Interview with GARY BONER (ROADHOUSE) – 2 August 2013

22 years into their career, the hard gigging Roadhouse release ‘Gods & Highways & Old Guitars’, the best album of their career on Krossborder records.

It pays homage to the darker elements of the American south and would fit into any one of those atmospheric Coen Brothers movies.  Packed with great songs, twin guitar-led solos and sparkling 4 part harmonies, featuring their unique 3 female vocal line-up, ‘Gods & Highways & Old Guitars’ is the result of founder member, singer songwriter and guitarist Gary Boner’s eye for detail.

He writes narrative driven rock which embraces Americana, alt.country, Southern rock and boogie, topped by great hooks and played by a band that passionately brings it all to life.

And while previous albums like ‘Broken Land’ and ‘Dark Angel’ achieved international radio plays, the new ‘Gods & Highways & Old Guitars’ is a landmark album. It’s a beacon on a musical landscape bereft of original material and new ideas. The noir filled narratives imbue the songs with strong imagery, and the combination of muscular rhythm tracks and incendiary solos are an integral part of an album full of top notch harmonies. 

There may be strong echoes of The Doobie Brothers, The Outlaws, Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top, but the intricate arrangements and original subject matter makes for an album that rocks on its own terms.

Pete Feenstra spoke to Gary Boner about the making of the album, his dark lyrics, the band’s 3 female singers, fellow guitarist Danny Gwilym’s remarkable input and plans for the future.

Congratulation on the album Gary.  There can’t be too many songwriters who after 20 odd years and 12 albums have cut their best album. What inspired you?

I think it was the fact that a lot of people thought our last CD ‘Dark Angel’ was our best album had a lot to do with it. I also felt it was the best album I had written and certainly the best one we had recorded – a really good CD – but it did not do as well as we would have liked. We had great global airplay and some amazing reviews, but some critics did not get it. That hurt, so we thought the only way is to fight back with a better CD

I’ve read that you actually write the music first and the lyrics later, which is unusual for a band with such narrative driven material?

It’s true, I need the music the inspire me. I try to come up with a kind of atmospheric soundscape or a riff that really connects with me. It’s then like a tap has been turned on and the themes and words just flow on down. It’s weird, as sometimes I can want to write a song and there is nothing there, the shelves are empty. Other times I just get this feeling that something is there and when I pick up a guitar a CD track emerges. That’s why guitars are to be found all round my house, I can’t afford to waste that moment

You seem to write with a certain feel or ambience in mind?

 Yes, I think the material has got to stay true to that original feeling that I have.

Both the ‘Dark Ride’ and ‘Blues Highway‘ albums incorporated noticeable elements of Americana. Was that when you really found your style?

 I think so, as it was definitely a jump up in quality. But I think all the earlier CD’s are full of Americana influences, but they were just not executed as well, or were done in a different style.

I formed the band with a guy called Robert.A.Roberts who was an Americana nut and spent about 3-4 months a year out there jamming and song writing. He showed me that path and I soon found myself trudging round Colorado, Wyoming New Orleans etc.

‘Blues Highway’s predecessor ‘Dark Ride’ is still one of my favourite Roadhouse CD’s. I think it’s the fans favourite too

Right from the beginning of the band you have always made use of the male/female vocal dynamic. Do you always write with that in mind?

Yes, we had one girl right from the third gig onwards and had periods of two and often 3 inthe band. As I write I often hear all the parts together. When I first play an idea to our other guitarist Danny it often does not make sense, as he cannot hear the other parts

‘Blues Highway’ seemed to take the band up a notch and your last two albums were even better and increasingly seem to loosely concern themselves with the human struggle and darker themes such as voodoo and death. What draws you to that subject matter?

Well no one wants a happy blues-rock song (laughs).  But I’ve had a few major illnesses to deal with over the last 12 years including major brain surgery in April 2012, which left me effectively blind for a short while. Even before that happened, horror and noir were my favourite genres and even though theUSis flawed in many aspects they do that stuff far better than we tend to

Visiting the New Orleans grave of Marie Laveau a Louisiana, Creole practitioner of Voodoo – the renowned and so called ‘Witch Queen of New Orleans’, (September 10, 1794 – June 16, 1881) - was also another turning point. The blood of the animal sacrifices made the previous night was still cascading down the cross. You can have a voodoo doll blessed and ready for action down at Bourbon Street for less than ten dollars!

Do you have to do a lot of research for those songs; I’m thinking of numbers like ‘Dark Angel’, ‘Voodoo Queen’, ‘Blues Highway’, ‘Voodoo Dance’ and ‘Skinwalker’ from the current album?

It’s more like I come across the stories, and if I’m attracted to them, I pick up on a newspaper story or a magazine article or sometimes I’d be driving down a US Highway and they kind of appear at the roadside.

‘Gods And Highways & Old Guitars is almost seems a concept album, with the great American depression as a metaphor for human struggle?

I wanted the album to have the biggest Americana theme yet. The two years its taken to put it together have been against a backdrop of me being sometimes really ill and the band being limited in its opportunities to play as a consequence. I think that is reflected in the music. We are out and about again and looking for good gigs, festivals and new management.

