Tribe of Judah
Exit Elvis (Spitfire Records)
An interview with singer Gary Cherone
By Martin Popoff
Boston native Gary Cherone has had a varied career, to say the least. Vaulting out of the clubs to fame with Extreme, fishbowling with Van Halen, betraying the Son of God in Jesus Christ Superstar, and now shaking up his fanbase with a trancy, introspective album by his new cult-ish sounding band, Tribe of Judah, Gary is at peace and restless at once. Or more accurately, his engagement with the world of rock ‘n’ roll has settled a bit, his batteries recharged, Cherone now ready to try it from the top – or from the bottom, as it were – from scratch. The peace has given way to an urge to jump back into the ring. Will he find commercial success again? It’s tough out there. Has he found the last year creatively rich and rewarding? You bet. And here he is to tell you about it…
Tell me why you chose this musical direction for Tribe of Judah.
Actually, it’s a direct result of coming out of Van Halen at the beginning of 2000. I didn’t know what it was going to be, but I knew I was going to write the music and creatively go into an uninhibited lyric. It’s not that Van Halen was restricting, it was the entity itself, the preconception of what Van Halen should be. But with Tribe of Judah, I knew I wanted to write something as pure of heart as I could. There was only one prerequisite; I didn’t want to join another three-piece rock band. What was attractive was some of the programming, the different canvases to write over. So I was looking for a writing partner and tripped upon Steve Ferlazzo, who was a keyboard programmer and a brilliant keyboard player. And we started just to write, some heavy stuff, some moody stuff, some hypnotic stuff. Leo was just going to do a guitar solo in a non-related song that’s not on the record, and we just hit it off. With the three of us, that’s when I knew we had what evolved into the Tribe. It grew from there, but that was kind of the writing nucleus. It was a different canvas, and I wanted to do different things vocally on this record. I wanted to use my voice like a guitar player would use his guitar, as an effect. So there are a lot of effective vocals on there, but it’s more about the songs than the voice. I’m singing a hell of a lot on this record. (laughs)
Did you have freedom in Van Halen? For example, were you the guy behind the lyrics?
Yes, sure. What was great about the Van Halen thing – which in hindsight probably led to why it wasn’t a successful record – was that Eddie and I really hit it off, and we really didn’t write a Van Halen record. It was just like when Sammy joined the band, it became the new Van Halen. When I joined, it became a new writing team, and I introduced him to a different lyric style. It was pure; the art was pure. But we ran into trouble when the record was done and it wasn’t the Van Halen record everybody thought was going to happen. But I never got pressure from the guys; they treated me great.
Tell me a little bit about Tribe of Judah and Exit Elvis as terms.
Well, Judah comes from the Old Testament. I like Tribe of something… The name stuck in my head from a few years back. Judah; somday I want to name my kid that. If there’s any significance to the name, it’s that me, I’m one of the five guys in the tribe, and not to get heavy, but people are one of many tribes; we come from tribes. So I’m playing with different characters at different points in their lives, and we’re just a band of thieves I guess. (laughs)
And how about Exit Elvis?
Exit Elvis kind of sums up the philosophy of the record. Again, the record is not conceptual in the traditional sense. A lot of philosophical themes are running through the lyrics. Exit Elvis is just a paraphrase of “Elvis has left the building.” And the song is more of a critique of – it sounds funny; I don’t want to sound heavy-handed or lofty here – but it’s a critique on art, the death of art. And the album cover ties into some of the themes that are going on on the record, the futility of man’s ideals. You see, I’m getting lost. This is probably why I don’t do a lot of interviews. (laughs) I’ve always shied away from this, but I can’t this time around.
Did you not do a lot of interviews in the Extreme days?
No, no! I closed down shop. I tried it and it never fared well and Nuno was very good at it so I stopped. But that won’t help this band. If I’m going to get this on the map, I’m going have to be an interviewee. The gun on the cover, it’s a provocative image. I guess I want the person seeing that image to be disturbed, not for shock reasons, but to draw people into the lyrics and some of the themes that are going on, which are relativism, man being a measure, the moral relativism that each person displays in terms of right and wrong, and how we choose the paths we’re on. The first song, “Left For Dead,” is the whole death of God thing, kind of man raising his fist up to God and saying “I’m going to do it my way rather than your way!”
