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The System Lords Control: An exclusive interview with Sacred Oath singer/guitarist Rob Thorne

By Charlie Steffens aka Gnarly Charlie, Writer/Photographer
Thursday, April 2, 2009 @ 10:13 AM

"It’s almost like we’re being reborn with this album, which is why we chose to self-title the album."

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Back in the mid-‘80’s, the term American power metal would more likely have been attached to a Chevy IROC-Z than to the likes of a band from Connecticut called Sacred Oath. In 1985, scores of teenage boys’ eyeballs stayed affixed to the pages of Circus and Hit Parader, wishing they were the singer jumping off the drum riser, or laying down a scorching guitar solo. Glambastic hair metal and “hard rock” was in full swing, but two high-schoolers, Rob Thorne and Pete Altieri, wanted to play power metal. Thus, Sacred Oath was born. And then, shortly after they inked a record deal, they were done.

Singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer, and father of all that is Sacred, Rob Thorne talks about the restoration of a band that wouldn’t die.

Sacred Oath is back.

THORNE: How are ya, man?

KNAC.COM: Good, Rob. How are things with you?

THORNE: They’re good. My whole family’s got the stomach flu.

KNAC.COM: Oh, no. I had something last night that was like a 12-hour bug and now it’s gone.

THORNE: Yeah, that’s what my wife had, but twelve hours with two kids is exponentially brutal.

KNAC.COM: It is. How old are your kids?

THORNE: Six and three. I’ve got my third one on the way. I’m hoping for a boy.

KNAC.COM: You need some testosterone in the house. Hopefully your dogs or cats or your horses…

THORNE: Our hamster.

KNAC.COM: Is it a male hamster?

THORNE: Yeah, and he’s got a big schwantz.

KNAC.COM: Good. You gotta have that in the house.

THORNE: It’s true.

KNAC.COM: I heard that you used to live here in Long Beach.

THORNE: When we lived in L.A. we lived down in Belmont Shore near Seal Beach, and loved KNAC.

KNAC.COM: I’m biased, with the streaming Broadband and the playlist we have, there isn’t anything on the Web or otherwise that can compare. Just like when we were on the airwaves.

THORNE: And what could compare with KNAC Night at The Red Onion? Oh my God--out of control (laughs). On my 21st birthday it was like midnight and we were waiting at the door to get in at Lakewood. It was crazy. Motorcycles riding through the bar, strippers--it was just insane. 1989.

KNAC.COM: In ’85 you guys formed and by ’87 you were just about over, right?

THORNE: No. In ’85 we formed, and I was still a junior in high school and living here in Connecticut. In ’87 our debut was released. We didn’t end up in L.A. until ’89, and then by that point we were in tatters. We were pretty much disbanded. And then I ended up settling out there for a few years, going to school, doing my thing there with another band, playing on the old Sunset Strip, which was at that point like the fall of the Roman Empire. All crashing down around us.

KNAC.COM: Thanks to flannel and the MTV movement.

THORNE: I still remember when Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came out, and I was like “Wow, this is the end.” It was all over.

KNAC.COM: You have a big following in Europe, right? Even while your band went dark, so to speak, the loyalty stayed there and it seemed to grow.

THORNE: Yeah, isn’t that freaky? We were disbanded for years until we got approached by Sentinel Steel, and they were like “Would you guys consider getting in the same room with each other? Because there’s this whole following for you in Europe,” and we were like “Hey, it’s not like we don’t like each other. We broke up because of all the bad shit that was going down with the label and we were so young.”

Charlie, when you’re 18 years old it’s a lot easier to say “Fuck this. I don’t want to do this and put up with this crap.” And when they told us what we had going on, we’re like “Sure.” So we got back together, we had a little reunion jam there, which was recorded and ended up being released as Crystal Revision. But the timing still wasn’t right. We were all busy in other bands. I was playing full-time in Soundscape, so it was like “Hey, that was fun. It was great to see you guys. Who knows what’ll happen?” In 2005 I got a little free time, Sounscape was sort of on the outs at that point, so I said “Let’s do Darkness Visible,” which were all the songs that were lined up to record for our follow up album back in ‘88, and we did that and Bam! It just took off. So here we are.

