Latest Release: Firewind (AFM Records)Website: www.firewind.gr
Greek guitar wizard Gus G. has dedicated his life to the pursuit of music and with his world renowned, ever growing virtuoso guitar skills, he shows no signs of slowing down. His band, Firewind, has a rich back catalogue of music firmly planted in the heavy metal genre, with a focus on power metal aspects that highlight musical dexterity within concise, well-crafted songs. His erudite approach to musicianship has expanded beyond his instrumental pieces on Firewind releases into capable collaborations for his inevitable solo projects.
After some time serving as Ozzy Osbourne’s guitasrist, Firewind is again a primary band for Gus G. and with a new singer Herbie Langhans joining the ranks, Firewind’s latest self-titled album is a statement of musical intent. It has all the hallmarks of earlier guitar emphasising material but with an updated sound and writing depth from a guitarist and band with a remarkable career that is still rising in stature. Gus G. talked to us about the new album and his achievements, speaking from his lockdown quarters in Greece.
Your new singer, Herbie, has some serious vocal strength. How did you get a hold of him?
I know, man. He is amazing, isn’t he? I think he is probably the best singer that this band has ever had. I mean, they have all been amazing but he brings something really special to the table. I actually got a hold of him through our record label, AFM Records. I asked them back in December and said, ‘Well, we have a situation where we are going to need to find somebody to sing on this record and be able to do the world tour.’ Obviously, this was pre-Coronavirus and they asked, ‘How about Herbie Langhans?’ They sent me some links to check out and I was like, ‘Wow, this guy is insane, he is amazing!’ So, they put us in touch and we started talking. I sent him an old song of ours to try out to see how he sounds on the back catalogue. He killed it and it was great, so the next thing I did was send him a new riff that I had for the record. I sent him the track Devour and he came back the next day with the vocal line for Devour; not the finished lyrics but the vocal line and I was blown away. I thought, ‘Wow, this is it, that’s the guy,’ so we had all these discussions about if he wanted to join and the timing we had since were under a strict time schedule. But I am glad it worked out because otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here talking about this record. I am glad that the guy is part of Firewind now.
I saw him when he was here last year as part of Avantasia’s tour and indeed, he was really good.
Yeah, I think honestly, I had no idea that he was in Avantasia until the label sent me some videos to check. I saw he was doing some backing vocals and stuff but I think that he has probably won over a lot of fans worldwide because of that gig. If I’m not mistaken, he also goes out and sings a couple of songs on lead vocals. I think, like you said, he is probably like a nice surprise where he is one those backing vocalists stepping it up and then singing so well. It was good, yeah.
How much time did you have available to put into the album given you were in need of a new singer and with all of the things that were changing at the time?
Well, here’s the thing; when Herbie joined the band, we already had everything else recorded, like drums were done, guitars, bass and keyboards. Everything of the instruments and the arrangements was done so he kind of had to write on what we gave him. Actually, we even had vocal lines done for four of the songs. That was a good thing for him because he didn’t have to write everything and we really only had a month and a half to finish everything. So we had the vocal lines for four songs and I wrote the lyrics for three of the songs and then basically, we just asked him to write the rest which was seven or eight songs. It was a task though as not everybody could have done that because we really only had five or six weeks to do it all and to not only write it and compose it but to record the actual vocals, the backing vocals and the production before going right into mixing. I mean, had I known that the world would be fucked by Coronavirus, I would not have stressed the guy out so much, you know. Ha, I would have waited a little bit. But somehow it was meant to happen like that, we were meant to work together for the first time under this incredible pressure and we came through so it was great.
A song like Break Away has a similar chord progression to early Yngwie Malmsteen material. Would you agree with that assessment?
Absolutely, I am a big Yngwie fan and that is no secret. That song is a great example of neoclassical metal, in a way, if you want to tag it like that because it is influenced by Yngwie, Racer X and a lot of those eighties things. Man, it is not only that song as a lot of stuff that I do on the record has that kind of vibe. Devour has a little bit of that kind of vibe. Even the more hard rock song, All My Life, has a little of that Yngwie, neoclassical thing. So, yeah, that has been a little bit of my thing overall, throughout my career, not just on this record. It is part of my influences but I am influenced by other things.
At the end of the solo, there is a band tacit moment and at the song’s end there is a cool effect.
Yeah, that was a cool funny thing that I tried. I have this pedal called the Harmonist which is a Boss [PS-6] pedal which has this mode which is like a pitch shifter but there is this mode that you have on the pedal which when you step on it becomes like this whammy pedal and it just raises everything by an octave. So for the ending, I was fucking around with it in the studio so I said, ‘you know what, let me do something crazy!’ I do this big, grand ending, shredding solo and then step on this pedal so it becomes this crazy fucking high pitched sound and then once you step off the pedal, it sounds like the guitar is detuned or running out of battery power. I really thought that was a cool sounding kind of effect so I decided to leave it on there and see if anybody notices. I’m glad you noticed. Ha-ha.
