Regarded as one of the finest metal guitarists to have emerged in the 1980’s yet regrettably by no means a commercial household name, James Byrd is a musician that has chalked up praise from the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen and Frank Marino of Mahogany Rush and helped lay the foundations for what would become the melodic power metal scene back in the early/mid 80’s as a founding member and songwriter with Fifth Angel. With a solo career spanning over 3 decades James has recently released via Lion Music an archive recording entitled ‘Beyond The Pillars’ which takes the listener back to 1987 shortly after he was “ejected” from the ranks of Fifth Angel. We caught up with one half of Seattle’s finest six string stock (the other being Jimi Hendrix) to discuss ‘Beyond The Pillars’, the final days of Fifth Angel and get a first hand glimpse into the Seattle metal scene of the mid 80’s which proved such a breeding ground of talent prior to the emergence of grunge.
James, it’s good to finally see a new release from you in ‘Beyond The Pillars’, its been a long wait since the ‘Crimes Of Virtuosity’ reissue back in 2005. ‘Beyond The Pillars’ is actually a new release of old unreleased material from the mid/late 1980’s. Tell us about its origins, its discovery and the story that’s led to its eventual release in 2011.
3 years prior to the release of James Byrd’s Atlantis Rising on Shrapnel, I had just parted with Fifth Angel, and immediate began putting together a new band and recording, with the intent of getting another record deal. Freddy Krumins and I set up shop at this unbelievably primitive -and filthy- rehearsal studio under the Ballard Bridge in Seattle called “The Music Bank”, and began recording. We had a 16 track machine and some microphones, and we had the largest room there; about 800 square feet I think. The place was a real dive, and although the term “Grunge” wasn’t even in the lexicon yet, all our rehearsal neighbors sounded quite horrible. We recorded there between the Summer of 1987 and the Winter of 1988 and my attorney shopped the songs. Jumping ahead to 2011, I knew of course we had done these recordings, but I thought the multi-track masters had been recorded over (which they had). I was talking to Freddy Krumins, and I asked him about the tapes, and he confirmed that the masters had been recorded over…but that he actually had “some mixes somewhere”. That was news to me, so I asked him to look for them. He went through a bunch of boxes, he found more and more, and we finally came up with the tapes that went onto “Beyond The Pillars”.
Atlantis Rising, Fifth Angel, Queensryche, TKO, Metal Church etc, the list of melodic “power” metal bands was very distinct to come from one city. What do YOU, a native of the scene think the area had to offer for bands of this ilk as there is a definite “feel” to those bands listed that suggest there was something in all the water up there?
You know, there was a definite factor in the Seattle area having a metal music scene, and I’ll tell you what it was, but in terms of style, I’m not sure I hear a lot of similarities between those bands. At the very beginning of the 80’s, there came to be what was called an “under age scene” in Seattle. We have a 21 year old drinking age here, and no one under 21 was even allowed into any club which served alcohol. I don’t know who came up with it first, but someone had the smart idea to create non-alcoholic clubs where kids could see live music. There was “Lake Hills” in Bellevue, “The End Zone” here in Kirkland, and “Mr. Bills” in Seattle. All of a sudden, all these kids into metal not only had a place to go, they had a place to play their music. I put together my first original group in 1980 called IIXS, and we’d play live here. I remember Geoff Tate was in two bands; “The Mob” and “Myth”. “The Mob” eventually would become Queensryche. In terms of bands influencing one another musically, at least for me it was a non-factor. I was playing every week-end, so I wasn’t spending my time listening to the music of local bands. My own musical influences actually pretty much came to an end in 1980 actually, because I didn’t have any money to buy albums, and I was playing almost every weekend. But the East Side is very different from Seattle proper in terms of culture. It’s the suburbs, and metal was huge here. It seemed like everyone wore white Capzios and leather and had long hair, whether they played in a band or not. Scorpions and Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, along with Van Halen, were extremely popular here. Iron Maiden was also really popular, but I never owned an album by them. I remember hearing them before they had Bruce Dickinson, and not liking them much. I LOVE Maiden now of course (one of my favorite still around metal bands). But my influences were always limited to bands with great guitar players like Blackmore, Roth, and Schenker. Anyway, the underage scene here got very big. The first gig Def Lepppard played in North America, was right here in Kirkland at “The End Zone”, and I distinctly remember hearing before they came, about some band that was really young (like 15 year olds) that was coming from England, and how they were supposed to be the next big thing. I didn’t see them. I didn’t have money for tickets. But I think it was an indicator of how much of a hot-spot this area was for European style hard rock for a few years.
