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Exclusive! An Interview With Tribe of Judah Frontman Gary Cherone

By Mick Stingley, Contributor
Friday, January 31, 2003 @ 1:40 PM

Mick Stingley Sits Down to Sou

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Prior to the interview, I spoke with Mike Mangini, the drummer for Tribe Of Judah. Mike was on Extreme’s Waiting For The Punchline, and had played with Steve Vai for some years after that…

Mike’s voice was the first one I heard when I walked into the club. Someone had asked him how he was doing, and Mike responded -- he is from Waltham, Mass. and has a thick Massachusetts dialect -- “I’m doin’ pissa!”

Shortly after, we spoke for a few minutes. I asked him how they came back together. “Oh, you’re interviewin’ Gary? It’s funny, you know… we were both out in LA at the same time… we had gone out there at the same time -- me for Vai and him for Van Halen… and ran into each other playin’ pool. We kept in touch during that time… when I finished up with Vai -- he had called me right before I was leavin’… I was going to take a position at Berklee School of Music and really excited. He called me when I was going to get my gear out of storage at this warehouse -- I had gotten stuck in the elevator -- we were just stuck there -- he calls -- I’m stuck there, and need to get my gear -- he says we have to have dinner… I said, “I’m going home…” and he said, “We have to have dinner tonight!” I said, “Gary I’m tryin’ to go home…”. He said, “We have to have dinner tonight… I’m leaving Van Halen.” So, jeez…now I’m trying to get out of the elevator and get my gear -- But I ended up meeting him for dinner… and then it was like, “Well, I’ll see back home.”... and that was it.”

Gary Cherone, dressed in blue jeans and wrapped in an olive green army jacket, with a blue scarf around his neck, sits before me in a chair in the band room in the basement of Don Hill’s. Beside us is a table with my tape-recorder running, and a space heater on the floor trying it’s best to do it’s job -- but there are times when it is so cold, I can see my breath. as it is shortly before seven o’clock, and the band is still “checking,” in the background there are the sounds of beer bottles being collected, and the muffled pounding of drums.

I have a tendency to jump around with questions as I prefer conversations to interrogations. The following is a direct transcript of the roughly 45 minutes we had before Gary had to go upstairs and start his part of the soundcheck (which was running late). The only thing I edited out is my occasional ramblings in question transitions.

KNAC.COM: I know you’re from Boston; where are you from originally?
GARY CHERONE: Ah… North Boston... Malden.

KNAC.COM: I know you got plenty of press with and around Van Halen; good or bad, it’s none of my business: you’re doing Tribe Of Judah now -- I really want to hear about that.
CHERONE: Sure… people obviously want to ask about Van Halen or Extreme, it doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter to me… anything is fine…

KNAC.COM: Okay… let’s see now… after Van Halen, you did Jesus Christ Superstar? I remember you had been at The Living Room (in Providence, RI), I think…
CHERONE: Ah… no, Living Room… that was in ’96… I did Jesus Christ Superstar in and around Extreme Tours: ’94, ’96, and the Van Halen thing lasted three years and after that -- I switched roles… I played Jesus in ’94, ’96, and I had been waiting to play Judas… and I finally got a chance to play Judas… that was 2000… and, ah… yeah that was great -- I loved those shows… Kate Hanley was in it with The Boston Rock Opera -- Letters To Cleo singer -- Great vocals… all the local singers and musicians and singers do it… So -- I’m a local boy, it was fun…

KNAC.COM: So that was a little bit different from what Sebastian Bach is doing right now?
CHERONE: Yeah. I’d love to do what he’s doing… ah -- is he on tour? Or is he on Broadway?

KNAC.COM: Touring -- he did Jeckyl And Hyde on Broadway; then a stint in Rocky Horror.
CHERONE: …And he was a success… good for him. He’s got a great rock and roll voice. It’s a different animal, though -- 8 times a week singing -- it’s not rock and roll -- it’s not this… matinees, too -- that was ridiculous… all these rock and roll singers up at 12 drinking their coffee (laughs)…

