Firehouse

It’s been a long time coming, but Firehouse have just played in the UK for their first shows in the country in well over a decade. Indeed, the last time the band played here was in December 1992, surprisingly opening for Status Quo.

Bill Leverty caught live at the Rescue Rooms, NottinghamYup, March 5th found the North Carolina based quartet (comprising vocalist CJ Snare, guitarist Bill Leverty, drummer Michael Foster and new bassist Allen McKenzie) at the Rescue Rooms in Nottingham, where they kicked off the tour that had melodic rock devotees rejoicing throughout the land.

To celebrate this monumental event, I caught up with Bill Leverty to find out why, after all this time, Firehouse decided to return?

Bill Leverty and Jaromir JagrHowever, before we got down to the nitty-gritty, we discover a mutual appreciation for ice hockey. Whereas Bill has a soft spot for the Tampa Bay Lightning (where his mates Brad Lukowich and Cory Sarich play) and the Detroit Redwings (his wife’s hometown team), I express my long-time support for the now ailing Pittsburgh Penguins franchise. Bill subsequently directs me to his website (www.leverty.com) where he is pictured in the presence of ex- Penguin Jaromir Jagr (now with the New York Rangers), one of my all-time hockey heroes….

Incidentally, Bill has played the game since he was a kid and turns out for a local, amateur side. But, I digress….

"We’ve been wanting to come back over since ’93," answers Bill when the conversation finally returns to the matter in hand. "The problem was that we were doing ok back home and would therefore lose money by touring Europe, because the promoters we’d talk to couldn’t work anything out that was realistic."

So, it was actually all down to ‘Fireworks’ scribe Kieran Dargan that Bill and company are playing in Britain. Kieran, who has been championing the band since the magazine’s inception, decided it was about time the band returned. And if nobody else was willing to do anything about it then he would!

"We met Kieran six years ago. He was always telling us that we should come back over to play. All credit to him, he worked on the idea of getting a tour organised for us for a long time. And, because he’s a friend, we went the extra mile for him.

"We’ve been really looking forward to these shows. It’s been totally our fault that we haven’t been over since the Quo tour. We really shouldn’t have ignored our fans in Britain for so long."

What are your memories of that Quo tour in late ’92? It seemed like a bit of a mis-match before it happened!

"It was an amazing tour!" Bill enthuses, taking a trip down memory lane. "It was the best we were ever treated by a band we played support to. We expected the exact opposite to what we received. They were amazing people. And the reaction we got from their fans too was fantastic.

"We would have dinner and drink wine with the band and crew. And the meals were awesome, as Quo brought two top chefs along with them for the whole tour.

"In terms of music, I love Quo’s style and their sound. Especially songs like ‘Whatever You Want’. I had obtained a couple of their records to acquaint myself with them, because I never knew anything about them beforehand. Despite a few tours in the States in the 70s, they were pretty unknown to us."

I interviewed CJ Snare during that tour with Quo for ‘Kerrang!’, and noted that Firehouse were something of an anomaly in the US rock scene at that time. They were standard bearers for melodic hard rock, while allFirehouse with a trio of Notts rock chicks 2004 around headed to Seattle. Misery loved company. Firehouse, in comparison, just wanted to rock!

"I think there was just something about us that people connected with. We were in the right place at the right time," observes the guitarist. "We were from the East Coast, so I believe we were a little more representative of average America. We weren’t rock stars, but more urban. We were actually nice to people, never burnt bridges and kept our credibility with our fans.

"Also, I believe that we maintained a real quality and standard with our records. If one guy vetoed a song then it wouldn’t appear on a record. And, at that time, an awful lot of bands jumped on the grunge bandwagon. We didn’t. We stayed honest and true to our roots.

"So our third album (1995’s aptly titled ‘3’) remained true to what we were about. We spent a lot of money on it, refused to bow to grunge and got Ron Nevison in to produce it. We had a hit with ‘I Live My Life For You’, but although we had little promotion in the States by this time, we were huge in South East Asia. Invariably, we spent a lot of time there.

It was Firehouse’s popularity in South East Asia that perhaps saved them from the ‘Where Are They Now?’ file. After Epic dropped the ball after the ‘Good Acoustics’ album in 1996, the Japanese Pony Canyon label immediately snapped the four-piece up.

"Pony Canyon did indeed pick us up right away. They believed in us, so we were happy to go with them," states Bill. "When we were dropped by Epic they absorbed the debt, so we were free to do as we pleased, so we were able to negotiate licensing deals for subsequent album releases here."

Was the split with Epic a shock, or had you been expecting it?

"We’d seen the writing on the wall. What was a shock was when we released ‘Good Acoustics’ – our final album with Epic – and discovered they were prepared to spend not one penny on marketing or promoting the record. Not one penny of their budget was spent on that record.

"Ironically, it went Gold everywhere else it received promotion. And six of those countries were in South East Asia… But Epic simply focussed on Pearl Jam…

"Still, we survived. I think that was because we get along internally. We’re a democracy. If you don’t write a song you still get money. And we ensure that we make good, quality records. That’s how I believe we’ve kept our fans.

"I liken making records to manufacturing ice cream. Plenty of bands just give their fans vanilla. We prefer to give ours chocolate. We’ve never given our fans vanilla!"

