2008. december 25., csütörtök

Phantom Blue interview with Nicole Couch - In memory of Michelle Meldrum

Guitarists Michelle Meldrum and you met when you had taken lessons from Paul Gilbert and both guitarists and drummer Linda McDonald (took lessons from Scott Travis (Racer-X, Judas Priest), and vocalist Gigi Hangach formed Phantom Blue in 1987 with a different bass player, how do you recall the first meeting with the girls?
Michelle and I met through a mutual friend that was attending GIT with me. I was very excited to meet someone like Michelle -- an awesome guitarist, a really funny person and completely dedicated to music and a massive Racer X fan. Michelle had known Linda for a while and I can't remember how we came in contact with our first bass player. The same guy that introduced me and Michelle, introduced us to Gigi. It was a while before we all got together and played. Me and Michelle mostly spent time together writing songs and going to Racer X shows. I was a bit disappointed when I realized that Kim used a pick on bass instead of her fingers but then I heard her play and she blew me away so I kept my big mouth shut.
How about the guitar lessons? Was Paul the only one ho wanted to teach you playing guitar or…?
Paul Gilbert was an instructor at GIT during the time I went there. Bruce Boullete was my private instructor for a while and I remember paying some kid $50 so he would switch with me so I could have Paul Gilbert. Paul never actualy gave me lessons on the stuff that I wanted to learn from him because it was his job to make sure that I was understanding the things I was learning at school, such as scales, intervals... More than anything, he inspired me. I also had crush on him and wanted to marry him...I named my cat after him...I'm sure he thought I was a lunatic.
While Michelle was known the guitarist of thrash outfits Wargod and Post Mortem, what about your musical background? What were the previous acts, before you being involved in Phantom Blue?
Prior to Phantom Blue, I had played with some really incredible blues and funk musicians where I grew up in Memphis Tennesse. I was fourteen, fifteen years old and these guys were all in their 30's and 40's so it was a great learning experience, plus they would buy me beer and cigarettes.
Who came up with the name of the band?
I remember talking with Michelle on the phone one day about band names and she came up with the word Phantom and we thought for a while of another cool word to come up with it and I had just finished painting my guitar blue and there was paint all over my kitchen floor and I mentioned that to her and she was like "what about Phantom Blue?" I said "cool", she said "cool" and that was that.
Was Michelle the most experienced band’s member in your opinion?
Michelle was the most driven and determined member of Phantom Blue. She really new how to get things going. She would find the rehersal spaces, she would find out how to book shows... Her experience with playing and writing with other bands also helped us in the beginning because she was a better listener and communicator of her ideas.
You came from the biggest metal center’s of the States Los Angeles, were you deply involved in the scene? Did you follow the scene at all?
No, I was not into the LA music scene at all. I was a hermit and prior to meeting Michelle, I rarely left my house, even quit going to school. I prefered to stay home and play guitar
Would you say, that the scene was divided into two parts? There were the glam/hair bands such as Ratt, Poison, Cinderella, Dokken, W.A.S.P., Mötley Crüe etc. and the brutal thrash/speed/power ones, such as Armored Saint, Slayer, Dark Angel, Savage Grace, Viking etc. Do you think, that the thrash/speed acts were overshadowed by the glam/hair ones?
I really never made the distinction between the hair bands and the thrash bands at that time. Like I said, I didn't go out much. I would hope that the two different styles of music co-existed peacefully in the LA music scene. I like certain elements of both styles but I have much more respect for the raw emotion and power that thrash bands possess.
What about the club scene such as Troubadour, Rock City etc.?
As far as the LA club scene, the only band that would get me out of the house would be Racer X. That was the only band that I ever saw play in Los Angeles. Michelle and I were literally at every single show. Michelle would push her way to the front - well actually most guys would step aside and make room for her because she was so damn cute and I would follow her and we would just stand there in awe for the entire show and go home and practice and write songs
How did you view female fronted thrash/speed acts, such as Detente, Holy Moses, Savage Messiah, Acid, Warlock, Sentinel Beast etc.? Were you also familiar with Wendy O’ Williams, Heart or with Lee Aaron?
I am horribly judgemental when it comes female fronted metal/thrash bands. There are certain female singers in metal I just can't listen too or watch for that matter. There are only three female singers in metal that I absolutely love Gigi Hangach, Moa from Meldrum and Wendy O...
