Just when it seemed as if the music industry as a whole were once again preparing to unleash the hopelessly contrived by-the-numbers banalities of yore, I unexpectedly find myself basking in the presence of a group that epitomizes both the past and present of the Hard Rock and Heavy Metal genres. Formed in Pasadena, California in 1983, Autograph issued the Gold-selling Sign In Please the following year. Returning in 1985 with That's The Stuff and in 1987 with Loud And Clear, the group would ultimately dissolve amid the strains of the Grunge phenomenon. Now, armed with Get Off Your Ass (2015), their first all-new recording in over thirty years (!) and a once seemingly unlikely partnership with independent behemoth EMP Label Group (founded by legendary Megadeth bassist David Ellefson), they again appear destined for the dizzying heights of international adulation.
Steve: “(Bassist) Randy (Rand) and I met at NAMM in 2011. We started tossing around the idea of actually starting up Autograph again. Steve Plunkett, the original singer, didn't want to do it. He said 'My voice can't handle that anymore'. And that happens even to you as you get older. He's also been busy with the television and movie scoring work that he's doing. He's doing quite well with that. He gave us our blessing and so we started looking. We found Simon Daniels, who went by the name 'Daniel' when he was playing in the band Jailhouse. We got together with him, listened to his vocals and he ended up being a great fit for the group and the new direction that we're going in. (Original drummer) Keni Richards unfortunately passed away recently. He had some health issues, so he was unable to fulfill his drumming duties. That's when we, at Simon's request, checked out someone from Switzerland (Berklee Music alumni Marc Wieland) who was now living in LA. He was also a perfect fit. ...We then decided we weren't going to use keyboards anymore and move on as a quartet.”
Todd: Were you apprehensive in regards how well this line-up would be received? It had been quite some time...
Steve: “I wasn't too concerned about it because I had a lot of confidence in Simon and Marc. I looked at it like 'These guys have a lot of energies. We're not just going out there to do the same old material. We're writing new material.' We have a fresh outlook on this. It's new and it's a different sound with many of the elements that made Autograph popular in the first place. And that's the anthem-type Rock 'n' Roll songs where everybody can sing along with the choruses. That's always been a very, very important element of '80's music. You need to have those choruses that people can really sing along to and the lyrics that people can identify with. Those are the traditions that we are carrying on with. We're just a heavier and more balls-to-the-wall now. That is really it”
Todd: What prompted the decision to not use any keyboards during the recording sessions for Get Off Your Ass?
Steve: “In the last version of Autograph with Steve Plunkett, myself, Randy and a different drummer (Eddie Cross), we already weren't using keyboards. (Ex-keyboardist) Steve Isham was busy doing other things, so we decided the last demos we we're doing for a three album deal with Epic Records wouldn't have keyboards. ...We liked how it made our sound heavier, so we decided in this version, twenty-two years later, to go ahead without keyboards. And then we tuned down a whole step to make everything thicker and heavier with all the guitars. When we play live, a lot of the keyboard parts, I'm either playing on lead guitar or Simon is playing them on rhythm guitar. You don't really notice them being gone. They're just a bit heavier now. They're being played on guitar because many of the parts that Steve Isham played were hooky. We kept them and they work really well.”
Todd: Is that a decision you would have been comfortable making in 1984? It would have redefined your sound.
Steve: “Absolutely. A lot of the stuff we did was already tuned down a half-step, but now we're tuned down a whole step. I think we definitely would have been into doing it that way. One of the things I like about tuning down a whole step is that the vocals are lower in pitch so it sounds thicker. When you're recording at a regular pitch, the vocals are quite a bit higher, depending on what key you write in, of course. That's the way it works. If you tune down a whole step, you can sing the same melody line, but it's much deeper. The vocal is deeper, the melodies are thicker and so are the harmonies. It works really well when you want a throatier and ballsier tone.”
Todd: Amid the recording sessions for Sign In Please, did you realize the group was creating something special?
