Interviewed by David Felix
Date: August 2010
With the release of "Round Trip" and along with his new band THE MERCURY TRAIN, Tony Harnell sat down with Rockeyez recently to discuss his past, present and future. Hereís what he had to sayÖ
David Felix: Hey Tony, great to hear from youÖ itís been a while!
Tony Harnell: Yeah, I know, I knowÖ how longís it been?
David Felix: At least two or three yearsÖ right around when the last STARBREAKER CD came outÖ
Tony Harnell: Right, rightÖ well itís good to hear your voice again!
David Felix: Same hereÖ Congratulations on the new release! Itís great to hear you back on the scene again.
Tony Harnell: Thanks so much, Iím very proud of it.
David Felix: So letís start by talking a little bit about the new CDÖ First of all, what exactly is THE MERCURY TRAIN?
Tony Harnell: Itís a really interesting storyÖ A buddy of mine is really good at coming up with band names and titles of things, like if you had a company and needed a really cool name, he would be the one you call. So I called him up and was like; "I need a band name." And I had some ideas so we were just kicking stuff back and forth and back and forth and he was just sending me lists and lists of stuff and just when I had decided on another name (which I canít even remember right now), he came up with this! I immediately was like "Thatís it! I donít even know what it is but thatís it!" And then he sent me this little Wikipedia link for it but it was a real project that I believe existed back in the 30ís. It was in New York and it was supposed to be this high-speed train, probably the first in the country and I believe it was supposed to go from Manhattan to Long Island or Manhattan up northÖ I really canít remember, but it was fully designed and had progressed to the degree where they were going to start it but I think they lost funding on it or something like that. Iím really not 100% sure but it never really took off. There are drawings of the train and thatís what you see if you have the CD. Itís very art-deco, thatís what it was supposed to look like but thatís how we came up with the name.
David Felix: Well the first thing you notice when you look at the track listing is that a lot of the titles seem very, very familiar. What made you decide to re-do some of your old material as opposed to putting out a brand new studio release?
Tony Harnell: If you had asked me to do something like this three years ago, I would have been like, "What are you crazy? I donít wanna do that!" But there was a demand for me to play shows. I had this great group of musicians who are friends of mine in New York whom I admire very much and I wanted to play a small, intimate place and here in the city, they have all these small, prestigious little venues with a really cool vibe and I wanted to see if I played there and really changed the flavor and color of my songs if they would work, if they would stand out or if I would just look like some "buffoon" from the 80ís! So we did a couple of shows and got an absolutely amazing response. Then it turns out Serafino (Perugino, CEO Frontiers Records), heard about it because, thanks to the internet, everything you do nowadays is "out there," and he asked if I wanted to do a live album with these guys? And I really didnít want to do that but I was really digging the way these guys were playing my songs so I thought we could do like a "live spirited" studio album. We wonít take a long time recording that music; weíll get a very live sound and so on. So thatís what we did and thatís really what spawned it but itís a very interesting project because originally I was like, "Should I do this? Is this really a dumb idea?" But as it developed, first of all we recorded all the music in just two days. It was a real quick thing and I was supposed to jump right in on the vocals and have the whole thing knocked out in a couple of weeks. But right after that two-day session, my Mom got ill and a couple of other things happened in my life that were pretty serious and I had to just shut down this thing. It got to the point where I had to sit down and write Serafino, "Look, I really donít know when Iím gonna be able to come back to this record. It could be a year, it might be six months but I really canít say. So if you want your money back and weíll just cancel the thingÖ fine, I donít care." And he said, "No, noÖ thatís ok. Just take your time and come back to it when you can." Thatís actually one of the really positive things about working with them because being Italian, theyíre really into the whole "family comes first" thing. But it turned out to be a real blessing, actually, when I finally returned to the album because what I thought it was going to be and what it ended up being and since the reasons for me doing the record actually changed during that time away and evolvedÖ it ended up being something almost completely different.
David Felix: Was it a little odd at first playing most of these songs with another band other than TNT?
