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InterviewsViolence, force and history: An interview with Exciter's John Ricci

Posted on Tuesday, August 24 2004 @ 18:38:40 CDT by Jedd Beaudoin
Heavy Metal Exciter was one of the most talked-about bands in the early '80s metal scene. With a thumping drum sound, feral guitar lines and screams that could make the most hard-hearted murderer pause in his tracks, the Canadian trio quickly set itself apart from the herd. Here's an interview with guitarist John Ricci by Sea of Tranquility's Jedd Beaudoin. The pair discuss the outfit's fine new disc New Testament and get at some Exciter history.

Sea of Tranquility: Tell me a little bit about the genesis of New Testament, which takes Exciter classics and offers them in a new light.

John Ricci: There are two reasons that we did this. First of all, we actually didn't have new material ready. It had been four years since our last release in 2000. The second reason in that this is a new lineup of Exciter, not the original lineup and the thing is that we wanted the whole market to hear what the new Exciter sounds like playing the old material. Those are the two main reasons.

But we were also getting pressure from Osmose, our principal record company, to put something out. We did have some personnel problems in the past four years. Our singer [Jacques Bélanger] kept quitting and coming back, quitting and coming back. That just delayed everything.

SoT: What guided you in selecting the tracks that you did for the record?

JR: We've been playing those songs in concert for quite a few years. Those songs get the best response from the audience when we play shows in Europe and the U.S., that's why. We thought, "If a live audience reacts to them that way, then someone sitting at home, listening to the CD will like the tracks as well." I mean, there are so many good Exciter songs. It was hard to pick. But we based it on the audience response from when we play the songs live.

SoT: Sometimes there's a tendency, when bands revisit old material, for them to change things. They've had time to listen to the songs, play them live and so they go back to the recording and say, "There's a terrible mistake there," or, "That bridge doesn't work the way that it should, I've got an idea that's better." Did you have to resist temptations to do that or did you find yourself tweaking bits and pieces.

John Ricci: You're right. We corrected some things that were wrong on the original recordings. I did knit pick certain little things in the songs to make them better and sound smoother. We didn't want to change the arrangements that much, though. The only big difference is with the vocals because now we have a singer who's a really good singer who has a more melodic quality to his voice. Our original singer, Dan Beehler, was more of a straight ahead screaming vocalist. That was great but Jacques is a little more versatile. He can do more things with his voice. But, as far as correcting things ... In "Heavy Metal Maniac," on the original recording, my guitar actually goes out of tune. I was doing my part and because of technical difficulties, I couldn't go back and fix it, so this time around [laughs] I made sure that my guitar stayed in tune.

SoT: Well, I guess that not only this is a chance for longtime Exciter fans to hear this material in a new setting, it's also a chance for you to bring new fans to the fold and for older fans, such as myself, to reconnect with the band.

JR: This record in particular is reaching young people. We just got an e-mail from a 14-year-old in Iowa saying that Exciter is his number one band, he's a guitarist and we've influenced his guitar playing. He's 14. Maybe his parents turned him onto Exciter, I don't know. On the other hand, we seem to have had this acceptance from the old fans with this new lineup. The first couple of years were a little rough because when a lineup switches, people becomes skeptical of how well that band will do.

So, the first two years was a little shaky. We've gained our new fans and generally speaking we've pleased the old and new fans and we're gaining new fans. This album will appeal to people who ordinarily wouldn't listen to Exciter and the reason for that is that the lead vocals are more accessible. So, someone who didn't like the continuous screaming of the old Exciter style maybe actually be able to sit down to listen us now because the vocals are more interesting.

SoT: You guys were at the forefront of this new wave of metal that took North America by storm. You were right there with seminal bands and seminal labels such as Megaforce and Shrapnel. Can you tell me a little bit about the early days of the band?

