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Trouble interview

| July 30, 2008 | 0 Comments

Unlucky Number Seven


By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work — Genesis 2:2

It’s a story that should be familiar to readers of hard rock and heavy metal news: Eighties legends kick off their big reunion twice in the last six years, tour internationally to the delight of a die-hard fanbase, promise a follow-up to the last album that came out more than a decade ago, and lose a member who is so iconic to the group that some fans call for a name change.

Appearing: August 9th at Double Door in Chicago.

No, this isn’t the story of Guns N’ Roses, who have spent a reported $13 million on the vapor that is Chinese Democracy. No spider tanks, oxygen tents, or Shaquille O’Neal session vocals here. This is the story of Chicago’s blue-collar doom veterans Trouble and the struggles they’ve had getting Simple Mind Condition, their seventh studio album, released in the United States.

At a January 2002 reunion gig at Nite Cap in Chicago, Trouble premiered “Goin’ Home,” a driving rocker that would become the European version of SMC‘s leadoff track. The song finds guitarists Rick Wartell and Bruce Franklin settling comfortably into a grungy, head-nodding groove. It’s a sensible midlife overhaul of their traditionally claustrophobic, purgatorial songwriting. “Love is in the air/And flowers in her hair,” rips recently departed vocalist Eric Wagner, his voice a tad lower than the nasal, Ozzy Osbourne whine of his youth.

“Goin’ Home,” the Iron Maiden-over-“Immigrant Song” blaze of “Ride The Sky” (a Lucifer’s Friend cover), and a Velvet Revolver-sounding title track could have all made convincing cases for active-rock playlists had the album been released in the United States already. Iron Maiden’s speedy “Ride The Sky”-like “Rainmaker” was the barn burner of rock-starved 2003. Velvet Revolver’s SMC-similar “Slither” topped the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart in 2004. But in 2008, rock is cluttered with dozens of young bands playing dress up with retro styles, emulating both the doom metal for which Trouble are beloved and the classic hard rock the band’s seventh slab embraces. So where has SMC been? Founding guitarist Wartell tries to explain.

“I’ll do the best I can,” he says with a laugh by phone from his home in Chicago. “It all starts with the record company that we signed to.” While readying SMC in 2005, the band signed a global-licensing deal with Escapi Music, the record-label branch of a European multimedia conglomerate. From an office in New York, Escapi began publicizing “the return of Trouble” in 2006. The label hyped SMC (then slated for a February 2007 U.S. release), reissues of the band’s first three studio albums (with bonus DVDs), and a live DVD filmed in Sweden in 2003.

By the end of October 2006, the first two reissues had hit U.S. record-store shelves, and it seemed as if Trouble — whose legacy has been clouded by hiatuses as far back as 1987 — were poised for a well-supported comeback. The essential doom album Psalm 9 (self-titled when it debuted in 1984) came bundled with a 1982 TV appearance on DVD, while 1985’s busily bleak The Skull was packaged with a live DVD of an early gig in Aurora, the band’s home away from Chicago for many years.

But after the release of the Live In Stockholm DVD in 2007, Escapi stopped putting out what it had promised. Delays on SMC continued, and in January, Escapi did not reply to an IE request for an update on the album’s U.S. release date. Furthermore, Wartell claims the first two reissues are now being held in a warehouse by a distributor because Escapi stopped operating in April.

“Everything went fine with the [2007 SMC] release in Europe, and then they hit a brick wall financially,” he says, noting Trouble are now without a label. “In the meantime, we’ve been shopping [the album] to other labels and deciding whether or not to put it out on our own . . . I don’t see it coming out until September regardless of how we do this, because it has to be done properly.”

Complicating Trouble’s predicament is the fact they now have a new lead singer who is not on the recording. In April, the band agreed to part ways with original frontman Wagner after playing the annual Roadburn Festival in the Netherlands. They announced his exit on the same press release announcing his replacement: Kory Clarke, the raspy lead singer of New York City alternative hard rockers Warrior Soul. (Wartell and Clarke have been friends since 2006.)

“This was a mutual thing,” the guitarist says, citing a lack of seriousness in Wagner’s recent live performances. On Trouble’s Web site, Wagner acknowledges his disillusionment in a statement to the fans: “At this moment in time, I just can’t handle touring anymore. All I want to do is write songs and work on my new project, Black Finger.”

Despite online objections to the shake-up, with some fans scratching their heads at the choice of Clarke as a doom singer (Warrior Soul’s “The Losers” suggests Blind Melon more than Trouble), Trouble are moving forward as Trouble.

The band began a U.S. tour in June after only three days of practice with Clarke. They prepared by sharing MP3s over the Internet from their various hometowns, which now also include Crystal Lake (Franklin), Pittsburgh (bassist Chuck Robinson), and Portland, Maine (drummer Jeff Olson).

Wartell says they’re planning on recording bonus tracks with Clarke for the eventual U.S. release of SMC. And there’s another album in the works: “More than half of it is already written.”

If the cards seem stacked against Trouble now, consider their tenure at Metal Blade Records. After recording their downtuned twin-guitar debut in 1984 with Slayer engineer Bill Metoyer in Los Angeles, Wartell says the label’s owner, Brian Slagel, got “cute” with his advertisements, pitting Trouble against then-labelmates Slayer in a battle between “white metal” (referencing Wagner’s Black Sabbath-style biblical lyrics) and “black metal” (referencing Slayer’s faux-satanic lyrics). Guess who won?

“I remember the first time we saw that ad. We were like, ‘He just put a nail in our coffin,'” the guitarist bemoans. “That was like the worst thing he could have done with us. To this day, we’re still fighting off the backlash.

“I personally wouldn’t want anyone preaching to me when I’m listening to my music. And that’s what we had to fight our whole life.”

But Wartell, who is photographed in the CD booklet of Psalm 9 smoking at a cemetery, doesn’t say the members of Trouble aren’t Christian. “I can only speak for myself,” he says with a chuckle. “That’s all I’m saying.”

It’s a topic that has fascinated the music media from as far back as 1982. On the TV appearance included with Psalm 9, a nervous host asks Wagner, “On a more philosophical note, if you had to sum up Trouble in one word, how would you do it?”

Wagner giggles for a moment, then pauses. “I’d say that we’re real,” he answers in all seriousness, looking her right in the eye. It’s a classic moment in more ways than one.

Mike Meyer

Category: Features, Monthly

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