What have you been reading that has taken you in this direction?
(laughs) You’re very good! You’re getting to the crux of it. The funny thing is, the atheists of the world – your Bertrand Russells, your Nietzsches – I don’t necessarily agree with their conclusions, but in order to disagree, you’ve got to understand the minds of some of those guys. And that philosophy in general always intrigued me, what brought a person to that point, with respect to the battle that we have in terms of free will versus an absolute truth and an absolute God, being Creator or creation, or randomly coming into existence via evolution with no purpose. And the funny thing about this record is that the majority of the record is the antithesis of what I believe in. And the gun to the head, certainly I’m not advocating suicide, I’m just trying to bring relativism to its logical conclusion. Why does that disturb you? The person who looks at that image doesn’t like it. And to me, that’s the greatest argument for the existence of God.
Do you find that reading these rigorous atheist thinkers is the ultimate test of your faith?
No, if anything, you could sum up this whole process as mental masturbation. In the real world, it’s about relationships. It’s about people and who you’ve touched in your life, your family or your girlfriend, your wife, whatever. So I struggle with that. I think at brass tacks, it’s simpler than being theologically sound, or “knowing” all the answers to the meaning of the universe. For some people, it’s a path to belief. I tell ya, the Bertrand Russells and the Nietzsches of the world paint a very grim picture. There might be true atheists in the world, but they don’t practice it, because they do have a morality. My question, or my challenge on that end, would be, “On what grounds do you stand when it comes to a prohibition?” Why is a gun to my head “wrong” when your belief system says there is no meaning? I hope I don’t sound like a lunatic. (laughs) And that is the underlying lyrical theme to the record, and that’s the driving force of Tribe of Judah. I mean, Van Halen certainly wasn’t a vehicle like this. I miss the stage and I miss the guys, it was good run while it lasted, but this is more important to me.
What caused the breakup between you and Van Halen?
Well, success would have caused the continuation. (laughs) We started writing and trying to do the right thing, trying to make that right Van Halen record… The personalities got along, but add the pressure from the record company and the lack of success of the other record, and the writing was on the wall. I remember having conversations saying, “Hey, I can stay in the band, but you tour with Dave. Give the people what they want.” And they’re like “No fucking way!” That was actually contemplated at one time. I wanted them to get the Dave thing out of their system, because it would’ve been a massive tour; people would’ve loved it.
So you guys contemplated making the Van Halen record everybody wanted, but your hearts just weren’t in it?
What is the Van Halen record everybody wanted? I said to Alex, “Doing the right Van Halen record is doing it with Dave.” And that would’ve been a deathblow to me. I couldn’t win doing Van Halen 3…
It’s debatable. You might have…
Yeah, you’re right. We wrote a few songs that could’ve been hits… They were somewhere in-between the Sam and Dave thing. But it started to get a little dysfunctional over time. We parted fine. I really wish the Dave thing happened for them. I had an opportunity to meet Sammy, and I wouldn’t rule out Sammy getting back in there.
He’s personable enough and could make it work. Although Ray Danniels seemed to indicate that the big problem with Sammy is that you couldn’t actually get him to do any work.
Yes, but that again can be seen from both sides, the work ethic. Sammy has the Cabo Wabo thing, and he’s a lot older than I am. Me coming into the band, kind of that new kid on the block, I was kind of Eddie’s new toy. (laughs) Eddie was coming into himself as being a leader and in control and all that stuff, and that whole Ray Danniels thing is a mess. They fell out. And you know, when you’re not successful with a record, you start pointing fingers. And they never pointed the finger at me. We knew what we were getting into. We knew that the record was odd and that it was going to challenge that preconception, but live, we did give the people what they wanted. We gave them the catalog of music. I had no problems singing any of the old stuff, and I think the fans appreciated that. So I go away with a good feeling in that respect.
