All along the comeback trail one-time Ozzy Osbourne and Badlands guitarist Jake E. Lee has retained two things; his honesty and his humour, two weapons which can serve you well in this business we call music. When Sea Of Tranquility's Steven Reid put some questions together for Jake, it was no different. Therefore when the hugely talented guitarist told us that he doesn't "need" to be famous, but does need to be making music, not only is it easy to believe him, it's borne out through his actions. That said, with a fantastic, eclectic debut disc featuring Robin Zander, Sass Jordan, Maria Brink and Paul Dianno from his excellent new band Red Dragon Cartel under his belt, it would be a real disappointment if that's how things worked out. Right now Jake and his band are in the middle of a string of European dates, which then lead into a UK tour in June. However proving that the Rock 'n' Roll life is never a straight forward one, only two days after Jake took the time to give his thoughts to SoT, it was announced that the shows in Glasgow and Newcastle had been pulled due to "urgent business matters unrelated to the tour"... Let's find out more...
After such a lengthy time out of the limelight Jake, what was the catalyst that brought Red Dragon Cartel into being?
Well, I'd been living in Vegas for a couple of years and ran into my old friend Ron Mancuso, who also lives in Vegas and he asked me to do a cameo in a video for his band Beggars & Thieves, which I did. Once the video was posted, there was an exceptional amount of response about me being in it and because of that he and [producer] Kevin Churko, who has a studio right next to him and had previously worked with Ozzy and had expressed an interest in doing something with me before that, got together and made me an offer. They said I could go into their studios, hang around, write songs and see what it felt like, with the idea that maybe now - or at the time, a year ago - was a good time for me to think about doing something. The more I thought about it the more I realised I'm not getting any younger and if I was ever going to do this again, I should probably do it sooner than later. So I agreed, we started writing songs, me and Ron and the first one we finished was "Feeder". When I envisioned somebody actually singing it, I thought of Robin Zander, Ron got a hold of him, Robin recorded the vocals for it, and it just all seemed to roll along very easily. After I heard "Feeder" with Robin singing on it, it really kind of sunk in how much I missed doing this and that's basically when I decided that Red Dragon Cartel was going to be a real thing.
Badlands, the band you formed after your stint with Ozzy, ended way back in the early nineties. How much has creating music remained a part of your life since?
Well, after Badlands, I did put out a record in Japan, 'A Fine Pink Mist', which was all instrumental. It was me playing all the instruments and that was good for me, it was cathartic, in a way that I didn't have to, not compromise, that I didn't have to argue with anybody else about what I wanted to do. I kind of liked that and I liked seeing everything coming out how I envisioned it in the first place. So I continued to write music for myself via computer because it was so easy to do, for all those years. I continued to write... I have a multitude of song ideas and completed song that I've written. I never expected or... I never did it for anybody else, I never said someday I'll do these songs and people will hear 'em. It was just more of a release for me and I was content doing that. I didn't have to have the world hear everything that I did, but to answer the question (laughs), I never really stopped creating music, I just quit letting other people listen to it.
But during that time between 'A Fine Pink Mist' and Red Dragon Cartel, did you make concerted efforts to start new bands, or get your music released? Or had you thought those days were effectively behind you?
I thought they were effectively behind me. I would, maybe dally with other bands. There was Bourgeois Pigs with Michael Guy (House Of Lords and Shark Island guitarist), I mean he lived right round the corner from me, so it was just kind of something to do. It never blossomed into anything other than just an idea. I worked a little with Mandy Lion from WWIII, just for the fun of it, and there was a band in Vegas when I just wanted to goof around. We did mostly kind of Punk, Surf songs that I wasn't expected to play. It was like a fun little band that played a couple of gigs in Vegas, nothing big. So no, I didn't make any concerted effort to do anything and yeah, I thought my heyday was gone and I was fine with that. I don't need the spotlight, I don't need to be in the public eye. My only reason for doing this at all is for the love of music and if this all goes away tomorrow. I'll be OK.
The singer in Red Dragon Cartel is a certain Darren James Smith, who up until now has probably best been known as the drummer in Harem Scarem and guitarist in Helix. So how does a drumming guitarist end up as the singer in your new band?
I was unaware of Harem Scarem or Helix...I heard the names, but I wasn't familiar with their music or their catalogue, or who drummed or played guitars for them. So I did not know that about Darren beforehand. We just put out a call on the internet that I was looking for a vocalist and we got a lot of responses. I made Ron go through them (laughs), and just play me the ones that were possibilities. I think the first one we saw was Darren's and yeah, I had no knowledge of him ever having done anything other than what I saw him do on the video audition. I knew right away. I liked his voice, I liked the way he looked, he had a certain charisma and he became the bar by which I judged everybody else. There were other good singers but to me it was almost love at first sight. That's also how we got Jonas Fairley, Jonas auditioned as a singer. He was in a two piece band called Black Betty where he played drums and sang and I liked his singing - I liked the fact that he could sing, but I really liked his drumming and so we brought him over as a drummer and it all worked out.
