Concept releases are not an uncommon animal in the heavy metal universe, but it’s a rare occurrence to see any artist putting out three albums based on the same story. Such monumental works usually require strong financial backing from labels, but Blaze Bayley, one of the most hardworking people in the metal underground managed to do without one. Supported by his loyal fanbase he’s just completed his trilogy about William Black which is no doubt the highlight of his solo career. We caught-up with Blaze to discuss his passion, his determination and his approach to creating a 3-headed metal monster.
You used to put out albums every two or three years, but the last three were out only one year apart from each other. So, it looks like you’ve pushed yourself to the limits of your productivity. How did you find time for all that, between touring, the live album and working with Wolfsbane?
I’m a working-class person, from a working-class family and whenever I haven’t had work as a singer then I’ve just gone back to working in a factory. I don’t have any kind of qualifications or skills outside of singing and song-writing so I’m an unskilled minimum-wage factory worker if I’m not singing. When the idea came for the concept at first I thought it was one big album, but then after going through everything and looking at how to record it, it was obvious it wasn’t one big album, it was one big story that would go over three albums. The problem with big projects is, if they don’t have an end date set it could just go on, “No, it’s not quite finished, we need more time to do this…”. That’s not me man. When you go to work in a factory you start at a certain time and then you stop at a certain time and it’s over. And I really like that. So, I know what it takes, I am the producer of the album and I know what I can do and I know how much time is wasted by people waiting to be in the right mood. Well, you’re not always in the right mood to get up and go to work but you have to go. And this is the way that we did it really. We said, “Well, we have this great idea and if I set this date now so we go 1st of March, 1st of March, 1st of March, this is doable, we can do it. We’ll be able to finish this thing, this giant project.” And that’s what we did and I was very, very lucky to have the support of all of my fans who pre-ordered each album and that meant I had the money to go to the studio and the money to keep paying my rent while we rehearsed and everything like that. So really, if I’d been on a big label, and said, “I’m gonna make three albums in three years about one story”, they would have said, “Well, let’s see how the first album goes before we commit to the other two.” I am the label. So, when I say, “We’re gonna do it, no matter what, however they come out”, that’s what it is. And it worked. It went well and the band just played really well. And what was great was that there were no arguments about where the concept should go, where the direction of music would go, we all knew. This is classic British metal and it has at its heart emotion, passion and power. And those are the things that carry through this project. And that’s why I think we’ve managed to it.
When you were working on part one of the trilogy, did you already have ideas for the other two parts in mind or did it all develop along the way?
Yeah, what happened was we had 16 songs at the end of the writing process of part one, which was done in the summertime and it was after that that I realised it was a trilogy. And I said to Chris, “It’s gonna be a trilogy, and it’s gonna be every year, and it’s gonna come out 1st of March every year,” and he said, “Well, what songs do we leave off that first album?” because we loved all these 16 songs, but it was obvious that one song was definitely for part 3 and that was “Human Eyes”. And by then I’d found the song Liz did as well “Already Won” and I knew that was on part 3. But the difficulty is that never in your career are you in such command, in such control that you can go “I’m going to make three albums,” ‘cause it’s always up to somebody else. So, it was a huge leap of faith to go, “These great songs that we believe in, we’re gonna put them to side for the next two.” Because you never know if you make a second album. Many times when I had record deals they said, “Well, we don’t think the songs are good enough, we don’t think they’re ready.” So, it was a huge leap of faith to do that at the beginning and right at the beginning there was a couple of songs ready for part three.
The background story of the albums is based on a sci-fi book you’re writing. So how is the book coming along?
It’s nowhere near finished. What’s happened is the book started it but then as we’ve got more immersed in the albums, the albums then have carried the story forward so, the book kind of stopped on part one even though I had the ideas and I knew where it would be on part three. So, I’ve written a bit more of the book, a few more bits of the backstory of the characters and I’m aiming to have that in 2020, completely finished and done. I think this tour is so important to me and it’s so big, we wanna do a lot of songs from the trilogy and I feel now that it’s complete more people will be interested in the whole project than they were when it was part one or part two. I think it will be difficult for many people to believe that what we’ve done would even be possible, to do three albums of a certain standard and quality in three years. I struggled, I didn’t even know if we could finish it at the start, I knew that I wanted to finish it and I knew I would give everything that I had, every ounce of my energy to try to get part three done. And it’s worked. I think now that we have part three finished, now that we have this beautiful box that fits in the three albums, now you can see how serious we were and I think people will start taking a lot of notice of the project that maybe haven’t even noticed Blaze Bayley for a long time.
You produced the previous two albums yourselves, I mean you and Chris. Was it the case this time around too?
Yes, on part one I was more active as a producer, and then for part two Chris took a much more active role in the technical side and the actual studio, the physical recording of it, getting the drums done to the click track and all of these and making sure that everything that we had worked on, the knots and bolts of it, the details in the studio, that they got done. So instead of it being co-produced then, it was a joint production on part two and part three. It’s a joint production by Blaze Bayley and Chris Appleton.
You’ve got a couple of guests on the album, like Chris Jericho who recorded some spoken parts. Do you know him in person?
Yeah, I’ve known him for quite a few years and we’ve crossed paths a couple of times and he was a fan of the “X-Factor” when he was living in Canada and he started Fozzy and we’ve met a couple of times at different festivals and things like this. And I was in Whisky A Go-Go in Los Angeles playing my set and he randomly walked past and said, “Bloody hell, it’s not Blaze Bayley, is it?” It was and he walked in and he said hello and we caught up you know, and he said he’d be in Birmingham soon and I said, “Well I’ll be in Birmingham,” I said, “I’m recording there, I’d love to have you on the album.” So, I did his podcast and he did my album. He’s doing really well now with his singing, you know, with his band Fozzy. It’s a really good band.
