interview by Michael McCarthy
If you grew up in the ‘80’s or early ‘90’s then you probably fancied heavy metal and you likely had at least a hundred cassette tapes to prove it. Your collection was surely populated by bands like Poison, Twisted Sister and Motley Crue. But there was probably one tape by a band called TNT. And you probably liked it a lot. In fact, you were probably in love with it. That’s the interesting thing about TNT – it seems like everyone owned one of their records and loved it, yet not many people owned all of their tapes or worshiped the band religiously. I think that was because TNT were never really shoved down anyone’s throats the way bands like Ratt and White Lion were. TNT’s music was around, like treasure waiting to be found, but you had to go out of your way to find it. Personally, they never really captured my attention until I heard a song called “Rain” from their 1992 album Realized Fantasies on WAAF one night when I was working third shift at a convenience store. It was easily the best, most invigorating song I’d heard in weeks and the next morning I headed to the record store to buy the CD before going home to go to bed. Unfortunately, the record store didn’t have the CD. They said that they’d had a couple of copies but they’d sold them all. Eager to hear the album, I turned to the cassette section of the store. Sure enough, they had one copy of Realized Fantasies sitting there. Needless to say I bought it and cranked it the whole way home. It was a truly amazing album, just bursting with energy and artistry. I had been aware of TNT before – and kind of liked their song “Intuition” – but this album was so fresh and invigorating. It was like listening to a vital debut album destined to be a classic, like Guns ‘N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction or Motley Crue’s Too Fast For Love.
Now, here’s the thing: I’ve been a fan of everything TNT’s singer, Tony Harnell, has done ever since. And the reason he’s one of my favorite artists is that somehow every single album he puts out feels just as lively and inspired. So many artists from what’s now called the hair band era have put out so many shitty albums during the past 15 years. Some of them have even completely re-recorded their classic albums. They claim it’s to wrestle the songs away from their former record labels, but it’s more than likely to make a quick buck. But that’s something I could write a whole article about. My point here is that Tony Harnell is all about quality. From his work with TNT to his work with the bands Westworld and Starbreaker, Tony has consistently delivered albums full of passionate songs and they have always sounded fantastic production-wise. His latest project, an acoustic E.P. called Tony Harnell & The Wildflowers, continues with this tradition. You’d swear you were listening to a band of 20 year old kids who are singing for their supper. Well, OK, there’s a certain air of maturity to the project, but in the best way possible. Tony has taken everything he’s learned over the years and extracted the key elements to make a stripped down album populated by acoustic guitars, violin and sparse percussion that somehow rocks just as much as anything he ever did with TNT, which he left in 2006.
I recently reviewed The Wildflowers’ E.P. (http://www.loveispop.com/reviews/tony-harnell-the-wildflowers/) and received an e-mail from Tony stating that he’d love to do an interview with me. Overjoyed, I promptly wrote up as many questions as I could possibly think of and I’m happy to say that he answered them all. Even if you’ve never been a fan of his music, or have never even heard of him before, I suggest that you read this interview and get to know, well, one of the greatest rock singers to ever live. He might never achieve the status of Freddie Mercury or Robert Plant, but his contribution to the music world is no less potent.
In 2010 you released an album called Round Trip as Tony Harnell & The Mercury Train, but your latest project is Tony Harnell & The Wildflowers. What happened to The Mercury Train? Will you be collaborating with them again or was that a one-off situation?
I would love to do another album with that line up in the future, there was a lot of chemistry on that album and it was fun to inject different energy into some of my hard rock songs:)
How involved were the guys in The Mercury Train in coming up with the arrangements of your re-interpreted songs? Did you come up with them on your own and then the guys just recorded their parts, or was it a collaborative effort?
It was very much a collaborative effort:) we all had different ideas we brought to the recording but I must give most of the credit to Jason Hagen for helping me with many of the initial arrangements.