Gigi and Moa have the perfect combination of raw vocal power and feminity. Wendy O'Williams was the real fucking deal. I don't care what you think of her voice, she just did not give a shit about what anyone thought of her and in my mind, that is a true artist. I always loved Nancy and Anne Wilson from Heart, incredibley talented women. I just could never understand though why Nancy Wilson never ripped it up on solos. You know she could if she wanted too.
How do you remember the first musical footsteps of the band? I mean, what about your rehearsals and the songcomposing?
Phantom Blue's first musical footsteps? Well, keep in mind that it was mine and Michelle's goal to sound like Racer X as much as possible. Every song was written to have double bass, dueling guitar parts and heavy vocals. I have to be honest in saying that the songs where shit in the beginning. Very week indeed. It wasn't until pre-production that the songs were put into shape with the help of Marty Friedman and Steve Fontano. Michelle and I learned a lot from both of them. We were sixteen and seventeen years old when we began writing for Phantom Blue. I was a real pain in the ass during pre-production for our Shrapnel album because I didn't like how our songs were being mellowed out. Going Mad, which is my all time favorite Phantom Blue song was untouched though and that made me happy.
Did you start writing originals right from the start or were you jamming on covers?
I hated writing lyrics for the first album because all I really wanted to do was play fast guitar stuff and some songs, such as Frantic Zone, I literally got out a dictionary and found about ten words I had never used before and stuck em in a song that is literally about nothing, but the guitar work was fun. By the time we started writing for the second album, I was obsessed with writing lyrics and was secretly spending all my time playing piano and had pretty much stopped playing guitar except for at rehersals and luckily Michelle had really developed her talent for coming up with incredible guitar riffs. The songs on the second album basically came out exactly how they were written and little was changed. Michelle's speed metal past is definitely more evident on the first album. The only cover songs that Phantom Blue played while I was in the band were songs from Spinal Tap.
How did you get Phantom Blue’s style into shape? Did Michelle’s thrash/speed past play any role considering the songcomposing?
Basically we experminted with different guitar parts that either me or Michelle would come up with. Neither of us had ever written lyrics or melodies before so that took us some time and I think that's where we learned the most from working with Steve Fontano. Although Michelle was always someone that loved speed and thrash metal, at the time we began writing, she was into more melodic guitar work. Her love of thrash is evident on the album, but her love of a well written guitar riff is more evident...example...Out of Control, written by Michelle and an excellent guitar hook.
You recorded a demo tape before the arrival of bassist Kim Nielsen (who learnt from bass players John Alderate (Racer-X), do you still remember how was the demo recorded? Which song were on it? Can you give us details regarding on the tape?
The demo was a complete rush job that was recorded in less than thirteen hours. The songs on it were horrible and I am happy to say that I can't remeber most of the song names. One in particular was called Saturday Morning Brain Damage that was an instrumental. Some of it was impressive, but the majority of it was very sloppy. I have to be honest with myself and say that I doubt the demo would have impressed anyone had it been a bunch of guys playing, but the fact that it happened to be five chicks playing much better than the averge male musician...well it worked for us. We were a novalty of sorts. I think if that demo ever surfaced and I was to listen to some of the songs, I would probably vomit...you might too.
By the way, was it hard to find the suitable bassist for the band? Was Kim the first choice of the band or did you auditioned other ones as well? What about her musical background?
The bassist situation is a tough subject for me to talk about. Our original bass player was an excellent player. We got along with her well, she was very dedicated. This is where Phantom Blue classically screwed up...we listened and took advice from the wrong people. A friend started filling our heads with all these things that they thought were wrong with our original bass player and because me and Michelle looked up to this person, we took their advice and fired the original bassist and auditioned Kim at his suggestion. In retrospect, it was not a good way to treat a person, but I am more than happy that Kim came along. I am not all that familiar with her musical background, I just knew that she played damn well and was a super cool person.
With the help of Bret Helm (P.I.L., Doc Tahri) the demo got into the hands of Shrapnel Records’ Mike Varney, who was impressed, were you also satified with the quality of the tape?
Okay, here is the story of how our first demo went down and how it ended up in the hands of Mike Varney. It's a long story...
