Interview – PRAYING MANTIS (all the band) – July 2012 – Chris Galea
THE MANTIS COMETH
Some say its better not to meet your idols in case they turn out to be arrogant twits. Well, such a warning must have been made without considering Praying Mantis, a band whose members are amongst the most talented, passionate and friendliest musicians I’ve ever met.
Praying Mantis was formed by brothers Tino and Chris Troy in London in 1974 and the band became associated with the NWOBHM (New Wave Of British Heavy Metal) phenomenon. Their debut album - “Time Tells No Lies” - was released in 1981 to enduring critical acclaim. Since then the band released a total of 8 studio-albums and has acted as a revolving door to countless musicians. Thanks to a superlative album called “Sanctuary”, released a couple of years ago, the new line-up has managed to tap into a newfound well of enthusiasm and creativity.
Just as the band had finished their sound-check at a South London venue, they accepted my invitation for an interview before their actual performance. And so, amidst an ambience of pervasive laughter and zany jokes (mainly courtesy of Mr. Tino Troy), the hereunder interview took place. ‘Band’ meaning: lead vocalist Mike Freeland, guitarists Tino Troy and Andy Burgess, bassist Chris Troy and drummer Gary Mackenzie.
[Tino plays his guitar nonchalantly as the interview kicks off….]
Tino: Can you write music, Chris?
No, not really.
Tino: Well if you could write music, you could write these notes in the background of the interview. Ha-ha!!
During the soundcheck you played ‘Dream On’ [which originally appeared on the 1993 album “A Cry For The New World”] – is that the way you normally play that song live because it sounded different from the original version…..
Tino: Does it? No, it’s not so different……
Andy: …..actually you’re right - the version we played is the ‘mistakes’ version!
[laughter from all the band]
Tino: Seriously though, I think we’ve actually matured since then. I’ve listened to the original version and I feel the live version comes across really well.
OK, let’s talk about your most recent studio-album…..I feel that in many ways “Sanctuary” is the best album Praying Mantis released. One reason for this is that it covers a wider range of musical elements than albums such as “Predator In Disguise” or “A Cry For The New World”. How much was this a conscious effort?
Tino: It was. We spent a lot of time writing it. We wrote it over a 6-year period, didn’t we?
Chris: Yeah, although we probably spent 4 of those focused on the album. I think we spent a lot of time analysing the songs and considering whether they were strong enough. To their credit, Frontiers [the current record label of Praying Mantis] were involved in that part of it as well.
But we also had a virtually new band, with a totally different line-up from the previous album. We got Andy Burgess in and Mike Freeland and a little while later we got Mr. Mackenzie.
Tino: He wasn’t involved in the recording of the album even if he really wanted to. Gary Mackenzie does a very sterling job behind the drum-kit in our live performances and he actually wants us to do more songs from that album. Andy has similar influences to mine as regards guitar and we really work well together on the harmony parts of things.
I reckon that’s an important factor since the music of Praying Mantis has a significant focus on guitar harmonies.
Tino: Yeah, he’s got the same melodic outlook as me…..but he’s more good-looking than me!
Tino: Actually he pays me to say that during interviews.
[Again, laughter all around!]
Tino: Mike is the quiet one but when he sings he’s very loud.
Mike: With the “Sanctuary” album we also spent 4 weeks living together in Atlanta pulling the whole thing together in the album’s final stages and I think that really made a big difference. Even though the core songs were already written by then, a lot of them took shape while we were together in the States. And Andy Reilly, the producer, was really tough with us. He’d just go…..[Mike puts on a scornful face and wags his finger….]
I suppose that’s what one would want from a producer…to be blatantly honest…
[Sound engineer Andy Reilly has previously worked with bands such as Asia, UFO and Moonspell, in capacities which include mixer, producer and live sound engineer.]
Tino: The great thing about Andy Reilly is that he’s a friend of ours but at the same time, when it came down to the nitty-gritty of it, to get us to perform the song in the best possibly way he’d be dead serious and say “let’s not joke anymore now”.