The Mercury Train had a lot of acoustic guitars and The Wildflowers is an acoustic project. Were you afraid of losing any of your metal fans when you made these albums? To that end, what has the response from your longtime fans been like?
It’s been really positive and in all fairness they are two different animals altogether. Plus I don’t really consider myself a metal artist, although I know some do. I just think I’m a rock singer who likes to write and sing various styles of music but I’ll always return to my rock roots. But the Wildflowers EP is really a much more aggressive acoustic album with mostly all new material. It’s very different than the Mercury Train album:)
Do you intend to do more acoustic music in the future? I think it suits your voice just as well as hard rock, maybe even better.
Thank you, I agree:) I think I’m onto something but I’d like to now find a way to combine it all ala Zeppelin. Where I can make one album with a mixed vibe that blends well together:)
You’re calling The Wildflowers release an EP, but it’s eight songs with a bonus track, so technically I think you could have gotten away with calling it an album, since there were plenty of 8 and 9 song albums in the ’80’s. Why did you opt to call it an EP?
Haha, well, I didn’t think we’d have so many songs but in all fairness Child’s Play live is sort of a bonus track for the fans and What If is a Westworld remake but still, even 7 new songs is a lot for an EP I agree. Just wanted to give the folks more songs at the end of the day:)
Why didn’t you just make it a couple of songs longer, make it a full-length album?
Good question, I just think it’s a long EP:)
The song “Get Up Again” on your new EP is said to be about your mother. Did she get to hear it before she passed or was it written after? How difficult was it to write? Was it cathartic at all?
It just poured out of me. It was written three years after she passed away. I just couldn’t write anything for awhile. I think she would have liked it a lot though:)
“Get Up Again” clearly has a blues influence, but I also detect a country influence. Are you a fan of country music? If so, who are some of your favorite artists and do you prefer old country or the more pop-flavored country of today?
I was a big Glen Campbell fan when I was very young and always loved bluesy artists as well so those influences are in there.
“Runaround,” to my ears, has a very folk sound. Are you into folk music? If so, who are your favorite artists and do you prefer old folk music or what’s going on today?
I almost feel it has an Eagles vibe on the chorus but I like some folk music a lot. Especially stuff like Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and the whole Dylan era stuff from the 60’s and onward.
Your wife Amy is one of the members of The Wildflowers, contributing percussion and background vocals. Was this the first time you collaborated on a music project? Is she a musician, too? I mean, is she working on an album, or has she already released any music of her own?
She is working on her own EP right now yes:) she was a world class ballet dancer, she’s always been a singer and an artist of many talents, she was also on the Mercury Train album:)
Bumblefoot from Guns N’ Roses is one of the guitarists in The Wildflowers. How did you first meet and when did you decide to work together?
We met in the early 90’s and then reconnected at NAMM in 2012.
Did you and Bumblefoot head into the studio to record The Wildflowers project together or did he record his parts separately in another studio?
Jason and I had already started writing and Ron came and saw a show and really loved it so I asked him to be a part of it and he immediately said yes which I was thrilled about!
The Wildflowers also features guitarist Jason Hagen, but there’s only one guy aside from yourself on the album cover. So, who’s on the album cover, him or Bumblefoot? And why was the other guy left off?
Bumblefoot is on the outer cover and Jason on the inside sleeve, this was a conscious decision based on Jason not wanting to tour and mostly be a part of the writing and recording.
The Wildflowers EP was funded via Pledge Music. It says you reached 141% of your goal. Is it safe to say that it went better than you expected then?
Yes, our fans really stepped up and I’m happy that our charity was able to benefit from the campaign as well:)
One of the things pledgers could buy was a concert anywhere in the world for 15,000 dollars. Did anyone buy that one? If so, where will you be going to perform it and who will be in your band for that show?
No one bought that no:) would have been fun though!
There was also a house concert for 4,000 available to people in the New York area. Did anyone buy that one? If so, have you done the show yet? And how did it go if you did?
