All images courtesy of James LoMenzo/5 Bam Management
By Andrew DiCecco
James LoMenzo has been in the music business long enough to know never to say never.
Nearly 12 years since last performing with Megadeth, the seemingly inevitable phone call courting the veteran bassist to rejoin the thrash metal titans in a temporary capacity ahead of their highly anticipated, 29-date Metal Tour of the Year beckoned late last summer.
“You know what? I’ve never said never,” LoMenzo insisted. “I’ve always said, ‘What’s next?’ It’s impossible to look at things that way.”
The well-traveled bass guitarist, who originally joined the seminal metal outfit in 2006, performed on a pair of albums that remain inexplicably unsung in the scope of Megadeth’s sweeping catalog, United Abominations (2007) and Endgame (2009), before ultimately giving way to David Ellefson, Megadeth’s original bassist, in early 2010.
“We didn’t have a big blowout,” LoMenzo recalled. “It was just, [David] Ellefson was available; I had been there for four years – the Big Four was coming up – it was the time. And I was thrilled. I’m the fan guy that loves the original bands.”
Ironically, this time, it was LoMenzo who answered the bell that sounded, replacing Ellefson during Megadeth’s hour of need.
Over the course of his career, LoMenzo has showcased his signature poise, adaptability, and world-class showmanship in various bands, including White Lion and Black Label Society, and has accompanied revered luminaries such as David Lee Roth and John Fogerty. With his return to Megadeth, LoMenzo represents the final component to unlocking the band’s inherent potential.
As evidenced by the preservation of this lineup, Megadeth is steadfast in its commitment to LoMenzo. A crucial piece to an equation that also includes Megadeth’s unwavering and inspirational leader and founder Dave Mustaine, guitarist Kiko Loureiro and drummer Dirk Verbeuren, LoMenzo was officially announced as a permanent member of Megadeth on May 31.
In a recent conversation, LoMenzo and I spoke about, among other things, his re-entry into the Megadeth fold, locking in the rhythm section chemistry, his first show with Megadeth in nearly 12 years, and how he altered his bass approach to fit the band.
Last August, you rejoined Megadeth ahead of their Metal Tour of the Year, a 29-date North American tour in which the band served as co-headliners alongside Lamb of God. How did this reunion come about, James?
Well, you know, here’s the thing; It’s funny because the other day I was backstage, and I go, “You know, I’m goin’ on two years here.” I didn’t see that comin’ again. It was a total – not a complete surprise – but a surprise. When I saw the stuff that was going on with Megadeth, it was all over the internet – we’re all connected – I looked at it, and I thought to myself, “Hmm. I wonder if I’ll get a phone call.” But at that time, I kind of thought, “You know what? They’re gonna resolve this, or whatever is goin’ on is gonna fix itself.” So, I kinda went that way. Anyway, it did not fix itself, and so suddenly, Megadeth was in need of a bass player, and my phone blew up. I mean, everybody I knew would go, “Well, did you get the call? Do you know anything yet?”
I had been doin’ all kinds of gigs for years since the last time I was in Megadeth in 2007, so at that time, I was playing with John Fogerty. And that was like, you know, long weekend gigs, and I was diggin’ the hell out of it. I was playing next to [drummer] Kenny Aronoff, and we’d play all these great places and stuff. So, I was fine; I wasn’t looking for a gig, but I did consider that I might get a phone call sometime, or I might not. So, then when it was discovered that [Megadeth] was recording with another bass player, oddly enough – I know this may sound strange to some people – I was like, “Whew.” And the reason being is not that I don’t ever wanna play with Megadeth again – as you can see, I am – but that was gonna be another big change in my life, just like joining Megadeth for the first time was a big change in my life. And going from what my life had become to what it could become had I joined Megadeth again, I had some trepidation.
So, I did finally get a phone call one morning – and I was actually playing a gig; I can’t remember exactly where – but it was odd because it was the management team. They called up, and they said, “Dave [Mustaine] would love you to consider helping out and getting us through the tour that’s coming up.” And I thought, “That’s kind of perfect because we can get our feet wet, and I can kind of cozy into it.” But I would have had to leave some commitments that I had, so I needed to work that out first, which I did. And everyone was very gracious about it on the other end. So, taking that into account, then I spoke to Dave about it, and he was really very, very excited and cool about it. He was very like, “Dude, it’ll be great. If you wanna do it, this would really help out. We got the Metal Tour of the Year coming up.” Like I said, I had trepidation, but the trepidation was this: I could play the Megadeth songs – I knew it would take me a week or so to kind of bone up and get my fingers around it again – but the stage thing, man. Four guys on stage, filling that stage and entertaining the headbangers. Becoming that again, you know? That was the only thing.