Andy: He isn’t afraid to express his opinion and it was good to have an outside influence to give us his take on the songs.
Tino: In fact he’d usually give us the brutally frank version of his opinion in the studio. He’d go: “Mike, there’s only one little problem with that. It was fucking shit!”
[everyone roars with laughter]
Once we’re speaking of “Sanctuary” I’d like to pick a couple of specific songs from that album….such as ‘Playing God’, what is that song about?
Tino: It’s about a horse! [laughs, then becomes more sombre and nods at Chris beside him]
Chris: I suppose it’s the lyric I’m most attuned to. It’s inspired by a good friend of my step-son who got killed in a car accident. It was a friend of his that was actually driving and he felt so responsible for what he had done that he became but a shell of his former self. I’ve met him a couple of times and he told me “Why could it not be me [to have died]?” It was a very emotional aspect of the story and hence the song ‘Playing God’ came out of that.
That’s very interesting. Another song I like is ‘Threshold Of A Dream’…what’s that one about?
Tino: Did you say ‘Freshold Of A Cream’? Ha-ha-ha!!
Andy: I wrote most of the music on that one and me and Mike spent quite a bit of time on it. It’s kind of from a drug-influenced-Michael point-of-view.
[Someone passes a joke about locking Mike in a cupboard which I didn’t quite get.]
Mike: Andy came up with the ideas for that song which were really good and I was trying to work on some melodies for it. Believe it or not, I asked myself ‘What would Dio do with this one?’ There isn’t a specific aspect to the theme, even though there is a hint at witchcraft and paganism. But for the whole song, I literally set myself an exercise asking myself ‘What would Ronnie James Dio do with this? How would Dio approach this song?’ In the end it probably isn’t a good reflection of Dio but the inspiration was definitely from him.
Andy: You could have made something up there, Mike. You could have said that you were once buggered by Bedouins. [laughs]
Mike: It was a little bit about paganism and witchcraft and with a focus on dreams and being true to your beliefs.
It seems Dio was a big influence on you, Mike….
Mike: Yes, very much so. He was always a major influence.
Tino: Tell me about a Heavy Metal vocalist who wasn’t influenced by Dio!
That’s absolutely true – Dio influenced the whole Metal genre and not just a couple of singers.
Gary, you’ve been quiet until now. How did you come to be part of the Praying Mantis family?
Gary: I’ve been a friend of Michael’s for many many years. I’ve been in quite a few bands with him for a long time…..for over 20 years in fact. When Mike got the gig with Praying Mantis, I was really really pleased for him. Then when “Sanctuary” came out, I got a copy of the album and I was blown away. Like you, I felt it was the best thing they’d ever done.
[Tino is still playing guitar during the interview.]
Gary: So I made sure that whenever I could, I went to see them play live.
Andy: You whored yourself for the band!
Gary: Yeah, in fact I offered Andy my bottom too but sadly he was not interested. [grins sarcastically]
Tino: What are you saying? We’ve got pictures of you with Andy! [laughs hysterically]
Gary: Well, Benji [Benjamin Reid], who plays drums on “Sanctuary” …..
Gary: You know…American geezer? Long hair…plays drums?
Tino: Oh, him!
Gary: Benji had an opportunity to play with a Led Zeppelin tribute band, which was good for him. It kept him busy, kept him off the streets. But the problem was that their schedule was quite full – they had quite a few gigs around. So he couldn’t commit to the gigs that Mantis had booked and Mantis began looking for another drummer.
Mike asked if I’d like to audition and of course I jumped at the chance because it was a bit of a dream gig actually. So I auditioned for the band, I got the job and I said ‘Thank you very much.’ And it’s been great for the time I’ve been with them, to play with really strong musicians and to have the opportunity to play in places and for people that I would never have otherwise had. So I’m very very happy about being with Praying Mantis.
Tino: And thanks to Gary, I had to bring out my old Prog Rock records again….
So you’re a Prog Rock fan, Gary?
Gary: I am, yes.
