Amid the oft-storied histories of the Doom Metal sub-genre, few groups effectively epitomized it’s true essence than the newly-minted Super Group Eye Am. Fueled by vocalist/guitarist Kenny Hickey, guitarist/vocalist Kirk Windstein (Crowbar), bassist Todd Strange (Crowbar, Down), they initially formed at the behest of Corpse Paint Records CEO Andrew Spaulding. The group’s newly-released single “Dreams Always Die With The Sun” was recorded by woefully-underrated Less Than Jake bassist Roger Lima at The Moathouse in Gainesville, Florida and was Mixed and Mastered by the legendary Jay Ruston (Anthrax, Pearl, Steel Panther) Recently, the oft-charismatic Kelly (Quiet Riot, Silvetomb, Type O Negative) was kind enough to speak with us regarding, amon-g other things, the release of the group’s Mike Holderbeast (Cement Level Studios, Housecore, Et al.)-led video.
Todd: In hindsight, how did everyone become involved with (Corpse Paint Records CEO) Andrew Spaulding?
Johnny: “He came to work for Type O Negative as a merchandiser and we’ve remained very good friends. He had started an indie label Corpse Paint Records and he was like ‘I want to put you, (lead vocalist/guitarist) Kenny (Hickey, Silvertomb, Type O Negative), (Crowbar vocalist/guitarist) Kirk (Windstein) and (bassist) Todd (Strange, ex-Crowbar) in a room and I want to release what you guys do. Basically, he put us in a room together and we came up with this new song. That’s how it started. Drew’s been talking about doing this for years. He’d mention it like ‘If you guys got together with Kirk’. We’ve been friends for a long time now, almost thirty years.”
Todd: Considering the inner-genre kinship, I’m surprised you haven’t already collaborated with Kirk. Am I correct in remembering Crowbar and Type O Negative toured together, but rather sporadically? That’s weird, if true.
Johnny: “Crowbar and Type O Negative only played together once or twice, but we’ve always remained friends. Oddly, the opportunity to play together never come up. Drew facilitated it all. It was all very organic. First off, the way the song got put together was that Kenny and Kirk had brought in a few ideas before we got together. I flew in to Florida and Drew picked me up and took me right to the rehearsal studio from the airport. So then we rehearsed, hashed out the song, got an arrangement done by throwing some ideas around and then the next morning, we were in the recording studio tracking. I finished my tracks and then I got on a plane because I had to leave. The other three stayed behind and spent another day in the studio doing all the guitars and the vocals and everything. I’m not really used to working like that. During my time with Type O Negative, nothing was ev-er done that quickly. It was fun, though. It was cool to see what you can come up just being thrown into a room together. Everybody really enjoyed it. We all had a good time and we’re getting together again and we’re going to see how many songs we can come up with. …We’ll have a whole week as opposed to two days to work with.”
Todd: As far as Eye Am is concerned, what are your current touring plans? Has anything been booked as of yet?
Johnny: “At this point? I really don’t know. We haven’t gotten to the point of discussing live shows. Right now, the goal at first is to get more songs together. You can’t go out and do shows based on one song. (laughter) Maybe if it was a pop song, then we could go perform on Jimmy Kimmel Live! If it’s Pop, you can do one song. We have to get more songs together. Everybody’s really enthusiastic about it. Everyone’s very excited about getting together and playing and writing, but it also comes down to everybody’s schedule, too. Kirk is really busy with Crowbar and I’m pretty busy with Quiet Riot. If we can fit some stuff in, it’d be great. It really won’t be from a lack of enthusiasm. The logistics might be a little bit tough, but we could probably navigate around that, too. …We need a solid hour of songs before we can start putting attention towards getting out and playing.”
Todd: Is it just my imagination or are you almost constantly on tour? With the number of different groups you’re involved with, the amount of time you’d need to devote to it is almost frightening from an outsider’s perspective.
