Standing outside the Jan Smith Studio in Atlanta, GA, sweat drips from my brow. The sluggish and humid summer heat gives one no respite - it’s relentless, it's in your face and at the end of the day, it wears you down. Such is the intensity of a Southern summer and such is the intensity of a live metal show - rock n' roll is the trademark Southern American sound and metal is its fierce cousin that likes to party a little bit harder.
Rich “The Duke” Ward, acclaimed guitarist and mastermind behind the rap-metal fusion group Stuck Mojo and WWE Superstar Chris Jericho fronted heavy metal juggernaut Fozzy greet me at the door. "C'mon in," Ward says. "Great to see you." Now there's something that's understated with Mr. Ward that should see proper redress; Rich Ward is probably the nicest man you'll probably ever meet in rock n' roll. Kind, respectful as well as softly and intelligently spoken, Rich is one "helluva guy" or as we'd say in Australia, a "top bloke." (I kind of wanted to hug him a few more times after he gave me a man-hug as a greeting, to be quite honest.)
Walking past walls and walls loaded full with memorabilia, Rich leads me to a mixing studio, decked out with massive LCD screens, a full mixing desk and even more equipment with which to create that elusive "studio magic” for their follow up to 2004’s All That Remains, entitled Chasing the Grail. The title was not picked arbitrarily; both for the album and the lead song from the album (that sounds like Ozzy meets ZZ Top on steroids, incidentally) – it was product of a highly philosophical and introspective process from lead vocalist and lyricist Chris Jericho, as Rich enlightens us.
“It’s about the search for something we all ultimately want in life – which is purpose. The grander answers; not stuff like ‘how am I gonna make it this month, how am I gonna pay my rent, how am I going to get my kids to soccer practice on time,’ it’s a look at the grander scheme of things. It’s asking – ‘what am I supposed to do?’
“A lot of people go to prayer or meditation or whatever their comfort zones are when they look for those sorts of things. But then there are people that do not. They go through their whole life not caring about those sorts of things. They never have those moments of introspection asking ‘why am I here, what am I supposed to do, what talents and skills and gifts do I have and how do I focus those to be the best that I can be?’ That’s what the song is about, the quest for that. We thought it was a great constant theme for the album.”
And Chasing the Grail, set to be released tentatively early in 2010, will notch up the sixteenth studio record for Ward, another record driven by his hunger for challenges and thinking outside the square. Fans can expect moods atypical for Fozzy; with one particular track - New Day’s Dawn - evoking a melancholic feel, teeming with sprawling orchestral strings and gothic vocal touches. It’s a special love of Ward’s, affording him an opportunity to reach for something just beyond his musical grasp.
“It’s not easy to write songs like [New Day’s Dawn]. It’s easy to write the big riffs, you know, the faster, huge grooves and stuff. That’s what I’m good at. Chris is great at the aggressive, ‘yeah yeah yeah!’ kind of vocals. You really try to write a little bit outside of your comfort zone because it’s nice to mix it up a bit.
“I mean, you don’t want to do a whole album like that because as a fan, it’s always nice to have your comfort stuff; something familiar – like Mac n’ cheese. But once in a while, as a side item, you want to try something new and interesting. I mean, if you put out the same album as before, fans have a tendency to say ‘this isn’t anything new,’ while if you do something completely different, fans are upset about that too.
“There’s a fine line you have to walk between deviating from the course and staying on it.”
But Fozzy fans shouldn’t despair; Ward assures fans that despite some experimentation and boundary pushing, the album will be chock full of that ‘comfort stuff.’
“Oh, there’s plenty of heavy stuff,” Rich says, visibly excited to share his passion. “The album is much heavier. It’s a much more aggressive album.” Rich pauses, reflecting briefly before taking a different tack.
“You can’t second guess things. You write songs. We don’t have meetings. We don’t ask ourselves, ‘Should this song go on the album?’ We just write the album. It is what it is. It’s like an extension of ourselves. There’s never a meeting with management or the record company or whatever; these are the songs. And like anyone, you hope that your fan base and the press love it because it’s always nice to get confirmation that you’re doing things that people gave you the thumbs up on.”
The album might just get some of those vaunted thumbs up by harnessing the boys at their best; firing on all cylinders and channeling their childhood loves through a metallic lens, as Rich tells us.
“Chris is at his best when he’s cranky and in your face and pissed off. So we get him to focus on his vocals when he’s doing that stuff. But then sometimes we step back and say ‘OK, lets try and have some fun here and try some different things.’ One song [on the album] is called Broken Soul; it sounds like Fozzy meets Lynyrd Skynyrd. It’s a great throwback to old Bad Company tunes. People would expect that because I live in Atlanta…and that’s what I grew up on. Ted Nugent, ZZ Top, AC/DC. Those are the bands that really influenced me, as well as [Iron] Maiden and [Judas] Priest, Ozzy [Osbourne], Accept and Whitesnake and so on.
