I’m wondering how many of the naysayers who had already written Riot off after Mark Reale’s passing were left with their jaws on the floor when they heard “Unleash the Fire”, the release the remaining troops put out four years ago under the Riot V moniker. But come 2018 and it seems the guys were just warming-up back then! Using the same proven recipes, the refreshed line-up spit out another belter of an album, called “Armor of Light”, which was enthusiastically received by fans and media alike. To find out more about this new masterpiece, we spoke to the band’s songwriter-in-chief Donnie van Stavern.
First of all, congratulations on the new album “Armor of Light”, it surpassed my expectations. How have the responses been so far?
Thanks a lot for the praise on the new record, it’s really good, we’re very proud of it. I think it’s doing well, for a number of reasons. Nuclear Blast obviously, one of the biggest heavy metal labels, it’s helping, and the responses have been great by the fans and they really get into a lot of music that we put out there. It’s basically one of the records standing on its own two feet so to speak. The first one without Mark was “Unleash the Fire”, which was kind of a tribute to him in essence, where Mike Flyntz wrote a song for him and I wrote a song for him and then, there was a lot of various styles of Riot sounds throughout the career. And then after the deal with SPV ran out for “Immortal Soul” and “Unleash the Fire”, we searched for a new label. We talked with Markus from Nuclear Blast and he said there was a lot of fans at the label and they were very interested in doing the new record, so basically it was a new start. A new label, a new album, and basically this wasn’t so much of a tribute, this was just continuing on with the band Riot and so, we’re very happy because it’s getting well received and everybody says it’s another great Riot record so, we’re very happy.
On the first album you put out as Riot V, “Unleash the Fire”, you and Mike wrote most of the stuff. Was that the case this time around too?
Well, most of the time in my career with Riot I’ve been at least 75-80% the main songwriter. Even when I did stuff on “Thundersteel” and “The Privilege of Power” Mark always gave me the freedom to write a lot of songs and he’d co-write with me a little bit or decorate some other stuff so, it kind of holds true to what we’re doing now when I decided to keep going on. I put the V on there, the fifth chapter so people don’t get confused. Some people say it’s not the Riot of old and I’m like, “Well, it’s not really the Riot of old, it’s us moving forward, the fifth chapter, fifth singer if you will”. But anyway, that being said, yeah, on “Unleash the Fire” I wrote probably 80% of the songs and Mike Flyntz wrote 20 and that holds true on this one. I wrote basically most of the music, Mike wrote like three songs and I wrote the rest. And Tod actually wrote a lot more lyrics on this one than he wrote on the last one. The last one I did a lot of the lyrics and on this one he’s kinda coming to his own. He’s a full-fledged member now and I think he knows the style and what we expect out of the lyrics and melodies and so forth. So, he was a big help, more than on “Unleash the Fire” this time. So, I think on this album we really wanted to make a statement, that this was us getting out there, it’s not a tribute, this is the first one and everybody really had good input. I mean Frank’s drumming on this new record is incredible, people even thought it was a machine, I said, “No, that’s his feet, he’s crazy.” And then young Mick is just phenomenal on the lead guitar as well as Mike, so we all chipped in but for the most part, the main frame I wrote.
The album is quite fast and very melodic, it looks like you wanted to write another “Thundersteel”?