Then came the grunge era. I know that Alice In Chains and Soundgarden where rehearsing in early incarnations at the Music Bank around the same time of the material that has surfaced on ‘Beyond The Pillars’. That’s quite a difference in styles for a metal scene in a city to offer up. Do you think either of you had any idea how the musical landscape would change a few short years later?
I remember hearing a bunch of bands Freddy and I thought were not good (an understatement) during that period. But I was so detached by then from anything other than my own music, I had no idea not being able to play would actually pan-out. We just thought it was some kind of really bad metal. I didn’t realize that it would go anywhere until Nirvana’s “Nevermind” raced up the charts, and then I was horrified (as were a lot of guitar players). Of course I finally came to understand that movement and why it happened, but it really had nothing to do with what had gone on in the early 80’s under-age scene here.
The story of how you departed Fifth Angel has been well documented in a number of places. Yet it’s not terribly well known that you had Fifth Angel drummer Ken Mary with you for the Atlantis Rising debut, and indeed who can also be heard on ‘Beyond The Pillars’. You and Ken have remained friends over the years; I wonder if he saw through all the B.S. that was going on when the major management and record label deal came through for Fifth Angel. Have you ever discussed that time with each other?
Actually, what a lot of people don’t know is that Ken was never in Fifth Angel as a voting band member. He was playing in a bunch of bands, we regarded him as our drummer, but he was not in the band as a part of the legal partnership. He was a sideman contractually. Ken was not involved in the bullshit at all, and when the split came, he was the first guy I called to play drums for me.
How did you meet vocalist Freddy Krumins, a great vocalist, and how soon did you realise you two had musical chemistry?
It was through an ad in a local music newspaper called “The Rocket”. I realized we had something special the instant I picked up a guitar and he started to sing.
How did the pair of you go about writing the material heard here if you can remember?
I’d have the music, a title, and usually a chorus lyric, and he’d fill in the blanks lyrically. Sometimes I’d write everything like on “Fallen Warrior”. “After the fire” was my chorus lyric, and he filled in the verses. He wrote “Waiting in the shadows” in its entirety, and I played guitar on it. It just came really naturally and there weren’t any formulas.
The material and performances suggest you had some serious fire within to come out and make a serious statement with the material heard on ‘Beyond The Pillars’ and indeed the versions that made the original ‘James Byrd’s Atlantis Rising’ debut. Can you remember what you were trying to express, focus on or indeed aim towards with the material at that time?
I was extremely energized, and it was definitely a pissed off energy. I had just had the planning and very hard work of 5 years, and a three quarters of a million dollar major label record contract blown to pieces right at the brink of what was by all measure according to everyone, supposed to be major rock stardom. One JERK blew it to pieces (Ed) by refusing to sign the record deal if I wasn’t ousted. Because his best friend was Ted (apparently since first grade or something), Ted went along with it, and they both wanted to cut me out of the publishing on the next album. It was like getting sucker punched out of nowhere and I was livid. So I turned that major outrage into a major effort to pick-up and learn from the mistake of trusting the wrong people. I was still under the Epic Records contract and they had an option on leaving members, so the first place the material had to go, was to Epic/CBS. Those idiots passed on the material you hear on “Beyond The Pillars”, but no one ever accused major labels of being good at anything (other than royalty theft).
‘Beyond The Pillars’ is, as you mention, 7 totally new and 7 alternative versions of music from your early days. The previously unreleased 7 totally new tracks are obviously likely to generate interest from your fans. Where you at all worried about presenting ‘old material’ to them? Some might say it’s not showing growth, others will be pleased for the discovery. Where you ever in two minds about what to do with this material?
No not really. There’s been a lot of stuff since 2002 that’s precluded me from making another new album. I did manage to play on some other projects like the Jason Becker, Uli Roth, and Hendrix tributes put out by Lion, but all that stuff that can just be filed under “life” to keep a long story short, made the discovery of these tapes a good thing. My only concern really, was how to explain the nature of the “new” performances, and “new” material; that half the tracks were unreleased performances of songs that would be re-recorded in 1990, and that the other half of the tracks were songs that were ALSO recorded in 1987-88, but that the songs had never been heard. It’s a complicated thing to put in a sound byte, and apparently several non-English speaking -as a first language- reviewers, have gotten it wrong, and thought that it’s a mixture of new and old recordings. That’s wrong. Everything was recorded 23 years ago.
I guess in some ways it must be like getting in a time machine?
Yes, very much. A flood of long forgotten memories came flooding back, and although I was very driven at the time, and going through a divorce, it was actually a very fun, creative time.
