An Interview with Tony Harnell of TNT

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Widely heralded for his soaring vocals and innate sense of melody, Tony Harnell’s predetermined path toward Rock ‘N’ Roll stardom was forged at an early age.

As a member of The Jackals, a Bronx-based band poised to prosper amid a booming New York club circuit, the California-born Harnell honed his chops performing a wide-ranging spectrum of music.

Harnell discovered during one of his gigs that one of his demos had somehow made its way to Norway. Mike Varney from Shrapnel Records and the manager of a Norwegian band, TNT, who flew out to meet with Harnell, were in the audience and handed Harnell a cassette tape backstage that would forever change his life.

“Side one is the album with the singer that they fired. Side two is just the music, so you can sort of get a feel for it, you can re-write stuff to fit your voice…” Harnell recalled them saying.

Impressed with what he heard, Harnell parted for Norway and subsequently laid down the vocal tracks to 1984’s Knights Of The New Thunder. Harnell originally planned to return to New York, and continue his rise to prominence with The Jackals, but finally being afforded a break to make a record with all the proper amenities was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

Harnell, along with virtuoso guitarist Ronni Le Tekrø, bassist Morty Black, and drummer Diesel Dahl, would subsequently achieve mainstream success with 1987’s Tell No Tales, on the shoulders of hit singles, “Everyone’s A Star,” and “10,000 Lovers (In One).”

As the voice of TNT, Harnell continued to gain worldwide recognition on the band’s follow-up album, Intuition (1989), while also providing vocals on Realized Fantasies (1992), Firefly (1997), Transistor (1999), My Religion (2004), and All The Way To The Sun (2005) albums before leaving the band for the first time in 2006.

In the interim, Harnell has undertaken various projects, including Morning Wood, Westworld, Starbreaker, and The Mercury Train, among other ventures.

For more on Harnell, I encourage all to visit his Patreon page, and interested vocalists to check out his vocal course, and webpage at www.therocksingersociety.com, and https://www.tonyharnell.com/ respectively.

With that, I recently had a chance to sit down with heralded frontman for a career-spanning conversation.

Andrew:
You began singing at a young age, Tony. What was it about singing that initially reeled you in, so to speak?

Tony:
Well, I was born in San Diego. I grew up in California and moved to New York when I was sixteen, a month or two before my seventeenth birthday. I just started singing; my mom was an opera singer, so I just grew up around music. She used to play, not just the good Classical music that was always going on, and I was exposed to, but she and my aunt exposed me to quite a lot of Pop music of the time; The Beatles and various Folk music in the 60s and 70s. I remember I just started singing, and my family noticed that I could carry a tune and was in pitch, and so forth. I just really loved it. My first hero was Glen Campbell, and I kind of just went from one musical hero to another. Even though other interests were going on in my life — surfing, skateboarding, and different sports — music was always there.

Andrew:
At what point did you begin forming bands, and making the rounds to various local venues?

Tony:
I was, I guess you could say discovered, by some local guys that had — believe it or not — heard me singing in my car in the neighborhood when I had moved to New York. I was around seventeen, and I suppose I had been honing my skills in my car before I left California — because I got a car when I was sixteen — driving to and from the beach, and to and from work. I was honing my skills, and so, I guess I was getting pretty good. I was singing around the neighborhood, and probably had my windows down, and local guys that were musicians heard me, recruited me, and asked me to come and rehearse with them at seventeen. I had never been in a rehearsal room before and never sang on a microphone before, so that first experience really changed my life. I was in college in New York already, I left high school early, and by the end of that first semester, I was fully bitten by the music bug and I went in, and basically quit college.

Andrew:
In the early days, you worked with renowned vocal coach, Don Lawrence. How crucial was Don in helping shape your range, and overall vocal prowess?

Tony:
Well, I sort of figured out quite a lot on my own just using my ears and copying my heroes. Somewhere in those first six months in New York, I was rooted into my first professional band, which was actually based in the Philadelphia/South Jersey area, and we started to play four nights a week, playing a lot of different types of Rock music; everything from Pink Floyd, to [Led] Zeppelin, to Judas Priest. Just a lot of different things. I got to work with guys that were professionals, and had been playing for a while; they were probably in their early-to-mid twenties, all the way up to, I think one guy was thirty years old. So, they had been around, and they taught me a lot. Being pretty green at that point — I’d really only been taking it seriously for probably six months, maybe a year — I was pretty lucky to get recognized, be heard, and get recruited into a pro situation like that. That’s really where I cut my teeth, and I learned a lot, singing a lot of different material.

