Published on July 26th, 2013 | by Hugh Hession6
Interview with bassist Rudy Sarzo
Rudy Sarzo is undoubtedly one of the most sought after bassists in the music biz, having played with some of the biggest names in rock, including Ozzy Osbourne, Quiet Riot, Whitesnake, Ronnie James Dio and Blue Oyster Cult. We talked with Rudy over the phone while taking a breather from his current tour with Queensryche (with Geoff Tate).
Rudy, you’ve been a member of some of the biggest acts in rock-n-roll, which undoubtedly goes hand in hand with big egos. How do you deal with that and remain a team player?
Hmm…that’s an interesting question! You know, I’ve certainly dealt with egos, but to me, an ego is basically a shield…it’s an insecurity factor. Those with the biggest egos are the most insecure. You know, to me every single band is just a learning situation. I’ve worked with some of the biggest egos, but then I’ve also worked with some of the most level headed, balanced people around. So it just depends on the individual, but it also depends on the stage of their career or their personal growth. Just because a person was an egomaniac when I worked with them “x” amount of years ago doesn’t mean they are an egomaniac today. If you happen to be going through a certain point in your musical journey or life that may involve a lot of insecurity, egos often develop. You know, certain things are going on in your life…a rivalry or maybe you’re at a point in life where you feel your performance level is not as good as it used to be. As it result, you may become insecure and shield yourself.
I’ve definitely learned how to deal with that (egos), because I recognize the symptoms. I don’t take it personal. I deal with that person as a human being. As a bandmate, I try to help and support them, without singling them out. I try to let the individual know that they are more significant than they see themselves to be.
Throughout your career, have you been embraced as a member of each band, or did you feel like more of an outsider?
You know, every situation is different and you have to respect the legacy of the situation when you walk in, or you have to create a new legacy when it’s a brand new situation. With the bands I’ve been in, I’ve never felt like an outsider, they’ve always embraced me and made me feel like a part of the family.
What are the qualities that have attributed to your success as one of the most sought after bass players through the years?
I never go into a band thinking, well, I’ve been doing this for “x” amount of years, and I’m just going to do what I know. No, no…I go in and I study old recordings. If I’m going to do songs, I always reference the original recordings and listen to whatever live recordings are available on YouTube to see how the band has progressed. I might add some nuances based on the way they played the song 10, 20 years later, but I always go back to the original, because to me, that is the actual blueprint of the song and I respect that. I try not to divert too much from the original intent of the song.
However, in a lot of cases, by the time I play with a band there’s only a few original members left, which means that I may be playing with a drummer who didn’t originally play on a given song. So, not only do I have to stay true to the original bass line, but I also have to lock into the new feel of the latest drummer.
I’ve been in situations where guys walk in and they want to play everything the way they are used to playing it. No, no, no, you have to respect the original legacy of the rock group. I always take everything in consideration. I’m joining the band, the band is not joining me.
How do you fit into the writing process of the bands you’ve been a part of?
Well, you know I’ve been in situations where I just walk in after the records done. Also, I’ve walked into situations where I’m making a record and I might be recording a cover, like when I was recording the album Metal Health. I came in and recorded Cum On Feel The Noize after the basics were actually laid down. Prior to that, I had no idea how the original Slade version sounded like. This was like 30 years ago, before the internet. Unless you had the original recordings, you had no idea how they went. Nowadays you go on YouTube and find all these different references. So, anyway, I just went into the studio and I approached it as an original song and played what I felt was the best contribution that I could make.
Lately I’ve been doing alot of recording where there is no vocal track and just a basic drum loop, and I’m going, oh my God, how do I play to this and lock into the actual drummer “after” I lay down my bass track and how do I know where the song is going melodically with the singer when there are no vocals? Because by the time the vocal tracks are laid down, my playing might actually get in the way of the singing. You really want to avoid that, but then again, you never know because there are no vocals to follow. It’s not my favorite recording situation because of studio budgets and many other reasons, but it happens alot,
The music industry has obviously changed immensely since you started out, particularly since record sales are no longer the driving force. In your opinion, how does a band in this day and age get ahead and stick out of the pack?