Steve: “Not particularly. We thought it was great, but everybody that's doing a new record thinks that that it's going to be the next big thing. We thought 'Let's do this', but we were also realistic. All of us were a little bit older at that time. When we signed the deal with RCA, I was twenty-nine or thirty years old and I think Steve Plunkett and Randy Rand were both thirty-two or thirty-three years old, so we really weren't these young pups anymore. We'd been around in LA music scene for quite some time. and we knew not to expect anything great, but we're hoping for the best, of course. Putting “Turn Up The Radio” on the album was one of the things RCA was fighting us on. We thought 'It's called “Turn Up the Radio”, what radio station's not going to like that?' But they did agree to it and it became a hit, they said it was all their idea. ...It was the typical record company stuff.”
Todd: In the end, it did serve as a rather ingenious marketing ploy. I can clearly remember FM stations using it.
Steve: “At that time, we had to go into the studio for two days and record the call letters for all these different radio stations. We'd be like 'Turn it up WZOK!', 'Turn it up KLLS!.' We did that for two eight-hour days because we did it for all the United States and Canada. All the call letters for every station. It was nuts. But you know what? It worked because every one of those stations had it personalized for them, so they wanted to play it. They loved to play that clip because they had their call letters from their station on there. They really felt like it was personally made for them, so it worked very well. It was the idea of RCA Vice President Paul Atkinson and we happily followed through. ...We thought 'Wow, that's a great idea.' It catapulted the album in radio and sales”
Todd: Did already being experienced musicians prior to the recording of Sign In Please the group to completed the recording process much faster? From a financial point of view, I can imagine it working in the group's favor.
Steve: “Absolutely. We cut the first album in thirty days and spent another five days Mixing it and Mastering it. It was the same way with the second album as well. We came off the road and did the second album in thirty days. Even on the third album, we only spent three months on it, which was actually more complex because we were a bit more seasoned at that point. We were putting in a lot more parts. We were more seasoned being together in the band obviously but also from playing all the shows and recording a lot of demos and doing soundtracks. Even though we took three months, that's still really short period of time. A lot of bands spend six, eight, ten or even twelve months in the studio to record an album before they get to the Mixing phase. Three months with all the Mixing and Mastering done is still fairly short amount of time. We were all very quick in the studio. And we always did really professional sounding demos before we went in and did it for real in the studio because sometimes we'd throw out songs. We'd say 'This just isn't working. This is not on par with the other songs'. We threw quite a few songs out, actually. ...For every four songs, there was one that we threw out.”
Todd: In hindsight, how would you describe your experiences working with (Producer) Andy Johns (Cinderella, L.A. Guns, Van Halen) while recording Loud And Clear (1984)? There have been some truly remarkable stories.
Steve: “As long as we tied his hands down so he couldn't reach the vodka, everything was really good because he'd come in with fresh ears. As the day went on, you could tell that he was starting to slur his words. He'd be all into working, but he would also be pretty blitzed by the end of the day. We'd have to call it a day because we knew from that point on, we weren't going to be able to save anything (laughs). It was great working with him because I learned a lot. I watched the way that he worked and especially with the way he Mixed. It was like 'Wow, that guy is just a whiz with Mixing.' When Andy was Mixing, that's when he'd get really serious because that was his forte. That was really his thing. When working with us, he was a little bit more laid-back because we were veteran guys. He'd say 'You guys have been in a studio before. You know what's going on. You know whatever you're doing.' He was a bit more laid-back, but he still threw in ideas here and there because he knew that we'd already gotten the song's range. ...He threw in some ideas here and there, but we pretty much had it all sewed up. His real impact on the album was the mixing. ...He had a real good ear for Mixing. I think it was probably that fight at a school of music in London, which him and his brother (Producer) Glyn (Johns) attended. A lot of other big-time Producers and Engineers also went to the school. I can see why they played a hand in it.”
Todd: Prior to the recording of That's The Stuff and Loud And Clear, was there a lot of label-related pressure from RCA to repeat the breakout success of Sign In Please and, surely more specifically, “Turn Up The Radio”?
