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Monday, March 15, 2010

The Headbangers 2003 Interview Sessions: Eric Brittingham



I remember at this point in my 2003 project running the table of some high-caliber guests to the point I was convinced I could wrangle up most of the Who's Who from the eighties metal scene. Welp, that ended up being a personal misnomer--sing to the tune of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Knock Me Down" if you like--but I'm still today proud of the participants I'd brought into this venture, as you'll see throughout the year in this series at The Metal Minute.

At this point with Eric Brittingham, I'd just previously interviewed the late Kevin Dubrow and then Ron Keel, both who were total gentlemen. Kevin and I enjoyed two afternoons of conversation and he and Frankie Banali were sending me regular correspondence about Quiet Riot's doings leading to their Rehab album, while Ron Keel sent me an acoustic solo project of his and then we continued conversing by email for a few weeks. We started talking about some of the bigger tour packages of the day and of course we came across Cinderella.

I like to think of Keel and Cinderella in the same mindspace because there was a similar look to them (well, duh, of course) yet both bands emerged to a successful peak then found themselves on the outside looking in quicker than some of their peers. Both Ron Keel and the members of Cinderella opted towards fleshing out some country and blues in their future work which detrimentally added to their waning mass appeal. Both were praised by critics and condemned by many fans, which led to both heading off into the proverbial sunset. At least their musical integrity rode with them. Even I admit back in the day, Cinderella's Long Cold Winter and Heartbreak Station took me for a loop, but today I feel both albums are their watermark pieces.

Cinderella enjoyed more of a commercial success than Keel, albeit both groups have enjoyed a resurrection phase in the 2000s. Fans now remember what they had after it was gone (to paraphase Cinderella) but was suddenly returning back. By the time I reached Eric Brittingham following the Ron Keel interview, it was through Eric's wife Inga, with whom he played (along with Cinderella shotgun rider Jeff Lebar) in Naked Beggars. Cinderella were still putting together reunion gigs at this point in 2003, while Naked Beggars was a large focus of Eric's. Inga sent me out a copy of their album and then set up this interview after I'd reviewed the Beggars album in one of the outlets I'd started out with...sad to say, I've forgotten which, argh!

I look at this interview now and realize much of what Eric and I discussed is old news, particularly the Britny Fox and Jon Bon Jovi questions I raised. At the time I did this interview, Behind the Music was quite the rage on VH-1 and most of the metal books out there now weren't yet. So went my attempt at creating some back story. I laugh at myself now. Good try, Van Horn. I got better later in my career.

The coolest anecdote to this interview with Eric was he, Inga and their family were in a mall waiting to catch a movie, so you can hear the echoes behind him on the tape and Eric's family milling around him. Being a father myself now, I'm really warmed by this. It's a rare catch of a rock personality outside of his normal element. Like the time I recently interviewed Lita Ford and Jim Gillette while Lita was cooking for her family, having a solid twenty with Eric before he was about enjoy some downtime with his clan...well, you get the picture.



RVH: Cinderella was born in Philly and what’s interesting to me is how deeply-rooted the music scene is up there. I've always look at it as kind of an unheralded hotbed for heavy music. How do you remember the Philadelphia scene before Cinderella moved on to the west coast?

EB: Actually, when we first got together the scene really blew. It was all cover bands--and new wave cover bands at that--so that’s why Tom (Kiefer) and I got tired of dealing with having to play covers. So we just did our own thing. It was tough getting gigs in the beginning, but once we started going out a few times, we quickly got a following and started packing places. Eventually club owners wised-up a little, like, ‘Wow, we don’t have to pay any ASCAP and BMI shit!’ (laughs) So we kind of changed the tide for awhile and so in Philly every live music club kind of turned into all-original music, so that’s kind of cool. Back then when we started, we played at The Galaxy in Jersey and the Empire Rock Room in Philly; they were the main two places. Even though they went towards originals, most of your bigger clubs in Philly were catering to bands like The Hooters, kind of like pop rock or new wave rock at that time.

RVH: It’s almost forgotten that Britny Fox is an extension of Cinderella with Michael Kelly Smith and Tony “Stix” Destra rolling out of Cinderella in ’85. In essence they kind of mirrored you guys to the point of “Dizzy” Dean Davidson having the same grainy vocal patterns as Tom Kiefer. I can only imagine what was going on in the Cinderella camp at this breaking point...

