interview by Michael McCarthy
I first became aware of bass player and songwriter Phil Soussan when I bought Ozzy Osbourne’s album The Ultimate Sin. As soon as I unwrapped it – before I could even get it on the turntable – I discovered that Ozzy had a new bassist and that they’d co-written the massive single “Shot in the Dark,” which remains one of my top five favorite Ozzy songs even now, thirty-something years later. Of course, today it seems to be common knowledge that Phil was the sole author of the song and Ozzy just put his name on it and that this why Ozzy doesn’t include it on his greatest hits type albums. But you can read about that on Wikipedia. I didn’t ask Phil about it because I’m sure he’s sick of talking about it and, besides, we had the killer new album by his current project, Last In Line, to discuss.
Last In Line was started by the three guys who performed on and co-wrote the late Ronnie James Dio’s first three albums with him, guitarist Vivian Campbell, bassist Jimmy Bain and drummer Vinny Appice. They wanted to pay tribute to those albums that they’d made with Dio and, together with newcomer Andrew Freeman on vocals, they did just that. They were so successful that they even made an album of original material, 2016’s excellent Heavy Crown. Sadly, the month prior to its release, Jimmy passed away on January 23rd, 2016, which left the future of the band up in the air. Eventually, Jimmy’s friend, Phil, started doing some dates with them. It went so well that they ended up making a second album of original Last In Line material, which they’ve simply entitled II. It comes out on February 22nd of this year and it’s about as perfect as an album can get, packed full of slow songs that are heavy as hell and fast songs that over-flow with boundless energy. But why don’t we let Phil tell us the story himself?
MM: First of all, which member of Last In Line contacted you about playing bass for them?
PS: I’m not sure. It was Vinny and it was Andrew. They both did. I can’t remember if they did so at the same time. All I remember is that I was at Jimmy’s funeral and I think Andrew might’ve said something like, we’ll let you know if we decide to go and do anything further. Would you be interested? It was a sort of poking a branch out. But it was nothing definite. And that never really came until a while afterward. Of course, I worked with Andrew on the Rock Vault show. So, we knew each other and I just took it as, would you be interested? And I just said, yeah, yeah, let me know. It wasn’t a motivation. We were really quite taken aback by Jimmy’s passing.
MM: Do you think you would have approached them about the gig if you heard they were looking for a new bass player?
PS: No. No. That’s not the kind of way that I was thinking or that I would think. Like I said, I think they were probably just debating whether to even bother continuing. If I had found out that they were putting it together, would I have called them? No, I probably wouldn’t. I probably would’ve waited just to see if somebody would ask me because it’s just not my nature to do that. Years and years before, Ronnie Dio had expressed an interest in me playing bass for him. I don’t know what was going on between him and Jimmy but there was obviously something that was making Ronnie feel like he had to investigate and see if there was anybody who would be interested in playing – for whatever reason. And at the time I turned it down straightaway. I said, I can’t do that, Ronnie, I’m really good friends with Jimmy. And apart from that, we live together. Why would you ask me? You know? I guess that sort of came through to the present day. And so when they did decide to ask me, it wasn’t even that they said, hey, do you want to join the band? Or do you want to replace Jimmy? Some people said that I replaced Jimmy, which I think is really not an ideal way of putting it. I think what they wanted to do is they said we did this record and it meant a lot to Jimmy and we feel that it’s our duty to play it for the fans and would you like to perform it on these shows? And that’s how it started. From the very beginning, I don’t know that it was ever anticipated that we were going to be continuing the band forward.
MM: At what point did the band decide to make the new album?
PS: Well, we did quite a lot of touring together and I think what happened was that, as we did, the band started to gel in a way that was not terribly dissimilar to the way that it had been before. We’re all kind of cut from the same cloth, I would like to say. Jimmy and I had played peer roles in two similar bands. In two sister bands, if you like, and that was Ozzy and Dio, at the same time. So, we weren’t that far apart from each other. And in playing, we connected on a personal level, on a human level, on a musical level and on an attitude level. And I think that as we started to play, it became apparent to us that there was a chemistry there and they said it was not dissimilar from the original chemistry. And once fans really warmed to and appreciated the new material, it made a compelling case to we should do another record. One of the things I’ve gotta say is that so many bands playing this – what I like to call legacy rock – a lot of these kind of bands when they play live, people just want to hear the hits. They’re not interested in hearing new songs. And we’re in a very fortunate position where people have wanted to hear the new songs. And that was probably the reason and the motivation behind, A, wanting to continue and, B, creating a new record.