And who’s Liz Owen who did guest vocals on the album? To be honest I’ve never heard of her before…
Yeah, well, that’s how the music business is really, that people with a huge amount of talent can be unnoticed, unrecognised. Liz came and did a kind of support thing for me on the commemoration of the “Silicon Messiah” anniversary when we did the big press day and I noticed her then and I bought a CD and when I got back home and I listened to the CD this song jumped out at me, “Already Won”. And it was like, “For fuck’s sake, this sounds like it’s written about my character”, and I’m like, “This has to be part of my album.” You know, I don’t believe in fate or anything like that, but by sheer coincidence this has happened, I had to use this. And there it was, it was on part three, so she’s on part one as well, we do kind of duet in “Calling You Home”, she’s on part two in “Remember”, she’s also part of the overall choir and has the duet on part three where she plays the first wife of William Black with such a tragic end. And it’s a beautiful duet, she’s got such a distinctive voice.
The albums were out in March 2016, March 2017 and March 2018 . Why March?
To have a spring tour, to tour before the festivals season. I don’t like touring in winter, I don’t like touring in the back end of the year, health problems, we’re catching colds, different things, or suffer with depression as well so, for me starting in the spring in the new year and then if you take it back a bit you finish everything before Christmas. And that’s a great deadline to have, it’s gonna be done end of November, start of December. So, I like to tour in springtime and whenever I can then I like to follow the summer. Yeah, when I did the “X-Factor” tour with Iron Maiden we followed the winter, everywhere we went it was winter, except for when we got to Florida and then we didn’t have a day off. So, it was just horrible all the time, always cold. After that experience I wanted to tour in springtime so I set a lot of deadlines and I just said, “I’m gonna tour in Europe every Spring” and for 5 years that’s what we’ve done.
I’d like to ask you about the video-clip you shot in Bruce Dickinson’s flight simulator. How did it come about?
Well, Bruce has been a great supporter of me. I know Bruce from before my time in Iron Maiden. When I was in Iron Maiden and after Iron Maiden he’s been a supporter of my solo career. He’s such a generous person, he had me on his radio show. And my song “Escape Velocity”, it’s just really obvious, goes “I will fly” and me and the guy Rich Pembridge who does my videos for me, we said, “Wouldn’t it be great if could actually use a flight simulator. Who do we know? Hmm…” So, we got in touch with Bruce and he owns this big company in Cardiff that trains pilots. He has these very expensive flight simulators and he gave us a whole day to film in the warehouse and in the place where the flight simulators are with staff there to keep us going. It was absolutely incredible, it would have cost thousands and thousands and he just gave me the whole day, so it was an incredibly generous thing that he did for me. It’s a lovely video as well.
You put together various band line-ups for different continents. How do you make it work, I mean you can’t really rehearse much with those different line-ups?
It’s just been a necessity over the years, you know, that if people wanted to book me in Brasil or in South America or years ago in the USA, that it’s cheaper to fly one man than it’s to find money for four flights or five flights, you know? So I’ve done that, but now things are changing and now it’s possible to stick with one band so, wherever possible I’ve kept the Absolva band with me, and now for the whole of this world tour and most of the last one we’ve managed to play together. The thing is, because we perform together so much the fans are getting the full thing, where really when I’m working with local musicians we can only get to a certain standard because we don’t have the rehearsal time. That’s been OK while I’m playing a lot of older material and a lot of the Iron Maiden stuff. In places where I haven’t been on tour before it’s OK to do that because people expect to hear a lot of those older songs. But the new songs are a lot more technical and to get the full thing with all the backing vocals and everything then I like to take the Absolva band with me. So hopefully, fingers crossed for the next two years we’ll be working solely together.
How did the US tour go?
It went OK. It was good to go with the Absolva guys, so that was solid, the performances were really good. It is a very competitive tough place to go, big distances, and so you know, it was a big learning experience. The fans were absolutely fantastic, all the USA fans have waited so long to see me with my own thing, it was incredible. So, I think we’re going back in 2019, we had to delay it until then, but we’ll be going back there and hopefully we’ll have a good response. We have the whole trilogy out and we hope for the best.
I remember when I spoke to you last time you said you were putting socks on your rider. Do you still do that?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s very hard to dry socks in time so you end up with a bag of wet socks that start stinking all over again. What I’m trying to do now is I am trying to hold on when I can to the smelly socks in a separate bag in case I can give them to some church organisations or charity organisations which are so desperate for stuff they don’t mind having smelly socks, they will wash them themselves. So, that’s what I do where I can.
Now that the trilogy is finished, what’s next for you? Are you planning to do another album in 2019 or will you be focusing on touring?
We’re planning to tour as much possible, we really feel that we’ve got this year to tour. The trilogy is big, there’s 32 songs to the trilogy so we’ve got about 18 songs in the setlist. We’re gonna make a live album DVD in France on the 25th of May, completely independently, all done ourselves, organised, produced and directed by us. And we hope that will be the best DVD and live album that I ever had. And then we’ve got some more shows coming up in September, then I’ve got some time, I managed to make some time to do my acoustics, to do my next acoustic classical album, so I hope to have that out in November. And then in December I’ve got another 2 weeks with Wolfsbane.
Interview by Wojtek Gabriel Photos by Christophe Ochal and Jelena Jakovljevic