INTERVJU: Bernie Shaw i Uriah Heep

Uriah Heep är just nu aktuella med nya albumet “Chaos & Colour”, vilket är det 25:e i ordningen. Ett alster som visar att herrarna fortfarande kan. Vi ringde upp sångaren Bernie Shaw och pratade bland annat om hur allt började med Rotarykören, alla spelningar i Sovjetunionen på 80-talet och det faktum att han är den som hållt i mikrofonen längst i bandet:

It´s 37 years. It´s longer than all of them put together and I get people saying why or how, and it´s chemistry. From day one that I met Mick… he´s a fellow Gemini and we have the same mindset, same work ethic and the same love and passion and it just worked from day one.

Do you remember the first time you sang in front of an audience?

I was eleven, maybe? I used to get up on a Saturday morning, like most kids, sit down in front of the TV, watch cartoons and have some breakfast and one Saturday morning my dad said “Put your coat on! You´re coming out with me.” My dad used to always go shopping on a Saturday morning, so I said “Ok, dad!” He took me downtown and he took me to this side entrance of this old building and I went “What the heck are we doing here?” We walked in and it was a small auditorium and there was about 20 young boys and this Italian guy at the piano. My dad said “Here he is!” The guy started playing some scales and said “Can you sing this?” I had no idea he wanted me to join the Rotary Boys Choir and that´s what I did for probably the next year every Saturday morning at 10 o´clock. Dad would take me down and I would sing for an hour with this choir and we did a few concerts. In Victoria (Canada) harbor, there´s a hotel there, this humongous, imperial looking place called the Empress and one of the first times I remember ever singing in front of anybody, was with the Rotary Boys Choir in that hotel. Boy, there´s a memory!

Why did your dad take you to the choir? Had you sung before at home?

Not that I remember. Dad was always singing. He used to walk down the street singing and it was so embarrassing. Now I do the same, ha ha ha! Last Christmas I actually went out with some neighbors and we did a little carroll session during Covid. We were drinking Glühwine, so I´m gonna blame the wine. We did four or five carrolls and everybody came out of their houses and it was lightly snowing and my two kids just starred at me going “You´re singing so loud!” and I was just “This is daddy´s voice. It pays the rent.” I can´t remember not singing, but I can´t remember ever consciously going “I´m gonna be a singer!” until I actually joined my first professional band called Cold Sweat. I auditioned to be the guitar player, not the singer and that´s really how it all started. I had a Gibson SG and a Marshall 100 Watts amp and I should´ve kept it in the garage sort of thing. I had a couple of high school bands and we did covers like “All along the watchtower”. Hendrix stuff and Zappa stuff, but Cold Sweat was way beyond me as a guitar player and the bass player Bill who formed the band, we used to rehearse at his house. He was very plain and direct and said “You really can´t play that thing! We´re looking for a guitar player, but we´re looking for a singer as well.” The old singer was moving away to be a logger and then he said “Sell the guitar and buy a mic and come back next week and be our singer!” A little bit with my tail between my legs because I wanted to be a guitar player. It was a 1964 Gibson SG and I should´ve kept it because they only wanted 40 bucks for the mic and the guitar would be worth like 7 grand today, but when you´re 17 beers are worth more. Bill was the first guy to say “You´ve got a voice and you can handle what we´re doing. Bad Company, ZZ Top, Led Zeppelin…” and I was very good at mimicking other singers and I think that´s what years later and Mick asked me to join the band, I think he could hear that in my voice, that I could handle the David Byron style and range. It´s like today. The focus is on David´s time in the band, rather than Lawton, Sloman, Goalby. It´s “Can you sing David?” and I think, touch wood, I can still sing David. In my way, I´m not trying to imitate him, but it´s the same key and Mick will not detune, so I guess all this clean, healthy living paid off, ha ha ha!

You mentioned Hendrix and Zappa. Was that the music you were listening to as a kid?