Every now and then Praying Mantis has gone close to Prog Rock territory, particularly in albums such as “The Journey Goes On” or the debut “Time Tells No Lies”. Is this an avenue you’d be interested in exploring more in the future?
Tino: I think the music naturally goes that way anyway. I mean the compositions’ dynamics seem to indicate the songs are quite Proggy anyway, but with a more modern sound I suppose. Catchy, definitely, but probably not so self-indulgent in favour of the song.
Chris: The song has got to be the main thing and I don’t think it would work if we’d try to be something that we’re not. Given the back catalogue and the whole range of material that we have, I think that moving too far away from that would be a mistake. The band is known for strong songs, strong twin-guitar parts, good vocals, vocal melodies and hooks…..
Gary: ….and the last to leave the bar!
[all the band laughs and nods in agreement]
Chris: As long as those elements are always going to be there, then you can expect to hear all sorts of things from the band but I don’t think you’re ever going to hear a 20-minute plus epic from us.
Andy: At the same time, Chris’ songwriting has a complexity and a depth to it that sometimes it has to…..[pauses to find the right words]……
Tino: …..be tamed?
Andy: Yes, and I realised this when I joined the band and I had to learn the band’s back catalogue. In fact there wasn’t one song that didn’t have any complexities in it but when you get into it [the songs] you realise that it’s a song more than anything else and it’s only thought of as being Proggy due to its complexities.
Tino: And they’re bastards to play live!
Andy: Yeah, but that’s what I enjoy most in playing them. Also, when we write new songs together, we all have our own songwriting styles and yet each of them complements each other perfectly.
Let’s speak about the ‘vocal’ aspect of the songs…..at the time of the “Predator In Disguise”  album, the band had recorded and toured with guitarist Dennis Stratton [Iron Maiden, The Denial, Lionheart] and bass player Chris performing lead vocals. What made you want to recruit a full-time singer again?
Chris: Personally, I don’t think we were strong enough. I think when you’re [also] playing an instrument the vocals don’t quite come across. But when we did “Predator…” I think we had Gary [Barden] singing with us. [looks at rest of band…..] Didn’t we have Gary with us then?
Gary: Not on “Predator…”, no.
Tino [to Chris Troy]: It was you and Dennis, mostly. Though at that time we did one tour of Japan, and it was Gary Barden who sang with us then. No, wait, it was Doogie [White – Tank, Yngwie Malmsteen, Rainbow], not Gary.
The lead vocalist is possibly the band member who has the greatest impact on the fans. So whenever you brought aboard a new singer, was the band happy to let him reinterpret the existing repertoire or do you normally insist on a faithful interpretation of what fans would be familiar with?
Mike: I think when I joined I tried very hard to stick with what was given to me. Over the years I did occasionally given them my own touch, but not too much. The fans know the songs the way they are, so I’m not one to make that song mine. This is the way it was on the album, it’s the way they’ve heard it, so I’ll stick fairly true to the way the songs were originally done.
Andy: I think what helped was when we recently did the “Metalmorphosis” re-release for the 30th anniversary of the band. And then the Japanaese version, which had 11 songs on it, gave Mike the opportunity to put his own flavour to the old tracks.
[“Metalmorphosis”, released last year, was an EP containing re-recordings of a handful of classic Praying Mantis songs. This was the band’s way of celebrating their 30th year of existence. The Japanese version of “Metalmorphosis” featured almost double the quantity of tracks, effectively making it an album.]
Mike: There was one song – I think it had Gary Barden on vocals - that the only version I had was a live recording. I can’t remember which song it was, but I decided to base my singing on Gary Barden’s version rather than the original.
Speaking of singers, why wasn’t Bernie Shaw around for long, when around 1986 you decided to forego the short-lived Stratus and reform Praying Mantis?
Tino: Because we were still finding our feet on that second album, still waiting for a deal on it. Nothing had happened with the Escape album [1985’s “Throwing Shapes”] and the Stratus thing so when he got offered a gig with Uriah Heep that was that.
[Note: After Praying Mantis had split around 1984, the Troy brothers formed Clive Burr’s Escape, which after a while changed its moniker, first to Escape and then to Stratus. Praying Mantis eventually reformed around 1986/1987.]
