Interview with Dan Watson Part 1
(Edited by Sheri Delcore)
When and how did you get into Metal exactly? What about playing guitar? When did you start and what were your influences?
I first started playing the guitar at age 9. It was 1968 and my uncle Joe was a teenager playing guitar in a local San Francisco area rock band called the Chaos Chorus and Stagger Band. The TV show The Monkeys was my favorite show and I wanted to play guitar in a band like my uncle and be like the guys in the Monkeys. I wanted to be cool, have long hair and have girls chase me around and try and kiss me. I saw Monkeys live that year at the Oakland Coliseum.
This was my first concert and Jefferson Airplane opened the show that night. These were my earliest influences as cheesy as it sounds–keep in mind I was only nine years old. My parents were very young and had little money for extra things like guitars or guitar lessons, but they managed to find me a cheap guitar and somehow pay for guitar lessons for two whole years. By then I was fully into the Beatles and had outgrown the Monkeys. My guitar teacher was kind enough to teach me the Beatle songs I wanted learn so I did that for the first two years. My father soon left the family and my mother got a job in a factory to support my sister and me. After the lessons stopped I went on my own trying to pick out things from the radio and my ever growing record collection. My uncle got me going on scales and would show me riffs once in a while, if I pestered him long enough.
As I got older and started to play better my Uncle turned me on to Jimi Hendrix,
Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Robin Trower and most importantly UFO! Michael Schenker was probably my biggest influence during my teen years. I used to make cassette tape recordings of all his solos from all the UFO albums and string them together on one 90 minute tape and listen to it every night as I went to sleep. I did this for years and made similar tapes of solos from Ritchie Blackmore, Jimmy Page and all the rest. When I got older and was lucky enough to have girlfriends sleep over it would drive them crazy! Around this time, my freshman year of high school, my uncle’s band opened for Yesterday and Today at our high school gymnasium. That was the first time I saw Dave Meniketti play guitar. A strange footnote here, Dave Meniketti’s grandfather or uncle or something ran a music store in Oakland. We used to go there and hang out and somehow they let us purchase instruments and equipment on credit. Thinking back this
was crazy because we were just kids with part time after school jobs. We got real Gibson guitars, Peavey PA systems, all kinds of stuff–and all we had to do was sign some paper and walk out with the gear. We always made our payments, but this is unheard of today. Around this time UFO led me to discover the Scorpions and Uli Roth which were also big influences as well as Van Halen, AC/DC, Peter Frampton , Frank Marino, Pat Travers, Kiss and of course Rush. I think it was John Marshall and Kirk Hammett that brought the first Iron Maiden and Def Leopard albums over to my house. Soon after that, we all quickly got into Judas Priest and Moterhead—I think that is when I started to get into Heavy Metal. Those days are a little blurry to me now because by then we were all smoking a lot of weed and drinking beer and trying to get girls, so things are a little fuzzy–but I’m pretty sure that was when we all got into Heavy Metal!
What were the bands you’ve been in before forming/ joining PARADOX? Was it really your first band?
We called ourselves American Standard first. Later on we changed it to Paradox for some reason. But I guess that was the first real band that I was in. Bill Peterson and I formed it together back in the 1970’s. I used to hang out at his house on weekends and we would spend hours jamming, listening to records and trying out various drummers to jam with us. One of the first drummers we jammed with was, oddly enough, John Marshalls brother Mark. He had his dads or grandfathers Pearl drum set from the 1940’s or something. It was so old it still had real calf skin heads on it–probably
worth some bucks now if it’s still around. Anyway he didn’t work out, he was a little too hyper for us. We worked with several drummers over a period of a year or two before we found Dave Schmidt.
What was the PARADOX line up besides you, Dave Schmidt (drums) and Bill Peterson on bass? I know had a female singer and keyboard player… When was the band exactly formed also? 1980? 1979?
At which point did you get Dennis Manzo in PARADOX? Was it the only lineup change you went thru before morphing into HEXX, I mean what happened with the keyboard
player since he wasn’t in HEXX when you changed name?
We worked with three or four singers before we found Manzo. One of the singers we worked with for a while was female. She was really cool and a great singer but we wanted to go for a heavier sound than she could give us at the time. We also had a keyboard player at the same time, He was very good too and a super cool guy, but again we were gravitating towards a heavier sound and dropped the keyboards for good.
We formed what was to become Paradox in the late 1970’s. The final lineup that later became Hexx came together in 1982 or 1983.
You opened for bands like DIO, QUIET RIOT, and LITA FORD early in your career. Was your music in a similar vein to these Hard Rock bands at the time considering not much is known about PARADOX or was it already somewhat harder/ heavier in style?
When we were opening for those bands our sound and style was still forming. By the time we were opening for Dio we were making more effort to write songs more in that style. It was a real eye opener for us. Up to that point we had only played in small clubs and bars etc. These were big gigs, full scale concerts held at the Concert Barn in Antioch Ca. Around that time we also started gigging at the Keystone clubs, Old Waldorf, Wolfgang’s etc. Playing those shows for those big crowds definitely helped shape our sound and move us in a heavier direction. It was a very valuable experience for us. We learned real fast what not to do and what worked well and what did not.