The 7 alternative versions to these ears are superior performances to what later surfaced on the Shrapnel Record ‘Atlantis Rising’ release, there seems more fluidity in your lead work, not to mention more aggression, plus the harder edge to the material on ‘Beyond The Pillars’ blows away some of the more polished offerings previously available, but I am interested to know you hear when you listen back?
That’s what I think as well. I remember when the album was finished for Shrapnel in 1990, feeling the same thing. The album for Shrapnel was done in a professional studio, at professional studio rates. There were time limits on every performance of songs I had previously recorded without any concern for dollars spent. It was a re-do, and the second time, I did not have the luxury of experimenting with a bunch of takes, so I learned my own solos as much to the note as I could, and got all the guitars done as quickly as I could to remain within budget. The Shrapnel release was a very good album I think, but when you hear the first performances from 3 years earlier, it’s obvious that a bit of magic was lost the second time around. I think that’s probably inevitable when you re-do something, and it’s why I put together my own studio in 1993.
How do you now view yourself as a guitarist when listening back to your work almost 25 years ago?
Those recordings for me are a watershed really. They mark the first time I could make recordings which allowed me to really develop as a guitarist/producer and to develop the beginning of a mature identity. There really isn’t a lot on the Fifth Angel album I am still happy with today as a player. That album was also made under severe budget and and time restraint, and all the solos were worked out to the note; they had to be because I only had 45 minutes per song to cut my guitars on that album. That’s absurd if you think about it. The recordings on “Beyond The Pillars” accurately reflect my personality and passion because there was nothing in the way of it in terms of worrying about time or money. It’s the difference between improvising something on the spot, and re-playing something from the past.
Those that have followed your career know that you changed style from a relatively straightforward hard rock/metal approach in comparison to the much more progressive and symphonic offerings released under the BYRD moniker in the early 2000’s. Do you have a preference now for any body of work, and may we perhaps read anything from that into what direction you might take in the future?
You know, one of the things I’ve believed for a long time, is that I would be both more successful, and more criticized, had I “stuck to a formula”, and made album after album with the same people and the same direction. That allows people to understand you because you limit yourself. But after making James Byrd’s Atlantis Rising for Shrapnel, I had a distinct certainty of how it FELT to re-hash something a second time, and I didn’t like it, so the idea of doing something I don’t really feel, is an idea that turns what should be a passionate expression, into an exercise. That’s always felt wrong for me. I want to sound fresh, not rehearsed.
Have you been following the farce that is becoming the Fifth Angel soap opera reunion?
More or less. It’s been hard to avoid with all the press releases they did.
Where you asked to be part of it?
Any words to close the book once and for all on the reunion rumours?
I can’t control what other people do. But I was offended by the notion of a bunch of people who were not band members, and one original member, clearly trying to capitalize on the name with a ghost band. Their drummer recently quit, and their fifth vocalist also threw in the towel. I guess you can ask drummer Jeff McCormack and vocalist David Fefholt what their feelings are after working with Ed Sein (Ed “Archer”). They’re pals of mine now, but I’m not going to speak for anyone but myself. I just hope Ed gets a life, or at least stops trying to live off of something that doesn’t exist anymore by grave digging and cheapening what was once a great band. If you have any merits as a musician, you should be willing to stand behind a name of your own. I’m sure a lot of original fans saw through it and knew what it was really about.
Outside of your own musical work you run your own guitar company, Byrd Guitars. It seems you have guitars being built for customers all over the world, is the company offering you as much from a personal satisfaction perspective as your musical works?
It’s very satisfying. I’m not some business man hawking guitars that I have made. I’m a craftsman who makes something very very high quality, and each one is uniquely fit to each client like a fine Italian suit. Making albums, making guitars, all the custom fabrication work I’ve done on motorcycles and custom and rare automobiles, they are all satisfying because unlike most “jobs”, I create something tangible, and leave it in the world. I think that’s the essence of the artistic drive, and it’s really similar to the drive others have to have children; you want to leave something of yourself in the world, and you hope it outlives you.
Back to music and are there any new artists, whether it be new to the scene or just new to you that you have drawn some enjoyment from?
Yes. Roy Marchbank, an absolutely astounding guitarist from Scotland. I met him on Facebook and was absolutely blown away. He is so far beyond any other guitarist on planet earth, it’s not even funny. He’s not a metal player. He’s really his own thing, he calls it “Celtic Fusion”, but the musical genius and stunning technique utterly captivated me. Now he’s playing and endorsing my guitar and I’ve been trying to help him make some connections here in the States. People can check him out at Roymarchbank.com
James, thank you for your time and we wish you all the best for the future in all your endeavors.
Thank you Andy, it’s been a pleasure.