So, by the time I was eighteen, I had kind of assessed where my weaknesses were, and I couldn’t quite figure out how to overcome them myself. For my eighteenth birthday, my mom bought me my first voice lessons, and they happened to be with Don Lawrence in New York City. So, I went back to New York and started to work with him; I think I did about four to six months, initially, with him. What it did for me was, just kind of fill in the gaps, and it gave me a foundation, and understanding of what I was doing naturally, and just strengthened things. It also gave me a foundation to understand how to take care of my voice, which was really important.

Andrew:
Circa 1983, you met Mike Varney, founder of Shrapnel Records, which ultimately proved to be significant. How did you get on Mike’s radar?

Tony:
I was pretty focused on getting someplace. Once I decided to do it, I was very focused on getting to wherever it was I was going. Back then, it was such a different time, that you could just focus on honing your art, work on your songwriting skills, and work on your live skills, in particular — and just try to get seen and heard. So, that’s what I was doing, and I was really focused. As soon as I felt like I was outgrowing the band I was in, I would move on. And that’s pretty much how I got so far, so fast. Because if you think about it, from the time that I said to myself, and my parents, “I’m gonna do this seriously,” at about seventeen years old, it was only about three-and-a-half years until I got signed to Mercury Records. That’s a pretty short amount of time.

The last band before TNT was The Jackals, which also had Johnny Tempesta on drums. We were playing a gig, and after the gig, Mike Varney, and another guy who was managing TNT at the time came backstage, gave me a cassette, and told me that a demo of mine had made its way to Norway. I still don’t know how it did — and Ronni [Le Tekrø] doesn’t really remember either — but it got there. They had already decided on a singer; they actually had Gary Barden from Michael Schenker Group flying in and they canceled his flight. They found me, came back and gave me a cassette, and said, “Side one is the album with the singer that they fired. Side two is just the music, so you can sort of get a feel for it, you can re-write stuff to fit your voice…” Then they said, “They want you to fly over and make the record, so we need a decision as soon as possible.” So, I went back to my apartment with my bass player, who I lived with, and we listened to the tape together, and I sort of was blown away, but not really acting like I was blown away because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. I didn’t say anything, and he said, “So, what do you think?” And I said, “Oh, I don’t know.” And he said, “Come on. You gotta go.” So, he pushed me, and I went. That was kind of how it started.

I really liked that band I was in New York, and I said to them, “Hey guys, I’ll go make this record. It’s on a major label in Norway. I’ll go make the album, and it’ll be a great demo. I’ll come back, we’ll keep going, and it’ll help us.” So, I went and made the record and we mixed it. Then it came out in Europe, then it came out in Norway, then it came out in Holland, and then it started to come out in all different European countries, and eventually, Japan. I guess it was probably about four to six months later, we got a call from the New York office that they wanted to take over the deal and sign the band to three albums.

Andrew:
Was there ever a point where you were torn between the two bands? How difficult was it to weigh the upside of The Jackals versus TNT before taking the plunge?

Tony:
The Jackals were a great band that had a lot of potential but I quickly realized when I went over and made the record with TNT, was that they were just much further along. And when I got finished with the album and got to work a real producer for the first time, and really put down on a real album — I guess you could say that after honing my skills and being able to put my voice down on a record in a real way — it changed everything for me. I learned a lot in a very short period of time, and I realized, “Wow, these guys are really where I want to be, and it feels right.” I was really into European Metal at that point. In some ways, I just really loved the way the guitar players played. I loved the way their guitars sounded; I thought they just sounded better. I was really into the Scorpions — I still love the Scorpions — and of course, all the British bands; Judas Priest was obviously one of my favorite bands. So, Ronni had that sound, and he played the ways those guys played. He was just on another level. I hadn’t been in that situation before, and it just felt right. It felt like I had worked hard and got myself to a certain place. It just seemed to fit.

Andrew:
Do you have any memories of your first gig with TNT?