KNAC.COM: So where in that time did “Tribe Of Judah” evolve?
CHERONE: Ah… out of VH, top of 2000… the one thing I didn’t want to do was to put Extreme back together… 3-piece rock band… singer… so… a couple of calls through my brother I met Steve Ferlazzo, the keyboardist, programmer… and I was working with just programming… just trying to write over… like a new canvas… new stuff… it more of an experiment, a project… ah… gettin’ in old buddies… to do bass tracks… Pat [Badger]…my old buddy Paul Mangone, that -- some appear on the record, ah… it was just a project that evolved into a band…. and it happened within six months. I met Leo [Mellace] through an engineer and once I started writing with Leo and Steve… then it smelled like a band. For me it’s always been the writing is the nucleus. When that happens then it goes and evolves into a band. So this record -- some songs are two years old-, some songs are three months old from the time it was released… So… it was a project evolving into a band from a span of about 6 months to a year.

KNAC.COM: Mike Mangini told me a great story before you got here -- he was playing drums with Steve Vai for about five years when you gave him a call and said, “We have to have dinner…”
CHERONE: Oh, right, right, right…the week we left LA?

CHERONE: Ah… not sure if he told you… we came into LA the same week or the same time… We were playing pool, in ’96, when we ran into each other and we were, “What are you doing here?” “What are you doing here?” and, he was working with Vai, and me starting with Van Halen… and then when it was done, he had called to say, “I’m going home…”
But throughout those three years I’ve kept in touch with the Extreme guys… it’s always been in the back of my head that somewhere down the road we’ll do something, ‘cuz, ah... no one hates each other… it’s just… they’re just doin’ their own things… Nuno’s-- I’m his biggest fan as far as some of his music that he’s put out… but for me comin’ out of VH, it was important -- important for me -- to do something… alone, and take a step back or what would appear to be a step back, rather than fall back on Extreme, and if we were to do Extreme somewhere down the road it would not be a reunion for the sake of a reunion, it would be based on new material…so…

KNAC.COM: So… you had left Van Halen… when I’m writing this out, I don’t want to misrepresent anything -- you left Van Halen… when you left… you quit? Or…?
CHERONE: I would say it was mutual. It didn’t happen overnight… it was a span over six months… and the band sensed my frustration (smiles), and it was… you know, time, though I didn’t know what Tribe Of Judah was at the time, I was writing a lot of this stuff… and I was… off, you know, lyrically I’m off… being in Van Halen (laughs)… and that’s where I was… and they sensed my frustration…. you know, we had a couple of meetings, and Eddie was -- always was -- great to me, and it was just time. We wrote some good stuff after the tour… but, ah…you know, it was -- just…the writing was on the wall.

KNAC.COM: But you had stuff you had wanted to do that would become Tribe Of Judah.
CHERONE: Yeah… oh yeah.

KNAC.COM: Now that brings us to Exit Elvis… Your first new stuff in a long time -- it’s a big deal. And this is… this is maybe my twenty dollar Rolling Stone question: Your biggest disc with Extreme, that got you out there, really, was 1991, Pornografitti

KNAC.COM: So, Extreme is out there… and in ’91, there was a Bush in The White House, boy bands are at the top of the charts: “New Kids On The Block,” “Color Me Badd”… there is the imminent threat of war, you’ve got…Vanilla Ice is hugely popular… Now it’s 2003: Exit Elvis is out, and there’s a Bush in The White House, boy bands are all over the charts: “N*Sync,” “The Backstreet Boys”… there is the imminent threat of war, Eminem is hugely popular…is it time for Gary Cherone? Musically… lyrically? Has anything changed…for you?
CHERONE: Absolutely. Ah…hmm…ah, without a doubt… there is a threat, and there’s an evolution in maybe – hopefully, this is subjective -- but hopefully, you think you get better, you think you get better at expressing yourself, you get better at it, but the same things… the same things continue to interest me or inspire me…

KNAC.COM: Lyrically…
CHERONE: Philosophical, political… whatever. So there is that… I don’t know -- when you say that, it’s funny…ah…I hope I just don’t have a ten-year cycle. (Laughs) I don’t think I want to wait that long (laughs) you know? Make this record, and then wait ten years…
So much has changed… for me… for everyone, but, I don’t know, I think the faces change, and you go back to Pornografitti…the statement/lyric “There’s trouble in The Middle East”… so that -- still, now -- and if you go back to the ‘70s, there’s trouble in The Middle East…the ‘80s, the ‘90s…and now… it’s interesting that you pointed that out… then, now… On Exit Elvis somewhat… it’s in there… just talking about war… back on II, with “Warheads” and “Rest In Peace” on III…”Punchline”… a little with VH… things change, they stay the same -- we try to get better…

