An Interview With Mark Zavon of Kill Devil Hill by Jenna Williams

An Interview With Mark Zavon of Kill Devil Hill

By Jenna Williams "The Scream Queen"
First of all, thank you so much for wanting to come on board [as an ambassador] for Guitars For Vets!

Sure, the pleasure’s all mine. I think it’s a great cause and I can hardly wait to do whatever I can to help.

Thank you. What does it mean to you to be a part of Guitars For Vets?

It’s just the love for playing guitar… I mean, like, something I hold so dear and that I really look forward to sharing with as many people as possible, especially people so deserving as Veterans of the US Military. I think that’s a really noble cause and something that I can certainly get behind.

Do you have any connections to the military?

Not personally. I’m not a Vet myself, but two of the guys from the very first band that I was ever in are Veterans and both great guitar players. I have a lot of friends who’ve served and a lot of friends who are guitar players and musicians. So, the love runs deep among all of my friends and people that I know. It’s something that I think brings people together. It is a unifying force, music is.

That's what I love about music in general. You can be in room, [laughs], like at Dimebash for instance, with however many people were there and everybody was singing along to every song and it really felt like a family that night.
Absolutely. Yeah, we’re all kind of cut from the same cloth. It’s all got something in common.
Definitely. What was it that really sparked your passion for playing guitar?
I think when I was younger, I first started out listening to The Beatles; that really got me interested. After that, I think Blizzard of Ozz  [Ozzy Osbourne] came out and that’s when I really started getting serious about practicing guitar and getting down to the nuts and bolts of how to play mechanically speaking. I don’t know, it’s always been something that continues to be a passion. It’s something that as much as you practice and as much time as you spend [on it], it’s impossible to get to the point where you can’t learn anymore, where you can’t get any better or improve at all.
 
You never really master it. And that’s kind of the challenge of it. That’s kind of the attraction. It’s like climbing the mountain. The mountain will always be there so you can keep climbing as much as you want. It’s kind of it’s own reward because the more that you do it, the more you want to do it, the more satisfying it is. To be able to share that with anybody is a great thing.
It is. You mentioned Blizzard of Ozz… What were some other albums that inspired you to play?

[laughs] I remember getting KISS – Destroyer and listening to that for the first time. Just staring at the cover and the guys on the front–the art and just being so inspired listening to the music and all of the visual that went along with that. But I continue to be inspired by all kinds of music, like Funk, Country, all kinds of stuff, not just Rock ‘n Roll. There are millions of great players out there, but it’s just something that never stops because see, what happens is, I was influenced by Randy Rhodes, but then Randy Rhodes inspired another generation, like my generation of players, but then the guys that rose to the top of my generation inspired the next generation, and it just goes on and on from there. It’s really interesting to see some of the new players that have come to rise to the top of the heap that were influenced by the guys that were influenced by the people that influenced me. It’s like a big continuing natural momentum. It’s really great to watch.

You are definitely right on that.

It’s a lot of fun seeing it come to fruition. I mean, there’s a lot of guys– like, Animals As Leaders, Tosin Abasi, here’s a guy who was influenced not just by guitar players, but bass players. Victor Wooten was doing some of that stuff that he’s doing on the guitar, Victor was doing it on bass with Bela Fleck years ago. It’s just really cool to see the techniques come around where guys have mastered them on a whole new level. It almost brings a new style of music into it’s existence that way and it’s just a beautiful thing.

That's how Lemmy was too, he'd play bass and distort it like if he were playing the guitar.

Through a Marshall too. Definitely crossed over that way, it was wonderful. There’s a guy that inspired a generation, probably several generations. It continues to inspire, it’s wonderful.

It is. Getting into your music, I listened to your solo album and I have to say I love the song Message At The Tone -- I am definitely going to use that for my voicemail. [laughs]

[laughs] Nice. I’m glad you dig it. Yeah, that was one that came like straight out of the sky. I think I was just feeling that one day and I was driving down the street and I think I literally sang that chorus out loud, entirely, all the way through and I pulled over on the side of the road, typed it into my phone so I didn’t forget it. I was feeling it that day, for sure.

[laughs] Yeah, I love it! How do you feel you connected with your solo album versus the work you've done with Kill Devil Hill?

