In-depth Interview With White Wizzard

Interview by Avinash Mittur

Los Angeles’ very own traditional metal outfit White Wizzard have been around since 2007, releasing two EPs and two full-length albums in the process. The latest of these was ‘Flying Tigers’ which came out in late 2011, and showcased the band in a different light, with some classic prog rock influences blended in with the good old fist-pumping, head-banging traditional metal that was typified on releases like ‘High Speed GTO’ and ‘Over The Top’. The current lineup of the band consists of Joseph Michael on vocals, Jon Leon on guitars (studio) and bass (studio and live), Jake Dreyer and Will Wallner on guitars, and Giovanni Durst on drums, and will release a new album called ‘The Devils Cut’ later this year on Earache/Century Media. On April 13th, they played at the Whisky in Hollywood, as main support act in Lizzy Borden’s 30th anniversary celebration show. A couple of hours before they hit the stage, Jon, Joseph, Jake and Will sat down with our man Avinash Mittur at the Rainbow, first to give him a rather exclusive peek into the new music (including the songs ‘Forging the Steel’ & ‘Strike the Iron’) and artwork, and then did an interview with him. Enjoy the great conversation below!

This is White Wizzard’s first show in about four months, the last one was the Scion Showcase in Pomona last January. Do you guys expect any sort of rustiness at this show at the Whisky tonight?

Joseph: I’ve got all the lyrics written on my arms. [laughs]

Jake: There’s bound to be rustiness. It’s coming out of us not having that many rehearsals and not too many shows. You really start getting good on tour, and even then it’ll happen halfway through the tour. This may not end up being our best performance, but we’ll sure as hell try to make it our best performance anyway.

With this current lineup, you’re all based in L.A. and the idea is that White Wizzard can now be a regularly touring unit. Is that going to happen? Are we going to see White Wizzard touring?

Jon: Oh yeah, definitely. We’re pretty much gearing up for that now that the new record is finally done. We just finished mixing it actually. This show is kind of a precursor… We might do a show with Cauldron in May down in Orange County. We just got that offered to us, so we’re probably going to do that. They’re labelmates, they’re also on Earache, so that should be fun. But yeah, it’s great, we’re all here! We have a singer that wants to tour- we got a lot of shit in the past three years because we had a singer that just didn’t want to tour. He was flaky and didn’t want to be in LA. We’d book tours and he’d flake out at the last minute. It’s great to have a guy that wants to perform, he’s a great singer- you obviously heard the track. We got a good team right now, this is a good team of guys and a good group of dudes. Everyone’s got a lot of talent and everybody wants to get out there. Jake wants to tour, Will wants to tour- he wants to be Paul Stanley. [laughs] Onstage he turns into a mad cross of Paul Stanley and David Lee Roth! That’s only when we get a few beers in him. He’s real quiet until he gets the beers and then he goes completely nuts.

As I got to hear just earlier, Jake and Will, you two are kicking ass with the solos. Just out of curiosity, because I’m a huge Judas Priest fan, who’s on the left and right channels in the mix?

Will: Oh, well the rhythm guitars are all Jon. Jake and I handle the leads.

I still noticed that the solos were split from left to right though!

Will: Were they? [laughs]

Jon: When you have the CD, I actually was so meticulous with the credits that I put which solo was played by who on every song, like Judas Priest did on Defenders of the Faith. These guys will get credited for everything that they did. Any fan will be able to go in and know which one is Jake and Will. I think their styles are very distinctive. As time goes on, listeners will be able to pick out Jake and Will on their own.

Joseph: On ‘Kings of the Highway’ on that first solo, I thought it was Will but then oh shit, sweep picking! That’s Jake. That’s the only reason I knew that was him!  [laughs]

Will: My solos are usually more slow and melodic, and more classic rock-influenced. Those are usually me.

Okay, well now I know that the sweeps were done by Jake. You also incorporate some tapping into your solos right Jake?

