I knew it was different. Guys dressing up in women’s clothing, I didn’t get that at all. Ritchie was sort of into me having long hair. It wasn’t me at all. I remember walking in a city in the states – these long hair guys standing on a bridge in their twenties, I was 32-33 at the time, they were in shock at my hair. I didn’t have the uniform at the time. I said to my ex-wife, do you hear that? I am making an impression. I wanted to be different to make some kind of statement, and I think I have. Because that is who I was. Cozy Powell used to call me the bank manager (laughs). After a while, they knew I was one of the guys.
Dead Rhetoric: How much longer do you see yourself continuing as far as recording and playing live? Have you thought about what else you want to accomplish with your musical career that you haven’t achieved as of yet?
Bonnet: I’d like to do an album of not necessarily heavy rock. Not sort of in the uniform fashion, I’d like to do some more r+b and sort of progressive stuff then straightforward heavy metal. And also, I would love to meet Brian Wilson and talk to him about his musical career. To see how he would handle the way I sound like, I love harmony, but I’ve never met him. I would love to do something with him, he’s an amazing person. The songs he writes… the later Pet Sounds album, it’s classic. Where I can just go and do songs.