So, I immediately went to YouTube, as you do these days, and [Megadeth] had a video that we put out called “Blood on the Water.” It was in San Diego, and it was after I had been in the band for a year or so – maybe a couple of years – but by that time, I was firmly entrenched as a band member, so I said, “Let me see where we left off.” And I was looking at this thing, and I was going, “Yeah, okay. So, I’m gonna have to take this thing by storm.” We were pretty active back then. So, yeah, I put all that into my head, and I factored it in. You know, that was it – three weeks, week-and-a-half of intensive, at-home reminiscing. It came to me a lot quicker than I thought it would because I hadn’t really thought about the songs too much since. I’ve played in a lot of bands, right? So, if I were to hold onto each and every catalog and play them every day, I wouldn’t have time to practice them, first of all; and secondly, there just isn’t enough space in this noggin of mine to do it. And that’s always been my M.O.: Move onto the next thing and get really focused on that. So, now, it was time to refocus on Megadeth.
I got out to Nashville, and man, when I showed up at that rehearsal place – I met Dirk [Verbeuren] on the plane, we have a mutual friend, so we were kind of bonding on that and talking on the plane – and so the first day we go in there, Dave was tied up doing something, so he didn’t come down that day, and Kiko [Loureiro] wasn’t in from Finland yet. So, it was [Dirk] and I and the crew putting all the gear together, so it was a perfect time for us to get to know each other musically. So, there was Dirk, and we have this enormous platform that he’s been on now since last year – he’s like 9 feet in the air, if anybody’s seen it. It’s pretty exciting; it reminds me of old Judas Priest, you know? And so, this is gonna kinda be weird, ‘cause we’re gonna play together, and he’s all the way up there, and I’m all the way down there. I’m old school; I like to be in the John Paul Jones position to John Bonham. I like to be eyeball-to-eyeball with the drummer; that’s the most fun. But anyway, this was not to be. So, we started going through some of the songs, and my God, as soon as he hit the bass drum and the snare, it was more solid than I ever remember the music. And I think that’s a tribute to his personal style. We ran through practically the whole set, just him and I – no cue music, nothing – just out of motor memory. It was astounding, and I was like, “This is gonna be great.” So, that’s kinda the way it all started up. Dave came by the next day, Kiko showed up the next day, and we just ran through music. It was almost like we were ready to go.
There is inherent chemistry between you and Dirk. How long did it take to lock in the rhythm section?
It was immediate. That very rarely happens. I always wanted to be a drummer, so I had a list of drummers as long as both of my arms and then some, and, my God, over the years, I’ve gotten to play with just about each and every one of them. I think the only one that I never got to play with because he passed away a while ago is Cozy Powell. One of my favorite drummers when I was a kid was Carmine Appice, and I’ve gotten to play with him and record with him. So, anyway, to play with all these great drummers and then to come to Dirk, who, to me, is a relatively young drummer – I was peripherally aware of Soilwork, but that music was never my bag, so I’m not really intimately familiar with what he did in that band – so, getting there and hearing him play the Megadeth stuff, it was like we had been playing together for years.
I’ve become really adept at listening to drummers and trying to figure out how they play over the years. And that’s kind of the way I approach it. Some people lead with the hi-hat, some people lead with the bass drum, some people push the snare forward, and some people push it back. So, I do a quick tabulation whenever I sit down with a new drummer – new to me – and try and figure out where his pocket is and how I can play along with that. Not that I have to be on his foot and his hands and everything – I don’t have to do that – but I have to groove with that. That’s always my mindset as a bass player, trying to make a rhythm section out of the thing. Again, I can go on and on; we’ve been playing together for over a year now. I was gonna say it keeps getting better and better, but it keeps getting the same and the same. It’s been great.
That’s fantastic. So, the Metal Tour of the Year kicked off on Aug. 20, 2021, in Austin, TX. I imagine it must have been a surreal experience for you to grace the stage with Megadeth again for the first time in nearly 12 years. What are your memories of that show?
Dude, it was like getting on that rusty, old bike and then, all of a sudden, finding that it still rode really well. The rusty part was me. [Laughs]. For the rest of it, Dave is in such great shape considering what he’s been through and considering how many years he’s been doing this. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody so hungry in his position. To him, this is still all new. They used to call [Dave] ‘The General’ back then, that kind of dropped off the radar, but I know why they used to do that because he’s like leading us in and marching us. The best leader is the guy who emboldens everyone to become part of it, and that’s what he does. But his enthusiasm and his drive, for people like me – and I’ve come to find out people like Kiko and people like Dirk, who have that built into them – it’s contagious, man. We’re a hungry band, dude.
With United Abominations (2007) and Endgame (2009), you played in two different incarnations of Megadeth. I happen to think that this is the best the band has ever sounded, but from your vantage point, what makes this version of the band such a cohesive juggernaut?