Van Halen was a band that always danced on the edge of not really writing anything, and that record went over the edge, and it didn’t really have a lot of songs on it.
I don’t really listen to the record a lot. There were a bunch of seeds of some good songs, but we just didn’t develop them. Some of it is really good, and some of it is a glorified demo. I would’ve liked to’ve gotten a second shot. But I’m almost three years removed from it now, and the Tribe is where I should be.
Is Boston still part of your life? Has it been good to you as a city?
Boston is probably the Extreme chapter. It’s very much a part of… actually no, I take that back. I grew up here, worked the clubs for years – I was in bands for years before Extreme – and it was a great scene, everything from punk to pop to heavy metal. Still, to this day, it’s like that. There were some great clubs, and a lot of them don’t exist anymore. But yes, Boston is very important. Growing up with Aerosmith, an East Coast band, even J. Geils, a band that I saw at the Boston Garden… And then once Extreme got successful, it was just a place to put your head after every tour. I had my family here, and I still do. So we weren’t in the club scene; we were playing theaters and the world. So it became, I guess, where I grew up, and the place I came home to see the family. Between the cracks of Extreme, I joined this Boston Rock Opera troupe, a rock theater group with like 35 local rock singers, and between tours, I jumped in an did Jesus Christ Superstar for a couple years. So that’s my connection to Boston, an incredible group of talented local singers and musicians, and that’s what keeps my ties to the local community. Other than that, it’s just family. I actually bought a house north of Boston, next to my family. Winter, spring, summer and fall, you know? I love California, but Christmas wasn’t the same.
Are there any local clubs you’re quite fond of?
Yeah, The Middle East, Bill’s Bar, there’s a House of Blues – the first House of Blues, in Cambridge. Tribe of Judah played a few shows over the summer, and we did a bunch of 200 capacity places, sweaty people, old school club gigs which were just tremendous, because it reminded me of the early Extreme days.
What’s your favorite album from the Extreme catalog?
The last two, Three Sides to Every Story and Punchline. Those are the ones that aged well, production as well as songs. I think the first two, the production is a bit dated and I’m so far removed from some of those songs, like “Get The Funk Out,” it’s almost like I’m another person.
How much of Pornograffitti being the most “returned” album in history is truth and how much is legend?
I think the majority of it is myth, although I’m sure there were a few hundred housewives returning it after hearing “Get The Funk Out” and “Suzi Wants Her All Day Sucker.” (laughs) It’s funny.
Any comments on the big Jesus Christ Superstar stars, Ted Neely, Ian Gillan, Sebastian Bach?
I haven’t seen Sebastian. I heard he got the gig in New York, and I’d like to play opposite him. I wouldn’t doubt that I could sneak my hat into that ring. And I haven’t seen any of his stuff on Jeckyll and Hyde, but he’s got a great voice. Ted Neely… this won’t go well with Jesus Christ Superstar fans, but I’m a fan of the movie soundtrack more than the original, which is Ian Gillan. Carl Anderson steals the show for me with the Judas character. I’d done Jesus first, and then I did Judas, and Judas is the role for me. I like the Jesus role, but Judas has the heavier tunes.
Are you saying that you’d like to get in there and be the Judas to Sebastian Bach’s Jesus?
I want you to be the first one to say it: Absolutely, yeah! I think Sebastian has something to do with Spitfire and I’d like to get a word in there.
I’ve heard that Mike Mangini can do a snare drum roll with one hand.
Yes, he can. Yeah, he said he had a dream, and he saw it in a dream. I think there was an old black blues band that rolled out a blueprint of it. And it’s funny when he tells it, but he woke up knowing he could do it. He played most of the tracks on the Tribe of Judah record, but it doesn’t look like he’s going out on tour because he’s just busy being a professor at Berklee.
What have you heard about Eddie’s health? Is he going to be okay?
Yeah, you know, a lot of that stuff was going on when I was there, and long story short, I guess he had some cancerous cells on his tongue and got that cut out. The last I heard is about four, five months ago, he had a clean bill of health.
