RICHARD BLACK - The 2006 Shark Island Interview
Shark Island was a band that exerted enormous influence on the rock scene. Perhaps more than you realize.
The band was the biggest and best live act in Los Angeles in an era where there were literally hundreds of bands playing the Sunset Strip scene. Shark Island had it over all of them, yet of the bands to break out of LA into international fame, The Sharks had to wait the longest and cruelly never took their renowned charisma to the levels they deserved.
Somewhere along the line it all went wrong – or as the band's charismatic frontman would put it, it wasn't ever just one thing.
After more than a decade the band are back together and have a new album on the way and finally a home on the web under development - (www.sharkislandmusic.com).
Vocalist/frontman Richard Black is a very private person who has kept his silence for many years now, but on the eve of a new Shark Island record, he breaks that silence in this exclusive interview.
Just fantastic to catch up with you Richard, thank you for your time.
As I have stated Richard, I'm a Shark Island fan from the beginning, so this is a great honor to be able to quiz you about what is one of the more interesting stories of the evolution of a band.
Good day to you too Andrew, and I should thank you for the opportunity.
Let' see, when I think back of the early days of The Sharks What can I say? We were young, it was fun, I recall a deep sense of possibilities. We believed that every thing was possible, whatever we envisioned for the band, we could set into action. We'd make a plan, and follow through step by step.
Such is still the case today, but of course our world was much smaller then, being so young we weren't spoiled or knocked down yet. Thinking back some of that raw energy would be handy later on in life. Who was that that said, 'Youth is wasted on that young'…I understand that now.
And I believe you released your first indie product in 1982?
1982 that was Altar Ego. Then in 1985 came S'cool Buss, we had several singles in between as well.
Shark Island's history is complex and I hope I can tackle that history adequately in one interview!
The band quickly gained a strong following in the LA area live circuit and became known as one of - if not the best live band in LA.
What was the energy in the band liked playing two or three shows each and every week waiting for that 'big break'?
Yeah, complex. I never heard it described quite like that.
First of all let me clear something up, the L.A. circuit as you call it, is much more than two or three shows every week, some weeks we would play 16 to 20 shows a week. It' a little known fact outside of LA/Hollywood there were hundreds of places to play. Places in every city, every burrow, every bar, every high school. Every rented hall from woman's clubs, to veterans of foreign war. We simply played any place we could manage. We didn't have day jobs, so we just played, and often, more importantly we depended on it to survive.
That is an amazing number of shows and yes, no wonder you guys were tight!
We did not become excellent as we were by a fluke. Four shows a night is a lot of practice. If something went wrong you get to try it again in about an hour and a half. You get better if you don't want to make a fool of yourself time and again.
For me the stage was my life; it's where I felt most comfortable. When I think about it, it is where I expressed myself most often day-in-and-day-out for years.
On the dark side of that, I developed a false sense of reality, and found myself suffering in real life. Always expecting acknowledgement for anything I did, and taking on a feeling of entitlement. I've learned since then, the world owes you nothing.
With the hard rock explosion of the mid-to-late 80's, it still seems that Shark Island had to wait a lot longer than many lesser bands to get their breakthrough. You had one deal that fell through (A&M), before Epic picked you guys up - but why do you think you had to wait so long for that deal?
Ahh… the big mystery, naturally I can only theorize, I think it had something to do the fact that the record companies had a hard time pigeonholing us, or knowing where or how to market us.
By the time we were record quality we had moved on from Heavy Metal, but at the same time were not refined enough for Pop/Rock. We didn't fit leather and studs but didn't look enough like girls for the Pop/Rock.
We figured the time would come; besides we had these gigs to focus on. By the time you got home to sleep at 4AM and wake up, it was time to think about that nights show.
New bands were pouring out of LA around 1986, right through to 1990. Your debut came out in 1989 and quite honestly, blew most other bands out of the water - especially with your live reputation.
Do you think the band's history might have been different had you been signed earlier in the piece?