KNAC.COM: So now there is Tribe Of Judah. How did-- where did that come from, the name “Tribe Of Judah?” I mean, it’s Biblical, but, why THAT name for you? Symbolic?
CHERONE: I was raised Catholic -- sure there is symbolism… actually, I was inspired by The Star Of David… which is where the logo -- the “T” and the “J” -- it’s a variation. If you connect the dots, put the points together, so to speak, there’s the star… and, ah- didn’t do it with Extreme, but… whether it’s Godsmack or Nirvana using the Eastern influence in the name --Bad Religion, Black Sabbath -- using religious icons, spiritual icons… symbols… throughout rock and roll… even the blues -- R&B with the gospel influence -- It runs through, and it certainly runs through my lyrics…but the one taboo has been The Jewish Star, being raised Catholic, the Star Of David, and that intrigued me, that--- the connection -- that inspired me. Taking it apart for the logo a little -- the lineage from David to Solomon all the way to Jesus – but, I think my effort, the record, is more philosophical than spiritual… but there’s a lot of spiritual metaphor in there…and I’ve been doing that throughout, since Extreme 1, so…

KNAC.COM: And what music influenced you with Tribe Of Judah? What have you been listening to? There’s that industrial vibe on Exit Elvis that is different for you…I mean… do you say “industrial”… I mean, it’s still “rock,” isn’t it?
CHERONE: Yeah, if you stripped the industrial out, the programming, it’s rock and roll, it’s aggressive rock songs. “Thanks For Nothing” could have been on Punchline. “Left For Dead” was a marriage between me and Steven’s programming with that rock edge. He was the programmer with that rock edge -- he’s into that, Nine Inch Nails, Stabbing Westward, Ministry and all that stuff. For me, what’s been out there lately -- Moby, Peter Gabriel… I’m a Nine Inch Nails fan, but not enough to influence me lyrically because it wasn’t melodic enough -- that’s not a critique -- I love the effects that some of those bands use… with Extreme and Van Halen… we were more traditional. with this record. I’m going to be the guitar player, or try something new… change my voice as much as I want…

KNAC.COM: But this wasn’t just you, “GARY IS TRENT REZNOR”…
CHERONE: No -- not at all. You know, as a matter of fact, it’s funny, people throw electronica… Nine Inch Nails represents heavy, industrial sound, but I don’t think there’s enough on there to call it just “electronica” or just “industrial.” If anything, it’s a balance between modern and “old school” ‘cuz I’m doing what I’ve always done…

KNAC.COM: It seems like a natural progression… and lyrically…
CHERONE: Absolutely. If you’re a fan of the past, or know the past, you can put the points together, without a doubt. But this record -- more than any of the other records --when I was writing these lyrics, you know, I was rebelling against ‘the pop song.’ I didn’t write choruses… like “My Utopia” and “Exit Elvis” doesn’t have a chorus -- I was writing choruses after the fact, when I was like coming out of VH, I didn’t want to be conformed to “verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle eight-whatever”…. so I was basically writing poems… so that’s how that part evolved… and I think to their credit, you know, Leo, the guitar player, represents to me some of the old school and some of the jazz influence. Steven has these modern sounds… innovative stuff, but that’s great. It’s all part of being in a band… and I liked it. When I was working with Steve writing a song, I would say: “I want to create a sound, but I don’t know what you call it -- I heard something that I like here…” He’d play me a number of things and I’d go, “Yeah! That’s it!”… So you get some interesting stuff going on…

