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CALLING ROYALTY: AN INTERVIEW WITH JIMI BELL OF HOUSE OF LORDS

interview by Michael McCarthy

all photos by David Butler II

I could sit here and tell you that I’ve been a fan of House of Lords from the beginning, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. While I did see some of their early videos on Headbanger’s Ball – Saturday nights at midnight on MTV – and didn’t dislike them, they certainly didn’t make me want to buy their album. To my tastes, they were a bit too AOR, not that AOR was even a term people used back then. It was when their second album, Sahara, was released and I heard their soaring cover of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” that I became a fan. The very first time I saw that video I was blown away. In fact, I went out and picked up the cassette the next day and I loved the whole album. (The ballad “Remember My Name” is one of the era’s best.) A couple of months later I saw them live, opening for Nelson at Axis in Boston and they were a force to be reckoned with. (Anyone remember Axis?) Suffice to say, I was a fan for life after that. Soon enough came their third album Demons Down, which is one of my all-time favorite metal/rock albums and even better than Sahara. Unfortunately, as the grunge years happened, they released a couple albums that I found disappointing, which was a real downer because they were expensive imports, then I lost touch with them. It wasn’t like today when you can just look a band up on Spotify and check out their latest music. Several years ago, though, I rediscovered them and I’ve been along for the ride since. Today’s interview – conducted during a blizzard on March 14th – is with the band’s masterful guitarist Jimi Bell, who’s been with them since 2005 and has played on over a half dozen impressive House of Lords albums accordingly. And they just keep getting better and better. Their last album, Indestructible, was their best since Demons Down, so brilliant it blew my mind and I’m still listening to it regularly. Of course, I’ve also been streaming their new album Saint of the Lost Souls three times a day. Fans are in for a real treat with this one, so you’ll want to buy or stream it as soon as it’s released on March 24th.  In the following interview, Jimi and I talk about his history with the band, the new album, Saint of the Lost Souls, tour plans and many other things. And you’ll want to read the random questions for an interesting story involving Ozzy Osbourne!

MM: So, are you in Connecticut getting snowed on like us in Massachusetts right now?

JB: Yes, we are. We’re getting hammered, Mike. I mean, really bad here. I’m looking out my window – I don’t see anything. My window is like plastered with snow. I can’t see a thing.

MM: It sounds like it’s worse down there and it’s gradually going to get less intense as it goes north.

JB: Yeah it’s supposed to stop here, I think, somewhere around 6 o’clock. The wind drifts are what’s gonna really do us in. Especially my driveway. We’ve got a stone wall and that’s gonna fill in, fill my car up so I won’t even be able to see it.

MM: It’s unfortunate, that’s for sure. But onto the good stuff. You’ve been in House of Lords since 2005 now, right?

JB: Yes, 2005. It’s been a great run. I’m honored to be a part of the band.

MM: Is World Upside Down the first album you were on?

JB: Yup, it was the first album that I’m on and it was the first album that I actually got to write for. Because we were going in from scratch. James approached me on it and asked me if I’d ever written melodic rock songs before and I said yes even though I really hadn’t. [Both laugh] I absolutely didn’t want to not do the gig. I knew I could do it. I’d written a whole bunch of songs in my lifetime. So, I sent him down a few things that were already written and it just worked out great. Even though they were a little bit heavier tracks. The first track I ever sent him was “I Am Free,” which is on the World Upside Down album. That has a drop D on it. Very different from what House of Lords would have done. They would have never done drop tunings and stuff like that. There’s nothing like that on the first three records, obviously. That stuff wasn’t that popular until later on anyway. I sent that down. And it came back the way he wrote his keyboards on it and layered the vocals and the harmonies just turned this heavy track into a melodic rock song. Amazing to hear. I never know what the songs are gonna sound like until they get sent back. And it’s always one of those things where you go wow, this is so cool. BJ and I send him down a very raw foundation of a track. But it’s completed, though. We don’t send down demos. When we write a song we write it as if it’s going on the record. Whether James accepts it or not, that’s another thing. You know, when we send it to him he could say, nah, I don’t like this song or whatever. And then we’ll use it for something else. Usually, we’re pretty spot on with him. After seven records, you kind of know what the guy wants.

MM: The band had a lot of different members before you joined. Did you expect the gig to last this long or were you kind of nervous about it?

JB: Wow, you’re the first person to ask me that question. I love when I get different questions. No, I kind of felt positive about it. The reason I felt positive about it was because World Upside Down really helped put the band back on the map. The record went over so well that we knew that we were onto something and Frontiers, being the amazing record company that they are, when they put it out and did all the promotions for it the record just really went off. I guess it was a great comeback from the previous record, The Power and the Myth, that one I wasn’t involved in that. Apparently, it didn’t go over so well with the fans. I think there’s some really good songs on it but the fans didn’t really react to it.