“I was never really into metal until Slayer came out and I went ‘Oooh!’ I also heard Ride the Lightning first; Among the Living by Anthrax changed my life. Chaos A.D. by Sepultura; those albums made me think of metal differently. When Cowboys from Hell came out that was obviously another watershed. Chris is the same; we grew up on the same kind of bands. But as a ‘Southern Boy’ I’m much more into vibe than technical prowess.”
Does that mean he shies away from it?
“Oh no, I love playing with guys who are into the more technical stuff,” he says, smiling. “I think it’s a nice marriage. You don’t want five guys in the band who all think ZZ Top’s cool. Someone in the band should think ZZ Top’s stupid.” He laughs.
“I mean that’s what makes for good soups; different ingredients. I think it’s really cool that Chris and I have some common interests as well as some diversity when it comes to music. I mean, our bass player Sean Delson is the biggest King Crimson, Rush and Dream Theater fan; he loves progressive music. He can groove and sit in the pocket, but he really adds a progressive element that really does boost the Fozzy sound.”
Chasing the Grail makes use of this “melting pot” of creativity, combining heavy, forceful guitars with even more keyboards than ever before.
“In the past, keyboards have been a small element of the band. On this album there are more elements of keys in it. More string arrangements, Hammond B3 organ stuff to mix with that big, blues rock, Deep Purple thing that we have going on. Eric Frampton, our keyboard player on this album is a big prog rock guy too; he’s into Kate Bush and Genesis. Its just great to collaborate with people who think differently.”
Fozzy as a band and an entity are constantly pushing boundaries, especially in their approach to getting their music to the fans; as a US based band, they elected to sign with Australian metal label Riot! Entertainment, with frontman Chris Jericho declaring them the only label worthy of releasing Fozzy material; Rich wholeheartedly agrees.
“Chris has been friends with [CEO of Riot] John Howarth for many years and I met him in 2004. I met him in Los Angeles, nicest guy in the world, I loved him; I loved the fact that he was a huge metalhead, he loves wrestling and he was a huge Mojo fan and also put out my solo album in Australia.
“He took us out to Australia for a tour, was the best tour promoter we ever had, he was the most thorough, he did the best job and he was also like one of the best sort of people. When we were thinking of what we were gonna do with the next Fozzy record, John is the first person we thought of. He gets it. He understands wrestling, he understands heavy metal better than anyone I’ve known…I mean I was signed to Century Media for a number of years – of course they know metal. But John worships metal.
“It wasn’t just a business to him, it was a lifestyle. I know he would honour it and do a good job. Plus there was a friendship there and a trust; because let’s face it, the music industry isn’t exactly filled with the most honorable people out there. I’ve been ripped off many times by many labels and we knew going in with John it just wasn’t going to happen. We knew we were dealing with someone who was like family and we also knew he was one of the best at what he did in the world. It was a no-brainer.”
Fozzy are definitely unusual insofar that their lead vocalist is almost constantly touring – albeit as a professional WWE wrestler – placing strict limits on when Jericho can appear in the studio and tour, fitting them around his strenuous wrestling schedule; as well as leaving time to see his family. The genesis of a Fozzy record doesn’t take place in the back of a bus or a rehearsal room but over the internet and phone, as Rich guides us through their (fairly) straightforward process.
“Chris sends me about fourteen or fifteen sets of lyrics. Then he says ‘Go through them, see what hits you, what inspires you and let’s start working on a new album.’ I’ve got a home studio; so I’m able to write and record there, so I’m able to put songs together a great deal. I send Chris mp3s and ask what he thinks and we kind of write over the internet. Chris trusts me to write songs around his sets of lyrics.
“I’ll usually drive or fly down to Tampa (in Florida) to a studio down there and go over the songs together; and he’s got them well rehearsed by that stage since he’s heard my interpretations of his lyrics – and I try to stay faithful to his vision, whether it's light, dark, more melancholy or aggressive…then we might make some changes and we record the stuff there.”
Although Rich works hard and rejects the rock n’ roll lifestyle of excess by “owning a house with the wife and a used car [he] paid cash for,” he loves immersing himself in the rich history of the rock canon; listening to Pink Floyd’s classic Dark Side of the Moon in “complete silence” is one of Ward’s favorite pastimes on the road, as well as dissecting the inner workings of rock, starting with Van Halen.
“Van Halen were like a moonshot,” he says, arm shooting towards the sky. “They just came out of nowhere. I mean, there are some bands that just have their own sound and sort of skip evolution and create their own thing and Van Halen is one of them. I mean, just try to sound like ZZ Top, Pink Floyd or Skynyrd. Skynyrd sounds like Skynyrd! Forget it! It’s never going to happen. Because they captured a moment in time that was unique and special; it’s why I look up to those bands. When I listen to Queen or Pantera I always think that that will never happen again.”
As a musician, Rich feels blessed to be paid for what he does; afforded a rare opportunity of melding his passion and vocation, he reflects on where he is and how much it means to him to be there.
“There is nothing in life I’d rather do than sit in the studio and take what started off as nothing; a page full of lyrics and a couple of riffs, and a couple of drum beats and you keep building it and when it’s all over you have this piece of music that will never go away.”