KNAC.COM: I didn’t go to Wikipedia for information on why you guys broke up, but you mentioned the record label was a major factor. What kind of turmoil was going on with the members? Was anybody on dope or psych medication? What was the deal?

THORNE: (laughs) Aren’t we all on psych medication?

KNAC.COM: Yeah, Wellbutrin, actually.

THORNE: (laughs) You know, I don’t think that drugs had anything to do with us breaking up. I think it was a combination of youth and total disillusionment with the music industry in general, because when you’re 17 years old signing a record deal, you’re going into school going “I don’t need to take my SAT’s because I’m going to be a rockstar. Bye bye.” And then, all of a sudden, you start getting hit with all the crap. Mercenary Records kept postponing our album release. We must have had seven different release dates over the course of a year and a half, and they weren’t paying the studio, and the studio was talking to us behind closed doors to try and bootleg the record, and we were just so frustrated and unhappy, And, unbeknownst to us, Mercenary was struggling to stay out of bankruptcy, and that was ultimately the problem. And they went bankrupt right about when we went bust. The next thing you know we’re all fighting. They put us out on a tour that was just so underfunded that our only nutrition was Michelob beer.

KNAC.COM: Well, what’s wrong with that?

THORNE: It’s good for a couple weeks (laughs), but we came back from that tour and we were emaciated and sickly and fighting. We were living, literally living, on a couch in the back of a U-Haul truck on that tour. It was crazy. Luckily, back then the U-Hauls had a little door that went between the cab and the box, so we had a little space there and two guys up front driving around. That takes its toll, especially when you feel that you’ve got no support from the label and you keep telling people the album’s coming out and it’s not coming out. We finally were like “Screw this. We got better things to do.”

KNAC.COM: Well at least you didn’t end up drinking Lucky Lager.

THORNE: Oh, I’ve had my fair share of Lucky Lager.

KNAC.COM: I have, too.

THORNE: I always went for the Lucky cap.

KNAC.COM: Hey, this’ll stump ya!

THORNE: (laughs)

KNAC.COM: The new self-titled album Sacred Oath is going to be released May 12th here in the States, right?

THORNE: Yeah. That’s the street date for the actual CD being on store shelves, but you know we got this April 7th thing coming up.

KNAC.COM: The iTunes promo, right?

THORNE: That’s like the biggest thing to ever happen to us. I mean, it’s crazy. For the way things are going with disc sales, iTunes is like the number one music retailer in the world right now. It’s nuts.

KNAC.COM: The other day I went in the record store and bought a CD because I wanted the liner notes. It was like a ghost town in there. Nobody’s really shopping for music in the stores like they used to.

THORNE: No, they’re not. When I’m here in my studio I teach guitar lessons, and I teach these kids that are like 12, 14 years old. A lot of these kids would never even consider owning the disc, Charlie. They live in a whole alternate reality than we do. They walk around and they’ve got their iPhones. If I’m teaching them a song and they need it, they download it right in front of me, lyrics and everything. The concept of having to own a physical thing in association with the music just doesn’t even make sense to them.

KNAC.COM: Those spoiled little bastards.

THORNE: Isn’t it weird?

KNAC.COM: I had to steal my Ted Nugent album.

THORNE: (laughs hysterically) Yeah right. You had to work for it!

KNAC.COM: I had to work for that son-of-a-gun!

THORNE: I had to sneak my Speak of the Devil [Ozzy Osbourne] under my t-shirt. My mom would not have that cover. Had to have it. Had to smuggle it into my house.

KNAC.COM: What was your first show when you were a kid?

