Interviewed by Crashtest
Rowan Robertson made a big splash on the international metal scene in the early 90s when, at the tender age of seventeen, he assumed the lead guitar duties in the legendary Dio. Rowan’s subsequent work on the LOCK UP THE WOLVES album was jaw-dropping and proved to the metal world that he belonged on it’s stage. During the tour in support of that album, he again proved himself more than worthy to follow in the footsteps of Vivian Campbell and Craig Goldy. When Ronnie James Dio rejoined Black Sabbath to record DEHUMANIZER, many in the metal community lost track of Rowan’s musical pursuits. I had the opportunity to catch up with Rowan recently and talk to him about his new band, the Los Angeles-based band DC4. In addition to Rowan, DC4 features Jeff Duncan (Armored Saint, Odin) on lead vocals and guitars, along with brothers Matt Duncan on bass and Shawn Duncan (Odin, Bird of Prey) on drums.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the beginnings for you personally, in music. Then talk a bit about your past with Dio and talk about what was going on between being in Dio and where you’re at now, so that we can bring things current.
When did your love of music, and particularly playing the guitar, first begin?
Initially the point where I wanted to pick up the electric guitar was when I saw Jimi Hendrix play on a video one morning on TV. That was at the Isle of Wight Festival and he was doing “Johnny Be Good” and I sort of lost it and ran around the house.
And how old were you?
I suppose I would have been about ten or eleven. Something like that. I had picked up the guitar previous to that. My dad had one in the house. He wasn’t a musician or anything, but he had one around the house. I picked it up and started playing around with it. I immediately fell in love with it, really. That was a very early start. My dad probably had me taking lessons at about five or six [years old]. I’ve always been playing, for as long as I can remember.
But it was when you actually saw Hendrix that you got the fire in the belly.
Yeah, it was just incredible. I asked my dad for an electric guitar and I was afraid he was going to say “no” because that’s not exactly a symbol of academic success. (laughs) He was quite thrilled that I had an interest in music, because he loved music and never had a chance to do it.
Are there any other instruments that you’ve learned to play, besides guitar?
No. I can mess around on a couple of other instruments, but guitar is the only one I can definitely play.
You mentioned Hendrix. Who were some of the other guitar players from the past who influenced you? And maybe there are some that even influence you today?
Well, going back a ways, all I had in my record collection was Hendrix and my first Beatles album. Then I got turned on to AC/DC by a friend and immediately fell in love with Angus’ [Young] playing. I got a couple of other albums through that friend of mine. I got Deep Purple’s “Live In London” with Richie Blackmore, Queen’s “News Of The World”, Gary Moore’s “We Want Moore.” Those were the first guitar players. Then I heard Steve Vai playing on [David Lee Roth’s] “Eat ‘Em & Smile” and that was a big turn on. Of course, Eddie Van Halen. From there it was Yngwie [Malmsteen] and all the Shrapnel [Records] guys that got into the real shred.
Funny you should mention “News Of The World.” I saw Aerosmith and Motley Crue play a couple weeks ago with a bunch of friends and one of the guys I talked into going wasn’t really into hard rock. So on the way home I was playing “News Of The World” in the car and he couldn’t get enough of it. He kept asking who it was and where could he get it. (laughs) It’s just a great album.
Yeah, you think he would know Queen. (laughs)
The guy needs to get out more, for sure. Well, you know we need to talk about it, even though it was more than fifteen years ago… your time in Dio. The legend goes that you sent in your demo, didn’t hear anything for about six months, so you called the fan club and sent them the demo. You ended up getting a couple of auditions based on that and then you were in. Now how much of that is true and what have I left out?
That’s almost exactly how it happened, only the first time I sent it I sent it to the record company in England. They gave me the standard reply about how they weren’t looking for any acts, so then I sent it to the fanclub. Then Wendy [Dio] called me up about six months after I sent it. I had forgotten about it. Very shortly after they flew me out for an audition and after the second audition they told me I had it. Two weeks, or a month, after leaving from England.