MM: At what point did you start writing the new album?
PS: I think we started at the beginning of last year. We got together in a rehearsal room and we said, let’s start writing new songs. Leading up to that, I said, OK, great, I’m gonna go home and prepare some tunes, prepare some ideas, that kind of thing. And Vinny pulled me aside and said, no, no, no, we’re not gonna do it like that. We’re gonna do it the same way that we did the first Dio album, and the same way we did the Holy Diver album, and how we did the Heavy Crown album. And the way we did that is, we went in with no preconceived ideas, and we just jammed and started to build these songs. That was like a breath of fresh air for me. Writing songs on your own is very one-dimensional. You tend to go through the same ideas and it’s tricky. But you really get something that is greater than the sum of the parts when you work in collaboration.
MM: So, all the songs were written that way then?
PS: Yes, all of them. Without preconceptions.
MM: When you write songs – like if you’re writing on your own for something – do you write songs on bass guitar or do you use a six string when you write?
PS: Anything and everything. Ideas come from all over the place. Sometimes I write on an acoustic guitar. Sometimes I’ll work on bass. When I work on a lot of melodies, I’ll work on bass. Because bass tends to imply the melody in some form. I think what makes bass players good writers, like McCartney or Geddy Lee or whoever, [is that] there’s this element of a figured bass, which is a classical concept. Because bass and melody are the two things that really define a song. But at the end of the day, I’ve gotta be able to play it on the acoustic guitar. That’s the ultimate test for me. When I finish writing something, I try to play it on the acoustic. That usually tells me whether it’s working or not. Sometimes I’ll write on piano, too. I’m a lousy piano player, but that in itself is a good thing so I don’t get too caught up in that.
MM: I loved Jimmy’s playing on the first Last In Line album and everything else he did, but I have to say that your playing on the new Last In Line album sounds more intricate than the bass on the first album. It reminds me of Billy Sheehan’s playing in Mr. Big. Are your styles similar at all?
PS: I love Billy. And he’s a good friend and he’s certainly a fantastic bass player and I’m flattered that you would put me in that category. I think my motivation for playing might be a little less technical than Billy’s. Billy’s always been someone I’ve seen as Eddie Van Halen on the bass. For me, I’ve been much more of a melodic, McCartney…
MM: I know what you mean.
PS: Everyone from John Paul Jones to Paul McCartney, but I’ve also put a lot of Andy Fraser in my playing. So, I tend to be quite intricate, but I’m also very much more about finding those lines that, to me, are very melodic. But, yeah, like I said, I’m very flattered that you would grace me with that compliment.
MM: Jeff Pilson of Dokken and Foreigner produced the album and, of course, he was in Dio for a few albums as well. Did he give any input in terms of the songwriting at all or did he just come in when it was all written?
PS: Well, he came in when it was all pretty much written. We very much produced this together with Jeff. We did a lot of production on our own. When we went to record Jeff had allocated sufficient time to just go ahead and put down the tracks. Maybe he figured it was just gonna be recorded. Because he’s a very busy guy and, as such, he had to go when we were getting into the guitar over-dubs. And so we did the rest of the album alone. That’s why there’s a co-production on this. This record was produced by Last In Line and Jeff Pilson. So, a lot of it, including the vocals, were all cut at Andy’s studio. Andy has a home studio. We did a lot of it in a very modern way. I have a studio in my house and Chris Collier, who ended up mixing the record, has a studio at his house. And between the three of us, and a lot of Skype sessions, we ended up collaborating very closely. Particularly with the mixing. The whole mixing process was done between the three of us like that. So, it was a very modern way of working. We recorded and got some great sounds with Jeff. We recorded the basics. We actually went back and ended up re-cutting one of the tracks. I wasn’t happy with it and neither was the band. There was something missing from the vibe that we wanted so we re-cut it and Jeff graciously allowed us to do that at his studio. Chris came back and recorded that for us. That’s kind of how the record was put together.
MM: So, what are your plans to tour behind the album?