JR: We originally got together in '78 as Hell Razor. Then in 1980 we decided to change our name. One of our roadies actually recommended that we change it to that. It was a wicked name. We really didn't know what we were doing. We were just trying to write songs similar to those from the bands in the '70s that influenced us--Saxon and Judas Priest and Motorhead and Black Sabbath. We were just trying to write good heavy metal songs. I don't know what happened, though. In some strange way this unique, signature sound was born. It was accidental. That's the word I always use. In the beginning, the style was apparent in the song "World War III," which actually appeared on Shrapnel Records' U.S. Metal Vol. II. We had done a four-song demo here in Canada and then one day I picked up Guitar Player magazine and, you know, someone had written a letter to the editor. It said, "Heavy metal label based in California Looking for demos of heavy metal bands. Please send to ...." I said to the guys, "We should just send our demo. What have we got to lose?" I sent the tape, then I got a call from Mike Varney. For the first five minutes, I thought it was a joke, right? I thought it was one of the other guys in the band pulling a prank on me. Finally, he said, "No, no, this is Mike Varney calling from Shrapnel. This song 'World War III.' I've never heard anything like it. How did you come up with this? How did you do it? What do you call this kind of heavy metal?" He said, "Look, I'm putting out this record and I really want this song to appear on the record. Can I sign you for this one song?" Sure, no problem. Then he said, "Do you have other material?" I said, "We're kinda writing songs but we're not really sure, you know." He said, "When you get new material together, call me and we'll go from there." So, our first album, Heavy Metal Maniac was actually a nine-song demo tape.

We had no intention of that tape being the final product. We did it in our sound technician's basement. We'd sent the tape all over the world to various pen pals and record companies. At that point we didn't know if Varney was really that interested. When we sent the tape to Varney, he called me up, completely blown away. He said, "This is fantastic." I said, "Well, do you want us to re-record it?" He said, "No, no, no. There's something about the sound of this tape. It's raw, it's energy, it's different. It's like the new beginning of heavy metal. There's something about this tape." So, he was the first guy to have that insight on Exciter.

Then he said, "John, there's this band from the Bay Area called Metallica. They have a really good cult following in San Francisco. You guys kind of remind me of them." I said, "Why don't you send me demo tape? I've never heard of them." [Laughs.] Anyways, when the record came out, because the tape had circulated throughout North America, Varney had an initial order of 10,000. That was the first week. He said that he couldn't believe that he was getting advance orders for that album.

SoT: Well, there were a couple of interesting things about the Exciter sound: First, it was a single guitar band in an era where dual guitars ruled the roost. And the drum sound was so unbelievably different. Dan was this powerhouse behind the kit but a different kind of powerhouse. How much of that sound had to do with the fact that you were a trio?





JR: First, the drumming. Dan Beehler is a really hard hitter. It does matter how hard you hit your drums because it does affect the tone. He's a very hard, hard hitter. That was probably why the drum sound was unique. As far as the guitar, in my early bands, because I've been playing guitar since the '60s .... I've tried to play in bands with two guitarists. It was just a nightmare. It ends up being a dual, a competition. I thought, "OK, from now on, any band that I put together, it's going to be me on guitar and that's it." So, then because we're a trio, I wanted to get as heavy and distorted sound as I could. It was actually our soundman at the time, John Bellrose, who helped me with my guitar sound in the studio. That's why I got the real fuzzy, chainsaw tone on the first album. It was all experimental.

We were just trying to take the bands from the '70s and go one step further. I think that it has to do with the way we play as well. I'm lucky that I have this original style. I've never seen a guitar player play the way that I do. I don't mean to sound conceited but my style isn't very thought-out. It's very spontaneous. It's always like "Over the top, go for broke." That's probably why my guitar goes out of tune all the time, why I break strings all the time. I'm not you guitarist. I band the guitar really hard, really aggressively. I think that's where the sound comes from, where the style comes from. At soundcheck, you'll get one of the roadies checking my guitar and he'll play it and it doesn't sound anything like when I play it. It has to do with the player, you know?

SoT: So what happens after that first album? Are you guys able to come down to the U.S. at that point?