There is a quote that a lot of people have asked you about. It’s when an Amsterdam taxi driver recognised you and thought you must be one of the most miserable people on the planet because of the subject matter of your songs. I wonder if you ever feel as if you are writing for a particular genre, maybe a little bit like Nick Cave does?

Yes I told the taxi driver it was just a genre and my life didn’t reflect desperation alley. Maybe I didn’t completely convince myself of that.

How did the excellent Marion Post Wollcot photos and Martin Cook’s front cover on the CD booklet come about?

It’s really down to Martin. He has done an amazing job, picking up the baton of creating our covers from the legendary art house genius Vaughan Oliver. Martin pulls together the construction of Blues Matters Magazine. He’d heard the band and it was his first concept. It’s what the music suggested to him. I loved the idea and when I saw it I was knocked out.

 

The songs all seem to benefit from a fuller and more confident production, was that a particular aim?

Yep, you got it, we threw the kitchen sink at this one. We layered the guitars in the way that most top bands would, which gave them more bite and power. We basically spent a few more days and got deeper in debt (laughs).

Was there a lot of pre-planning for this album, as there seems to be meticulous attention to detail, such as the harmonies, the rhythm tracks and the guitar lines?

Actually there wasn’t.  In essence a lot of the band did not know half the songs until about 5 weeks, to one week before recording them, its that freshness you hear on a lot of the songs. However, some of the numbers like the opening ‘Hell On Wheels’ have been in the set for over a year. In terms of production Danny and I had a good few ideas, but we winged a lot of it

Roger Hunt also provided a couple of interesting drum intro’s. How did they come about?

Roger is a great drummer and is always critical of his own playing. He’d probably like to do the whole thing again differently. At the time in rehearsal after having just heard a strum through of the song he just said, ‘We need something to start it, how about this’ and then played that intro, magic!

The album also manages to capture the twin guitar spark between you and Danny Gwilym, was any of this live in the studio? I only ask because although the overall sound is very polished, the solo’s really do sparkle?

We allowed more time for the guitars to be recorded. I think Danny has done an amazing job on this CD. I rate the guy so highly. I think this is one of the best guitar contributions to a band CD I’ve ever heard and I’ll stand by that statement

How did you discover Danny as his guitar work on this album is simply superb?

I used to run the biggest jam session in South West London. It went on for 12 years and in that time I got to meet a lot of great people. We’ve always had this great guitar player legacy, from Kirsty McColl’s guitarist Dr. Noel Brown and the legendary Jules Fothergill (I think he’s the best slide player in the UK) to Canadian speedster Drew Barron. When Drew left suffering from tinnitus, Danny thought he’d be asked as he stood out in that scene. He was the next link in the chain. I thought he would be good, but now I don’t know if I could play without him.

Regarding the songs; I haven’t heard such powerful opening track as ‘Hell On Wheels’ for a long time. The call & response parts really add to the song’s intensity. Was that song written with the opening track in mind?

No, I just came up with that shit kicking riff and the rest just fell into place, a lot of it is Danny’s interpretation and add-ons.

‘Skin-walker’ is probably your most complex arrangement; essentially a two-part song that splits the solo’s. How did you work on that?

The arrangement actually changed about 3 times. The song was like a beast, it had to be tamed somehow. I’m proud of that one, I like choruses where you have to work to listen to it. The elements of blue notes and de-tuning convey atmosphere in my view.

It’s also as lyrically eclectic as it is interesting. Do you have to explain the meaning of a song like that to the band to capture the essential vibe?

I explained it to Danny who did his own web research on the subject. What set me off was an American newspaper report of a Native American who had chopped up his entire family and was then pursued. He got away by jumping off a cliff and he just landed and kept running into the desert. His defence was that he was possessed by a skin-walker. I never tuned into the end of the trial, as I didn’t want to know, it would have spoiled the story

Along with ‘Spirits Across The Water’,the title track is one of your very best ever songs. Did you particularly work on the interrelationship between the guitars and voices?

It came about on an unusual evening where Mandie G. and Sarah Harvey-Smart were there with Danny and I in my studio. Danny crunched out the starting riff and then I just saw something for Mandie that really suited her voice and she told me which lyrics she related to and which she didn’t and we were on our way. Also Sarah’s voice fits so well with Mandie’s.  She’s a great singer and has been our secret weapon over the last year.

Did you always have Mandie G. in mind for the vocal?

In that particular writing session we were looking for song ideas for both Mandie and Sarah for the CD and ‘Gods & Highways’ and ‘Slowdown’ emerged.

How do you decide who sings what?

Sometimes having the male narrative vocal is important for the perspective of the song, especially if it’s an evil one like ‘Sinner’, ‘Preacher Man’, or ‘Tellin’ Lies’. But it’s the girls voices that do the real vocal work. On this CD I’ve taken a leaf out of Will.I.Am’s (Black Eyed Peas) book and I have let the girls often carry the chorus. I’ve also encouraged more female lead vocals, with Mandie singing ‘Gods & Highways’ and ‘Blues Motel’, Sarah sings ‘Slowdown’ and Suzie D. sing on the re-recorded track ‘The Big Easy’.

