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3rd September 2009
"A HYMN TO THE HUMAN SPIRIT...PLAYED LOUD IN POWER CHORDS". So reads the apposite tagline for 'Anvil! The Story of Anvil', last year's critically acclaimed documentary movie about the Canadian metallers. The film surprised, amused, fascinated and, perhaps most importantly, affectively moved most who have seen it with its stark, but endearing, representation of the band's unfaltering dedication to the metal scene and the major success they strive to have within it. Beyond a movie about a metal band, the film also captures the affinity and profound relationship between Anvil's two founding members, vocalist/guitarist Steve "Lips" Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner, friends since high school which is where they first began making music together in 1973. Filmmaker and author Michael Moore claimed it is "the best documentary I've seen in years", and it even inspired Oscar winning British actress Tilda Swinton to coin the phrase "The Anvil Factor" to describe those who never give up in pursuit of their dreams. But, film aside, Anvil are of course, first and foremost, a metal band, and the resurgence in their popularity since the movie's release and success has seen them headline one stage at this year's prestigious Download festival and, more recently, open for AC/DC at a handful of stadium dates. With a half hour slot booked for a phone interview with the infectiously optimistic "Lips", when I make the phonecall it is 4:30pm LA time, 12:30am UK time, and he's a man that likes to talk...a lot! So in what transpires to be an hour long conversation, I commence by asking him about the success of the movie...
STEVE KUDLOW: Hi, how’s it going man?
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(Steve "Lips" Kudlow on the essence of 'Anvil! The Story of Anvil')
"The approach was...not to make a very typical movie at all, because it was to show the state of mind and the tenacity by first-hand experience, and somehow be able to demonstrate the friendship I have with Robb."
Anvil - promo shot, 2007
Photograph copyright © 2007 Ross Halfin
Interview by Mark Holmes
MD: Fine. Mark from Metal Discovery here, how you doing?
SK: I’m doing okay.
MD: Right, I’ve got a few questions for you here. Have you been surprised by the success of the movie and the kind of snowball effect for Anvil’s popularity since it came out or, because you’re a very optimistic person…
SK: …I was about to say that! [laughs]
MD: …yeah, because you’re very optimistic, did you expect that anyway?
SK: It’s really odd because I’ve been telling Sacha that the idea…you know, like he said, “I’m gonna make a movie about you”…I flipped out and started crying, and whatever. But the reason I got so freaked out was because it was as if I’d just been told what my destiny was going to be. You know when someone hands you a lottery ticket and they go “this is the winning ticket”, and all you’ve got to do is go and collect the money? Well that’s how it felt. The approach was…like the way he explained it to me was because of the approach, was not to make a very typical movie at all, because it was to show the state of mind and the tenacity by first-hand experience, and somehow be able to demonstrate the friendship I have with Robb.
MD: …which is captured perfectly on film.
SK: Yeah, he said that’s what the centre of the film was. It wasn’t that we’re gonna go and make a movie about your past and go find everybody that we can to talk about all the things you’ve done; it wasn’t like that at all. A bit of it to set up the story but, beyond that, he wanted to show what you’re up to right now.
MD: Yeah, I think beyond just a story about a metal band as they are in 2006 or whenever it was shot, it’s also a story about human emotions and relationships.
SK: Yeah, well that’s what he said…“We’re not gonna show a performance…not a whole one; there’s no point; everybody does that.” He said “we want a story; we want a movie; we want a drama; we want…you know, we want it to come across as the lives you live and demonstrate all the things you go through in your lives. Who cares about your songs?!” [laughs] You find that out by buying the albums!
MD: Do you regard the current surge in your popularity and success kind of justice that’s been waiting to happen for many years because so many bands got big off the back of Anvil and your style of metal?
SK: Yeah, what I realised at that very moment was everything that has come to pass, in a certain sense, the heart of the genre that I’m involved in is never selling out. Being underground, not being commercial, not…[laughs] you know, the very thing that probably killed Kurt Cobain in a certain sense…is to stay away from the really big masses for most of your career. It’s the hardcore, the underground, and as soon as you cross over you’ve got to put up with everybody saying “oh, they’ve sold out; they went commercial”…all that. And what we did is we stayed true to that way of thinking - never to look for songs, or even to try and create songs, that could remotely get on the radio. I think you’re kind of following what I’m saying…
MD: Definitely, yeah, like pure artistic integrity rather than trying to do something that’s going to just make you a lot of money.
SK: A whole lot of people say “why don’t you just get a song on the radio? If you want to get big, you have the right.” But at the same time, there’s something seems to get lost in that, at least to the main fans of the genre. And it’s not the big masses, it’s a completely different thing. It has a marginal, sort of, popularity. And as soon as you go beyond those realms, then you become commercial.
