The Metal Minute Awarded 2009 Best Personal Blog By Metal Hammer Magazine

Friday, November 27, 2009

Take 5 With Tony Portaro and Joe Cangelosi of Whiplash

Thrash metal in its original incarnation was nurtured in three central hubs during the eighties. The American Bay Area receives credit for officially kicking off speed metal, while Germany kicked things up a notch on the brutality scale. Let us not forget in our examination of thrash's roots, the U.S. east coast, particularly New York and New Jersey where some of the genre's legends were birthed such as Overkill, Carnivore and Anthrax.

Whiplash were speed kings in their own right. One of Roadrunner Records' earliest signed prodigies, Whiplash rose to prominence with their 1987 thrash classic Ticket to Mayhem. Of course, prior to their expanded recognition, Whiplash issued the indispensible Power and Pain in 1985, an album treasured by veteran thrash hounds.

Unfortunately, the momentum Whiplash gained for themselves fleeted in 1989 and '90 after the releasing Insult to Injury in the midst of a quickly-dying metal scene. It naturally led to a lengthy split-up, despite efforts to revive themselves sporadically through the nineties.

Following the passing of original bassist Tony Bono in 2002, Whiplash might've remained forever sealed up, yet this year co-founder Tony Portaro and fan-esteemed drummer Joe Cangelosi have revved up the engines once again along with new bassist Richi Day.

Whiplash 2009 is set on both speed and mid-tempo on their latest album Unborn Again. However, the group will tell you, don't let the album's diversity be the gauge of their blitzkrieging live set. Bearing the name Whiplash comes with a certain obligation towards velocity, as Tony Portaro and Joe Cangelosi relayed to The Metal Minute...

MM: Obviously we last saw Whiplash outside of various live gigs over recent years with the Thrashback album from ’98. You guys are back this year with Unborn Again and you’re in pretty damn good form! I also have one of the bottles from your recently-released Whiplash brand hot sauce, “The Last Nail in the Coffin..."

JC: That’s the weak one, man! The middle one’s my favorite, that green sauce. The hot, hot one is “Power and Pain.” Whew! I have a cold and I just did a tablespoon of it. I actually feel better! (laughs)

MM: (laughs) I just cleared my sinuses out with some wasabi about 15 minutes ago! Well, fill in the gaps of all recent doings in Whiplash from both of your perspectives...

JC: Oy, where to begin?

TP: I went to NYU not long ago and I went for audio production with Pro Tools and I went for music marketing, then I opened up my studio Concrete Island. I worked on some songs for myself and then Joe gave me a call and said this is the time to do it, let’s get back together and do something. We knew we would give it 110% so that’s what we did. We spent 17 weeks writing new material. Everything on Unborn Again is brand new; there’s nothing from the past.

JC: It’s not that all of a sudden we were seeing things happen in the metal scene again, as in ‘Oh, let’s go and do this shit!’ We were going to reform around 2002, just before Tony Bono died. After that happened, we weren’t going to just jump back in and do it. So years went by and you have to step back from the whole situation, really. It was just too weird, man. I was in Germany with Kreator for a couple years and then I came back home. It was a great experience in Kreator. I got to see a lot of stuff, man. They do a lot of heavy touring, and Frank “Blackfire” Gosdzik, their guitarist at the time--he was in the band for like, eight years--he’s our good friend. We met him during the 1988 Sodomania tour, which was Whiplash and Sodom. In fact, Frank’s on this new record doing a couple of leads! He also came up at played a few songs with us at Wacken.

TP: That’s right!

JC: We have really close ties with Germany! So then I was doing various fusion bands and playing some jazz stuff. It was right about last year when I said, ‘You know what? Let’s see if we can do this again,’ because that was always my dream, to get back in the band after we disbanded in 1990-91. So we got back together and just started writing new material and that was it. It sometimes feels like we never stopped! We just came back from Columbia and that was mind-blowing! I’m still shocked from it all. We got sick; all three of us are sick. We caught something before we even left the U.S. I think it’s the altitude, man. I think it’s like 8,000 feet! Plus the air on those plans is just re-circulated.

TP: Exactly.

JC: Let me tell you, though; those Columbian thrashers are sick! Really sick man. They’re on fire over there; they really live!

TP: We--our management--were talking to a couple of different promoters and it looks like we may be going to Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru.

JC: I know we’ve got some fans down there. There’s something about those hot countries that just love heavy metal!

TP: There was no security at this last show in Columbia and we were mobbed with fans asking us to sign autographs and take pictures. I went to sleep the past two nights and all I heard is “Last picture, Tony! Last picture!”

