Sunday, March 2, 2014
A Ripple Conversation with Ross the Boss
Ross The Boss has always been one of my favorite guitar players and I've been lucky enough to see him play in many different bands over the years here in New York City. I first heard Ross when I picked up a copy of Manowar's debut album Battle Hymns in 1982 and was thoroughly blown away. An article in Creem about Manowar mentioned that Ross was previously in a punk band called The Dictators. It took awhile to track down copies of their albums but I became a huge fan of The Dictators. Ross can play in any style but always sounds like himself, whether it was with melodic punk band Shakin Street, instrumental rock with Thunderboss or blistering power metal with his latest project Death Dealer.
I've met and spoken to Ross at shows many times over the years and he's always been generous with his time. My friend Dean Rispler plays bass in the current line up of The Dictators and put me in touch with Ross so I could formally interrogate him. The history of The Dictators and Manowar has been covered thoroughly many times before but I had a long list of questions for Ross about music, guitars and snow. I caught up with Ross after we were both done shoveling after one of the many blizzards we've been having this winter.
Since we're having yet another blizzard here in New York, do you mind re-telling me this story about Manowar playing at L'Amour in Brooklyn during a snow storm?
I forget what year it was but it was a real brutal winter. We had booked L'Amours in the wintertime. We knew it was going to be snowing but we didn't know how bad it was going to be. We pull in, set up, do our soundcheck - loud as fuck. The whole block is vibrating and it's just blizzarding outside. So we just thought it was gonna be a wash out. It's an expense moving everything down from upstate New York and renting a second PA. We said "we're gonna lose our shirts tonight." George Parente, L'Amour's owner, was like "you never know." So after soundcheck we go back to our hotel in Staten Island, we were right by the Verrazano Bridge, and have dinner. Then we come back, ready for the show. There's not a soul outside and it's still snowing. We're thinking we're gonna walk into an empty hall. George Parente is standing there at the door with a big smile on his face. He says "look inside." We go in and the place is packed, sold out to the max. We just couldn't believe it. Everyone braved the snow and found a way to get there. It just blew our minds. We felt that we had the most dedicated fans. It was just amazing.
There's something so metal about snowstorms that makes you want to go to the show even more than usual.
If you really want to see your band, you're going and nothing's stopping you.
What's going on with Death Dealer right now?
We've been working on our second record and we're waiting for the announcement that we're going to be the opening act on the Metal All-Stars tour that I'm taking part in. So Death Dear is going to be playing some Eastern European shows and hopefully we can get on the South American leg, too.
You're going to be playing with Udo from Accept?
I will be playing with Udo and Zakk Wylde. I'll be doing some Manowar songs, too. The whole thing is set right now on paper but when we get to rehearsals in Bulgaria things might change. March 23 is the first show.
Death Dealer has an interesting story about how it formed. Tell me about how it all came together.
It was about 6 months before the last presidential election. I started getting these messages from Sean Peck. We're Facebook friends and we're talking a lot about my political posts. We share the same views on things. Then he said something like "Ross, I really love your guitar playing. I'm putting this project together, would you mind playing on a song or two?" You know, I'm very open minded. So the next day I get a Facebook message from one of my friends named Stu Marshall. He says "I'm working with Sean Peck and I spoke to him yesterday." A little picture is forming with this thing. He says "Yeah man, I was in a band called Dungeon and Empires of Eden." He's a really, really great guitar player. I'm listening to his stuff and getting to know these two guys. Then Sean calls me again and says "By the way, this project that I have, I'm gonna send you some songs. I have a vision for this project. We were thinking of asking KK Downing to play guitar. It's either you or KK Downing that Stu wants to play with." I said, alright, let's hear the tracks. So they sent me some tracks and it was amazing. Sean is an unbelievable singer. So I said "I'm interested." I heard the best voice in heavy metal. We took it from there and started working on the songs, developing the record and we have War Master. Sean goes "By the way I have the name of the band, I have artwork ready, the logo ready." He had everything in place.
So all you had to do was play?
All I had to do was work on the songs and play.
You had the Ross The Boss band right before that, where you had a lot more work to do.
Everyone did a lot of work, but it was kinda up to me. We did two records, 2008 New Metal Leader, 2010 Hailstorm. They sold very well. I sorta put the band on hiatus and we're gonna pick it up eventually for the third record.
Where's the most dedicated, hardcore metal audience these days?
South America and Eastern Europe. They've had the least exposure to it all and they're not jaded. In Germany and Western Europe there's a concert like every 2 seconds.
I consider myself really lucky to have seen most of your bands as I was growing up. I think I've seen all of them except Manowar!
Really? Did you see the Spinatras?
Saw them at the Continental in New York. I also saw Ross The Boss & The Pack at Streets in New Rochelle.
Wow, you know your stuff.
At the show at Streets I wound up getting drunk with a guy named Ron Haney who was in Wild Kingdom with you for a minute. Were you and Daniel Rey ever in Wild Kingdom at the same time? Or did you only start playing together in this version of The Dictators?
