I was lucky to do an extensive interview with Mark Reale in the wake of the release of “Immortal Soul” back in the autumn of 2011. While he seemed quite weak and fragile already then, he was very optimistic. It’s an interview I will always remember, even if I’ve done hundreds throughout the years. Just a few months later, Mark passed away, only 56 years old.
Apart from “Fire Down Under” an early classic of American heavy metal, “Thundersteel” and “The Privilege Of Power” released in 1988 and 1990 are my two big Riot-favorites. Especially “Thundersteel” outdoes almost everything that has been released under the banner of heavy metal. Don Van Stavern was very important in the song writing for both these albums, and it’s the bass player I get a chance to speak to for an update on what’s happened in the Riot V (as the call themselves nowadays) camp.
A the time of writing there is still about a month to go until the album is released in Europe. Do you feel self confident, or nervous about the reactions?
-Well, you know. There was always in the back of our minds, that a lot of people wanted us to continue, but it had to be done the right way, out of respect for Mark and the legacy of the band. We never intended to come back without being conscious of that and of what Mark put into this band. You know, it took a while, after we did the last concert at 70.000 Tons of Metal, we heard that Mark had passed away. We immediately decided to call it off for a while, we were just concerned about a band member and a brother passing away. We had to take care of that before we could think of anything else. It took us a while to decide if we wanted to continue. Mike went back to New York and I went to Texas. We chilled out and tried to heal a little bit, and after a while I started writing music. All the time, I was getting calls from people. Promoters, press and the guys from the labels. Olly (Hahn) from SPV and the people at our Asian label. What are you going to do? Is that it? We would like the band to continue. We had a lot of support, so at that point, when we got it all together, I said: Well, there is support out there, so let’s give it a shot. I figured people want to hear new music from Riot let the legacy go on, instead of just ending things when Mark passed away. We made a conscious decision on it, talked to Mark’s father Tony, and got his blessing on it. So once we had a little bit of support from the family, a lot of fans and press, we thought it was probably okay, and it was a good time to test the waters. But yeah, what people think about us continuing is in the back of our minds all the time. Thats why we altered the name a little bit too. It’s very touchy and we wanted to handle it with a little bit of class and integrity for Mark. We are all comfortable with it now, but we spent a lot of time thinking about it, and that’s how it should be. Riot is a legendary band that has been around for a while, you simply got to do it the right way.
You knew Mark was sick, we’re you prepared for the worst?
– I had known Mark for over 30 years, and he lived with me when he came to Texas. When he was down here when we first started the “Immortal Soul”-reunion, I had to take him to the hospital maybe once a week. He went in, they fixed him up and sent him away. You know, he had this problem (“Crohn’s disease”) for 20 years. When thing got worse, they would keep him for a couple of days, give him medicine and then he would get out. Before the Tons of Metal- cruise, he called us and told us we he was in the hospital. He told us to go ahead and start rehearsing and said that he would join us later. We asked him if he thought we should go on the ship and perform, and he said: “Yeah, just do it! By the time you get back, I will be fine and we will start working on some new stuff.” The we got the news that he had passed away while we were on the ship. It caught us by surprise, because that was the last thing we thought would happen since I just talked to him during the week. He was always in and out, so we didn’t expect it to turn serious. I think Mark’s wish for us to carry on already was there when we worked on “Immortal Soul”. Like you were saying, his health was deteriorating a little bit, so when I was going to the studio, he was staying at my house. He said: “I can’t make it, just do a good job, bring me some CDs and let me hear what you guys are doing.” The only thing he could do was to lay four rhythm tracks on the album, he was too weak to do leads. So he was very supportive then, and told me he had faith in me, Bobby and Mike. He basically told me to continue, and felt we were a good representation of Riot. Even though he didn’t participate on “Immortal Soul”, when he heard it he said: “That sounds like a great Riot-record. I am proud of you guys.” I think at that point he was wishing us to carry on, so here we are.
You have worked with lots and lots of talented musician. Why was Mark special?