Tino: And good luck to Bernie for that – he’s done very well with Uriah Heep. 20 years later and he’s still singing with Uriah Heep.
Gary: Wow, 20 years with the same band are a lot really.
Especially in ‘Praying Mantis’ years!
Chris: I mean Uriah Heep are a great band and we’re happy things have gone well between them and Bernie. We had tried hard and although it may not have been so much on the surface, Bernie was with us for about 3 or 4 years. For example we did the Reading Festival with Bernie and that went down phenomenally well. At the time we really thought that things would start moving. But they didn’t. Then when Uriah Heep offered him the gig, he came to us and was very apologetic about leaving…..
Tino: Nah, he just said “See ya!”
Gary: “I’ve just come to get my coat.”
Chris: Seriously though, we obviously couldn’t blame him for accepting Uriah Heep’s offer.
By the way, how is Clive Burr?
[All the band’s expressions suddenly become very sombre.]
Tino: Bad. Recently I was talking to a friend of ours about meeting up with Clive. I also spoke to Dennis [Stratton], who went to see him. He told me “You really should go and see him before it’s too late.”
I see. So Clive’s situation has only one direction to take, right?
Tino: Yes. Multilple Sclerosis really seems to have got him in a big way and the deterioration in the last few…..[Tino’s voice trials off as he appears to struggle for words]
In fact, when as Praying Mantis we did the live album with him around 1996, even then there were already the beginnings of Clive condition. He was forgetting things and you could already say then that he wasn’t quite the same person he normally was.
It’s a shame. It has often been said that Clive Burr was the best drummer Iron Maiden ever had……
Tino: It’s sad. We really have to go and see him. A mutual friend of ours is trying to arrange a meeting with him but sometimes it’s not that easy due to sudden changes in his health.
Now let’s change topic to a more positive one……
Gary: Yeah, let’s change to a lighter tone.
Praying Mantis has obviously played countless gigs and festivals over the years. Are there any gigs which you remember with particular affection?
Tino: I think last year in Bulgaria was really incredible.
Chris: Yes, I think it was the setting of the gig which made it such as amazing experience. We went on about 9.30 at night, the sun had only just set. In the background were the sprawling mountains. I think we were doing the song ‘Dream On’…and it’s rare that you’re on the stage and everything just sounds incredible. It was actually better than the album – the vocals sounded huge….
Andy: Having done several festivals before at night, it’s not often that you have the full lighting regalia. As we did then.
The song ‘Dream On’ is perfect for the ambience you’re describing.
[All the band express their agreement to this.]
Gary: It was for me too one of my favourite Praying Mantis gigs.
Tino: The hairs on my spine just stood on end with emotion.
Gary: Hold on, the hairs on your spine? Are you a werewolf or what?
[Everyone, including Tino, laughs wildly.]
Tino: Aw all right, the hairs on my scrotum then.
[laughs, while howling like a werewolf.]
Tino: The funniest thing was that that was memorable for me for another reason too.
Andy: You fell down….
Tino: No not that one. It was night time, the lights were on and follow spots were being used. So for example if I was doing a guitar solo, a light would be shining on my head. This attracted a whole lot of moths and insects who congregated on my baldy head. I thought: “What the fuck is going on?” I though people were throwing stones at me before realising that they were actually moths bouncing off my head. [laughs]
Tino: [wiping tears of laughter from his eyes…] It was so funny!
Speaking of tours, what do you remember of ‘Metal For Muthas’ tour Praying Mantis had done with Iron Maiden in the band’s twilight years?
Tino: What do we remember? Good memories. Good fun. We were very fresh then. The thing is at that time Iron Maiden were nothing of what they are now and we were in fact on a parallel with them in terms of success. In fact we were going down better than Iron Maiden at those shows. We had a sound engineer called Dough Hall and at the end of that tour they asked him to be their own sound engineer and he’s still their sound engineer to this day.