KNAC.COM: “Ambiguous Headdress” is probably…
CHERONE: The biggest departure, yeah. It was, ah, in the middle of the record… it’s supposed to just… relax your ears in the middle of all the noise. Just nice, plush harmony. It’s very soft and plush… and that was great, some Eastern melodies… we had this woman, “Kum Kum,” 55-year old woman coming in, singing… nice. Again, that was another experiment that… that worked. For me that’s one of the gems of the record.
“Left For Dead”…that’s some of the quicker ‘candy’ as far as choruses, but “Ambiguous” takes a little longer to digest.”My Utopia” -- for people that might like heavier stuff anyway… and there is a bunch of other stuff that is more in the folk/classic vein, and if it was a perfect world, it would be under the Tribe Of Judah umbrella, but now it’s gonna be more of a solo thing. The road to getting this record out has been a frustrating one; ah… I had to split the kingdoms… because I think TOJ is as eclectic and as ambitious as Extreme ever was… but I’ve got some players… I’ve been lucky to have been surrounded by Mangini, Pat, everybody… Mike, and Pat still wants to play with me, I don’t know why…(laughs) but, ah, we’re capable of going places, directions, musically. But, because of the politics… split the kingdom and I hold some of the other. I don’t know if you’ve heard “Need I Say More” or “Perfect World” which was on the website for a while… we’re doing a song called “Perfect World” which is an acoustic, quieter piece to break up the set tonight.

KNAC.COM: You said “solo” stuff… but, is there going to be another Tribe Of Judah CD, or solo…
CHERONE: Yeah, there is. There’ll be another Tribe Of Judah record and… I finally feel like a band now that we’re playing out. This record was a studio creation. Some records are that…Pornografitti wasn’t. We were on the road for Extreme 1-- our record came out a year later -- but we were so backlogged by time in our writing… on our first tour we were doing “More Than Words”… people were like, “What is this?”… And you can tell with Tribe Of Judah, “Thanks For Nothing”-- more of a band song, versus, “In My Dreams”… which was more ‘early project’ stuff..-.

KNAC.COM: Now you have a band here… and for a while you had Tommy from Godsmack…
CHERONE: Yeah… Mike’s schedule – [he] is an assistant professor at Berklee -- the record came out later -- rock and roll is always late…Sso when the record came out Michael played a few gigs, but he had to commit to a semester… and Geary, my old drummer, coincidentally is the manager of Godsmack- so we knew Tommy from them. He is great.

KNAC.COM: I wasn’t sure if he was going to be with you on this one or not. I mention it as he, Tommy, was with Lillian Axe for a bit and Lillian Axe is coming to Don Hill’s in a couple of weeks…
CHERONE: That’s right… yeah, I saw that when I came in, on the poster, “Lillian Axe”… He’s great, but Mike is with us now. Wait until you see him -- amazing.

KNAC.COM: So, speaking of Boston and music… how have the radio stations up there been? WBCN? WAAF? WFNX? Are they playing Tribe Of Judah? Are they responsive?
CHERONE: FNX is… it’s funny -- you know Razz from AAF? I was in Philly…

KNAC.COM: Yeah… Razz…
CHERONE: I’m sure you remember the name… ah…they welcomed it -- they loved “Left For Dead,” “Thanks For Nothing”… but their hands are tied. They were like, “Well, I can put it in a specialty show…” And then we’d go down to your neck of the woods to HJY… (Mick Stingley, though a 11-year resident of NYC, is from Rhode Island, and WHJY is/was the big rock station there. – Ed.) and Bevilaqua would go, “Loved the record. But you know what, we’ve got the new Nirvana lost track, the new Audioslave… I can’t even put Pearl Jam on…” When this record came out, last October, November… it was so congested. And plus, little label -- I’m not trying to make excuses – but, the war is not music, you know, it’s… radio is in disarray. I think Tom Petty said it best in his song – “DJs are dying” -- not the way it was. They might appear to have ‘power’ but, right now, they don’t. They’re puppets right now… ClearChannel is buying up everything right now, and that affects so much. There’s one great big radio station in the sky… but I don’t bitch so much, because… smaller radio, smaller markets… Internet radio… I’m sure there are local bands that are cursing me, with my history, that gets me in the door, and I’m grateful for that… but I’ve been up and down… it’s a ride… so I don’t curse…

KNAC.COM: Is it weird to go from having that great radio success… “More Than Words” obviously… to having to fight a little for airspace?
CHERONE: You know, it’s funny… that blip on the screen in the pop world… “More Than Words,” “Hole Hearted”… Pornografitti sold millions of records because of those two songs. If those two songs weren’t on that record… maybe we’d be a five hundred-thousand unit band -- maybe. So, I’m more used to not having that success or recognition…. those were aberrations… because Three Sides was the best thing we ever did and, all the record company wanted to hear was “Tragic Comic,” “Stop The World”… They didn’t even want to hear the heavier stuff, and I like doin’ the heavier stuff just as much… The record company… (sighs)… So me and Nuno rebelled and wrote Punchline. We gave ‘em nothing! (laughs) We threw in “Unconditionally” at the end. We said, “You know what, we’re not even putting harmonies on this record!” (laughs)