I can’t say better or worse; everybody Dave has ever had was great in their own right. But, I mean, this only happens magically; you can’t plan this. There’s something about the chemistry of this band. Kiko, for instance, he’s a master player. He really is. He’s got so many facets to his playing; you gotta hear his Brazilian acoustic playing. Rhythmically, he’s amazing; he doesn’t need another instrument to make great music. The guy plays flute, for fucks sake. He’s very deep. We have a jam room set up, and the intent is that we practice some of the stuff, new and old, and get ready for the stage. But since I’ve shown up there, it’s become like this jam room from hell, and we touch on everything, every kind of genre of music you can think of. But what I really enjoy with Kiko is that he actually dumbs it down for me so that we can jam. Like, he’ll lower it to four memorable chords that we can stay at, and so we can open it up. But this is what, to me, makes this a little richer.
Chris Broderick was fantastic. He was amazing on those records, and what a lovely guy to be in a band with, but his trajectory was in that world – very metal from top to bottom – and that’s great, but that’s something that eludes me because I’ve had so many influences over the years that I can never just pick one meal. So, that is what makes it better for me. And I think it makes it better as a band because everybody has this depth, but that also gives everybody, I think, an insight into how to be the best Megadeth. How to interpret what Megadeth actually is and bring their abilities to the table. This feels a lot more like a freight train than the other two versions of Megadeth that you’re talking about. There’s just something more powerful about it to me.
The latest single from the new album, The Sick, the Dying… and the Dead!, “We’ll Be Back,” made its live debut on Aug. 24 at FivePoint Amphitheater in Irvine, CA. For you, I presume that was your first time playing that song in its entirety. How did it feel to unveil it live for the first time?
All right, first of all, I cheated, ‘cause I got the music before anybody did. [Laughs]. So, I’ve been listening to this stuff since it’s been mastered; we listened to the vinyl pressing and all that stuff. I imagine the other guys did, too; I don’t think there’s any magic trick here. I mean, we all, slowly, started to assimilate the music and practice it along the way. It was a question of getting it on the stage. Actually, we missed a day – we wanted to get it right out there as soon as we got on stage – but the setup, lighting, sound, patches for the guitars, it’s all tied together. So, in order to perform these songs, we actually have to – as opposed to just having three spotlights and freaking the audience out all of a sudden after they’ve seen all the lights and all that stuff – we really needed to set that up. And because we have a limited amount of space on this Five Finger Death Punch tour that we’re on right now, we missed the opportunity to get the equipment all tied together. So, that finally happened last week, and boy, what a joy.
We practiced it backstage in that little space that I told you about; we stopped jamming long enough to play the new music. We practiced a few of the other songs, too, and actually, we’re pretty good to go on a couple of the other ones, too, but we’re still getting the video and all that together so we can perform it up to the standard of everything else we’re doing. It was great; it’s fast – it’s a little faster than the other stuff we do – so it’s kinda to put it in second or third spot. Which is what we wanted to do to kind of get it right out there for the people who were familiar with it and kinda hit people over the head who don’t know what it is yet. So, we put it up second or third song; the second song, I think, now. That was a bit of a wrist chug, but you know what? Great. It went off perfectly; Dave sang great. Dave’s got the hardest part, ‘cause he’s gotta play the crazy guitar stuff and sing what sounds like three voices at the same time. It’s just rapid-fire, vitriol, and spitfire coming out of his mouth while he’s playing the guitar parts, so my hat’s right off to him.
What song on the setlist do you enjoy playing the most, James?
So far, I like “Night Stalkers” a lot. We were playing the Sammy Hagar song “World’s on Fire.” I mean, I love the cover stuff because it’s really quirky. On our Megadeth vacation, we actually recorded a Judas Priest song – that’s already out there, people know about that – but it hasn’t been released yet. That’s another one that I dig. I just like stuff out of context for Megadeth, ‘cause once you hear Dave sing it, it like pulls it back into Megadeth context. But playing this stuff and trying to still make it attributable to the artist? That’s fun.
Based on my timeline, it appears that you narrowly missed the window to re-record the bass parts for the new album. Take me through that sequence of events from your point of view.
I just missed that window; that was the second question I asked when I spoke with management. I said, “You gotta let me play on the record.” And it was funny because I almost heard the phone drop on the ground. This record has been goin’ on for six years, so before they actually figured out what they were doing for touring, they brought Steve [DiGiorgio] in, which was a great choice. I can’t think of a better bass player, honestly. I like myself, but I can’t think of a better bass player, honestly. So, I was thrilled when he was doing it, and I assumed that he might have gone on, but also, he’s in Testament and, you know, who knows? There’s always a vibe when you get into a studio with people. It’s always more than just the music. It’s like, “Is everyone gonna wanna go and commit to Megadeth?” Megadeth is a huge commitment. So, I don’t have any answers; I don’t know why he didn’t go along with it, but he did play great stuff, and I know the whole album now. Couldn’t have done it better myself; glad he did.
