Written by: Wayne Byrne
(All photos by Katarina Benzova)
The Dead Daisies are a band in their infancy yet collectively the band members have most likely already made a mark on your record collection. A musical collective based around the core membership of singer Jon Stevens and guitarist David Lowy, The Dead Daisies have released a full-length album, 2012’s superior Lock n’ Load, and have just released their second EP, Face I Love. Since releasing their debut album The Dead Daisies have been touring consistently, and in delivering the ultimate live rock n’ roll experience Stevens and Lowy have recruited a considerable line-up of distinguished musicians, each acclaimed and lauded in their own right for their respective day jobs touring and recording in the rock music trenches of the last thirty years.
Frontman Stevens made his name in the 1980s with Australian new wave/power-pop act, Noiseworks, and later filled the vast void left in the wake of Michael Hutchence’s tragic death when he took over vocal duties for INXS. Since embarking on a promotional campaign that has taken them across the globe several times already, The Dead Daisies’ nucleus of Stevens and Lowy have been invariably joined by Guns n’ Roses guitarist Richard Fortus and his fellow Gun, Dizzy Reed, on keyboards, while the revolving door has been graced by Rolling Stones bass player Daryl Jones and various drummers including Charley Drayton of Divinyls and John Tempesta of The Cult. The current touring line-up features Whitesnake/Thin Lizzy bassist Marco Mendoza and erstwhile Billy Idol drummer, Brian Tichy. For anyone in attendance, The Dead Daisies shows are a history lesson in rock n’ roll music, as taught by the men who authored it. With the band having just finished a two-month US tour opening for a joint Def Leppard and Kiss double headlining jaunt, I caught up with Richard Fortus to discuss The Dead Daisies’ latest release and to reflect upon his time thus far with the group.
Having been part of the group since its initial touring incarnation, Fortus brings a vast history of stage craft to the milieu. A member of Guns n’ Roses for fifteen years and counting, Fortus has found time to undertake globe-trotting tours with Rhianna, join revered international rock acts such as Thin Lizzy and X-Japan, record albums and singles with artists as diverse as Divinyls, N’Sync, Crystal Method, Country Bones, and Pink, playing in downtown New York scene bands Honky Toast and The Compulsions, and recording several film and video game soundtracks. Not to mention mounting local reunion shows for his earliest band, Pale Divine.
The man has an unrivalled appetite for music.
Fortus is a prodigious multi-instrumentalist, a highly-skilled and much sought-after studio musician who has tracked for a kaleidoscope of artists across a wide spectrum of genres, and to see in him in concert one is witness to a formidable live player with a powerful stage presence, a reputation that precedes him. Fortus’s voracious musical appetite, substantial technical skill, and encyclopaedic knowledge of the art has stood him in good stead when it comes to his professional career, having been called upon by musical directors to play on the globe-trotting tours of chart-topping pop acts such as Rhianna and Enrique Iglesias, while crafting an enviable career that has afforded him the position to remain true to his musical passions by writing and playing with some of the acts that helped shape his musical tastes growing up a young music lover in St. Louis, Missouri.
“I was obsessed,” Fortus admits, “I read, watched and LISTENED to everything I possibly could. I’d spend Saturday mornings at Vintage Vinyl in St Louis, scouring the bins of vinyl. I’d read every interview I could and then search out the people that influenced the people I was listening to. I saw every concert I possibly could, whether I liked the band or not. Every second of my youth was focused on music. I was obsessed, body and soul.”
In the mid-1980s Fortus became a popular draw on the Midwestern alternative music scene, his considerable guitar chops helped define the sound of cherished St. Louis cult act, Pale Divine. Originally known as The Eyes, the band became fixtures of the Laclede’s Landing alternative music hangouts, their atmospheric stage presence underscoring addictive melodies and sublime musical craftsmanship. They swiftly became heroes of the local St. Louis music scene, with word of mouth extending to the offices of major label Atlantic Records, who signed the band and in 1991 released their debut album, the vastly underrated Straight to Goodbye, hitting the road with The Psychedelic Furs in support of the release. Unfortunate corporate politics saw the band released from their contract while demoing material for their follow-up effort. That second album was never to be released and the group soon disbanded after Fortus left.