Jake: Yeah, I mean definitely during my solo during ‘Strike the Iron’ as you got to hear. The two longest solos were me, and the rest were Will. I believe Will did some tapping on there too though.

Will: My solo started with tapping, the one right in the middle of the track.

Jake: The solo during the slow breakdown towards the end, the one with all the crazy Marty Friedman shit going on, that was Will.

Fans got to check out the demo of ‘Torpedo of Truth’ on YouTube last year. Has that song changed at all in the time since you guys put it up?

Will: It’s pretty much the same. Jon re-recorded his guitars, I redid my leads and I think the rest is the same.

Joseph: I think we fixed some of the vocals too.

Jon: I think it’s going to sound better. It’s going to have that overall cohesiveness that the current mix will have. That’s really it though, and as far as the track itself goes I just hope we play it well tonight. [laughs]

Will: I did actually re-record one of my solos on there because the first one on the demo was the first take I did. I was really anxious going in, and afterwards I felt like it wasn’t my best solo.

Jon: Did you end up re-writing the solo?

Will: I basically just replayed it better. The first time we literally used the first take. This time the execution is better, the first time I was kind of making it up on the spot.

Jon: And it is better. You definitely improved it. Just imagine how the song sounded as a demo, but with a better mix and a better overall sound. As you heard, the production is fantastic and the mix is great. We have a great producer, and that’s always the band’s sixth member anyway. Any great band, whether it’s Maiden, Rush, Priest, Scorpions- they had Dieter Dierks, Tom Allom, Martin Birch, Terry Brown… It’s all the same thing man, you got to have a great producer and Ralph Patlan is a phenomenal producer, I think we’d all agree.

Jake: He’s really, really cool. It was a blast working with him on leads, he was real patient and had a lot of really good ideas. The guy’s ear is incredible, it’s unbelievable. He’s a freak when it comes to being able to pick out tuning issues or if we’re off by so little. Working with him was really great.

Have these songs all been ready to go since the ‘Torpedo of Truth’ demo was released last year? Have they been in their finished form since then?

Jon: They’ve been in various demo stages, but I really hunkered down after the tour we did last summer and started to refine them. I also wrote a twenty minute long song but it didn’t make it on the record- that’ll probably end up being something to save for the future. I was working on that as well, which took up a lot of time. And then yeah, I went in and demoed them. Will was nice enough to be my demo producer so to speak. He pushed all the buttons while I painfully sang the demos and did all my parts. [laughs] The process was a little slower than I would have liked, but I think part of it had to do with circumstance. We had to wait for when the label wanted us to record, they had to secure the advance with the producer, the producer had to slot us in his schedule… it’s a matter of coordinating schedules. The goal was to have an album out as early in 2013 as we could. Century Media is now involved with Earache, and they’re going to be doing the U.S. release, which is great. We’re going to have a lot more push in the states than we did before, because Earache didn’t really have that before. That’s why we have a great following in the U.K. and the rest of Europe, but the states has always been a little bit less so. It’ll be good for us since Century Media has so much pull, so it’ll be fantastic. While we’re on tape here, let’s see your reaction to the album art! The artist is Cameron Davis, who did the Over the Top album art.

[Jon shows me the artwork on his phone] Well, that was not what I was expecting!

Jon: As you zoom in, you’ll see there’s even more to it. This is a priest who’s been ballgagged and look who’s on him! It’s a nun in stilettos that’s beating him with a ruler.

Joseph: Did they leave in the skeleton holding up the bible? That’s the best part of the drawing!

Jon: It’s pretty ridiculously awesome. The artwork, the detail, the coloration… everything this guy does is great. Cameron was the guy that drew everything that Guitar Hero animated. He sat with Metallica, Aerosmith and all those guys and actually drew them. He did Over the Top, which is a great cover, and he did The Devils Cut. We’re really happy to have worked with him, and the result was phenomenal. I think it’s going to get a lot of attention and piss the right people off too. [laughs]

It’s interesting, I looked at it from afar and I thought it was a 3-D CG image, but when you zoomed in it became obvious that it was hand-drawn.