Tony Harnell: There was a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes with TNT when I left. Some of it publiclyÖ not so much over here but in the press over in Europe and it was pretty nasty. I was enduring some pretty nasty attacksÖ a lot of lies and crazy shit I tried to ignore mostly, but it really left a bad taste in my mouth and made me feel really a bit disgusted at my whole twenty-something years in the band. All the sacrifices I made for the band, all the blood, sweat and tears, pouring my heart into the songs, ruining marriages and all that crap that ends up happening when youíre in a band. I wanted to just take all my records off my wallsÖ all my gold records and just sell Ďem or put them in the basement or something and even during the recording of this album, there was still some shit going on. There were emails, and some more nasty, ugly stuff going on behind the scenes and I was just like, "Uuughh!" But then I understood, finallyÖ when I came back to the album why I was doing this. It just hit me suddenly and I was like, "Oh my God! I know why I am doing this!" It was because these are my songs too and I very carefully chose songs that I felt didnít get enough attention their first time around. Even with like "Northern Lights." That should have been a single back in the 80ís and I actually think that had it had been a video back then, our lives would be very different today. Itís hard to believe that on just about every TNT album, there were at least one or two ballads and NONE of them were ever videos back in the 80ís when everybody was releasing ballads and those were the "break-through" hits, they never put one out for us. So I resurrected that song and really changed it giving it a more contemporary feel to it and itís actually one of the songs I think works the best which is why we did the video for it. When we got into the later material, I really though we were writing some great material back in the 90ís/ 2000 period and they just never got enough attention because they were on "Indie" labels and not a lot of people knew about them so that was the other thing. I just wanted to draw some new attention and be like, "Hey, these are pretty good songs even in a stripped-down, different sorta fashion." So when I got back into it with these guys, I really dug-in and just started to play around with the vocals a little bit and it became a really cathartic experience which really helped me spiritually put that part of my life to bed and honor the songs and take a little of the leadership of those songs back. I love the old recordingsÖ theyíre AWESOME! Iím not trying to compete with those. I mean Ronnieís (Le Tekro) a world class guitar playerÖ one of the best guitar players on the planet but this album was about showing how good the songs were, how good the melodies and the lyrics were and just showcasing and exploiting that part of these songs. But this CD and playing with these guys was just a way for me to deal with all that turmoil and just finally put this whole thing to bed.
David Felix: Was there any song in particular that you found a little bit more challenging as far as the re-recording process?
Tony Harnell: Yeah, there were a couple, actuallyÖ a couple that didnít even make the record. We had recorded a song called "Heart is a Heavy Load" from WESTWORLDís "Skin" and it just wasnít interesting enoughÖ it just wasnít different enough from the original and itís not that all the songs that are on the CD are "drastically" different from the originals. Iíd say at least a third or maybe even half of the songs are "fairly" close to the original but thereís always something different or something about these new versions that I felt was strong enough and made it worthy of being on the CD. But challenging? YeahÖ there were a few that I couldnít even figure out why they were challenging. Take "Month of Sundays" for example. When I started to do the vocals, I think I tried to sing it like, I donít even know how many times and I kept putting it aside and putting it aside, moving on to something else then coming back to it till finally one day, I just put it on again and suddenly I could do it. I have no idea why that happened. Thatís the funny thing about making musicÖ itís where your head is at, itís where your voice is at and there are a lot of factors that come into play but for some reason, that one screwed with me a little bit until I finally got the vocal.
David Felix: Iím an "old-school" TNT/ Tony Harnell fan. In some cases such as "Song For Dianne" and "Northern Lights," I absolutely LOVE the new versions and even think they came out better than the original recordings. But in other cases such as "Intuition" or "10,000 Lovers," I kind of miss that heavy, edgier side to the songs. Do you find youíre getting that kind of reaction a lot?
