Interview with Hurricane Guitarist Robert Sarzo (Idol X, Queensryche GT)

By Mick Michaels

COSMICK VIEW: Hello, Robert! Welcome to The Cosmick View. Thank you for taking some time out of your day to chat with me, it is greatly appreciated.
Robert Sarzo: Hello Mick!

CV: The 80s without a doubt gave us some of the best and most memorable Metal music to date. It was the perfect storm and many bands garnished much success.  However, when the decade ended and times changed, so did that success for a lot of groups, unfortunately. Does an era in time define a band or does the band themselves define who they are regardless of the date on the calendar?
RS: Well I think, just like every era the bands were really challenging each other in the 80s. A lot of great talent came out of Los Angeles…and even from late the 70s, so I just think it was a natural course that people were just trying to do their best as musicians…and some of the bands were just more into being real pop. Other ones were more serious players, you know technical players…so that really defined things.  And MTV had a lot to do with our era as well.

CV: So, you see the 80s as being an apex point in music, as artists’ and bands’ natural progression…as the bands got better so did the music?
RS: Right. I feel a lot of the players, including myself; we dragged in elements of fusion which was a combination…Well it actually started from Weather Report with Mahavishnu Orchestra, John McLaughlin and Al DiMeola. So a lot of us guys we're all the same age so we were listening to this sound of music that really interested us. I myself, 'm still learning, I'm still venturing into other styles and bringing it into my genre, into what I do…and that's just a natural course for some of us…some people are just more into the gimmick and playing the songs and being really poppy and that's OK. You know it's what makes us all happy…it’s the journey. The interesting thing to add to that Mick is that a lot of those catchy tunes are the ones that really made it popular in the radio play format and those are the ones that are huge right now because it's easier to comprehend for a regular person that doesn't really break down music technically. Therefore they just hear a like melody and they think it's good…you know that's what you're comfortable with. Some of us wrote music for other musicians because this is our trade; we comprehend technical things…patterns and playing in different time signatures.

It was an interesting era because it brought together so many great flavors of the 60s and the 70s and then it was all translated into the 80s. Then, like I mentioned before, when MTV came into the picture,
that was a great platform, and then people had to start acting and dressing up differently.

CV: Speaking of perfect storms, Hurricane was definitely one such band during that era that had the right stuff. With a combination of soaring guitar sounds, powerful vocals and a little family name recognition, the band hit the scene honoring its name sake. What do you think gave Hurricane the edge over other bands at the time?
RS: Our dedication. We were striving for our best. We were competing within each other.

We brought in experience that we already had acquired before Hurricane
came about. Speaking for myself, I already had done tours opening up for Bob Seger, Boomtown Rats….a lot of bands. On the East Coast I had done a record in 1979 which was released in 1980 on Arista Records. That band was DL Byron. We had videos out before MTV was even out. They would play our video with the HBO movies. “Listen to the Heartbeat” was one of our first singles.

So when I left Jersey and moved to L.A., I already had the experience of doing arenas…I had the feel of what needed to be done and when and how…so that gave us an edge. People then were kind of curious of what we were doing…Tony had already been in Quiet Riot. When Tony and I met actually, Quiet Riot had not launched, hadn't really made it yet. So we just got together, just like people still do nowadays…we were introduced through Kevin DuBrow. Tony already had recorded and had played with Quiet Riot and DuBrow.

Tony Cavazo had co-written that song bang your head…“Mental Health.” He wrote the music…so a lot of people don't know that when he was in Snow, that was one of their songs and then Kevin changed the lyrics. Tony already had experience from playing with his brother Carlos Cavazo and Snow…so he really brought all that experience of being in L.A. I was new to L.A. and when I came here, I started looking and checking out bands, and trying to get into another band…but I just wasn't really into what was going on with the styles of singing. I wanted somebody more melodic and eventually I met up and found Kelly Hanson…that was more of a flavor that I wanted to hear. It was more beat oriented, more melodic singing…really nice.

