With the three founding members of Alcatrazz – Graham Bonnet, Jimmy Waldo and Gary Shea – back on stage together, Roppongi Rocks sat down with Gary Shea to talk about the past, present and future of Alcatrazz.
Last year we interviewed Gary Shea a couple of times around the release of New England’s live album and their Japan tour. Gary might be a 66-year old music industry veteran, but he is young at heart and loves performing for his fans. “I want to play bass. I am not staying home. I’ll stay home when I am 85! We rock! So we’re here!” says Gary as we meet when he once again turns up in Tokyo to perform with Alcatrazz on the recent “Parole Denied 2017” Japan tour.
Alcatrazz released three splendid studio albums in the mid-80s: “No Parole from Rock’n’Roll”, “Disturbing the Peace” and “Dangerous Games”. Apart from the core line-up of vocalist Graham Bonnet, bassist Gary Shea, keyboardist Jimmy Waldo and drummer Jan Uvena, the band was also home to the budding guitarists Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai and Danny Johnson. Bonnet had made a name for himself with Rainbow and Michael Schenker Group, Uvena had played with Alice Cooper while Shea and Waldo had been members of New England and Warrior with Vinnie Vincent. The band had all the ingredients to make it big and they did rather well for a few years, but having a new lead guitarist for each of the three albums disrupted things and eventually they disbanded in 1987.
Recently the three founding members – Bonnet, Shea and Waldo – have been performing again as Alcatrazz, this time with guitarist Conrado Pesinato and drummer Mark Benquechea from Graham Bonnet Band. The current Alcatrazz line-up, who has been performing jointly with Graham Bonnet Band, sounds amazing. Perhaps there is not only a glorious past but also a future for Alcatrazz?
How did this special Alcatrazz set with Graham Bonnet Band come about? “Graham’s manager Giles Lavery suggested it. Jimmy has been playing in Graham’s band. Giles and Jimmy worked on another project and then Jimmy got back together with Graham – they live in Los Angeles. He joined the band, playing on the last record and everything. Then they said ‘Let’s get Gary and do some Alcatrazz stuff as well. How about two bands and two shows? That might appeal to a lot people.’ So, here we are! I am really happy about that,” says Gary as we sit down at the record company offices the day before the final gig on the Japan tour. “There were some other renditions of Alcatrazz there for a minute with some other guys. This is a chance to play it correctly! To really nail it!” explains Gary referencing the fact that for a few years Graham Bonnet performed using the Alcatrazz name but with no other original Alcatrazz members involved.
What about the absent former guitar heroes of Alcatrazz Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen – are they in touch at all? “Jimmy was at Steve’s house last week to work on some tracks. He was helping Conrado get a few things from the vault, some of the songs, to learn the proper bits. And Steve’s more than happy to help him out. We talk to Steve all the time. And Yngwie is no stranger, just he’s doing his thing and, of course, Steve is doing his thing. They’re doing the Axe tour. We’re all in touch. Over the years we’ve tried to put together the band again a few times. It would be great if we could get Steve and Yngwie and play all the stuff together, but that’s never gonna happen with those guys! That would be my dream if we could do that. It would be kind of fun. So, we’re in touch, it’s good vibes. Things got blown out of the water back in the dark ages about us hating each other and all that stuff. That was more the manager’s publicity stunt than it was the actual people. We’re not hating, we had a good time. It’s just that we disagreed, so fine.”
The reunited Alcatrazz has recently performed some US shows as well as the Japanese tour, but the future is still uncertain. “Nothing’s booked right now” says Gary who clearly seems keen on doing more Alcatrazz shows.
Japan loved Alcatrazz from the start and this is also where the band recorded the live album “Live Sentence” as well as the concert videos “Metallic Live” and “Power Live” – all recorded during the band’s two Japan tours in 1984. Gary has fond memories from Japan. “Obviously playing for the first time on the first tour when Yngwie was in the band. We played at the Sun Plaza. It was amazing. It was my first time in Japan. To see how Japanese people are with music, it’s unlike any other place on Earth. There’s no other country that rocks like Japan. They can talk about Detroit and all that stuff, not even close. People love music here, they listen to music and they have much respect for the artist, the musicians, listening to them play. They really respect the acts they know, the artists that play. That was a great time, an eye-opening experience, a whole culture shock. I love Japan.”
According to several sources, former Iron Maiden drummer Clive Burr was an early member of Alcatrazz. Not the case says Gary who explains that Burr’s involvement lasted for about “two minutes or one day”. “He was just one of the guys who auditioned for us. We had Aynsley Dunbar, we had Bill Lordan from Robin Trower’s band. Who else came? We had Ed Cassidy from Spirit who played for us. That was different. Bill Lordan was in the band for about a month, but he wanted to do a religious retreat in Jerusalem or something and off he went. And Clive came in, he flew in from London and played. It was OK but we just thought it wasn’t the guy, we wanted to keep looking. But somehow somebody said he was in the band and all this stuff. Great publicity, you know. The manager wanted him in the band so he could say ‘Iron Maiden and Alcatrazz’. We had to tell him: ‘Stop!’ That’s where the rumour came from. There was never anything more than one day. Great guy, it just wasn’t the right guy for it at the time.”