Tony Harnell: SurprisinglyÖ ya know, I tell myself NOT to read reviews but I always end up doing it anyway or at least have someone tell me about them. I mean I get like new emails of new reviews dropped in my mailbox almost every day now and I would say that nine out of ten of them are great! Of course there are a few that thinks itís likeÖ whatever, but the majority of them are really super-positive! I totally get what you are saying and I canít argue with that but the point I am trying to make is that you still have those old records and you still have those versions and to be quite honest with you, I almost didnít put either one of those songs on the release at all. But I think that what Iíve learned since I released the album is thatÖ first of all, I think "10k Lovers" is really fucking cool on this record (chuckles)Ö
David Felix: (interrupts laughing) Donít get me wrong, I DO like the new version, itís just that itís "different" from what I am use toÖ
Tony Harnell: Yeah! Itís a little more "bizarre" and a completely different song, almost. I donít think that if it hadnít had come out so "weird," it would be on the record at all. I literally told these guys originally that I didnít want to put it on the record but then finally decided, "Letís see what we can do with it." I had this idea and feel for this rhythm for it and said, "Letís just see if this will work and how crazy we can get." So we did it and when I started doing the vocals, I really went off on all the crazy, weird back-ground stuff and when I played it for people, they were like, "This is really fun. You gotta put this on there." As for "Intuition," it has a bit of that "country-folk" kind of feel to it but I have to admit, I feel a little bit obligated to put those songs on there or play them "live" because "Intuition" was a big hit in Japan and a pretty-good sized hit all over the world and "10,000 Lovers" became almost like our "signature song" almost everywhere but if I had it my way, I would never play those songs again. Itís horrible for me and I know there are people out there who donít wanna hear that and I donít mean to hurt anyoneís feelings but itís just that I donít have a lot of attachment to them right now. What Iíve learned from playing my show in Norway a few weeks back is that even though I stuck "Intuition" and "10k Lovers" in there, I really donít think I needed to do that. In fact, one of my brand new solo songsÖ well maybe not "brand new" since it was on the cinematic-demo EP, but I played one song off of that and I swear to God it got the best response for the audience and that was a real "wake-up" call for me. Promoters are the ones whoíve been telling me things like "The only reason we want you to play is if you do the old TNT songs." And here I am thinkiní, "But TNT is out playing TNT songs!" I know Iím the original guy and I absolutely LOVE some of the songs but thereíre other songs that I want to play. Thatís why in my set over there, I played some of the 90ís stuff, I played some of the 2000ís stuffÖ but some of the stuff I wanna play and some of the stuff I donít wanna play but I feel a bit obligated to do them. But I think at this pointÖ at least for a while or at least until my viewpoint changes again, as long as I do a good job and the band and I really perform well together, I can pretty much do what I wantÖ I donít think it matters. As a matter of fact, we just got offered a pretty decent sized festival here in the U.S. and all the bands are really retro but I said to the guy, "Iím really not into playing a retro/ nostalgic type of set." And he was like, "I donít care, play what you want!" And I was like, "Really?" and he was goiní "Oh yeah!." So thatís what I am seemingly getting more and more and I am absolutely thrilled about it. I hope it continues and I think Iíve just been pushing the envelope so hard for so long that people are finally getting it. Sure, there are people who have fallen off of the band wagon, but people are starting to respect that Iím gonna do what Iím gonna do."
David Felix: Tell me a little bit more about the three "unreleased" or more obscure tracks "Down to the River To Pray," "When Iím Away" and "Anywhere But Here."
Tony Harnell: "Down To The River To Pray" was actually on the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?" with George Clooney. It was performed by Alison Krauss and my wife just absolutely loves that song and one day I had my studio up and turned on and she just came in while I was on a break and was like, "Can I just record something?" So I was like, Yeah!" and I just turned the mike around and she sang that and I was like, "WowÖ this is really good! Letís put some harmonies on it!" Then I sang a harmony then she would sing a harmony and then I said, "We should stick this between a couple of songs on the CD." So thatís what we did! It wasnít even planned; it was just kind of a fluky thing. So thatís how that came aboutÖ "Anywhere But Here" is a song I had written with Brandon Wilde," the bass player in THE MERCURY TRAIN, about three years ago and when we had finished the album, I remembered the demo and thought that that was a pretty good demo. "Why donít we fix that up a little bit, maybe add some background vocals and put it out?" Itís a cool, little song and we did. "When Iím Away" is actually a TNT song that ended up being the bonus track for "My Religion" in Japan. Itís a really obscure TNT song and itís really funny because when Iím reading reviews, people sometimes think that itís a much older song and are like, "Tony gave "Anywhere But Here" the psychedelic treatment!" and they donít even know what "When Iím Away" isÖ they think itís a new song but itís notÖ itís an old TNT song.
David Felix: What made you decide on "Northern Lights" as the first video?
Tony Harnell: It was basically a collaborative decision between me and the label but I was lucky enough to get these fantastic film makers that are really dear friends of ours to do it. We were just out having coffee with them one night and I was like, "Hey, I have an opportunity to make a video. I have a very small budget because itís an "Indie" label but would you guys be into doing it?" And they were like, "Well letís hear the song." So I sent them the song and they just flipped out and fell in love with the song. They had never heard it before so for them it was a brand new song and they just loved it so they really wanted to do it. They presented me with a beautiful conceptÖ very simple, but beautiful and a friend of mine has this beautiful house just a few blocks from where I live in Brooklyn and he let us use it. We shot the whole thing in one day and Iíve actually very, very proud of it. It was such a low budgetÖ I canít even give the number because itís just so hard to believe but I donít think itís about budgets. I think it was beautifully shot, I think the song is great and I really think that in many ways itís the best video Iíve ever done because itís so honest, itís so real, itís not pretentious and itís pretty much just a reflection of me and my wife. Plus I think she looks absolutely stunning in the video so Iím really, really proud of it.
