Wednesday, March 27, 2013
A Ripple Conversation with Richie Wise from Dust
The story of Brooklyn proto-metal power trio Dust is truly one of a kind. Over the years there have been bands where a member goes on to a much brighter future. There have been plenty of supergroups. But there's only one where every single band member stayed in music and achieved success, sort of like a supergroup in reverse. Guitarist/vocalist Richie Wise went on to become a producer and engineer working with Kiss, Gladys Knight, Weird Al Yankovic and many, many more. Bassist Kenny Aaronson has played with just about everyone you can think of and then some. Marc Bell went on to play drums with Estus, Wane County and Richard Hell joining The Ramones in 1978.
Dust only made two albums but they have been influencing musicians for decades. Their first album, 1971's Dust featured primitive guitar riffing and a very active rhythm section, sort of cross between the Stooges and Procol Harum. 1972's Hard Attack was a much more varied album with some of their heaviest jams balanced out with a strong influence of The Who. The vinyl has been out of print for a long time and inferior sounding CD's have been the only thing available from Dust. But that's all finally going to change. Sony owns the Kama Sutra catalog and has given the Dust albums a complete sonic upgrade. Both albums have been remastered and will be available on a single CD and a double vinyl album just in time for record store day on April 20. I had the great pleasure with speaking with Richie Wise on behalf of all the Ripple proto-metal maniacs.
Let's start at the beginning. When did you start playing music?
We have to go back a long time now to when I picked up a guitar. First of all you have to understand that The Beatles just knocked me upside the head. I knew music was the only thing I wanted to do and I started playing guitar. Walking on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, I was one of the few guys at Erasmus High School that had long hair. We're going back to 1967. That was the beginning of me meeting other guys with like interests. Me and my friend Anthony started playing together, he was a drummer. Before long we had another friend of mine, Frankie who started playing bass. My partner Kenny Kerner, he was starting to write songs with me. He was writing lyrics and I was writing all the music.
Where did the band name Dust come from?
Where the name came from I don't know. It just came down from the sky or something. It just happened. I believe I came up with it, I don't know why. All of a sudden we were Dust. The name early on might have been The Rising Suns or something as silly as that. Sometime in 1967 we started calling ourselves Dust. This is before Kenny Aaronson or Marc Bell joined. We were Dust then and we did a lot of gigs. We did some real great local promotion. We created these little yellow lapel buttons, campaign buttons. In black letters it said Dust. I gotta tell you, we made thousands of them and everybody in Erasmus High School was wearing these Dust buttons. No one knew it was a rock n roll band! Everybody though it meant "Don't Underestimate Student Temper." Isn't that crazy? Everybody was wearing them! Kenny Kerner, who was acting as the manager at that time, was promoting shows. We started building up a reputation. But as we were getting better, and I certainly made some big improvements, my friend Frankie didn't want to play bass anymore.
Is that when Kenny Aaronson joined?
I believe I saw Kenny Aaronson play with my friend Robert Schwartz. He was this guy in Brooklyn who, if he would have lived - he died right around then at a young age, was absolutely one of the greatest guitar players. He was great, unbelievable. Anyway, I had a reputation among everybody in the neighborhood that I was real serious about playing in a band. That's all I ever did. I hated school. Before I know it, it's me and Anthony but now Kenny's there. I don't know who else, we had different lead singers through the years. But that was a real solid outfit. Me and Kenny felt that we needed a better drummer and Kenny somehow knew Marc. They might have played together, maybe in Robert Schwartz's band. I remember Marc being in some other bands and being blown away by him. He was like Mitch Mitchell. All of a sudden it winds up being me, Marc and Kenny. We were looking for another singer but didn't bother after awhile. The three of us, we didn't have to think, we didn't have to talk, we all loved the exact same stuff. All three of us were into, in the deepest way, the British rock bands - Cream, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Deep Purple, Jethro Tull, Procol Harum, all the stuff back then. I remember being at Marc's house and he had the single of "Paranoid" by Black Sabbath and being blown away by the density of the sound.
