URIAH HEEP – Can’t Take That Away
Outsider – the June 2014 effort from English rock outfit Uriah Heep, and 24th studio full-length overall – was cut in January at Liscombe Park Studios in Buckinghamshire, England. Naples, Italy-based classic rock label Frontiers issued the platter, following on from April 2011 Uriah Heep label debut Into The Wild. Penning compositions for Outsider wasn’t an arduous process.
“They came together really quickly, actually,” Mick Box discloses, guitarist and founding member of Uriah Heep. “Phil Lanzon (keyboards) and I wrote all of the songs. We had a couple of little ideas when we went into the studio, but most of them were formulated in the studio. Phil and myself are very in tune with each other lyrically and musically. We always have a number of ideas, so we can work very quickly together. This was exceptional though, to come out with an album like Outsider on that sort of schedule.
“At the start of the day, what we used to do is just play through some ideas, find what captures everyone’s imagination, and then Phil and I would write the song. We’d then rehearse it, record it, and then we’d play it live. Then we’d have the backing track down, and then Phil and I would go away and work on the lyrics, and then work on another song, and then come in the next day and do the same process. We kind of did 11 tracks in ten days, so it was very fast, but that was all of the backing tracks. Then we went on tour to Turkey and the UK, and came back in to finish off the vocals and any overdubs that were required, and solos. That was it. It was all very quick – clean and simple.
“I don’t think we’ve ever spent longer than three months making an album, and that’s writing, recording, and mixing – pre-production, everything. This time around though, we did it in under a month. It’s worked very well for us. We just go in there, play live, and capture the band all on one pulse. I think that’s the way you get the right amount of excitement out of each track, and I think it shows in the grooves.”
The Uriah Heep composer doesn’t suffer gladly groups who spend two to three years crafting records. “Mate, I’d go in a mental hospital,” he quips. “If you spent two weeks getting a snare drum sound, and I came back 14 days later, and you were still going ‘Bang, bang,’ I would walk out again. I’d be in a hospital (laughs). That’s not what music is about. It’s just never been my… I don’t have that work ethic. My work ethic is to capture something, and if it excites you and that’s the one you’ve accepted, then that’s the way it should stay. You shouldn’t then mess with it. I think you take a lot out of music by trying to perfect it. In other words, if you try to record something and you all choose that take, and you say ‘That’s brilliant,’ but then the producer goes in and puts everything on the bass drum, you’re taking away all of the magic that was there in the first place – the feel of it disappears. It becomes very sterile, so that’s not my way of thinking and my way of wanting to hear our music being produced.”
Writer’s block doesn’t afflict Mick. “No, far from,” he chuckles. “No, no, no. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe that there’s so much out there to write about. You’ve just gotta have your antenna out, and keep your eyes open and ears open. We’ve played in at least 56 countries around the world, so if you can’t be inspired by something then you better take the blinkers off (laughs).”
After 45 years even, writing material isn’t difficult. “If we wrote an album in ten days, then yeah,” the lyricist cites. “It’s just always there. It’s something we do as a matter of cause – it’s not something that we do just when an album needs to be written. We write all of the time; we write something every day, and it’s very important for me to be able to do that, whether it be a lyric or a chord sequence or a melody or something. I just have to write something every day, because then the day’s worth living for. You then just collect all of those ideas, and when it’s time to get a project together, you use all of those ideas. They’re there for you.”
Retreading past numbers is an acute concern. “We’re always aware of that,” Mick acknowledges. “We try not to retread ground, but all you can do is just do what you do, and then just say ‘Okay, well that’s a bit close to that,’ and avoid it and move on. There are plenty more other ideas. I think you can get bogged down with it, if you want to (laughs). If you have an open view on everything, then it’ll all work out fine.”
Lyrically speaking, the axeman defines Uriah Heep as ‘storytellers’. “We try to tell a story within the song; we try to make it interesting, and have an appeal to a lot of people hopefully, and that’s all we can wish,” he explains. “We just try to stay away from as many clichés as we can, because clichés are very easy to pop into a song. They always seem to fit, but we try to stay away from them and make the lyrical content interesting.
“There’s a song called ‘Can’t Take That Away’ for example, which is about an actor who goes into crime. Actors, you never know when they’re acting and when they’re not. A good actor could actually be a good criminal, and we thought that was an interesting standpoint. Then he gets put in jail though, but what they can’t take away is the smell of the perfume he has of his lady, and the reviews he had when he was on the straight and narrow, so there are many lyrical things you can go into.”
