By David Iozzia
Willie Basse was the bass guitarist and frontman for the 80s metal band Black Sheep. His band was a mainstay in the Southern California music scene. The band's revolving door lineup included lead guitarists Slash and Racer X/Mr. Big shredder Paul Gilbert, as well as drummers Randy Castillo (Ozzy Osbourne) and James Kottak (The Scorpions).
It's been more than eight years since Willie released an album. Although he fell off the grid as a recording artist, Willie's been all over the map as a recording engineer. Countless projects in various musical genres were worked on in one of Willie's recording studios.
Right here, right now in 2008, Willie is back on the "other side of the glass" with a new record called "The Money Grind." Playing live again to support his new album, re-releasing a Black Sheep record, and recording a solo CD covering Thin Lizzy songs for his New Empire Media label are all part of Willie's plans for the foreseeable future.
Willie started singing in church as a youngster and had many years of classical vocal study. Coupled with his blues and rock roots as a musician, and supplemented by his studio expertise, Willie has been there and done that in different musical eras and genres. I really looked forward to chatting with Willie about "The Money Grind" and subsequent plans for 2008/2009, especially in the context that it's a vastly different music industry now than when he last released his own record.
Dave: Thanks for agreeing to do this interview Willie. Congratulations on the release of your new solo record, "The Money Grind," and best of luck with it.
Willie: Thank you so much Dave.
Dave: "The Money Grind" is your first release in eight years. What aspects of the record industry of 2008 make it an ideal time for you to release this record?
Willie: The biggest aspect is that the industry changed, and it's easier to get the music directly to the consumer. Modern technologies give musical artists direct access to our fans. I recorded a lot of music over the years that the world has never heard. I'm constantly creating and writing, and the Internet is giving me a new way to deliver my songs. Those aspects make it a good time for me to release music. People asked me over the last few years what I've been up to. I was busy with my recording studio yet I didn't realize how much of my own material that I had written, recorded, and then stockpiled. I haven't released "The Money Grind" where people can walk into stores to purchase it, but it is available for download at my MySpace page and all the download sites like iTunes, Rhapsody, and Amazon. I'm going to see how this digital revolution goes before I decide my next step. All the music stores in Los Angeles are shutting down but consumers, thankfully, can still purchase records at Borders, Barnes and Noble, and even Starbucks. But it's nothing like it used to be. Even Best Buy is so generic. They've limited their retail access space for rock CDs like most other retailers. But maybe that's a good thing for musicians. It means we don't need a distributor or a big record label to get our music into the hands of the consumers. What's also cool is that if I have an idea that I'm loving and that sounds cool, in a couple of days after I go through the copyright process, it can be up for sale on my MySpace page.
Dave: After an eight-year-long absence, you have to almost introduce yourself to casual music fans who will ask: Who are you? In the introduction that I'll write to this interview, I'll mention Black Sheep and your back history to answer that question. At the same time, you have to re-establish yourself with existing fans who will ask: Why did you wait so long? I'll let you answer that one.
Willie: Life in itself presented a few detours. I started a real estate career that seems quite silly looking back. I really love music; it's what I'm all about. Music is why I came to Los Angeles. I guess I had to come full circle and get honest with myself. I went through some self-realization.
Dave: I'm really enjoying listening to "The Money Grind." No doubt a "metal" record, it has a balance of riffs and well-crafted songs, incredible vocals, different tempos, ballads, and an instrumental track. I'd call it a "classic metal" record, but after reading a press release about "The Money Grind," you don't like the term "classic metal." Why?
Willie: Classic to me means old. My music is not old. It's just what I was feeling at the moment.
Dave: For music fans reading this interview who have yet to listen to "The Money Grind," use our chat as a way to entice some new listeners. How would you describe the musical direction of this record and of Willie Basse?
Willie: It's good solid metal music. It's Glenn Hughes with a little bit of King's X in there. My roots are Deep Purple and the Ronnie James Dio era of Black Sabbath. I started doing classical music as a teenager, and I got very music educated. I was in a choir that sang at Carnegie Hall. I had intense musical training, but I got out of the choir when my voice changed. I picked up the bass guitar and joined a blues band. I was playing behind Dusty Hill and Bobby "Blue" Bland. I was hanging with T-Bone Walker. I had no appreciation, at the time, for who these people were. But I got a schooling. The classical thing coupled with the blues and that's a perfect foundation for rock and roll. That's my story. When I came to Los Angeles from Texas, I fell in with Buddy Miles, who was one of Jimi Hendrix's drummers. I was mentored by people who produced Jimi and who built the Electric Ladyland studio in New York City. My dreams came true, and I lived a rock and roll fairy tale. I have to write a book someday. It's been a weird journey. But it's been a great one.