EB: It’s kind of funny, because Dean was actually a drummer; he auditioned for it (in Cinderella) after Tony and Mike left and he didn’t get the gig, so after Cinderella broke and I’d heard that Tony and Mike had put a band together that had Dean singing, I was like ‘Well, that’s kind of strange!’ Then they got signed and I saw the first video and I was like, ‘Man, he does a good Tom Kiefer!’ (laughs) I think one of our bus drivers ran into them and he was like ‘Damn, I just saw a band that had a Tom, a Jeff (LaBar, guitarist) and two Erics!’ (laughs) That’s kind of funny.

RVH: (laughs) I used to rag on Bon Jovi back in the day for setting heavy metal on a commercial course of no return, but when Jon Bon Jovi discovered you guys, you might say he kind of put a Midas touch onto Cinderella as Night Songs slowly became a hit. I always laugh at the funny faux rivalry you guys have with Jon and Ritchie Sambora at the end of the “Somebody Save Me” video. Tell us about this association with Bon Jovi and how do you feel it affected Cinderella’s path?

EB: When Jon came out to see us, he was recording his second record in Philly and he basically went back to his A&R guy at Mercury and told him he should go down and check this band out in Philly, so that was the extent of his involvement. From there we eventually got signed, but I think one misconception a lot of people have is to say ‘Oh, Bon Jovi discovered them!’ Well, Bon Jovi were not very big at that point. They had had one single with success, which was “Runaway,” and they were on their second record (7800 Fahrenheit) which didn’t do all that great. Then their third record Slippery When Wet, which is their huge record, actually didn’t break until Cinderella’s first record was double-platinum! (laughs) So it’s kind of funny; everyone’s like, ‘Bon Jovi had his influence,’ well, no, actually he was a struggling artist at the same time. He was only on his second record and hadn’t really broken huge yet.

RVH: I figure that’s been a pain in the ass over the years trying to rationalize this to people?

EB: (laughs) Yeah, I know! People have this picture that he (Bon Jovi) could get anyone signed. It’s not like he really got us signed. He didn’t shop the band; he simply came out, saw the band and liked it and told the A&R guy who signed him.

RVH: I find it ironic a lot of the east coast rockers in the eighties were eventually forced to get in line with the L.A. neo-glam scene like Poison--who also came from Pennsylvania--Hanoi Rocks, Faster Pussycat, Autograph and Motley Crue during Motley's Theatre of Pain album cycle...so to my eyes, in order to make your mark in eighties heavy metal, glam was the fastest way to do it. Your thoughts to that?

EB: Yeah, I think it’s like with any era and any band that breaks big, the record label is going to be in a hurry to sign a lot of artists that look or sound like whatever’s hot at the moment. That’s what happened back then. When we came out, Poison’s album (Look What the Cat Dragged In) came out at the same time as ours, and actually their album didn’t break for about a year after and Night Songs had already had success. Once Cinderella’s album went platinum, all of these other bands started popping up like weeds, you know? The same thing happened through the nineties and it still happens today. You have one band that comes out that does something a little bit different that has success with it, and suddenly you have twenty more just like them!



RVH: For sure; case in point, everyone seems to be following Lamb of God and Shadows Fall in today’s scene.

EB: Yeah, I’m not saying we were trendsetters; it’s just the way shit happened, you know?

RVH: True. Everybody, regardless if you were a thrasher, a glammer or just a regular rocker, we all had the hots for those twins in the early Cinderella videos! (laughs)

EB: (laughs) They were different people who played those parts each time.

RVH: That’s what I thought!

EB: Yeah, it wasn’t the same girls.

RVH: Still, they had their own little cult thing going on.

EB: Yeah!

RVH: I remember on Beavis and Butthead when they’re watching “Somebody Save Me,” they yell out “Butt! Butt! Butt! Butt!”

EB: (laughs)

RVH: The point I’m making is that for men having to dress effeminately in their bands, in order to show off their alpha masculinity they obviously needed to bring in hot women. Nothing’s changed, obviously, since you can watch any rap video today and find twice the amount of bouncing girls as there were in the eighties metal videos. More than a few times, I’m sure the phrase “sex sells” crossed your guys’ minds?

EB: Absolutely, and if it doesn’t, it’s still fun! (laughs)

RVH: I have to give big kudos to Cinderella for having the fortitude to drift away from the sure thing that was Night Songs with the following albums Long Cold Winter, Heartbreak Station and Still Climbing, which took you guys further from the sleaze rock element to the more rootsy stuff with blues and country. What did you see going on musically at the time that pushed you guys in that direction?

