Interview by Thomas S. Orwat, Jr.
The world may be full of kings and queens, but there’s definitely only one Ronnie James Dio. With the release of his new CD “Strange Highways,” Ronnie James has proven once again that no matter what musical trends are in, his music will always be relevant and commercially appealing.
After spending two years recording “Dehumanizer” and touring with Black Sabbath, Ronnie James, along with drummer Vinny Apice (who played in Sabbath and also on the first four Dio releases) recruited guitarist Tracy G. (WWIII) and bassist Jeff Pilson (Dokken) to re-form the band DIO. From the beginning the emphasis was placed on the band concept with all four members partaking in the creative process. The end result is the most emotionally intense, angry and profound recording in the history of DIO.
Two days after the release of this CD, Ronnie called to discuss the recording and the past,and more importantly his plans for the future. What follows is an exclusive interview with the man from the Silver Mountain- Ronnie James Dio.
Your new recording “Strange Highways” features two new members to the DIO camp, Tracy G. on guitar and Jeff Pilson (DOKKEN) bass. What impact did the new members have on songwriting and on the DIO sound?
Well, this new album was done almost totally as a band, because with the current line-up, we really are a band. We started about two months before we were to record and it went rather quickly. We played every day for nine to ten hours and just got so productive and played so much like a band, all the new ideas were so fresh and so new, everything bouncing all over the place. It made everything so easy. The first two tracks that we wrote were written only by myself, Vinny and Tracy because Jeff wasn’t in the band yet. We were operating without a bass player. When Jeff came in, we wrote the remaining nine with Jeff, Vinny, Tracy and I. So if you look at the credits, you’ll see that is was real band effort.
How does Tracy G. compare to past guitarists that you’ve worked with?
Well, I think he’s the closest to Tony Iommi. Tony was one of his idols. Tracy plays heavy, thick guitar chords, great sense of feel, really doomy attitude, he plays very industriously, he uses the whole instrument. His effects are very strange, he has a whole conglomeration of different little pedals and what not. He even has a name for his pedal board, it’s called IGOR. He uses all that and he’s so fresh and so different. As a soloist I think he’s great. He’s got so much more passion and he’s really one of the best guitarists that I’ve ever played with.
But I think Tony’s closest to Tracy, but Tracy takes it one step further. Tony will always be what Tony is and Tracy will be Tracy influenced by Tony. The other guitarists that I’ve played with were all very unique and outstanding musicians. Ritchie Blackmore was like a spider walking down the fret board, he had the most beautiful touch and had great ideas. Vivian Campbell was a young, exciting, very fast, risk oriented guitar player. Craig Goldy was in Ritchie’s mode. They were all special, I haven’t worked with any dogs. But, Tracy just takes it one step further.
In past interviews, you really praised your last guitarist, Rowan Robertson. Why isn’t he currently involved with DIO?
When I came back from the last Black Sabbath tour, Rowan had been playing with a singer named Oni Logan (ex. Lynch Mob) and they were in the midst of forming a band. Rowan and Oni were both very excited about the music that they wrote together and I was excited for them as well. But because of this and the fact that Rowan was playing a different form of music, I didn’t really think that he was the kind of guitar player that I was looking for to accomplish what I tried to accomplish. I wanted this new album to be an extension of the last Sabbath album “Dehumanizer”. I just felt that it would be better for Rowan to continue doing what he was doing. I’ll always praise Rowan to high heaven, he’s such a great musician.
How do you feel “Strange Highway” compares lyrically and musically to your past releases?
It’s totally different from anything that I’ve ever done, with the exception of the last Sabbath album. The records before that were much more fantasy oriented, magic and wizards and witches. It was pretty feathery images where this one is pretty much black and white. It’s much more involved with the world that we see around us when we look out the window today as opposed to what we wanted ten centuries ago.