PS: Well, we’ve started doing shows already. They’ve been going very, very well. We’re thrilled that we’re gonna be playing at Download this year, which is a big deal. The unfortunate part of touring with this band is that we have to work around Def Leppard’s schedule. It’s a scheduling nightmare in more than one way. Vivian is just tremendous. He’s a dynamo. He gets off stage with Leppard and gets right onto a van and is available to do shows with Last In Line. It’s not a very luxurious operation. I’ll tell you that for nothing. I can only imagine that Def Leppard has a sort of traveling comfort that we are not fortunate enough to enjoy at this point in our career. So, it’s pretty rough around the edges and he has no issue with that. Like I said, he’s just gun-ho to get out there and play so that’s a great thing. And we love it. We have a good time. We’re good friends. We have a lot of laughs and fun together. So, even if you’re traveling like that in close quarters, it’s very, very pleasant. We look forward to it.
MM: I know Frontiers usually has their artists give them a Japan only bonus track. Will there be one with II?
PS: There is one, yes. It’s actually an acoustic – well, it’s not even that it’s so much acoustic – it’s much more of a sort of laid back, alternative version of “Landslide.” It’s very neat. It’s got acoustic guitars. It’s got some fretless bass. It’s got some slightly different vocal structures going through it. It’s a very cool track. It has a lot of percussion. And I mixed it, which was cool. I just wanted to do something completely different rather than do an acoustic version of the same song. Let’s re-record it from scratch. If we were doing it in a completely different style, how would it come out? You remember how Clapton did that kind of acoustic version of “Layla” back in the day and it was a completely different song? So, we said, let’s do something different here. If we’re gonna do a bonus track, let’s make it different enough.
MM: You co-wrote at least half of the songs on Vince Neil’s Exposed album, but you either didn’t play bass on it or you weren’t credited. What was the story there?
PS: It’s a bit of both. Some of it I played on and wasn’t credited and some of it I didn’t end up playing on. The story was an unfortunate one. I had put the whole project together with Vince and we started writing songs and many of those songs were songs that were leftover that I had been writing for Ozzy. When I left Ozzy, I took those songs with me. That’s why a lot of that material comes in. So, when you listen to “The Edge” it’s “S.A.T.O.,” when you listen to “The Look In Her Eyes,” it’s like “Bark At The Moon.” Equivalent tracks. And you can hear that. The unfortunate thing is Steve Stevens, who turned out to be, you know, a bit of a snake in the grass. I don’t know what his personal issues were, but he walked into the project and once he got in there he basically had expressed his frustration. He was planning on writing all the songs and playing bass on the record and doing all these things. And I said, no, that’s not how it’s gonna work. It’s gonna work as a band. He said, well, that’s how I do it with Billy Idol. I said, OK, that’s Billy Idol. That’s not Vince Neil and then he started a process of manipulation. Not a pleasant guy. I don’t know to this day why he did that. I sort of backed out. At a certain point it looked like it was going to be very challenging going forward. We had so many problems. The manager had just passed away – Bruce Bird, he was keeping Vince and everybody together – and at that point it started becoming a mess and I backed out. And that would’ve been the end of it. Then one day my business manager called me up and said, oh, you need to know that Steve Stevens has not only put his name on some of your songs but he’s cut you out. I said that’s it and I served an injunction on Warner Bros. He had no evidence to support his claim. We had everything. We had all the demos. We had all the lyrics. We had tapes that were recorded that were pre-dated Steve being in the band. He had no way of substantiating this. At the end of the day, that’s how it worked out. But, unfortunately, if you look on the credits on the album his name is on a bunch of songs even though he did not participate. There’s nothing I can do about that. It’s sad when you meet somebody who’s kind of a jerk and that’s kind of how he was. Nothing against Vince. I still see Vince all the time. And the guys in the band as well. Robbie, I love Robbie, who was originally playing guitar in the band.
MM: If Vince wanted to write a new album with you if you weren’t busy with Last In Line would you consider it?
PS: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, that’s the last thing I said to Vince. In fact, when I left the band I said, look, we wrote all these songs together, and I’m gonna leave the band, but if you ever want to get together and write some stuff you know where I am. And he did. He’s called me up and asked me to do shows with him in the past. I have done some solo shows with him. And I’ve done a couple of corporate events with him and stuff and he’s great. And if he wanted to call up, I would be happy to sit down. We’ve been friends for a long time. I’m still friends with his ex-wife, Sharise, I was at their wedding. I’ve known him since 1982. All that other stuff is all water under the bridge. I’m not gonna jeopardize my friendship over a bad situation that took place at one time.