But anyway, here was the point; I said, “You gotta let me play on the record,” and they were just like, “We’ve exhausted the budget. It’s already done.” So, with that, when I spoke with Dave, he goes, “We’ll be doing other things soon enough, and this is where we’re at.” And again, the premise was I was just gonna go on this tour, and Megadeth would figure it out from there. Nobody thought that it would lock in so great. So then, after the tour was done – and again, there’s more to it than just the music – we really had such a great time. Dave seemed happier than a clam, and he called me up and goes, “I would love you to just stay. If you do that, you have a place here.” And I was like, “Yeah, man. After a tour like that, let’s keep going.”
But you did play on a couple of live tracks that wound up on the album, right?
Yeah, we record every night. So, it’s always something. It wasn’t like, “Tonight’s the night we make the live track.” They’re rolling zeros and ones every night.
Dave Mustaine has hailed you as being “one of the deepest bass players” he’s had a chance to play with, including the late Cliff Burton. Having said that, would you mind sharing with me your approach to the instrument and how you had to modify it to play in Megadeth?
Dude, that alone floors me to hear that because we’re shoulder-to-shoulder every night doing battle. I think the world of him. I don’t think there’s anybody like Dave; vocally, the whole thing, man. He’s got his own voice musically, vocally, the whole nine yards.
When I was a kid, I loved music. I wanted to be a drummer, so my folks bought me a – there was one summer I was sick – I was shut in and all that, and so, they got me a snare drum, and I worked on rudiments. I started learning rudiments, and that must have driven them nuts because we had a two-story in Brooklyn. [Laughs] They were like, “Don’t you wanna play guitar?” I was like, “Oh, guitar is nice,” you know? So, they got me a guitar for Christmas, and I started learning some basics, strumming chords and stuff like that, but it was all about just trying to get this thing out of me. You know, it’s the artist’s soul – there’s a voice inside of you – and you want it to be external, and you want people to see it. For me, it was always gonna be music, and I knew that at a very early age, probably at the age of five or six. So, I just didn’t know exactly, so I started singing. And as I grew up, I started listening to music on the radio – music on the radio back when I was a kid was usually just a little transistor radio with a three-inch speaker in there – but on the radio was everything that we know as “classic rock” being invented at that moment. So that, along with Ray Charles, same thing, on that radio station – it would go from The Beatles, to Ray Charles, to The Rolling Stones, to Frank Sinatra – there was just this crazy amalgam of music that was rich, and it was all comin’ at ya at the same time, within the half-hour intervals in between commercials and all that. And I was fixated with it, dude. If someone else was listening to the radio, and I could hear that reverberation in the backyard comin’ through my window, it would excite me because there was somethin’ new comin’ on musically that I hadn’t heard yet.
So, this is what brings me to my approach to bass guitar; it’s really an approach to music. I was having this discussion with Kiko last night – we were actually sitting back, having some wine – and he was going, “You know, what happens is, the better you get, the magic of music kinda disappears in a way. You start to understand it better.” And I said, “Exactly right, man.” When I started playing a classical instrument, French horn is what I played in junior high school and high school, I started to understand what everything in the orchestra did, and how it was arranged, and how it was layered. And that kind of ruined it for me because before that, all those sweeping strings and stuff, I had no idea what that instrument is; it was just one big sound. So, when you listen to your favorite bands – if you have no musical acumen – you started realizing it’s this one big sound that only they can make together. So, my approach throughout my whole life has been to try and replicate those sounds.
So, as a bass player, when I would practice bass guitar, I would try and play with anything that came on the radio. When I was a little kid, it was Creedence Clearwater Revival, which were very easy parts to grasp onto – they weren’t very difficult – but it was also Grand Funk, which was a little more difficult. And it was also Black Sabbath. And then, coming along down the pike when I started playing live, is Judas Priest. You know, it was kinda like, “Oh, you just sit there for that note?” But you have to change that note in the right place; otherwise, it doesn’t work. As I went through – White Lion, I did tours, and stuff like that – but then Michael Jackson was huge. So, as a White Lioner, I’d start playing along with the radio and play a Michael Jackson thing. I didn’t know who Anthony Jackson was back then, I know now, but I was like, “Why is that groove so good? How do I get there?” So, I would do it – I’d misinterpret it a little, my hands are little – but I’d do the best I could. And to this day, I do that.
