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Articles Home » Music Talk » Interview with W.A.S.P. Guitarist Doug Blair By Thomas Amoriello Jr.
Interview with W.A.S.P. Guitarist Doug Blair By Thomas Amoriello Jr.

Saws and Blades

Interview with W.A.S.P. Guitarist Doug Blair

By Thomas Amoriello Jr.

Boston Rock Radio

 

Photo by Erika WallBerg

  

The American shock rock and metal band W.A.S.P. exploded onto the scene alongside the likes of Quiet Riot, Motley Crue, and Ratt during the heyday of the Sunset Strip and MTV rotation.  Led by Blackie Lawless, the difference with WASP is the continuous critical output and not just resting on nostalgia.  The band has had many talented musicians over the years in the band to help interpret the compositions of Lawless and today we are fortunate to talk with longtime guitarist Doug Blair.  He is not only a talented guitarist live and in the studio with the band but also is equally creative and gifted in the area of guitar construction as a luthier.  Once again, thank you Mr. Blair for this exclusive Boston Rock Radio interview.

Photo by Maria Bress

 

Thank you Doug for speaking with Boston Rock Radio.  We hope that you have been healthy and safe in Finland? You teach private guitar lessons here in Turku, as well as coaching bands and also conduct clinics abroad. How would you describe your teaching style?

Hey guys!! Thanks for having me on the show! -- you don’t know how much I miss Boston right now ... big snowstorms!

Finland is an interesting scenario because it’s not a central or passing-through point, like Stockholm, London, or other EU cities are, for example. It’s kind of the outermost Eastern reach of northern Europe up here, before you get to Russia -- so by default of geography and travel, not many people come here. Kind of like Portland, ME. The edge of the earth...

I believe this factor has worked in favor of keeping the initial infections out, and under control when they have arrived. Sweden’s a totally different story ... but we’ve been rather tightened up here with restrictions, but nowhere near other places. The economy has gone off the rails, as expected.

I’ve been teaching since the mid-80s in CT, so it’s always been a major part of playing guitar. I’ve always prefered face-to-face/one-on-one for the personal connection and interaction, and I still have numerous private students here. But what’s really cool, is that the program I moved here for actually ‘coaches’ bands! It’s called ‘Rock Academy Finland’, and it started in 2011 as a city social program. There’s a lot of experienced and talented musicians running them -- they’re now franchised out to eight Finnish cities, and there are multiple bands involved at each location.

With the ‘clinics’ -- which I dreamed of having in the states -- I’m able to develop ‘themed’ presentations and visit the various cities, performing for and speaking to the young musicians and band members about -- well, all the shit we’ve all done over the years! Which is just the same shit they’re doing -- you see, here seems to be a mirror reflection back to the mid-90s in Boston for me, for example. I talk about maximizing club performances, draw, and promotion. And then maybe self-recording and releasing, maximizing/maintaining your gear, going after endorsements. I use Extreme and Mass for examples, Tony MacAlpine, Godsmack and Staind -- so many great bands rose out of the Boston/NE club scene in our day! And they all worked their asses off to do it ... so I love telling their amazing stories!

Aside from Covid, the scene is here quite healthy and active. Other than a certain celebrity/fame-driven obsession -- that of course has bubbled up all over, not only here. But the bands here have loads of opportunity, which we didn’t have coming up, and also which is not present elsewhere -- unfortunately not in the US, either. So, it’s a matter of capitalizing on that.

Finland -- and maybe adding Sweden to it -- is just about the same size as New England. I grew up criss-crossing the Northeast, from NYC to Rochester, to Burlington, VT to Boston, to the Cape and Albany and all the many cities in-between. All while being based in CT or Boston area. So, the feel is very familiar, other than the annoying lack of highways. We have to mostly watch for moose, deer -- and speed cameras!

I’d say my strongest teaching attribute is to relate with the teenagagers and young people I get to work with. Maybe I never actually grew up, but I feel in line with them as they dream of making a life in music. I try to give them a good example, and in turn they keep me feeling young and connected to their perspective of the industry, which of course has changed monumentally.

 

Wow, in addition to your career as a luthier and being in W.A.S.P. you are busy.  What have you learned over the years from Blackie Lawless as a songwriter and bandleader?

The guitar building and modding just came naturally alongside trying to squeeze more out of the gear I could afford back when I started. Fortunately, it’s become a viable side-business, and a truly enjoyable challenge!

I’d say that I/we -- speaking of Stet Howland, as we both came from our own New England trio ‘Run 21’ to W.A.S.P. in different ways and times -- were quite well-prepared from our formative club work, to join this band. But I’d contend that notion was only from a performing/touring standpoint: we had not developed our own songwriting skills or styles yet.

To me, Blackie is the quintessential singer/songwriter cut straight from the Dylan/Mitchell/Springsteen mold, yet just packaged up in a different era’s wrapper. The iconic songs, to me, are applicable in any environment and time. They’re timeless, and like Elton John and Bowie staples, will likely be re-adopted by newer artists and enjoy musical reincarnation.