For example we could wear spandex–actually our singer wore spandex, Bill and I never did– and flashier clothes when we opened for acts like Quiet Riot, Lita Ford etc. That look did not go over as well with the Dio crowd though. We pretty much stuck to jeans, t-shirts and black leather jackets from that point on.
I understand you recorded a demo as PARADOX with this new line up, what can you tell us about that unknown recording? What were the songs on it? Was it really the very first recording you did?
No it was not the first recording. We made several recordings as demo tapes before that in various recording studios around the San Francisco bay area. We don’t let anyone have access to them now because they are not up to our current standards and we had different singers on all of them. They just weren’t very good honestly, but it did give us a lot of valuable studio experience that paid off when we finally started making real records.
Bill recently found and digitized the old Paradox demo that got us our first record deal. I’ll send it to you. I think it had No Escape, The Other Side and another track, called Search For The King, that did not end up on that first album for some reason.
You were playing quite often in the Bay Area STILL as PARADOX with newer bands coming also from the N.W.O.S.F.H.M. (new wave of san Francisco heavy metal) such as TRAUMA and the likes at places like Old Waldorf etc, what do you recall from that very very early scene considering there were only BLIND ILLUSION, EXODUS, B. HELM, V. RUMORS, VYKING/ LEVIATHAN (who morphed) in ANVIL CHORUS, THUNDERHEAD, HEAD ON, VIOLATION….
We played a lot of gigs in those days. Playing live was the only way to really establish ourselves among our peers and to build a fan base. We would play anywhere for any reason. We would play for the opening of an envelope as they said in those days. We played a lot of house parties back then–you know, someone’s parents would be gone for the weekend and they would get kegs of beer and we would play in the back yard or something. Usually they would get out of hand and the cops would come and shut us down. We played a few hard core biker parties too back then. People would fight and throw guys through walls and stab one another. I remember doing some rowdy house parties with Blind Illusion in Richmond. Richmond is where I was born and lived till I was 12 or so. It was a real bad neighborhood and city back then. I won’t go near there now a days, I think it has the highest murder rate in the country right now. I was lucky to get out of there when I did. Some of my friends weren’t so lucky.
Around that time Kirk was in Exodus and they were also playing house parties and such. When we all started breaking our way into the club circuit we put the drunken house parties behind us for good. It was a valuable experience for all of us and a lot of fun, but we were all becoming professional and wanted to stay that way if we could.
If we weren’t playing on a given night we would go see bands like Violation, Blind Illusion, Yesterday and Today, Earthquake and Anvil Chorus at the Keystone Berkeley and the Old Waldorf. They were so good it would shock us into trying to play better. We would think, “Wow, we better step it up a notch if we are going to compete with those guys!”
Historical foot note here: after Kirk left Exodus for Metallica, Tom approached me about taking Kirks place in Exodus. I remember thinking that those guys were more hard core partiers than I was at that time. I thought they were into hard drugs and their sound was too fast and sloppy, so I turned them down. Sometimes I wonder what my life and career would be like had I accepted their offer.
Back then everyone was trying to grow their hair long. You were way cooler and much more like a real rock star if you had killer long hair. It wasn’t always easy because we all had to have jobs and sometimes you had to cut your hair to get a job. I remember one time I was just starting to have my hair past my shoulders and I was so proud and felt so cool. It really gave me confidence. It seemed like I was getting more respect as a musician and I was doing better with the girls and everything. Then I got offered what at the time was a good job at a Shell gas station in San Pablo. The owner said I would have to cut my hair if I wanted the job though. I was so desperate for a job then that I did cut my hair short. BIG MISTAKE–I immediately felt like a dork! Whatever magical powers my long hair had given me had left me. This was a huge setback. I realized how important the image and look of the band is. It took me forever to grow it back again. When I finally did get it grown out long again like it was when we got our first record deals—then it started falling out–FUCK!!! I was still in my early twenties and was starting to go bald! If you look back over the pictures of Hexx later during the thrash metal days you can see it receding more and more. As if it wasn’t hard enough to make it in the music scene, it seemed like everybody had killer thick long hair but me. So, ya know, I had that going for me! Later on I got a series of painful and expensive hair transplants, but those have sense thinned out as well. Ah, the ravages of age.
So at which point did you decide to change PARADOX for HEXX exactly? What were the reasons? And how the name HEXX came into the picture?
So you were signed with the help of the PARADOX demo by Mike Varney, do you recall how that happened exactly? Did he offer you to be on one of his early “U.S. Metal” volume eventually as well?
-How familiar with this young journalist/ guitar player, Mike Varney was back in the day? Did you maybe share the stage with him when he was doing CINEMA?
-Was there some other label interest for PARADOX/ HEXX besides Shrapnel? Was it a one album deal offered or a several albums one?