So yeah, that's how we came about…and then Jay Schellen came in at the end to replace another drummer…Jay fit in more with our style. But we were all in to being progressive and we rehearsed every day. That gave us an edge to other bands.

We knew that we had to work hard…we all had to get jobs just to sustain ourselves. We didn't have a record deal…but we were very dedicated.

And then at the time Mick they were having bands pay to play which was something that wasn’t something in existence in Jersey or New York City or Boston. We would perform there, bands would perform there, and we would get paid. When I came to L.A. and Hollywood, they wanted bands to buy tickets as sell them. So I saw a way of going around that, I said “hey…let's raise some money, cut a record and release it and we'll get it to the radio stations.” Luckily we had KNAC…so KNAC started picking us up. So that first record, “Take What You Want,” was self financed.

CV: Because of all the prior experience among the band members and the time you dedicated, there was a level of comfort that was evident. So what you put in to something, you feel you will get out to get the payoff you want?
RS: Yeah, it was a lot of work. You had to work at it.  Let me add another thing…before I even had a record deal, I already had endorsements with guitar companies and amplifier companies. So we were also into the marketing and planning. It's a whole structure that you have to do…like any other business; you know it’s a new company. My advice is nowadays it’s still the same thing. You've got to deliver the product. Don't expect the record company to be doing things for you…or anybody. You want something you gotta go ahead and take care of it and do it.

CV: Robert, do you think a time, like the 80s, for music will ever repeat itself?
RS: No…in a different form, in a different way perhaps.
Just like there was the big band era, that would never happen again. Everything keeps changing, everything has become digital now…everything is about ringtones, selfies. That was a magical moment for us…that was our moment for our generation.

Nowadays players like us, I mean we can still tour and we can still play because the newer generation want to know and they want to see firsthand how we do it, you know…why were we putting so many hours into our instrument…why did we want to work so hard at something that had no real guarantee?

You know a lot of musicians who were friends of mine just couldn’t deal with the suffering that we had to do back then…sleeping on floors and traveling and barely having any money for food…just living for the dream and a lot of people cannot endure that. So they go and take the safe route and they become a professor or something else or go to school…and you know even going to school for music there's no guarantee. What are you going to become a teacher? You know that's fine…that's great, but you know some of us want more…we shoot for the limit.

CV: Hurricane recently released a very dynamic and soulful cover of the Queen/Bowie song "Under Pressure." Are the band members big Queen/Bowie fans?
RS: I am! (Laughs)That's my era! I met Bowie back in the day when he released his first record, in Fort Lauderdale I met him. Oh yeah, Queen had a big influence in my life. I love the British style of performance and grace and elegance…and their arrangements and classical influences. Yeah that was great.

I'll tell you why we did this…this is something that I had been asked to do for a film, to create another version of their song for a movie. It never got into the film, so I kept the master. I just love that song so much that when I had the guys in Hurricane comeback into the studio, I had Mike Hanson recreate the drums. It just came out perfect. Then I had a different singer…now I have Chad Cancino…he came in and he tracked the vocals…so that's something that we already had created about four years ago. So all I needed was just have a master…and for some reason now people are asking about Hurricane again. The song was already recorded. I love this song and put so many hours into it why not release it?  So that's our version of “Under Pressure.”

CV: "Under Pressure" is immediately recognizable because of that unforgettable bass line. Without hesitation, fans think Queen/Bowie. What has Hurricane's version, "Under Pressure 2.02," done to separate itself from the classic rendition while adding another standout hit to the band's catalog?
RS: We put our different little parts here and there. I don't want to really get into technical parts we changed…it just has a little bit more of a growl; it has more of an edge to it. The lyrics really fit well with how I feel about the universe right now and what's going on in life with all the negative energy that's being spread around…the world is under pressure. I just felt that, you know, why not. It was just a crazy coincidence that the movie came out and I was actually getting ready to release the song…so I actually waited to release it because I just figured let the movie come out…I watched the movie,
It was great. I love it and really enjoyed it.