Tony:
I can’t remember exactly. It was probably, if I think back, a low-key thing that we did at a local biker bar before we went out on tour the first time. Because the band, you have to understand, was started by the singer who was fired, and he was kind of a star; he’s still a star over there. He was in a very big boy band; they were called The Kids. The guitar player from that band started Stage Dolls, and the singer started TNT. So, they already kind of had a following, and a start because they had made a record before I joined, and the lyrics were all in Norwegian. I was kind of entering into something where, once the record came out, there was going to be a proper tour bus tour and the whole nine yards. So, I really took a big jump forward, but I felt ready for it. And I was.

Andrew:
Given the influences you’ve referenced, the first album that you did with TNT, The Knights Of The New Thunder, appeared to be in your musical wheelhouse with the Power Metal focus. However, 1987’s Tell No Tales veered in a totally different direction. What prompted that shift?

Tony:
Probably the label. I came into Knights Of The New Thunder with the record already being written, so, I didn’t have as much flexibility; I could only rework some lyrics, and change some melodies here and there, and I didn’t have a lot of time. I wanted to leave the hooks more or less intact; I changed some of the lyrics on the hooks, but I would leave the melodies the same. So, for example, “Break the Ice” was the same melody, but it was called “Toys For Boys.” It was probably about motorcycles, and girls or something, and I just thought, “No, that’s not me,” so I changed things like that.

With Tell No Tales, it was Ronni and I writing songs together for the first time. The first song we wrote together was “Listen To Your Heart,” and we just kind of knew, “Wow, this is definitely very different from Knights of the New Thunder, but it’s really cool.” It’s different than anything we had ever heard, as well. Here’s what happened: Knights was recorded in ’84, and then we toured Scandinavia. We got signed in America in early ’85, and they had to kind of repackage the album, and we added a few extra songs. Knights came out in America, probably summer of ’85, then we started slowly writing songs as we were making videos and figuring everything out. In ’86, we were recording Tell No Tales, and then we lost our manager, Doc McGhee; we parted ways with him and got a new manager. So, by the time we got done, it was a couple of years from Knights Of The New Thunder, and we had done quite a bit. And we went back to Europe after the American version came out, and we got bigger and bigger. But there was a good buzz on the band by the time Tell No Tales came out. The direction of [Tell No Tales] was probably fueled by my influence as an American, and also the label wanting it to be a little more commercial, I guess you could say.

Andrew:
Sonically, that appeared to be a prominent trend for music around that time, so it makes sense.

Tony:
Yeah, but I think we have such a different twist on it. We had unusual arrangements; we had little twists and turns that we through in there. We were very unconventional. It’s interesting because when I have people try to learn the songs now, [such as] an American musician that I work with, they think when they hear it in passing that it’s a very simple thing. But when they start digging in, they realize how difficult this stuff is to play. If you really listen to it, it’s actually quite progressive; there’s a lot of little twists and turns with the riffs and chords. Ronni was always coming up with really interesting things. We all, as a band, had unusual arrangements for the songs.

Andrew:
What do you recall from the recording of Tell No Tales?

Tony:
It was not as easy as Knights from the standpoint of just … “Now shit’s getting real.” Knights Of The New Thunder, for me, I was like a kid in a candy store. I was in a new situation, I was twenty-one years old, I was recording my first album, it was exciting, I wasn’t scared. Now, with Tell No Tales…shit was real! We had a major, worldwide deal now; the suits in New York were putting a lot of pressure on us to make something fantastic, and we were a little nervous. There was definitely a lot more pressure making that album. I remember recording half the vocals in Norway, and I was just kind of feeling a little lost, so the producer suggested that we take a little break, and finish the vocals in New York, where I could go home to my apartment at night. So, that’s what we did. And it worked out really well.

Andrew:
I can see how being in your element proved to be a viable solution in alleviating some of the mounting pressure.

Tony:
It was just a little easier, going home to my own apartment. What I did by joining a band in Europe was really ballsy and brave. I’m sure I could have easily just said, “No,” or left after I did Knights because it was a little too much, but I was adventurous. I was very into the art, and willing to go to those lengths to be successful. But it started to wear on me, being in Europe a lot, and it continued to be the case throughout my entire career with TNT. I love it in Europe, but it’s hard to be away from home all the time.

Andrew:
The big tour in support of Tell No Tales was the one with Twisted Sister, and Great White, right?

