John Corabi has led a very colourful life with notable and acclaimed tenures in high profile bands over three decades or more, including The Dead Daisies, Ratt, ESP, Union and the incommensurate behemoth that is Mötley Crüe.
Returning to Australia for a solo excursion, in acoustic mode, the highly regarded singer, guitarist and song writer will be providing a selection or re-arranged musical highlights, interspersed with anecdotes and insights on a remarkable career that continues to evolve. Loud Online caught up with John via Zoom recently, ahead of the tour.
You have a book being released soon, titled Horseshoes and Hand Grenades. Can you elaborate on some details?
It is pretty much an auto-biography from birth until probably up to a couple of years ago. It covers the gamut of my childhood, my teenage years, adult life, marriages, bands, the ups and downs, with everything in between. I am excited about it and I wrote it with a fellow Australian [Paul Miles]. It should be out very soon and hopefully we will have some copies of the book at the coming shows. I’m not counting on it though with customs and shipping being the way that it is lately, but we’ll see.
Philadelphia, where you grew up, is very removed from the world of the Sunset Strip.
Yes, very much so and when I first moved to Los Angeles, I was like a kid in a candy store because it was not unusual to go the Rainbow and see the guys in Ratt, Mötley or the guys in Ozzy Osbourne’s band. I was there when one night when Jimmy Page was doing The Firm and Page, Paul Rodgers and Chris Slade all walked in. It was an eye opening experience. Oddly enough, having grown up in Philadelphia which is the fifth or sixth biggest city in America, and then moving to Los Angeles, after the initial excitement wore off, I settled into everyday life and then I wasn’t a huge fan [of Los Angeles]. I tried to get out of there including living in Minnesota for a minute. I eventually settled in Nashville and even that is getting a little too big and too quickly for my tastes.
You mentioned Ratt and I remember seeing you playing rhythm guitar with Ratt for their tour here in 2007, on a co-headlining tour with Winger.
Yep, we did a tour with Winger and that was a blast. I had a great time. Love them or hate them, man, I thought that the Winger guys were just insanely good, they were so talented. We had a lot of fun on that tour, it was really cool.
Is that one of the funny aspects of Los Angeles in how easily a band can drop out of favour, which sadly happened to Winger?
It wasn’t really just the LA scene, it was pretty much everywhere. For any band that had any sort of success in the 80’s, really went through quite a lull in the 90’s and early 2000’s. It seems like a lot of these band like Mötley or Poison, Ratt and so on, there is some kind of new nostalgic resurgence. I don’t know if it is just people wanting to relive their youth but you know what, more power to them. They are doing great business and Mötley is getting ready to go out now on a stadium tour here in the States. They are playing football stadiums that hold 60 to 80 thousand people and they just added another seven shows and they are all sold out. That’s 36 shows in America with every one of them sold out. More power to them.
It is amazing but whilst Nikki Sixx has a strict fitness routine to prepare for a tour, which he documents in his latest book [The First 21], I don’t know if Vince Neil will match that level of endurance.
Oh, well, you know what, heh, that is your opinion and you’re entitled to that. You’ll never get a comment from me.
Ha, no, I wasn’t going down that avenue but with big bands like that re-uniting, other quality material not of that line-up never appear in the set list. The Mötley Crüe album that you were on is widely regarded as an excellent album.
I only get upset about things that I can control and the minute that I walked out that door with Mötley, I had zero control over anything that they do or anything related to Mötley is out of my control. When people ask me what I thought of The Dirt, I honestly really wish they had kept me out of it altogether. I was not a fan of the movie – I can say that. But again, I’m not going to sit here and get pissy about it or be upset, or angry because getting as angry as I want, it is not going to change anything. I just focus on what I am doing, what I want to do and just go, you know what I mean? This is one of the reasons why a few years back, I did the 1994 record in that I went out, including coming to Australia in 2019, and I did those shows. I believe that the last show for that tour I did was in Adelaide and I thanked everybody for coming and said, ‘This will never happen again, I am done with it.’ I recorded it and it is there for posterity, if anybody wants to know what it sounded like, it is there, I put it to bed.
One aspect of it that I am curious about is the song writing process. The Dead Daisies is more of a collective or collaborative venture but how was it with Mötley Crüe? How much were you realistically able to contribute to the songs?