THORNE: My first show was Def Leppard Pyromania. I was 13 and Krokus was opening up on the Headhunter album and I was into them. My uncle brought me and I was in Hartford Civic Center, watching Def Leppard and Krokus, and I was speechless. I knew that that was what I wanted to do, I could tell ya that. My second concert was Ozzy Bark at the Moon with Motley Crue’s Shout at the Devil.

KNAC.COM: That’s sick. As far as guitar players go, who opened it up for you?

THORNE: Randy Rhoads. I got started with Black Sabbath and AC/DC. That was when I really started to listening to harder-edged music. I had Black Sabbath’s Greatest Hits and I had Back in Black. That was when I got turned on to that sound. So, Tony Iommi and Angus Young, of course, but when I heard Diary of a Madman and Blizzard of Ozz, of course, and heard Randy, it just took me to a whole new place. He was a tremendous influence on me. Tremendous. Not just because he was such a great player, but the way he would write, and just the whole way he would perform in a song was just so musical and so not pre-scripted sounding that it was incredible.

KNAC.COM: I was listening to Diary a couple weeks ago. The fade-out on “You Can’t Kill Rock and Roll” gives me chills. It’s like he’s speaking to us right now.

THORNE: Exactly. That whole album. Someone just asked me “What’s your favorite of all time,” and I’m always like “This is that whole ‘If I could only bring one album on to a desert album what would it be?’” It would have to be Diary of a Madman, because everything that album represents artistically is everything that I ever aspired to do myself. Just because there’s a part of me that’s eternally trapped in the mind of a 12-year old, you know?

KNAC.COM: (laughs) No, I can’t relate.

THORNE: (laughs) But also because it made such a deep impression on me at the time, that when I listen to it just the nostalgia itself brings me like a strange piece, you know?

KNAC.COM: “Counting Zeros” is the first video off the new album.

THORNE: Yeah, and the version you’re hearing on that album stream on the press page is not the actual radio single version. Because, God, it’s seven minutes long. I mean, I love the version that you’re listening to, but they had to cut it down to four and a half minutes for the radio single and the video, which still works super, super strong. I’m not unhappy about it. I’m just giving a you a heads up.

KNAC.COM: You know a line that I love from that song is They put out our eyes with visions of grandeur and cut our tongues with the bitter taste of failure.

THORNE: Oh, that’s the verse that got cut.

KNAC.COM: What the fuck?

THORNE: My wife was like “What the fuck? That’s the best thing you’ve ever written!”

KNAC.COM: Who is that aimed at?

THORNE: Well, that’s aimed at the powers that have sort of stupefied us into this war and this whole economic disaster. We’re living in the land of the free right now, where we have the voice and the power to control our futures, but we don’t! We’re completely disabled nowadays. We’re pacified by our own culture, enslaved by it, to be virtually like a bowlful of wet noodles. It’s pathetic. Now it’s just irrefutably ridiculous…the shit that’s going on with AIG and this whole economic meltdown. We’re here in New York and it’s chaos, but that exposure is making it open some doors where I think we can begin to take back a little of our control. I hate to sound like a big anti-TV guy, but the shit that gets fed to us through so much of what is on television—you can argue about whether it’s on purpose, but regardless of whether it is intentional or not—the side effect is that we’re just all so passively sitting around saying “Well, whatever. As long as I can go home at the end the day, kick my feet up and flip on the tube and forget about the shit that’s driving me nuts all day long…then who gives a shit?” That’s having a terrible effect because what’s happening is that you got these guys like Bernie Madoff rising up in the middle of everything and just completely getting away with murder.

KNAC.COM: If we’re too passive, who’s to say that China won’t come over here and ass-rape us?

THORNE: Well, luckily, I don’t think their pricks are too big.

KNAC.COM: Your touring lineup is going to be the same guys who you recorded the album with?