At that time Mike Varney wrote a column in Guitar Player Magazine that spotlighted new up-and-coming guitar players. He gave an address at the bottom of the article where to send your tape. We just finished the Paradox demo so for a goof I sent in our tape, not dreaming he would even listen to it. I figured it was a real long shot because I was sure he got billions of tapes every day and ours would end up in the dumpster like most of the rest. It seemed to me, at that time in the Bay Area, great guitar players grew on trees and he was surely getting bombarded with tapes from all over the world. I forgot all about it until a few weeks later when my phone rang and it was Mike Varney! I could not believe it–I could barely talk I was so surprised. I thought maybe it was one of the guys playing a prank, but it was really Mike Varney!
I thought he was going to do a spotlight article of me for Guitar Player Magazine. I was so thrilled and excited, and then as we talked I realized he wanted to know if I wanted to participate in a guitar head cutting competition he was putting on at the Keystone Palo Alto. I was crushed. I thought he was going to do a killer story of me in Guitar Player Magazine and from there I would become a big famous rock star. Wrong! I tried to hide my disappointment, and reluctantly agreed to do the gig. I heard about these head cutting guitar dual offs but had never been in one. For those who don’t know, this is when you get two guitar players on stage together, no band, just the two guitar players and each one takes turn playing for a moment or so and tries to shred the other guys head off. Well, for some reason the night of the gig, the other guys in the band had better things to do than come support their guitar player so I went alone with my girlfriend at the time.
I was scheduled to go on about half way through the show pitted up against another guitar player I had never heard of. As I watched the other guitar players take the stage one after the other and witness how good everybody was, I became very nervous and uneasy. Guys that I thought were way better than me were getting their heads cut off and handed to them, walking off the stage in shame and defeat. The crowd cheering on the victor like it was the Roman Coliseum or something.
I told my girlfriend I was thinking of ducking out the back door. I thought she of all people would encourage and support me to go on but I she said something like, “Yeah, we better go.”
I thought, “Fuck it! I came all the way here!” I was scheduled to go on soon so I went back stage to warm up and prepare to be decapitated and thrown to the lions. It was cold backstage and I just
couldn’t seem to get my hands and fingers moving up to speed. The stage manager introduced me to the guy I was going up against. He seemed like a nice guy but he looked even more terrified than I was to go on. Like this was his first gig or something, or first time performing in front of people. This gave me much needed confidence–until I saw the guys face who just got his head cut off come back stage. He looked like he was going to cry. Then a frosty feeling of doom came over me. I felt cold and numb. I was scared; I had never experienced anything like this. No buddies onstage to bomb with–I was on my own. It was do-or-die, me against him.
I was instructed to go first. I shut my eyes and riffed as best I could for about a minute or so then stopped and looked at the other guy. I had no one in the crowd to support me but I could hear people cheering and clapping and suddenly I felt a little better. The other guy started playing, I could tell he was real nervous too but played pretty good—a lot better than I thought he would. He had short hair and I had long hair by then so I thought this gave me a visual and psychological edge. We kept going at it and before I knew it, it was over. To this day I don’t know who won. People were cheering for both of us.
I went up to the sound man afterwards and asked him how he thought I did. He said I did great and that I was a fine player. I don’t think Mike Varney was even at the gig! I knew I was not half as good as most of the guys there. I went home thinking, “Well, that’s that. I really blew that one; so much for my big break with Mike Varney.” I was so depressed I did not want to talk about it.
A few weeks passed and I was still kind of bummed and confused about the gig. I felt like I was used. I did not get paid for the gig even though they charged tickets at the door. Somebody made money, but not me!
Then one day I ran into John Marshall and Kirk somewhere. John had a big smile on his face. He told me he talked to Mike Varney a few days earlier. He said, “Hey man Mike told me he wants to sign you guys (Paradox ) for a record deal.” I was stunned. A few days later Mike called me and asked if the band wanted to come over to his house in Novato and talk about doing a record on his Shrapnel Record label.
When we got there we were all very impressed with his big house and the nice area he lived in. He had two Mercedes sedans parked in his big driveway. That was the first time I had ever seen windshield wipers on headlights! Anyway, Mike was very nice and offered us beverages and snacks and showed us his massive record collection. He showed us all the releases he had had on Shrapnel records including all the US massacre compilations, Wild Dogs, Steeler and some others.
He also played us the demo tape that Engvay Malmsteen sent him! It blew us all away. I thought to myself, “Great, he’s got that guy what the hell does he need me for?! I guess you can never get enough good guitar players?” He outlined the terms of the deal with us. We were very naive and did not really know the right questions to ask. The deal was for one record with his option to pick up the second album or not.
He would cover all recording costs artwork, photos etc. He said he would get us interviews in all the right magazines overseas and here in the states. I can’t remember what the deal was with the publishing now. We did not think to ask about tour support of which there was none. At this point he said he had done some kind of name search for Paradox and that the name was already taken and we had to choose another one. This was way before everyone had computers. We were a little bummed but did not think to question him. Maybe he thought the name Paradox was not metal enough?
We went home to think about it and if we all agreed we could come back next week and he would have all the contracts drawn up. About this time we were introduced to Debbie Abono and she started getting involved with helping us along. In fact, she went with us to Mikes house that second time to sign the contracts. I think maybe she thought she could get us a deal with Metal Blade or something, I’m not sure. She was also working with Blizzard then, that later became Possessed. She really helped us a lot. After we got signed she took us to Guitar Center and bought us all new equipment–that was a real big deal for us!