Dave: One of my mottos is "let the music do the talking." A relatively new tool for musical artists called MySpace helps you accomplish that. MySpace lets you upload song clips where the casual music fan can stop by and give your music a listen. It also lets you self-market and interact directly with your establish fans.
Willie: MySpace lets you market your whole look, what you're doing, and how you're doing it. You can blog. It's an awesome way of reaching people. Unlike some musicians who pay people to run their sites, I like to do mine personally. I also like to change things a bit every couple of days to keep things fresh. I like that it's hands-on and that I'm talking directly to my people. MySpace also lets you upload video. I have a clip with James Kottak from The Scorpions drumming behind me. I recorded some stuff that James is all over and that'll probably be my next record in 2009. It's called "Which Side R U On." I'm getting a real nice response to "The Money Grind," and I'm very excited. It's a prime time for rock music again. People have had their run of the hip-hop thing. I've engineered for hip-hop artists like Dr. Dre and Sisqo. I didn't have much respect for that style of music until I worked with those guys. So much of it is ad-libbed once they get into the studio. It reminds me of the old beatnik days when coffeehouses first opened and poetry was ad-libbed. The hip-hop artists I worked with would come into the studio and just throw it down. They were very creative, and I gained a lot of respect for their style of music once I engineered it. I think the hip-hop business has made its run, and the rock thing is opening up again. Yet people will always pick up on your energy when your music is heart-felt and genuine. I've seen that response whenever I play live. There's an energy transfer between me and my audience.
Dave: Getting back to "The Money Grind," what other backing musicians worked with you on the record?
Willie: Todd DeVito, who was the original Black Sheep drummer, and Mark Harden on guitar, who died tragically in a car crash. He was fabulous, an up-and-coming force to be reckoned with that got cut short.
Dave: Speaking of a music career tragically cut short, if you twist my arm and ask me to pick a favorite cut from your record, I'll go with "Danger Zone" for a few different reasons. Mostly the chance to hear the late, great Randy Castillo drumming.
Willie: My original lineup was Randy, me, and Mitch Perry on guitar. Randy was genuine. Even at the height of his days playing with Ozzy Osbourne, Randy never had an attitude. He was a great man and a great drummer. Randy was precise and deliberate behind the drum kit; he was always a positive and energetic person. I had mixed feelings including "Danger Zone" on the record because it's so commercial. But I loved the sound and my real life experience that's reflected in the lyrics.
Dave: Which songs on the record are your favorite? Why?
Willie: The title track. When I listened to it after not playing it for a while, my jaw dropped. I always play like it's my last chance ever. We all had that attack when that cut was recorded and it really comes across heavy. I also like "It's Over." Rick Parnell, who played in Atomic Rooster and Spinal Tap, plays on "Don't Waste My Time." I love that track too.
Dave: Elaborate on your touring plans for 2008 and 2009?
Willie: My record should be released in Europe in early Fall. I'll give it a couple months and then I'll tour behind it in Europe. Hopefully, my band will be Mitch Perry on guitar and Bobby Rondinelli from Rainbow on drums. That would be hot. If I could get those two guys, we'll make a musical statement. They play like I play: heavy!
Dave: In his new book, Slash states that playing with you in the band Black Sheep was "a right of passage." Working with him when he was so young gave you the chance to teach and mentor.
Willie: He'd never admit it!
Dave: Yeah, not to you or me, but I can say it! As you've followed Slash's career and rise to superstardom, have you in turn learned any musical lessons from him.
Willie: Absolutely. I respect him and I think that he's a hard-working man. Two things that I learned from Slash was to not compromise and to keep playing. He's constantly popping up and mixing it up with other musicians, whether it's Michael Jackson, Rod Stewart, or Alice Cooper. He's always playing guitar. He doesn't play now like he did when he joined me in Black Sheep. But he played Paul Gilbert's parts as good as Paul did. Not that Slash is lacking in any way, but he handled the harmonic minor thing and was really fluent with it. Slash is more bluesy these days. I read somewhere that Slash listed his musical influences as Keith Richards and Chuck Berry. I had no idea because with Black Sheep he was doing the Yngwie thing. But that was the job; that style is what I required and he fell right in.