These writers can seamlessly open their hearts and souls, find a few chords on a guitar or piano, and change countless lives with the result. Simple as that. So, what have I learned? That’s a great question. Through observation, watching the process, being privileged to add to the orchestrations and arrangements of the core ideas, I’ve come to understand more fully that certain processes can be collaborative. But the main core elements of a song and the writer’s delivery, are usually developed independently and must remain fully personal. So, you learn how and when not to get in the way of that.

In regards to ‘bandleader’, we’ve seen how a functioning democratic group can achieve big things when we all work hard together -- mostly on the live elements of the overall project. He always maintains a strong, dependable team around the business and the band. This is the crew -- including many Germans, Brits and Finns over the years, the agents and promoters, production firms and various audio/video partners, etc. And we discuss things clearly and respectfully, so I always say that communication is key to any successful outfit.


In W.A.S.P there has been a few changes in recent years regarding the drum position.  As a longtime band member, are there those "keep you on your toes" moments when the first few shows occur with the new guy?  Obviously everybody at this level is a total pro. 

Yes, since Mike Dupke left to enjoy his family -- and he is certainly missed -- we’ve been lucky to have several amazing players joining us on the throne. Obviously, excellent drummers have been in short short supply for decades, hence the **musical chairs** in so many top bands! I like to say we’ve covered a few countries with the guys: a Swede, an Austrian, an American, a Canadian from Germany, and a Brasilian! It’s actually been an enlightening process -- so many cultures and backgrounds! And we enjoy working with each one!

Otherwise, the ‘break in’ process -- and not only for new drummers, most often for crew also -- occurs in the L.A. boot camp rehearsals that we subject ourselves to preceding each tour or festival run. Any weaknesses or anxieties are sweated out there! Many of our genre’s bands just fly in and rehearse at soundcheck -- and that’s enough for them. Not the case here. All of us need and want to re-enter that ‘void’ -- even if only for a few shows. Because every show lives on its own, regardless of its context -- and nowadays in infamy, with everyone recording and posting incessantly in Hi-Def. So, we take that very seriously -- maintaining our live performance ‘QC threshold’ at a level that we’ll be proud of discovering any recording of any show from the past!


You have been involved in Europe's top 'lutherie' school, the Ikata School of Guitar Building, earning a degree and collaborating on several cutting-edge guitar designs and projects. What was this training like for you? Did you ever have the opportunity to "pick their brains" of other luthiers? 

This has really been one of the totally unexpected surprises of living over here in Finland. I’d heard about Ikata graduate’s guitars previously -- Chris Holmes played a really cool ‘Amfisound’ guitar -- but didn’t know about the actual school. One day in 2014, the very small builders web that exists here caught me serendipitously, and so began a great relationship with the school, its students and the instructors. I’ve done several clinics there, earned an ‘apprentice level’ certificate degree and collaborated on many projects, including major improvements to W.A.S.P. stage guitars, and developing an unprecedented double-neck “Reso-Tele” guitar design.

Through building many guitars in the 80s and 90s, I’m still familiar with most of the processes and techniques, although the Finns are certainly experts in wood -- as it grows everywhere here! What is most valuable however, is the chance to be immersed amongst so many other builders and being able to see, learn, bounce ideas off of them, etc. It’s just like being in a room full of great guitarists, and just walking around with your guitar and playing with each of them! “Picking their brains” is a fitting description of what I do when I visit there.

Photo By Jan Tyrgg

Have you learned from the electric guitar designing pioneers in the industry such as Paul Reed Smith, Dean Zelinsky, Ned Steinberger, Tony Zemaitis, Bernie Rico, and Jol Dantzig as well?

Great question! Yes, indirectly -- but because I worked at Parker Guitars north of Boston for 3 years in the late 90s, I have to add Ken Parker to that list! All of these men were inventive and self-motivated geniuses, whose early inspired work allowed them to grow into a player-promoted and supported businesses. They all have such obvious parallels to unsigned bands that believe in themselves, and steer straight towards their goals.

Mr. Steinberger and Mr. Dantzig fall into a slightly different category, along with Mr. Parker -- as designers who thought a bit more outside the box, and brought their instrument-forward ideas to the market. They’re my heroes -- and I often say that there’s only one other man that working for could compare to working with Blackie. And that’s Ken Parker. Driven? He defines the word. My 3 years there taught me more about teamwork and accomplishment than any other time. Many parallels can be found with working with W.A.S.P., or any successful band. They’re essentially small businesses, and need to operate with that level of efficiency, or fail.

And these parallels extend also to the concept of ‘solo’ vs. ‘corporate’ -- as many musicians, myself included, often straddle and drift between ‘your own band’ and ‘the bigger band’. Many musicians develop their talent, are then discovered and drafted into a larger organization or even ‘corporation’ to either stay, working on their ‘solo’ vision in-between, or eventually break away again to go back to their own ‘brand’, once they’ve built a reputation and market visibility. This has happened with Ken Parker and Joel Dantzig from Hamer, among many others in the guitar design world. And countless times in the musical and guitar playing world in particular.


