INTERVIEW AND LIVE/INTERVIEW PICS BY MARKO SYRJALA
TRANSCRIPTION BY ANDY OSBORN
Rod Morgenstein’s professional music career began as a founding member of the groundbreaking group Dixie Dregs in the 70’s. Morgenstein’s unique and dynamic drumming style has led Rod to win many awards, such as the Best Progressive Rock Drummer award in Modern Drummer Magazine’s Reader’s Poll five years in a row. He has worked with such names as the Steve Morse Band and Jordan Rudess, but there’s no doubt that he’s best known for his work with 80’s multi-platinum hard rockers Winger. The band released three albums before they wrapped it up in late 1993. Each member then went their separate ways to pursue individual goals. Kip Winger has released several solo albums. Reb Beach has worked with many projects and is now a member of the legendary Whitesnake. Paul Taylor did some commercials and projects, and Rod himself became an Associate Professor of Percussion at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He has also been doing different projects all the time. In the summer of 2006, Winger announced that the band would be back with the new album “IV.” Winger’s reunion tour reached Finland last October, and then I had a chance to sit down with Mr. Morgenstein himself and ask about the latest news and have a look back at some good old times.
THE REUNION, NEW LINEUP, AND FUTURE OF WINGER?
To be honest, I was surprised to hear the new album from you guys after 13 years. I have to ask why just now, why this album wasn’t released right after PULL, and what caused your breakup back in the day?
Well, here’s the thing: I’ve been a professional musician for thirty years. I’ve played with many bands, and the most fun group of guys to tour with is these guys. We didn’t disband because we were fighting or enemies. It’s because Nirvana came on the scene in 1991, and it was essentially over for everyone. Record sales went from the millions down. “Pull” sold, and I think 300,000 records in America which by today’s standards, it’s like wow you’re happening, but back then, you had to go gold at minimum. So, what happened was MTV had been pounding our videos from 1988 until the end of 1991. When we came out with “Pull,” they said they would play “Down Incognito,” which was nice, but then they said, look, the alternative is in, and it’s just time to go out to pasture. When MTV suddenly stops playing all of the videos from metal bands, it sends a message to the record labels, and the labels say maybe it’s not worth pumping all the money into this music anymore. Then, everything happens at once. All the magazines are interested in Pearl Jam and Nirvana. We said, look, we had a great run. We have other things in music that we do, so let’s just let it end at a high note and see what happens down the road. Kip Winger is one of my best friends, and I’ve worked on his solo records, and then there are this Italian label, Frontiers, which for the last few years has been telling us we’re one of their favorite bands, so when you’re ready to do a record let’s do it. So, the time was right, and we’re all happy we did it. It was a wonderful opportunity to get together again. Four years ago, we got together to do the Poison and Cinderella US tour, which was a lot of fun. We just enjoy being together, and Reb is the funniest guy I know, so you just spend half the time laughing.
What kind of expectations do you have regarding the sales of this new album?
Well, we didn’t want any illusions with this record, so we said, let’s just do the record to remind people that Winger was a vital band and had something to say. And if all of our schedules line up and we can do some touring, let’s do it to see how much of our audience is there, to see if it’s even worth keeping it alive.
Do you think that this reunion is permanent and that Winger will continue making more albums in the future?
We’re not trying to think that far ahead. We all hope that will happen in our hearts, but if no people show up to a show, then you know, how much can you bang your head against the wall? But I think that turnouts will be pretty respectable. We’ll see. We have no idea if it’s going to sell a few thousand or even fifty-thousand or more?
What happened to Paul Taylor. Why he’s not a part of this reunion?
Yeah, he’s taking another path. He wished us all well. He was coming in and hanging out with us while we were recording. Paul’s been very successful writing music for television. He co-wrote the theme for “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,” and he’s making an incredible living off of that, and he’s the one that wrote “Miles Away,” which was our biggest hit. He’s now living in Nashville pursuing a songwriting career. Yeah, touring is not something he’s interested in right now.
You have two new members in the band. Let’s start with guitarist John Roth. I know he has toured with you guys before, and he also plays on some of Kip’s solo stuff?