Jon: Oh, well take a look at this, this is the original sketch. [Jon pulls up another image on his phone, this time it’s a black and white pencil sketch of the artwork] We’re actually going to shirts with this artwork as well, this is the completely hand-drawn version. We’ll have shirts with both versions of the artwork.

Jake: We’ve got a little video thing that goes with it with a bunch of chicks with pentagrams on their asses. [laughs]

Jon: We had a fun photoshoot with the artist and Joseph got some scandalous girls to be a part of it. There will be a press release probably next week for the artwork.

Very cool. On Flying Tigers the second half of the album was a kind of progressive suite of songs. Are we going to see more progressive influences on The Devils Cut? 

Jon: I interwove some progressive influences into some of the songs, there are couple songs that are more epic. This album is straightforward while still being dynamic- I actually reeled the progressive stuff back a little bit. The twenty minute song that I’ve written is definitely more along the lines of a progressive vibe and goes into deeper territory and I want to do that song in the future with the band. This album is the most cohesive White Wizzard record in a lot of ways because it’s got some of that stuff interspersed in the songwriting, but it’s still really straight ahead. There’s a lot of singing throughout, there’s some instrumental passages but they don’t go on as long as the ones on Flying Tigers did. It’s just long enough- the album is about forty five minutes long, I don’t think it ever really lets up. It’s just an album that I don’t think anybody’s going to get bored with. It’s a lot of good catchy songs, a lot of straightforward songs with progressive elements, as you got to hear with ‘Strike the Iron’. That song is a prime example of a song that had some progressive elements woven in there but it’s still really straightforward and it just kicked ass. I mean, it really showcased Will and Jake’s leads and of course, Joseph’s voice.  The leads especially was what Flying Tigers was missing. My lead guy at the time flaked out and couldn’t come back to the states. I had a lead guitar guy that lived in Wales and a singer that lived in England. Both of them didn’t fly back because of visa problems, and the lead guitar player’s parents didn’t want him coming over here. I had to play the leads on Flying Tigers out of necessity. I usually play the rhythm and harmony guitars, some of the songs on Flying Tigers and Over the Top are all me on rhythm and harmony, but as a lead player… on ’40 Deuces’ and a couple other songs I think I nailed some pretty good leads, but for the most part I’m not a lead player, especially for metal. You need guys like Jake and Will to really elevate the album to that next level, and that’s exactly what they did. Everything that was missing from Flying Tigers in my opinion, and even more so on Over the Top and High Speed GTO, is on The Devils Cut. These guys are the best guitar players we’ve ever had in the history of the band, and they have two really distinctive styles that play off each other and compliment each other really well. I think people are going to be taken aback by the greatness of the leads throughout the record. I still listen to them and I want to go give these guys kisses, because they just kicked ass.

Joseph, you got to tour with White Wizzard for the first time last summer. Did you have to hold back on your vocals at all to compensate for the rigors of touring?

Joseph: No, I’ve been doing this a long time. Just give me my coffee and my beer an hour before the show and I’m good!

Ah okay. I know that some singers new to touring end up blowing out their voice because they don’t know what they’re doing you know?

Joseph: Improper technique will do that, lack of sleep and even over-warming up. Why sing another set if you’re already going out there singing a set every night? Stuff like that.

Jon: Now that Joe’s got a whole set of his own songs to sing, it’s easier. Going out and singing [former vocalist] Wyatt Anderson is a very different thing. It’s one thing to go sing another guy’s vocal parts, but now that he’s got an album of his own it’ll be great for him. It’s a lot more comfortable because it’s his own parts that he’s singing.

Joseph: Live, I think I did better than Wyatt did singing his own songs. [laughs] The records sounded great though!

Jon: Live, I agree! On the next tour, I think we plan on playing the new record. I don’t think we’ll be playing too much old stuff, if any at all.

If you had a long enough set, would you be playing the new record in its entirety?

Jon: Definitely, I think so.

Joseph: It’s a very dynamic record, it’d be an interesting set.

