Exclusive Interview: White Wizzard’s Jon Leon Clears the Air
The history of White Wizzard has been so rife with member changes that the band’s lineup at any given time has become a running joke of sorts, a wound that’s all too easy for snarky Internet dicks like us to rub salt in. Sole original member, songwriter, band mastermind and bass player Jon Leon is all too aware of the state of his band’s reputation, at one point becoming embroiled in a public war of words with a former member of his band in the MetalSucks comments section.
So when MetalSucks was offered the opportunity to speak with Leon to support the band’s new album The Devil’s Cut it seemed like a good chance to give Leon the opportunity to share his side of the story and to explain, from his perspective, just why it’s been so hard for him to hold onto band members. To his credit, Leon’s been keeping his nose to the grindstone in dogged defiance of all the naysayers, carefully and gradually restoring public and industry confidence in his band, and as of press time White Wizzard has had a consistent lineup for over a year, no small feat when you look at this.
In my chat with Leon last week, we spoke about the factors that have led to so many members leaving the band, the state of White Wizzard’s current lineup, their new album The Devil’s Cut and more.
Let’s talk about the hard stuff first, then we can move on to stuff you actually want to talk about. People want to know why there have been so many member changes over the years, from your perspective.
In any band when you’re starting out, you’ll go through the learning process. There are a lot of different things that can happen. With our situation it was pretty comical, very Spinal Tap-ish as far as the reason why guys have bailed. We only ever fired one guy and that was Erik [Kluiber, now in Gypsyhawk]. Other than that, it’s been literally anything from a guy knocked his chick up and he had to go away and deal with that to other guys’ personal reasons. Wyatt [Anderson] twice moved back to Florida because he wanted to be with his girl and wanted to work.
There’s not a lot of money being in an indie metal band right now, which everyone can attest to. I can’t argue with him on that front. He kind of did it to us last minute during the whole Flying Tigers [record cycle], which was tough. Cory Nagatoshi for example, we were two weeks away from the tour with Firewind and Iced Earth and he had done the Forbidden tour with us. Great guitar player, really nice guy. He comes to us two weeks before we’ve got to leave and says; “Look, I’m sorry.” Iced Earth was going to be about ten weeks straight. He says; “I can’t do it. My girl can’t have me out for ten weeks. She’s threatening to basically take my kid away, divorce me, the whole deal.” He was really distraught and sad but he couldn’t do it. We had to bring a sub in. That was just comical.
Then Wyatt “Screamin’ Demon,” about two weeks before we’re supposed to leave for all three of those tours, wrote us an email out of the blue and said; “Hey guys, I got a really good job. I can’t justify financially doing all these tours right now.” We’ve already announced them, so what do you do? Either cancel all the tours or you bring a sub in. I’ll never forget, Giovanni and I were on the way to practice when we got that email. He and I drank for two days straight. We were like, FUCK, what do we do? So we decided to keep going and we got Mikey [Gremio].
People gave us a ton of crap. Of course people assume that everyone is being fired. That seems to be the fun thing to say, but the reality is it’s not true. A lot of people, it’s their own personal stuff. I think a lot of guys want to be in a band that’s doing something. So they’ll tell you what you want to hear, “yeah, I can do that.” But a lot of times when push comes to shove and shit becomes a reality and you realize every night isn’t cocaine and hookers and a million dollars and you realize it’s actually hard work, people reassess.
I think it’s taken some time to really settle in with guys that not only everyone gets along with but that in full reality can do it. They can go out for a year if they need to and be away from their personal stuff. So yeah, it’s taken some time.
The band came about very quickly. Lewis [Stephens] and I and the guys in the early lineup had different visions of what we wanted to do. We were young, we didn’t have a manager and had a falling out pretty quickly and went our separate ways. For a year, neither of us was signed for a good amount of time. By the time it got released we had already been doing our own thing for a good amount of time. Of course, everyone was like, “What the hell? All that’s left is the bass player. What’s the deal?” It became a domino effect. It’s one of those things; you just keep your nose to the grindstone. People are going to say what they’re going to say; you just have to hang in there.
Sounds like for the most part what you’re saying is that it was coincidence and not personal issues. Is that accurate?