Yeah, pretty much, ha-ha! Like I said, once we did get signed to Nuclear Blast after speaking with Markus a little bit, we kinda both had a vision of what we should do. He’s a really big fan of “Thundersteel”, that was one of his favourite records and I thought we needed to try and touch base and all. We consciously wanted to do a very heavy record, because, you know, the label, and then to make a statement. But we didn’t wanna go crazy. So like I said, I did the majority of the writing and when you hear remnants of “Thundersteel” and “Flight of the Warrior” and “Crimson Storm”, I just did that too. And then also I wanted a heavier production so, we didn’t use people that we did in the past, like we used Bruno Ravel from Danger Danger, he did the last couple of records and then of course Steve Loeb, way back in the day, he did everything from “Rock City” to the first couple of records of DiMeo’s years. But this time I found a guy called Chris Collier. Before we signed to Nuclear Blast we were talking to another label and they had used Chris on some other stuff like Kings-X and George Lynch and what not so, even though we didn’t end up signing with that label, when we were going with Nuclear Blast, I thought maybe we should bring Chris in for production duties, because since the music is fairly heavy I felt like we should have a newer fresh producer that’s doing Korn and Slipknot and Prong and Lynch Mob, Metal Church. He’s engineered and produced a little bit, so we did arrange to do it. It’s a very dry, heavy production and it’s something new for Riot, you know, it’s a very fast record and it’s aggressive, just like the production and we purposely did it to try to come out of the box, you know? And I thought he did a good job. It’s not as slick as we normally are but I think it still gets the point across, it’s heavy music with very nice melodies.
How did the recording session go? You’ve got the same line-up as on the previous album “Unleash the Fire” so, I suppose it was a bit easier this time ‘round?
Yeah, it’s pretty amazing that we have the same members for two albums in the row, ha-ha! That’s pretty sad, ha-ha! Yeah, we’ve had a lot of member changes throughout the years and that was one thing, we said, “Man, if we could continue this line-up and do a few records, that would be great, showing that we’re all on the same page looking forward”, but yeah, that’s cool. You know, when Bobby Jarzombek couldn’t continue on after “Immortal Soul” because he was playing with Sebastian Bach and Fates Warning so he simply could not do the record, so that’s when Mike suggested Frank come in. He did “Army of One”, he was from Virgin Steele so Mike said, “Let him come in and just fill in.” So, after Frank came in, the drumming was great, just like Bobby. Frank was great on “Unleashed” and when we did the next record it was like, “Hey, is Bobby available? Is Bobby gonna come back?” And then we kinda decided, since we had recorded with Frank and spent time with him, he was more dedicated. Bobby, although he’s a phenomenal drummer, he has a lot on his plate right now. He’s doing a lot of studio work, he’s always like, “Well, I gotta do Fates Warning, I gotta do this with Sebastian,” and we were just like, you know, “Let’s have a team player guy, let’s stick with this line-up.” And you can tell on the new record, I mean Frank is just phenomenal, I don’t even know who can play like that. And then you have a young guy in Nick Lee who’s the second guitar player with Mike, he’s got a couple other things he’s doing but he’s focused on the band too, and then me and Mike have been with the band for 30+ years on and off so it’s just nice to have people that are dedicated to it. And then when you have a singer that, basically in my opinion probably helped us get to the next level, in Todd Michael Hall, to have him you know, on both the records, the guy’s a godsend. I think this line-up was so good on “Unleash” and then after we did this one, I think we’re coming to our own, we have that style and I think this line-up will be on the next record too.
I’ve read that Mike was Nick’s guitar teacher so, was Nick your first choice?
