INTERVIEW – Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow, Anvil – October 2014
By Shane Pinnegar
Heavy metal legends Anvil return to Australia this month, and SHANE PINNEGAR finds that if frontman/guitarist Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow ever decides to pack it in, he might have a promising career as an inspirational speaker ahead of him.
One of the bands which helped create the thrash and speed metal sound, Anvil struggled to be noticed after their third album, Forged In Fire, but never gave up. Thirty one years after their debut album, they’re now touring in support of their fifteenth album, the Bob Marlette (Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Black Stone Cherry)-produced Hope In Hell.
2009’s documentary movie about the band, Sacha Gervasi’s The Story Of Anvil, brought the name Anvil out of heavy metal obscurity and into the mainstream – as much (if not more) for frontman Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow’s relentless passion, self-belief and positivity, than for their music.
Kudlow first started jamming in 1973 with school friend Rob Reiner on the drums, and together they have remained the only constants in the Anvil line-up, and talking to Kudlow on the phone line to Toronto, his enthusiasm for what he does is still undimmed to the point that he is inspirational.
With Toronto going into winter and spring in full swing here however, the first thing on Lips’ mind is the weather!
Lips: What’s the weather like out there?
Shane: It’s nice and sunny, man. It’s like a summer’s day in the middle of spring. You’re going to have some great weather when you get here.
Lips: That’s good. I’m going to need it because I’m going to be going to heavy duty winter a little bit after that – we’re going to be going to Europe at the end of November.
Shane: You must be looking forward to coming back to Australia. It’s been a few years.
Lips: It’s been about 4 or 5 years now. It’s a real big deal.
Shane: We’re looking forward to having you. You worked with producer Bob Marlette on your last two albums – Juggernaut Of Justice and Hope In Hell. How was the experience in working with him ’cause he seems to have brought in a little bit of 70’s rock vibe on a couple of songs?
Lips: I think he does what is necessary and not more, which is great. He makes sure that we do what’s necessary and not more. I think that that’s a great way to produce. You don’t overdo things and don’t under do them. It gets done properly, everything is the best it can be. It’s guiding you through the process, really.
Shane: You did a few albums with Chris Tsangarides, and a few with Paul Lachapelle, but throughout them all, Anvil always sounds like Anvil. How much influence do you allow a producer to have over the sound of the band?
Lips: Like you can’t change your face, you can’t really change your voice. Now, having said that, a human voice is something as unique as fingerprints. No matter what I’m going to do, I’m going to always sound like me. You combine that with, it’s me writing the songs, that’s part of my identity as well. You’ve got my identity with my vocal identity and it’s Anvil. That’s what it is. It can’t be anything else, but me.
It doesn’t matter who’s producing it, it’s only going to be a question of how well it’s done. When you talk about production, it’s how much time and effort was put into getting the stuff recorded and time is, of course, sometimes your most brutal opponent because you’re fighting against time. You’ve got to get the best job you can in the shortest period of time because every moment you spend is costing you money.
Shane: You’ve got 15 albums under your belt now. How easy is it to pick a set list when you go out and play?
Lips: It’s actually pretty easy because predominantly people want to hear the first three records. Anything that came after it, we can cherry pick the best songs and add them to the set, then pretty much as we go we take the newest stuff and replace it with other newer stuff, but we keep the same old classics. Like certainly, we still play Mothra, we still play March Of The Crabs, we still play 666, Winged Assassins, Forged In Fire. There are certain songs, we’re never going to stop playing them: people depend on us to play them – that’s why they’re coming to see us. It’s all about that. Those things remain constant. It’s just the new material gets moved in and around those old classics. That’s what we do.
Some of the older fans that have actually still been listening to us all through the years, they think that the show that we’re currently playing is the best it’s ever been, just the pacing of it and the cross section and it’s really refined in a certain sense. That comes with every band that’s been around for a long time. Eventually, it gets to a place where it’s the optimum of whatever you’ve been. You cherry pick those songs and you can’t do any wrong. You play these songs and it’s like, ‘holy shit!’ It’s unbelievable.
I saw the Scorpions at a certain point in their career and that’s the feeling I got when I watched them. It’s like, they’re at the point that they’ve got the best choice of songs they’ve ever been able to use in one set in their whole career. They’ve got the world by the balls. It was really at the epitome, it was around the Blackout album. They could pull from their early stuff and yet they could do some of their new stuff and it was every bit as good if not better. The combination is bombastic, it’ll blow you away.
I think that’s where we are right now. I hope it continues this way. That’s all we can hope for. I still have the fire and the desire so, therefore, I suppose it’s still all there. I’m doing the best I can and appreciating every moment. I think that that’s the key to all of it and the best part of all of it.