We now had to come up with a new name, logo and album artwork. Mike showed us some album art that was available to us to use but we did not like any of it. That’s when we approached Alvin Petty about coming up with something. He designed our logo and did the No Escape Cover. Soon after that I think he did the Creeping Death cover for Kirk and those guys.
I don’t remember how we settled on the name Hexx. We probably smoked a lot of pot and came up with a bunch of names and that was one that Mike thought was okay.
“No Escape” was released in 1984. Can you tell us about this time for the band? And how went the recording session etc…? Did you use mainly PARADOX material for it or did you write some new stuff specifically for this debut album?
-Did the album help your profile locally, nationally, and globally? How was it received if you recall? It was often reviewed alongside TRAUMA’s debut and GRIFFIN’s debut as all were released at the same time and maybe lost some of its interest because of this…
Did you try to gig quite a lot at least locally to promote this debut release? Were you quite satisfied with the job Shrapnel were doing for an indie label considering they couldn’t offer tour support?
Mike Varney had a deal with Prairie Sun Studios in Cotati California, this is where he liked to record his bands. A guy named Mooka owned and ran the place. It was a real good studio for the time. It was on a big property with bunk houses for the band to stay in during recording projects–we really had a good time then. We were sure we were really on our way. Mike introduced us to Steve Fontano who worked with us on pre production for this first album. We did come up with new songs for this record. We had the title track No Escape, The Other Side and what was to become Beware The Darkness. The rest we wrote and arranged between the time we inked our deal with Shrapnel and the time we went into the studio to record.
As I recall, the recording sessions went fairly smoothly. We were all really prepared as not to waist expensive studio time. We were very excited to be making our first real record. I think the whole thing took about three weeks. It seemed like it took forever to get test pressings and even longer to finally get the finished product. When it was released, we were so proud and excited. We did a lot of gigs around the Bay Area to support the release. We played a lot at a dive called Ruthies Inn on San Pablo Avenue near Berkeley. Wess, the owner had all the heavy bands play there. It was a real dive though, you would go into the men’s room and there would be piss and shit all over the place. One time there was a huge dead wet rat in the sink! They used to let young kids in and serve them booze. They made very strong free whisky and coke drinks for Hexx. (I guess that’s how we got a taste for the stuff.)
We did lots of interviews in all the music magazines just like Mike promised and we got mostly favorable reviews as I recall. Around this time because all of my guitar over dubs we decided to add rhythm guitar to the lineup. This is where Clint Bower joined the band.
Bill and Dan with Ronnie James Dio and John Marshall (Blind Illusion, Metal Church)
Next thing we’ve heard was that Manzo had died after the album’s release and it appeared years later that it’s absolutely false, why this rumor got spread around back then if you recall?
How did you find Dan Bryant, who replaced Dennis? Did you audition quite a few people before settling your choice on him?
You also added at one point Clint Bower to the lineup as second guitarist. Was he instrumental in steering the band towards a much heavier Power Metal direction with the next material?
Did you record some demos between “No Escape” and “Under The Spell” to see how the newer material would progress/ change considering the change between the two record is quite big?
How much material did HEXX have written for the second album when Dan joined? Did Dan have to re-write some of the vocal parts if some stuff was already written or did you maybe used some of Manzo’s stuff?
When Clint joined the band Manzo was still in the group. Clint did a lot of the shows with us to support the No Escape release. But as you know we did not tour at all for this album. I really wish we could have, it might have made all the difference for us. As far as Manzo being dead, I never heard that before. I can’t imagine how that rumor got started. Crazy!
I don’t remember exactly why we had to replace Manzo. I think maybe he did not want the same things or he just was not as interested in getting a music career
going as we were. I think maybe for him it was just a fun thing to try and not to be taken too seriously, you would have to ask him. But I do remember talking to Mike Varney after the No Escape record had run its course, and him saying if we wanted to do another album we had to produce a full album demo recorded in a good studio of all the new songs, and if we did not have Manzo we had better find a singer just as good or better or we would be finished. So the search was on for a new lead singer. Man, let me tell you, that was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. We soon found out replacing Manzo was going to be a tall order because he was so good and unique. In the SF bay area singers like this were very hard to find. If you did manage to find one they always seemed to have some weird problem about them or issues. We found this one dude before we found Bryant that sounded very much like Rob Halford from Judas Priest but with his own unique twist. Trouble with him was he was kind of a dumpy goofy lookin’ dude with real white freckly skin and orange frizzy hair like Bozo the clown. Also his voice would start to give out half way through rehearsal. He was awesome though before his voice would fail him. I remember thinking this guy is great but he will never make it through our set! So we pressed on until John Scheffer, Clints friend, told us about this guy he saw somewhere that sounded kind of like Dio. Somehow we tracked him down and went to hear him and his band at the time rehearse in Oakland. Sure enough, he did kind of sound like Dio but with his own twist. He also had a good look about him. We told him about our situation and since his band did not have a record deal going we kind of stole him for our project. We told him we had to make a demo to send to the record
company for approval; we thought with him we stood a good chance of Varney picking up the option for our second album.