David Felix: With the state of the video music industry today, do you think that music videos are becoming more of a "lost art" form?
Tony Harnell: I donít know if thatís true. Actually, because of some connections I have, we actually have a shot of getting on VH-1 ClassicsÖ weíre working on that right now, it may or may not happen so weíll see how that goes. Weíre working on getting it on national television over in NorwayÖ possibly Sweden as well and we think that will happen. But the internet is pretty awesome for stuff like that. I mean between sticking it on YouTube, Facebook and other websites that I have, itís been getting a ton of hits! And I think that it allows the label to just kinda stick it anywhere they want! The responses have been just absolutely amazingÖ just look at the YouTube hits! Nine out of ten responses are very, very positive so I couldnít be happier about that. No, we donít have the millions upon millions of people exposure like we did in the old days with MTVand thatís a shame but we do have the internet and I think that thatís a valuable tool. I think it helps sell albums and I think it will continue to help sell albums and I hope we can do a second video.
David Felix: Tell me a little bit about the band itselfÖ how did you go about piecing it together?
Tony Harnell: Brandon I met about ten years ago. He use to be in a band called THIS WAY with the guitar player Chris Foley. They were signed to Reprieve which was an extension of Warner Brothers and actually did two albums and had a bit of a small hit with a song off their first record and then recorded their second album with, Iím sorry his name escapes me at the moment, but he was the main producer who did all the COLDPLAY albums and then they got dropped from their label because their A & R person got firedÖ you know how that goes. But I met him through this girl I know. Brandon is her cousin and I went to see them a couple of times and I was just mesmerized by him. Heís a great singer, great song writerÖ and not trying to kiss his ass at all (Laughs), but heís actually one of my all time favorite song writers. He churns out beautiful, really honest, beautiful, simple songsÖ very Beatle-esq, gorgeous lyrics and a great singerÖ just a great, great artist. So I reached out to him and asked him if he wanted to do some shows locally here in New York. Then he pulled in Chris from his old band, he pulled in Brad (Gunyon) who was the drummer in his other band BLACK BUNNY and I pulled in Jason (Hagen) who was the one who really helped me arrange all the songs. He was actually a vocal student of mine and he would come in with his guitar all the time and I immediately recognized that he was incredible and then, of course, my wife Amy came in. I just though it was the coolest thing because sheís got such a beautiful voice and I knew she would sound great on these songs and live sheís just an amazing asset because sheís beautiful, she sings great and sheís something to look at other than me! (Laughs) And I love having her next to me on stageÖ itís kinda like a Paul/ Linda McCartney kinda thing. I think itís a really beautiful thing to be able to share your art, your passion and your career with the person that youíre married to. Itís just the coolest thing everÖ
David Felix: I also noticed you got Sandi Saraya to guest vocal on "Shame." How did that all come about?
Tony Harnell: She and I were on the same label back in the 80ís and we both had the same A&R guy so we met back in í88 or í89Ö somewhere around there, and immediately hit it off. She was a fan already and we were just about to release "Intuition" and she told our A&R guy that she was a big fan and wanted to meet me so he set it up and we met and became fast friends. We would hang out all the time but then as time went on, she moved and then I moved and we kind of drifted apart through out the 90ís but then, of course, lovely Facebook came along and got us back together. We started to chat and I was on the phone with her last year and I had just finished the vocals for "Shame" and it wasnít even something I had thought about before. We just happened to be talking and I was like, "Hey, are you still singing?" And she was like, "YeahÖ you know, I sing at church on the weekends and such but I donít really care about the music industry and I donít really wanna be involved with it." So I just asked if she would wanna sing a song with me and she was like, "Yeah!" And that was it! I said, "Ok," and literally within days I had the track over to her, set up a recording session in L.A. because she lives in California now and it was done within a week or so. She just nailed it and I kinda produced it over the phone from afar but my buddy did a great job recording her. I was really honored because she hasnít done any major recording in many, many years so for me to grab her and get her to sing on that with me was really great.
