Special Report by Greg Prato
It would be understandable if you figured that we would never hear from Jake E. Lee again, as he seemed to pull a "late '90s Axl" on us - not offering a single glimpse or word to the public. But slowly, the guitarist - whose playing served a major role on several classic albums from both OZZY OSBOURNE and BADLANDS - began reappearing here in there, via YouTube clips and an appearance on That Metal Show.
And on January 28th, Lee's new project, RED DRAGON CARTEL, will be releasing their self-titled debut via Frontier Records. Featuring quite a few special guest vocalists (including Robin Zander of CHEAP TRICK, Paul Di'Anno formerly of IRON MAIDEN, Maria Brink from IN THIS MOMENT, and SASS JORDAN), as well as input from a set line-up (singer D.J. Smith, bassist Ronnie Macusco, and drummer Jonas Fairley), the disc is sure to please longtime Lee loyalists.
Recently, Lee chatted with BraveWords correspondent Greg Prato about Red Dragon Cartel, as well as the reasons for the band's underwhelming live debut, several Ozzy and Badlands memories, and his admiration of an oft-overlooked six-string master.
BraveWords: Why did it take you so long to return with a new project?
Jake E. Lee: "Well…after Badlands broke up, and the break-up of Badlands, I wouldn't call it 'traumatic,' but it broke my heart, because I loved Badlands. And I put everything into it - my heart and soul. And then when it broke up, I was saddened by that. And the fact that by that time - the early to mid '90s - Jake E. Lee wasn't 'cool' anymore. I'd out-lived my shelf life, basically. I wasn't getting any offers that I would consider. It was all either metal bands that wanted me to play like I did in Ozzy, or new blues-rock bands that wanted me to play like when I was in Badlands. As a musician, I've always liked exploring different things - that's why Badlands wasn't like Ozzy. And if I was going to do another project, I didn't want it to sound like anything else I'd done. I wanted to go off somewhere else, maybe funkier, maybe jazzier. Something that musically, would be more challenging for me. And I wasn't getting any of those kinds of offers. I decided I had a good run with Ozzy and Badlands, and I could bow out gracefully. So, that's what I did for 15, almost 20 years. I bowed out and I was comfortable. I was never one of those guys that needed the spotlight on me. I didn't need that attention - I'm fine without it. I play music because I love music. Ever since I was a kid, that's my passion. And that's why I did it. I don't need to play in front of people. I don't need adoration. So it was easy for me to retire. The only part that eventually became something of a problem was I missed the interaction of other people musically. Because during that whole time, I did still write music and record onto my computer ideas and stuff. I loved that, but I missed the interaction with somebody - somebody to bounce ideas off of. And when I moved to Vegas, I found out that Ronnie Mancuso lived here also, and I lost contact for about 20 years or so, we hooked back up. We did Beggars and Thieves - did a video ('We Come Undone'). It was pretty quickly after we got together and said, 'Hey, how are you doing?' and all that kind of bullshit. He was doing the video, and he said, 'Hey, do you want to do a cameo?' And I'm like, 'Sure! Why not?' So I was in the video, and there was so much response - obviously because I hadn't done anything. There were all kinds of rumors about my demise in one way or another. People were excited that I was still able to stand. (Laughs) And look like I could play guitar, and hadn't gotten bald or fat or anything. There was so much response to my cameo appearance in that video that Ron got together with Kevin Churko, who owns a studio right next to Ron's studio. They got together and said, 'Look, there's all this interest in Jake. Do you want to do something?' And they kind of pulled me out of it. Like I said, I was happy, but they said, 'There's a lot of interest.' And Kevin said, 'I'll executive produce.' And Ron owns his own studio, so it's not like we'd have to pay for studio time or anything. I could just show up at night. We'll go over ideas; I'll show him all the stuff I had written in the last 15 years and see if we could write songs around it. So it was very casual, like, 'dip your toe in the pool' kind of thing and see how it feels. And like I said, I missed the interaction, so it did feel really good to be able to write and bounce ideas off of Ron, and Kevin's son, Kane, who helped write some of the songs. It was really exciting. In fact, the first song that we actually finished was 'Feeder.' And because it was just me and Ron, we didn't have a singer but we had a melody. We were listening to it one day, and I said, 'Man, Robin Zander would sound awesome on this song.' And Ron happened to know Tom Petersson, the bass player (of Cheap Trick). So he contacted him, and Robin said he would do it. He did it in Florida, so when we got the tracks back and I'm listening to it - a completed song with Robin Zander on vocals and Tom Petersson on bass - it was the most excited I'd felt in a long, long time. That's when I knew, 'OK, let's do this. Let's start writing songs.' Because it really was a happy day in my life, just listening to it. It was really exciting."
BraveWords: How did you hook up with the other singers on the album?
