interview by Michael McCarthy
The legendary singer and multi-instrumentalist Michael Monroe first rose to popularity in the early ’80s with his band Hanoi Rocks, which has proved to be one of the most influential bands in the history of hard rock, punk rock and heavy metal with the band’s unique and infectious sound, which was equal parts Iggy Pop, The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath and T-Rex. Not only did bands want to sound like Hanoi Rocks, but they also wanted to look like them, too. Especially Monroe with his huge, teased blonde hair and thick, almost girly, make-up. You could arguably say that the whole hair metal look was born when the first L.A. bands of the ’80s saw Hanoi Rocks album covers and immediately started trying to look like Monroe. In fact, Axl Rose of Guns ‘N’ Roses has often said that without Hanoi Rocks, there never would’ve been a Guns ‘N’ Roses. To that end, Axl was definitely trying to replicate Monroe’s classic look in G’N’R’s video for “Welcome to the Jungle.” To show his gratitude, Axl soon repaid Monroe by appearing in his live video for “Dead, Jail or Rock ‘N’ Roll,” one of the massive singles from his second solo album, 1989’s incredible Not Fakin’ It. Not only did G’N’R owe a big debt to Michael Monroe, you could also argue that there never would’ve been a Poison or Faster Pussycat or Enuff Z’Nuff without his look and the coveted sound of Hanoi Rocks.
These days, Monroe is enjoying a very successful solo career. His new album, One Man Gang, is his fourth record in a row that’s truly all killer, no filler. We’re talking about high energy hard rock songs with a punk rock flair that you want to listen to over and over again. Fans are going to go crazy with excitement when the album drops on October 11th (via Silver Lining Records here in the States) and blows them away. Songs like “Last Train to Tokyo,” “One Man Gang” and “Hollywood Paranoia” are among Monroe’s catchiest work to date, all high energy, addictive earworms. Then there are other songs where he tried some different things (we discuss this below), all of which paid off perfectly. I’ve listened to the stream I was given in preparation for this interview so many times I’ve lost count. In short, it’s fan-fucking-tastic. When the stream ends and starts again, it’s so contagious that I usually listen to it three times in a row before I feel the need to put something else on. No kidding.
Whether you’ve been a lifelong fan of Monroe’s since the Hanoi Rocks days or you’ve never heard of him and his music before, if you’re a hard rock or heavy metal fan, you will not be disappointed with One Man Gang. Check out the singles below and be sure to listen to Blackout States, his 2015 solo album, to get acquainted with the man, the myth and the legend. Naturally, we suggest reading our interview while enjoying his music. That is, if you can manage to sit still while listening to his movers and shakers.
MMC: First of all, congrats on the new album. I love everything you’ve ever done, but I think this one is one of your very, very best. Did you approach making this album differently from your previous albums?
MM: Well, we always just try to make the album as good as possible and it kind of shapes up by itself as it goes along. We had 18 songs we recorded for this album, but I didn’t want to make the album too long, so 12 tracks was a tough go. Getting rid of some songs. I like the record to be short enough that after you listen to it you want to hear it again. No matter how great the songs are, your ear gets tired after a while. 16, 17, 18 songs, it’s gonna be too much. To me, a good rock record’s short enough.
MMC: Are there any Japanese bonus tracks on this one?
MM: Yeah, there’s a couple. In Japan, we saved two of the songs that we took off, which are bonus tracks. One is called “Built for Speed” and the other one is called “High Tail Kids.” And then there’s one more, “Can’t Give Up The Ghost,” which is not out yet anywhere but it’s saved as a bonus track for Europe, I think. I don’t know what they’re gonna do with that one. And the other ones we left out will probably end up on the next album because they were too good to be bonus tracks.
MMC: How does the songwriting process usually work with you? Do you start with a title or lyric idea, or do you sit down with an instrument, or how does the magic happen?