When Paul left the band after the second album, we auditioned not many guys, but Johnny came to us through our manager at the time, who was a partner with Bon Jovi, Skid Rod Motley Crue. So Doug was managing us for PULL, and John was involved that Doug was also with, and he told us that he knew the perfect guy. He said he’s a great guitarist, a great singer, and he can also play keyboards. He was exactly what we wanted. One minute into jamming with him, we knew we didn’t want anyone else. The record was done, and we were like, wow, we’ll be touring. So the record was just me, Kip, and Reb.
Then keyboardist Cenk Eroglu, he’s originally from Turkey, right?
How did he end up being in Winger?
You know originally what happened was, this guy sends an e-mail to Kip saying, “I am from Istanbul, Turkey, and you are my favorite singer, Winger is my favorite band, I have to work with you.” So, I think he sent Kip some of his music, so Kip didn’t want to just fly out to Turkey, not knowing what to expect. But, it turns out he has some fame in Turkey as a performer, but he’s also a successful producer. Kip was actually blown away by some of the music, and then he made some trips to Istanbul, and the two of them were coming up to me with this incredible music that blended eastern and western culture. There were eastern percussion ensembles along with Kip’s voice, so I put the drums down to a bunch of music. They worked so hard on it over two or three years, and in the final analysis, when they got an album’s worth of music, they felt like they didn’t quite meet their mark. So, they want to continue on that path until they hit exactly what their vision was. In the meantime, Cenk used one or two of the tunes for his solo record, so that’s how that whole thing came about. Cenk played on the new record. He was in Nashville putting down records. But we couldnï¿½t work out his visa issues for the tour here.
I have heard the new album a couple of times now, and I would say that my first impression is that it’s an even heavier album than “Pull” was. Was that on purpose?
You know, that’s such an easy question to answer. Well, you’re a musician, right? Anyone wants to have a career in music, so in a perfect world, we don’t listen to anything, and we just write music that is 100% what we want to do. But, when you do that, most probably never get a record deal because nobody knows where to fit it or how to market it, so it’s too unique. What most musicians do when they want to have a career is listen to everything that’s happening in the music business and say, is what I feel inside of me somehow compatible with trying to use some of the elements of music that labels are signing now to enable us to get a deal? I think that’s part of how a lot of musicians end up getting record deals. A lot of musicians are into a lot of different kinds of music. My career has spanned so many different styles. I still play with Steve Morse and The Dixie Dregs making this instrumental fusion music. I play with Jordan Rudess, the keyboardist from Dream Theater. We have a duo where we do this over-the-top progressive stuff. I also play in a Jazz Is Dead band, which had Alfonso Johnson and people for many years. We would do this jam band Grateful Dead kind of stuff. Then I would play with the bassist from Dream Theater and Ty Tabor from King’s X to do this like power-pop so, what is the music that I love? I love it all! Whether, it’s the heavy metal of Winger or the fusion of the Dregs. The fact is that the first two Winger albums sounded the same, and “Pull” was a bit heavier, which is even heavier than that. To me, it’s not that you at one time were doing something that you were not true to, and this is something that you are true to. It’s just that musicians evolve. We go through a lot of changes.
So are you saying that Winger is heavy metal?
My career started the day that I got out of college with the Dixie Dregs. Nobody ever knew how to label us because we did rock and fusion and country, and they’d say: what are you guys? We’re just music! Once you put a label on it, everybody has a perception of what it is, and they start throwing the shit at you. Well yeah, most people would say that Winger is heavy metal, but if you hear “Blue Suede Shoes.” That’s not metal. That’s pop! And it almost has some progressive edges to it, but what about this other song? So, I don’t know what to call it anymore. I just want to call it music!
GOLDEN 80ï¿½s WITH BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD…
Back in the 80ï¿½s Winger was often called one of the wimpiest bands existing. Why?
Yeah, well, I look at those pictures now, and I just laugh. I have great memories of it all, but some of it looks really silly. People have to realize that back then, when we were doing it, all those bands were very serious about it. We would go to great lengths to have clothing made and our haircuts and having it permed. It looks funny now; it’s kind of like when you watch movies of England where they’re wearing funny hats. To them, it was very serious, and so back then, we didn’t look any better. We look like a bunch of clowns! Back then, it was what everyone was doing. The audience loved it, and they were buying millions and millions of records, so something was working. I dare say that a lot of it. The guitarists from the metal bands were certainly way better than the guitarists that followed in the alternative bands—Reb Beach, Andy Timmons from Danger Danger, etc. I could just go down lists of these great guitarists.