MD: It’s been a long time coming, but your perseverance has paid off fortunately.
SK: Well, what it was is that we’re finally getting it on our own terms. We didn’t have to sell out to do that, and this movie is actually the depiction of being precisely that.
MD: Definitely. When you were approached with the idea for the film originally, did you ever have any apprehensions about doing the movie, or was it something you immediately said “yes, definitely, we have to do this”?
SK: Well, it was something - yes, we have to do this - and, not only that, it was as if the eyes of the world were on me, and I looked at it in that regard, so everything I could possibly do, I did, instead of even thinking twice. I mean, it seemed very obvious to me, before even leaving to go do the tour with Tiziana, it was gonna be a mess. I mean, it almost didn’t happen, but only because of things that I agreed to were completely insane…[laughs]…but it had to fly. I won’t go into all the grand details of it, but the bottom line was we were set up to make absolutely nothing, even before we left. And if it wasn’t for a promoter in Greece that actually paid for our flights, we wouldn’t have been able to go at all.
MD: I seem to remember in the film where you get that original email about the tour, and you were promised 1500 Euros per gig?
SK: Actually, that’s when the Greek promoter took over the tour, and what we ended up doing is seven shows in ten days, everything paid for. We couldn’t have eaten more! I mean, I must’ve gained about ten pounds! [laughs] All the weight I lost at the beginning of the tour, I gained it back on! It was incredible - really nice hotels and treated really, really nice. But none of that is on film because the actual…[laughs]…the guy who was filming, that’s when he went home! [laughs]
MD: Ah no, that’s a shame!
SK: Yeah, a lot of people get the idea that was such a disastrous tour…yeah, up to a certain point! [laughs]
MD: And you kind of learnt a lot about the European train system too…like, needing to buy tickets in advance!
SK: Yeah! But the last ten days of that tour was like being on the most glorious vacation. It was incredible. That’s why I have quite a balanced view of the whole thing. Like, had it not been for all the craziness, there wouldn’t have been much drama there! [laughs] I’ve never been confronted with somebody saying right to my face “I’m not gonna pay you”. That’s why I blew up. No-one has ever done that to me, and that’s why I snapped, because it’s like “what?! I just worked. What do you mean, you‘re not gonna pay me?!” [laughs] I’ve got a lot of ethics about life and I believe that if you work, you should get paid!
MD: Yeah, it’s like anyone in any job. Just because you’re in a band and whatever, then why can people screw you over.
SK: Yeah, that’s what my bass player said. “You should’ve told us you weren’t gonna pay us otherwise we wouldn’t have played”...as soon as he said that, I snapped. I’m gonna break this guy’s teeth in! And, you know, did I know there were cameras? I don’t think so. I didn’t really care.
MD: You were like tunnel-vision at that point.
SK: Yeah, it was like “so what?!”…who knows if they’re ever gonna use any of this shit anyway!
MD: Were, or are, you ever worried that the film will overshadow your music in that you’ll become famous and remembered just for the movie in years to come?
SK: Yeah, but, you know, I don’t think that it matters one way or the other, because I think the end result is the same. I think that’s the bottom line, but the other side of it is there wouldn’t be a today if there hadn’t have been all the thirty years of…like, in order for this story to have actually meant anything, you needed a couple of elements, really important elements. Obviously the fact that the band was the kind of people we are, we let this fifteen year old kid into the backstage in 1982, and befriended a fifteen year old fan. It’s not very common. You know what I’m saying? So there was something about Sacha to begin with. Okay, that’s the first element. The second element - how you gonna get famous rock stars to say something good about a band if there wasn’t something good there to begin with? Okay, so you’ve got that element, and then you have a third element. A band that has had that, yet went out on their own for all those years, and never gave in to the business that virtually wanted to stamp them out - that would be the easy way for any of the people in the business. Because the people in the business, we could never get signed by something that would give us the proper backing that it takes in order for you to get some place. Because without the financial backing of real substantial companies, you’re basically doing everything second rate because you can’t do it first rate. So, in other words, you’re gonna use the engineer that’s at the studio; you’re not gonna use someone who’s kind of a renowned name and really knows what they’re doing, or what to do with you, or can get the best playing out of you, or the best songs. You haven’t got the luxury of proper production. Then you’re faced with it’s an independent label, and you’re only gonna be released in a certain amount of territories, and only with the bare minimum of promotion. Now, having said that, we were able to maintain…I mean, although these things were all lacking, we still had a good enough, and strong enough, following for labels to have picked us up and put out records for all these years. And this is the fourth element - it’s not that common, and most bands would have broken up. What our initial story was, after ‘83 we were picked up by a big, major manager but, unfortunately, his hands were tied in a certain sense because we were signed to an independent Canadian label that would not part with, or license the first three albums anywhere in the United States. Which, right away, you haven’t even got a way to get up your foothold in. They pulled us out of the original record deal, and never followed up getting us another record deal…in the States, or at all, and at such a crucial point between ‘83 and ‘87. So between the combination between the first original label that we were signed to, and the management…’cause, of course, management came just at the right time but it wasn’t the right guy because I don’t think he really comprehended what we were doing, so he didn’t have the confidence in himself to go, or even know where or what to do with it. Okay, so we were faced with a number of different difficulties and, like I said, everything has to be in line to make it work. It’s not as simple as just having a bunch of great songs…and with the record company, and getting in with the wrong management, and that screwed it up. You know, so this time round, now all these elements put together, you put this story into a movie and it almost seems unbelievable. It almost seems like the almighty clichéd story about what bands go through to try to make it, and we are still trying to make it.
