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 amid the ashes of Thin Lizzy in 2012, Blackstar Riders issued their Kevin Shirley-Produced debut All Hell Breaks Loose the following year. Returning in 2015 with The Killer Instinct and in 2017 with Heavy Fire, the group would unleash the oft-mighty Another State Of Grace in 2019. Recently, bassist Robbie Crane (Lynch Mob, Ratt, Vince Neil), always a man of many words and interesting stories, was kind enough to speak with us regarding, among many other things, his tumultuous tenures as a member of Vince Neil (Mötley Crüe) and Glam Rock/Hair Metal giants Ratt.
Todd: How did you become involved with Black Star Riders? In hindsight, you do appear to be a logical choice.
Robbie: “In 2013, I subbed a gig for a band (guitarist) Keri Kelli (ex-Alice Cooper, Night Ranger, Warrant) was in. He had a band with (bassist) Rudy Sarzo (ex-Dio, Whitesnake, Quiet Riot) and (drummer) Jimmy DeGrasso (Dokken, Ratt, White Lion). I met Jimmy and we did a small tour of Russia together with that band. About a year later in in 2014, he texted me asking if I'd be interested in auditioning for Black Star Riders. They were coming through California on a tour with Skid Row. I auditioned and two days later, they told me I had the gig.”
Todd: Throughout the duration of your career, you've been affectionately known as a 'hired gun'. Have you ever found it difficult to forge and maintain real relationships while working with such a diverse group of musicians?
Robbie: “I've been doing it professionally since my early 20's. I was twenty-two when I joined Vince Neil's solo band. I learned early on to take each experience and relationship as they come. Some of the relationships that you develop in a band setting aren't necessarily personal relationships. They don't necessarily continue after you exit the band. I learned that the hard way. Just because you play in a band with people doesn't mean that you have a long term relationship with them, ya know? ...Maybe you connect, maybe you don't or maybe it's just a superficial relationship when you're in the band together. I experienced that to a certain extent with the Vince Neil Band and definitely when I played in Ratt. I was in that band for sixteen years and when I left, it was like only one or two of the guys maintained a relationship, ya know? Relationships are important when you're working together. You have to do your best and be the best person you can and hope that the relationships are maintained after that. For me, the relationships are important. As I've grown and had the experience of playing with so many different musicians, I've learned to appreciate the relationships I have in Black Star Riders. (vocalist/guitarist) Ricky (Warwick) and I have become really good friends. We share a lot musically and he's been kind enough to have me play on tour of his solo record in addition to our work with Black Star Riders. (Guitarist) Scott (Gorham, ex-Thin Lizzy) and I get on great and I also love (former guitarist) Damon Johnson (ex-Brother Cain). He's one of our greatest friends. And (guitarist) Christian (Martucci, ex-Stone Sour) and (drummer) Chad (Szeliga) are awesome, too. ...I look forward to more touring to see how that relationship goes. I think the relationships are important and I think chemistry is important. There's a lot to be said for chemistry and I think the reason why people are really enjoying this record is because we really captured the chemistry of the five of us all together. And I think (Producer) Jay Ruston (Anthrax, Kataklysm, Steel Panther) did a really great job of capturing the energies and spirits we had when writing and recording the songs for our new record.”
Todd: Were you initially nervous of or intimidated by thoughts of working with a legend such as Scott Gorham?
Robbie: “When I auditioned, I'd never met Scott before. Of course I'm a huge fan, ya know? I'd covered Thin Lizzy when I was touring with other bands, so I was excited to meet him. When you think of Thin Lizzy, you think of Ireland or, at the very least, England, so I was waiting there for Scott Gorham the English guitar player to walk onto the bus. (Former bassist) Marco Mendoza (Blue Murder, Ted Nugent, Whitesnake) was their bass player. Marco was already on the bus and was gracious and awesome and then Ricky and Damon come into the back and we're all in the back lounge with (former drummer) Jimmy DeGrasso (Alice Cooper, Megadeth, White Lion) Then Scott comes in and I'm like waiting for him to say something like 'All right, bloke' ya know?', but he was like 'Hey bud. How're you doing?' I was like 'Holy shit! Where are you from? I've always thought you were from England. And he was like 'Actually, I'm from Glendale, California'. And it's so funny because although I'd known him as the Glendale gunslinger for all my life, I just didn't comprehend that it was Glendale, California.”