Steve: “Yes. They wanted us to come in and bang it out real quick. We were writing the second album while we were touring because we were constantly on the road, even from the very beginning of our career. We'd go out with Aerosmith, Bryan Adams, Heart, Mötley Crüe and then Ronnie James Dio. We also did a ton of shows with bands like the Scorpions and Whitesnake. ...We didn't have a lot of time we could devote to the writing of the second album, but we were always quick and we did it as quickly as we could. We went in and banged it out and finished the Mixing and Mastering in thirty days. I wish we could have spent less time touring and more time cutting demos for the second album like we'd done with the previous album and we'd do for the third album, but they just didn't give us the luxury of time. But that's the reality of it. Unfortunately, I don't think most bands realize that they should try to get two or three full albums of material ready to go before they go in and record their first. Then they can decide which songs will go on the first record and which songs will go on the second one. ...At the very least, they need to have a solid map laid out of which direction their band is going in.”
Todd: What led the group transitioning from RCA to Epic Records after the cycle for Loud And Clear was over?
Steve: “We had done our three albums, of course, so it was over. At that point, Bob Summers, the President of RCA, tragically died and Bob Buziak (Arista Records, Chameleon Entertainment, TriStar Pictures), took over. When he took over, they fired almost fifty percent of their working staff, so they had to get a lot of replacement personnel on the staff and then teach them the ropes. They hired a bunch of young people that really didn't know much about the music industry at all. At that point, our second and especially our third albums, stopped getting any promotion put behind them. But it wasn't only us. It was also like that for the Eurythmics, Kenny Rogers, Mister Mister and The Pointer Sisters as well. All these different bands were suffering because of the growing pains with all the new personnel that RCA was using. Everybody was really feeling the impacts of the changes.”
Todd: What was the proverbial 'straw that broke the camel's back' in regards to the group ultimately disbanding?
Steve: “We were at rehearsal doing the demos I mentioned earlier for Epic Records. We were going for a much heavier sound at that time as well. I looked at everybody and said 'You know what? I'm going to call it a day'. I took off my guitar, put it back in the case and then Randy said 'Yes, me too. I'm done.' Then Steve Plunkett, of course, said 'The band's not going to happen anymore.' We folded the whole thing up because we realized that Grunge was going to happen. We understood that the '80's scene was over, which was sad, but change happens.”
Todd: Both collectively and individually, how did everyone occupy themselves once Autograph ceased to exist?
Steve: “I started working on a solo album at and was teaching guitar clinics from the books that I had written. I'd written three books and had also done an instructional video. I taught three hundred and twenty-five clinics in twenty countries, so I was really busy. I was constantly flying around doing clinics. ...Steve Plunkett, he went off and started doing more of the television and movie soundtrack stuff and did very well with that. Randy started a leather business and was designing belts and other leather wear for bikers. He eventually even started making dog collars. Keni Richards was playing with Dirty White Boy and Steve Isham, the keyboard player, initially started doing gigs with Vince Neil after he split from Mötley Crüe. Everybody was staying really busy.”
Todd: In hindsight, what are your feelings in regards to Buzz (2003)? With Steve Plunkett serving as the only original member involved with the group at that time, was it necessary for him to obtain 'concessions' from you?
Steve: “No, he just did it. He didn't mention anything about it to us. Basically, I was done using the name. I said he could have it and everybody else fro the group said 'You can have it. You can use it for whatever, however you like'. ...Basically, it was Steve Plunkett writing, arranging and Producing everything, so it sounded like a solo album. His strength was always within the original lineup of Autograph. He had tried for years to do his Wolfgang project and that never really happened. When we got together with him and did all of the writing together and then helped with the Production and the arrangements, everything really clicked. But he really needed us to make all of that happen. Obviously, it didn't. When he did Buzz, I didn't even know about it. No one said anything to me. In fact, I didn't know about it for years. Nobody was paying attention to that end of the Autograph history. It was a solo album of with hired guns to play the parts. It was just Steve Plunkett writing, so it had nothing to do with the real Autograph. He'd asked me to play on what was to became Buzz, but because all the songs had all already been written. I listened to the songs, but I didn't feel as if they were strong enough.”
Todd: In regards to the songwriting sessions for Get Off Your Ass, did each member contribute material equally? With the absence of Steve Plunkett, did you resort to co-writing it all with Randy? That had to have been tough.