One day I ran into a few buddies of mine from GIT. They asked me how things were going and I told them I had formed this band and we were going to get a record deal from Shrapnel Records. That was obviously a huge lie and I had to cover my ass, so I got the band together and told them we should make a demo as soon as possible. I found a lady with a home studio and in thirteen hours we banged out a four song demo. Honestly, it was horrible, the songs were sloppy and unpolished, but it worked for us because no female band had ever attempted to play stuff like that. There was a NAMM show coming up in LA, so we gave a copy of the demo to Bruce Boullete of Racer X and begged him to give it to Mike Varney. A few months went by and we never heard from Mike Varney so somehow we got his phone number and I called him. I asked him what he thought of our demo and he very kindly explained to me that he thought nothing of it because the cassette that we had given to Bruce was a blank! I begged him to let us send him another one so we did and the very next phone call we had with him, he said let's do a record. Obviously we were very very happy. The demo luckily was never heard by ayone except Mike Varney, with the exception of Saturday Morning Brain Damage, which was released on a subsequent Phantom Blue album after Michelle, Gigi, Kim and I had left the band. Our recording budget for Shrapnel was sufficient and I am greatful to Mike Varney for seeing the potential in Phantom Blue. Again, I am greatful to Marty Freidman and Steve Fontano for helping us put our songs together and teaching us so much about arrangement, production.
Was only Shrapnel who got the demo or did you shop it around to more labels as well?
Shrapnel was the only label we shopped the demo to. It was the only label we wanted to be on at the time. Mine and Michelle's heros were all signed to Shrapnel Records and we wanted to do the same...record for Mike Varney.
Do you think, that the demo did a great buzz around the band and it succeeded in doing a name for Phantom Blue?
No, the only thing that the demo suceeded in doing was to give Mike Varney the opportunity to see our potential. That was the only purpose of ever recording the demo...to get a deal with Shrapnel Records.
Phantom Blue played their first show in Troubadour in Los Angeles on June 2, 1988, were you an opening act or a headliner one? What do you recall that particular gig?
I honesly don't remember our first show at the Troubador. We were most likely an opening act. I can count on both hands the number of shows I played in LA with Phantom Blue. We played only a couple of shows in LA before we recorded out first album and from there we went straight to Europe.
After signing to Shrapnel, Phantom Blue were put into the studio with Marty Friedman, who was in Cacophony at the time and you started recording your first album, were you prepared to enter the studio to record the material?
Although I feel much more connected to the songs on Phantom Blue's second album, for me there was much more thought put into them, the songs on the first album are very special to me also. Like I said before, Going Mad is my all time favorite and Michelle's guitar solo on Frantic Zone is just incredible. Out of Control is a great example of Michelle's ability to come up with awesome guitar riffs. Why Call it Love honestly, I hated that fucking song! I didn't want Phantom Blue to sound so commercial, but it is still a great song and my six year old little boy sings it to me all the time, so now I love it. It also was responsible for bringing a lot of people around to Phantom Blue. Fought it Out was the first song I ever wrote and the first song we ever played in rehersal. I also love soloing in the key of C Major and that was my only chance on the entire album.
Did you have a decent budget to record the album?
Our budget for the album was sufficient and got the job done.
Did the label trust you considering the whole material? Did they ask you to hear some pre-production tape or an advance recording?
Of course the label did not trust us and I can't blame them at all. Mike Varney and Steve Fontano knew that we were very inexperienced when it came to song writing, arranging, recording etc. We spent a good month working out material and arrangements and in some instances, changing a song completely. We did not do any pre-recording, just a lot of rehearsing.
What about the recording sessions?
The recording sessions were a lot of fun. Marty and Steve were very patient and helpful. Sometimes when I wouldn't get my way, such as having to listen to the shitty drum tone that they were making us stick with, I was a real bitch and could not keep my big mouth shut, but I don't regret that, I thought it was something worth bitching about.
The album, entitled „Phantom Blue”, has some of your greatest songs, like: „Going Mad”, „Why Call It Love” (from which you did a videoclip), „Frantic Zone” and „Out Of Control”, correct?
Thank you for the very nice things you said about Phantom Blue. Trying not to sound like I've got a big ego, but doing so anyhow, once in a while I will crank up Going Mad on the stereo and to this day, I think it is one of the most techincally profficient and explosive tracks ever recorded by an all-female band. I am forever greatful to Michelle Meldrum and her determination and feirce talent. She has done the world of metal a great service.
You’ve done the metal world a great service: you’ve shown us lads that women can rock like any man, but I think, that you were far away from Vixen or Girlschool, you were much better and talented and the record sounded more powerful, than the Vixen or Girlschool ones, what do you think about it?
I do think that technically we were more skilled than Vixen or Girlschool, although I believe they were both very good bands.
The forming of Vixen, Girlschool or Phantom Blue was the triumph of the equal rights of females/women, right?
I don't think I have ever once thought about women's rights. If it ever was an obstacle for women to overcome in the world of metal, I was oblivious to it.
Do you think, that it is/was always odd having female bands on the map of the metal music? Or do you consider it rather unique?