Jake E. Lee: "With Robin, like I said, Ron was friends with Tom Petersson, so we did it through that connection. With Paul Di'Anno, we had written another song ('Wasted') and we were trying to figure out who would sound good singing it. And I think Brent Fitz was in the room - because he played drums on some of the record - and I think he was the one who mentioned Paul Di'Anno, because that's pretty obscure. I hadn't heard anything about him in 20 years at least, maybe 30. And I used to love the old Iron Maiden. In fact, that was my favorite version of Iron Maiden, was when Paul was in the band, because they were a little punkier. He mentioned his name, and I was just like, 'Wow! He would sound awesome on this song. And…what the hell is he doing these days?' So that, we just went on the internet and Ron put a question out, 'Anybody know how to get a hold of Paul Di'Anno for Jake's record?' And we got a hold of him pretty quickly. I've never met the guy, because he's in England, so it was all done through the internet, which obviously, back when I was recording last time, that wasn't feasible. So we sent him the tracks, he sang on them, sent them back, and they sounded great. Someday, I hope to meet Paul and thank him, personally. Maria (Brink) is in In This Moment, and they were recording next door at Kevin's studio. We were just playing some tracks and Maria came in to introduce herself and say hi. She heard one track ('Big Mouth'), and said, 'Oh my god, can I sing on it?' She's not exactly someone that you would think Jake E. Lee would have sing a track. And that made it more alluring. So she asked if she could be on a track, we gave the tracks to her, and her vocal performance on it is really good. And then the last one would be Sass Jordan, and that one was interesting because she was on tour with her band, SUN, with Brian Tichy and other people in it were apparently big Badlands fans. So while they were touring, they keep playing Badlands. And Sass had never even heard of us before. But she heard it while they were playing it on the bus and she asked, 'How are these guys? Who is that motherfucker singing?' Because Ray (Gillen) was an astonishing singer. And she just became a huge Badlands fan over the course of a couple of weeks. And then they were playing Vegas, and after soundcheck, they decided to eat somewhere, and they came down to Ron's place, which is a restaurant in front and a studio in the back. She was eating inside and Brent Fitz came down to meet with them, and she started going on about Badlands. And Brent said, 'Well you know, Jake is right next door in the studio recording new stuff.' So he brought her back there, introduced us. We were working on 'Redeem Me,' and she heard some of the track, and I said, 'Y'know, you would sound pretty good on this,' and she said, 'Damn straight I would!' So that's how she got on the album."
BraveWords: What were your thoughts of the first show at the Whiskey A Go Go the other night? It seems like fans on the internet were pretty critical of singer D.J. Smith's performance.
Jake E. Lee: "Yeah, I knew that was coming up! (Laughs) Boy, yeah, this is a different age from the last time I played - you had a bad show, you just pretended like it never happened and eventually, it would go away. That doesn’t happen anymore. And that's why I was on your site (BraveWords) the other night, I think it was after the San Diego show, I decided to…because I had read all of the stuff that was said about that first show, and I was like, 'OK, we did pretty good in San Diego. I wonder if there is any redemption in us at all.' I think it took me to your site first, with the apology thing from Darren (D.J.). Yeah, that first show, I blame myself mostly, because we were under-rehearsed. The show just kind of popped up. One day, 'You have a show coming up, at the Whiskey.' I was like, 'Really?' So we didn't have time to prepare, because I always wanted to rehearse the band two to three weeks comfortably, to be prepared for the first show. We didn't really have that kind of time - because two of them are Canucks and we had to get visas and get them down here. We ended up having five days to rehearse. The rehearsals were great, but I think we kind of burnt ourselves out, because we would rehearse for like eight hours straight, wake up, come in, rehearse for eight hours - and trying to figure out what songs we would play. You do that for five nights in a row and then have a show the next day, you get a little burnt out, and that's not the way I want to do the first show. So we were a bit burnt. And then we had to wake up in the morning, go down to LA. So everybody was tired. And like I said, these are weak excuses - but it's my fault. I should have put my foot down and actually said, 'Either we're not doing the first show, or we've got to figure out a way we can rehearse for two to three weeks comfortably instead of cramming it all in.' So that first show, a little shaky. And with Darren, he's a lead singer and they're usually cocky - I'm stereotyping, but it's true - lead singers don't get nervous. He admitted to me afterwards, he said, 'I was really nervous. I'm 'Jake E. Lee's new singer;' I'm following in Ray Gillen's footsteps. Our first show is at the Whiskey A Go Go.' He tired to calm himself down with some drinks and it wasn't the ideal first show. But I can guarantee you that that particular performance will never happen again, because Darren…and nobody is going to beat themselves up worse than Darren did, even though there were a lot of attempts on the web! Because they were brutal on him. And he read them. Like I said, nobody is going to kick themselves harder than him. But he got kicked pretty hard. We did the San Diego show, and he didn't have a drink and he was on his game that night. In San Diego, we did a lot better. Yeah, that first show…the good thing about that is it's only going to get better - there's no possible way it could get worse. And so every show after that, it's going to be an improvement. That's trying to look at the good side of things. And we'll never be scrutinized as hard, either, as much as the first show at the Whiskey A Go Go. We're never going to be under that magnifying glass again. Everything is just going to get better from here on out. Because during rehearsals, we sounded great. We had to learn the songs quick and there were mistakes, but they were 'glorious mistakes' - they were mistakes made with a rock n' roll attitude. So I just figured we were going to be fine. But yeah…are we done I hope talking about that first show?" (Laughs)
BraveWords: You mentioned before the break-up of Badlands. To the best of my knowledge, you've never gone on record as to what caused the break-up.
