INTERVIEW: DANNY BOWES, THUNDER – February 2017
By Shane Pinnegar
Danny Bowes is in a great mood when I call him at home in England to chat about Thunder’s first EVER Australian tour – and why wouldn’t he be! In their 28 years on and off Thunder have scored four top ten UK albums, had impressive success in Japan, and enjoy a cult following in the Americas. The five-piece have toured relentlessly (apart from when on hiatus in 2001 and 2009/10), but somehow they’re only now getting to visit Down Under.
TUESDAY 7TH MARCH – SYDNEY – FACTORY
WEDNESDAY 8TH MARCH – MELBOURNE – CORNER
FRIDAY 10TH MARCH – BRISBANE – TRIFFID
SATURDAY 11TH MARCH – PERTH – CAPITOL
“Finally – after 28 years!” Bowes exclaims. “Is it a box ticked off my ‘bucket list’? Absolutely it is. I mean you have no idea how big this box is, and how big this magic marker is that I am using to tick it!”
Thunder formed in 1989 from the ashes of Terraplane, and before that, Nuthin’ Fancy. The cornerstone of all three bands has been Bowes’ vocals, and schoolmate Luke Morley’s guitars and songwriting. Drummer Gary ‘Harry’ James joined at the start of the Terraplane years, and Ben Matthews on rhythm guitar when Thunder were inaugurated. Both have been by their side ever since, as has bassist Chris Childs since he joined Thunder in 1996.
Despite their name – and Wikipedia insisting they are a “hard rock and heavy metal band” – Thunder play blues-based hard rock n’ roll in the very British tradition of Free and Bad Company.
“Ahhh, you gotta love Wikipedia haven’t you?” Bowes says with an amused sigh and a laugh. “They just know exactly what they’re doing – it’s all true!
“I genuinely don’t know if we’re very British [sounding] or not, you know?” the singer continues. “All I know is that obviously we are British people, so I suppose we bring a kind of British outlook to it in some way, shape or form. Certainly the music we grew up with was primarily British rock bands like The Who and Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, but if you look at where they got their music from… all that stuff [like] Free and Bad Company, all that music came from the blues, and of course that all came from America.
“So I think we probably soaked up some of that stuff as well and as we got more sophisticated in our tastes, as we grew older, we got much more into all kinds of other genres of music, especially American music. We have a very wide appreciation of music – mostly old stuff, because we are old people now. We are old – we can’t get around that shit. We are old, but the music that we like is everything from soul music right through to jazz, and everything in between. So we never really think about it as being British or not. I suppose, hopefully, we sound British. I don’t suppose that’s necessarily going to do us any harm but I don’t really think about it that way.”
At 57 Bowes is hardly ‘old,’ but his and our generations seem to retain a far more eclectic range of tastes than kids of today. The mere fact that they love soul music and jazz music means those influences will permeate their music, however subtly.
“Yeah, we like the fact that it does,” he agrees. “We’ve always tried to include all of our it influences, not just the stuff that we grew up with, [and] not just the stuff that we feel our audience will get immediately. We feel a kind of sense of responsibility to not so much educate, but to drag them along with us; to make them realise that our influences are wider than just rock music. And if we can inject a little back into our music every now and again in some way, shape or form, it makes such a lot of difference.
“It makes it so much more rewarding when you are making music, if you can do these little cross-fertilisation things. We’ve got some stuff going on on the new record: Luke was playing a song, it’s us channelling Led Zeppelin, this song on the record, there’s no doubt about it – but then he goes into this guitar solo in the middle of it, and it’s like something Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter would have done in Steely Dan or the Doobie brothers! You just think, ‘whoa, where did that come from?’
“When he played it for me, I said to him, ‘what are you doing? That’s like jazz!’ He said, ‘yeah I know, but it’s good isn’t it – it works doesn’t it?’ I said, ‘yeah I think so, I just can’t figure out whether we can afford these chords. Aren’t these the expensive chords!?’ So, it’s fun! I think if you can get that shit in there, why not?”
My first experience with the band was on my first trip to England in 1992, when I went to the Donington Monsters Of Rock Festival with 70,000+ of my closest friends to see Iron Maiden, Skid Row, Slayer, Thunder, W.A.S.P. and The Almighty. Yep, that was back in the days when a festival had one stage and one handful of bands, rather than the six stage, 90 band avalanche of overlaps which seem to be the norm nowadays.
Thunder were absolutely on fire that day, and I’ve been a died-in-the-wool fan ever since. But I’ve always wondered – were the band uncomfortable in a line-up like that, alongside heavy metal acts in front of a sea of denim and leather-clad headbangers?