All of a sudden I'm playing with these great guys, I start getting better and writing a lot of songs. Me and Kenny Kerner would bring them to the group and I don't remember ever really teaching anybody songs. I would play them riffs, play them parts and the next thing I knew we were playing them. We were so in sync in with what we wanted to do. The three of us made a demo or something. Every three months I'd have new songs. We'd throw out the old ones and bring in the new. It was constant evolvement and playing and getting better. We never put any thought into style, into what we should be doing, should we go this direction, that direction. We just played. I liked different bands so I'd write different types of songs. The group was into doing them and we did 'em. So that's why there's such a variety of styles on these albums. But when we were onstage it was just one friggin LOUD, fast thing - "Learning To Die," "Suicide," "Ivory," "From A Dry Camel." Hard, heavy, loud. Probably louder, heavier, faster than any band ever. If we would have thought about it maybe we would have taken it somewhere. It was so organic and real.
You mentioned being influenced by British hard rock bands. Were American bands like Blue Cheer or Grand Funk Railroad on your radar at all?
Not at all. We thought very little of those bands. In retrospect, Blue Cheer still stayed pretty much nothing to me except a loud bunch of Marshall stacks. We didn't like them at all, they didn't have the British vibe whatsoever. Later on in life, Grand Funk became a really good band. When Don Brewer started singing "We're An American Band" they did some classic shit, no question about it. To us they had this mid-Western vibe and we weren't into it. I didn't think there were any bands that had a real vibe like us until a little later on. Up in Boston, I heard about this band called Aerosmith. They went on to do pretty OK for themselves.
What about another band from Brooklyn called Sir Lord Baltimore. Did you have any interaction with them?
I didn't know they were from Brooklyn, I always thought they were from Baltimore! The only thing I knew is that they had signed with Dee Anthony. Do you know who that is?
He was Humble Pie's manager.
Right and he booked all the British bands. He was the number one agent for all the British bands that came to America. He booked everybody. We never had any interaction with Sir Lord Baltimore other than being jealous that they had the kind of management that I thought we needed to have. Kama Sutra was not the right label for us. They had a lot of hit records but "Tie A Yellow Ribbon" was a lot different from what we were doing.
What about other New York City based bands from that time like Mountain or Cactus?
Mountain were a big influence no question about it. Leslie West is, still to this day, one of the best guitar players. Totally underrated and never talked about as one of the greats. No interaction whatsoever but we admired them very much. I still love those first two Mountain albums. I met Leslie West back then and hung out with him a little bit at Ungano's, a club in Manhattan. Dust played with Cactus. All the guys in Vanilla Fudge became my dear friends later on, Carmine and Tim and Mark Stein, the singer in Vanilla Fudge. I produced a record with Carmine, a band called KGB. But there was never any real interaction with any other bands. We just did our own thing. And we thought no other bands played anything like us. I never listened to Sir Lord Baltimore, I thought they were from friggin' Baltimore! Didn't have a clue they were from Brooklyn. I don't know what Sir Lord Baltimore did later on, but the three guys from Dust all stayed in music.
Dust's history is pretty unusual. All three band members and your lyric writer Kenny Kerner all stayed in music and had a lot of success.
That's what makes the back story so interesting. Marc went on to be in the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame. I'm so friggin proud of him, you have no idea. At least one of us got in. Marc is stupendous. And Kenny, I would just be blown away seeing him onstage with Bob Dylan, Billy Squier, Billy Idol. He's played with so many great people. What a great, great bass player. And I went on to produce Kiss, Gladys Knight & The Pips, all kinds of shit. A 30 year career in music. Kenny Kerner went on to be one of the main guys at the Musicians Institute. It's a great story.
I'm looking at my copy of the Gladys Knight album Imagination right now that you worked on in 1973. That's the same year you started working with Kiss. Not a lot of producers could work in both realms.
Thank you very much! I thought I might have been the only producer that was comfortable in rock and R&B. I had a knack to fill up a blank piece of tape with tracks. I just loved being in the studio directing people and helping them anyway I can. I produced about 70 albums.
And it all started when you were getting ready to record the 2nd Dust album Hard Attack?
Absolutely. I talked about it on that promo reel and I wish I could have elaborated on it a little more. I used to sit at home and say OK, I want to lay down an acoustic guitar to shadow the electric guitar, that's a very Pete Townshend thing to do. And I want to put the acoustic guitar on the left to balance the lead on the right. I want to have the vocals here. I'd write up the tracks where I wanted them, left, center, or right. The panorama of the record. And that's where it all began. The record company thought we were good enough to go in with other acts.
Is that when Dust broke up?