Do you plan to fund future projects through Pledge Music?
I would do it again in a heartbeat but there are things I learned through the first campaign that I would do differently next time. But yes!
A lot of artists and labels are releasing music on vinyl again. Do you plan to release The Wildflowers EP on vinyl at some point? (I would love it, personally.)
I have thought about that from the beginning:) we’ll see!
What do you think about this comeback vinyl is making? (I know it’s never going to be as big as it once was, but it’s selling more and more all the time.) Do you listen to or collect vinyl?
How do you usually listen to music? CD? Vinyl? On your computer? Via an iPod? Or…?
iPod or iPhone these days.
When you buy music now, do you buy CDs, vinyl or just download it from iTunes or wherever?
Usually download from iTunes these days.
What’s your take on streaming services like Spotify? I’ve heard artists complain that they barely pay them anything while others say that what they do pay them is better than getting nothing if people just download stuff illegally and listen to it.
Is any of your music on Spotify?
Do you personally use Spotify or Pandora or any other streaming service?
No, don’t really like them:)
At one point on Facebook you mentioned that you got rid of your TV, which seemed to really surprise some people. Were you surprised by people’s reactions?
Well, I have a TV, I got rid of cable. There’s not much on of any real value on traditional TV these days and the shows I like I can stream on Netflix or ITunes.
Are you still without a TV? If so, do you find that you’re getting more done with your music without it?
Just less stress especially not watching the news as much. I find any news channel to be mostly sensationalizing everything to the point where you think everything is important. But it’s not. And instead of focusing on real issues they all lie and twist and divert attention away from the actual problems of the world:)
Back when you did the Morning Wood album I think metal fans were pretty close-minded, if I’m being entirely honest. I think people would be a lot more receptive to an album like that today than they might have been then. What was the reaction from your fans like? Did it get you any new fans?
I’m not sure. I made a big mistake if I look at it from the standpoint of a career move but I’ve always followed my heart for better or worse, I’ve always loved the honesty of that album and it definitely showed my fans right away that I wasn’t “just a metal or hard rock guy” 🙂
Was the Morning Wood album released outside of Japan? And how well did it do there (or anywhere else it was released)?
Many years later it was released in Europe but its always been a bit of a cult album:)
There’s a seemingly infinite number of metal fans who only listen to metal, many of which don’t even get into the artists new albums, just listening to stuff from the ’80’s and early ’90’s, which I think is really sad. What do you make of this? Is it frustrating to encounter fans who only want to hear stuff from the earlier TNT albums, for example?
Sometimes, I used to get really down about it but now I get it. Everyone is different and people have their tastes and it’s hard to change their minds. If they like my voice in a certain framework then that’s what they like, others see it the way I do, as growth, maturity and natural artistic expression but not everyone and I have to accept that:) I’m proud of the past, I just want to live in the present. I’ll probably try lots of things from now till I can’t anymore:)
TNT never reached the popularity of Poison or Motley Crue here in the States. But I wonder if being in a huge metal band like that has a serious downside where people will always just view those guys as hair bands. Do you think you managed to escape the hair band stigma where TNT wasn’t in the spotlight as much as, say, Winger?
Yes and it’s starting to show now as I reconnect with my fan base and find new fans. Among the hardcore fans of that era it may be hard for them to see me as anything but that but for many I’m a new discovery, and then I have many long time fans with very open minds who love the surprise of what I’ll do next:)
How popular was TNT in Japan? Were you huge like Mr. Big?
We were very big. Much bigger than most western bands who went there. Maybe not as big as Mr. Big but we were one of the bigger bands during that era and I can see it now still when I look at my royalty statements and see 650,000 karaoke downloads in the past year of a song from the Intuition album:)
I know when I went to Paris and London TNT CDs were everywhere – Transistor was the new album at the time – were you big in Europe?