No, it was a contribution thing. The one thing that I will say is that all four of us sat in a room together, contrary to popular belief, and we just had fun. We jammed and we put together a bunch of songs, did the demos and sent them to Bob Rock. He loved the tunes but thought that they could be better so we went to Vancouver to record the record. We took every song and stripped it back to its barest form and then collectively, the five of us, kind of rebuilt the songs again to put them on the record. It was very much a collaborative effort.
Given all of your experience over the years, do you prefer a band producing or having an external or additional person to produce?
I like having an external producer because I think that as an artist, even with the music that I am releasing now, I write the stuff, I record it myself at my house and then I give it to Marti Frederiksen to do whatever he deems necessary for the track. He will listen to what I am trying to do and then suggest things to me which just makes a lightbulb pop up. I like having that other set of ears to bounce ideas around. When I go to Nashville, I’ve got four or five ideas and I’ll send them to Marti to just ask him, ‘Hey, here is where I am going with these tunes, I am going to finish them but do you have any suggestions?’ I like hearing what other people have to say because a lot of times you get so locked into something that you are kind of driving with blinders on. Even if it is a guitar riff, a different position or changing of a note might totally give the riff a different vibe so I like working with other people.
You’re touring here soon as a solo artist with an acoustic guitar, and even with the cover songs you’ve done with The Dead Daises and others, are you now finding that singing and playing guitar at the same time is a natural thing?
Some things, yes, but there are other things such as a new song I have out called, Your Own Worst Enemy, where I wrote it, recorded all the guitar parts and then sang on it but for the life of me, I’ve now got to get that right brain and left brain thing going to sing it and play it at the same time. It is a tricky thing but when I get into situations like that I will play it very slowly. I will have to really slow it down and then just try and get it, speeding it up as I go. It can be difficult at times to get it working but with the songs I am doing now, I have really stripped things down as much as I can so that I can deliver a great vocal and a great guitar part. I will play with the songs a little bit so that everything works. It can get a little tedious once in a while.
You also did a cover of The Beatles track, Oh! Darling. How do you approach those arrangements?
Well, I do an acoustic version of Hooligan’s Holiday that is nothing like the record. The melodies and the lyrics are still there but I had to think of a completely different way to do it that would translate acoustically. Oh! Darling is just a chord thing and that is one that I pull out every now and then. I find that the older I get, the more difficult it is to sing and I am kind of a bit of a purist so I don’t like lowering the keys. If I really feel like I am having a good night vocally, I will give it a shot. It is just one of those things but you’re playing the chords, you’re singing the melody, strip the song down to its barest form…you know, it is funny because years and years ago when I was doing The Scream album [Let It Scream] we were sitting around ding pre-production, working out parts for a song with Eddie Kramer, and Steve Marriott from Humble Pie was kind of popping into the room because apparently when Eddie Kramer was done with our record, they were trying to put the original Humble Pie back together with Peter Frampton. So, he was coming and going whilst we were working on the arrangements of the songs. But we were doing it with acoustic guitars with me singing. I just remember Steve saying, ‘You know what, if you can sit down with an acoustic guitar and a voice, with none of the bullshit, and still entertain an audience, then you’ve got good songs.’ I’ve never forgotten that and when I got my acoustic record and I had the opportunity to go to Europe, on my first real acoustic tour, I knew I didn’t need to worry about all these other parts. Strip it down, have some fun, tell some stories, tell some really bad jokes and just roll the dice. Most of the responses I’ve received from the fans that have come to see me in acoustic mode have been very supportive but they will always say, ‘I love your music but, oh my God, the stories were great.’ I think I could even just sit down on a bar stool with a microphone and tell stories and people would kind of dig it.
As a Racer X fan, The Scream is interesting in that Bruce Bouillet went from Ibanez guitars to Les Pauls after Paul Gilbert left to join Mr. Big. It was a total shift in how Racer X morphed into The Scream.
Yeah but you know what, we were a different band. we were going for a different vibe and a different sound. Bruce embraced it but that guy is a monster guitar player, he is just sick. I was in recently in Las Vegas, where he lives, and I didn’t have time to hang out but man, what a great guitar player. We were going for that Cream, Zeppelin, Aerosmith and Humble Pie vibe and he realised that the way he was playing in Racer X was not going to work for The Scream. He just adapted and applied it, which was cool.
