By Martin Popoff
On the heels of a triumphant North American tour in the spring of 2018, Uriah Heep return with their 25th album, Living the Dream;—also returning to promises of even more tour dates very soon for the continent. For classic rock fans astounded at the energy coming off the stage during the last campaign, it might serve instructive for them to know that a good dose of the band’s energy was being fuelled by the fact that Living the Dream was already in the can, with the band’s good spirits lofted further by how fast the record came together—and how over the moon the guys were about it.
The new album finds the band handed some sort of elixir of youth by producer Jay Ruston, but then again, Heep elders Mick Box, Bernie Shaw and Phil Lanzon have a bold and boisterous younger generation rhythm section in Russell Gilbrook and bassist Dave Rimmer to keep them on their toes.
“Agreed,” laughs vocalist Bernie Shaw, a Canadian transplanted from British Columbia to Britian, now 30 years with the band, having joined for Live in Moscow way back in 1988. “Working with Jay Ruston brought a whole new dynamic back to the band, at least on the mixing side and the tonal quality of the album, that we’d been missing a bit on the last maybe two or three records. He’s a bit new school, where we’re old school. So he brought a lot of little ideas that we wouldn’t have even thought of. But the fact that he was a really big fan of the band and really into what we were doing helped. We did this new album in 19 days, which is… even he was going, ‘Holy cow, I broke my own record here.’”
“And he’s got his own idea of how he wants to work in the studio, as most producers do,” continues Shaw, down the line, sipping a Shiraz while barbecuing with his family at home in the U.K. “Which is a little bit different from the norm that we’ve been used to for the last few years. With Jay, we would do a complete song a day, whereas usually you go in and you’ll record the drums first and then you record the bass and then the solos and blah blah blah and it’s built up like that, like a plate of pancakes—that’s how people record. But we recorded everything at once, and then we’d just drop in for a solo, drop in for the vocal, drop in for a harmony. So every day we actually had a completed song rather than me doing a guide vocal for a couple of days and then buggering off and then waiting for the guys to finish the backing tracks and then go in and do all the vocals in one hit.”
“I wasn’t quite sure if it was going to work for me, because it was going to be a lot of hard work vocally, but it worked so well that we were really, really on top of it from about the third day into recording. And you could feel it in the studio, that this was something special here, that the band was just in top form. The sounds are huge and new and powerful and bigger than we’ve had for a while. And at the end of the 19 days, we said okay, just take it home to mix them, it’s not going to take long. We knew that we had a bit of a winner on our hands, because everybody who came in to listen to this one said, ‘Oh my God, how long have you spent on this record?!’”
First single and video from the album, “Grazed by Heaven,” upon advance release within a few days chalked up 82,000 views, and set the stage for what is sure to be a happy embrace of this heavy, organic, progressive record of action-packed songs. And about that action, well, one can’t help but notice how much of it stems from the percussive might of Russell Gilbrook.
“Russell’s been playing drums since he was four years old, okay?” chuckles Bernie. “He’s been making money playing drums since he was six. So this guy has spent his whole life around drums. It’s more than a passion for him and it’s more than like, ‘Yes, I do this for a living’—it’s really in his blood. And I think you can hear that in his playing. He’s definitely one of the most hard-hitting drummers out there and by far the hardest hitting drummer I’ve ever worked with. And I was 62 last week. I’ve gone through a fair amount of drummers in my time, but Russell just has this certain singularity to his style. And I don’t know why he’s not more renowned that he is, for the power, the consistency; and his metering is just flawless. And he is a powerhouse. Dare I say, he’s a shorter guy; he’s not a six-foot-four mammoth of a man, but he’s got such power. It’s just scary. And he’s like that every night. He’s got a consistency like no one I’ve ever played with as well. If you’re on the road doing 80 shows, you get 80 consistent shows. Uriah Heep are still doing upward of 120, 125 shows. I know every time I walk out on that stage, Russell is going to be behind me, just like a metronome on steroids.”
Something I’ve always wondered is that why the band, in a live setting, seem to skip over a part of their history quite beloved by a sizeable chunk of the fan base, namely the Abominog/Head First/Equator period.