I did see Queen back in the 70s and that's when Freddy Mercury had his long hair at the time. Trying to remember which tour that was…could have been 1973…. But anyhow they sounded great…always loved Queen.

CV: When choosing a song to cover, is the process based on how that song
fits the band's musical style or is it more geared toward personal tastes?
RS: Well, when I think of myself I figured the band…I vibe it to be
all in unison, to be the same. So if I feel something that excites me I know how to apply it and create it and arrange it to bring it to the band and have everybody kind of vibe on it. I mean if the guys in the band hate it I'm not going to do it, everyone’s got to dig it. (Laughs) But I got to have a sense of what we like. We like things to be kind of hard and edgy and hard hitting. We're definitely not a la la band and we're not a simple band that just plays things in 1, 4, 5 and sing about silly things…even though we did some of that back in the 80s, “The Girls Are Out Tonight” for example. (Laughs)But you know when we wrote that we were in the middle of what was going on Sunset Boulevard. So there were a lot of girls out…and you know it's about peace and love and partying that was going on back then…and a lot of parties and I mean partying…you partied.

So yeah to answer your question bringing in a cover song for us would definitely have to fit everybody's taste and a vocal range and the time we feel that if it fits what the audience wants to listen to then we'll do it…we won’t do something that we feel is going to offend anyone.

CV: Robert, does picking the right song to cover make all the difference? Is there certain criterion to consider when approaching remaking a hit song?
RS: Yeah, I truly feel that adding some covers brings in something that’s similar, though I don't even know if radio programmers really exist anymore. That was one of the formulas that we paid attention to back in the 80s. But then if you go back in history, the Beatles did some covers at the beginning and so did Led Zeppelin. So it's fun. It's fun to do something that you know you grew up with and maybe you were banging those songs millions of times in the nightclubs before you've got a record deal and you really are attached to that song…you feel like you own it. So yeah, why not do it.

It's hard now. I mean it wasn’t an easy them but to break in a new brand of a band it takes a lot of work and not everybody wants to work so hard nowadays. There are less and less guitar players who are actually coming out of this new era now, unfortunately. It’s such a fun instrument to play.

CV: What do you see as the biggest difference between Hurricane now compared to the band in the 80's?
RS: The difference was that we didn't have as much overhead, so that kind of limits your flexibility of time together, meaning to write, create, rehearse, all that is time together. We lived close to each other so we could rehearse every day. Nowadays Mike Hanson is living in Chicago. And Tony is in Marietta which is deep in land. I'm in San Pedro which from downtown L.A., I'm like a 25 minute drive if I’m that far….and Chad is in Palm Springs. So for us to get together every day, it's pretty much impossible. So you've got to do a lot of your own home work creating now. Everybody’s doing it differently. People are actually doing a lot of e-mails back and forward or doing Skyping for writing which is OK now because with the digital era you can send guitar tracks all over the world or bass tracks or vocal tracks…that’s how a lot of bands are doing records, like that, anymore. But that changes the sound…it doesn't have the magic. That's the difference that I'm feeling, unfortunately, that we don't have that time anymore. And the other thing is also that there's really no fresh airplay, there's no more radio stations to be playing your new material and it happening with every caliber of artist. I mean the real hip hop and pop artists they're getting a lot of the airplay. Rock and Roll is not really drawing that audience anymore that we had back in the 80s…so that's why the record companies aren’t dropping money on the artists so they can’t, for example, live closer to each other and create new material.

CV: So your view on the music industry has changed but your goal is still the same?
RS: The view is still the same. But nowadays you do a record so you can do a tour…back in the 80s; you would do a tour to sell your record. There's no more money in selling records anymore. People are downloading your songs for free…that's a big difference. So you put out a record and you're not going to get your money back. All that time that you put into it or if you took out a loan from a record company or any finance company to give you a loan to do an album, you're not going to recoup that. That's the difference…big difference. Back then, you sold records because people weren't downloading your music for free.