But haven’t you stretched your wings a little and copped a little bit of flak for it?

"We have. And I do remember one song on our ‘O2’ album (released in 2000) where CJ sings two lines in a rap style and we caught a lot of heat for that! For just two lines!"

I’ve heard more people commenting on the shorter hair you sport these days though! I find it amusing how some people won’t listen to bands because their hair is too short!!

"I know what you mean," Bill laughs. "There are indeed some fans of this type of music who certainly put an emphasis on the hair. The emphasis should be on the music.

As one of those bands caught up in the so-called ‘hair metal’ era, Firehouse had difficulty escaping….

"The record company put too much emphasis on image. We wound up with the big hair and the leather outfits, but when we started we were – as we are now – a jeans and T-shirts kind of band.

"Incidentally, the reason why we don’t do videos these days is because we know they just won’t be played. However, we may be doing a DVD in the future."

With their Japanese deal with Pony Canyon remaining constant, the band’s records have been released through other sources elsewhere in the world. For 1998’s ‘Category 5’ album, Firehouse negotiated a deal with the US independent label Mystic Records. However, that concern went out of business, so the band’s live album (1999’s ‘Bring ‘Em Out "Live"’) and the aforementioned ‘O2’ appeared through Spitfire. No longer with that label, Firehouse’s latest album, ‘Prime Time’, has been released through the band’s own imprint. Is that a frustrating situation?

"Well, the way I look at it is that getting 100% of the pie sure beats 10% of it. We sell the thing ourselves at a good price through our website (www.firehousemusic.com) or at shows. The only thing missing is promotion, but we didn’t really have any of that anyway after the third album…."

Maybe things will change after the tour and Firehouse will find themselves armed with a new deal?

Prior to the UK tour, Bill released his impressive debut solo album. Entitled ‘Wanderlust’, the album follows a bluesy, southern rock theme and was recorded with Michael Foster and the late Bruce Waibel.

"Bruce’s death (in September last year) was a tremendous shock," notes Bill. "I’d begged him to stay in the band when he told us that he wanted to quit. He wanted to get out of the music business and spend more time with his family, but I’m not sure whether he had issues. He wasn’t out of the music business for too long because he began playing with Dickie Betts (of Allman Brothers Band fame) and then with a jazz artist in Sarasota, Florida. When I got the phone call to tell me that he had killed himself it was really heavy. I couldn’t believe it.

"He played so well on my album. He played a lot of cool stuff. And he was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. It’s very sad."

Waibel had replaced original bassist Perry Richardson for ‘O2’ and following his decision to quit the group; Firehouse spent a brief period of time with one Dario Seixas, before recruiting Allen McKenzie to the ranks.

"Allen used to be in the biggest Rush tribute band in the States, the name of which escapes me right now!" he laughs. "He’s from Ohio, and has previously recorded with a band called Peace Tree.

"He was top of our list after Bruce quit, but we went with Dario. That didn’t work out, so we were delighted to get Allen into the band."

CJ Snare at the Rescue Rooms, NottinghamBefore finding fame and some degree of fortune with Firehouse, CJ Snare and original bassist Perry Richardson had enjoyed a modicum of success, albeit on a small, cult level, in the mid-80s with their previous band, Maxx Warrior – a rougher-edged group but with a certain freshness and melodic charm. They got as far as releasing a four-track EP, ‘High On Metal’, that met with very favourable reviews and was later picked up by a German label.

"Maxx Warrior wasn’t a serious endeavour," CJ laughed when I asked him about it back in the early 90s (although I distinctly remember him being serious about it in an interview we did for 'Metal Forces' at the time of release!).

"It was just a club band. It was good schooling for Perry and myself; it enabled us to get to where we are with Firehouse. We were invariably playing three one-hour sets, six nights a week, mixing our own stuff with the obligatory AC/DC, Judas Priest and Scorpions’ covers. Then our manager suggested we put out some of our own material on the label he was starting up.

"We broke up," CJ continued, "Cos I wanted to go in a sort of Scorpions melodic vein, while the others wanted to be like Metallica. I then met up with Bill Leverty and Michael Foster in White Heat. Perry joined a bit further down the line, and it all kinda fell into place."

Soon enough, the quartet (who had been forced to change the band name after learning of other groups who already had deals or a history using the White Heat moniker) would be looking at Gold records on their living room walls….

Firehouse: The debut album."It was a big surprise for us. We obviously wanted the first album (‘Firehouse’, issued in 1990) to do well, but you always fear the worst. It took us six months, then ‘Don’t Treat Me Bad’ just took off. We went Gold, then Epic released ‘Love Of A Lifetime’ as the next single, and that blew things through the roof!"

Double-Platinum status, if you please. Firehouse hit the road in earnest throughout 1991 with Warrant, Trixter and a stint leading into 1992 with Tesla before concentrating on their second album, ‘Hold Your Fire’, released in the middle of the year. It had already been certified Gold when I spoke to CJ at the time of the Quo tour and on its way to Platinum.

"I’ve really got to pinch myself every day, to make sure this isn’t a dream," he remarked.

Some of you may well have had the same thoughts about seeing the band live before your naked, steaming, melody soaked eyes once again in the UK!

Photo of Bill and Jagr courtesy of www.leverty.com