Johnny: “It seems like I play a lot, but I wouldn’t say it’s touring in the truest sense of touring that I’m used to. Everything that I did for years with Type O Negative… You’d get on a bus and you’d leave home for weeks at a time. …Now, it’s primarily fly-in dates. Sometimes, we’ll have shows that have relatively short drives to each other and then we’ll travel in a (Mercedes) Sprinter van or something in between. But most of it’s flying to each show. For instance, last month, we had one show in Nevada, so we flew to Nevada and did the show. Then I few home. I was home for a couple of days and then the next weekend, I went to wherever I was going. I spend a lot of time in airports as opposed to being away from home for a month, so it’s different in that sense. In a way, it’s nice because if the accommodations are nice, it gets in the way of touring. You can be more comfortable and in some ways a lot less comfortable in others. Nothing sucks more than after getting done playing and going back to your hotel enough time to take a shower and then you have to be in the lobby at two-thirty in the morning to go to the airport. …But I can sleep on airplanes. It’s a necessary skill that makes it much easier than it could be.”
Todd: How did you become involved with Quiet Riot? In hindsight, I did not have the ‘Quiet Riot’ box checked on my commemorative ‘Who Will Johnny Kelly Play With Next’ Bingo card. I’ll admit I did not see that coming.
Johnny: “I had played with (Quiet Riot guitarist) Alex Grossi in (the cover band) Hookers & Blow for years. We played together with (ex-Guns n’ Roses keyboardist) Dizzy Reed and (ex-W.A.S.P. drummer) Mike Dupke. …When Frankie had first gotten diagnosed, they had a show coming up in Dallas where I live. I’m actually the one who suggested it. I knew that Frankie was going to be getting treatment, and I just suggested it to Alex. I was like ‘I’m going to be there anyway. Just ask Frankie if he needs any help’. They were helping him out so that he could save his energy for the show. …I was like ‘Let me help him out’ and Frankie was into the idea. He said ‘It’s cool. Thanks.’ I didn’t really expect much of it, of course, but I told Alex ‘Look, if something comes up and you’re in a jam and you need somebody to cover Frankie, I’ll do it if you need someone’, not thinking anything would ever come of it, right? At that point, it was like ‘There’s no way Quiet Riot would do a show without Frankie Banali And then, two days before the Dallas show, Alex called and was like ‘Can you do the show?’ and I was like ‘What do you mean ‘Do the show’?’ (laughter) He was like ‘Frankie’s not going to be there. Can you cover?’ I was like ‘Yeah, sure’. I never really expected it, so I was like ‘Yeah, send me a set list and I’ll look at it’. This was literally two days before the show. When the show day came, I meet them at the venue in Dallas. I walked into the trailer, but I really didn’t know the other guys all that well. I know Alex well, but I didn’t know (former vocalist and American Idol runner-up) James Durbin, (current vocalist) Jizzy (Pearl) or (former bassist) Chuck Wright (Alice Cooper, Giuffria, House Of Lords), who was the bassist at the time. I walk in and was like ‘This is a terrible idea.’ (laughter) ‘This is just terrible.’ They all turned white as ghosts when I said that, but we managed to somehow get through the show, and there wasn’t really any major shame there. Of course there were mistakes and whatnot, on some of the little things, but I got through the whole show and everything was okay. From there, I was covering for Frankie, so I did a bunch of shows with them that year. Mike Dupke was also covering when I couldn’t. Then, right before Frankie passed away, when he was getting everything in order, and telling everyone how he wanted the band going forward once he’s gone. …He wanted me to be the one doing it.”
Todd: Were you initially hesitant to accept their offer on a full-time basis? It’s certainly a massive responsibility.