Yeah, that’s interesting, because when we decided to keep going, as you know it was really tough for us to keep going, you lose the last founding member and one of our mentors Mark Reale so, when we decided to keep it going ad then get the response from people that they welcome it or they don’t, you know, for the most part it’s been 99.5% positive. A few old-schoolers kind of questioned it, but when we moved forward Mike was always big on trying to keep it within the family. You know, Riot’s been one big family, that’s why you sometimes see old players like Rick Ventura, he’ll come and play with us for “Fire Down Under” years and Louie Kouvaris for “Rock City” so, we’re all still very good friends and we have their blessings to continue. So, when we decided to move forward Mike was like, “Well, should we get a hot shot? Should we get an unknown guy?” We talked to a couple of guys, Bobby’s brother Ronny who was in Watchtower, he was interested, even Rowan Robertson from Dio days, he was interested… And then we were like, you know, you can’t replace someone like Mark Reale. We didn’t wanna replace him, we just wanted a guy to get up there and basically play Mike’s parts and then Mike would take over from Mark since Mark was Mike’s guitar partner for 30 odd years and he’s got that style now. So, Mike suggested, “Hey, this is crazy, but there’s this young guy that I’ve been teaching for years, he came to me when he was very young, he was like 10 years old and I taught him and he plays exactly like me and he’s got the style and although he’s younger he still has that older sense of style that we call for.” We’ve never really been the big processed shredder type, we’ve always just been Marshall stacks and blues based but heavy guitar influenced so he said, “He’s young but I think he’ll do the job” and plus he’s basically family because he started with Mike so young, Mike knows his parents… And that’s what we did. I was a little sceptical but when I heard the guy, he looked great and he played great. He was very seasoned but he’s a monster, so that’s basically keeping it in the family. He was kind of Mike’s prodigy and now when you hear him it’s like you can tell Mike taught him cause it’s like two peas in a pot, they sound identical. Like when they do dual leads on stage it sounds like Mike hits a pedal and they just click, you know? So basically, he brought him in as a family member and so we thought that was kind of a cool deal, someone real close to Mike and to Mark, you know, he knew Mark too. And so, you get a young guy, fresh, you don’t try to replace Mark and say, “Hey, we’ve got this young hot shot kid” and here he is, he’s 28 years old now and he breathes life into the band, you know? We’re an older band and me and Mike are the oldsters up there and now we’ve got a young guy running around and then we’ve got Todd Michael Hall who’s you know, power house. So anyway, that’s why we got Nick and then you know, just touching again on Frankie, that’s another reason why Mike wanted to keep Frank. When Bobby couldn’t continue, he said, “Look, Frank’s been in the family and I’ve known him forever and he played on “Army of One” so it would be cool to get a former member in the band.” And so that’s how those guys came about. And when we were doing the vocalist position at the very beginning we thought about getting Mike DiMeo back and then we also thought about getting Mike Tirelli who had filled in for DiMeo on the tour and DiMeo wasn’t really interested in continuing without Mark so we though Tirelli might be cool and then I kinda came up with, “Look, if I’m continuing on and I’m managing the band, my vision is, I think the biggest line-up Riot has had besides “Fire Down Under” is “Thundersteel”. We need to find a vocalist like Tony Moore, we need to find someone that’s young and still has the high voice.” And then eventually we found Todd. So, although he wasn’t in the direct family, there was a lot of things with Todd, like he played with Jack Starr, so did Rhett Forrester, so did Tirelli so, he was kind of in that loop with us. And he has the voice. I just said, “I think instead of getting a former singer I think we need to get a fresh guy with a very clean voice, I think that’s what’s gonna project us.” And luckily my decision was right because we’ve just kept getting nothing but praise for Todd Michael Hall. People are saying this guy is breathing a new life into Riot and I believe so.
The band has been on some well-known labels before, like Metal Blade and SPV, but now you’re on Nuclear Blast, arguably the biggest metal label. Do you see difference in exposure the band is getting now, do you think this deal can push you further up?
Yeah, that’s what I said earlier. With Nuclear Blast it’s almost like being on a major label again, and we haven’t really been on one since the ’80s when we did “Thundersteel” and “Privilege of Power” for CBS Records. You know, SPV, it’s a great label, we love Oli and they were great heavy metal label in their own right, but they’re more focused I think on their certain market over there. They did a pretty good job, you know, getting the band back on track, because they also believed when Mark passed away that we were gonna be able to forge ahead without him, so they did believe in us, they did pretty good. But when I had the vision to keep the band going as Riot V, I said, “I gotta take that step on the next rung on the ladder to get us going.” Oli wanted the band again, but I said, “We need to make the jump.” And we were getting offers from Metal Blade, really good deal, and then Markus at Nuclear Blast, offers were starting to come in, Frontiers Records, and so I thought like, you know, the next step, it’s gotta be a bigger label. And Nuclear Blast, they gave me the proposal and I said, “Look, we have to take that job. We’ve been through a lot, there’s been a few deaths and line-up changes, we need to get this out to the metal mainstream. We need to get it to radio, to press, everything and on the charts again and Billboard and what not, we gotta get up there.” So, they’ve done a really good job. I haven’t felt this much excitement since the major label back in the day. We were bombarded with interviews when it first came out, they did a listening party in Germany, we did TV shows, we got on the German charts, we got on the Japan charts so, I think their vision is good. I think they wanna move Riot V to the next level and build us, that’s why they’re trying to get us on bigger tours and move forward in that kinda direction rather than keep us as the old staple, the old-school Riot from back in the day. I think they’re trying to move forward. So, it’s a great label man.