MM: [Laughs] Well, I usually write mostly on guitar. Sometimes on piano. Once you get a concept and a title, that’s a good place to start and you pretty much have almost half the song, right? You know what you’re writing about. What you want to say. Who you want to say it to. And how you want to say it. That comes pretty much first and then you can come up with a cool chorus – a strong chorus – and build around that. We write on our own and with each other in this band. I’ve given everyone the freedom to write as much as possible. We choose the best songs for the album regardless of who wrote what. So, we usually send each other songs and ideas. And some of them we’ll just write together when we’re on the road or whatever. Rich came up with a great one over here when we were in Finland. It started out from a line I said in an email. I said, “Ah, Richard, I think there’s a song in there.” Then he came over to my house and we came up with the song. It varies. But it starts with a good concept and a title then guitar.
MMC: How often do you get writer’s block and what do you do to defeat it?
MM: Well, I don’t force it. You can’t, really. Sometimes you’ve gotta wait until ideas come to you. Luckily, I have so much talent in this band. Rich Jones and Steve [Conte] actually. Rich was really on a roll with this last album. Steve also writes great songs and lyrics. And when they write lyrics, they write like they’re inside my head. All their lyrics, pretty much when I read them, I go, this is me. I don’t change much of anything. I can totally stand behind every word. So, that takes the pressure off of me having to write everything myself. So, it’s a great situation, you know? I’ve done everything in my power to make this a band situation. You give up a certain amount of control, but then you get back so much from collaborating. Also, I’m not a control freak and don’t have a huge ego that would get in the way, luckily. It’s easier that way. So, I like collaborating with the guys. It’s great to have other people in the band who write, too.
MMC: Did your new drummer, Karl, contribute to the writing at all?
MM: Karl, the drummer, not as much. Sammi [Yaffa] writes some cool riffs and stuff, but Karl doesn’t really write himself. And he’s the first one to say that, but on some songs, we give him credit. Like on “Horns And Halos,” for example, he has a cool drum part so we wanted to give him that percentage for coming up with cool parts. But he’s not really an actual songwriting guy. He’s a better drummer.
MMC: Is he a permanent member or just filling in for now?
MM: Yeah, he’s a permanent member. This line-up we’ve had since the beginning. It’s the same band except we had Ginger [Wildheart] on the other guitar on Sensory Overdrive and on Horns And Halos Ginger changed for Dregen then Dregen had too much on his plate with his solo career and his Backyard Babies and Hellacopters. So, he requested to leave and Rich filled in for him and Rich is an old friend who’s done our album covers and merchandise and stuff like that for many years. So it was a natural transition to have Rich stay in the band.
MMC: That seems to have been a perfect fit.
MM: I had a bunch of songs for this album, but Rich came up with such cool ones, I said, OK, this one goes, Rich’s is better. It’s not only just about better songs but just a style of writing that I like. I liked the direction he was going with this album. There’s a lot of dynamics. There are very different kinds of stuff, too. A lot of variety.
MMC: Can you elaborate on that?
MM: “Heaven Is A Free State,” for example, that’s actually mine, surprise, surprise, with the mariachi kind of trumpets and everything. That’s a good ear-break from the hard-rocking stuff without having to do a corny ballad instead. I think it’s cooler to go into a different kind of musical world, like that song as an example. And one of my favorites is “In The Tall Grass” and I was sort of expanding my vocal capacity, trying out different stuff. I kind of sing the verses like an innocent child, losing the innocence, the end of the innocence, is the theme of that song. I was going for that sort of soft approach, which I never heard myself do before, which is really rewarding. I always like trying something new. On “Wasted Years” we had a vibe that I didn’t get at first. The first vocals I did in the studio were kind of stiff and really on the beat then I’d listen to them later and I decided it really has to be more like a Mick Jagger kind of song. With Mick Jagger’s laid backness. Because he sounds like he’s just gotten out of bed. So, I realized “Wasted Years” should be sung more behind the beat, as opposed to on the beat, so I laid back and sang it up behind the beat and that was the trick. That was the key to that song. Accomplishing that laid backness. Although, usually, as a person, I tend to go to the high tension wire and be very energetic and stuff. With that one, I’m glad with the way it came out.
MMC: How did the collaboration with Nasty Suicide on “Wasted Years” come about?