Tony:
Well, actually, the Stryper tour was bigger; Stryper, Loudness, and TNT. Those were much bigger venues. Being a California kid, the tour started in LA, and they put us up in a hotel there for a couple of weeks, and we rehearsed. We made a music video, I believe, while we were there. I can’t remember which one it was. That was kind of the routine for a few records in the US for tours. We’d go out there, rehearse, make a music video, and then start the tour. I think the first show was at Anaheim Civic Auditorium or something, and it was my first arena show in the US — and I’m in California, where I grew up! So, it was very, very exciting. And we only had to play for thirty or forty minutes; it was a pretty easy set.

Andrew:
How pivotal was MTV in providing a boost to the album?

Tony:
Huge. Even Knights Of The New Thunder, MTV played “Seven Seas,” and there were some other video channels that played the hell out of “Seven Seas.” But MTV was a big deal, and the label was pretty committed. I mean, we made a terrible video for “10,000 Lovers” out of the gate — MTV rejected it — so we were touring Europe, and we did the real video, where we’re up on those really high pillars, in London. They played that video a lot, and they played “Everyone’s a Star” a lot. Blackie Lawless interviewed us on MTV at one time, and I think Dee Snider did, as well. It was very instrumental. You had to be on MTV if you were going to do anything.

Andrew:
Your chemistry with Ronni comes off seamless and innate, particularly in regards to songwriting. Can you expand on what your collaborative approach looked like when it came to writing songs?

Tony:
Just write songs. [Laughs]. We have so many ways of getting the song written. That’s what was so awesome about it; we just wrote songs. There was never, “Let’s do it this way, or let’s do it that way.” We just worked on music. He understood me. I understood him. And we kind of knew where we were going. [Ronni], obviously being the guitarist in the band, was the musical driving force in terms of the rhythm, riffs, tempos, and what direction the band was going in. But I would also bring songs to the table, and throw ideas out there all the time. So, it was a very good collaboration between the two of us, I’d say.

Andrew:
The Intuition album was a significant chapter in the book of TNT. What can you tell us about that period?

Tony:
We did our own first headline tour in the U.S., which was very successful. I mean, we played clubs, but we played theatres, also. We were the first Hard Rock band to sell out The Palace Theatre, in Hollywood, and have a lot of celebrities in the audience. That felt good. As the tour progressed across the country, we were breaking attendance records the whole time, all the way to the end, when we ended in New York and did a trio of shows that were all sold out. The album did great over here, and it did great in Europe, also, but it just went nuts in Japan. I remember getting the phone call from our manager, like, “You guys are number two on the Pop charts, behind Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad.’” Something like that. Michael Jackson was in there somewhere; I think he was number one and we were number two. They put the tour on sale, and these were 7,500-10,000 seat venues, and we were headlining — and I think it was six or seven dates — and the whole tour sold out in like thirty minutes. It was crazy. So, we got there, and it felt like The Beatles; hundreds, thousands maybe, at the airport. Everywhere we went, they were following us around. So, it was quite a heady experience. We had those kinds of experiences here and there in the states, and very similar in Norway, where we had number one albums, and won the Norwegian Grammy in ’87. In fact, Tell No Tales, one out of four households, I was told, had the album in Norway.

Andrew:
That’s incredible. So, then, at what point did you begin to sense the cohesiveness within the band was beginning to splinter?

Tony:
Well, there was this promise, and this hope and feeling of, “Okay, we’re starting to see some serious results here.” Sadly, at the same time that was happening for us in Japan, I can tell you there’s no doubt that everybody in the band was starting to — it was a bit of a difficult time for us. We were going through things. I can only speak for myself, so for me personally, I was going through, I think, a crisis of identity. Probably trying to figure out who I was and what this was all about, and my ego was probably getting out of control. That was the exact moment where we needed to really focus as a unit and go in and make an even better album after Intuition. At the same time, that was the moment that we, with our manager, orchestrated getting dropped from Mercury, and he worked out us getting signed to Atlantic. So, somewhere around the end of ’89 or beginning of ’90, after the Japanese tour, we literally got dismissed from Mercury Records on a Friday and signed a huge deal with Atlantic Records on a Monday.

