All images courtesy of Pat Fontaine/XYZ
From unlikely origins in Lyon, France, to staking their Sunset Strip claim as the “official house band of the Whiskey A Go Go, to near extinction in the face of grunge, the story of XYZ is one of grit and determination.
Retrospectively hailed as one of the edgier bands of the 80s hard rock and heavy metal era, XYZ, along with a few others, represented what amounted to the final wave of groups signed off the legendary Sunset Strip in the late 80s.
After a whirlwind courtship which included a near-signing with Atlantic Records, and eventually joining the roster of Enigma Records, XYZ hit the studio with acclaimed guitarist, and burgeoning producer, Don Dokken in toe, and success quickly followed in the form of charting singles, “Inside Out,” and “What Keeps Me Loving You.”
As the 90s dawned, subtle rumblings of grunge and alternative music were afoot, and label chaos and subsequent shakeups ensued. Now on Capitol Records, XZY doubled down, recording, and releasing the sleaze rock masterpiece, Hungry, a record which remains criminally underexposed to this day.
While “Face Down In The Gutter” received initial airplay on MTV’s Headbangers Ball, critical, and commercial backlash were imminent, with Hungry’s campy album cover and accompanying music videos receiving harsh criticism in an era where glitz, glam, and sex were being replaced with sullen, downtrodden, and more disconsolate stylings.
In the wake of Hungry, the members of XYZ went their separate ways. Fontaine, ever eager, and possessing a voracious appetite for rock music, formed Puddle Gut, before quietly riding out the 90s and into the 2000s creating music for the sheer joy of it.
Present-day, XYZ is reformed, and the core duo of Patt Fontaine (bass guitar), and Terry Ilous (vocals) have been joined by a rotating cast of players over the years, with the drum and guitar duties being held down by Joey Shapiro, and Tony Marcus respectively since 1991. The band continues to be a hot ticket on the live circuit, and rumors of new music are ever afoot.
I recently sat down with veteran rocker, thunderous bassist, and true scene survivor, Pat Fontaine, regarding the history of XYZ, as well as his long journey in music.
Pat, thank you for taking the time to dig in with us. As a young musician, what first gravitated you toward the bass guitar?
Supply and demand. [Laughs]. All the cool kids wanted to play guitars, so there was a bigger demand for bassists. Simple as that, really. In high school, it seemed everyone was looking for bass players, so I first thought of it as basic supply and demand. On top of that, four strings seemed much more manageable than six. [Laughs]. I spent a year in the US when I was twelve years old. I came back to Europe with a decent grasp of the English language, and a strong liking for rock music, and with that in my back pocket, I managed a job as a roadie for Motörhead. Lemmy sealed the deal for me. That was it. I was going to play bass for a living. I even got the same black and white Rickenbaker. Sadly, I had to sell that bass in order to survive a year later in NYC, and I got ripped off, I must add. [Laughs].
What were some of your early gigs where you first cut your teeth?
My first few gigs were small parties down in my grandmother’s basement in Europe. It was there that a few close friends would gather, and the price of admission was only a six-pack of cheap beer. Really, it was just a handful of teenagers sitting around in a cloud of marijuana, and listening to chaotic rock’n’roll. We were a trio at first, hence the name XYZ. I was the lead singer and man, we were terrible. Kind of punk really, very loose and dirty, with complete disregard for tuning and timing, I must say. Some of our songs were twenty minutes long — awful. After we graduated from the basement and got slightly tighter, we managed to play roadside dives, and summer BBQ parties in the south of France. We then, somehow, moved on to opening for touring bands from the UK. I recall a small tour with Girlschool, and then, with Uli Jon Roth after he left the Scorpions. In fact, we even played the legendary CBGBs in NYC in the early 80s.
XYZ hit the Sunset Strip at the height of the Glam and Hair Metal era. Take me through the initial formation of the band.
Well, before Hollywood, there was France, and before we became a four-piece, XYZ was a trio. But, as fate would have it, I met Terry [Ilous] while recording a demo at a local studio in our hometown of Lyon.