Johnny: “I said ‘Of course’, so it’s pretty crazy. It’s cool and weird at the same time. The circumstances of getting the job are terrible, because somebody passed away. You’re friends with them, so you know it’s got to be tough for those guys, too. But at the same time, it’s so cool. We got (bassist) Rudy (Sarzo, ex-Dio, ex-Ozzy Osbourne, Whitesnake) back in the band now and that’s great. It’s pretty weird. I’ll be playing and I’ll look across the stage and I’m like ‘Oh, there’s fucking Rudy Sarzo’. (laughs) ‘It’s fucking Rudy Sarzo!’, and it all still blows me away.”
Todd: Is it safe to assume you were already familiar with Frankie’s collective body of work? Once you began performing as a permanent member, were you able to add your own personal touch to what Frankie had played?
Johnny: “Obviously, I grew up loving Frankie’s playing, so I guess I kind of came through that same school of playing. No one ever came up to me and said ‘This all has to be exactly this way’, ya know? And Rudy has been really encouraging, actually. I was very worried about Rudy when I came in. I was like ‘Does this sound okay? Is there something that you want me to change?’ and he was like ‘No, you’re playing the parts. I can hear you in the playing’. He’s like ‘You’re not just trying to be Frankie’ and I was like ‘Is that a bad thing? Do you want me to change that?’ (laughter) and he was like ‘No, it’s a good thing. You have to be you’, so he’s been encouraging in that way. I studied a lot of how they played the songs live, but not so much like the studio recordings. …They’ve been playing these songs live a certain way for so long and there’s all these different things, all of these little nuances, so I was trying to learn it that way so that it would be more comfortable for the guys that are playing in the band now. During their live sets, Frankie was always playing like a maniac. In fact, he had been going so crazy, I had to tone down some of the stuff he was doing. It was almost as if he was putting on this drum clinic.”
Todd: As both a musician and a fan of the group itself, it must have been a real challenge to incorporate yourself within what Frankie was doing while on tour. Do you throw yourself into that as he did or have you ‘held’ back?
Johnny: “I was like ‘I don’t know this is my place to be doing this kind of stuff. It’s like Frankie’s doing it. That is his band and his songs. I didn’t really feel that it was my place to go as overboard with the things like the way Frankie did. I kept some of it in there, but simplified some other things where it’d be more about the song than about me trying to stand out in the song. It’s just basic respect for the songs, for the catalog and for what they did. …When I hear drum playing in songs and hear drum patterns, there are certain things that jump out to me that kind of cooks like guitar hooks. There’s little things, I think, that are important to the drum part where I’m like ‘That needs to be there, regardless of who’s playing it. It needs to be there’. I try to keep those things in there and then there’s some flexibility within some little nuanced things that I made my own. …Part of it is like having fun with it. It’s like a live show where it could all be a bit spontaneous. You could do something a little bit weird with it. As long as the meat is there in the meal, the main course is there and the little side dishes and stuff, you could play around. (laughter) You try to find a balance in it. You do your job, but you have to have respect for what you’re doing and respect for the people that came before you. And it’s the same thing with Danzig. For the other players that came in before I did, I tried to recreate their parts. You’ve got to find the balance between paying respect for the music, and the work that was done. …Then you also have to stand on your own two feet.”
Todd: From a professional point of view, how do you prepare yourself to play with a new group without being able to properly prepare yourself? I can’t even imagine how nerve-wracking of an experience all of that must be.
Johnny: “For instance, it was a similar situation when I played with Black Label Society. …When I did that tour, I had five days to work on that. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but it was like that with Danzig, too. When I’d first joined Danzig, we were cutting it really close. Basically, I remembered some of the material from when I was a kid. …What I try to do is just familiarize myself with the arrangements and try to get an idea how the song start and how does it finish. Some of the nuances I’ll learn on the way, but I’ll just try to cram as much as I can to just understand and get a basic feel of the song. And I make notes. It looks like hieroglyphics more than anything, but it’s something I understand. I can’t read tablets and I can’t write sheet music, so I’ll have a basic arrangement with footnotes about what part requires what, like ‘The chorus comes in here for four measures’ or ‘The chorus is done on the line, or the crash’. So I make these little sheet notes to try and just get through it. I’ll have all the measures numbered and whatnot. And a lot of times, I definitely bite off more than I can chew, but thankfully, up to this point, at least…I’ve gotten through all these different situations with very minimal collateral damage.”