The last time I got to hang out with Lemmy [Kilmister] was at Musician’s Institute. Marky Ramone has a scholarship, so he’ll do a concert there and raise money, and then he’ll give some poor kid who can’t afford to go to MI or get drum lessons a scholarship. So, we got on that stage, and we’re playing all these Ramones songs. It’s funny because I usually wear my bass guitar mid-level, around my belt, because I’m a littler guy for bass guitar than you usually would get. So, that worked very well for me as a compromise between my left hand and my right hand. But if you gotta play down strokes as fast as you possibly can, that shape on your arm – having your wrist a little higher – will completely kill you; you can’t get through it. So, you have to readjust the bass, make the strap longer, and get it down around your knee. And that’s why those guys sound the way they do, and that’s how they’ve developed that style. But these are all the things you have to take into account to play different styles of music.
For Megadeth, I’d always play with a pick because I vacillated between playing with my fingers and a pick. When I play Motown type of music, of course, with my fingers, that’s the way they played it, and that would make the bass sound that way. When I play Yes, and play along with those records, certainly a pick. Beatles records, you play with that, you have to play them with a pick. So, when I got to Megadeth – I was playing with Black Label [Society] just before that, and it was all with my fingers, mostly – everybody was like, “Oh my God, you’re gonna have to play with a pick! That’s the way David Ellefson did it!” I’m like, “But of course!” I wanted to sound like David Ellefson, you know? So, it was a lot more pick than I would normally use in my other gigs, and rightfully so, but it wasn’t like, “Oh my God, I’m really gonna have to spend a couple of months with this pick.” It was kinda like, “I’ve been doing this all along.”
So, now, how can I play this stuff a little better? Well, I had to work with my left hand a little more, which meant I had to watch how Dave uses his hands, and he has a different way of playing than most guitar players that I’ve played with; he really incorporates the full spread of his fingers. So, I thought, “Well, if I do it more like that, it’ll probably be more like that.” And then, later on, I watched videos of David Ellefson, and I saw he was doing a similar thing, so I was on the right course. So, taking all that into account, really, to me, playing in different bands and different genres is the most natural thing. It’s like breathing. It’s exciting to me because I try to get it right; I try to get it as close as I can to what people are familiar with because that’s what I wanna hear.
You’re like an athlete in many ways, James, because you’re constantly conditioning yourself to adapt to different genres. Is that fair to say?
Yeah, I think that’s extremely fair. I know a lot of guys like me, not as many out there, but the same kind of insatiable curiosity about how that guy sounds like he does. There’s this one variable – and this is why I will never sound exactly like David Ellefson no matter how hard I pick and how hard I down stroke and all the rest of the stuff – we have different synapses, different electrical systems in our bodies. We just do. So, I’ll do it; my physiology is a little different – I have shorter fingers – but man, that’s the challenge, and that’s the excitement of trying to break through your own personal barrier and get to the next level. I use this analogy quite often; when I used to listen to the old records of The Beatles doing the Beach Boys and vice versa because they’d be inspired by each other because they were making records at the same time, Brian Wilson was like, “I heard Sgt. Pepper, and that made me do Pet Sounds.” If you listen to them, it still sounds so different than the other guys – they didn’t even get close – but it became this other thing that was uniquely theirs but just as interesting. So, I think there’s some validity to that. I like the fact that you can misinterpret something, and it still becomes viable unto itself.
How has your style or approach to the bass guitar evolved over the years?
Gosh. I just think my vocabulary is better; like, I have more go-tos than I used to have, and I think any musician will tell ya that. My technique has gotten better and worse; it’s really funny because I’ll go through these times when I wanna push the boundary and do something I’ve never done before, so I’ll start doing these arpeggios and try and do a sweep over. And that I always found difficult, and then once I got to that point where I could get to it, all of a sudden, I had to look at my right hand and go, “Ooh, that’s changing everything.” So, what I mean by better and worse is like, I’ll kind of break these boundaries and get a little better at something that I didn’t have before, and then have to change something else about my playing. And again, like I was mentioning, even just the height of the guitar; all these variables: string choices, pickup choices, things like that that speak differently.
So, then, you play the instrument differently because it comes out of the amplifiers differently. There are all these variables, and I think, over the years, I just keep coming back to being the same guy. I just got this erratic love for a toppy mid-range that’s percussive – again, getting back to loving drums – just enough of that so that it’ll speak over loud guitars. I started playing, from White Lion through Zakk Wylde, for so many years; I developed this to get over the guitar so that the bass, when you heard it, you actually hear a fundamental note and an attack as opposed to just a warble of bed. Because I was never really into that, although that is a cool sound, I really liked the notes to register and do something with the other instruments.
I think having an early fondness for drums has enabled you to see and hear things differently as a bassist, which is why you’re able to integrate yourself into any genre.