We did play one show at the Ritz together.
I was a huge fan of Wild Kingdom. I saw that band play many times.
That was a great record. [1990's …And You?]
That was the record I was hoping would have been the next step after Bloodbrothers.
(Laughs) That was a little too metal for The Dictators.
Not for me.
If you're with The Dictators for awhile do you miss playing metal?
Nah, I don't miss doing anything. The only thing I don't like is not being busy. This year has started out unbelievably great. I got asked to join the Metal All-Stars, then Death Dealer got the opening slot. Last week in Uncut Magazine, did you see that? [Go Girl Crazy, The Dictators' first album, was named the #1 American punk album in the March 2014 issue of Uncut Magazine.]
I just saw it earlier today. Go Girl Crazy has always been the definition of punk rock for me.
That record's number one, above Patti Smith, the Ramones and all these other bands. I mean, finally. It's just unbelievable. Wow! For us it's just a gigantic vindication. It's really indescribable to see something like that. We put a lot on the line with that record. Everyone thought we were fuckin' jokers.
When I discovered that record I was so excited to hear an album entirely about my life - drinking beers, eating hamburgers, being obnoxious. Most of my punk rock friends hated the album but my metal friends liked it because of the guitar work. The punk rock guys thought it was too metal.
Too metal? (laughs) It just seems like the whole thing has crystalized. It started a long time ago but the whole thing has really crystalized to the point of "Wow, we're getting the cred, man!" If Joey Ramone were alive he'd be flipping out over that. He'd be loving it because he loved us more than life itself.
It seems like over the past 10, 15 years that some Dictators fans are more accepting of Manowar and vice versa. I think the Wild Kingdom record had a lot do with that. Have you noticed that?
Yeah. I don't think there's a link to anything. I put out there in the world that it's all good. There's good music and bad music. Manowar's good, Dictators are good. There's not really any bad.
You played on a Hellacopters record, I think that probably helped too.
Yeah. The Hellacopters played their first tour with us. It was D-Generation, Nomads, Hellacopters, Dictators. That was an unbelievable tour of Scandanavia. Boy, that was…wow!
As a guitarist, I'm always interested to see what you're playing. It was nice seeing the 3 pickup white SG Custom at the Dictators show at Bowery Electric in January. Does that only come out for special occasions?
I picked it up and it felt good so I said "let's air it out a little bit." Everyone was really happy to see that guitar. Daniel had to have his picture taken with it.
[Ross puts me on hold to take a call at his business The Cage, an indoor sports facility in Queens, thecagenyc.com]
Before we get back to guitars, let's give The Cage a plug. How's business?
Business is great right now. This is the season. No one can be outside playing. It's a family business. We have baseball, softball, indoor soccer and we do cricket now.
It's in Middle Village? And your son also teaches there.
Jesse teaches here and he's the JV coach for Christ The King right now.
Are you a Yankees fan or a Mets fan?
Getting back to guitars. Are you using ESP's with Death Dealer?
Yeah, in Death Dealer we have an endorsement deal with ESP. They've been so very nice to us, and to me since the 80's. They're a great company. We're getting a few new Horizons for the tour. They've been absolutely great for us.
So is this the first time you've been in a twin lead guitar type of band?
Yeah, a twin lead as pre-eminent as this, yeah.
You and Daniel got into some great dueling lead guitar on "Slow Death" at that Bowery Electric show with The Dictators.
That was good, wasn't it?
It reminded me of Foghat when they really get into their jams.
Yeah, sort of like Wishbone Ash almost.
I haven't seen the black Les Paul custom in awhile, do you still have that?
I used that the last time we played at the Bowery. I use it all the time.
And you also have a Gibson ES 355? Or is it a 335?
I have a 1991 Gibson ES 355 Lucille, black.
I've heard you say before that you're a huge fan of B.B. King. How did you first get into him?
B.B. King has been my idol since childhood. I first discovered him in 1967 and I have been a fan and admirer ever since. His playing is unbelievably beautiful. He really taught me that less is more. You might not think it because of the amount of notes I play.
Live At The Regal, was that a pivotal album for you?
Live At The Regal, yup. It really changed my life. "Every Day I Have The Blues," that record, and the story of Lucille. I would just marvel at how he can tell that story about why he named his guitar Lucille. It was named after a woman who started a fire in the club that he played so he named his guitar Lucille. It was amazing.
Listening to you the other night I never noticed the strong influence of Freddy King and Albert King in your playing before. You're obviously a big blues fan.
Obviously. All those guys. My pedigree comes from blues. When I was growing up I worshipped guys like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Alvin Lee, Santana, Mike Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop, all those guys. But then I figured out that all those guys were playing blues. All those song titles on their records, I went back and looked. "Who are these guys that they're playing? Who are these people that the Rolling Stones are playing songs of?" I just went back and boom - Freddy King, Albert King, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Little Walter, Memphis Slim, Robert Johnson. Robert Johnson was just unbelievable! That provided me with the foundation that I always talk about to kids. You have to have a foundation of music when you're gonna play. All these guys that just start with Eddie Van Halen, it just sounds very shallow. It doesn't sound like a complete guitar player to me. There are some shredders that do really good work, of course, but I'm not hearing the depth of playing in these guys.