MM: Well, Nasty Suicide has been visiting our shows, but he’s got a straight job. He’s a pharmacist nowadays and he doesn’t play full-time. But music is in his blood and he often comes and jams with us at our shows, and we wanted to have him play on the record. We invited him to the studio and that was one of the songs that just fit him – not because of the title, even though the title is fitting for the Hanoi Rocks years, but that was not intentional. His playing on that song was for musical reasons. We didn’t even think about it until later on. Oh yeah, the song is about “Wasted Years” and Nasty plays on it. [Both laugh] It was just by accident. He played on a couple of other songs, too, but those were ones that came off the album. One of them was one of the Japanese bonus tracks, “Built For Speed.” I think he played on that one if I remember right. So, it’s great to have Nasty guest on your record, too.
MMC: I think I read that someone from The Damned plays on the record, too. Is that correct?
MM: Yeah. Captain Sensible. Captain Sensible plays a solo on “One Man Gang.”
MM: Yeah, it’s a great honor. I was talking to Captain and I said, “Would you like to play a solo?”
MMC: Are you guys friends?
MM: Yeah, I’m friends with The Damned since the ’80s and I just called Captain and I said, “Would you like to play a solo on one of the new songs on the album?” And he said, “Send it over and I’ll see.” So, I e-mailed the song to him and he e-mailed me right back and said, “Love the song. Will have something for you in a couple of days.” The next day he sent a solo and it was perfect. I was like, right, Captain Sensible. The guys were like, oh, no way, it’s great, a punk rock legend and hero. I really respect him and it’s a great honor to have him on the record. The Damned are one of the greatest bands of all time still and we’ve been friends for years.
MMC: You also have Eicca Toppinen from Apocalyptica playing cello on “Low Life In High Places.” How did that collaboration come about?
MM: Well, he’s a good friend, too, and he’s jammed with us live. On the 30th anniversary of my solo career, we had this pretty big concert in the House of Culture in Helsinki and he played cello on “Don’t You Believe Me,” and on my 50th birthday concert, Apocalyptica played three cellos on “Million Miles Away” and on another song. I think it was the song “Low Life In High Places.” We figured that could use some cello and we figured who better than to have Eicca play on it. So, I called him and he did three tracks. He sent it over and we mixed it in there. It was cool.
MMC: I love the art on the “Last Train To Tokyo” single. Who did that?
MM: Yeah, Rich Jones did that. He did. It’s great to have a guy in the band who does great artwork.
MMC: Did he take the photo for the album cover?
MM: No, that photo was taken by our guitar roadie, Bobby. But Rich did the artwork. He put the thing together. The rest of it. The lyrics and everything is Rich Jones. He designed the album cover. We just had this guy Bobby take the photo. And some of the photos were taken by Rich. The ones with no band, those photos were taken by Rich in different places. One of them, I think, is in Japan. But he’s done the artwork for the album. It’s all Rich.
MMC: I know you’ll be touring Europe and Japan. Is there any chance we’ll see you in the States at all?
MM: Well, we’d love to play the States and we’ve done some tours there and stuff. New York and LA are always great but the rest of the country… We’ve come to the conclusion that unless you get to be an opening act for a stadium-sized band you’re just banging your head against the wall, playing to a couple of hundred people a night. We can do that forever and not get anywhere in the Mid-West and all that. I like the audiences in America. They appreciate good, authentic rock ‘n’ roll, but unfortunately, the situation is such. Especially now because the mainstream is like country and hip-hop. Rock ‘n’ roll isn’t happening there so far as I know. So, unless you get to play to a big amount of people every night for about a year or two opening for a stadium-sized band, then it’s kind of not worth it. You’re just wasting money and time. Unfortunately.
MMC: It would be cool if you could do Boston sometime. I know we’d like to see you in Boston. That’s the area we’re based out of.
MM: Yeah, it would be great.
MMC: Do you have any Boston memories you could share with us?
MM: We played in Boston with Hanoi Rocks on the last tour that we did. I think it was a good show but I haven’t spent that much time there. I just thought it was a cool city. Aerosmith comes from Boston, right?
MMC: Yes, they do.
MM: And Denis Leary, the actor and comedian, he’s from Boston as well, right?