Todd: It's amazing how a person can learn something entirely new about a band they've been listening to for essentially the entirety of their life. Honestly, now, I had also always assumed he was from England or Ireland.
Robbie: “I don't know what I was thinking, to be honest. I was like 'Holy shit'. Scott Gorham is an absolute legend, but now I don't know him that way. I only know him as someone I play in a band with. He's such an easy guy to be around musically. He's so talented, ya know? He used to be a bass player so he's had so many great suggestions for me on the bass. The first time I ever recorded with Black Star Riders was on the song called “Soldierstown” (from Heavy Fire, 2017). When we were in pre-Production, we'd all go back to the hotel and I would write the bass lines and whatever else I thought would fit in certain parts. Scott always had that 'Hey, that's killer. Let's try this too.' And it was like that on this record as well. He would be like 'Hey man, did you use the pick-up on that?'. He just has a great ear as a musician and was very involved on this record. On the last few records, he wasn't as involved but on this record, I just call it a Scott Gorham record because he had so much input. ...A lot of people say 'Oh, but it sounds like Thin Lizzy' or 'That's a little too Thin Lizzy for me' but that's a compliment. And I'm like 'Well, guess what? Scott Gorham co-wrote a lot of those famous Thin Lizzy songs like “The Boys Are Back In Town”, “Cowboy Song” and “Hollywood” is in our band and he writes all our songs, so it's all going to have the flavors. But again, I am appreciative of it all and I think it's a good thing.”
Todd: As far as the remainder of the band is concerned, was your chemistry immediate or did it grow over time?
Robbie: “When we first met, I didn't know any of the other guys in the band. I knew Jimmy in so much that I'd met him and then we played a few shows together but we had no relationship after that. I met them all, started working with them and our relationships all kind went on from there. We all have a lot in common. A lot of the musical loves and a lot of things that we like to pursue and do and so we share a lot of common ground and when working together, there's an affinity for some styles of music that most wouldn't think would fit into our Rock And Roll. We love all kinds of different music together, so when we work together on any project, it just seems like we connect really well. I've been lucky to play on his solo records as well as Black Star Riders records we've done. I've done two solo records and three Black Star Rider records with him, which is real cool.”
Todd: Which solo albums have you been involved with? I'd imagine you also had a lot of fun with those as well.
Robbie: “It's been a great time. I was lucky enough to be part of the Patsy Cline record (i.e. When Patsy Cline Was Crazy And Guy Mitchell Sang The Blues, 2014) when I first joined Back Star Riders. Actually, that's one of the first things I did after I joined Black Star Riders. He asked me if would record on it and I did five songs, I think and then there's this new record we just did with (guitarist) Keith Nelson and (bassist) Xavier (Muriel) from Buckcherry. I also played all of the bass on that record, which was a great experience as well. We did that literally right after we finished Another State of Grace. Fighting Hearts are a great bunch of guys, so it was fun”
Todd: Once you were officially a member of the group, how soon were you able to contribute to the songwriting process? Were you able to offer any input during the writing and recording process for Another State Of Grace?
Robbie: “I had two ideas on the last record. “Dancing With The Wrong Girl” was my riff and obviously the bass part and triad on “Cold War Love” is all mine. And then, on this new record, I also have a few credits. The reality is that Ricky Warwick is a very prolific writer. He writes all day long, everyday. He's constantly writing. He's a great lyricist and he's a great musical writer. ...He's constantly asking us 'You got an idea for this? You got any ideas, like, any riffs? Send me as many riffs as you can'. I've always been more of a part writer, so I'll send off fifty riffs, ya know? ...I try not to put any label on them because I don't want to color the riffs and him go 'Why'd you label this as ska? Now I could go for a ska riff', ya know? He's so open to music. It was the same with Damon. Damon would take a song and help you. I always considered him kind of like (ex-Fleetwood Mac (guitarist) Lindsey Buckingham where he would put everything into context, if you will. So Ricky is always the dominant writer in the band, but Scott just shows up with riffs. He's like 'I don't know man, I got this idea' and then he'll play the “Kingdom Of The Lost" riff or he'll play “Bloodshot” or he'll play “Tonight The Moonlight”. He just has so many riffs. He came in the day before pre-Production with the song “Underneath The Afterglow” already demoed and we were like 'Wow we have to do this song'. Ricky wrote the lyrics that night, worked it up the next day and just like that, it was done. Everybody brings their ideas in parts. Christian had a huge hand in putting the songs into context on this record. He demoed all of the ideas including mine, Ricky's and Scott's. It's really a band effort even though you'll see a lot of the writing it's predominantly done by Ricky. Ricky is amazing because he has a way of connecting with everybody in the room. We literally did three Productions less than I thought we would. We pretty much recorded live in the recording studio and overdubbed what needed to, but for the most part, it's been a really easy process. It was actually one of the easiest records I have ever made.”