JG: (laughs)

TG: We love interacting with our fans, no matter what, even if it’s on our Whiplash USA MySpace site or whatever. Every time we end the show, we just go right out into the crowd and mingle with the people. We give them everything we possibly can.

MM: Whiplash, along with other bands of the New York-New Jersey region like Cro Mags, Hades, Overkill, Anthrax, Carnivore, The Accused and Murphy’s Law, you guys collectively answered back to the Bay Area thrash scene during the eighties, except there was more hardcore and punk on the east coast. From your memories, what was so unique in having this kind of scene?

TP: I got out of Berkeley College of Music in’ 79 and ’80. That’s when I started writing music. I loved the San Francisco Bay Area thrash music that came out back then. I think we had a combination of what I heard out there and when Whiplash did its first show at RuthieOs Inn in Berkeley, California, which is the home of Exodus and Metallica. We never played live before Power and Pain was out; we recorded the album, released it and played at Ruthie’s with Possessed and Death Angel. That was a big influence on us too, even though we already had Power and Pain out. I think it was the combination of the San Francisco Bay Area thrash scene and the theory and technique I learned in Berkeley. Being on the east coast, it gave us a unique sound the Bay Area sound didn’t have, yet it did kind of contribute to the east coast thrash style. That’s something which kept us really unique.

JC: I remember going to L’Amours in Brooklyn, where I’m from, and going to see Whiplash. I was just blown away, man. It did have a hardcore edge and the cool thing about being in New York at the time is that CBGB’s, L’Amours and all the local clubs started to have crossover shows for the first time where you’ve got DRI playing with Slayer, all these crazy mixtures of metal and punk. Plus everybody was getting along. It was a great scene, man.

TP: Back in the mid-eighties, L’Amours was our home away from home. We were the house band there. Anytime somebody would cancel, they’d call us right away and we were like, ‘Yeah, we’ll definitely do it!’ We’d jump on these pretty big name gigs. We must’ve played like 13 shows, I think, back then at L’Amours only. We also played CBGB’s many times and the coolest thing of that was all of those hardcore bands like Agnostic Front, Cro Mags, Harley’s War, we just fit right in. At the time, we were the Jersey boys and they took us right under their wings even though we were thrash metal and they were punk. It was so cool how they just accepted us and made us a part of the whole scene back then. It was really awesome.

JC: I guess everybody just realized it wasn’t much of a difference, you know? I remember seeing for the first time skinheads hanging out with metalheads in the mosh pit together. Nobody was getting hurt and everyone was helping each other off the ground, man. It was a cool community and it was a good-feeling time. It was a very special time even though I was just a little kid. I remember it like it was yesterday.

MM: I think Unborn Again sort of bridges this year to ’87 and your Ticket to Mayhem album mostly because of the artwork and the carnival skit in the beginning bridges the two a bit, albeit the sound is not wholly the same. Considering Whiplash has four albums in-between these two, do you feel they’re interrelated in any way?

TP: Definitely, without a doubt.

JC: Yeah, I think so. I was on both of those, of course, though I left after Insult to Injury. We didn’t try to plan on bringing some of Ticket to Mayhem to now. We wrote new material and it doesn’t really sound like Ticket to Mayhem. I don’t know what I think it sounds like other than it sounds like Whiplash, man! It’s a different incarnation.

TP: You know, I hear through the grapevine and from all of the Whiplash followers that Power and Pain was the most popular Whiplash album. That’s the reason why we didn’t have a different singer come in for Unborn Again. We wanted to give the people what they wanted and even though my voice never really appealed to my tastes, I just never found the person to do what I heard in my head. That’s why I sang on Power and Pain and Ticket to Mayhem.

JC: I also think before me and Tony fully committed to doing another Whiplash record the biggest thing on the table was that he was going to have to do the vocals. I wanted to get back to that point where Whiplash was a trio from when I was in the band the first time. When we did Insult to Injury, we got Glenn (Hansen) in there and the whole dynamic changed. I always wanted to just be a three piece. Last year it was just great to get together and start writing material and hear Tony sing again. Tony’s vocals are now killer, live, man!

TP: When we wrote this album, I didn’t have a real grip on my voice at that time, because we weren’t rehearsing or playing any live shows. I don’t want to say I could do better now, but what Joe said is actually the case; if you see us live, you notice my vocals are back to where they were back then. We had to start rehearsing for the live show for me to get a grip on how I used to work my voice back then. Now I’m there again, and we have plans to do another album—in fact, we plan to start writing new material within the next four weeks. I’m more excited about that.

