The 2008 documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil is firmly etched in the minds of many hard-rock enthusiasts.
Directed by Sacha Gervasi, the film opens with the veteran heavy metal band at a low ebb in its career: Guitarist and vocalist Steve "Lips" Kudlow has taken a job delivering food to schools in the Toronto area; drummer and co-founder Robb Reiner works in construction. Though the band remains beloved by a core fan base, it seems to have lost sight of its initial promise. Over the course of the film, the group finds its footing again and returns with a remarkable new album, This Is Thirteen (2007). There are fights, canceled gigs and frustrations along the way, but in the end, Anvil triumphs.
"The movie completely turned everything around," says Kudlow today. "I haven't had a regular job since it came out. Everything I ever wanted to happen has happened.
"I don't need to be of the stature of AC/DC to be happy. I'm content to be in a band that's on a constant touring schedule. We make new music every year-and-a-half. I don't subscribe to the idea of making millions of dollars and just sitting around. That's not my idea of how life should work."
Formed in 1978 and first known simply as Lips, the group began earning major attention via its 1982 sophomore release, Metal on Metal, and that record's follow-up, Forged in Fire (1983). Arriving at the same time as American thrash metal (Metallica, Anthrax, et al.), Anvil's sound was as innovative as that of any of its peers.
Still, the group failed to break through to the mainstream success enjoyed by its peers. No matter, there were a series of consistently strong albums, the latest of which, Pounding the Pavement, was released in 2018. "Those songs are all pulled from different aspects of my influences," Kudlow says. "Really, it's the same person who's been listening to the same music my whole life.
"Everyone says, ‘What are you going to do next?' I say, ‘I'm going to do more.'"
Anvil performs at Barleycorn's on Wednesday, March 27.
Kudlow recently spoke with KMUW from his Toronto home about Anvil's origins and the group's indefatigable spirit.
When you were coming up in Toronto were you part of the dominant sound?
We were underground. We were kept out of the mainstream. There was a major club called The Gasworks, and we started selling out its competitor and that's how we got a gig there and that's how we got our record deal, probably the second or third time we played Gasworks.
That was the place to be, at the time, in Toronto, and they didn't want anything to do with you.
[Laughs.] That's right. We were unusual. It was unheard of to do original music. It still is. That's why most bands are cover bands here. That's what North America's all about. We don't really foster originality. Even as kids, my friends were encouraged to play somebody else's song, and Robb and I were very stubborn. We said, "You're not going to get anywhere playing somebody else's songs." But we were very bold and full of ourselves. I think it was a good thing.
Was there a circuit for you to tour on? Did you go into New York or Michigan?
No. We never were able to penetrate the United States. To this day, it's not what it shoulda/woulda/coulda been. We're still very much outsiders. At least that's how I feel about it. Whether that's true, I don't know. I feel like there's a lot of acceptance for us in that market, but it's still nowhere near what we have in other places.
With many bands that have been around as long as you have there's a drop off in quality. But you've been incredibly consistent. What do you credit that to?
You're looking for the elusive song. It's not about money; you're fulfilling your happiness. Bands that lose their edge are looking for money. There certainly was a time in my career, around the time we finished our third album, we got involved with major management in the United States, and that's when everything went completely awry. Change your sound, change your image. When you try to drive the music, that's probably the worst thing you can do as a musician. It should always be a natural course that you're on. If you happen to write that hit single, then you do.
What makes a riff quintessentially Anvil?
I don't think about it. If it doesn't interest me, I don't bother with it. It's not a question of whether it fits Anvil or not. It's a question of is it something that I want to live with for the rest of my life. Robb looks at me sometimes when I say that and says, "What?" I say, "Look, man, I don't want to end up playing this for the rest of my life and not enjoying it." You don't want to create something you hate. What the hell for?
If you compromise, you always know, in the back of your mind, "This is the one where we tried to make the manager happy."
Exactly. It's got an emotional and psychological stigma to it. It makes you not like the song. How many bands end up having hit singles that they hate to play? Why even go there? Why even bother? I'm not going to create something I can't live with. As much as I love my audience and try to appease them, at the end of the day, I'm part of that audience. If I don't like it, I doubt they're going to.
But there's variation.
I love to have a huge amount of variation in what the band does. I think we have one of the greatest drummers in the genre, and I think it would be a real shame if he was playing the same beat in every song. He's my main man. Robb's very difficult to please. If he likes it, it's probably OK. At the same time, I've worked my whole life to acquire an identity, why would I want to change it?
There's an early blues and rock element to Anvil's music, especially in the rhythm parts.
If I broke down, structurally, what I'm doing, all my songs are blues songs. Virtually everything I ever wrote was a blues song. No matter what feel it's in. If a song's in A in the blues, then you modulate to D, then go to the high part, which is E, past the D, then back to the A. Fundamental three-chord writing. It's all derived from those old blues song. Blues? Rock ‘n' roll? One is just a sped-up version of the other.
You recently turned 63 and you've spent your life doing something that you love. It must be remarkable to look back on that and see what you've accomplished and think about what might still lie ahead.
It's the stuff that makes me have no regrets. You get one chance at life, man. You have to say, "I'm going to do it, and I'm going to do it on my terms. I don't give a damn what anybody else thinks or says." You have to do it like that. My parents told me, "You're never going to do it." I said, "Oh, yeah? Watch!" I spent my whole life showing them that I could.