Yeah, big time. I´ve always liked melodic rock, but when I first started in high school in 1970, I probably had more Zappa albums than anybody else. Not because I was into his manic playing, but the two singers he had, Flo and Eddie from The Turtles, all that constructed harmony and falsetto voice, I found out quite early in my teens that I had a falsetto, so I could go really high. But I could also almost handle the Robert Plant stuff, so in 1974 when I graduated high school, it was Styx, Kansas, Boston… and the band I was in, Cold Sweat, all for of us sang and we were known for the harmonies. We played five hours a night like everybody did in the hotel circuit. You start Monday and end Saturday and on Sunday you break it all down and a drive 1000 miles, because nothing in Canada is close. We could be away for three or four months at a time. My voice got pretty strong from that kinda payload and work all the time and doing the various vocal ranges gave me a plus on that side. Where it fell short on being Canadian is that if you were in a band that was working in a hotel, they did not want to hear anything on the charts. Then you come to England and there´s no such thing as a cover band. In every pub you hear guys doing original stuff. That stifled me as a writer and I´ve never really gone into writing. I´m not a prolific songwriter because that was not what I was nurtured to do. I was taught “Learn these Top 20 or Top 40 songs and you´ll be working every night of the week.” and they were right, but when I decided I wanted to do this for my life… I was talking to my dad late November 1978 and I went “The club scene is completely washed up in Canada because of discos.” and the hotel owners were going “Why amd I spending 2000 bucks a week on a band when I can spend 300 bucks on one guy?” When I left Canada, Bryan Adams was still singing in a club band. You know Helix? I´ve known Brian Vollmer since the club days in 75-76 and Anvil, they were all playing the same hotels and clubs that we were, but they stuck to Canada and they broke the mold by forcing the clubs to listen to their original stuff. It took Helix a very long time, but I still keep in touch with Brian all these years later and his living in Florida with his life. He´s doing a lot of other than things than just Helix. He´s a singing teacher, but he always stuck to his guns. I really take my head off to him. I wanted to do something with my voice so I had to go where it was happening. My dad said “It´s either London or Los Angeles.”, but LA and the America. There´s this thing between America and Canada. We might be joined, but mindset wise, we are stratospheres apart. My dad was born in Britain and was only in Canada because of the war. He said “If you go to America, you´re on your own. You need a green card and I can´t help you, but since you´re half British, you can work legally and you can apply for a passport and do whatever you want.” It was basically a flip of the coin and in December 1978 I was on my way to London. Didn´t know anyone.

When you joined Uriah Heep later in 1986. Those shows you did in 87 in Moscow, were those kinda like the first shows you did with the band?

We´d done literally four or five shows, but on the way to Moscow we stopped in Czech Republic and we played a handful of shows around Czech with the same production. They were pretty big sport halls, but nothing like Olympijskiy Stadium. When we just saw the building we were like “Are you joking?” and it was only half, because the Olympijskiy is round and they cut it in half, so we played to half which was 18500 every night because there was nobody allowed on the floor. 18500 seated audience and 300 armed soldiers were on the actual deck and on the other side of the curtain was the World Junior Hockey Championship, which Canada won. When we walked behind the stage there was a whole other stadium. It was six football fields wide and you´re only on three of them. It took about four minutes to drive from our dressing room to the stage. We´re talking about a big building. Funnily enough I watched a little bit of it on YouTube the other day and it all came flooding back. The songs we were playing. We put “Too scared to run” back in the set for the 50th anniversary set and I sang it that night in Russia. I didn´t realize it.

Playing in front of so many people and also being in the Soviet Union at that time, what was that like?