JC: It was a great experience and you’ve got to believe me when I tell you--I’ll put my word on it--Whiplash live right now at this point in time is one of the most exciting, brutal bands you’ll ever see! Tight, fast, down your throat, man. I’d put Tony’s vocals now up to when I was in the band during the eighties, easy! People complain about some of the tempos on this new record, like it wasn’t as fast as they wanted it to be, but you know, I don’t really care what people think! We did what we did, but live, when we put that shit on the table, man...there’s no denying it.

MM: I have no complaints about the tempo changes on Unborn Again. You have the thrashers like “Feeding Frenzy” and “Float Face Down,” then you have the bipolar opposites of straight rockers like “Hook in Mouth” and “Parade of Two Legs.” I would imagine there does come a point in time as a band where just full-on thrash the entire ride gets a little monotonous, maybe?

JC: We have so many thrash songs in our repertoire live to the point you’re hearing about 85% all thrash tunes, so it’s good to mix it up. We like to have fun playing chunky, mid-tempo songs just as much. We’re so fast live it’s nice to have a few other types of songs in-between!

TP: One of my favorite bands of all-time is Trouble, and I hear a lot of their influence on our grooving or songs of that nature.

JC: Trouble rules, man.

TP: We had the pleasure to hang with them at Wacken too. We played on Friday night and they hung out with us backstage drinking our beer, and they returned the favor the following Saturday! Saturday we were drinking their beer!

JC: Yeah! Awesome guys.

MM: I want to talk about the album cover for Unborn Again. I’m especially curious about the wide range of characters at the ticket booth and what their stories are from your perspectives. The other thing I’d like to know is, with the way this medium is starting to shift towards digital download albums, do you feel it’ll kill off artistic and cool album covers like this one?

JC: We wanted a big, bold, colorful and crazy cover like we used to have in the old days, and we definitely got it!

TP: I remember on the first draft of the cover there wasn’t a mixture of different ethnics, so we told the artist, ‘Listen, you’ve got to mix it up a little,’ and that’s when he came back with. We had so much input on this album cover.

JC: Yeah, we had everything to do with this album cover, in fact! The cover pretty much represents us. In the top right corner of the CD is the parachute jump from Coney Island. What we thought on the first draft was there were all similar-looking people, so we needed to have some ethnic people here! This is a multicultural world we’re living in, man! So we changed that and we changed a whole bunch of stuff on it. Ed Repka did a great job on it. You’ve got the Insult to Injury guy with a broken leg still, then you’ve got the Ticket to Mayhem guy in the first car of the rollercoaster. Then you’ve the ticket taker who’s the Power and Pain guy. The guy next to the Insult to Injury guy, if you ask me, he looks like Bela Lugosi! He’s putting his hand over that black kid’s head and I was wondering what the hell is he doing there? I figured it out, man; he’s measuring him for height on the ride! I think the people in the rollercoaster are actually real people. I hope nobody spots themselves there! This whole album cover is like Where’s Waldo.

It seems like they’re printing a lot of vinyl these days. Someone’s talking about putting this one out on vinyl and I really hope they do. There was also talk about a picture disc, which would be awesome!

TP: I can give you something that I didn’t even tell Joe yet...

JC: Oh, no! (laughs)

TP: I came up with an awesome idea for the DVD that’s going to be coming out, 25 Years of Thrash. I was thinking of including those characters in-between cuts of live stuff on the DVD, maybe even have famous thrash band and heavy metal people come dressed up as those characters, you know, theatrical-looking.

JC: (laughs) That’s sick!

TP: It’s something we’d have to sit down and discuss.

JC: Who’d be the Power and Pain guy, Rob Halford?

TP: (laughs)

JC: Maybe Pete Townsend!

MM: (laughs) How about Udo Dirkschneider?

TP: I’m thinking about incorporating maybe four or five other bands and include some live performances of them inside the DVD too, as well as Whiplash.

MM: Sheesh, this project sounds time-invested and yet I can’t believe you guys are already talking about the next album right after Unborn Again drops...

JC: In the old days we took a long time to put stuff together, but now while our chops are here... We’re really tight now, man; we are a completely live band. Now we’re going into the studio with this’s going to be dangerous.

TP: We started in late June or July and there were a few delays from the record company’s side of things and just organizing the schedule with Harris Johns, who co-produced this with us. It seemed the vibe was where you could put a definite line between three different sections of the year where it was writing for probably three months and then the whole recording process was another third of that time and then rehearsing for and doing the live shows was another third of the year. Now we’ve come full-swing and we’re ready to start writing again and start the whole process over.

JC: We’re having more fun now, man, than we ever did. We’re comfortable and making the best of it. We’re having a good time out there.

Copyright (c) 2009 Ray Van Horn, Jr. / The Metal Minute


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