Interview Conducted by Robert Williams
In the world of heavy metal, flashy guitar players are a dime a dozen, but you’d be hard pressed to find many that can compare with the over-the-top fret-scorching licks of heavy metal six-string hero Jack Starr. With a career in metal that now spans thirty years and counting, Jack has amassed an endless amount of writing, recording, and touring with such acts as Virgin Steele where he was a founding member, Jack Starr’s Burning Starr, Strider, Phantom Lord and Jack Starr’s Guardians of the Flame among others. He has worked with some of metal’s most respected vocalists including David DeFeis, the late great Rhett Forrester, Mike Tirelli, and Shmoulik Avigal. After a twenty year hiatus performing and recording under the Burning Starr moniker, Jack shocked the metal world with his triumphant comeback album "Defiance" released through Magic Circle Music. Taking some time from his hectic schedule in-between final mixes of his upcoming new album, Jack brings us up to date on his latest activities.
How are you doing today Jack?
I am doing good, thanks for asking. I am feeling very optimistic about a lot of things and I still feel the excitement of making and playing music and if that ever leaves me I will stop.
You have a soon to be released record in the works entitled "Land of the Dead" Will the new album also be released through Magic Circle Music?
We have a new CD that will be coming out. It is being mixed now as we speak but it will not be on Magic Circle Music. After six years and by mutual agreement we have parted ways.
How did you originally hook up with Magic Circle Music?
At the beginning contact was made thru Shmoulik Avigal who was the former singer of Dutch metal legends Picture.
Both Manowar and your former band Virgin Steele were pioneers in the early New York metal scene. Did you know Joey DeMaio and Eric Adams from your early club days? Did that make signing with Magic Circle Music a pretty comfortable and easy decision?
Yes, the fact that both Manowar and Virgin Steele had come from the same time and place made it a comfortable decision, we had actually done some shows together way back including one that stands out in my mind, which was called "World War 3". This was a two day show and I remember seeing the posters all over the place with the words "Virgin Steele The Only Band With The Guts To Play On The Same Stage With Manowar". I thought it was pretty ballsy to say this, normally I would have objected to that kind of advert but I realized it was kind of a left handed compliment.
Let’s talk about your touring plans for "Land of the Dead". Will you be hitting metal clubs here in the U.S. or will you concentrate your efforts more on the European festival circuit?
When "Land of the Dead" comes out, the plans are to play in Europe and do metal clubs and festivals, as far as the U.S. we are not sure what will happen. I would love to play here more often, I do think that the metal scene is starting to come back and by that I don’t mean the Sunset Strip metal but the other metal that doesn’t get covered so much by VH1. We have an agency in Europe that is interested in bringing us over and the new label is also in Europe, so I am sure that playing in Europe will be in the works.
On the blistering track "Warning Fire" taken from the new album "Land of the Dead" you trade guitar solos with former Manowar guitarist Ross The Boss. When two face-melting shredders like you and Ross come face-to-face does your competitive nature take over? Did you find yourselves trying to top each other?
I think that Ross the Boss is a great metal and rock guitarist and playing on a track with him only makes you want to give it all you got, because if you don’t you will be hurt. Ross plays in the "I take no prisoners" mode. He is brutal and you had better be on top of your game, there is a riff in the solo he does in "Warning Fire" and when me and Rhino first heard it we looked at each other and it was a WTF moment, I still don’t know what he did but it was magic, and in answer to your question there is always a bit of the competitive nature when guitarists play and when I play with someone of Ross’s stature I am not going to lay down, I am going to give it my best and the result is on that song. There is enough cool guitar to choke a horse, I am not sure what that expression means but it sounded cool but I would never hurt a horse. (laughs)
Your previous release "Defiance" was the first new Burning Starr record in twenty years. After performing and recording as Jack Starr’s Guardians of the Flame, what prompted you to once again use the Burning Starr moniker?
The band that was Guardians of the Flame had made a very definitive cd with Shmoulik Avigal who is a phenomenal singer and Joe Hasselvander who is one of the best drummers in rock. When they left I thought that it would be wrong to continue with that name, so I opted to re-introduce the Burning Starr name since there was a lot of good will associated with that name, as well as a legacy of great music, so I had a talk with my bass player Ned Meloni who had been in the original Burning Starr and was still with me twenty-five years later and he felt the same way that it was time to resurrect our old name once again. A little know fact, Ned played with me on my 1984 release "Out of the Darkness" I think he must have been twelve at the time because he still looks like he is in his twenties!! But his playing has grown by leaps and bounds and he can hold his own with anybody at this stage in his life, Steve Harris included.
