On Goulash and Determination.
George Burns once famously referred to show business as a “hideous bitch goddess” whilst Rolling Stone scribe and famed gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson opined that “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs … There’s also a negative side”. And yet despite the myriad splinters of broken dreams, the corporate greed, the pernicious charlatans and the shocking tales of excess and exploitation, that fabled chimera of rock and roll still has a purity and redemptive power clinging to it’s musky frame that continues to inspire, to enervate and to enthrall, even for those that should likely know better.
One need look no further for evidence of this power than to the startling tale of Canadian stalwarts ANVIL.
Bonding as children, the two sons of Jewish immigrants made a pact to rock forever when aspiring guitarist Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow overheard the youthful clatter of drummer Rob Reiner emanating breathlessly from a suburban garage, and the two of them sought to cut through the weight and tedium of white picket expectations and grasp their destiny. Forty years and one award winning documentary later, they’re here in Sydney Australia, celebrating their two score anniversary and promoting their forthcoming seventeenth (!) studio album ‘Pounding the Pavement’, playing to packed houses throughout the country, and generating a metric kilolitre of unrepentant sweat in the process.
As anyone who has seen the brief ascent, fraught plateau and dogged perseverance chronicled in the aforementioned film ‘Anvil! The Story of Anvil’ can attest, these guys live and breathe music. Their goofy charm, classic underdog status, indifference to goulash and sheer determination were the catalyst for an archetypal story, a three act heroes journey that resonated with viewers all over the globe. It validated their belief. It reinvigorated their career. In an age of insta-celebrities who are famous-for-being-famous there is something deeply edifying about two grizzled lifers and their unyielding fervor that speaks to many of us who have grown increasingly alienated by consumer culture and want something, or someone to believe in.
But there’s more to Anvil than just a curated re-telling. There’s seventeen fucking albums to get through. Ahead of their recent Sydney show I sat with the boys to unpack the Anvil of 2017. We started with the new one.
Rob: “Pounding the Pavement”? It turned out awesome. It was recorded in Germany, we changed studios from the last one and although we did it with the same producer we brought in a new guy so it was more of a team effort this time around and we wound up with a tremendous output. We’re pretty high on it. It’s another classic Anvil album. It has lots of variety. Lots of different flavours.
One of the more beguiling titles on the record is a track called ‘Nanook of the North’, based upon the famous Robert Flaherty documentary of the same name. I hoped that as the lyricist, Lips could give me an insight into the inspiration behind that track, especially as a lot of modern Inuit find the movie pretty problematic.
Lips: Ultimately it was suggested to me that we should think about adding a ‘Canadian element’ to some of our music and then it suddenly struck me ‘why don’t we write about the Eskimo’? And then thinking about Eskimo I thought, ‘well wait a second- the original documentary that was made in 1923 would be an interesting topic’. So I was looking for a certain rhythm. A tribal rhythm. And I built it around that. We wanted to give it that kind of sense and setting. The really interesting thing was that I went looking on the internet for Inuit throat singing. 99% of Inuit throat singing is done by women and I found these Inuit sisters that were renowned for this. They were doing some kind of TV special and it opened with the sound of them singing so I lifted about a second of it and then we looped and extended it and subsequently found out they were singing in key to the song that we had written! How do you chance that? It’s not like they tuned their singing to something. It was a natural tone and in actual fact they were singing the note A sharp which is a harmony of F sharp and it fit in perfectly with the track, so I said ‘Oh we gotta use this! This is magic!’ When do you find that? And the timing of it? Right on the beat? I went ‘holy shit man-there it is’.
Well every single album you guys have done has that alliterative element to the title as well. Metal on Metal, Forged in Fire, Plugged in Permanent, Back to Basics etc. ‘Nanook of the North’ almost sounds like an Anvil album title already.
Rob: I actually have a whole notebook full of ideas on those that I started once we started to go down that road.
Lips: Yeah- for the next one we were thinking about ‘cheese and crackers’ (laughs)
The band’s previous record ‘Anvil is Anvil’ for which they’re wrapping up the tour featured tracks like ‘Die for a Lie’ and ‘Gun Control’, which was interesting for a band that had previously remained largely apolitical. Were Anvil attempting to address the issues evolving in the US?
Lips: Well I could have written that song ‘Gun Control’ 20 years ago and people would have said I predicted it all. But the real truth is that it’s as predictable as the fact that it’s going to rain. Eventually it’s going to rain. They’re not going to fix it cos the foundation of their country is built on the gun. That’s their bottom line.
Rob: They’ll have to have a national revolution to change that aspect.