I mean, the solo album, I’ll be honest… It basically came, just the whole concept of it came to be because we had a long break, Kill Devil Hill. So, during the time that Rex [Brown] was working on his solo stuff, I didn’t really have much to do with my time, we weren’t on tour, we weren’t doing a record so I basically was doing a session– I do some session work, I do recording, engineering, and stuff. I had been doing some work with WASP on their latest record, The Crimson Idol redo that they did, and I was hanging out with Blackie [Lawless] and he asked me what I was doing and [laughs] I was kind of bummed out that I wasn’t doing anything.

So, he asked me, “why don’t you just sing? You write a lot of that stuff anyway, why don’t just sing it?” And in that moment, I guess I hadn’t really thought much about it, but it inspired me to go home and figure out what songs I had and what I could do or which ones I could sing, or you know, start putting something together…

From then on, I started working on it to see if I could finish it out. Now, I’m really glad I did because it’s something that– at least I have something to show for that time period where we really weren’t doing much, Kill Devil Hill wise. But we since have kind of fired the engine back up, obviously we played Dimebash here in January. Dewey [Bragg] and I have been writing a bunch of stuff.

So, we’ve got our records with material we’re going to try and put something out, maybe this year, maybe early next year, we’ll see what happens. But yeah, it was a really good time. I was really lucky to work with some really great guys on my solo record. Brian Tichy played drums on it, that guy’s a fantastic drummer. Definitely one of my favorite drummers that I’ve ever played with. I was able to get Josh Newell, who’s a good friend, who did some engineering for Kill Devil Hill and has worked with a bunch of bands, Stone Sour, Intronaut, and a bunch of people.

He did the mixing for me. Paul Logus did the mastering. That guy is an amazing mastering engineer. [I’m] Just really fortunate to have these guys involved in the project. And then of course, Dave Ellefson, obviously he plays with Megadeth, but he’s got a label called EMP and was kind enough and saw some potential in what I was doing and was able to help me out with the distribution aspects and all of the record label type stuff that needed to happen for it to come out. Like I said, I’m super blessed, super fortunate that all of this could come to fruition.

I cannot wait to hear the new Kill Devil Hill album...What is going on as far as who is replacing Rex?

Yeah, we’ve got a guy, his name is Nico D’Arnese, he’s an Italian guy, a great bass player. He was a friend of ours for a while, but we really had no designs for having him play in the band or anything. We were waiting for truthfully– I’m pretty loyal, and we were waiting for Rex to hopefully come around and decide that he wanted to do some more KDH. But you know, it’s just not the right time for him. God Bless him and I support everything he’s doing with his solo career. I think it makes him happy. Life’s short, you’ve got to be happy.

So, he’s going to do that and we finally had an answer in January. He finally gave us an answer on that and so we picked up this guy, Nico, who is really excited to be involved. We’ll see what happens with the recording. Like I said, we’ve been tripping away at the amount of– we’ve got probably 15 demos or something. But we’re going to do a little touring. It looks like we’ve got some stuff…I don’t know, I don’t want to say anything yet because we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. But it looks like we’ll be doing a little bit of touring here this spring and get out and start playing again, which will be great, I’ve missed playing with those guys, hanging out with them, all of that stuff.

It’s going to be great to blow the dust off of it and get out in front of the fans again because there’s a lot of people hitting us up all the time on social media, you know on the internet and stuff, “When are you going to come and play? When are you going to come back to town?” They want to hear the stuff and we want to play it. So, we just have to cross those streams and make it happen.

Now I'm going to ask... With Guitars For Vets, we truly believe in the healing power of music... What were some of the songs that you've written that were really were therapeutic for you while you were writing?
Well, there’s one in particular that comes to mind as you mention that. Right before, in the writing process, before our first record with Kill Devil Hill, Dewey [Bragg], our singer, lived in a duplex in Hollywood and the guy next door, his apartment burnt to the ground. I mean, it was a total loss. And Dewey‘s place was basically so smoke damaged and ruined, most of his stuff was ruined. And so, Vinnie Appice and I went over there the next day to help him clean up and it was just… The smell…
 
They had put a dumpster out in front of the house and they were dumping all the furniture that was trashed, it was all being thrown in this dumpster and to be there and to see the blackness of it, literally, the smoke damage and all what was ruined. The smell of it…To stand there inside and smell what that smells like, to be a part of that whole situation was just so overwhelming that I went home and wrote a song called, “Up In Flames“.

