[published]: 2004, November
[in]: Power Play, No. 61, p. 23-24
[article]: Interview with Kick Axe
[by]: Mike Drew

Regina, Saskatchewan, is hardly considered a rock and roll hot bed. And in the early 70s, Gary Langen, his brother Victor, and Larry Gillstrom realised this. After banging about as a three-piece called Hobbit (insert Bill Bailey joke here) playing Led Zep and Who covers in Regina bars, the trio realised things wouldn't materialise further if they stayed there. And so the saga of Kick Axe begins.

"Many people in Regina still remember our bright hand-painted silver school bus with "Hobbit" in big green letters on the side," chuckles Gillstrom. "The three of us wanted to play heavier blues-based style of hard rock, so we split off of that group and formed a power trio with Gary doing the drumming and the lead vocals. We played in bars all over western Canada and eventually came to base ourselves in Vancouver. It was tough to survive in a road band back then, so when Gary had to raise a family he left the group."

'Me and some guys from school had a band and we tried real hard'. Wait a minute: it's starting to sound like a Bryan Adams song here!

"My brother Brian joined us on drums and we went through a few singers until we found George [Criston]." Just to interrupt here, the band went through 200 audition tapes to find the Milwaukee native. Gillstrom continues: "When George joined the group, we dropped almost all of the material we were doing and went to a straight-ahead metal format with almost all original material. Our club following went through a dramatic transition where we lost the typical bar patrons but gained a whole new, more dedicated following."

You may say that this is the working band's route to fame and fortune, and you would be correct; play and play until people can no longer ignore you. Every band's hope is that this will lead to a record deal. Was it difficult to find a deal north of the border?

"Yes," explains Gillstrom. "None of the Canadian labels were willing to take a chance on a heavy rock group like us. We'd been submitting demos for years. Our manager was friends with Spencer Proffer [of Pasha Records, home to Quiet Riot at the time], and he brought him up to Edmonton to see the band play. Spencer liked our songs and our live show, and he agreed to make a record with us. It was only after we had got the attention of Spencer Proffer from Pasha that we were able to bring a Canadian label on board."

And what a record the band's debut, "Vices", was. It's considered classic by many, and until a few years back, bootleg CDs of it went for a fair-penny on eBay. What makes it so special for so many people?

"It was a great high-energy album that was the result of many years of writing and performing," offers Gillstrom."It was recorded during a time when the band's energy was peaking, and I think that comes acroos in the record. We were taken down to Hollywood and given a great rehearsal studio to polish up the songs for a couple of weeks. So when we got in the recording studio we were ready and eager to lay down the tracks. We got along really well with Spencer during the production of this album and the whole thing came together like a great big party. It was a very magic time in the band."

The debut, along with their next release, "Welcome to the Club", was reissued on compact disc in 2001. Gillstrom explains how they came about.

"We were not involved in the reissues. Dane Spencer from Song Haus Music has always been a big fan of the band, so he licensed the first two Kick Axe CDs from Sony, and reissued them on his label. We got in touch with him after the fact and discussed doing a new Kick Axe album, as well as reissuing "Rock the World". We have a great ongoing relationship with Dane and Song Haus Music."

Back to that time period however, the band found themselves touring with bands like Judas Priest, The Scorpions and Rush. I asked Gillstrom about what the band learned from touring with these heavyweights.

"Our 1984 tour with Judas Priest was the highlight of our career back in the 80s. We were doing our own club tour across Canada and "Vices" had just been released. Judas Priest was just starting its North American tour and they played in Vancouver, Calgary and Winnipeg the same nights that we were playing. The members of Judas Priest came down and saw us in Calgary and Winnipeg and were impressed enough to ask us to join them for the rest of their North American tour. We had a hell of a good time on that tour. We were treated well by Judas Priest; they gave us a decent amount of their light show and always let us have a good sound check. The Scorpions were also a great band to tour with. We were big fans of the band and their performances on that tour were really great. I think one of our favourite nights on the road was the night we opened for the Scorpions at the Forum in Montreal. The crowd reaction was amazing for us. We played a great set."

I ask Gillstrom if there were any stories of debauchery he could share, but to protect the innocent, and the not so innocent, Gillstrom offered this answer: "There were several hotel trashing parties during that [Judas Priest] tour, involving both bands and crews. We probably went a bit over the top with the partying near the end of that tour, but that's the way things were back then. I have learned over the years not to recount any decadent tales that involved other individuals or bands. People can still get into hot water over these things many years later. But I will say that sex was safer back then, there were so many girls to party with, and there was definitely decadence."

Fair enough.

A strange situation for the band came in 1986 when a few of their songs ended up on the Transformers movie soundtrack. The weirdness came when the tracks didn't have the Kick Axe tag though, but that of Spectre General. Gillstrom is still unclear what led to that situation.

"We're still not sure exactly why they changed our name on that album [US only]," he explains. "The last I heard about it was that the execs in charge felt that Kick Axe was too harsh a name for the movie's target audience of mostly kids. Seems ridiculous to me. The song "Hunger" off of that soundtrack is one of our favorite Kick Axe tunes to play live."

Within a few years the band had run its first course. "It had nothing to do with the band internally," says Gillstrom. "We had problems with our management, and the business side of things went out of control. Bills didn't get paid and money was borrowed on our behalf without our knowledge. Sheriffs started showing up at our shows and taking all of our assets and gear. It got to the point where we could not continue as Kick Axe. We just sort of faded out of existence for a while. We really had no choice at the time."

Typical music business rubbish, to put it bluntly. It does lead us to the here and now however. The band is back together, and they have just put out a very solid new album.

"When the first two albums got reissued on Song Haus, the members of the band started to talk to each other about the fact that its probably safe for us to resurface again," whispers Gillstrom, so the bill collectors don't hear him! "We got together and did some rehearsals, and they went really well, so we started to write and record. It felt great to be playing music with theses guys again. It was almost like no time had passed. I guess when you play in a group with a bunch of guys for 15 years, it is pretty easy for things to fall back into place, no matter how much time goes by in between."

At this point, I explain to Gillstrom that the album is an impressive slab of traditional hard rock, reminding the listener of 70s rockers Angel at times. Gillstrom agrees.

"The reaction to "IV" has been about what we expected. We know that some of the hardcore metal fans would initially find it to be a departure from our previous style. We hope they give it a chance, because there is a lot there to hear and it is definitely an album that will grow on you with each listen. We have gained a lot of new fans with "IV" and true Kick Axe fans have not wavered, the ylove the new album. We just wanted to enjoy the experience of making music together as a group and we did not constrain any ideas or performances to fit a certain style. All the members of the group have similar musical roots from the 70s. We've always had blues-based hard rock influence and I think we've let that come to the forefront on this record more than on any previous record."

In the near future, the band hopes to play some live dates and release a long awaited DVD. Gillstrom hopes to be a very busy man for the next year.

"The first order of business is to get out on the road to play as many shows as we can. The plan is to tour across Canada from east to west, the tour the United States in the spring of 2005. Once we get the Canadian touring underway, we will start writing material for another studio album. We'll be recording shows for a live CD/DVD scheduled for release in 2005. We're also going to resissue "Rock the World" in early 2005, hopefully with one or two bonus tracks. It's our intention to release a DVD next year with live footage, plus lots of old clips from our past. We are currently taping several live performances to use on the DVD, plus gathering some of the more humorous and interesting interviews, live and home video footage from the past. We will also put all of our music videos from the past on there."

2005 should be a good year for Kick Axe fans. Don't forget to visit their website, to learn all the news as it comes to light.