Todd: At this point, do you feel the group's main target demographic resides within the United States or Europe?
Robbie: “At this point, I would say the U.K. as we just got the news that our record is number one on the Rock charts. ...We'd actually edged out Tool (Fear Inoculum, 2019), which was pretty impressive. ...It's been a great experience and a great time. People say Rock 'N' Roll is dead, but for a working band on their fourth record, it's nice to be part of something like that where you're not just treading ground. ...The U.K. is our primary market, obviously. Europe has done really well for us and Scandinavia has done great for us as well. We did the U.S. last year when we were out with Judas Priest for fifty shows. We were lucky enough to be able to support it financially and come out ahead, but it's not always that way for us in America. Hopefully we'll be able to come back although there are no plans as of yet and it's definitely in our plan. ...We're taking it one step at a time. We're already into the summer of 2020 with regards to booking. We're looking into that and making sure that we cover all of our bases first, ya know? Our home base is where it is, so we'll be out in Europe and the U.K. first.”
Todd: In retrospect, how do you remember your time as a member of the Vince Neil band? You'd previously alluded to certain levels of inner-turmoil. Overall, what made the situation difficult? Was there a primary factor?
Robbie: “The Vince Neil band was so much fun. I've been a bass player since I was a youngster, growing up in Hollywood. My dad was a bass player and I always played bass from the age fourteen onward. I had never played guitar in a band, but I actually could play guitar, so when I joined Vince's band, I joined as a guitar player. I was second guitar to (Billy Idol axeman) Steve Stevens. Phil Soussan from Ozzy (Osbourne) was our bass player. We did the MTV Movie Awards and some videos with me playing guitar. ...We recorded the entire record with Phil on bass, and then Steve Stevens came back in and re-recorded the bass. Then, towards the end, I went back to bass because we couldn't find a new bass player. That band as it sat, was Steve, (drummer) Vic (Fox), myself and Vince and then we eventually Dave Marshall came in as a touring guitar player. It was a great experience in the beginning because Vince was fresh off leaving Mötley Crüe and everyone was really excited. There was a lot of money going around as Vince had signed a huge $17.5 million dollar record deal. Everything was grand. We all had a load of money and new cars and whatever other things. They were all wonderful, but they were so many personalities involved in it, ya know? ...I will always say this about Vince. Vince was so gracious to everybody in that band, he was very gracious with the money. He gave us all an immense amount of money in advance and took care of all of us very well. He always looked out for us and was very cool to all of us, especially me. He set me up financially and career wise to be focused and to do well. But there were a lot of egos in the band, ya know? And that will happen in a band like that. Vince and Steve had a falling out, I believe it was over the rights to songwriting. To be honest with you, I don't remember all that well. I do remember Steve leaving and my friend Brent Woods (ex-Sebastian Bach, Warrant, Wildside) coming in. At the time, he was in living in my apartment building and he owed me money, so I said 'Man, you're paying me back'. I was like 'Brent, get your ass over here to the studio', so, we recorded the second Vince record (i.e. Carved In Stone, 1995) with Vic, Vince, Brent and I and along with (Producers) The Dust Brothers. Things were going as best as could be expected for a solo artist playing the U.S. and Japan. We did some European and South American gigs, but at the end of the day, Mötley Crüe wanted to get back together with Vince because that's where they should all be, so that was kind of the end of that. Vince and I had a little bit of a falling out at the end, which we eventually repaired years later, but it was just time for him to go back to Mötley Crüe. I was twenty-six when the band finally ended and I was so co-dependent at the time. It gave me an opportunity to join Ratt and find out who I was as an individual. It took me a while, but I met my wife in that time and eventually married her while I was in Ratt. Overall, it was just really cool time with Vince. But there were all the different personalities. There was Some stuff that went down with our drummer and it was just not a good time. But I'll tell you this, one of the greatest things we got to do is work with (late drummer) Randy Castillo (Bret Michaels, Lita Ford, Ozzy Osbourne), who did the last year with us. It was Brent, Randy Castillo, Vince and I and boy that was that just an amazing time. That was one of the best tours of my entire life. Randy, God bless him, was a legendary drummer and such a wonderful person. He showed me a lot of great things. We were headed to the beginning of our '96 summer tour, we were at the airport in Chicago and he asked me if I wanted to go get a Frappuccino at the Starbucks. We were on our way to Wisconsin, but instead we went to another gate and flew to Detroit that night and saw Kiss at Tiger Stadium on the opening night of the reunion tour with Alice in Chains because him and (bassist) Mike Inez had played with Ozzy together. He took me without even telling me. I had no clothes and was wearing shorts. Randy was always a spontaneous good guy, so there were some very good times with him.”