– Why was Mark special, heh? Haha. A lot of people don’t see the guy behind the scenes, the guy who is not on stage. Me and Mark had a great relationship. I met him in 1984, when I was playing in the heavy metal band Slayer. The Texas Slayer, before the L.A. one, with Dave McClain who is in Machine Head now. Anyway, Mark would come down and sit in with our band and we would work on songs together. We got to know the guy. He was very sweet, hospitable, and had no rock star attitude at all. He helped us out and we did fun things together. We could go camping, fishing, or go to California. He was focused when he was writing and performing, but at the same time, he was very cool to hang out with. His focus was what made him really good, he would spend hours working on songs. I was one of the main song writers with him in the era that I joined, the “Thundersteel”-era. I’ve played with a lot of great guys throughout the years, but Mark Reale was probably the best at coming up with a melody. Even though the music was heavy, he always added a very nice chorus, something memorable that you could walk around with in your head. He was cool with the melody line, and a great song writer besides player.
Let’s go further back in time for a moment. When you released “Immortal Soul” back in 2011, were you looking more back at the full career of Riot to decide how this album should sound?
– We got together, me and Mark and wrote some songs. Obviously it was a “Thundersteel”-reunion, so it had to have the same kind of flavor. Mark was coming from “Army Of One” and that style, so he knew that we had to combine a lot of the different styles of Riot, but inevitably it had to sound like “Thundersteel”. Mark would always let me do a lot of the writing, because I have more of a metal background than him. I would come up with all those riffs for “Thundersteel” and “Flight Of The Warrior”. I also wrote the songs “Riot” and “Still Your Man” from “Immortal Soul”. Mark liked that kind of style. We knew what we had to come up with, recorded maybe 15 songs and picked the best out of them for “Immortal Soul”. It was all good heavy music with melodies.
When you started speaking about continuing with Riot after Mike passed away, what were the pros and cons of continuing with the band, as you saw it back then?
– Well, you alredy know the obvious: We were a little more sensitive about the business side, when people were coming at us. We were telling Olly and everybody to hang on for a while. We didn’t just loose a musician, we lost a brother too. Riot’s always been about family. We had to heal and get over this. It was particularly hard for Mike Flyntz, because while I was in and out of Riot a few times, he has been with Mark in Riot ever since 1989. Mike didn’t really want to continue at first, so I had to do all the groundwork. We talked and said: Mark was Riot, but even though were not founding members, were original members from the “Thundersteel”-era, and we have to make the next chapter in Riot’s history, but with us, the guys that joined back in the eighties. When me and Mike finally decided to go for it, he wanted to make sure we did it in a manner where it didn’t look like we were doing it for all the wrong reasons. He said: “I want to sit down with Mark’s father and talk to him about it.” Mark’s father said “yes”, and that helped Mike a little bit. We always knew there were going to be some people that might be apprehensive about us continuing because you know, Mark was a big part of this band. We wanted to make sure that people understood that this is the “Thundersteel”-phase of Riot and the fifth chapter in the history of the band. That’s why we added the V to Riot. So, the cons were that we weren’t founding members, but at the same time, we’ve been in the band since 30 years plus, so we’ve done our dues with Riot. And we’re also doing a lot of the stuff that I wrote, the “Thundersteel” songs, when we perform live.
Instead of adding the V to Riot, were you talking about changing the name completely? My guess is that Thundersteel was one of the names discussed as a possible new moniker…
– Yeah, well we thought about it. We talked about what kind of name would fit the band, and we did think about Thundersteel. There is a Japanese band called Thundersteel, but we probably would have more right to use the name, since they got it from us. We thought about that, we thought about calling it Narita too, which was the band me and Mark had back in the eighties, before I jumped back on with him and Riot. In the end, we wanted to add something, but to keep the name. You know some bands like Thin LIzzy did Black Star Riders, changing it to an extreme, but we wanted to change it only a little bit, since people would know who we are. I came up with the concept of adding the V, because it’s the fifth chapter of singers in the history of the band. The first was Guy (Speranza), number two was Rhett (Forrester), number three was Tony Moore, the fourth was Mike DiMeo and the fifth and current one, is Todd Michael Hall. We had some others like Mike Tirelli and The Tyrant from Jag Panzer, but just for tours or demos, not for recorded album. Each guy had their time in the band, a few records, a few tours. This is the fifth phase, Mark is gone, and we have some new guys in the band. I think people will understand that we still carry on the legacy. We will do a tribute to the old Riot and play the stuff everybody want to hear as well as the stuff Mark and I wrote along with the new stuff from “Unleash The Fire” of course. So yeah, we thought about a couple of names, but finally decided to stay on with the name. We also got the approval from Mark’s dad.