Shane: That attitude of doing the best and striving for what you believe in, and never compromising, never giving up, that’s a really, really admirable quality. It must have felt very satisfying when the Story Of Anvil movie came out in 2009 so that people at large – whether they were metal fans, or Anvil fans, or not – could see that dedication in you and could see what you’ve been struggling against for so many years.
Lips: In a certain sense, I’ve become famous more-so for my attitude than I am for my music. I think the main reason for that is, we’re not mainstream, never were, and for all likelihood, never will be. It’s one of those things. You can’t change my voice, you can’t change my song-writing style. I guess if I let someone else write songs, and I started trying to sing like somebody else, then it would be different and maybe we could open up the doors to other things, but I don’t believe in doing that. There’s no point in doing that. Not after 15 albums. What’s the point? Why ruin it?
Shane: Were you ever tempted to compromise for the sake of a hit record? Metallica did it, Megadeth did it, a bunch of other people have done it. You’ve never been tempted at all?
Lips: No. It’s a psychological boundary I’ve put on myself or created in the sense because even when I had the vehicle in the music, I chose to be very obtuse and wrong in what I chose to sing. A perfect example would be going back to our fourth album and I recorded a song called Mad Dog. The structure of the song was basically Cat Scratch Fever. It was the format of Cat Scratch Fever and it was every bit as catchy, if not more catchy, as Cat Scratch Fever except that I used lyrics like, ‘looking for a bitch in heat, begging for a doggy treat.’ You’re not going to get that on the radio. People are not going to be singing along with that. I still do that in the sense of song structure and style. Like a song like Shut The Fuck Up. That’s virtually hit song-writing, but you’re never going to hear it on the radio.
Shane: Is there a certain amount of stubbornness in you that makes you do that?
Lips: Being a Frank Zappa fan and believing in his philosophy, it’s part of my psyche. I don’t want to be that. I don’t want to be a Bon Jovi. It’s not my thing. I’m not interested. Who wants that shit?
Shane: I certainly couldn’t picture you in teased hair and eyeliner, mate, that’s for sure.
Lips: It just doesn’t work. It’s not part of my thing. I like it the way it is. I like what I’ve done. I like the people to know me for my spirit, my tenacity, my balls [laughs]. And what I get away with – I’m having a great life and a good time. That’s the way I look at it. Success to me is doing what I love and getting away with it. It’s like, singing Butter Bust Jerky – who’s gonna have the guts to say that?
People say, ‘Anvil’s a joke.’ No, it’s not a joke. It’s no more of a joke than Frank Zappa was in saying, ‘don’t you eat that yellow snow,’ or, ‘hey Fauna, you wanna?’
Shane: Like Backwaxed, that was my favorite song back then. That’s excellent stuff.
Lips: Here’s another prime example. You remember that song, not only because of what it’s called and what it was about, but that thing was moronic, it was a hit single. David Krebbs who actually managed Aerosmith and the Scorpions, he was managing at that time. When he heard the song Backwaxed, he goes, ‘you fucked up a hit single. What is wrong with you guys? Don’t you recognise that?’ Yeah, so… [sings] ‘don’t you worry, don’t you fret, I’ve got a method they ain’t thought of yet!’ [laughs]
Shane: Talking about the positivity inherent in your story which you’ve mentioned, becoming more famous perhaps for your attitude than the music in some respects, I read that quite a few fans were writing to you after the movie came out talking about getting in touch with their lost dreams on the strength of seeing you never having given up. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Lips: That was a phenomenon. Rob and I call them confession letters, like we’re taking confessions like a priest or something. It’s unbelievable. I would say, literally thousands, thousands, endless people of all walks of life and dreams and desires telling us that they watch the Anvil movie whenever they lose their faith or their hope in themselves to reinspire themselves to go back at it. We’re going, ‘really?’
We don’t get it. This is what we do, and what we’ve always done, and what we’ll do until the day we die. We don’t view it as being that inspiring. If I got a penny for every person that told me that I’ve inspired them, I’d be a billionaire. I just do what I do. I’m living my life. If that’s inspiring, okay. It’s a good thing that I don’t walk around with the idea, ‘I’m inspiring!’ I don’t think that way – it’s not who I am.
Shane: If you were to write a self help book, what would be your advice to kids about following their dreams?
Lips: When you follow your dreams, it’s about sacrifice. It’s a huge sacrifice. It’s constructing your life in such a way to make it possible. If you’re not willing to construct your life in that way, it is not possible. It’s all about sacrifice. My younger brother is a businessman. He owns a variety of properties and has been asking me to become part of that business for over 30 years. If I wanted to make money and become successful in business, it’s always been there, but I have no desire. That’s not what I do. Not interested. For me, it’s about doing what you love. What’s the point? Making money is only… it’s only there to use for your survival so that you can eat and have a place to live and have luxury, I suppose. It doesn’t fulfill your life.