Was the title track actually the starting point for the album in terms of its conceptual theme?

No, funnily enough it started with ‘I Cant Say No’ which we performed at the Skegness Rock & Blues Festival over a year ago and was then followed by ‘Hell On Wheels’

Did you re-record ‘The Big Easy’, because it fitted in with overall feel of album?

Yes, it was a classic slice of Americana and it was in the same context and had the content and feel as the other songs. When we originally recorded it over 8 years ago on our ‘Broken Land’ CD, we just never cracked the production. One critic said it was the best UK Blues/Rock song of the year. Well now we’ve done it properly with a great vocal by Suzie D.

 

‘Slow Down’ has three writing credits, which is a bit different from the usual?

Yes, it came from the 4 way writing session I was talking about. Sarah liked the music and my concept and kept most of the chorus while I wrote 50% of the verse.  She put her personal stamp on the rest and she’s proved she can write too.

‘Spirits Across The Water’ is perhaps your best ever song and it moves from an up tempo country rock to southern rock with an ethereal uplifting vocal. Did it evolve and change while it was being recorded, or did you have the whole idea before you went into the studio?

It was my writing partner Danny who came up with those magical 4 chords, and I then overlayed the vocal melody and story line, plus the bridge. It’s like a dark sea shanty, and the characters are trying to get to the US, but the question is do they ever make it?

The band got it in one take, we played it 3 times in rehearsal and then just recorded it first take. It has never been played live, yet! Bill Hobley our great driving bass player picked it up like a flash and that’s why he’s the bedrock of the band

Is that Sarah singing the first refrain on there?

Sarah’s is the dominant voice on that two girl section as she also is is on the ethereal hook of ‘Katrina’.

Blues Hotel’ is a boogie that would grace the ZZ Top catalogue, ‘Sinner’ could be The Outlaws and you previously wrote the anthemic ‘Preacher Man’ with echoes of Skynyrd. Do you have specific influences in mind when you write songs like that?

I love Lynyrd Skynrd and I love Joe Bonamassa and Walter Trout when they get into the kind of emotion filled dark epics that they can produce. It’s been my great pleasure to open for the latter two and I have also exchanged CD’s with them. They probably use mine for coasters. I spent the late 70′s and early 80′s as a kid down the front at The Marquee stalking the guitar players, so I guess all those influences come into the mix.

Have Mandie G, Sarah Harvey Smart and Suzie D. been singing together long?

They only sang together as a trio at this year’s Skegness Festival of Blues & Rock back in January and then they did the CD. Sarah has been singing with Mandie for years, they had their own karaoke business (Seriously!)

Do you write songs with the vocal parts and bv’s already written?

Sometimes I’ve 80% of them written, other times its just 50% and I ask the girls what they want to do with them

When you started the band with Bob Roberts the music leant more towards a country direction, did you purposely embrace a more rocky approach when you started writing on your own?

When Bob left I could only do what I was good at and what I knew. When Danny joined just before the ‘Sea of Souls’ CD, he was a guy who played in famous rock Bands like Shogun and he took us further in that direction. It probably became Rock-Blues instead of Blues-Rock.

Finally Roadhouse have a high profile as a festival band, can we look forward to more such appearances in the future?

Funnily enough we are about to play the excellent Cambridge Rock Festival. However due to my fixation with writing, recording and launching the CD it will be our only major festival appearance of this summer.

We average about 8 a summer with some in Europe but this year I focussed on making the Disc and consequently we haven’t the gigs I’d like. I’m looking forward to picking up a new manager or management to try and help to share the gigging load. Please get in touch via garyboner@btinternet.com. We’ll back at Skegness in January though (Thanks to Alan and all at BM)

All Roadhouse info on http://www.roadhousegb.liveblues.info/home/

Album review

Interview © August 2013 Pete Feenstra

Selected photos by (c) Steve Dulieu


Listen in to Get Ready to ROCK! Radio…
Click the appropriate icons at the top of the page.

Power Plays w/c 16 September (Mon-Fri)

BLOCK BUSTER Losing Gravity (Frontiers)
WATCH ME BREATHE Don’t Think I Haven’t Thought About It (The Label Group/INGrooves)
FIRES OF FREYA Take A Bow (indie)
BLACK STAR RIDERS Underneath The Afterglow (Nuclear Blast)
STOMPIN’ HEAT Shiny Curly Red Hair (indie)

Featured Albums w/c 16 September (Mon-Fri)

09:00-12:00 THE DEFIANTS Zokusho (Frontiers)
12:00-13:00 CORELEONI II (AFM Records)
14:00-16:00 TONY McLOUGHLIN True Native (Fuego)

Albums That Time Forgot (Mon-Fri)

BAD COMPANY Company Of Strangers (1995)



Email This Page
This entry was posted in All Posts, INTERVIEWS, Interviews/Rock Stars and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Interview with GARY BONER (ROADHOUSE) – 2 August 2013

  1. Pingback: Album review: ROADHOUSE – Gods & Highways & Old Guitars - Get Ready to ROCK! Reviews | Interviews | Blog

Leave a Reply