Ned Meloni was also part of the line-up in Jack Starr’s Guardians of the Flame. Was the reason for the demise of that band mostly related to vocalist Shmoulik Avigal?
Yes, it really was predicated by the departure of Shmoulik, who is more than just a singer, he is like a force of nature with a very unique and powerful style. We looked very hard to find someone who could replace him and we were very fortunate to find Todd Michael Hall. Todd to those who may not be familiar with him, sang on "Defiance" and is singing with us now and has done an incredible job on "Land of the Dead". His singing is really as good as it gets and I place him in the top-five metal singers of our era, and he is just coming into his own and besides being extremely talented he is a team player and that’s not easy to find.
Both Ned and drummer Joe Hasselvander were with you back in the early days in 1985 in a speed metal band called Phantom Lord. Do you foresee the two Phantom Lord records ever being re-issued?
I really hope that those records are re-released as well as the Devil Childe records which were also done by Joe, Ned and me. There is a certain honest feeling in those records that is not found very often but it exists in the first albums of bands like Metallica and Megadeth and Savatage’s "Dungeons are Calling". On our new CD we have a song about that wonderful time of innocence and discovery before music got taken over by big corporations and music got pummeled by Pro Tools and auto-tune, we call that song "Spirit of 86" and this song was written by Todd, Ned and myself and in the songs there are references to about thirty bands or albums that we like.
On "Defiance" you had recorded a cover of Rainbow’s classic "Catch The Rainbow" that is also currently scheduled for release as part of Magic Circle Music’s upcoming tribute album "Magic – A Tribute To Ronnie James Dio". Would you like to take this opportunity to publicly state what Ronnie meant to you as both a fan and as a musician?
Well, needless to say as someone that appreciates great rock singing, I loved Dio’s voice and his stage personna. My band Burning Starr recorded "Catch the Rainbow" two years ago and at the time we were recording this song no one could have guessed that in a short time he would no longer be with us. I don’t know much about this release but I think that Todd did a great job singing this very difficult song and I know that Todd was a great fan of Dio and Ned and myself are also. When I played at the Bang Your Head festival sitting in with Hirax I got to see Dio live for the first time and he was in top form and it was wonderful seeing him sing with such conviction and bringing the songs to life.
The last track on "Defiance" was a killer live recording of "Evil Never Sleeps" recorded live at the 2008 Magic Circle Festival. Let’s talk about how it felt to perform at such a monumental event like that, after all of these years of performing, recording and touring, do you ever get nervous or jittery about performing in front of such a large audience of rabid screaming metal fans?
I am glad you like our live song from the Magic Circle Festival. It felt great playing in front of appreciative fans and of course the energy of a great audience will always push you to play your best. I love it, just as I love playing in a small club which has a different more intimate vibe. As long as I can get a good sound, I love playing. I don’t get nervous at all anymore. I feel that my life is just about waiting to get on-stage, and when I am on-stage I am where I should be.
One collaboration I’ve always wanted to talk to you about was working with former RIOT vocalist Rhett Forrester who was tragically shot to death in 1994. How did you and Rhett wind up recording together and what are some of your memories of working with him? How will you always remember Rhett?
Rhett and I always liked each other as people, even though we were not alike at all. Rhett was a Southern guy who had a hard life growing up and was a tough "hard lovin man" who could outdrink and outfight anyone who got in his way or disrespected him. I am the exact opposite, I am mild mannered, I barely drink and I think I only got in one fight my whole life. Rhett also had a lot of success and some drama with the ladies and when we lived together it was not unusual to see lots of incredible looking women walking around the house in various stages of undress. The only person that reminded me of Rhett and projected that same larger than life macho-swagger would be Bon Scott. Those two guys were the real deal!! I will always remember Rhett with a lot of respect and fondness, he was a good guy and his word was his bond. I remember in the studio Rhett taking out a couple of crumpled beer soaked napkins and singing words that he had just written in between the previous nights partying. Sometimes I would just look at him, sometimes like a fan and think "I can’t believe this guy is my singer".