Dust never broke up. No question about it. Dust just fizzled out. It seems that it wasn't going anywhere. It was probably because of a combination of management and we didn't really have a booking agency. The label Kama Sutra didn't know what to do with us even though we had some really nice success. In a number of places, like St. Louis, we were selling more tickets than the groups that were headlining on top of us, like Alice Cooper and King Crimson. Alison Steele on WNEW in New York played a lot of Dust back then. I'm from Brooklyn and you'd hear "From A Dry Camel" a 9 minute cut on the radio. That was very unusual and we loved it. But it just seemed to be fading out and there wasn't a lot of thought about it. People have said that if we had 8 songs like "Suicide" we would have been the biggest band in the world. I told Kenny Kerner that and he said "it still wouldn't have happened because we were on the wrong label." You see what I'm saying? I loved playing on stage. I loved the gigs and the backstage and the hotel but the whole overall lifestyle, the whole sex, drugs, rock n roll kind of thing was not me. I wanted to go home and be with my wife. Producing records was a way that I could live my dream, be in the studio but still come home at night. Kenny and Marc just had to play and be in bands.
So are there going to be some Dust reunion shows?
With them two, not with me! They'll have to get somebody else to play for me. They continued playing but I pretty much stopped a long time ago. I played a little guitar on some of the earliest groups I produced but then I stopped. I haven't played electric guitar for about 38 or 39 years. I got married at the end of 1972. Still married to this day to the same girl.
You mentioned the 5 minute promo video they did for the Dust reissues. Is the live footage in that from the bandshell in Prospect Park?
Bingo! Yes it is! Do you know who we played with? Flash, with Peter Banks, the original guitar player from Yes.
I'm calling you from right across the street from Prospect Park, very close to that bandshell. So they had concerts in the park back then?
Yeah, but not too many. I have to tell you, I never saw that footage before.
Is it silent footage?
I don't know, I think it's silent. Man, we were crazy! Marc was insane! Marc loved playing that kind of stuff. Marc's a hard rock guy, that's what we used to call him. We loved him because he could play like Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker, Keith Moon. He had amazing chops. We were all into Clive Bunker from Tull, who's a great drummer. The fact that he was able to simplify and play very fast with the Ramones is a testament to his ability. In some ways, it takes more endurance to do that than the heavy rock arm shit.
Where did you guys practice so loudly in Brooklyn?
Marc's basement! Marc's parents had a house on Ocean Parkway around Avenue H or Avenue I. A nice house on Ocean Parkway and in the basement was this insanity. It was a little basement room and we had Marshall stacks and Kenny's amps and Marc's drums and that's where we worked out a lot of shit. Eventually we left the basement and went into Manhattan and played at a rehearsal studio called Baggy's on Wooster Street. That was later when we started to play out more and became less of a Brooklyn band and more of a recording band.
Was it difficult to get Marshall amps back then?
My friend Harry from the neighborhood was the first guy I knew with a Marshall. He had the old Marshall with the different speaker cover, it looked like wall paper. I think Terminal Music was maybe the first store that sold the Marshalls. I'm talking before Manny's had them, before Sam Ash had them. When we got signed the most important thing for us was to buy more equipment. I got 3 Marshall stacks, Kenny Aaronson bout four Acoustic 360 amps and Marc custom ordered drums from Ludwig with a 28" bass drum. Our friend painted the bass drum head that you see in that video.
It sounds like he's playing 2 bass drums but it's only one, right?
Yeah. Marc had amazing ability to make it sound like double bass drums on the fast stuff.
Who had the pleasure of moving all that gear?
Oh we, had roadies. I wasn't gonna do that!
What do you think of the sound on the remastered CD?
I haven't actually heard it yet. Marc and Kenny attended the mastering sessions in New York. I'm sure they did a great job.
Over the years, has your opinion of Dust changed?
You know, that is a very good question. There were years when I would never even think about Dust. Years! Every so often I'd see Kenny Aaronson and he'd tell me that some other musicians would tell him how much they loved Dust. I couldn't believe anyone remembered us. A few years ago I saw a youtube clip of some young band covering a Dust song and I was blown away.
When was the last time you were in Brooklyn?
Not too long ago, maybe 3 years. I went to Peter Luger's Steakhouse, of course but I was blown away by the transformation of that neighborhood. When I was growing up, Williamsburg was really dangerous. Holy cow, has it changed!
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