CV: Has time and experience given you a second sight as to what is important as an artist and songwriter?
RS: Yeah, every time…I’m always writing.

I have grown as a songwriter. I'm always hearing melodies and music in my head…so I'm always creating. I live now in a yacht in the marina, among the water…and ever since I've been living here my creativity has really increased. And it's one of the reasons is that’s it’s so relaxing here. It's such a beautiful environment and the ocean has energy…it has electrical current so your body is receiving that energy and your brain is getting that energy and it makes you very creative. That's why a lot of writers either move to the mountains, getting away from all the static of electrical current that we have in cities or they're going towards the ocean.

CV: So you feel less stressed to create?
RS: It's not even about the stress, it's just the energy that I get here from the ocean is just fabulous…it's just amazing…it's great…it's very intense. If you look it you'll see. On my yacht I have to have zinc plates because of the electrical current in the water. It would eat all your metal. That's all energy. And you know your brain shoots electrical currents. It's very powerful. Let me give you an example: now that we have social media…have you ever been thinking about someone that you haven't seen in maybe 40 years, and you really are thinking about that person a lot….shooting out that vibration. All of a sudden that person appears on social media and contacts you. It's happened to me many times…it’s happened to people that I know. The brain shoots and receives electrical energy…it's alive.

CV: How would you define success on a personal level? Is it more than just
accolades and hit songs as many often believe?
RS: I've always looked at it as part of the journey is the success.

It’s about growing, it's about gaining. And the more I gain, I feel, the more successful I am. That's how I gauge my success…accomplishing things that I set out to do musically. It’s one of the ways…there other things that we do in life but for my work it’s music. Yeah I’m always learning, I'm always trying to figure things out and sometimes you have to try a thousand times or more. And if something doesn't work then you know you're getting closer to where you want it to get to. So you're always growing. You're always learning and that to me success… By the time I'm getting close to where I wanted to be I'm already setting out a new goal…something else. And I'll continue the path but then I'm done… I'm already going to the next one. Don’t stop. Don’t idle.

CV: Hurricane has started a new chapter with a newer lineup. Where do you see the music going in terms of style and approach? Have newer members offered new direction with the songwriting?
RS: We write for a what we enjoy, what we feel comfortable with. It’s not like all of sudden we're going to chase a scene and start writing a different style of music just because it's become popular. We won't do that. We will still keep the Hurricane sound. With my guitar being a melodical instrument, I think that adds a lot of direction to the music. Tony and I we've been songwriting since day one, so we will always keep that formula…you know, the 80s, that's our sound. Things might change like mixing…back in the 80s people were mixing with a lot of reverb and effects. Now it's a little more drier, more upfront. That will change because that's just something that gets transferred to somebody else to do. I do a lot of producing…I produced “Under Pressure” and I had Andy Zuckerman, a great engineer and mixer, he also does producing. But I produced that track and gave it to him to mix because I'm too close to it. He did a fabulous job on it and I want to continue working with him… That's pretty much the only thing that's really going to change is still going to have that ballsy guitar sound and drums and real hard hitting. And Chad vocally just really adds a great nice texture. He has a really nice growl He's also Latino like me…he speaks Spanish so we might also start tracking stuff like I did in the After the Storm record. I had Rudy Rails as vocalist and he was half Cuban like I'm Cuban, so we did those songs in Spanish…so we might add that to the album…we'll see. We’ll experiment with it.

CV: Would you say then that it is an asset to work with someone to mix or master a song? Do you feel someone with “fresh ears,” can offer the song a new perspective or possibly even a different take than what you may have originally considered for the song?
RS: I think it's an asset to have somebody with fresh ears and enhance it with the new technical ability nowadays because the digital world keeps rapidly advancing, it’s changing. The professionals in that field know what's new now…what's coming out new…how other people are mixing. Another person takes it and does the mastering.