Lips: Yeah because it’s changing their constitution and the foundations on which the country was built. The people are paranoid. They’ve always been paranoid. Owning a gun has to do with fear. That’s the bottom fucking line.
Rob: Yeah, and to protect yourself against the government. I mean they’re very paranoid of their own government!
Lips: Of their own government! I think there’s something really wrong with the whole concept of ‘protecting yourself against your own government’. You don’t trust your own government? What does that say? Why did you vote them in? What kind of democracy are we living in when you don’t trust your own government? You can understand if they’re saying it about a communist rule but in a democracy where you have choice? And you don’t trust them? The whole thing is not right.
Rob: And of course ‘Die for a Lie’ is about dying for religion. Which to us doesn’t exist. Suicide bombers, people killing themselves? They do this for what?
Lips: They’re promised all these virgins and shit but Lemmy got up there first so there’s none left now.
Those of you familiar with the movie may recall that aside from his drum stool duties, Rob is a bit of a renaissance man and accomplished painter. I asked him if he was pursuing any more ‘German inspired’ pieces.
Rob: Yeah I’m working on my third one right now. It’s a trilogy. (all laugh). It’s true! There’s ‘Eating Well, ‘Eating Well: The Deuce’ and ‘Eating Well: The Trilogy’.
You need to do an exhibition! Speaking of which, what happened to the original Lips dildo? Is there a Canadian version of the Smithsonian you can donate it to? Put in under glass?
Lips: “Oh hell no. I don’t know where the original is. I’ve gone through dozens of them over the years. One of them in particular was bought by a friend of ours during our pledge campaign. It was one that was running for about 6-7 years easy. It was a special one because I used it for all of the Saxon tour, it had played with AC/DC and we did a lot of big shows with it, so she bought it as a memoir with a special certificate.
Do you think she uses it?
Lips: Oh hell no! You wouldn’t wanna use this thing! (laughs) It’s all banged up man.
After all these years, all the hoopla, the ups and down and millions of miles on the road, the goulash, the Tiziana’s and everything else, what moment always sticks out and returns to you?
Lips: The goulash! (laughs) It’s all about the soup! (laughs)
Rob: There’s too many man, it’s impossible to pick. Playing in China was unbelievable. An absolute eye opener. We didn’t realise what a beautiful country it is, awesome people.
And they’re so hungry for it right?
Rob: It’s all new to them.
Lips: I don’t know if the word is ‘hungry’ as much as it is ‘really inquisitive’. Like “what the hell is this? We wanna go see a rock show!” And you’re watching them moshing and it’s like they’re experimenting; “is this how you do it’? They haven’t quite figured it out yet. (laughs)
Rob: It was such an awesome tour. It blew our minds. We didn’t know what to expect and it went above and beyond what we imagined.
Lips: And we certainly had no clue as to what the texture and the vibe of the place would be. It was like ‘Where are we going? What is this?’ It wasn’t soldiers with guns marching everywhere and it wasn’t guys being driven around in rickshaws either, so we were as lost as they were.
If you can’t pick a favourite moment, you guys are obviously most well-known for you early releases like ‘Metal on Metal’ and ‘Forged in Fire’ but you guys have so much more than that. If there’s one record that you want people to listen to…
Lips: The newest one! (laughs) Musicians always say ‘the newest one’ right? (laughs).
Rob: We try and focus on the now, I mean it’s all cool music but we wanna focus on the now. From ‘This is Thirteen’ onwards we feel that all the records are really strong and getting stronger. They’re selling more and people like them so we’re quite happy with what is happening now. The classic stuff? It’s classic and that’s where it belongs. We play a lot of that shit live but if I were to recommend any Anvil record I would recommend the new shit.
So what’s next for Anvil?
Rob: January 19th the new album drops. Then on February 1st we’re right back on the road. We’ve got fifty shows in Europe, right after that thirty shows in America and twenty shows in Canada, then some festivals in summertime in Europe and then back to China in September/October.
You’ve probably been asked a million times how the movie changed your life but I’d like to spin it around and ask- what do you think would have happened if the movie was never made? You’d still be doing this right?
In unison: Absolutely.
Lips: It’s not failure! When you’ve recorded twelve albums and existed for, at that point, 30 years? That’s not failure!
Rob: We’re a band till the end. It’s what we do. We love this, it’s our life, it’s our passion. So we do this. There’s no retiring from this band. And it’s our day job! It’s our fucking day job! What better job could you ask for? I mean people ask us ‘why aren’t you playing stadiums’? and they’re right- but we’re working on it man, we’re working on it.
*goulash not included.