I once read an article that suggested that you were considering bringing original Anthrax vocalist Neil Turbin on board as your vocalist if Rhett couldn’t make it to a festival in Paris. All of these years later, have you kept up with what Neil has been doing with his band Deathriders? Would you still be up for working with Neil at some point if the STARRs aligned?
I first heard Deathriders a few months ago when a Facebook friend sent me the link, they are good and heavy and should do very well. You can’t rule anything out, Neil has always been a good friend and it would be cool to make some music one day.
For someone such as yourself who has had such a lengthy career in metal, we could really talk all day about all of your different bands and projects, but it wouldn’t be a proper Jack Starr interview if we didn’t touch base on your early work in Virgin Steele. How did you originally meet David DeFeis and company?
It’s so long ago, I think that its kind of a haze at this point. Basically, me and Joey Avayzian the original drummer from Virgin Steele were looking for a singer and Dave was recommended by a girlfriend of his and when we heard him we were blown away and of course Dave could sing his butt off and his version of Deep Purple’s "Child in Time" is what convinced us. He probably should do a cover of that I still haven’t heard anyone sing it as well!
The self-titled debut release from Virgin Steele was released in 1982 making Virgin Steele one of the early innovators of American heavy metal. Who were the bands that you would say influenced your playing and inspired you back then?
At that time we were listening to bands like Rainbow and Zeppelin and I know that Dave loved Queen and I also loved them, plus a lot of blues guys like Rory Gallagher and Clapton and that got mixed with Dave’s classical influences and my European influences from having spent my youth in France and once it was stirred up in a big pot, out came a unique sound that would help define heavy metal.
On your next album the incomparable "Guardians of The Flame" you really scorched the fretboard of your guitar on songs like "Life of Crime" and "The Redeemer" actually, pretty much the whole album. Were you self taught on guitar or did you have private lessons on guitar? How were you dominating the instrument at such a young age?
I never took lessons but I did listen to a lot of guitarists and I would try to take whatever I could and blend it into my style. I really practiced a lot and when I was in high school when my friends were out drinking and partying I was usually home, even on weekends, playing my guitar along to records that no one had heard of like "Taken By Force"or "Virgin Killer" or "Mountain Climbing" but I remember one day in my senior year, there was this really nice looking girl that I was always afraid to talk to and she came in one day wearing a Black Sabbath t-shirt and I was really surprised because I thought she was just one of these girls who only liked top-forty radio and was only interested in football players. Well I was wrong, she liked metal and liked heavy guitar playing. Well, needless to say, we finally talked and became good friends. So I guess my answer is I had a very strong desire to be really good on the guitar and I still do.
The "Wait For The Night" EP would be the last recording you would do with Virgin Steele, yet you have worked with David DeFeis in various projects over the years. Was your split from Virgin Steele amicable and do you still keep in contact with your old band members?
Our split was not so amicable and I think that whenever there is money and pride involved, things can get testy. I don’t keep in contact with any of my old band members, but the last time I talked to them was about some re-issues and we got along great, except for Dave and that has been well documented in the press. I do hope that one day we all can get along. I wish them the best and as I have said before the more success they can obtain the better it is for all of us, just as when people speak about me they also bring up Virgin Steele, the past cannot be erased. We will always be intertwined and be a chapter in the early days of metal.
So back to the present, what’s next on the plate for Jack Starr? Any other plans in the works for this summer, anything else you’d like to plug?
The plans are to finish "Land of The Dead" and play shows performing our own brand of metal and we are all pretty excited to be doing this after so long and to know that there is a great audience out there who still love and remember the music that we play and will support us, that is one of the things that is great about metal. If they like you, you are not forgotten so easily, unlike the disposal American Idol music of today.
Jack, thank you so much for taking the time to talk metal with me today. It has been an honor visiting with one of my all-time favorite metal guitarists. Any last words for your fans reading at home?
I just want to end this interview by saying these cliché words that I have been using to sign letters and write on posters, t-shirts, jackets and CD’s for the last twenty-five years or so, and yes they really do have meaning for me. When I write "Keep the Metal Burning" it is because I really believe in this music called Heavy Metal and I will do all I can to keep it ALIVE! So I now finish by saying once again, Keep the Metal Burning, Jack Starr, June 2010