Lyrically, there is an astronaut theme in a few songs. What was the thinking behind that approach?
It all started in the beginning when Herbie joined and he asked, ‘Well, what kind of lyrics should we write about?’ and he’s the new guy so I said, ‘Hey, here’s a story for you, why don’t you write about that?’ We were toying around with the idea of making a concept record but then I thought, ‘Nah, we shouldn’t do another Immortals record, we should do something else,’ but I asked, ‘How about writing something about an astronaut but just in one song, maybe like a Space Odyssey kind of thing?’ He got inspired by that and wrote a little bit of a story that turned out to being spread out across three songs on the record. It is basically about an astronaut going on a space travel. There is a song called Space Cowboy where he feels like he is cool, riding with this spaceship and how cool it is and how great he is feeling up there in space. Then the next song called Orbital Sunrise is where he is looking down at the Earth, realising how beautiful it is versus humanity and all of the bad things that we do to our planet. It is things like that, you know, his thoughts and his feelings from space. Then there is another song, which is a ballad called Longing to Know You and that is basically about him missing his family. That is part of it and I am a big science fiction fan. I love Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick. We released a video and it is very Blade Runner-ish for the song Welcome to the Empire which is about futuristic stuff. That is cool.
As you mentioned the songs All My Life and Space Cowboy, the bluesy solo at the end of the first one reminded me of Gary Moore, whilst the second song reminded me very much of Joe Satriani.
Yeah man, all that stuff you’ve mentioned is part of my musical upbringing and my rock encyclopaedia education. I love Satriani and I love Gary Moore. You’ve just mentioned two of my all-time favourite guitarists, I mean, if you hear any resemblance to them, it is flattering to hear that but it is definitely there. I am proud to say that those guys are my influences and you probably hear a lot of that in my playing.
I believe that Uli Jon Roth was also massive influence on your playing too. That is going back to the seventies but the material is great and probably started inspiring a lot of guitarists.
Yeah, since I was around sixteen years old I was listening to the old Scorpions stuff and then I went on to listening to his Electric Sun [band] and the solo work that he did. That’s where I got the band name from because after he left the Scorpions, he did the albums with Electric Sun and the second album was called Fire Wind. I borrowed that name to name my own band. You know, over the years I’ve actually met Uli and we did a tour together over here in Greece. He is a friend of mine as well as being a big influence. To me, Uli is like the godfather of the shred guitar genre, you know and he came up with a lot of those types of licks before they were commercialised as techniques that you’d find in books and DVDs. He was kind of like the guy that did it all in the seventies before it all became a thing by the eighties shredders.
True, it is funny talking about shred because you’ve also worked with David T. Chastain who owns the Leviathan label and also with the amazing Joe Stump, who plays with Graham Bonnet.
Yeah, it is kind of funny because I used to go to Berklee College of Music in Boston for a little while and I took lessons from Joe Stump there. He was signed to Leviathan and I said to him, ‘Hey, if I send in any of my demos, would you be able to put in a word?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, sure, I think you’re talented so I’ll tell David about you.’ I did send a couple of demos to David and he noticed them and got back to me. We were in touch for a couple of years where he would send me letters and emails to basically help me out to find my way. I was so confused when I was that young, I didn’t know if I wanted to do instrumental records or be a in a band at the same time so he was helping me out back then. He was saying things like, ‘I think you’re great but you should put vocals with your riffs so it can be a great thing’ and eventually, he was the guy who signed me first; his was my first record contract that I signed. That wasn’t even for Firewind but just for me as like a development type of deal where he would help me to put out some sort of album to showcase my talent but we didn’t know what that would be. So, in the end I sort of pressured him to make the album [Between Heaven and Hell] be Firewind and there you have it, that was the first Firewind record.
That makes sense and even looking at your most recent material with the song Devour, I can even hear some Tony MacAlpine styles in there. I don’t know if you agree.
Yeah but I have not studied him as much as other guys but he is one of the guys from that era.
Do you find it frustrating that some of these artists do not get a lot of recognition outside of guitar magazines?
I don’t know, in a perfect world in people’s brains like mine or yours, guys like Tony MacAlpine would sell out arenas and maybe pop acts or something like that would be playing in small clubs, like we do. It would be the exact opposite but that is like in our own Utopian minds. At the end of the day, you have to think like this; that this is not like pop culture. This is a niche market. There is a scene and it something that is a bit more advanced musically. To explain it, it is sort of like jazz where you go to jazz clubs to see a bunch of great musicians or some improvising. It is not like pop culture with what we do. It is there, it exists and it always has a very loyal audience but it is just never going to break through the mainstream because I guess that it is not supposed to. So, for me, it is not upsetting. Like I said, in my mind, if I could have it my way, yeah, probably Racer X or Yngwie would play at Madison Square Garden. Ha-ha, but that is just not the reality. You need to accept that the radio and the pop world works differently. It is a different mechanism or a different beast. What we do is for a smaller audience and I get it, you know.