I had written a bunch of new songs including Under The Spell, that I co-wrote with Manzo before he left. At this time Clint Bower was pretty much just doing rhythm guitar and an occasional solo but was not really contributing to the songwriting yet. We worked on the rest of the material and all saved up enough money to go into the studio and record our album demo for Mike Varney. We recorded it in Northern California somewhere. We did all the pre-production ourselves and all the songs were pretty much fully developed as you hear them on the Under The Spell release. As soon as the demo was finished I sent it to Varney along with all the lyric sheets. ( I can’t find my copy of this tape but I think Bill has a copy as. If you like we can digitize it and send it along to you as well ). I think within a week’s time I got a call from Mike saying we were good to go for the second album. Here we go again!
“Edge Of Death” appeared on the “Eastern Front” sampler, Do you recall how this offer to appear on this happened and how do you view the result which was not that hot soundwise?
“Edge Of Death” was captured on one of those Ruthies Inn Metal nights, the S.F. scene had grown considerably by 1985/ 1986 with Thrash taking a bigger space especially with bands like INSANITY, POSSESSED, MORDRED, DEATH ANGEL, FORBIDDEN EVIL etc appearing and other more Power Metal bands like LEGACY etc first what was your view of that ever growing scene with also clubs opening their doors more than ever to that style (Ruthies, The Stone…)?
Would you say this newer/ harder sound coming out of those new bands (not forgetting EXODUS who had gotten Thrash at this point unlike when they had started as a straight Heavy Metal band) kinda also had an influence somehow for “Under The Spell”?
How do you compare “Under The Spell” to “No Escape”? While it didn’t sound Thrash like the future albums, there’s still a heavier/ faster edge on it comparing to the traditional Power/ Heavy Metal from the debut…
Yeah, it was pretty obvious to all us musicians in the scene at that time. We could all see which way the wind was blowing as far as how playing faster and heaver was concerned. When we recorded Under The Spell you could hear hints of where our musical style was heading, Edge Of Death being a good example. It seemed if we wanted to keep gigging in the club scene in the San Francisco bay area we would have to choose to be thrash or glam metal because there was little crowds for just power metal like we were doing. We did
not want to be glam so we went in the heaver-faster direction. It seemed like our peers were looking down at us and maybe thinking we were old hat or passé because we were not playing as fast and heavy as they were. Some people thought we were kind of lame because we once had a female singer. Silly to think about it now all these years later but that’s how it was back then. This made us very angry so we channeled our anger and frustration about our limited success into our music. As a result we got faster and heavier until we got to the point where we sound on the Morbid Reality album. In fact, I remember when we were writing songs for Morbid Reality, (by this time Clint was writing about half of the material), we were in a friendly competition with the guys from Sadus to see how fast and complex we could make our arrangements–and still be drunk and stoned and perform them live. I think Sadus won that competition.
As far as the Eastern Front Ruthie’s Inn compilation, it was a pretty loose thing as I recall. Someone brought in a cheap tape recorder and recorded a bunch of shows and put it out as an album. Someone approached us while we were at the bar at Ruthie’s Inn one night and asked if we wanted to have a song on this killer compilation they were putting out. We said, “Sure, man, why not. If you really manage to get an album released you can use one of our songs on it if you want.” We did not think anymore about it. Drunken people were always coming up to us saying how they were going to do this for us or that for us. Most of the time it was just bull shit so we didn’t take it seriously. Then, months later some guy comes up to us at the bar again and gives us each a copy of the Eastern Front Live at Ruthies Inn album. We thought, “Someone actually did what they said they were going to do–amazing!” I still have my copy.
John Marshall (BLIND ILLUSION/ METAL CHURCH/ METALLICA) was ever-present throughout HEXX’s career. He was listed as a crewmember on “No Escape,” he was thanked for “guitar tones” in the liner notes for “Under The Spell,” and he produced/ recorded/ engineered all your Thrash era material (1989-1991). Tell us more about his involvement with HEXX.
I first met John Marshall in 6th grade. My Father moved out and my Mother and sister and I moved in with my grandparents who had a house in Sherwood Forrest in El Sobrante. It was a middle class neighborhood that sprung up during the 1950’s. My sister and I transferred to Olinda Elementary
School there. It was a much nicer school than we were used to. The school we went to in Richmond, Fairmede School was a rough school. There were a lot of racial tensions at that time in the bay area with my sister and I being among the few white kids. You know how kids are–my sis and I had a rough time of it there so we were happy to change to a school with mostly white kids. I guess that sounds kind of raciest but that is the truth.