Terry sang in a local cover band, and his keyboard player was a common friend. One night, both of them came to our recording session just to hang out, and have a few beers. For the fun of it, I guess, I asked Terry to step behind the mic for a different kind of inspiration. He kindly obliged, and immediately, his vocals blew me away. I had never heard him before. His voice was smooth, strong, and confident. I made sure the tape machine was rolling. When Terry left the building, I asked the engineer to make me a quick mix on a cassette. I played that cassette for hours in my car, and to anyone that would volunteer their ears. All loved it. I contacted Terry via our common friend and asked him about a possible collaboration. Terry wanted nothing to do with us. He thought we sucked and were too out of control. He was absolutely correct. I insisted another couple of times, over the phone, but he rejected my offers. [Laughs].
I think that maybe our growing following eventually got to him, as by then we were packing small clubs, and were the talk of the town. I was also very determined to take it to a pro-level, to faraway cities like London, or Los Angeles maybe? Crazy ideas! In the end, it probably was my determination that convinced Terry to finally join me. I always say, “Determination trumps talent.”
XYZ quickly exploded, and became the “official house band of The Whiskey A Go Go.” What do you recall about the band’s first gig and its subsequent meteoric rise?
Meteoric to you were baby steps to us, I’m afraid. Only Terry and I decided to make Los Angeles our new home. The other guys opted to stay in Europe. So, the first order of business was to recruit musicians, and that took forever. Once we had the right people together, our first gig in California was a Mme Wong’s, which is long gone. Our first gig at the Whiskey was most likely on a Tuesday at 7 pm, opening for the opener to the next opener to the headliner. The bartender, Vicky, as I recall, was our only crowd.
Eventually, we made friends, just one at a time, every show, a few more. Hanging out with all the kids on The Strip, recruiting one guy here and one girl there. There were tens of thousands of us on Sunset Strip, just walking around, having a good time, looking for the next big thing. It was like Mardi Gras every weekend. Those times are long gone.
To be exact, the Whiskey never really had a true house band. Rather, Louie the Lip, manager of the place, took us under his wing and started to book us whenever there was a slot open. Eventually, we started to draw crowds. More and more and more…at one point, Louie was nice enough to let us paint a giant XYZ logo on the front windows of the club. Right there on Sunset on the outside. It was that very logo that got people to refer to the club as the “XYZ Club.” [Laughs]. It only holds 350 people, but we managed to pack it pretty solid month after month. Up the street, Warrant had Gazzari’s, and XYZ had the Whiskey, and we all lived in peace. [Laughs].
Sunset Boulevard was a complete zoo in the late 80s, and it got so crowded, the sheriff would shut it down to vehicular traffic on Friday and Saturday nights. A sea of big-haired kids would descend upon the boulevard, in cowboy boots, leather jackets, mini skirts, and ripped fishnets. It was an awesome sight.
On the heels of the band’s Sunset Strip takeover, Enigma Records quickly scooped XYZ up. What did their courtship look like?
We were at a point of complete despair in late 1986, as we had already inked a demo deal with Atlantic Records, and after recording a full album at Cherokee Studios, we were told, “Thanks-but-no-thanks.”
It was devastating to us. After that blow, Terry and I decided to quit “the dream,” and go back to Europe. Lucky for us, we had a friend/manager that insisted over, and over that, we give it another year. So, we reluctantly agreed. Lo and behold, within that year, things began to evolve for the better. There must have been a point at which the back-to-back sold-out shows at the Whiskey somehow reached the ears of someone at Enigma, who inquired about the band. We were quick to get them a cassette demo of “Inside Out.” A long shot we thought, but it did pan out. They liked the demo and were nice enough to show up at a few gigs. Chatting a bit backstage, buying us a few drinks, and eventually, after a few weeks of courtship, we got the phone call that we so desperately wanted.
Just in time, I must say, as Warrant was already on the air, and in retrospect, it seems we were the last “Sunset Strip band” to get signed, I would venture to say. After us, things were shut down pretty much. We got on the last train in the nick of time.
XYZ’s sound and image seemed tailormade for the era, and it seemed to translate on the band’s self-titled debut. XYZ hit the studio with Don Dokken at the controls. How integral was Don to the sound of XYZ’s debut?