You know that’s a tough question. I don’t think anyone really has a good answer to that question, because I haven’t heard one yet! Once a solution becomes a compromise then you’re not really breaking ground, you’re just basically compromising and rolling with the changes. And to me, the best change that could be – even though we don’t have the same industry system that we used to – is to take the focus back to artist development. Some of the greatest records ever made were done through the mentorship of many legendary producers who were able to join the artists vision with their creation.
There are alot of songs being produced these days without an actual producer. The band goes in without any personal reference or experience and then tries to make the best music possible. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t match the level of records that were released 30 or 40 years ago. There’s just alot missing in it. You know, anybody can sound great nowadays. It’s not even a matter of getting a great performance, anymore. With Pro-Tools, you can fix anything. What you’re really lacking is magic…that ear candy ingredient that used to be present on every single great record that came out in the 70’s and most of the 80’s.
Let’s switch over to performance. Along with being a solid bassist, you’ve always put on a good show. To me, that is often what makes the difference between a band that is memorable and one that isn’t. I guess I say this, because as someone in artist development, I’m always driving home the importance of how performance and musicianship go hand in hand. What are your thoughts on this?
I’ve been a fan longer than I’ve been a professional musician, so I really understand the journey of a fan. When I say the “journey” – in the old days you would buy a ticket, of course, now you can get them online, but back in the day, you would stand in line to get your ticket, you get ready, then leave your house to go to a show. You go through this lengthy process to get in front of the band. What you’re doing as a fan, is expecting magic. Every time I used to go watch a show, I would say ok, I want this show to be better than anything that they’ve been doing on this whole tour and I’m waiting for this magic moment. If there’s no magic moment, I’m not coming back, because now I know, it’s not that great, and I’m not investing my money into seeing this band again.
I’ve been to shows in my early years where I was bored! I’m like, man I could have just stayed home and listened to a freakin’ record instead of going through all the expense and trouble of being here…I got better things to do. Or, I’ve been to a show that just blew me away and inspired me to be a better musician and as a fan, I’m like, I love these guys, I love what they’re doing. To me, I’ve never forgotten that and I’ve never lost that. You know, that’s what I take on stage with me, every single night. And then I get off stage and I’m all about the next show. I do an inventory of how I did on the last show and look for ways to improve the following show.
You know, I remember as a teenager, my friends and I would watch you on MTV with Quiet Riot, In the video Metal Health, you would flip your bass upside down and play it…it was almost like your trademark. I gotta ask…do you still do that?
You know before I started playing at the arena level I played alot of years in clubs which gave me alot of time to be on stage and try to amuse myself after playing about 6 sets a night, you know!
Ok, I have to throw one in for the fans. I know you obviously have a ton of memories, but if you could pick one each, for Ozzy, Quiet Riot and Whitesnake, what would they be?
Ozzy: July 4, 1981, Day on The Green, Bill Graham Presents, Oakland, CA. We were scheduled to go on at 10:15 in the morning and you know, we were given a half hour to play a set. We were walking off stage to the dressing room and Bill Graham came up to us told us, you guys gotta go back on, everyone’s going ape shit, you know, you gotta do an encore! I mean, the shows leading up to that, we knew we were on to something, but 10:15 in the morning and people going nuts at the Oakland Coliseum. It wasn’t like we were playing a theater or a hockey arena. This was a stadium and everyone going ape shit and Bill Graham running after you telling you gotta do an encore…that’s pretty special. We only had a couple months under our belt touring together. That was our pivotal point on the Blizzard of Ozz tour.
Quiet Riot: By middle summer after Metal Health came out, we were double platinum and opening up for Iron Maiden at Madison Square Garden. You know, usually when you’re an opening act, you see alot of chairs (laughs), you know, from the stage. Now, at the Garden, the NYC audiences are brutally honest. We went on and the place was packed, and you couldn’t see a single chair. Certain things like that began to solidify and crystalize everything…when we knew we were on our way.
Whitesnake: The very first show I did with the band at The Cotton Bowl, The Texas Jam back in 1987. You know, all the guys in the band were pros – they’ve played for years and successful in the other bands. We were doing either In The Still of The Night or Here I Go Again, and we made the same mistake at the same time! It was like we skipped a verse and it happened all together. That’s when you know you have a band. We were so in tune with what was going on.