That felt like a great moment for us, like we were taking the next step upward, but instead, we made some very bad decisions. The band was starting to feel the uncomfortable pressure of living in two different places and being from two different cultures, and two different worlds. We tried to make Realized Fantasies in New York, which I was happy about — the studio was a twenty-minute drive from my apartment in Long Island — but it just started crumbling around that time. The album was very hard to make; the producer we chose was a bad decision. And we did not have great management. Atlantic tried very hard to do their best, they really did try, but we were stubborn, and we just made bad decisions. So, that was probably the album we were the least happy with. I guess you could say the first TNT chapter ended with Realized Fantasies. We were just not happy with it. We did go to Japan and do another successful sold-out tour, but we didn’t play many shows outside of Japan. We did play a few shows in Norway, but we just kind of went to Japan, did that, and we kind of broke up for a while.

Andrew:
With the 90s largely representing a transitional period for music, how did you navigate the gap of time between Realized Fantasies and the Firefly album?

Tony:
After the Realized Fantasies period, after that Japanese tour, I came back to New York, and I got married. I started playing a lot of acoustic shows around New York; I picked up surfing again; I was cooking, getting into just being married, and absorbing the 90s music that was coming out. I was not one of those people, and I still feel this way, that said, “Oh my God. Nirvana killed our kind of music.” I don’t think that’s true. I think the labels and the flood of bands they signed killed the genre more than Nirvana did. And I think it was too many bands that sounded similar, with the same producers, and the same clothes, and the same photographers, and the same video directors, that after a while, I just think that the genre sort of ate itself. So, I just really got into a lot of the music. The first band that I really liked was Alice In Chains; I saw them open for Van Halen at the Nassau Coliseum. I think Van Halen had the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge album out, with “Poundcake” on it. They were amazing. Then I moved on there to some other early 90s albums, and artists that I really liked; Francis Dunnery, who’s not very well known, but brilliant; Jeffery Gaines. Then Alanis Morissette blew my mind. So, just absorbing all of that.

Then what happened was, in ’95 Japan put out the first best-of TNT album, and that was called Til’ Next Time. And that kind of sparked The Flame; we started talking again. Some interesting things happened in the early 90s after the Realized Fantasies thing, as well. Not a lot of people know this, but I was offered — I can’t remember if it was an audition, offered, or just that they were interested in talking to me about it — but Dream Theater approached me before they got James [LaBrie]. I remember going to see them and being blown away, but thinking to myself, “I don’t know where to sing.” And I did get a phone call from Yngwie [Malmsteen] during that period as well. I also made it to the final three that Judas Priest was considering to replace Rob Halford. They really liked me, apparently, the thing that I heard, was that my hair was too long. I thought, “That’s stupid. I’ll fuckin’ cut it, man!” And I did end up cutting it not long after that. And I made the Morning Wood album, which I’m still very proud of, with Al Pitrelli and Danny Miranda. Al’s one of the masterminds of TSO [Trans-Siberian Orchestra], and Danny Miranda went on to play with Queen and he’s still in Blue Öyster Cult.

So, we started talking, though, around ’95 or ’96, and then I think by the later part of ’96, I was over there writing the Firefly record. I think we just brought in a lot of new influences; Ronni had done Vagabond and got into other things, which was good. He got to get some other influences going. I brought in some American, Alternative vibes, and we were gelling again. He was right there with me, and his guitar playing, riffing, sounds, and everything were also different. And so were my melodies and my lyrics.

Andrew:
How about post-2006? Where there any other substantial offers made?

Tony:
I’ve had other things along the way. Even in the 80s, some interesting things came along here and there, but back then, I was very loyal to TNT and wanted to keep pursuing that with Ronnie. In the 80s, I felt like I was in the best band; whether or not that was right or not, that’s how I felt. I think we all felt that way. Let’s not pass the trio of the last records there; Transistor, My Religion — which for me, is the best TNT album that we ever made — and then All The Way To The Sun, which is also a great album. So, those last couple of records I made with the band are really strong albums. We did a lot of shows; we did big festivals in Europe. From 2003-2006, we did a lot of shows, and had a lot of fun, until we didn’t anymore.

I can’t think of any specific offers, but I went straight from there and started to write music. Also, in the late 90s, I started the Westworld thing, which is some of my favorite music I’ve made. Then, by 2005, the first Starbreaker album, and another one in 2008. Then I did the Mercury Train in 2010, after my thyroid cancer surgery. Then I got back together with the guys. We did an anniversary show I was asked to do in 2012, and then by 2013, we were talking seriously again and then launched another tour at the end of that year. We were together all through 2014, a very successful year for TNT, live anyway, in Europe. Then, of course, in 2015, I joined Skid Row for five minutes. And in 2017, back touring with TNT, at least up until now.

