It’s hard enough to make it in the music business, and even harder when you refuse to buckle to trends or compromise your artistic vision in to placate penny-pinching record execs or appease fickle audiences. And fewer rock documentaries have captured the frustration—and triumph—of working musicians as poignantly as Sacha Gervasi’s acclaimed 2008 documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil.
The odds always seemed stacked against the plucky hard-rocking Toronto band led by long-time chums Steve “Lips” Kudlow (guitar/vocals) and Robb Reiner (drums). Gervasi’s surprisingly moving film starts out with clips of the band playing the 1984 Super Rock Festival in Japan with Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, and The Scorpions—who all went on to achieve unprecedented commercial success while Anvil continued courting misfortune.
But the movie was so highly regarded by critics and music lovers that the band enjoyed an uptick in popularity. Early albums like Hard ‘n’ Heavy and Metal on Metal received positive critical reappraisal, and new efforts like This Is Thirteen, Juggernaut of Justice, and Hope in Hell debuted with brisk sales. Kudlow and Reiner appeared on network television in the U.S. for the first time ever, got invited to play Rocklahoma, and opened for AC/DC.
Now Anvil is a power trio, with rhythm guitarist Ivan Hurd having departed in 2009 and bassist Chris Robertson joining in time for last year’s Anvil Is Anvil. The guys have gone back to playing smaller clubs, where longtime fans and faithful new loyalists flock to hear Kudlow’s sizzling leads and Reiner’s raucous rhythms.
We spoke with Kudlow by phone last week to discuss Anvil’s seventeenth studio album, Pounding the Pavement, on the eve of the group’s 2018 European tour.
STEVE “LIPS” KUDLOW: Well, we learned the way back to the traditional kind of writing music and passion in the sense that the stuff derives from our influences. We let our influences have more to do with what we’re doing, so that there’s a certain purity to our sound. That was the aim, just to be ultimately natural and true to ourselves.
AXS: “Warming Up” incorporates a big band feel into your signature hard rock sound. You’ve done jazz-metal before—like on “Swing Thing”—so where’d this one come from?
S.K: Initially when I came up with it I could hear it as horns in my head. Sometimes it’s just weird like that! And when I picked up the guitar I go, ‘What chord is that?’ And I discovered it’s this triad chord. That’s what the horns would be doing, nah nah nah! We had this from the recording before—we were out doing bed tracks and hammering out—and we played this one like four times through, and the producer goes, ‘We got it!’ And we were like, ‘What do you mean you got it? We were just warming up!’ And of course we have a tremendous amount of love and respect for big band jazz. Buddy Rich in particular. I love Benny Goodman, the stuff with Gene Krupa playing. That had such a tremendous power, incredible power. These were the Iron Maidens and Judas Priests and AC-DCs of yesteryear. So there’s deep respect for that music…it’s a part of my having been born in the 1950s, since I’d been influenced by everything from Elvis and the remnants of the 1940s stuff from my parents. So there’s a certain amount of influence there whether I want it to be there or not! It’s not like I had a choice of what radio station was on in the kitchen! So I was ‘forced’ to listen to big band and swing, because that’s what was on the radio! So it’s there whether I like it or not. I gravitated more immediately to guitar. Our lives run more in synch with the invention of the electric guitar and where it went, from Elvis to now.
AXS: “Bitch in the Box” is a funny take on these GPS devices we’re all relying on nowadays. Does Anvil use one of them on tour?
S.K: Oh, yeah! But this time I was on an excursion with my wife, and I’m going ‘Which way?’ And she goes, ‘Just turn on the bitch in the box!’ I thought that was the best [laughs]! ‘I’m writing a song about that!’ You’re in a construction zone, and you need to take a detour, so it keeps telling you to just turn around [laughs]!
AXS: There are a couple politically-charged songs on the album, like “Ego,” whose lyrics address a certain temperamental man-boy American figurehead.
S.K: The thing that really concerns me on a political level is the disintegration of trust in the media. I think that’s a very dangerous aspect when you no longer have information that you can trust. I think that inevitably causes people to want a much more controlled environment. But then how do you get to the ‘truth?’ Well, that would mean one person telling you what it is, and that’s a dictatorship! Or a monarchy. It becomes a dangerous road to go down when you lose that freedom. What can be worse than a free society losing that freedom? That’s what scares me.
AXS: “World of Tomorrow” has a philosophical bent.
S.K: What I’m alluding to there is…it’s questioning religion. Religious fake news! It’s all theories. There’s no absolute proof of anything. God hasn’t appeared lately [laughs]. We can’t examine who he is or question what it all means. So far as we know, only a few people have said they met him. I’d venture to say at this point, how much of that is the truth?
AXS: People are too quick to fight over it, too.
S.K: It’s all in thinking that there’s this heaven we’ve been promised. We’re all looking for happiness. Where is it? Well, maybe it’ll happen tomorrow. We never seem to want to make it happen today! If everyone had the idea that, ‘Hey, we can make it happen today!’ Just tell ourselves, ‘Hey, let’s not kill each other today!’ Just start with that! And then you go from there. That’s what has to happen, but it hasn’t! We never seem to want to take the time to fix it. It’s possible, but I don’t think we’re ready yet as a species. Humanity is still in its infancy. So it really is a ‘World of Tomorrow’ until we all see God as one thing—or just not see him at all, or until we can all agree to disagree, then we’re never gonna find that utopia! We’re too busy looking to find each others’ differences, so that’s what we’re gonna find! Instead of realizing what you’ve all got in common—which is what we should focus on—you get those flaws in humanity. I contemplate those things.
AXS: “Nanook of the North” starts out like a laid back look at the life of an Inuit, but then it turns into a tragedy. The Eskimos have been bullied the same way Native Americans were by the English colonists and frontiersmen.
S.K: It’s part and parcel of that, isn’t it? There’s also blame laid, too, right? We did it. We did it to these people. We put in pipelines and wrecked the land, did a bunch of digging. Then we service our cars and pollute the atmosphere, which melts the ice! Now they’re running out of places to live! I think there’s a lot to be said about our world. There’s the closing-down that GM did of using battery-operated cars in the 1940s and 1950s. They came up with the concept of electric cars, but they got rid of that so fast your head would spin! The oil companies…no one wanted to back that! They had everything in place, but nobody wanted to start something new if it meant compromising that bottom dollar. The technology still exists, and ultimately it’s the way to go!
AXS: Recently we lost Chris Tsangarides, who produced a couple of your earliest records and came back for This Is Thirteen—not to mention his efforts with Judas Priest, Thin Lizzy and others. Any thoughts on your time working with him?
S.K: Chris was our brother from another mother [laughs]! That was one of his sayings. He was a close friend, man. So much thought has been given to him these last few days, all those moments from all those years. It’s a huge summation. It’s heartbreaking. There’s a part of me that still thinks, ‘Well, what is C.T. going to think?’ You have that part of you that used think that way all the time. But after I started working with other producers, I realized that C.T. was a lot easier to please than a lot of other producers who always want higher caliber. C.T. wasn’t as demanding as he probably could have been. At least to me. So as good a producer that he was, he was probably better dealing with people and keeping them calm [laughs]!
S.K: They’ll hear the old classics. We’ll just make the set longer and add the new songs [laughs]! That’s it! The U.S tour will start in May. Between May and June we’ll be touring all over the U.S. And probably we’ll go out again in the fall.
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