Thanks again Andrew, Shark Island took live shows very seriously, our reputation was important to us. Your right, if our deal would have come through sooner, I think it would have been a lot different, in fact even a couple of years later would have even been better timing, the biz was in flux at that time - aka grunge, which was nothing more than a new arrangement and a new costume. Timing is everything. One could never know...its fantasy.
I'm not sure if you want to comment on this - but I hope you do - but it is well known that several other artists mirrored their look and their stage antics on yours. I already mentioned what a huge reputation the band had as a live act, but the big draw card was your charismatic performance as frontman.
It seems to be a well known fact among followers of the scene at the time that Guns N Roses frontman Axl Rose would come and see you guys perform every week and 'borrowed' a lot of your moves - from your moves to even your stage rap and song delivery.
There are other examples, but Axl seems to be the best known.
Is this correct and what impact did it have upon you to see other bands getting famous off something which you more or less perfected?
You know I have always tried to avoid this topic because I never wanted to sound like a sniveling bitter victim, and I largely kept my mouth shut. But every so often however, the topic continues to rear its ugly head. But then again avoiding the subject never did any good.
Let me tell you a story; in the early days I was influenced by the pioneers of this music, but I was getting it together. I soon learned if I continued to copy them, people wouldn't take me seriously. I evolved and became my unique self. I have never systematically copied a single artist except jokingly or on Halloween.
What happened in my instance however, was quite a different story.
I was being copied all right…sometimes by down right impersonators, it was creepy.
I could see their point, they figured it was working for us, so why not them.
Regardless of how you felt about the band it was hard to ignore us. I suppose wearing nothing but an American flag or a paper jumpsuit with duct tape hasn't caught on yet, but was pretty original…a little too ahead of its time I guess.
I would wear pajamas on stage just for fun…soon there after I'd see some our friends and followers wearing pajamas.
I use to have these bike shorts that I decided to wear onstage, then it seemed bike shorts were the rage in L.A. I don't think it was a coincidence.
What I'm talking about is copying someone' essence. When art is involved, that is not cool; it's a form of plagiarism.
And I give a horse' ass about 'imitation is the best form of flattery'. I don't need to be flattered.
Many Popular bands and personalities came to see Shark Island, that's a fact, and many took elements home with them for their stage show or album covers, or wardrobe…oh well, I'm flattered…nothing that could have altered the path of my career.
But that good-for-nothing Axl Rose, he' really a piece of work for the dregs.
As far as I'm concerned he's never done anything original in his life. Him and his cronies would come every week and watch the show.
One day before GnR's debut, I went to his place…as I walked in I saw a video of me playing on his TV and on top was a stack of VHS tapes all labeled Shark Island with dates and times. I remember being mortified, it was obvious he was studying my shtick, and I knew there was nothing I could do, being their album was about to be released, and he'd cap on the press get the credit.
My many years of developing, and refining my craft and years of modern dance were up for grabs by this fool and a video camcorder.
I remember some people telling me about him acting like me, but I never worried much on a count that we were all in the same boat.
Then came Welcome To The Jungle, I though I was looking in the mirror, or the videos on Axl's TV.
You said 'borrowed' earlier well that implies a payback. What burns me up even more is in his heyday he never so much as mentioned Shark Island or Richard Black in all his press. Which, by the way, could have helped us at no cost to him; he never even threw us a bone.
Now, truth be told, I couldn't possibly care less. That's all old crap and it does me no good now, besides, I am nothing like I was back then, and I'd look like a fool to try.
I think Shark Island were easily as good as Motley Crue, LA Guns and GnR...your debut album found a lot of fans and you did tour, but not on the scale of these other bands - I still feel that many did not get to see the original great live band, that these other artists copied, in action. Do you agree?
Well, relatively speaking that is true, tour support, record promotion, album sales…these help drive tour lengths and frequency. Negotiating a good balance is important.
Music is a labor of love; the Music Business is still a business. Some of the best musicians die poor and obscure.
Let's talk of the album Law Of The Order. I love this album to bits, I really do. Were you happy with the way it turned out or like I have heard, was there a lot of label politics involved in getting it made and shaped into the sound it had?