In the aftermath of Pale Divine, Fortus moved to New York City and collaborated with Furs frontman Richard Butler on a new music project entitled Love Spit Love, with the group releasing two excellent albums throughout the early-mid nineties, before once again getting lost in the shuffle of major label bureaucracy. Love Spit Love proved a fortuitous project, one which would sow the seeds of future musical collaborations in Fortus’s career; the guitarist is still playing with Love Spit Love drummer Frank Ferrer as both are long-standing members of Guns n’ Roses, while Butler has often recruited Fortus as a member of The Psychedelic Furs for guitar, cello, and synthesiser duties.
Fortus is a busy man.
Between extensive touring and recording with Guns n’ Roses he has found time to become a member of another classic rock outfit, Thin Lizzy, taking over from where erstwhile Def Leppard guitarist Vivian Campbell left off. In a near-symbolic gesture, Fortus assumed the reins from Campbell onstage at Ireland’s Slane Castle in 2011. Having toured the US and Europe with the legendary group, Fortus realised a dream of his youth in soloing in-harmony with Scott Gorham. To see Fortus play on stage with Thin Lizzy is to witness a man lost in the throes of musical ecstasy, an eternal fan now sharing the stage with his idols and becoming part of their history and legacy. Most recently however, Fortus has become a vital part of the musical juggernaut known as The Dead Daisies. Trading in unabashedly old school rock n’ roll which more than pays homage to seventies arena stalwarts such as Bad Company, AC/DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Free.
While the guitarist’s renowned technical dexterity and spellbinding stage prowess would unquestionably qualify him for the job as a commanding force behind The Dead Daisies energetic shows, his initial entrance to the band came through a Divinyls connection: drummer Charley Drayton. Fortus played guitar on Divinyls 2007 comeback single Don’t Wanna Do This.
“I came in to The Dead Daisies through Charley,” Fortus recalls. “David Lowy and Jon Stevens had written and recorded the first album and were putting a band together to tour and promote it. Charley called and asked if I’d be interested. Charley is one of the greatest musicians that I’ve ever worked with and whenever I have a chance to play with him, I jump at it because I know that I will walk away from the experience a better musician. I’m very excited about what we are doing.”
Seeing as the cream of the rock n’ roll landscape has been or are currently members of this band, just how do they go about selecting potential Daisies? Is it raw talent or something more elusive and intangible?
“It goes way beyond talent. There are a million talented players out there!” Fortus reveals. “The Dead Daisies have a very clear vision. We want to create new music for classic rock fans. We are trying to write music that can sit alongside all of our favourite classic rock music. We are trying to create grooves and feelings that have been missing from music for quite a while and the players that we choose to work with have to understand those things. So that is pretty limiting, finding guys that truly get that. Everyone that we’ve worked with is someone that at least one of us has worked with before.”
2013 saw The Dead Daisies take to the road in support of their debut album, Lock n’ Load, undertaking huge summer arena tours exposing them to a vast potential audience opening for the likes of ZZ Top and Aerosmith, while in the latter months of the year the band connected with smaller audiences in more intimate settings when touring Europe with Thin Lizzy variation Black Star Riders. Your writer was present at Dublin’s The Academy in December last when The Dead Daisies opened the show to rapturous reception. The band’s stage presence is electrifying and Fortus’s enthusiasm infectious, it looks and sounds like a good time for all involved. For a band that consists of career stadium rockers, the Academy stage must have felt small, but The Dead Daisies are not resting on their laurels, they are fully aware that they are a brand new act starting from the ground up and paying their dues is what it takes to get noticed and to potentially win over the several generations of rock music fans who mostly attend the shows for the headline acts.
“It’s so nice to really feel like you are in a band where everyone is working together towards the same goal,” Fortus enthuses. “It’s nice to go out and win over audiences every night, to win new fans. We walk onstage with that intent. We want to convert people! I’m really proud of these songs and the band as a whole.”
I query Fortus on the contrast of playing with both well-established bands and new, relatively unheard-of acts, what is the energy exchange with the audience like, to go from stepping out on stage with a band like Guns n’ Roses or Thin Lizzy where the air is immediately electrified from the moment the fans see the band, no matter what song is played, to stepping out with a new band promoting unfamiliar music. Is there is more to prove and more at stake each night?
“Absolutely!,” Fortus affirms. “We aren’t making money yet, so every time we step onstage, it needs to count! We need to make it worthwhile for us being there. We have to be the best we can be every night. We can’t rest on our laurels in any way. We need to make every second count. We need to sell the band and the songs. It’s the only chance we have of survival and we all believe in it. We believe that we NEED to be heard and SHOULD be heard!”
