Latest album: Outsider (Frontiers/Riot!)
Uriah Heep guitarist Mick Box knows a thing or two about longevity. 2015 marks forty-five years since the emergence of his band’s first album, the notorious …Very ‘Eavy …Very ‘Umble that, so the story goes, caused Rolling Stone critic Melissa Mills to promise to kill herself if the group ever got anywhere. Almost a lifetime later and there’s very little Box and Uriah Heep haven’t achieved. While they aren’t name-checked as regularly as other 70s heavy rock pioneers like Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, with whom they rivaled for popularity and sales in the early part of that decade, like them they have endured, inspired and gained the respect of generations of bands and fans who have come after them. This week the band returns to Australia in support of latest release Outsider, their 24th album of new material. It’s the second time Heep has visited in the last five years, making up for a gulf of time when they didn’t play here at all despite Box and keyboard player Phil Lanzon calling Sydney home for most of the late 80s and early 90s.
“I was setting up tours while I was in Oz, in blocks of a month’s work. I could come over here and do the work and then go home to Sydney,” he says cheerfully. There remains a strong connection to Australia that means when they tour there’s always “a very full guest list! I’ve still got some family over there and so many friends it’s unbelievable. It’s always a great time when we come back there.”
It will be a sad return to Australia as the band recently said farewell to its second-longest-serving member, bass playing legend Trevor Bolder, who succumbed to pancreatic cancer in May 2013. Bolder made four albums with David Bowie before joining Heep in 1976 and played on all but two of their albums from that point until his illness forced him to step aside in 2012. Unsurprisingly, Box speaks of him very fondly.
“Trevor and I had been with Uriah Heep since 1976, so we travelled the world together, made lots of great albums together, played lots of great concerts,” he recalls. “He was a world-class bass player, a world-class song writer, world-class singer and a world-class friend. So yeah, it was devastating. It was a shock. It was devastation, it was losing a family member. It was just the worst possible feeling you could ever imagine.”
After such a long time together, no one could really have blamed Box if he had decided to end Uriah Heep after Bolder’s death, but it was his friend’s wish for the band to continue. His role was passed it the very capable hands of Davey Rimmer.
“When Trevor was ill he wanted the band to carry on. So we got Dave Rimmer in as our temporary bass player – he’s now the permanent bass player – with Trevor’s blessing. There was hope at the time that he would make it back, but obvioulsy life has its twists and turns and he never made it back,” Box says with a hint of sadness. “We continued on with Dave, who’s a very talented player. He can play all the things that Trevor did and he’s also a very gentle guy and the fans love him. So we’ve been very lucky to find him because he had a big pair of shoes to fill, let me tell you.”
Outsider is Rimmer’s first studio outing with Uriah Heep, an album that, like its predecessor Into the Wild, has been warmly received by fans and critics alike. Mick Box is understandably proud of Outsider, as he is of all the band’s vast catalogue.
“We’re very proud of our history – not a lot of bands are – so we’re quite happy to play ‘July Morning’ and ‘Gypsy’ and ‘Free Me’ and ‘Stealin” and ‘Lady in Black’… we still love doing them. So that will be the core of the set, then we’ll play three or four from the Outsider and then revisit some old songs that we haven’t played live before or not for a long, long while. So our set list is very much a journey through our career.”
There are few songs the band hasn’t featured in their live shows over the decades, but there is one that they have not performed often for a very legitimate reason – the sprawling title track of second album Salisbury.
“It’s got a seven-piece brass section in it, mate, so it’s not easy for us to do it without that lot!” the guitarist says with a chuckle. “There are talks about us doing orchestrated things later on — that might be one to bring back at that juncture. Just last year we did a run through Germany, Austria and Switzerland with a thing called Rock Meets Classic with the Prague Bohemian Orchestra. The opening show was Midge Ure, then Geraldine Turner, then Kim Wilde, then me and Bernie representing Uriah Heep and Alice Cooper to finish. And on the last number we all come on stage and jam, which was a great thrill. And to hear July MOrning will a full score orchestration while you’re performing it just sends shivers down your spine. It’s sensational.”
Even during their darkest days Uriah Heep was always making new music. Even well beyond their halcyon days the band still managed to crank out albums well worthy of fan adulation and even recent releases like Into the Wild have become favourites.
“The essence of moving forward and playing new material as well as the old stuff works very well, because it freshens up when you do the classic stuff, you know,” Box says. “Into the Wild did very well for us. It was revered by the fans and critics alike, which was fantastic, and so is Outsider. So we’re on a bit of a roll at the moment, which is wonderful!”
While the digital age continues to make music more and more disposable, Mick Box and Uriah Heep are unperturbed. They aren’t a bunch that gives up easily.
“A lot of them give up, don’t they?” Mick Box says of other artists. “They don’t see an value in it. I mean, you just need two fingers now. You don’t even have to go to record store — it’s just buy, delete, buy, delete. But we have to do it, just as people, you know. We’re still driven by that. We still have the same passion and energy we’ve always had and I think that’s the thing that drives us. There’s no point fighting it. It’s there. You’ve just got a find a way of deal with it that works for you. Our drive is always to make new music, so we’ll keep doing it whether it gets heard or not!”
Uriah Heep’s Australian tour kicks off tonight:
19/3: Rooty Hill RSL, Sydney NSW
20/3: Metro Theatre, Sydney NSW
21/3: Shoppingtown Hotel, Melbourne VIC
22/3: Chelsea Heights, Melbourne VIC
24/3: Astor Theatre, Perth WA
25/3: The Gov, Adelaide SA
26/3: Eatons Hill, Brisbane QLD