I think we’ve always had a strong audience in Europe yes but didn’t tour enough outside Norway. Of course in Norway we had #1 albums and singles and won a Grammy award and sold a lot of records and I think in the UK also we were very popular but we just didn’t tour enough anywhere really.
I’ve noticed that you don’t do a lot of tribute albums. Actually, I can’t think of one that I have that you’re on and I have a lot of them. It seems like most of them consist of the same 20 guys who’ll evidently do anything they’re asked to make a quick buck. Do you turn down a lot of offers to do tribute albums? Do you make an effort not to do things like that, which would associate you with other singers from bands people now call hair bands?
I do turn a lot of them down and now I just don’t get asked much anymore because I think they just know I probably won’t do it. I turn them down for various reasons. I’ve had a couple of bad experiences doing them and I think they’re over done and usually not very well produced and I don’t like handing my vocals to someone and not knowing what they’ll do with it:) I did one in the 90’s that’s actually amazing with TM Stevens, Kotzen, Pitrelli, Cindy Blackman and a whole host of amazing artists called Deep Purple according to New York. The funny thing is that I never get asked to do tributes for bands or singers I really love. Was never a big DP fan but love that project.
How do you feel about the hair band label? The thing I find funny about it is that most of the bands who are called hair bands actually spent almost as much time on their appearance as they did on their music. Everyone remembers the pin ups in Hit Parader and Metal Edge. Lord knows I had every wall of my bedroom – and ceiling – plastered with those when I was a teenager. But, seriously, if somebody wants to call Poison or Pretty Boy Floyd hair bands I don’t really have a problem with it because they focused just as much on their image as they did on their music, or at least close to it. What’s your take on this?
I think it’s typical journalistic jargon. Someone came up with it and it stuck. In Scandinavia they think it’s funny to call it poodle rock cause we all looked like poodles:) haha I don’t really think about it, TNT fit the name, although there was a lot of hair:)
In the mid ’90’s I actually published a popular metal zine called Ant, The Only Cool Magazine That Bites, and 90% of what I covered was what people would now call hair bands and I really, really hated that term back then. I was trying to fight off grunge, trying to help bands like Warrant and Dokken, and I never, ever referred to them as hair bands. Now the term doesn’t phase me. Do you think people have just given up on fighting it?
I call myself a rock singer when people try to label me as something else, eventually they’ll start calling me that too if I just keep doing what I’m doing:)
Clearly, hair bands are becoming more popular again. I know they’ll never be as huge as they once were, but what do you make of this little comeback? How big do you think it’ll get?
The young kids are the ones getting into it because of their parents. I think it’s cool but not sure how far it’ll go. The new classic rock I guess:)
Just for the record, I want to tell you – I went from doing my zine to writing for the national magazines LiveWire and Lollipop and I tried really hard to get my editors to let me cover TNT but neither of them would touch any artists even remotely associated with hair bands at the time. (LiveWire did cave and let me interview Bret Michaels at one point but then the bastards never published the interview.)
Narrow minded? Haha
My favorite TNT album is easily Firefly. Words can’t say how much I love that album. It’s certainly one of my top 10 favorite albums of all-time. But I don’t think it was released here in the States. I only recall seeing a CD called Firefly & Live, which seemed to just slap together half of the songs from Firefly and some tracks from the Three Nights in Tokyo live album. What’s the story behind that CD? Why not just release Firefly in its entirety here?
Ask Mike Varney. He released in the U.S. and deemed two songs on it sacreligious. They were two of the better songs, Angel’s Ride and Heaven’s Gone. I wasn’t told by management about it and just received the final version and flipped out. But I agree, love that era. We were feeling very creative:)
In 2010 you did 13 dates throughout Spain as one of the singers in something called Queen Symphonic Rhapsody, which I understand featured a 40 piece symphony orchestra from Russia. How successful were those shows? Have you done any other Queen tribute projects since, aside from the cover of “Somebody To Love”? If not, do you hope to do another Queen-related project in the future?