When you decided to go on without Mark, weren’t you afraid the old-school Riot fans wouldn’t approve of this new band?
Of course, yeah. I mean that was one of the main factors. Because Mike Flyntz was on the fence about even continuing when we were doing this on “Immortal Soul”. And you know, I've said it in the past a little bit, but a lot of people don't realise, even though Mark's name is on “Immortal Soul” he really didn't do anything on it. He played three rhythm tracks and Mike Flyntz did all the rest of the rhythm guitars and all the leads. There's not one lead from Mark because he was very sick at that point and we would have him in the studio, but we’d have to help him out. And at that point he was like, “I don't want to let it go, but you know, I’m at the point where I can’t really play”. But he had confidence in us. You know Mark used to tell me that, “You and Mike are totally capable of keeping this ship afloat.” And we were like, “OK, we'll keep going, you just give us the word if we shouldn't anymore.” And he gave us the go-ahead and basically it's his group. Upon his passing we were on the ship, the 70,000 Tons of Metal when we got the word, but he was supposed to be on that. His room was booked right next to us, but he fell ill and when he told us I said, “Well, then we have to cancel,” and Mark was like, “Don't cancel, go do it, we just put it in the press that I'm sick and I can't do it.” So, we went ahead and did and unfortunately, you know, it wasn't like what we were used to, where Mark would go in the hospital and he would come out, because he's been in some serious situations before, but he always came out. He even fell into a coma once and came out and so we thought, “OK, well, he'll be fine when we get back” and unfortunately, he had a brain haemorrhage when we were on the ship and it was very sad. We lost him and it affected us. Mike Flyntz didn't know if he could continue on because we were very close with Mark, both of us, we went outside of the band. We were friends and family, you know, and he brought us both into the band and basically helped to create what musicians we are today. So, it was really tough. But you know, I just remember him living with me before he passed away, that he told me to continue it, you know, and then when it happened, we talked to Tony, his father, Tony Reale and he said, “Please don't bury the music with my son, live it on. That's the only way his spirit will live on, through the music.” And we were OK and we even talked to Rick Ventura and you know Lou Kouvaris, Peter Bitelly, a lot of the earlier members and they gave the thumbs up and they said, “Yeah, absolutely man.” Even though we're not technically founding members from back in the day, me and Mike have been in the band longer than anybody in the career of Riot. Even, you know, Sandy Slavin was in the band four years, Peter Bitelly he was in the band five years, me and Mike have been in the band over 30 years, you know, off and on. I left for a while, but Mike religiously has been in the band. He's the longest lasting member of the band. So when people say he’s not a founding member, I'm like “Well, Mike may be not from that era but you know from the “Thundersteel” era, I am a founding member because I wrote every song on “Thundersteel” except for one and we ended up hiring Mike to be our filling for half of that tour too and then he became a full-fledged member. So, he was there with me. So, it took a while for us to decide to go on and once we got the blessings from everybody and Mike decided, “Well, let's try it,” you know, I started writing music and I showed it to Mike and the label, of course Oli at SPV and he was a little scared. He was like, “Yeah, this could be tricky coming back without him” and I said, “Well, you have to do it a certain way, this is not the same. We have to do a tribute record form and then we have to say, “Hey, we're portraying the fifth chapter” and I came up with that V for the fifth singer. You have Guy, Rhett Forester, Tony Moore, Mike DiMeo and then Todd Michael Hall’s the 5th recorded singer, ‘cause Tirelli didn't do any records. So, I was like, “Well, we're not trying to rely on the past, we're trying to move forward from 1988 on and from that era.” I am an original member when Riot turned power metal. I was a great fan of the early stuff but when I joined Mark, I was playing in a heavy metal band and he wanted me to basically do a very heavy record. So, I had a lot of good memories with Mark Reale. So, I wanted to continue for a number of reasons. Obviously, it's not a cash cow for us, you know, people say, “Well, they're just doing it for the money”and it’s