Metal City: An Interview with John Gallagher
As part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the ’80s, Raven paved the way for thrash and speed metal. Nearly four decades later, they’re still showing how it’s done. The trio is gearing up to release their 14th studio album, Metal City, in September and it’s just as audacious as their early work.
Of course, that’s thanks in part to bassist/vocalist John Gallagher, who still fronts the band with his brother and guitarist Mark Gallagher. Metal City is the first to feature drummer Mike Heller, who joined in 2017. Together they push each other to the limits with blistering riffs, fast tempos, and a dynamic interplay.
Gallagher dishes out a superb bass performance throughout the record. He goes beyond doubling the riff or laying roots by offering complementary lines. His bass tone is also a thing of wonder and gets much grittier than the band’s last release, Extermination.
We caught up with Gallagher to get the scoop on what he’s been up to, the new album, and what advice he has for up and coming players.
How have you been holding up during the quarantine period?
Pretty good. I just tore down an old deck and redid it. I’ve been playing lots of guitar and bass, plus I made an 8-string bass from a 4-string Iceman bass and I’ve been shooting video… so being productive!
Your daily noodles on Facebook have been pretty inspiring. Will you be making anything out of them?
Thanks. It’s been fun and challenging coming up with new stuff every day. I’ve run the gamut from playing some Raven bass lines to spacey improvs to covers of songs as varied as “Stairway to Heaven” through “The Shadow of Your Smile” on regular bass, 8-string, and fretless! I have to rip them all & put them up on YouTube, but there’s a possibility of taking it further. We will see.
I’m very excited about the new Raven album. Was it recorded during our current situation or prior?
It’s been a process. The drums were done a while back. We had major issues during the initial tracking of the guitar and bass and had to “pick up our toys and go home,” so to speak. Luckily we hooked back up with our good friend Michael Wagener and recorded the guitars, bass, and vocals at his studio in Nashville. Then we went through the mill with the mix, finally working with this guy Zeuss who did a fantastic job making it big and meaty!
It sounds so big even with just three people. Whether it’s live or in the studio, what is the secret to playing in a power trio format?
It’s a combination of the sounds and orchestration. Soundwise, Mark has a huge guitar sound so I add to that with a lot of dirt and mids and tweak the frequencies so it’s near his sweet spot but not on it. The scooped bass sound thing drives me nuts!
I’m going for a version of the Jimmy Lea/Felix Pappalardi big sound. If it’s a fly gig and the bass cab has one of those tweeters, off that goes immediately! It does not work with distortion at all. I try to play complementary bass lines wherever possible as opposed to just aping the guitar or pumping out the root. There is always a place for that of course, but I try to do stuff that makes the music bigger, and that goes for Mark and Mike as well. There are no passengers in a three-piece and no safety net, either! So if (and when) things go south like a broken string, drum head, or amp issue, the other two guys have to be ready to cover. However, the advantages are there’s more sonic space for everyone and it lends itself to improvisation, and we like to do that… a lot!
On that note, Raven has been rocking for decades. What’s the secret to band longevity?
That’s a good question! I guess not being big drinkers or drug guys have helped with our focus and health, but I think it’s just because we love what we do and we are stubborn Geordie bastards. [laughs]
What is your writing process like?
We learned a lot funnily enough writing the last album as regards making each part really count, where sometimes you’d have a transition part or whatever that was left in as a placeholder. That stuff got removed and we challenged ourselves to make every part count 110%. I came up with a lot of songs for this, maybe 30-35. Mark came up with some killer songs, too. We knew we had a great album on the cards, but then added a strong dose of Mike Heller into the mix!
How has his introduction changed your playing and writing?
I’d describe it as a quantum leap. He’s a younger guy with many different influences for sure, but there’s some common ground and in that way, we broaden each other’s palettes. His technical ability is frightening. Anything we throw at him he chews it up and spits it back about 100 bpm faster! We have that ESP thing between us for sure which is so important for a rhythm section. His input on the new album was after the songs were written, so he did his parts and changed up a number of parts and we revamped our stuff accordingly. We did write a number of songs last year at his studio and also have a giant backlog of songs as we wrote a LOT for this album, so we are in good shape already for the next album!
Your tone on Metal City is gnarly and seems much dirtier than on Extermination. What led you to that change, and what are you using to get all the different sounds?
It is a little more overdriven but it was ridiculously easy to get my sound this time! Mr. Wagener is a big proponent of using the Kemper profiler. Basically he pulled up one sound that was total Billy Sheehan: dirty and with extreme compression. I said, “Cool, but… nah. What else you got?” The very next sound was just perfect with lots of low end, fat mids, and a nice amount of highs but very dirty, indeed! Kinda like an Ampeg about to explode!
As I’d demoed the songs 2 or 3 times already, I banged out my bass parts in one afternoon but still found room to improvise here there and everywhere. So we cranked up the gain on the solo parts on “The Power”, “Top of the mountain“, and “Battlescarred“. Michael set up a POG 2 pedal for the choruses on “When Worlds Collide”, so that was my 8-string bass with a two-octave down sound. It’s just huge!
[For live situations] I’m using a Boss ME-80 which is a guitar multi-effects unit. It’s just perfect for me as it’s got great tone dirty and clean, plus all the over the top crazy stuff I use for my solos like pitch shifting and ring modulation. I’ve never had much use for “bass multi-effects” as the dirty sounds are either too fuzzy or have that “ratty high-end buzz but you can dial in the clean sound” deal. I don’t want clean mixed in at all! I brought it to the studio but Mike suggested we try the Kemper and we got that sound in literally a few minutes.
What is the biggest change that’s happened to your playing in the last few years?
I’ve been playing more 4-string over the last few years, especially since I put the White Flying V together. It’s actually a lot that I changed – the tuners, pickups, and bridge – and it just plays so well and has a huge sound. So that’s made me stretch out a little more through the set.
I’m still using my good old red Explorer which had a bit of a renovation last year that really made it so much better as regards the trem staying in tune and it just sounds so good. I also picked up a 7-string which is a beast but has chordal dimensions that I love. I also made another V this time in red with a Kahler trem.
What advice do you have for up and coming players?
Try playing stuff from other instruments. I’ve learned Tori Amos songs on guitar for example and said, “Ok… why not on bass?” It’s a challenge finding the notes. It’s always good to put yourself in unfamiliar territory that way. The other thing is once this virus shite is over, play with other people – play live! It’s the single best thing you can do. Lock in with other players and create music! And one other thing: listen to what your bandmates are doing and then add to it.