Largely I like it; whether it captured the real band I'm not sure. We were very much a live act and to compare it to a live show was unfair. We did a live national radio broadcast from The Whisky just prior to the release of Law of the Order, called it Bastille Day.
It was recorded multi-track, it was fantastic, so much so that I was lobbying to have it released as our debut instead of Law of the Order. But a Live Debut Album? The powers that be thought it too risky. The compromise was that it would become a pre-release promotion only for radio stations and the like. I only wish we had the same creative environment during the recording of Law of the Order we had recording the new album Gathering of the Faithful.
I'm looking forward to hearing that! On label politics - is that something you just couldn't avoid back at that time, or was there a better way you could have done things (in hindsight)?
Label politics? Negotiating while under contract can be dicey. Trying to convince someone of your point of view with no track record is even more difficult.
A company like Epic Records knows what they're talking about, and one has to consider that. But there are exceptions to all rules; I remember fighting tooth and nail to keep Paris Calling on the album.
In hindsight? I'd have stayed with Epic and dumped the manager.
Well the album certainly won you guys a lot of fans, both nationally and internationally. However - it would become the band's one and only album (to date that is!). What went wrong Richard? Who or what fucked things up for you guys?
One travels down a path and every so often you come across a fork in the road, and you must choose which path to take. Any one of those paths could have put you in a completely different place. I cannot blame any one of those paths but several in a combination? Maybe. But in all fairness we did the choosing based on our trust and beliefs.
Naivety? Wrong producer? Desperation? Wrong manager? Wrong promoters?, Lack of wisdom? Contraband? Did I mention wrong manager? Like I said - any one blow? No problem, but several in the right combinations? TKO.
It still beggars belief how one of the greatest ever bands of the Sunset Strip era could not capitalize on that energy and that charisma.
Well Andrew, you belong to a fortunate minority that knew what was happening on the Sunset Strip in the 80's. Others will have to read about it.
Talking official releases - there were appearances on two movie soundtracks. Again, I love the tracks of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure - with the soundtrack obtaining a cult following equal to the movie. What are your thoughts on those tracks now (Father Time and Dangerous)?
I love Father Time, it' one of my favorites. A funny story comes to mind; to revisit your politics question. We were with A&M records in development, they were at task to collect songs for the Major Movie release Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. It was mentioned that there is a film about two teenagers that take a time machine to various places in history and cause havoc. I told them I have the perfect song, Father Time, it's got a good beat, good lyrics…their response: 'Well I don't know'. What do you mean 'I don't know'? What is there not to know? Sometimes I think if they don't discover it themselves, they can't see the forest through the trees. Fortunately it was all good.
My all time favorite though I think is the fired up hard rocker My City, from the Point Break soundtrack. I love LA and you guys are the quintessential LA band - and the lyrics of this song speak of the city and its dark forces. Can you tell us about this particular song?
My City in Point Break really does describe L.A. It is what it is and there is no better way to describe it than the song itself. It' poetry in motion. Spencer Sercombe and Greg Ellis were great champions of this song.
I must add that I made my first trip to LA in 1992 and was blown away at the opportunity to see you guys playing live at The Whisky one night...it was an amazing show and everything I had heard about your live energy was true. Saw a couple of other bands also there watching (as was always the way it seems...)!
Talking of The Whisky....you were heavily involved in what is now a legendary part of LA folklore - the 80's Strip scene, with Gazzarri's and the other clubs at the forefront.
You must have seen and heard some seriously amazing and possibly unbelievable things during that time. What are your recollections of that scene as a whole?
I could not count how many times I played The Whisky. We had the room down! That and The Roxy, The Troubadour, and of course the house of ill repute, and the home of the godfather himself Gazzarri's. It's funny, no one talks about Bill Gazzarri any more, you know we were the house band there for years.
I think Van Halen had that job before Shark Island. I have to say if those walls could talk. That is why I think they needed to raze the entire building (only to build the same shape building in it's place, kind of a mass cleansing. Minus of course the secret tunnel passages and hidden rooms). So much evil occurred in that club over the years it' a miracle I survived. The closing of Gazzarri's was like bringing down Babylon. I feel it marked a change on The Strip.