What are your upcoming plans with Douglas Blair's signal2noise? This is a 'power duo' along with a drummer from a popular Finnish band (Santa Cruz)?

Before I moved abroad to Finland -- and especially before I re-joined W.A.S.P. in 2006, I was heavily focused on developing both a new instrument, the 8-string GuitarCross bass/guitar hybrid, and a new band concept, the ‘power duo’. I worked with an awesome drummer/singer/lyricist in Boston named John Anthony, who now has been playing with the legendary Jon Butcher for a few years. We were prolific -- and it’s really easy to write with only one other musician, part of the magic of a power duo.

The ‘GX’ works very well, and together John and I forged a deep catalog of both vocal and instrumental music featuring the 8-string and the power duo concept. We also recorded over 20 songs in various Boston-area studios that remain officially unreleased. This year, the old tracks have been remixed. Some songs have been re-sung, and several local special guests have been invited to contribute... the whole thing has been shined up and updated, and it kicks ass!

If we can go back to your earlier question about songwriting: playing this instrument means developing both guitar and bass parts at the same time. But, more surprisingly, it acts even more like a simple acoustic guitar, when working on the ‘core’ lyrics/melodies/chords of an actual ‘song’ -- as opposed to an instrumental exercise in taming two disparate monsters! Yet, the latter challenging aspect is also a killer part of it: we play Rush’s ‘yyz’ as ‘yz’, and Zep’s ‘No Quarter’! In the US, we did appear at numerous Boston-area shows, even supporting Tesla as one highlight! So, the band was fully-developed already in the US.

However, arriving in Finland, I found it difficult to find a motivated and devoted drummer for the project. The perspective towards being a musician is quite different here -- I’d contend this to be deeply-rooted in the society’s simpler perspective towards work and purpose. In the end, it’s seen as a ‘hobby’, unless of course you get rich and/or famous. This unfortunately, seems much more the reason to be a musician, or artist: for attention and tangible financial gain. The concept of contributing to culture or leaving something behind artistically is rather foreign, I’d lament.

Finally, after working with three drummers, an intern for the Rock Academy became the guy! He was soon snatched up for touring with national glam stars Santa Cruz, but with the break for all of us, I’ve been able to work with him a lot. And we really got the ball rolling in 2020 during the unfortunate endless spate of cancellations! We played several livestreams, clinics and even a great medium-sized rock festival here in Turku, and have developed a wide catalog of live songs.

The debut 9-song release from signal2noise is called ‘fighting mental illness’ and will be released by the Platform West label out of LA sometime in 2021. I’ve worked with these guys extensively on an exciting HP Lovecraft rock opera project, involving Bruce Kulick(ex-KISS) and Mikkey Dee(ex-Motorhead), among many others. They will also co-produce a video.

It’s also engineered and mixed by former interns of our Turku Rock Academy, and as I mentioned earlier, will feature guest appearances by talented singers from the local scene. As the basic tracks were all recorded live -- with minimal overdubs of mainly vocals and some synths -- it is easy to reproduce live, and more importantly, take it to a higher level!

We hope to get more festival slots and hopefully some tour support slots as time permits between W.A.S.P. activities and the evolving touring situation. But, the location here in FI is quite advantageous for ease of traveling throughout the northern EU region, once we can do so again!

On a final note, have you caught any cool music documentaries or biopics on Netflix as of late?

Yes, indeed! I just watched Dave Grohl’s ‘Sound City’ and it really hit home in so many ways. I arrived in LA alone, to audition for W.A.S.P. It was summer ’92, at Blackie’s Fort Apache Studios shortly after the central date of that doc. Somehow, even though I’ve worked in some great old-school iconic LA studios that are still open like Stagg Street Studios and SIR, I never went to Sound City. It’s along the train tracks that slice the valley in half, just like most of the rehearsal places we’ve used over the years.

Dave’s a few years younger than I, so we grew up loving the same bands and music, and share many of those sensibilities. With Blackie, we certainly still still track straight to a Studer 24-track 2” tape machine, as in the movie -- and he also has a vintage history-packed Trident desk in storage, saved from one of the LA studios that closed for all the same reasons. He’s taken a number of channel strips out and re-cased them, so we can track through the prized analog pre-amps. So, all of that was like watching my own story, to a degree. And to think just how many different parallel stories were playing out in LA those days...

 

Links:

W.A.S.P.: www.waspnation.com

facebook: https://www.facebook.com/officialdouglasblair

guitars: https://www.facebook.com/strunguptight 

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCyQqhvUHHB6J7NDydnZ0q0w

signal2noise: www.s2nusa.com

 

Boston Rock Radio's Thomas Amoriello is a heavy metal guitarist, educator, recording artist and children's picture book author who resides in Lambertville, New Jersey. You can learn more about Tom at: https://thomasamoriello.com

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