Todd: By comparison, how do you remember your time as a member of Ratt? While they certainly lack some of the drama Vince and Mötley Crüe are known for, there certainly have been some major personnel-related issues.
Robbie: “It was an amazing time. I always tell everybody that I joined in my late twenties and I left in my mid- forties. I did a lot of growing up while in that band. Ratt came at the right time for me. ...I'd been out of Vince's band for about two months and our tour manager, Larry Morand, had asked me to come and play in a project band called Vertex that included Stephen Pearcy and (guitarist) Al Pitrelli (ex-Alice Cooper, Joe Lynn Turner, Megadeth). That's how Stephen and I met. He had asked me to join Ratt three months later and again it came at such a great time for me. I had just left Vince's band and wasn't all that sure where my musical path was headed. Being in Ratt allowed me to not only grow as a musician, but as a family guy by just being around (former guitarist) Warren (DeMartini), (former drummer) Bobby (Blotzer) and Stephen and all their families, ya know? Plus, being in Ratt also allowed me to focus more on my vocals more and just playing and being a part of a band, ya know? I was in the band for almost sixteen years and really enjoyed all the touring, ya know? There were a lot of really good times on a lot of great tours. It definitely had it's ups and downs like being in any other band, but I do remember that the band helped me to grow immensely as a musician. ...It was really, really cool.”
Todd: As an individual and as a group, where do you see everyone within the next five years? Obviously, the plan is to continue onward within Black Star Riders, but with the way things so often change, what is your plan?
Robbie: “It's hard to say where any of us will be in a year or two. Our aspirations are to continue doing what we do. We love playing in the band that we're in. Ricky, Scott and I talk about it quite a lot. Damon left because he wanted to pursue his solo career and he did it the right way, in my opinion. We had been talking about it for a couple of years and to be honest with you, I think we knew about a year prior to his actual departure. We kept talking about when the best time would be and what would be good for him. Damon Johnson is such a talented artist and songwriter. ...He's a band guy, but he also needs to be out there just being Damon Johnson. He doesn't need to be messing around with bands, ya know? He's his own band and we've always tried to encourage him to do that, so he did it the right way. We found the best time for him and us to leave and we parted ways, ya know? So, you know, new paths, and there are people coming in and out of your path on your journey. With this band I think Ricky, Scott and I are very connected. I think that our plan is to continue to do this for another five to ten years. Obviously, Scott's not a spring chicken. He's still playing like he's twenty and he's still running around like he's twenty, but in the realistic world, who knows? Who knows what Scott will want to do in five years. Hopefully he still wants to play music because I know he still can. He's got the mental focus and the physical abilities to play and he's killing it. Ricky and I are both still hungry to tour and play and Chad and Christian are so amazing, so hopefully in five years we'll still be playing bigger venues and making better records, ya know?”
Select Robbie Crane Discography
Another State Of Grace (2019)
Heavy Fire (2017)
The Killer Instinct (2015)
Sound Mountain Sessions (2012)
Love The Sin, Hate The Sinner (2008)
Adler's Appetite (2005)
Religious Fix (1995)
Carved In Stone (1995)
Fist First (1994)
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