MD: So you say you met Sacha when he was fifteen, and I’ve read you invited him on tour with Anvil etc - has that made you a bit of a fatalist in the sense that if you hadn’t made that step back then, all those years ago in the eighties, then obviously the movie wouldn’t exist now, and you wouldn’t be where you are now?
SK: A hundred per cent. A hundred per cent true. Had we been any different to Sacha, right at that moment backstage at The Marquee, London, England…had we been any different in letting him in there and going out, and going to his house signing his posters, you know, had we not done those things, we wouldn’t be here today.
MD: That’s kind of serendipity…or fate…or both…
SK: Yeah, but the bottom line is I think you get back out of life what you put in. There’s something about good karma, and you could just as easily make enemies, but this particular thing, what you’d least expect, happened. You know, and it’s shocked a lot of people, and it’s one in a billion. It’s such an incredible long shot, but from the bottom, it’s like…[laughs] And for the director as well.
MD: Oh yeah, yeah. It’s made him a big name too.
SK: That’s right. But it all came from the right place because it was all from the goodness of our hearts - right from the start. We treated this guy as though he was our little brother. And that’s what it was like - taking our little brother out on the road. [laughs] But it was great because we took him to obscure places and, of course, in those days groupies were rampant. And we fixed him up man so, for him, at fifteen years old…[laughs]
MD: I guess bands at that time with less integrity would be hooking up with loads of female groupies and whatever, but you’re there with a fifteen year old boy!
SK: Exactly! And, of course, being an adolescent he…you know, he’d see naked girls running around the hotels, and…[laughs]
MD: In the film, obviously your dreams and aims are laid bare for the whole world to see, but have your aspirations changed since the release and success of the movie now you’re kind of living the dream as such?
SK: Yeah, that’s what it feels like; it feels as though I’m living the dream. It’s funny because I’ve always sort of felt…as weird as it sounds, I’ve always felt as though it was gonna end up this way someday, and…it has! [laughs] So it kind of feels because I’ve always felt that it was gonna come, there’s some part of me that feels extraordinarily comfortable with it.
MD: Because you’ve had years of preparation expecting that kind of thing.
SK: I don’t have feelings of I don’t deserve it, or that I have to justify it. I think that those are important things because I think that, when you’re young, those things you tend to have to justify because it came so easy. You know, these are the things that kill the young musicians because all of a sudden they’re playing from dire shitholes to playing in front of fifty thousand people and they don’t know why. What’s different today than was from yesterday? It’s hard to justify it when it happens quickly. But it seems as though you have to justify it as to why you deserve it. And I think the longer that you do this, the more that you release how much you have to appreciate it if it happens, and how miraculous it is. Because it really is a miraculous thing regardless of how it happens, like whether you did a hit single because, you know what, that’s hit and miss. What’s a hit single?! [laughs] Who knows?! [laughs] Like it’s all hit and miss. Two thirds, if not more, of what record companies were signing over the years would bomb, and that eventually killed the business in itself because part of that, instead of like it was in the early days where they’d look strictly for integrity, people were realising that people were listening to music without integrity…probably more. What I mean by integrity is like in the days when The Beatles came out, that was really refined for its day. I think it went like that for quite a number of years, particularly through the seventies where the bands had to be really refined musicians in order to make it. You know, bands like Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath - these were really refined bands. If you delve into it, you find out about all the underground rock bands that existed during those sixties and crucial years but, at the end of the day, the bands that got signed were really, really outstanding. They had to be. And those kind of things changed over the years and what used to be, particularly in the case of guitar, it was a case of who plays the greatest lead guitar; it was the innovation of that. It was basically the renaissance of the electric guitar that we’ve all witnessed, and we’ve watched it branch off into a number of different categories, and we call it all different things. And now, it’s completely permeated everything from country & western to the heaviest music. They’re all using electric guitar. Not only electric guitar, but distorted guitar. So that’s what we ultimately witnessed, and being born in the fifties, I witnessed it.