So I guess it was Ronnie’s [James Dio] wife that sort of discovered you, in the sense that she presented you to the band?
Well, no. I guess it would have been between Ronnie and the guys in the band that had been looking through the tapes.
Obviously you wouldn’t have sent your demo to them if you weren’t a hug fan of the band. So what was it like to fly a quarter of the way around the world and play in front of somebody, I assume, that you idolized?
When I got the phone call I was a bit shocked. Then they told me when I was gonna be flown out and I was really nervous. So my dad said, “You’re getting a free trip to America and you’re playing with some of your idols, which is already great, so treat it as just that and make sure you have fun.” That was good advice and that’s how I looked at it.
So what were you involved in before all of this took place? Did you have other bands that you were in?
Yeah, I was in a band in Cambridge [England] called Indiscretion. We just played at local pubs. It was a funk rock band. I was doing too many guitar solos and getting slagged off for it. (laughs)
It sounds like this was a band that never really recorded anything, but just played local shows?
Yes, just a local thing.
Wow. That must have been a tremendous shock going from playing local shows in England to all of a sudden playing across the world in front of large audiences.
I think I didn’t know how shocked I was, actually. (laughs)
Well maybe it felt so surreal that it drove off the shock value.
It definitely was surreal. I remember getting off the plane and thinking I stepped onto the set of the A-Team, which was one of the export TV shows in England. I think the shock of it really didn’t hit me, because to my mind it was just “oh, this is how life goes on and it’s great.” I didn’t really have time to be shocked. It was strange. I think when you’re that age you don’t have any fear about life. There’s no time for second guessing anything. With somebody like Ronnie, even from the first audition, he said “I really want this to work.” Right from the go he said, “You’re the best” and gave me lots of encouragement and security. You know what I mean?
Yeah. It’s kind of strange though. I don’t want to turn this into something sensational, but over the years I’ve read some interviews with Vivian Campbell and when he talks about his time in Dio, I can’t understand where the guy is coming from. It seems like he was in a living hell there.
Yeah, I know. I remember asking him about it. I met him back in the day a couple times and he didn’t sound happy about it at all.
How long were you actually in Dio and how did you feel when Ronnie decided to rejoin Black Sabbath?
Just two years. We did the album and toured for about six months, I think. Then Ronnie decided to go back to Black Sabbath for that album.
Did he say that he was disbanding Dio or did he say it was just on hiatus to see how this goes?
Nothing was said, really. It was just sort of, “well Ronnie’s gonna do this and all of you are still in the family.” Wendy tried to get me some auditions with Whitesnake. It didn’t actually pan out, but I think at the time… well, once again, I was so young. The reality of life is, if something happens like that to you at thirty, you’re thinking, “Oh god, what am I gonna do now… I better parlay this into something to keep my career going.” At that age I looked at it as somewhat of an opportunity to do some more music. If everything had been this easy up until now, I was sure it was going to be easy from then on. Which wasn’t really true, but I wasn’t really too shocked about it because I had some money in the bank and I was still “in the family.”
As it turned out, that Sabbath reunion was rather short-lived and Dio reformed. Three years later they released another album. Did Ronnie call on you again or had you just decided to move on? What happened?
There was no reason for him to call me because we were already in touch anyway. I was still pretty much involved in the every day life of those people, with Wendy and everything.
So was there an opportunity for you to rejoin?
There could have been, had I asked him, I think. But I had a record deal with another band by then, with Oni [Logan], the singer from Lynch Mob. So I had a lot invested in that and Ronnie didn’t ask me anyway, so it didn’t ever really happen.
This project you had, did you ever actually release anything?