During the 80' The Sunset Strip was like a living organism, crawling with alluring beautiful people congregating in masses and traveling from club to club with seething energy. It was like a huge costume party or fashion show with all the best. It went on until all hours of the morning, as they moved to the private after hour clubs and nearby homes.
I did see images of my life, much more than I could possibly share in an interview.
Sadly it seem hard to get people out of their cars lately, yes you may catch a glimpse as they run into a club to see their friends play then leave shortly there after. The town seems too preoccupied these days, or there is nothing worth seeing. Well things cycle. Maybe there will be a revival.
Moving on - you worked on what was then a side project in 1991 - Contraband.
No offence meant with this question, but the line-up was quite amazing and I would expect from the names involved, the clash of egos must have been more than interesting!
No offense taken. Ego clashes? I think they occur when one person feels one upped by another. We weren't around one another very often for that to happen.
Ok, how was it working with the likes of Michael Schenker, Bobby Blotzer and Tracii Guns then?
I spent the most time with Michael Schenker and Share Pederson. I remember while in Germany I found Michael and I got alone quite well, we had many heavy conversations about his philosophy and many of the causes he was involved with.
On the lighter side, I remember going with him to visit his mother in Germany and we ended up taking her to an AC/DC concert, it was weird, but quite fun.
As far as Share goes, we did the first promo tour together around the world. We got to learn a bit about each other during that time. She's a good woman.
Was the band ever supposed to go beyond one album and one tour? If I recall correctly, the tour ended prematurely and badly, didn't it?
Contraband? What a mistake!
I should have never agreed to that. Let me clear something up about Contraband. First of all it was a farce. In fact the members of Contraband have never to this day played together all at once.
Surprised aren't you? It's true. Never!
It was nothing more than fabricated rouse by a self-absorbed manager. The only time we were actually together was during photo shoots and video filming. The album was recorded individually. And there was never a reason to play.
Looking back it was doomed from the start, but I fell for it. I was told and somehow convinced that having opposing bands record and promote an album would somehow help my band's efforts. What a pile of crap! The day I agreed to it (with my band's support) was essentially the end of Shark Island.
I was told that well just record the album and that's that. I figured harmless.
Next we were told we needed to do a promo tour, because it wasn't moving fast enough,
Against our better judgment Share Pederson, and I did the press junket through Europe and Asia, while others stayed home with their bands.
Upon our return we learned that a tour was required, to push it along.
Keep in mind my band is home getting songs shot down for the next record by the same manager…meanwhile Ratt, L.A. Guns, are preparing for comebacks.
Now get this; first Share is not allowed on tour for some mysterious reason and who do you think gets the opening slot for the Contraband tour? Ratt and L.A. Guns of course. By the way we mustn't forget, Juan from Ratt would take Share's place to even deepen the conflict of interest...
So check it out this new line up has never played together either! And despite my constant complaining for rehearsal, none happen until sound check of the opening day of the tour! It was pathetic, and I was expected to front this debacle.
Now think about this; the opening bands featured members of the headliner! Here the conflict unfolds… Think how easy it would be to blow the headlining band away and at the same time make your own band shine. It was not only pointless but bad sense to make Contraband sound good. I was on my own, fronting a band of monkeys that could give a shit. Contraband was so bad that I could not be certain what songs were being played. I'm serious.
This went on for several nights with daily complaints from me to the manager with no improvement. It was downright embarrassing. One night I reached critical mass and decided that not matter what happened I would put an end to this cruel joke. I remember standing there in front of about 3 thousand thinking my labors and dues are worth more that this, and the people who paid to see the show deserve much more. I walked off for the very first time in my life. It was the only thing I could do to regain some control and dignity.
Well this caused a ruckus to say the least. Not only was I completely broke down, the manager freaked out threatening I would never work in this business again - under those conditions; I never want to.
Then Traci Guns runs in swinging and tries to attack me - I think he was wishing he had walked off himself first, but I beat him to it. He had a great image conflict between L.A. Guns and Contraband. Contraband was way too wholesome for his brand of Rock and Roll. LA Guns were a really good band. They really kicked ass.