JR: We wanted Shrapnel to finance a tour of the U.S. We kept telling Mike Varney, "Look, we get tons of fan mail from the U.S. Let's arrange a tour and can you help finance it?" He said, "No, that's not what I do. I just put records out. I have nothing to do with putting bands out on the road to tour." Now, along came Megaforce Records and Johnny Z. We'd never heard of Megaforce, we didn't know Johnny Z. We actually put him off for many, many months before we listened to him. He said, "Look, I'll put your record out. I'll bring you down here to do a tour." We were all starstruck. We signed with him, went down to Ithaca, New York and recorded Violence and Force.

That led to a mini-tour with three or four dates in New York and New Jersey. That was the actual only live tour that he did for us. Then, again, Violence and Force became another classic. We had money problems with the label, though. So, he got fed up with us that he worked out a deal with Music For Nations in London to trade our contract for another band. For the third record, we went with Music For Nations.

They wanted to arrange a tour. The tour was Exciter, Metallica and the Rods. So, we flew with London to meet up with the bands. The day we arrived at the hotel, there was a message from Music For Nations saying that the tour had been canceled. I called them and they said, "Well, the tour's off because of poor ticket sales." You can't imagine Metallica today having poor ticket sales, right? But the way the tour was billed, the Rods were the headliners. We think that it was because the tour was pushing the Rods and not Exciter and Metallica.

But we said, "What are we going to do? We've just come to England." The label said, "Look, here's what we're going to do: We're going to give you some money, put you up in an apartment downtown, you and Metallica. You can hang out for two weeks. We'll arrange a bar gig for Metallica and a bar gig for Exciter and we'll do press and have a good time." That sounded good to me!

Metallica ended up playing at the Marquee Club. The night they played Lemmy was there. Girlschool was there, John Sykes was there, Manowar. So, we all happened to be in London at the same time and there were drinking beer and shooting the breeze with Lemmy and Joey DeMaio. We were sorting of pinching ourselves. We played a smaller bar called the Royal Standard in East London, did press interviews for two weeks and then flew home to Canada.

SoT: Then you did the Long Live The Loud album, followed by an EP. And you left the band at some point. Some reports say that it happened mid-tour. What happened?

JR: There's always been a battle in the band. A power struggle between me and Dan Beehler. He wanted to be the boss, he wanted to call the shots. I mean ... I put the band together in '78. If you read an interview with Dan--and I actually just talked to Dan yesterday--he always says that I joined up with him, which is totally not right. I was looking to form a band. Allan Johnson (bass) was a customer there. He used to come in all the time and buy strings. I said, "Look, I'm looking to put a new band together. I know you play bass, do you want to jam one night." He said, "Yeah, yeah." He called me up a few days later and said, "Look, I play with this drummer. His name is Dan. He's interested in coming along as well." I said, "Sure. We'll jam." That's how the band together.

But as the band got bigger and success started to come our way there was this power struggle between me and Dan Beehler. So, as the years progressed, we made really bad business decisions. It was the summer of 1985. We were doing a Megadeth tour, a seven-week tour coast-to-coast. At that time, we had a record deal in Canada with a now-defunct label called Bonzai Records. They were based in Montreal. The owner was named Michele. He had arranged, at the end of the Megadeth tour, at the Verdun Auditorium in Montreal, a 3,500-seat auditorium, he had arranged a metalfest with the two main headliners being Slayer and Exciter. He called us on the road to tell us about it and said we'd be playing with Slayer and some other Montreal bands. Dan Beehler did not want to play before Slayer. He said, "No, no, no man. We gotta finish the show." I said, "What difference does it make? Dan, be realistic. Who plays second, who plays first, who cares? It's a big event, it's in Montreal." He said, "No, no, no. Unless we play last, we're not playing." I said, "We can't do that." But I called the label and explained our position. Michelle said, "You can't do this. The advertising started. There's flyers all over Montreal. I've booked the auditorium. What are you doing? We can't do this." But I said, "Well, unless we finish, we're not playing." I put the phone down and said, "Dan, we're making a really, really bad, bad mistake here. This is stupid."