EB: Well, Tom’s the main writer, so I guess he was just exploring new directions and I guess he was on a self-discovery kind of search, which is fine since we all pretty much had the same musical backgrounds. It was cool and fun just pushing the boundaries and sometimes we’ll still do it with Naked Beggars. It’s actually kind of cool with that band because we take things even further; we can go a lot more pop and we can go a lot more heavier, and it’s fun.

RVH: In retrospect, do you feel having such integrity ostracized Cinderella from the spotlight? I know the sales of Long Cold Winter were really solid, but it’s always a risk to play music with conviction where not every soul who was there before is necessarily going to “get.”

EB: Yeah, with the Heartbreak Station record, critically it was the most exciting record that we had done to-date, and it sold about a third of what the first two records sold, so yeah, there’s a cost by going in that direction, but I would rather have a useful integrity than to just sell out, writing music for the mainstream or the money, you know? Money’s nice, but you know... (laughs)

RVH: I can imagine how mind-blowing it must be when one day you wake up and your band is not fashionable, your label has kicked you to the curb in light of cyclical change, then to have infrastructure change such as Fred Coury (drummer) temporarily leave the band, and then Tom one day momentarily unable to sing. How did you cope with such a beyond-your-control collapse all at once?

EB: I don’t know, you just deal with it and you struggle to get a lot of the crap off. Back in ’95 when the Still Climbing record came out, we went out on tour and we played in Seattle at the height of the grunge era and we couldn’t even buy advertising time on the radio stations! (laughs) I was like, ‘Man, talk about being harsh!’ But the fifty people that were there had a good show! (laughs)

RVH: (laughs) Obviously, you and Jeff (Lebar) have hung together in Naked Beggars, so do you feel all of this fighting to survive in the rock trenches has fortified the bond between you?

EB: Yeah, I think it’s easy for so many people to try and change with the trends, and we’ve always stayed true to what we like doing musically and now it’s paying off. We have a new band and we’re starting to gain some popularity and fans and we’re being true to what we like to do. It’s very rewarding.



RVH: Tell us how it feels playing a footloose, no-rules rock unit like Naked Beggars versus Cinderella, which I’d think that, despite your efforts to be true to yourselves, was probably stifled by label pressure to keep the fires hot, so to speak.

EB: Well, actually, no. With Cinderella, in our record deal with Mercury, we retained full artistic freedom!

RVH: How’d you get away with that?

EB: We just demanded it. We could’ve put out a freaking polka record and they couldn’t have said a damn thing about it, so we just did what we wanted to do and that was that. The difference between Cinderella and Naked Beggars today is that Cinderella is very regimented. We do everything by the book; we work out a show, we hone it down and we go out. It’s like a production, whereas with Naked Beggars, it’s more spontaneous and we just fly by the seat of our pants at shows. I change shit up constantly. If we don’t feel like doing songs, we don’t do them. If we want to throw in songs we just learned the day before, we’ll just do it, you know?

RVH: Ron Keel went to Tennessee to explore his country roots after the original metal scene died out, and now he’s returned to some of his rock elements. You're nestled in Nashville, which I’ve been to only once, and it’s naturally a different culture than Philly or L.A. What adjustments, if any, have you needed to address living there?

EB: None, really. I started coming down here in ’98, because that’s when Cinderella got back together and Tom and Fred had separately moved down here. They both have studios, so when we got together it made sense that we come down here to rehearse, to record, whatever. I truly like it here. I think the people and just the pace of life is a little more laid-back. I’d gotten separated at that time and I ran into Inga at the mall, so we hooked up and became friends and eventually started dating, got married, and we settled here.

RVH: Knowing that Cinderella has seen the top and you guys still get together for reunion gigs, when you take the stage now as Naked Beggars, given your musical journey to this point, what are some of the thoughts that cross your mind?

EB: I think we’ve learned a lot of things not to do, you know? (laughs) With Naked Beggars, we’re very hands-off. We do things a hell of a lot different than Cinderella does, and I think a lot of the people that we deal with when we’re playing live are actually taken back, because we pull up and Jeff and I get out and we open up the trailer and unload the gear and set up. (laughs) It’s all like we’ve never done in Cinderella before when we had roadies and assistants and shit, so that takes people by surprise, but you know, I think it’s really healthy.


Transcript (c) Ray Van Horn, Jr.
Photos (c) Phil Ryan, Wikipedia and Cinderella MySpace page

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