Anyway, I met John there but his name was John Manners then. He later changed it to Marshall, his real dad’s name. As it turns out Kirk Hammette’s house was just around the block from my grandparent’s house. I did not find out that John played guitar too until we all went to Junior High School the following year. That’s when I really got to know Kirk and we all started hanging out and got serious about getting into music and playing guitars. Bill switched from guitar to Bass around this time. I remember being really impressed with John because he could play Stairway to Heaven pretty much note for note except for maybe the solo. This inspired me to try and take my playing up a notch. John always had an amazing talent for being able to record copy perfectly. He had a great ear and this is why he became such a good sound engineer as well. He would blow us all away by showing up one day and playing the solo to UFO’s Rock Bottom or Eddie Van Halen’s eruption. I, on the other hand, had a very hard time record copying; as a result I had to make up my own riffs and licks and such. I guess this is how I developed into songwriting. John was the first one of us to get a real professional electric guitar. Somehow he got a real Les Paul sunburst just like Jimmy Page’s. We were all very impressed, and perhaps a little jealous too. I still had the cheap electric guitar I got for Christmas when I was 10. (I later sold that electric guitar to Kirk Hammett for $ 15.00 USD and a stack of Cream Magazines with all the pictures cut out. As far as I know this might have been Kirk’s first electric guitar–you would have to ask him.)
John Marshall was involved in just about every recording project we ever did back then. He was probably at all the gigs too. Years later, after we all stopped playing metal for a while, he played with Bill and me in the Tombstones project—a kind of neo rockabilly thing we did for many years of which we have many fine recordings. John works for Mesa Boogie these days and is raising his two girls with his wife in Petaluma, California. We still hang out now and again. In fact, he just gave me one of his Dual Rectifiers to use while I tour with The Hellbillys.
METALLICA’s Kirk Hammett also helped with guitar tones on “Under The Spell.” Can you tell us more about this?
Yeah, I think Kirk and those guys were still using Marshall amps at that time and Kirk lent me his to record Under The Spell, which was very nice of him. He doesn’t lend me his amps these days though!
“Under The Spell” gained you a slightly larger distribution via Roadrunner, who licensed the album from Shrapnel for Europe. So why did you never tour in Europe?
Did Shrapnel do a good job promotion wise for this one as I’m not too sure he did from what I recall or was it another case at the time where Mike Varney just released the album without giving it any push?
Varney was just a record label at that time, he would buck up for the recording, photo sessions with professional photographers and pay for album artwork, etc. He also set up interviews with various metal fanzines and magazines as well. As far as tour support, we were on our own. We were dying to tour in order to support our releases but we just could not get anything going at that time. Later on, when we were doing more speed-thrash metal and had other record labels, we started touring in the states but never made it overseas, much to our sadness.
There was that song “Suicide” on this album, did you get some problems simply because of the title of the song as often people judge something by the title without trying to know what the song is really all about?
Yeah, Varney was worried someone might off themselves after hearing the song and come after Hexx and Shrapnel Records with some kind of legal action. That’s why we had to have that little disclaimer you see on the album. My girlfriend at the time had a cousin that killed himself so that’s how that song came about. I think she actually wrote most of the lyrics for that one.
During this time (1985-1987), what were some of the gigs that really marked your mind? Would you say that in a live situation HEXX was a major force?
I guess you could say we had our moments, so to speak. I remember some good shows at Ruthies Inn, The Keystone
Berkeley, The Stone in San Francisco. We did a few big outdoor private parties that were a blast as well. The cops would come with their helicopters and K-9 units to break up the party when it got too big and out of hand.
So “Under The Spell” was released in 1986, and Dan quit the band at one point, what happened exactly in this case? Was it because of personal problems? Musical differences?
What occurred in the band after the 1986 release of ªUnder The Spellº until the release of the “Quest For Sanity” EP in 1989? There’s Dave who left to be replaced by his roadie, Jon Shafer, Clint took over on vocals/ guitar what’s the story for those newer unexpected changes? Did you try to enroll a full time singer or was it a case or you had ‘enough’ of singers at that point?
Did you remain somewhat in touch with Dan and Dave but also Manzo after the line up changes?
Was the material on the 1988 “Help Yourself” five track demo closer to the “Under The Spell” material, or was it heading towards the technical Thrash/ Death of the “Quest For Sanity” EP?
Your musical change between “Under The Spell” and “Quest For Sanity” seemed drastic to some people. Many who liked your straight-up Heavy Metal approach didn’t grasp the Thrash direction, and there were some Thrash/ Death fans who didn’t want to give you a chance due to your traditional Metal roots. Did you ever consider changing the name?
Yes, we were fed up with the whole lead singer thing. We just were not on the same page with those guys at that time, musically and with our image. Dan Bryant was into the whole glam rock scene and we were trying to move him away from that, but that is what he liked and he sings in a glam biker band now called the Road Vikings.
Clint was a perfect choice for us because he was already in the band and we all got along great. When he took over vocals, all those other type of lead singer problems went away. It was great!
Dave Schmidt was wanting to do more glam rock as well and did not care for the heavier faster direction we were heading. He was more into it for the girls that would come to glam shows and it was mostly guys that would be going to the thrash shows. John Schaffer was Dave’s
roadie and portage so when Dave left we took John under our wing and nursed him along until he was good enough to make the scene.
We started working on material that would be the Help Yourself demo, which later became the Quest for Sanity EP, when we got signed by Music For Nations in England. This batch of songs would pretty much define and cement our new direction born out of our frustration and anger over how our careers were going. It seemed like every band from the Bay Area was doing better than us and we let it all come out in our music.