Andrew:
So, what inspired you to pursue a solo career?

Tony:
I think that even if I was in a band at the moment, I would still want to make my own music. That would be interesting to me no matter what I was doing. The reason for it is, when you’re in a band, you’re fifty percent — sometimes more or sometimes maybe a little less — but you’re giving up a lot of what you wanna do. For example, with TNT, Ronni is the driving force on the musical side, so there’s that. And that’s great and I love that, but there’s the desire to be in complete control of what you want your music to sound like. So, that’s kind of the allure of doing my own thing. I’ve dabbled; some of the Westworld stuff had a very, very strong influence from me. Of course, I did the Mercury Train record, and I did put out a series of demos that I’d been writing in Sweden after I left TNT, which I’m still probably gonna record one day. And now, I’m just more and more interested in making music that I love. I have ideas about what I want that to be. One of the worst career decisions that I’ve made and continue to make is, is not wanting to repeat myself too much and make music that people think I should make. That drives me crazy, when people say, “You should do this,” and I say, “Well, I already did that.”

Look, I’ll be frank with you. When we do this thing, there are some artists out there who have a lot of integrity, and I used to consider myself one of those. In 2018, I found myself making a couple of albums that I just needed to make; I needed to pay the bills. So, sometimes that happens. A song here and there, I still have done that, and I’ve done it just recently; it’s not a big deal. But what I’ve learned from making those records that I wasn’t in love with, is that I don’t want to compromise my integrity like that ever again. And if I’m gonna do sort of a retro, Hard Rock thing, I’d rather just do something with Ronni or some unforeseen, comparable offer that may come along. You know, I did the Skid Row thing because I knew the guys, we were friends, and I thought it would be fun and a good career move. But it wasn’t a good match. So, another lesson learned.

I’m fifty-nine now, and I would say my fifties were really an interesting time, and they will be very well chronicled in the eventual book that I’ll write at some point. But it was quite a time of learning and exploring. Now I’m sort of at the point of wanting to go deep with art, and just really be an artist. That’s really all I want to do, is just be an artist and be free.

Andrew:
That’s funny. As we’re sitting here talking, I couldn’t help but ponder a potential Tony Harnell autobiography down the line.

Tony:
I’ve actually started it, and I’m just trying to decide whether I want it to be a non-fiction/autobiography, kind of memoir thing, or turn it into a loosely-based-on-my-life, fictional kind of thing. So, I’m just trying to see where it goes.

Andrew:
I’ve always been curious as to the origins of Starbreaker. What inspired the concept and what subsequently stunted the project?

Tony:
I believe it was pretty much the Frontiers [Records] president who had this idea of putting a few different musicians together. He wanted to do something with me; he was talking to me pretty often. It just was guys who didn’t know each other that were kind of put together, and it ran its course. Part of what I said before about 2018 and the two releases I put out was, I don’t want to make full albums anymore — or at least I will try not to — with things, I can’t go on tour and support. So, these project things, it’s OK if it’s a few songs, and if it’s a really cool project that I’m into, and I know maybe there won’t be a tour but I love the music, I’ll, of course, do it. But these big projects, which are a lot of work, like Starbreaker — and any record that you do — when there’s no payoff of being able to promote it properly and play live with the people you made the record with, there’s really no point of doing that, in my opinion.

Andrew:
In what ways would you say you’ve evolved as a songwriter, Tony?

Tony:
A lot of people probably would look at it and say, “Oh, I guess Tony writes the lyrics, and maybe some melodies or something,” but it’s really a lot more involved than that. When we would make the TNT albums, we’d all be involved in the arrangements and details. I would throw out a little, “Let’s do a little riff here that goes like this before the chorus comes in.” Everybody was kind of involved with all of that stuff. I think my lyrics in the 80s, I had moments, but I think they were pretty lame in many ways. The one thing I will say, though, that I’m still proud of is the fact that — up until Realized Fantasies, where we were getting a little pressure from the label at Atlantic at that point — but up until then, I think it was cool that the subject matters of the songs that I was writing … “Child’s Play” is about nuclear war; so is “Desperate Night.” There was so much going on in the 80s with the Cold War and all that stuff, so there was that, and just the longing for peace. A lot of insightful things that I was writing and things I was studying — I was really into eastern philosophy Buddhism and things like that. And it reflected that way, so we weren’t writing about girls, cars, and the typical things that the L.A. bands and other bands in our genre were writing about; it was a little different. Unfortunately, with Realized Fantasies, they brought in somebody to write lyrics with me, and things took a little bit of a different turn. Which really, I listen back, and I cringe. My grandmother was one of my biggest supporters, and I remember when she heard the Realized Fantasies record, she was like, “I don’t like these lyrics. It’s really dirty.”