MMC: Yes, he is.
MM: He’s one of my favorites. I love that guy. So, that’s about it. And every time I’ve been there it’s been really cool. Shit, I wish I could play there. And do an American tour. As of yet, I’m not sure what’s gonna happen in the future but right now, that is the way it looks.
MMC: If you should do New York and LA there’s a casino in Connecticut called Mohegan Sun and they have all the old heavy metal bands play there and everything. And I know they pay to fly the artists in and put them up in their fancy hotel and pay really well. So many bands play there.
MM: Where is that?
MMC: In Connecticut.
MM: In Connecticut. Mohegan Sun. The thing is, we’ve gotta get work permits. That’s the other thing. We’ve gotta get work permits for everybody and they cost an arm and a leg. But I’m making a note of that.
MMC: I know the new album is coming out on Silver Lining Records here in the States. Is it on other labels elsewhere in the world?
MM: In Japan, it comes out on JVC/Victor Entertainment because we’ve had a deal with them for years. And in Finland, it’s basically the same label [Silver Lining Records], but distributed through Warner Music.
MMC: JVC/Victor is a major label in Japan, right?
MM: Yeah, they are. And they’ve been good to us throughout the years.
MMC: I know Hanoi was so big in Japan that people were breaking into hotels to hunt you guys down. Do you still get that kind of attention there today?
MM: Not as much like Beatlemania, but, yeah, we’ve always had a good relationship with Japanese. At first with Hanoi Rocks in 1983, when we played there the record company was trying to present us more like a teenybopper band, which was useless because we were too rough to be presented that way and they noticed that pretty soon. The second time we went in ’84, there were more guys in the audience and they realized we were a hard-rocking band. But popularity has always been with me. I’ve played there close to 30 times. I’ve been touring there for my whole career and it’s always been great. And the “Last Train To Tokyo” song and video is really a tribute to Japan because they’re really passionate about rock ‘n’ roll and the audiences are amazing when we go there. Plus, they’re one of the last countries in the world that still have CDs. Physical product.
MMC: Yeah, that’s very cool. Is the new album going to be released on vinyl at all?
MM: Yes it is. It’s been mastered for that and they did the artwork for that, too. So, there’s gonna be a vinyl version, too.
MMC: Cool, I’ll have to hunt that down. Are you a vinyl junkie yourself?
MM: Yeah. I like vinyl. I like the covers. I don’t have a turntable at the moment, but even CDs are cool. As long as there’s something I can look at and read the lyrics and see what you listen to. I don’t even know how to download stuff from the internet. I’ve got iTunes now on my laptop so I can listen to my favorite stuff on my laptop, but I don’t use Spotify or anything like that.
MMC: What do you think about Spotify and the other streaming services? Are they ruining the music business?
MM: I don’t know. I think the music business is so crazy. Music has no business in the music business and it hasn’t for a long time. So, it’s just gotten crazier and crazier. But it would be nice for artists to get paid for what they do and from what I gather Spotify pays you next to nothing for the plays. So, that’s pretty screwed up. It would be nice to get paid for what we do. In other professions, people get paid for what they do. So, why should musicians not get paid?
MMC: Exactly. On another note, I understand there’s a documentary being made about you. I know those things can take years to make, but is there a general idea of what year they’re hoping to finish it by?
MM: Well, it’s on hold right now because it hasn’t really gone in the right direction. So, I have no idea when that’s going to be finished as of right now. At this point, we’re trying to figure out how to continue with it because it’s sort of in a stalemate. But you can only do a documentary once or twice. Maybe just once. Once in a lifetime. That’s why I want to make sure it’s as good as it can be. I’m not rushing it. Right now, it’s come to a standstill. We’ve gotta make some moves and changes in order to continue with that.
MMC: I bet that’s something that Netflix would be interested in because they do all kinds of documentaries.
MM: Yeah, I like the Netflix documentaries that I’ve seen. They do cool stuff there. So, surely, I’d like mine to be there, too.
MMC: I know Hanoi Rocks put out an autobiography called All Those Wasted Years. And I was looking it up and I noticed that there’s not an e-book version available to download. Do you happen to know why that is?