Steve: “Simon had a huge part in it. He cam in with some ideas he'd already had and I had some ideas that I'd already had. What I would do was put some titles and lyric ideas together and then call him. The first one we wrote together was “You Are Us, We Are You”, and then I came up with the idea for “Get Off Your Ass”. I called him up and said 'We've got to do a song called “Get Off Your Ass”'. Later on, it would become a true catchphrase and everybody loved it, so we decided to call the album that. It and so that worked out very well for us. Some of the stuff was done over the phone and some of it was done by flying right in the studio, which was at Marc's place. He's the only one that has a studio in his home, so we did everything there, which made it much more convenient, of course. At this point, you can do stuff at home and it sounds like a three million dollar studio, which is a nice luxury to have because it gives you that extra element of time. When you're looking at the clock knowing it's costing you a hundred and twenty-five dollars an hour, you're thinking 'Wow. We've got to hurry our butts off here'. ...With the luxuries of having a studio in your home, it makes such a big difference.”
Todd: How did the group become affiliated with EMP Label Group? It appears they are an incredible fit for you.
Steve: “A friend of ours, Peter Kalish, was playing intermediate manager and was shopping the album for us. He got us a deal with King Records in Japan. Then he said 'I've got this fairly new label, EMP Records that Dave Ellefson from Megadeth owns' and I thought 'Cool. A musician signing to a musician's label'. That makes a difference because they understand what the business is all about. They're not these corporate people that decided to start a record label. It's a whole different thing. I was very interested in them from the get-go because it was owned by David Ellefson. We started negotiating with them and we agreed on terms. As far as creativity, they gave us complete control. They said 'You can have all the creativity control that you want and we reserve the right to retain that as well'. And I think that's very good shit because they know that they're not dealing with some young guys who don't know what they are doing, ya know? They're dealing with some real veterans here.”
Todd: What led to the release of the Louder EP (2015)? Weren't you only issuing singles prior to the EMP deal?
Steve: “Yes. We were initially doing singles, which eventually became Louder EP. ...It also included a live version of “Turn Up the Radio” that we had recorded in Nottingham, England at Firefest. It was basically four new songs. We were releasing them as singles on our own and we weren't very interested in doing a deal at that point. We just wanted to see what the reaction would be with both people that were already long-time Autograph fans and new fans alike. ...It was such a positive response that we decided we'd complete a full disc. ...I feel sorry for the bands that are just starting now, trying to make a name for themselves because it's just a zoo out there. It's really difficult with a lot of the stations where they are not willing to really help new artists to establish themselves through the airwaves. It makes it difficult for new bands. That's changing a bit now because a lot of the FM stations and even the XM stations are opening up more to newer bands. That definitely helps them. Having an established name already definitely helped us. ...There is really no doubt about that one.”
Todd: What are your current touring plans? I'm assuming that you'll be supporting Get Off Your Ass a great deal.
Steve: “Yes. We are probably going to Japan, of course, because we signed a deal for that territory. I'm sure next year, we'll be going over there. Our booking agency is constantly adding more dates every week. Next year, it looks like we're going to be extremely busy. We'll be going back to Europe and Japan. We were just in Europe last March. I think that we're going to be hitting a lot of festivals, a lot of fairs and a lot of casinos. We're doing a lot of shows with Great White, Lita Ford and Slaughter. It's great hanging out with these old people, too because they were all bands that were around the same time that we were back in the '80s. It's almost like a family reunion again. We get to see all those faces that were familiar to you back then. ...It's a really cool thing.”
Todd: What type of set list will you be working with? Will you be playing new materials from Get Off Your Ass?
Steve: “Definitely. What we're doing is we're playing four new songs off the LP, and then we're going to add on another one and we're going to see how they all go over. So far, the four songs that we're playing now on the set list are going over very well. They're going over just as well as the old Autograph stuff. Of course, we'll always have the old Autograph stuff to play like “ Deep End”, “My Girlfriend's Boyfriend Isn't Me”, “She Never Looked That Good For Me” and of course “Loud And Clear”, “Blonds In Black Cars”, and “Turn Up the Radio.” Those are all things the audience will always appreciate and we will always love playing those as well.”
Get Off Your Ass (2017)
Louder (EP) (2016)
The Anthology (2011)
More Missing Pieces (2003)
Missing Pieces (1997)
Loud And Clear (1987)
That's The Stuff (1985)
Sign In Please (1984)
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