August 14, 2012
Drummer Vinny Appice first established a formidable reputation by playing with the likes of John Lennon and Rick Derringer, although he is best known for his hard-hitting contributions to Black Sabbath and Ronnie James Dio. Two years ago, when shoulder surgery sidelined him from playing, Vinny found himself in his home studio, idly playing with a series of drum tracks that he had recorded for downloads. He wondered if these tracks couldn’t form the backbones of fully-formed songs and so, as guys like Vinny Appice are wont to do, he put out a few calls.
Enter guitarist Mark Zavon.
Through friends of friends, Mark met with Vinny and immediately set out to hang some meat on bare bones the drummer had crafted. When the men realized that they had the makings of a legitimate full-length hard rock album, they brought in vocalist Dewey Bragg and none other than former Pantera bassist Rex Brown to round out the roster and to formally anoint themselves Kill Devil Hill. Not only was the chemistry easy and immediate, but the sound truly reflected the myriad influences each musician brought to the table. There was the common ground of Black Sabbath, Pantera and Led Zeppelin, but there was also Skynyrd and Soundgarden. By the time they played Hollywood’s Key Club in December, 2011, they were one of L.A.’a most buzzed-about new bands, attracting all-star acolytes such as the boys in Machine Head, Sebastian Bach and the hosts of That Metal Show.
In May, the band entered Billboard’s Heatseekers chart at number 9; not a bad accomplishment for a group that was conceived from shoulder surgery.
When the time came to plan a summer tour, KDH were sufficiently established to hook up with a larger tour as an opener, or even snagging a slot on a summer festival tour. Instead, the band proceeded as they had been for the past year, with a small club tour, taking minimal set and crew on the road and building Kill Devil Hill the old-fashioned way: small clubs and tiny vans. While they have already blown out more than one poor club’s PA system and endured a number of Spinal Tap-like moments that come with the territory, the plan is bearing fruit already. With tour dates stretching well into September, the band recently announced a string of dates playing with Alice Cooper in November.
While they have recently announced the cancellation of European dates due to circumstances beyond their control, they have clarified that they are squarely committed to adding those dates as soon as they’re able. Prior to this announcement, we had the opportunity to catch up with Mark Zavon as Kill Devil Hill pulled into Ramona, CA for a gig at the Ramona Mainstage.
How’s the tour going so far?
It’s going killer, man. This is going to be our third show (of this leg) and so far it’s been going great. We’ve had some really good crowds and people have been responsive and we’re having a great time on stage, so it’s good to be back.
What have the audiences been like?
They’ve been kind of small, but mighty, you know what I mean? We played a couple of smaller clubs to start off, in Vegas and Arizona, and it’s been packed. Small clubs packed full of people having a good time, screaming and yelling…it’s been a lot of fun. We get to hang out at the merch booth afterwards and shake some hands and meet some really cool people.
Although you played Dimebash at the Key Club last year, you’d been playing live for a long time before that…
(At this point in the interview, a car sails into the alley, heading straight for us. Before we can react, the driver hits the horn and stops short about five meters away. Vinny Appice is laughing behind the wheel, with a cackling Rex Brown riding shotgun)
Holy shit…OK, so how has the band changed in the past year?
(laughing) Well we’ve put a little more thought into what we’re going to do with the set, and the arrangement of what we’re doing live, but there’s nothing like getting out and playing to tighten the band up and to get things together. The more shows we do, the tighter we get and that’s the funnest part for me—doing five in a row, then another five in a row, and then you’re on autopilot. You don’t even have to think about it. It’s just getting out there and giving the fans a good fucking show. That’s what counts to me. Having to worry about whether I’m stepping on this or that pedal…all that technical crap goes by the wayside as you get focused on connecting with the fans. That’s what it’s all about.
When you guys started doing this before, you were blowing out PA systems and such. Anything like that happening so far this time around?
Well, you know, when you play the smaller clubs, you’ve gotta swing from one vine to the next and hope you don’t fall to the jungle floor. There really isn’t any other way. You just have to get in there and do battle and if you hit a couple of bumps in the road, then fine. Sometimes you almost have to laugh. The night before last, something blew out and I looked over at Rex and we both laughed. It’s like, come on…but it’s alright. We were doing our gig and having a good time, and they got it sorted out.
You have a particularly interesting story about how you wound up in this band. How did you get involved?
Well I was playing with Mandy Lion, the singer from World War III, which Vinny had also played with before. The drummer at the time knew Vinny, and Vinny had mentioned to him that he was putting something together and they were looking for a guitar player, and the drummer suggested that Vinny give me a call. The next time we rehearsed for Mandy, the drummer came in and said, “Hey, I gave your number to Vinny Appice. I hope that’s alright.” I was like, “Are you kidding me? Of course it’s alright—it’s Vinny Appice—are you fucking kidding me?” We wound up hooking up before he called me. Lynch Mob and Dokken played together and we were hanging out upstairs and I said “Hey man, I hear you’re looking for a guitar player,” and it turned out that we were like less than a quarter of a mile away from each other, which was really kind of strange because L.A.’s so spread out. I thought, “This commute ain’t gonna kill me,” you know what I mean? (laughs) We had Jimmy Bain put some bass tracks on it, so I started adding onto that. He gave me all the drum tracks. I have a little studio at my house too, so I started working on writing songs to go with what he had. He couldn’t play at the time because he’d had shoulder surgery, so he was healing up from that and was working on the drum tracks while he was recuperating from surgery. Funny thing is that we had seven songs written before he was even able to play a note together. Before we ever got together in a room to actually play, we had seven songs ready.