Pretty bleak. It was wintertime and minus a gazillion. Everything was ice and everything was grey. No personality, no color, no happiness in the people. It was like a bad Hollywood movie and it was like “Do people really live like this?” and they had nothing. We were walking around the streets, escorted of course, and there were lineups and it wasn´t just outside of shops. There´d be somebody with a big cardboard box and there was one queue that was double the length of every other queue and I remember asking the interpreter “What´s that guy selling?” and he said “I don´t know, but must be very important.” I had to see what he was selling and it was rubber plugs for a sink. I guess in that kinda atmosphere it gets very brittle, but he was selling sink plugs and they were just like 20 cents, so it wasn´t like he was gonna buy a Ferrari. That brought it all into focus. They had nothing, but they had enough money to buy a ticket to our concert. Halfway through it all the promotor said “You guys want to stay? We do another 10 shows. Sold out.” We said that we couldn´t and we needed to go back for Christmas to which he answered “We don´t have Christmas in Russia. Stay here and we all make more money.” I´ve been back to Russia 19 or 20 times. We have literally been from Moscow all the way to Vladivostok and even up to the Kamchatka Peninsula. Been there twice. I´ve seen more of Russia than 90% of the Russians. His great idea was to go back next year for a seven week tour across Siberia in the winter of course, ha ha ha! We left Moscow on the Trans Siberian Express and we were to live on that train for the next seven weeks. We had two of our own cars at the end of the train, so we didn´t have to be too close to the great unwashed… Two days on the train and then a concert, back on the train for two days and a concert… We played… oh my God, I couldn´t tell you how many shows. We went right to the bottom of the Himalayas. Once you get out of the cities, Russia´s pretty bleak. It´s just silver birch trees. Watch “Doctor Zhivago”, there you go! And no food. They stopped to change engines or add a car in the middle of the night and we got used to waking up in the middle of the night and there´d be three or four grandmothers, Babushkas, and one would have two hardboiled eggs and another would have a chicken wing and we learned that you need to get up in the middle of the night and buy your food for a couple of Kopeks. Capitalism. It was a pretty damn good educational trip. You go to Russia now and it´s neon lights and shopping centers like any other metropolis city, but back in 87 it was a pretty bleak place.

Tell me about the new album “Chaos & Colour”! The video for “Save me tonight” is pretty cool. There´s a pandemic kinda feel to it.

Well, it was and I was hoping it wasn´t gonna infiltrate too much on the songwriting, but it just touched because we all lived through it and sometimes you just can´t help let it get too close to you. Dave (Rimmer) wrote the song with Jeff Scott Soto and I love the song. I think Dave and Jeff´s got some really good chemistry together. When he played me the demo it was just like… it´s a great rocker. We had to slow it down a lot because it was real speed metal when I first heard it. Then a couple of months ago our manager in LA said “We´ve got this artist that´s been in touch with us. She´s worked with Saxon and Black Star Riders.”, so we said “Just send over some brushes of her idea!” and when we saw her style… we never had anything like that. It´s always been us and then you edit in whatever classic old footage. We said that we would never make another video with us in it. We´ve passed our sell date with that. We gave her the green light and she did it in like four days and when we saw it we were like “Yeah, that´s what we want! Not an old geezer in sight.”, ha ha ha! I watch the comments on YouTube and there´s usually that one guy going “Nah, they should´ve broken up after David went.”, but the comments have been really positive. I´d like to use her again.

Do you sometime reflect on the fact that you´ve been the singer in the band way longer than any of the others?

On occasion I have because it´s 37 years. It´s longer than all of them put together and I get people saying why or how, and it´s chemistry. From day one that I met Mick… he´s a fellow Gemini and we have the same mindset, same work ethic and the same love and passion and it just worked from day one. That whole lineup with Trevor (Bolder), Phil (Lanzon) and Mick and Lee (Kerslake), for 27 years that worked. You can´t put your finger on it. If it works it works, so why mess with it? The writing was good and we could knock out an album every few years and it had all the trademarks still. What makes this album stand out of all the other albums I´ve been associated with is instead of just Mick and Phil being the main contributors, we had Russel (Gilbrook) contributing a lot and of course Dave. We had a lot more material to go into the studio with and we were in and out in 17 days. We don´t mess around. We´re not like some other known and big American bands that spend a year in the studio. Learn the chords! No more than three takes of any backing track and working with Jay Ruston again was amazing again. He´s so laidback, because he´s Canadian as well. He´s work ethic was a bit different than what we were used to for “Living the dream” (2018). He said “I wanna go in in the morning after breakfast and do the backing track before lunch, have lunch, come in and do the solos and then late afternoon do the lead vocals and after dinner all the harmonies. One day, one completed song.” We said “Ok, we´ll try that.” and it just worked. We worked one on one so we cleared the entire control room out, so when we did the lead vocal it was just him and me. We never spent more than two hours doing a solid lead vocal. I was so pleased.

Text: Niclas Müller-Hansen