No, it never got released. It was a shame, really. We spent three or four years building it up from nothing. Writing, putting the band together and doing demos. We had a deal with Atlantic [Records] and recorded an album produced by Dave Jerden, who was a big producer at the time with Alice In Chains. When it came to our release date it got pushed back and pushed back. I think we were all lacking in focus and direction anyway. Of course, that was also right at the time that the whole music scene changed anyway and we just got dropped.
Was Freedom the name of that band?
Yes, that was one of our first name choices. That was quite typical of how it was for the band, really. We probably went through fifty names. We couldn’t make up our minds about anything. (laughs)
So there’s actually something that’s been recorded. Could that potentially come out some day? What kind of control do you have over what you created?
Absolutely none. It’s all owned by Atlantic. I think Wendy and Oni approached them a few years ago to let us use the rights to it or let us release it. I’ve kept in touch with Oni lately and I think we might have another crack at talking to them. The music business has changed again and it might be worth giving it another shot.
You know better than I do, but those record labels… it’s a business. They’re probably holding onto it and hoping that something good happens for you and then they can come out and say, “Hey, we’ve got this album that Rowan did and now we’re gonna put it out there.” Who knows?
I don’t know what they’re thinking, but I’m sure that’s happened to a lot of bands. Rumor has it that the record companies haven’t always made the smartest moves anyway. (laughs)
So that takes you through ‘94 or ‘95?
Yeah, that all ended around ‘94 or ‘95.
So, what happened between then and the beginning of 2006?
From ‘95 to ‘98, those four years, my head was spinning a bit, really. The music scene in this country changed sort of overnight. In ‘98 I got an audition for a band called VAST (http://www.myspace.com/vast). It was kind of electro with a guy named John Crosby who was sort of tapped into Trent Reznor. It was sort of Metallica meets Enigma. I ended up joining that band and was with them for two years. Recorded one album and toured with them. That got me back into the scene. Then I ended up going back to England for a year to try my luck in London. That didn’t really turn out to be for me. Then Wendy [Dio] called me up but we couldn’t get anything happening. Then in 2001 or 2002 I got an audition with a band called AM Radio (http://www.myspace.com/amradio) and ended up joining them. It was another thing that had some big names behind it. Rivers Cuomo, the guy behind Weezer, he was behind it. The music was more along the modern rock meets pop sound. Not really my favorite choice of music. I realize more now the importance of doing the music you love. Had some good experiences and that lasted for about three years. We ended up releasing an album and touring. Weezer took us out a lot. That was the last thing of note that I did. Then I just resolved after that to just not do anything that I didn’t feel strongly about. To be honest, I really discovered what I felt strongly about was what I started off doing. The hard stuff. Rock and metal, whatever you want to call it. Then I ended up with this guy in LA named Happenin’ Harry who has these jams in Hollywood. All the musicians go down there and jam, or whatever. I met Jeff [Duncan] through that and did a little touring in Harry’s band. He said, “When we get back to LA, come and check out my band DC4.” We hit it off really well together with the guitars. We made a really good sound together when we played.
Well, if we’ve accomplished anything, I like that we’ve covered what you did between Dio and what you’re doing now. I don’t know if you’ve ever checked out the online encyclopedia called Wikipedia?
I actually have checked that out.
I checked it out earlier today and they have a section about you. It has two lines between Dio and 2005. So if we’ve done anything, maybe we’ve given them a chance to get a little more substance behind that. (both laugh) So you bumped into Jeff touring for Happenin’ Harry and you guys kind of hit it off?
He heard a good partnership guitar-wise, because he needed a good guitar player for DC4.
Yeah, he and I talked about that. He had a lot of good things to say, not just about the way you two have meshed as musicians, but also as friends.
Absolutely. It’s not only great to be with such a top musician, but one that has really brought me in and made me part of the family, so to speak. Because they really are a family.
Yes, they are. (both laugh) So when were you officially invited to join the band?
I think it was the day we all played together. That was about three or four months ago. We just played together and they said, “Do you want to get together again next week?”