In a couple of days, I convinced Dan--Al was neutral--and he said, "OK, call Michele." I called him and he said, "You know what? You guys can F-off and die in hell. You really screwed up my whole concert. The show's going to go one without you guys. I don't want to see you again, I don't want to talk to you again. You no longer have a record deal with me here in Canada. F-off and die!" I was so freaked out that I said, "OK, no more of this crap. I'm not taking any more of this crap. No more Dan Beehler calling the shots. I quit." That's what happened. I did finish the tour. I didn't leave them hanging but I said, "You guys do what you want. Dan,you want this band to be yours? Go ahead. Do whatever you want." He continued and the band dissolved in 1988. He'd replaced me with another guitarist, released Unveiling The Wicked in 1986, then got a lead singer and released the album Exciter. Then the band folded

SoT: Unveiling The Wicked marked a more commercial period for the band. Did you follow the material recorded while you were out of the band?

John Ricci: Oh, yeah. The guitar player, Brian McPhee, was an old friend of Dan and Al's. He's a really good player but he's more in the Van Halen/Whitesnake school of guitar playing. It didn't suit what Exciter is all about. I think that's why the songs on that album have more of a happier sound to them.

SoT: Then you found your way back.

JR: The band dissolved in '88. I'd put some side projects together during those years. I had a band called Blackstar with Jacques, the singer we have now. Those projects didn't go anywhere and so I called Dan in 1990 and said, "Let's just continue like nothing ever happened." That's what we did. But Alan was not willing to come back with us. So what we did was, we sort of hired bass players. We wrote the music for Kill After Kill and got a deal with Noise Records in Berlin. They brought us over and we toured with Rage. Our bass player David Ledden had no intentions of staying with the band, then we got another bass player named Jeff McDonald, played some shows with him and had some tapes and thought that maybe we should make a record.

Then we got a call from Bleeding Heart in the U.K. and released the album Better Live Than Dead, which brings us up to 1993. At that point Dan was getting frustrated. He said, "If this record doesn't sell really, really well, I don't think I can do this anymore. I think I'm going to quit." I said, "You can't quit. We've been at it so many years." But he did quit and I waited for him for two years, from 1993-1995, thinking that he just needed a break. I'd call him during those two years, saying, "Let's get back together" and he'd say, "No, no, no, I want nothing to do with music. I want nothing to do with Exciter. I just want a normal life." So I said, "OK, well, I'm going to put a new Exciter together. Do you have a problem with that?" He said, "No, do whatever you want." I picked up the pieces and here we are today. And we've been together in this lineup since 1996, with the exception of the bass player. We've been through three bass players.

SoT: Do you meet resistance from people who said, "Dan and Alan aren't in the band. What are you doing?"

JR: The first two years it was really hard to get people to accept us because they weren't seeing familiar faces. We played shows in the Chicago area and the New Jersey area and for people who didn't know that there had been changes .... All they knew was that Exciter was playing, right? They'd show up and say, "Where's Allan Johnson, where's Dan Beehler? Where's the rest of the band?" The rest of the band was standing there right beside me.

But we've won over fans. When we played the Wacken Open Air Festival, when we played the Bang Your Head Festival in Germany, we went over extremely well. We've done a lot of autographs and had press. We've been accepted. Now, there are some old, hardcore fans that won't accept this lineup but you can't please everybody.

SoT: But you and Dan are friends today?

JR: Yes. We've known each other for many years. We always hear rumors about each other in the press, that I said this about him or he said that about me. We don't take anything that we hear seriously. We know what we said because we talk to each other.

SoT: I know that you're going on a 10-city European tour this fall. That seems like a short amount of time and there are no doubt reasons for that. But it also seems that bands go on much shorter tours these days, at the club level, if they tour at all. How has that end of the business changed financially?

JR: The money's tighter now. Promoters aren't willing to pay big dollars for bands that fans think are high profile and a good draw. But, you know, realistically, that might not be the case. So the promoter doesn't go on what the audience wants. He's going to go with what he can afford, no matter the profile of the band. I think that's a general feeling throughout the United States. Promoters don't pay as well as they used to. It's more of a gamble now. The show can do well, it can do bad, no matter how big the band is.

We heard rumors that bands like Saxon played clubs in the United States where only 75 people came. We heard rumors that Udo played bars in the U.S. where less than a 100 people were there. It's a gamble now.



Visit http://listen.to/exciter for all the latest on Exciter.


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