Our thinking at the time was, “Well fuck it! We are obviously not getting anywhere playing straight up power metal.” So our material naturally got more aggressive and out there. We did not care what anyone thought as long as we could find labels to put our music out. We were going to do what we felt like doing musically and to hell with anybody that did not like it. The thought of changing our name never crossed our minds. I thought of Hexx as kind of like Rush. If you are a true Rush fan you follow and embrace them on their musical journey where ever it leads, as long as it doesn’t turn into disco or hip hop or something, ya know what I mean?
We lost touch with Manzo, Bryant and Schmidt for about thirty years until this year when we contacted them about getting back together for the 2014 KIT festival.
Mike Varney was apparently not impressed with the “Help Yourself” demo, and wanted to change the lyrics around, so you asked him to let you out of your contract and he did, can you fill in the details?
The way I remember it was we had a two record deal with Shrapnel Records. After the second album Varney did not care to put out our new stuff with Clint singing and the new direction we were heading so that was that. We were hoping to move to a bigger label anyway and maybe finally get some tour support.
Then you signed with Wild Rags, who released two EPs in a row, first the “Quest For Sanity” five-song EP in 1989, then the “Watery Graves” three-song
EP in 1990. Why two EPs in a row and not a full length album?
We actually signed with Music for Nations first. It was their idea to put out an EP to sort of test the waters with a release in Europe, and see if we were worthy of putting out a full LP. Wild Rags Records was the only US label that would put Quest for Sanity out in the states. When MFN did not want to do another release with us Richard C offered to put out another EP. It was a cheap way of trying to get momentum going so we could get the reviews and such to keep us in the press.
How did you view Wild Rag as a label at this point? I mean they had released several things at this point but most of the stuff sounded ‘cheap’ so to speak… how was it like working with Richard Campos?
Richard C was pretty cool to us. He put on a big CD release party for the domestic release of Quest for Sanity at the Omni in Oakland. This was just after the big earthquake that hit the Bay Area in 1989. He was based in Southern California and would hook us up with shows down there when he could. He also hooked us up with at least one tour of the Midwest with Sufferance and Gamacide, both bands were on his label at the time. He even made up t-shirts
with our tour dates on the back and some other merchandise for us to sell along the way.
How come you didn’t have much more label offers considering Thrash at its peak by 1988/1989 and the scene was getting way oversaturated in fact? Wasn’t A&M interested in signing you at some point? I mean that was some strange but strong interest coming from such a major not really known for having signed powerful Heavy Metal bands?
Yeah, we had close encounters with a few major labels back then, but in the end it never panned out.
Who were some of the bands you were friends with? I know you were close with SADUS and AUTOPSY. Did you play with these bands often? What other memorable shows can you remember from this period (late ‘90s)? I recall you were playing very often at the Omni, The Stone etc at this point…
We did lot of shows with Sadus and Autopsy, but one of the most memorable shows that sticks out in my mind was a show that none of us were performing at, but were just there. One night we all went to the Omni in Oakland to see Robin Trower and Randy Hansen (Hendrix tribute) Bill and I got there a little early so we were hanging out at the bar having a few cocktails and mingling with everyone. One of the pretty bartenders took a liking to Bill and was giving him extra large complementary Long Island Iced Tea drinks–of which he had several. We were pretty buzzed when Randy Hansen took the stage and did his amazing Jimi Hendrix show. After his set I met up with the guys from Autopsy. They had some Hash or Pot and wanted to smoke some before Robin Trower’s set. The staff and security at the Omni were really uptight about pot and drugs at the venue and if you went outside they would not let you back in. Someone found a storage closet upstairs that was unlocked and we all crammed in there and started passing the pipe around. We thought we were being pretty sly and were getting quite high when all of a sudden, the panels of the drop sealing started being pulled away and Omni security was looking down on all of us and yelling for us to come out of the closet! For the first few minutes we thought it was really funny and not a big deal, you know –a cute boyish prank. But the Omni security were really mad and being very uptight about it.
The staff there knew who we were because we played the Omni all the time. We would indulge ourselves backstage in our dressing rooms and it was never a problem, but this time they made a big deal about it. They dragged us into the office and chewed us out and said we should be ashamed of ourselves and so on, and how they were kicking us out of the show and none of us would ever play the Omni again–and on and on. We were so high it was all we could do to keep from laughing out loud which only made them angrier. So they threw us out onto the street. We realized we were going to miss Robin Trower’s set, so we decided to go to Spats in Berkeley and have some drinks and something to eat until the show was over. Bill was still inside enjoying the show and lapping up giant free Long Island Iced Tea drinks and had no idea I had been ejected from the gig! By the time we got back to the Omni the show was almost over, the guys dropped me off. I was pretty hammered so I let myself into Bill’s truck through the back window and passed out in the cab. Bill eventually found me and we headed back to El Sobrante. Bill was driving even though he was pretty smashed. We were
driving through Orinda when we got pulled over by the Orinda police. Orinda is kind of an upscale area, and I guess when they saw two long haired guys warring black leather jackets swerving through town in a black primered 1965 Chevy pickup truck at three o’clock in the morning they figured they better nab us. They arrested Bill for drunk driving and took him off to jail and left me stranded in a parking lot. I finally got a cab and made it back home and went to bed but poor Bill had to stay all night in the drunk tank. Good times!