MM: There is not an e-book version?
MMC: At least not on Amazon here in the U.S.
MM: OK. I have no idea. I don’t know about that stuff. But it was Cleopatra Records that put out the book. I don’t know why there is not an e-book version. I don’t even know what that is, actually.
MMC: It’s something you download and you can read it on an iPad or a Kindle or one of those tablets or your phone, that sort of thing.
MM: Oh, OK. I don’t know why they haven’t put it out like that. I’ll have to ask them about that.
MMC: Speaking of Hanoi Rocks, when you and Andy did Hanoi again from 2001 to 2009, was the band more successful than it had been in the ’80s where you’d amassed such a big following during the years since the ’80s?
MM: I don’t know. It was an interesting phase to see what we could accomplish musically after all those years. Because Andy had also learned to respect my songwriting talents and all that. But I don’t know how successful it was. We made three good albums. I was prepared to do that as long as it was fun and then it came to a point where it wasn’t that much fun anymore. So, we decided to put the band to rest with its integrity intact and did a bunch of farewell tours and gigs and that was it. As it turned out, Andy could not get to the States. I don’t know what the problem is, but he can’t get into the country. It would’ve been nice to go to the States and finish what we started, so to speak. That was one of the things I was hoping to be able to do. But that was not possible with Andy’s record there. He’s got some legal problems. He just can’t get into the country. That was another disappointing thing that I found out later on [then] it wasn’t fun anymore so I thought, OK, screw this, I have a perfectly fine solo career. So, I revived my solo career and it’s really been great since then. I’ve got the best band that I can hope for and the first album [back], Sensory Overdrive, won the classic rock Album of the Year Award and I started getting all kinds of awards. We’re making great records and getting great reviews so I’m quite happy to be where I am right now.
MMC: One last question. If the world was ending in an hour and you only had time to listen to one album again before you died, what would you listen to?
MM: Man, what a grim view of things. Well, one album, I don’t know if I could listen to one album. I guess maybe my last one. One Man Gang. That’s what I’d listen to. Because you listen to it end with “Low Life In High Places” with the explosion at the end. That’s a mixture of The Deadboy’s “Down in Flames,” at the end of the first Deadboys album there’s like a bang, like an explosion, there’s a boom and then [Ed note: I couldn’t understand the artist’s name on the tape]’s Wondrous album that has the last song, “There’d Be No Tomorrow” with a kind of end of the world, nuclear explosion. That is mixed in there plus the sound I made on the demo at home. I’d made like boom sound with my mouth and it was mixed together and that’s the explosion at the end of “Low Life In High Places.” That would be a perfect ending. And I would listen to it at home with my wife and my cats if that was all I could do.
Special thanks to Michael Monroe for doing this interview and to Jon Freeman of Freeman Promotions for setting it up!
“ONE MAN GANG” TRACK LISTING:
1. One Man Gang
2. Last Train To Tokyo
3. Junk Planet
4. Midsummer Nights
5. The Pitfalls Of Being An Outsider
6. Wasted Years
7. In The Tall Grass
8. Black Ties And Red Tape
9. Hollywood Paranoia
10. Heaven Is A Free State
11. Helsinki Shakedown
12. Low Life In High Places
Available on CD, Coloured Vinyl, Digital formats and as special D2C editions, pre-order live as of Aug 9th
RECORDED AND MIXED AT: E-Studio in Sipoo, Finland
PRODUCED BY: Michael Monroe, Rich Jones and Steve Conte.
RECORDED, MIXED AND ENGINEERED BY: Petri Majuri
Michael Monroe – vocals, sax and harmonica
Rich Jones – guitar and vocals
Steve Conte – guitar and vocals
Sami Yaffa – bass
Karl Rockfist – drums
Guest appearances from Captain Sensible (lead guitar on “One Man Gang”), Nasty Suicide (lead guitar on “Wasted Years”), Eicca Toppinen (cello on “Low Life In High Places”) and Tero Saarti (trumpet on “Heaven Is A Free State”).
FOLLOW MICHAEL MONROE ON:
For further information visit:www.sl-music.net