I have to say that Darren gives a great, varied, vocal performance across the album. However there is also an impressive guest list of singers on the album with Robin Zander, Sass Jordan, Paul Dianno and Maria Brink also bringing their unmistakable talents. Did you have a tick list of singer you were keen to work with as you put the album together?
I did. Once we'd write and develop the songs and we could hear their melodies, I would envision certain singers... Although the one with Maria, she just happened to be next door recording with Kevin for In This Moment. She came in the studio while we were playing "Big Mouth" and trying to figure out who would sing it. Maria wanted to do something with it and that was just a happy accident, coincidence, synchronicity, that she ended up on it and I'm really glad she did. Paul Dianno, I hadn't thought about him in thirty years. I think Brent Fritz was in the studio listening to one of the songs we'd finished, "Wasted", and we were trying to figure out who would sound good on that and Brent just threw in Paul Dianno's name. I loved him - that was my favourite Iron Maiden, when he was in the band - so we looked him up. So yes, he was somebody I really wanted on the record. I always loved Sass's singing, and with "Redeem Me" I needed that really kind of Blusey sound. She was perfect for that, yes I wanted her on that song. Midway through the writing process, we started running out of singers, for example on "Slave" I envisioned Bryan Ferry singing but we had a hard time tracking him down. For "Seagull" I wanted Johnette Napolitano from Concrete Blonde, that was who I envisioned singing that. I did eventually get her email, but only after Darren had recorded the vocal and Darren did a great job on it. So after a while we couldn't get exactly the singers we were looking for and we realised that if we were ever gonna tour we'd have to have a singer and it would be good if he sang some of the songs on the album. So midway through we decided to form the band and that's when we decided to put the call out on the internet.
Which is one the great things about the internet age. However, the flip side is that fan and critical comment has become almost immediate and uncontrolled. Even given that though, I was amazed at how vicious some of the criticism was towards the band's debut live performance; especially towards Darren. How hard was that for the band to take?
Ummm, no, that's true, that's true. The Whiskey performance, it was umm. That was probably my fault for not putting my foot down, I wanted to... We had never really rehearsed, or played together as a band before that gig and we had only, I believe, three rehearsals to learn the songs together, to get the set together and play the show, whereas I had hoped for a good three weeks to get the band tight. However it was sort of thrust upon us unknowingly and rather than cancel it we decided to go gung-ho and see what happened. What happened wasn't that good (laughs) and I'm not saying that the acidic reviews of the show were not deserved, but yeah, it's a little easier these days with the internet to say stuff and not really be held accountable. It doesn't bother me, I don't care, I really don't give a shit. Like I stated previously, I don't do this for the people, I don't do it for the fans, I do it for purely selfish reasons, that's for me. I play music for me and if I'm good enough and enough people care, then that's wonderful, I appreciate that. If they don't like it, fuck 'em, I don't care, I'm not doing it for them. So the Whiskey show, yes that was sort of a disaster but in a weird way I'm kinda proud of it because it did become such a big deal. I think we were ground breaking (laughs)...it was a ground breaking gig. The fact the so many people hated it and made such a big deal about it. If we'd have done a good gig, if we'd done real well, we'd not have gotten half the press and someone once said any press is good press. I don't necessarily think that's true, but hey, we got noticed, you know. Maybe, maybe, I am a genius and I know how to get press and maybe I made the band play very badly. Maybe I poured a bottle of vodka down Darren's throat so that we would get noticed. I'm not saying I am that genius, but is it possible? I leave it to you...
Now obviously you had a number of year's worth of material to work through for the debut RDC album. Does that well run deep enough to be plundered for album number two? Or will you be putting together a completely new set of songs for your second album?
There's an abundance of song ideas. If there is another album, I imagine that we'll try to do it both ways; look at what I've written previously and jam together like Badlands - in Badlands we mostly just got together and jammed and wrote the bulk of our songs that way. It would be nice to try it with Red Dragon Cartel also, but I'm not guaranteeing that there will be another album. I know the record company hopes there is (laughs) and the band hopes there is, I just...I just did this as a last hurrah and just to see what it felt like to be back out and I've had a lot of fun doing it. I miss my home life though and I, as I stated previously, I don't "need" this and as long as it's not tiresome or becomes too much of a "job" I can see it going on. Right now I don't know. We're at the beginning of the European tour. It's wonderful to back over here, it's even better that I get to play Italy and Spain for the first time ever. But we'll see, if it taxes me too much I can easily go back into retirement. It's me first and whatever makes me happy. If making another record makes me happy, then I'll do it. If making another record becomes gruelling then I'll just stop and feel reassured in knowing that there's really not going to be a whole big world that'll miss me. Some fans will and if that's what happens, I apologise to them...