The Alcatrazz manager was a guy focused on getting publicity with little regard for building a proper band dynamic. “Oh, yeah! The same manager wanted us to get Laurence Juber from Wings for Alcatrazz. That’s not going to work. You can say, yes Wings is famous and Rainbow’s famous and New England is famous. But Wings? The guy wasn’t the right guy. The first thing he said when we played was: ‘Can you turn it down?’ I said: ‘That’s the wrong answer.’ He knew. Then we had this business guy saying ‘It’s business’. No, it’s not just business. The band has to have the blood and the brotherhood to persevere all the things that go on, go out as a team and work really hard. And go out in public and help you perform it properly, how you want it to be. You’ve gotta have the right guys. Some people don’t realise that. That’s why there are a lot of bands, ex-name bands, especially in LA, there is a million of them, ex-this and ex-that” says Gary in reference to bands based on people’s former achievements rather than what they are capable of doing here and now. Past success doesn’t guarantee a great future. “To make that next project better” says Gary, you need to ensure that “they really are on the same wavelength and they play great and people like them. It’s not easy. It’s not anything you can project, it’s nothing you can predict, it’s very unpredictable so it kind of keeps the blood moving.”
Following the first Alcatrazz album and tour, Yngwie was out of the band and was replaced with former Frank Zappa guitarist Steve Vai. “We found Steve. Steve’s phenomenal. We auditioned Steve without Yngwie knowing that and wanted to make the change earlier. The record company convinced us that we were gonna do a 40-city Ted Nugent tour of North America and not change guitar players, keep the guy that is on the record, especially as we were a brand new band. So we had to go through four months of arguing. But we had Steve already locked in, so by the time we came back from that tour, Steve had written a whole bunch of songs. We changed to Capitol Records and put together ‘Disturbing the Peace’. I am really proud of that. The first album was great because we had just met each other. Everybody was really hungry and worked really hard at that and did well. On the second record we had a chance to fine-tune even more and have someone like Steve that was really involved in the overall…not just be the guitar player, but overall production and concept and everything. Unfortunately our manager kind of left the scene and promoted Yngwie and went off with Yngwie’s record. He was actually offered an EP because he was in Alcatrazz. We thought ‘Great, more promotion for the band’. They turned that into an album, they forced that. They made it sound like he quit the band, got offered mega million dollar deals by some company in Japan. It didn’t happen. So we had no manager, we lost that record. As that was all going on, we played a few gigs and Steve was asked to join David Lee Roth and make a million dollars overnight, what are you gonna do? Who wouldn’t go and do that? So, we’re still friends, it’s all good. And we’re friends with Yngwie too. Yngwie is a great guy. He’s funny. We disagreed on a few things. He’s kind of self-centred and he doesn’t bend. If he wants something, he can’t change.”
“We felt that we had our style at that point. We were not Rainbow Junior anymore. It wasn’t Michael Schenker or any other band or something. It was Alcatrazz. That’s what we wanted to be. We didn’t want to be a hair metal band or a long list of Sunset Boulevard guys in California that went to high school together. None of us were from LA, but we’re an LA band, but we weren’t an LA band, we were more international.”
Gary Shea was the one who came up with the band name Alcatrazz after they had spent time thinking about what would make sense. “We argued with Yngwie, actually. Hehehe! Yngwie wanted to call the band Excalibur or Crusader, a Knights at the Round Table name. That is so overdone. We don’t want that.” The founders wanted “something that sounded tough but no dripping blood on a sword. It would be nice if some girls liked our music” explains Gary. They eventually looked at different names beginning with the letter A, in order to be at the front of the queue. They figured that In record stores people would go to browse the A section looking for AC/DC and stuff. Once Gary suggested Alcatrazz the band and the manager loved it. They extended the choice of band name into a whole concept around the famous Alcatraz prison in California with titles, lyrics, photo shoots and music videos.
So, is there a future for Alcatrazz now that the three founders are reunited? “Jimmy and Graham are writing for the Graham Bonnet Band, so they’re busy with that. That is going to take up some time. They are going to spend the next few months and work on that. They have a bunch of festivals lined up in Europe for the summertime. Maybe next fall or next winter we can do this again just for fun and I can be involved again. I can hang out. It’s more about the hang than it is anything else. I’ve had my fun, fun in the sun. I want to keep busy, so it’s good to get me out of Florida, off the beach and play some music” says Gary who clearly enjoys playing with his old Alcatrazz mates again. The two new additions to the band, Conrado Pesinato and Mark Benquechea, have been a good fit. “They’ve learnt the Alcatrazz stuff and the five of us play that together. Great musicians, young guys, eager to play. We’re getting along great. We’re having a good time. Hang out together.”
In addition to Alcatrazz, Gary plays in New England with Jimmy Waldo and is involved in several other projects. He’s also back doing some music with Cooper Shea, which is a continuation of the UK-based band that he played with in the 70s that included David Cooper, Peter French and future Scorpions and Michael Schenker drummer Herman Rarebell.
At the end of our conversation, Gary reveals that when he lived in England in the 70s, he auditioned for the mighty Trapeze, the great British band whose members went on to join bands such as Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Whitesnake. He got on the short list but didn’t get the gig, returned to the US and achieved success with New England instead.