This album is a very angry, frustrated black and white album because what I see in the world around me doesn’t make me a very happy person. I think four years ago I could write an album like “Lock Up the Wolves” and still believe that dreams could come true and that there’s a lot of hope out there.
Today I can’t (in my heart) write about things that are fancy and free when the world’s such a horrible black and white place. I think that some one needs to shout out about it and I’m not trying to make sociological changes. I’m just screaming for people who don’t have a stage to scream from. Maybe what I scream, they can scream along to and feel better.
The first track on the recording “Jesus, Mary and the Holy Ghost” has an industrial flavor to it. Was this done intentionally for cross over purposes?
No, absolutely not. We don’t feel that it’s that kind of song at all. What it is, is a very abstract piece of music. That’s what we were trying to accomplish. No, we don’t think of anything as crossover. We would never think in those terms. I think that as soon as you think in those terms you’re not being true to yourself or the type of music you’re trying to make. I mean, if our songs cross over, that’s all well and good. It just simply means that we struck a chord with somebody and even though it’s abstract, that’s OK if we’re true to ourselves. But if you’re purposely writing to bridge a gap, then you’re just whistling up your own behind.
You don’t really strike me as the type of musician that would intentionally write something just to obtain airplay.
No, I would never want to be accused of that. I do think the track in question and the rest of the album is music for today. If it was just another DIO album that had songs like (sings) “All Your Dreams Will Come True”, you know, what would be the sense. It doesn’t say what people are going through today, especially kids, they’re pissed off. I think that when you hear something like “Jesus, Mary and the Holy Ghost” it strikes the abstract chord in your mind, it just affects you someway, I don’t know how, but it does. I do know that we wanted that song to be where it is on the album because it set the whole album up for being weird. If you’re a DIO fan and even if you’re not, when you put the CD or tape on for the first time and you hear that, you’re gonna say “What the hell is that.” That was the purpose of doing that, we wanted to do the track that way.
Well, after listening to the album a few times, I must confess you definitely accomplished your goal.
That’s great! I’m really glad you told me that.
“Strange Highways” was released last October in Europe, but just recently here in the States. What led to the delay of the album domestically?
We usually have our chances to release our albums at the same time. But, by releasing it earlier in Europe and not caring much about imports, we were able to concentrate on touring Europe right away and then this way we could release it better domestically and tour without having a long period between the release date and tour. We were able to concentrate on one area at a time, rather than to choose one over the other.
So you already have a tour of Europe under your belt?
Yes, we did tour Europe. We did a headline tour with Freaks of Nature (Mike Tramp ex White Lion) and most of the shows we did were in Germany. We did three shows in Greece, four shows in Spain, a whole ton in Germany and a couple in Switzerland. The Germany shows were interesting because we did a lot in East Germany this time. We finished up in London. It was fabulous, we all had a great time. The band was great but there was a very strange fan core, very different from what it used to be. There were a lot more females in the audience. Many more than ever before. It used to be all leather clad Metallica, Motorhead and Dio shirts and the guys completely drunk out of their skulls. But it was very strange this time around, especially because of all the females.
Maybe you’re becoming the male sex symbol over in Europe.
(Laughs) No, I’ll leave that up to Mike Tramp from Freaks of Nature.
Are there any differences in content between the domestic release of “Strange Highway” and the imported version?
No, it’s actually the same.
Would you mind if we discussed your involvement with Black Sabbath for a few minutes?
Sure, what do you want to know?
Well, first of all, what led to your most recent departure from Black Sabbath?