So you guys hit the UK for seven shows in June. Will you be playing songs from throughout your career - Ozzy, Badlands - or will it be exclusively Red Dragon Cartel? Or maybe even some of the other member's catalogue - Harem Scarem, Beggars &Thieves?
I've been really getting into Justin Bieber lately and Miley Cirus and I'm thinking we really have to do some of those, but it's really up to Darren whether he can hit those notes that those two singers are capable of doing!!! (laughs all round!) No, I'm goofing. No, we will be doing some Ozzy songs, which I never did in Badlands. So it's been twenty five, thirty years since I played those Ozzy songs and the only reason we're doing them now is that it kind of feels fresh again for me. If Red Dragon Cartel does continue and we actually do another record and tour, there's no guarantee we'll be doing Ozzy songs then. Right now it feels good to play them again. Same with the Badlands, we'll be doing quite a few Badlands songs actually and of course we'll be doing some Red Dragon Cartel songs. I'd say the set is basically Red Dragon Cartel and Badlands with a sprinkling of Ozzy.
Your tour of the UK culminates with a slot at the Download festival. You must be delighted to have been asked to perform at such a prestigious festival?
It's been twenty years since I played in the UK with Badlands; that was a great tour. Download (laughs), yes, I'm thrilled...I have no idea what it is really (laughs), 'cause I've been out of the loop for a while but apparently Black Sabbath are playing. I think we're playing on the same day as Sabbath, so hopefully there's not any hard feelings there with me playing a couple of Ozzy songs and we don't get thrown off. But if not, then yes that sounds like it's going to be a wonderful experience and it's been a long time since I played in front of a large crowd, which I assume that's going to be.
You're time with both Ozzy and Badlands came to abrupt halts. Is there a feeling of taking care of unfinished business about Red Dragon Cartel?
No there isn't!! (a long pause ensues...) Oddly, or maybe not, my tenure in both of those bands were four years long. Maybe that's how long I have to do a project? Which means I have another three years with Red Dragon Cartel maybe?! No I don't feel I have any unfinished business, other than once I get to England and especially Scotland, I did not have a Scotch habit before and now I do and so I'm looking forward to trying single malts, especially the "Isles" malts. I don't know what that's really got to do with anything (laughs!) but maybe people will come up to me during the show and ask me to sample something I haven't had before.
To go off on a tangent Jake, I've always wondered what it was like to follow in such impressive footsteps as those of Randy Rhoads? From the outside it always looked like you handled it really well. Was that the case?
I handled it the way I pretty much handle everything - on an even keel. I don't get frightened, I don't get nervous. Randy Rhoads was obviously almost a superhuman guitarist and I'd like to thank him for being that, because by having to follow him I think it upped my game guitar wise. I was always a good guitarist - maybe even a great one - but because I was going to have to follow up Randy, I think he helped me step up my game quite a bit and become a better guitar player in a shorter amount of time than I would normally have. That's what I take away from following Randy. He helped me become better.
And finally I have to mention my admiration for Ray Gillen, who you worked with in Badlands. Can you share some of your memories of working with such an obviously talented singer please?
Ray was THE man. He had this voice, he could sing anything...the one memory which comes up immediately, is how he was unsure of himself when we were doing the first Badlands record in New York. It was back in the day when you would spend lots of stupid money, because you would get lots of stupid money from the record company. So there was a period of about a week where he was supposed to come in and do vocals. I'd show up, producer, engineer, everybody would be there waiting for Ray and he'd show up hours late. Then he'd want a pizza. Then he'd say he couldn't sing right after eating. So we'd sit around, shoot pool, all this on studio time, expensive studio time, then it would get late and he'd say it's too late, let's try again tomorrow. This happened for about a week. Finally I pulled him aside and asked him what was up and he said, "I don't know if I'm good enough"... "What do you mean, you don't know if you're good enough?"... "Everybody's expecting so much, I'm playing with Jake E Lee, I already have a little bit of a cult following as far as having sung in Black Sabbath and everybody's expecting me to be great. I'm just not sure if I'm going to be good enough". I almost felt like slapping him, I said, "You are great! You are better than anybody out there. Yes, you're playing with me and you're playing with me because the second I heard you sing I knew you were the guy to do this. You are going to amaze the world. So quit being a pussy and get in there and do it." And that's when he finally started laying down vocal tracks and as is documented on the record, he was phenomenal and I miss him....
Red Dragon Cartel play a series of headline shows in the UK during June. Head along to any of the shows below to witness one of the genuine, underrated, guitar greats of our time.
Fri. June 6th LONDON 02 Academy Islington – o2academyislington.co.uk
Sat. June 7th NOTTINGHAM Rescue Rooms – rescuerooms.com
Sun. June 8th WOLVERHAMPTON Slade Rooms – wolvescivic.co.uk
Fri. June 13th BUCKLEY Tivoli – tivolivenue.com
Sun. June 15th DOWNLOAD FESTIVAL Donington – downloadfestival.co.uk
(Click here to read our reviews of the Red Dragon Cartel album)