What did you think about the character of “Beavis and Butthead” where they wore a Winger t-shirt?
It helped nail the coffin shut for our career. I remember I was watching it and laughing, then all of a sudden I see this nerdy, wimpy character, and he’s wearing a Winger shirt. Not only that, but his parents wore Winger shirts! We tried to determine if we did something to the show’s creator, like why he chose us. Out of all the wimpy bands: Winger, Bon Jovi, White Lion, Danger Danger. Why Winger? We were never able to figure it out. Yeah, that really hurt, but it’s also very flattering. It means you mean something when someone chooses you to poke fun at.
Beau Hill produced the first two Winger albums. How was it working with him back in the day?
Well, Beau and Kip were best friends when they were teenagers. Then Beau was in a band called Airborne that had a record deal, but nothing really happened. Somehow, he ended up producing Rattï¿½s first album, so he came on the map as a producer. He’s the one that kind of secured the first Winger deal, now that he was a hot producer. He went to Atlantic Records and got us a deal, so he was just the logical choice to produce the records. But what happens so often in the music business is you kind of live life, play your gigs, do your records, but you don’t see eye to eye how it should be done. I wasn’t particularly crazy about some aspects of the production, but many of the records were like that. I was just listening to “Seventeen,” and there are no cymbals! And the snare is the loudest thing, and it’s even louder than the vocals.
You mentioned that he produced Ratt’s first album; I think he actually produced five of their albums. There are not many cymbals there either?
It’s part of his productions. There’s no reverb, and now when you listen to it now, it’s wimpy. I mean, listen to that and then listen to “Back in Black.” For years, Kip has wanted a chance to remix those albums.
Pull was produced by Mike Shipley, and that album was something very different?
We know in some ways that it should have been the first Winger album. It’s not that hindsight is 20/20. It’s just that you kind of wonder: what if this came first? “Seventeen” is the song that put us on the map, and it also has the most jokes made about. The lyrics are stupid! But the music is very cool. It was just, you know, it was sex, drugs, and rock N roll back then. Many bands did songs like that, but that was the one that people make fun of.
Maybe that song is the reason for the whole Beavis and Butthead thing?
Maybe, but it also sold a million albums, so? “laughs.”
MEETING SEPULTURA, TOURING WITH SCORPIONS, PLAYING WITH ZENO, AND ALMOST WORKING WITH BLACK SABBATH.
You have been to Finland a couple of times before. Do you have any memories from those visits? Many people still remember when Winger played in a festival called Giants of Rock, and your slot was right after Sepultura.
[Laugh] Yeah, we will never forget that. See, bands like Winger and Sepultura should not be on the same bill. They have a much more hardcore audience. I remember playing “Miles Away” “laughs,” and you don’t play a ballad like that for Sepultura’s crowd. They don’t mix. There are a lot of different styles in the rock genre, and we talk about that. We remember that night. The sun was shining, and it was like 12:00 PM-midnight. It was great. It was nice meeting the Sepultura guys because they were fans of the Dixie Dregs, so it was cool for me.
I remember that once you played Finland with the Scorpions?
Yeah, that was in 1991. You know what? Scorpions were actually the first band that Winger ever played with. We weren’t a band that played clubs and eventually got a deal. We were musicians that did demos, our record came out, and suddenly our first show is on tour with the Scorpions in America. That was in September or October 1988.
Speaking of Scorpions, I’m actually going to meet with former Scorpions bassist Francis Bucholz in a few weeks. He’s now actually playing in Uli Jon Roth’s band, and we will see them in Sweden.
He’s playing with Uli?! You’re going to see them? Could you say HI! to both of those guys for me? I used to be in a band with Uli’s brother, Zeno, so it was a real thrill for me. I auditioned for them in New York City, and Uli was there too. I played with them, and that was really cool. So, I moved over to Hannover, Germany, then went to England to do a Black Sabbath tour. But, back then, Black Sabbath was only Toni Iommi. Eric Singer was on drums and Ray Gillen on vocals. Dave Spitz played bass, and there was the keyboard guy, Geoff Nichols. So, we did a tour of the UK with them.
How was that tour?
