The Time Is Right: An Interview With Raven’s John Gallagher

Sep 11, 2020

Metal City is the latest studio outing from Raven. The record marks the studio debut of drummer Mike Heller, who joined the band in 2017 as a replacement for long-time member Joe Hasselvander, who left, after three decades in the fold, due to health reasons.

It’s a firm reminder of the trio’s prowess, its ability to create heavy music that still finds room for singable hooks. Tracks such as “The Power,” “Not So Easy” and the titular piece find Raven at the top of its game.

Perhaps that’s no easy feat, considering the Newcastle, England-formed outfit’s storied history. Coming together in the early 1970s with brothers Mark (guitar) and John (bass, vocals) Gallagher, the group reached gained international acclaim in the early ‘80s with a series of groundbreaking albums, including Rock Until You Drop (1981), Wiped Out (1982) and All For One (1983).

With the latter, the band set out on a major American tour with San Francisco upstarts Metallica as the opening act. By the following year, Raven had found its footing as one of the most exhilarating live and studio acts on the heavy rock circuit. Come 1985, the group entered one of its most controversial and, for some disappointing eras, signing with Atlantic Records and churning out a series of strong albums that wavered enough from its initial “athletic rock” style that some fans wondered what had become of their heavy metal heroes.

By 1988, Raven was back on an independent label and reclaiming its crown in Europe. John Gallagher was injured in a near-fatal accident in 2001, which could have put an end to the band but the group returned in 2009 with Walk Through Fire, an LP that reaffirmed Raven’s place as an inspiring and intense rock ‘n’ roll outfit.

Speaking from his home in Newcastle, England (he splits his time between there and Florida these days), John Gallagher is quick to point out that he feels it’s the strongest outing in Raven’s discography to date.

Metal City is out September 18 via SPV/Steamhammer, across various formats, including vinyl.  

Interview Highlights

'Metal City' from Raven
Credit Courtesy SPV/Steamhammer

Was it your intention to make a real aggressive album this time out?

That’s always the intention. We did a good record last time, ExtermiNation, which was a big leap from the one before. We wanted to continue that progression. We actually had these songs written before [former drummer] Joe Hasselvander has his heart attack [in 2017] and had to leave the band. Mike came in and took it all to another level. It took three years because of various problems here and there. But it’s been well worth it. The time is right.

Was there a particular song that made you sit up and say, “OK, it’s time to go to the studio”?

Quite often when you’re writing things are piecemeal. Sometimes you’ll do something from start to finish and say, “Oh, wow. There’s song.” Other times it’s a riff or a couple of riffs. Maybe a verse without a chorus. The song “Top of the Mountain” was something I’ve had for a while. I couldn’t come up with a chorus. Then, all of a sudden, I was able to say, “Oh, this needs this.” We ended up with over 30 songs that were really good. I’d showed them to Mark, it really inspired him and he came up with some really cool stuff. We had the material. The only difficult thing was picking the right 10 songs. We wanted an album that was at the 35-40 minute mark. Ten songs. We wanted it to be easy for people to get their head around it.

How much time did you spend thinking about the sequencing?

You want to have a little bit of ebb and flow. Because if you have it on 10 [that hit hard] all the way through there's no dynamics whatsoever. So we tried to tell a story, in a sense; you have it open down, bring people up, bring them down a little bit, and then hit them again. A song like, “When Worlds Collide,” was obviously going to be the last song on the record. How do you follow that? We do put a lot of time into that because there's been times in the past when we’ve had an album and someone else sequenced it and we went, “Oh no.”

[Laughs.]

On Life’s A Bitch, the lead off track on Side One and Side Two were switched. It was supposed to be the other way around and it worked better the way we meant it. It would have been better. So you know you try to learn from these things and try to move forward with it. But we're incredibly happy with the way to come out. It's a statement, it's throwing down of the gauntlet.

There's a hell of a lot of bands of our age, or even older, that are putting out OK records. But this isn’t an OK record. This is the best thing we’ve ever done. For a band to say that after 46 years, that’s a statement.

Tell me about working with Michael Wagner.

Michael, like a lot of people, said, “All you guys need is to train a monkey who can hit the record button and the stop button.” [Laughs.]