Dave: When an established musician walks into your recording studio, do you have pre-conceived thoughts on musical direction or do you let it evolve and change as the recording proceeds?
Willie: I don't want to turn people into what I think they should be. For me, production is all about bringing out the best in a musical artist and capturing the magic of the moment. My job is to creative a comfort zone where my clients can be creative and reach that magical place. Then, of course, I have to capture it on tape, yet each and every band is different. They also have different ways of getting into that zone. One of my projects was "Boogie 2000" from the 60s blues rock/boogie band Canned Heat. They played the original Woodstock, and Fito, their drummer, did a lot of playing with John Lee Hooker. At one point in the recording sessions, I had two microphones in the room. I caught them at a point just when they were carrying down. I let the tape roll and it was magical. I also did two commercials with them for the retail chain Target. You can hear the distinctive sound of my studio on those commercials. There is a lot of custom-made amplifiers and guitars on the stuff that I record.
Dave: Do you take that same approach with your own recordings?
Willie: What I like to do is choose the right musicians first. Then I know what level and direction the music will take. Then, once I get them zoned in, I let them run free to see what I can come up with. The songs may have been pre-written, but you need to allow space and see what comes out.
Dave: Talk about K.G.B. and I don't mean the Soviet police force. Feel free to promote Killer Gear Brokers.
Willie: I'm the go-to guy to find exotic stuff. I import stuff from all around the world. I find things that no one else can find. Having good ears and good equipment makes for great sound. I was looking for a console for myself, and in my travels I ran into a guy named Allen Sides who had engineered for everybody from Madonna to Ella Fitzgerald to Ray Charles at the United Western Recorders studios. As far as sound goes, Allen is one of my mentors. Allen had an old Trident board that he was trying to sell. He couldn't get rid of it until I eventually sold it for him. At Killer Gear Brokers, any gear that isn't listed can be found in 48 hours or I owe you dinner! That's my thing.
Dave: Visiting your website, I also saw something dear to my heart. Elaborate on Rock For Recovery. I've been sober for almost four years.
Willie: Congratulations Dave, that's awesome! I've been sober for a little over 20 years. It's been a great life. When I first started, my sponsor asked me to write down what I wanted out of life if I stay clean and sober. I've far exceeded that! If I went by my list I would have short-changed myself. Rock For Recovery is just my way of bringing awareness to people. I want them to know that you don't have to be crazy, loaded, and dysfunctional to be creative and to make good music. When I went sober, I thought that my life would be over. After a little time passed, I found that I was more creative than I had ever been. Working and playing in clubs, I thought that everybody smoked joints and drank beer in the morning. During recovery, I found that what was once the norm for me wasn't the norm for the rest of the world. It's a miracle when people like us get that moment of clarity to see what we're doing wrong. Getting sober and staying sober is our way of taking advantage of that miracle.
Dave: You definitely need to write a book someday Willie. Twenty interviews couldn't give justice to all the things you've seen and done. In closing, what's ahead for Willie Basse?
Willie: I want to cut a tribute record of Thin Lizzy that I recorded because I don't want all of Phil Lynott's great music to be lost. You might still hear "The Boys Are Back in Town" now and then, but I'm picking more obscure stuff that didn't get a lot of airplay. Some songs I kept true to Phil's arrangements and some I took to another zone. I have about eight tracks done, and all I have to do is touch up the vocals. When I have my touring lineup set, I'll record another handful of songs with them. When James Kottak has some downtime from The Scorpions, I'll record a few tracks with him. Hopefully, I'll release that record in the summer of 2009. My main priority right now is building my foundation in Europe where I'm getting such a strong response. After I do some touring there, I'll come back to the States in January and release "Which Side R U On," which we spoke about earlier. That'll help me get geared up and ready for the European musical festival season next spring. Hopefully after that I can start working on a record of brand new material. I'm excited about that and anxious to get on with it.
Dave: Best of luck with all of those ventures Willie. Feel free to close the interview with a message to your fans.
Willie: I love you and I really appreciate everybody who is still rockin' out there.