On May 21st, 2013, bassist Trevor Bolder succumbed to cancer at the age of 62. “It was dreadful,” Mick recalls. “It couldn’t have been a worse time for the band, because he was such a big part of what we do. He was a world class bass player, a world class singer, a world class writer, and a world class friend. It was an immense wrench for us and it was dreadfully sad, but while he was ill, Dave Rimmer – who is now our bass player – stepped in for Trevor on the basis that Trevor was coming back of course. Unfortunately that wasn’t to be, and so Dave’s there almost on Trevor’s blessing.
“He used to play in a tribute / covers band in Camden Town, London, and Russ our drummer used to go down to jam with him occasionally. Dave came along, and he fitted the criteria perfectly. He’s a great bass player, and he’s got a great image. He fitted into the chemistry of the band very well, because you can always get another great player to come into the band but they always come with baggage, which is not always the baggage that you want them to come with – if you know what I mean. Dave came in, though. He was a fan of the band – he loved to be there. He’s playing great, looking great and he’s got the same sort of sense of humour as us, so he kind of fits into all of the criteria. Plus it’s with Trevor’s blessing, so it couldn’t be any better than that. We’re not looking anywhere else, because we’ve got the right guy. Trevor would want us to continue working, and so we will. By doing so, we keep the legacy of all of the great work that he’s done over the years alive.”
Outsider is the first Uriah Heep effort to be issued since Trevor’s passing, but none of the compositions directly reference the late bassist’s death. “None whatsoever, no,” the guitarist confirms. “We wouldn’t really go that route. That would be too painful, but if you listen closely to the album then you’ll find subliminal references there.”
Production duties were handled by Mike Paxman. “He’s done our last couple of studio albums,” Mick informs. “He’s a great producer, because he comes in and gets very involved in it. He’s got a million ideas – he’s very up. He doesn’t sit in the control room, saying ‘Next take,’ ‘Next take,’ ‘Next take.’ He’s actually in the room we’re recording in with all of the racket going on – with headphones on – jumping up and down with excitement, and that gets the best out of us.”
Outsider’s cover artwork was designed by Igor Morski. “We were looking for a title for the album, and one of the tracks on the album is called ‘Outsider’,” the Uriah Heep founder divulges. “We were looking for one word, but all of the one words we had weren’t as strong as Outsider. One word album titles are stronger, more immediate, more impactful, and more to the point. The other thing with outsider of course is if you bet on horses and an outsider wins, you earn more than the favourite, so it’s more rewarding (laughs). That’s an analogy I never thought of before, but that could be it.
“We thought that Outsider would be really good as an album title, and then I think Nathan Parsons (manager) at our office actually tracked down an artist in Poland. Igor, he sent over some stuff and immediately… It’s very hard when you’re doing artwork for a band, because it’s a five-headed animal – not everyone’s gonna agree a 100% on something. When we saw his artwork, everyone went ‘That’s the one.’ It was just unanimous, so it worked very quickly. We got in touch with him, he sent over some more stuff, and it worked brilliantly. We think it’s a great piece of artwork, and it depicts the ‘outsider’ thing very nicely with the guy in the umbrella, in the hoop.”
A hierarchy arguably exists within Uriah Heep, albeit rarely exercised. “I generally run the band where everyone has their own say, and I think that’s very important,” Mick stresses. “If four people are behind something and one is dragging behind the rest, then you’re never gonna get the effort required to make it all work. I tend to run the band like that. If there are any major decisions or things to be done then I’m the one who usually calls the shots, but I only do that based on everyone’s opinion. So, it’s kind of like that. I guess I could be considered the leader, but I run it very democratically.”
A one-off performance at Koko in Camden, London on March 4th was filmed for DVD purposes, the concert pencilled in for late 2014 / early 2015 release. “That was a bit of fun that was, yeah,” the songwriter remembers. “We literally put two new songs into the set; ‘One Minute’ and ‘Can’t Take That Away’. We had only finished mixing them two days before, so it was very hectic and a bit of a gamble to try it out, but it worked out very well. Yeah, the fans loved them. ‘One Minute’ seems to be having a great reaction on radio and with other people – a lot of people are picking up on it. So hey, you never know. You never know your luck in the big city.”
Uriah Heep’s live setlist doesn’t solely consist of older tunes. “I think we’re a band that’s very proud of our history, but we like to move forward too,” Mick emphasizes. “We’re very aware that we’ve had a lot of big numbers that have lasted the test of time – through life – that people still like to hear in the live arena, and so we will always do those. We’re always aware that there’s an element of the audience there for that, but also we like to intersperse it with some of the newer stuff and some of the older, older stuff. We’re lucky that we’ve got a catalogue that we can chop and change around, and still manage to do new material.