When I finally returned from the Contra thing, things were very changed at the Shark Island Camp. The fact that I left Contraband meant I had left our management and our label as well, because it was the same company - another conflict by the way.
All of a sudden we were a garage band again. I found this new freedom exhilarating, my band however didn't, in fact not only was there was no hero's return, I felt my band somehow resented me for what I've done. They of course were not privy to all the managers' deceptions regarding the projects, and them!
There I said it, as briefly and eloquently as I could in this space of time.
Contraband: Tracii Guns, Share Pederson, Michael Schenker, Richard Black & Bobby Blotzer.
Following that project and the demise of Shark Island, many might think that you disappeared - but from what I heard, you were still working on other things correct?
As the money ran out, our drummer Greg left…a huge disappointment. It was a time that I felt we needed even more unity. I could see the tides were changing in music and in the business. After a few attempts at a replacement, we decided to take a break.
One such project I heard of was Black 13 - but what else was there?
I tried to put a few things together such as you mentioned, Black 13, but starting from scratch with new people felt very strange. It seemed that all the players at the time, while wanting to take advantage of my reputation and experience, were afraid to commit.
They all seemed so desperate and all had side projects going. They reminded me of playas always on the make for something better, then ending up with trash.
Personal agendas aside they all seemed hell bent on making the same screw-ups that I already lived though.
You know what? I have discovered that one of the greatest travesties in life is that most everyone must make the same mistakes for themselves. If not they will never believe it. On the flip side, in the rare occasion one is bold and trusting enough to follow a mentor, true greatness will follow.
Oh yes, I know I was just as guilty in my youth. I thought I was different, and I knew better. Eventually you'll get there, but what a long, long road.
I heard you were to hook up with guitarist Steve Stevens at one point in the 90s. That would certainly have been interesting!
Steve Stevens and I talked about me singing for Atomic Playboys but the timing was all wrong. That really would have been an honor for me. I have always loved his work. To this day one of my favorite albums is Whiplash Smile. Stellar!
Next question - one I am sure will have an interesting response. Bourgeois Pigs. Now - a lot of people (me included) got very excited at the news of a return to action by yourself, but it seemed to go pair shaped very quickly.
I have heard several stories about the project's instigator, guitarist Michael Guy. How many songs did you get recorded? I heard 2....but that was it.
On Bourgeois Pigs? I finally got to use that name! I thought this may be something. We recorded about 5 songs if I recall. Michael Guy was largely running the project. Something went wrong; I'm not sure what happened. It was like the Twilight Zone when everyone disappeared. There was talk about festivals and tours, then, just as abruptly as is started, it stopped. Hmm.
Moving on towards present day....Shark Island was working towards a second studio album in the early 90s. There is an absolute stack of unreleased tunes that get traded around the demo circuit (I have many, but poor quality sadly).
Some of these tracks sound easily as good as the debut - how many songs did you guys demo and why didn't these get finished at the time?
We had many songs recorded, there has got to be 50 or 60 more recorded in demo form. We were prolific to say the least.
These tracks have obviously been traded heavily, but also sold on E-Bay. Is this the catalyst for getting you guys talking together again?
I once saw a bootlegged Official Demo, what ever that means, go for $325. On E-bay! I thought: I ought to cry but I got to laugh. Not necessarily because of the money, but because it typifies the condition of the music trade today.
If there ceases to exist the ability to make a career in music, great musicians won't bother. It's too much trouble if you can't get paid for it.
I agree. When did you decide it would be cool to record together again?
I've always wanted to record with Spencer Sercombe again - he is a phenomenal talent and one of the best musicians and writing partners I ever worked with.
Shark Island: Richard Black, Chris Heilmann, Greg Ellis & Spencer Sercombe.
It all started when Spencer called me from Germany to forward a message from Robert Marshall of Manifest Music & Entertainment. I didn't know why, in fact as I recall, it took me quite a while to get around to calling him.