I wouldn’t say coincidence. A lot of the reasons guys left, if anyone says otherwise… it is what it is. The real reality of it is, a lot of the guys left for their own personal reasons that had to do with their own life and not being able to commit to doing it. I’m not saying that everything is always perfect and I haven’t made mistakes or that there haven’t been personality issues at times with some guys. But, it’s definitely not what it’s perceived to be, that I’m some control freak and I’m constantly firing everyone. Not the case. Really, beyond that I don’t care what anyone things. Ultimately it’s one of those things where you can explain it until you’re blue in the face. I’ve gone through the whole thing. We’ve all been there and we have moved on. We’re looking to the future right now, what’s important.
Are you on speaking or good terms with guys that have been in the band previously?
I don’t try to reach out to them or send Christmas cards, hah. I’ve run into guys and it’s been fine. Of course Peter Ellis and Lewis are both fantastic, they’re in Monument now. We talk on Facebook; they’re in the UK so we don’t run into each other much. With Erik, no. Haha. Wyatt, no. Wyatt, I wish him the best. I wish all the guys that have been in the band the best, we all had various feelings about each other, I’m sure. Some better than others, some worse on both ends of the spectrum. You can sit here all day long and gauge that stuff. Some people click, and some don’t. When it comes to the rest of the members, I wish them the best. With Erik I’m happy he landed on his feet. He’s in a good band now. I wish the band well; he’s a talented cat. I also wish that for Wyatt as well and everyone else that’s been involved. I brought everyone in for a reason; they’re all really talented. I feel like anyone that’s ever been a part of the band has a lot of talent. I hope they continue to further that, wherever it is. Just because it didn’t work out with me or White Wizzard doesn’t mean it can’t work out for them. And the other guys that couldn’t do it, couldn’t tour or whatever, I hope they’re still doing stuff, whatever they’re doing, releasing music, etc.
Wyatt came back to the band for a second time, right? Why did he leave the second time?
What I said earlier, we recorded the Flying Tigers record. The first time things fell apart there were a lot of different circumstances. I’m to blame too. Everyone made mistakes in the early going of the Over The Top release. There were some problems, I don’t want to go into all the details but whatever, it doesn’t matter. The bottom line is, when Wyatt and I came back together to talk it was “look, lets try to make this work.” We wanted to put the past behind us and learn from it. A lot of the fans wanted Wyatt back, I wanted Wyatt back. I am a fan of Wyatt’s voice. I never wanted him gone. He’s amazing, especially in the studio.
So we decided to go for it again. At the time it was “trying” because Lewis and Peter had been with the group and we had done the “Shooting Star” single and done a UK tour with Peter. Peter was having visa trouble and Lewis was having issues with his living situation in LA. His whole family is in Wales so both of those guys had a hard time getting back into the States. We already had studio time booked so it was Me, Gio and Wyatt. We just did the album. I did the leads. I knew they were going to suck, but whatever. That’s my regret on Flying Tigers. I wish I had gotten a few killer lead guitar players to lay leads. It’s not like I wanted to do [it myself]. I laid the leads down on “Forty Deuces” and some songs on Over The Top and they turned out OK. I did the best I could. We did that record and put everything we could into it at the time.
I was happy with the results; it wasn’t as good as I had hoped it would be but Wyatt sang his ass off as usual and it was good. We got it down in three months, the album was mixed and we booked a bunch of tours. Forbidden, which I’m sure you remember. We did Firewind and Iced Earth. Those are the three that we lined up, and I called Wyatt three weeks before the tour was supposed to start, a week before he was supposed to fly out to tell him I was booking his flight. I asked if we were confirmed, he said yes. About a week later, Giovanni and I were on our way to practice and the email came into my inbox. It was a four-paragraph email explaining why he couldn’t do the tours. It was his family, his own personal reasons. Giovanni and I drank for two days trying to figure out solutions.
We reached out to Mikey because he came through in a pinch for Download when Wyatt said he couldn’t do that because of his job. So we went back to Mikey because we knew he would at least show up and kick ass. And he did. I give him credit. Regardless of the fact that he didn’t end up being a long time member, he saved our asses and we were able to do the tours. That was a hell of a lot better than sitting on our asses and not doing anything. You can’t do that; you have to keep going regardless and if people give you shit, so what. My attitude always is that I don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks. That will always be my attitude. You have to stay true to what you’re trying to do. You can’t worry about what your critics say. Whatever fans comes on board is a blessing. We’ve been through a lot and a lot of guys have stuck with us, so I’m happy for that and we really appreciate it.
You famously, or infamously, got into a bitter war of words with former band members in the MS comments section. Do you have anything to say about that particular incident?