I think back today, and believe we could have distanced ourselves a little more from that very sound. We all were fans of Dokken — Under Lock And Key ruled — still does!
Don did backup vocals on most of our tunes, so his vocal tone is in there somewhere, no escaping that. We did not want too much of his influence at any rate, but at the same time, we were thrilled to have him. He was very dedicated, and present every step of the way.
Don was first brought into our rehearsal basement at Hollywood Musician Institute by our Enigma guy, Curtis Beck. We were a bit nervous, but Don was so casual, even grabbing a microphone to join us on a song or two. After rehearsal, I insisted he came over to our pad a few blocks away, where I made him our daily dish of spaghetti. [Laughs]. We had a few beers, a few lines, and a few laughs. He didn’t care much for my cooking, but he really liked the cute strippers we had living with us. [Laughs].
We talked about working together on a couple of songs, and eventually, we decided to have him as a producer for our first release. It was not always a smooth relationship, and we hit a few bumps here and there. We were a bit more bluesy than he was, I reckon. We fought a bit on musical direction, but his input was always well received, and always valued, as Don is a true pro, and is amazingly quick at writing melodies and lyrics on the spot. He also had great stories of the road, and what appeared to be an endless supply of champagne. [Laughs].
Touch on your contributions to the band’s debut specifically, if you can. “Souvenirs” is a deep cut that always stood out. What do you recall regarding its inception?
“Souvenirs” was a reflection of what we had left in Europe. We came to the USA with nothing, and on dark days, of course, we reflected on our past. The song came to life very early on. It has been with us in one form or another forever. We used to sit home in Hollywood and pluck away, chatting about Europe, the friends we left behind, that type of thing. Terry always writes the melody, and I come in with the words. He sits with an acoustic guitar and I sit with a notepad, that’s it. “Souvenirs” was born like that, on a couch, on some lonely night. We wanted it to be our first single but were met with resistance from both Don and Enigma.
While XYZ’s debut was a success, it’s known that back then, hopping on the right tour can make or break a band. In XYZ’s case, the band hopped on tour with Ted Nugent, in 1989. In retrospect, was that the right fit for XYZ? Ted is something of a controversial character, what memories do you have from the jaunt?
In our little world that success was a major accomplishment, as we went from borderline starvation to actually being able to eat at decent fast food joints. Success in our camp was measured in calories. [Laughs].
Ted Nugent indeed was an enormous step up the ladder for us. I had a massive poster of him in our basement in Europe. To be sharing a stage with him was truly mind-blowing. I liked Ted, but did I agree with him on all topics? Certainly not. But I admire anyone with the guts to speak out, and that he does. Of course, we also were given a tour bus, the distant dream of every musician. What a party it was, Christmas on the road at a truck stop, hard to beat!
Ted would walk in backstage before the shows, always courteous, hand-gun in holster, to chat us up a bit, and crack a few jokes. He knew we were nervous, and it must have been his way to make us feel a bit more relaxed. He was always tough-spoken but very kind. Because of Ted, we went from clubs to arenas overnight, and man was that a shock. Our guitar cables were not long enough to cover that massive stage. [Laughs].
I clearly remember the first gig with Ted, in Grand Rapids, we pull up for sound-check and there is this long line of pretty girls all dressed up, waiting by the backstage door. So, I tell my road manager, “Damn, it looks like Ted is doing good in this town,” and the reply was, “Yes he is, you idiot, but this line of girls is for you guys!” And it turns out, it was. I was shocked.
The 90s was a particularly tumultuous period for rockers, and it was during this period that XYZ released the truly under-exposed, Hungry, which is said to be one of the better late-stage hair metal albums, period. Take me through the writing, and recording of that album.
We had a show in Atlanta, GA when the label told us to, “Get home asap and start working on a new album.” So, we turned the bus back towards California, a bit nervous about the future, but also excited because we had heard that Capitol Records was going to take over Enigma by early ‘93.
We went back to Hollywood and booked rehearsal for three months solid, every day, writing, trying new things and old things, messing around with crazy ideas, all fun and games, really. We were torn a bit between heavy and bluesy, so we decided to do a bit of both.