“Yes, the Pete Goalby era,” reflects Bernie. “Well, I know a lot of people who zero in on it really love it, but a lot of the Heep fans of old that also go, no, that was just a bit too American, a bit too AOR. Pete was sounding just a bit too much like Lou Gramm, and it wasn’t his fault—Pete is an amazing singer. You know, Trapeze was a brilliant band. But it’s one of these love or hate areas. And for me personally, Pete’s voice was a bit higher register than mine, and I find it hard to sing those songs. I mean, when Mick first asked me to join the band, it’s because he said, ‘You know, we do all the songs, but David Byron is still kind of the voice of Heep. And you’ve got it nailed, in your register. I mean, you do the songs justice.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t really know anybody else who was in the band, because when I think of Uriah Heep, I think back to 1970, ‘71, ‘72.’ But it was in the ‘80s when Pete was there. And, you know, they sold a lot of records with Pete Goalby singing; Abominog was a Top 40 record, in America. And ‘Stay on Top’ and songs like that, they were really American radio-friendly. And he did very, very well in that era, even though it seemed to be very short-lived.”
It did indeed get a little crazy with all the different lead singers in Uriah Heep once Byron got the boot for booze, but as luck would have it, in Bernie, Mick had found one of these rare talents that turned out to be able to belt it out effortlessly up into his 60s.
“I have no idea,” says Shaw, asked how he’s managed it. “But let me tell you, I do look upwards sometimes and I thank the big guy. I don’t know why you gave this to me. Because I never acknowledged it when I was young. I wanted to be a guitar player, but for some reason I always had a microphone shoved in my face. And it wasn’t ‘til I was about 18 when I went, I’m really the world’s worst guitar player, so maybe I should concentrate on this. And it’s just something I’ve taken for granted. And okay, I like a glass of vino, but I don’t do drugs and I don’t smoke. Well, the only drugs I do now are aspirin and paracetamol, after a session. And I try to get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep a night. Because Uriah Heep are still doing four, five, six shows a week, and at our age, it should be twos and threes, like the Deep Purples, Status Quos and everybody else. But I don’t know. I do know that I’ve always counted myself as a singer. I’m not a vocalist. You know, I breathe properly, I project properly, I warm my voice up when I need to and I cool it down when I need to. And I’ve never been an abuser—I’m not a shouter or a screamer.”
Not a lot of vocal fry there—with Bernie it’s about clarity.
“Yeah, and not saying I don’t have my falsetto highs like, you know, the end of ‘Sunrise’ or ‘July Morning.’ I can get up there when need be. I don’t know why I’ve got it, but I’m just happy I still have it. You know, we do have discussions once in a while. And, if I sound a little tired, I say to Mick, ‘Well, how old was David when he sang the song? 23. Well, okay, I’m 59, I’m 60, I’m 62.’ And we do not de-tune. We still tune to A440. And Dave, our bass player, was saying, ‘You know, there’s only a handful of bands on the friggin’ planet that still tune to A440. Everybody de-tunes half a tone, a full tone, like your death metal or any of that, whatever—nobody ever tunes to A-440 anymore.’ I said, well, we do. So it is a bit taxing sometimes.”
And I guess if you’re having a bad night, you can play this new one, “Rocks in the Road,” 8:19 long, where the whole back end is instrumental, right?
“Yes,” laughs Bernie, “Oh yeah, and same with ‘Magician’s Birthday.’ There’s like an eight-minute guitar/drum solo in the middle of it and I get to relax a little bit. But you know, you get on stage and the adrenaline just kicks in, and the audience, be it 200 or 2,000 or 20,000, they give you so much energy. You don’t want to let them down.”
In closing, asked why they chose Living the Dream as the title of the new record, Bernie figures, “We hear this phrase so often. ‘Oh God, being a rock band, you guys must be living the dream.’ And to a point, you go, yeah, if you like hanging around in hotel lobbies and airport lounges, tour buses—yeah, I guess we’re living the dream. But there’s a lot of work behind the scenes that people don’t realize to get us to the stage. And that stage for an hour and 40, or an hour and 50 minutes, that’s where we’re living the dream. Because we are, Mick more than most, because he started the band back in 1969. He knows that just to be able to make a living out of what you love is a big conquest, let alone, what some 47 years down the line? And we’re still filling halls, and getting new audiences who are getting younger, not older, but the older guys are still there with us. It’s very continual. And so we are—we now really are living the dream.”