“Nah, not at all – no, no, no,” counters Bowes. “We’ve never had a problem with billing or genre. Never ever. We’ve played on all kinds of bills, all around the world, with all kinds of bands and sometimes, I’ll admit, there have been times when you look at the audience and you look at the other bands and you think, ‘oh, maybe they’re not going to like us. Maybe we need to get our plastic clothes on because I think they’re gonna be chucking piss at us?’
“And it’s not always worked out that way – in fact, hardly ever. What I find is if some of these bands are, shall we say, quite heavy, when we go on it seems to be a kind of breath of fresh air, because we kind of bring our own [style], like an old fashioned, almost like a show business thing to it, ‘cos we like to get the audience to join in in a way that maybe a lot of heavy metal bands don’t. So, you know, it works. Our music works everywhere, and we’ve never been that concerned about who we play on the bill with.”
Thunder will have a brand, spanking new album under their arms when they hit our shores. It’s called Rip It Up and has already gone top ten in the UK. What can Danny tell us about it?
“Well, I think we raised the bar,” he says bluntly. “We set ourselves a target of raising the bar in pretty much every direction: we tortured ourselves to perform, to sing and play better than we’ve done before. We tortured ourselves to make sure the writing was as varied and as challenging as it could be – not so much for the listener, but very much for ourselves.
“And we kind of cherry-picked all of the best bits of the last album, which in itself was quite revolutionary for us. Instead of going into the studio for six, seven weeks with like, fifteen to twenty songs, and coming out with a finished album six weeks later, last time we decided just to go in for a week or ten days and just record only the best four or five tunes and finish them. And then we would go into the studio a couple of months later and do exactly the same thing and then a couple of months later we’d do exactly the same thing and in between Luke would be writing the songs.
“And although I don’t think he would ever admit it, I think deep down in the back of his mind while he was writing the songs he was also honing the older ones, the ones he had already written that we’d already recorded.
“So we ended up polishing those and then the songs that he would write ended up being complimentary. It’s almost as if he was writing a song and he would say, ‘yeah this will fit with what we’ve got already,’ or ‘no, no, no, I’ve already got one like that.’ So what we ended up with was this kind of constant improvement process. You don’t get that when you go into the studio with fifteen songs already done, you know?
“It just kind of changed the way of working for us and we started it with the last album, Wonder Days, and we decided to do it again because it worked so well. So then we changed the mastering. We changed the mix engineer. We changed quite a lot of things. We played a lot of stuff live this time whereas in the past we would always maybe play some of it live and then put some of the other stuff on afterwards.
“This time a lot of it was done live and then we just repaired bits as we thought we needed to; when the wine got the better of us in some cases. But it was very, very, very rewarding; very challenging and when it was finished I remember Luke saying, ‘you know what’s good about this album? We’ve all had to suffer a bit and I think that’s great.’”
We always wonder if a band has been together for literally decades, whether they can maintain a friendly working relationship, have clearly defined roles and perform at their best without ever merely going through the motions. In this case though, it sounds like Thunder really mixed everything up.
“Yeah, I think we did,” affirms Bowes. “We decided very deliberately that we wanted to. I mean, Luke played me one song, we’ve done the demo – luckily he can’t sing as well as me, otherwise I’d be out of a job. He played me the demo and it was him singing it and I thought to myself when I listened to it, this is the very first time in my entire life that I’ve heard a song and I’m struggling to work out how I would sing it. How can I actually wrap the physicality [of my vocals] around this. I just don’t know whether my voice does this.
“And he said, ‘I think you can – you just have to approach it very differently than you normally do.’ And in the end I came to the conclusion that I had to kind of channel Dusty Springfield and someone like Antony Newley or David Bowie in the sixties. It was a really bizarre kind of mindset I had to go into to sing it… and it took me probably twice as long as any other song on the record to sing it. But I have to say, it’s probably for me, one of my best ever vocal performances. And I listen to it now, and I just think, wow how did I do that?
“But I’m so proud of it, because it was so hard,” he continues. “I suppose that’s how you get better and I think, because we’ve never wanted to make the same record over and over, [we’ve always] pushed ourselves, but this time we made a conscious decision that instead of just pushing ourselves a bit, we would push ourselves a great deal!
“And it really made a difference. We were all exhausted when it was over but we were so pleased with the result, and so far everyone who’s heard it says the same thing: they can hear it! They can hear the differences and for me that’s very gratifying because normally people don’t notice the differences.”
There aren’t many bands who have been together for long, and who continue to challenge and stretch themselves rather than give in to complacency.