That would be really cool, just go through the new record and encore with an old song.

Jon: Yeah, or just start ‘GTO’ and then go all out of tune and play just thirty seconds of it! [laughs]

Jake: These are all Jon’s songs of course, but I think we all were able to put in our own stamp of approval- our own little ingredient into it.

Jon: That’s what makes White Wizzard a band. Ultimately, I can write great songs all day long, but when it comes to the overall finished product, everyone contributes including the producer. We play to our strengths and it really works. This is a great lineup because by playing to our strengths, whether it’s songwriting, lead playing, vocals, production- all of those things when they come together, it just works. This album is White Wizzard’s best record in my opinion, by leaps and bounds. I think we progressed to a huge level and I think a big reason why is because of the personnel we have. Also, it’s a matter of having a bunch of guys that want to get out there and tour. They actually care about the performance aspect of the band. That to me is the most exciting part- not only do we have our best record, our best performances and our most talented guys, but the fans are going to actually be able to see the guys who played on the record on tour. For us, that pretty much hardly ever happens! It’s been so frustrating, I’ve taken a lot of shit in the press for it but if people knew the truth, they’d see that it’s literally a 180 from what’s assumed out there. No one’s ever been fired from White Wizzard except [former guitarist] Erik Kluiber. Everyone else has either knocked their girlfriend up, not been able to get visas or had to quit- before our tour with Iced Earth, [former guitarist] Cory Nagatoshi had to quit because his wife told him that she was going to take their kid and divorce him if he left for the tour. We’ve literally had that kind of luck so often. Everyone joined this band with good intentions but their own life crap is what caused them to have to quit the band, not being fired. It’s literally been a matter of having to wade through all that, deal with the negative press and try to finally get five guys together than can stay, let alone want to. Everyone wants to stay, who doesn’t want to be in a band, right? They always say the right things but when push comes to shove, life circumstances end up showing that those guys really can’t do what they promised and they end up pulling out. They join the band and everything’s okay, and then next thing you know their wife is threatening to leave them, they got their girlfriend pregnant or they can’t get a visa.

Joseph: This is a totally different band. Watch the videos of this lineup and compare them to the old ones- it’s night and day.

Jon: It’s no comparison, and that’s the exciting thing for me. This band blows aways the past lineups. We’ve been through a lot, but it’s been worth it just for the metamorphosis into something really strong. It’s all I could ask for.

I was going to mention how the band’s frequent changes may have really been kind of a blessing for the metal world. Now in addition to White Wizzard, we have many great bands from L.A., many of whom contain White Wizzard alumni in their ranks.

Jon: Yeah, definitely. It’s funny, I always think back to when [former vocalist] James Luna played in a band called Jet Fuel and I played bass for them and did a few shows. That band split up, Luna and one of the guys were having issues- I was in the process of wanting to form a band and I’d been writing songs. I saw Luna in that band, they were more of a garage-rock, poppy kind of band. You can go online and there’s actually a video that I sat in for. Luna and I had these late night conversations until 4 A.M. about Scorpions and all these killer bands. I told him and Tyler [Meahl, former drummer] “Hey, why don’t you come listen to these demos?” It’s funny, I will never forget when I brought them over to listen to those demos and we talked about what kind of band it would be and they were into it. I got [former guitarist] James LaRue off of Craigslist and we hastily assembled that lineup and recorded a few songs. It’s kind of funny how it made a dent in the metal world, at least here in L.A.- just being in a living room and forming this band. It’s kind of cool how that happened because ultimately we’ve got the two bands, and also Monument over in England, [former vocalist] Peter Ellis’ band. Lewis [Stephens, former guitarist], the guy that couldn’t make it over from Wales to do the record, joined Monument. They both really wanted to stay in Europe, they weren’t really set on staying in L.A. It’s funny that all these bands have kind of morphed out of that tree. It’s kind of cool to think that forming this band led to so many bands making a dent in the metal world. No one’s blowing up huge yet, but I think that eventually a couple of these bands will. Hopefully we’ll be one of them, we’ll see.