Anyhow, I finally called him and we got together for lunch in a little deli in Glendale. Well it happened that Robert had acquired our old demos from a private collector. He was curious why we had never done anything with it.
Basically, I resided a story very close to this interview and ate my Roast turkey sandwich. I told him all the reasons why it could not be done and he informed me of the reasons we could. I was eager to do it but thought Spencer will never go for it. I don't know what he said or how he did it, but Robert got Spencer onboard, infact he got everyone on board. Spencer Sercombe flew out from Germany, Christian Heilmann came in from England, and we replaced Greg with a phenomenal drummer Glen Sobel from NoHo [North Hollywood] joined us. Then miraculously, 9 months later a new recording is made Gathering of the Faithful is complete and the rumors are flying. Very nice indeed.
What kind of material will the new studio album feature - from what era - some of the old demos and/or new material?
And stylistically speaking - what are long time Shark Island fans in for?
Well, at the risk of sounding Cliché, I think stylistically it is closer to the original concept of Shark Island. Those were days that we wrote to please and express ourselves. What we have here is some new stuff made from wisdom, blended with some old stuff aged like fine 12 year old scotch. You can't rush that.
I can't wait to hear the results of your work on this. What was it like working without the constraints of a record label or A&R guy?
Most definitely, working on our own was a literally a dream come true. This would have been difficult to pull off years ago. I can't thank Robert Marshall enough to afford us the opportunity to do it. This CD is something else! If I do say so myself…
We managed to put together a real listeners album, one you'd put in the car player and do a road trip. Or use it as a soundtrack for your life in your iPod.
Do you have a deal in place as yet for this release? And when might be expect it to be done and ready to roll?
A deal? Not in the classic sense of the word. There are a few surprising approaches afoot. SharkIslandmusic.com will have updates as they develop as soon as we launch.
I know you were caught in record label games in the early years, but taking a look at what the industry has become now...you must be amazed…and appalled...
Do you believe there any way major labels will one day again represent good music over fabricated pop stars or music designed to score a quick return?
They may have always played tricks, but in years passed, at least labels signed bands to a 2 or 3 album deal and developed them. What do you think of the current trend of a band being under pressure to deliver a hit first time or be dropped?
The landscape of the music business has changed immensely as you know. Music collecting has gone by the wayside along with collecting Baseball cards and such. Today it has been replaced by Music accessing and for free at that.
Unfortunately many feel little need for ownership. Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free? The attention span has become all too short. Far and few between can be found true music connoisseurs, people who studies the music, listens to the words. At this rate I think the quality will eventually suffer.
The fabricated Pop Stars? They largely cater to children I think, those kids wont be able to take then seriously in a couple of years any way.
What is the future for all artists with integrity Richard?
Old and new...what can real musicians do in this day and age? The future is yet to be created. I doubt there is one answer. If there was one, someone would have written a book. Personally if I could afford it, I'll do another after this.
If you don't mind me asking - what else do you do with your time as far as working? Not much is said of many artists who do this, but everyone has to earn a living and writing and recording and releasing albums seldom covers that need!
Oh you mean my day job? I've gotten into Metal Sculpture ( from metal music), both my own and commissioned pieces. I also do period restoration welding for metal antiques. I find it very fulfilling. Between that and stray residuals I'm very blessed.
I have asked a lot of questions, but I'd love to hook up again for a more in-depth look at the tracks and details behind the new album when you are ready.
For now though - anything you would like to add?
Thanks Andrew, by all means lets get together again, after you've had a chance to digest the new album. I think you'll like it. I do.
By the way - did you see the classy re-issue of Law Of The Order with all the extra released tracks added as a bonus disc? (Bad Reputation label in France...) Looks and sounds awesome...
Yeah I have, it scared me when I first heard about it, but when I saw it, I thought it was well done. It covers all the work we did under Epic and A&M records.
Thanks again for the privilege and your forthright answers to my questions. I know I have learnt even more about the band and I'm sure readers will also.
I will look forward to hearing back from you when you can!
Right on Andrew, Cheers.
c. 2006 Andrew McNeice / MelodicRock.com.