We started with a different producer, and not happy with the initial results, we decided to go back to George Tutko, who was at the console for our early Atlantic deal. We moved to Studio 56 for months to track it all. There were three or four tracking rooms at 56, and next door was Ringo Star, and the door after that was Axl Rose, I recall. Man what studio-mates to have!
Eddie Van Halen showed up one day, and we chatted about guitar amps by the coffee machine. We were surrounded by massively talented people and I felt a bit out of place, I must say. [Laughs]. The Capitol folks also came around a few times bringing sushi and champagne. We were just thrilled when they told us we had a new home. To be able to put that little Capitol logo on our pictures, and posters was a huge kick for me.
I was even more excited when they decided on “Face Down In The Gutter” for a single, as I was rooting for a more blues overtone. I asked for a video and Capitol agreed. I asked for a hip and hot director, and man, did we get that, as in Michael Bay. Damn! The guy was brilliant.
Hungry faced a bit of backlash due to the “graphic” nature of its cover, and the video for “Face Down In The Gutter,” received a similar reception. Do you have any regrets regarding the marketing of Hungry?
Backlash it was, even the video was edited quite a bit to please MTV. Which, like all media outlets at that time, became more and more politically correct, trying to adapt to the grunge wave coming from Seattle. Sexy was not cool anymore.
My view at the time was, “fuck grunge,” but the pages of rock were turning, and you can’t win every fight, can you? Nevertheless, yes, we pushed on with the sexy vibe of the late 80s. Hence the cover of Hungry. We did not want to become sad, depressed, and self-reflective like every group from up north. Like everyone in Hollywood, we so wanted to keep this “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” party going, but we were doomed. So, indeed, the marketing of any Sunset Strip band of that time became a mess for every label and management, really. They tried all kinds of tricks, but at the end of the day, a new sun was rising. Every decade or so comes a shift, the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, and on and on.
As I alluded to, the 90s was a bit of a blood bath for rockers, with grunge urging on a seismic sonic shift. Do you feel Hungry was swallowed up by the era?
Blood bath indeed, Hollywood went dark. The radio stations dumped all California rock overnight. It was brutal. Seattle took over our culture with bad coffee and sleeping pills. [Laughs]. Gone, were the sexy girls and the debauchery, and even a smile was seen as out of place. No one would dare to jump around on stage like David Lee Roth used to do, it was now seen as frivolous, and in poor taste. The fun factor was gone.
Hungry was allowed to live on MTV for just a few months, it seemed. It was a tough reminder that nothing lasts forever, I guess. Having said that, we did manage to tour. In fact, supporting Foreigner through every city in the US and Canada. Then we hit the clubs all over, and it turns out, there were still a lot of fans out there.
Looking back, did Enigma Records properly support XYZ? By your estimation, what could the band, management, and the record label have done differently to turn the fortunes for XYZ?
Frankly, I think, we drove everybody crazy…as we still do today. Our constant suggestions become a big headache to management and record people. The problem was us, not them. I think we could have been more docile and much more go-with-the-flow. We have the same exact problem today though. [Laughs].
XYZ’s first chapter came to an end in 1992. Take me through the sequence of events that led to the fracture.
Yes, indeed, end of ‘92 we went home after a club tour, and just by watching Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots on constant rotation on MTV, we thought it would be wise to hang our hats for a while. So we did. Curtains. Lights out. We split. We all went different ways, different cities, different states. I find it difficult to stay put for too long, so for the sheer fun of it, I started a little jam session with a few friends, and that somehow morphed into Puzzle Gut.
As you’ve just alluded to, after the disillusion of XYZ, you were a member of Puzzle Gut, which released one album in 1997, Puzzle Gut. The band seemed more in line with the sounds common to the 90s. Would you agree? Shed some light on that band and album for us.
What I love most about the music biz is playing live, so I really wanted to get back on the road with some kind of band. At that time, no one in Hollywood was looking for a rock bass player, so I convinced two madmen to help me create Puzzle Gut as a road band. With the most basic gear, a small vehicle, and only the bare minimum, we set out to burn the house down. It was all about energy and attitude — in your face! We played the clubs up and down the pacific coast, a great time, with tiny crowds. It was Joe Shapiro on drums, fresh off the XYZ bus, and Lance Bulen on guitar and vox, who had just walked out of Baton Rouge — the band and the city.