No, not at all. Like I said, I wish everybody the best in the band. I really do wish Erik the best. At the time — you know, it’s a growing process, it’s getting a thicker skin and seeing the big picture — sometimes when you’re frustrated or emotionally pissed off or you feel like the perception is not the reality it’s easy to get pissed off. For me it’s been a real growing process to realize at the end of the day people are going to say what they want to say, and who cares. It’s all about the music, dude.
100 years from now all that’s going to matter is when someone picks up the CD and they dig what the band did and it inspires them in their life, or whatever it is to do something positive or to do something musical. That’s all you can really ask for. All this shit is such bullshit. It’s fun for some people to gossip about. It comes with the territory too, man. People love when something goes south in anything when it comes to music and the movie industry. Actors, musicians. Drama is something people always get off on. To each his own. Things are definitely all good on my end. If I slighted anyone that was a past member of White Wizzard I wish them all the best.
Perhaps all this drama helped you out by increasing the public profile of the band. Even if it wasn’t necessarily how or what you had hoped.
Sure. There’s no such thing as bad press. You can definitely put a positive spin on it, that’s the silver lining. You have to find one if you’re not a cynic and trying to be a positive thinker. You have to find a silver lining in any adversity. White Wizzard has stayed, regardless of the downtime we’ve had because of all this crap, pretty much in the spotlight due to whatever, negative or positive. That’s helped us survive. It may have drowned some bands as you know.
Like I said, I stuck my nose to the grindstone and didn’t really care what anyone thought. That’s all you can do. Hopefully this entire movement, not just us… I look at it with the Holy Grails, The Cauldrons, The Enforcers, all these bands that are trying to do this. None of us are making much money right now; it’s really still at a very indie level. I want to see it succeed for everyone involved. Ultimately it’s going to take a lot more than this. We all have to continue to put out good music at the end of the day. Hopefully over time that will resonate and kids will divert away from the demographic based shit that’s being thrown out there, perceived as cool, and they’ll see some good rock or heavy metal music from bands that are up and coming that are everything from progressive to classic rock and metal, thrash, whatever. Hopefully that’ll start to catch on. Hopefully more kids will drift towards that kind of music. Especially in the USA. Compared to Europe it’s not very lucrative for indie metal bands. It’s tough to get out there and back and break even. I’m impressed everyone does it as much as they do. We must love the music I guess.
You’ve had this current incarnation for about a year. How’s it gelling?
Fantastic, man. Jake [Dreyer] has been in the band for two years now so Gio, Jake and I have been that core three guys. Gio has been here for a long time, kind of the Dave Murray of the band. [laughs] Once we got done with the Iced Earth tour we found Will Wallner who, it’s funny, must’ve been karmically meant to be. Will hit us on Facebook. It turned out not only was he the perfect guitarist for the band but he lived across the street from Jake. Literally across the street, which is pretty rare for the city of Los Angeles. What are the chances of that? We felt like, “This is a good fit. He’s a cool dude, he’s hilarious.” We all got along, which is extremely important. So the four of us formed a bond. Jake and Will really helped me. We tried to find a local singer. It was just apparent that Wyatt still wasn’t going to be able to move out to L.A. We tried to make it work with him so many times. We wanted to, we all love his voice. I stand by that, Wyatt is a fantastic singer. I’m sure he’s going to kick ass in whatever he does next. He’s a really talented guy.
Meanwhile the one thing that stayed constant was that I was writing music. That’s progressed, my producer relationships have progressed. Giovanni as the rhythm section has progressed too, so once Jake got in the band with Will we were finally able to solidify the guitar slot. Jake and Will really contrast each other very well. Jake is the neo-shrapnel, Jason Becker / Marty Friedman very rehearsed guy. He studied with Chris Broderick. Very meticulous. Then Will has that magic dust from those British guys. He’s got that John Sykes / Ritchie Blackmore thing going on, classical and blues driven. So, they really bring nice contrasting styles.
We found Joseph Michael; Will had worked with him on a project and we brought him in last year. It worked pretty quick, ever since he started singing King Diamond — me and Jake are a couple of King Diamond nerds — we flipped out on that. We love the same shit; he’s a flamboyant guy and a great performer. And if there was anything lacking in Wyatt, it was that he didn’t really embrace the performance role very much. It wasn’t his thing. He wasn’t a flamboyant frontman. Joseph brings the voice but he also brings the performance, which is great. In this genre, what we’re trying to do, you need to have a guy that really embraces the frontman role. What those guys bring to the table is everything we were missing from Flying Tigers and a lot more. Wonderful leads and fantastic vocals and performance. It helps take it to the next level, I think. Everyone gets along killer. We’re in great spirits, it feels good. Nothing but positivity right now, which is good. We’ve been through a lot, you know?