In that line of things, obviously Ozzy is going to come up. Is there a certain element of playing to the mainstream or to pop culture when you’re playing guitar with someone as big as Ozzy?
Yes, Ozzy is one of the few examples that comes from the heavy metal world but he has somehow managed to crossover to the pop world. I think that is because he had a successful television show and that was something that he didn’t even expect to happen. So, he is one of the bigger artists ever, really, you know, yet he has always somehow managed to be relevant. That is what is unique about him. To me, the way that I looked at that when I got to play guitar with him was to say, ‘wow, look at this amazing body of work he has,’ and it was like playing the Bible of Heavy Metal when you’re playing his songs.
Most certainly but did you also feel pressure from the fans to be like Randy Rhoads, Jake E. Lee or Zakk Wylde?
Well, I mean, there definitely is a hierarchy of guitar players in that band. It is also such a big spotlight for a guitar player. It is probably the biggest spotlight in heavy metal for a guitarist. But, yeah, that pressure is there, for sure and it is definitely intimidating. As much of a blessing that spotlight can be, that position can also be a curse, you know. Ah, but you go into it thinking, ‘Sure, you can never be like Randy Rhoads,’ or somebody as big as that or as important maybe because those were the originals. Randy was the original, he was the guy that made this but my mindset was to just try to do the songs justice, to try to perform them as well as I can and to make Ozzy shine. Of course it was a challenge but it was also a big opportunity for a guy like me to be known through a new platform to lots and lots more people and most of those would otherwise never have heard about me. To me, also the challenge is what you do after that because eventually a gig like that will be over. So you do have to go out there and kind of leave your own mark.
Speaking of Sabbath, the song Overdrive goes towards that style but is more of a Dio angle.
It is, yeah, like a little bit more like Holy Diver or like Sabbath, well Sabbath during the Headless Cross era or like Heaven and Hell; that kind of stuff. I mean, it is stuff that I love and that is all kinds of heavy metal. Someone asked me the other day, ‘Well, you were with Ozzy but why does this sound more like Dio?’ Well, you don’t have to pick sides. It is not some rivalry, well, not in my book, at least, it’s not. You’re allowed to like different kinds of heavy metal. At the end of the day, it is like, I am influenced by Tony Iommi as a guitar player more than anything. So this was the kind of vibe that I was getting for that and yeah, I knew it was a different kind of song, even for Firewind. We don’t usually do tracks like that and I was a bit sceptical thinking, ‘Maybe this could be a bonus track’ but then Herbie did the vocal line. I sent it to him and said, ‘Wow, this vocal line fits you so well’ and he lifts the song up so much that it would have been a shame just to make it a bonus track. I think that’s how it earned its place on the final track list for the album.
How would you compare your Firewind back catalogue to your solo albums?
Hmm, you know, with my solo stuff, it was a different kind of project. It was more like to branch out of Firewind. I initially did the solo record [I Am the Fire], my first one, six years ago because I wanted to write and collaborate with other people. That is why the first two records [I Am the Fire and Brand New Revolution] have all of these different guest vocalists on there. I wanted to write more like, rock radio stuff and then I kind of blended it with instrumental shred stuff. So, it was an interesting mix but I just wanted to throw in this big stew of rock and metal. Obviously I could have never done that in Firewind because in Firewind we already have our sound and style from many years. It started out like that and the solo material sort of developed from that. It was just me really trying to collaborate, to try out more things and to learn more things by doing that to see what that brought.
Fair enough. Does your solo material make you approach production tasks very differently?
Yeah, it does, especially on the first two solo records. I was chasing a little bit of that American rock radio format. We tried it with songs like I Am the Fire or Brand New Revolution. We tried to test it a little bit for the American radio but soon I realised that I don’t really fit into that thing and I’m not saying those songs are bad. They are really good and when we’ve played them live, people liked them a lot but you know, it is not me. I am a heavy metal guitar player so I already have an established career and a following. People know who I am and what I do, so I realised that I don’t need to worry about shit like being on the radio. I shouldn’t need to or have to worry about that. I then went back to make by third solo record [Fearless]. But, I do like to make catchy songs and that is the thing with me, even though I play all of this eighties shred and underground stuff, I do like a very well written song that is within three minutes. I do like all that and I like that more than I like prog stuff and that is why I experiment with it. But then I made my third solo record which was like a power trio situation with vocals. Yeah, I am thinking that for the future, the next thing that I would like to accomplish is maybe to make my first solo instrumental record. So maybe in the future I will finally make my first instrumental record.