If the music is good, that's all that should matter, whether it a female or male band. I think certain women's voices are too weak for metal and it sounds silly but Phantom Blue was lucky and we had Gigi, one of the best voices in metal period. Only thing I have ever found odd about women in metal is when a women would move like a man onstage, it just looks unatural...odd.
Did Girlschool open the door for the female bands?
I think the door for women in Metal was always open -- people were just waiting for something good to walk through it.
How do you view, that you’re a rare breed: a band comprised of women that have incredible guitar aptitude and brilliant harmonies, and you’re tougher than many all-male bands?
I definitely think Phantom Blue was and is a rare breed.
When Marty Friedman of Megadeth’s involved, then we know we’re on to a good thing, aren’t we? By the way, were you familiar with Marty’s music what he did in Cacophony and then in Megadeth?
Of course, Marty Freidman is amazing and so talented. I was familiar with Cacophany before we began working with him and he is the only reason I ever started to listen to Megadeath and is the only reason why I actually continue to listen to Megadeath
I think that Mike Varney and Steve Fontano had it in mind to make our album sound a bit more commercial and without Marty around, I think it would have been even more commercial. He helped us keep an edge to it.
Would you say, that without Marty’s help would have been the record commercial sounding? Is it a very competent and impressive record in your opinion?
Yes, I feel it is a very competent and immpressive record.
The solos, the riffs are all great, such as Gigi’s performance, great guitar solos throughout, with powerful, full-ranged vocals and not the typical female metal style (a la Vixen), the rhythm section does an incredible job too, how do you view it after 19 years after its release?
I am a bit disappointed with the guitar tones. I wish more time had been spent getting better sounds. I don't like the tone of the drums and I think the bass is too low in the mix. Sonically it is not my favorite but I love it nevertheless.
„Going Mad” being the first song is a great, smashing opener, full of energy and momentum throughout, with an almost Maiden-like spiral instrumental in the beginning, „Last Shot” and „Frantic Zone” are also excellent pieces, „Why Call it Love” is a brilliantly bitter song, a ballad, but in the vein of „In My Darkest Hour”, do you agree with it?
I'm not familiar with the song "In My Darkest Hour" Why Call it Love is a brilliant song however.
All in all, you did a phenomenal record without any lowpoints and it can be considered a classic, right?
Phantom Blue's first album is a classic and is a groundbreaking album in my opinion. To this day there is still nothing out there that can compare to it.
Do you think, that the sound is a mix between Warlock and Dokken?
I never thought about a comparison to Warlock or Dokken. I think we were heavier than Dokken and a bit more melodic than Warlock.
Assisting in production duties were Steve Fontano and Peter Marrino (Le Mans), were you happy with their work?
Peter and Steve were awesome, considering they had to put up with five women experiencing PMS at different times. They were very patient with us and were sensitive to the fact that we did not want to end up sounding like Vixen.
You released the „Why call it love” single as well featuring the title track and „Fought it out”, what kind of purposes did this material serve?
We never had any say in which songs were released. I think that Road Runner Records were responsible for releasing Why Call It Love in Europe and they also produced the video for it. Road Runner owned our European distribution rights. They were awesome and very supportive of Phantom Blue.
The band would eventually make it over to Europe later in 1989, was it your first experience in Europe? How did the whole tour go?
The European tour was the first for all of us and it was quite an experience. We had a lot of fun and were completely surprised by the reaction that we got from fans. Our first day in London, we were told we had to do an album signing at a cd shop and when we got there, there were fans lined up around the building. It was a schock.
Were there also US dates in support of the record? Can you tell us more about them?
We did not have any tour dates in the US. When we got back from Europe, we got involved with Don Dokken and he began helping us get our material in shape in order to get a major label deal. There is no one else that Phantom Blue should be more greatful to than Don Dokken. He gave us money, clothes, got us all a personal trainers and gym memberships, paid for rehearsal space. He arranged show cases for us and is responsible for bringing Tom Zutaut and Geffen into the picture. He even bailed me out of jail at 2:00 in the morning. He never asked for anything in return he is just a really awesome person.
Then you got signed to Geffen Records, why and what went wrong with Shrapnel? Didn’t you get enough support and promotion or…?
Nothing ever went wrong with Shrapnel, Mike Varney was happy to sell our contract to Geffen, he knew that he would profit and that it would also be a good move for us. All in all it was a good deal for both sides.
Was it a confused time for you? Did these things stop the band’s activities?