It was good. It was terrific. Zeno was a great man. It was a comedy of errors that made that not happen. They had signed the biggest record deal in the history of music as a new band. That’s how huge it was. I think EMI England, when they signed Zeno thought that they would be the next Queen. We would drive around London and see billboards for Guinness Beer, and the next one was Zeno’s new album. They were spending huge amounts of money on it, but it just didn’t take.
You never recorded albums with them?
No, the record was just about to come out. They had three different drummers and producers on this record. I think that’s what part of the problem was. It was just the three guys in the band, and they just kept plugging in new musicians and different producers, and they recorded all over the world and spent, I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of dollars on that record. By the time I got there, the writing was on the wall. I thought it was a good record, but who knows what goes on behind the scenes at labels? I’m excited; the last show that Winger is doing is in Nottingham, the UK, at this thing called Fire Fest. It’s a bunch of bands and one of the bands is called Fair Warning and the bass player from Zeno, when I was in the band, is going to be there. Iï¿½m really looking forward to seeing him.
How about Black Sabbath and the album “The Seventh Star”? You almost ended up joining the band in 1985?
I think that was supposed to be a Tony Iommi solo record, and Glenn Hughes was the singer. You know what, it’s funny; I met Tony and Glenn in Atlanta when they were recording that record, and that’s where I was living. I was friends with Jeff Glixman, who I recently saw again at a Kansas concert in New York City. He used to be their producer. So I was living down in Atlanta in the 80s, and when Tony was recording the album, Jeff said, “Hey, you should come in and jam with Tony because I don’t know if Eric will be able to tour with them.” So, I went in and jammed with him, but I know I did a terrible job because I hate to confess this. I didn’t know a single song by Black Sabbath. When I was growing up, the bands I listened to were Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Jimi Hendrix, and Cream. Jethro Tull was my favorite. Back then, because I’m very different now, Black Sabbath was too raw and basic. It was much simpler, like, you hear the song, and if you play an instrument, you can figure it out if you listen to it. Jethro Tull takes a lot more work. I was more in that mode of everything has to be complicated. I have really come like I’m going backward in a lot of ways in my older age. Now, I love the more simple, all about the vibe music that’s not just about the notes. So, when I went in to jam with Tony Iommi, I didn’t know anything. Sure I may have heard Ozzy’s voice saying, “I am Iron Man,” you know? That’s all I’d ever heard. Like an idiot, I didn’t even think to listen to Sabbath records before going in. All I thought in my mind was, “Oh right; he’s a rock guitarist. I’ll just hit my drums as hard as I can and not even play fills.” So, he was jamming, and I would start playing, and I have all these tom-toms that I wasn’t even using. Then, after the fact, I listened to some records, and Bill Wards uses toms all the time. So, I was clueless, is what I’m saying. I didn’t do my homework. Maybe if I did, I would have had a shot at playing with him. I think Eric Singer was already coming in to do “Seventh Star.” Eric is a great drummer, a great drummer.
He currently does a great job with KISS and Alice Cooper.
Yeah, when Winger toured with KISS, it was with Eric. I was becoming very friendly with him. That was in 1990, fall of 1990. Because then we came to Europe in December and played with Scorpions until 1991.
DIXIE DREGS AND JORDAN RUDESS
How did your first band Dixie Dregs originally started?
I started in college. We were all music students. I also played keyboards and piano, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a drummer or piano player. I was in an improvisation class playing the piano. I played with many guitar players and me like fifteen of them. And one of them really stuck out to me. He had long blonde hair, while all of the other guitarists had big fat jazz hollow-body guitars, and there was the one guy who played like a bastardized Telecaster with four pickups and a Stratocaster neck and Gibson frets, and he didn’t sound like a jazz guitarist. The teacher was always yelling at him, saying, “Morse, can’t you sound like everybody else?” And I said this guy is unbelievable. One day he came up to me, and we didn’t know each other at all. He heard that I played the drums, and he told me his drummer just broken his arm surfing. And he asked to fill in for some rehearsals while he was gone, and I said sure. I went into the first rehearsal, and they’re doing like Mahavishnu Orchestra covers, which was my favorite band; that band changed my band. I’d never heard anything like that. So we’re doing these covers, and we have an electric violinist there. Steve’s songwriting, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Here I was playing my favorite kind of music, and about a month or two later, the other drummer came back, and we started playing as a double drum band. But he was more of a meat and potatoes drummer, so he couldn’t really play in the different time signatures. It just wasn’t his thing. Everybody felt really bad, and we didn’t know what to do. Eventually, he just said, this isn’t my thing, and he left. So, I was the guy.