One of the band’s standout tracks to date is the Fortus-penned Face I Love, the title-track of their new EP. Considering Fortus’s staccato stop-start intro and the old-school blues-and-boogie vibe of Dizzy Reed’s piano, I suggest to Fortus the possibility of an influence of AC/DC, Free, and The Rolling Stones…
“You’re right! Definitely AC/DC and Free! There is also a lot of Skynyrd and Stones in there. I think that’s where the piano stuff comes from. Dizzy is a huge Skynyrd fan. It’s a really fun song to play live. It’s got a very uplifting and positive vibe to it.
We knew that Face I Love would work as a single, because every night that we played it people were up dancing and singing along by the end of it,” says Fortus proudly. “I think that the main guitar riff and the hook of the chorus make it a pretty undeniably catchy song. We are winning over loads of new fans this summer. We usually go out and meet fans, sign stuff and take photos. The response that we have been seeing after every show has been absolutely overwhelming. It’s far beyond our expectations.”
Just what are the key ingredients of a Daisies track, what sticks out for the guitarist that screams “this will work for The Dead Daisies”? Fortus offers me an insight into the song-writing aesthetic and recording process of the Face I Love EP.
“I think that it’s simply a matter of riffs that are “classic” sounding. Really, it all comes down to what the other members react to. I can play ten riffs and nobody will really respond, but then you hit on one, everyone jumps in and starts participating. That’s how we seem to work. We recorded the Face I Love EP at Excello Recording in Brooklyn with Hugh Pool. We recorded live in 1 room. Frank Ferrer played drums. He came on the day of recording and saved the day. Our drummer that we’d been touring with actually called in sick that day. I’ve never had a musician do that before. The manager called me and told me and I called a few drummer friends in NY and Frank came down and saved the day. He killed it, just like he always does. We produced the EP ourselves, but Hugh is really talented and super easy to work with. John Fields recorded the vocals at his studio in LA.”
Each member of The Dead Daisies is respectively a veteran of the music industry and has witnessed the business model change over the years. Collectively the musicians and the majority of their fan base grew up with and subsequently built careers in an album age and culture. I wonder if today’s climate of streaming single tracks and a kind of “shuffle” culture with iPods has affected a band like The Dead Daisies when it comes to writing an album or EP as a cohesive piece of art with an overall aesthetic in mind, or is there a distinct focus on getting the work out there to fans as efficiently and quickly as possible?
“We actually have been thinking that we would put out EP’s every few months,” Fortus reveals. “However, it seems that the majority of our audience want full albums, as opposed to cherry-picking songs or buying EP’s. Probably because we appeal to an older demographic, that as you said, grew up listening to and buying complete albums. So I think that we will probably focus on creating albums. I believe there is still a decent market for full-length albums; perhaps not on the pop charts but at least within our niche market.”
While the band may have been influenced by an era when musicians where idolised as unapproachable rock gods, The Dead Daisies have been taking a very contemporary route and are breaking down the barrier between band and audience, an independent aesthetic that really does earn them the title, “a fans band”. The group are connecting with their audiences through social media and are actively appreciating their patronage by allowing fans to become part of the overall experience, such as with competitions and with the innovative Face I Love Facebook app that affords fans the opportunity to become part of The Dead Daisies artwork.
Towards the end of our conversation I pondered with Fortus the ever-changing nature of the artist-audience relationship, suggesting that the bridge between the two has collapsed somewhat, just as the method by which artists release music has changed, which often includes crowdfunding, where artists look for financial support from the fans. Does Fortus see this as a progressive and positive thing in the overall scheme of things, or does he find that there is a place for the untouchable superstar band of yore?
“That’s a very good question,” Fortus enthuses. “The way we are doing it with The Dead Daisies affords us a nice way to connect with our fans. It’s nice to hear honest comments regarding your work. Anonymity grants people the chance to be unabashedly honest and direct.
Although, in saying that, I do think that the air of mystique is an essential part of rock n’ roll and our relationship to it; I find that it intrigues us, as fans and that it draws us in. There are bands and artists that have maintained that level of mystery and allure, such as Led Zeppelin and Axl and Prince, and then there are those that have sort of broken down those walls a bit with social media or documentaries or autobiographies. I don’t think it’s good to give too much away.”
The Dead Daisies new EP Face I Love is available now on iTunes.
Find out more about The Dead Daisies at their official website http://thedeaddaisies.com/
For more on Richard Fortus see his website http://www.richardfortus.com/