But he’s a lot more than that of course.

We started sessions with someone else and it really didn't work out we had to scrap everything. We ran into Michael on a rock cruise totally by accident and just said, “Hey, we're going to record a record would you like to mix it?” And he said, “Oh, yeah.” It turned out that Mike Heller was building a studio but it wasn’t going to be ready in time. So Michael Wagner said, “Well, come to my place.” He engineered the bass, the guitar and the vocals. We were there for maybe two weeks. It was just such fun. It always is. It always says he's a great guy, and he's got a great ear.

As far as production, he always sticks in his 10 cents when it comes to the vocal thing and that and he's always the guy for getting guitar tones. Then we mixed it and we weren't really happy with a mix. It wasn't quite monumental enough. We looked around and auditioned all bunch of guys, and got this guy Zeus, who worked with Rob Zombie and a bunch of other stuff. It was the combination of the, for want of a better word “old school energy” combined with modern production. It really hits home.

You’ve made so many records over the years. Do you take ever take lessons from like the last album? Like, “We don't want to do this again. We'll do it this way.”

The whole process of doing The Pack Is Back [1986] back in the day was a case of, “Well, next time we’re not spending two months making a record. We’re not spending a month mixing it, and we’re not playing this way.” So that was definitely a learning experience. We were dealing with idiots at the record company and stuff like that. With every one you say, “This worked, this maybe could have been better.” We’re always hyper-critical. You try to do it better the next time.

I think the writing process for ExtermiNation was a bit of a revelation. We said, “If we want to be better we’ve got to work harder. Let’s really, really be critical and pull stuff apart.” To the point that we realized that there were little bad habits we’d gotten into: You’d have this little hanging part are a little placeholder part of almost something like a stylistic kick that you wanted to get rid of. With this album that stuff was gone from the get-go. We went from A to B a lot quicker.

One thing that’s obvious on this record and across Raven’s career is that you know heaviness is one thing but the songs really come first. There are hooks there.

You’ve got to have hooks. There’s a lot of music out these days that has no melody at all. It’s confounding to me, it drives me crazy. It’s like some kids will just get [away] with just creating a wall of noise.

No. It's so much more. You need rhythm. You need melody. Our music is very much a balancing act between noise and hooks and structure. It’s got to tick all those boxes in order to work.

We’ve had stuff in the past where it was almost too commercial and then maybe a couple of songs that were a little too noisy. You’ve got to negotiate through that and have enough melody to carry you through the songs. These new songs are arranged right. They’ve got enough fun portions where you say, “Oh, I know what’s going on.” And then, “Boom!” “Where did that come from?” Some of “Human Race” is unrelenting until it hits the middle and then you’re, like, “Where did that come from?”

The song “Motorheadin’” is obviously a nod to the band Motörhead and knowing those guys.

I had the backbone for “Motorheadin’”: “Got my motor/heading over” and I had the riff. I thought, “These sound Motörhead-ish. Why don’t I push in that direction?” They just flowed together. I played it to the guys and then we came up with somewhere where there’s a flash and spark when the bass and guitars come in. It’s really fun. It’s just a burner from start to finish. It’s a real biker song. What better tribute for Motörhead?

What was it like seeing Motorhead play live? I never had the opportunity and I've always heard it was the loudest thing on earth.

The first time I saw Motörhead was actually in 1979 at a festival in England. They sounded like they were playing through a broken transistor radio. It sounded absolutely awful.

[Laughs.]

I thought, “Really?” But then I saw them a few years later and you couldn’t stand in the room longer than five seconds before your head just started going, “Brrrrrrm.” They were deafening.

We played with him actually on the Iron Fist tour. We did two dates in England. Big dates in England then were like 5000 capacity. They opened their show and there was no stage. The entire stage came down from the ceiling! [Laughs.] How they negotiated that I don’t know. They were so drunk it wasn’t even funny. They were so badly drunk. Lemmy had his glass and said, “You want a drink?” It smelled like rocket fuel. “No thank you.”