Both your band ESP and Union have two common members [Corabi and Bruce Kulick]. How do you ensure that each project has a different sound?
Well, it is with the other two members because Eric Singer and Chuck Garrick are not the same as Brent Fitz and Jamie Hunting. Being honest though, ESP was such a fluke thing. It really was just something to do. We did a Kiss convention in Indianapolis with a guy named Keith Larue and at the end of the thing, he asked us to jam. There were all these Q&A’s and I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a Kiss convention but they are pretty insane. So we did that and we decided on songs such as All Right Now and Honky Tonk Woman so we threw together just a bunch of old classic rock and roll songs. Keith came to us and he said, ‘God, that was fucking awesome! Why don’t you do that on a record and we will just sing it to the Kiss fans?’ So we agreed and picked a bunch of old Humble Pie, Aerosmith, Nazareth, Hendrix and so we did ten or twelve cover songs that we all grew up listening to since each member picked three songs each. It was weird because when Eric or Bruce would have time off, we’d tour and do shows, and we went from playing the smallest of clubs to places that held 1500 to 2500 people. I think the reason why ESP sounds different is because it was never meant to be anything more than a fun outlet for to just f–k off and have some fun. For lack of a better term, there is a devil may care attitude about the whole thing. We don’t take ourselves that seriously and we kind of joke around with each other on stage. Eric is the little shit stirrer; he is the funny, sarcastic, human being. We just have fun with it and I think that is the main difference between the two bands. I cannot say that with ESP we don’t give a shit because we do; we want to put on a good show but we never looked at it as a career move.
For your time with The Dead Daisies, tours went along with some massive bands. When watching those other bands, were there stage performance and production techniques that were or weren’t similar to say Mötley or Kiss?
I really, ah, when I was in the band the only bands we really toured with, in my time, were Kiss and Whitesnake. The thing that was weird about it was not that I picked any kind of skills up but that I just watched how Paul did his daily routine and how Gene was, plus how Tommy and Eric was with the crew people and catering; just how they carried themselves. It was the same with Coverdale, just sitting with him and having him on the plan everyday and just say, in his very regal voice [imitates accent perfectly], ‘Oh Johnny C., how are you, mate? How is the family?’ and you’re like, ‘Hey, everything is cool.’ I just sort of watched and looked at these individuals as people who have been doing it for years and had been very successful for a really long time. For the most part, they are just really normal guys who were super cool, down to earth, checking if we needed anything and were comfortable. They were very accommodating, nice people so the one thing I picked up after touring with those guys is that you kind of don’t have to be an asshole to be in this business.
Indeed. Finally, The Dead Daisies played the Polish Woodstock Festival with the Gorzów Philharmonic Orchestra in 2017. Did you have to change song much to be able to play that sort of performance?
Yes, and that was insane, it was an unbelievable experience, it was incredible. It was really interesting because thankfully Brian Tichy was aware of what was happening. We put a set together and then we rehearsed it to then send them a copy of the rehearsal. It was every song in the order that we were going to play them at which point, the conductor charted everything out. We got to Poland and with the first song we started rehearsing, we did a version of Helter Skelter. We would start the song and the thing with me is that I kind of vibe out on the audience. Doug [Aldrich] would start the song with the guitar riff and depending on how the audience was, I might come in on whichever count works, depending on the audience. I would start singing and the orchestra would start blazing into the next part of the song. It was just a trainwreck and I was thinking, ‘What is happening right now?’ We stopped but because Brian went to Berklee College of Music in Boston and worked out immediately what was going on so he went over and started talking to the conductor. We realised that they charted things out from the rehearsal tape so the minute Doug started that riff, it was bar number one. On that tape I had started singing on bar number six, say, so there was no real rhyme or reason to where I started singing. They had charted everything precisely as he had done it in rehearsal. We knocked that rehearsal on the head and the band all had to go back to our hotel room and sit with the tape and then figure out the count in exactly how we did it so that we were on the same page as the orchestra. Once we figured it out, it was literally, truly one of the most amazing experiences I think I have ever had. It was The Dead Daisies with a sixty-piece orchestra in front of two hundred thousand people. It was unbelievable, yeah, that was pretty intense.