While many mainstream critics argue that aging rock bands are rarely if ever relevant, they clearly miss the point. A band can always remain relevant to their audience, and that is the absolute truth. Otherwise classic groups like AC/DC and Iron Maiden would not continue to thrive. Add to that list Uriah Heep.
Last year they celebrated 40 years of making music; guitarist Mick Box has been there every step of the way, while the current line-up, with the exception of drummer Russell Gilbrook, has been together for a quarter of a century. They continue to invade stages the world over, and their new album, Into The Wild, has charted in at least a half dozen European countries. It’s also a fantastic release ripe with catchy, insightful songs.
When Box chats with The Aquarian from his home base in England, he is relaxed and chipper, clearly enjoying the renewed success the band is experiencing in America. The group plays NYC on June 22nd, the second time since last year, and they will return for a second leg of their North American tour in August, with more dates being booked for July 2012. (Prior to this, they had not played the States since 2002.) Not bad for a heritage act that really only had major mainstream success in the U.S. for a short period in the mid-1970s but stayed popular in other parts of the world. Then again, they have reportedly sold 30 million albums worldwide, so that counts for something.
Uriah Heep’s recent American revival is strengthened by their new association with Italy-based Frontiers Records, whose worldwide presence has been expanding. The AOR-oriented label has become a stronger classic rock magnet recently with the additions of Mr. Big, Whitesnake and Def Leppard to their roster. They have been a boon for Heep, who had not released an album between 1998’s stellar Sonic Origami and 2008’s Wake The Sleeper. The group admittedly could not find a home and were stubborn about finding a label that could reach fans in the dozens of countries that Heep has continued to play in. While the European-focused Sanctuary/Universal team released Sleeper, the group was lured to Frontiers by the chance for wider distribution and better support.
“After the success of the last year in America, we wanted to make it a viable market again because we did very well selling out B.B. King’s and all sorts of pubs, clubs and casinos,” explains Box. “It was an exciting time for us to know that we could open it up again, but [our previous label] had no presence in America. Frontiers do, and that swayed our allegiance to them, and since we’ve been with them they’ve been really great. The job they have been doing in Europe for us these past two months has been superb.”
While Wake The Sleeper was a rock solid return for the legendary Heep, Into The Wild captures more of the fire and passion found on 1996’s Sea Of Light and 1998’s Sonic Origami, arguably their two best albums ever. Wild features trademark Heep elements: Bernie Shaw’s soaring tenor singing, the group’s big vocal harmonies, Mick Box’s gritty, wah-wah laced axework, Trevor Bolder’s sinewy bass playing, Phil Lanzon’s electrifying keyboards and Russell Gilbrook’s robust drumming. And, of course, there are mature lyrics that showcase experience that younger bands do not possess, from the life lessons learned through “Nail On The Head” to the possibility for rebirth expressed in “Believe.”
“That’s one thing that we’re hoping will come through lyrically,” notes Box of their positive perspective, “because we’ve had many people over the years come up and say, ‘I went through some really difficult times in my life, and your music helped me get through.’ It’s wonderful when people say that because they draw that positive energy from it. Even when we were doing Demons And Wizards and Magician’s Birthday, it was always good over evil, it was never the dark side of everything.”
The most personal song on the new album for Box is “I Can See You.” Back in December 1987, Uriah Heep made history by becoming the first Western rock band to play in Russia. They were invited over for monumentous Moscow gigs in front of 180,000 people. “Unfortunately, with all that success and wonderment happening then, my mother passed away in the hospital,” recalls Box somberly. “I always feel that she is still with me and guiding me through everything, so that song is basically written about her being above me and looking after me still. It’s also written in a way that other people with lost ones can relate to it.”
Beyond their omnipresent words of wisdom, Uriah Heep sound as tight and powerful as ever, with Gilbrook now a strong fixture in the band. Previous skinbeater Lee Kerslake had played on most of the group’s previous 20 studio albums, so replacing him was no easy task. “I think with Wake The Sleeper we found the template of how we like to record and do it now, and I think that shows through on Into The Wild,” says Box. “We like to go in as a band and play it as a band like we used to do in the old days. You get these producers who want everything piecemeal and perfectly placed. You get a magic track that you all choose, and the next minute the producer is perfecting it and ironing it out and losing all the magic that was there in the first place. We rehearse the track now up to where we’re happy with it, get the take we want, then move on from there. We don’t do many messings about with it, because if we like it like that then we’re always going to like it.”
As many longtime Heep fans stay along for the wild ride that is their epic career, and are presumably growing and maturing with their icons, a new generation of disciples is also emerging, a fact that has impressed Box over the last two months of European touring. “We’ve had some really young fans come along,” the guitarist gushes. “It’s absolutely terrific. We’ve been doing a section where we play the song ‘Free ‘n’ Easy’ off of Innocent Victim, which we recorded in 1977. We speed it up a bit so it’s a bit more heavy metal, if you like, and we invite a few fans up to come up and headbang with us. They’re all young people. I get guys and girls hanging at the end going, ‘Mick, your music is fantastic. I love your music.’ Blimey, you get a kid shouting out for ‘Gypsy,’ and ‘Gypsy’ is twice as old as he is. It’s just amazing. The young people now are really getting a bug for Uriah Heep, which is fantastic.”
With all of this energy and enthusiasm swirling around Uriah Heep, don’t expect them to hang it up anytime soon. Box recently turned 64, but he is as fired up as ever. At a time when the Scorpions and Judas Priest are embarking on farewell tours, and some other classic rockers are looking set to call it a day, Heep are still going to hit stages as often as possible the world over.
“We’re flying,” declares Box. “We don’t even look at those things. We look at the next album, the next tour and the next thing we can do. Retirement is nothing that would ever come into a conversation with us. I really think in our business, as far as I’m concerned, you only retire when there’s no one to go and play to. Uriah Heep has the world stage to go and play to people, and we’re really lucky in that regard. We can go to 53 countries and do concerts. I think that’s the essence of it all. We have passion for what we do, and when you’re passionate about something, you don’t look at it ending, you only look at it continuing. I must write a piece of music everyday because it’s just part of what I do each day. I pick up a guitar, write a little bit then put it down. It’s just what you do on a daily basis. It might not be for Heep music, but it’s writing. The important thing is just to keep flowing with it all.”
Uriah Heep will play B.B. King Blues Club in NYC on June 22. More info at uriah-heep.com.