Yet I heard that he didn’t stop smoking!
He didn’t stop smoking. And you look at him and you go, “What the hell is wrong with you!?” Old habits are hard to quit.
Tell me about the extent to which Exit Elvis is a concept album.
Like all my records, if I write a pocket of songs over time, there are some heavy philosophical themes going throughout them. The underlying theme of this record being relativism, the death of God, man’s free will, and how it relates to art and the meaning of life. How we view our origins determines how we live our lives. I hope I’m not getting too abstract… Some of those themes are what I’ve struggled with over the years, the whole free will issue and how we determine what is right or wrong. You talk about right and wrong in absolutes and what is gray is relative, but it really does tie into the basic idea of man’s free will. We have a choice to do what is right or wrong. Before you can determine what is right or wrong, you have to have the ability to either do right or wrong. And that’s getting to the crux of the matter. If God exists, there’s an absolute truth, an absolute law. If there is a God, we’re subject to His law, rather than, if there is no God, we’re subject to our own laws. And to me, the record is a journey in that direction, which is a very grim direction. It ends with a song called “Exit Elvis,” which starts out as a critique of art and the meaning of art, asking whether it matters in the end.
It’s quite horrific if we find out that art doesn’t matter…
Absolutely. There’s a quote from Dostoyevsky that stopped me in my tracks and inspired a lot of the lyrics. “At first, art would imitate life, then life would imitate art, and then life would draw its very reason for existence from art.” That scared the hell out of me. There’s got to be more to life than creating a piece of pottery, or painting a picture, or dancing.
Creating, doing art – or self-actualization, which to a lot of people means art – is at the very top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and if that means nothing, you’ve got your own new type of spiritual anguish.
Right, and it seems that America props up the artist almost as the new prophet, regardless of their contribution. But then again, it’s been done throughout the history of man. In our own field, Bob Dylan was considered a prophet, almost a spiritual leader. Well, I thought so at one time. (laughs) Or even John Lennon. And it’s scary, because we are mere men that fall short of perfection.
So do you now hold art in less esteem than you might have, perhaps, 10 years ago?
Yes. As a writer, what I write is not necessarily what I believe; maybe it’s the antithesis of that. I’m very much a theistic realist, a believer in God. What I’m trying to draw out of myself is to know the other side. And it’s always been strange to me that people can come to that conclusion, because I perceive this universe as the fingerprint of God. I would be very hard-pressed to think of it as an accident, without meaning. Because everything has cause-and-effect relationships. I don’t think anything is random in this universe.
And what is that one, Paley’s desert watch theory?
Oh man, you’re introducing me to some good names here. What’s that one?
The idea that if you were on a deserted island and you came across a pocket watch in the sand, you’d logically believe that someone or something created that watch, that it wasn’t just a random event or item.
Yes, true, and you look at a strand of DNA; you can parallel that to a strand of DNA, the irreducible complexity; you know, that this isn’t a blob of random atoms. Look at me and you going off on a philosophical rant. (laughs) And the other thing that always struck me was “I think, therefore I am.” I heard that one a million times and never got it, until it hit me one day. You know, Descartes was doubting everything and the one thing that he couldn’t doubt was his doubting. And if you doubt, there must be a doubter.
And then there’s the whole idea of Platonic ideals. It’s not so much a God thing, but there’s this question: Is there perfect art, perfect right and wrong, perfect black, perfect white…
I got ya, a perfect chair… We need another conversation to sort this out. (laughs) I really think you’ll enjoy some of the themes going on on the album. There’s an image with a gun to my neck. The last thing I want to advocate is suicide, what I was trying to invoke is the meaninglessness…
Yes, I’ve been emailed your explanation/defense of the cover art.
Which doesn’t help, does it? You know, I’m not opposed to explaining, but you spend your whole life on your craft, and then you’re asked to sum it up in a sound bite. And you know what? I’m not that good. (laughs) People who are interested will get the record, and people who think I want to commit suicide, they’re not going to buy my record, and they’re not going to get it.