It's all exercises and no emotion in the playing.
Yeah, it's just an exercise.
You brought up Eddie Van Halen. I was wondering if you were a fan of Cactus growing up and their guitar player Jimmy McCarty?
Did you recognize Jimmy's solo from "Let Me Swim" when it turned up in "Eruption?"
I never put two and two together like you just did. But yeah, Van Halen obviously came along revolutionized guitar again. He picked it up from Hendrix. Of course he's brilliant.
You have a really interesting set of influences. There's blues but also guys like Wayne Kramer, James Williamson and Pete Townshend. Is that accurate?
Yeah, I kind of just put everything together in me, kinda like a soup. A guitar soup of all my influences. Not so much James Williamson, who's a great player, but didn't really influence me. Ted Nugent did, of course. I love the MC5. Wayne Kramer, definitely, and Sonic. Those two guys were a big influence on the Dictators. The blessing that I've been given is my own style. People hear me and they know who it is.
You could blindfold me and play me something you've played on that I haven't heard before. I'd know it was you immediately.
It's a beautiful thing. There's millions and millions of guitar players out there that really don't sound like anybody.
I noticed recently you'll do some octave slides like Wes Montgomery.
Yeah, I was a big, big fan of his playing. George Benson, another one, great guitar player. There's so many of them! Peter Green. So many really awesome musicians out there that I love. When I was coming up the guitar was king. Guitar led the music, everything was guitar based. Cream, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath. Of course Black Sabbath changed everything. Everybody had to have a great guitar player and the guitar player had to be a blues master. And if he wasn't a blues master then forget it.
What were some of the great shows you saw growing up in New York City?
At the Fillmore I saw Jimi Hendrix, the Band Of Gypsys, on New Years Eve. I saw so many great shows at the Fillmore - Frank Zappa, Paul Butterfield, Chicago Transit Authority. I saw the original Jethro Tull line up. You name it. Savoy Brown. Zillions of groups. I saw The Who there. Miles Davis! A lot of different groups. Bill Graham went to my high school, DeWitt Clinton, in the Bronx.
I didn't know he grew up in the Bronx.
Yeah, he did. Every night at the Fillmore he had three very interesting bands. It's not like today where you have to have three of the same type of bands on a bill, otherwise people get really antsy. I'd see Frank Zappa, Chicago and the Youngbloods all on one show.
If someone today had the money and tried to put on a diverse bill people wouldn't be into it.
Everything was just music, it wasn't about "this is metal, this is hard rock, this is pop, this is funk." There were no titles back then. It was all just music, it was all just rock n roll. I think that's what's sorely missing around today. People are like "If it's not viking metal then you can't listen to it!"
You can't have viking metal, power metal and thrash metal on the same bill.
Can't have that! No!
What about Grand Funk and Humble Pie at Shea Stadium in 71. Were you at that show?
I didn't make it to that one. I did see Humble Pie at the Fillmore, though.
They just released a box set of all the recordings they made when Humble Pie did their live album there.
That must be amazing. They were tremendous, boy! Peter Frampton was amazing and Steve Marriott was one of the best singers in the world, too.
I wanted to ask you about the instrumental album you did called Thunderboss [with Dictators drummer JP "Thunderbolt" Patterson]. Not a lot of people know about it. Is that when you first met Dean?
Yeah, JP was friends with Dean because they played together in Karen Black. JP was always like "You gotta hear this guy Dean play!" He was always raving about him. Finally we did that record and a show at JP's bar and it was great. Dean has been in the fold ever since. He's an amazing musician. He's an incredible guitar player in his own right. He can go out and play guitar in any band. As a bass player he's amazing and has great stage presence. Great friend and a great head of hair, too.
I like to hassle him that he has Mark "The Animal" Mendoza's job. That reminds me. I've heard some wild stories about Mendoza and the way he treated rental cars when he was in The Dictators.
Oh! Well, Mark had this side to him that he was just a bad ass motherfucker. I mean he was just a bad-ass-guy. He had an edge on him. He loved to drive and whenever he got his hands on a car, forget that car. He would show everybody how he would drive. We're going down the highway in the middle of nowhere. He would go 80 miles an hour, turn the engine off as we're driving, pump the gas, then turn the car back on so flames would come out of the back. He would drive the car like it was part of him.
And Mark didn't drink or anything, right?
Mark told me something about how he would wake up early on tour and play bumper cars in the parking lot.
Yeah, he'd just polish them off. Great guy. Great musician, too. Dean loves Mark's playing.
I saw Twisted Sister a couple times at L'Amour and stood right in front of his amps. I thought I was going to throw up because he played so loud.
Yeah! I know. He's good, man.
Alright Ross, thanks for talking to me today. I really appreciate.
My pleasure. See you soon.
More info -
Death Dealer "Warmaster"
The Dictators "Search & Destroy" 1977