MM: Coming from the previous album, it couldn’t really live up to it, I guess.

JB: Right. It’s tough. It’s always a challenge. Every record. Even with us being the same line up for this long – with the exception of our new bassist, Chris Tristram, who just joined on this record – we always try to give something new. Do something a little different. Whatever we could. Whether it’s the change of a beat. Or add more keyboards like we did on this record. I don’t know if you heard that but [with] this new record we went back and added more keyboards into it. Tried to bring it back to the old sound even more a little bit on this one. But the guitars are still very prominent. It’s not like the guitars took a backseat by any means. They’re right up in your face still. The guitar riffs are there. We just added more of the keys in it. I’m very proud of this record.

MM: Who played the keyboards?

JB: James plays all the keyboards on all the House of Lords records since I joined the band with the exception of a few tunes. Except for our opening track “Harlequin.” I became friends with Michele Luppi, who is the keyboard player for Whitesnake. I became friends with him about two years ago and I asked him. He’s a huge, huge House of Lords fan and has been since the band first started back in the day. So, I said, “Man, I’d love for you to do a keyboard intro for the new record. Would it be something you’d even consider?” Him being as busy as he is with Whitesnake, I didn’t think there was a prayer of it, but he jumped for it. He was just like, “Oh, yes, this would be a dream come true for me.” So, it happened like that. And he did this amazing intro and then he played these incredible lines throughout the song. He’s fantastic. He really is. And it’s a real honor to have him on the record. But then I went a step further – and pushed my friendship even a little more on him – I said, “Hey, you know, we’re doing a video for the song. Would you like to be in the video?” [Laughs] And he was all about it. He really was. He had to get permission from the Whitesnake camp and David Coverdale gave him his blessing, which was really huge. So, Michele is in the “Harlequin” video. Right at the beginning you see him doing his whole keyboard intro and it’s a very cool thing.

MM: I understand you and BJ go way back, but I I’m not familiar with what you did previously. Could you give me a little rundown?

JB: Sure, absolutely. My pleasure. I’ve known BJ and I’ve been working with him since about 1998. I’ve known of him for years. We’re from Connecticut but he was from New Haven, Connecticut. I was more from the Hartford area. So, New Haven had a whole different circuit of band members and musicians and stuff. But you hear of the people. I heard of this amazing drummer BJ Zampa. Later on down the years we had hooked up. He was working with a band called Thunderhead. The singer, Ted Bullet, was from New Haven originally, but he went to Germany and became this very popular band called Thunderhead. And Ted came back and was gonna do a new Thunderhead record. So, him and BJ were working on it and they called me and asked if I would come play guitar on it. That’s where everything started.

We did the Thunderhead record and then we had an opportunity to go on tour with Metal Church and David Wayne had just joined Metal Church again and they’d put out the record Masterpiece. So, we went out with them and toured and while we were out on tour – we were on one of those double decker tour buses – David Wayne used to come out and watch me play guitar every night. And then one day I was just sitting in the back of the bus practicing like I always do and he came and sat down next to me and he said, “Look, I’m not gonna stay with this. I want to do a solo album. Are you interested in doing a solo album with me?” I was all about it. Absolutely. And that’s how as soon as we got home we went right to work on the Wayne Metal Church record. And that’s what really started the writing connection between BJ and myself. We started doing that then we did some more with Mike Vescera, formerly of Yngwie and Loudness. We did his solo record. He’s a Connecticut person also. And then we did a few other things. And we just ended up having this really good rapport together. We loved working with each other. Never an argument. We work in our cover bands. We play out together in all kinds of situations. And it just ended up being a great thing. And then when House of Lords came around James had asked me to join in 2005 and the thing about the drummer came up. “I don’t know what to do about a drummer,” he said. He’s used to working with Ken Mary and stuff from the original line up. And I just said, “I have an amazing drummer, James. He writes with me. I work with him. I record with him. He’s right up the road from me. He’d be a great asset. He’s a monster drummer. You’re gonna love him.” And once James heard him it was like instant. He said, “Oh yeah.” So, there wasn’t even a doubt. And it’s been like that ever since. And we do other projects. BJ and I constantly do things for other people. We have our other project Maxx Explosion, which is with Chris McCarville, who was our bass player in House of Lords all the way up to this album. He’s back with Dokken now. But we still do Maxx Explosion and that’s an all original project. We have two records out with that and we’re writing our third one right now. And, of course, we have our new one Saint of the Lost Souls [with House of Lords]. And we’re so honored to have our new bassist Chris Tristram in the band. He’s not only one of the nicest guys you would ever meet, he’s a perfect fan and he’s an amazing bass player and fabulous singer as well.