Todd: All outward appearances, it would seem as if you continue to receive new offers on a regular basis. After taking into account scheduling conflicts, how do choose who you’re going to work with? That must be so tough.
Johnny: “And I’m not one to say no. …If somebody calls me and says ‘Hey, you want to do this thing?’, I’m like ‘Oh, yeah, that sounds cool. That’s a cool idea, thanks. I’ll see you tomorrow. And it’s like ‘Wait a minute, what did I just do? What was I thinking? It’s a terrible idea.’ And yeah, it’s come up. When I did the (memorial for late Dope/Murderdolls drummer) Ben Graves, we all got up and did a full Murderdolls set. It was (vocalist/guitarist) Wednesday 13 and (bassist) Eric Griffen and the guitarist from Shark Island. Now, I was good friends with Ben, but I was not really all that familiar with the Murderdoll’s music. They were like ‘Well, if you’re doing the show, we want you to do it.’ And then I get to California and I’m like ‘I really have no idea what I am doing.’ Well, we managed pulled it off. Yes, of course, there was some mistakes, but somehow we got away with it. Or I should say I got away with it. The other guys, they all knew what they were doing. All these guys, they’re all pros and then they have me. (laughs). …It’s a lot of fun in the sense it’s definitely something that keeps you on your toes.”
Todd: What is the current status of the group Seventh Void? I seem to remember being very excited about the group’s cover of (Misfits classic) “Bullet” (circa 2009), so it’s certainly been a while. Is the band truly still active?
Johnny: “Seventh Void basically became (the band) Silvertomb. At the time, Seventh Void had put out a record (Heaven Is Gone, 2009), we had done a little touring and then the band went on hiatus. …It was (lead vocalist) Kenny, (bassist) Hank (Hell), and myself. There really wasn’t a lot going on, but then Kenny started writing songs again. So we had a quasi-lineup of Seventh Void working on new songs, but then all of the songs started changing direction like the direction, so then we brought in (keyboardist Aaron) Joos (Awaken The Shadow, Empyreon, Wildstreet) who also plays guitar. He’s basically our utility guy. The line-up had then been solidified and Kenny, Hank and the guys were talking about changing the name because it is a little bit of a different thing now. Kenny was more insistent on it. …It really didn’t matter to me, but he was more insistent on it. He was like ‘The band’s different now. It’s a different thing. Let’s start fresh’. That’s really what happened. I got used to it after a while. At the time, I thought we were putting way too much thought into it. It’s like ‘What does it matter?’ And then they came up with the name and again and I stayed out of that discussion as much as possible. They were like ‘What do you think of this name?’ and I was like ‘You know what? There’s way too many chefs in the kitchen. I’m stepping out of this. Let me know what you guys decide. …That is what they finally came up with.”
Todd: What equipment are you currently utilizing? When the COVID-19 Pandemic became a factor, were you actively seeking new equipment or did the overall presence of travel restrictions keep you from acquiring more?
Johnny: “During the pandemic, I got really bad. …I ended up getting way too much stuff than I really needed. (laughter) In the back of my mind, I’m like ‘If I get it, it’s money in the bank. I could sell it. I could get at least what I paid for it’. It’s not that big of a deal and I keep on doing it, but I haven’t gotten to the sold part yet because I’m not really good at letting anything go. I’m kind of a hoarder. (laughter) I just built a studio at my house, and I’ve been using my Gretsch Broadcaster kit. I’ve had that kit for about five years and it’s amazing. It plays itself. For years, I always played a maple kit. All of my kits with the Type O Negative are made from six-ply maple. …The Broadcaster kits shell is the same thickness, but it’s a three-ply with a thick ply of poplar that’s sandwiched in between two thin plies of maple, so it doesn’t have the same projection as maple. But it has this warmth to it and this tone that’s unbelievable. I was aware of them, but I when heard one at the Gretsch display at NAMM (National Association Of Music Merchants), I was like ‘What the hell is that?’ …I went to my guy at Gretsch and he was like ‘Oh, that’s a Broadcaster kit’. I was like ‘I have got to get one of these kits’. I wound up getting one and that’s the one that I use the most. It’s currently my favorite kit and I am up to nine of them now.”