I just don’t see that. I gravitate towards the things that are fulfilling. I want to leave a mark in this world. I want to have made a difference. I suppose that’s inspiring to some people, but maybe my desires are bigger than the average person. I don’t know. Maybe it goes back to, I didn’t get enough attention as a child from my parents. I don’t know. Certainly it’s a multitude, a combination of different things and there is a great deal of being somewhat megalomaniacal. What’s the word for the guy that, the Greek guy that looked at his reflection…?
Shane: Narcissus. Narcissist, I think, is the word [you’re looking for]…
Lips: That’s right. Without any question to be a performer, a musician, or anything, you have to be narcissistic on a certain level. It could very well be that the more narcissistic that you are, probably the more successful you probably become.
Shane: There’s a lot of evidence to back that up. That’s for sure.
Lips: No question about it.
Shane: Despite not ever making the big, big time, you seem happy and proud of your life’s work.
Lips: No question about it. Success is about doing what you love and getting away with it so I’ve had a very, very successful life. A very, very successful music career because I’ve gotten away with it 15 times – 15 albums doing what I love. Not being told what to do, or how to do it, or when to do it. That’s pretty successful. That’s the way I look at it. It’s not about how many records you sold, it has nothing to do with it. It’s, what did you bring to the world? I’ve brought them, so far, 15 albums worth of material. I’ve written more songs together with Rob than Paul McCartney and John Lennon did. It doesn’t mean I’ll be as famous or anything, but that’s not what I’m saying.
It’s like, ‘how many children do you have?’ Well, I’ve got more children than the average guy, you know what I mean? I’m leaving more to the world than the average person. That’s success. That, to me, is the ultimate. How much can you get done? To me, it’s how successful you are. It’s not how much money you made. It’s, what did you get done? What did you do with your life? What did you create? What did you leave behind? Those are the things that I live for. How many people are left with memories? That’s why I look at every performance as being so special and so unique because you can never win back those moments.
Every moment you’re on stage and the people are witnessing it, they’re not going to be able to relive it or be able to make it happen again in the same way. It will be a different time, a different place, and different people. Never the same. No two performances are identical. No two audiences are identical. No two nights are identical. Every moment is unique. If you don’t hold it and cherish it, it will come and go and it’s not going to be the same. I don’t know how to completely explain it, but I’ve really come to realise that every moment that you get to be here, you should really strive to be as excellent as you can. If you have the desire to do that, if you can keep it up, how much can you keep it up? It has to be for a life time, a serious, serious dedication to what you’re doing.
Shane: That’s really inspiring, just hearing you say that and long may you do it because you’re doing what you love.
Lips: That’s the thing. I don’t look at, ‘I think this song is going to be better than the next song,’ it’s the best I can do with this song and what I can do at the moment. And every moment I have to keep up my talk, because there’s always a person sitting there saying, ‘what are you going to do next? What are you going to do to top that? Are you still good?’ Everybody looks at your picture and goes, ‘is he aging?’ There isn’t a thing that isn’t under the microscope and scrutinised – not one thing you do as an artist. You’ve got to be at your top and always in game form as long as is possible, and have that attitude or you WILL falter and fail. No question. You’ve always got to be on that edge – and more so the more successful [you are].
I mean that – I have friends in the business whom I’ve know for many, many years and I know them as people. Let’s put it this way, when I met Jon Bon Jovi in 1984 when we played Super Rock ’84 that’s depicted in the [Anvil] movie, Runaway was on the radio and he was cursing like a pirate: ‘why didn’t this song go bigger?’ That was his desire. And that was his first major tour of his career and that’s what he talked about – his first hit single. Where was that guy going? Where he went to! That’s the way I perceived it. He desired it and it was really obvious. He’s like 4 or 5 years younger than me, but just as determined as I am, we were both born March 2nd so, as people, I’m sure we’re very similar, but he does it in a different way than I do, that’s all. I prefer to be a marginal king, he’d rather be the real king. That’s okay. It’s still king. Megalomania, what can I say?
Shane: Well, you’re the king of what you do. There’s no denying that.
Lips: Well, it’s desire, I suppose. It’s not about money, it’s just being about being the best you can and being appreciated, is the bottom line. That’s all it is.
Shane: It’s been great talking to you and, as I said, long may you rock. We’re really looking forward to seeing you when you get to Western Australia.
Lips: It’s going to be killer. I can’t wait.
Shane: Good stuff. Thanks so much for your time today, or tonight for you.
Lips: What the hell, it’s only 11:30 [pm].
Shane: Party on, mate. Party on. We’ll see you in Australia.
Lips: Okay, sounds good man.
This story was first published in edited form in X-Press Magazine’s 29 October 2014 Issue
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