Rhythm is everything, man. I mean, even on the guitar. You know, that’s why when I look at … “What guitar players do you love?” … “I love Eddie Van Halen!” … “Yeah! Well, isn’t he great on lead guitar?” … “No! His rhythm!” Holy cow. Whenever I find a guitar player who can play rhythm like that, that shit blows me away, man. Rhythmically, his feel against the drums was otherworldly. Same thing with Hendrix; playing on and off the drums. The drums almost didn’t seem to matter, and yet the way he interweaved with them was pure magic. This Megadeth world, bringing it back to that, this is rhythm of the highest order. I mean, there is a feel to this stuff, but it comes at you so aggressively that some people might miss that. I don’t miss that. I feel that. There are places to pull and push against the rhythm. What Dave does is really great. Like, you barely notice it; I notice it. And sitting just on the edge of the bass drum and the snare drum, or sitting just slightly behind it, it actually breathes; it moves forward and back. So, keep an eye on that when you’re listening to Megadeth the next time.
As a Brooklyn native, you were forged in a burgeoning east coast music scene. What was your experience like as you worked your way up through the ranks and honed your chops?
My first band was actually a band called Sir Donicus, and the reason I mention that is that a friend of mine from Brooklyn who I met in school at music class, Steve Augeri, went on to sing for Journey for many years. And he still has his own thriving career; he’s still out there. He has a fantastic voice and was also a great sax player and a great guitar player. The way I saw it as an 11-year-old, he was the John Lennon to my Paul McCartney – which makes me the obnoxious one. [Laughs]. My dad was great; he’d let us practice in our basement, and he kinda mock-managed us and stuff. So, we played block parties; that was what you could get. Like, you’d play at a church for a fundraiser; there wasn’t a lot to do at an early age back then, for us, especially in Brooklyn.
I think the first gig I ever played, and this was a year before that – I think this was where I met Steve, actually – I was just strummin’ guitar, and they had a talent show at the Brooklyn Public Library, which was about four streets away from me in Brooklyn, from 57th street to 60th street. I signed up for that and boldly went up there and sang a bunch of songs with an acoustic guitar. And then Steve’s band played, and they had like a whole band; I remember they had a song called, “I’m busted…I’m busted, bad. I’m busted…” [Laughs]. I’ll never forget that. So, when I met him at school a year later, that’s when we decided to put a band together. We didn’t cover that; that was a good song. We should have covered that one.
But later on, we played block parties. In the summer, people would close off the streets, and they’d get together and socialize and they’d hire bands. Everybody would bring food out, and they’d share and stuff like that. It was really very sweet; it was a very cooperative neighborhood feeling. It was always great, and they’d put up balloons and lights and all that stuff. And so, we would book ourselves, like, every week, and the word got around, like, “Hey, this is a good band.” So, that’s how we got our chops together. After that, I got into high school, and I put together a 7-piece band – I think that was that Clockwork band. Steve had moved on to something else, so I got all my friends from high school, and we did songs by The Who; I was playing French horn then, so I arranged all the parts for the sax player, the trumpet player, and the trombone player. And we had this giant posse band; we’d go bowling, and we were shitty at bowling, but it was so we could do things together. So, then we started actually playing clubs; we played Max’s Kansas City, for God’s sake. We used to go to CBGB; I was really into the New York scene.
Then very quickly, just to consolidate this whole thing, when I finally started spreading out, I answered an ad to play in a band on Long Island. And that’s when it all really started. That’s when I really started getting out there and seeing this as a possible future. The first band I joined was a band called Hooker, where we had a female singer named Debbie Robinson. It was covers, but we dressed kind of like Twisted Sister. We did three sets; we did a Judas Priest set, where we wore leather and dressed like Judas Priest and played that kind of tough music; then we did a set of glam, which was David Bowie and all that, and we dressed like Twisted Sister, makeup and the whole nine yards; and then we did a rock set where we just wore jeans and stuff like that. And so, we started playing the Tri-State area, and that’s when we started getting around., We played Hammerjacks on Long Island and all these places. So, that’s how that started, and then I went from one band to the next. Then I got into a three-piece blues band; as one band kind of dissipated, somebody else would go, “Hey, that bass player is good. You should check him out,” and then I’d go do that for a while.
One of the most interesting things about my development as a bass player was Bobby Rondinelli, who played drums in Rainbow back in the day, he had seen me with another band, and his drum tech said, “Bobby needs a bass player. You’d be great.” So, I was like, “Wow. That’d be cool.” And [Bobby] was just freshly out of Rainbow, so he had this band of his own; his brother, Teddy, was playing guitar, and they got a guy named Jeff Fenholt, who was singing in Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway. What I didn’t realize until I got there was the space that I was filling was the space of Felix Pappalardi. Felix Pappalardi played in the band Mountain in the ‘70s; he also produced Cream. So, I got there, and Bobby still had his bass, like, the Gibson, violin-shaped EB-1. It just had one big pickup on it, and it was like playing a bridge you drive over, trying to push those things down. But he changed my life, Bobby, because I got there, and we were jammin’, and he liked the way I played.