MM: Counting the live albums, you did five records with the late Johnny Hallyday, who’s like the Elvis of France. What was working with him like?
PS: Big culture shock. I mean, the guy’s huge. It was inconceivable how big he is. And only in French-speaking countries. I’m in the process of writing an autobiography right now and I’m in the process where I’m just at this point where I’m writing about this so it’s quite fresh in the mind. But anytime I was going to go and do something with him there was this superstar culture shock. You’d get to the airport and I was met by some representatives from Air France and they would hand walk us through the airport and stick us in first class. From that point onwards – pardon the pun – we were flying high. And that would continue throughout the process. You’re playing with the biggest artist in France in history and anywhere we went we got treated beautifully. Right up until we got to LAX then I was normal again. Having said that, Johnny himself was tremendous. I loved him. We had a great time together. He loves motorcycles, I love motorcycles. He likes going to the gym and working out; that’s what I like to do. And we liked going out to clubs and having drinks and slapping each other on the back. We definitely connected in a great way. And I have some fantastic memories of working with him and also of spending time with him. Wonderful guy. It was so sad when he passed away.
MM: Are you currently binge-watching anything?
PS: [Laughs] Binge-watching. You know, I don’t watch too much television, so if it’s something I do watch it’s gotta be worthwhile. If I’m watching anything, I love watching TED discussions. I love things that are scientific in nature. I have a background in science in physics and biology and all that stuff, and I’m still fascinated by all that stuff, so I love that. I love watching debates about controversial subjects. I don’t want to get off on anything like that, but I love watching scientists and people talking about everything from global warming to anything that is controversial. When I watch TV, though, we just finished watching Downton Abbey. I thought that was a great series. I think we might get into re-watching some of Game of Thrones because the new season is gonna come up and that was just a fantastic series. I don’t put the TV on and just watch. I find it’s a terrible waste of time.
MM: Do you prefer to listen to new music or music that makes you feel nostalgic?
PS: Well, new music is always fascinating and old music makes me feel nostalgic. [Both laugh] But I like listening to both things. Both styles. Anything that comes up that’s new. And then I like revisiting stuff all the time. If I like an album, it remains on my playlist. There are STP albums that are on my playlist. I listen to old punk stuff. Early Clash. I love music that crosses the boundary. When I grew up, I was growing up as a bit of an odd man out because the music of my generation, growing up, in London at that time in the ’70s was punk. That’s where The Clash came from. That’s where Generation X came from. Notting Hill Gate, all that area. And so I was very much into classical music and I was also into ’50s American rockabilly. I was torn in different directions that would all kind of gel together somewhere. So, yeah, old music, new music, all good. Andy listens to hip-hop. You’d be amazed at the contemporary stuff he listens to. And he doesn’t dismiss anything.
MM: Final question. What are your thoughts on the vinyl comeback?
PS: I started seeing that happen when I was working on the Grammys and one of the board members of the Grammys, Cheryl Pawelski, started a company called Omnivore Recordings. She’d been at Rhino for years doing box sets and she said, we’ve got this idea, we’re gonna start a vinyl label. And it became a tremendous success. Manufacturing our stuff. We license X thousand copies of this record and they’re pre-sold and they’re done. And we started to see this growth of vinyl. It’s a collectors thing. It’s a really cool thing for collectors and I love listening to vinyl from time to time and it has its caveat. But I miss having an album tucked under my arm and going to school. It was a public broadcast of the kind of music that I was into and that would bring people together. You’d see somebody with the same album under their arm and you’d go up to them and say, oh, wow, you’re into that, that’s cool. That’s missing these days. You can’t wear your hard drive under your sleeve. I miss that. So, I’m glad to see people buying vinyl. Sebastian Bach – for my birthday two years ago – he knew David Bowie was one of my favorite artists and the album had just come out, which was his last album, Blackstar, and he came up and gave it to me on vinyl. He said, here, I know you like Bowie, I got you this. And I thought it was really cool. It’s something I’ve got in my collection right now.
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