MM: When did you know him from? Did you just meet him? Or does he go way back?

JB: He became recommended to us. A friend of ours knew of him out of New Jersey and he just got done with Jack Russell’s Great White. He was with him for a long time and then he said he’s looking to do something. So, I contacted him and within five minutes or whatever it was, just talking to him on the phone, I knew that he was the guy. This is the one. Honestly, if he was in Jack Russell’s Great White I figured he could play bass. I didn’t even really have to hear him play bass. I went by his personality and everything. I just said this guy’s a perfect fit for us. But we still went and he came up and did an audition with us at these rehearsal studios out in West Haven, Connecticut. He just nailed it. He learned about five song and he just came in incredible.

MM: One thing I’m wondering, since you’re from Connecticut, is how come House of Lords hasn’t played the Wolf Den at Mohegan Sun Casino?

JB: We have!

MM: Shit. I didn’t know that.

JB: Yeah, I’ve played the Wolf Den. I even played it one time when I was unable to do a tour with them. They actually performed there twice. But our show at the Wolf Den – actually, there’s a lot of videos on Youtube of that show – but, yeah, that’s a wonderful place to play. But, basically, House of Lords has always toured Europe because – you know what the music scene is, you being in the music scene.

MM: Yeah.

JB: You know what it is. So, every time we do a release the band goes and does a Europe tour. That’s just the way it always works. This year we have a Europe tour all booked. We start in the UK at the Hair Metal Heaven. It’s a three day festival. And then we stay in Europe and we go through September and October. But now about a month ago we just signed on with Ashley Talent International and they handle Quiet Riot, Krokus, King’s X – one of my favorite bands, Accept, and a few other people. And they added us to their roster and they’re gonna start booking us throughout the U.S.

MM: Very cool. Hopefully, I’ll get to see you.

JB: We’re very excited about that because we’d been talking about that for the last couple of albums that we really wanted to get back in the U.S. market and get on the festivals that are out there. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be. A lot of the festivals that are out there, they have the exact same bands on all the time and I think House of Lords would be a great addition to those festivals. And fans agree, too. We get letters – well, not letters – messages, E-mails, whatever, on our pages, all saying, “Oh my God, why don’t you play here?” “Can you play here? We miss you.” “We wanted you guys to play.” So, we’re gonna make that happen this year.

MM: Excellent. Now, are you guys still popular in Japan?

JB: Oh yeah. [Laughs] We just did Tokyo, Japan last year. We played the Loud Park Festival, which was the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life and I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve played with a lot of famous people and that was probably one of the biggest things. Tokyo is just mind blowing. The city was incredible. The people were incredible. But the festival was just amazing. And we were on at 1 in the afternoon. 1 or 2. Something ridiculous, early time. And I didn’t see. I couldn’t see out front. They kept you behind the stage until the exact minute that you were supposed to walk on that stage. Everything is run like clockwork over there on the festivals. So, I didn’t know what to expect. I said, “Who the hell is gonna be here at 2 in the afternoon?” But I walked out and there was literally a sea of people as far back as you could see. These people bought their tickets and doors open at 8 and [they] were there. They were there from 8 o’clock on. It was a two day festival and Slayer was one of the headliners. Megadeth was the other. Countless amount of fabulous bands. And we were just honored to be a part of it.

MM: That’s so cool how in other countries you can have Megadeth and Slayer on the same bill as House of Lords. There’s that diversity.

JB: Yeah, you know, when we play Europe we have a really great fanbase. The people in Europe love music but they love all different genres of music. The same people that come and see House of Lords will also go see a death metal show. It’s not like here in the States. Here in the States a lot of people focus on one thing. You’re either like a hardcore metal fan and our type of music is no good. It’s like that. You have your people who like this style of music and not that style. It’s very regimented. Over there, they like everything. And it’s like being back in the ’80’s when you tour Europe. It really is. We see all different age groups at a House of Lords show. You’ll see the young crowd. You’ll see people that have been fans of House of Lords since the very first record. You see they’re older, but they have their kids with them. [Laughs] It’s that type of thing.

MM: Yeah, I’ve been to Paris a few times and I’ve seen the sections for this kind of music in record stores are still big and everything. I’m tempted to say that people here are kind of narrow-minded in terms of what they listen to.