“I think it’s important that we do that for the fans, and for ourselves. You don’t ever want to be stuck in a rut, and that’s the point. If you just go out to play all of the old songs all of the time, the life gets strangled out of it. If you put new stuff in, when you then get back to the old stuff again, it seems like it’s new again – there’s a new breath of fresh air in it.”
Several generations of music fans attend Uriah Heep concerts. “There’s probably about four different generations, four decades,” the wordsmith estimates. “There’s an awful lot of young people down the front now, which is very rewarding, very good. There’s a lot of people of course who just think that Into The Wild – our last studio album – was our first album (laughs), but then they find out that there’s another 23. Yes, it’s changed all the time, yeah. A lot of young people are down the front, which is great. I think they’re getting off on the passion and energy of the band; and they can feel it, and they become a part of it.
“It’s quite simple, really. If you love what you do, then you’ll always have the passion and energy for it. We love making new music, we love playing our music, we love touring, and we love being onstage, and I think that shows through in our live performance. We’re not a band of shoe gazers (laughs). I think that’s the term (laughs).”
Should Uriah Heep remain active until 2019, the group would celebrate its 50th anniversary. Whether this milestone comes to pass remains to be seen. “Who knows?,” Mick ponders. “We celebrated our 20th, we celebrated 25… I don’t know how far you can go, really (laughs). I’m sure there’ll be something along the way, but right now, our heads are going into the release of Outsider and the forthcoming tours around the world. If we’ve still got our health and still believe in it, then we’ll be out there. We’re looking to do a new album, so we’re not resting on our laurels at all. It’s very important for us, you see. It’s a big part of what we do.”
Although Uriah Heep intends to continue recording full-lengths, other veteran rock acts claim they no longer record simply because album sales are a fraction of what they once were. “I don’t think you do anything to sell nowadays,” the axeman shares. “You do it for your artistic satisfaction, surely. That’s the way I look at it. I never did anything for money; I never released albums for money. I released albums because I was over the moon that I had written these songs, and they were being put on a platter (laughs).
“It was never about writing because it makes money. That would be silly, so I can’t see where their thought waves are. If you’re gonna do things for money in the beginning, then you’re barking up the wrong tree. You have to put all of your energy into what you do, namely your art, your craft, and everything else – your writing abilities, your performing abilities, your recording abilities – and then if money comes, great, but if it don’t, great. You’re still doing something you love, and that’s more than most people can say in their life.”
An autobiography is a possibility. “I keep starting one mate, but I keep getting bored talking about myself,” Mick laughs. “I’m just writing it all myself, and then will eventually give it to a publisher. Then they’ll get an editor involved, and it’ll sort of generally grow from there. No, there are many, many stories. I’ll tell you what I want to do. I’ve read a lot of autobiographies, and I find that I get very bored with them – where they all get involved with drugs, and then they find God, and then everything’s forgiven. I find that’s terrible, because in their drug life they’ve crushed so many other people’s lives on the way, and yet that’s not even mentioned. I find those very boring books, so if I write a book at all, it’ll be about the fun, the touring, and the things that happened in that regard.
“It’ll be more light-hearted than a lot of the others that are around today. Now that’s not me knocking ’em, because that’s their thing to do – to get it off of their chest, or whatever – but it’s not my ideal. So yeah, I will write one, but it’s just trying to find the right angle, because you know what? When you get in touch with the publishers, the first thing they want is all of the drama. They want all of that stuff written about, because to them it sells books. To be honest, there’s a lot of stuff that I don’t even want my family to know. There’s a lot of stuff that – if written – you could see in law courts (laughs). You’ve just gotta find a balance there where readers experience a lot of fun and a good read, but the book doesn’t hit on those areas.”
Self-publication is arguably a viable option. “I guess that’s an option, but I’ll see where it goes from here,” the guitarist muses. “I’ve had a lot of interest from other people, so we’ll see, but I just don’t wanna go that typical route that lots have gone.”
Generally speaking, Mick hasn’t read other Uriah Heep biographies currently in publication. “I think I read Dave Ling’s one (Wizards And Demons: The Uriah Heep Story, November 2002) ages and ages ago and that was quite a good read, but generally, no,” he tells. “I never bother. The thing is, what we don’t realise is that we pack into two weeks what most people pack into two years, and that’s the difference.”
Outsider was released on June 6th, 2014 in Europe (excluding the United Kingdom), on the 9th in the United Kingdom, and subsequently on the 10th in North America, all via Frontiers Music Srl.
Interview published in June 2014.
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