“Yeah, well we did it deliberately,” Bowes agrees. “One of the conversations that we had before we started recording – and even before Luke started writing – it was one of those conversations along the lines of, ‘do we feel we’ve made our best record yet? Do we feel we’re capable of making our best record now or in the future? If we don’t, then we have to make a decision. Do we want to make another record? If we feel we can make our best record, then why don’t we give it our best shot to do it?
“Because we’re running out of time – we’re getting older, so every decision is very crucial. So it comes down to whether or not you want to just relax and put your slippers on and just coast through the rest of it. But we’ve never wanted to do that, and this time, with this record, it feels more urgent because it’s two years since the last one and it will maybe be two years ‘til the next one.
“We don’t know whether we’ll get another chance to make another record in two years time. Benny had a cancer scare three years ago – it shook us all. It made us all realise that, hey, we don’t know how long this is gonna go on for. We just need to make sure that we do our best work now. Just in case we don’t get to do it later.
“When you are kids, you’ve got all your life to do it, but when you get older you start to realise that the best bits… maybe there’s more behind you than there is in front. So for us it’s almost like we’ve gotta make it now while we can. That’s the thing that’s driving it.”
Thunder burst onto the scene in the early 1990’s with debut album Backstreet Symphony and its follow-up, Laughing On Judgement Day, both produced by Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor. Both albums bothered the UK charts – the latter got to #2 – and are rightly considered hard rock classics. Have they been hard to live up to?
“I don’t think so,” Bowes explains. “We don’t feel that way. I think those songs are very much time stamps – they’re like date stamps of where we were at that point. They’re as good as we were on any given day. To an extent, every record is like that but I think when you look back at those albums – I can remember making those albums very, very clearly, and I can remember how good it felt, and how exciting it felt.
“Obviously those two albums, we were in an amazingly successful phase. I mean, we were so lucky to get the kind of success that we got as quickly as we did. There’s always a degree of pressure to recreate them and play them. There’s probably a little bit of my voice that’s gone now, so some of those songs I wouldn’t be able to sing in the way that I used to sing them, but then, that was 28 or 26 years ago when we did those tunes. Luckily I can still sing most of those notes – there’s plenty of guys around who can’t sing half of them.
“So as far as I’m concerned, we’re not doing too bad, and [Luke] has the way that he writes to take account of the fact that I am getting older, which I think is very decent of him, and for which I am very, very grateful – and I am obviously going to be buying him as many drinks as he requires going forwards.”
Getting a member of Duran Duran to produce the debut album of a blues-based rock band may not seem an obvious choice. When the record label suggested him for the job, did the band know he had hard rockin’ form?
“Yeah – we met him before the label – it was nothing to do with the label!” Bowes says passionately. “He was our choice – we were very fortunate. We got a new manager, and we got a new team of people like business managers and accountants – you know, all of those kinds of people that help you in the background – and I think it was the accountant, actually. He looked after Andy Taylor’s money and we were talking to him about what we were gonna do and how we were gonna get going and [thinking], ‘maybe we should look for a producer.’ And the accountant said, ‘well Andy Taylor’s one of my clients, you know.’
“We said, ‘what – the Duran guy?’ And he said, ‘yeah,’ and I remembered that he’d produced probably the most rocking Rod Stewart album for years, and I’d heard a couple of tracks, so I went down the road and bought the album, listened to it and I thought it was the best Rod Stewart album he had made for a long, long time. So we called the accountant and said, ‘why don’t you set up a meeting?’ and the moment we met him, we just knew immediately. Strangely enough, he said exactly the same thing. He’s said to me several times over the years, Thunder’s the band he always wished he could have been in.
“Because we all got on. We could all play. We could all do our job and all he really had to do was just encourage us to keep turning it up. We’d been with a couple of record companies with the previous band, Terraplane, and we’d kind of done a bit too much listening and not enough shouting. Did too much stuff with our heads and not enough with our hearts. That all changed when we got into Thunder because we’d learned by then the stakes – and Taylor, God bless him, just said from the beginning, ‘you’re a rock band – turn it up. Don’t worry about it, just turn it up and play louder.’
“And he did. That is exactly what he gave us: he gave us attitude. He just managed our attitude better than he did anything else.”
Bowes has played with Luke for pretty much his entire adult life, and with Harry not much less. What is it about the three of them that has allowed them to stay so close and go through so much together?
“I think we are all very different people, so we don’t compete,” replies Bowes thoughtfully. “We’ve grown up together, so we have a shared experience, and almost like a shared opinion about what is right and what is wrong. We’ve been through a lot of good stuff, our fair share of bad stuff and I think we compliment each other, because as individuals and [because of] our personalities, we’re able to lean on each other.