like, believe me, there's no money in this, ha-ha, not yet. We do it for the passion and the love of the band and for the spirit of Mark. So, when we do stuff, we do think of what Mark would do and since I do handle the affairs for the band now I think what Mark would want to do because he taught me a lot. I'm like, “Mark would want us to do it this way. He would want us to do it this way.” So, I'm doing everything I've learned from the guy and we're moving forward with the V. There's handful of people that are just stuck in the past and if it's not “Fire Down Under” it's not Riot, but that happens with fans. If you look at Lynyrd Skynyrd, look at Foreigner, look at Venom. I mean, shit’s gonna happen with fans and maybe there's some bands that are doing it the wrong way for the wrong reasons, but definitely not this band. We do it for the love of music and for the legacy of Riot. We have blessings from the members and stuff. We're flourishing and it's great. But we're definitely doing it for the right reasons. We're not trying cashing in on anything, we all have regular jobs. We all have regular families and we’re regular, grown up gentlemen, with kids and grandkids, so we're just regular guys, ha-ha!
OK, you were not there in the very beginning, but do you actually know where the idea for the band's mascot came from?
Yeah, as a matter of fact, I know. I know the whole history because I was friends with Mark very, very early on. I actually met Mark in 1978 in the “Rock City” era and yeah, I've known him for a while and that's why I do continue. So, the history goes so far but Mark used to fill me in on everything. I would stay at Mark’s house in Brooklyn before I was in the band. I was a fan of the band. I actually wrote three songs on “Born in America” before I was even in the band and we wrote “Gunfighter”, “Heavy Metal Machine” and “Running from the Law” together and we played them and Mark had a solo band for a while call Narita, which I was in and Dave McClane from Machine Head so I was already riding with Mark before I officially joined. So, I've known all the history. The creature is a harp seal. Steve Loeb was the producer that started the band basically. There’s a lot of controversy on the guy, a lot of former members say that he took a lot of the money or whatnot, you know, we did those documentaries and a lot of people weren't really happy with the way he handled the affairs, but he did discover the band. But anyway, it was his brother-in-law, his sister's husband, he was an avant-garde artist in New York city, and he used to do these obscure paintings and he was an activist kind of guy. So basically, what it started off as, it was kind of a Japanese folklore symbol and had the body of something strange, you know, like a heavy duty fighter, like a sumo wrestler or a ninja but with the head of a baby harp seal and so, on the cover of “Rock City” the way you look at it, it was almost like the seals were retaliating for the clubbing that they were getting back in the day and all that controversy happening back then. And then we went to “Narita”, he turned into a sumo wrestler. He was kind of a little more chubby, the same character but with the planes falling. There was controversy that Narita airport was built on a sacred Japanese burial ground and a lot of the planes were missing the runway and crashing. That's why you see the cover like that and then of course, you know “Fire Down Under” it's just his face right there and then they brought him in for the other ones. So basically, he was kind of quirky, and most people are like, “How can you do a band mascot as a seal head? But love him or hate him, you associate him with Riot. Every time you see it people are like, “I hate that thing, but I know it's Riot,” and so basically that's what he is. And then they called him the Mighty Tior which is a play on words, you know, T-I-O-R instead of backwards. They called him the Mighty Tior and when I started writing music, we used the Johnny character a lot in our songs and people started calling him Johnny. So, we started calling him Johnny the Mighty Tior. And I decided when we were moving forward with this, that we need to bring him back. I said, “Look, let's bring the Tior back, the seal head, but instead of having him be quirky let's make him like the direction we’re moving in, with Riot V. We’re aggressive, more powerful, so he's got to be very big and muscular and his head’s got to be ferocious, although it's a seal.” That's why when you see “Unleash the Fire” and you see “Armor of Light” he's a very big warrior now. It’s actually Todd Michael Hall with a mask on, ha-ha, he's got a body like that, ha-ha!
