Anvil: Off the Beaten Path
Originally published in Guitar World, March 2010
After decades of getting hammered by the music industry, Anvil are learning what it’s like to wield the power. Steve “Lips” Kudlow talks about the legendary Canadian metal band’s long-overdue second chance to score a hit of its own.
Rock music history is often viewed with squinting, unfocused eyes through narrow, rose-tinted glasses. One typical example is Anthony Bourdain’s recent claim on his No Reservations Travel Channel show that the New York Dolls “pretty much created punk rock and hair metal,” and all other music in 1972 flat-out sucked. In one sweeping, superlative-heavy statement, Bourdain totally ignored proto punks like the Stooges, MC5 and Lou Reed (and Link Wray for that matter), glam rockers like David Bowie (who was rocking Ziggy Stardust drag at the time), T. Rex, Alice Cooper, Mott the Hoople, Slade and Sweet as well as timeless albums like the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, Deep Purple’s Machine Head and ZZ Top’s Rio Grande Mud, and countless bands that were in peak form then, including the Who and Black Sabbath.
The documentary film Anvil! The Story of Anvil, which was recently released on DVD, begins in a similar fashion, with rock stars and industry folks heaping heavy praise on the Canadian metal band like Larry the Cable Guy pumping cheese on his 7-Eleven nachos. Many of the film’s sound bites—such as Lars Ulrich’s claim that Anvil “were going to turn the music world upside down,” ex-Anvil manager Johnny Z’s remark about how the band’s Metal on Metal album established the “basic formula for any heavy metal record made today” and pretty much everything coming from the mouth of the painfully nerdy Metal Hammer writer Malcolm Dome—are exaggerated and best ignored. Anvil may have been one of the better metal groups to emerge in the early Eighties, but they were just one of many spokes in a wheel that was quickly gaining momentum at the time. Contrary to the overblown testimonials, Anvil did not invent thrash, and they weren’t much different than dozens of metal bands of that era, such as Diamond Head, Saxon, Raven, Iron Maiden, Venom and Mötley Crüe.
But look past the hyperbole, and you’ll find the real story: the one about how friendship, conviction and determination helped the group survive through the years. Director Sacha Gervasi knows the band well—he met Anvil in 1982, when he was 15, and served as a roadie with them for several years—and his insights into Anvil seem to have wisely guided his directorial vision. Anvil! should inspire anyone who aspires to make music their livelihood, even while tt delivers a sobering reality check. Reviewers have described the film as Spinal Tap in real life (the plot follows a very similar arc), but the scenes that show the band getting stiffed by corrupt promoters and taking on an endless succession of crappy day jobs will hit many musicians so close to home that they may cry rather than laugh.
Anvil arrived on the scene in 1981 with the release of Hard ’n’ Heavy, but their second album, Metal on Metal, was the breakthrough effort that made the band an underground metal sensation. Touring as an opening act and appearing at festivals, Anvil enjoyed increasing success that peaked when they were billed alongside Whitesnake, the Scorpions, the Michael Schenker Group and Bon Jovi at the Super Rock Festival in Tokyo, Japan, in 1984. Unfortunately, management missteps and Anvil’s failure to sign to a major record label thwarted their progress.
Despite these setbacks, which were followed by a revolving door of bass players and rhythm guitarists, original Anvil members Steve “Lips” Kudlow (lead vocals, guitar) and Robb Reiner (drums) never gave up. They continued to play shows and release albums, even though they had to scrape together studio funding on their own for most of the past decade. In 2006, the band reunited with Metal on Metal producer Chris Tsangarides (Judas Priest, Yngwie Malmsteen, Thin Lizzy) to record the band’s 13th album, This Is Thirteen, which VH1 Classic Records released in September 2009. Anvil! chronicles the period that starts just before Anvil entered the studio with Tsangarides and ends just after the completion of This Is Thirteen.
Thanks to the documentary’s success on the independent film circuit, Anvil have earned their long-overdue second chance and are finally drawing the good fortune and rewards they’ve deserved. This year the band opened a handful of stadium shows on AC/DC’s summer tour and appeared at the Download and Rocklahoma festivals. Kudlow and Reiner are doing well enough to quit their day jobs and focus exclusively on the band, and they’re currently working on their 14th album. Anvil have traveled over a long, hard road to finally arrive where they ultimately belong, but whatever you do, don’t call it a comeback. They’ve been here for years.
GUITAR WORLD What’s happened for Anvil since the film was released?
STEVE “LIPS” KULDOW Everything has changed. In plain, simple terms, we’ve become famous. The movie brought us into the public eye, and people know who we are. It’s not an insane level of recognition, but it’s very cool.
GW The band is no stranger to fame, though.
LIPS Sure, but it still takes a while to get used to it again after so many years.
GW Did you have any idea that the film was going to be as successful as it’s become?
LIPS I’m an optimist. I don’t live in the same world that everybody else does. My wife has pointed out that I have my own state of reality. I can see success so vividly that it’s almost as if I make it happen because I’ve seen it already. It’s almost as if I conjured it up. It’s really weird stuff, man.
GW It’s definitely weird how a 15-year-old kid that the band became friends with more than 25 years ago grew up to become a famous film writer. [Among his many credits, Gervasi wrote The Terminal, made into a film by Steven Spielberg in 2004.]
LIPS We met Sacha Gervasi in 1982. He was a really special kid—a hilarious wise guy. Some of the things he would say would put us into hysterics. He was like that from the minute we met him. We were playing the Marquee Club in London and he made his way through the crazy crowd there, past the stage door and into our dressing room. Anyone who can do that has to be a smooth talker who can move fast. He offered to show us around London—Abbey Road, Carnaby Street—and we took him up on it. He ended becoming our roadie.
I had just come home from a festival in Italy in 2005 when Sacha sent me an email. I hadn’t heard from him in about 17 or 18 years. I immediately wrote back to him, and he invited me to visit him in Los Angeles. I told him I didn’t have enough money to fly to L.A., so he said he’d take care of it. I wondered what he was up to now. When I got there, he pulled up in this little blue Jaguar convertible that was previously owned by Sean Connery. I saw the look in his eyes, and it was that 15-year-old kid in a man’s body. I gave him the 10 Anvil albums that he hadn’t heard and he flipped out. I told him I still had the same attitude and that Anvil was in the middle of making a new album and was going to go on tour.
About two weeks later, he showed up in Toronto to tell me that he was going to make a movie about the band. A lot of coincidences, karma and destiny came together to lead us to this place. There are so many stories within this story, and they all came together at once. Everything that I did before this is what made this happen.
GW The film is about karma, but it’s also about sticking to what you believe in and never giving up no matter how difficult things become.
LIPS It’s self-belief. It’s almost a form of religion. If you were to say that God was inside all of us—that he’s part of all of us, or is all of us—then self-belief would be believing in God. You make your own parameters in life, and you draw your own conclusions. If you sell yourself short, that’s all you’re going to get. Once that attitude changed in me—it didn’t happen quickly and took years to happen—I realized that I was facing the last 100 yards. I had to either make the best of it or fall behind. The death of my father triggered that realization about a year before I hooked up again with Sacha. That was a real wake-up call. My father tried to enjoy every moment of his life. He showed me that every moment is worth cherishing and every day you spend above ground is a good one. True wealth is not measured in money but in how many friends you have.
GW What inspired you to play guitar?
LIPS When I was eight years old, my dad worked in the downtown area of Toronto where there were a bunch of music stores. I would stand outside the windows and just stare at the guitars. I really wanted to learn to play, because those guitars looked so amazing to me. When I was 10, my father brought home an electric guitar for the family. I had a brother who was eight years older than me who played, so I immediately had an in-house teacher. I learned to play “Secret Agent Man” and Rolling Stones songs like “Satisfaction” and “Get Off of My Cloud.” I liked the Beatles, but playing their music was an extraordinary undertaking, because they used uncommon chords.
GW Your main guitar is a custom semi-hollow Flying V. How did that come about?
LIPS I own a Gibson ES-335 that I got in 1970. You can see me playing it in my living room in the film. That was my favorite guitar, but I couldn’t take it on the road, because it became too precious and it was too cumbersome to play onstage. I like to run around a lot when I play. I would use it to play two sets a night, and I would play a solo with the drums where I did Ted Nugent–style feedback. I really like to make use of that sustain, and nothing feeds back like a semi-hollow guitar. People have these preconceived notions that semi-hollow guitars aren’t good for rock music, but it’s just a different animal, and you have to learn how to control it. A semi-hollow guitar is alive, so when you stand in front of an amp it will feed back. You need to control the strings with your palm. Even when you’re using distortion, you have to stand pretty close to your amp with a solidbody to get harmonic feedback. With the semi-hollow, you can get feedback from anywhere onstage.
In 1980, my longtime friend Gary, who works as a technician, had a connection to a guitar builder named Bob Wojick. I told Gary, “Man, if I could only get him to build me a semi-hollow Flying V, that would be my ultimate guitar.” Gary talked to Bob, and he said that he could build it, so I had Bob build me two of them. The body is shaped like a 1958 Gibson Flying V, so you have full access to the entire neck, which makes it very easy to play. The bridge pickup is also placed like it is on the ’58 V, so it’s a little further away from the bridge than an SG’s pickup. The neck is similar to a 335’s but a little bit thinner. The body is the same thickness as a ’58 V, which is thicker than the ones Gibson made in the Sixties, but it’s semi-hollow. It has a maple back and front, and the frame is made of mahogany. One of them has a block through the entire body, while the other has a half block that only extends from the tailpiece to the end of the body. I wanted them to have slightly different tones so I could use them to do overdubs.
GW Do you play any other guitars?
LIPS I’m having another semi-hollow V built right now by October Guitars. They’re an obscure custom shop that builds instruments for my friend John Gallagher, who’s in Raven. I’m trying some new ideas on this guitar. The Vs that I have right now have ebony fretboards, so I’m having a maple fretboard with black mother-of-pearl inlays put on this guitar. It will still have a mahogany neck, though. I’m using black hardware, and I’ll probably still go with a Gibson pickup, because that’s what I’ve been using my entire career. The rest of the construction is virtually the same, although the maple top is carved. One of my Vs has a laminated top.
I’ve been using Epiphone guitars as well lately. I have a 1961 reissue-style Epiphone SG, and that has full access to the frets all the way up the neck. I love to scream on the highest notes. The other Epiphone I have is the 1958 Korina Flying V. I play both of those guitars a lot. I actually like the Epiphones more than the Gibsons I’ve played lately. The finish on the necks feels smoother and better, although I prefer the sound of Gibson pickups, so I put those in my Epiphones. It only makes a little difference in the tone, but I just feel more comfortable knowing it’s a Gibson pickup in there.
GW I noticed that you have silverface Fender Twin Reverb amps in your backline.
LIPS I love the sound of a Twin. It’s an openback amp, so the sound goes everywhere, which makes it even easier to get feedback. And they’re really loud. I’m running those amps with the volume at only two and a half, maybe three. They have a master volume control with pull boost, but I don’t use that. I run the thing completely clean, with all of the tone controls at 10.
GW So what’s the source of your distorted tone?
LIPS In the early Eighties, I went to Japan, and they had a hundred different distortion pedals for sale. I bought this tiny nine-volt battery-powered amplifier that I wanted to use in the dressing room. I tried all of these pedals, and I found this Tokai distortion pedal that sounded amazing. It captured all of the nuances of my playing, even when I was using that little piece-of-junk amplifier. When I got home, I plugged the pedal into my Twin, and it blew me away. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Over the years I found out that pedal is identical to the Boss DS-1. There’s virtually no difference, so that’s what I use now.
GW You sometimes play the guitar with a vibrator. How did you come up with that idea?
LIPS In the Sixties they had these battery-powered motorized toy cars called Motorific. When I was 10 years old, I was playing with one while my guitar was plugged in, and I could hear the motor through the pickups. When I started Anvil about nine years later, we were first called Lips, because all of the songs were going to be about sexual stuff. I wrote a song called “Bondage,” and I came up with the idea of using a vibrator to play the guitar, because I knew that the sound would come through the pickups. I could also use it as a bottleneck and bang on the strings with it. If I got a vibrator with a variable speed control, I could make it sound like a Harley-Davidson. I actually used a vibrator in the studio to record the intro to the song “Motormount.” That’s actually the vibrator going up the strings, and the guitar is tuned to an E chord.
GW The metal scene has changed a lot since Anvil first came along. How do you think the band fits in now?
LIPS The electric guitar is still growing and becoming things that it never was before. I think that we still haven’t entered its renaissance yet. At the same time, it’s extraordinarily redundant, but look at all of the different types of music that the electric guitar has inspired. It’s universal, and it’s virtually taken the place of orchestration. There aren’t as many clarinet or saxophone players today, so your chances of finding the next Benny Goodman are a lot less than your chances of finding a thousand Yngwie Malmsteens. There are a lot of great guitar players in basements all over the world. Today our kids love the same music that we do, and that’s because it’s all electric guitar music. The lines between genres are starting to blur.
I think we’re going into an age where genres will no longer exist. There will just be music that you like or don’t like. I was born in 1956, which is about the same year that rock and roll was born. My lifespan covers the entire history of rock, from Elvis Presley onward. Here I am at 53 years old, and Elvis is still considered cool. So is Chuck Berry. You can say the same thing about Johnny Winter, Ted Nugent and Jimi Hendrix. And you can say the same thing about Anvil. We’re not going away.