That was another one that just spilled out because when you’ve got those kinds of emotions, when you feel something so visceral, it’s really easy to have that sort of pour out on the page and that’s exactly what happened with that song. I mean, it was basically just a manifestation of what I had seen and had felt and smelled and you can even taste it in there. It was overwhelming. It was an inspiration and it definitely came from a dark place.
Wow.

Yeah, it was an ugly thing, it really was and I know it left a mark on Dewey as well. It was a tough thing. His neighbor got out and was ok, but he lost a cat and all of his belongings. That whole building was a mess, it was a terrible experience.

I'm glad something positive came out of it though, with writing the song.

Yeah, at least there’s that, I suppose.

What does it mean to you to have that outlet to get the emotions, the darkness, that sadness, even happiness out in your songs?

It does help in the sense that you don’t have to keep those things bottled up inside to have somewhere to put it, somewhere to release that energy, definitely helps. Once you’ve let it out in song form or musical form, whether it’s aggression or whether it’s sadness, or whatever it winds up being, it kind of releases you from the weight of that emotion or those feelings. To be able to do that, to be able to vent in that way, it is therapeutic, it’s cathartic. You can step away from some of the stuff that perhaps can bring you down and put you in those dark places we were just talking about. It’s definitely helpful.

What are some albums or artists in general that you listen to when you are not in the greatest state of mind that help bring you out of it?

Well, it’s tough to say. Sometimes, if I’m feeling aggressive, I’ll listen to Pantera. Or sometimes if I’m feeling like I’m motivated and I want to get something done, I’ve got a… I’ve picked up an album by a band called Rock Candy Funk Party [laughs]. Yeah, Joe Bonamassa plays with them and it’s just killer, it’s super motivating, it’s like funk. It’s great, it’s great music. So, there’s a lot of stuff that fits different moods. Jeff Beck sometimes I’ll listen to when I’m in the mood for that kind of stuff, that’s another favorite of mine, a go to. It just depends.

Sometimes, what I’m listening to will shape my mood, you know what I mean? Like, if I’m kind of feeling melancholy or whatever and I want to cheer up, I’ll put on some straight Rock ‘n Roll, or some AC/DC, stuff that I grew up on. That’s another thing I reach for a lot. Like I find myself, unfortunately, in a…I don’t know if it’s fortunate or unfortunate, I guess I shouldn’t say, but my habits lately have been, as far as purchasing music, I like to buy CDs. So, I go to this place, this place called CD Trader on Ventura Blvd and I like to go down there and see what they’ve got.

They’ve got a lot of used stuff and a lot of old stuff, a lot of stuff I can go and buy on CD for like $4-6 or something and have all of that music I grew up on, all of those B-sides, I can hear them again, you know what I mean? And sometimes, it kind of puts you back in that place you were in when you were a kid. It makes me feel like a kid again. So, that kind of thing can be a real, uplifting– have an uplifting affect on you, you know what I mean when you listen to that stuff for the first time in years and it’s like, “oh yeah! I remember that!” It’s a pretty cool feeling.

It is. Music is like a time machine, it does bring you back, like what you were saying. What is the most raw and honest song that you've written that embodies who you are?

Boy, that’s a tough question. There’s definitely been a few and it’s tough to put your finger on one in particular, especially one that defines me…Because sometimes I don’t feel like that stuff defines me, I feel like I’m sort of like the wire, like the conduit, it comes through me, but I’m not really…It’s not necessarily… Like, if I’m sitting with a guitar and I start playing stuff, it’s not like I really feel like…

Sometimes that stuff just comes out, not like I’m making it come out, it just sort of is there. Just like that Message At The Tone song we were talking about earlier, like I was driving down the street and I had whatever those feelings were at the time and then I literally just sang that chorus out loud and I was like, “whoa, what was that?!” and I pulled over and wrote it down. Sometimes you’re just sort of the conduit for the whole thing and it’s like it’s coming from somewhere else. And I don’t know where that is, but I sure hope it doesn’t stop coming! [laughs]

[laughs] Yeah. I've heard some artists explain it to me as the music just speaks to them and that's how they write it.