OK, last question. You teamed up with Primal Fear for the European tour. How did it come about?
Well, when I talked to our agent Joerg Duesedau who books Michael Schenker and several other bands, he has been doing Riot duties, booking us and when we got signed, I talked to him and I talked to Marcus at the label and I said, “Look, we have the vision to make the band flourish, rise above being the old band. We do want to move forward from that era on, that's why it’s Riot V.” So, I wanted to try to get away from the stigma of the old Riot because when we did the old Riot, you know, they'll always try to put you in small places. They wanted to put us on tour with some of the smaller bands we were kind of equal with. Like, they wanted to do a tour with Exciter, they wanted to do a tour with Raven or Anvil and those kind of bands and I love all those bands and I know them very well but we need to rise above that. I said, “We need to try to get us on stages with Nightwishes, HammerFalls, Primal Fears.” This is Riot V, we have a new label, we have a new style, the music is fresh. We don't write very stagnant music. We move forward, we’re changing with the times. So that being said I wanted us to go out with something bigger and I get offers to go out with bands all the time. You know, they'll be like, “Hey, you want to go out with this band and you want to open for them, you want to do this?” I'm like “No.” I'll turn down tours to find the right one. So, I had both our agents in the US and Europe looking for things and then I told Marcus, “Any band on Nuclear Blast, on your roster that is kind of a cool band, put us out with them. Put us out with Megadeth and Testament, put us out with Anthrax, put us out with Arch Enemy. You know, let's get in the real game, let's get out of the small game. And he said, “Hey, we got Primal Fear right now. They've got a new record coming out and they'd be interested.” And Ralf Scheepers was into “Thundersteel”, he even sang on a version with Rhapsody once and so he thought it would be cool. And I thought that was cool, too. I said, “Primal Fear, that's a good stepping stone.” You know, it makes the band look cool, we're playing theatres, we're playing larger venues, we’re back on a tour bus, we're not in a van anymore. So, that's a step in the right direction. So, after we negotiated it, we came up with a plan and we're very excited about it. We haven't been doing big tours in the nightliners in quite some time. We've been doing these, like the last one we just did, we did fly dates. Flying in planes and doing festivals and small clubs in between. So now it's the chance for us to get back out there and you know, this will work. And we're talking to Arch Enemy which is kind of an extreme band but we're very good friends with them. We saw them at Wacken and we hang out with them, they’re very big Riot fans and they helped us get some more endorsements and they're talking about bringing us aboard. They said, “Yeah, Riot’s different now, you guys are more aggressive and heavy, you would probably fit with us.” So, we're trying to keep climbing, to play with the newer bands, because we have a lot of young fans now. I mean we never had this back in the day, we never had what we're having now. We have meet and greets where the kids are, you know, 20 or less. I'm in my 50s, we have 14 records out. We have more of a diverse audience, it’s young and more females are showing up, probably because of Todd, ha-ha, you know, we have young blood in the band and the fresh sound. So, Primal Fear is a step in the right direction. After Primal we're trying to jump aboard with another more modern act, you know, less dinosaur that we’re used to going out with, so it's all a plan. There's talk about getting out with HammerFall. Finally. We've got history with them and we cancelled once but now they're talking about doing a full European and US tour in 2020 and Marcus wants us to release in 2020. So, there's a couple things happening. I mean things are gonna change but we have a lot of irons in the fire right now, and we're just trying to rise above and be a part of the metal mainstream like we used to be back in the 80s. It's going good so far.