Were you still performing stuff from “No Escape” and “Under The Spell” at this point live or was it just impossible considering the so different nature of the material and vocals?
Yeah, I think the only songs we were doing live then from the first two albums were sped up and thrasher versions of Edge of Death and Under the Spell with Clint’s vocal style.
There was talk around 1990 of a tour to the East Coast, and shows with other Wild Rags bands SUFFERANCE (formerly ANIALATOR) and JERSEY DOGS. Did this ever happen?
Yes, we flew out and did shows on the east coast with the Jersey Dogs and in Texas with Sufferance. The guys from both of those bands were so cool, we all became friends and had a blast. In turn, they came out to the west coast, Bay Area, and did some shows with us here which were a lot of fun.
Was it in fact SADUS drummer Jon Allen who turned Century Media onto HEXX, who signed the band in 1991?
I don’t really remember exactly, that might be the case, I’ll have to ask Bill about that one.
“Morbid Reality” is a classic album of technical U.S. Death/ Thrash Metal. What was the reaction at the time?Century Media was signing mostly Death Metal at the time (MORGOTH, UNLEASHED, ASPHYX) and you guys were quite different from the rest of the roster. And you were one of their few U.S. signings at the time. Was this a good or difficult situation for you?
It was a good thing for us at the time because we could not get anyone to sign us and fund the recording of Morbid Reality, so we ended up borrowing money from our parents and such and financed produced and recorded the album ourselves, with the help of John Marshall of course. We even paid for the cover art ourselves so we had the complete package ready to go for some lucky label smart enough to snatch it up. Century Media was that label. It all seemed great at first and we thought we were finally on our way with a good label behind us.
Just when your profile was increased thanks to the Century Media signing, you disappeared. What happened? When and why did the band officially break up?
As we got to know the people that ran the label, it seemed that there was some internal problems bubbling under the surface. We did a tour of some of the states to support the release and then it seemed we did not sell as many units as they had expected or something because we had a whole new album written and ready to record and they stopped taking our calls and would not communicate with us at all. That really pissed me off and was one of the last straws for me as far as the band was concerned. After all we had done together they wouldn’t even show us the tiniest bit of respect and do us the common courtesy of even telling us to fuck off! That was pretty much it for me. I just couldn’t muster up the strength and courage to go around begging like a dying dog for some table scrap of some kind of record deal. That’s when I put aside playing Metal and threw
myself into roots music like blues and rockabilly; eventually forming the Tombstones with Bill. Not long after that I joined up with the Hellbillys and got into the whole psychobilly thing.
Are there any songs from this time period that were written/ demoed but are left unreleased? If so, can you give us the titles and an idea of the musical direction? There was stuff like “Sink Or Swim”….
Sink or swim was the best one that I remember, it was going to be title track of the new album. I can’t recall any of the other titles. We only had live rehearsal recordings of those songs on cassette tape. I think Bill and I have copies of that tape somewhere in a big box of cassette tapes buried in our basements.
The album was to be more power metal based; more like the first two albums but much darker, heavier, with Clint’s vocals, and with a lot less of the thrash element we had been doing. It really makes me sad because we worked so hard on that batch of tunes and would probably have been our best album yet. Sink or Swim was very true for us–without any help or support, we obviously sank down to our watery grave.
Are you aware that there are still people out there who love your music? Do you still hear from people regarding the band?
Laurent, to be honest with you I had no idea at all until you contacted me through face book last year and told me of the KIT festival. I assumed we were just a miserable failure and a big joke to everyone. I had left Hexx and metal in the past and threw myself into my other music projects.
Have you ever considered reforming the band at some point after the break like it happened for a lot of Bay Area bands who did reform in the last decade, either for one show or for good?
Not until you and Oliver contacted me about doing the KIT festival.
Any favorite songs or memories from HEXX’s career that you’d like to mention? I know Bill really liked the Milwaukee festival when you ventured in the Midwest back in 1991…
The Milwaukee metal fest was defiantly a highlight for all of us. My favorite memories Of Hexx were when somehow against all manner of obstacles and hard times we managed to get some kind of record deal going and get our music out there. Recording our music in the studio and the whole writing and recording process is what I loved–and miss. Of course playing live to a big crowd and having everyone go nuts is a lot of fun too!
Any final words for the readers and fans of HEXX?
First I want to thank you Laurent, because without your persistence and kind words of encouragement there would be no new Hexx project at all. We are really having a blast making music together again and looking forward to the KIT festival and maybe having a new Hexx album coming out. Right now we are kind of going back to our metal roots and are going to do this show and recordings with Manzo and in this style. I don’t know if we will ever do the thrash metal version of Hexx in the future or not. We are all on the wrong side of 50 now–so let’s just see if we can pull this off first!
And thank you to anyone out there that ever believed and enjoyed the music of Hexx in whatever style or form we took during our musical journey. This will be our first performance in Europe and we hope to see you all and meet with you at the KIT festival in 2014!