What kind of relationship does Mark’s dad have to the music of Riot?
– Well, Mark was an only child, and his mother passed away a long time ago, so for a long time, it was just his father and him. I would stay with Mark sometimes in his house. Tony Reale was very involved with Mark, he would help him out with things. He was one of the guys that would push Mark when Mark was close to throwing in the towel and start something else. Tony would really push him, and I think he guided Mark to keep him going with Riot as long as he did. Tony is a great friend of ours. Now, we have kind of adopted him, or he has adopted us rather. Haha! You see, when Mark died, that was the only family member and Tony is like 85 years old now. Mike goes over to his place now, and is like his son. He takes him to the doctor, to appointments, goes shopping for him and moves his lawn. He sits and talks to him since he is by himself pretty much all the time. We have to help him out. It’s like a family thing you know, we talk to him a couple of times a week, and let him know what we’re doing. We tell him when the album is coming out and try to include him. He told us he didn’t want Mark’s music to die with Mark. I think it’s a way for him to heal, to still have the presence of his son around.
When you had decided to continue with the band, you got another blow when your singer, Tony Moore left the band. Of course he had already been in and out some times already, but did him leaving make you have second thoughts about continuing?
– Tony was, like you said, in and out. When we did the “Immortal Soul” reunion, Bobby at the time was playing with Fates Warning, Sebastian Bach and Rob Halford, and told us that a lot of fans would ask about a possible “Thundersteel”-reunion. Mark said the same thing too when he was doing the other version of Riot. So we decided to do it, and we called Tony Moore. But Tony didn’t want to do it in the very beginning. He said he was done with music, had got married and moved to the west coast where he had a really good job. He said he was not interested in singing anymore. We had to do some coaxing, financially too. We had to compensate him, and said: “We’ll put you on a certain salary.” It looked like we were going to continue for a while, but then it turned into strictly a reunion because Tony said that he would only record one record and that was it. We had to talk to him about doing a few shows, but he really didn’t want to do it. He didn’t want to leave home, so in the end, when we did do the shows, we had to fly his wife with him, accommodate him financially and stuff like that. The fans wanted to hear Tony sing, but he was never really into doing it. Tony’s not really into the metal scene, he is more laidback, listening to jazz and those kind of things. He jammed metal with us for a while, but he is a different kind of character compared to the rest of us. We knew pretty much all the ime, that he wasn’t in for the long run. During the talks, he said he would do a record, but then he decided not to, so we got another guy, Chandler Morgel from Outloud. He sang a couple of songs on “Immortal Soul”, then Tony was coaxed back in to the situation, so Chandler left. Then Tony sang, and we asked him to do some shows, but he didn’t want to do shows, so he left again. You probably saw the press, then he came back again. He is a very corky fella, so we finally got him to do a record and a few shows, but we knew inevitably that he was out. We convinced him to do the 70.000 Tons Of Metal, but he then wrote us a formal resignation letter, were he told us he won’t be jamming with Riot anymore after this show. So we knew he was out, he was out before Mark passed away. And Mark wanted to replace him anyway. We knew the next record would be with somebody else. We were already looking at people, we were working with Tony Harnell from TNT. We did some demos with him, and he was going to be the first guy to replace Tony, but because of musical directions and differencies, we parted ways. We recorded a few demos, but Tony Harnell wanted to change Riot musically, he wanted a more grungy, Soundgarden-kind of band, like those projects he does. We’re not into that, we have to represent Riot, it’s got to sound like power metal “Thundersteel”-stuff . He didn’t want to do that. So yeah, we knew Tony Moore was gone, but it didn’t help when Mark died and then you lose your singer. I was more concerned for the future of the band when Mark passed away, being the leader of Riot and everything, but strangely enough a lot of people seemed to think the other way around, something I didn’t understand.