Todd: At this point, what equipment are you most frequently using? Now that we’ve established your fondness for hoarding any and all gear, what particular item(s) have you found yourself needing to have most frequently?
Johnny: “I still have my Pearl Type O Negative kit, which is great. That kit’s still killer, too. And I also have two Gretsch Renown kits, which are awesome as well. Those are what I’ve toured with the most. …The (Gretsch) Broadcaster kit really hasn’t been on the road all that much. But the Renown kit, they’re all maple and they’re pro-level. They take a beating and they sound really good. …All the touring I did with the band was with one of my Renown kits. …When Ben Graves passed away, his fiancee gave me one of his kits. It was an older Ludwig kit with a twenty-eight inch kick drum. It needed a lot of work because it was a real mess. I finally had gotten it to Texas and I restored it. I re-wrapped it with a red oyster finish, so it’s black and red again. I did that as a tribute to Ben since the Murderdolls colors were black and red. It’s an interesting story. …All the the (drum) shells were autographed on the inside, but I couldn’t make out who the autograph was from. And it’s not Ben, because I knew what Ben’s autograph looked like. I was like ‘Who signed these drums? I was out in California and a mutual friend of ours comes up to me and goes ‘You have Ben’s old Ludwig kit, right?’ and I was like ‘Yeah’. And he was like ‘Do you know who owned that kit? I was like ‘I have no idea’ and he says ‘It belonged to (ex-David Bowie/Tin Machine drummer) Hunt Sales’. I looked him up and I’m like ‘Holy shit. There’s a Bowie connection to this. That’s really freakin’ cool’. He’d also played with (Punk Rock icon) Iggy Pop and played the drums on (the hit song) “Lust For Life” (from Lust For Life, 1977). And then, after doing some more research. I see that Hunt Sales always played with a twenty-eight inch kit drum. I was like ‘Oh, wow’. So there’s a lot of history behind the kit and now I have it. I have actually recorded with that kit, too. They all recorded very well.”
Todd: That’s an incredibly large bass drum! Have you consciously dampened the sound? Leaving it wide open would lead to an incredibly huge sound. To me, such a massive of set up is very reminiscent of Carmine Appice.
Johnny: “It really is. And I don’t have any padding or muffling in it or anything. It’s wide open. It’s a monster. A couple of songs on the next Silvertomb record will be on it. It sounds so good. I also play around with different snares. I have, like, twenty-seven snares now. I’m always on YouTube checking out different snare drums. The last thing I need is another snare drum, but I’m like ‘Oh, I got to get one of these’, ya know? It’s a big change from when I was younger. For years, I had to borrow drums to play shows with people. I couldn’t afford a drum set, and I was borrowing things like that. So now that I can buy a snare drum, I’m like ‘Okay, I can buy a snare drum, right?’. And then I’m terrified…I’ll be like ‘What if you’ll never be able to get that again?’. I don’t have a lot of vintage stuff or rare things, but snares… I got into bronze recently. The last snare I picked up was actually copper, which is cool. I wasn’t crazy about it when I bought it. I was like ‘Oh, shit. I don’t know if I should have bought this’ because I’m not really crazy about it. Then I recorded with it, and it sounds really good. Right now, it’s the snare I’m using when I track, so it sounds great. But I have this Gretsch bronze Snare. That’s one of my favorites. …And then I guess my favorite one right now is this Gretsch ‘Bell brass’ that stands as a real monster.”