Yeah. It happens like that, a lot of times. I mean, it doesn’t always happen like that. There’s songs that I’ve spent a lot more time on. Songs like Up In Flames and Message At The Tone that fell out of the sky are good examples of songs that were quick. But then there’s been songs like, let me think of one… Stained Glass Sadness. That was one we worked on for a really long time with Kill Devil Hill. We had that song for the first record, but it didn’t wind up making it until the second record because it just never got finished. It had a bunch of different parts and pieces and, “well, this part doesn’t fit… Or that part.” … So, sometimes you chase it around for a while before it comes into focus.

It’s all sides of the coin. There’s stuff that I’ve had sitting around for demos, I’ve got a few right now because we’ve been going through demos for possible Kill Devil Hill stuff… And there’s stuff that was still from that first record because Jimmy Bain was our original bass player before we had Rex and he had written a few things, he and Vinny [Appice] that when Dewey and I got involved with the band, were already basically together.

I was just listening to demos of that stuff here a couple days ago and there are songs that are unfinished, but that have been around for years and years. These demos that are maybe three quarters of the way done that when they’re finished, they’ll be good songs, I mean the concepts are great, but sometimes they take longer than others. Sometimes, they fall out of the sky and sometimes you really got to wrestle them into submission.

Another question that I have... How do you feel when you're writing your songs whether it be with Kill Devil Hill or your solo work or anything else, how do you feel that you're able to bring life into your music?

Well, you know, I’m fortunate that I know how to do some recording engineering and things like that. And today’s day in age, we’re lucky that it’s become a lot more accessible for people. Like, it used to be, [laughs], when I was renting a four track cassette recorder when I was much younger trying to make demos, when it was much more difficult because you’d lose quality, there was no quality, you were limited to the amount of tracks you could do.

So now, with computers and pro-tools and all of the reality of technology, it’s really easy to share files, for example. Like, if I record a demo and I want to play it for Dewey or our bass player, drummer, or even anybody, I can e-mail demos and pieces, parts, anything I want. I can converse or write songs with anybody all over the world, just by sending them files via e-mail or file sharing.

So, it’s a whole new level, it’s a whole new world as far as being able to create music. Back then, it was like, “Oh, we’re going to have to ship the tapes…” And “Oh, we’re going to have– it’s going to be a huge ordeal…And you have to have the same machine and they got to be calibrated and all of this stuff.” And now it’s like, “no, I’m just going to send you an mp3 dude, here you go!” It’s so easy! It makes life so much easier.

That’s definitely been a huge factor as far as getting things done quickly because with people who are not living in the same city, that used to be a big problem, now if Johnny‘s in Texas and I want to send him stuff we just worked on today and Dewey‘s in Mississippi… I mean, literally, the bass player and I worked up a little thing the other day and he sent it to me and I sent it to Dewey and within five minutes we were all listening to it. So, it’s a brave new world, definitely.

Now you have Johnny Kelly as the drummer.

Yeah, Johnny’s great, I love Johnny.

How do you feel that you connect with him when you're playing?

Johnny’s got a great pocket, got a great groove, he’s super-super consistent and I love that because I don’t have to turn around and watch what Johnny’s doing, I know what Johnny’s going to do, you can feel it. He’s got a real Sabbath-y kind of backbeat to him, which is great. He’s got that in common with Vinny Appice, that was one thing when we first started playing with Vinny, my tendency was to be sort of ahead of the beat and Vinny’s is to be behind the beat, so it was a learning experience for me to slow down and get back behind the beat with him and lock in the pocket there. And Johnny has that same quality.

So, it makes him a really good fit with some of the stuff we’ve recorded and some of the stuff that Vinny played because he played it so well, he played it a lot like Vinny played it. He’s a really good fit, a really great guy, a great hang, love spending time with him. We couldn’t ask for anything more, that’s for sure.

Jeff Duncan [Armored Saint], Jenna Williams, and Mark Zavon.
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