Jake, you mentioned before this interview that you’re from Florida. How did you go from living in Florida to playing guitar for White Wizzard and living in L.A.?

Jake: I went to school out here, Musician’s Institute. I got out of high school, decided to go to music school, get out of my home turf and do something new. Then I did school for about a year. It’s funny, I was auditioning for another band and I wasn’t really quite feeling their style. One of those guys mentioned something about White Wizzard and I had completely forgotten about them at the time. [laughs] I went on Facebook, found Jon and wrote him a message saying “Hey if you ever need a guitar player, I’m here.”

Jon: It’s funny, Lewis Stephens came over one last time for the tour with Forbidden, but he kept going back to Wales and he wasn’t getting his permanent visa. I was trying to help him and he just wasn’t getting it done. Finally, the day that Jake wrote me was the day that I wrote Lewis and I said “Look, we just can’t keep doing this. They’re not going to let you back in the states and it’s putting us in a bad position”.

Jake: It was a shot in the dark, and it managed to hit something! We shot the shit on the phone one night, went and had dinner and that was pretty much it.

Jon: We bonded over food!

Jake: Yeah, that still happens. We’re big foodies on the road. Two weeks later we started the Firewind tour and that’s how it started! I’ve loved it ever since.

Jon: When Will joined the band, he came on after Cory had been forced to leave the band. Before he joined we had to get this kid C.J. to fill in, but he was never a permanent member. He was a cool dude, but he literally came in with two weeks to learn the songs and do the tour. We hadn’t gotten a permanent guy since Cory pulled out on us. We got back and we took our time finding that fifth guy, and of course it ended up being Will Wallner. What’s funny is that he joins the band, and it turns out he lives across the street from Jake! He met Joseph at the Whisky-

Joseph: It actually wasn’t at the Whisky, I was singing on some demo that Will was producing.

Will: When I joined the band, they had a show in Japan. I saw that on their Facebook and contacted Jon in basically the exact same way that Jake did. I didn’t think for a second that I would get the job because it was only two weeks before the show, but Jon said that he was interested. Then he said that there was a chance that I would play the show in Japan- that was like “Oh my God, I joined a band and two weeks later I’m flying to Japan!” A week before that we recorded the demo for ‘Torpedo of Truth’. I’d only been in the band for two weeks tops and already I was playing on their songs and flying out to Japan. Those two weeks were such a great ride. When we got back, Wyatt left the band again but we already had a tour booked. So we started scrounging around for singers. Finally I remembered “Hey, there’s this guy Joseph who I worked with briefly. He might be a good fit.” Then it just worked out like that!

Jon: It’s been an amazing year. Now that all this stuff has finally come together and it’s been great. It was a frustrating year before that with Wyatt- we booked the Forbidden, Firewind and Iced Earth tours and Wyatt wrote me just two weeks before we were supposed to leave. He said “I’ve got a good job, I can’t leave my family.” I’d already booked Wyatt’s flight to come here and he confirmed for me the week before. Two weeks before we leave for the Forbidden tour, Wyatt writes me this long email telling me that he can’t do the tours. That’s why [former vocalist] Michael Gremio had to come back, it was either cancel or the show must go on. We had to bring a sub because we had to keep going. Of course we got a ton of shit for it, but it wasn’t our fault man! We gave Wyatt another chance on Flying Tigers because he’s a great singer and the fans loved him, but in the end that was a rough ride. That time that Will referenced was an exciting time though, because it was great to assemble a solidified group of guys that I feel like are long-term solutions. Over time after being in a band, you learn one thing- the top of the list for a band member is that they’re not a cocksucker. [laughs] Will Wallner is just the most… he’s just a great dude. As the second guitar player, that balancing force, he’s just fuckin’ perfect.

Joseph: He stores all his anger in his hair… [everyone laughs]

Jon: It will come out eventually! Onstage you will he see him. He will channel the fuckin’ wrath!

Joseph: He becomes a beast. The demon will rise from his hair!