David Felix: Not so long ago, you suffered a very tragic, personal loss with the passing of your mother and although we expressed our condolences through the website and through emails, I would just like to first off extend our deepest, heartfelt condolences on behalf of both myself and the entire ROCKEYEZ staff.
Tony Harnell: That really means a lot to me. Thank you so much.
David Felix: How much did that tragedy impact the recording of "Round Trip" if at all?
Tony Harnell: Like I said before, I had to just stop when she started getting really sick. I cancelled two performances over in England both in 2008 & 2009. The first one was just when she first got the scary news so I needed to be with her during that period and when she actually started to get really, really ill, I had to go and drive herÖwell, we flew out to New Mexico and then I drove her to a clinic in Arizona. I mean, she really fought hard. We really tried everythingÖ she tried everything in her power to survive even when the doctors were saying there was no chance. So, it impacted the recording in every way and there were some other things that were going on in the middle of all that which I really havenít spoke about and Iím not going to do it right now, but I will be talking about it real soon and then everybody will know, but it was a tough, tough year. I can easily say that 2009 from one point of view was the worst year of my lifeÖ without question. But ya know, looking back upon it now, I also have the point of view that when you go through something like this in your life, you come out of it with a new appreciation for life and for a lot of different things. The drive for me to finish the record and follow through with some performances I had on the books for this year and just get myself up and out of it was all motivated by making her proud, ya know? It impacted me more than I thought it would. We became really, really close at the end. We lived really far away from each other for most of my life and we became very, very close the last five or six years of hers and Iím really grateful for that. But yeah, it impacted everything. It impacted this record, it will impact my solo record which I am working on... Iím sure thereíll be some songs and some lyrics on that which reflect what I feel and so forth.
David Felix: I know you mentioned the Norway Rock Festival which you just played at. Do you have any more shows lined up in support of the release?
Tony Harnell: I really wasnít supporting the release. That was more or less just a rock festival I was invited to play at. That was actually booked last year and it just so happened that the timing of it was right at the moment when this was being released. It was very good in a way because I got to perform and promote the record at the same time, but the show I did at the Rockwood Music Hall here in the city was the album release and specifically for "Round Trip." I donít have anything else really booked right now. Iím looking for a really great agent who I can really form a good relationship with over in Europe and here in the U.S. and that will probably be two different people but I am totally open to shows or tours or whatever comes up.
David Felix: So what kind of support have you been getting since you released the CD?
Tony Harnell: The great thing about the music industry right now and the internet is that itís not like the old days where you release an album and then itís gone. I could release another video for this in six months and start the ball rolling all over again. The release
date is just a formality. And I think people are starting to recognize different qualities about me and my singing and what I do as an artist. If people think itís "just" a retrospective or "just" an acoustic album, they really donít have an idea about what it is and really should just check it out and give it a listen because I think theyíll be pleasantly surprised. And even if they donít know these songs, I donít think it really matters. I donít think it has any bearing on the quality of the album. I think, actually, that itís something anybody could like whether they know the songs or not.
David Felix: Whatís next for Tony Harnell?
Tony Harnell: Iíve been writing new songs. I actually have this new song that I really, really loveÖ I just adore it and I think itís something that is going to open some doors for me. In addition, we are finally shopping the "cinematic" demos. People probably think that I already shopped them and didnít get anywhere and put them out for the fans but thatís actually not true. We never shopped them to any labels because I didnít thing they were ready to shop but Iíve had a lot of people tell me that those songs are great so I figured it was time to see if I would get a bite from any labels. We do have some interested labels now and other than that, Iím just writing with a whole bunch of different writing partners from all over the world. Most of them are from Europe, a few are from here but Iím just writing and writing and writing trying to get together the best songs possible to put on my solo album. The style of the record is going to be all over the map but through the production and the fact that I am singing on all the songs, I am trying to get it to be a very cohesive but diverse album.
David Felix: Well thatís about it, Tony. Is there anything else youíd like to add?
Tony Harnell: Iíd just like to say to all my fans out there that theyíve been absolutely amazing. I really appreciate all the letters of support that Iíve gotten through my Facebook and on my website and through emails and everything elseÖ theyíve just been super amazing and supportive and I really appreciate that. I do this because my fans are there and because they love what I do so Iím going to continue doing that and hopefully Iíll get to see them all on the road very, very soon.
David Felix: Thanks again Tony. Itís always a pleasureÖ
Tony Harnell: Thank you, man! Itís been great and hope to see ya soon!