KNAC.COM: It’s gotta be difficult… and especially, given your history, ClearChannel has so much money and power… it’s almost like they’ve put a stranglehold on music. What will you do, if one day, say in five or six years, some Hollywood film comes out about the early ‘90s…s ay, a romantic-comedy blockbuster that uses “More Than Words”… and maybe it charts again or something… then there’s some larger interest, and ClearChannel shows up with a big fat bag of cash and asks you to tour Extreme, after they’ve kind of put you in a position where you’ve been… kind of… shut out by their very tactics of programming?
CHERONE: Hmm. Yeah, it would be, ah… but you know, there’s ways around that. Moby, for example. He wasn’t getting played on the more traditional outlets… so what did he do? He went to commercials, among other things, but, he got the music out there. Sting, went to a car commercial. To me that was brilliant, because, let’s face it -- all a video is, is a three-minute commercial for your music. So you can’t get on TV or you can’t get on this, but, you CAN get in here, and here. Put thirty seconds in a commercial -- if they’ll have you -- I’m past the concerns about it… think about a lot of artists -- James Brown, Gladys Knight… they’re on a Velveeta commercial singing… Who are we to judge? They’re getting paid… “Rock N’ Roll” is on a Cadillac commercial… and it’s like, Cadillac wants to reach a demographic…. the band wants exposure… This is a broad definition, but all’s fair now. All’s fair. Get it out there… New band, local band… soundtracks… Look at Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure… that was huge, and it’s an outlet. Commercials are outlets… radio, MTV… these are outlets. Godsmack did, recently, for The Army. Yeah, they bought thirty seconds of their song for a commercial, and it’s all over the place now. Music’s -- it’s intellectual property -- you do what you can… and still it’s almost not your own anymore…

KNAC.COM: How do you feel about THAT?
CHERONE: Before the record came out, some of this music was on the Internet… But downloading… the principal is very simple: customs change, but the principal is the same -- stealing is stealing. Someone writes a song, they put it out, it’s getting played… they should get paid for it. There’s a new generation of kids with the technology… but here’s where I side with the kids: this generation of teenagers and twenty-somethings that are just not going to pay eighteen dollars for a record. The record company is raping them… so… human nature, it’s a rationalization… “I have the technology, I’m downloading it! I just saved money…”

KNAC.COM: There was a time, years ago, when the record industry was trying to fight the cassette and home taping…
CHERONE: Oh, Yeah! I remember that… but cassettes were never as good as records, albeit convenient… and it’s the same with bootlegs, too, to some degree. But now the technology has caught up and the cat’s out of the bag. I was the kid who bought all the Aerosmith bootlegs and Queen bootlegs… but I always wanted the record, the studio record for the lyrics or the pictures…Now they can have everything on the Internet before the thing even comes out sometimes. So, now it’s a problem, and hopefully what it’s gonna do is drive the record companies to upgrade CDs. CDs are so great as a rule, but now, maybe for the same money, you’ll get DVD-videos, enhanced somehow, multi-media… make the packaging better so it gives people something more for their money…

KNAC.COM: So… what’s coming up for Tribe Of Judah/Gary Cherone? Anything for the summer? (At this point, the tour manager John comes into the room)
JOHN: They’re ready for you, Gary.
CHERONE: Okay… do you want to continue afterwards?

KNAC.COM: We can finish on this note, if that’s okay…
CHERONE: Of course. It’s bittersweet, really, this will be out last show for a while. And, well, we’re just waiting for that elusive tour. I’ve talked with some People -- we talked to Doug Pinnick about something with King’s X -- but, ah- who knows… They’re out with someone right now, but if they go to Europe… I’d love to go on the road with King’s X -- big fan of those guys. Some other things for possibilities…but for now, we’ll see. But tonight -- we rock!

KNAC.COM: Thanks for everything. We’ll look for you!
CHERONE: Well, thank you, and thanks to everyone at KNAC.COM -- especially the listeners.
We’ll see you around soon…

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