But I got back on track with Firefly, and I think one of the things that really inspired me, was the way that Alanis Morissette was so free with her lyrics writing. And how she played with phrasing made me kind of step back and say, “Oh, you mean you can do that? OK, so I’m not gonna be so stiff. I’m gonna try things, play around, and be freer.” And it really opened up a lot of doors. In the 90s, I also started to work with the book, The Artist’s Way. I started to do exercises and expand my vocabulary more. You can hear that, I think, when you listen to songs like “Month of Sundays.” A lot of stuff I was writing from the Firefly record forward just had more going on; a lot more insightful; a lot more honest. Very different. The only thing that was always a little frustrating for me — less so with Ronni, and of course Mark Reale and I had a very good writing rapport — but still, there was always that sort of frustration of … “I don’t really want the guitar to sound like that. I don’t really love that chord.” And often I was able to change those things with the person I was writing with, but at the same time, there was always that sort of feeling of, “I’m compromising here,” with the person I was writing with. But you’re not always sure if you should compromise. So, where I’m at today is, wanting to finally hone my guitar playing, and work hard on it. I’m very open to writing with other people; there are people who are much better songwriters than me, and I want to learn from them. But I’m just at a place where I don’t care how old I am, I just want to feel as though I’m expressing myself in the fullest way that I possibly can. I have no delusions of grandeur that I’m gonna be some kind of a big star at my age or anything; I just want to make good art and express myself. The fact that I can still sing, I’m really blessed and want to use my voice in different ways and try things.

Andrew:
About a year-and-a-half ago, I remember hearing about a band you put together with Joel Hoekstra, and James LoMenzo called the EchoBats. Is there any update on that front, or is that project stagnant at the moment?

Tony:
I had a feeling, and I knew I would be right, that everybody involved would be busy and it would have a hard time getting any legs. Everybody involved is a working musician and the other three guys involved in it work a lot. James, as you know, is now back in Megadeth; Joel is busy with Whitesnake and TSO; Matt [Starr] is out touring with Ace Frehley and all the stuff he’s doing, and Eric Levy is out with Night Ranger. So, it would have been nearly impossible to keep that going. I loved the song we put out [Save Me from Loving You]; really proud of it. Joel and I wrote that, long distance.

Andrew:
Do you think EchoBats would ever be possible to revisit? I’d have to think there would be a ton of interest, given the names and incredible musicianship involved.

Tony:
I don’t know. I mean, anything’s possible. There are certain things, if you asked me, I would say — there won’t be any more Westworld records — because my writing partner, Mark Reale, has passed away. I just feel like [Mark] was such an integral part of that. I could, of course, do Westworld and take it forward, but I just decided not to. Starbreaker ran its course; there won’t be any more Starbreaker records. But something like that, that I thought was really fun and cool, who knows? It’s possible.

And I would say the same thing with TNT. There’s a lot of misconceptions out there about things. Most fans don’t care about any of that; they just love the music. But we’ll see what happens. It’s a lot of work for an American guy. People have to sort of understand, if the band was super successful, and had a lot of financial resources, it would make being so far apart from each other much easier. We could do it with more comfort. Considering that’s not the case, it’s just a very difficult gig for me, and the only way it would become doable for the long-term would be if I lived there, which is not something I wanna do at the moment. We will see, though. I’ve never closed the door on that because when it works it’s brilliant and fun.

If you’re paying attention to my social media, you might have noticed I announced that I’m playing M3 [Music Festival]. That’s exciting and I’ll be doing a lot of TNT. Hopefully, it’s not the same, because Ronni won’t be there, obviously, but I’m in the midst right now of putting together a great band; I’ve got part of it secured. I will show up with a great band, play the songs, and hopefully it will make people happy. That’s something that I’m looking to do more of in the US, is go out and play those kinds of shows, because I think it’s nice to honor the history, and honor TNT the best way possible.