Jake E. Lee: "We all got along great…until the end. By that time, we got dropped by the record label, and we were kind of hurting financially. Because of that, and because I think Ray knew he didn't have a lot of time left (Ray passed away in 1993 at the age of 34, from AIDS-related complications) - even though that was never specifically stated at that time - he kind of started to want to write material that he thought would get us on the radio and make us a bigger band. I was on the other side. I was like, 'I don't give a fuck, I don't care. We don't have to be on the radio. This is a great band, I love playing in this band. I just want to play music. I don't want to play something to try to become something.' Anyway, there is that friction there, and the fact that we weren’t making any money. Rehearsals and songwriting, we were in studios, and they're billing us - so we were actually getting in debt. It finally just came to a head one day. I don't remember…I think it was kind of a mutual thing, or Ray said he quit, and I said, 'Fine, you're fired.' It all ended much uglier than it needed to. But I did contact Ray just before he passed. We made up. And I miss Ray to this day - every single day I miss him. Not just as a singer, but as a brother. I'm glad I was able to talk to him before he left. In fact, I called him when he was in the hospital, and I wasn't able to actually talk to him - I talked to his cousin, who was in the room with him. Because by that time, he wasn't able to speak. But she told me - because they had discussed it before - that he wanted to get back. He told her, 'I miss Jake. We were a good team, and I hope someday Jake will call.' So then when I did call, she was all excited. He was very happy that I called, and I told her, 'Tell him I miss him. Let's do something - when he gets out of the hospital, we'll get together and start working on something new.' He was excited about that. But he never got out of the hospital."
BraveWords: I seem to recall rumors that there was talk of an Ozzy reunion sometime back in the '90s?
Jake E. Lee: "At one point, I think it was in the mid '90s, Sharon was in town and called me. And I hadn't talked to her since…when I got fired. She said, 'Jake, how are you doing? Let's get together.' Because I have a daughter, and she has daughters, and they kind of grew up together during the Ozzy years. She said, 'Let's get together and have lunch.' So I went over there and we talked, but that never came up. I guess just the fact that we were talking may have helped spread that rumor. But right around 2005 or so, I think she called me again, and just out-and-out asked me, 'Would you be interested in playing some shows and maybe doing the next record with Ozzy?' I just wasn't prepared for that. She threw me off balance, and I said, 'Well, that's a lot to think about. Can you call me back tomorrow? Give me 24 hours to figure it out.' She said sure, and she called, but I still hadn't figured it out, so I didn’t answer. (Laughs) So I figured she'd call the next day, but she never called back. But I don't think it would have worked anyway, because by that time, I figured out, 'OK. I'll consider doing that but I want credit for 'Bark at the Moon' - I want credit for all the songs I wrote.' That would have been my stipulation. So although I never got a chance to say it, I'm sure things wouldn't have worked out, because I don't think she's prepared to give that up for some reason - I don't know why. But that's when they were having a lot of problems with Zakk (Wylde), and it might have even just been a case of where she wanted to go to Zakk and say, 'I talked to Jake…get your shit together.' That might have been the reason for that call. Who knows? I don't know."
BraveWords: And what would you say are some of the most overlooked Ozzy tracks you played on?
Jake E. Lee: "Overlooked…I always thought 'Slow Down' off the Bark at the Moon record was a really good track. 'Now You See It (Now You Don't).' So many of those songs were not even played live. And the last time I played them was 30 years ago. I liked 'Spiders' (aka 'Spiders In The Night'), because it was so off for an Ozzy song - it was a little weird. For Ultimate Sin, 'Killer of Giants' is probably the track I'm most proud of. I don't think you can say it's overlooked because it's a popular track. But I do have to say out of all the songs I wrote with Ozzy, I think 'Killer of Giants' I'm the most proud of."
BraveWords: A few years ago, I did a book about ex-DEEP PURPLE/JAMES GANG guitarist Tommy Bolin (Touched by Magic: The Tommy Bolin Story), and I seem to remember once hearing you were a big fan.
Jake E. Lee: "Tommy was the reason why I wanted to get a Strat. I just loved him. When I was in a cover band in San Diego, we became probably the biggest cover band in San Diego at that time, and it was called TEASER - because that was his first album title. Yeah, he was a huge influence on me. I loved his tone. I even saw him with JEFF BECK in San Diego on that tour where he ended up OD'ing (in 1976). I saw him on that tour. And my big regret is I knew this girl who knew people backstage, and she said, 'I can get you back there. Do you want to meet Tommy?' And I was feeling all bashful all of a sudden. 'Maybe next time.' And, there was no next time. So I have a big regret that I didn’t just man up and go backstage and meet him. I wish I had."
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