JB: It is. I agree. Narrow-minded, it depends how you take that term, but you’re spot on. I was saying, they have a tendency to like one particular type of music and there will be that massive group and they won’t like something else. Even as far as if you’re a hardcore metal [fan], you’ll think AC/DC sucks. They’re my favorite band in the world. So, it’s that regiment. Like I said, our goal is just to start building the band back in the U.S. this time. We know we do good in Europe. We love the Europe fans and we love going over there. It’s always a treat for us. And we’ve got a great tour booked so far. Oh, you’re in Lowell, huh? That’s what it says…

MM: I’m in Dracut, which borders Lowell. Are you familiar with the area?

JB: Yeah, I’ve traveled through there many, many times. So, yeah. Every once in a while I would sit in – I know it’s down further, Ludlow and stuff, but I used to fill in – like I was just saying I’m a huge AC/DC fan and my friends tribute band Back in Black – they’re in Mass – and every once in a while they were in between guitar players and they know I’m a fan, but they know I wouldn’t put on the Angus suit [laughs], they know I’m a fan of the music and I know all the songs so they would ask me to fill in for them on dates. So, we would play up through Mass and I always go by Lowell on the way up to Nashua, New Hampshire and stuff like this.

RANDOM QUESTIONS

MM: What was the first concert you attended?

JB: Deep Purple. 1973. Before Ian Gillan left the band. Deep Purple is my favorite band ever in the world. Richie Blackmore was my idol. One of my main influences. And I had an opportunity to go see them when they played the New Haven Coliseum and it was a show I’ll never forget as long as I live. As a matter of fact, Billy Preston opened up for them. They used to put all kinds of bands together back in the day. They didn’t have to fit in the same thing. I was just telling somebody the other day I saw The Eagles, Edgar Winter and J. Geil’s Band – or something, something really off the wall, all together in a concert. You just don’t expect to see that. But, yeah, it was Deep Purple and they came out and they opened up with “Highway Star” and that’s when Machinehead first came out and they had the stage all full of dry ice and, oh, God, I’ll never forget it as long as I live.

MM: Name three artists from your parents record collection who you actually liked?

JB: No problem. I grew up listening to big band music. Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller. I was a drummer in my past so I was a huge Gene Krupa fan. I actually got to see him play before he passed away. So, from the age of 13, I was a drummer and I grew up on big band music. I also love Tony Bennett. I love his voice. So, if you’re talking about that type of music, that’s what I grew up on.

MM: If you could resurrect one musician from the dead, who would you bring back and why?

JB: Ronnie James Dio. He was my absolute favorite singer. And I’ll give you a little history. I wrote a song when I was working with Geezer Butler called “Master of Insanity” and I wrote all the music to it and when Ronnie James Dio rejoined Black Sabbath to do the Dehumanizer album I got a call from Geezer’s wife and Geezer’s wife said, “Listen, Jimi, we’re gonna use ‘Master of Insanity’ on the new record,” and I was all excited but she goes, “But I can’t give you songwriting credit. Tony Iommi will never let a song from another guitarist on a record.” So, they were supposed to pay me for the song, which I never got anything. But the fact is that Ronnie James Dio sang on a song I wrote. Ronnie knows I knows it. Ronnie and I had conversations about it. I talked to him in detail. And he was one artist I really, really would’ve loved to work with because the way that I write, I feel that I could’ve worked with him incredible. I feel I could’ve written some amazing songs with him. As far as resurrecting someone from the dead, that would be mine.

MM: What’s the most awkward exchange you’ve ever had with a fellow musician?

JB: Awkward exchange. Hmm…

MM: Someone that was totally just weird or not what you expected?

JB: I’ll tell you something that was kind of interesting. Back in ’86 – this whole thing with Geezer started back in ’86. I was second for Ozzy Osbourne – it got down between Zakk Wylde and myself out of the 500 people. After the audition, Sharon and Ozzy sat me down and said it’s between you and Zakk and they took me out to dinner to this real elegant restaurant you would not let a rock star in. Especially somebody that was a little messed up. They were all doctors and lawyers. It was a very classy restaurant. And I was just [sitting] there. About to eat. And the next thing I know I looked over and Ozzy’s got his hands in my salad. Picking up my salad and eating it with his hands and stuff. I thought that was pretty funny.

Buy Saint of the Lost Souls on Amazon.

Click HERE for Jimi Bell’s official site.

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Written by

Paris365

An entertainment journalist for 20 years, Michael McCarthy was a columnist and contributing editor for the magazines Lollipop and LiveWire. He co-created and wrote for Cinezine, one of the '90's most popular movie E-zines. The only time he's not listening to music is when he's watching television shows and movies or reading, usually music magazines.

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