If it was as cool as that I would do it again in a heartbeat:) every situation is different and my decisions to do something are usually based on several factors. That was a cool tour to be a part of.
Was a live album of the Queen Symphonic Rhapsody ever released?
Why didn’t the Queen Symphonic Rhapsody tour outside of Spain?
Regarding your cover of “Somebody To Love,” I have to say that I actually think it’s better than the original. Even the production – I listened to the Queen track from one of their best of records, which I believe was remastered, and then I listened to your cover and your cover sounds so much better in terms of the quality. Which begs the question – who produced The Wildflowers EP?
Well, I have the production credit as I oversaw the entire project and did record my own vocals, Amy’s vocals and violin but Ron recorded all his guitars and vocals at his studio and Jason at his home studio so it was really a team effort, but the bigger props here must go to Bruno Ravel for pulling all the tracks together and mixing the EP brilliantly:)
I understand you’re writing songs for a new Westworld album with Bruno Ravel right now. Is that correct? If so, does it feel surreal to be writing songs with him for Westworld when you weren’t the songwriters in that project previously (if I remember correctly)?
It seems natural and I feel confident with his writing skills it will be a great album:)
Are you and Bruno getting together and writing the songs in person or are you sending ideas and such back and forth via the internet?
Will you be adding a new guitarist to Westworld? I think you mentioned having some guest guitarists like Michael Sweet and Bumblefoot in one of your recent e-mails. Is that correct? Do you have anybody else lined up yet?
Bruno will play bass and guitar and we’ll have a hired drummer and have guest guitarists play solos:)
Do you think Westworld will tour after the new album comes out? If so, what countries do you think you’ll tour?
Ya never know. It’s all about demand:)
Is it true that Starbreaker never toured?
How did the Starbreaker project come about?
Through Frontiers Records:)
Were the other members of Starbreaker from other countries? Wiki didn’t say, but I think I recall reading that somewhere at some point. If so, how did that collaboration happen – did you all get together and write songs and cut the albums or was it recorded at different studios in different countries or that sort of thing?
Magnus Karlsson from Sweden who is a master guitarist sent almost finished songs to Fabrizio Grossi and he cleaned some stuff up, did some editing and sent the tracks to me, I then wrote melodies and lyrics, kept some of Magnus’s melodies and we cut the vocals and drums:)
I know Westworld did better than anyone had anticipated. How did Starbreaker do? (I really love the Westworld and Starbreaker albums, by the way. And my favorites by both of them are the second albums.)
The first Starbreaker did really well, the second one not as well even though I actually like it better. The label thought it was too modern:)
Do you think there will be a third Starbreaker album down the road?
I love Magnus so you never know:)
On a more serious note, you had your thyroid removed following a cancer diagnosis in 2009. What were you more afraid of – dying or that you might never be able to sing again?
At first dying, and then the singing part. My mom was dying of breast cancer at the time so it was a rough period to deal with two things like that at once:)
Following the surgery, did you have to have radiation or chemo?
Just a pill called radioactive iodine. It’s standard practice with the disease.
What state was your voice in after the surgery? I read on Wiki that you really had to work to get it back. Could you sing at all during the weeks following the surgery? Was there any point in the recovery process where you thought you were never going to be able to get your voice back to what it was again?
I wasn’t even allowed for 6 weeks and then started slowly. There were times I wasn’t sure how much would come back but luckily most of it did:)
Are you involved with any cancer charities now?
I’m involved with some good breast cancer charities on my mother’s behalf and I’m now a spokesperson for thyroid cancer awareness and will be doing a lot of work with the AACE on the subject.
Are there any other causes or charities that you feel passionately about? Or anything else you’d like to say to the world?
Thank you to my long time fans for their love and support and to my new fans, welcome aboard and to those who’ve never heard of me, go give my stuff a listen:)
Finally, feel free to plug any of your websites and such: