We recently spoke with solo artist and FireHouse guitarist Bill Leverty about the past and present of his band, the state of the concert scene, and future releases. As he balances recording and touring with a band, forging a solo career, and having a family, Bill is certainly one of the busiest musicians out there. Here’s an excerpt of what Bill had to say:
On a new FireHouse record: The feeling that we all have is that we don’t want to release a record until it’s up to the quality where we all feel comfortable with releasing it. If it’s not good enough in our minds, we’re not going to let it out. As soon as we feel we have something that’s strong enough, we’ll put it out there.
On the possibility of a live DVD: We are always trying to get all the planets to line up so that we can put out a DVD that will really sound good and really look good. So far it hasn’t happened, but we are trying to make that gig happen. Getting the right video crew in there, the right equipment, and the right rehearsal time, maybe getting in the venue the night before to go through things, you gotta have the right light show and everything.
On working with producer Ron Nevison: He was awesome. I learned more from Ron than anybody, he was very generous with his knowledge and he took me under his wing a little bit.
FireHouse’s popularity in Southeast Asia: We went over there and were really surprised at how everyone knew our songs. They didn’t speak English but they could sing all the words to our songs. We were playing huge places for huge crowds, did a lot of TV shows – like the David Letterman of Korea or whatever, and the same kind of thing in Thailand. It was just awesome and we went back for like 4 or 5 tours of Southeast Asia. It just kept growing and growing and it was a great time.
His experiences on the road: We’ve had so many really good gigs, on the Poison tour in ’93 we had Lynyrd Skynyrd on that tour for a lot of the dates, and touring with those guys was awesome, I really enjoyed that. I haven’t really had too many bad ones, but I do remember when our first record came out and we playing Chicago, the guitar amp and the monitors were all on the same circuit so that kept blowing and my guitar went out like 15 times in a one hour set, and that kind of blew my vibe. I think I got 3 notes out of that show.
Read the full interview by clicking below.
LRJ: I’ll start back when FireHouse was first formed – the debut came out in 1990 and it seemed like the success came pretty fast. Did it feel fast or was it a more gradual process for you?
It felt like we had worked on trying to get a record deal for an eternity, and then when we finally did get a record deal we went in and recorded the songs again for like the 10th time as demos, and then we went into a real studio and recorded them again for the 11th time as a real record. So it still seemed like it took a long time, and then we kind of went straight out of the studio on the road playing clubs. One of the things that made it so that we could get gigs on the road was a radio syndication called Z Rock. Back in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, there was a guy named Lee Abrams who put out a radio broadcast from Dallas that hit about 50 markets around the country on AM stations. Sometimes all day, but in a lot of markets it was only for a few hours a day, and it was music of our genre. So you could be in Philadelphia and be listening to Z Rock, or in Norfolk, Virginia let’s say, and listening to the same feed that they were playing in Chicago. What was great about that is that it gave us the ability to go to all these markets where we had our first single, which was a song called “Shake & Tumble”, which they never did a video for, they just gave it to metal radio which Z Rock was a big part of. And this became a pretty big successful song on metal radio and on Z Rock, so we could go and get gigs at all these places around the country. So that paid for our bus and our crew. Basically we got no money, but we got out there to play live and hopefully sell some records so we would have some money later on to make up for the time and effort we were putting into it. This guy Lee Abrams who was doing Z Rock at the time went on to become the programming director for XM radio. He was very a shrewd, kind and generous, music loving CEO and a brilliant guy. He really did make it so that a lot of bands from our genre were able to play gigs because he was playing our music from one place, but it was being played in 40 or 50 towns. It was a really cool thing that happened back then – if you could get on Z Rock, you could go out and get gigs anywhere.
LRJ: It seems like that’s what happened with a lot of bands where it was one individual, whether he was in radio or management, who helped take a band to the next level. He obviously had a dedication to you guys.
Well yeah he had a great love of melodic rock, and he broke a lot of bands, and you know let’s face it – this music was really popular back in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s.
It’s unfortunate but that format kind of fizzled out, but he put a lot of bands on the map or at least gave a lot of bands the opportunity to go out and play 40 or 50 gigs in the country, and after you got done with the 40 or 50 gigs you could go right back around and do them again. It was a great thing, sort of the spark that got us going, and then about that time our next single “Don’t Treat Me Bad had gone out and we were ready for a summer tour. We went out with Warrant and that tour was probably 4 or 5 months long, it went out everywhere to 20,000 seat venues. So I guess it was kind of fast with all that stuff going on but to answer your question it seemed like it took a long time because I remember many, many years coming back home for the family reunion saying “Yeah, still don’t have a record deal. Still working on it.” I was discouraged and there were several times where we had a record deal or thought we had a record deal and then it fell through at the last minute. Those disappointing moments were plentiful, no doubt.
LRJ: The debut sold so well, but I’ve heard that Hold Your Fire almost went platinum?
I’ve read from somewhere that it did go platinum. I don’t know if it’s registered with the RIAA yet as platinum in the United States, but it went gold in several countries outside the US. The first record sold over two million in the states and like I said the second has crossed platinum according to what I heard. If it’s not platinum it’s real close.
LRJ: What was it like working with Ron Nevison on your third album?
BL: Oh he was awesome. I learned more from Ron than anybody, he was very generous with his knowledge and he took me under his wing a little bit. You know, it’s great to work with a guy who’s been in the business with such great artists as Led Zeppelin, The Who, UFO, and Chicago, and Heart. His list of artists that he’s worked with is just huge, and to draw from that experience is priceless. I learned more from him in those months of working with him than I think I’ve learned in years. He taught me a lot, and he was also a lot of fun to be around. He had a lot of great stories and he could get a great performance out of you. I really like the sound of the record, it sounds different from the other records. It doesn’t sound quite as produced. I like that a lot, I like less slick records and more real intimate records, and it sounds like we’re playing in a theater instead of an arena. I really like those sounding records.
LRJ: It had that stripped down effect on songs like “I Live My Life for You”, like it was right in front of you.
It’s a little drier, you know, I think AC/DC make the best dry records out there where they don’t have tons of reverb all over everything. I like that about the record – it’s more in your face and less polished.
LRJ: At what point did you start to notice a following in Asia? You’ve encountered incredible success in the Philippines, India, Malaysia, and so on.
That was on the third record. We asked if we could make a video, and they were like “Yeah, you know, we’ll see,” and they kind of had this lukewarm attitude towards us. And then they said we can get you guys a tour in Southeast Asia, and we were like “Ok, let’s go!” We went over there and were really surprised at how everyone knew our songs. They didn’t speak English but they could sing all the words to our songs. We were playing huge places for huge crowds, did a lot of TV shows – like the David Letterman of Korea or whatever, and the same kind of thing in Thailand. It was just awesome and we went back for like 4 or 5 tours of Southeast Asia. It just kept growing and growing and it was a great time.
LRJ: I guess it just goes to show that you never know who your music is going to affect, and it’s also interesting to note that even though the year was 1995, you guys had a top 40 single.
Yeah who would have thought that when everyone was slamming the doors in the faces of all the bands of our genre that we would have a fluke of a hit with “I Live My Life for You.” The record company put absolutely no money into promoting it, the song basically exploded on its own. It went to number 1 in Green Bay, Wisconsin which was pretty wild, and they were like “Oh, I guess we have something here.” By that time it had lost some momentum, but it did reach the top 40.
LRJ: Tell me about Good Acoustics.
Well with Good Acoustics the story was that the record company said they were going to put out our Greatest Hits, and I always heard that when they say they’re going to put out you’re greatest hits, it means they’re going to drop you. So I asked our A & R guy, who is the coolest guy in the world, Michael Caplan, and I said “Hey Michael, could we re-record these songs so we don’t basically take songs off one album and put them on another and sort of rip off our fans?” He said well I’ll see what I can do. He called me back and he said “I can do it but you got a really far reduced recording budget – we can’t give you the normal recording budget for this.” I said alright, and he gave us a demo budget to go make an album. I had a friend of mine who ran a studio that the Allman Brothers had made some recordings in, and it was near where I was living in Sarasota, Florida. And we recorded it there and I produced it and the thing went gold in six countries. Even with that success they didn’t put one penny into promoting it in America. So at that point once we found out that they didn’t want to put any money into promoting it here at home we decided to write them a letter and ask to be released from our contract. That’s what we did, and from that point when we were released we started going back to Southeast Asia more, and we started working on the next record which was Category 5. We got a record deal with a Japanese label called Pony Canyon and they financed the recording of that and we just started writing what we felt. We didn’t want to try to chase any trends, and we didn’t want to try to go back to the past too much. We just wanted to write what we felt. The album came out with a bit of a southern vibe in some spots, and I think we were trying to see where we wanted to go as a band and there are some great songs on there. I don’t know if we were really trying to change our direction, at least I wasn’t – I was just trying to write songs and make music that I really liked at the time I think we accomplished that.
LRJ: So the live album followed Category 5?
Yeah, the same label in Japan financed the live recording of a concert – we had a tour scheduled there and they brought in the best equipment and the best engineers and the best organizational teams over there and they put together a recording and it just all came together really well that night, as it always seems to in Japan. They’re always on time and they’re always together and everything…and we had a good gig and we got it on tape – Bring ‘Em Out Live is what it was called and it was kind of a magic night there in Japan.
LRJ: After that you guys released O2 and then Prime Time, which I felt called back to the early sound that you guys created. Is there something that led you to that place again?
As an artist you kind of just write what you want to do. I don’t write what I think is going to sell or what’s on the radio at the time. I just write what I like. And with both those albums that’s what we did, especially with Prime Time being our latest record that was recorded in my studio. O2, was recorded in my studio as well, but I think that on the Prime Time record we had more collaboration amongst the band members, and it turned out as an album I’m really proud of.
LRJ: Right, you sang on a track and Michael Foster sang on a track as well, I definitely felt like it was more of a collaboration.
It sure was, you know we wrote a bunch of songs together, and we still kind of write on our own or sometimes we write in pairs but we had a lot of songs where Michael, C.J., and I all wrote a bunch of those tunes, and I really like the way the songs turned out, I’m really proud of it.
LRJ: You guys are located in different parts of the country, does that pose challenges?
It really does, but fortunately flights are 200 bucks if you book them early enough. That makes it work out, I mean we live far enough away so we don’t get sick of each other, and then because of the cheap air fares we can still get together and record. That’s kind of what’s worked for us.
LRJ: So what is lying ahead in terms of new material – are you working on a new FireHouse record?
What we need to do is get everybody together to write the next record. I know C.J.’s working on a record on his own right now, and I’m finishing up one, we all are married with children and then we tour so hard in the summer time, and we usually take a little break. But in the winter we need to get together and all write a record. And that’s the plan – to get everybody together in the late fall, get some great songs together and record them. The feeling that we all have is that we don’t want to release a record until it’s up to the quality where we all feel comfortable with releasing it. If it’s not good enough in our minds, we’re not going to let it out. As soon as we feel we have something that’s strong enough, we’ll put it out there.
LRJ: Well that’s great to hear. It does seem like you guys are always on the road. Does being out there in such a constant fashion ever catch up with you?
It can, but like I said most of the gigs we’re doing now are fly-out dates, we’re weekend warriors where we fly out on a Friday morning and flying home on a Sunday. We get a little time to recover. If we were out like we were with Tesla back in ’92 for 9 months straight it would get old pretty quickly. Although we would still do it because in order to be out for 9 months straight, you’re going to have some pretty good gigs. We cut back to mainly playing on the weekends because that’s when people are able to come out. Most people who were fans of our music back in 1991 were 20, and now they’re 35 or 40, and they don’t go out on a Tuesday night to a club. So we find that most of the better gigs for FireHouse now are casinos or festivals, event gigs that happen in the summer time. Or some of these package tours – we were out with Cinderella a couple years ago and that was great. We’ve been going out with Skid Row lately and those have been really successful gigs. So we continue to do things like that, but hopping in a bus and going around to play clubs doesn’t make fiscal sense anymore.
LRJ: You can leave that to some of the newcomers, I can’t imagine being out on the road for such a long time.
Well that’s not as much as a problem as going out and then looking at the business at the end of the week and realizing that we just lost a thousand dollars because the bus company made all the money. You’re playing in clubs, where as if you play out on the weekend there’s some profit left over and it makes sense to do it that way. Having said that, if it were a really successful tour and we were playing in sold out theaters Tuesday nights and playing big places on the weekends, then there’s enough profit left over where you can fly the family out to see you. But the way that our genre is right now, I find that most bands are flying out for the weekend dates. That’s way it is now, but hopefully it will change.
LRJ: Weeknights can be hard on everyone, most people have day jobs and families, and it’s probably not easy on you either.
It’s tough because you got a guy who’s saying okay…I’m gonna buy the tickets, and then I gotta get the babysitter, and then I still gotta get up in the morning to go to work, but when I go out to the club I wanna have a few drinks. So it’s hard for a lot of people, and all that stuff adds up to “well, I’ll wait until they come around again and play the Summerfest or Rocklahoma.” And those kind of festivals are making it so that people can plan ahead and make it out there. Like I said we’re also playing a lot of these casinos that cater to people who won’t necessarily go out to club, but will go to a casino because you’ve got a restaurant, gaming, and hotel. So it’s a whole experience for people who don’t necessarily want to go out to a club. It’s changing a bit for our audience so we’re adapting.
LRJ: So is there a certain gig that stands out in your memory, for better or for worse?
We’ve had so many really good gigs, on the Poison tour in ’93 we had Lynyrd Skynyrd on that tour for a lot of the dates, and touring with those guys was awesome, I really enjoyed that. I haven’t really had too many bad ones, but I do remember when our first record came out and we playing Chicago, the guitar amp and the monitors were all on the same circuit so that kept blowing and my guitar went out like 15 times in a one hour set, and that kind of blew my vibe. I think I got 3 notes out of that show. (laughter)
LRJ: Yeah the technical difficulties are never a good thing. So FireHouse has been known for not being afraid to mix it up with the live set – are they any songs or albums in particular that you enjoy mixing into the shows?
There are certain songs that we always play because people wouldn’t let us out if we didn’t do Don’t Treat Me Bad or Love of a Lifetime or All She Wrote, so half of our set list has already been written. And of the ones that are kind of alternates, one of which I’m really glad were playing more often is Don’t Walk Away. It was in that movie The Wrestler. It’s a slower song, so we kind of have to slow the tempo down in a couple spots because we have a few ballads that were hits. But I really like putting that song in there, I love the bluesy sounding stuff.
LRJ: It’s got a really good groove to it, I like that song as well. The last thing I’d like to touch on is a DVD project that I’ve heard about. Is that still in the works?
BL: Well we are always trying to get all the planets to line up so that we can put out a DVD that will really sound good and really look good. So far it hasn’t happened, but we are trying to make that gig happen. Getting the right video crew in there, the right equipment, and the right rehearsal time, maybe getting in the venue the night before to go through things, you gotta have the right light show and everything. We don’t want to put out a DVD that is a step down from the one we did in Japan, which is called Rock on the Road. It’s a live show we did in Japan a long time ago.
So until we have all that worked out where we can get a really good bit of video footage, and the audio so we can go back in mix it. Because taking a live feed off the board always sounds terrible. So we’re waiting for that opportunity and looking ahead. Maybe this fall we will get the right gig where we can play in, you know, Minneapolis, at a place called Myth which is an awesome venue and we usually have a good crowd there. If we could get a video crew in there to multi-track it and I could go home and mix it or have anybody mix it that would be great; any venue that we could get in the night before to make everything work. It’s been a challenge but we haven’t given up.
MRC: Is there anything you want to add before we close?
BL: I just want to thank you and all of your readers for their support for so many years, and please invite everyone to join my mailing list at www.leverty.com. It’s on the front page at the bottom. Like I said I’ll have this new record out by June 1 and if you’re on the mailing list you’ll hear about it first. And we hope to see everyone out on the road soon.