Tony is back doing TNT now…
– Yeah, he got back and he is doing that. I guess it worked out for him. We got him in the first place because Bruno Ravel who is in Danger Danger and produced “Immortal Soul”, was in the band Westworld with Mark and Tony Harnell. That’s where the connection came from. Tony was cool, it just didn’t work out, so we moved on.
Are there demos existing with Tony Harnell singing some of the songs from “Unleash The Fire”?
– No, no,no! He just sang on five or six other songs that I wrote with him. They had the drop down guitars and the grunge sound. They were ideas, but it wasn’t Riot. I could probably use the ideas in a band with him, but not in Riot. It’s not the right sound, and people would definitely not have liked them.
Let’s speak a little about your new singer, Todd Michael Hall then. Of course he is not an unknown vocalist, but how did you get in contact with him in the first place?
– We put the word out that we were looking for a replacement for Tony, and a few people contacted us. People like Sean Peck from Cage and the guy from Lost Horizon, Daniel Heiman. We talked to a few guys, but basically this friend of mine from Europe, a guy called Bart Gabriel who does a lot of metal dealings in Europe, was also handling Jack Starr’s Burning Starr. He told us he might have a candidate or two for us. He sent me links to some songs and videos of a couple of guys, and I checked out Todd Michael and was completely floored. I thought he was great. He looked great, sounded great and was great on stage. Being conscious of what Mark would have wanted, because back in the eighties me and Mark would make the decisions, for instance when we picked Tony Moore or Bobby, I think Mark would have shared my opinion and picked Todd Michael too, he would have loved him. He likes that style. So yeah, Bart Gabriel turned us on to him. I called him up, and he was very interested, so we sent some songs from “Immortal Soul” along with some old Riot-stuff with the vocals removed. He put his vocals on it and sent it back. It sounded phenomenal! We wanted a singer in the vein of Tony Moore, because we wanted to carry on with the “Immortal Soul” and “Thundersteel”-sound, because that’s what I was a part of in the band. That’s why we didn’t get Mike DeMeo back into the band. We spoke about it briefly, but he was more into the fourth phase of Riot when the band was more Rainbow and David Coverdale-ish. We needed to get someone that sounded like a young Tony Moore.
Personally I am glad you didn’t go for Sean Peck. He would probably have screamed the album to bits and pieces.
– In fact, he was the one that was most persistent. He would call me like five times a day saying “Please, please, please, I am a big Riot-fan”. Sean is a good singer, but not for Riot. Daniel Heiman told us he was busy. I think he was going to school or something…We also approached Joacim Cans from Hammerfall who is a big Riot-fan, but he was making a new Hammerfall-album and was also involved in the Rock Of Ages-production in Europe. So he couldn’t do it. He then wanted to sing on a song, but in the end, he couldn’t do that either.
For the new album, you have written 8 songs yourself, while Mike have penned the remaining four. As you have quite different writing styles, do you feel that having two songwriters is important to capture the Riot sound?
-Yeah, because I’ve always been the one writing the heavier, riffier songs, like “Ride Hard Live Free” on the new record. Mike’s style was like “Angel Eyes” and then he wrote some Restless Breed-sounding stuff like “Take Me Back” and “Kill To Survive”. So he’s got a little different style and upbringing. He grew up through the Van Halen and Motley Crüe-years, while I came up with Judas Priest and Iron Maiden when I was young. He writes with a little different flavor, more heavy rock oriented, while I lean more towards heavy metal. Having diverse songs is good, because you don’t want to have only one style on an album. At least, Riot’s never been like that. You have a hard song like “Thundersteel” and then you have a song like “Sign Of The Crimson Storm” or “Bloodstreets”. I think it shapes our sound. He brings his style to my songs, and I bring my style to his. It works out quite well, and of course what Mark thought us about melodies is always with us. We will always make a song with a good melody in mind. That’s why on the new record a lot of the songs have those choruses you could quite easily memorize.
What’s your favourite track amongst the ones Mike has written for “Unleashed The Fire”?