So my thing is writing, producing…producing meaning keeping the vibe, keeping the arrangement…everything perfectly in tune to our ability.(Laughs) Just make it sound like a record and then give it to other guys to do that. They bring in that element of “hey this is how other people are mixing it”. I don't want to mix something that sounds dated from back in the 80s.

My heart is always gonna go back to the 80s. I'm not going to start playing a guitar now that has you know 12 strings…while I do play the twelve string guitar…I did do that on the Hurricane records but I mean like people play now eight string guitars and seven strings… I feel if I can't do it on a six string oh well… And actually thinking about six strings is, I use very little effects now. I used to bring racks of effects back in the 80s and now I am more into getting that organic sound off my fingers. If I want to color sound I can somehow do it with my fingers and it gives you a cool sound.

So we grow…we learn more how to do things organically

CV: Many up and coming original artists have complained about the massive rise of tribute bands in recent years.  The concern seems to be that these such types of bands’ up rise have begun to diminish the original scene and new artists’ chances of finding an audience.  Robert, do you agree with this assessment and is there a need for such concern?
RS: I don't think so. There's always been tribute bands…Elvis impersonators, The Temptations. I just feel because there is very little airplay it makes it really rough on the new bands to get out there… because how are you going to put out your new music. Another thing too is people want to hear something that they're familiar with…that's why I feel that it's good to first put out something that is familiar to the audience…maybe your own version. I mean “You Really Got Me” by Van Halen, that's an old song by The Kinks. Why did they do it? I don't know, you gotta ask them but again these could be songs that we were doing back in the clubs and it was fun for us and why not do it…they’re great songs.

So I do a tribute band call Idol X. I don't know if you know that or not. Interesting enough, I had another band called 80 Proof Vudu and it’s with the bass player of Billy Idol, Steven McGrath…he’s been with them for 21 years. He plays with me as the bass player and then we rotate different drummers. We do covers of old songs by The Beatles, Peter Frampton…we experiment a lot but it's a lot of fun, it's a blast!

Matthew Eberhart, the gentleman that does “Billy Idol” came up one night and sat in with us. I knew some of the Billy Idol songs cause I already had been playing with Steven…Steven would sing them and it was cool.

So Matthew asked me to do a show one night as a Billy Idol tribute. So he hired me to do it. So I said yeah, why not. They’re great, fun songs to play. Back in the 80s I knew Billy Idol and we were all on the same scene. So I did this show at the House of Blues in Anaheim and it went over great. It was a lot of fun to play. The place was packed…sold out. I would say about fourteen hundred people…I was like “wow, this is odd.” Here we are doing somebody else's catalog and a guy who’s singing looks like him and acts like him and the crowd is enjoying it. Ever since then I've am being booked and I'm performing with Idol X. So that's how the whole thing came about.

I'm a working musician and I enjoy playing music and I enjoy playing music that my taste parallels what I'm playing…the style. We do it really well…It's a lot of fun to do.

I feel that you've got to put as much heart as if you were playing your own original music. You have to dedicate the same energy and performance to playing somebody else's music.

So if you are going do a tribute, do it great or please don't do it. People don't want to hear half ass tribute music. There are a lot of artists that never really got to where they wanted to be professionally as a musician and they stopped and then they went into other fields of life, working daytime jobs. And nowadays they're putting together tribute bands because they're like “Hey, yeah we can we can get booked and get paid.” But I think that there are some tribute bands out there that I wish were not doing it because they are not doing a good job at it.
And my advice to them is if you've got to take lessons at the instrument please do and get good at it. Put some integrity into what you're doing…as an artist. There are a lot of bands out there performing that maybe one member is the original member of the original band. And if that person gets ill they still perform…say they get sick and then what is it really? None of the guys are original in the band. Is that considered a tribute band just because you’re using the licensing of the name…it's not the same band. So what's the difference between that and then somebody going out and saying “hey this is a tribute”?