Did all of the band members contribute to the writing process of the new album The Devil’s Cut?
No, not really. What happened with everything we were going through, I had written a good amount of these songs already. They were strong and we wanted to get a record out quick. So, we recorded a lot of the stuff I wrote. I demoed them all and handed them off. Gio got his stuff and composed the drums. Jake and Will, I designated spots for their leads based on their styles. Joseph got the demos and really infused a lot of character into them; he made the vocals his own. Then we went into the studio and knocked everything out.
Just in the interest of time, Jake and Will wanted to work on the best leads possible, but since I had written all the shit I laid down all the guitars myself and figured we’ll get it together live. But as soon as we got done recording the record we sat down and were like, “OK all these guys have great ideas. Joseph is a songwriter and so is Will. So, now let’s make this an inclusive process.” Now we have half of another record written that is better than anything we have done yet. So everyone is involved now. But The Devil’s Cut was put out relatively quickly to get the record out and get onto the next process, so we could have something out there with Joseph so everyone can start identifying with this lineup. You know, hell, even I sometimes forget.
What’s funny, I’ve said my original goal was to set the record for the most lineup changes in any rock band ever. I wanted to beat Deep Purple within five years. But these guys came along and they were keepers, threw a wrench in my plan. It’s been great, these guys are really awesome. We can talk all day long and sit here and tell you it’s all great now. People will say, “Jon Leon is an idiot, they’ll all be gone in six minutes.” I know the only way we’ll prove it is by going out and touring for a few years and putting out another album while being consistent and trying to stick it out. I know everyone will still talk shit, I totally know that. It’s all good.
Is there anything else you want to say about the new record? Maybe as it compares to the last record or what you’re trying to accomplish with it musically?
It’s our most progressed record to date; I’m really proud of the writing. I’m proud of Jake and Will, they kill. Giovanni as well. I think everybody brought their A game. Some people won’t like it, and that’s great. For the most part, for every person who doesn’t like it there seems to be ten who are enthusiastic. We’ve already had some strong reviews and that’s always a good feeling. I get to critique my own music, it’s very personal. What one person loves, the other person will hate. That’s true with any genre. For the people that do love it, I’m stoked. I’m very proud of it. I think the rest of the guys are proud of it. We think it’s the first step in an evolutionary process. I think it’s just what this lineup is capable of. Regardless if you like the material or not, I think everyone can agree that the playing is pretty good. I’m proud of that fact. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve hung in there, man. It’s a good feeling to put out a record where all five guys are actually going to tour it. That’s awesome.
What tours do you have coming up?
We’re working on some headline dates right now. For us, we really want to get out there and headline in the States. We’re working on a European run in the fall. We’ll do something in the States later in the summer; we may keep it a West Coast thing. I don’t know if we’re going to do the whole US or not. We want to get out there and solidify that this lineup is staying together. Everybody from promoters to guys like you are going, “Whelp, let’s wait for the next lineup change and the next thing to go wrong.” We just have to get out there and tour and show everyone that everything is cool. We understand that. I kind of want to do that before we try to hit up a lot of promoters to get on bigger tours. Ultimately we want to make sure that we show people that they’re not going to end up with a singer they weren’t expecting, which I totally understand. I’ll be the first to say, I get why promoters would be a little skeptical. We have to get out there and prove ourselves.
Three or four months ago Century Media entered a deal with Earache for marketing, distribution and PR. What are your feelings about that, moving away from the label you signed with, and how it’s going so far?
It’s going well. It’s still Earache running the show. I think Century Media definitely brings a lot of profile to everything. One of the things Earache was lacking was any kind of operations in the US. It’s indicative of how our fan base has gone. We have a big fan base in Europe but in the States we’re a little weak. Century Media can help bring that element to the table more. I think that’s what they’d bring more than anything, just giving records and artists more profile in the US. Everyone there has been great, Nikki is awesome. Everyone we’ve dealt with at Century Media has been really cool. We’re happy with the fact that they came on board. It was a good for the bands on Earache. From a business perspective, how it works out with Century Media and Earache, that remains to be seen. I think for the bands it can’t do anything but help their profile here in the States.