For over 20 years, California's Tony Harnell fronted the popular Norwegian hard rock outfit TNT, releasing many criticially acclaimed albums and touring all over the world. Since leaving the band in 2006, the singer has been involved in various projects, the most recent being Tony Harnell & The Mercury Train, which has resulted in the new release Round Trip. Sea of Tranquility Staff Writer Steven Reid caught up with Harnell to discuss his latest CD for Frontiers Records.
SoT: Hi Tony, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions.
Tony Harnell: Thanks for asking me!
SoT: After a little time out of the spotlight, you have returned, not only with a new album "Round Trip", but also with a new band Mercury Train. How did the band, which features your wife Amy, come about and can you tell us a little about what the guys in the band have done before?
TH: It was pretty organic. I didn't audition anyone. I just pulled friends together from different places and it gelled perfectly. Lucky move! Brandon (Wilde – bass) and Chris (Foley – guitar) played in a band called This Way which was signed to Reprise. Recently they had a band called Black Bunny and now Brandon is working on his second solo album and Chris is starting to take off in higher circles as a respected lead guitarist. Both guys are immensely talented players and songwriters. Brandon has an amazing voice and is one of my favourite songwriters! Brad (Gunyon – drums) also played in Black Bunny and was really into playing in the band with us, he is just a total rockstar and a cool dude who plays his ass off - a very creative drummer. Jason (Hagen – acoustic guitar and ukulele), who ended up being sort of the backbone of the band in terms of arrangements and key changes, was a vocal student of mine and has been playing and teaching guitar his whole life. He's also very talented! And then there is Amy. That was a no brainer, she's a beauty and she sings great, our voices blend well together so it really just all works.
SoT: The album itself is a wonderful collection of songs from your previous bands – with one new composition, all reworked into a mainly acoustic setting. Where did that idea come from?
TH: I was just playing live shows with these guys and Frontiers found out about it and asked me if I wanted to do a live album, I decided instead to do a live sounding studio album [laughs]. I wanted to explore the direction the band was taking with these songs a bit further than a low budget live album could do.
SoT: Am I right in saying that you gave the band the freedom to work on the new arrangements?
TH: That's right; I did give them free reign with the music - of course I had ideas for each song and where they could go but they just took them to the limit. Actually, there are some that I wish we would have taken even further!
SoT: With such a vast and impressive back catalogue to choose from, how did you decide which songs to include, was there a long discussion as to what would work best in the style of the album?
TH: I followed my heart mostly. I asked the fans what they wanted and if their favourites matched mine they were in, if not I went with my faves.
SoT: Were there any songs you wanted to include that didn't lend themselves to this style?
TH: Oh yeah, many. This kind of music usually doesn't work unless there's a big guitar involved. I had to pick carefully.
SoT: Talking about those big guitars, a lot of people believe that melodic rock is a bit "throwaway", do you think that considering how well the songs have transferred into this more stripped back, yet in places more intricate arrangement, it actually proves that these songs were extremely well written and constructed in the first place?
TH: It is not as timeless as other kinds of rock and I don't consider it in the same category as Classic Rock such as Zeppelin, Queen and so on. I chose songs that the fans like and also I chose later era songs that I really liked that I thought were better written then earlier songs.
SoT: How did the acoustic setting alter your vocal approach to the songs and was it fun to try something different with tracks you know so well?
TH: I'm all about challenges and putting myself in different settings so this was right up my alley. We changed keys to make it work better as many of the original songs were insanely high and that wouldn't work in a laid back environment.
SoT: Actually I recently recommended "Round Trip" to a friend of mine; however he told me that he wasn't keen on your "high pitched style". Is that a tag that bothers you? I may add that he thoroughly enjoyed the album when he did hear it.
TH: Well, that was then and this is now. I've never been only about that, but I suppose when I was young it was all about showing off one particular skill all the time to impress, just immaturity. But I was always into singing other styles and ranges, but if people heard that crazy high stuff and didn't dig it then why would they even listen for other sides of me? Those who got it, even at that height, stayed with me as I progressed and "grew up" so to speak. I don't dismiss what I did vocally, I think it was kind of insane and took a lot of super technical training to pull off, but I admit when I listen now it does sound a bit over the top and even silly at times. I think just as I am a more mature person, I am probably also a better singer now than then, and hope to get better still as I get older.
SoT: You have been lucky enough to duet with the wonderful and under rated Sandi Saraya on the song "Shame", originally by Westworld, how did you come to ask her to be involved?
TH: She's an old friend. We've known each other since about 88 or 89. We lost touch for awhile, but when we started talking again, one day I just asked her if she wanted to sing with me on a song and she said yes! She still has a beautiful voice, her tone also really blends well with mine.
SoT: The excellent "Anywhere But Here", which is the final track on "Round Trip" is a new song recorded especially for this release. Are there plans for Mercury Train to record beyond this album?
TH: Funny you should ask that, we were talking about it just last night. I need to get my solo album done first but I would love to record an album of all new material with these guys, it would be really good. I am positive about that!
SoT: I would imagine that the songs on the album would transfer fantastically to a live setting, are there any plans to tour?
TH: No tour yet, but we played on the last Friday in July in New York City to celebrate the release of the album.
SoT: You've mentioned at times that you see this album as "closing the door" on your musical past. Why is that something that is important to you?
TH: There were a lot of bad feelings at the end of my time with my ex bandmates. I really had a period there where I felt that I wasted 20 plus years of my life. All the travel and sacrificed relationships and so on were for nothing. I wasn't proud of those years anymore. They really managed to take it all away from me for a short time but this album is my answer to that. I didn't know that when I started it, but that is what it ended up being. I don't really want to go forward trying to carve out a career as the ex singer of a band that had a little success 20 years ago. I would rather earn a new reputation. I am not saying I will never play any of the songs again. I am just needing to put that part of my life behind me, with respect, and move on into other things. Which is why this is a positive thing in all regards.
SoT: It has been interesting watching fan reaction towards TNT since you left the band. They have tried to diversify their sound; however there has been a lot of fan resistance. Is this something you think you can avoid?
TH: To be honest I haven't paid any attention to that. But when you build a brand name I suppose there is a level of responsibility to the fans to uphold a standard. There is a lot of talent in that band and it can be directed wherever the boss now chooses. I don't really concern myself too much with that as I do not have to live up to the name anymore. I can just be me.
SoT: Obviously TNT is in the past for you. Do you have any plans to record with Westworld or Starbreaker again?
TH: One never knows, but right now though it's all about my own music.
SoT: You were working on a solo album before "Round Trip" was recorded. How far away is that from being ready for release?
TH: Well there are several writers involved with that, and the process is still continuing now. I hope we can find a suitable label for it and get it out by next year.
SoT: I also noticed at your MySpace page that you will be involved in a "Queen Symphonic" tour of Spain. Can you tell us a little about that?
TH: Well there's a 45 piece orchestra with a band and three singers performing Queen songs. It should be really cool!
SoT: So with the Queen Symphonic Tour, a solo album and Mercury Train, you certainly have your hands full. Is there anything else in the works?
TH: Yes, but for now I'll keep it quiet till I have more to talk about [laughs].
SoT: Thanks for your time Tony. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
TH: As always, the fans have been amazing all these years and the new ones I embrace as I always have the long time fans. Thanks to all for your love and support! I will always do my best.
(Click here to read our review of Round Trip