I remember the first time I saw you, was with Quiet Riot, you headlined in Toledo, Ohio and Whitesnake ironically opened for you guys.
Yeah, that was 1984. That’s how I met David (Coverdale). The line-up was Armored Saint, Whitesnake and Quiet Riot.
You remember! Are you still a counselor with Rock-n-Roll Fantasy Camp?
Yes, I actually just came home this past Thursday from doing the show. Basically, individuals from all walks of life, sign up and are assigned a counselor like myself, and then we put a band together. It’s an incredibly rewarding process, because my contribution to the camp is to help the individual reconnect with their musical identity. I have guys walk in and say they haven’t played in 10, 20 years and they feel so disconnected from being a musician. My responsibility is to make them reconnect with that again.
I always explain to my campers, music should not be considered a job…it’s an art form, it’s a language. It should be enjoyed by everybody. Just because you don’t make a living at being a musician should never keep you from having that identity.
So, what we do is work on cover songs, and there is usually some kind of special guest. This past week we had Yes. You’re going to run the gamut of individuals who are huge Yes fans and that’s all they know and play, but are willing to step out of the box and play more than just Yes. You get people who might only know Yes songs and give them the benefit of learning other styles of music that even musicians like Steve Howe, are influenced by, like the blues, Chet Atkins etc. That doesn’t really come out in his music, but that is what influenced Howe to play. It’s very important to teach people that no matter how progressive you get, the foundation of everything lies in the blues and R&B. We start at the root and build the camp from there. I get to share with everyone and I’m available to all camps.
With the younger campers, it seems that you would get a chance to introduce them to different styles of music that they wouldn’t normally be exposed to?
I attend alot of the rock camps in Los Angeles and you’d be surprised how many of the young musicians are rooted in classic rock. I don’t have to explain to them about playing Hendrix, Zeppelin or even Kansas, because they are already doing it. They get up there and I’m like, wow, these guys are great!
Looking back is there anything you would have done differently?
Well, that would be the Butterfly effect which would change things. I like to leave it like it is. I mean, the things that I would have done differently are the things that I learned from. So, it’s not that I would have done things differently, but I do them differently now…and to me, NOW is the most important time in anyone’s life. It’s all about now.
What is your take on the climate of the music industry today?
You know I think being a musician is a calling and I include vocalists too, because I consider the voice to be Gods instrument…the “first” instrument. I think that people will play because they have no other choice, it’s within them. Whether they make a living from it or not, that’s a whole different set of circumstances. I think there’s alot more music being created, but the quality of that music is sometimes in question because of no music supervision compared to the level that we grew up listening to. But I think the time is coming for more artist development, like we do with the camp, where not only we are mentors and supervisors and when we go in the studio to record an original song as a camp, you’re walking in with someone who has worked with some of the best producers out there.
Overall, with regard to the music industry, I think that more individuals like myself and people that I work with should definitely get involved with the younger generation to share our experiences and help them connect with what we’ve been connected to. Because if there is a disconnect, that branch of the tree fill fall off and die.
What are the biggest negatives that I see? I would say the main negative with todays music, is that alot of it is disconnected from the blues and I’m talking about every musical genre from urban to modern rock. I think the one that is a little more connected than all of them is country. It’s more like what music used to be like years ago. So, I think that once the younger generation taps into the blues foundation and what rock-n-roll is all about, I think they will be able to connect better with that.
Alot of country artists still actively perform at their church, so they are rooted back into the foundation of rock-n-roll is all about. You look at early artists like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Al Green, Chaka Kahn, Aretha Franklin…these are artists that sang in church, it’s where they got their gospel training. Gospel is such a branch, coming from the experience of blues music, R&B, gospel, you know. Country music still follows that tradition. I’m certain that when they come off a tour (country artists), and finally get home – they go to church and they sing. And new generations of country musicians will follow that pattern.
Rudy, it’s been a pleasure, my friend. I’m always about finding ways to help music artists get to the next level and equip them with the resources to do so. Musicians like yourself bring such a wealth of experience and knowledge, particularly with all the legendary bands that you’ve been a part of!
Thank you for doing this, Hugh. It’s important that we all share what we have experienced and hopefully help others along the way.
You know it, man. Thanks Rudy!
My pleasure Hugh, Thank you so much.