Chris: Not only that. There was Rod Smallwood, their manager, who had gone up to Dave Potts, who was then our drummer. Dave was a plain drummer but he was also a very strong and a very solid drummer. And Rod pulled Dave aside and told him, “I’ll offer you the gig.” Yeah, he actually offered Dave Potts to join Iron Maiden as their drummer.
Tino: And Dave replied: “No, because Mantis is going to be bigger than Iron Maiden.”
Tino: Famous last words!
[all the band laughs]
Tino: But hats off to them. They had the image, they had Eddie. We had Betty and Betty fucked up. [laughs]
In fact several ex-Iron Maiden members have played with Praying Mantis over the years (drummer Clive Burr, guitarists Bob Angelo and Dennis Stratton, vocalist Paul Di’Anno….). Do you think this hampered or enhanced the identity of Praying Mantis?
Chris: We’ve toured with them so many times – we must have done about a hundred shows with Iron Maiden – so obviously there was an amazing cohesion between the two bands and we really got on well with them as individuals. So if something did go wrong in Iron Maiden and a band-member of theirs left, it seemed a natural progression for them to join Mantis. And I think that that was the only reason behind it really. When you look back on it, it might seem strange to have had so many Iron Maiden members with Praying Mantis but in those days it seemed a natural thing to do.
Praying Mantis often gets pidgeon-holed with the NWOBHM even though a lot of your material is of the Melodic Rock genre rather than Metal. What genre do you personally consider Praying Mantis to be part of?
Chris: Yeah, we often get asked this question and people some tell us that it didn’t do us any benefit. But I think it did. I think it’s better to go into one pidgeon-hole as opposed to no pidgeon-hole at all.
[Besides me, Tino is imitating the cooing sounds of a pidgeon!!!]
Chris: I think it did surprise certain people when they came to see us. In a way maybe we expanded the genre of the NWOBHM. Maybe we gave it a sort of melodic aspect. So did other bands, as well. For instance, I thought Diamond Head were quite melodic. So like I said, I think it has helped us.
Ok, guys, what’s up next? Are there any concrete plans for another studio-album?
All the band: yes, absolutely.
Chris: As you suggested earlier, “Sanctuary” has set a precedence and we really need to build on that now. I think we’re going to analyse the songs. If need be we’ll discard songs which aren’t strong enough. I think we’ll be very methodical and make sure we’ll actually better that album. “Sanctuary” was a great album and it’s going to be our next task to better it.
Andy: We have to set ourselves some benchmarks and some dates when to achieve our targets, especially now that the anniversary thing is over. I’m quite excited, actually, about our future.
Chris: One thing I’ve personally learnt from the “Sanctuary” album is that sometimes, when a song isn’t working, you just have to change one very small part of it and it becomes brilliant. For example ‘Tears In The Rain’ wasn’t quite working when we wrote it so we just pushed the melody an octave higher and suddenly it worked.
Mike: Something similar also happened to ‘Touch The Rainbow’.
Chris: You know, it gets me thinking that we might have thrown so many songs by the wayside because that small little change was not applied to them.
What about a DVD release?
Tino: Well we’ve already released a few DVDs: “Captured Alive In Tokyo City”…..
I mean a DVD which covers all the band’s career, with interviews, live and candid footage, etc.
Andy: Oh, you mean like a ‘Rockumentary’?
Tino: A ‘Mant-umentary’….yeah I suppose we could. Another thing we could do was something I was recently speaking about to a Praying Mantis fan. You see, we now have such a vast repertoire that it would be impossible to please all fans on what to include in our set. So I said maybe we should have an all-day festival on Praying Mantis and play all our albums. Every now and again we’d have a break to do signing sessions, sell T-shirts, meet the press….
Gary: …and drink. We’d be alright for the first 45 minutes, when alcohol would then take over.
[all the band laughs]
We’ve got to the end of the interview. Anything you’d like to add?
Andy: Last year we played in Sweden and Norway but missed Denmark so it would be great to play there soon.
Mike: And I mustn’t forget to say a big ‘thank you’ to all our fans, as always.
2012 Chris Galea
Interviewed by Chris Galea