Andrew:
Your vocal range, at least to me, inexplicably remains in peak performance. To be able to sing like you do, is a testament to how well you care for your voice. So, I’m curious as to what lengths you must go through in order to maintain that level?

Tony:
Well, I sort of dug myself an impossible hole back in the 80s and wasn’t thinking ahead very well. Because it was so athletic — and it is — it’s very, very athletic singing. I would say, I’m not as flexible vocally as I was when I was twenty years old, but I do OK. What do I go through? I stopped drinking four years ago, and that helps. I don’t eat shitty food and I try to sleep. Just basic care. I think the most important thing is singing every day, even if it’s just a little bit. That helps a lot. During COVID, actually, I was quiet; I did not sing a lot during COVID, so it took a little time to get back up to snuff again. Thankfully, I was able to do some live streams at home and some acoustic shows lately. It’s not easy. People probably don’t realize that.

The truth is everybody’s body changes. That’s the way it is. The vocal cords are part of the body, and they change as well. But if you keep yourself in relatively good health and know how to work your voice — again, I’m very thankful for Don Lawrence for giving me such a strong foundation — and I happen to feel like I have a pretty good handle on taking care of that. I put out a vocal course last year, which is awesome. You just gotta take care of it. It’s not gonna go away if you take care of it.

Andrew:
Last question before we wrap things up. What’s ahead for you in 2022, Tony?

Tony:
Well, for people who are fans, please check out my Patreon. Right now, I’m doing live streams, but I’m also doing a lot of other things. It’s gonna be a very important platform for me moving forward in achieving a lot of the things that I want to achieve. For singers out there, I have an incredible vocal course; the website is www.therocksingersociety.com. We have close to forty-five singers now going through the course, so I’m super proud of that. Check out that website; you can sign up for the course, you can take one-on-ones with me. All that stuff you can do right there on the website. You can book yourself, my schedule is there, and all of that. So, that’s something that I really enjoy doing, mentoring, and coaching other singers. It looks like I’m gonna be vocal coaching a pretty well-known singer here in the next month or so, so I’m kind of excited about that. But equally, my focus is on my art and what I want to do as an artist.

Musically speaking, I am starting to prepare to make a record, and I’m just sort of putting the pieces together and figuring out how I’m gonna go about doing that. If all goes the way I want it to, it will be my first, proper solo album. And there will be some singles and some things that come out here and there along the way. Ronni and I are talking; don’t know what exactly is going to come of that. It could be TNT, it could be something that he, and I do that’s not TNT, like a Plant-Page kind of thing. Not to compare us to Plant and Page, but you know. So, we’ll see. This whole pandemic has been difficult on everybody and super difficult on musicians. Some were lucky enough to come right out of the gate and go on big tours — like Joel with TSO and Whitesnake — and a lot of us are still trying to get going, and then the pandemic rears its ugly head again. But what can you do? You can give up — that’s an option — or you just try your best. Nobody knows what exactly is gonna happen, but man, I’m trying to remain optimistic.

Interested in learning more about TNT? Check out the link below:

Dig this article? Check out the full archives of Shredful Compositions, by Andrew DiCecco, here: https://vwmusicrocks.com/shredful-compositions-archives/

About Post Author

Andrew DiCecco

Predominantly known for his NFL coverage, Andrew DiCecco is a Pennsylvania-based journalist with a profound passion for Rock music and its illustrious history. What initially began as a childhood hobby collecting CDs eventually evolved into a full-blown absorption into the world of Rock and Roll. An aspiring rock historian, Andrew seeks out every autobiography and documentary on Rock artists imaginable to further his knowledge to go along with a growing collection of vintage albums and magazines. Andrew’s musical preferences include, but are not limited to, Def Leppard, Van Halen, AC/DC, Guns N Roses, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne, Scorpions, Foreigner, and Journey. An innate appreciation for guitar heroes, Andrew cites Vito Bratta, Eddie Van Halen, John Sykes, George Lynch, Dave Meniketti, and Neal Schon as some of his personal favorite players. Andrew is also a regular listener to SiriusXM’s <i>Trunk Nation</i> with Eddie Trunk, his primary source of inspiration.
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2 thoughts on “An Interview with Tony Harnell of TNT

  1. A really GREAT interview covering just about everything you’d hope it would & then some! Tony Harnell is such a truly talented artist & just a really cool down to earth guy! Looking forward to hearing anything Tony puts out in the future!

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