“Luke is very measured. Harry is incredibly benign and has an amazing sense of humour. I mean, Harry’s got this kind of giggle thing that he does and the moment he does it, we all know what he means. We know why he’s laughing. Because we’ve been together for such a long time. Other people wouldn’t know why he’s laughing but we suddenly realise why he’s laughing … And it’s a very strange thing. He looks at the world in a very strange way.
“So we have a lot of humour. We have a lot of shared experience. We don’t press each other’s buttons, but we do all believe in the same things. So we’re very… I think we’re incredibly fortunate and very, very lucky, and I think we all understand each other very well so it’s an easy band to be in. It’s great fun. We just laugh all of the time.”
Thunder have twice retired and reformed – is it that friendship and camaraderie that keep you coming back to the band?
“Yeah, well, I think the first time we went away, we genuinely felt that probably our time was up. We’d been at it for ten years. We’d had a great time for about the first five and then the second five were not so fun. I mean, it was not an enjoyable process. By then Guns had come and gone and magazines had changed and media had changed and radio had changed. We couldn’t get anybody to write about us.
“And record companies had got, shall we say, less and less creative. There was less and less ability to compete, and we’re very competitive people. That was the reason why we went away then: we just felt like we couldn’t compete, and if we couldn’t compete, we’d rather just do something else. So we did – we all went our separate ways.
“Luke carried on doing his thing ‘cos that’s what he does: he writes songs. He doesn’t do anything else. The others all went off and played, and did other things, and I just did loads of other things besides being in a band for, I think it was like, [almost] two years. Then the internet happened and we realised that if we made another record, we could communicate [directly] with our fans. We didn’t need a label – we didn’t need to worry about media.
“As long as we had fans, we could communicate with them and they could communicate with us, [so] maybe we should put our money where our mouth is and we should launch our own label, which is exactly what we did and we did that very successfully, self-releasing our own records around the world for six years. The problem is, releasing your first album on your own label: easy. Releasing your fifth or sixth album on your own label, with all the stock and the business and the deals and the internet and the online store and everything else that needs to happen; that’s hard.
“’Cos I was the one who was the only one who was interested enough in that to do it. I ended up bearing the brunt of it. So by the time I got to 2008, I had just… I was completely fried. I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown or a heart attack or both. For my own sanity, I had to walk away. The band didn’t want to carry on without me. I think I was probably quite relieved, but I did feel guilty ‘cos I pulled the rug out from underneath them.
“We went away. We were frail – we are all frail human beings and we’d never been anything but honest about the fact that that’s the way we are as individuals. It was never the business that interfered, or us having arguments or anything like that. It was just human frailty.
“So when we got back together in 2013 to do the Journey and Whitesnake tour, we suddenly realised there was still a lot of love out there [for the band] and we were having a great time on the tour. Then Luke said to me, ‘look at this audience – sometimes it feels like we’re the headliner. Maybe we should think about making another record [now] – maybe we won’t get another chance.’
“And then we started talking about it, and we talked about it for six months, I think, before we finally decided to do it. ‘Cos we were sort of wrestling with, if we are gonna come back, we’ve gotta make a great album – we can’t just make an average record. We’ve gotta get [our] work ethic sorted out, [and] really got to throw ourselves into it, and if we are gonna do it, do we want to go back to the way that it was, and self-release?
“There was loads of questions; loads more questions than answers, and in the end I met a guy who ran a record label and we had a chat about it and he basically said, ‘if you want to do it, I’ll release it.’ And I was so convinced that he was sincere, that we decided to go back to being with a record label, and the experience has been fantastic!
“[They put] their money where their mouth was: complete vision, complete trust. I mean, he didn’t hear the record until we’d finished it. He didn’t hear any songs until we’d finished making the album, by which time we had spent a lot of [his] money. [Laughs] That’s faith!
“I was so grateful for that, and the band loved it. It’s just enabled us to go from strength to strength. We are very genuinely in a very good place right now. We’re getting to play in Australia for the first time in 28 years!! There is something VERY, VERY not wrong with that picture,” Bowes laughs excitedly.
You certainly wouldn’t have predicted that ten years ago, would you?
“No, absolutely not – I would never have seen it!” he admits. “I thought that chance was gone. But it’s not and we’re here, and there’s something new happening everyday where I’m thinking, ‘wow, that’s never happened before.’ There’s all kinds of things – little things, but they’re all significant in their own way.”
TUESDAY 7TH MARCH – SYDNEY – FACTORY
WEDNESDAY 8TH MARCH – MELBOURNE – CORNER
FRIDAY 10TH MARCH – BRISBANE – TRIFFID
SATURDAY 11TH MARCH – PERTH – CAPITOL
Filed Under: Interviews
About the Author: Editor, 100% ROCK MAGAZINE