We did not care about the radio format, the trend of the day, or whatever was on MTV. We just wanted to play dives, and yell into a microphone, and so we did. Strangely enough, that disregard for all formats worked well enough that Interscope signed us up just two years into that mad experiment. Super quick for the biz, and just like that, we were making a record in Santa Monica, prepping for the Roar Tour with Iggy Pop, and then, we were off playing stadiums that were packed with much younger people. Man, it was actually a wonderful time. The energy was on 100%.
Now get this, we are today considering releasing a few Puzzle Gut never-heard songs that we wrote on the road, banging on the steering wheel of our Chevy Astro Van, during the late 90s. Stay tuned on that, we shall see!
After ten years, in 2002, XYZ reformed. What were the initial conversations which led to the reformation?
Well, slowly but surely, in early 2000, some of the 80s bands got back on the road. There were a few festivals out there putting that music back onto their stages. Rocklahoma was crucial on that one. Thank you Rocklahoma!
As a band, unless you want to starve, you only show up when you get an invite. If no one wants you, you stay home and wait for the phone to ring. So, as far as initial conversations, they were all about, “When is that damn phone gonna ring?” Tough times, but unavoidable at our level.
2003’s Letter To God still serves as XYZ’s most recent studio album to date. Despite the band’s tremendous resurgence on the live circuit, what has kept XYZ out of the studio?
I was in Puzzle Gut at the time, contracts are often difficult to break, and thus, was not involved with the recording of Letter To God. Terry decided to release songs we had written here and there a few years back. I also did not think the timing was right.
We did try to re-unite every few years or so after that, recording new songs when they came up. But speaking for myself only, I did not think we had anything worth an actual release until COVID hit, that is. The silver lining of a pandemic is free time, isn’t it? And a different outlook on things, I guess.
Last one. Rumors are circulating that XYZ may be in the studio recording its long-awaited fourth studio album. Is there any truth to that? If so, what more can you tell us about the record, and what’s next on XYZ’s docket, Pat?
There is some truth to that indeed! We are currently going back and forth between LA and Denver where Joey [Shapiro], our drummer since ’92 has a spectacular recording facility, Avalanche Studios. Great vibe up there, and that somehow allowed us to quarantine for weeks on end, and write some fresh new material. What we shall do with it is still a question mark, as the full-length CD market is long gone, and the new world seems to be on-demand singles. Spotify anyone?
We do have some gigs on the docket here and there, cruises included — we love those — and outdoor festivals this summer, that type of thing. In fact, M3, in Maryland is next for us on May 8th, 2022.
We are also looking at Australia next year, as our 2020 tour was canceled due to the COVID rules down under. We’ve never played there, and I just want to take a moment to meditate on Bon Scott’s grave! Fair enough, ain’t it?
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3 thoughts on “An Interview with Pat Fontaine of XYZ”
Fantastic interview. Pat provided a lot of insight and a bit of humor too! XYZ is one of the best hard rock bands from the late 80s/early 90s! I’d love to hear a new album from them if it sounds like the first two albums.
HI There Andrew, Great article!!. I photographed XYZ and knew Pat and Terry back in the late 80’s here in LA when I was a photographer for a few rocker mags in the Hollywood scene.
They were amazing to work with a very nice! I was hoping to show them my site that features some of my work that I did with them along with many others. Please, if you have a way to contact them I would love it if you would show them my new online photo exhibit that’s free to anyone who wishes to see it, Hollywoodnights.com. I sure would love to hear from them! Thank you, Marcie
Great interview and amazing viewpoint on the Grunge movement of the 90s.The rock bands that survived came out on the other end Redefined, with new audiences and The landscape craving more heavy music again. Post covid, bands are rebuilding heavy metal again. AiC, sound garden, etc have a place in music history, no disrespect but, like the iceberg to the titanic, Its a rough sea. The survivors are more loved, and those songs are loved now, more than ever.