We played with them a number of times over the years. Lemmy was always the ringmaster. Really, really funny. Right up until ’97. He had a thing happen in Eastern Europe when someone threw a coin that was sharpened onto the stage. It hit him on the arm. He got blood poisoning, really sick. From then on he was a little skittish with everyone. He really wasn’t the same. And then of course he had his health issues. But, man, he delivered right to the end. You can’t knock that. Mikkey and Phil were lovely guys. Still are. I think they’re great.

Raven is known for these incredible live shows. Were you guys from the beginning a great live band? Or was it something where you kind of had to work out and figure things out over time?

Our first gig was December 1975 at our school. Half originals, half covers. I fell down the stairs backstage before we went on. Like 20 feet. The other guitar player walked offstage when we walked on. He missed the end of the stage and walked into the crowd. Very, very auspicious beginnings. But we finished our set, threw all our guitars around and the teachers who were in attendance were absolutely mortified. So we knew we were onto something good from there.

But we learned our creative we played the pubs and the clubs in the northeast of England. “Entertain us or we'll kill you.” That’s where we learned. We’d be playing and all of a sudden a bunch of punks would come in. Lovely. They’d get into the energy. We just learned our trade. That was our apprenticeship, playing those clubs. So, fast forward a few years later and somebody said, “Do you guys want to open for Whitesnake? Gary Moore just pulled out.” Oh, OK.

He had a fanatical following in England for sure. So, we get there and the guy says, “Gary Moore can’t make it tonight, here’s Raven!” Talk about being thrown to the sharks. But we love being put into situations where you have to fight and win an audience over. There’s nothing better.

We're in a little bit of a strange time because we don't know when touring is going to resume. So is it strange for you to think, “We've got this great record, we want to go out and play material live, but when's it gonna happen?

We planned on having this out earlier in the year. Things weren't coming together with the artwork and it wasn't coming together with a tour. We didn't get the bands we wanted to open for us in Europe. So we said, “Let’s push this back.” And, literally, a week later, boom. The pandemic came down. So we already have dates booked in February. All you can do is stick your neck out and say, “OK, we’re doing it. See what happens.”

This is a question I almost never asked but it's appropriate this time: The artwork is so fantastic. I think it might be my favorite Raven album cover yet.

You know, the three of us running kind of comic books that we have An artist who was an idiot and kept drawing my face not like me and Mark spheres, not like him.

It initially came from a t-shirt idea that Mike had. The three of us running, comic book style. We had an artist that was an idiot and kept drawing my face not like me and Mark’s face not like him. I don’t understand. These people are graphic artists. By the very term it means, “Do what I tell you.” It doesn’t mean, “This is my work of art.” If you want to do that, go to the Left Bank.

We took it away from him and Mike said, “Why don’t we do the whole album like a comic book?” Brilliant. Then we all had ideas, different artwork for each song. We have the thank you list, which is like the old Marvel comics ad page. It was such a blast to put together. We had to fight with the artist backwards and forwards but it came out really well.

It’s old school in a sense. It’s a standalone thing. It’s a little work of art on its own. It’s wonderful to look at and the lyrics are on it, all the information. So you can have that immersive experience of listening and reading and all that. Spotify and the digital download is all garbage compared to this. It really is. Luckily, we’re in a genre of music where people appreciate this.

When you look back at the band’s time on Atlantic Records in the ‘80s, do you think, “We should have done some things differently” or do you say, “You know, it was just another phase in the evolution of the band”?

You’ll find this out in life in many ways. You’ll think, “Well such-and-such is running this. They must know what they’re doing.” And they know nothing. They just do what they’re told or what they think is right or they have some kind of ego problem where they say, “This is what it’s got to be!”

We got signed to Atlantic by the disco A&R guy because the rock ‘n’ roll guy was in rehab. When he came back out all he wanted to do was talk about Twisted Sister. We said, “What about the new record we’ve got in our hands for you to listen to right now?” There were other people there who could have been selling baked beans: They had no concept of what our music was.

It was just a question of, “What can we do to make these people sell more records?” And it took a while for us to figure that out and once we did, it was just like, “No, we're going to do what we want and we will stand on fall on our own merits”. And that's what done ever since. It was a hard lesson. We're young guys, naive, and in another country at the mercy of someone else feeding us. But here we are.