This was a very exciting time for the band. For myself personally, I was becoming more of an artist so to speak and was writing a lot of material that I wanted to keep for myself and I no longer wanted to play guitar in a metal band. I did however enjoy writing the material with Michelle for the second album. I was in the band during the time we began working with Don Dokken and I remember the day that we signed with Geffen Records.
About two years later you were replaced by guitarist Karen Kreutzer, why did you decide to leave the band? Did you part ways with them on a friendly term at the end?
I decided to leave the band because it was no longer something I wanted to do. I wasn't pissed off at Phantom Blue about my departure, it was something I wanted. I did however want to play on the album, afterall, I had spent two year writing songs for it but they had already found Karen and decided I would not be playing on the album, so I demanded money before I released the rights to my songs and I know that pissed them off.
Was your departure a bloodletting for the band?
I think Phantom Blue continued on just fine after my departure. I believe the only reason they did not become more successful was due to bad timing. Their Geffen release, Built to Perform, came out at a time when metal was taking a back seat to Alternative music.
Phantom Blue were signed by A&R supremo Tom Zutaut and work soon commenced on demos handled by Don Dokken, does it mean, that you didn’t take part in the songcomposing, do you?
I didn't keep in touch with any of the girls for quite some time. At one point after Michelle's departure, I was asked to do a European tour with them, but I got Pnuemonia and couldn't make it. Michelle and I began emailing one another years later but never saw one another again. She lived in Sweden, I lived in the Carribean. I was and still am a huge fan of Meldrum. I loved there albums and can not wait to here the new one.
Was it an important step in Phantom Blue’s career being signed by a bigger label?
I liked Built to Perform but I can tell not much effort was put into it by the label. It sounds like the producer just wanted to get it over with. There are a couple of PB albums that were released after mine and Michelle's departure, one in particular where all our original demo recordings were released and that pisses me off. Those songs were never intended to be released. I did not want them to be heard by anyone, they are shit songs.
By the way, did you remain in touch with the girls and did you keep an eye on their career?
Since departing from Phantom Blue, I got my wish and sailed away to the Caribbean and resumed my hermit lifestyle. I perform once in a while for drunks in the local pub...that's about it!
How did you like the following Phantom Blue records?
I liked Built to Perform very much. As I said before, Michelle and I put a lot of time and effort writing material for that album. I thought Michelle's guitar work was brilliant. I also thought the material that Michelle wrote after my departure was excellent. The song "Time to Run" which she wrote with her husband, John Norum, is the best track on the album. Sonically, it sounds much better than our first album.
Someone released our demos and put them on an album entitled "Prime Cuts and Glazed Donuts" Again, I am not happy about that at all. Those were our demos and were never intended to be released.
There was another album entitled "Phantom Blue Caught Live." I have not even listened to it. Neither me or Michelle are playing on this album, nor Kim for that matter, but it consists of material that me and Michelle wrote played by other people. I don't consider that a Phantom Blue album, even though it is labeled and sold as one. To me it should be labeled as a Phantom Blue tribute album.
As for Phantom Blue’s line up during the years, were two hard hit on the band, Rana Ross passed away on 3rd May 2003 due to liver failure, she was just 34 years old, while Michelle died on 21st May 2008, she was only 39 years old…
Michelle's death is something that I think of everyday. She was more to me than a band mate, she was my best friend for a long time. I can't imagine what it is like for her husband, her parents and her little boy to live without her. I think she is probably one of the most influental and important female figures in the world of metal. I hope one day she gets the recognition she deserves. She was an incredible musician, songwriter and just a wonderful human beng period.
Was Phantom Blue accepted by other bands? I mean, was it a kind of advantage that you were a female band or rather a disadvantage and you had to work hard for the success?
Phantom Blue was always excepted by other bands. Guys loved us. Girls loved us. It was all very us for us.
Did you have a bigger name than Vixen or Girlschool?
Know, we are not as well known as Vixen or Girlschool. We only had recognition in a small Euorpean market, hardly any regocnition in the States.
Were you popular back in the day (I didn’t think about being mainstream) or did you rather remain on a cult, underground status?
We were never really that popular and I tend to like the idea of Phantom Blue having a more cult, underground status.
Would you something change on your career while being a member of Phantom Blue?
The best and the worst memories with the band?
The worst memories were when I didn't want to be in Phantom Blue anymore but had to rehearse and perform anyhow and I made it a miserable time for everyone and I am sorry about that. My best memories of Phantom Blue are of Michelle. I could write a book about us, we did some crazy shit and made some kick ass music while we were at it. I remember every song we ever wrote together, there was usually a lot of marijuana involved and a lot of laughter.

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