CV: The internet has given us ease of access and instantaneous gratification...with music; it is available for free, 24/7 on a variety of online platforms. In your opinion, has such over accessibility and availability made it more difficult for artists and bands to make a living releasing music?
RS: It's so difficult. New bands, and there's a lot of great new bands out there…great young talented guitarists and singers and drummers… You know it's just very difficult because it's over-saturated. Nobody knows what platform to go to and look at. That's really making it really difficult for everybody to make money…our music gets out there on the Internet now for free. People are stealing it, people are downloading it. And people have become used to that. They feel “why should I pay for music.” And this is our world…this is what we do. This is what we spend a lot of hours, lonely hours, in a room by ourselves, creating and then recording….that's a lot of work. It's a lot of expenses. We still have to pay a mortgage. We have to pay for meals. We have to pay insurance. It's really hurting the industry. It has been hurting the industry. Digital play doesn't pay that much and never did compared to what we were getting paid for radio play from FM and AM. So, yeah it's really a struggle for all the musicians and songwriters.

CV: Can Hurricane fans expect to see more new material as well as some tour dates in 2020?
RS: Yeah I have already a date confirmed for Hurricane…it will be in
Denver, Colorado on the 25th. So far that's what we have right now booked. Material wise…would like to get back into the studio. I'm just trying to check everybody’s schedule. Everybody's doing different gigs, different bands. Again, things are different nowadays…so I'll come up with some ideas and I'll send them to all the other players of the band and then we'll add our two cents to it… and then we'll just keep doing that and rotating it…we'll probably have to record things from different cities. That's the way we have to do it nowadays. But yes, there should be some new material. We enjoy it. It's fun to do and we enjoy each other's company.

CV: Do you think you think there'll be an actual physical album or are you going to just go purely the digital route?
RS: I would just like to release one song at a time and then later on it could be put together as an album…but I don't see the necessity of doing that anymore, putting out a new album. I've gotten offers to do a whole album but again, the numbers don't add up properly to be doing it the way I want to do it. I rather do it like we did “Under Pressure,” we were all in the same room and we tracked that and then we did a few overdub here and there.

For me to do things as the final product…I mean that's cool for demoing, sending ideas around like that but when it comes to play I like to bring everybody in the same room and vibe off each other…that’s the magic of music.

CV: What's next for you?
RS: Well more days with Idol X. I going to NAMM. I've got the Los Angeles amp show coming up on Saturday… I'm going there representing my amplifier company which is Mezzabarba.  That's really the holy grail of tube guitar amplifiers nowadays. And then I have a show with Idol X that evening here in California. I'm also working with another group called Diane & The Deductibles…that one’s actually an original band and we just put out the second CD…it's called 2, number two, and we got a couple of shows in October opening up for the Motels. I'm just playing with different people…collaborating. I want to get back into doing music for films. I've done that in the past, scoring some features and just creating.

I just love to create and I also teach. I don't have a lot of students because I don't have a lot of time (Laughs) but it's just fun to give my ideas of how to do musical things…theory and how to play…how to play the way I do.

CV: Thank you again Robert for spending some time talking and sharing with our readers. I wish you all the best and continued success.
RS: Thank you very much!

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My name is Mick Michaels...I'm an artist, music fan, songwriter, producer, dreamer and guitarist for the traditional Heavy Metal band Corners of Sanctuary. Writing has always been a creative outlet for me; what I couldn't say in speech, I was able to do with the written word.  Writing has given me a voice and a way for me to create on a multitude of platforms including music and song, articles, independent screenplays, books and now, artist interviews. The Cosmick View is an opportunity to raise the bar and showcase artists in a positive and inspirational light. For me, it's another out-of-this-world adventure.

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