Well, we were touring in America, then Europe, we played some festivals there and we went to Iceland and back to America finishing on the West Coast in Los Angeles. In the beginning of the final leg of the American tour, I was told that our date in Los Angeles was now going to be cancelled in favor of us opening for OZZY’s two final farewell performances. I balked at that, I said that’s not why I rejoined the band, I rejoined the band so the band could be true to itself. I mean, we were out there to prove that we made a good progressive record. To go and perform before OZZY would be defeating what we were trying to accomplish as the band, Black Sabbath. The kids weren’t going to see and remember us and for us it would have been difficult to present our show properly. The kids are gonna be there because: A) We’re gonna go out and be one form of Black Sabbath, B) OZZY’s gonna come out and do OZZY things and then become another form of Black Sabbath and C) then Sabbath will go out with the reformation band which they did, which was Geezer, Tony, Bill and Ozzy and then they become Black Sabbath too.
So it all became this big Black Sabbath reunion circus. That’s not the reason that I rejoined the band. I felt that it was more important for us to do our own show and deal with it ourselves. It wasn’t meant personally to OZZY, it was nothing personal between the guys in the band, it was just my belief in the pride you should have in yourself. I had confidence and pride that this band would come to Los Angeles and knock the socks off of everyone, we were playing very well. But that offer wasn’t afforded to me, instead the guys got Rob Halford to do the two gigs and that, of course, meant the end of it all. I wasn’t about to carry on with that.
After the show, they announced the reunion with OZZY and dates were mentioned, they were gonna record a reunion album and do this and that. But then OZZY said “no” and changed his mind at the last minute. He said he wasn’t going to do it anymore. So what it effectively did, was the shows with OZZY broke up the band. Even if I had performed in those shows, it still would have meant the end of the band because they were going to announce their reunion. It wasn’t because I refused to do the last shows that they announced their reunion. It’s because they wanted to have the reunion, whether for monetary gain or for commercial success or for whatever.
I applaud them, I thought the reunion would be great, I’m just disappointed that they didn’t get back together. I mean, after they went through all that trauma that occurred at the end of the tour, it would have been good if something at least resulted from it. Fans of the band wanted to see the reunion and the band wanted to do it, they should have just went for it.
But again it really was no problem for me. I only wish them the best. I’m glad we got back together to make “Dehumanizer”. We can still be friends and I truly hope that everyone involved can be as successful as possible. So, I hope that they do well. What they do and what I do doesn’t affect one another. This is the happiest I’ve been, probably the happiest I’ll ever be. But, I love our new band and I can’t wait to get back out on tour.
How do you feel your last Sabbath album “Dehumanizer’ compares to the others you recorded with them?
I though “Dehumanizer” was a great album. I really enjoyed doing that one. That was really good music. “Heaven and Hell” was a real good album and so was “The Mob Rules”. I think, however, that “The Mob Rules” got lost in a time warp somewhere, something went, not with us, but wrong with the business at the particular point. I don’t know what it was. “Dehumanizer”, I thought, was so much more modern, heavier and we were much more confident as musicians. I think “Dehumanizer” was certainly for its time and the best of the lot.
Was your reunion with Black Sabbath financially rewarding for you?
No, not at all. We would have loved doing it for the money and maybe, in some instances, it was giving work to some people who haven’t been working for awhile. But, as far as making vast sums of money, no. We actually had to pay a lot ourselves for the privilege of being in a band. But, it was definitely worth it, even if it wasn’t a money making venture. I didn’t go into it for that and I’d like to think that no one else did either. We were just happy playing together, the money was really secondary.
What are the current tour plans for DIO?
The North American tour commences in April and will consist of smaller theater type venues, 3000-5000 seaters. I think that the days of arena rock are over. But we don’t care where we play, we regard this as a new band that has to prove its worth. We’re not going to fool ourselves and think we’re going to start our at the L.A. Coliseum or places such as that. The most important thing for us it to put on the best show and make the best music we can. Our fans are the most important thing to us and we want them to see our shows and hear our records and go away thinking “Yeah, this is why I love DIO.”
Well Ronnie, after hearing the new album, I’m sure no one will be disappointed, I’ll let you go now, but we’ll have to finish this interview when you roll into Buffalo. Thanks again and it’s been a real privilege.
Thanks Tom, we’ll do that….and stay warm, man!