THORNE: Oh yeah, definitely. It’s the same lineup that has been together since we did the live album [Till Death Do Us Part], which came out in June. A strong lineup, killer guys, great players, and they just believe so deeply in what we’re doing, which is really the key. Scott [Waite] I’ve known and played all through the ‘90’s with in Soundscape, so we already had a relationship. And he’s a phenomenal bass player, so it was just a question to whether or not he was available, and he was, so that was a perfect fit. Billy [Smith] was my guitar student from the time he was 13 years old. When we were looking for a new guitar player we auditioned probably 10 or 15 guys and they were all in their thirties, like us, and they were all great players, but they were all lifeless. And I said “Billy, I know how you can play. Why don’t you audition for the band? Because you love what we’re about, you love what we’re doing and you live it. And that’s what we need. We need that person with that fire.” He came in and just blew Kenny [Evans] away. And I knew what he was going to do. For a 20 year kid—he’s a whizz kid. He’s amazing. And what’s great is that I taught him, so he plays exactly like me and he can handle whatever I throw at him.

KNAC.COM: On the leads, are you guys splitting it up 50/50?

THORNE: I’d say it’s probably more like 70/30. I do more of the lead playing, but I think on this new album he has done such an impressive job that he’s going to feel more comfortable and more confident taking on more lead work in the future.

KNAC.COM: Do you feel optimistic about the iTunes promo?

THORNE: I do. I mean, I’m very hopeful. We need to make bread, but I’m even more optimistic and hopeful that if it does well that it’s going to open even more doors for us. In the last 18 months things have really snowballed for the band in a way that there’s a lot of excitement surrounding us--more than there ever has been. It’s exciting. It’s encouraging. We’ve got a lot of optimism about the future for the band. It’s almost like we’re being reborn with this album, which is why we chose to self-title the album.

KNAC.COM: It’s so Bad Company…

THORNE: You mean Sacred Oath? (laughs)

KNAC.COM: What made you want to do a self-titled album this far into your career?

THORNE: Well you know what? I wrote a song called “Sacred Oath” before we had even signed our first deal, and it wasn’t this song. Then, a year or two later, before we disbanded in ’88, I had written another one and called it “Sacred Oath.” We always wanted to have a song called “Sacred Oath,” but there’s a lot of pressure associated with that, especially now, because we’ve been around for so long. It’s got to represent the many different facets of what the band is about. I wrote this song as a brand new song, and when I got into it lyrically, about standing up for your own vision, what you believe in, and not taking spoonfuls of whatever everybody else is feeding you. I said “Boy, at this stage in the game that’s really what Sacred Oath is about, because we’re kind of flying this classic metal banner in the midst of a whole new scene, which is not new anymore. It’s been around 15 years. But the non-melodic vocals and no guitar solos, you know, super over-produced, triggered, sample metal thing that’s been going on so long, we have refused to do that, and at this point that’s what we’ve come to represent, so let’s call this song “Sacred Oath.” And that’s how that came about.

KNAC.COM: Where did the name of the band come from?

THORNE: Well, Pete and I at the time--we were both dishwashers at the Sycamore Restaurant, which has since become famous because…

KNAC.COM: Because you were there.

THORNE: Because we were there (laughs). No, it’s like a 50’s drive-in and it’s been around forever. But we said “Yeah, we gotta start a band. What do you think if we call it Sacred Oath? And at the time we were obsessed with Mercyful Fate and Don’t Break the Oath had just come out and we were just like obsessed with Mercyful Fate and their whole sound. “That’s such a cool name Sacred Oath—perfect.” It’s that whole “don’t break the oath” kind of thing. And we were both fascinated with the whole struggle between good and evil, and that seemed like a perfect name and a venue for us to write songs about that struggle. Because you can take any kind of a Sacred Oath, you know? Pete had kind of come to represent the dark side and I was fighting for the good, and we used to get out onstage in black and white capes and do this whole sort of ridiculous presentation, which we since modified (laughs). We were always singing about the two powers and that’s sort of become our theme. And it’s cool to have them that people can associate with a band that’s got some history behind it.

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