I wanted to ask you about the Architect Of Fear album, which I thought was fantastic. But it came out in 1991, which was a strange moment for heavy music. What memories do you have of that record?

We went through the whole Atlantic thing. We had been doing really well in Europe before that. The last dates we played there were in ’84. We did a few shows in Holland that year and they were sold out. Five thousand people, which was a big deal then. It really was. Atlantic said, “You’re not doing Europe. It doesn’t make any sense!” What? We got the opportunity to tour with Kreator, who were huge fans.

We wanted to back and play over there, start the whole thing over. In this business, if you’re gone a couple of years, it’s like you never existed. We did that and hooked up with Kreator’s management. They said, “For the next record, come to Germany.” So we went to Germany and got very Germanic! [Laughs.]

[Laughs.]

We’re definitely manic. I don’t know about the German part. That album’s got a good sound: It’s really heavy, it’s got some really killer tunes on it. It’s a little darker. Like I was saying before about the balance thing, that record is a little on the darker side. But it still works. We had a dream of creating the musical sequence from 2001 and we got to do that in the beginning, which was good. The album before [1988’s Nothing Exceeds Like Excess] was very low budget affair production-wise. Great songs but it was hard to get a good sound. We nailed it on Architect.

Raven, left to right: Mark Gallagher, Mike Heller, John Gallagher
Credit Courtesy Freeman Promotions

Tell me about having Mike in the band. Some people says, “Change the drummer, change the band.”

It’s night and day. Joe was a phenomenal drummer and was part of the family for like 30 years but he was done. He didn’t want to be out on the road. Those kinds of things were creeping in and, a few years ago, we had a 21-day tour coming up. Two days before, he had a heart attack. A major heart attack and nearly died. We got a couple of guys to fill in and the second guy was Mike Heller.

We talked for 30 minutes, we got on stage and played a set. No rehearsal. And he nailed it. Mark and I just looked at each other and said, “How the hell did he pull that off?” The night before we had a guy who did a great job but we had four hours of intense rehearsal. With Mike, we’d just say, “You’re playing that like the record. Play it faster. Play a little looser.” He said, “Really? I can do that?” “Yes!”

We just had that connection, that chemistry was there from the start. He couldn’t do the European dates right after and we got a couple of really great guys to fill in. But we had that connection with Mike and [offered him the gig].

That year I think we did about 150 dates. That was June onwards. We still haven’t rehearsed. It’s three years later and we still haven’t rehearsed!

[Laughs.]

He’ll say, “Why don’t we do this song?” We’ll listen to it, maybe run through it at soundcheck and then go. He’s brought a lot of fire and passion to what he does. He has scary technique. We through something at him and he throws it back twice as fast. That gives us the opportunity to do anything. Limitless. There are songs we haven’t done in 30 years that we can play with him.

We did the “Hellraiser/Action” medley, which we hadn’t done since ’84. We did “Seek and Destroy,” which we hadn’t done since ’85 or ’86. We brought “Wiped Out” into the sets, brought in “Hell Patrol,” just to broaden the roster of songs, which makes it fun for us. It’s like putting on an old pair of shoes.

You started off in the north of England at a time when there was a lot of strife in the country and now you and your brother have seen the world because of your music. What’s that been like for you?

Very improbable. very improbable. We're very lucky. I mean, where we are in Newcastle is the equivalent of starting abandon Nebraska. You're not near the centers of power, which was London and people in London, have an imaginary line 50 miles outside Newcastle and it’s like they say, “Oh no, Barbarians await.”

Neat Records happened to be putting out local records. They did that for the Tygers of Pan Tang. They were friends of ours. We put out our first single and everything took off.

We were playing clubs at the end of 1979. A few months later we were playing with Ozzy Osbourne. We were playing with Whitesnake, Iron Maiden. We wound up on the BBC. It was an exponential curve ever since. We’ve gone through that and survive. So many bands from the same period gave up the ghost. We never did. The only thing that slowed us down was that in 2001 Mark had a near-fatal accident and had to learn how to walk again.

It’s sobering to think about that and the longevity of the band.

Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.