Did you come up with the licks after you heard the drum tracks, or were these some ideas that you had formulated that were looking for a home?
For a lot of them, yeah. Like “War Machine,” that drum track is almost exactly like what he played. When I’d listen to the drum tracks that he gave me, I’d be thinking, “Does he think this is the verse? Is he thinking that’s maybe a chorus?” I tried to get in his head space, because that’s exactly what he did. When he came up with the drum tracks, he played them in such a way where the dynamics came down into the verse and kind of built through what could be a pre-chorus into a chorus. He had really given it some thought and with all his experience, it made it easier for me to see where he was going with it and kind of write around that. We did that with four or five songs on the record.
When the other two guys came on board, what was the chemistry like the first time you all got together?
I knew Dewey from a project that he and I had started that never really came to fruition, and I knew his voice was right for what Vinny was trying to do. So I played him a demo that we had done—it was “Hangman”—and Vinny was like, “That’s the guy!” So we got him over and the three of us were over in Vinny’s garage and we got the vocals going but Jimmy (Bain) didn’t work out, so we were looking for a bass player and we had auditioned some guys, but it wasn’t firing on all cylinders and we knew it. Somebody recommended Rex, so Vinny called him up and we sent him some demos, and I remember that he had recorded the bass at a next door neighbor’s studio or something, and he added the bass and emailed us the track and I called Vinny and said, “Rex just emailed us the track. Come on over, man. Let’s check it out!” So he came by and we put it on and we looked at each other and were like, “No way, man!” It was so killer. We knew right then that it was exactly what we had been looking for; it was the missing link. Especially in a situation where you’ve got one guitar going on, it can sound thin and there can be issues if someone doesn’t understand what’s involved. Rex fit like a glove.
With such a heavy, hard-hitting low end, how do you put your parts together?
Man, it requires a little bit of everything sometimes. I do like melody, but it has to be aggressive, too. It’s like trying to push all the flavors into one cone. (laughs) But with the guitar, I just try to come up with something and see how it fits, and then start piecing it together. We’ve got a bunch of stuff that didn’t make this last record, and stuff that we’ve worked on since. We’ve probably got over half of the next album written, and the stuff we’ve been writing lately is even better. Not that we’re trying to do a new record right away. We’ve gotta support this one for awhile.
That brings me to the next question–this is a full-time band?
Absolutely. I don’t have any other projects going on and I don’t really want any other projects. I’m really happy just doing this, and if we could do this all the time, that would be my best case scenario. Vinny’s got some stuff he’s still doing, and Dewey’s got a couple irons in the fire too, but this is certainly the priority for everybody. Rex has put the rest of his stuff aside, except he’s got a book coming out in November that I’m excited to read.
So there will be another album?
I would say so. One way or another, we’re definitely doing another record. I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but yeah, one way or another it will happen.
You guys just announced a string of dates playing with Alice Cooper.
Yeah, I can’t wait to go out with those guys. It’s gonna be a lot of fun! I’ve never seen him, so I’m really stoked. It’ll be a blast for me, getting to hang and watch the show four or five times in a row. That’s going to be fun. That’s the kind of thing that, when you’ve got a new band and nobody knows who you are, you need to get out in front of some people. Even with guys like Vinny and Rex in the band, it can be kind of difficult, so getting out in front of a rock crowd like that is exactly what I think we need.
When you bring up guys like Vinny and Rex, you’ve got two guys with fairly long and public legacies. On the other hand, you and Dewey are up-and-comers, for lack of a better phrase. What’s the dynamic like on stage?
We all grew up listening to the same music and we all like the same style of stuff, so we’re all pointed in the same direction. When we get up onstage together, all that stuff goes away and we just make it happen. You forget about all that stuff. It’s just four guys onstage doing their thing, killing it as best as they can. You forget that, “Oh my God…that’s Vinny Appice! I remember when I was a kid and I went to see Dio, watching with my fucking fist in the air!” (laughs) You forget that stuff. And Rex is such a buddy. I’m a huge Pantera fan and I forget sometimes, like “Look who this is!” It’s really cool. Those guys are really great to us and they’ve shown us so much. We’re really blessed, man.
What are the plans for the rest of the year?
We’ve got the Cooper thing in November and honestly, I think we’re going to try and keep going through mid-December. I think we’re going to try and go through the end of September and then we’ll see what happens from there. I can’t wait to get back over to Europe though. We just played a festival in Germany; we did the With Full Force festival and it was a lot of fun. We had a really good time over there. The people over there are super cool and the fans are fucking ferocious, man! They love the metal over there. It’s like, what’s going on over here? Why don’t people get it? It’s not in the media as much, and people aren’t immersed in it as much, and that’s a shame.
So you see a difference between European metalheads and American metalheads?
I was surprised at the amount of people who were really, really into it. It’s kind of like pop star crowds over here. Over there it’s the same size crowd but it’s metal. It’s cool to see. If you were just over here and that didn’t exist for you, it would be easy to think that metal’s dead. Take Soulfly. We just played this small club and Soulfly is playing there in a month. And they headlined for forty thousand people over there (in Germany, at the With Full Force festival). It boggles the mind with the different crowd sizes and the response that the fans are giving over there. But we did some clubs here where the crowds were smaller and the fans were just as ferocious. We’ve just gotta spread the word and it’ll take care of itself.