So, he hands me that bass, and then he takes me over to this transistor amp, and he plugs it in, and he goes, “Play a note.” So, I play a note, and then all of a sudden, he just takes the knob, and he moves it all the way up. And it’s this big, distorted sound, which Felix Pappalardi was famous for. And he goes, “Do ya think you can play with that sound?” I had the worst Fender amp, it was just under-biased, and that’s the sound I always had, and I hated it! It was like, “Why can’t I get this thing to sound like the good guys?!” And then when he did that, I’ve been playing this way my whole life. But that really changed my life because he gave me this weird freedom to have a voice on the bass. And he was such a good drummer – for me, he was probably better qualified than I was – but I caught on real quick, and that’s when I started my journey of like, “I gotta listen to these drummers. I can’t let ‘em see me sweat. I gotta be right there with ‘em.”
James, you played an integral role in helping one of my favorite bands, White Lion, ultimately realize its full potential by providing stability, showmanship, and attitude. How do you remember your audition?
So, I played at L’Amour with the Bobby Rondinelli band – Ray Gillen had turned out to be the singer, by the way – and we had done a demo, and we were moving ahead. Ray Gillen had gone on to play with Black Sabbath, so now we needed a singer again, and now I knew that this is gonna flop. So, I started looking west because I had already been out there with another band, and I was like, “I’m just gonna go out there and see what’s shakin’ because there’s this heavy metal thing going on, so I should see what’s goin’ on there.” I’d already done the whole New York scene, as far as I was concerned, for a number of years.
So, anyway, we did play that gig, and I was in the John Paul Jones role: keyboards, bass pedals, bass, and all that. And the guys who ran [L’Amour], George and Mike, they saw me on stage with that. White Lion had this thing with bass players; it was like the drummer from Spinal Tap, like, the guys were spontaneously combusting one after the next. And I think part of it was personality clashes; I think that’s really what it was. So, they said, “You’d be great in the band,” but I already had my tickets to L.A., right? So, they said, “Well, do us a favor. They’re playing on Friday. Before you do anything, come on down and take a look.”
So, I went to the club, and, you know, it was just about packed. So, I thought, “Well, this is a good sign.” I went in the back, and there was like a little step up in the back, so I was on there because I wanted to get a good view. So, I was standing there by the PA and lighting system, and they started. I was watching, and I was going, “The singer’s – wow – look at him go. He’s like David Lee Roth.” And then Vito [Bratta] comes out, and he looks like a ringmaster, and he’s playing like Ritchie Blackmore, but he sounded like Eddie Van Halen. I remember the drummer was spectacular – it was Nicky Capozzi – and I was going, “That drummer, oh my God!” I forgot who was playing bass; it might’ve been Dave Spitz. So, I’m watching, and I’m going, “They’re great, but they’re just like Van Halen.” That’s what I thought to myself. So, I kind of just made my decision after watching the set and go, “I just don’t know how they’re gonna get out there and be taken seriously against Van Halen because they look too much like that.” In my estimation, anyway. So, I thanked them for the opportunity; I didn’t meet the guys, but I thanked the managers, and I said, “I’m going to L.A., and that’ll be it.”
So, I go out to L.A., I actually take my motorcycle out there, and I get a job as a motorcycle messenger. I find a band to play with; they weren’t that great, but it was a way to get started. One morning, I get into a wreck with a car; it was like a five-mile-an-hour scrape – wasn’t terrible – but I did cut my knee. The bike was out of commission, so now I’m outta work and outta luck. So, now I’m on my cousin’s couch; he lived, at the time, on the same street as The Whisky a Go Go, which is right around the corner from The Rainbow [Bar & Grill]. So, I was very familiar with the Rainbow, having been to California many times. I’m like, “All right, woe was me, I’m gonna drown my sorrows,” so I go to the Rainbow with a crutch of all things. Nothing elicits sympathy than walking into a heavy metal bastion with a crutch. [Laughs].