You guys have stayed very close?
Yeah, we have. The Dregs disbanded, and then Steve started the Steve Morse band, and he asked me to be a part of it. I did that for two records, and then Kansas reformed and asked him to join them. He told me he wanted to check it out, and living in Atlanta, we were all down south. I moved to New York, which is where I’m from originally. Within a year, I met Kip and Reb when they were doing demos and getting rejected from record labels left and right: “You suck, you suck, no, no, no!. So it was just luck and timing. When I met them, I was up in the offices of a management company. Then, I was leaving, and I didnï¿½t know anybody was still here; it was Kip and Reb using some recording gear. I expressed an interest in their music, and they said, okay, we’ll put you on the list of the twenty drummers that want to audition. They called me a few days later and said, “Hey, do you want to get together and jam?” Kip had left Alice Cooper by that time. He was doing session work at that time. He played on a Bee Gee’s record and did things like that.
I have understood correctly, lice wanted to change the band’s direction, and that’s why Kip left the band?
I thought Kip just left on his own. They were terrific friends, Kip and Alice.
How about Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater). You guys have been doing different projects over the years. How did you meet him in the first place?
Well, the Dregs were in the midst of touring in 1994, and our keyboard player wasn’t able to do the last two months of the tour, and none of us had ever heard of Jordan. Until Dream Theater came around, no one had heard of him. He was recommended to us by Jan Hammer, the guy who also made Miami Vice’s music. He’s one of my favorite Keyboard players. So, Jordan sent us one of his solo records, and we were just floored by it. When he came down, we told him that he was in without an audition. Within three days, he learned the whole set just by listening to the songs. He has perfect pitch, he was a child prodigy, and he discovered his genius when he was nine. He came down to Steve Morse’s house, and he played everything perfectly. He would also say things like, “Did you also need me to play the bass line there?” [Laughs] It was unbelievable! The first show that he played with us. We had rehearsed on Thursday, and on Friday, we played a show in Florida. In the middle of the show, the guitar, violin, and bass rigs went down. But, drums can play whether the PA is working or not. And the keyboard PA was still there. So, rather than stop, we just started jamming, and it went on for, I don’t know, five or ten minutes. Everybody’s rigs were then fixed, and we went on to the show. We talked about it afterward and decided that we have to do something together. So, we spent 1995 and 1996 doing the Rudess/Morgenstein CD, which came out at the end of 1997. Every year, he and I managed to do a handful of gigs. Just this past May, we played in Venezuela and Costa Rica. We played with a Brazilian band called Angra, a good band. Then we headlined in Costa Rica, just keyboards and drums! He is so unbelievable. No keyboard player in the world can do what he does. Almost the entire show is live. It’s not like he presses a button to play a sequence. He programs the keyboard, so the sustain pedal knows not to sustain the bass and leaves only the chords. Programs in pitch bends and stuff like that. We’re in the midst of doing another record. We have a lot of it done. So he’s doing that, and he has another Dream Theater and solo record that he’s working on. So, I’ll be doing some of that with him.
I heard a rumor about Dixie Dregs and Kansas going on tour together. Is that true?
That I have never heard about, the Dregs manager is also the manager of Dream Theater. Actually, I live with him because I’m a professor at Berkley in Boston. He’s been trying for the longest time to get the Dregs out there, hooking us up with bands like King Crimson or something, instead of us doing the clubsï.
So that’s not going to happen anytime soon?
No, it’s not, but that would be awesome.
Well, this will be the very last question. Will you guys be recording any shows from this current Winger tour?
Yeah, we were hoping on this tour to film a live DVD, but we’re not good without Cenk. The photo has the five of us, and he’s an essential part of the puzzle. We need to have the keyboards on many tunes plus another vocal because he’s a powerful singer. Our agency is looking for a tour for us in the US where we would have Cenk, and then we could do the live DVD.
Thanks for your time Rod!
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MORE PICTURES FROM WINGER SHOW IN HELSINKI 2006 !!!