– “Fall From The Sky”, the third track. His rock songs are great, I like both “Take Me Back” and “Kill To Survive” but they’re more of that straight rock, “Born in America”-style. When he came with “Fall From The Sky”, he joked around that it was a rip off of my song “Black Leather And Glittering Steel” from the “The Privilege Of Power”-album. I laughed, because it kind of got the same vibe. I like it because it got a fast riff and a big chorus, a bit like the Dragonforce type of power metal. So yeah, that is my favorite, although I think all of his songs are great. He had a few more as well, but we tried to pick the best ones.
“Take Me Back” has the kind of lyrics that everyone can relate to, quite sentimental about old times that are never coming back. Overall the lyrics seem quite easy to grasp even for us that doesn’t speak English.
– There is some stuff that people can relate to, for instance the anthem “Fight, Fight, Fight”. It’s about being at a concert and being heavy metal. We try to relate to the crowd too, in different ways.
“Immortal” is a tribute to Mark with lyrics and music one by yourself. How do you approach writing something like this?
– Well, when we decided to carry on, since me and Mike had been with Mark for the longest time, both of us wanted to do a song for Mark, and we wanted them both to be ballads. The idea for mine, is that Mark’s music makes him immortal. When you listen to his songs, he lives forever. It’s as simple as that. While mine was about his music and the legacy, Mike’s song, “Until We Meet Again”, came from a more personal standpoint. It’s about how Mark took him under his wing and let the world hear the music through him and Riot. It’s his way of showing appreciation. His song is very touching, especially at the very end, where we put Mark’s voice. It was a very tough song to record.
I’ve already bought the Japanese version of “Unleash The Fire”, what will surprise me when I get to hear the European one? I understand that there are some differences between the two of them?
– What happened, that is also why there is not an added V on the Japanese release, is that the people on our label in Asia were very quick and wanted something out as soon as possible to keep the momentum going. So they put it out before we even had the change to put the V in the logo. The engineer, Josh Block, actually ended up producing the whole thing. The idea was for him to just engineer it, and we were going to have Bruno Ravel, who produced “Immortal Soul”, to do the same with “Unleash The Fire”. However, they were running out of time, and they could not wait, so Josh produced it and it was released without the V added to Riot. We had more time to prepare the European release, so we took Josh’s engineering and let Bruno produce it. It sounds a bit different. Josh’s mix is a little tighter and more metal, while Bruno’s is similar to “Immortal Soul”, more heavy rock and spread out. For Europe, you’ll hear a few extra parts on “Immortal” and a few on “Land Of The Rising Sun”, at the very end of that one, there is a different guitar solo. Mike cut one, but wanted to redo it.
How much of the guitars that we can hear on the new album, is played by the new guitarist Nick?
– Quite a bit. First he was just gonna be a fill in. He’s been one of Mikes students for 15 years, so that’s why we picked him in the first place. Mike taught him since the age of nine, he is only 24. For being such a young player, he is very seasoned, and he also plays a lot like Mike. He came in and plays a few solos on the album, on “Fight Fight Fight” and “Metal Warrior” for instance. He is a really good player, very mature for 24. Remember, he is half our age! He also understands his place in the band, and the respects Riot.
As far as I understand, Mike is the one that plays Marks parts live…
– Yeah, that’s basically what’s happened. Mike took over for Mark and Nick kind of did what Mike did back in the eighties, when on “Thundersteel” we decided to add an extra guy to fill up the sound live. Mike popped over to Marks side of the stage, and then Nick is over by me where Mike used to be. Mike does all of Mark Reale’s solos, I think we have Nick doing maybe one on “Hard Lovin Man” and “Altar Of The King”, but for the most part, it’s all Mike and then Nick fills in on the new songs.
Which of the songs that you have written are you most proud of?
– I kind of like “Metal Warriors”, because it continues the tribute we did to Johnny. I had that one written for a while, and we were playing it live before the record came out. Also “Return Of The Outlaw” which is a continuation of the song “Outlaw” from “Fire Down Under” is kind of cool. I decided to do something like that to bring in some of the old, like “Land Of The Rising Sun”, our tribute to the first time we went over to Japan. I think it sounds a little like something from “Born in America”.