But anyway, I’m sitting at the bar, and it was a Sunday night; it wasn’t even one of their busy nights, and all of a sudden, the guy next to me taps me and says, “Hey, James.” It’s a friend of mine, John, from Brooklyn. I used to hang out with him at L’Amour all the time. And he goes, “How ya doing?” And I said, “Dude, I don’t know, man. I gotta figure out another move. This is where I’m ending up.” And he goes, “Wow.” So, we’re talkin’, and then he goes, “You know, that White Lion band, they always liked you.” I said, “Yeah, man. They’re like Van Halen 2.0.” And he’s like, “Yeah, man,” – he takes a look at me and my crutches, and he’s kinda laughing, “They always liked you, and, you know, they probably would fly you home. You should see if they wanna audition you.” I was partly opportunistic, I will admit that, but I was like, “Okay.” So, he gives me the number of the managers, and I call them up, and they go, “Sure, we’ll get you a flight. Come on home.”
So, I come home, I go to the basement to finally get together with the guys, and now, Nicky is gone. So, that concerned me immediately because I thought he was such a fantastic drummer. In his place was Greg D’Angelo, who was a fine drummer, but he wasn’t like what Nicky Capozzi was, with the double bass and all that shit. As a matter of fact, Greg used to take lessons with Bobby Rondinelli when I was playing with him; he’d come out to Long Island and take lessons. So, I was aware of who he was, and I was like, “Okay, well, let’s get down to it.” And so, we started playing some of the music that ended up on Pride that they were working on. Vito showed me the chord changes, and we ran through some of that stuff. Mike [Tramp] started singing, and I just, instinctively, like I always did, got on the mic and started singing along with him, harmonizing and stuff, and it sounded great. It was funny because I was like, “Well, this is good. This sounds more like a different band. This doesn’t sound like Van Halen at all. This sounds like a rock band.” It didn’t sound like a metal band to me at the time, but I was fine with that because, as we discussed before, I love all kinds of music. And so, they were like, “We’re gonna go to Germany next month and record some of this stuff. Are you in?” Frankly, I liked the band, but I wasn’t sold just yet because we hadn’t done anything. So, I was like, “I’ve never been to Germany before… sure!”
The same as getting together with Megadeth at the rehearsal place for a week or two, we bonded in Germany doing what was supposed to be the record but turned out to be a very expensive demo. But we lived together, and we got to know each other, and we got to be a band out there. Then we came back, played the Tri-State area – all the clubs up to Boston, PA, the whole nine yards – and then we get signed to Atlantic.
While it’s widely known that Mike [Tramp] and Vito [Bratta] presided over the songwriting, did you and Greg have much input into the creative process?
I helped them arrange stuff because I understood that. And they did take my suggestions, which was great. A lot of “Wait” was like that. Vocals, yes, I basically stacked the harmonies because I understood that. But the rest of it, I don’t know; Vito was very guarded about all that. He didn’t want us to participate because he didn’t wanna share it, honestly. Looking back at it, that’s ultimately what drove Greg and me out of there. It was a bad deal for the guys in the rhythm section. The reality was that I accepted that role in that context. I thought it was the right thing to do. I thought that playing the simpler bass lines was the right thing to do. I mean, the most I ever stretched out was on the second record. Like, “Little Fighter,” I’m playing double stop chords and stuff like that, along with the guitar, and there’s a little bit more movement to the bass. They were into it because Vito was listening to different kinds of music, so he accepted it. But going in with the songs that they already had, they really had them nailed down the way they wanted, and so they just needed them to be produced better. I helped produce them. In all fairness, I thought that the secret weapon in those songs was Mike; he’s the one who made the melodies, dude. The lyrics were a little clumsy but understandable and easy, right? But man, those melodies; that’s what made those songs happen.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of the White Lion Pride album. Taking a retrospective look back, what is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of that record?
Man, I’ll tell ya what, it was actually being on tour and not realizing how well that record was doing. So, we’re traveling in a Winnebago; the record’s out, and we rented a Winnebago, and our sound man, John Burns, was driving it. And it wasn’t a long one, either; it was a shorty. We went all the way across the country; they broke the regions, and they just kind of put us through all these places. It was great – we were lovin’ that – but we stayed at motels that had Cathode tube T.V.s with rabbit ears. Old, cheap hotels. What that means is that we didn’t have MTV on those things. If you entered a hotel with cable, it was called a Ritz Carlton or a Hilton; it wasn’t called a Motel 6 back then. So, we had no idea. I called back to the family just to let them know how we were doing and stuff like that, drop whatever it was, fifteen cents in the phone, and all of a sudden, they were like, “My God, you’re on TV all the time!” I had no concept of that; I mean, I knew we did the video, but who knew what a video was back then, you know? So, that’s my biggest memory of the thing. And all of a sudden, as we started getting across the country, the clubs started filling up really good. It started really falling into line. By the time we got to The Roxy on the other side, we were something. All of a sudden, we were something. It seemed meteorically fast and slow all at the same time. Because we just didn’t see it coming.
– Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is the Senior Editor for vwmusicrocks.com and may be reached at email@example.com