I went to the show that Armored Saint did at the House of Blues and that’s where I met Shawn [Duncan]. So that’s why I asked when you joined the band. Shawn and I were talking and he mentioned that DC4 had been jamming with you. I remember saying, “Wow, Rowan Robertson… you’re talking about the guy from Lock Up The Wolves, right?” It kinda sounded like nothing was official at that time and that was at the beginning of July.
Yeah, that sounds about right.
So had you heard any of their music before you jammed for the first time?
Only the CD that Jeff had given me at the time, called Volume One.
So DC4 sent out a press release a couple weeks ago that says DC4 has booked some studio time for next month and that Joey Vera [Armored Saint, Fates Warning] is lined up to produce it. Have you ever worked with Joey before?
I’m sure you’ve heard some of the stuff he’s produced. Some of the stuff I’ve heard that he produced… the guy knows what he’s doing. There’s a really good, clean sound about what he produces.
I’ve heard that he’s done fantastic.
So if you’re going into the studio, you’ve got to have a few new songs lined up, right? And how involved have you been in the songwriting process?
Yes, and it’s been great. We’ve all been working together on it. Totally collaborative. We’ve really hashed out the ideas together with these songs. What’s been nice is how easy it’s been. We jam and put out this idea and then go back and forth a bit. The chemistry is excellent.
So Jeff told me that when DC4 lost it’s former guitar player, that he didn’t want to go out and audition 100 different people, because when it happens, it happens. To me that says good things for the band. If you came into it like this, it’s almost like it was meant to be. There’s chemistry. It wasn’t just, “This guy sounds good on tape and he did good in an audition.”
Absolutely. It really is a real band. It definitely seems like one of those things that was meant to be, because they’d been trying to find someone. I certainly wasn’t holding out looking for a band. Like I had said before, I stopped doing things I didn’t want to do. I was just working, writing at home and focusing on things I wanted to do musically. Trying to get my name back out there. Then something that I love comes along and it all works great.
Shawn and I communicate from time to time by e-mail. He’s told me a couple times in the past few weeks that the stuff you guys are working on, compared to the stuff that DC4 did before, is gonna come out a bit more aggressive in the sound.
I think what he may have meant, was that Volume One has some aggressive stuff, but it has some other styles as well. Now we’re focusing on making it a fully aggressive album now. A real hard rock album with very little slow stuff in it. There might be one slow tempo one… slow, but mostly heavy.
I take it this means we can expect to hear, between two great guitar players like you and Jeff, a lot more shred out of DC4, right?
Definitely. There’s guitar solos in every song. (laughs) The great thing about Jeff is that he said at the beginning… he’s not a guitar solo hog. (laughs)
Right. (laughs) Well, he’s used to splitting it between him and Phil [Sandoval] in Armored Saint. They both do great work. This just portends good things for the future of the band to have the two of you together.
It’s so great. I’ve just been so excited lately, listening to guys like Zakk [Wylde] and Dimebag [Darrell Abbott]. It’s so great to have an opportunity to do some killer shredding.
Yeah, I can’t wait to hear it. A couple months ago you sent me a message on Myspace about how you were listening to Hank Williams, Sr. at that moment. So are you gonna bring any of the classic outlaw country vibe to DC4, or is that gonna stay on the backburner? (laughs)
Oh no, I wouldn’t ever try my hand at that.
So we’ll leave that one alone then, right? (laughs)
Well, let’s just sort of wrap things up then. Where do you see yourself and DC4 in the next six months? What do you see happening and what do you hope to see?
Well, after we make the record, I know we’re really gonna want to work on doing something with it. Get on to the European festivals and get signed to a decent label. So it’s really just building it.
Speaking for myself, I can’t wait to hear what you guys have got in store.
Right from the word “go” it seems we’re all real excited about it amongst ourselves. It’s just been a real creative thing going on there.
Rowan, thanks for your time and have a great weekend.
Thanks, and same to you.